“You mean he doesn’t smile, like as in, at all?”
Alex crammed another bite of sandwich in her mouth, the heartbreak on her face forming her features into an undeniable pout.
“Mmess.” she moaned out, then swallowed, “He doesn’t ever smile. Not even when I do something good! He just nods politely, or he’ll grunt, make this face, and grumble out, ‘Mm. Satisfactory.’ – and then we move on.” She dropped her napkin down upon the table, clearly frustrated. “I feel, that I disappoint him. As though he was expecting something better out of me. I sure was.”
Across the table, William Bathers and Lansing Quail exchanged looks, not quite sure how to comfort their friend. Admittedly, it was strange that Alex was falling behind on her studies, even more so her practices, but both had the suspicion that the only person truly standing in the way of Alex, was none other than Alex herself, as it was a common theme. However, how to convey that to their friend was, well, up for debate.
“Well,” said Lansing, fiddling with her fork in her right hand, “maybe this is just a bump in the road, you know? You’re just having first-start jitters with this new apprenticeship, that’s all. I mean, sure, it’s difficult now because everything’s all new to you still. My first couple months here at the Observatories were horrific! But they got better, and so did I.”
“But I’m getting worse!” bemoaned Alex, throwing her arms out, “Something’s wrong with me! It’s the only explanation!”
“Nothing’s wrong with you, Alex.” intersected William, “You’re just being challenged for the first time in your life.”
“What?” said Alex, rather huffily, “What’s that suppose to mean?”
Once again William and Lansing exchanged looks.
“Alex, everything has always come so naturally to you.” William said, “It’s true, you’re talented. You raced ahead of all of us, you are the best in our class, but now for the first time you’re being presented with things that aren’t coming to you naturally. You’re going to have to WORK.”
“I work! I work hard!”
“We aren’t saying that you don’t work hard.” swooped in Lansing, as Alex’s face began to flush a purplish red, “We aren’t saying that.”
Alex sat stiff, fists clenched on the tabletop, and took a deep breath through the nose, exhaling loudly out her mouth. The recreational hall was abuzz with students, the enormous domed ceiling aglow with the hanging candelabras, illuminating the painted depiction of the White Owl of Aels beautifully, the wings stretching over them. She looked to both William and Lansing, each of them looking strained. This was her first chance in what felt like ages she had to visit them, and she didn’t want to ruin it by getting in a stupid fight. Her shoulders sagged, giving in.
“So,” she groaned, “what do you mean, then?”
William spoke in a soothing tone, “What we mean is that things aren’t going to come easy this time. This apprenticeship is a big deal. Alex, it’s okay to fail sometimes.”
Fail. The word echoed around sinisterly in her head. The very thought of failure, made her chest ache, as though the slightest hint of it would send all her foundations, all her self esteem, crumbling down. Alex’s entire identity was based around not failing, just being the best at everything, being the figurehead of sheer talent. But now, with every day that passed without a speck of accomplishment to slap to her breast, that badge of honor to wear proudly, every day it made her feel inadequate. That it had all been a fluke. That in reality, she was nothing. An impostor.
“You’re right.” she said, quietly, “I am discouraged because, because I’m not getting it and it’s making me feel like I’m not good enough. Like I’m some sort of giant sham.”
Lansing reached out and took Alex’s hand, her large, oval blue eyes beaming at her. “But Alex, you are good enough. In fact, you’re amazing, and there’s a lot more to you than just good grades! Give it time, and keep trying. We’re all rooting for you.”
“We really are,” said William, “I know you’ll get it. Channel all that great experimental energy of yours. Pretend you’re in your workshop.”
“It’s different for some reason when I’m around other people… Probably because I’m always so worried I’m going to come across wrong.” said Alex, but then she smiled, and reached out and took William’s hand with her free one, and Lansing smirked and grabbed William’s other hand, and the three were linked. “But you’re right, I’m going to get over this. I’m going to stumble, and fall. It’ll be a new experience, something I’ve never done before! And I’m going to take that experience, and learn from it. I’ll bounce back.”
“That’s our Alex.” Lansing smiled, “We’re always here for you, too. You know that, right?”
“I’m sorry, but, I think I’m getting a little teary eyed.” said William. He sniffled melodramatically, brows pinched. “Could someone get me a tissue?”
Alex and Lansing both released hands and threw their crumbled napkins at him.
Alex laughed. Regardless, it felt so good to be with them again. William squeezed her and Lansing hands, and then they went back to their snacks.
“By the way,” Lansing said, leaning across the table in a half whisper, “how is the workshop? You been down there lately?” As though on cue all three heads leaned in, each taking glances around to make sure none of the other students were within notable earshot.
Alex clutched her sandwich, “No. Not since before the rainy season. If I don’t keep it closed up it floods a little.”
“When did that start happening? How do you know it’s not flooded right now?” whispered William as Alex took a bite of her sandwich, a slight urgency in his voice. Alex held up a finger, chewing her food.
“Don’t worry.” said Lansing, “Last year, Alex and I sealed it up with a pine-sap and wax adhesive I learned a long time ago from my uncle. It only started leaking from the hatch, all the walls are good, so we sealed it and covered some brambles over it. Thought we’d wait out the rain.”
“How come I wasn’t there?”
“You were on vacation. With you’re parents on that screwy trip.” half whispered, half mumbled Alex, shoving the rest of the sandwich down her gullet.
“Oh yes.” said William, then paused, reflecting back and speaking to himself, “That was a horrible trip.”
Swallowing, Alex explained, “Last time we went down there we noticed the hatch had become all squeaky and loose, probably from all the sudden unexpected use. I couldn’t risk it. So I haven’t been down there, I’ve gone cold turkey – and I’m loosing my mind!” Alex spouted suddenly, throwing her arms out, both William and Lansing quickly grabbing an arm and hushing her. After a few moments of doing a swoop of the surroundings, William spoke.
“Well, we’ll head down there soon. The rainy season’s just about over, but we’ll have to find a new place to meet up since you’re way over in the North Tower now.”
“We can meet up in the herbal storagehouse.” said Lansing, “I signed up to do late night cleanup, so I have the key, then we can just head out the back exit. It leads right into the east woods.”
“Perfect!” whispered Alex. “That’s perfect! Let’s meet up this fortnight! It’s the only night I’ll have were I have early bedtime – but screw it! Let’s meet up! I’ve been meaning to show you guys something!”
“I can’t.” sighed Lansing, “I’ve got a test coming, I’m sorry. I’ll need the sleep. But, you and William can go.”
“Really, Lansing?” said William, “You sure?”
“Yeah,” she said, “I can still meet you guys down in storage and let you out. I’ll give you the key. You two can tell me all about it later. It’ll be fine. I’m not too worried about it. Besides, Alex and I went last summer without you.”
“Yes!” Alex said, pumping her fist, “Then it’s settled. But next time, Lansing, you’re coming.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
The three began discussing the future events, and continued discussing until the enormous clockface in the back archway of the recreation hall struck seven, and Alex had to go. She bid them farewell, and headed back to the North Tower, feeling refreshed, and tingling in anticipation for the fortnight to come.