Chapter Five – The Ocademy
Unclear as to what was going on, but feeling surprisingly comfortable in the presence of a woman who talked to her mop, Pete followed her to the end of the hall.
Etta gestured toward a row of terra-cotta-colored metal chairs lined against a bone-colored wall, again smiling brightly. Pete’s knees bent automatically, obliging him to sit.
“How did you know my name was Peyton?” he asked, his heart rate and curiosity building.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you prefer Pete? Or perhaps P.J., as your mother calls you? I’m guessing you don’t much care for being called Junior. Makes no sense, your father calling you Junior when his name’s Peter and yours is Peyton.”
“Mix-up on my birth certificate,” he recited by rote, searching her face for a hint as to who she was and how she knew so much about him.
She chortled. “I’d call that more than just a mix-up. More of a clusterfail, if you ask me … But you’re here now. That’s what matters. Deora knows how long we’ve waited for you.”
“Who are you?” he whispered.
“I’m Etta,” she said, extending her hand in introduction.
He seesawed her pillowy fingers, regarding her in confounded silence as he waited for further explanation.
Pulling her hand back, she fanned herself. “Whewf, warm in here. Always is during the dog days.” Bowing her head, she removed her turban-tied bandana, igniting an explosion of orange curls that sprang out in all directions. “Sweaty business, being a custodian,” she said, blotting the perspiration from her face with the bandana.
“You’re like no custodian I’ve ever met before.”
“Why, thank you! I take that as a compliment. But you see, I’m not a custodian for this school.”
“Oh? Is there another one in town?”
She let out a long hearty laugh before answering. “Noooo. I’m from Omni.”
He stared at her blankly.
“As in the Academy of Omniosophical Arts and Sciences.”
His eyes glazed over.
“Don’t tell me your parents never mentioned the ocademy to you.”
“You are aware you have parents, yes?”
He nodded, the conversation getting away from him.
“I can understand why your father wouldn’t talk about the ocademy. Still sticks in his craw, I imagine, his application being denied. But surely Cassiopeia has told you stories.”
“Your mother, silly mongoose.”
“My mom’s name is Cassie, not—”
“Short for Cassiopeia,” she said, her smile fading. “Were you not put to bed at night hearing tales of the heroic Cassiopeia?”
Pete shook his head. “My parents used to read to me about the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and stuff, but nobody named Cassi-however-you-say it.”
Etta slapped her thighs and stood, her angelic face having morphed into the sourmug of a bulldog. “Young man, I don’t find your joking behavior at all amusing.”
“Joking? I’m not joking … about anything. I swear, Miss, umm, Etta, I have no idea what you’re talking about. As for joking, I’m not all that good at telling jokes.”
She cocked her head and looked at him hard. “You’re telling the truth.”
“I know I am!”
“You’d make a lousy stand-up comic.”
“But this still doesn’t explain how you know nothing about your legendary mother – how she came to the aid of that ravaged village.”
“Legendary? Ma’am, I love my mom … a lot … but I think you got the wrong grownup. My mom is … well … she’s just a mom. And she’s a great mom—the best mom a kid could ask for. She makes all of my meals and washes my clothes—”
“Hmpph, you make her sound like a housemaid!” Etta jerked her chin and crossed her arms, jutting one leg out to the side for added indignation.
“She also makes really good milkshakes,” Pete offered feebly.
Etta put her hands on her hips, pacing and grumbling.
This is why I dread meeting new people!
“I’m really sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just think you’ve got my mom confused with someone else.”
“Ha! I’d be more likely to confuse my own mother than to confuse yours. Every girl at the academy wished they were her—every boy too, for that matter. We all idolized her.”
Pete shrugged, at a loss for how to reply.
Etta dabbed her neck with the kerchief again then wrapped her rebellious hair inside it once more. Her eyes darted in thought. “This is your father’s doing … How did I not see it before? Of course he wouldn’t want you to know. If he couldn’t attend the academy, why should you get to? That good-for-nothin’ snake in the grass.”
“That’s what my dad calls me.”
“A snake in the grass?”
“No, good-for-nothing. He says nothing is all I’m good for.”
The mercurial little woman sat next to him again, taking his hands in hers. “Peyton Drake, you are not good for nothing. You hear me? Why, you’re good for … well … for everything! It’s time we got you out of this place … before you’re too far gone.”
“What? Leave? I can’t leave. We just got into town. And I start school here in three days.”
“You start school in two days and certainly not here! Now then, Leon and I will meet you at the portal at six a.m. the day after tomorrow.”
“Portal. Wait, what?”
“Yes, at six a.m. day after next.”
“But I can’t—”
“You can as long as you have authorization from a parent. Here’s a copy of your induction letter,” she said, raising one hip to retrieve a flattened scroll from her back pocket. “I’m sure Cassiopeia will be thrilled to inscribe it.”
His hand hesitating at first, Pete accepted the onionskin sheet and unrolled it.
“What is all this? Are you the one trying to pull some sort of weird joke on me?”
“Certainly not! And if you’ll settle down, I can explain it all.”
Pete remained in his seat while his eyes searched for the nearest exit sign. Clearly, the lady was bonkers.
“You see, well, first off, Omni, since you don’t know, is the only interdimensional school in the Omniverse at this time. It was founded—” She gasped, her face stretching in worry, her voice dropping to a hush. “Good Gobfinkle, they’re looking for you.”
“Who? … That girl from the diner yesterday? I knew there was something fishy about her! I tried to tell—”
“No, your parents, or rather your father.” Etta looked frenetically in every direction then grabbed Pete’s shoulders and lifted him as effortlessly as if he were a package of marshmallows.
“Where is he? How do you know?” Pete asked in a nervous yodel.
“Because I know! Now take this.” She folded the academy letter and stuffed it in Pete’s shirt pocket, glancing right and left down the hallways like a spectator at a tennis match. “Remember, you need to discuss this with your parents—correction, your mother, since you need parental approval. But for Deora’s sake do not tell your brother … or anyone else for that matter! Now go, before your father comes here searching for you.”
Pete nodded and raced out the door. When he got to the street, he looked back over his shoulder. The school doors were shut, and all the lights were off. He kept running, his pace marking time with the bewildering thoughts that bounced through his mind. Reluctant as he was to admit it, he knew his days of anonymity were over.