I wrote a story for a friend as a birthday present, and since she likes gothic fantasy, I thought Elsewhere University would be a good setting for it.
You weren’t sure what to do when your six choice universities all rejected you. You’d expected at least one of them to accept you, since your grades weren’t bad and your student record was clean.
But none of them did. The day you got the last polite form rejection letter, you set it down and sat there, staring out the window. What went wrong?
Elsewhere University offered you an opportunity, one you thought was a joke. But you took it anyway.
And they took you.
Not Them. That would be a different kind of Taken. But you went to Elsewhere.
Move-in day was normal; the dorm was nice, and while it looked old from the outside, the rooms were spacious and comfortable, and you only had one roommate. Yours was a young, rather timid girl named Melanie. She didn’t talk to you much, though you and her were both fans of the same shows and generally had the same sleep patterns, hence the match.
She was quiet. She put up some posters; you put up some posters. Your stuff stayed in boxes for the first few days.
There were immediately meetings. Your parents weren’t invited; no one’s were.
Your RA was a tall girl with an incredible afro and a few jangling silver necklaces that didn’t match her outfit. “I’m Kiera,” she said, standing on a rock and gesturing with a packet of papers. “I’m your RA for the northern wing of the third floor. The southern wing belongs to Jordan.” She indicated the young man standing next to her; he waved, hand half-buried in the sleeve of his blue hoodie.
“First things first,” Kiera started, “welcome to Elsewhere University! You’re very brave.”
What? You wished you knew someone well enough to make confused eye contact. As it was, most of the freshmen looked a little baffled.
“A couple of notes about common courtesy. One, no extraneous loud noises after ten PM on weeknights, except for Fridays. The curfew for Fridays and Saturdays is midnight. Don’t run or throw things in the hallways, it might hit the fire extinguishers. Also, don’t touch anybody else’s bowls or cups that they leave in the hall. If you find a piece of lost jewelry, don’t touch it. If you see anything that isn’t yours, don’t touch it. Don’t run out of salt and don’t take it out of the kitchen. Don’t eat food you find in the kitchen.”
And on and on and on. You were baffled by a few of the rules, but most of them made sense (be careful about who you accept food from, be careful about going places with strangers, et cetera. You weren’t sure why they stressed it so much. That was just basic college knowledge – hell, basic life knowledge.
It got weirder when you noticed that most people seemed to leave bowls of milk by their doors, and seemed to have salt spilled under their windows. Metal jewelry seemed popular; iron necklaces and earrings, dark metal rings, silver studs and bangles.
After a month, you’d started to make some friends, and you and Melanie were comfortable being around each other. And you’d started learning about Elsewhere, and what Kiera had meant by brave. Extra footprints in on the pavement. Strangers at parties, queens striding past robed in shadow, parts of the campus where time didn’t pass or parts where it went too quickly.
Another month, and your delusions were dispelled. You bought iron jewelry, learned how to scrawl sigils on paper and pin them on doors and windows, ran a thin line of salt on the windowsill. Melanie didn’t complain.
You sat on the quad on sunny days, because in early spring (and it was always early spring, somehow) those days were nice, and it was good to be outside.
There were sculpted gardens to sit in, but those were more dangerous. You were playing with fire if you stayed there until nightfall. You came perilously close a few times.
The first time, you found your way out. The second time you did not.
The gardens held such strangeness, and were absolutely a fascinating place to be. Horticulture students set up projects here, taking care not to disturb the ones they didn’t make. So it was usually safe.
But you were caught wandering after dark. And you didn’t realize, marveling at a rose-vine and honeysuckle trellis, that the sunlight was fading until it was nearly too late.
You tried to follow the path out, but it led you in circles, and to places you didn’t know existed. This is how people get Taken, you thought desperately, hoping and praying that somehow it would be okay.
As if it were answering your prayer – and perhaps it was – the cat appeared. You froze at the sight of slitted eyes, but realized it wasn’t one of Them when the eyes leaped down and came over to rub against your leg and stare upwards.
Green Eyes, the cat was called, because that’s what it had. Green eyes set deep in its long face, sandy fur with black hints at the ears, paws, and tail-tip. You didn’t learn its name until later, and you never really figured out if it was an ordinary cat, or one of Them, or something else entirely.
“Can you lead me out?” you asked it, and it stared back. Your heart was pounding; you had no other lifeline.
It flicked its tail in the air like a banner and trotted away through the dusk. You followed it (because you had no other choice) and like a charm you found yourself stumbling out onto the quad. A few surprised upperclassmen watched, and when you looked for the cat, it was gone.
You tried to figure out how to repay the cat, if in fact you could. Next time you saw it, you promised yourself, you would give it something.
And you did see it again. Quite often, in fact. It was skirting the parking lot behind the biochemistry building, and when you crouched down and held out your hand, it came over and sniffed at your fingers before rubbing on you.
Then it was over by the dining hall, then walking alongside you on your way to one of your classes, then to all of them. Eventually, it came up to you while you were on the quad.
Melanie was there (though, like most other students, she’d quickly adopted a pseudonym and now went by Melody), and a few other friends you’d made, including a couple of upperclassmen. At Elsewhere, for some reason, the classes mixed a lot more than they did at other colleges. You weren’t sure why.
Green Eyes trotted up to you while you were sitting on a blanket in the grass. The upperclassmen stopped talking entirely and tried to avert their eyes, but when you reached out your hand and let Green Eyes sniff it and rub against you, they couldn’t help but stare.
“How are you doing that?”
You glanced up, at Shine, a girl with spiky white hair. “Doing what?”
“Green Eyes. You…” she paused, indicating the cat. Green Eyes looked to her – she shuddered – and lay down next to you, allowing you to stroke its fur and play with its ears.
The other upperclassman looked you in the eyes. “What did you do?” they asked, dead serious.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s claimed you.”
That you didn’t understand. You didn’t know how to ask if it was one of Them, but you said, “In… what sort of way?”
“I’m not sure.”
That answer wasn’t good.
Green Eyes didn’t interact with others much, and seemed to seek me out often. It always rubbed against me – I knew that’s how cats designated things as theirs, but I didn’t realize the full extent of Green Eyes’ claim.
During a party one night you found yourself stepping outside with a handsome boy, a soft-spoken boy with white hair and the whisper of fall wind (you missed fall, here in this place where the seasons never seemed to change properly) in his voice. You saw Green Eyes watching from the top of a fence, and the boy excused himself after a moment and didn’t come back. Your hands itched under the skin where he’d held them, but looked no different; your lips remained numb for days until you shook off the longing, kept inside by the memory of lantern-green eyes in the night air.
Labs never ended after dark, but your study session did, and when you braved the night (because the library closed, and you did not want to interrupt any of the Courtly business that goes on there) and the sound of baying hounds and the fell piercing blasts of hunting horns, when you stepped along the solid concrete while the rest of the world shifted and you passed the student center and the native plant garden and the towering trees that dropped leaves like silver and shadows like blood, Green Eyes went with you. You felt it join you when you walked outside, and it brought you to safety, tail held high.
You saw it everywhere. Legend said Siamese cats had kinked tails because they’d once held rings for royalty. You wondered which royalty; tall tales said Egyptian, but Green Eyes felt like something Else.
It’s hard to remember when you graduated. A lot of your time at Elsewhere is blurry, indistinct, like a fogged glass. But you have never forgotten Green Eyes, and when you return to Elsewhere – because all those who love Elsewhere come back eventually – you see it waiting for you on the sidewalk next to the drive, tail curled over its paws, the stream of students dividing gently around it.
You don’t lean down to pet it, because that’s not what you’re supposed to do right now. But it does rub against your leg again when you get out of the car, and when you step inside your new (old, very old, old enough to have memories and old enough to act on them) house, it waits patiently for you to invite it inside.
Its motives are mysterious. The aura it gives you is one of fear and mystery. The librarian who hunts monsters eyes it occasionally, but never makes a move; she doesn’t understand it either.
But you go into the sculpted gardens, and you go there at night. Green Eyes is always with you, to lead you out. Someday, you fear, Green Eyes will abandon you in the lilac labyrinth and you’ll finally be Taken; but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it wants to do.
You asked it one night, sitting on a bench surrounded by fireflies and watching shadows silently pass by with no people to cast them. Green Eyes sat on your lap.
“Why do you help me?” you asked it, glancing down. “Why did you do all of this?”
Green Eyes stared back up, and flicked its ears back and yawned; a smile, you recognize, from reading its behavior over the years.
“Is it because I asked for help? What did you want in return?”
Silence, but Green Eyes bumped your hand and began to purr loudly enough to shake. There’s something about Green Eyes that resists Them and Their works; its ability to navigate the gardens, and its aid to you over the years, has proved that. It does not need your companionship; it does not need you as you needed it.
You look up. Green Eyes flicks its tail back and forth and you realize that while you are its companion, now, and it wouldn’t leave you, you don’t actually need it to get through the gardens. You know them in your mind, like a house you’ve lived in for a long time. When you step through the flowers and topiary you go where you want to go, not where anything else wants you to go. Green Eyes has taught you how.
When you walk through the gardens sometimes you see lost students stumbling under the trellises, eyes haunted, breath rasping in their mouths as they struggle to get out. You approach them.
You look about their age (Age is funny at Elsewhere; when you came back, you seemed to return to who you were when you left. The rest of the world is all iron and highways and radios, and you remember the things you learned here when you came back) and you realize now that they are too scared of Green Eyes to ask for help.
But they don’t need to ask you. You can offer. And when they see your human features and Green Eyes at your feet, they accept.