Feselea sat on the hard wooden chair, clutching the seat’s edges. Shoulders slumped, long red hair hanging across her face as she studied the ground. Legs swinging back and forth. Her moccashoes scraped the ground with each swing, keeping time with the clock on the wall. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
She glanced at the clock, blowing a strand of hair from her eyes. Just a regular clock mushroom—a cap with markings on its gills and two sticks that turned slowly to mark the time. It was two-fifteen.
That was fifteen minutes after she was supposed to meet with the college president. What was taking him so long?
His wooden desk and chair sat empty before her. Sunlight filtered through the dirty windows behind them, and she drew in a breath. Why would he be late? There was no reason.
Feselea shook her head, tightening her grip on the seat. Was the clock wrong? Had the president canceled without telling her? That would be inconsiderate, but not inconceivable.
She jumped as the door creaked open behind her. “Feselea?”
She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. “I’m here.”
“Ah. Excellent. I apologize for my tardiness.” The president strolled in, rubbing his hands together. “Had another meeting. Seems I double-scheduled you.”
Feselea bit her lip. Should she laugh to show empathy? She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear, voice soft. “It’s okay.”
“These things happen. Best not to dwell on it.” The president gave a grand sigh, then took his seat. Spreading his palms on the desk, he addressed her. “My name is Dr. Kurt Maple. But you can call me Kurt.”
“Any questions before we begin?”
She shook her head. With all the questions she could ask, it was wise not to even start. She wanted to leave a good impression—not annoy him to pieces.
Odd that he was so cavalier. She’d expected college to be much more…professional. “Thanks for seeing me.”
“No problem. We took a look at your application and figured we should call you in.”
Feselea nodded. That made sense.
“Now it’s standard procedure to interview every applicant here at Misty River…” The president let his voice trail off, opening a drawer with a squeak. He pulled a folder out and set it on the desk. “Which is why I have your file on hand.”
She waited, legs swinging as he flipped open the folder. What would he say? She needed to be accepted here—this was the only college in Misty River!
“Ah, yes.” The president licked his thumb to turn each page, eyebrows raised. “You’re the All-Star student.”
“Straight A’s. Extremely ambitious. Teachers have nothing but positive comments.”
That made sense. Feselea nodded, a strand of hair falling over her eyes. She tucked it back, then straightened her shoulders. “Thank you.”
“Actually, a few of them mentioned that you correct them in class.”
Feselea averted her eyes. She’d hoped her teachers wouldn’t be that detailed. “That’s okay, right?”
The president shrugged. “They’re not mad—seems you were right whenever you did it.”
She let her shoulders relax. Okay. Not bad so far.
“We do have a couple concerns, however.”
She tightened her grip on the seat. “What concerns?”
“First, there’s the matter of your past. It seems you’re from Hyphae City.” He peered at her with raised eyebrows, tapping the folder. “Is that correct?”
Feselea nodded, swallowing. Now things could get difficult. Telling him about her past was pretty much out of the question. “Hyphae City, yes.”
“And you grew up there?”
“Um…” She doubted it. Not that she could tell him the truth. “More or less.”
“Then why not go to college there?” The president adjusted his spectacles, studying her. “Cities give discounts on tuition if you were born there. Hyphae City has a much more ambitious set of colleges and universities.”
Feselea dipped her head, voice barely a whisper. “I know.”
“And Budson University in particular is an excellent entry point for aspiring scientists.”
She knew this as well. Not much she could do about it, though. “I’m aware of that.”
He scanned the top page of his folder. “Which, according to our file, is your intended occupation.”
What was he getting at? “I just wanted to stay near my home.”
“I see.” The president flipped another page, shaking his head. “This is despite…it’s just that everyone is saying you’re a very ambitious person.”
Feselea nodded again. “I am.”
“Wouldn’t you like to…do something with that ambition?”
He was making this worse than it had to be. Feselea pressed her lips together, letting her eyes settle on the desk. “I…I was hoping this college would be enough.”
A chuckle. “We all hope that, Feselea. But we’re underfunded, understaffed and desperately in need of a good janitor.” He rapped the dirty window behind him with his knuckles. “See this window? Hasn’t been cleaned in years.”
If that was a reflection of the school, she was heading into bad territory. This wouldn’t be fruitful for her career. “I see.”
“So if you’re really planning to go anywhere…” The president gave a shrug. “I’m afraid you don’t have much choice. Hyphae City is your best bet. That, or Mycella or Obo—but they’re much farther, and you won’t get the tuition discount.”
She knew all this. It was utterly obvious to her. “I know.”
Kurt blinked rapidly. He adjusted his spectacles again, his smile fading. “So why are you staying?”
This is not something she wanted to talk about. Anyway, why would he care? Wouldn’t he be happy just to have an intelligent student? This place could probably use one. “I just…I need to stay close to home.”
Kurt studied her for a few seconds. Then he leaned back in his chair, head tilted. “I see. Is it your older brother?”
That was the problem with being in a small town. News of everything traveled everywhere. No privacy. “Not entirely.”
“I realize he’s somewhat overprotective of you.”
She shook her head. “This one is my decision.”
Seconds ticked into silence. The president crossed his arms, lips pressed together.
What could she say? She and her siblings were being hunted. Maybe their Hunter wasn’t in Ayphae, maybe he was. If he was, leaving Misty River—a small town in the middle of nowhere—for a high-profile location like Hyphae City was the least intelligent thing she could do. They needed to be safe.
“I just don’t want you to sabotage your future.”
Feselea inhaled deeply, chest rising. She trained her eyes on the ceiling, lips parting. “I’m aware of that. And I know what I’m doing.”
“So you do. And I’m sorry for making you feel uncomfortable. I’m sure you’ll fit in here.”
Would she? Feselea refocused on him. “M-hm.”
“Although…” He turned another page of her folder. “Some comments here suggest otherwise. You’ve been known for being…less than relatable to your fellow students.”
Of course he would bring that up. Could this interview get any worse? Feselea hung her head, tapping one moccashoe on the floor. “Yes.”
“Sometimes you even roll your eyes at them. Any reason for that?”
Besides the fact that they were unreasonably dim? “M-m.”
“I realize that next to you, other students might appear less intelligent. I hope you don’t think yourself superior to them.”
Feselea let her eyes wander over to the dirty windows. Did she think herself superior? Smarter, sure—but…intelligence didn’t equate to superiority. “No. I’m definitely not superior to other students.”
“Excellent.” He snapped her folder shut, smiling. “Had to make sure.”
“I understand.” She gave a weak smile, swinging her legs again. “I know I can come across as a know-it-all sometimes.”
Kurt shrugged. “Anyone can be misinterpreted.”
“M-hm.” At least she hoped she was being misinterpreted. Part of her really wondered what was inside her brain. Was some arrogance hiding in there? Or was she just impatient with academic irresponsibility? “Thanks for the interview.”
“Oh, I’m not quite done yet.” Kurt tapped the folder. “I’d like to know a few things about you personally before I let you in.”
Great. When would the torture end?
“Just a few stock questions. Nothing too difficult.”
She swallowed, fingers tapping the seat’s edge. “Okay.”
“What do you like most?”
Now that question was easy. Feselea gave a small smile. “Learning.”
“I see. And why is that?”
“Because it’s something true. Something real I can think about. And I really like thinking about things.”
Feselea put a finger to her chin. She wasn’t sure about that one. “It’s just…who I am.”
“Hm. Fair enough.” He shrugged, opening the drawer with a squeak. He took the folder in both hands, rapped it against the desk to straighten out its contents—then tucked it in the drawer. “One last question.”
Feselea stopped swinging her legs. “M-hm?”
“How well do you get along with your siblings?”
She tilted her head, considering. “I guess…pretty well.” She nodded to herself. “Yeah, Reisor is a little bossy sometimes, but I like him. And Dane…”
He noticed the way her voice trailed off. “Yes?”
Why did she sense this question was so important? “He can be a little annoying sometimes. But I really like hanging out with him. Especially exploring with him.”
Kurt folded his hands, leaning back in his chair. He studied her, seconds ticking away.
Maybe he was trying to figure out if she was being honest? But Feselea was always honest. She didn’t know how to be anything else, really. “Is that okay?”
“It’s fine.” He adjusted his spectacles—then extended a hand, leaning over the desk. “Welcome to Misty River University.”
Feselea expelled a breath. Yes! She was in. She released the seat’s edge with her fingers, noticing how stiff they felt. She’d been gripping it way too tightly. She swallowed, flexing her fingers—then took the president’s hand. His grip was firm, and she flinched. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” His eyebrows went up, and he peered at her over his spectacles. “I’m sure you’ll be an excellent addition to this college.”
Feselea gave a halfhearted smile. It wasn’t what she wanted—but it would have to do. That was just the way things were when you were hiding. “I hope so.”