Jay awoke to a hand gently rocking him.
“Jay. Oh, Jayyy...”
His mom called his name in gentle sing-song. He blinked his eyes and stared around his room, trying to recall who and where he was. Light streamed in through his window, falling over the neat array of Nintendo Power magazines on his shelf. Above him, on his ceiling, his Cindy Wilson poster stared down. Then he relaxed and remembered: Oh yeah. I’m Jay and I made it home alive.
He tore his eyes from Cindy and turned to his mom. She was a short woman with much energy, and easily excitable.
Jay flipped over on his mattress and gave a disgruntled “What?”
The sing song was back. “There’s something I want to showwww youuu.”
Jay sighed and waited for his mom to leave, then pulled on the same pants and t-shirt he’d hiked in yesterday. He stumbled, bleary-eyed, from his room. Light poured into the hall from his parent’s bedroom. It was the bright light of morning, and showed the house’s age in odd ways; in the chipped wall paint. Or the slightly-too-high flooring, where wood piled atop linoleum. Jay was always surprised at how well-maintained the house was. Supposedly it was over a hundred years old.
A faint blue tint hung in the air, and Jay smelled bacon. He followed the sizzle into the dining room, and saw three settings laid out, milk poured, grapefruit halves piled in a giant bowl. It looked like a cereal commercial.
“Jumpin’ Joseph,” Jay murmured. “What’s the occasion?”
Outside of his birthday or Christmas, breakfasts were rare. His dad slept in on Saturdays and then was gone early on Sundays, fishing, or hunting, or some other manly quest. But his dad was here today—a thin, solemn man—and he walked in carrying a plate of waffles, issuing a formal-sounding “good morning.” Jay wondered what was going on, and then his mom tiptoed in;
“You got maillll.”
Jay saw four envelopes next to his plate, perfectly and meticulously staggered.
“These came in yesterday while you and Colin were out hiking. I almost opened them, but your dad wouldn’t let me.”
Jay felt his adrenaline pumping. He slowly took his his seat and picked off the top letter. He glanced quickly at the logo in the lefthand corner, from Western University. His heart beat in his chest, yesterday’s adventure forgotten. His hopes and dreams all rested in these four envelopes. Using an index finger, he cracked open the seal and carefully unfolded the first letter. His mom held her hands to her mouth, and his dad watched too casually, leaning on the dining room doorway. Jay scanned with his eyes, reading the words out loud:
“After careful consideration, we regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you a place in our class of 1997.”
His heart dropped and his hand fell. He let the letter drift back over the table. He saw his mom’s face go pale, and his dad turn away.
“What about the others?
He grabbed the envelope from Portland College.
“After careful consideration...”
He robotically grabbed the last two envelopes, ripping them open together and holding them side by side.
“After careful consideration...”
He laid all four letters down on the table in a neat stack. His mom flew in and grabbed them.
She mom read the letters, then collapsed in her chair.
“I don’t believe this. I thought for sure…”
Jay’s voice was flat. “What? That I’d be the first kid from Dunam to get into college?”
“Ms. Rotchkey seemed so certain.”
“Mom. No one gets into college. No one. Not even Stevie can.”
“But… it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why? Did you go to college?”
“I didn’t get in, but that was a different time. We didn’t have Tutorial then. I was so, so certain your class would be different.”
“That’s what parenting’ll do to you. Ruin your hopes and dreams.” Jay took a bitter bite of waffle.
“Oh hon, I’m so sorry.” She gave him an awkward hug over his waffles. “We should have applied to more schools. Maybe we still can? I’m gonna go talk to Ms. Rotchkey—”
“Why don’t we just leave?”
“Leave? What do you mean, leave?”
Jay shrugged. “Well… I don’t have to get into college for us to leave, do I? We could go travel to Paris. Or Senegal. Or even Portland. Heck, I’d be thrilled to see what was happening over in Washougal.”
“Well, gas is expensive and so are motels. And your dad has a hard time getting off work…”
“Mom. I have literally never left Dunam. Have you?”
She shrugged and walked back into the kitchen. “Sure. Your father and I used to go camping before you were born. There’s a nice spot up the river, about a half an hour north—”
“I’m talking about more than stepping briefly out of the city limits.”
She shook her head. “I’m not much of a city slicker.”
“Uh huh. Spent a lot of time in the city, have you?”
“I wouldn’t like it.”
“What about you, dad? You’re a mover and a shaker?”
His dad stepped out of the kitchen. “Can’t that say I am.”
His mom put a compassionate hand on Jay’s. “If you want to go to the city, we should go. College or not, it doesn’t matter. You know, in the bigger cities they have these community colleges. Maybe you could—”
“That’d be great, if I could leave.”
“You can leave. After graduation, you could go. Oh, but you’ll want to work in the orchards again. Well, then next fall you could—” she corrected herself. “But you’ll want to be here when the mill starts hiring to get a good job.”
“See! See what you did? We literally have nothing happening in our lives, and you just made it seem like we’re booked up forever.”
His father chuckled. “Maybe you could spend your orchard money on a car, instead of those video games.”
“Have you ever taken highway 24 more than thirty miles south?
“Of course I have.”
“Then you know it goes nowhere. It actually loops back around on itself and turns into Snowden road.”
“Uh huh.” His dad was clearing the table.
“There’s nothing outside our town! Just a giant cliff then a vast forest of nothing!”
His mom was clearing the table now, too.
“Are you not hearing me? Something very, very weird is happening. It’s freaking me out. Do you guys want to go? I can show you.”
“I’m going to call those college.” Was his mom’s response from the living room.
Leaving his waffles half-finished, Jay grabbed the letters and wadded them into a ball. He was about to toss them, then he had an idea. He stormed into his room and shut the door. His phone lay in the middle of his scattered collection of Nintendo Power cards, and the binder into which he’d been organizing them. He lifted the receiver and held up the first envelope. It was from Puget Sound College. The logo was an auburn colored Mount Rainier. Underneath was an address and a phone number. Jay dialed the digits on his rotary phone, and tapped impatiently.
“Hello. You’ve reached the offices of Puget Sound College.” It was a recorded message; a woman’s voice.
“If you’d like to speak to admissions, please press one.”
Jay dialed “one” on his rotary. The phone rang twice more, then another message played: “We’re unavailable to take your call. Please leave a message at the beep.”
Jay hung up. He didn’t know what he expected; of course no one would be around on a Sunday. He picked up the envelope for Portland University and dialed their number.
“Hello. You’ve reached the offices of Portland University. If you’d like to speak to admissions, please press one.”
It was uncanny. The voice was exactly the same. Everything about it—the cadence, the intonation—was identical to the message for Puget Sound College. After the prompt, Jay dialed one. Two short rings, then the same message. He tried the other two. More of the same. He hung up the phone and called the Dervings. Colin’s mom answered.
“Is Colin there?”
“He can’t come to the phone right now.” Her voice sounded thin and defensive. Jay thanked her and was about to hang up, then blurted out:
“Did Colin hear back from any schools?”
There was a long pause on the other end; then “He didn’t get in.”
“Neither did I. If he’s around, I’d really to talk to him.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Derving seemed to relax. “I’m sorry, Jay. I thought for sure you two would get in.”
“Yeah. Where’s Colin?”
“He’s in his room. Let me see if I can coax him out.”
Jay could hear Camilla’s heels clack against the oak floors of the Derving’s hallway, and then the distant sound of Colin’s door swinging open. He could hear an unintelligible conversation between Camilla, and Colin’s moaned response. When Colin finally spoke into the phone, his voice heavy.
“Hey man. I got the letters too. So much for rooming together freshmen year.”
Colin was silent.
“I don’t think those letters are on the level. I just called all four schools and I couldn’t get ahold of any of them.”
“It’s Sunday,” Colin’s voice was flat.
“I know, I know. But their answering machines were exactly the same. Exactly. Same voice, same words, same everything.”
“Maybe they have the same answering service.”
“No. Don’t you do this too. My parents gave me this run around. I think we’re on an island, Colin. Those colleges don’t exist. And for some reason, nobody seems to know about it.”
“It was just a cliff,” was Colin’s muttered response.
“Do me one favor. Bring those rejection letters to school, and every other phone number you can find that’s not in Dunam. I want to—”
There was a click.
A dial tone beeped in annoying rhythm. Colin had hung up. Jay slammed his phone down and paced the room. Why would no one listen?