3 | A Ship in a Bottle

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"We're going to solve some problems using the equations we derived yesterday," Hiyori Inoue said, tapping on her tablet to close the attendance sheet.

She was a petite woman in her forties, clad in a pastel-colored suit with a scarf wound around her neck. A drizzle pattered against the windows, and the dip in temperature had ensured that everyone was wearing bulkier clothes.

Inoue skirted the teacher's table, shoes clip-clopping on the floor. "Before we begin, I have an exciting announcement to make."

Some of her students showed polite interest, while others simply kept on staring. On any other day, Evanna might have been among the former, but on that morning, she was huddled in a subdued heap by the window, hood flung over her head. Her idle eyes tracked the rain streaking down the glass.

"We are lucky that the headquarters of the Global Organization for Research in Particle Physics is located right here in Komoreby. Most of you might know it better as GORPP." Inoue walked down one aisle of the classroom. "GORPP is home to the CHC. Anyone know what it stands for?"

No one offered an answer.

"It's short for Circular Hadron Collider. It's an enormous particle accelerator." The teacher paused, and if she was disappointed by some of the blank looks, she didn't show it. "We will be learning particle physics in this class, so it's a great opportunity for us that they have agreed to arrange a tour this Friday for all of us to go see the largest, most complex machine in the world."

That elicited a curious spark in the eyes of those listening, but Evanna sat motionless, face frozen in a blank stare. Inoue went on to describe the significance of the CHC, but it faded to meaningless noise. Evanna's brain dredged up Oleanda's pool, vignetted with darkness, and she could almost feel the icy water that seeped through the dress and numbed her to the core. Harsh laughter reverberated in her head while she saw herself gasping and spluttering. A wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm her. She swallowed.

"—on Saturday maybe?"

Huh? Evanna slowly turned to the boy sitting beside her, whom she got to know was called Mort. He was looking at her with glassy, grey eyes and a crooked smile that was somewhat creepy.

He repeated the question, his tone hopeful, "Do you wanna come hang out with me this weekend? We can maybe—"

She shook her head. "I—I have other plans."

"Okay, then," he whispered and flashed her a grin, which she pretended not to see.

Her inner torment resumed—she was running barefoot, dripping wet and chilled to the bone, while the incessant cackling followed her like a malevolent spirit. Evanna clamped her eyes shut. Please stop.

It was all-consuming—oozing magma burning away all that was good in her mind. She took in a tremulous breath and hugged herself tighter. They probably thought it was a harmless prankor maybe it's some initiation ritual. Alcina probably meant no harm. And Ookie...

She stole a glance at Anukie, who sat with Alcina at the front of the classroom.

They had made no contact since the night before. Evanna had sprinted to her car and changed into her own clothes in a mindless frenzy before driving off. She closed her eyes again and concentrated on her breathing.

It was when she was in the restroom before her next class that she came to know of a video that was circulating around. It had captured her nightmare in excruciating detail. Two girls were watching it on their phone. She threw up—this time in a toilet.

The rest of the morning progressed without incident. Evanna slunk through the hallways, avoiding all eye contact. She wished a Nydus worm would gobble her up and belch her out into each classroom, which would save her from the agony of traversing the hallways. She had no appetite, so avoiding the cafeteria was easy. Instead, she visited the library.

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