Harper was in an art gallery with her parents. She had just turned ten today, but instead of theme parks or movies, she asked to go to an art gallery. The reason was quite simple: for as long as she remembered, admiring others’ art was a form of reward. Whenever she got a good grade on a test, for example, or whenever she behaved or achieved something especially well, her reward was either a ticket to an art gallery—with her parents, or course—or a symphony orchestra concert. With this being the way she was raised, Harper was a quiet girl who did not have too many friends at school—and she didn’t mind. She didn’t think much of it. Her habit, again for as long as she could remember, was to entertain herself whenever she was bored, usually in the form of doodling or reading, since she couldn’t bring her guitar everywhere.
Holding her Momma’s hand, Harper strolled through the gallery. For the first ten minutes, neither she nor her Momma said anything. The latter let her daughter take her wherever she wanted to go; today, the woman was here as a chaperone, she had no plans of viewing the art at her usual rhythm. This morning, she had tied the girl’s strawberry-blonde hair into twin braids and let her choose what she wanted to wear—without comment. Harper had chosen a simple brown and white dress, white stockings, and black Mary Janes.
At some point, Harper stopped in front of a painting. A full minute later, pointing to the information plate, she asked, “What’s this word?”
“‘Cri de coeur’,” answered Momma, “A protest.”
Harper nodded. Then, she continued to the next artwork.
A few hours later, when the family finished walking through the art gallery, Papa bought Harper a storybook based on one of the more famous works. It wasn’t based on real events, instead, it was an imagined tale based on art.
That night, after turning the bedroom light off, Harper switched on the lamp by her bedside. Crawling into bed, she opened her new book. A few pages in, there came a swirling sensation in her head. The young girl lifted her head from the book, rubbing her eyes before looking left and right, puzzled.
Then, the world changed.
As the world around her began to spin at a rapid pace, Harper had no choice but to squeeze her eyes shut. When it felt like everything was no longer swirling, the girl opened her eyes slowly.
She found herself sitting on the grass, instead of her bed. Before inspecting her surroundings, she first looked down at herself. In doing so, she found that she wasn’t in her light blue pajamas anymore—the set with cartoon bear prints on it. Instead, she was once again dressed in the clothes she’d picked that morning for the art gallery trip. The book that had previously been on her lap was now gone, although she was still sitting in the same position. Judging from her surroundings, she was on some sort of school premises. The grass she sat on panned to just about the size of a soccer field, although no goals were set out; there were two two-story buildings stretching across the land with about five doors on each level. One standalone structure with only one door each stood along the periphery of the completely fenced-in area. The fence marked the school premises, along with a car park. In the space of a few combined basketball courts, there stood stalls and balloon decorations.
Notwithstanding the decorations, there seemed to be no one else on campus. Harper looked up. The sun hung high in the sky. She stood up and looked down. The length of her shadow was just short of her own height. It must be sometime in the afternoon then. Even if school had already ended for the day, it didn’t make much sense for the campus to be completely deserted. Didn’t the teachers usually stay longer, at least? With this query in mind, Harper began to walk to one of the buildings, intending to have a look through the windows. Wherever she was, there must be at least one person, right?
And if not…well, she would cross the bridge when she reached it.
As she walked, Harper thought to herself the whys and hows of her predicament. She had been reading on her own before her environment suddenly changed. Since her eyes were closed at the time, she didn’t see how it happened. Did magic exist? If it did, she knew nothing about real magic, so she couldn’t tell exactly how this worked. If it didn’t, how was one to explain this? Did she fall asleep without realizing it, and was she therefore in her own dream right now?
Either way, there seemed to be nothing she could do to reach a definite answer at the moment—so she kept looking.
It wasn’t until she reached the art room that Harper recognized a familiar view. A canvas stood in front of the chalkboard, partially covered by a white cloth. The exposed parts showed the sketch of a rose. The sketch had just been finished, but the artist hadn’t begun coloring it yet. This view—looking in from the outside—was the first picture she’d seen in her new book. It was the only one Harper had seen so far, in fact, given that she had only read a few pages before her world turned…
Did she somehow travel into a story?
The rest of the classroom resembled any art classroom; there were two columns and four rows of rectangular tables, with round stools around each of them. Somewhere at the back, someone was standing there, his back against the shelf as he observed the room with his crystal-blue eyes. His hair color was likely some shade of blond—even though the room was dimly lit, this much could be made out. Harper thought he might be an art teacher, but discarded that thought almost as soon as it surfaced. She made her way to the door and knocked.
Upon the knock, the male inside the art room turned in Harper’s direction. A blink later, he began to make his way to the door.
“My name is Harper. I’m not a student at this school. I think I got lost here, and I’d like to go home,” said Harper as soon as the door opened.
Up close, the male looked to be a teenager—too young to be a teacher, too old to be a student at such a colorful school.
“I’m…” he began to say, only to hesitate.
“Are you named Prince-something?” Harper asked, looking up at the male quite a bit taller than her. “You’re wearing a mantle. Are you from this school?”
“My…yes.” The male smiled, seemingly relieved. “I'm not from here though. I was actually trying to find a way back myself.”
“What does that mean?”
“My home is far, far away from here,” Prince replied, “And I should find a way to go back. Aren't you also in a similar situation?”
Harper nodded. “I got a book from a souvenir shop. When I was reading it before bed, I suddenly got here.”
Prince stepped aside, making space for the girl to step into the room.
“How much did you read before that happened?” he asked.
“Just a few pages, but I recognize this classroom in a picture in the book.” Harper raised an arm, gesturing at the exact area of the art room that she had seen before.
“My experience was a little bit different,” said Prince, his brows creasing slightly as he recalled what had happened. “I was looking at a painting on the wall when it sucked me in.” Saying thus, he too gestured towards the space that she had a moment ago. “Right here. That’s why I was looking at it until a moment ago.”
Harper looked up. “Do we have an alliance?”
Prince smiled. “Of course.”
The two travelers investigated the art room first—it being the only place they both recognized. As Harper looked around, Prince told her what he had learned since his arrival.
First, originally, the lights in all the rooms were on. There was a small puzzle or riddle in each room, and after each puzzle was solved, the lights would turn themselves off. Once he exited the rooms with the lights off, the doors would automatically be locked. He had so far been unable to reenter those rooms. Prince had found the art room for just a few minutes when Harper knocked earlier.
Second, time passed when a puzzle had been solved. When Prince first arrived, it was still morning. One hour ticked past every time he made his way out of a room (and got locked out)—this he inferred from reading the clocks of each subsequent classroom he entered.
Third, and quite importantly, there seemed to be no staff at this school, but occasionally, someone would suddenly appear in the hallways outside—not the classrooms, but just outside of them. If discovered as an outsider, they would try to get your name so that they can put your full name down and trap you in this world forever. Some try harder than others.
“So…Harper,” Prince said, “Have you met anyone else?”
Harper shook her head. “I haven’t seen anyone else. Has anyone got your name then?”
Prince shook his head gently. “Thankfully. It’s been a habit for me not to tell my name.”
“I sneak out of the castle sometimes,” Prince said, smiling almost apologetically.
Harper looked up at the ceiling; the lights were on. She glanced at the clock; it read four o’clock. If the setting of this story was well-planned—and it should be, from what Harper understood of the reviews written about the book—then school would have started at around eight o’clock in the morning. If Prince arrived right when school started, he would have solved eight riddles from then till now—that was the maximum number. As Harper recalled, there were three buildings on campus, two of which were two-story buildings with five rooms on each floor. In addition to that, there was also a standalone structure, most likely a room with special functions. Harper’s own school was a much bigger school than that, so she wasn’t sure which of those special rooms would be important enough to have its own building in a smaller school.
“When did you arrive?” Harper asked.
Turning back to the canvas with a rose sketched on it, Harper lifted the cloth, fully revealing it.
“You left no room for me,” she said, her eyes on the sketch and her tone soft, but her lips in a frown. “...one. You left one room for me. Did you already solve this one? Are we supposed to paint the rose?”
Prince looked away, stifling a chuckle. “I’m sorry, Harper, I didn’t know anyone else would be here,” he said just as softly. “...yes, I think so. Do you paint?”
“I like art, but I don’t like painting very much,” Harper answered, now glancing around the room again. “It’s messy. Do you paint?”
The little girl was staring at the blinds on the other side of the classroom—in this room, there were windows on both sides, although only one side had blinds. Seeing where her gaze had landed, Prince strode wordlessly to the line of windows and turned the blinds.
What shone into the classroom then was not simply sunlight but an entire image, projected into the whole room through the differently colored cellophane papers. Collectively, the papers created a singular picture of a rose, shaped exactly like the sketch on the canvas.
After taking a quick look at the whole image, Harper walked to the cabinets at the back of the classroom and opened some of them to prepare a palette of each of the colors on the cellophane art on the windows. Not another word was exchanged as, simultaneously, Prince went to another part of the same room to get the paintbrushes he would need. The two returned to the front of the classroom at around the same time. Harper handed the palette over, and Prince received it with a cordial smile.
Prince painted the rose according to the cellophane paper art on the windows. Just before he was about to finish the last petal, there came a loud banging noise outside. Both Prince and Harper immediately turned in the direction of the sound—the side of the classroom where the door was, where there were no blinds—and saw a stern-looking woman in a dark cloak, staring right into the art room through one of the windows. Her bright green eyes seemed almost eerie to look into.
“Finish the petal,” Prince said to Harper, passing the palette and paintbrush to her. “There is only a little bit left.” Then, lowering his voice, he added, “I’ll try to see if I can get her to go away.”
“Is she one of the staff you mentioned?” Harper asked, receiving the items from him.
Prince nodded. “I’ll leave the door open, but close it if you wish. And remember—never tell anyone your full name.”
With that said, he walked out of the classroom. Harper did not wait a second longer. As soon as Prince was done talking, she dipped the paintbrush into red paint and then lifted it to the canvas, finishing the painting as instructed. Although Harper was not particularly fond of painting, that was only because of the activity’s potential to make her space messy or dirty—not because she lacked the ability. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that the woman outside was immediately upon Prince the moment he set foot outside the art room. She did not touch him, but instead spoke to him with her expression exactly as serious as it had been when her presence was first noticed by the two of them. Strangely, Harper couldn’t catch a word of what they were saying; she could barely make out certain disconnected syllables.
Before long, the woman stalked off, leaving Prince at the door. By then, Harper had just finished the rose painting as well. Just as she was about to put down the painting tools, Prince reached out toward her, signaling for her to leave the classroom. The clock struck five. Harper ran, grabbing his hand as she reached him. Prince tugged at her hand gently, directing her out of the room. The classroom door closed at the same time that the lights inside all went out. Shifting her gaze from the room to the scenery outdoors, the sun was now considerably at a lower horizon than before.
It was just as Prince had said.
“Oh.” From Prince, there came a somewhat surprised exclamation. He blinked in a certain direction.
Following his gaze, Harper found that the fence was open.
“Do we not need to complete all the puzzles to leave the school?” she asked.
“I thought we did, but maybe we don’t. A story…may not always be perfectly set up, I think. It might contain deliberate flaws.”
“...why would anyone be deliberately flawed?”
Prince chuckled softly. “Imperfection can be beautiful as well. Think of it as a form of art.”
Harper blinked in realization. “Ah. Right.”
The two made their way to the now-opened fence.
Harper stepped through.
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