“So, Miss Mayweather,” Maria Lopez said, going over the daunting stack of papers in front of her, “good news, bad news or great news?” The little office was sweltering, and the open windows did very little to reduce the heat. Kat wondered briefly why Maria didn’t have a fan, but then she realized that, considering the loose stacks of paper all over the place, it would probably do more harm than good. So they sat in uncomfortable sweatiness while Maria prepared several pages of legal documents.
“Uhh, bad news first? How much worse can it get?” April said, and Kat wanted to wap her over the head with a rolled-up magazine. Of all the things to say… She briefly considered rapping her knuckles on the girl’s skull, because it might as well have been made of wood.
Maria seemed mildly amused. “Luckily for you, Miss Mayweather, not that much,” she said, and took a drink from a glass that had up to a minute ago contained several cubes of ice. They’d never stood a chance, melting visibly within seconds. “You’re already eighteen. Here, that’s the age of majority. From a legal standpoint, you’re an adult. That means that, legally, we can’t force your parents to take you back in.” She looked at a piece of paper that, even from where Kat was standing, was covered with horrifying legalese. She’d seen tomes of infernal Knowledge That Mankind Was Not Meant To Lay Its Eyes Upon and she’d been less scared of that than she was of the language used by lawyers.
“I mean, I’m the one who ran away…” April mumbled. Violet squeezed her hand and smiled reassuringly at her. They held the eye contact for a second longer than was strictly necessary, but Maria didn’t seem to notice.
“The problem, Miss Mayweather, is that we’ve already received word from your parents. You don’t appear to have a home to go back to, and you would have had to have to figure out income, insurance and taxes in a very short amount of time…” She looked at April over her glasses. “I believe our curriculum is lacking in teaching you a lot of the minutiae of finances, so that would’ve been… problematic.”
“Would have been?” Millie asked before April could start freaking out. Kat had noticed it too. Maria Lopez didn’t seem like she was very worried, but, all things considered, she looked like she wasn’t the type of person who was ever worried. Counselor Lopez, Kat surmised, probably only had two speeds: Motherly Compassion and Seething Rage Against the Ineffective Machine.
“Yes. That’s the good news. Or the great news, depending on your point of view, I suppose. I don’t presume you’ve heard of Maslow’s pyramid of… never mind.” She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “Not important. Point is is that I wasn’t just saying things when I mentioned that this school had systems in place to care for our… vulnerable students. While, again, we can’t pay for any medical treatments, we have the facilities to house you.” April blinked a few times, trying to parse what was being said. “It won’t be… I know who your parents are, Miss Mayweather. Unless they have a change of heart -- which, considering the way they spoke on the phone, I can not guarantee in any way, shape or form -- you will not have the life you had. But we can offer you shelter, and cover your tuition fees until you graduate.” She paused and chewed on a pen. “And if you are willing to sign a few documents confirming your status as a protected minority, that would include your graduate degree,” she said, a little more thoughtfully. “Though we might have to move you around a little bit. I’ll have to figure that bit out. ‘Hem.”
April squirmed a bit in her seat. “This is a lot to take in…” she said, and Millie put a hand on her shoulder. April relaxed a bit and scooted almost imperceptibly closer to Violet. Kat was glad the girl didn’t have to do all this alone. She was clearly overwhelmed.
“I know, Miss Mayweather. But I feel it’s important you have this information first. Lastly, you’ll be mostly tax-exempt as you’re still a student, and we can cover your bare-minimum insurance, but if you want, well, medical treatment to transition or, god forbid, a car, that’s not something we can cover. Medical bills in this bloody country are too high as it is; it would bankrupt the school if we did.” Ms. Lopez put the papers down. “But, well, long story short is that you can stay here, Miss Mayweather. You’ll be assigned a dorm room, and you can keep going to classes. If your parents change their mind, you’ll be free to go home, but if not…” She looked at April and smiled. “You’re not alone. There’s more people in your corner than you think.”
“Thank you,” April said softly. She was clearly a little overwhelmed, but Kat hoped April was experiencing at least a bit of the relief she herself felt. This was, all things considered, wonderful news. She hadn’t expected April’s parents to retroactively kick her out, but from what she’d been told, it hadn’t been entirely out of character.
“I have more good news, and a lot less technical,” Maria continued. “It concerns the both of you.” She looked at Violet and April. “Well, all of you, really.” She got up from behind her desk, taking a moment to pick up several binders, which she tucked under her arm. She waved at the others to make their way to the door. “Walk with me.” Kat and Millie shuffled out of the door first, the logistics of the tiny office demanding that they leave the room in a strict order or risk getting stuck against the furniture. Once they were out in the hall, Maria led the way. “So, unofficially -- that means you keep this to yourself until things have proceeded -- Professor Dykstra is getting a full reprimand. Including a possible loss of tenure. We’ve cross-referenced what you’ve all reported with other students and complaints from teachers, and his behaviour has been…” She paused for a moment as some students passed in the other direction, then continued, walking the four girls towards the campus gardens. “...unacceptable,” she finished.
Kat and Millie looked at each other with excitement. It wasn’t often that they had an adult they could rely on, but it seemed that, for once, there was someone they could not only trust but who was on their side, wanting to help, and able to do so. Even if Dykstra wouldn’t be fired, he’d be a lot more hesitant to pull his shenanigans if his position was threatened. It meant that they wouldn’t have to sit idly by while their friends were being treated like dirt.
“Don’t pass this information on to anyone else,” Maria said. “This is strictly confidential, but I thought it’d be something that might lift your spirits come Monday.” She smiled again at the girls as she reached the entrance to the botanical gardens. “Now, the final bit of news,” she continued as she entered the gardens, “is… how do I put this… even more confidential? Just… don’t mention it to people and you’ll be fine. It’s not… illegal, as such…” she said, and Kat couldn’t help but feel that the definition of ‘legal’ was probably being stretched to its absolute limits here.
“Hey, girls.” Ms. Richards waved as the girls entered the gardens. She was standing by a desk covered in what appeared to be lab equipment and various potatoes and yams. Kat frowned. A lot of the material was stuff she’d been considering using, if she’d ever settled on a thesis subject. April and Violet looked up at Ms. Lopez with confusion, but returned the botany professor’s enthusiastic greeting.
Maria just smiled. “It’ll make sense in a moment,” she said, and guided the four of them to the table. “So…” she looked at Violet and April, “we cannot cover your medical bills. That much is clear. The treatment you need is expensive.” The two girls nodded. That much had been made abundantly clear.
Ms. Richards was the one to continue. “The medication you need isn’t… too hard to replicate through botanical witchcraft,” the teacher said, choosing her words carefully. “It’s just… illegal for institutions like ours to do so.” She paused and looked at Ms. Lopez, who nodded. “The patents are protected fiercely, but…” She looked at the two girls and then at Kat. “If, say, a student wanted to… study this field… and maybe do a thesis on the subject… she might be allowed to do so.” Ms. Richards chewed her tongue. “If that student had willing volunteers to test the efficacy of the practical application of her thesis statement, legally that would be allowed, if this was not, well, advertised.” She enunciated one in every few words carefully, raising her eyebrows for emphasis, making eye contact with Kat that was as subtle as a brick to the face, but Kat was already picking up what was being put down. April and Violet’s sharp intake of breath indicated that they weren’t as slow on the uptake when it came to this as they had been about each other. “That is, you know, if such a student, who is gifted in the field of botany and just so happens to want to pursue a thesis with regards to Solanum Tuberosum, which appears to be the most likely candidate when it comes to this… experiment.” Ms. Richards’ eyebrows danced up and down with so much vigour Kat was worried briefly they’d bounce off her forehead.
Kat looked up at Ms. Lopez, who nodded, carefully. “All of this,” Maria said, “is purely hypothetical, of course. Officially, this hypothetical student could do a thesis on ethical creation of cheap medication with a physical trial to go with it. Unofficially, of course,” she looked at all of them and smiled, “I think you can help your friends. I must stress that you keep this quiet. We’re… exploring the boundaries of legality, here, but as long as you don’t advertise, sell or involve the faculty beyond checking up with Ms. Richards, who will, of course, monitor your progress to keep the experiment safe, well…” She looked at Violet and April. “I think we have found ourselves a loophole.”
Kat had the feeling that the rules here weren’t so much being bent as straight up tied, twisted and knotted into a pretzel of Olympic proportions, but she also trusted Ms. Lopez not to put them in danger. And if she could combine her academic ambitions and help her friends with what was obviously one of the most important changes in their lives, she wasn’t going to hesitate for a moment. She tried, for a moment, to find a way to sound as diplomatic and careful as the adults had been. If this situation was really as precarious as they’d made it seem, she felt she was probably going to have to get used to using doublespeak. “Ms. Richards,” she said, “I think I have an idea of what I want to do my thesis on.”
Ms. Richards grinned from ear to ear, and Maria Lopez chuckled softly. “Now, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Maria said, “but just in case it becomes relevant, I have several waivers right here.” She put a binder on the table, in between three kinds of potatoes. “If anyone would be willing to sign up for a kind of trial of sorts that involved your thesis, that would be the exact kind of document you would have to sign with them. You know, hypothetically.” She pulled her hand away from the binder quickly, partly because Violet and April looked at it the same way cats look at their food bowl being filled with fresh fish.
Millie wrapped her arms around Kat’s neck and kissed her cheek. “I’m proud of you, baby,” she whispered, and Kat tried not to blush. Everyone else pretended not to see her go beet red.
Violet turned to the teachers and then finally to Kat. There were tears in her eyes, and April was looking pretty sniffly too. “This is real?” she asked. Ms. Lopez nodded. Violet took Kat’s hand and looked at her friend. Her cheeks were lined with wet streaks. “Thank you, Kat.”
“Of course, you dumbass,” Kat said. “You’re my best friend.”
Ms. Lopez and Ms. Richards scooted them out of the botanical gardens, legal papers stuffed in Kat’s arms, and they spent the rest of the day signing documents, crying at each other and cuddling the two girls who, despite everything else, had hope for the future.