The Similars (The Similars #1)(7)

Ransom pauses, and I can feel everyone around me sitting up a tad bit straighter. We aren’t eager to hear what he has to say; we are hungry.

“The six upperclassmen joining our junior class today are highly intelligent, talented individuals like you. Do not doubt that they have met Darkwood’s standards for admission with flying colors. The fact that these students have come from a different background than your own and that their existence is a scientific phenomenon of sorts has no bearing on how they are to be treated at this school. They deserve every consideration and respect when it comes to their safety and privacy. The media has agreed to keep their identities confidential until they are eighteen, unless they choose to speak out before then. If anyone at Darkwood reveals the identities of these students in any public way, it will be grounds for immediate expulsion. Additionally, there will be serious legal ramifications.”

A collective breath is taken. Ransom is asking us to protect the Similars against the outside world.

“We will now begin the key ceremony,” Ransom says. “Mr. Park?”

Mr. Park skitters up to the podium, holding a cigar box. The box is closed, its shiny chrome lock tightly fastened, but I know what’s inside: six keys, gold in color and old-fashioned, like the ones that used to unlock the doors in Darkwood’s rooms decades ago. My hand flies to my neck, where a cord is looped around a key like the ones in the box. Programmed to open Cypress’s front door and my dorm room, my key is read by a sensor embedded in the doorknob, verifying my identity through contact with my skin. Keys are presented to each new Darkwood student on the first day of school, along with an ominous warning: they aren’t replaceable.

“In this box are six keys to the school,” Ransom explains. “Each one belongs to a new member of the Darkwood junior class. You’re all undoubtedly aware that transfer students to Darkwood, while uncommon, are not unheard of. However, six new eleventh graders in one year is quite a record, one that’s required some creativity on the part of our housing committee. But don’t worry, none of you have been assigned to bunk in the outhouses,” Headmaster Ransom adds, eliciting light laughter from the student body. Mr. Park opens the box, revealing the six keys. “First years, you will receive your keys immediately following this assembly, so kindly stay in your seats. When you do receive your key, place it around your neck and do not remove it for the first twelve hours, giving the software time to initialize. And now, the first key.”

Pru reaches out and grabs my hand, pressing her nails into my palm as she squeezes. I can’t tell if she’s excited or nervous for Pippa, or simply acknowledging how significant the moment is.

“Welcome to Darkwood, Jago Gravelle. Please come forward to accept your key.” Three hundred fifty-seven necks crane to watch as the first Similar steps out from the very front pew in the chapel. That must be where the clones are sitting.

The boy approaches Headmaster Ransom. It’s Jake’s Similar who I saw by the lake—the boy with the black hair and the burdened expression. I hear stifled laughter coming from the pew where the original Jake sits. His friends nudge him, elbowing him in the side, no doubt. I can’t see Jake’s face. I wonder if he’s wearing his usual smile, and if so, how forced that smile is.

Jago shakes Ransom’s hand, then bends down so Mr. Park can loop the cord with his key around his neck. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. You knew about the Jake Similar, I remind myself. You were expecting this Jago boy.

“Jago Gravelle,” Ransom continues. “Repeat after me. ‘I pledge my allegiance to Darkwood Academy. I vow to uphold the school’s four founding tenets: Loyalty. Excellence. Inclusion. Identity.’”

Jago repeats the pledge with confidence. As soon as he’s done, the student body erupts in applause and chatter.

“He has a British accent?” I murmur.

Pru nods. “So does Pippa. I guess they all do. Hers is charming, but Jago’s is kind of hot, right?”

I definitely wasn’t expecting the accent. But of course, he wasn’t raised in America. He grew up on some secluded island out in the middle of the ocean. It makes sense that he doesn’t sound like the rest of us.

Next, Headmaster Ransom introduces Tessa’s Similar, and I make a mental note of the fact that while all the Similars are juniors, the originals, so far, are a mix of seniors and one junior—Pru. Must be because of the way their birthdays fall and the fact that all the Similars are at least nine months younger than their originals. Pru’s birthday is in October, so that explains how her clone is a junior and not a sophomore. I bet the clone’s birthday is around July. “Welcome to Darkwood, Theodora Gravelle,” Ransom says. The girl walks forward, hesitant, like she isn’t comfortable in her own skin. On instinct, I seek out Tessa. I locate her three rows in front of me. Madison sits next to her, whispering in her ear. I wonder if Madison’s angry that Tessa didn’t mention her Similar this morning when they met in the driveway of the school.

Theodora Gravelle repeats the pledge and accepts her key, returning to her pew as unceremoniously as she came. The chapel is no longer hushed. Students can’t help whispering. A Jake Similar. A Tessa. Who else?

“Their names start with the same first letter,” Pru whispers. “Did you notice? Tessa and Theodora. Jake and Jago. Prudence and Pippa. I thought ours was a coincidence, but now… It’s like somebody planned it that way.”

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