The photographer is checking the latest shots.
Stylists are putting away their work tools.
The other members of the production team are quickly taking the set apart.
Another photo session is over, yet Richard is still there, sitting on a chair contemplating… the nothingness, probably.
He doesn’t have the phone in his hand, and his gaze seems lost in the depths of his thoughts.
<<Hey, handsome big boy.>>
These words bring Richard back to the present, who forces himself to look up at a figure he rarely saw: a tall, very elegantly dressed, young black girl with short wavy hair… Miss Borqued, one of the daughters of the bosses of the modeling agency he works for.
<<Didn’t they ever tell you that when you are sad you are less beautiful?>> she continues to speak once she gets his attention.
<<What?>> is the boy’s confused answer <<I’m not sad.>>
<<No?>> the girl smiles slightly <<Are you sure? It looks like your cat died or something.>>
<<No, no … Star is fine, yesterday she even destroyed my pillow, so maybe she’s too fine … It’s just that today I’m a little tired … nothing else.>>
<<Mh… They told me you’ve been like this for a few days though.>>
The boy hesitates for a moment before speaking again.
Miss Borqued was not someone he talked to often, also because he hardly ever saw her and the few times that happened she would just compliment his appearance and then turn her attention to something else.
The two were therefore not friends, nor even “acquaintances”; they were two strangers who occasionally exchanged a greeting, nothing more. Yet, at that moment, she seemed like the most suitable person to talk to even if the boy had no idea how to start that conversation.
<<How about if we go get something to eat?>> she asks at that point, as if she understood the boy’s intentions and wanted to make his job easier.
<<Now? Uh… yeah, why not. I have no other commitments today, so …>>
<<Perfect! Give me two minutes, I have to finish some things then I’ll be free too.>>
Richard smiles and nods, and a few minutes later he leaves the photographic set with her, heading towards a nearby club.
During the walk, the two talked about the usual topics of circumstance: school, sport, the weather, the work … and in doing so Richard realized that the girl knows almost nothing about him, which is a bit unprecedented actually, since the boy is used to being surrounded by people who know him even before he introduced himself.
At school, for example, everyone knows his name, even the janitors and teachers, while he barely knows the name of a dozen boys. Even in the martial arts gym that he attends everyone knows him, and often his fame follows him in the competitions in which he takes part.
He’s a minor celebrity with hundreds of thousands of internet followers, while the girl is a mystery; Richard knows practically nothing about her, and there are no traces of her existence on social media.
The first time he saw her, years ago, he was surprised to learn that she was a Borqued, the daughter of one of the richest people in the world.
Reflecting on this fact, Richard begins to feel a little strange; was he really walking down the street with a Borqued? Was it safe to do it? Can billionaires walk the city streets peacefully like it’s nothing, or they always bring with them some bodyguards?
Eventually the two reach a cafeteria that offers them a quiet place to sit eat and talk.
<<So?>> the girl asks at this point <<What is it that worries you? Your life seems pretty good to me. You have a lot of friends, a lot of people who love and follow you, a lot of money and a lot of years to enjoy it… what’s wrong?>>
Richard looks down at the coffee he had ordered and which had been brought to him.
<<Uhm…maybe…something is missing.>>
<<Something?>> the girl raises an eyebrow with interest.
<<Yes. Normally I wouldn’t be here right now.>>
The boy sighs <<In a park with a friend.>>
<<And why aren’t you there?>>
<<Because … she’s gone away.>>
<<Oh … I see.>> is Borqued’s answer <<So is this that makes you sad, right?>>
<<But you have still a lot of friends.>>
The boy sighs again <<I don’t know.>> he finally admits <<I enjoy myself with my friends but… sometimes they … they don’t seem to… I don’t know. They don’t seem like the people I would like to share my life with…>>
<<Uh? Really?>> is the reaction of the girl <<Well if you don’t like your current friends you can always make others. There are thousands of people who would die to talk to you. Even in here.>>
Richard looks up at the girl <<Here?>> he asks.
<<Yes.>> with a nod of her head she indicates a table a little distant from them, a table occupied by two girls who stealthily cast curious glances in Richard’s direction.
As soon as the boy realized it, he let out a smile <<I don’t think they want to be friends.>> he said.
He snorts <<Nah, trust me… no.>>
Silence falls for a moment between the two.
The two take advantage of this moment of pause to sip the drinks they had ordered, after which Miss Borqued speaks again.
<<So …?>> she asks <<Who was this friend of yours?>>
Her name is Moon, a really funny name according to Richard.
They had met by chance, as children, in a park in their neighborhood; they were both six years old, and both had been brought there by their parents on a normal summer day.
The park was full of people, including adults, pets and other children; Richard was getting bored though, because he was there alone with his parents who weren’t the type of people who played football with their son.
In the end the boy, ice cream in his hand, set off to explore the park. At the time it seemed immense to him, everything was huge compared to his little body, from the trees to the simple benches, so wandering around the park alone was enjoying him much more than expected … he felt like an explorer discovering a new world.
He met Moon on the grass, surrounded by big and small cats; she wasn’t alone, there were other adults around her and he was quite shy at the time… he didn’t dare to approach, but all those cats had caught his attention: they were very small and beautiful, all with gray or black fur, and he noticed that every now and then an adult would approach, take some and walk away with a broad smile on his face.
Being a child his stealth skills were not very high, and in fact it didn’t take long before some adults noticed his presence and his obvious interest in those cats … and those same adults proceed to whispered something in the other child’s ear, which a little shyly and reluctantly she got up, took a kitten and nervously approached Richard.
Seeing her approach, the boy understood that he had been discovered, and was considering the possibility of running away: his parents did not want him to talk to strangers, but since it was a girl as tall as him that was approaching, and not a big and dangerous adult, he thought that maybe he could stay … and so he did.
<<Hello.>> the little girl had greeted him <<Do you want. a cat?>>
Richard had indicated himself <<Me?>>
<<Yes. Do you want a cat?>>
<<Can I really have a cat?>>
<<Yes!>> the little girl had given him the one she was holding in her hands; it was tiny and black <<Her name is Star.>>
<<Star?>> the boy had taken the cat in his hands; it was fluffy and warm.
<<Yes, because she’s a girl. The males are called “Sun”.>>
<<Why do they all have the same name?>>
<<Because we are adopting them! They won’t live together anymore.>> was the answer.
<<Adopting? You are adopting them?>>
<<Yes! I mean…not us. We are getting them adopted by others! Got it?>>
<<Ah … but why?>>
<<Because Star, my first cat, has made too many kittens …>>
<<Oh… her name is Star too?>>
<<And … okay. So … now I have a kitten, right? This one is mine. Right? I can adopt it.>>
<<Of course you can! Everyone can have a Star!>>
Richard only remembers that after that meeting he ran to his parents holding the cat that would become his pet.
Miss Borqued lets out a smile as sweet as amused <<Wait, so this girl called “Moon” was surrounded by cats called “Star” …>>
<<Exactly.>> Richard smiles in turn <<Funny, eh?>>
<<And after that day what happened? How did you become friends? You were only six years old…>>
<<Well … A few weeks later I went back to that park with mom, and I saw her again. She lived close to the park so she was almost every afternoon in there. She had a lot of friends, and when she saw me she invited me to play with them.>>
<<And what did you do?>>
<<Obviously I accepted. We made sand castles and then… I don’t remember exactly, but I know we had fun. In that park there were some little rides, we played on those. We jumped rope and then played hide and seek. Mom after a while wanted to leave, I didn’t. I convinced her to stay a little more while the other kids started to leave one by one … and in the end, only Moon remained.>>
<<Because she lived nearby.>> guesses Borqued.
<<Exactly, so she could stay there longer than the others.>> Richard nods <<We had an ice cream and our mothers met. I don’t think they became friends, but they talked for a while and this allowed us to be together for at least another half hour.>>
<<But then you had to leave.>>
<<Yes. In the end I had to leave.>>
<<And then? What happened? Did you see her again after a few more weeks?>>
<<Actually no. I was going to school at the time and I had made many other friends there. I didn’t even remember Moon.>>
<<And how did you become such friends then?>>
At the age of eleven Richard had become old enough to be able to go to school on his own, so his parents also started letting him go outside alone, provided that he returned after just a few hours.
His father had bought him a smartwatch on which the GPS locator was always active, so his parents would always see his movements and would always know where to pick him up if it was necessary to do so; the smartwatch would also immediately warn them if it was removed or turned off, which gave them a certain level of security in leaving their little son outside the house alone.
However, Richard did not often leave the house. In his spare time he drew and watched cartoons; he only went out to go to friends’ birthday parties or to go to the gym, since he had started a martial arts class.
One day, however, he saw a very interesting teen film, centered on the life of an explorer who drew all the particular creatures he met on his travels in his diary.
That film ignited in him a great desire for adventure and exploration for a moment, and so that same day, after seeing it, he took a pencil, an eraser, a small notebook and left the house in search of some wild animal to “study”, “examine” and draw.
In the city, of course, there are no wild animals other than birds, so he decided to go to the only place where there was the slightest possibility of finding some exotic beast … the park where Moon was always present, and there he indeed found her.
He recognized her immediately, especially since there weren’t many people in the park that day, so the boy put aside his exploratory mission for a moment to go and talk to her; she was there alone, sitting on a bench and hunched over her cell phone, with headphones on.
<<Hello!>> Richard greeted her taking her attention <<You are Moon, aren’t you?>>
The little girl raised her head slightly perplexed and annoyed, but then she smiled seeing that familiar face again <<Oh! Ricky?>>
<<Yes! Do you remember me?>>
<<Of course! How long … what are you doing here?>>
The boy shrugged <<Nothing special.>>
<<Do you have to study?>> she asked noticing the notebook in his hands.
<<No no. I need this for drawing.>>
<< Drawing? Do you know how to draw by hand?>>
<<Wow, nice! And what do you draw?>>
<<A little bit of everything. Flowers … and eyes.>>
<<Oh … cute.>> she smiled <<So you’re here to draw some flowers?>>
<<No actually, I want to draw wild animals.>>
<<What?>> exclaimed Moon at that point <<Animals? Wilds one?>>
<<But there are no wild animals here. There are only … squirrels.>>
<<Well, aren’t those wild?>>
<<Yes but …>> Moon looked around <<they are hard to find.>>
<<Don’t worry, I’m an expert explorer.>>
She smiled amused <<Ah yes?>>
<<Yes! I can find them without difficulty.>>
<<Wow. Do you want a hand? I too know how to explore.>>
And so Moon put the phone in her pocket, and getting up from the bench she followed the boy in search of these wild squirrels.
<<I imagine that from that moment on you started seeing each other more.>> Miss Borqued says at this point.
<<Yes. I had a lot of fun that day, so I started going there more often. I also asked for her phone number and we started chatting.>>
<<Wow, it looks like the beginning of a classic love story…>> giggles the girl mischievously.
<<Nah. We were just friends.>>
<<Just friends, uh?>>
<<Uh-uh.>> Richard nods.
<<Are you sure?>>
<<Sure sure sure?>>
The boy sighs <<Yes. Friends. Nothing more.>>
<<Well you’re a very good looking boy … possible that she didn’t have a crush on you?>>
<<Maybe she secretly liked me… it’s possible. But I do not think so. She never showed interest.>>
<<Maybe she hid it well.>>
<<Maybe. But it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t go to the park because I liked her … but because I enjoyed being with her.>>
<<And what about her?>>
<<Well she … she was always there. But not just for me.>>
<<And for what?>>
Moon’s family wasn’t exactly the best. Her parents often quarreled, and since she lived in a small apartment she could not escape the screams of the adults, which prompted her to leave the house and hang out in the park by herself.
Richard found her there almost every time he went, regardless of the season. But it was during one winter that he asked her why she was always in the park.
<<Aren’t you cold?>> he had asked her; he hardly ever went out in the winter, and in fact it was the season in which they saw each other least often.
<<Nah… I’m fine.>>
<<Are you sure?>>
<<But why are you always here?>>
She had sighed <<Those two scream too much.>>
<<Mom and… the other one.>>
<<He’s not… your father?>>
<<Oh … ok.>>
Once he found out that Richard had decided to go to the park more often during the winter, despite the cold, and she couldn’t help but show her gratitude.
What she didn’t show, however, were romantic interests.
At the age of thirteen, Richard had given his first kiss to one of his classmates, and he had proudly told it to Moon, who limited herself to complimenting him and then making funny jokes about it.
At fourteen Richard was officially engaged, and once again Moon was the girl with whom he talked about his new relationship. She helped him with advice and various encouragements, and showed no signs of either disappointment or jealousy… in Richard’s eyes she was nothing more than a friend. Maybe his only friend.
<<What do you mean?>> Moon had asked him when the boy confessed this obscure thought to her.
<<Well…I don’t know. The friends I have are weird. I have fun with them, it’s nice to be together but … I don’t know.>>
<<Do you think they are “false”?>> she had guessed.
<<I do not know … they have always treated me well.>>
<<So what’s the problem?>>
<<Well… that’s the problem! They treat me … too well? I don’t know … I feel like they act in a weird way when I’m around.>>
Moon started laughing <<But it’s normal! You have nearly 70k followers on the socials! You are a celebrity!>>
<<What? I’m not that famous.>>
<<Yes you are! So it’s normal that friends treat you in a special way.>>
<<But I’m not special so it’s weird to be treated like that.>>
Moon rolled her eyes and sighed loudly <<Ricky, you ARE special!>>
<<What? Why? I don’t do anything to special.>>
<<Well… first of all, you’re here.>>
<<Look around! See anyone else here? No. There’s only you. You’re the only one who comes to keep me company, even when it’s hot or super cold. This winter you could have stayed at home … but instead you spent it shivering with me.>> she said at that point <<This, for example, is something special.>>
Richard didn’t know how to answer initially, so he just smiled nervously <<You say?>> he then asked, not knowing what else to add.
<<Yes. You are a special person, and therefore you deserve a special treatment!>>
In the end Richard didn’t really mind being treated in a special way, the behavior of his friends simply seemed strange to him, but after that conversation he had also started to find it justified. He was actually the most popular kid in school, and he was only in his freshman year!
Everyone knew him, even the older students and the teachers … so Moon was right, he was a sort of celebrity, and every time he opened his mouth in class everyone stood in silence and listened.
It was strange, but he was starting to like it.
He’d broken up with his first girlfriend after a trivial argument, and had another one. Then another, and another.
At that time he was starting to receive job offers in the fashion world, and his parents were starting to make more money than they had previously, so much so that they bought themselves a nice house with a private swimming pool.
His life wasn’t going well only from that point of view, however, because even at school he managed to get good grades, and at fifteen he became a black belt; that same year the DBC, the agency he works for, hired him as a full-time model.
During that period he told Moon about all of his achievements and progress…and she listened.
<<And is it a bad thing that she was listening?>> asks Borqued at this point.
<<Well … initially we talked about everything. But in those days it was only me who spoke. She was just listening, in silence. Every now and then she smiled, but nothing more.>>
<<And besides talking what else did you do?>>
<<Initially we met to do many things … play in the grass, draw together … those days, however, we met only to talk. And she didn’t talk much. At least not like before.>>
<<And do you know why?>>
<<I don’t know. Maybe she had some problems at home.>>
<<Did she looked sadder … down in the dumps?>>
<<No, it was always her, always smiling and calm… but only more silent. That’s all.>> Richard hesitates for a moment, then sighs <<Maybe… maybe I shouldn’t have told her all those things.>>
<<Everything. She was… I mean… I had just moved to a bigger house, I had become a black belt, I was starting my new career… my life was getting better and better while her life was … I don’t know. She never told me what she was up to besides school, but I always found her at the park so maybe that was all she was doing. Perhaps …>> the boy hesitates, not knowing quite how to express the thoughts he was formulating at that moment <<I don’t know.>> he limits himself to saying at the end.
<<Have you ever invited her to your house?>>
<<She never asked me to come.>>
<<So she never went to visit you?>>
<<Why? You were friends … you could’ve invited her.>>
<<Well … I was engaged at the time, I did not want anyone to see me with her.>>
<<But you could have invited her for your birthdays. That wouldn’t have caused problems. So why didn’t you do it?>>
<<I don’t… I don’t know, she never asked me to come and I never thought about it.>>
<<Got it. So … what happened then?>>
<<We started to see each other less and less. I was too busy, so I went to the park just to have a chat and then leave. I no longer had the time to play with her or … do anything else.>>
<<Did you hear each other on the phone at least?>>
<<Sometimes, but not as much as before.>>
<<And what about now?>>
He sighs melancholy <<Now she’s totally gone.>>
The last day Richard saw Moon was a few weeks before his meeting with Miss Borqued. The two of them always met at the park, and the guy went there with the usual intention of relaxing a bit and talking about his personal life with his friend … who as usual listened in silence, making jokes and comments from time to time.
It seemed like a normal day, and indeed it was. At the end of their meeting, however, Moon gave him a news. She said she was leaving, that they would never see each other again, and the boy initially couldn’t help but wish her the best.
After that day they spoke only on the phone, until she stopped reading his messages. Richard initially thought he had been blocked, but when he noticed that the girl’s last access was several days earlier, he understood that most likely she had just lost her phone or changed her number.
<<And you never heard from her again?>> asks Borqued.
<<No. She hasn’t contacted me again, either via social media or by phone. She just disappeared.>>
<<Do you think she’s okay?>>
<<I hope so. I don’t think she’s… really “disappeared”.>>
The boy looked down at his empty cup of coffee; he was thinking about the last few days he’d spent with her, about how things could have been different.
<<So it’s her fault that you’re so sad.>> Borqued finally says.
<<Perhaps … I mean, after she left I wasn’t sad. I didn’t think the discussions I had with her were important. But the more time passes the more I feel as if… if something is missing. I can’t talk to my other friends like I used to talk to her, so I miss her a bit.>>
<<I see…>> sighs Borqued <<you need some company then.>>
<<N-… I don’t know. I already have company. Even too much. The problem is another.>>
<<Yeah. I feel like… I don’t know.>> Richard sighs <<As if I am not doing anything. As if … if in the end what I do doesn’t make any type of sense. I mean, I’m going great in school but it’s pointless anyway. Most of the jobs I like are in the hands of computers nowadays, and realistically speaking I don’t even need to work. And yeah, photo sessions are cool but modeling bores me a bit, and …>>
<<I don’t know. There are plenty of models out there. What I do doesn’t seem so special to me. I don’t like it very much.>>
<<Snd what would you like to do, then?>>
<<I don’t know.>>
<<Uhm… you don’t seem to know much, kid.>>
Richard lets out another sigh <<I’d like to do something that’s important…I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I’m wasting my time. I don’t want to live like this. I can do more. I want to do more.>>
<<Moon had some family problems. Maybe I could’ve helped her. I could have … I don’t know, done something. But I didn’t do anything, and now she’s gone.>>
<<Do you feel guilty about that?>>
<<No, but… I feel that I would like to be able to do something important. And what I do now is not.>>
<<And you think that doing “something important” would have changed anything?>>
<<Yes… it would have made me feel better. At least I’d have an excuse for ignoring her problems.>>
<<You couldn’t have helped her anyway.>>
<<But I should have tried. That’s the point. I should have worried a little, shown a little… interest. But instead …>> the boy stops suddenly and does not finish the sentence.
<<Instead …?>> pursues Borqued.
<<Instead, nothing. I did nothing.>> is the answer.
The girl sharpens her gaze; there’s something Richard isn’t saying… something he doesn’t want to say.
<<Okay … but I promised myself to cheer you up today, but you don’t seem much relieved.>> comments the girl.
<<Don’t worry, I’m fine.>> Richard replies with a smile <<And my sad face will go away immediately. I won’t ruin another session again, I swear.>>
<<Uhm … it’s fine, I trust you.>> Borqued says at this point as she starts looking for something in her bag <<But in case your bad mood doesn’t go away … use this.>> from the bag the girl takes out a sort of business card and hands it to Richard.
<<What is it?>>
<<An invitation.>> is the answer <<For the Divine European Academy.>>
The boy freezes, remains paralyzed for a few seconds; even his breathing stops, then he carefully observes the girl looking for some sign of malice or irony, but he doesn’t find it.
<<Do you know what it is?>> she asks.
<<Of course I know.>> replies the boy <<But… why?>>
<<Why did you give me this invitation?>>
<<Well, you said you wanted to do something special, no?>>
<<Yes but… this is…>> Richard looks down at the business card; it’s very simple in the desing, and very hard, so hard it almost looks like a credit card << this is a bit too much… isn’t it?>>
The girl lets out an amused smile <<You aren’t forced to go there, boy.>> she says <<You can give the invitation to one of your friends if you want. Or you can try to sell it…it’s illegal, but there are sites where you could do it.>>
<<I …uhm …>>
<<Well, while you think about this, I’ll take the opportunity to go. It’s getting late.>> continues the girl, getting up from the table <<It’s you that are offering the meal, right?>> she adds with a mischievous smile.
<<Oh, uhm … y-yes, of course.>> replies Richard, taken aback by the sudden end of the discussion.
<<Wow, what a gentleman you are! Thank you.>> Miss Borqued comments widening her smile <<See you next time, then.>>
<<O … of course. Until next time.>>
And having said that Richard is left alone.
The Divine European Academy…that is one of the most elite, secretive and mysterious places he could ever enter. Only the most talented kids from the European schools can go there, and anyone who doesn’t fit into this category can’t even take part in the academy entrance tests, regardless of how famous they are or how rich their parents are … but there are exceptions, and the invitation that the boy is holding in hand is one of them.
There is a problem though. Richard does well in school … but not that well. He doesn’t have full marks in every subject, as much as he loves to draw he’s not an artistic genius, and as strong as he is he’s not an martial arts master … so although the invitation he has in hands is one of the alternative ways that can take him to the academy, he’s wondering if it’s even worth the try.
To enter he will still have to face the entrance tests, and those are as brutal as they are secret. Almost everyone who has faced them has failed, and they all agree on one thing: it is impossible to prepare for them.
Richard has never thought about the Divine European Academy. He has never considered the possibility of going there, nor has he ever shown interest in that place. So why was he invited there? It can’t be a coincidence… Miss Borqued has always ignored him after all, only this day she spoke to him for more than ten seconds, so it’s clear that the girl’s real intention was always to give him the academy invitation. But why?
Richard ponders this as he fiddles with the business card.
Up to now he has gone on without having any real purpose ahead of him, and since Moon’s gone this lack of purpose is slowly eating at him.
Maybe he’ll never get into the academy, but if he does… who knows. Maybe he’ll find something new to do in there.