Chapter One (Continued)
When Zim was almost nine, his grandmother decided that he would be best served by attending a boarding school for boys, as his older Montjoy cousins did. His mother disapproved of the idea of him being sent away while so young, but the decision was made during a rare period of time when his father was in residence. With the elder Mrs. Montjoy's foot already firmly planted down, her son had no will to order otherwise, and so Zim was sent to school in Virginia. While his cousins had remained at schools in the deep south, Zim’s father had insisted that he would have an opportunity to see him more on his travels if he was in Virginia, and while no such visits ever materialized, it seemed a valid enough reason for the boy to go further away. Thomas had also reassured his wife that it was better for Zim to be in Richmond, closer to the nation's capital and to the promise of a better life than the South was able to offer. Zim's mother knew she had no power to object, and so she instead consented, and prepared her only son for a journey that would take him much farther than she herself had ever been.
"But why do I have to go?" Zim had asked.
"Because you're grown now, Zachariah, and it's time for you to be educated as a gentleman. Don't you want to be a gentleman?"
He was not sure whether he wanted to be a gentleman, but he was sure that he had no choice in the matter, so he had left his mother to do the packing – his father having already left to make the arrangements – and went to wander through the streets. Along the way, he passed the Vanderhorst house, one of the formerly prominent families of Charleston who had managed to hang on to the remnants of their gentility in a manner similar to, but not quite as successfully as the Montjoys. In the dirt walkway that led to their front door, the family's youngest daughter, Charlotte, bent over her marbles in the dust.
"What are you doing, Charlotte?" Zim called, leaning over the short iron fence, questioning her though he could see very plainly what she was about.
"What does it look like I'm doing, Zachary?" the girl, a few years younger, pouted. "Marbles, same as always."
Zim came around the gate, reaching into the depths of his pockets to withdraw the same small bag his father had given him a few years previous as an early birthday present. It had been full of marbles and had only increased in quantity in the two years since.
"I'll play you for Ringers," Zim proposed, shaking the marbles noisily in his hand.
The girl frowned, knowing full well she'd be bound to lose, but nodded and stood to erase the lines she'd already made in the dirt and start them fresh.
"You're out strangely today," the girl accused. "Shouldn't you be at your Mamaw's still?"
When Zim was at his grandmother's, he wasn't allowed any company outside the family. Even at his own home he had few playmates other than Charlotte, but he would have been content with Charlotte and no one else. Though sometimes prone to tantrums, she was probably his favorite person in the world after his mother. He would tell her all the secrets of scrapes and troubles he'd gotten into, and since she never told them to anyone else, this made her trustworthy in his childhood eyes. Charlotte also looked up to him, not just as a boy, but as an older boy, practically infallible. Often tormented by her older sisters and teased by the other children in the neighborhood, Charlotte cried easily, and Zim was quick to defend her. Charlotte thought of him as a knight in shining armor in some ways, and Zim was not opposed to being seen thus. He also thought of himself as her natural protector, though he was too young to fully comprehend the instinct in all of its complexity.
"I’m home early from Mamaw’s this year because I'm going away to school," he said, not looking at her and instead lining up his least favorite marbles, choosing not to gamble with the better ones.
"You're going away?" Charlotte asked, gaping at him. "When?"
"Mama says Papa will come and get me in a fortnight to go to a school in Virginia."
"Papa says it's a good boy's school there. One that will help me get to a good college. I suppose I want to get to a good college."
"How're you going to get to Virginia?" the girl demanded. "Are you going by train?"
"Of course! How else're you to get to Virginia?"
Charlotte's lips rounded in awe. "Are you really going to ride the train, Zachary?"
"I just told you I am, didn't I?"
"Will you write me a letter when you get to Virginia?" she asked.
"You can't read, Charlotte."
"Not yet, but I'm learning," she glared. "And Mary can read. Mary'll do it if I ask her and if I do a chore or two for her."
Zim sighed. "You shouldn't have to do a chore for her," he admonished. "She's your sister, she should read it just because you ask."
Though he had no siblings of his own, and his family was hardly a model of the norm, Zim nonetheless had a clear vision of how familial relations ought to transpire. Unfortunately, like his own, Charlotte’s family did not quite operate as it ought to have either.
"She'll read it, that's all that matters," Charlotte said stubbornly, putting an end to the debate. "So will you write me then?"
"Oh, all right," Zim relented. "I'll write you. But not often, I'll be busy."
Zim couldn't be sure that he'd be busy, but it seemed likely enough, being school and all. If anything, he imagined it would be like the upstairs rooms of his grandmother's house, only with many more children and without the promise of release at the end of three months. He was told he'd be allowed one winter and one summer holiday and no other. He sighed again just thinking about it, taking aim at one of Charlotte's marbles and knocking it easily across the line. She repressed her own sigh, whether for the loss of her marble or her only friend it was unclear.
At school, Zachariah became Zim.
Upon arriving, escorted by his father, he was quickly assigned a room in a hall with fifty other boys, introduced to the headmaster, and then left to fend for himself. The other boys, all having been there already a year or two, were curious of the new boy – a bit young for the school – and his mysterious belongings monogrammed with the initials Z. I. M. Eventually, because "Zachary" was a long name and because he had become well-liked enough to warrant a nickname, the other boys started referring to him simply as Zim. Even some of his teachers adopted it, as it was easier and had a cheerful ring to it, just like the boy it belonged to.
Zim, who had not been very socialized previously, turned out to be blessed with the happy ability to get on in many different situations and to be accepted easily by others, partially, no doubt, because he, himself, was so accepting to begin with. By his fourth year in school, he was easily considered one of the most popular boys, always game for sports or mischief or making entertainment where there was otherwise none to be found. Sometimes this led to reprimand, but he did not often find himself under the cane. Equally, though he was bright and engaging, his marks were hardly cause for celebration, though they were steady enough. His teachers would take him aside to try to inspire harder work, and he would smile graciously, nodding and almost commiserating with them, but there was rarely any change to be seen afterward, whether in his behavior or his grades. Eventually, they became resigned, content that he was a good enough student and unwilling to be anything more.
His mother, on the other hand, would lecture him endlessly while he was on holiday, doubling the dose he was already guaranteed from his critical grandmother.
"Do you think I brought you into this word so you could be average, Zachariah? So you could be like everybody else?" his mother would occasionally demand.
"No," he would retort sourly. "I'm a Montjoy, as Mamaw makes daily reminder, and so I could never be under the false impression that I will ever be like anybody else."
This was always a sure way to quiet his mother: to reference his grandmother or any member of his father's family. He was old enough to know that such references caused her an indistinct sort of pain, but it never seemed to stop him. As he got older, he tortured his grandmother in a similar way, although he remained much more cautious of his Mamaw than his mother. There was just something about the older woman's eyes that made him certain she would destroy him without a second thought if she really felt it was for the best. She had that kind of conviction, like steel, in her bones.