Four by Four

Sara Mesa

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Four by Four, by Sara Mesa. Wybrany College is an elite school for rich children, whose parents seclude them to keep them safe from the rampant urban violence. But when one of the scholarship students goes missing, and an impostor pretending to be a substitute teacher arrives on the grounds, it becomes clear that monsters are made in elite seclusion.

Sunday, November 12th

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 I arrived at the colich yesterday. By the time I’d finally found it, night had fallen. I confess: I’m a terrible driver, especially on unfamiliar roads. I made my first mistake at the detour on the highway and had to turn around and start over. Later, I drove down a dirt road through a pine tree forest. I drove slowly, uncertainly. I switched on my high beams, blinding a few rabbits. I heard the cry of a bird. I don’t know which kind.

I finally reached the end of the road, hungry and disoriented.

My disconcertion was compounded by the total darkness. Apparently, everyone here turns in early. Silhouettes of stone buildings stood among the shadows. Not as large as I would have expected, but ornate and pretentious, like from another time.

I was met at the gate by a woman wearing an apron, her head bowed. She seemed to expect me because she didn’t ask for my name or reason for being there. She simply murmured follow me and led me to my room in a stone dormitory building on the left side of the property.

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The room is spare but comfortable enough. Double bed, mounted TV, desk with a swivel chair, prints of contemporary art on the wall. I tried the internet connection and it seemed to work fine. I considered taking a shower, but I didn’t know where to find the bathroom and the woman in the apron disappeared without giving me any instructions. I put my clothes in the closet and got into bed, still dressed and without any dinner.

Unusual for me, I fell fast asleep.

I can’t quite remember it today, but I had a strange dream that kept me engrossed the whole night.

I was awoken this morning by the ringing of a telephone I hadn’t noticed on the nightstand yesterday. A cordial female voice summons me to a meeting in one hour. A welcome meeting, she specifies. I look at the clock. It’s only 8 a.m, and a Sunday, too. The sun has barely risen. I can see a well-tended garden through the window with tall hedges, the vestiges of the night’s fog.

I realize I will have to adapt to a different schedule.

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I’ve peered into the hallway and seen other doors just like mine, but none appear to be to a bathroom. I have no idea where to wash up, do my business. I’ve been forced to urinate in a plastic bottle, which I’ve stashed behind the nightstand. I’ve wiped the sleep from my eyes with a tissue and now I write as I wait for the meeting.

I’ll know more soon.


(. . .)


I met Señor J. and I still don’t know what to make of him. The headmaster of the colich looks more like a shareholder than a head of school. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something in his air, like a smug businessman instead of someone responsible for educating the young. A self-satisfied, relaxed man: pleasant expression, deep, confident voice, a graying goatee he strokes now and then.

From behind round glasses, he gives me a look that could be either kind or condescending. He shakes my hand and welcomes me enthusiastically. I’m suddenly put at ease.

The assistant headmaster is also at the meeting. Skinny and pale with dark circles under his eyes, he’s submissive to Señor J., eager to please. No firm handshake from him, just a limp and noncommittal grasp. He smiles broadly, showing long, yellowed teeth. He’s friendly, but it’s an awkward friendliness. Fixed eyes, stiff expression. I couldn’t tell whether he liked me or not.

Our conversation is brief. I have the impression they both think I know all about the school already, or maybe they don’t want to bore me with superfluous explanations early on. They limit themselves to giving me precise instructions. The assistant headmaster gives me a folder with my student files, the notebook of the teacher I’m replacing, a copy of my contract, and a flash drive.

“You start tomorrow,” he adds.

I go ahead and ask what happened to the teacher on leave. I need to calculate how long I’ll be able to work here, but I don’t want to seem rude, so I murmur the question. The assistant headmaster makes a slight, evasive gesture with his hand; I’m not even sure he’s heard me.

Things being what they are, I don’t press.

Then Señor J. opens one of the large windows, offers me a cigar (which I turn down) and smokes leisurely, leaning against the wall. It’s obvious he’s scrutinizing me, but I’m not intimidated.

I would have happily accepted a coffee. The sun has risen fully and I still haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. I worry my stomach is growling. I worry about my bad breath and whether they’ve noticed it.

What should I do? Ask them where I could get some breakfast around here? What I have to do to take a shower? Brush my teeth?

What I finally do: stand up, thank them, say goodbye, and leave, closing the door behind me. I have the urge to press my ear against the door. Are they discussing me? Or is bringing a new teacher on board just another part of the routine?

I return to my room and put all the material I’ve received in its place. Then I wait without knowing what for. I wait a good long while. I don’t keep track of the time. Maybe an hour, maybe two.

I write in this journal.

My hunger pangs grow stronger, the colich fills with sounds. I still haven’t eaten. Fortunately, there are more plastic cups in my room. I pee in another one and hide it with the first, which has already started to stink.

Through the window, I see several students heading out to play sports. Impeccable, tidy boys bursting with health, running down the fields with their shiny hair, cheering each other on. Farther away, I make out a group of girls accompanied by a huge, cinnamon-colored dog. I can’t see anything else, given both the distance and my nearsightedness.

At the moment, I feel isolated. Isolated and sad.


(. . .)


I’m not sure what I should be doing. Spending the whole day in my room looks bad, but neither does it seem appropriate to introduce myself to colleagues in my current state: disheveled, stomach growling. Besides, wandering around to suss out the situation could look suspicious. And unquestionably, the last thing I want to do is raise suspicion.

Nevertheless, I opt to head out and investigate anyway.

I come across an enormous dining hall with different areas separated by adjustable panels. A sign at the entrance details the menu and hours of operation. Breakfast is finished, but thankfully there are just two hours before lunch. Feeling encouraged, I continue my rounds, killing time. I have the good fortune of finding the student restrooms.

Finally, release.

I explore the hallways, relieved at last, most likely retracing my steps unintentionally.

I exchange hellos with several people, but we don’t introduce ourselves.

I don’t encounter many people in general; typical Sunday atmosphere at a boarding school. The students who aren’t out on the playing fields must be in their rooms, resting or studying. They aren’t with their parents. This weekend, the assistant headmaster informed me, is not a visiting weekend.

I eat lunch alone in the section reserved for teachers. I’m served by two aged—but not old—and very quiet women. The meal is exquisite: cream of vegetable soup, smoked ham, the marinated dogfish so typical in this part of the country.

I return to my room. Someone has made the bed and taken the two cups of urine. I’m embarrassed, but glad for the fresh air. I lie down and fall asleep immediately. Two or three hours must pass.

When I wake up, I start reviewing the student files. The teacher’s notebook is awash in hasty, untidy notations—crossings-out, scribbles, grease stains. Anxious handwriting compiles details of complete or incomplete exercises, papers submitted, exam grades, opinions, problems, quibbles along the lines of didn’t turn in his homework yesterday, needs to improve spelling, could do better.

The work seems routine and not very exciting. Just what I need.

I call to have dinner brought to my room. This way, I can look busy. When the staff member arrives with my dinner, there’s hardly any room on the table for the tray. He hesitates a moment before setting it on a bench. As soon as he’s gone, I stack the papers over on one side and eat while watching TV. Then I pee in a cup and get back in bed.

I can’t sleep. I obviously slept too much during the day. I try to read but I can’t concentrate. The pages give off an unsettling scent of mothballs; the words dance, leap over each other. My head is spinning, my eyes sting. I’m writing this with dinner’s leftovers piled in front of me.

My body is starting to smell. The urine next to the nightstand is polluting the air.

I need to bathe immediately.


From Four by Four by Sara Mesa. Used with the permission of the publisher, Open Letter. Copyright © 2020 by Sara Mesa.

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