Charlie Volkat was a high school senior visiting Columbia from South Carolina. She had just received her letter of admission to SEAS and was waiting on her financial aid package to be released before making a final decision.
The morning before the announcement, Charlie decided to take a tour of Morningside Heights (MoHi). Her guide was a mild-mannered old man named Joe, who pointed out various MoHi landmarks. They were right across the street from a chocolate shop and a shoe store that seemed forever in foreclosure when Joe abruptly stopped walking.
“Let me tell you something a little strange.” Joe stood closer to Charlie and lowered his voice to a soft, secret whisper. He pointed to the shop across the street.
“Nobody… ever… comes… out!”
“Out of where?” asked Charlie.
“And… nobody… ever… goes… in!”
“In where?” cried Charlie.
“Mondel’s Chocolate Shop, of course!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean anyone, Charlie.”
“Workers, students, tourists. This store has supposedly been in business since 1943. But no one goes in or comes out!”
“But there must be people working there….”
“Not people, Charlie … not ordinary people, anyway.”
“Then who?” cried Charlie.
“Ah-ha…. That’s it, you see…. That’s another of Mr. Willy Valentinis’s clevernesses.”
“Who is Willy Valentini?
Joe began to laugh. “Who is Willy Valentini? Only the Dean of Columbia, the mad genius who keeps this whole place running! He used to be a chemistry professor, but now he uses his chemistry skills to craft the most delectable chocolate in the world. The stories I could tell about that man!”
Charlie wanted to hear the old man’s tales, but checked her phone and saw that she was running late for a meeting with the financial aid office. She thanked Joe and they parted ways.
Charlie couldn’t believe the coincidence. She doubled-checked the address for a fifth time, just to be sure. It seemed that the financial aid office was located inside Mondel’s Chocolate Shop.
Since she was early, Charlie paused in front of the store to look at the window display. Inside were gleaming racks of bonbons and slabs of fudge. However, Joe was right. There wasn’t a person in sight.
“Hey, are you here for a meeting with the financial aid office, too? Why do you think they set all our meetings for the same time, huh? Think it’s some kind of a conspiracy? Name’s Violet, by the way.” Violet was talking very fast and very loudly , but it was not easy to hear her because she was chewing so ferociously upon a piece of gum at the same time.
“Hi Violet, I’m Char—”
“So, how’d you get in? Win the Intel Science Prize? Cure ovarian cancer? Me, I think it was my world-record in gum chewing that put me over the edge. I’ve been chewing on this piece for 14 months solid. I’m 10 days away from the world record.”
Before Charlie could answer, a boy with a generically handsome face stopped in front of them, talking very obnoxiously. It took them a moment to realize that he was not talking to them, but rather the large phone in his hand.
“What-up, Snapchat? It’s Mike Sozal-Media here in front of the Columbia financial aid office. Are you ready to watch me get paid and laid? That’s right, I’m going to get a full ride to Columbia—and a full ride from one of these Barnard girls. Haha! Mikey out.”
Just then, a sleek black car pulled up to the curb. A young blonde woman in a shiny Canada Goose jacket stepped out. Her monogrammed Hermés bag said Veruca on the front.
“Are we all here for the financial aid meeting?” Veruca asked.
“How could you possibly qualify for financial aid?” Violet said, eyeing the bag.
“Regrettably, my mother has cut me off. She says I need to learn how the other 99% lives. So I’m surviving on the spare change I found in my bags at the pied-à-terre.”
Before Violet could reply with something nasty, an overweight boy with glasses crossed the street and approached them.
“Hey guys, my name’s Augustus. Like, Caesar?” He smiled
“Like the salad?” Mike asked, debating whether or not to start livestreaming.
Augustus shrugged off the insult. “So, I guess we’re all here to compete for the need-based financial aid?”
“Compete?” Charlie spoke her first words to the group. “But Columbia said that it meets 100% of demonstrated financial need.” She wasn’t prepared to compete with these people.
Suddenly, the door to Mondel’s opened, and a melodious flute-like voice carried out into the street.
“Did somebody say need-based financial aid?”
Mr. Valentini was standing all alone just inside the open door.
And what an extraordinary little man he was!
He had a black top hat on his head.
He wore a tailcoat made of a beautiful Columbia blue velvet.
His trousers were a crisp white.
His gloves were pearly grey.
And in one hand he carried a fine walking cane topped with a solid gold lion.
As Mr. Valentini moved outside, his left foot caught on the threshold. Charlie gasped as he went careening forward, only to save himself at the last moment with a gorgeously choreographed somersault.
Not knowing what else to do, all the students began to clap.
“Welcome, my children,” Mr. Valentini said. “I’m sure you have heard a lot about this wondrous place. Now, whom did I hear chirping about need-based financial aid?”
“That would be me,” Charlie said. “I think there’s been a mistake. I need this money, or I can’t attend Columbia. So I’m a little confused why I’m here, in this chocolate shop, instead of at the financial aid office.”
“All will be explained in good time, my dear,” Valentini said, with a gleam in his eye. “Now why don’t we all step inside for a minute?”
He gestured for the door, and the six of them made their way inside.
It was like being transported into another world. The air smelled like cocoa and brown sugar. The shelves above the display case were stacked with ribbons and gift boxes. And, in front of Charlie’s eyes, was the largest selection of chocolate she had ever seen. Marzipan and truffles and fruity-cremes, marshmallows and pretzels and nuts covered with shiny chocolate shells.
No one stood behind the counter. Valentini seemed unfazed as he watched each student react to the bounty in front of them. “Go on then: try whatever you want.”
Immediately, Violet rushed forward to pick up a peanut butter truffle, and shoved it in her greedy little mouth. Veruca daintily picked at a lemon crème.
Mike made a gesture to unlock his phone, but Valentini placed a gloved-hand on his shoulder. “No video in here, I’m afraid. Wouldn’t want any sensitive information to get out.”
Charlie chose a coconut square.
Then all eyes were on Augustus, who was looking at the ground. When he realized all eyes were on him, he looked up. “I’m alright,” he said, “I’m on a diet. Thank you, though.”
“Oh, but Augustus, I insist,” Valentini said softly. It still sounded like a threat.
“I’d really rather not.”
The look on Valentini’s face made Augustus reach for the nearest piece, a chocolate-covered orange peel. He took a tiny nibble.
“It’s very good,” he said.
Valentini clicked his tongue softly. “That’s too bad.”
Augustus looked up. “What’s too bad?”
“You see, Augustus, we here at Columbia University in the City of New York would have loved to offer you need-based financial aid. But it seems you don’t need it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you took a piece of chocolate, didn’t you?”
“Only because you told me to.”
“You took a piece of chocolate, Augustus,” Valentini’s voice was rising now, into a near-shout, “and of all the other children, you look the most well-fed to me. Which means you can’t possibly qualify for financial aid!”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Augustus complained. Charlie wanted to defend him, but she also didn’t want her aid to be taken away.
“Get out.” Valentini said, pointing his sharp-looking cane in Augustus’s direction.
Augustus looked at the other students. They all avoided his gaze. With a quiet dignity, he grabbed a handful of fudge and walked out of the store.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been completely forward with you children,” Valentini said, “about why you are all here. You see, in those beautiful laminated brochures we send to prospective students, we say we ‘meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need for all first-years’. Unfortunately, this year, we only have enough aid for one student. So, to keep the word of our brochures, we need to raise the bar for what ‘demonstrated need’ is. That means that only one of you will walk home today with a need-based scholarship.”
Charlie looked around at the other students. They were all eyeing each other with a new level of intensity.
“But before all that, why don’t we take a trip to the Financial Aid Office? It’s just back there,” he said, gesturing to a hallway behind the counter. He hopped over the side and gave them a wink.
“Come along now! And bring all the chocolate you’d like. It’s not a trick, I promise.”
Charlie was careful to stay three steps behind Mr. Valentini. Every few seconds, he would reach into his deceptively large coat pocket and pull out a bottle of Chocolate Baileys, unscrew the cap, and take a sip.
After the sixth time Valentini did this, he turned and looked at Charlie, who was trying to figure him out.
“Are you drunk?” She asked.
“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” he replied cryptically.
The hallway turned out to be an optical illusion. From in front of the counter, it seemed to only be a couple feet deep. But they had been walking forward for nearly ten minutes before they stopped.
“Well, here we are,” Valentini said, gesturing toward a red door that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
COLUMBIA FINANCIAL AID OFFICE – AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
There didn’t appear to be any knob or handle with which to open the door. But when Valentini lifted his cane and rapped on the wood three times. The door opened of its own accord.
The students all peered inside. Charlie gasped.
The financial aid office looked like a scene from a nightmare. The entire room was floor-to-ceiling grey. Stacks and stacks of loose-leaf paper lay scattered around the room. There was only one computer in the whole office, and it was running Windows ’97.
Veruca screamed. All the students turned to look at her. “’Look! Look over there!” She pointed to her right. “What is it? He’s moving! He’s walking! It’s a little person! It’s a little man! Down there by the paper shredder!’
“She’s right,” cried Violet. ‘It is a little man! Can you see him?’
The room appeared empty at first, but when Charlie focused her vision she could see them. Their pallid grey complexion matched the color of the room.
“There’s two of them!”
“There’s more than two! There’s one, two, three, four, five!”
The tiny men and women— they were no larger than medium-sized dolls — had stopped what they were doing, and now they were staring back across the room at the visitors. One of them pointed towards the children, and then she whispered something to the other four, and all five of them burst into peals of laughter.
“But they can’t be real people,” Charlie said.
“Of course they’re real people,” Mr. Valentini answered. ‘”They’re Liar-Advisors.”
Before Charlie could ask what a Liar-Advisor was, she noticed a beam of light in the corner of her eye. Mike Sozal-Media was recording a video. Mr. Valentini was facing the other way, so he didn’t notice.
Not knowing what else to do, Charlie coughed.
Mr. Valentini whirled around, and caught Mike red-handed. With surprising speed, he plucked the phone out of Mike’s hand.
“What do we have here, hmm?” Valentini asked, scrolling through Mike’s fee
d. “Were you about to post this on columbia buy sell memes?” He asked.
“No—no, I wasn’t,” Mike stammered.
“And it seems this wouldn’t be the first time you’ve posted in the group. Your insensitive comments on race are a violation of the Rules of University Conduct. And, even worse, your trash content is recycled from the Berkeley memes page.” He tossed the phone back to Mike. “I’m afraid we will have to rescind your offer of admission.”
“What? No!” Mike cried, but it was too late. Two Liar-Advisors dragged him, kicking and screaming, out of the room.
Mr. Valentini gave a tight-lipped smile to the remaining children, but only Veruca noticed. Charlie was too busy watching Violet interact with a Liar-Advisor.
The small grey woman smiled and nodded as Violet finished speaking. She placed a tiny hand on Violet’s wrist.
“Of course, dear, we will do our best to make sure we explore every funding opportunity for you. Have you considered taking out a Federal Perkins Loan?”
Violet tried to pull her hand away, “But a loan isn’t financial aid.”
At this, the Liar-Advisor hissed and sunk her pointy teeth into Violet’s arm. Violet screamed, with such force that the piece of gum she was chewing flew right out of her mouth.
Mr. Valentini walked up to the Liar-Advisor. “It’s 2018. You can’t eat children anymore,” he said gently. The Liar-Advisor nodded.
“Sir,” Charlie said, “Violet spit out her gum.”
“And?” Valentini asked.
“Which means she won’t break the world record. Which is the whole reason she got into Columbia in the first place, right?”
A look of understanding dawned on Mr. Valentini’s face, “I’m afraid that’s true, Violet dear. Now that you’re not a world-record holder, I’m afraid we have to reevaluate our admissions decision.”
Violet stood up, holding her bleeding palm to her chest. “You can’t do that,” she said, “Getting into Columbia has been my whole life.”
“Rules are rules,” he said, “If you don’t leave now, I’m afraid we’ll have to send you to a farm upstate.”
“No, not Cornell!” Violet screeched. She was carried out of the room by another two Liar-Advisors. Now, only the bite-happy one was left.
Mr. Valentini ushered the two remaining children, Charlie and Veruca, to a nearby desk.
Charlie couldn’t believe the competition was down to her, a first-generation student and a woman in STEM, and Veruca, a legacy who didn’t really need the money.
Valentini pushed two chairs together and urged the children to sit facing each other.
“Now,” he said grimly, “you must fight to the death.”
“What?!” Charlie gasped.
“Kidding, kidding,” Valentini chuckled. “But there has to be some way to narrow it down. A singing competition, perhaps?”
Charlie didn’t know what to do. She appraised the perfectly coiffed-and-manicured Veruca, who was still wearing her Canada Goose coat even though it was quite warm inside. An idea began to fester in Charlie’s head.
“Mr. Valentini, what does financial aid entail?” Charlie asked. “On the student side?”
“Well, Charlie, you have to maintain a passing average and make satisfactory progress toward your degree. We also ask that, in exchange for financial aid, you participate in our work-study program.”
Veruca’s eyes widened. “Work study? You mean, I’d have to like wash dishes for money?”
“Not necessarily. You could staff one of our concierge desks, or perhaps re-shelve books at the library.”
“That will not be possible,” Veruca said curtly, pulling out her phone. “Mother, I’ve decided the real world is too fraught for me. Have Jefferson pick me up outside Mondel’s in five.” Veruca swatted the Liar-Advisor’s hand away and walked out of the financial aid office of her own accord.
As Veruca’s footsteps got quieter and quieter, Charlie became aware of a faint staccato noise behind her. It was Willy Valentini, clapping.
“Oh, I do congratulate you!” He cried. “I really do! How wonderful this is! You are the champion. I will see that full financial aid is granted to you immediately.”
Charlie thought she would be happy to hear that she was getting a full ride to Columbia. But it made her sick to think of all the other students and the opportunities she’d taken from them.
“I don’t think I’m the right fit for Columbia anymore,” she said.
“Oh my dear girl, don’t kid yourself. I had a hunch, in the beginning, when you didn’t stand up for Augustus. And then that brilliant little cough, to alert me to Mike Sozal-Media’s infraction. But when you just threw Violet and Veruca under the bus like it was nothing, that’s when I knew for sure—”
Charlie swallowed, waiting for Valentini to finish his thought.
“You’re cut-throat and morally compromised—in other words, a perfect match for CU!”
Charlie realized Willy Valentini was right—Columbia was filled with people just like her.
Willy Valentini removed his glove and extended his right hand. “Now come on, Charlie. There’s a whole world for me to show you—but only if your ready.”
Charlie didn’t hesitate. She took his hand. They both began to cackle.
It was another normal day at Mondel’s Chocolate Shop.