"I couldn't wait to see what happened
on the next page."
Painful starbursts exploded behind my eyes.
I clawed awake, tumbling forward, bouncing against a rough surface. Heat scorched my arms and legs. I tucked my head and shoulders. Sharp stones gouged my back and sand coated my sweaty body.
All at once, I lurched forward and slammed to a stop, flat on my face. Ears ringing, my next breath wheezed out, mouth dry as the hot dust singeing my skin.
What was happening? No answer. My brain hadn’t unscrambled yet.
“Get up, girl, if you value your life,” someone demanded in a deep male voice that sounded old.
Don’t push me right now if you value yours. I opened my gritty eyes to blinding light and a cockeyed view of an endless desert. Not a person in sight.
“Get. Up!” he ordered again.
If he yelled at me one more time, he wouldn’t be happy when I did make it to my feet. I bit back the snarl curling to my lips. Who was he anyway? My head still spun and my stomach wasn’t much happier. Gravel bit the palms of my hands as I pushed up on shaky knees.
Every muscle screamed misery. My body had been battered like a kickball. I looked around at endless empty land. Still no one in sight. I kept twisting in a full circle. Not a thing for miles but desert and mountains. Now I was dizzy.
Had I imagined that voice?
Where am I?
Blinking against the harsh sun, I struggled to my feet, weaving where I stood. I grabbed my aching skull. Slow down and think. Rubbing my gritty eyes, I focused harder. Nothing made sense. Then I looked down at myself. Feet tucked inside short boots made of tanned skins. Familiar, but not much. Buckskin material covered me from shoulders to skinned knees in a sort of tunic and I had a leather thong tied around my waist.
I swallowed, waiting for some memory to rise up.
Just a hint at what was going on. Sweat streaked down my face, burning my eyes and soaking my hair. Panic shivered through me at the empty gap in my mind. The longer I waited for answers that didn’t come, the more nauseous I got. What was wrong with me? Why can’t I remember what happened for me to be here? I lifted a shaky hand to shove sticky hair off my face and sucked in air faster ... then froze with a new realization.
Clutching a handful of hair, I pulled the strands into view. Black. Long, thick and black. I hadn’t known that.
I don’t even know what I look like? My heart thumped hard and picked up speed. I took another glance at the barren landscape, hoping someone showed up to help me.
Wouldn’t my family miss me?
Wait. What family? Do I have any? My vision turned watery with tears. Had someone gotten rid of me? Who? When? Where?
Was this empty desert home? I had no idea.
Why can’t I remember something so simple? I forced my mind to try harder. Still nothing. Trembling started in my knees and traveled up through my chest. I sucked in a deep inhale of hot air through my lungs, anything to stop the rising panic.
Someone had told me that once. Who? Still no answers. I had to calm down or I wouldn’t survive.
I squinted, looking for something familiar. Mountains and sand. Nothing but reddish-brown mountains and sand. Wait. Red mountains. I knew those. Hope had me excited. I begged my mind and strained to remember. Closing my eyes, I tried harder. Bright colors flashed behind my eyes and a sharp ache stabbed my skull. Grabbing my head did little to ease that, but the pain did clear some of my foggy brain. Slowly, a word came forward. I held my breath as it formed in my mind.
Forcing my eyes open, I smiled.
That was the name of those mountains. Relief flooded through me so quickly my skin tingled. I’m just disoriented. Not a serious problem.
“You waste time, Rayen.”
That had been a real voice this time and close by. I froze and took a breath. When I turn around, someone had better be there. And who was Rayen?
I made a quarter turn to find the owner of that gravelly voice.
An old man. No, the shimmering image of an old man. An elder.
This whole situation just rose to a new level of strange. He had white stringy hair, light gray eyes and gnarled limbs. His body flickered before me. In fact, the red and tan cliff rocks were visible through his translucent body. Beyond that, an unbroken sky stretched overhead, wide and empty and so intensely blue it hurt my eyes.
Ghost man floated above the desert floor, legs crossed. Floated.
I had been feeling a whole lot better until I saw that. “Who are–”
The ground beneath me started vibrating and shifting, killing my words. I stumbled sideways.
“Listen,” he ordered, his voice tense and urgent. “Three things you must know.” The ghost spoke louder with each word, competing with the heavy, shuddering sound in the distance.
I chugged in a deep breath, as if that would keep my rising fear at bay. With that inhale I smelled a rotted stench. Cloying decay and smoke. A warning smell I couldn’t place, but something I sensed deep in my bones. Danger. I started to look around.
“You listening?” the old ghost shouted.
Like I have a choice? I swallowed, not a spit of saliva in my mouth, and gave him my full attention again, but with my arms crossed as a warning. I was in no mood for a demanding ghost. The spooky elder was determined to get his message said, so I nodded for him to go on.
The thundering sound in the distance grew louder, reverberating through me. Adrenaline stirred my blood, urging me to be ready.
But for what?
“First thing,” he enunciated as if I was slow witted. “You die if you eat peanuts and you are seventeen.”
Peanuts? Who cares about nuts, and wouldn’t that technically be two things? I sniffed at the air. The burning stink thickened. I reached for a knife that wasn’t at my hip, but something told me it should be.
“Second. Your name Rayen.”
I’m Rayen? Now I had a name. That would thrill me if I could believe a crazy hallucination. Fear snaked through my body with icy fingers, paralyzing me. I don’t know my name ... or what I’m doing here ... or where here is, other than recognizing those mountains.
The ground shook harder. Dust and pebbles scattered everywhere. I widened my stance to keep my balance.
That’s when I caught the distinct sound of hooves pounding. Hard. Behind me ... and gaining speed.
I looked over my shoulder.
A beast. My muscles clenched at the sheer size of the thing. A hairy, rhino-hide gray creature blotted out the desert landscape behind it. Barreling forward, rocking back and forth on three legs, wide head low to the ground. Scary fast, churning geysers of sand and dirt, eating up distance quicker than anything its size should.
Air backed up in my lungs. “What the – ”
“Third thing, Rayen,” the elder shouted, his voice nearly drowned by the rumble. “Run!”
Ghost Man vanished as I raced away at full speed.
Survival instinct took over. I ran, arms pumping, and rocketed away from the beast. Quick leap over a stray thorny bush. My heels slammed hard rock, feet racing as if demons chased me.
I spared a check over my shoulder.
The beast was gaining, yellow eyes burning for blood.
What was that thing? Shouldn’t I know?
Didn’t matter. Right now I had no place to hide and no idea how to escape. No trees large enough to hide behind. Nothing.
Except the mountains. They were my safe haven. I knew that, somehow. But how do I know? Was there a place to hide in those rocks up ahead? Maybe that beast couldn’t follow me up a sharp incline.
Ragged breaths brushed past my dry lips. Hot air scorched my chest. I gagged on the creature’s nauseating smell. I could hear it gaining on me. Shaking the earth beneath my panicked feet.
I’m running too hard. Won’t last at this pace. My lungs were going to burst. Have to find cover.
Stinging sweat poured into my eyes when I lifted my gaze to see what lay ahead. I searched ahead where boulders had tumbled into a monolithic pile along the nearest ridge, as if stacked by a giant’s hand.
Tell me that beast can’t climb.
If I could just get far enough ahead and reach the peak on the other side of those boulders.
I veered slightly left, pistoning my arms and breathing as hard as any other small prey run to ground.
Fifty feet. Run faster.
Thirty feet. Not going to make it.
Ten feet. Come on. Almost there. Almost.
A roar screamed through the air.
I leaped from ground to rock. Slammed a knee. Slapped raw palms against jagged surfaces baked by the sun. Heat seared my skin. Ignore the pain.
Climb, climb, climb!
Scrambling fast as a lizard, I reached for crevices, grinding my knees and thighs.
Another scream, higher pitched this time but farther away. The thing pawed the ground. Dust erupted, choking the air.
I stretched for the next handhold and risked a quick glance back. What did that thing want?
At the base of the rocks, the creature started morphing from a huge, low-to-the-ground Rhino beast to a tall, thin whippet shape with a short, sleek coat of sand-colored hair.
Is that possible? No way in blue blazes. I’m so dead.
I bit my lip, tasting blood. Can’t quit now. I sucked in a blast of baked air and clawed my way up the next rock outcropping. Sunlight poked through crevices from the other side. Maybe if I can get to that side there’d be someplace to hide. Or people.
Like me? Where were my people?
Worry later. Right now, I’d take help from anyone I could find.
But could I stay ahead of that beast long enough to find someone?
The sun roasted my exposed skin and beat down on my back. Muscles burned the harder I climbed. Blood pounded in my ears. I jammed the toes of my boots into whatever crack I could find and shoved my body higher, faster. My fingers clutched sandstone and slipped. I dug in deeper and scrambled hand-over-hand.
The sound of loose rocks falling behind me warned not to look back. Keep moving.
Hot breath licked the air around my legs.
The beast was almost on me.
A space between rocks gaped to my left. Crunching my shoulders as thin as possible, I plunged into the narrow V opening, raking my back raw.
A shaft of blue sky yawned on the other side.
Deadly panting echoed right behind me. Closing in.
Fighting panic, I scrambled forward and lunged through the opening to the far side ... and too late saw nothing below.
My feet flipped over my head. I tumbled. An ocean of sky and rusty-brown rocks blurred through my vision. I hit hard, face planted on dirt.
It knocked the breath out of me. My head spun and every bone reverberated. I took a wheezing gasp that hurt.
“Son of a bitch!” a strange young male voice called. “Hey, dude, we got a skydiver.”
Did I know the name Dude?
I opened my mouth and groaned. The only sound I could make.
“Hey, babe, where’s your chute?” the same voice asked, closer.
“Idiot, she fell from the rocks.” Another voice that sounded just as young and male joined the first. “She’s a mess. Leave her.”
“No way she fell. From those rocks?” the first male argued. He whistled low. “Should be dead.” Then he whispered, “Hey. Maybe she is. We better go.”
We’ll all be dead if that beast follows me. I twisted my head enough to look up at the cliff face I’d just dived from.
There. In the crevice of dusty-red boulders loomed a shadow. Long and thin. Waiting.
Even from this distance, I felt the danger. Predator eyeing prey. But what kept it from attacking? The other people? The distance? Could that thing not shift from land animal to a winged creature and swoop down?
Beware the beast whispered through my mind.
As if I hadn’t figured that out? That voice stirred a memory, almost. A female voice filled with worry. Who is she? Why can’t I remember?
The flicker of knowing slid away faster than dust through my fingers.
Fear coiled in my chest. I’m so confused. The blank spots in my mind threatened me on a gut-deep level, far more than the beast did.
But I’d gotten my wish. I’d found people.
I rolled onto my back, sucking air at the pain that movement caused. My entire body complained. Body slammed twice and feeling as if I’d been squeezed from the inside out.
The second voice called from a little further away. “Come on, Taylor, move it. We gotta get out of here before—”
A high-pitched screeching noise blasted over the top of the stranger’s words, followed by the echo of an older male voice. Not the ghost’s voice, a different one. His words boomed through a mechanical amplifier, shouting, “Stay where you are. Hands in the air. Stop!”
But instead of stopping anyone, bodies swung into action. I angled my head to figure out who was doing what. I’d thought there were only one or two people nearby, but a dozen plus young ones erupted around me. Running in all directions. Dust devils with legs.
The booming voice barked more commands. “Stop where you are. Down on the ground. This is the APD.”
I had no problem complying. Flat on my back, I stared up at an empty, vast sky. Breathing was about all I could do.
Wonder what an APD is?
As if in answer, gravel crunched under approaching steps. A weathered face with skin as dark as that on my arms hovered into view. Indigo blue pants with a knife-sharp crease and dust-covered boots. One boot kicked my hip.
I gritted my teeth to hold back a groan of pain. A warrior never lets a threat see you flinch.
Had that been a random thought? Or did I know this as a truth?
“Stay right where you are, kid. No funny stuff and you won’t get hurt.”
Too late. Everything ached right down to the roots of my hair. And why had he called me kid? Was that anything like a dude? I dug around in my mind and came up with kid as a baby goat. Maybe I’m not the only one with scrambled brains.
The boot nudged me again. “Get up. Slow and easy.”
I eyed that boot, considering what would happen if I spun his foot to face the wrong way. But he had a black metal object on his hip that could be a weapon, and I still didn’t know where I was or what was going on.
Breaking his ankle didn’t seem too smart.
Rolling to my side, I shuddered to my knees. That settled it. I was in no shape to fight anyone right now. I’d made the right decision not to antagonize this person. Bracing myself, I lurched up to stand and anchored my feet shoulder width apart. Wiping at my arms was a mistake. Sand and grit clung to my skin so all I did was grind it into the raw places.
The man I faced stood barely taller than me. An elder I estimated to be three times my age if that old ghost had been right about me being seventeen. Age seamed this man’s face and voice. Eyes like coarse stone. “What kind of damn outfit you wearing, girl?”
He said girl as if I reminded him of a maggot. As for my clothes, what about his?
Couldn’t place what he wore, but I sensed the meaning behind his words and attitude–authority.
All the elders milling around wore the same covering–blue pants, light blue shirts, everything regulated and unyielding except for the sweat stains at their armpits and lower backs.
I cast another glance at myself. No one was dressed like me. Not even the others my age. They wore a different type of uniform–unusual words and designs across their chest coverings-PMS, Mad Cow Disease, Rangers. Loose pants that sagged at their hips, colorful footwear too short to be boots. The more I looked, the less I understood. I searched my memory for what was normal or how I’d ended up here.
And found only a cold emptiness filled with dark shadows.
Nothing. How could that be?
Fear turned into a rabid animal in my chest, fighting to get out.
With no idea who I was or where I belonged, what would these people...
“You going native?” the man asked me, guffawing. He shouted over his shoulder, “Hey Burt, we got one thinks she’s Pocahontas. Looks Navajo, like that other kid you got cuffed.”
Pocahontas? Could that be my name, too? Judging by the way he’d treated me so far he didn’t know me and didn’t care. The crazy old ghost had shown more concern.
The other elder, this guy called Burt, had clasped metal rings on the wrists of a scrawny boy younger than me–a kid?–who looked more malnourished than dangerous. What had he meant by saying we looked Navajo? What was a Navajo? I fingered my hair again. Straight and black like the skinny kid. Was my face as sharp as his? Were my eyes brown, too?
Acid boiled up my throat.
Not one thing seemed familiar and I didn’t even know what I looked like. Panic darted across the other young faces, but theirs didn’t match mine. They seemed to know where they were headed and not happy about it. None of them appeared confused over why they were being captured. No one had that who am I look of confusion I was certain I wore.
And no one here recognized me.
Blue lights flashed on top of a dirty white box with wheels. Was that how the elders had arrived? That form of travel seemed wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint why.
Who were these people? What did they want?
I scanned the cliff face again. The beast appeared gone. Or merged so deep into the shadow of the rocks as to be invisible. Unless?
Turning around, I eyed the male and female elders rounding up the struggling captives. Could the beast thing morph into a human? And if so, what were my chances of escaping?
“You got a name?” the man at my side barked.
I whispered through cracked, dry lips. “Rayen.”
“That a first name or a last?”
I shook my head. Big mistake. Pain shot through my battered skull. The elder waited for me to answer, but the ghost hadn’t given me more. “Don’t know.”
“Can’t hear you.”
“I don’t know.” Talk about the scary truth. An icy ball of terror jackknifed around inside me, but I kept my face passive, trying to figure out what to tell him. My eyes watered, but I blinked against tears. I was not one who cried. Strange, but I knew this about myself.
Never expose a vulnerability rolled through my thoughts.
I might not know who I was, but some deep-seated instinct told me to trust myself to know how to survive.
“Where you from, kid?”
Just keep asking me questions I can’t answer, chewing up my insides. I shook my head.
“Don’t have a last name? Don’t have a home? Wrong answers, kid.” The elder reached for something in his belt. “Turn around. Hands behind your back.”
What choice did I have? There were too many of the blue uniforms with the black metal devices on their hips. I knew something discharged from a unit shaped like that. And even if I did try to run, that beast was out there, somewhere. I could feel its presence bone deep.
So I turned, willing to wait for my chance to escape. A narrow strip of rigid material looped against my bruised wrists. Tightened with a sharp tug.
“That’ll keep you.” The man sounded pleased. “Where’s transport, Davis?” he shouted to someone.
“On the way,” came a female answer.
“Captain’s going to be glad to know we got this gang corralled before they disappeared into the Sandias,” the man next to me bragged. “You were right about these kids holing up this side of the Del Agua Trail.”
Del Agua. I knew the name of that trail.
Another positive sign, right?
“Folks out at Piedra Lisa Park will be happier,” another person said, laughing.
Piedra Lisa Park? I didn’t know that name or what they were talking about.
A sudden jerk on my arm sent me stumbling. I couldn’t swallow the groan that slid out this time.
“Keep up, kid. No lagging. We got room for one more in this van.” The man spoke out of the side of his mouth as he half dragged, half-shoved me toward one of the dusty boxes with wheels and iron mesh windows. This one already jammed full of snarling, angry prisoners. All who looked my age or younger.
Wary glares taut with anger and fear sized me up, judging me.
I stiffened at the thought of being caged and helpless. And no telling when that beast would attack again. Could it get inside these boxes? My instincts warned me this wasn’t a good idea, but those same instincts didn’t offer help on how to get out of this situation.
Stalling, I asked, “Where’re we going?”
“Why we’re taking you to the Hilton Albuquerque.” The man snickered.
A Hilton Albuquerque? Could the beast get to me there? I twisted around for a quick look up and over my shoulder again, searching. A shadow moved down the rocks, closer.
“Where?” I asked, nerves getting to me.
“Don’t be a fool, girl.” The man thrust a meaty hand on the top of my head and shoved me inside toward the only remaining single seat. The taint of fear and sweat filled my nose. Heads hung down, shoulders hunched. I had the sense that the others knew where we were going and that knowledge had them trembling.
I tried once more. “Where are you taking me?”
“Where do ya think we take juvenile delinquents who steal twelve-thousand dollars worth of valuables and destroy a business just for fun?”
Stealing? Destruction? I wrenched at the tight bond around my wrists.
I wasn’t a criminal.
What had I done to end up here? What was this place?
I held myself erect in the stiff seating. Must show a strong front. Hide the terror vibrating inside me.
But the weird thing? Everything I’d seen since waking up in the desert hit me as both strange and familiar. I knew what materials like glass, metal and wood were, but I couldn’t recall any memory of being inside a building like this one with glass windows, some sort of metallic vents and wooden doors.
Artificially cooled air washed across my skin, a welcome break from the heat outside. But the air in this room smelled stale and claustrophobic.
Why did those people in blue uniforms, officers, bring me here when they’d left the other young ones at that first place they took us? Someone called it a jail. For delinquents. I understood the language and terms, but couldn’t grasp the clear meaning. The words sounded strange, as if filtered through multiple layers.
Just like what they called this place. School.
Sure, I knew the definition of a school, or to be schooled on a topic. But the mental path I ran along chasing down those thoughts disappeared before I could find the end.
I rubbed my wrists, glad to be uncuffed.
One of the two doors to the room opened and three people entered. Elders. Two men and a woman. The woman and one of the men appeared to be around thirty years old. The other man had aged maybe twenty more years based on the gray in his hair and deep grooves on his face.
Correction. They weren’t elders.
I’d heard them called adults. Sounded so out of place.
“I’m Dr. Maxwell,” the oldest man said as he folded his flabby body into a seat behind a large table.
I sat opposite him in a rigid chair, perfectly still and silent.
His age made him look the least threatening, but not his eyes. Stone-cold eyes assessed and weighed everything. Dr. Maxwell pointed at the other two. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Brown, the benefactors of The Byzantine Institute of Excellence.”
Institute, another word for school, but just as odd sounding as the term adults. I kept tucking away every little piece of new information, sick of feeling so out of place. I looked from one face to the next.
The two men had much lighter skin color than mine, especially the doctor, with thinning hair and skin so pale and dotted with age spots. But the woman’s skin looked familiar ... like my own.
I considered not speaking until I had to, but I was tired of being pushed here and there. Tired of being confused. “Why am I here?”
Dr. Maxwell sat back, eyeing me with a flat gaze. “The Albuquerque PD said your fingerprints didn’t match those found at the Piedra Lisa Park break-in, but neither did your prints pop up right away in their initial run through the database. Since you were captured with the gang suspected of these crimes, you’d normally be held in detention while they decide what to do with you.”
I’d heard the other kids whispering about detention and something called juvie. Scared them. I held my silence and let this Dr. Maxwell finish explaining.
“The police deal with a number of Native American kids every year, most are no older than you, some are criminals and some have been turned out of their homes to survive on their own. The Browns–” He nodded at the other two adults as if I’d forgotten their names already. “Sponsor a handful of Native teens every year. The police know to contact them about potential candidates. While we wait to hear back from the detectives about your background check, you’ve been given the opportunity to remain here ... as long as you behave and don’t cause any trouble.”
I wanted to ask what a Native American was, but decided it might be wise to keep some questions to myself.
At the jail, a worker had called me a savage and shoved a handful of clothes at me. They’d sent me to a small room where I’d washed off most of the dirt. I now wore a thin maroon-colored chest cover called a T-shirt. It was soft against my cuts and bruises, plus the blue pants — no, these were called jeans. I didn’t mind changing.
At least now I felt clean and people had stopped staring at me.
“Rayen?” The woman speaking to me had smooth skin, and warm hazel eyes above sharp cheeks. Like mine. But my eyes were blue. Sort of a green-blue. The eyes and cheeks I’d seen — but hadn’t recognized — in a mirror when I’d changed clothes. Who doesn’t know their own face?
Mrs. Brown smiled, the first welcoming expression I’d seen since opening my eyes in the desert. Her sun-colored yellow dress flattered her skin. The compassion on her face reminded me of another woman, one with straight black hair like hers and I wanted to growl when the image never completely formed.
I realized she’d gotten quiet, waiting for me to say something. I went with the simplest reply. “Yes?”
“We’re here to help you, Rayen.” She sent her smile over to Mr. Brown, a tall man dressed in charcoal gray... pants. Jacket. Shirt.
A uniform? No, something else. A suit?
Could that be right? Sounded odd.
I wanted to ask if I was correct, but not now when three sets of eyes judged every breath I took. I had to hold my panic back and stay calm when I wanted to rant and scream. Fear balled in my chest, but something kept telling me to keep my back straight and face this threat with courage.
Mr. Brown stood with his back against a wall of books ...
Colors flashed in my mind again, prodding me to think harder. At least the pain wasn’t as sharp this time. Those were real books printed on paper. My heart thumped faster at the thought that paper was precious ... then I hit a blank spot again. I curled my fingers, frustrated at failing to piece together yet another shattered memory.
Mr. Brown missed nothing, arms crossed, observing me with the intensity of a wise elder, dark eyes expectant. Not an easy man to read.
When he flicked a look at Mrs. Brown, she moved closer to me, taking the chair on my right. “We’ve been told you have no identification.”
“Yes.” I wasn’t sure what she expected for identification other than my face. Eye scan? That triggered another half-memory that came and went. I wanted to pound the chair arm.
“And that you are reluctant to share information. Is that correct?” she continued.
“No.” I hesitated, battling over how much information to reveal. But what did I have to lose? “I just don’t have information to share.”
“Oh.” She paused and seemed perplexed, but her lips turned up in a reassuring way before she spoke again. “I’d like to tell you about our Institute.”
“Perhaps you’d fit in here.”
I had no interest in joining her school, but from the minute my hands had been tied this morning, I’d lost all control of my life. I was their prisoner. For now.
Still, what could be the harm in hearing her out? I nodded just to appear agreeable.
“Our program is for teens of high school age and is different from other schools in this part of the country in that we have two unique areas of study. We use a selection process based upon the skills of each student. Our diverse program was created to offer students with unusual abilities a chance to excel in areas not often taught in other venues. Or perhaps not taught in as specific a way as how we guide students here.”
What was she saying? At a loss, I gave her another nod as a prod to continue, and she kept talking.
“We pride ourselves on not only accepting students with brilliant minds who are headed for places such as MIT and Harvard, but also those who strive to develop their other senses, like their sixth sense.”
Still, I understood the words being spoken, but their culture and terms were strange. MIT? Harvard? Sixth sense ignited a thought. Six senses. Touch, smell, hearing, taste, sight ... and intuition, power or energy. Was that right?
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Rayen?” she asked, alerting me that she could tell my mind had wandered. Again.
“Yes.” That word worked a whole lot better than constantly saying no, like I’d been doing up until now.
Dr. Maxwell leaned forward, resting his arms on his desk, but his eyes hadn’t warmed at all. Snake eyes. “What Mrs. Brown is trying to tell you is that she and Mr. Brown award a small number of positions to select students from less fortunate homes, depending on how the student tests. We understand that some teens run away from bad situations. We can’t guarantee that you’ll get a placement here without gaining permission from your family, or if you don’t qualify after testing, but if you tell us the truth about who you are and where you’re from, we’ll assign you an academic advisor and see what we can do.”
They wanted me to stay? Here? Why? I couldn’t swallow past the knot of tension in my throat. I didn’t belong here.
But I had no idea where I did belong.
Mrs. Brown tapped a finger on my arm. “Who’s your family?”
A question I couldn’t answer with yes or no. “I don’t know.” I was tired of being viewed as a bug with no more sense than to run under the nearest boot heel. I opened my mouth to say, I woke up in the desert, disoriented and with a beast chasing me, but that survival instinct kicked in again, warning me that less was more right now.
“Don’t know?” Mr. Maxwell’s calm face slipped, showing his true feelings. Irritation. Disgust. He glanced at Mr. Brown, his tone dismissing me from this conversation. “We’ll know who she is by the end of the day once we get the police results on her fingerprints. I think we’re done here ... right?”
Mr. Brown’s angular face still showed no emotion until he looked at his wife and his blue-gray eyes softened. “What do you think, sweetheart?”
Mrs. Brown swung around with a look of pleading on her face. “We haven’t gotten the results of the blood test to review yet, Charles.” She turned to Dr. Maxwell. “Would you check again?”
I’d known what they were doing with fingerprinting at the first place, even though the ink pad they’d pressed my fingers on had seemed like a messy way to transfer prints. But I’d been puzzled over the small white bandage on my arm from where they’d jabbed me with a sharp needle. They’d drawn blood.
Everybody wanted my blood today. The beast I could almost understand, but what did these people want with it?
Dr. Maxwell flipped open the top of a thin metal case with an apple-shaped emblem on the lid and started tapping at it with his fingers. “The blood results just came through and–” He leaned closer, reading something, then his forehead creased sharply before he turned to Mr. Brown. “Uh, we do need to review this report.”
Mr. Brown’s eyes lit with interest.
Mrs. Brown slid forward in her chair, anxious, but before she could say anything her husband shot a pointed look at me and said, “You may wait in the next room.”
When I didn’t move, Dr. Maxwell stood and took a step toward me.
Tired of getting dragged, shoved and jerked around by strangers, particularly the eld ... the adults, I jumped to my feet, arms loose, hands ready to defend myself.
Mr. Brown unfolded his arms and reached over as if to restrain the doctor, but he spoke to me. “Please go to the next room. Wait for us there.”
Mrs. Brown stood just as quickly, putting herself between the doctor and me. She gently cupped my arm. If either of the men had touched me, I couldn’t say what would have happened, but her touch reached past the need to fight—to defend myself.
She looked up at me, smiling reassurance, and indicated a door with her free hand. “There’s a waiting room right in there. We’ll send someone for you in a moment, okay?”
I let out a breath that had backed up in my chest and nodded before turning for a second door that exited the room. As I passed through and pulled the door almost closed behind me, Dr. Maxwell spoke in a low, excited voice, but too quiet for me to understand.
I paused with the door ajar at my back and focused my full attention on his words. Heat bloomed in my chest, surprising me, then it radiated out through my body as I concentrated.
The more I focused, the clearer the voices sounded.
Dr. Maxwell was saying, “ ... I’m telling you there are markers in her blood like nothing we’ve had before.”
Mrs. Brown asked, “What specific markers?”
“With just one pass through the new software program, her DNA spiked alerts in four of our profile areas with the strongest being algorithmic—”
I didn’t understand the next part, a string of strange letters and numbers. I’d heard of “software” and “DNA” at some point. Software versus hardware. DNA determined ancestry. I could almost hear the words coming from something inanimate as it instructed me.
Mrs. Brown spoke up. “I say we put her in the computer science program and see what she does.”
What happened to ‘we can’t guarantee you placement without getting your family’s permission’?
And what of my family? Did they exist? Did they know what had happened to me? Were they looking for me? A dark ache stabbed at me. A hole so large it threatened to swallow me.
The door suddenly snapped shut at my back and I opened my eyes, quickly taking in my surroundings.
I stood inside a larger room that had chairs placed around the walls. There were three doors and several small tables that weren’t as tall as my knees.
And someone watched me–a young male.
I corrected myself, mentally searching for words I’d heard in the last few hours. This young one would be a teen or kid, but the young ones captured with me had not called each other teens. Might be because the adults had said teens in a negative way.
A couple of the boys close to my age had called other males guys. That had seemed acceptable to all of them.
Trying to talk like everyone else here could only help me.
This ... guy lounged in one of the chairs that appeared more padded and comfortable than the one I’d had in the doctor’s room. This new stranger had skin a deeper brown color than mine, closer in shade to that of the drink he held in a bottle with writing half hidden by his fingers. His short black hair curled in tight circles, matching the color of his pants and shirt, but his shirt had ... buttons. Yes, buttons was the right word.
Brown eyes watched me with an edge of intelligence that demanded others notice him.
Not sure of any order to the seating, I strolled over to the first open chair. One of the small wooden tables separated us. I sank into the soft material, sighing over how good it felt against my abused body.
“New recruit?” the guy asked.
Would there be an end to the questions I couldn’t answer any time soon? I flipped through my knowledge and came up with the word recruit. It meant being called to a task. I weighed what had been said before and after I’d left the meeting, deciding on another simple answer. “Possibly.”
“I’m Nicholas. You certainly appear to be new recruit material, since you’re adorned with that leg iron.”
I glanced down at my leg that still throbbed with pain.
Punishment for not listening to my instincts earlier when I’d first arrived here at this school. Those instincts had warned me not to jump at an opportunity that had “too easy” stamped all over it.
But my gut had badgered me to escape at my first chance.
The adults in blue clothes who’d delivered me to this place had turned their backs for a few seconds outside, long enough for me to try to vanish. But the minute I’d stepped through what looked like an exit gateway, a bolt of energy screamed through my left leg, the one with the wicked-looking metal ankle bracelet those adults had attached. I’d fallen to my knees, writhing in pain, then dragged myself away from the invisible field of current just as one of them walked up.
The man had chuckled and pointed to the metal contraption. “Guess I don’t have to warn you what’ll happen if you try to run with that latched to you. These fine people take in low-life scum and you half-breeds. You best show your appreciation and don’t give ‘em no trouble. Or you won’t like where we take you next.”
That might register on my barometer of concern if I had any idea where I was to begin with.
“Hey, just kiddin’ with you, sweetheart,” Nicholas said in a lighthearted tone, bringing me back to the present with a snap. “Don’t feel singled out. Recruits who arrive via government channels rather than being enrolled by family wear a security device until the front office receives all the records. The Institute is responsible for you. No big deal. They can’t risk being sued if you wander off the property. Not as though you’re in prison or something.”
That made sense, except for being sued, whatever that was. So this school had a place that gathered records. I hoped they would find information on me, something that would fill me in on my history. Who my people were.
Would they send someone to find my family?
Maybe, unless the elders here found out I was a criminal. I didn’t feel like one, but would a criminal think of herself as such?
Nicholas leaned forward in his chair. “Where do you hail from?”
This guy didn’t sound like any of the kids I’d met earlier. He had a stiff way of talking and sounded more like one of the adults. I asked, “Hail from?”
“Your point of origin. Home.”
I couldn’t say ‘I don’t know’ one more time without losing my temper, so I summed it up all at once. “I know my name’s Rayen, but not where I’m from. I have no idea what I’m doing here or if I’ll stay. I hit my head in the desert and can’t remember anything.” I’d heard the kids I’d been captured with talking in the van–about me. One had made a comment that I could have lost my memory from the fall.
Sounded like an explanation for the empty spots in my mind.
“Word to the wise, sweetheart.” Nicholas glanced at me sideways. “Don’t tell anyone you’ve suffered a head injury.”
I didn’t see how that could complicate my life any more than it already was since I had to work through everything minute by minute at this point. Besides, what other reason would I have for not knowing answers? But he was the first person since Ghost Man to offer advice without a sneer. I asked, “Why not?”
He scratched his ear and took his time, as if thinking very hard or hesitant to share. At last he said, “If Dr. Maxwell thinks you’re damaged goods you’ll be withdrawn from here so fast you’ll get whiplash. Then you’ll end up in the detention center hospital. Those who go there experience mutatio.”
Hospital? I thought I might have heard that term before but not enough to track.
I felt like I was being tested, but still asked, “What’s mutatio?”
Smiling with regal superiority, Nicholas explained, “It’s Latin. Means change.”
Before I could ask what exactly he meant, one of the doors not connected to Dr. Maxwell’s room opened and a female entered ... no, I should call her a girl or teenager. That’s what the uniforms had called me, and another female close to my age when I was at the police station.
This one looked a year or so younger than me. She came bouncing into the room. White wires ran from her ears to a tiny pink metal square on her hip. She wore an orange, green and purple dress with wide side pockets. The dress was draped over striped purple-and-white tights that disappeared into scuffed black boots with three-inch-thick heels. She’d twisted her yellow-and-lavender hair into eight or ten ponytails that stuck out in all directions.
Every ponytail was tied with a different color ribbon that moved with the rhythmic shake of her hips.
Nothing matched on her, including her eyes ... one brown and one green.
Two different color eyes?
She paused, took one look at me with those unusual eyes, then her lips curled in a quirky half-moon curve full of curiosity. She removed a wire from one ear. Her gaze slid over to Nicholas who said, “Where’s your broom, Gabby? Wouldn’t want you caught with no transportation.”
I couldn’t understand the connection, but read insult in her face just fine before she covered it with a wicked smile.
“Nick, you’re such a flirt. Careful or I might turn you into a horny toad,” she replied in a singsong voice, then snapped her fingers. “Oh, wait, someone already did.” She laughed, a fluttery sound that danced through the room.
Nick gave her an indulgent smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, seeming more amused than insulted. “What would we do without eye candy in this place? I salute whomever scours the country to decorate our halls with sweet things to entertain the male student body.”
I kept my face neutral, glad not to be the center of attention. Derision in his voice keyed a memory I couldn’t pin down beyond the distinct feeling of anger over being ridiculed for my differences at one time. I felt a fleeting camaraderie with this girl who smiled at him in spite of the demeaning insinuation beneath his words.
Gabby continued swinging her hips back and forth as if to some secret musical beat. “What you doing up here, Nick? Waiting for an optimum snitch opportunity?”
I tried to follow their conversation, but little made any sense. Nicholas enjoyed taunting this Gabby in a way that sounded harmless. I had my doubts. On the other hand, Gabby acted as if this was all just funny when I had the strangest sense that she kept her guard up the whole time.
But what did I know? Nothing.
Nicholas chuckled. “What brings you here, Gabby? You lose your crystal ball and get stuck having to navigate your way around humans?”
Her laughter tinkled with a sly undertone. “Oh, to be a mere mortal.” She pranced past Nicholas and out the last door that opened into a hallway.
“She’s schizo,” Nicholas muttered. “Stay clear of that one.”
“What do you mean by schizo?”
“Crazy. Rumor is she hears voices.” He spun a finger around his ear.
I talk to ghosts. No way I was going to admit that, but I did catch the warning note about Gabby in what Nicholas said.
Just then the door from Dr. Maxwell’s office opened again and another girl came into the room, as different from Gabby as the sun from the moon. This one wore her auburn hair straight and chin length, vibrant pink on her lips, and had a round face with such perfect features I peered close to see if she was real. Where Gabby had been a lightning display this girl was regal with her ice-blue eyes and russet-red dress that stopped at the middle of her thighs and a white jacket with the sleeves shoved up.
She had a fistful of papers and a thick, dull-green book against her chest, and cast a surprised glance at me. “I’m Hannah. You must be Rayen.”
When I gave my usual nod, she said, “I’ve been asked to show you around the school and take you to class.”
Her eyes rolled with impatience before she said, “You’ve been assigned to Mr. Suarez’s computer science class in room 217.”
“Oh.” A learning program. But with a person instructing?
“Follow me.” She issued that directive as though ordering people around came naturally to her.
Nicholas spoke up and this time his voice had a smooth texture. “How’s it going, Hannah banana?”
I studied Nicholas to figure out what had caused him to change from speaking in a somewhat superior way to one of light-hearted teasing.
Hannah even sounded different when she addressed him in a soft tone. “Fi-ine. And you, Nick?”
There were undercurrents here, but it was one more thing I couldn’t figure out.
I stood. Why am I being sent to a class? I just want to find out who I am … where I came from … do I have family?
The last being the most important.
As I started to move, Nicholas whispered behind me, “Remember, sweetheart. Tell no one.”
Lifting my hand to acknowledge I’d remembered his warning about my head injury, I murmured, “Thanks.” And I was thankful that he’d cautioned me before I made the mistake of adding to my problems.
The hospital sounded like a place to avoid no matter what.
Nicholas raised his voice just above a whisper, but I knew he spoke to me. “Any time. You need anything, you let me know.”
The only thing I needed was to fill the gaping hole in my memory and I doubted he could do that. I followed Hannah out into a hallway, but something Gabby had said nudged me to ask Hannah, “Do you know what snitch means?”
She gave me a strange look as though I’d asked her how many noses I had on my face. When she realized I was serious, she huffed out a noisy breath, answering as if she recited a definition. “A snitch is someone who takes you into their confidence and acts like a close friend, then shares that information with an adversary or enemy, quite often in trade for something they want. Got it?”
“Yeah.” Another name for a traitor. I had one more question. “What do you know about Nicholas?”
Her smile tilted with a sly angle. “He’s at the top of his class in computer science. He’s very popular with all the girls. And ... ” She swept a long look at me. “And he’s off limits to you, but you should be polite to him.”
“Why?” I ignored why he had limits and focused on her last words. “Are people unkind to him?”
“Are you serious? No. He’s their only child.”
“Whose only child?”
“The Browns. They adopted him.”
My stomach dropped. I’d just spoken openly with Nicholas Brown, someone who could easily tell his parents that I was damaged goods.
Mrs. Brown had been my only advocate so far, but what would happen when she found out I was not suitable for this place?
I might not have wanted to be here to begin with, but I certainly didn’t want to go to that hospital and end up mutatio.
I had Hannah to thank for my full stomach, even if she had seemed put out to sit with me in the dining hall, as if my presence detracted from her. While I ate something with no flavor, she’d scanned her nails, the ceiling, and the other kids. Did everything to ignore me. Which was fine with me. Food helped revive me some, but now I had a new challenge to face.
More people to meet. Me, the strange one. I felt like I stood out even wearing their clothes.
We’d run into students during lunch, but Hannah had spared me more questions by keeping the conversations turned to her, as though she knew I didn’t want to answer questions.
Didn’t being a better option than couldn’t. But I doubted it was actually in Hannah’s nature to do anything kind for someone she deemed unworthy. And she’d clearly passed that judgment on me.
I matched her pace as she moved down the sterile walkways in the building. Everything smelled well scrubbed, but confining. She still carried the papers and the book with the hard green cover. It had to be two inches thick. I wanted to hold that book and touch the papers, but I wouldn’t ask.
Every time I said more than yes or no, people looked at me as though I lacked brains. Same as Hannah’s perpetual expression when she addressed me.
My internal defenses continued to bellow for me to escape.
Not going to happen this time until I knew how to leave without getting zapped by an electric charge.
Or knew where I was going.
She walked me up to a sliding metal door she opened by pushing a button as she explained, “Computer Science is on level two. This is the closest elevator to the administrative offices. You’ll find another one at the south end of the building.”
When she stepped inside the small room that would hold maybe ten people pressed together, I took my place next to her, holding my breath. The elevator, as she called it, moved slowly upwards.
Another new sensation. Not dangerous, but uncomfortable.
Exiting the elevator, Hannah pointed out areas of the school, explaining things in a bored voice.
A tone dinged three times overhead from some hidden source.
She waved a hand at rooms we passed that were full of kids. “That’s the final bell to be in class on time, but it takes a moment for the instructor to get things rolling so we’re fine.”
She pointed out plaques on the wall touting someone’s accomplishments and droned on about what had inspired the creation of the school, but my mind drifted.
I cut my gaze left, then right, taking in each classroom as we passed open doors. Heads turned my way, curious expressions, but not a flicker of recognition on my part or theirs. I’d never been here before or surely someone would have recognized me by now.
What would my fingerprints reveal? And couldn’t those be altered? Why not search their records for my face or retina scan, which couldn’t be altered so easily?
I stopped midstride. How did I know fingerprints could be changed ... or about retina identity scans? No one had mentioned that. Should I?
Only if I wanted to be treated like a moron again.
Hannah had been in the middle of describing something about the school. Her monotonous voice faded as she kept walking then paused, looked around and spoke in a snippy tone. “Rayen.”
“Sorry.” I caught up to her.
She drew a deep breath, expelling the air slowly with a brief shake of her head then continued on whatever she’d been talking about. “As I was saying, the Browns are richer than God. They bought this place four years ago for the Institute. If you make it through here, you’re pretty much guaranteed a spot in a top college. You’re fortunate the Browns aren’t just loaded, but nice people to be so generous.”
I zeroed in on the one word that didn’t track for me. “Nice? Then why’d they give me this leg bracelet?”
She glanced at my ankle where the metal cuff barely showed below the bottom of my jeans, then met my gaze with her dismissive one. “It’s a security measure that Dr. Maxwell requires ... for some students. Just until the staff is sure the student is ready to stay here.”
Meaning, Dr. Maxwell expected a certain number of students to try to escape. If this place was so good, and the Browns were such nice people, why would anyone want to run away? More questions without answers. I didn’t ask Hannah since I hadn’t heard one note of understanding in her voice.
Not for someone like me who didn’t fit in with her kind.
Stopping in front of the last open door in the hallway, Hannah rapped on the doorframe with her knuckles. She broke out a bright smile for someone inside and said, “I have the new student the office sent you the text about.”
Text? I didn’t ask.
Hannah backed up, clearing the way for a thin man to step out into the hallway. He wore a white shirt with half sleeves and pants the color of the desert. Strange clothes to me, but from the way everyone had reacted to my simple buckskin sack dress, as one person called what I’d been wearing in the desert, I was the strange one here. I wished they’d given me back my boots, which were more comfortable than the shoes I now wore. Sneakers.
Did that mean they made it easy to sneak around? If so, that might be useful.
Altering her voice to a superior one that reminded me of Nicholas, Hannah addressed the skinny man. “This is Rayen. No last name.” She turned to me, stabbing me with a serious gaze. “This is Mr. Suarez, your beginning computer science instructor. The Institute will give you additional classes once they know your academic level and if you’ll be staying.” Her look said that wasn’t likely and she didn’t care anyway. She handed several sheets of paper to Mr. Suarez then edged a step closer to me and thrust the book she’d been carrying at me.
I held it carefully, my fingers moving with respect and awe over the texture of the cover.
She tapped the hard cover. “You probably won’t get time to read much by the end of the day, if you can read, but this book will help you familiarize yourself with the school guidelines and programs offered. If you stay around, finish it this week. Oh, I almost forgot. You’re to be at Dr. Maxwell’s office at five o’clock today to meet with them again.”
The way she kept emphasizing if was starting to wear on me.
She tossed her head and turned away, prancing toward the classroom.
I asked, “Why?”
Hannah jerked around as though spooked, then recovered to snap, “Why what?”
“Why do I meet them at five o’clock?”
“To speak with the. . .” She glanced at Mr. Suarez and said, “Need a minute.” When he nodded, she closed the distance between us and spoke in a low, tight voice. “Look, I agreed to bring you, but I didn’t take you on as an understudy. Did you forget you got picked up by the cops this morning?”
“No.” Cops must be another term for police, but how did she know they’d captured me?
“Then I’ll make this simple. From what I heard, the detectives investigating the Piedra Lisa Park robberies are coming by to speak with Dr. Maxwell. You wouldn’t know anything about that now would you?”
I ignored her sarcastic tone. “No.” At least, I hoped not.
“Better hope not, because if they find anything tying you to the crime spree that’s been going on, they’ll take you with them.” A smug glow lit her eyes. “Just be sure to be in Dr. Maxwell’s office at five sharp or losing permanent placement here will be the least of your worries. You’ll be sent ... somewhere else.”
She gave me another dismissive glare then walked calmly into the classroom.
Permanent placement? I didn’t want to stay here. But neither did I want to be shunted off to someplace worse.
Why had I left my home?
Did I have a home? My gut said yes.
“Let’s go, Rayen,” Mr. Suarez said with a cool politeness, lifting his chin toward the classroom. His voice was less hostile than Dr. Maxwell’s and not nearly as superior sounding as Nicholas’s had been.
I mentally marked Mr. Suarez as not a threat. Besides, like everything else today, I had no choice but to comply.
I hated having no say over my life.
A low murmur clouded the room until I walked in and everyone stopped talking to look. At me. I’d faced a sentient beast out in the desert. This shouldn’t be worse, but my stomach kinked at moving deeper into the room. Fifteen pairs of eyes took stock and judged me on the spot.
Not a friendly face among them.
Actually there were sixteen counting Hannah, but she ignored me. She’d taken her seat on the right side of the room and had her chin down, focused on setting up a slim rectangular unit on her desk. It was similar to the one with the apple-shaped emblem that Dr. Maxwell had used.
Based on the wide eyes and snorts of barely suppressed laughter, especially from the girls in the room, the general consensus was that I didn’t belong.
I couldn’t agree more.
“This is Rayen,” Mr. Suarez informed the room, then he told me, “Take one of the two seats in the back on the left, but don’t turn on the monitor.”
Nothing like walking through a sea of staring eyes to reinforce that I didn’t belong here. Where did I belong?
I passed small metal tables with light colored wood surfaces that each held two keyboards and two flat panels … I dug around in my mind and the word “screen” floated up then “monitor.” Each table had room for two students.
Monitors and keyboards.
Finally, something clicked. I knew what a monitor was, and a keyboard.
Maybe coming in here would rattle my memory.
Most of the kids seemed to be my age. As I walked toward the last desk on the left, one of the guys I passed studied me with blatant interest, then softly said, “Hel-looo, baby.”
I might not grasp every meaning, but I did understand that wolfish look, especially when the girl next to him hissed something angry under her breath. He just kept smiling at me. I might not belong here and had no idea who I was, but I knew when a boy was interested, and recognized female jealousy.
Some things were universal. But she wasted her energy. I had no interest in him or his leer.
I kept my eyes on the back corner. All I had to do was stay out of trouble and make it to the meeting in Dr. Maxwell’s office at five o’clock.
Mr. Suarez stepped behind his desk. He muttered something about finishing roll call as he glanced up and down, eyes searching out each student after saying a name.
I settled into my chair, glad not to be in the front on display any longer.
The teacher scanned the room again. “Where’s Tony?”
When no one answered, Mr. Suarez scribbled on a paper pad, then turned and wrote words on a white wall behind him that read:
Deadline for the Top Ten Competition: May 15, 2018
Wait, I understood that. The words at least, but not what they meant.
The instructor set down his pad. “Deadline for this year’s competition. That’s two weeks from today, folks.”
I toyed with the date in my mind, but 2018 triggered no concrete memories. Surely something significant had happened this year in my life.
The more I studied the date it did feel familiar, and pressing. Significant. Why?
I was starting to hate that three-letter word.
Every time I tried to concentrate hard on anything, an ache bit into my forehead. I rubbed my temple then dropped my hand. My fingers touched the green book.
As Mr. Suarez started talking about the project, I propped the book on my desktop and opened it, reading the first page of introduction. Hannah was right about how long it’d take to get through this thing, but I couldn’t get past how special holding a book felt.
Mr. Suarez paused.
The silence drew my attention.
He looked right at me when he spoke. “For those of you who are new, the Top Ten Computer Project’s a special event the Browns created where our best ten students in computer science will have a chance to compete for a full scholarship to any of the top ten universities in this country. You’ll each be assigned a partner for the first phase.”
Excitement flittered through the room, but I couldn’t have been less interested. I was locked on my book, blocking out Mr. Suarez’s voice so I could read as much as possible in what time I had. I started scanning the pages fast, really fast. Then I felt heat, or energy, swirl in my chest. The same type of feeling I’d had earlier when I listened to the Browns and Dr. Maxwell talk behind the partially closed door.
I clutched the book tighter and the energy rolled down my arms until my fingers tingled.
Pages fluttered past as if I fanned the pages, but I only held the book.
I caught every word, comprehended every sentence.
In less than a minute, I’d finished the book. And slammed it shut, earning a hard stare from a girl at the next table over. Her gaze ended with a frown that said, “freak.”
Pushing the book away, I looked at my trembling hands.
Was that normal?
Was I normal?
“Miss Landers and Miss Pearson make up the next team,” Mr. Suarez said, calling out names to match up partners for the project.
I took a couple of breaths to settle myself and did a quick head count again, relieved at the uneven number of students. No one to match me up with?
That suited me just fine. I’d only end up proving how clueless I was about everything in this room and in this school, except for the monitor and keyboard in front of me. I might not know how these units worked, but I was sure I’d seen something like them before.
“Whoa, I know you’re not startin’ my favorite class widdout me, Mr. S,” someone announced as he entered the room. A husky-built guy with chopped-off black hair and an olive tint to his skin.
He looked about my age but had an attitude years older. His dark-brown, calculating eyes searched out each of the other five girls in the classroom, and gifted them with a wink and a cocky grin.
I noted that all the girls returned his attention with varying degrees of smiles.
Even Hannah, whose lips quirked when she tossed a brief glance his way.
Mr. Suarez paused to frown. “You’re late, Tony. I told you the first day of school I don’t tolerate tardiness from anyone.”
“My apologies, Mr. S. A young lady needed my personal assistance.” His hands moved constantly, as expressive as his I’m-the-man tone. Here, there, touching a silver medallion at his neck, punctuating his words in the air. “Being a gentleman and all yourself, I know you wouldn’ta wanted me leavin’ the young lady on her own.”
“What kind of assistance?” the instructor asked, wary-eyed.
This Tony guy beamed a sneaky-cat grin I didn’t buy any more than I bought the grandiose performance.
And what was this guy’s strange accent?
Tony opened his hands in a what-else gesture. “New kid from Jersey and Italian, like me. Got lost her first day. I delivered her safe and sound to the front office. But I didn’t waste no time humpin’ it here. Like I said, sorry I was late, Mr. S, but I’m ready for the Top Ten Project. Seein’s how my last name starts with an S, I’m thinkin’ I’m paired up with the delicious Miss Georgiana Sanderson, right?”
A look came over Mr. Suarez’s face that knocked the foundation out from under Tony’s grin. “Miss Sanderson has been paired up. In fact, everyone has a partner. In light of your charitable nature to help new students–”
No. No way. Don’t do it. I sat up straighter.
“–you’ll be teamed up with our newest student. Rayen.” Mr. Suarez pointed in my direction. “Take your seat, Tony.”
Tony’s eyes finally lit on me. All his smug attitude slid away leaving disbelief. He stepped over to the teacher and lowered his voice, but my sharp hearing caught every word he said.
“You kiddin’, Mr. S, right? You know how bitchin’ I am on computers. I need someone who can hang with me, not ... ” Tony cut a harsh glance at me then his face smoothed, all charm by the time he faced Mr. Suarez again. “Not somebody just off the reservation.”
One of Mr. Suarez’s eyebrows arched at a sharp angle. “If this was so important you should’ve been punctual and I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that last comment. Rayen is your Top Ten partner until I say differently. Take your seat.”
“Now, or you’re out of the competition altogether.”
That had Tony snapping to attention.
I’d grabbed the seat closest to the corner from which I now watched as Tony swaggered down the center of the room, scowling. As he drew closer, I could see part of an image in black ink that crawled up his neck, peeking out from beneath the collar of his shirt. The design was a creature with sharp pinchers.
Some memory niggled at me. Neck markings meant something, but what?
When Tony reached my table, he dropped into the chair and crossed his arms.
The minute Mr. Suarez turned to the white board again, Tony leaned over, a nasty smile on his face when he whispered, “Find a way to disappear or I’ll do it for you, sweet cheeks.”
I ignored Tony’s latest outburst since we’d left Mr. Suarez’s classroom and concentrated on searching the equipment room for a computer we’d been instructed to rebuild.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d read that green book in seconds, yet I now stood here staring in confusion at tables filled with equipment that had monitors.
Wish I could get through this assignment as easily as I fanned through that book.
Much of the terminology in the classroom hadn’t clicked for me. When Suarez had explained the principles of what he expected to see built from outdated equipment in storage, I’d rolled my eyes. The jumbled words still spun through my mind, some pinging a trickle of memory but others sliding past.
I hadn’t minded that Tony dragged his feet to leave the classroom since it meant everyone else had already been here, chosen the parts they wanted, and left. Now it was only the two of us. Not ideal, but easier to escape one than a roomful.
This Top Ten Project had something to do with taking an old computer and rebuilding it into an AI or Artificial Intelligence unit. I did understand those terms, had heard of a computer and an AI somewhere, but I knew as much about turning a computer into an AI as I did about flying to Mars.
At least, I didn’t think I could build an AI unit or fly to any of the other planets in the solar system. Though I did know the planets, and knowledge of space travel tapped at the edge of my mind.
Not that I expected anyone to keep me in this program, but until I met with Dr. Maxwell at five o’clock I might as well pick my way through this clutter to see if I could find something to use. The green book had made multiple references to accessing information on the computer, so apparently computers were used to store a lot of documentation and records.
If one of these worked, I wanted to see if I could use it to find out something about myself.
Tony shoved a monitor dusty with age out of his way, grumbling, “I should be with four-point-oh Sanderson, not some mute who doesn’t even understand English.”
I swallowed my smile. Tony would think I was unable to speak since I’d refused to answer any of his obnoxious questions like what tribe had I come from. How many scalps I’d traded to get into this place? Did I have a clue how lucky I was that they let the terminally clueless into the Institute?
Did I even know where Jersey was?
I’d shrugged in answer that time, amused when Tony went off on a rant over how he wished he were back in Jersey if this was as good as it got here.
He pitched a thing he’d called a mouse into a box of miscellaneous parts and turned on me. “You’re not screwing up my chance at MIT.”
That term again. MIT what?
Crossing my arms, I faced him, more curious than anything to see what this blowhard would do next. He might have two inches on me since I was maybe five and a half feet tall, but he was the one terminally clueless if he thought his loud mouth intimidated me.
Just then the door over in the corner opened and a girl backed into the room, humming a strange, but interesting, tune as she dragged a cart with cleaning products, a broom and dust mop.
But there was no mistaking all that bizarre color. Gabby.
Still humming, she turned around and jerked back when she saw us, dropping her can of drink that rolled across the room, sloshing brown liquid everywhere.
Tony jumped sideways. “What the ‘ell? Watch whatcha doin’.”
I gave him a dark look of warning. The poor girl had been startled. Just an accident.
“My bad,” she said, sounding amused until she let out a weary sigh and grabbed a towel from her cart. She dropped to all fours to wipe up the mess.
“What’re you doin’ here anyhow, sweet cheeks?” Tony asked in his Mr. Nice Guy voice–Were all girls “sweet cheeks” to this guy?–but he looked around warily as if keeping an eye out for Mr. Suarez.
Gabby drew an exaggerated breath, eyes staring up in serious thought when she answered, “Getting ready for the prom, but I’m still waiting for my white mice and glass slippers to arrive. Until they do, I’m relegated to two hours of cleaning up. An unfair penalty for telling the truth.”
Mice and glass slippers?
Tony rolled his eyes, dismissing her with a shake of his head, muttering, “Good practice. World needs more hamburger flippers.”
“Your ridiculous opinion has been duly noted.” She smiled sweetly at him with eyes twinkling as if she knew her reaction bothered him.
He turned his back on her and mumbled, “First Sacagawea. Now Cindereller.”
Shrugging at his back, Gabby bumped her shoulder into the mop hooked on her cart, knocking the stick loose. She had quick reflexes, grabbing the mop handle before it whacked Tony in the head. But when she slapped her other hand down for balance, it landed on my foot and her finger grazed the skin of my bare ankle just as I thought, If I’m Sacagawea and she’s Cindereller, that must make Tony the Jersey Jerk.
“Jersey Jerk. That’s too funn–” Gabby sucked in a breath and shoved up on her knees, snatching her hand off my foot. For a few seconds she sat there, staring ahead, frozen. Silent.
Tony kept muttering to himself, so apparently he hadn’t heard her, but I’d caught what she’d said.
Had she heard my thoughts?
I’d had weirder things than that happen today already, so I kept my face blank and acted as if I hadn’t heard her. I returned to moving computer parts around on the table.
That must have worked to convince her I’d heard nothing, because her shoulders slumped, as if in relief. She continued cleaning up the spilled liquid.
The door still stood propped open with her cart half in and half out.
Temptation hit me square in the chest. All at once, I wanted to leave, even just far enough to find a place to sit and think. Anything would be better than being stuck as Tony’s shadow for the rest of the day, as Mr. Suarez had instructed me to do. I didn’t want to build a computer or go to another class. I wanted to go home, wherever that was.
With Tony distracted removing the cover off one computer, I slipped out the door. Two steps into the hallway I smelled something rank, and familiar.
The beast. I swung around, looking everywhere until I spied a black bird, a raven maybe, perched on the top edge of an open door at the end of the hallway.
So it could morph into a winged creature. But why hadn’t the thing done that out in the desert?
Instead of questioning my good fortune that I’d escaped it once, I backed up, slowly. I stepped into the room again, tugging Gabby’s cart all the way inside and closing the door. Sweat dampened my palms.
Tony turned around, scowling at me, but an undercurrent of worry he hadn’t managed to hide tinged his words. Something was bothering him. “Suarez finds you here doin’ nothin’ he’s hangin’ it on me. You gonna help or not?”
With that beast outside, waiting, I needed to figure out a plan. A way to escape. One that wouldn’t get these two hurt. The thing might look like a simple bird right now, but no telling what it could become in the next minute.
I stepped over to the last worktable where ... what were those? Laptops. That’s what Tony had called the thin units that opened like a book. A mix of styles and colors sat open in rows, facing forward like good little soldiers. I started fumbling with the closest one.
Appeased, Tony returned to tinkering with a computer on his side of the room.
Nothing happened to the one I’d chosen, no flickering lights when I hit a couple of buttons, so I stared at the worktable as if one of the devices would choose me. I had a hard time believing what had been left here would work at all if the cracked faces and beat up exteriors were any indication of functionality. But if I managed to get one of these turned on, maybe I could send a message for help.
I paused. How’d I know these things could do that? Searching my thoughts ended in a blank again. I felt eyes on me and glanced over at Gabby who still sat on the floor with a curious squint in her gaze, though she said nothing.
She shot Tony a weighted look then made some decision and stood up next to me. “The universe can be a strange and wonderful place ... ” She paused, glancing over at Tony for a moment before adding, “If not for those who should have remained a glint in their parents’ eyes. Don’t you agree?”
Nicholas’s warning about Gabby came back to me, but this girl didn’t seem dangerous. Just unusual, different from the others, but so was I in their eyes.
And other than Nicholas, she’d been the only friendly one around my age so far. But Nicholas might be snitching on me at this very minute.
Gabby didn’t wait on my answer, moving ahead to say, “We didn’t get a chance to meet earlier. I’m Gabby.”
I started to offer my hand to her–some strange reflex that felt like what I should do to greet someone–but I left my arms hanging at my side, wary of touching anyone.
On the other hand, she didn’t reach out either.
Where had I gotten that stupid idea anyhow?
Tony turned halfway, took one look at the taunting smile Gabby sent him and shook his head in disgust before giving us his back.
I got it. She wanted to poke at Tony by being friendly with me.
“I’m Rayen.” I was glad to offer her something in return, even if it was only my name. All I had for now.
Tony paused when I mentioned my name, shook his head and muttered something about low placement standards.
Gabby studied me with her odd, mismatched eyes. “I presume you’re one of the chosen few offered a spot on the Top Ten Project.”
How could I answer that? I was none of those things, but I was here for the stupid project. Had it not been offered to others, like Gabby? I lifted my shoulders and let them drop.
“Ah, the rare humble academic. Found a suitable computer yet?”
I shook my head.
Tony kept his back to us when he said, “Fat chance of Sacagawea pickin’ a decent computer.” He sent a pompous smile over his shoulder and told Gabby, “Why don’t you call up your fairy godmother, sweet cheeks? See if a magic wand can help her.”
When he returned to whatever held his attention, Gabby’s lips curved up. She touched her finger to her lips, looking as though a devious idea fueled her thoughts before she whispered to me, “Put your hand out and see which computer calls to you.”
I lifted an eyebrow. Was that really how it was done?
She released one of her bubbling laughs that bordered on scary then lifted her shoulders in a what-can-it-hurt motion.
I sighed and turned back to the table. I had no reason to treat her with caution or condescension the way Nicholas had, because she seemed nice and harmless. I put my hand out and waved it over the top of each laptop.
“Ah, for love of Einstein, are you two for real?” Tony complained, crossing the room, a scowl on his face. “What are you doin’?”
Gabby rounded on him with an expression of excitement. “Perhaps she’ll prove that you techno-ites are not all full of dull stuffing,” she taunted. “Rayen is using her sensory skills to select the perfect computer, which requires the unique ability of energy touch. Please don’t try it or you might hurt yourself and I wouldn’t be able to help you. My magic wand only works if you possess a heart.”
I smiled, playing along with her teasing while I searched for a computer that showed some promise, anything to get Tony off my back. I mean, what could it hurt to go along with her? It wasn’t like I knew what I was doing anyhow.
Tony smacked a hand on his forehead. “Oh, no, don’t tell me you’re one of those woo-woo students from the east wing.”
Gabby struck a pose with one shoulder cocked up and her chin held high. “Careful or I’ll call my flying monkeys.”
“For the love of ... ” Tony mumbled, pulling out a small handheld device he started thumbing. “Say your name’s Gabby, huh?”
I’d seen those handheld units used earlier. Communication devices. A phone. Tony could call someone and–
I moved to reach for him, but my extended hand yanked toward a laptop, jerking me forward with the motion.
My fingers gripped a scuffed-up machine in the second row that had a scratched black case. Weird. I caught Gabby’s startled look, but she said nothing so I wasn’t going to acknowledge it. I lifted the computer and made room for it on the front of the worktable.
Oblivious to us, Tony waved his phone, chuckling. “Oh, yeah, this explains everything. Gabrielle Lin.” He glanced up, his flinty gaze more calculating than friendly this time. “You don’t look Chinese.”
“Oh, dear, really? Because you certainly appear to be the spitting image of an A-hole.”
“Ah ... major screw up.” Tony focused again on his phone screen. “Says here you’re sixteen.” He eyed her up and down as if doubting her age then went back to reading. “Psychological profile ... delusions, antisocial personality syndrome, alien ... they got that right. What planet you from, babe?”
Right then and there I decided that if I ended up staying here I’d figure out how to build a computer from scratch on my own before I asked Tony for anything.
Prancing around happily, Gabby ignored Tony and snagged the wire attached to the laptop that had responded to my hand. Had pulled me to it. I hadn’t even felt heat inside me this time. Did that happen with others ... or just me?
She stuck the metal prongs at the end of the wire into the wall. Must be the power source.
I tried to concentrate on what was happening with the laptop, but my mind still worked on what to do with that threat outside our room. What was that bird-beast doing?
I once again considered using Tony’s phone to call in help, but who would we call? Teachers? Dr. Maxwell? I’d been warned not to cause any trouble. Besides, I knew better than to try convincing the Jersey Jerk that a rabid, shape-shifting, predatory threat was loose in the hallway. Tony wanted a reason to get rid of me and that beast might morph into something else by the time someone got here.
Best case, I’d end up looking like a bigger idiot or a troublemaker.
Worst case, the bird could kill whoever showed up and us. But the bird-thing had seemed interested only in me so I just needed to keep my head down until five o’clock when I hopefully got some answers.
I realized Gabby was waiting for me to do something. When I didn’t, she finally pressed the button near the top of the keyboard.
The computer whirred to life.
Still tapping keys on his phone, Tony paid no attention to us. “Ah, now we gettin’ to the good stuff. Kicked outta the last two schools for disciplinary reasons, but ... this can’t be right. No way Cindereller tested that high.” Tony frowned. More thumb typing.
The laptop in front of me buzzed with energy. I punched a couple of keys, surprised to find that my fingers knew how to form words as quickly as I thought them.
Standing at my right shoulder, Gabby hummed something quietly to herself until an image of circles appeared on the screen. She brightened at that and said, “Ah, you’ve found the entrance, but do you know the password?”
I shook my head.
She cocked her head, ponytails flopping to one side, laughing silently. “I like to keep my finger on life’s Escape key. Try hitting that, Jedi.”
I knew that key, but couldn’t very well say so after I hadn’t hit it. I pressed ESC.
Nothing happened. The three circles of banded colors that mixed with copper, gold and silver, kept spinning and turning, passing over and around each other.
Gabby gave the computer a confused look and leaned closer, mumbling, “Wonder what’s wrong?”
Tony appeared on the other side of me. “Nothin’ other than two morons do not a computer tech make.”
Ignoring the loudmouth, I kept manipulating keys in hopes of clearing the screen, but nothing would let me past those circles.
Gabby angled herself forward, talking across me to address Tony on the other side. “Perhaps there’s a better way for a computer savvy one such as yourself to garner the attention of the Browns. Such as letting Mr. Suarez know how gifted you are in hacking confidential records.”
Tony dropped his voice low. “You threatenin’ me, sweet cheeks?”
“Threat is such an unattractive word. Think of it as inspired relationship building,” Gabby said, not the least bit intimidated by Tony.
“Who they gonna believe?” He scoffed. “Me or some psycho babe with zero computer ability?”
“And here I thought you found all my records, placing you in the caliber of a true mastermind as opposed to petty thief.”
“Yeah, I found them, but records can be doctored. Not that you didn’t show an impressive level of skill pluggin’ in that power cord. Now you two are pickin’ out a computer like itsa Ouija board. Can’t wait to see what’s next.”
I lifted my hands to hold up between those two, or I tried to, but something tugged my fingers back to the computer.
Then I caught a swooshing noise outside in the hallway.
So intent on arguing, Tony and Gabby missed the flying dark shadow flashing past the glass window.
I glanced over in time to see black wings flapping. What would that thing morph into next? And would it stay outside this room? Even if it only wanted me, would it harm Gabby or Tony if they got in the way?
I had to get out of here and draw the beast-bird away, then figure out how to not get caught again. Something told me I’d only been lucky last time, but I couldn’t stay here and be the reason these two got hurt.
Gabby waved a hand, dismissing Tony, and sounding bored with their verbal game. “Some people have the gift of touch, an unfortunate shortcoming in those who don’t.”
Tony waggled his fingers and eyebrows, smiling. “I got plenty of touch, babe. My fingers can make that laptop sing.”
Gabby glanced at my hands with a knowing look and murmured, “Don’t think you’ve got her touch.”
“Ya think? She can’t even get the screen to open.”
I tried to lift my hands again, but my fingers were heavy as weighted metal and drawn to the keys as if they were pure magnets. This wasn’t helping my immediate goal of escaping this room. More than that, I didn’t think this was normal.
Gabby looked up at me, her face calm and sincere. “Just ignore Tony and open your senses to–”
Tony hooted as if he hadn’t heard anything so ridiculous in years.
In a surprising change from her earlier teasing, Gabby growled and grabbed my right wrist as if forgetting her wariness about touching. She snatched my hand off the keyboard and shoved it palm out toward the monitor, speaking past me at Tony the whole time as if he was the clueless one. “Everything has energy. You just have to–”
My arm sucked into the screen.
Gabby shrieked and gripped my wrist tighter, trying to hold me back.
I tried to back away, too, but whatever had latched onto me wasn’t turning loose.
The raven slammed against the glass window, beating its wings to get into the room. Tony and Gabby were both shouting so loudly, I doubted anyone heard the thing but me.
Tony repeated, “What the f–” He clamped his hand on my left arm, yanking to pull me back.
He was strong. I hoped he’d win the tug o’ war, but my hand kept sinking further into the monitor ... then my arm started shimmering.
In the next instant, I was sucked all the way inside, my body twisting into a kaleidoscope of colors. Heat ripped through me from my arms to my chest then through my legs.
Gabby blurred into a colorful stretched shape beside me. Tony’s grip tightened on my arm as we all spun into a bright orange-red vortex.