"I couldn't wait to see what happened
on the next page."
Painful starbursts exploded behind her closed eyes.
Colors flashed wildly. Her body flipped around in a freefall.
She clawed at air unable to grab anything. She tumbled forward and bounced against a rough surface. Heat scorched her arms and legs. She instinctively tucked her head and shoulders to roll.
No help. Sharp stones gouged her back and sand coated her sweaty body.
What was happening?
All at once, she lurched forward and slammed to a stop, flat on her face. Ears ringing, her next breath wheezed out, mouth dry as the hot dust singeing her skin.
Had she fallen?
No answer. Her brain hadn’t unscrambled yet.
“Get up, girl, if you value your life,” someone demanded in a deep male voice that sounded like an elder.
Don’t push me right now if you value yours, old man, she silently berated him. She opened her 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 her one more time, he wouldn’t be happy when she did make it to her feet. Every inch of her hurt. Who was he anyway? He could help her. She’d kill for a drop of water. Her head still spun, and her stomach wasn’t much happier. Gravel bit the scraped palms of her hands as she pushed up on shaky knees.
Muscles screamed in misery. Her body had been battered like a kickball. She looked around at endless empty land. Still, no one in sight. She wobbled sideways and kept twisting in a full circle.
Not a thing for miles but desert and mountains. She grabbed her aching skull as if that would stop the sickening spinning.
Had she imagined that voice?
Where was she?
Blinking against the harsh sun, she started to tremble. Nothing made sense. She couldn’t call up where she’d been minutes ago or how she’d arrived here. Fear slithered through her. No! Slow down and think. Rubbing the back of her hand over gritty eyes, she focused harder.
Where was that old man?
Then she looked down at herself. Feet tucked inside short boots made of tanned skins. Familiar, but … not. Buckskin material covered her from shoulders to skinned knees in a sort of tunic. A leather thong was tied around her waist.
She swallowed, waiting for some memory to rise up.
Just a hint at what was going on. Sweat streaked down her face and burned her eyes. She clawed at the empty gap in her mind. The longer she waited for answers that didn’t come, the more nauseous she got. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she remember what happened for her to be here?
Now would be a good time to panic.
Her skin chilled even with the heat and sun beating down on her.
She lifted a shaky hand to shove sticky hair off her face and sucked in air faster, stilling with a new realization.
Clutching a handful of hair, she pulled the strands into view. Black. Long, thick and black. She didn’t recognize it.
I don’t even know what I look like. Her heart thumped wildly. She took another glance at the barren landscape, hoping someone would show up to help her. Her body trembled.
Wouldn’t her family miss her?
Wait. What family?
Did she have any? Her vision turned watery, bulging with tears she fought to hold back. Had someone gotten rid of her? Who? Why? Had she done something bad?
Was this empty desert home? She had no idea.
She gripped her shaking hands and sucked in a deep inhale of hot air. It burned her lungs. Didn’t matter. She’d do anything to stop her rising panic.
Someone had told her that once. Who? Still no answers. She had to calm down or she wouldn’t survive to learn any answers.
Squinting, she searched for something familiar. Mountains and sand. Nothing but reddish-brown mountains and a blanket of sand. Wait. Red mountains. She knew those. Her heart thumped with hope now.
Closing her eyes, she tried to remember anything. Bright colors flashed behind her eyes and a sharp ache stabbed her skull. Grabbing her head didn’t help that but … the pain cleared her foggy brain a bit.
Slowly, a word came forward.
That was the name of those mountains. Relief flooded through her so quickly her skin tingled. I’m just disoriented. Not a serious problem.
“You waste precious seconds, Rayen.”
She froze in place. That had been a real voice and close by. Taking a deep breath, she turned slowly. Someone had better be there.
And who was Rayen?
She kept moving until she found the owner of that gravelly voice.
An old man. She blinked to clear her eyes. No, the shimmering image of an old man. An elder, just as she’d thought.
But she hadn’t expected a spirit.
He had white stringy hair falling to his bony shoulders, light gray eyes, and gnarled limbs. His body flickered. In fact, the red and tan cliff rocks were visible through his translucent body. Beyond that, an unbroken sky stretched overhead, wide and empty, so intensely blue it hurt her eyes.
Ghost man floated above the desert floor with legs crossed.
She had been feeling a whole lot better until seeing him, but she’d take help from any quarter right now. “Who are–”
The ground beneath her started vibrating and shifting, killing her question. She stumbled sideways.
“Listen,” he ordered, his voice tense and urgent. “Three things you must know.” The ghost spoke louder with each word, competing with a heavy, shuddering sound in the distance.
She chugged in a couple deep breaths, as if that would quell her rising fear. With those inhales, she smelled a rotted stench. Cloying decay and smoke. A warning smell she couldn’t place, but something she sensed deep in her bones.
Whispering, she warned, “Danger comes.” She looked from side to side.
“You listening?” the old ghost shouted.
Like I have a choice? She swallowed, not a spit of saliva in her mouth. To move this along, she gave him her full attention again, but crossed her arms in warning. He needed to hurry up.
The thundering sound in the distance grew louder, reverberating through her body. Adrenaline stirred her blood, urging her to be ready.
“First thing,” he enunciated as if she was slow witted. “You die if you eat peanuts, and you are seventeen.”
“Peanuts?” she repeated. Who cared about nuts? Also, wouldn’t that technically be two things? She sniffed at the air. The burning stink thickened. Her hand went instinctively to her hip, reaching for a knife that wasn’t there.
“Second. Your name is Rayen.”
I’m Rayen? Now she had a name, which would thrill her if she could believe a crazy hallucination. A new fear paralyzed her.
She didn’t recognize her own name ... or what she was doing here ... or where here was.
The ground shook harder. Dust and pebbles scattered everywhere. She rocked back and forth, widening her stance to stay balanced. “What’s making that noise?”
That’s when she caught the distinct sound of hooves pounding. Hard. Behind her ... and gaining speed.
She jerked around, not believing what she saw.
A beast. Her throat muscles clenched at the sheer size of the thing. Part hairy, part thick gray hide that looked inpenetrable. The 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 her lungs. “What the –”
“Third thing, Rayen,” the elder shouted, his voice nearly drowned by the rumble. “Runnn!”
Ghost Man vanished as she raced for the mountains at full speed.
Survival instinct took over. She ran, arms pumping, and rocketed away from the beast. Then a quick leap over a stray thorny bush. Don’t think. Just keep moving. Her heels slammed hard rock, feet barely hitting the sand.
She spared a fast check over her shoulder.
The beast was gaining, yellow eyes burning for blood.
What was that thing? Shouldn’t she know?
Didn’t matter. Right now, she had no place to hide and no idea how to escape. No trees large enough to hide behind. Nothing.
Just the mountains. They were her safe haven. She knew that, but how? Was there a place to hide in those rocks up ahead? Maybe that beast couldn’t follow her up a sharp incline.
Ragged breaths brushed past her dry lips. Hot air scorched her chest. She gagged on the creature’s nauseating smell. She could hear it gaining on her. Shaking the earth even more now.
I’m running too hard. Won’t last at this pace. Her lungs were going to burst. Have to find cover.
Stinging sweat poured into her eyes when she looked up to see what lay ahead. Huge 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 she could just get far enough ahead and reach the peak on the other side of those boulders, she might escape that thing.
She veered slightly left, pistoning her arms faster and breathing hard as prey being 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.
She leaped from ground to rock. Slammed a knee. Slapped raw palms against jagged surfaces baked by the sun. Heat scorched her skin.
Ignore the pain.
Climb, climb, climb!
Scrambling fast as a lizard, she reached for crevices, slapping her knees and thighs on every sharp edge.
Another scream rent the air, higher pitched this time but farther away. She risked a quick glance. The thing pawed the ground. Dust erupted, choking the air.
She stretched for the next handhold and pulled herself forward. What did that thing want? Was it just in a rampage or did it want her? She slipped and scrambled up, flipping around to catch her breath.
At the base of the rocks, the creature started morphing from a huge, low-to-the-ground beast to a tall, thin canine shape with a short, sleek coat of sand-colored hair.
Was that possible? It shouldn’t be. I’m so dead.
She bit her lip, tasting blood. Can’t quit now. She sucked in another blast of baked air and clawed her way up the next rock outcropping. Sunlight poked through crevices from the other side. Maybe if she could get to the other side there’d be someplace to hide.
Like me? Where are my people?
The sun roasted her exposed skin and beat down on her back siphoning away what energy she had. Muscles burned the harder she climbed. Blood pounded in her ears. She didn’t want to be eaten by some monster. She jammed the toes of her boots into whatever crack she could find and shoved her body higher, faster. Fingers searching the rough surface, she clutched at a finger hole.
But it was sandstone. She slipped, digging her fingers deeper, and scrambled hand-over-hand.
The sound of loose rocks falling behind forced her exhausted body to keep moving.
Hot breath licked the air below her legs.
Her heart thrashed around.
The beast was almost on her.
A space between rocks gaped to her left. Scrunching her shoulders as thin as possible, she plunged into the narrow V opening, raking her back raw.
A shaft of blue sky yawned on the other side.
Deadly panting echoed closer behind her.
Fighting panic, she made one last shove forward and lunged through the opening too late to see where she went.
Nothing but air.
Her feet flipped over her head. She coughed out a choked screech and tumbled. Blue sky and rusty-brown rocks blurred through her vision. She hit hard, face slapping the dirt.
Pain. She couldn’t breathe. It knocked the breath out of her. Her head spun and every bone reverberated. Her next wheezing gasp hurt.
“Son of a bitch!” a strange young male voice called. “Hey, dude, we got a skydiver.”
Do I know the name Dude?
She opened her mouth and groaned. The only sound she could make.
“Hey, babe, where’s your chute?” the same voice asked, closer now.
“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. She twisted her head enough to look up at the cliff face she’d just dived from.
There. In the crevice of dusty-red boulders loomed a shadow. Long and thin. Waiting.
Even from this distance, she felt the danger. Predator eyeing prey. But what kept it from attacking now? 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 her mind.
As if she hadn’t figured that out? That voice stirred a memory, almost. It had been a feminine voice filled with worry. Who? Rayen clawed the sand and rocks in frustration. Why can’t I remember?
The flicker of knowing slid away faster than dust through an hourglass.
Fear coiled in her chest. I’m so confused. The blank spots in her mind terrified her far more than the beast did.
“She’s alive,” the young nosy guy said. Sounded like he walked off.
Well, she’d gotten her wish and found people.
Rolling onto her back, she sucked slowly to pull in air, but it still hurt. Her entire body hurt. Body slammed twice and feeling as if she’d been squeezed from the inside out.
The second male 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. She angled her head to figure out who was doing what. She’d thought there were only one or two people nearby, but a dozen plus young ones erupted around her. 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.”
She had no problem complying. Flat on her back, she stared up at an empty, vast sky. Breathing was about all she 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 her arms hovered into view. Indigo blue pants with a knife-sharp crease and dust-covered boots. One boot kicked her hip.
She gritted her teeth to hold back a groan of pain. A warrior never allows an enemy to see you flinch.
Had that been another random thought or a memory? One she knew as 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 her hair. And why had he called her a kid? Was that anything like a dude? She dug around in her mind and came up with kid as a baby goat.
Maybe I’m not the only one with scrambled brains.
The boot nudged her again. “Get up. Slow and easy.”
She eyed that boot, considering what would happen if she spun his foot to face the wrong way. But he had a black metal object on his hip that could be a weapon, and she still didn’t know what was going on.
Breaking his ankle didn’t seem too smart.
Rolling to her side, she shuddered to her knees. That settled it. She was in no shape to fight anyone right now. She’d made the right decision not to antagonize this person. Bracing herself, she lurched up to stand and anchored her feet shoulder width apart. Wiping at her arms had been a mistake. Sand and grit clung to her damp skin. All she did was grind it into the raw places.
The man she faced stood barely taller than her. An elder she estimated to be three times her age if that old ghost had been right about her being seventeen.
He had eyes like coarse stone and age seamed this man’s face. His voice snapped with anger when he spoke. “What kind of damn outfit you wearing, girl?”
He said girl as if she reminded him of a maggot. As for her clothes, what about his?
Couldn’t place what he wore, but she 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.
She cast another glance around then at her clothes. No one was dressed like her. Not even the others her age. They wore a different type of uniform–unusual words and designs written 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 she took in, the less she understood.
She asked her mind again for what was normal or how she’d ended up here and found only cold emptiness filled with dark shadows.
Fear turned into a rabid animal in her chest, fighting to get out.
With no idea who she was or where she belonged, would these people help her?
“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? No. Judging by the way he’d treated her so far, he didn’t know her and didn’t care. The crazy old ghost had shown more concern.
A young boy shouted a snarled string of words.
The other elder in this group, a guy called Burt, clasped metal rings on the scrawny one’s wrists. He was younger than her and looked more malnourished than dangerous. Her head throbbed with confusion. What had the first elder meant by saying she looked Navajo? What was a Navajo? She fingered her hair again, drawing the strands to her eyes. Straight and black like the skinny kid. Was her face as sharp as his? Were her eyes brown, too?
Acid boiled up her throat.
Not one thing seemed familiar, and she didn’t even know what she looked like. Panic darted across the other young faces, but they seemed to know where they were headed and were 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 she was certain sat on her face.
And no one here recognized her.
Blue lights flashed drawing her gaze to a dirty white box with wheels. Was that how the elders had arrived? That form of travel seemed wrong, but she couldn’t pinpoint why.
Who were these people? What did they want?
While the two elders talked back and forth, she scanned the cliff face again. Was that beast gone? Or had it merged so deep into the shadow of the rocks as to be invisible.
Turning around, she eyed the male and female elders rounding up the struggling captives. Could the beast thing have morphed into an elder? If so, what were her chances of escaping these people?
“You got a name?” the man at her side barked.
She whispered through cracked, dry lips. “Rayen.”
“That a first name or a last?”
She shook her head. Big mistake. Pain shot through her battered skull. The elder waited for her to answer, but the ghost hadn’t shared more than a single name. She licked her lips and said, “Don’t know.”
“Can’t hear you.”
She got her back up with him constantly yelling at her. “I don’t know.” Talk about the scary truth. An icy ball of terror jackknifed around inside her and he wanted another name. She kept her face passive, trying to figure out what to say when she knew so little. Her eyes watered, but she blinked against tears.
She was not one who cried easily. Strange, but she knew this about herself.
Never expose a vulnerability rolled through her thoughts.
She might not know who she was, but some deep-seated instinct told her to trust herself to know how to survive.
“Where you from, kid?”
Just keep asking me questions I can’t answer, chewing up my insides. She shook her 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.”
She’d have no way to escape if he bound her.
As if she had a choice? There were too many of the blue uniforms with the black metal devices on their hips. She knew to respect the danger of those devices. Even if she did try to run, the beast was still out there. She could feel its presence bone deep.
Reluctantly, she turned. She’d wait for a better chance to escape. A narrow strip of rigid material looped against her 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 her bragged. “You were right about these kids holing up this side of the Del Agua Trail.”
Del Agua. That name pinged in her brain. She knew of that trail.
Another positive sign, right?
“Folks out at Piedra Lisa Park will be happier,” another person said, laughing.
Piedra Lisa Park? Her shoulders fell. She didn’t know that name or what they were talking about.
A sudden jerk on her arm sent her stumbling. She 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 her toward one of the dusty boxes with wheels and iron mesh windows. This one already jammed full of snarling, angry young prisoners.
Wary glares taut with anger and fear sized her up.
No friendly faces there.
Her arms and legs trembled at the thought of being caged and helpless. And no telling when that beast would attack again. Could it get inside this box with wheels?
Stalling, she asked, “Where are we going?”
“Why we’re taking you to the Hilton Albuquerque.” The man snickered.
A Hilton Albuquerque? What was that place? Could the beast get to her there?
“Where?” she asked, nerves getting to her.
“Don’t be a fool, girl.” The man thrust a meaty hand on the top of her head and shoved her inside toward the only remaining single seat. The taint of fear and sweat filled her nose. Heads hung, shoulders hunched. They knew what waited for them and she did not. One more unknown tightened her throat muscles.
She gritted her teeth and asked again, “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? She wrenched at the tight bond around her wrists, panicked.
She wasn’t a criminal.
What had she done to end up here?
What was this place?
Determined to show a strong front, she held herself erect in the stiff seating. Hands clenched together in her lap hid the terror vibrating inside her.
Artificially cooled air washed across her skin, a welcome break from the heat outside. But the air in this room smelled stale and suffocating. She found it odd to recognize materials like glass, metal, and wood, but being inside a structure with glass windows and wooden doors unfamiliar.
The elders in blue uniforms, called officers, dropped her here alone. What happened to the other young ones going to the place called jail?
Burt had warned her not to screw this up. This being … school.
She knew the definition of a school, or to be schooled on a topic. But the mental path she ran along chasing down those thoughts disappeared before she could find the end.
She rubbed her wrists, glad to be uncuffed.
One of the two doors to the room opened, snapping her to attention.
Three people entered. More elders. Two men and a woman. The woman and one of the men appeared to be around thirty years old. The other male elder appeared to have aged at least twenty more years based on the gray in his hair and deep grooves on his face.
Correction. They weren’t elders.
She’d heard them called adults.
“I’m Dr. Maxwell,” the oldest man said as he folded his flabby body into a seat behind a large table.
In a rigid chair opposite of him, she sat perfectly still and silent.
An elder of his age should offer her some comfort. Not this one. He had stone-cold eyes, which 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. She kept tucking away every little piece of new information, sick of feeling so out of place and confused, but she lifted her gaze to the Browns.
The two men had much lighter skin color than hers, especially the doctor, with thinning hair and pale skin dotted with age spots. But Mrs. Brown’s skin resembled hers.
All three watched her as if waiting for her to address them.
She’d rather wait until she had to speak, but she was tired of being pushed here and there. Tired of being confused. The sooner she got answers, the sooner she hoped to find her way home. “Why am I here?”
Dr. Maxwell sat back, eyeing her 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 juvenile detention while they decide what to do with you.”
“PD?” she uttered, hating to not understand words.
“Police department,” Dr. Maxwell clarified, sounding annoyed, as if he did not believe her confusion.
PD was law authority. She’d heard the other kids whispering about detention and something called juvie. Scared them bad. She held her silence to allow this Dr. Maxwell to continue 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 she’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.”
She wanted to ask what a Native American was but decided it might be wise to wait and not sound any more ignorant than she had so far.
At the jail, a worker had called her a savage and shoved a handful of clothes at her. They’d sent her to a small room where she’d washed off most of the dirt. She now wore a thin maroon colored chest cover they’d called a T-shirt. It was soft against her cuts and bruises, plus the blue pants — no, these were known as jeans. She hadn’t minded changing.
At least now she felt clean, and people had stopped staring at her.
“Rayen?” The woman speaking to her in a gentle voice had smooth skin, and warm greenish-brown eyes above sharp cheeks. Like what Rayen had seen in a mirro when she changed clothes, but her eyes were a bright greenish blue. She swallowed hard against nausea, recalling how she did not know the face in that mirror.
Mrs. Brown smiled, the first welcoming expression Rayen had seen since opening her eyes in the desert. The woman’s sun-colored yellow dress flattered her skin. Compassion in her face reminded Rayen of another woman, one with straight black hair like hers and … she wanted to growl when the image never completely formed.
She realized Mrs. Brown had gotten quiet, waiting for something in response. Rayen went with the simplest reply. “Yes?”
“We’re here to help you, Rayen.” Mrs. Brown smiled over at Mr. Brown. The tall man had dressed in charcoal gray pants and a matching … jacket. She’d heard that reference at the police building. Beneath the jacket, he wore a white T-shirt. Might not be a T-shirt. It had buttons. Yes. Those were buttons.
While Rayen struggled to grasp any memory, three sets of eyes judged every breath she took. She had to hold her panic back and stay calm when she wanted to rant and scream. She’d been taught discipline by someone. Her elders?
Who were her elders? Where were they?
Mr. Brown stood with his back against a wall of books and ...
Colors flashed in Rayen’s mind, prodding her to think harder. Those were real books printed on paper. Her heart thumped faster. Paper was precious because ... she clenched her fingers at hitting a blank spot again. Her next breath shook at failing to piece together yet another shattered memory.
Mr. Brown missed nothing, arms crossed, observing her with the intensity of a wise elder who shielded his thoughts.
When he flicked a look at Mrs. Brown, she moved closer to Rayen, taking the chair on her right. “We’ve been told you have no identification.”
“Yes.” Rayen wasn’t sure what these people expected for identification other than her face. Eye scan? That triggered another half-memory, which vanished as quickly as it had come. She wanted to pound the chair arm.
“I’ve been told you are reluctant to share information. Is that correct?” Mrs. Brown continued.
“No.” Rayen hesitated, debating over how much information to reveal, but what did she have to lose? “I just do not remember information to share.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Brown paused, seeming perplexed, but her lips turned up in a reassuring way. “I understand so let me tell you about our Institute.”
“Perhaps you’d fit in here.”
Rayen’s heart dropped to her knees. She had no interest in joining her school, but from the minute her hands had been tied this morning, she’d lost all control of her life. She was their prisoner. For now.
To avoid antagonizing her captors, she nodded 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 this woman talking about? At a loss, Rayen gave her another nod, prodding the woman to continue 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.”
Rayen understood most of the words being spoken, but some terms were strange. MIT? Harvard? Sixth sense ignited a thought, though. Six senses. Touch, smell, hearing, taste, sight ... and intuition, power, or energy.
Was that correct?
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Rayen?” Mrs. Brown asked, alerting her that she could tell her mind had wandered. Again.
“Yes.” That word worked a whole lot better than constantly saying no, as Rayen had been doing up until now. She would play this word game to keep them from binding her wrists again and locking her away. She had to be free to move for a chance to escape.
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 her to stay! Here? For how long? Rayen couldn’t swallow past the knot of tension in her throat. She didn’t belong here.
But she had no idea where she did belong.
Mrs. Brown tapped a finger on her arm. “Who’s your family?”
A question Rayen couldn’t answer with yes or no. She admitted, “I don’t know.” She was tired of being viewed as a bug with no more sense than to run under the nearest boot heel. She opened her mouth to say, I woke up in the desert, disoriented and with a beast chasing me, but her survival instinct kicked in again, warning her 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 her 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 on those again?”
Rayen had known what the officers had been doing when they took copies of her fingerprints, even though the ink pad they’d pressed her fingers on had seemed like a messy way to transfer prints. Then they’d jabbed her with a sharp needle.
They’d drawn blood.
Everybody wanted her blood today. 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 Rayen and said, “You may wait in the next room.”
When she didn’t move, Dr. Maxwell stood and took a step toward her.
Tired of getting dragged, shoved, and jerked around by strangers, particularly the eld ... the adults, she jumped to her feet, arms loose, hands ready for defense.
Mr. Brown unfolded his arms and reached over as if to restrain the doctor as he spoke to her. “Please go to the next room. Wait for us there.”
Mrs. Brown stood just as quickly, putting herself between the doctor and Rayen. The woman gently cupped her arm. If either of the men had touched her, she couldn’t say what would have happened, but this woman’s touch reached past Rayen’s need to fight. Her need to protect herself.
Mrs. Brown smiled reassuringly at her and indicated the second door with her free hand. “There’s a waiting room right in there. We’ll send someone for you in a moment, okay?”
Releasing a harsh breath that had backed up in her chest, Rayen nodded before turning to open the door. As she passed through and pulled the door almost closed, Dr. Maxwell spoke in a low, excited voice, but too quiet for her to understand.
She paused with the barely open door at her back and focused her full attention on his words. Heat bloomed in her chest and radiated out through her body as she concentrated. This felt right even if she did not understand what was happening.
The more she 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 algorithmic—”
Rayen didn’t understand the next part. Just a string of strange letters and numbers. She’d heard of “software” and “DNA” at some point. Software versus hardware. DNA determined bloodline. She could almost hear the words in her mind coming from something inanimate as it instructed her.
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 Rayen’s family? Did they exist? Did they know what had happened to her? Were they looking for her? A dark ache stabbed at her heart. A hole so large it threatened to swallow her.
The door suddenly snapped shut at her back, pushing her a step forward. She opened her eyes, quickly taking in her surroundings.
She 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 her knees.
And someone watched her–a young male with a mature gaze.
Embarrassment heated her face at having been so focused on the conversation about her she’d lost track of her surroundings. A dangerous mistake.
This young one might be a teen or kid, but the young ones captured with her 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 her age had called other males in the area guys. That had seemed acceptable to all of them.
Trying to talk like everyone else here could only help her.
This ... guy lounged in one of the chairs that appeared more padded and comfortable than the one she’d had in the doctor’s room. This new stranger had skin a deeper brown color than hers, closer in shade to that of the drink he held in a bottle with writing hidden beneath 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 sounded correct.
Brown eyes watched her with an edge of intelligence that demanded others notice him.
Not sure of any order to the seating, she strolled over to the first open chair. One of the small wooden tables separated them. She sank into the soft material, sighing over how good it felt against her abused body.
“New recruit?” the guy asked.
Would there be an end to the questions Rayen could not
answer any time soon? She heaved a sigh and flipped through her knowledge to come up with the word recruit. Ah. She had it. The word meant being called to a task. As he waited for an answer, she gave him the only one she could. “Possibly.”
“I’m Nicholas. You certainly appear to be new-recruit material since you’re adorned with that leg iron.”
She glanced down at her leg that still throbbed with pain.
Punishment for not listening to her instincts earlier when she’d first arrived at this school. Those instincts had warned her not to jump at an opportunity that had “too easy” written all over it.
But her gut had badgered her to escape at her first chance.
The officers in blue clothes who’d delivered her to this place had turned their backs for a moment outside, long enough for her to run. The minute she’d stepped through what looked like an open gateway, a bolt of energy screamed through her left leg, the one with the wicked-looking metal ankle bracelet those officers had attached.
She’d fallen to her knees, writhing in pain, then dragged herself away from the invisible field of current and flopped on the ground.
Chuckling, one of the men had walked 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 half-breeds like you. Best show your appreciation and don’t give ‘em no trouble. Or you won’t like where we take you next.”
Still shaking in pain, that barely registered on her barometer of concern when she had just wanted to close her eyes and pretend this was all a bad dream.
“Hey, just kiddin’ with you, sweetheart,” Nicholas said in a lighthearted tone, bringing her 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. What did that mean? Added to the list of information missing from her brain. If this school gathered records, maybe they would figure out where she’d come from and who her people were.
Would they send someone to find her family?
Nicholas leaned forward in his chair. “Where do you hail from?”
This guy didn’t sound like any of the kids she’d met earlier. He had a stiff way of talking and sounded more like one of the adults.
She frowned at him. “Hail from?”
“Your point of origin. Home.”
She pinched her lips, unwilling to say ‘I don’t know’ one more time so she 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.” She’d heard the kids in the van talking about her.
One had made a comment that she could have lost her memory from the fall.
Sounded like an explanation for the empty spots in her mind.
“Word to the wise, sweetheart.” Nicholas glanced at her sideways. “Don’t tell anyone you’ve suffered a head injury.”
How could that complicate her life any more than it already was at this point. She had to work through everything minute by minute already. What other reason would she have for not knowing answers?
But this Nicholas was the first person since Ghost Man to offer advice without sneering when he spoke. She asked, “Why not? It was not intentional.”
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 are 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? She thought she might have heard that term before but not enough to track.
Rayen asked, “What’s mutatio?”
Smiling with regal superiority, Nicholas explained, “It’s Latin. Means change.”
Before she could ask what exactly he meant, one of the doors not connected to Dr. Maxwell’s room opened and a female young one entered. Rayen caught her thought and made a correction. This young one was a girl or teenager, based upon what she’d heard at the police station.
This one looked a year or so younger than Rayen. Bouncing happily into the room, the teenager had white plugs in her ears and 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 purple-and-white striped 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 had a different color ribbon tied around it and moved with the rhythmic shake of her hips.
Nothing matched on her, including her eyes ... one brown and one green.
Two different color eyes?
The strange teen paused, took one look at her with those unusual eyes, then her lips curled in a quirky half-moon curve full of curiosity. She removed a plug from one ear. Her gaze slid over to Nicholas.
He said, “Where’s your broom, Gabby? Wouldn’t want you caught with no transportation.”
Broom? Rayen couldn’t understand the connection with transportation, but she read insult in Gabby’s face just fine before the girl covered her reaction with a wicked smile.
“Nick, you’re such a flirt. Careful or I might turn you into a horny toad,” Gabby 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, one which didn’t quite reach his eyes, but he seemed more amused than insulted. “What would we do without eye candy in this place? I salute whoever scours the country to decorate our halls with sweet things to entertain the male student body.”
Rayen kept her face neutral, glad not to be the center of attention. Derision in his voice keyed a memory she couldn’t pin down beyond the distinct feeling of anger over being ridiculed for her differences at one time. She felt a fleeting camaraderie with this girl who smiled at Nicholas in the face of the demeaning insinuation beneath his words.
Gabby continued swinging her hips back and forth as if to some secret musical beat. “Whatcha doing up here, Nick? Waiting for an optimum snitch opportunity?”
Once again, Rayen suffered being mentally lost. What was a snitch opportunity?
Nicholas enjoyed taunting this Gabby in a way that sounded harmless, but Rayen had her doubts. On one hand, Gabby acted as if whatever he said was funny when Rayen had the sense he’d struck a nerve hidden beneath Gabby’s indulgent smile.
On the other hand, what did Rayen know?
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.”
How many new words would Rayen have to learn just to get around this place? “What do you mean by schizo?”
“Crazy. Rumor is she hears voices.” He spun a finger around his ear.
So? I talk to ghosts, which Rayen kept to herself. No way was she going to admit that to this guy, but she took note of his warning about Gabby.
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 Rayen peered close to see if she was real. Where Gabby had been a lightning display, this girl came across more regal with her ice-blue eyes and russet-red tunic that stopped at the middle of her thighs. The sleeves on her white jacket were shoved up.
This girl clutched a fist full of papers and held a thick, dull-green book against her chest, then cast a bored look at Rayen. “I’m Hannah. You must be Rayen.”
After she gave another nod, Hannah continued in dull voice that sounded imposed upon. “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, Rayen mused. But with a real person instructing?
“Follow me.” Hannah 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?”
Rayen studied Nicholas to figure out what had caused him to change from a superior tone to one of lighthearted 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 Rayen couldn’t figure out. She stood with thoughts flying through her mind. Why am I being sent to a class? I just want to find out who I am … where I came from … and do I have family?
The last being the most important.
As she started to move, Nicholas whispered behind her, “Remember, sweetheart. Mutatio. Tell no one.”
Lifting a hand to acknowledge his words, Rayen murmured, “Thanks.” And she was thankful that he’d cautioned her before she made the mistake of adding to her problems by admitting a head injury.
The hospital sounded like a place to avoid no matter what.
Nicholas raised his voice just above a whisper, but she knew he still spoke to her. “Any time. You need anything, you let me know.”
The only thing she needed was to fill the gaping hole in her memory and doubted he could do that.
Rayen followed Hannah out into a hallway. Once they were out of Nick’s hearing, something Gabby had said nudged Rayen to ask Hannah, “Do you know what snitch means?”
She wheeled around with a pinched look as though the question had been how many noses Rayen had on her face. When she realized Rayen was serious, she huffed out a noisy sound, 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?”
“Yes.” Snitch was another name for a traitor. Rayen had one more question. “What do you know about Nicholas?”
Hannah’s smile tilted with a smug 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 down her nose at Rayen. “And he’s off limits to you, but you should be polite to him.”
“Why?” Rayen ignored why he had limits and focused on Hannah’s last words. “Are people unkind to him?”
“Are you serious? No. He’s their only child.”
“Whose only child?”
“The Browns. They adopted him.”
Rayen’s stomach dropped. She’d just spoken openly with Nicholas Brown, someone who could easily tell his parents that she was damaged goods.
Mrs. Brown had been her only ally so far, but what would happen when she found out Rayen was not suitable for this place?
Closing her eyes, Rayen swallowed hard. She might not have wanted to be here to begin with, but she certainly didn’t want to go to that hospital and end up mutatio.
Rayen followed Hannah, who had stopped briefly in a noisy room filled with teens long enough to eat a bowl of soup.
Matching her guide’s pace as she moved down the sterile walkways, Rayen sniffed the air. Everything smelled well-scrubbed but confining. Hannah still carried the papers and the book with the hard green cover. It had to be two inches thick. Rayen’s fingers itched to hold the book and touch the papers, but she wouldn’t ask.
Hannah barely tolerated her presence.
Every time Rayen said more than yes or no, people looked at her as though she lacked brains. Same as Hannah’s perpetual expression.
Rayen’s internal defenses continued to bellow for her to escape.
Not going to happen this time until she knew how to leave without getting zapped by an electric charge.
Or knew where she was going.
A tone dinged three times overhead from some hidden source.
Waving a hand at rooms we passed, which were full of young ones, Hannah said, “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 her mind drifted.
Rayen cut her gaze left, then right, taking in each classroom through open doors. Heads turned her way, curious expressions, but not a flicker of recognition on her part or theirs. She’d never been here before or surely someone would have recognized her by now.
What would her fingerprints reveal? And couldn’t those be altered? Why not search their records for her face or use a retina scan which couldn’t be altered so easily?
She stopped midstride. How did she know fingerprints could be changed ... or about retina scans? No one had mentioned those options. Should she?
Only if she 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.” Rayen caught up to her.
Hannah drew a deep breath, expelling the air slowly with a brief shake of her head then continued rambling on. “As I was saying, the Browns are rich. Very rich. 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.”
Rayen zeroed in on the one word that didn’t track for her. “Nice? Then why’d they give me this leg bracelet?”
She glanced at Rayen’s ankle where the metal cuff barely showed below the bottom of her jeans, then raised a dismissive gaze. “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.
And more reasons for Rayen to get out of here. She who didn’t fit in with Hannah’s 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? Rayen 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 Rayen, but from the way everyone had reacted to her simple buckskin sack dress, as described by one person at the police building, she was the strange one here. She wished they’d given her back the boots she’d first worn. Those had been more comfortable than the things on her feet now. Sneakers.
Did that mean these shoes made it easy to sneak around? If so, they might be useful.
Altering her voice to a superior tone that reminded Rayen of Nicholas, Hannah addressed the skinny man. “This is Rayen. No last name.” She turned, stabbing a serious gaze at Rayen as if in warning. “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 Rayen and thrust the book she’d been carrying at her.
Surprised, Rayen grasped it in both hands and held the precious material carefully. Her fingers moved with respect and awe over the texture of the cover.
Hannah 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 Rayen.
Hannah tossed her head and turned away, prancing toward the classroom.
“Why?” Rayen demanded.
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 them 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 all of this?
“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, Rayen?”
Ignoring her sarcastic tone, Rayen replied, “No.” At least, she hoped not.
“Better not be the case, 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 Hannah’s gaze. “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 Rayen another dismissive glare then walked calmly into the classroom.
Permanent placement? Rayen didn’t want to stay here, but neither did she want to be shunted off to someplace worse.
Why had she left her home?
Did she even have a home? Her 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.
Rayen mentally marked Mr. Suarez as not a threat. Besides, like everything else today, she had no choice but to comply.
She hated having no say over her life.
A low murmur clouded the room until she walked in then everyone stopped talking to look. At her. She’d faced a sentient beast out in the desert. This shouldn’t be worse, but her stomach kinked at moving deeper into the room. Fifteen pairs of eyes took stock and judged her on the spot.
Not a friendly face among them.
To be specific, there were sixteen pairs counting Hannah, but she hadn’t followed their gazes. 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. This one was similar to the unit 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 consensus was that Rayen didn’t belong.
She couldn’t agree more.
“This is Rayen,” Mr. Suarez informed the room, then gave her instructions. “Take one of the two seats in the back on the left, but don’t turn on the monitor.”
She nodded, ignoring the stares as she passed small metal tables with light colored wood surfaces. Each table held two keyboards and two flat panels … the monitors?
Monitors and keyboards.
Finally, something clicked. She knew what a monitor was, and a keyboard.
Maybe coming in here would rattle her memory.
Most of the kids seemed to be her age. As she approached the last desk on the left with seating for two people, one of the guys she passed studied her with blatant interest. He softly said, “Hel-looo, baby.”
Hmm. Rayen might not grasp every meaning, but she did understand that wolfish look, especially when the girl next to him hissed something angry under her breath. He just kept smiling at Rayen.
Some things were universal. But the girl next to him wasted her energy complaining. She could have him. Rayen had no interest in him or any other male here.
All she 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, his eyes searching out each student after saying a name.
Rayen settled into her 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 a note on his paper, placed it on his desk, and said, “Let’s get started.” He wrote words on a white wall behind him that read:
Deadline for the Top Ten Competition: May 15, 2018
Wait, she understood that. The words at least, but not what they meant.
The instructor used his marker to tap the letters. “Deadline for this year’s competition. That’s two weeks from today, folks.”
Rayen toyed with the date in her mind, but 2018 triggered no memories. Surely something significant had happened this year in her life.
The more she studied the date it began to feel familiar. Significant. Why?
She was starting to hate that three-letter word.
Every time she tried to concentrate hard on anything, an ache bit into her forehead. She rubbed her temple then dropped her hand, fingers touching the green book.
As Mr. Suarez started talking about the project, she opened the book, reading the first page of introduction. Hannah was right about how long it’d take to get through this thing, but Rayen couldn’t get past how special holding a book felt.
Mr. Suarez paused.
The silence drew her attention.
He looked right at Rayen 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 Rayen sighed. She couldn’t have been less interested. She returned to the book, blocking out Mr. Suarez’s voice so she could read as much as possible in what time she had.
She started scanning the pages fast, really fast. Then she felt heat, or energy, swirl in her chest. The same type of feeling she’d had earlier when she listened to the Browns and Dr. Maxwell talk behind the partially closed door.
Her heart pounded. She clutched the book tighter. Energy rolled down her arms until her fingers tingled.
Pages fluttered past as if she fanned the pages, but she only held the book.
She caught every word, comprehended every sentence.
In less than a minute, she’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 and a whispered word. “Freak.”
Pushing the book away, Rayen looked at her trembling hands.
Was that normal?
Was she normal?
“Miss Landers and Miss Pearson make up the next team,” Mr. Suarez said, calling out names to match up partners for the project.
Rayen took a couple of breaths to settle herself then did a quick head count, relieved at the uneven number of students. Was there no one to match her up with?
That suited her just fine. She’d only end up proving how clueless she was about everything in this room and in this school, except for the monitor and keyboard in front of her. She might not know everything about how these units worked, but she was sure she’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 Rayen’s age but had an attitude of someone years older. His dark brown, calculating eyes searched out each of the other five girls in the classroom, each of which he gifted with a wink and a cocky grin.
Rayen 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-one 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 Rayen didn’t buy any more than she did his 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 sweet 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–”
Rayen sat up straighter No. No. Don’t do it …
“–you’ll be teamed up with our newest student, Rayen.” Mr. Suarez pointed in her direction. “Take your seat, Tony.”
Tony’s eyes finally lit on her. All his smug attitude slid away leaving disbelief. He stepped over to the teacher and lowered his voice, but Rayen’s 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 Rayen, then his expression 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.
Rayen had grabbed the seat closest to the corner from which she now watched as Tony swaggered down the center of the room, scowling. As he drew closer, she 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 her. Neck markings meant something, but what?
When Tony reached her 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.”
Rayen ignored Tony’s latest outburst since they’d left Mr. Suarez’s classroom and concentrated on searching the equipment room for a computer to rebuild. She had no idea how to perform that duty, but this gave her time to plan an escape.
She couldn’t stop thinking about how she’d read that green book in seconds, yet she 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 her. When Suarez had explained the principles of what he expected to see built from outdated equipment in storage, Rayen had rolled her eyes. The jumbled words still spun through her mind, some pinging a trickle of memory but others sliding past.
She hadn’t minded that Tony dragged his feet to leave the classroom since it meant everyone else had already been to this storage room, chosen the parts they wanted, and left. Now it was only her and Tony.
Not ideal, but easier to escape one than a room filled with other teens.
This Top Ten Project had something to do with taking an old computer and rebuilding it into an AI or Artificial Intelligence unit. She understood those terms, had heard of a computer, and an AI somewhere, but she knew as much about turning a computer into an AI as she did about flying to Mars.
At least, she didn’t think she possessed that skill or knew how fly to any other planets in the solar system. Though she did know the planets, and knowledge of space travel tapped at the edge of her mind.
She had no expectations of remaining in this program, but until she met with Dr. Maxwell or found a way to leave, she might as well pick her way through this clutter to see if she recognized anything. 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, she’d like to see if she could use it to find out something about herself. Small chance of that happening, but one could hope.
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.”
Rayen swallowed her smile. Tony would think she was unable to speak since she’d refused to answer any of his obnoxious questions like what tribe had she come from. How much wampum she’d paid to get into this place? Did she have a clue how lucky she was that they let the terminally clueless into the Institute?
Did she even know where Jersey was?
Instead of replying, she’d shrugged in answer, 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 her again. “You’re not screwing up my chance at MIT.”
There was that word MIT again.
Crossing her arms, she faced him, more curious than anything to see what this blowhard would do next. He might have two inches on her since she was maybe five-and-a-half-feet tall, but he was the one terminally clueless if he thought his loudmouth intimidated her.
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 in 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’.”
Rayen gave him a dark look of warning. The poor girl had been startled. Just an accident.
“My bad,” Gabby 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.
Rayen cocked an eyebrow at him. Were all girls “sweet cheeks” to this guy?
Tony 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, “It should be obvious that I’m 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? Rayen let that pass.
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 Rayen’s foot and her finger grazed the skin of Rayen’s bare ankle just as she 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 Rayen’s foot. For a few seconds she sat there, staring ahead, frozen. Silent.
Tony kept muttering to himself. Apparently, he hadn’t heard her, but Rayen had caught Gabby’s words.
Had she heard Rayen’s thoughts?
Weirder things than that had happened today already, so Rayen kept her face blank and acted as if she hadn’t heard anything. She returned to moving computer parts around on the table.
That must have worked to convince Gabby no one had heard her. Her shoulders slumped, as if in relief as she continued cleaning up the spilled liquid.
The door still stood propped open with her cart half in and half out.
Temptation hit Rayen square in the chest. All at once, she wanted to leave, even if only 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 her to do. She didn’t want to build a computer, even if she knew how, or go to another class.
She wanted to go home, wherever that was.
With Tony distracted while removing the cover off one computer, Rayen slipped out the door. Two steps into the hallway, she smelled something rank, and familiar.
The beast. She swung around, looking everywhere until she spied a black bird, a raven maybe, perched on the top edge of an open door at the end of the hallway.
That beast could morph into a winged creature. But why hadn’t the thing turned into a bird out in the desert?
Instead of questioning her good fortune at escaping it once, she backed up, slowly and stepped into the room again. She tugged Gabby’s cart all the way inside and closed the door. Sweat dampened her palms.
Tony turned around, scowling at her, but an undercurrent of worry he hadn’t managed to hide tinged his words. Something bothered him. “Suarez finds you here doin’ nothin’ he’s hangin’ it on me. You gonna help or not?”
With that beast outside, waiting, she needed to figure out a plan. A way to escape. One that wouldn’t get Gabby or Tony hurt. The thing might look like a simple bird right now, but no telling what it could become in the next minute.
Rayen stepped over to the last worktable where she spied a unit similar to Dr. Maxwell’s. A laptop. That’s what Tony had called the thin computer units that opened like a book. A mix of styles and colors sat open in rows, facing forward like good little soldiers. She 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 she’d chosen. No lights flickered when she hit a couple of buttons. She abandoned it and stared at others on the worktable as if one of the units would choose her. If all the cracked faces and beat up exteriors were any indication of functionality, she had serious doubts any of these were usable. But if she managed to get one turned on, maybe she could send a message for help.
Lifting her head up, Rayen paused. How did she know these things could be used to send messagges? Searching her thoughts ended in a blank again. She felt eyes on her and glanced over at Gabby who still sat on the floor with a curious squint in her gaze but said nothing.
Gabby shot Tony a weighted look then made some decision and stood up next to Rayen, murmuring, “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 Rayen, but this girl didn’t seem dangerous. Just unusual, different from the others, but so was Rayen in their eyes.
And other than Nicholas, Gabby had been the only friendly one around Rayen’s age so far.
Nicholas might be snitching on her at this very minute.
One problem at a time.
Gabby didn’t wait on an answer, moving ahead to say, “We didn’t get a chance to meet earlier. I’m Gabby.”
Rayen started to offer her hand, a strange reflex that felt like what she should do to greet someone, but she left her arms hanging loose instead, wary of touching anyone.
On the other hand, Gabby didn’t reach out either.
Where had Rayen 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 them his back.
Ah. Now this made sense. Gabby wanted to poke at Tony by being friendly with the new girl.
“I’m Rayen.” She was glad to offer Gabby something in return, even if it was only her name. All she had for now.
Tony paused, shook his head, and muttered something about low placement standards.
Gabby studied Rayen with her odd, mismatched eyes. “I presume you’re one of the chosen few offered a spot on the Top Ten Project.”
How to answer that? Rayen was none of those things, but she was here for the stupid project. Had this project not been offered to others, like Gabby? Falling back on the best answer at hand, Rayen lifted her shoulders and let them drop.
“Ah, the rare humble academic. Found a suitable computer yet?”
Rayen shook her head.
Tony kept his back to them 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 Rayen, “Put your hand out and see which computer calls to you.”
At that suggestion, Rayen lifted an eyebrow.
Gabby released one of her bubbling laughs that bordered on scary then lifted her shoulders in a what-can-it-hurt motion.
Sighing in defeat, Rayen turned back to the table. She had no reason to treat Gabby with caution or condescension the way Nicholas had, because she seemed nice and harmless. Rayen stuck out her hand and waved it over the top of each laptop.
“Ah, for the 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 techno-ites like you 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.”
Rayen smiled, playing along with the teasing while she searched for a computer that showed some promise, anything to get Tony off her back. What could it hurt to go along with Gabby? It wasn’t like Rayen knew what she 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?”
Rayen glanced sideways. She’d seen those handheld units used earlier. Communication devices. A phone. She got excited. Tony could call someone and–
She moved to reach for him, but her extended hand yanked toward a laptop, jerking her forward with the powerful motion.
Her fingers gripped a scuffed-up machine in the second row that had a scratched black case. Weird. She caught Gabby’s startled gasp, but Rayen wasn’t going to acknowledge it. Instead. she lifted the computer and made room for it on the front of the worktable.
Oblivious to anyone else in the room, Tony waved his phone, chuckling. “Oh, yeah, this explains everything. Gabrielle Lin.” He glanced up with a 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 Rayen decided that if she ended up staying here she’d figure out how to build a computer from scratch on her own before she asked Tony for anything.
Prancing around happily, Gabby ignored Tony and snagged the wire attached to the laptop that had responded to Rayen’s hand. Not just responded but had pulled her to it. She hadn’t even felt heat inside her chest this time. Did that happen with others ... or just her?
Gabby stuck the metal prongs at the end of the wire into the wall. Must be a power source.
Rayen tried to concentrate on what was happening with the laptop, but her mind still worked on what to do with the threat outside their room. What was that bird-beast doing?
She once again considered using Tony’s phone to call in help, but who would she call? Teachers? Dr. Maxwell? She’d been warned not to cause any trouble. Besides, she knew better than to try convincing the Jersey Jerk that a rabid, shapeshifting, predatory bird was loose in the hallway. Tony wanted a reason to get rid of her and that beast might morph into something else by the time someone showed up here.
Best case, she’d end up looking like a bigger idiot or a troublemaker.
Worst case, the bird could kill whoever showed up plus her, Gabby, and Tony. But the bird-thing had seemed interested only in her. Rayen just needed to keep her head down until five o’clock when she’d hopefully receive some answers.
She realized Gabby was waiting for her to do something. When Rayen didn’t move, Gabby pressed a button near the top of the keyboard.
The computer whirred to life.
Still tapping keys on his phone, Tony talked without looking up from his phone. “Ah, now we gettin’ to the good stuff. Kicked outta the last two schools for disciplinary reasons, but ... wait, this can’t be right. No way Cindereller tested that high.” Tony frowned. More thumb typing.
The laptop in front of Rayen buzzed with energy. She punched a couple of keys, surprised to find that her fingers knew how to form words as quickly as she thought them.
Standing at her right shoulder, Gabby hummed something quietly 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?”
Was this girl serious. Rayen gave another head shake.
Gabby cocked her head, ponytails flopping to one side and laughing silently. “I like to keep my finger on life’s Escape key. Try hitting that, Jedi.”
Rayen knew that key but couldn’t very well say so after she hadn’t thoughts of it on her own. She 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 Rayen. “Nothin’ other than two morons do not a computer tech make.”
Ignoring the loudmouth, Rayen kept manipulating keys in hopes of clearing the screen, but nothing would let her past those circles.
Gabby angled herself forward, talking across her 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.”
Rayen lifted her hands to hold up between those two, or she tried to, but something tugged her fingers back to the computer.
Then she caught a swooshing noise outside in the hallway.
Too intent on arguing, Tony and Gabby missed the flying dark shadow flashing past the glass window.
Rayen had 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 her, would it harm Gabby or Tony if they got in the way?
Time had run out. Rayen had to get out of here and draw the beast-bird away, then figure out how to not get caught again. Something told her she’d only been lucky to escape it the last time, but she 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 Rayen’s hands with a knowing look and uttered, “Don’t think you’ve got her touch.”
“Ya think? She can’t even get the screen to open.”
Rayen tried to lift her hands again, but her fingers were heavy as weighted metal and drawn to the keys as if they were magnets. This wasn’t helping her immediate goal of escaping the room. More than that, she didn’t think this was normal.
Gabby looked up at Rayen, 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 Rayen’s right wrist as if forgetting her wariness about touching. She snatched Rayen’s hand off the keyboard and shoved it palm out toward the monitor, speaking at Tony the whole time as if he was the clueless one. “Everything has energy. You just have to–”
Rayen’s arm sucked into the screen.
Gabby shrieked and gripped Rayen’s wrist tighter, trying to hold her back. Not as hard as Rayen was trying to pull back, but whatever had latched onto her wasn’t turning her hand loose.
The raven slammed against the glass window, beating its wings to get into the room. Tony and Gabby were both shouting so loudly, Rayen doubted anyone heard the thing but her.
Tony repeated, “What the f–” He clamped his hand on Rayen’s left arm, yanking to pull her back.
He was strong. She hoped he’d win the tug o’ war, but her hand kept sinking further into the monitor ... then her arm started shimmering.
In the next instant, she was sucked all the way inside, her body twisting into a kaleidoscope of colors. Heat ripped through her from her arms to her chest then through her legs.
Gabby blurred into a colorful stretched shape on one side of Rayen. Tony’s grip tightened on her arm as they all spun into a bright orange-red vortex.