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Born of Blood and Gold
Author's note: This was a story of mine that got swept under the rug for a few years while I got caught up in my other works. After blowing off all the dust that had settled, I thought I'd release it to the world. This is only about half, so far. The other half is written, and will follow shortly; it just needs to be typed and edited. I hope you enjoy it.
Rebellious. That’s a good word to define me these days. Of course so was unruly, stubborn, defiant, or disobedient. After all, here I was sitting in a jail cell talking to the world’s most powerful dictator. Everyone called her the Charlotte, but after what I just found out, I never would again.
She stood with her arms folded across her chest beyond the bars. I could reach out and touch her she was so close. As for me, I was sitting atop the provided bed with my eyes closed in a desperate attempt to clear my mind.
“Eighteen years old,” she said mockingly, “and already you’re considered one of the world’s most dangerous and wanted criminals.”
I couldn’t help it; I had to laugh.
Dangerous? Me? She made me sound like some psychotic serial killer. Oddly enough most everyone in the city did seem to be scared of me. Oh yes, a little girl about five foot one, maybe two, weighing up to ninety six pounds. Absolutely terrifying.
“Monica!” she screamed. Automatically I stopped laughing. It must have been years since anyone called me by my first name. Hearing it now seemed wrong.
“That’s better.” She beamed at my abrupt cut off, that ever present smug look of hers. “Let’s get right to the point. Where is Toad’s Hollow?”
For some reason she sounded agitated when I didn’t answer. A long sigh escaped her lips. “Fine then, don’t answer that one. Yet. Would you at least mind telling me whatever it was you did to my school?”
A strong sense of pride consumed me. That school was a man made hell. Simply thinking back to it made this jail cell seem like a blast. If I could go back, just once, I’d set it on fire.
“Do you know what day it is, Monica?”
“The date?” she asked, her voice sounding somewhat rhetorical.
I knew her well enough to know when she had a secrete. Though all this time, who would have thought out of all the people she would be the Charlotte? She had a secrete, one she had been saving for the right moment to spring on me.
Opening my eyes I glared into the face of a lost friend. “Enlighten me.”
She threw a rolled up calendar through the bars that flipped open at my feet. All I could do was stare at the circled date.
What kind of sick joke was she playing?
“Happy birthday,” she crooned cruelly. “You turn nineteen today.”
She spoke as if silently celebrating a personal victory. My birthday was cursed¾there was no use doubting it¾and it was all thanks to her.
It had started two years ago, two years ago to this day, and seeing the orange sky out of my barred window meant two years ago to this very moment. My seventeenth birthday. The day the world ended.
The smell of burning candles filled the air; colorful boxes with fancy bows surrounded me. The seventeen sparklers gleaming on top of my cake gave off the only light in the family dinning room. I can honestly say nothing made me feel more like a child than being encircled by family members belting out Happy Birthday.
I blew out the flames and someone flipped on the light.
“Guess Heidi was too busy to come.” I didn’t bother to hide my disappointment. “That figures.”
“Forget her,” my little sister interrupted, “I’ve got something that will cheer you up.”
Sadie pulled out a slim, rectangular box she’d been hiding behind her. My spirits lifted merely seeing it¾I knew what was waiting under the wrapping. Inside had to be that white gold heart-shaped locket I asked for. The wrapping fell easily to the floor, the top popped right off and¾
Nope. This necklace was bronze, and huge. I love my little sister, but sometimes she could be so clueless.
“I know it’s not the one you were wanting. I went to get it, but somebody beat me to it. That’s all the store had left.
“Thanks Sadie, I love it.” I said, forcing fake enthusiasm.
“You can fool many people Em, but I’m not one of them.”
She had a point. I could tell a flawless tale and trick the world, but never Sadie. We knew each other too well. Sadie might be two years younger than me, and my sister, but we were each other’s best friends.
“Come on girls.” Dad entered the room. “I’m about to put on some home videos from when you two were little kids. I’ll be in the living room,so hurry!” He disappeared through the door.
I glanced over at Sadie who rolled her eyes.
“Right behind you dad,” our voices rang in unison. Neither of us moved.
“Yes mother?” we asked together.
“You know this means a lot to your father, now come on. Please. I’ll even bring the cake so we can eat while we watch.”
Leaving the rest of my presents unopened, I followed mom into the living room, Sadie trialing behind me, where dad sat with the videos already playing.
The man had no patience.
The little family movie was one of me and Sadie playing kickball with a couple of neighborhood boys from down the street. We had all seen it multiple times, but went along with it all the same to make dad happy. He was big on family things. I don’t know how the man would ever survive without us.
First in the video, I was up to kick. The boys were distracting me by calling me rude names,¾rude to a ten year old anyway¾and got me out before I reached first base. Sadie’s turn. She kicked the ball with all her eight-year-old might, slamming it right into the boy’s face who had made fun of me. Together the two boys ran home while Sadie and I continued playing like nothing ever happened.
Mom’s fork dropped to her plate with an echoing clink. In a rush she threw her plate at the coffee table, missed, and ran to the window causing her blond curls to bounce wildly. I loved her ringlets. Unfortunately, I had been stuck with the normal brown hair my dad had given me. Sadie was, of course, blessed with the natural golden blond curls.
But the bouncing curls weren’t what caught my attention. It was the look on her face. She seemed horrorstruck.
“What’s wrong, mom?”
“Smoke,” she gasped. “It’s everywhere!”
All four of us ran to her side as she pulled back the curtain reveling our backyard. Nothing had changed. The table on the porch was still upright, and the unused trampoline was swaying up and down slightly with the wind. No smoke in sight. At least, not at first.
Off in the distance huge clouds of smoke polluted the sun set’s orange sky. Not merely one cloud, dozens of them scattered all around heading deep into our close-knit neighborhood. Some clouds higher up in the sky while others were only now beginning to rise.
“Look!” Sadie cried.
It took me a while to see what she was pointing at. At least one hundred helicopters were franticly maneuvering between the bursts of black smoke. They were flying low, getting closer to our house with each passing second. On both sides of every chopper was a symbol of a golden falcon standing proud with outstretched wings.
Mom’s eyes widened, taking everything in at once, while dad’s eyes dodged intensely from one cloud of smoke to the next. From one helicopter to the other.
“What’s going on dad?” I asked pointlessly. He wouldn’t have any better intake of the situation than I did.
“Let’s go look at what’s happening out front.”
He spoke so fast I could hardly make out what he said. Still, we sprinted behind him to the dinning room where we could see out the window to our front yard.
The room had grown a sinister gloom I didn’t remember being there. Whatever light found its way into the room reflected off the wrapping paper on my untouched gifts. The reflection sent colorful shapes onto the surrounding walls, making the sinister room look like the inside of a kaleidoscope.
My jaw dropped the instant someone yanked apart the curtains. This sight was even worse than the first one out back had been. My first guess had been that the helicopters were here to stop whatever it was causing the smoke, but I quickly learned two things.
One: the giant, darkened clouds were rising up from houses that someone had set on fire. Two: the people in the helicopters were our assassins.
“Are we under a terrorist attack?” Sadie shrieked from beside me. kaleidoscope.
My jaw dropped the instant someone yanked apart the curtains. This sight was even worse than the first one out back had been. My first guess had been that the helicopters were here to stop whatever it was causing the smoke, but I quickly learned two things.
One: the giant, darkened clouds were rising up from houses that someone had set on fire. Two: the people in the helicopters were our assassins.
“Are we under a terrorist attack?” Sadie shrieked from beside me. kaleidoscope.
My jaw dropped the instant someone yanked apart the curtains. This sight was even worse than the first one out back had been. My first guess had been that the helicopters were here to stop whatever it was causing the smoke, but I quickly learned two things.
One: the giant, darkened clouds were rising up from houses that someone had set on fire. Two: the people in the helicopters were our assassins.
“Are we under a terrorist attack?” Sadie shrieked from beside me. kaleidoscope.
My jaw dropped the instant someone yanked apart the curtains. This sight was even worse than the first one out back had been. My first guess had been that the helicopters were here to stop whatever it was causing the smoke, but I quickly learned two things.
One: the giant, darkened clouds were rising up from houses that someone had set on fire. Two: the people in the helicopters were our assassins.
“Are we under a terrorist attack?” Sadie shrieked from beside me. kaleidoscope.
My jaw dropped the instant someone yanked apart the curtains. This sight was even worse than the first one out back had been. My first guess had been that the helicopters were here to stop whatever it was causing the smoke, but I quickly learned two things.
One: the giant, darkened clouds were rising up from houses that someone had set on fire. Two: the people in the helicopters were our assassins.
“Are we under a terrorist attack?” Sadie shrieked from beside me.
Nobody answered her, or even moved.
Helicopters landed in the middle of the street, and people jumped out from the choppers sprinting into our neighbors homes. We all watched, too stunned to turn away, as our friends were forced out of their own homes screaming for release from their pursuers. Chaos was all around us, and we stood helplessly like deer dazed by headlights.
Families were dragged into the helicopters against their will. A man, one I knew since I was twelve, fought back to defend his family. He fought, and he lost. While the man wrestled one attacker to the ground, another attacker pulled out a gun and shot my neighbor, leaving him to bleed to death on the concrete of his driveway. His wife gave a bloodcurdling scream at the sight, then lost her own battle as she was shoved though a chopper door. The look on her face would forever haunt my memory. And his four year old son cried even harder while he was carried away… To make it worse, they weren’t the only families out there. Only one of many.
Dozens of helicopters baring the falcon crest aligned the road. Men dressed in dark blue jeans and white T-shirts came parading out, each one heavily armed.
Finally, for the first time, I blinked. It took me another second to realize I was hearing my dad’s voice. I knew what he said,¾run¾ but I was frozen stiff at the scene playing out before me.
He grabbed a hold of my wrist pulling me away from the window, keeping me at his side while we made a break for the hallway. Not even thinking about it, I grabbed the bronze necklace Sadie got me, and shoved it into my back pocket before entering the hall. I nearly tripped over one of my presents on the way out.
Looking back mom had grabbed my sister’s wrist pulling her down the hall after us. Chances are Sadie had trouble tearing herself away from the horrid scene too. We tended to work alike, Sadie and me.
A loud thud came from the front door. We all stopped dead in our tracks, turning to look. They were coming for us. The men in the helicopters, the men who set fire to our neighbors houses, and murdered our friends. They were coming for us.
“Go. Go!” Dad panicked.
We darted down the hall as fast as we could, but stopped before we reached the end. Dad opened one of the doors throwing me in a coat closet, my mom doing the same for Sadie. But the closet was only big enough to fit two.
“What about you?” I cried. The last thing I wanted was to be separated from my parents, and that was something I didn’t feel the least bit childish for.
A tear rolled down my mother’s cheek as she pulled me and my sister into a hug, and another as she shut the door.
I didn’t like this.
Sadie was breathing hard down my neck. I made her stand behind me putting myself between her and the door. Hopefully that gave her some sense of security.
“What’s happening, Monica?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.”
“What do these people want with us?”
“I don’t know.”
“Monica?” The plea she emphasized into my name made me feel cold despite being broke out in a sweat. I turned to see her, but Sadie’s face was invisible in the dark closet.
“Please don’t leave me.”
I paused for a moment, slightly confused. “I won’t leave you, Sadie. Why would you even think that?”
“You saw what was going on out there. Those men were kidnapping people from their houses and forcing them into helicopters. I’m not sure if you noticed, but every person from one house was separated. Each person was put in their own helicopter.”
That was one thing I didn’t notice. Guess I was a bit preoccupied with all the cold-blooded murders I was witnessing.
From the sound on the other side of the door, it was safe to assume the men found a way into the house. My heart protested violently, taking its sudden jolt of energy out on my lung. It hurt so bad my hand instinctively jumped to my chest as if I could stop its beating with my bare fist.
Part of me I wanted to tell Sadie everything would be okay. To say that this would all be over soon, and not to worry about it. On the other hand, telling somebody not to worry in a time like this made about as much sense as sterilizing a needle before a lethal injection. They could easily find us, and kill us. Even if they didn’t find us they would probably set the house on fire. Then we would really be goners.
“Don’t worry, Sadie.”
Well, no matter how stupid it was to say I’m glad I did. One way or another I had to take care of Sadie. I had to try to help my little sister feel some amount of security. Although, hearing the sound of shattering glass on the other side of the door wasn’t exactly what one would call comforting.
“But Em, what if we’re separated?”
What if we’re separated? What kind of question was that? What if we’re killed is what I wanted to know.
“Don’t worry about it. You know I’ll do what I can to take care of you, I promise that.”
“And I promise to do the same for you,” she muttered back.
Suddenly, it got quiet throughout the house. We inched forward slowly straining to hear something. Anything… Either the men were opening and shutting all the doors, or my heart was acting up again.
“They know there’s more people here. They’re searching the rooms for us.”
“But how, Monica? How do they know we’re here?”
I didn’t like how much she used my name when she was scared. All it did was make me nervous. “I’m not sure. Just get back and stay quiet.”
Sadie slid back into one of the corners hiding within the coats. I moved as far back as possible without stepping on her, and held my breath.
Not even a full second later the door flung open. There before me stood three tall men, each one wearing a white shirt with blue jeans. Each one armed.
The closest man to me stepped forward. I wasn’t sure what to do. Try to defend myself and protect my sister? Run for it? I couldn’t see either of those happening when I had to remind myself to start breathing again, of all things.
“We request that all members of the Meadows family please follow us,” the man who stepped forward said. His tone was so plan and tranquil. For some reason, his voice made me feel somewhat calm.
In fact, all three of the men standing in front of me appeared far too relaxed to be invading someone’s home. Each one of them stood perfectly straight with their weapons pointed away from us.
“Again. We request that all members of the Meadows family please follow us.”
“Monica,” Sadie whispered in my ear, “maybe we should follow them. Who knows what will happen if we don’t.”
I nodded for both the strange man, and my sister. “Where are you taking us?”
“If you will follow me this way, please.”
Talk about oddly polite. Especially for an assassin.
Grabbing Sadie’s hand for her comfort’s sake, and mine, we shuffled our way out of the closet. There was nothing else we could do except die. This seemed like a decent alternative. At least this way survival might be possible.
Key word being might.
One man, the one that spoke, walked in front of us while the other two walked near our sides forming a triangle to close us in. Running was officially ruled out as an option. So now what? Fight?
I had promised Sadie I would take care of her, and if that meant me dieing then so be it. A promise was a promise… and a lot easier to keep in theory than in real life.
As we made our way back down the hall I searched for my parents. Neither of them were anywhere to be seen. My best guess was that they made the same choice me and Sadie had by doing what was asked of us.
Back in the closet I heard all sorts of disturbing noises. Now that I could actually see the rooms it seemed like I must have been hearing things. There were no pieces of broken glass, no furniture pushed over. It was as if nothing had even been touched but the doorknobs.
Outside was a different story. Houses still glowed from the fires within. The many smoke clouds were growing still higher, and even more familiar faces of people I once knew lay lifeless on the ground. I scanned all over for my parents, thankful to realize they weren’t anywhere among the fallen bodies.
From above the sun made the world orange to match the flames. It cast long shadows across the grass, and glistened off the blood of everyone once loved. It was a warm summer evening, yet I still sprouted goose-bumps.
The man leading us had come to a stop when we reached the foot of the driveway. With one quick movement, he turned to face us.
This was it. If they were going to kill us, it would be now. No more delay.
“Monica Meadows will follow me, and Sadie Meadows will follow him.”
I couldn’t believe it. Sadie was right; they were trying to split us up. She gripped my hand tighter. Standing as tall as my spine would allow, and praying to God that my voice wouldn’t shake, I pulled Sadie closer. “What for?”
“Follow me, Miss Meadows.”
“No. Not unless we get to stay together.”
“That was not a request.”
My ankles weakened and my spine slouched back down when he took a step towards me. Talking back to adults was something I had next to no experience in, and never had I argued against a man with a gun before.
“Monica,” Sadie warned. I felt her take a step back as the man took one forward. “Don’t argue. I’ll be okay.”
Even in the midst of all this, I had to admit I was impressed at how steady she had managed to keep her voice. Then again, Sadie never had a problem when it came to defending herself. Not even with intimidating men who could single handedly crush the life out of her. Arguing with adults wasn’t as foreign to her as it was with me.
She weaseled her hand out of mine. Slowly, she followed beside the man closest to her, walking further and further away from me. “Sadie,” I called to her, but she never so much as turned to look.
“This way.” He nodded ahead.
A small nudge came from behind. I turned to see the other man edging me onward. Having no better plan in mind, I followed one man while the other followed me.
The world got louder as we walked down the street, adding more distance between me and Sadie. The whirl from the helicopter’s wings intensified. Shrieks from neighboring houses echoed in my ears. The stench of blood mixed with burning flames, stinging my nose. As we walked we entered shade, to sun, then back to shade. Shadows from houses, or from helicopters shielded me from the sun’s glare.
We came to a stop near a rather small chopper. Together the two men flung its door open so fast it made me jump. For a second I started to run, but stopped knowing I couldn’t outrun their bullets.
“Get in,” one of them demanded.
So much for their politeness.
I didn’t argue with them. By now, there was really no point in trying.
Inside was a lot smaller than I originally thought it might be. Every window had a dark tint making a black atmosphere. The whole thing was one oval-like room consisting of two chairs up front to man the controls, and a bed strapped down in the back with some loose straps dangling over the side. Not a single soul was in sight.
The men climbed in after me, shutting and locking the door. One of them went to sit up front to man the controls while the other remained at my side. I made a mental note as they sat down the guns with a new plan starting to form. Quickly, I disowned the idea.
No way would I be strong enough to pick up one of their weapons, nor be able to aim it correctly. There were only two things I knew about guns and that was oh look a trigger, and to keep the end with the hole pointed away from myself. Really there wasn’t much else you had to know, but the force of the bullet leaving would probably send the gun flying backwards in my hands, hitting me in the head. I was so tiny that a hit like that would most likely render me unconscious.
Definitely a bad plan.
A facemask fell from the ceiling dangling above the slim bed with the belt-like straps. Another nudge pushed me towards it. “Put it on.”
My stomach shrank into itself. I turned to the man in disbelief. He must be insane if he seriously thought I was about to put on a full facemask that did God-only-knows-what in the middle of all this.
“That was not a request.”
Still, my feet stayed planted where they were. Even if I did want to wear the mask, I couldn’t have. My bones stayed locked resisting any movement.
Somebody grabbed my arm, attempting to pull me forward. A bucket of water might as well have been poured over my head when he touched me. He felt so… wrong. I was now wide-awake and ready to fight.
I nearly broke my own arm trying to free myself. Both men were on me now, lifting my feet from the ground and forcing me onto the bed. There was no use in screaming when I knew no one was going to come to my rescue, but that didn’t stop me from doing it anyway.
While one man kept me pinned to the bed the best he could, the other was fighting to strap the mask around my head.
Once the mask was secure, I attempted desperately to remove it. Surprisingly, I managed to wiggle one arm free from my pursuer. My nails clawed at my face doing nothing to the mask. When I tried to rip the strap securing it in place my hand was seized once more.
Damn it! If I wasn’t so little this wouldn’t have been such an effortless accomplishment on their part. I never even stood a chance.
I wasn’t sure what the purpose for the mask was, only that no good could come from it. On the other hand, I found out almost instantly what the belts were there for.
There were two belts per arm, two per leg, and one for my waist. Finally realizing there was no way out of this, I laid still.
The men left once I gave up. What a sight this must be. Having been strapped to a tiny bed with thick belts, and a huge bulking mask clinging to my face.
I tried to lift my head to see where the men were going, but it was too much work to try. Since my eyes were the only part of my face not consumed by the mask, I let my head fall to the side to peer out the window.
Same scene. Smoke filling the now moonlit sky, people fleeing everywhere¾obviously, they hadn’t followed instruction like I had¾and helicopters lifting off to make room for the new ones coming down.
Mist began spraying through the mask. I held my breath. Things were about to get really bad, really fast.
Eventually I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. At first I inhaled deeply, desperate to get air back into my strained lungs. Too deeply. The foreign mist filled my lungs making me cough, causing me to take in even more of the polluted air.
My vision blurred, and the room felt like it had started to spin. My limbs weakened and my head rolled onto its cheek. Then my mind started to fade.
Forcing my eyes to stay open, I saw out the window a second time. The orange flames from a fire, the white of the moon and the stars all smeared together against the night sky.
I was dieing. Surly I was. I could feel nothing anymore. Like whatever it was that made me Monica was slipping away. Gone from me forever.
Then at last, there was total darkness.
My body was slowly beginning to except conciseness. Wherever I was, I was comfortable as well as afraid.
Comfortable, because this bed was soft, and bigger than I remembered it being. Afraid, because I didn’t have the slightest clue where I was, or what was going on. There was no possible way for me to determine how long I had been asleep, and therefore no possible way for me to figure out how far we traveled in that cramped little helicopter.
Pushing to overcome my cowardliness, and face what new terror awaited, I flung my eyes open.
One thing was for sure, I was no longer in the helicopter. This room was so bright it could blind, with every wall a flawlessly smooth white. Everything appeared sterile. My arms and legs were free now, no longer strapped down, and no mask stuck to my face, though the effects of the drug left behind a searing pain in both lungs. It felt like someone was cutting open the inside of my chest with every breath. Worst of all, it was quite. So quiet a needle could drop, and the sound would echo endlessly through the white room. Any noise would have been good. At least then I might possibly be able to figure out where I was, or maybe even what was going on.
But there was nothing but a vast, eternal, consuming silence.
A black ceiling fan spun slowly out of the corner of my eye. Odd. It was as if the room had been squished together, wall next to wall, and ceiling near floor. Then again, I wasn’t on the floor. I was on a bed.
On the opposite wall from where I was now, a bunk bed was arranged. One bed close to the floor, the other raised up reaching for the ceiling. It would be safe to assume I was on one of the top bunks, closer to the ceiling.
“Your new roommate has awakened.”
Startled, I jumped, my gut doing its own little ballerina twist. I was being watched. An eerie shiver slid all the way down my spine.
Never had I seen the woman before, but she sounded somewhat familiar. She sat perfectly straight in a black chair while three teenage girls sat on the floor surrounding her.
The first thing I noticed about all four of them was their attire. Each one of them was wearing dark blue jeans and a white shirt identical to the armed men who were nowhere to be seen.
Good. If I had any luck in the world the men would stay gone. The lady didn’t have a gun, or at least not one that was visible, but that wasn’t enough to mean she could be trusted.
“Would you care to join the rest of us down here?” the woman inquired.
No, I would not care to join you. Chances are she was a murderer just like the rest of them. She smiled so innocently it made me want to throw something at her. Unfortunately, the only thing within my reach was a pillow.
Having deciding the pillow would not inflict enough pain upon the women, I climbed down from my upper bunk to the floor. In order to reach the ground I stepped down a tiny, black metal latter, causing me to look at myself. I had been dressed in the same clothes as the rest of them.
Go figure. If there was one thing about life I absolutely hated, it was irony. And I just had my first small taste of it, being dressed as my enemy.
Around my neck clung a silver chain that resembled a dog tag which a man from the army might wear. One side of the slim strip of metal had my name and the other side had my birthplace engraved on it. It read:
And on the other side.
The women must have noticed me examining it. “It is so your Educator can identify you,” she explained.
“Sit, please. I will explain everything.”
Explain everything? I secretly wished her luck on that after what all I saw.
All the same, I took my place on the floor with the other three girls. They looked like they must be somewhere near my age, and every bit as confused as I was.
The woman opened her mouth to start, but I quickly decided if anyone was going to get the first word in, it was going to be me. It came like a choking sensation that made it impossible to keep quite. I should be terrified, yet it took every bit of my will power not to spit on the women who could easily crush tiny me. But, after all I had just been though, I couldn’t care any less.
“Where am I, and who are you?”
“I am your Counseling Educator for the time being,” she began. “ My job is to check on you every now and then to make sure you are adapting well here.”
Her voice had the same calming tone as the men who kidnapped me. That’s why she sounded familiar. The tone was mystic, like her thoughts were far off in a dreamland. Calming, and boring.
“You didn’t answer my entire question,” I pressed.
“Where am I?”
She gave a laugh that was far from normal. “Forgive me. You are in the Charlotte School.”
Miss Counseling Educator¾as she called herself¾nodded in response.
“And what exactly will we be learning about here?”
“About the Charlotte, of course,” she stated like it was more than obvious. “As well as how to live once you reach the outside world after you have successfully graduated from here.”
“A person. Or more specifically, the world’s most powerful person. He is a great man.”
“So the Charlotte? He must be like a new ruler, or something along that line, right?”
Her expression changed to what seemed to be excitement, but all it did was make her look creepy. “Yes that is exactly right! You are a smart girl. Very fast learning indeed.”
Complements would get this freak nowhere with me, especially ones about me being smart. If anything, she was stupid.
But she helped me draw a conclusion. It wasn’t just my small town in Oklahoma that was invaded; there was more to the story. She might have said that he was the world’s most powerful person to spice things up a bit, or she might have been telling the truth. If it was true, then what all had the Charlotte taken over? The state of Oklahoma? The entire country? Continent?
No, it wouldn’t be possible for one man to accomplish all that and so fast. All the same, this Charlotte guy¾whoever he was¾was behind it all. He was the one responsible for all the deaths, and he was the one who established this school. Or was this place more along the lines of a concentration camp? And how many schools like this one had he built, and why?
The Counseling Educator had already answered the “why”. We were here to learn how to live once outside this school, and that meant things back home were drastically changed. Changed to the Charlotte’s liking, and we were either going to have to deal with it, or die. That was my conclusion, at least.
“Your schooling will begin tomorrow morning,” she continued to explain. “I will be here to escort each of you to your classes. Now, there are certain times you must remain here in your dorm. Every night after dinner the doors will lock.”
Dorm aka: dungeon.
“Don’t worry, you can’t get locked out. Should you loose track of time eating dinner your door will open to let you in. You’re only locked in from getting out. If you discover any issues with your lock inform the Principal Educator, and she will fix the problem.”
Oh great, now there was a “Principal” Educator involved. Just what we needed.
“I highly recommend that you try and make friends before the week is over. At the end of the week you will be moved to a new dorm, should you choose to be, with the new friends you have made. If you wish to stay in your current dorm room, the room we are in now, let me know.”
She stopped to pull out four pieces of paper giving one to each of us sitting on the floor.
“The paper I have handed out is what you use to fill in the names of the people you wish to be roommates with.” The woman spoke like she was talking to kindergartners. I could almost feel my brain cells dieing off one by one.
“What’s today?” I asked.
“Today is Monday. Tomorrow your classes will begin, which will be on a Tuesday.”
“Yeah thanks, I’ve known my days of the week since first grade.”
Apparently she was too dense to catch any sarcasm. The woman simply continued talking without a care in the world. Still, I was confused. Today should have been Sunday.
There were two explanations for this. Either the helicopter flew me somewhere on the other half of the world, or I had been asleep a lot longer than I thought.
Miss “Counseling Educator” was still talking. By now I had lost whatever interest I had in whatever else she had to say.
I stared at her. She could pass for beautiful when she wasn’t making faces. Her sandy colored hair had been pulled up into a neat bun, and her skin was an odd shade of chalky white. What really amazed me was how flawless she was. Every facial feature she had was sharp and pointed, but they fit her face perfectly. No wrinkles that I noticed. She even spoke with precision. No matter how strange she sounded her words always came out crystal clear.
All this made me want to hate her more. Desperate for something else to admire other then the beauty of a killer, I scanned the room.
Everything was white, not so much as a texture adorned the walls or the floor. Any sort of decoration¾though really there wasn’t any¾was solid black. The chair our councilor was sitting in was black, and most likely belonged to the black desk shoved in the corner. There were two bunk beds, four mattresses in all, each pushed up against the wall opposite of each other. The comforters on the beds were white, but the sheets and pillows were black. Two doors stood opposite each other down the length of the room, one door bearing the number five hundred twenty three on it.
“Where do the doors lead?”
My councilor stopped mid-sentence to answer. “If you had been listening you would know that the door behind you is where your bathroom is, and the door behind me leads out into the hallway.”
For a quick second I realized I was the only one, apart from the councilor, who had uttered a word. Maybe the other girls had all their questions answered while I was still knocked out. I reminded myself to worry about it later before I forgot my next question.
“Why does the door leading into the hallway have 523 written on it?”
She turned to look behind her then turned back to me. “Because this is dorm number five hundred twenty three.”
Quickly I did the math in my head. Assuming there were four people per dorm, and only five hundred twenty three dorm rooms that meant there was at least two thousand ninety two people in this building who were no different than me.
This was insanity! That many people kidnapped in only a matter of days? Redoing the math gave me the same answer as before. How is it that nobody saw this coming?
“Very well, if nobody has any more questions then I will be leaving you,” she said. “As I leave the door will lock behind me. You may go to sleep when you wish, but keep in mind that you will be awakened early in the morning. I will say again that I will be here in the morning to make sure everyone is up and ready. Then I will lead you to the cafeteria so you may eat breakfast, then I will escort you to your classes.”
No one moved but her. Me and my roommates watched in silence as she placed the chair under the desk and walked out the door with a few odd, yet somehow graceful movements.
My roommates seemed somewhat slow. One girl watched the door where our councilor disappeared, one was only now observing the room, and the last stared at the dog tag in her hands. Not one of them said a word, or made any fast movements.
Simply out of curiosity I walked to the door leading to the hall. I twisted, groped, and rattled the knob, ending with one resounding kick. The councilor was right, it was locked. My frantic attempt to open it startled my roommates. They were all staring at me now. Even as I stepped back their confused glares followed.
Ignoring them, I proceeded to the bathroom. It was basically like the other room only smaller. Plain, boring white with a black toilet and black shower curtain. There was one sink, and one mirror.
Thus the Charlotte’s first mistake was discovered. Forcing four girls to share one tiny bathroom was by no means smart. I wouldn’t even use public bathrooms, and now I was suppose to share one with three strangers?
That could guarantee only one thing: I was going to go mad with insanity before the week was over.
Shelves had been put up with fresh, folded clothes. Four different shelves with four names. Sure enough, there was my shelf with MEADOWS written on it.
All the clothes were the same with the exception of the pajamas where you got a white shirt and dark blue sweat pants to replace the jeans. I was never big on fashion, but never was I as blind as the person who picked out these outfits must be.
Walking out of the bathroom I found not one of my roommates had moved. How dense could people be? They sat there dumbfounded, on the floor, unsure and searching for something they would never find. Stifling a laugh I turned off the lights and crawled back into my bed.
It was silent for the longest time. The room which had once been such a sterile, bright white had dramatically changed to pitch-black with the flip of a switch. Laying there in total darkness reminded me of being in the helicopter. Goosebumps spread all over, a cold rippling effect, at the mere memory.
I knew where I was. Some sort of concentration camp the terrorists were passing off as a school. But where was my family? Somewhere close by in this very building? A whole other place like it? Or dead?
The locket! I dug into my pocket to find it empty. Every pocket was empty. I never would have thought I could miss that hideous thing so much.
I wish I knew what happened to Sadie. She could have made a run for it after we split up. She could be dead right now.
I fought to keep the picture of my baby sister lying dead on the ground out of my head, but it was so easy to picture. Sadie lifeless, and cold. Her body tangled up in an impossible position with her skin pale from loss of blood, and her beautiful blond curls stained deep red.
If¾by a miracle from God¾she was alive, she was no better off than I was.
I had even less of an idea of what happened to my parents. Poor dad, he was so big on family he was probably dieing right now not knowing what had become of his daughters. Despite my better intuition I hoped¾with no reason to hope¾that they were still alive somewhere. It didn’t matter where, as long as they were.
At last I was consumed by the thought that I may never see any of them ever again. Not my mother, not my father, and not my sister. It was more than a thought, it was reality. I would never see any of them again. Trying as hard as I could to quiet my sobs, I cried myself to sleep.
Everyone was woken up by the most annoying sound ever. A buzzer letting out a long, belting screech.
A door opened and a familiar mystic voice was in the air. By the sound of things everyone but me was on their feet getting ready. Somebody flipped on the light, which conveniently happened to be right in front of my face. I jerked back, pulling the blankets over my head. This must be what death feels like. My bed began to softly shake.
Nope, still alive.
“Go away,” I protested in vain.
Finally the blankets were removed and the councilor started shaking my arm.
Instantaneously I got up, yanking free of her grip. There was something about her touch that didn’t fit right, like back in the chopper. I felt wide awake, though this time not as ready to fight.
Without looking at her, or paying attention to whatever she was telling me, I made my way to the floor with the other girls, rubbing my arm to sooth the unusual feeling her touch left behind.
“Okay everyone,” she began, “first I will lead you to the cafeteria so you can eat breakfast. As soon as you are done meet me back here, and I will lead you to your classes.”
Since everyone had fallen asleep with their clothes on we were all ready to go.
Our Counseling Educator took us out the door, stepping into a very long hallway. The walls in the hall, as predicted, were nothing but white. We might as well have been walking down a long, white tube with doors.
“This hallway is for dorm rooms only.” The counselor spoke as if giving some sort of grand tour around Rome rather than showing a repeating hall.
The place didn’t seem to require much of an explanation. Doors where lined up along both sides of the walls bearing numbers that decreased as we walked. Pretty self-explanatory. Then again, with people like my roommates a tour might be necessary.
“Also, remember your room number. It is quite easy to get confused should you forget it. As a reminder, you are in dorm number five hundred twenty three. As we walk in this direction we are heading towards the cafeteria where you will eat all of your meals. If we were to walk in the opposite direction we would soon enter the section where the class rooms are located.”
Strange. I couldn’t recall the last time I ate anything, yet I still wasn’t hungry. My appetite was completely shocked.
A few younger boys stepped out of the doors in front of us, led by a male with neat hair and pointed facial features. Another one of them.
Vibrations from sound carried easily through the hall making eavesdropping effortless. The man started off his own tour the exact same way our Counseling Educator did. Word for word. Like they had been given strict orders on what to say.
“This is it,” she declared upon entering a wide, open room. “Meet me back at your dorm when you finish here.”
It was just another white room in the shape of a cube. Black tables, and black chairs. Boring.
I made my way through the lunch line behind the few people who where there before me. After I got my food I sat at the first table closest to leaving the line. Bacon, eggs, and a biscuit.
Not once did I touch the food.
The tables filled up fast. I watched the exit for the first person leave so that I would know when enough time had passed to make a break for it. When I got back to my dorm the councilor was there waiting for me.
“If you like I can walk you to class now so you won’t have to wait,” she offered.
“Sure.” Anything to spend less time with you, I thought.
“Great! Right this way.” She started down the hall opposite of the way we went to the cafeteria.
As we walked I realized the hall was actually shaped like a U. The portion of the hall on the rounded bit was the dorm section. Where the U turned and started going straight marked the beginning of the classroom section.
“Pay attention to were your class is located. This is the only day I will be here to escort you to it.
“Here we are,” she announced moments later. Her perfectly proportioned lips puckered as if she were happy to have arrived. “You’re welcome to go in and await the arrival of your fellow classmates.”
It was the first door down the long hallway. Well, it would be easier to remember where the class was located. There was a small silver lining. Sure, I was kidnapped, deprived of everything once precious, and put in a persecution camp, but hey, at least I knew my way around the torture chamber.
I stepped in without hesitation, desperate to escape the councilor’s annoying voice, only to be greeted by another.
“Welcome! You may sit wherever you like.”
Behind a big black desk sat a man with a stupid grin. His voice was deeper than my councilor’s, sounding like he must be even further into a dream land than she was. A very dull, boring dream. Oh well, at least this would make sleep easy.
Inside, the room reflected the same personality as the rest of the Charlotte School. One big white square. The desks looked like any desk in a normal high school, only black, and aligned in rows all facing where the teacher sat. I chose the seat I would have choose back in Oklahoma. The front desk in the middle row. Old habits were hard to beak, even if I no longer cared to be the teacher’s favorite.
Class went silent for awhile until the dull voice rang again. “Welcome! You may sit wherever you like.”
First I looked over at our teacher, and then to the boy who stepped through the door.
Boy. Bad choice of words. Granted his face was somewhat boyish, but that was hard to notice when he was walking around with his shirt off. Instead, he held his white uniform shirt limp in his hand. His brown hair was darkened by water and judging by the state of it, his only attempt to dry it had been to ruffle a towel against his head, not bothering to run a comb through it afterwards. He had a slight farmer’s tan, or rather; you could see where the sun tanned his skin around where his shirt should have been. But that too was difficult to notice. With muscles like that the guy could be a model.
He stopped dead in his tracks at the doorway when he noticed me staring like an idiot. Taken aback, plus partly annoyed, he put on his shirt.
I looked away almost instantly, cheeks burning hot. He made his way rapidly to the far side of the room, unable to get away fast enough.
I think I just made a friend.
“Welcome! You may sit wherever you like,” the teacher called out yet again.
That saying was going to get really old really fast.
Another boy walked in. This one was blond with scruffy hair, pale skin, and he actually wore his shirt. “You walk awfully fast,” he declared.
He hadn’t been talking to me, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t directed at the teacher. That left only one person.
Sure enough the blond haired boy made his way past me, heading towards the back of the room in the same direction the boy before him had gone.
“Why are we sitting way back here?”
My curiosity got the best of me, as it usually does. I turned slightly to find he, the first guy with the tan, was sitting in the last seat of the last row in a desk that had been shoved in a corner as far from the door as a person could get. And as far away from me.
Wow. I admit it was a little awkward when he first walked in, but it wasn’t like I had koodies. He didn’t have to hide.
He never answered the blond boy’s question, which was disappointing. I curious to hear his lame excuse.
“Welcome! You may sit wherever you like.”
By now I figured it best to quit looking up every time someone came in the room, but this poor boy walked passed my desk several times. He was pacing the floor, debating over where to sit. The term “boy” fit him perfectly. He was most likely Sadie’s age, and was all around tan. If I had to guess, he was probably Native American.
“Welcome! You may sit wherever you like.”
Multiple movies that take place in a school involve a group of girls, the prettiest girl being their ruler, and together they practically owned the halls which they walked. Until now I had never seen that in real life, but that’s exactly what walked through the door.
The girl that the others orbited around was tall, with flowing blond hair. It settled near the small of her back. Unlike my councilor, she was a natural beauty, and far more stunning.
Movie after movie flickered in my head… Note to self: stay on her good side.
Her and her followers found their seats a few rows back from mine while the dark headed boy continued to wander like a lost puppy with its tail between its legs.
A surge of pity stuck. A boy about Sadie’s age wandering around helplessly confused. Somewhere in the world it felt like Sadie must be doing the same. Who knows, maybe the boy had an older brother out there who abandoned him. A brother he had depended on, only to be let down in the end.
“You can sit here if you want,” I offered as he passed by again, motioning to the desk next to mine. He didn’t say anything. Simply nodded, gave me a polite grin, and took the vacant seat.
“Welcome! You may sit wherever you like.”
That saying had officially gotten old.
Without bothering to look up this time, I laid my head down in a desperate attempt to sleep. Right as I finally began to doze off the buzzer sounded once more. This time I jumped so high I was amazed I didn’t fall out of my chair.
“There goes the bell,” our teacher announced.
Every desk had been filled in the large box shaped room. Not a single person looked the least bit excited.
“Class has officially begun. Allow me to introduce myself, I am your Educator.”
A shuffling sound came somewhere near the back.
“Yes, what is your question?” the Educator asked automatically.
It was the pale, blond haired boy whose hand was raised. “What’s your name?”
“You may refer to me as your Educator.”
“But you have to have a name,” the boy pressed. “What is it?”
“You may call me Educator.”
Seeing that the argument was getting him nowhere, the boy pushed back, slouching into his chair. He had a slight accent I didn’t notice before. Canadian, maybe. It was so slight it was hard to tell.
“Now students,” our Educator began. “I am sure you all have many questions. Let me start off by telling you that questions are encouraged here. When you are in my class room I want you to feel comfortable.”
“If that was true he wouldn’t make us wear these clothes,” the blond boy mumbled rather loudly.
Even the Educator heard him from way back in the corner of the room where he sat next to his muscular friend. His friend sat with his arms crossed and a bored face. He glanced at me and I turned back to the front.
“There are few rules in this school, but those who break them will be severely punished,” our teacher pressed.
The Educator managed to strike my interest. What would punishment in a place like this be? Torture? I wasn’t about to ask.
“If you have a question it is best to look in here for the answer first.” He held a text book up for everyone to see. On the front cover was a falcon. A symbol of the Charlotte I realized. “Inside this you will find information on the school, as well as the new outside world.”
He began passing out text books to every row. When he got to me he flinched, dropping the book with a loud thud against my desk. I shuffled in surprise. What did the lunatic think he was doing?
The man hurried back to his desk flinging open one of the drawers. Everyone watched in silence as the Educator wrapped a band-aid around his index finger.
“A slight paper cut,” he informed us while he continued passing out the rest of the books.
Flipping through the pages I could tell it was going to be a long, miserable stay here. The book was thick with tiny print, and my particular book had a nasty yellow stain down the ridges of the pages.
I slept my way through the rest of class until the buzzer screeched loudly once again.
“Time for lunch already?” the Educator asked himself. “Okay class, if you will all please follow me I will show you the way back to the cafeteria for lunch.”
All the students followed him through the door, and into the hallway, where other Educators where leading their classes. There was still no point for an escort when the school was only one long, curved hallway.
Hardly anyone spoke. Guess it’s always awkward your first day at a new school.
Skipping breakfast turned out to be a bad idea. My stomach was twisted up into a knot rumbling furiously at me. I walked closely behind the Educator eager for food.
“Looks like somebody’s trying out for the role as teacher’s pet,” a voice came from behind.
It was one of the pretty girls trotting next to her leader. She stopped laughing as soon as I turned to glare at her. Didn’t really matter. The little backup minion could say whatever she wanted about me. At the end of the day she would still be the one idolizing a stranger. Still be the one trying to be someone else she knew nothing about, probably because her own life sucked. Her problem, not mine.
By the time I had my food most of the tables had been filled. I took the same seat at the table near the lunch line. The food served here was nothing like what was served at my old school. This looked like something you would find in France. Small portions of food, delicately decorated with a small desert for a finale. A meal far to pretty to eat. All the same, it vanished within two minutes. At that point the cafeteria was almost completely full, yet hardly any noise except soft chewing could be heard.
My hunger wasn’t anywhere near being satisfied. If anything the food only teased my appetite.
Having nothing better to do I flipped open my text book and began to read until something caught my eye.
The tall boy, the one with the now hidden farmer’s tan, bad attitude, and messy hair, had just gotten through the lunch line. His hair was dry now, turning out to be a gentle brown. His mercury blue eyes where scanning the tables for a place to sit.
Here was my chance. If I was going to make my stay here any less miserable then I had to start somewhere. Seeing how I would be forced to see him everyday it would be best to try to make things less awkward.
“If you want to sit here you can,” I called out, shrugging indifferently. “I’m not expecting anyone.”
He looked at me for a second without moving. For a moment he appeared confused, like he had misinterpreted what I said and was second guessing himself. Just then, while he was debating whether or not to take the seat, another boy got out of line bumping into him, and spilling his water all over the ground.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,” the other boy explained.
He took the seat across from me without so much as acknowledging the other boy. He was obviously agitated now, slamming his tray against the table making the other boy scurry off to the other end of the room looking petrified. Poor kid.
“Here take mine,” I said sliding my water across the table. “I haven’t touch it.”
I waited for a thank you that never came.
“I’m Monica Meadows.” I extended my hand.
He didn’t introduced himself, or even shake my hand. Instead, he looked at my palm, then to my face, making it clear he wasn’t about to touch my hand. He seemed repulsed be the very idea of it, pursing his lips and pulling his head back slightly.
Slowly I pulled my hand back, hiding it under the table.
The boy turned to sit sideways in his chair. Apparently he would rather stare at the wall than face me.
I started reading my text book again, which didn’t last long. Every passing second the awkwardness at the table grew heavier. I couldn’t take much more of it. There were times I could literately feel him watching me with resentment. And for what? I didn’t do anything to the stupid jerk!
Without so much as a good bye I clamped my book shut in my hand, and stormed off to my dorm.
Had the world really been deprived of all its common decency? People killing people for no plausible reason. One person, the Charlotte, thinking he was so much more superior than everyone else. And now this new guy sitting alone at my table! By the way he was acting you would think I spit in his face rather than said hello. It was people like them who made the world suck even in the best of times.
My dorm was empty. Curling up into a ball on my top bunk I continued to read.
Judging by the book, the Charlotte was a messed up man with a sick mind. Though I didn’t need the book to tell me that. However, he wasn’t stupid. Just by reading his words I could tell the whole thing was well thought through. It was all about making a bad man look good. There were some good ideas he had that never would have crossed my mind, but in my personal opinion, the Charlotte was going about things in the worst way.
It was upsetting to read with the many flash backs I was having, but the book had done its job. It distracted me from thinking about that boy with the farmer’s tan. Even realizing the fact that I didn’t know his name bothered me. He was just that boy.
I never should have invited him to sit with me. Tomorrow was doomed to suck. No, my entire stay here was doomed to suck, and mostly because of him. So much for making the best of a bad situation. When life gives you lemons what are you suppose to do?
He had completely killed that hope. Now when life threw a lemon at me I was forced to shut up and eat the dang lemon.
One of my room mates walked in without saying anything. Nobody ever said anything around this place. I gave up on reading, kicking my book to the foot of the bed, and closing my eyes.
Sleep would have come sooner if my mind hadn’t been stuck on that boy. My first day, and already I had found an enemy. There was no telling what tomorrow would be like.
The same second the wake up “bell” rang my feet were on the floor. All the other girls slowly made their way out of bed as I went into the bathroom to put on fresh clothes. I was the first one out the door.
Not many people were already in the hall, but it wasn’t completely empty. Of course, that boy and his blond haired Canadian friend had just come out of their room. Talk about horrible timing. That’s how they know each other, I discovered, the two of them were roommates.
Fortunately, they were walking behind me on the way to breakfast with two other guys I didn’t recognize walking in between us.
Good, the more distance there was to separate us the better, and more people meant more witnesses.
“Hey, hold up a second there girl,” someone called, his voice bouncing off the walls for everyone to hear.
I didn’t recognize the guy who had called out to me. He was one of the two boys I was grateful for being there as a bumper between me and that boy.
“You’re cute,” he continued. His friend nodded in agreement.
I kept walking.
“Wait, I’m not done talking to you,” he pressed.
“Well it looks like she’s done talking to you,” an accented voice commented. I didn’t have to look to know it was the blond haired Canadian who was at my defense.
The boy wasn’t bothered in the least bit by the Canadian’s remark, despite the truth of it. He trotted, closing up the gap between us with his friend at his heels.
Grabbing my arm tightly he yanked me around to face.
“Let go,” I demanded. “You’re hurting me.”
“Then we’ll strike a deal. My name is David, now you tell me your name, and I’ll let you go.”
“No,” I said flatly. That still didn’t discourage him.
It served to provoke him further. David tightened his hold. He might not have meant to hurt me, but I was built so small that it didn’t take much effort. And it didn’t help that the arm he grabbed was the one I nearly snapped wrestling the kidnappers, either. He tightened his hold even more to a point where a plea in the form of a cry burst from me, the sound of my scream reverberating through the hall back into my own ears.
Heavy foot steps echoed against the walls. Somebody was running, and they were getting rapidly closer. Even in pain it didn’t take long to realize it was him.
He refused slow down, not even as he zeroed in on us. Using his elbow, he knocked David’s friend out of the way with ease. It was a little bump, but enough to send the poor guy into one of the walls without so much as a breath.
Once that guy was out of his way it cleared the path to David. He grabbed David’s face with one hand, his palm covering David’s face entirely, and shoved his head back against the wall.
David released my arm, be he wasn’t satisfied leaving it at that. David wasn’t happy; he crouched down like he was about to spring for his legs and wrestle him to the ground.
It backfired. He clutched his fingers and as soon as David leaped he sprung right into a large fist sending his head back into the wall once again with a loud thud. It echoed.
I blinked, making sure I wasn’t seeing things. No, this was definitely real. I wasn’t alone, the Canadian boy’s eyes were wide in disbelief, too.
“So do I get to hit him?” the Canadian asked, motioning to the second unknown guy who was still on his feet.
Before my rescuer could answer both of the other boys made a run for it back down the hall, heading for the shelter of their dorm.
He turned back, grabbing my arm. It wasn’t like when the first boy grabbed me. He was gentle while he held my arm to check for damage rather then hold me down.
“You okay?” he asked as sincere as ever.
I was too mystified to speak. This close I could smell him, the sharp smell after taking a warm shower, and could see the purple under his glimmering blue eyes from lack of sleep. He even had a golden trim around the pupil of his eyes I never recognized before.
He looked away from the whelp on my arm to meet my eyes when he didn’t get an answer. I nodded quickly. He nodded once in return, allowing my arm to slip between his fingers. And he was walking towards the cafeteria without another word. His Canadian friend followed, smiling in bewilderment.
A small audience had started to gather. Oh sure, now people were starting to whisper. So much for the student’s silent streak. Shoving passed a small group of people I hurried to the cafeteria trying to sort out the mystery.
The world kept getting more and more strange. None of it made any sense. He didn’t make any sense. Yesterday he had been down right rude, then all the sudden morning comes and he’s running to my rescue, pretending to be the perfect gentlemen.
Seriously? What was up with that?
A large, red imprint of a hand lapped around my arm. It was beginning to throb by the time I got to my usual spot in the lunch room. I scanned the tables, but the boy and his blond haired friend were nowhere to be seen. Last night I fell asleep in regret for letting him sit with me at dinner, and now here I was hoping he would come and sit by me no matter how rude he might be.
Was there anything in the world these days that wouldn’t change over night? Doubt it. Given how bipolar this new universe seemed to be, I’d be the Charlotte’s best friend by tomorrow.
… Nah. That could never happen.
Breakfast didn’t take me long to finish. I grabbed my text book and headed towards class still a little buzzed from the fight. Sure I’ve watched fights before, they would break out occasionally at my old school, but I never watched one quite like this.
Not once had I been so close to the fight itself. I could hear the impact of his fist against David. There was only a trickle of blood falling from the poor kid’s nose. The old Monica would have been disturbed by the scene.
Class was nearly empty when I walked in. Taking my normal front and center seat, I flipped open my text book which by now I was over half way through reading. Yes it was boring, but it wasn’t like I had anything better to do all day while I was here. An itch prickled against my neck, making it impossible to focus on the printed words. It wasn’t as painful as it was agitating. My own little nuisance. A nuisance I had many other times around my neck from necklaces, ears from earrings, fingers and wrists from bracelets and rings.
That stupid name tag!
The chain I was required to wear at all times had made me break out. Perfect. I started scratching at the irritated skin, but all that did was make it worse. Class started and the Educator must have noticed my frequent itching mid-way through today’s lesson.
“Is everything okay?” His voice didn’t exactly come off as a concerned, more like an automatic response. Just like with the councilor, I found it annoying when he spoke directly to me, like the two of us were cool. Best friends, even.
Everyone in the class, including him, was watching me now in utter silence as I attacked my neck. I dropped both my hands beneath my desk. “I’m fine. It’s this metal chain is made with nickel, which I’m allergic to. It gave me a rash for wearing it too long.”
“Do you need to see a Nursing Educator?”
“Oh, no. Really I’m fine, if I could take it off for awhile it will fade.”
His eyebrows rose. “You claim to be allergic to nickel?”
“Very well. I will pull up the computer copy of your profile and check your medical records. If what you say is true a solution will be found.” He held out his hand for the chain.
“Check my profile?” I wondered aloud.
“Every student has a profile kept in case of situations such as these.” He lifted the chain in his hand. “They have two, actually. One is an actual file folder, and the other is kept on the computer.”
Walking back behind his desk he sat down at the computer, typing so fast the clicking of the keys sounded like a humming noise.
“So it is true,” the Educator stated as he walked back towards my desk. “You are allergic to nickel. Not to worry Miss…,” he paused reading the name off the tag, “miss Meadows. By class tomorrow morning you will have a new chain and a new ID made from silver.”
“After all, the Charlotte cares only for your safety, as do I.”
“Liar,” I mumbled. I couldn’t help it, someone had to say it.
“Excuse me, Miss Meadows. Was there something else you would like to say?”
I shrugged innocently. “No, nothing.”
“I believe you just referred to me as a liar?”
“Yep, sure did.”
“What might cause you to accuse me of such a thing?”
“The Charlotte cares for my safety? Is that a joke?” I struggled to keep my voice relatively calm, without much success. “And you? You don’t know the first thing about me, or anyone in this room for that matter. Why should you care about us? Not to mention,” I pressed on before he had a chance to justify himself, “I have proof that this entire school is nothing more than a hoax.”
“Oh? What proof might that be?”
I held up my text book. “This. I’ve read almost all of it. Every last word written here is trying to persuade everyone that they should follow the Charlotte, how great a man the Charlotte is, when really, not one word is true. You’re trying to brainwash everyone into worshipping the same dictator who murdered the people closest to us.” I slammed it down against my desk, making sure I delivered my point.
“Reading nearly all the book in one day is quite impressive,” he complemented walking over to the front of my desk. “However, I assure you that there is no scam involved. I truly do I have your best interests in mind, as well as that of the other students.”
I lost it. I had estimated it would take around a week before I lost my sanity. I was wrong. Only took two days.
“Really?” I screamed. “You kidnapped us from our houses, murdered our families, then drug us all here to the Charlotte School to suffer. You don’t care about any of us. All you care about it worshipping your ‘oh-so-special’ Charlotte! So stop pretending like my needs are of interest to you, I’m not that stupid!”
“Sit down, Miss Meadows.”
I wasn’t sure when, but sometime during my little rebellion I had gotten up from my chair to scream in the Educator’s face.
“Sit down Miss Meadows.” It wasn’t a request, but he wasn’t angry. He was… indifferent? Yes, that’s the word. Never have I met a man who could stay calm when someone shouted in his face. I was on the brink of hysterics while he’s leisurely apathetic!
And believe me, I was only on the brink. So far, I hadn’t done or said half of what I wanted.
Either way, calm or infuriated, I wasn’t going to sit and listen to this man chatter away with the rest of the lesson like nothing had happened. Sitting back down wasn’t an option.
The bell rang¾which I was grateful for. I turned to get my book off my desk to see all eyes focused intently upon me. I knew it rang, but everyone sat unmoving in their seats.
All of the pretty girls, including their leader, stared at me. The little dark boy I let sit by me appeared petrified. The Canadian sitting in the corner wore a huge grin, founding my little display humorous. Even he watched as I stormed out the door for lunch.
“Looks like teacher’s pet knows how to bite.”
I glanced over to the group of girls just before slamming the door behind me. It was the blond, gorgeous leader scolding her minion who made fun of me yesterday.
And that was that.
Once I had food I sat at my table, mind buzzing like crazy.
I had no idea what provoked me to argue with that man in the first place. Maybe watching the fight this morning left me feeling a bit rambunctious. Maybe it made me feel like fighting, too. Had the Educator tried to take a swing at me I know I would have hit back. Me and my little fists of fury. Not that I could do much damage, but still.
No one back home would ever believe me if I told them what had just happened. It wasn’t like me. Like Sadie certainly, but not sweet, innocent Monica. I was always an angel next to my sister. I couldn’t remember the last time I raised my voice against an adult like that. Honestly, I was proud of myself.
Someone’s tray plopped down in front of me. Glancing up, he gave me a small grin as our eyes met.
“I’m Stratton,” he announced with an outstretched hand.
For a split second I eyed his offer, then glared back up at him with a look equally as rude to the one he had given me when I first introduced myself.
He shrugged pulling back his arm. “Fair enough.”
“Well, well, well.” The Canadian slapped his tray against the table, claiming the seat next to his friend. “If it isn’t our little damsel in distress. Those guys give you any more trouble?”
“None,” I muttered a little embarrassed.
“I didn’t think they would after what he did to them,” he laughed. “I’m Wes, by the way. This here is Stratton. He doesn’t talk much.”
“Meadows,” he interrupted. “Yeah I know. I think the whole class knows who you are now.”
Chances are the blond boy, Wes, was right. That was doomed for disaster. I could manage on my own until the limelight was thrown on me. Only this time I did it, I had stepped right into the light the instant I started arguing back. Foiled by my own self. “Just my luck.”
“No need to get embarrassed,” Wes added quickly. “What you did back in class was incredible.”
“Incredible?” I laughed. “Yeah, right.”
“No really! Look around. No one else here has enough courage to so much as speak to the Educators, let alone get in their face and yell at them.”
“Honestly, I don’t remember anything I said, or what I was even fighting over.”
“It was still awesome to watch,” he assured me. “Eh, Stratton?”
Stratton didn’t say anything. He looked at Wes, then over to me, and continued eating.
“So,” Wes turned back to me, “where are you from?”
“Oklahoma? Do you guys have parties in your barns down there?”
“Only when the Indians aren’t circling,” I teased.
I hated the typical Okie stereotype. Everyone labeled us a hick state simply because, well, I’m not sure why. Because we hosted rodeos and some people listened to country music? It was something I never could figure out.
“Excuse me,” a girl’s voice cut in. “Would it be okay if I sat here?”
I turned and there at my table stood the last person I expected to see. It was the blond haired beauty. The leader over the other girls, only now she was alone.
“Uh, sure,” I said indifferently. Hopefully she didn’t notice my surprise.
She set her trey down next to mine, taking the unclaimed seat across from Wes.
“It’s Meadows, right?” she asked, greeting me with a stunning white smile and Australian accent.
“I’m Lexi. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m Wes, and this here is my friend Stratton,” he interrupted.
Lexi looked suspiciously from Wes to Stratton. “Can he talk?”
“Of course he can talk.”
“Then why doesn’t he?” she asked. Though her question was directed towards Wes, she locked eyes with Stratton who stared back unseeingly at her.
“I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t like you.”
She switched her penetrating gaze to Wes. “Has he ever said anything to you?”
“No,” he admitted. “I’ve only ever seen him talk to Meadows.”
Only spoke to me? He had asked me if I was okay, and briefly introduced himself. Nothing more. It’s not like we carried on conversations about our inner most feelings. The boy hated me, but at least I knew his name now.
“Then I guess he doesn’t like you either,” Lexi pointed out.
Wes sat straight up in his seat, agitated. “Is there a reason you came over here?”
“Yes actually,” Lexi said, a bit smug from winning the argument. “I wanted to talk with Meadows.”
At first I thought I had misunderstood her, but she turned in her chair to face me.
“That was a really brave show you put on back there. I was impressed.” If anyone other than Lexi had told me that, I would have laughed in their face. However, Lexi sounded utterly sincere.
A familiar, all around tan boy was standing at the corner of our table. The lost puppy dog with nowhere else to turn wound up on my doorstep once again.
He stood there holding his trey with both hand up to his chest.
Everyone at the table stopped to see what the wandering boy wanted.
His deep brown, watery eyes flickered to the faces staring up at him. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but no words came out. The pressure was apparently too much for him.
“The Indians are circling! What do we do, Meadows?” Wes teased, then became serious. “What do you want, kid?”
The boy’s lips trembled as he looked down on Wes. Unable to maintain eye contact with the threatening stranger, he let his head fall so that he was forced to see only the food on his trey. Had he not been so tan his cheeks would have been a deep cheery red.
“Be nice,” Lexi snapped back at Wes then turned to our visitor. “Did you want something?”
He looked up trying to avoid meeting Wes’s eyes. “I was hoping that I, maybe, could sit with you.”
“Well of course you can,” Lexi exclaimed making it sound as if she was surprised he would have to ask.
“Sit here,” Wes motioned to the seat next to his. Chances are Wes hadn’t been trying to scare the poor boy. He was probably hoping to show the kid that he really could be a nice guy. “You got a name?”
I seriously doubt there could have been a better name for the boy. It fit perfectly with his tanned skin, brown hair so dark it was on the verge of being black, and deep, deep mud brown eyes.
“Awe, I like that name,” Lexi beamed. “Where are you from?”
“Michigan. It’s in the United States.”
“I’m from Toronto in Canada,” Wes added, “We didn’t live very far apart.”
“Well I’m from Sydney Australia. Half the world away,” Lexi joined. Everyone turned to look at me.
Next was Stratton’s turn. It took him a second to realize everyone had been waiting on him. As soon as it struck him he was suppose say something he suddenly became excruciatingly hungry, and engaged himself in shoving a large amount of food into his mouth.
“You know,” Wes said turning back to me, “I thought you had a slight hick accent.”
“I do not have a hick accent.”
“You do to me.”
To him, maybe, but I had traveled all over the U.S. and I spoke no different than everyone else had. With the exception of New York and New Jersey.
“I didn’t hear one,” Coffee objected in my defense.
“So Coffee,” Lexi started, “What brings you here?”
“I, well… I was kind of curious. I was hoping Meadows could shed some light on the whole Charlotte scam.”
All eyes immediately switched to me. Even Stratton stopped eating to look up.
“What do you want to know?” I ventured
“Why are we here?” Wes asked without the slightest delay.
“My best guess is based off what the councilor told us.” I paused, but they seemed to have wanted more. “The world is changing, or being changed I should say.”
“By the Charlotte?” Coffee asked making sure he was following along with complete understanding. I nodded.
“We’re here to get an idea of what things will be like by the time we get out of here. This entire book,” I nodded towards the text book with the falcon crest. “Is like a sugar coating for all the wrong things he’s doing. Not even that, but making it sound like he’s a marvelous person for doing what he dose. Every last word is written in his defense, but no matter what his intentions may be he’s going about each one of them in the worst way. The book simply doesn’t tell you that.”
“Can you give us an example?” Coffee perked. “About something the Charlotte did with a good intentions gone wrong, I mean?”
“Look around you,” I fought the urge to scream. “The Charlotte went through all this to apparently make a better place out of the world. I’m not sure how you feel about all this, but I seriously doubt murdering innocent people and kidnapping the survivors isn’t the best way to go about doing anything. This is just the prime example, read the book for yourself and you’re bound to find some more.”
Stratton was the only one still watching me with ever so curious eyes, yet he appeared utterly dumb-struck. Everyone else indulged in fiddling with their food, but not eating it.
I shrugged. “And the Charlotte will come out looking like the super hero who saved the world after everyone gets through reading that book.”
Wes threw a repulsed look towards his text book sitting on the table next to his trey. He slid his arm across the surface knocking his book to the floor, and it was all I could do not to laugh at his expression.
“And thus,” Wes proclaimed, “one man claimed the world.”
Claimed the world? I thought about it for a second. Sure me and Coffee both lived in the U.S. when we were caught, but Wes was from Canada. Lexi was from Australia which was, like she said, half the world away. Had the entire world really been lost?
“So Stratton,” Wes said turning in his chair. “Tell us about your old school, and home.”
Stratton went for more food only to find his plate completely empty. For a long time he stared blankly down at the clean trey with a sad face.
It was hard to hate him with that face. His messy brown hair fell a little when he put his head down, his lower lip stuck out slightly, and is dark blue eyes somewhat glowed like a royal sapphire lousing in the sun.
The protesting screech of metal against marble echoed around the silent lunch room. Coffee had gotten up pushing his chair in under the table.
“I hate to say this, but I think I should be heading back to my dorm now.”
We all said a quick goodbye, then watched as he started to leave.
“Hey, Coffee,” I called. He stopped and turned back around. “You wouldn’t happen to have any other brothers or sisters would you?”
He shook his head slowly. “No, I’m an only child. Why?”
When I was a younger I would wake up from a nightmare sitting straight up in bed, eyes peeled open. As I got older I grew out of it, and yet here I lay wide awake in the middle of the night. Straight up, and eyes opened wide.
By now the memory of the dream had drifted too far away to remember. For some reason I simply couldn’t fall back asleep.
I didn’t have to remember the dream to know I wanted nothing more to do with it. Whatever it had been about was enough to disturb me down to my core, reducing me back into childhood.
The sheets had been damp with sweat which meant my arms should not be covered in goose bumps, which they were. Trying to pull my mind away from the foreign feeling embedded in my gut, I flipped through the channels in my mind.
Sadie, or mom and dad? No, those were too sad. No use in making the situation worse. My old friend Heidi? Hah, friend. What a joke that had turned out to be. Stratton? Sure, it was better than the first ideas.
What kind of name was Stratton anyway? It didn’t sound like a normal name. Even the name Coffee sounded a little off until I caught a glimpse at his dog tag. Coffee was his last name. He probably figured since Meadows was what everyone knew me by then he should go by his last name, too.
And what was Stratton’s deal with talking? He wasn’t the type of person to strike you as shy, what with all that walking around topless and beating the crap out of complete strangers. He was without a doubt the most complicated person I had ever met. Yet, he was so simple minded he wouldn’t talk.
Stratton was simply complicated.
Everyone was new here, but even in a place I’ve never been with people I’ve never met he still seemed like an outsider. Like he didn’t quite belong here, and he knew it, too.
Wes obviously hadn’t figured that one out yet. Every time Stratton did something odd¾or in a sane person’s point of view, normal¾Wes got all excited like he had taught his pet a new trick.
Finally my mind began to fuzz as I slid once more into unconsciousness.
The same dream, whatever it was, had woken me up once more. This time I refused to fall back asleep in fear of picking it up where it left off. I took a hot shower trying to get rid of the annoying goose bumps prickling up my arm. By the time I was dressed the wake up bell buzzed through the room.
Before anyone had enough time to turn on the light, I was out the door with my book tucked under my arm. The hall was empty now. Not a single soul in sight which I took as a good sign.
It didn’t take me long to finish off breakfast with my hunger and the small amount of food provided. I hurried off to class once I was done to find I was the first one there other then the Educator.
I took my usual seat in the front row, placing my text book on top of the wooden, tuxedo black desk. I had to forced myself not to look up when someone entered the room, knowing fully well who it would be.
My arms were folded tightly across my chest, and my eyes locked in place having a stare down with the floor until something came in between me and my line of sight.
Sure enough, there stood Stratton towering over me.
He blinked saying nothing, his face clear of any emotion. At least he was wearing his shirt making it possible to notice his face.
With one quick movement he disappeared behind me, heading to his territory in the back of the room.
Something was different. The moment I noticed what it was I felt like an idiot. My book was missing.
Sure enough, there was Stratton once again in the far corner of the room with an extra book in his hand. He held it up as if to say “come get it”.
He dropped the book on top of a desk, where Wes normally sat, with an echoing thud, then sat in his cornered chair holding his eyes to mine.
I sat, and he sat, in dead silence for awhile. Neither of us willing to look away from the other first. I had been debating about how to go about getting my book back. God only knew what was going though his mind.
Fine. He won. I gave a sigh of surrender, getting up as slowly as possible.
There was a smug grin on his face the whole time as he watched me walk down the isle to him.
Once I had my book in my hand I turned to walk back to my original spot, but Stratton’s expression caught my eye.
He looked genuinely surprised, like he hadn’t been expecting me to just get my book and leave.
“What?” I demanded in response to his questioning look.
Again he said nothing. No surprise there. His stone cold blue eyes switched from me, to the empty desk, then settled back on me.
“Whatever.” Again the book slammed down against the wood, this time by my own doing. Another sigh slipped out as I sat down next to him.
“Are you angry?” he asked.
My stomach did a back flip and landed on what must have been its head. I hadn’t expected him to say anything, then when he actually did his voice sounded more sincere than Lexi’s ever could have managed. Almost like he didn’t know right from wrong.
“No. I was a little annoyed, is all.”
“Oh.” He nodded looking forward. “That’s good.”
Weather he meant not being mad was good, or being annoyed was good was unclear, as most things were when it came to Stratton.
His hair looked almost black with it wet. Tiny beads of water made his messed up hair appear to be shinning in the light of the room.
My hair had been dry for awhile now, but in order for him to have had the time to take a shower, and be in class early meant he would have had to been up for a long time. Sometime well before the bell would have rang, anyway.
Instantly I felt my curiosity kick in. What was is that woke him up before everyone else? It seemed too ironic to think he had a bad dream, too. Maybe his body was already accustomed to waking up early. For a moment I debated asking him, but it’s not like he would admit to anything.
Wes appeared out of nowhere. He stopped, standing in between me and Stratton glaring down at where I now was with a blank expression.
“What?” I inquired.
“You’re in my seat.”
Before I could get up to give Wes his spot back Stratton snatched Wes’s book from his hand, slapping it down against the desk in front of his.
Wes shrugged, and walked slowly over to his new desk. His head hit the wood almost instantly as he sat down facing the wall. Somebody wasn’t a morning person.
The room was quiet for awhile until Lexi walked in with her league of followers. Her three friends walked over to their usual seats. Lexi, however, seemed a bit reluctant on joining them.
Eventually she made up her mind, walking over to where I now sat in the far corner of the room. Her friends stopped talking, watching her every step of the way.
“May I?” She nodded towards the vacant desk sitting ahead of mine, across from Wes.
She smiled warmly while she sat down. “You look dead,” she greeted Wes.
He responded with one low moan, never once moving out of his comfortable position.
She turned to Stratton. “Good morning.”
Part of me expected him to say something, but I must have known he wouldn’t. It just seemed weird. Lexi had that open personality that made everyone feel at ease around her. She had managed to get a response out of Wes in the middle of his delusion, and yet Stratton sat there doing nothing. His face was smooth from any emotion except maybe a hint of boredom.
Coffee had come into the room wandering aimlessly for a place to sit. My moving left him to fend for himself.
“Hey, Coffee! Right here.” I patted the empty chair next to mine. He nearly jogged he was so excited by the offer.
He took the seat happily, but didn’t talk. His eyes scanned the wood of his desk taking in every aspect of its burnt black detail.
The bell rang, its annoying sounds bouncing franticly from wall to wall. Each desk in the oversized class room had been filled, yet no one spoke.
No one ever spoke from the beginning of class until the end. Each one of them afraid of what such consequences might be. I wasn’t.
After all, I had nothing left to loose. Everything I had once cherished vanished. Taken from me. The only thing I had now was my life, which was officially pointless. It wasn’t a life at all. They could kill me if they wanted to, as far as I was concerned they would be taking me out of my misery. My death would be nothing short of mercy.
Our Educator walked to the front of the class, far from where I now sat.
“Today we will begin our first lesson on the Charlotte himself. Can anyone tell me who the Charlotte is?” He paused. “No? Well, simply put, he is the president of the new world.”
I snorted. “Must have missed that election.”
His head twitched in my direction. “Did you have a comment, Miss Meadows?”
“No.” I shrugged. “Carry on.”
“Can anyone tell me what are some of the things the Charlotte is in charge of? Or list something that he dose?”
My hand sprung up, reaching as far as my arm and back would allow. It was a good thing I was sitting further away, making it not nearly as tempting to jump to my feet. Either way, this was going to be fun. I was reveling in the anticipation.
“Yes, Miss Meadows?”
Wes’s head popped up, suddenly very interested in where this lesson was going.
“He kills people. There’s something for your list.”
“No, Miss Meadows. I am afraid you are mistaken. The Charlotte has never done harm to another human being.”
“Huh. Really, are you sure?”
“Okay then, I’ve got another. He kidnaps people and brings them back here where he can brainwash them into worshiping him like a god.”
“No, Miss Meadows.”
“Yes, Mr. Educator.”
“No,” he said in a much stronger tone, suggesting the argument had reached a finishing point.
“What is your job as an Educator?” It was a random question, but I had a point. This conversation was anything but being close to ending.
“To teach you the fundamentals of the new world, and educate you on the Charlotte. My job is to open your eyes to bigger, and better things. When I believe you have accepted the Charlotte into your heart, you will graduate.”
“Accept him into my heart?”
“That is correct.”
“What does that mean?”
“That you take him as your ruler, and may hopefully even grow to love him.”
“Well then this school is just as much a waste of my time as it is yours, Educator. I could no sooner learn to love the Charlotte than Anne Frank could learn to love Hitler.”
He scrunched up his face, attempting to look appalled. “How could you ever compare the Charlotte to such a horrible man?”
“Better question. How could you ever expect me to love a man who stole my life? A man who separated me from my family and destroyed the lives of millions? Sounds an awful lot like Adolf Hitler to me.”
The Educator went silent while he searched for something to counter my proclamations. His head made small twitching movements from side to side in concentration.
“Try not to think too hard, you might hurt yourself,” I cautioned. In front of me I heard Wes desperately attempting to stifle a laugh with no success.
He straightened up, fixing his gaze on me. Wes stopped laughing.
“I see the Charlotte more as an Abraham Lincon sort of man.”
“Wow. I’m pretty sure Lincon would spit on your face if he were here to hear you say that.”
The Educator narrowed in on me. “Was it not Lincon who said ‘I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest amount of people’?”
“Yes it was. The problem here is you’re attempting to manipulate everyone in this room by comparing him to someone he is nothing like. Lincon loved his country and fought for freedom. The Charlotte is an antisocial maniac who thought he would entertain himself by playing God, when really he hates people.”
He shook his head through out my given speech. “The Charlotte dose not hate you.”
“Well I hate him,” and I was glad to finally admit it.
The three days spent here felt so much longer than what they must have been. Each minute was an hour, each hour a day. Everyday a life time.
It seemed the words had been put off for far too long, something had to be said. I hated him. Hated him with a deep passion growing still stronger inside of me.
What a terrible thing hate could be. It could rot your mind and poison your soul, yet here I was embracing it like a long awaited reunion with and old friend. Controlling it was beyond any will power I might have.
I hated him for taking me out of my home, for separating me from my family. Hated him for slaughtering innocent people, and thinking he was so much more superior to the rest of us. Hated him for ruining my life. But most of all, I hated him for killing me.
There was no doubt in my mind that I was no longer the same person I was four days ago. Fear, misery, and anger¾a lethal combination¾had warped my mind and twisted my opinions.
For a moment I was in shock, amazed at how much one person could change in such a short time. Short time that felt overwhelmingly like an eternity.
No, I was sure of it. The real reason I hated the Charlotte was because he killed me using what seemed to be the slowest form of torture. The once known Monica was dead, and in her place a new person was born of the Charlotte’s making. A person born of blood and gold.
But I was alone. Not one other person in class said a word. No one jumped in the argument. Did no one else care? Where people really that blind, or just frightened?
“I think a trip to the Principal Educator would be necessary in this situation,” the Educator digressed. “You have been enough of a disturbance in my lessoning. Just walk down this hall, and you will find the Principal Educator’s office.”
Suddenly I noticed everyone’s eyes fixed to me moving as I moved towards the classroom door. Their gazes literally weighed down on me forcing me to slump as I walked. It took all my energy not to meet their following stares. I looked straight with my chin held high amazed at how rapidly hate could turn to pride.
The door shut with a purposely inflicted thud. Honestly, I had no idea where the office was located. So, I picked a way and started walking.
After awhile of walking I hit a dead end in the hall. Then I saw it. At the end of the hallway I had chosen was a turn that was impossible to see from far back. Even now as I stood only feet from the turn off it seemed like nothing more than a mirage.
You couldn’t really say it was a turn in the hallway, it was more of an opening in the wall, like someone had carved out a large square. If you walk into the square, look left, look right, you would see two never before seen passage ways.
What made it so hard to see was the white on white. At first glance it appeared as nothing more than a smooth wall heading towards a dead end. If it weren’t for the slight overlapping shade it would have surpassed me entirely.
I held my hands out in front of my body as I walked slowly towards the secrete opening, in case my judgment was mistaken and there was really nothing there. Once in the nearly-invisible passage way I sighed in relief. I still had some of my sanity left.
To the right appeared to be another hallway with a dead end. To the left reveled a shorter hall ending with a door entitled “PRICINCIPAL EDUCATOR’S OFFICE”.
My pulse was shockingly calm as I walked through the door. I had been expecting my cheeks to flash a rich red. Maybe even break down crying for mercy from the principal like I knew I would have at my old school. Somehow though, all I felt in the situation was boredom.
Guess I really was insane.
There was probably no use in knocking, the principal must have already been informed of my coming. I walked straight in, sliding the door shut behind me, and paused.
This had to be, by far, the strangest room I had ever been in. The fist thing I noticed was a computer. Back home newer computer monitors where being made as slim as possible, and the computer itself took on a professional look.
The monitor for this computer was slim, but it was built into the computer itself. Wires came exploding out of the computer and looped around back inside through cracks. On the back where I imagined the Microsoft apple would have been was the Charlotte symbol instead.
What was really overwhelming was how openness of the room made it seem much larger than it was. Along the wall on the right side of the office you couldn’t see any white. It was entirely covered from floor to ceiling with silver drawers, missing the handles to open them. The left side of the office was a blank wall with nothing but a door. Behind it was probably the principal’s personal dorm room.
At last I saw the principal sitting calmly behind the desk. Her hair was pulled up into the neatest brown bun I had ever seen. She sat so still I couldn’t even notice her breathing.
“Sit,” she instructed with a monotone voice.
In front of the desk sat a little back metal chair, waiting for me.
“Tell me,” she went on, “how are you adapting to our new school here?”
“I’m not adapting at all.”
“Yes, that much I figured.” She blinked for the first time. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here, would you?”
I stared blankly, saying nothing.
“What is it about this school that displeases you?”
“Why is it you do not respond to the questions I ask?”
“Because stupid questions don’t deserve answers.”
“Well then, let us get right down to the point. Do you know why you are here?”
“Nope, not a clue.” Honestly, I had no idea.
“I was told you made a disrespectful comment directed towards the Charlotte himself. Is this true?” Her eyebrows lifted. “You claimed, and I quote, ‘I hate the Charlotte.’?”
It was hard to take anyone with her voice seriously. Even the fact that she was completely and totally serious made it difficult to keep a straight face.
“That’s funny. Last time I checked this was a free country where I could say whatever I wanted about whoever I wanted.”
She laughed an obviously fake laugh. “My dear girl, you are no longer in the United States. Even if you were it wouldn’t matter. The states are no more.”
The oversized room began to spin around my head. The sliver of the cabinets blurred against the white of the rest of the room. It was all I could do not to fall out of my chair. All boredom was gone, vanished by the fuming sickness.
She couldn’t have been lying. I knew deep down America had fallen, and it wasn’t America alone. Wes had been from Canada, Lexi from Australia, and now no one knew where we were. My home was lost for good, all aspects of the great nation shattered.
Don’t throw up, don’t throw up…
Words automatically came out, scratching my throat as they left. “And you wonder why I hate the Charlotte?”
The principal slammed her palms down against her desk, making the room shake along with its spin. Her voice, though, sounded much more believable in my delusion.
“I will not stand for you to be a negative influence on the other students attending this school. I have tried to reason with you, yet you refuse to hear what is being said. Now you must be punished.”
This one, the principal, wasn’t like the other Educators in the school. She actually got angry, screaming and making furious faces that looked both normal and intimidating. Every other Educator refused to raise their voice, always trying to win over your approval with politeness, but not this one. She couldn’t care any less than she already did.
She opened a drawer behind her desk and pulled out a thick, flat, and metal bracelet. “Give me your arm.”
I didn’t move. The spinning room came to a shuttering halt with the principal’s rubber-like fingers found my wrist. I never noticed she had gotten out of her chair.
“Now, allow me to demonstrate,” she sneered, walking back to her chair behind the computer.
She turned the computer screen to where I could see it. Only two things were being shown. There was what looked to me like the speedometer in a car with numbers ranging from ten to fifty, the needle on the ten. Secondly, there was a big red “DISIPLIN” button shown that the curser was hovering over.
She pressed the button with one flick of a finger. For a moment there was nothing, then out of nowhere, the pain came all at once.
It felt as if nuclear acid had been injected into my veins, surging further into my body with every pump of my accelerating heart beat. It started in my wrist, pulsing erratically up my left arm.
I cried out in agony time and time again. The pain made me instinctively want to curl my fingers into a fist, but the throbbing shock made it impossible. My hand locked in a position resembling an eagle’s claw, trembling. Finally, when my blood veins were so swollen they were on the verge of exploding, it stopped.
The principal showed no sign of emotion while she watched. Here I was, forcing air into my lungs to keep from blacking out, while she hardly even blinked. There was no sympathy in her eyes for the inflicted pain, yet no enjoyment at my expense. There was nothing.
She was nothing.
“You may proceed onto lunch now. The bracelet is to stay on your person at all times. Let this be a lesson to you, Miss Meadows. The next time you participate with anything but obedience the situation will not be taken so lightly.”
Maybe my hearing had worsened due to the trauma of everything, but she sounded more animated than before. Like a character from a cartoon would have. She must have been more out of it than I was.
This time I obeyed. Actually, I couldn’t get out the door fast enough. Now that the pain was gone everything around me seemed more real. The walls never looked so clean to me before, and the lights were now so bright each one was like an individual sun. Every sense I had took in everything.
My hearing hadn’t worsened, it had improved. So what did that about the educator’s voice?
The first thing I noticed in the cafeteria was my lunch table with every chair, except for one, occupied. No one noticed when I entered, no one but Stratton, anyway. He had been watching the door, waiting for me to walk through it.
There was a gentle hum of conversation in the lunchroom, the loudest it had ever been. Then I noticed, Stratton hadn’t been the only person watching me tangle my way though the tables. Other people were eyeing me too, as they would a killer walking down death row.
“There’s the little rebel!” Wes announced my arrival. I grinned despite myself. “So? How did it go, eh?”
“Well, they put a shock collar on me,” I said indifferently as I raised my left arm so they would all see.
Lexi gasped, Wes’ mouth fell open with a pop. Even Stratton sat with his eyes wide open and his mouth slightly opened, then quickly closed like he almost said something. It took me a second to understand their overdone reaction to the situation.
My entire arm appeared tranquil, as if I were nothing more than a ghost. You could hardly tell where my nails began I was so white. My veins, thankfully no longer twice their size, shown like neon blue serpents running down from shoulder blade to finger tip.
“What did they do to you?” Lexi cried.
I shrugged, finally sitting down in my seat. “The principal gave me a demonstration.”
“A demonstration of what?” Lexi complained. “Torture?” Her voice was so high it made her Aussie accent all the more noticeable.
“Precisely.” I nodded. They all four stared at me for a few full seconds like they were missing part of the story. I hadn’t even noticed Coffee was there at first, he was so quite. His eyes never left the hunk of metal displayed around my wrist.
“It’s not so bad,” I went on to explain. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. Now it feels more like the tingly feeling you get when your foot falls asleep.”
The room went utterly silent in time for my stomach to start grumbling for all to hear. It echoed across the room, bouncing off the sterilized walls. That stupid shock had woken me up to realize how hungry I really was. No surprise there. No matter how good the food was here I couldn’t ever see myself adapting to the tiny portions of each serving.
Someone had pushed a plate full of untouched food right under my nose. I looked up in time to see Stratton’s hand slip under the table, and back into his lap.
“Ah-ha,” Wes noted. “That’s why you got two plates.”
Stratton slightly shrugged not once glancing at Wes, but looked straight ahead were I was sitting. There was more food on the plate than was usual. Stratton must have added some of his own food to mine.
“I could get that off of you, you know?” Coffee said speaking for the first time. He motioned towards the bracelet. I threw my arm across the table with absolutely no hesitation.
He laughed. “Sorry, I meant that I could get it off. But, you see, that’s a very high powered piece of equipment. The only way that thing is coming unlatched is through high jacking the computer program controlling it.”
I withdrew my arm. “And you know how to do that?” I asked slowly. “You can highjack a complex computer system?”
Wes perked up in his chair, intrigued by what Coffee was saying. “How do you know about this?”
“My parents were engineers as well as scientists,” he spoke more confident than I ever imagined he could. “They taught me all sorts of things about computers.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Wes stated flatly. “How do you know so much about the bracelet? How do you know enough to just tap into a computer system, and take it off?”
Coffee turned all sheepish again.
“My parents had been working on a project that involved a similar prototype to Meadows’ bracelet. I simply assumed…” his voice trailed off. Seeing he had met a stopping point Wes turned back to me.
“So what did the principal’s office look like?”
“White walls, black desk. Everything you would expect to see in this school.” I said in between bites of food. “Only there was one wall completely covered in silver cabinets.”
Wes nodded not fully interested in the whole situation. “Sounds fascinating,” he added sarcastically. Wes started rummaging around in his pockets and after awhile he pulled out a pen and folded piece of paper, slapping it down on the bare table in front of Stratton.
Stratton slowly flipped through the folds and examined the paper. A quick glance reveled it was the form the Counseling Educator handed out on the first day here. The one where you picked out your roommates. He signed it, pulled out his own paper, and slid it over to Wes.
“You only signed it as Stratton.” Wes read, examining his returned slip. “What’s your first name?”
Stratton shrugged casually, taking back his own form baring Wes’s signature. Either Stratton didn’t care for Wes’s question, or the poor boy was honestly unaware of his own name. Neither side of the dilemma seemed to bother him too much as he slid his paper next to my half empty plate.
He couldn’t be serious. Stratton had despised me since day one in this hellhole of a school. Now all the sudden he was acting buddy-buddy? Probably only because there were people around. Chances are he would go right back to condemning my presence the next time we were alone.
I gave the paper one quick glance then took a huge bite out of the food Stratton had sacrificed for me, ignoring his gesture all together.
He held the pen out in his hand waiting for me to take it. I chewed. He stretched his arm out further until he was almost poking my nose with the tip. His usual form of communication signaling for me to sign the paper. His eyes switched from me, to the paper, then finally back to me.
Everyone at the table was waiting. I took the pen, instantly regretting it. I signed his stupid paper, and side it back to him doing my best to disguise any hint of irritation. Wes gave me his form to sign next.
I removed my own sheet from where I had stowed it beneath my book cover and passed it around. Coffee signed, but not Lexi.
“I’m sorry,” she began. “I already turned mine in. I already promised
my original roommates I would stay with them.”
Great. Just perfect. I’d be sharing a rooms with three guys. I shuttered at the thought. One bathroom. As if staying here hadn’t already been bad enough.
Thanks a lot Charlotte.
Wes hadn’t missed my sudden expression of remorse.
“You okay Meadows? You’re looking kind of sick.”
“Perfect,” I lied. Lexi leaned towards me talking in a softer tone.
“I know. I really am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. There’s only four people per dorm, anyway.”
“What’s wrong?” Wes asked completely oblivious. “That shock make you sick, or something?”
I rolled my eyes. “Or something.”
A few moments of silence passed. Everyone ate except Stratton who had given up over half of his already small portion of food.
“Java,” Wes blurted out of nowhere.
A slight pause of confusion began, and ended. “Yes?” Coffee answered in a weak voice.
“Your name is Java Coffee?”
“Wow.” Wes appeared honestly shocked, though he was using sarcasm. “Your parents must have hated you.”
Coffee said nothing now. He sat hunched in his chair, hands hidden under the table, with his deep brown, watery eyes fixed on his empty plate.
“Could be worse,” Wes continued shaking his silvery blond hair out of his eyes. “Your name could be Folgers instead.”
“Well I think Java is a lovely name,” Lexi contradicted. “How did your parents come up with it?”
“They were both hard workers,” he explained with his voice barely above a whisper. “My parents were always up before dawn, and never slept until well past midnight. The two of them practically lived off drinking coffee, and with Coffee being there last name I guess they only found it natural to name their only son after their favorite brand.”
Not once did he look up or even move. Something in his voice said to forget the subject all together. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to realize we had landed on Coffee’s soft spot.
“And your first name is Monica?” Wes asked, intentionally depriving the attention away from our youngest friend. “That’s weird.”
“How is that weird?”
“I don’t know. You don’t look like a Monica to me.”
“Would you rather be called Monica or Meadows?” Lexi asked.
“I don’t care what you call me. There’s not much I care about anymore.”
“Meadows it is then,” Wes announced before anyone else got the chance.
“How about you Coffee?” I asked. “Would you rather be called Java or Coffee?”
For once he looked up, and even smiled. “Coffee.”
When he smiled his teeth looked like a movie star’s. A true smile designed only for the big screen for people to admire it as much as they envied it. Seeing the white of his perfect teeth against his dark Native American skin truly was stunning. With a smile like that the boy would be capable of charming any girl if only he showed it a little more.
He only seemed to want to go by Coffee, his last name, because I was going by Meadows, my last name. Which didn’t bother me, to be honest, what concerned me was that he probably only wanted to go by his last name to try and fit in better. Even the name Stratton was most likely his last name. The problem with that was he wasn’t telling anyone what his name really was.
“What do you care about?”
Everyone’s head turned in amazement. No one could believe it. Stratton had spoke.
“He can talk!” Lexi exclaimed, clearly bewildered.
“Told you so,” Wes snapped.
Stratton ignored them both, focusing directly in front of him where I was sitting.
“I’m not sure I know what your asking?” I finally admitted.
“You said there’s not much you care anymore. Well?” he paused. “What do you care about?”
I was completely taken aback. For a moment I stared at him searching for my answer. He came off as sincere as ever. His deep blue eyes rested on me while he waited patently for a response. More patiently than I would have deemed possible for anyone human.
No answer came to me. I began scanning the walls in hopes of coming up with something. Anything, really. But my life was empty. I bared nothing inside.
Some people might have considered me lucky in the realization that there was nothing left for me to fret over. However, truth be told, I hadn’t felt so lonely or this inferior in my life.
I had been ripped from a loving family. Deprived of what was once a safe home, and in return placed to rot in my own person hell.
Finally I turned back to Stratton. “You want to know what I care about?”
“Getting as far away from this school as possible.”
Stratton didn’t say anything after that. Nobody did. Each one of them, however, seemed pleased with my answer. Intrigued.
After lunch we all went back to our Educator’s class room to return our slips. Even Lexi came along instead of going back her dorm to see her roommates. Upon seeing us the Educator greeted everyone with a large, unnatural fitting smile.
None of us felt like wasting much of our time with him. The plan was to simply go in, give him the forms, and get out. Fast, preferably.
“Wait one moment, Miss Meadows,” the Educator called out as I was making a break for the door.
Perfect. What had I managed to do wrong this time? Was there some sort of penalty where I couldn’t pick my dorm members since I accomplished the frowned upon task of wearing the shock bracelet? As if the bracelet wasn’t condemning enough.
It didn’t matter, of course, so long as I didn’t get another brutal demonstration. I may have lost sight of everything’s true value in my life, but I wasn’t a complete idiot. The shock was something I could do without. Who knows, that sort of penalty might be more of a blessing than a curse; I would no longer be forced to sleep in the same room as Stratton.
“I have something for you,” he explained.
My friends all stopped at the door to wait. Wes’s foot tapped, Lexi stood with her arms folded, and Coffee had dug his hands deep into the pockets of his blue jeans. It didn’t take a genius to see how impatient they were already.
Though who could blame them? With the Educator’s dull voice and murderous reputation it was only normal to want your distance. Being forced to see him for hours a day was more than sufficient, any extra, unnecessary time was considered pure agony.
Stratton was the only exception among their impatience. He leaned comfortably against the wall, hands relaxed at his sides. He was looking around the room to every corner as if he had never been here before.
It stung a little to turn from seeing Stratton to seeing the Educator. From a lighthearted soul to a homicidal maniac that could bore the best of enthusiasts. And for once I was able to look at Stratton without him staring right back.
My vision went from a flawless content face to a face made of rubber skin. Though it probably shouldn’t have effected me at all seeing how both men secretly detested me quite the same.
“What is it?” I asked not bothering to fake manners as the old Monica would have.
“Your new tag made with solid silver.” He dangled the chain from his hand for me to see. “Since you were dismissed from class early I did not have the opportunity to give it to you. I was starting to worry you might have to go another day with your original name tag.
“You know Miss Meadows,” he continued on. I could feel the feverish impatience lingering in the atmosphere. “I see great things in the future of such a fast learner such as yourself. Who knows, one day when you leave this place you might end up working for the Charlotte himself.”
The metal around my wrist suddenly became immeasurably apparent, reminding me to keep calm. With that being said I snatched my tags from his hand, and stormed out the door.
The only way I would ever work for someone like the Charlotte would be so I could surreptitiously sabotage him as soon as his back was turned.
It was a hard fight not to spit that fact right into the Educator’s face along with a few more witty comments that came to mind. However, the metal around my wrist grew heavier, and somehow more real, reminding me to keep quiet at all cost. No more demonstrations.
And someday, a long time from now, I wouldn’t have to keep quiet anymore. Knowing that was enough for now.
That night was the first night in the Charlotte school I ate dinner with the four people I was slowly beginning to know.
Well, that is if it was really night. There were no windows in any of the rooms I had been in, not even the principal’s office, so you never knew what color the sky outside had been painted. No clocks either. Everyone based time solely around the buzzing of the so called bells.
Dinner went by quietly for the most part. The conversations around us seldomly reached above a whisper, and that was when anyone was talking at all.
Our table was, without the faintest doubt, the noisiest in here. Like when you go to a nice little café restaurant¾ though the cafeteria was huge¾and the people in the booth behind you don’t know how to keep quiet like civilized human beings. They’re screaming to talk to one another even though they’re sitting only inches away. Even as you try to tune them out, and carry on with your own business you’re pulled into their booming conversation, having to fight the urge to turn around and demand them to be quiet.
That was us. I loved it.
Our breakfast the next morning was another story. It was no secret that Wes hated having to wake up early. He seemed a bit more slow than was usual. That meant Lexi had no one to argue with. Coffee was reserved, and Stratton was afraid of words. In short, not one of us where what one would call early birds.
Today was Thursday which meant it would be my last night to sleep in my originally assigned dorm room. The Counseling Educator stopped by to give us a run through of how tomorrow would go.
“During class tomorrow your regular Educator will pass out the slips telling you your new dorm number. You will then have a short lesson of the chapter that you are on in the text book. Yes, you will still be assigned your customary after class work.”
Even in this newly developed, deranged world they had homework! Oh, excuse me. Dorm work would be the proper term to use.
“The class hours will be cut short to make sure everyone has enough time to get settled in.”
Yeah, that would be nice. Now if only we had been given enough time to get settled in our first time around.
“A new Counseling Educator will be assigned to you. Later that night he or she will come and talk to you in order to make sure you are all prepared, and check up on how your stay here is working out. It is with a heavy heart that I tell you good night one last time.”
Impostor. She hadn’t meant a word of it.
Never had I encountered such a dreadful liar. It was like she had no emotions at all. She was as big a fake as the rest of them. Every Educator in this school, or any other existing school like this, was the lowest of all humans. The very pit of the food chain. They had to be in order to promote the Charlotte the way they did.
Later that night sleep was hard to obtain, and when I had finally managed to seize it, it slipped away screaming and fleeing into the darkness. The same dream from the night before had come to torment me further.
The effects of the nightmare were worse than it had been the first night, turning backward in time changing me into a frightened child entirely.
As I woke up my eyelids ripped themselves open at their own will. My back sprang up instantly from the bed with my legs stretched out in front, and for the longest time I sat there in that same position, nearly panting. Something I hadn’t done since I was six. Only now I didn’t have my parents to go crawl in bed with, though I deeply wished that somehow I could.
Or maybe not considering our last good buy. A couple tears and a quick hug was the last memory of my mother before having a door slammed in my face. And with my dad all I could recall was how excited he had been to watch that silly home video of me as a kid. I had a good life back home, and it was all because of them, and then I was strained to sit and watch as it collapsed around me.
So it seemed natural to want the security of my parents back in my life. Once, my mom took a work break to help me with a school project. When her boss chewed her out she told the boss that she didn’t need the career, she took the job to give her kids the best life possible that she could. Since that was her reason for working it made no since to put her job before her children.
She was a good woman, and even now with me being seventeen, I know she wouldn’t have minded if I went and curled up in the covers next to her.
Slowly my breathing began to calm, and my fear was replaced with frustration. Why could I not remember the dream? Especially this dream which disturbed me in so many ways? All I knew about it was that it aroused bloodcurdling fear, and I didn’t like it. Both of which were only apparent from the way I felt upon waking.
Sleep came miraculously easy after I forced myself to lay back down. I awoke to the sound of the buzzer, feeling on the brink of death from lack of sleep. Then again, I was completely oblivious to my body’s need for sleep compared to how aware my yearning for unconsciousness was when someone flipped on the light.
Had I not felt so weak I would have jumped down right then and strangled the corporate. Well, okay not really, but the thought wouldn’t have surpassed me.
By some unknown means, despite being the last person to leave the dorm, I was still the first one to class with the exception of the Educator who sat like a statue behind his desk.
Stratton entered only seconds after I had reached my seat with Wes lurking a step behind him. Wes looked like I felt. He hunched over, walking sluggishly though the door. I was impressed at how he managed to keep his knuckles from dragging on the floor. Stratton grew a huge ear-to-ear grin when it finally hit him I was sitting in the seat he picked out for me yesterday.
Wes was so out of it he didn’t even bother to complain about me being in his previously claimed chair. He took the place in front of Stratton’s desk mumbling a good morning in a breath. Guess I wasn’t the only one who hardly got any sleep.
“Good morning,” Stratton greeted me.
“No. Bad morning.”
“I agree,” Wes moaned, “morning sucks.”
“You should have gone to bed earlier,” Stratton reprimanded me.
Wes laughed, or maybe he moaned. “I went to sleep the same time you did.”
A second passed in which Wes didn’t receive a response.
“Oh,” he said, realizing he wasn’t the one who had been spoken to. “I forgot. You only talk to Meadows.”
“Why is that?” I hadn’t even noticed Lexi taking her seat in the desk right in front of mine, but there she was, and with a good point I might add.
Why would Stratton only talk to me? Some sort of fluke he was trying to pull, maybe. Oh sure, he seemed nice now, but who knew what his real problem was. Everyone here had changed somehow over the last few days, including myself, becoming a complete stranger in their own flesh. Perhaps not even he knew what his problem was…
He didn’t answer her question. By the look of it she hadn’t really expected to get one. Stratton simply stared at her like he knew she said something, just not what she meant by it.
The expression on his smooth face was impossible. He must have played a lot of poker back in the day.
Hah, back in the day. When was that? Like a week ago?
Sadly, his natural sun-made tan was fading already from being trapped indoors. He must have hated being stuck inside all the time. I could relate. In fact, everyone in this room, which was now almost completely full, could relate.
He glanced back at me, finally looking away from Lexi. I retreated my eyes quickly not wanting to give his already-too-high of an ego any amount of satisfaction. Coffee had slipped in an unnoticed entrance. There was no way of telling how long he had been sitting there next to me. Possibly before Lexi even showed up.
“G-G-Good morning class,” the Educator greeted us with a stammer. “First I will pass out the slips informing you of your new dorm number, and then we will pro-pro-pro-proceed onto the lesson.”
Wes laughed in the Educator’s expense, trying frantically to hide his face so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He popped up the collar of his shirt and opened up his book like he was reading, all the while red-faced and smirking.
Normally I would feel bad about laughing at someone for something that was beyond their control, even if I wasn’t who I use to be, but it was hard to blame Wes for it. When our Educator spoke it was like there was some sort of glitch in his voice. The poor guy sounded like a scratched record. Anytime the Educator opened his mouth he sounded weird, but the stammer added in with the voice managed to go beyond strange. It was malformed.
Once Wes started laughing it sent Lexi into her own giggling fit. Stratton sat with his abnormally large hand rested on his chin with the tips of his mouth twitching upwards. Even I sighed out a few laughs, and Coffee somehow pulled off looking sacred and smiling brilliantly at the same time.
The rest of the room, on the other hand, tried not to acknowledge it. Of course, leave it to the five of us to be the outburst in the otherwise silent room. Not that we minded it.
First thing I did when the slips had all been passed out was look at the number. Dorm number seven hundred eight. Still assuming there were four people per every dorm, and a maximum of seven hundred eight dorms, I did the math again.
Four thousand nine hundred and fifty six people were being held captive here against their God-given freewill… and this was only one of the Charlotte’s schools.
“You okay Meadows?”
I didn’t have to look up to know it was Lexi checking on me. Even if she wasn’t my only friend with a high pitched voice her accent was a dead give-a-way.
“Are you sure? You look like your about to chunder.”
“I’m about to what?”
“Chunder,” Lexi repeated, “like to vomit.”
“Oh. No, I’m fine.”
She believed my lie. Not surprising, most people always interpreted my lies to be true. A gift I, and my baby sister, had both been born with, and that I had always been grateful for until now. It felt wrong lying to Lexi, even if it was a tiny white lie.
Stratton pulled his eyebrows together.
“What?” I demanded. He shook his head turning away.
“O-O-Okay c-class.” The Educator pressed on despite his stammer growing worse. “Open your b-b-book to ch-ch-ch-chapter one section th-three.”
Before anyone had time to so much as flip open the book cover two unrecognized Educators barged in. It was obvious they were some form of Educator, mostly because the Educators were the only adults around here. Still, had there been adult students, a closer look would have revealed them as staff due to their sharply built structure, and monotone voices. Maybe such features were required for the job, seeing how they all had them.
“Please follow me,” one of the new Educators said, latching onto our original teacher’s arm.
In return our Educator said nothing, his face more impossible to interpret than Stratton’s, and that was saying something. The new man was trying to support him as they walked towards the door, but our Educator didn’t so much as lean into the other man, accepting no help.
“Hello everyone,” the second never-before-seen Educator greeted us as the door shut behind the others. “I shall be filling in for your Classroom Educator for the remainder of the day. With any luck, he will be back and ready to help you learn by tomorrow.”
Interesting… “What’s wrong with him?” I asked, ignoring my better conscience forewarning me not to. The shock bracelet grew colder around my arm as if reminding me it was still there.
I know, I haven’t forgot, trust me, I told it.
“He was not feeling very well. However, I am sure he would appreciate your concern, Miss Meadows.”
“Sure he would.” I bit my lip to keep from going any further.
Hold up a second. Pause, and rewind! “You know my name?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“I am sure that everybody knows who you are by now, Miss Meadows.”
Not even a full week in a new school, and already I had worked up a reputation. That had to be some kind of record.
There was something strange about the people running this place, but I couldn’t pin point exactly what it was.
Maybe I was getting paranoid from all the traumatic experiences of the past few days, or slowly loosing my mind, but something was down right wrong with the people operating this school.
Our fill-in Educator began to teach at which point I began to, well, not listen. What was the point? Sure we had tests, and grades, but there was no point behind them. In my life before the Charlotte school I worked hard in my classes to get into college, but the idea of getting into a Charlotte college didn’t exactly appeal to me. And so, I slept.
Right as unconsciousness was about to take me under the lunch bell rang.
“I haven’t laughed so hard since… before I got here,” Wes beamed.
“That was funny,” Lexi agreed, setting her trey down at the lunch table taking her usual seat next to mine.
“They weren’t kidding when they said he hadn’t been feeling good,” Wes teased, obviously enjoying himself with the memory.
Lexi thought about it for a moment. “He sounded so strange. Like a robot or something.”
The roll I had been munching on fell from my hand, back on top of the tray.
“What did you say?”
Lexi blinked, and suddenly any hint of amusement in her voice vanished. “Meadows? Meadows! What on God’s green earth do you think you are doing?”
“Or would it be the Charlotte’s green earth?” Wes pondered, but it was a side thought. He too was stunned, his voice made it obvious.
“Book,” I mumbled, my words no more than a frantic whisper, “Which one is mine?”
All five of our text books were thrown together resting in the corner of the lunch table. But which one was mine?
Getting to my feet I plunged my hand into the pile grabbing the spine of the first book my fingers brushed. Thrusting open the cover I viciously ripped through the pages.
Wrong book. I tossed it to the side without so much as a single thought to where it might land.
Again I dove for a book, flipped through the pages, and disposed of it at an electric speed.
“Hey, watch it, Meadows!” Wes called in regards to the flying hardback. Disposing of it, I went for another.
Wrong again, I threw it with a flick of a wrist.
Went for another. Nope, not it.
Again, and again until finally¾“I found it!”
“Congratulations,” Wes said dryly.
Annoyed, I flashed him a quick look only to realize that most of the books I threw ended up either hitting Wes, or hitting Stratton. One even found its way to Stratton’s tray, and now his food was scattered all across the table, on his and Wes’ faces, and in his hair. Both of them looked up at me giving me the devil’s eye, a silent death glare.
I pretended not to see the food everywhere. Hopefully Stratton wouldn’t get too mad if nobody made a big deal out of it, but who knew what was going through his confidential thoughts.
“Look.” I slapped my open book against the table. “Do you see the yellow stain?”
“You did all this,” Wes’ palms were facing up, motioning to the wide spread array of food lingering across the table, “to show us a yellow blotch in a book. A little melodramatic, don’t you think?”
There went any hope of keeping things toned down. Stratton didn’t look upset, but he didn’t look happy either.
“On the fist day of school the Educator got a paper cut when he passed me my book,” I explained. “This is the blood stain.”
“Uh, Meadows,” Wes intervened, “I’m not sure if anyone has told you, but blood is red. Not yellow.”
“I know, that’s what I’m trying to tell you! The people here aren’t normal.” I lowered my voice in case of prying ears. “They don’t talk, or sound like people. They feel like they have rubber skin, and Lexi just admitted our Educator didn’t sound human.”
I sat down again. It went silent for a moment until Wes, of course, broke the silence.
“You need some fresh air, you’ve been cooped up inside too long. I think maybe you’re tired, or that shock did something to your head. No offence,” he added.
They all thought I was crazy. Not one of them believed me. They all sat there looking at me skeptically, and I knew exactly what was going through their minds. “Oh great, I’ll be sharing a dorm with psycho lady until I graduate.”
Or maybe I really was crazy. Had there not been times when even I had questioned what had become of myself? But hadn’t my conclusions always turned out to be right? Brilliance, madness, what’s the difference? Genius, and insanity? All the same. But no one saw it but me.
I sighed, defeated, and flipped my book closed.
“Meadows is right,” Coffee whispered, “the people here aren’t people at all.”
Wes scrunched his face into a ball. “Come again?”
“Anyone here calling themselves an Educator is really what’s called an Artificial Human Program. I didn’t know until now. Sure, I had some suspicions, but Meadows’ blood stain confirmed it.”
So I wasn’t alone! I could hug Coffee right about now.
“What are you saying?” Lexi asked switching her gaze from me to Coffee. “What’s an Artificial Human Program?”
“An alien,” Wes answered with a teasingly vicious grin.
“Not quite,” Coffee corrected, “it’s a manmade robot designed to appear human. They have a variety of tasks they can do, but each program has a limited amount of abilities downloaded into it, otherwise too much imported information increases a risk of a malfunction in the A.H.P.’s performance.”
Umm… okay then.
“A.H.P?” Lexi mumbled in shock. At least she was starting to be won over.
“An abbreviation for Artificial Human Program,” Coffee explained. The lost puppy in him was gone. Clearly he was comfortable with the subject.
I knew there was something completely off with the people here, but I never would have imagined there was some sort of advanced system behind it all. As far-fetched as it sounded, I had to believe what Coffee was saying.
After all, two weeks ago if someone would have told me the world as we know it was to change in a few days, I would have laughed giving it no second thought. Yet here I was. Robots running a muck didn’t seem astonishing, really. Was there anything that would surprise me any more?
“So it’s like an android, or a Step-ford Wife?” Wes asked buying into the story as well.
Coffee laughed at his comparison. “Pretty much.”
“Remind me how you know this stuff again,” Lexi requested almost entirely assured. Her green eyes glowed with her excitement.
“My parents were both engineers and scientists. They had been working on the A.H.P. technology for years. Most nights I would stay up and watch them work, helping out with whatever I could. Most nights I would fall asleep in the lab.”
I was convinced. Simple as that. Stratton was leaning forward slightly, listening with an intensity I had never seen him use before. Safe to assume Coffee had persuaded him, too. Lexi had been converted into a believer as well, but Wes’s face screwed up into a disgusted ball.
His voice dropped nearly a whole octaves when he finally found the words to speak, and his slight accent was entirely undetectable. “You’re telling me you helped create the beings that wiped out my entire life?”
Coffee hesitated, visibly terrified, on the brink of tears.
I would have said something to help him out, but how could I justify Coffee when I so strongly sided with Wes? No matter how much I wished I could side with small, fragile Coffee, Wes was simply too right.
I glanced over at Lexi with as a silent plea for her to say something, but she glanced right back equally as torn between the two as I was.
“Referring to anyone of them as a ‘being’ is giving them too much credit.” Coffee stated with his voice on the verge of breaking. Wes cut him off as soon as Coffee opened his mouth to say something else.
“You actually helped and participated in ruining everything?”
Coffee tried to say something, to defend himself, but his voice cracked on the first syllable. He wasn’t crying yet, although he was more frightened now then when the argument started. Coffee stiffened all over like he was expecting Wes to leap across the table straight for his throat at any second. Such a thing wouldn’t had surprised me judging by the aura Wes was radiating. Coffee bit hard on his bottom lip glancing up at me quickly then back to Stratton’s food still sprawled out across the table.
The look on his face within that tiny glimpse gave me a sudden flash back. I had been looking at Coffee, but saw Sadie. The same look I imagined she was wearing on her invisible face in the dark closet, now displayed on Coffee. Somehow I had known I had to protect her. And I didn’t…
“I can’t believe you!” Wes spat. “What the hell kind of man are you?”
“That’s enough!” I snapped, lifting out of my chair slightly, unable to fully control my rising temper. “Stop yelling or everybody in this room will hear you!”
“Take your own advice,” he mumbled much more quietly, his words carried only by a breath. He slouched back in his chair as if I had used a whip on him instead of words.
“There’s no need to overreact,” I said calmly. Partly because I was desperate to keep the peace between the two, but mostly because I myself needed to remember to keep composed before I lashed at Wes. “Coffee was only trying to explain things to us. Useful information. No need to be rude.”
“I didn’t know.” Coffee began, looking directly at Wes, fighting to keep his voice level. “No one knew what the Charlotte had been planning to use the A.H.P.’s for. Our goal was to use them to clean houses, or make an ideal secretary. Not this. It’s not like we were even working for the Charlotte. Until this school I had never heard of him.”
“So the Charlotte himself isn’t an A.H.P?” Lexi asked, clearly concerned by the fact.
“Not likely. There’s no way all these programs could be active without somebody in command. I’m assuming the person working behind it all is the Charlotte. He couldn’t do it alone though, running thousands of programs all alone would be impossible. Others would have to be helping him.”
“Oh, they’re helping alright,” Wes agreed. Plainly he wasn’t upset with Coffee anymore though he seemed suddenly exhausted.
Things were starting to click. The rubbery texture of the Educator’s skin, their precision with words, and perfect faces. They were robots. Robots with no moral values, so why would it matter to them who they killed?
“All this time,” I sighed, “and they’re nothing more than a computer program.”
“I’m so sorry, Meadows.” Coffee apologized, though there was no need to, I didn’t blame him. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
I thought about it and laughed humorlessly. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. “All this time I had been trying to be an inconvenience for them. Nothing more than a splinter under the nail. Just to have been even the tiniest nescience to the Charlotte would have been enough, but all this time, and I might as well have been arguing with my toaster!”
There wasn’t anyone in particular I was talking to. Simply thinking out loud. Again I laughed at my dry, but true, joke. No one else seemed to catch the cruelty behind the humor. The Charlotte had ruined my life, so I had planned to make his as hard as I could possibly manage, and I couldn’t even do that! It wasn’t like his little toy robots were about to go crying to him over my harsh words.
“Wait, Coffee?” Lexi interrupted. “Would the Charlotte have to be here, in the school, controlling the programs?”
He thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. “No. There are more schools out there like this. Plenty more, according to our textbooks. At each school would be mini programs that would have to be kept in check by a single leading program.”
“What does the leader do?”
“Make sure the others are functioning right mostly. Like when our Classroom Educator was escorted out of class this morning. He probably had too much downloaded onto him, causing the malfunction in his voice transmitter, and the others came to get him so they could work it out. Each one is programmed and downloaded on one big computer.”
“Like the one I saw in the Principal Educator’s office?” I asked, even though I knew already I was right.
“I’d bet the principal is the leader,” Wes agreed.
“Everybody left,” Lexi said, looking around the cafeteria. Only one table of girls was still there, chattering quietly among themselves. “Guess we should get going.”
We all left together, Lexi leaving once we passed her dorm door.
“Where do you think you’re going Meadows?” Wes asked.
I hesitated not sure what he was expecting. “Back to my room.”
“This is your room now,” Wes said popping open a door which I assumed was now ours.
Great. How could I have forgot? My first time sharing a room, and bathroom, with three guys. One of which I was torn between hating and falling madly in love with.
First-class misery here I come!
We didn’t bother to explore our new dorm. There wasn’t much of a need to, it was exactly the same as my old one had been. One tiny white rectangle of a room. We hadn’t even spent a full minute there before we all left to go back to our old dorms to get our clothes.
By the time I had returned the others were already there. Stratton and Coffee had claimed the buck beds on the right side of the room, Stratton on top and Coffee down below. Both of them laid stretched out over their mattresses doing nothing in particular.
I didn’t see Wes, but his text book and most of his clothes were on the upper left bunk.
“Dang,” I mumbled as I walked through the door.
“Oh hey Meadows,” Coffee greeted me lifting his head off his pillow. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I was hoping to get a top bunk, but bottom works fine.” I started to put my things on the lower bed.
Stratton swung himself over the railing of his bunk, landing with both feet gracefully on the floor, and crept up behind me.
“Here,” he muttered where only I could hear him. Without having to climb or stand on anything he was able to reach the upper bed.
Wadding up Wes’ things in his arms Stratton practically threw Wes’ stuff at his chest when he walked out of the bathroom.
Without saying anything Stratton turned back to me bending down for my things. Stretching, he kept the clothes in the neatly folded pile I had them in, and set it gently on the top bed.
“And where am I suppose to sleep?” Wes proclaimed, non too happily.
Stratton took one step forward, taking Wes belongings and placing them on the mattress below.
Wes looked like he was about to object until Stratton turned back to face him.
“That works,” he said indifferently.
It was probably smart of Wes not to go against Stratton. He wouldn’t want another repeat of the hallway incident from the other day. Wes looked like he might be a good fighter, but against Stratton there was no doubt who would win.
I had to climb up a slim ladder attached to the bunk in order to reach the higher bed. Stratton on the other hand stepped lightly on Coffee’s mattress, grabbed the black railing of his own bed, and pulled himself up with a flawless ease, all the while his back muscles tearing at his shirt.
Not that he kept it on for long. Once he had settled in he pulled his white shirt over his head, tossing it carelessly to the floor. His tag jingled before it met with his bare chest.
He glanced over at me while I, curled up in a tiny ball with my head buried in a book, pretended not to notice.
There was a knock on the door, but no one rushed to get it. We all knew it would be our new councilor.
“Open up!” Lexi’s agitated voice came from the hall. “Took you long enough,” she said as soon as Coffee shut the door behind her.
“It wasn’t locked,” he defended.
“Hey,” I greeted her, “what are you doing here?”
“Just finished settling into my room. Figured I’d come see if you needed any help.”
In other words she had come to my rescue. Lexi looked at me with smiling eyes as if sensing my gratitude, then looked around at the others. Coffee and Stratton still sprawled out on their mattresses, and Wes tracing the same path from bed to bathroom.
“I take it you two have finished settling in?” she asked the boys on their beds, voice skeptical.
“I’m waiting for Wes to be done with the bathroom,” Coffee explained.
She walked to the center of the room in the very slim path that parted the separate bunks, glaring down upon the wrinkled, lifeless shirt on the floor. “Stratton?”
He rolled to his side peering over the black railing down at Lexi.
“Is this your’s?”
Obviously it was. Wes was working on putting his clothes away, and the shirt was far to big to belong to Coffee. Not to mention he was the only one bold enough to take off his shirt around people he barely knew.
He didn’t say anything, or even flinch. Simply laid there, looking back at Lexi.
“Well, pick it up,” she demanded. “Don’t just leave it there.”
Stratton jumped down again, silently scooping up his shirt. Wes reentered and Stratton swerved around him with ease, heading straight for the bathroom.
“Alright Meadows, let’s get your things where they belong.” Lexi made her way over and up the ladder taking the already folded pile of jeans from my bed.
I grabbed the stack of shirts following her into the bathroom. Just as I reached the doorway to go in, so did Stratton coming out. Horrible timing. He swerved around Lexi not noticing me at first then at the last possible second curved around me, his bare arm colliding with my shoulder. Just like that my shirts went tumbling to the floor.
He bent down swiftly flipping over a few folds, straightening up the mess.
“Sorry,” he mumbled adding the shirts back to the pile in my arms. He walked back to his bunk, and swung himself to the top. Once perched, he glanced back to the doorway where I still stood struggling to turn away.
Dang it! What did the guy have against shirts that he not only knocked mine to the floor but refused to cover himself up with one? And so, here I was standing and staring back at him like an idiot.
“Here, let me help you with that,” Lexi said, taking away half my load and pulling me back to normality.
Together we put my stuff away, and went back to the silent room.
Wes laid with his eyes closed, relaxing on his bed. Coffee got up to put his stuff away, and Stratton laid on his side facing the wall.
Me and Lexi crawled onto my mattress. For the longest time nobody said anything. The room had that same absolute silence throughout it. Mostly I fiddled with my shock bracelet. It wouldn’t come off no matter how hard I tried, that I discovered last night. It was locked tightly around my wrist aching more and more with the greater time it spent there.
“Hey, Meadows?” Wes called from down below. “How serious were you when you said you wanted to break out of here?”
I never actually claimed to want to “break out”, I only wanted to get away from here, to be free of this place, and the Charlotte’s rule. Or so I thought.
If busting out of this place was possible then I know I would do it the instant an opportunity arouse.
“Serious as a heart attack,” I answered. “Why? You have any ideas?”
Wes laughed. “No, unfortunately, I don’t. I was wondering, if you did somehow manage to leave, where would you go?”
Now there was a question worth taking time out to think about.
Where would I go? The Principal Educator said the United States of America was no more, and deep down I knew it to be true. So obviously, I couldn’t run away to home.
Even if I had the choice to go home chances are I wouldn’t take it. I was afraid. Down right terrified, honestly, to see the ruins of my empty shadow of a house. A place once so full of love, now haunted by the memories of what once was and never would be again.
“I don’t know.”
“But you must have some idea,” Wes insisted.
Not really. Nothing came to mind. The United States was a powerful country, and if we fell, I had to believe the rest of the world did, too.
So not only could I not go home, I couldn’t go anywhere. Except here, the one place I’d give anything not to be.
“Assuming I could go anywhere, do anything?” I asked.
“I’d find my little sister. Take care of her like I promised her I would the last time I saw her.”
No one seemed to have suspected that kind of answer. Coffee stopped putting his stuff away and was now sitting in the edge of his mattress. Stratton finally turned away from the wall to study my expression as if reading an intense book.
I ignored them and continued to fidget with the unmoving bracelet.
“How old is she?” Lexi asked from beside me. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye.
“I’m fifteen,” Coffee whispered.
“Meadows?” Wes called again. “What were you doing the night you were caught?”
He simply couldn’t ask an easy question, could he? “Celebrating.”
And that was precisely what I didn’t want to answer. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it dose,” he objected.
I sighed. “My seventeenth birthday.”
“Oh, wow,” Lexi breathed.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Stratton wiggling out of his comfortable position, moving to sit with his legs crossed.
“I’m sorry,” Wes said, “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“How about you then, Wes?” I inquired, desperate to turn the attention off of myself. “What were you doing?”
“I was working with my brother, Mitch. The two of us owned our own auto shop fixing cars, and building up some of our own.”
“How old was Mitch?” Coffee asked to fill in the silence.
“Twenty-eight. You would have gotten along with him pretty well, Meadows. He was always taking care of me. Always making sure I wasn’t ditching school and had all my homework finished, while he worked hard to make sure I had something to eat every night.”
“What about your parents?” Lexi asked stunned. She seemed like the type of person who had no memory in which she wasn’t being pampered by rich parents.
“Died when I was little,” Wes explained like it was no big deal, “Mitch became my legal guardian after that, and that’s all I ever really needed. Poor guy never actually dated. Never had the time to with taking care of me and all.”
His voice was perfectly even, but with an added hard tone that really brought out his Canadian accent for the first time. I couldn’t blame him when he threw the attention to Lexi after that.
“What about you Lexi? What were you doing on Meadows’ birthday?”
“It was an average day at the boarding school I went to. My parents liked to travel, so that’s where I got thrown. Shouldn’t complain though. I’d take my old school over this one any day.”
“How bad was your old school?” Wes asked.
“It wasn’t bad at all. On the holidays my parents would take me with them to all different exotic places from Fiji to France. Throughout the year they would send postcards from every place they went, and sometimes even a souvenir they got me there.”
“Sounds nice,” I mumbled.
“It was,” she whispered at first. “The only bad thing was its end. Watching my collection of postcards on the wall be burned, and my souvenirs smashed or shattered… I would kill the Charlotte if I could. Right here and now.”
Looks like I wasn’t the only one the Charlotte had changed for the worst. By the sound of her voice anyone could see how she meant what she said.
Finally, I wasn’t completely alone.
Lexi was done talking, and I wasn’t dumb enough to press another question with the mood she was in. “Coffee? How about you?”
“Just another day at home. There’s really not much left for me to tell you. I watched as my parent’s life work, the Artificial Human Programs, doused our house with gasoline. Watched as my parents deepest passion claimed their very lives. Then, I watched as the toasters reduced my house to nothing more than a fist full of ashes.”
Toasters. He was referring back to my joke in the cafeteria. Apparently, Coffee didn’t miss the cruelty behind the humor at all.
“I didn’t even try to fight when they put the gas mask over my head,” he continued, “there was no point. I’ve never really had friends before now. Anything I ever had died that night. When the gas started spraying I thought they were trying to poison me, so I gladly inhaled it. Then I woke up here, and a whole other nightmare began.”
Part of me, the larger part, would have much rather risked Lexi’s wrath than to hear Coffee’s pain. I shouldn’t have thrown the spotlight on him like that, especially when he was like this. When he reminded me so much of Sadie.
Hearing the story narrated by Coffee I could vividly picture the fear in my sister’s eyes when she woke up in a place no different than this.
For a moment I contemplated jumping down to sit by him, to help him feel safe. But he wasn’t crying. He held his composure shockingly well for the words he was saying. He wouldn’t last much longer on his own though.
“Stratton?” He sighed, hoping Stratton would start in with his own story.
“How about you Stratton?” I asked, knowing full-well he wouldn’t respond to anyone else.
He stared back at me from across the room, shifting his weight slightly while he debated whether or not he should answer.
“Oh come on,” I pushed. “Everyone else said something, so can you.”
Stratton exhaled and suddenly looked very irritated. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
Not good enough. “You don’t know?”
“Do you know anything?”
“I’m Stratton, you’re Meadows, and we’re in the Charlotte School. That’s about it.”
“I think there’s something your not telling us.”
He grabbed the silver dog tag laying on his bare chest. Yanking the chain from around his neck he threw the necklace across the room where it landed square on my pillow.
“Look at it,” he insisted. “All it says is Stratton.”
He was right. Where my tag read Meadows his read Stratton. But there was no place for a first name, and nothing on the back for a birthplace.
“I don’t remember anything previous of waking up here,” Stratton stated. “Nothing. No home, no other school, no family, and this invasion you all have been talking about? This is the first time I have heard anything about it.”
The worst part of all this, he was telling the truth. Stratton couldn’t recall his own first name and that fact clearly frustrated him.
“You want to know the one thing I remember? Waking up here with a horrible headache.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was partially true, but for the most part my plan worked like a charm. Coffee was no longer the center of attention and that I wasn’t sorry for.
“Don’t be.” Stratton shook his head, his voice level once more. “I kind of prefer it this way. From the stories you all have been telling I’m glad I don’t remember any of it.”
“Lucky,” Lexi mumbled under her breath.
“So you probably don’t mind having to stay here so much, do you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t care if I stay here or somehow break free. Either way I don’t plan on following under the rule of the next Adolf Hitler.”
Yet another reference to one of my jokes. I’d have to start monitoring what I said from now on.
Wes interrupted. “You can’t remember who you are, yet you know who Hitler is? That’s messed up.”
“No kidding,” Stratton agreed, “I can read, but I can’t write my life story. I can multiply, but I don’t have memories of schooling. I only know things without having to know things.” Stratton sighed. “Anyway, if you do plan on breaking out of here, I’ll be right there behind you.”
“So you don’t recall anything before you wound up here?” I asked.
“Nope,” he clarified.
“And if I told you I could gain access into parts of your past, you wouldn’t be interested?”
“Hold up!” Wes objected. He rolled off his mattress onto his feet so he could look up at me. “Can you access his past?”
I hesitated for a moment. “It’s possible.”
“Remember on the second day of school, the Educator said he pulled up my profile and found out I was allergic to nickel? He said there was a computer copy, and a file copy. When I was sent to the Principal Educator’s Office she had an entire wall covered in silver filing cabinets where I’m assuming our profiles are kept. Going off how many cabinets I saw I’d say there’s a file for every student here.”
“And you think the profile will tell me about my past?” Stratton asked. “No thanks, I’d rather be oblivious to life. Makes things more entertaining.”
“What if your deathly allergic to something?” I countered. “If we got a hold of your profile we could check. Think of it more like a safety precaution.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“You might die.”
“If it’s my time to go… well then it’s my time to go.”
I frowned at his logic.
“Well, I want mine,” Wed protested. “If they have a list of your allergies, then who knows what else they might have stashed in our profiles.”
“Exactly,” I agreed.
“What if it’s not files that have in the drawers?” Wes thought aloud.
“What else would it be?” Lexi asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. For all we know they could keep dead bodies in there.”
I shook my head. “No. If anyone died they wouldn’t bother with the body, they would leave there to rot.”
It was morbid, but it was the truth.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. So, assuming it is our files, how are we going to get a hold of them?”
“Haven’t figured that part out yet,” I admitted. “The filing drawers didn’t have handles, so I wouldn’t even know how to open them in the first place.”
Wes snorted. “That parts easy. We’ll find something to pry them open with.”
“Oh, be realistic,” Lexi spat, “even if you did find something to bust open the drawers with, the Educators would hear. Then even if they didn’t hear the principal is bound to notice any of the damage you made to the cabinet.”
Me and Wes exchanged a look.
“So?” we asked together.
“So imagine the amount of trouble we would get in when they hear us banging against the principal’s wall, vandalizing it, in order to steal privet information.”
“Nobody would hear,” Coffee objected quietly. “Not if we went during the night while the Principal Educator is recharging.”
“Recharging?” I asked.
“If the Principal Educator is the main program then it has to fall asleep every night. Or really is uses up all its battery and dies. When it’s about dead it hooks itself up what my parents called a ‘charger-chair’. As it recharges, so do all the other programs.”
“And it can’t hear us while it charges?”
“When the main A.H.P. dies it’s sensors shut down. Hearing sensors, heat sensors, sight sensors all turn off. So no, we’d be safe so long as it’s hooked up.”
“They have some good hearing sensors when their awake though,” Wes noted.
“Not really. Whoever built this place was smart. It’s designed perfectly for the A.H.P.s to pick up sound.” Coffee leaned back, flicking the wall twice. Each individual thud echoed intensely, ensuring that it was smoothly heard. “That’s why the Educator can hear us mummer even in the back of the room. And don’t worry about damages to the cabinets¾” he threw in, “we won’t have to pry open anything.
“How else are we suppose to get them open?” I asked.
Those drawers were slick as ice. Had it not been for the fine cracks outlining each pull-out drawer I would have taken it to be nothing more than a silver wall.
“The drawers have handles,” Coffee disagreed, “They’re hidden, locked inside. You use the computer to unlock them, then presto! full access.”
We all paused trying to understand Coffee’s explanation.
“How do you know all this stuff?” Wes blurted.
“I’m a genius,” Coffee answered matter-of-factly. I would agree with that.
“You’re sure about all this?” Lexi asked, clearly concerned.
“One hundred percent.”
“Let’s do it!” Wes began bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Do what?” Lexi practically screamed. “Hate to burst your bubble, but it’s not possible to sneak out at night. The doors lock you in, remember?”
I thought about it for a quick second. “They lock you in. Not out.”
“So what? That still doesn’t help us any.”
“Take when you came over here for instance,” I told her. “Instead of knocking you could have walked right in, but now you can’t walk out. Therefore, we shouldn’t have to worry about having to break into her office.”
Leave it to Lexi to find something wrong with that, too. “How do you plan on getting out of the dorm to start with when your locked in?”
“Easy,” Coffee answered for me. “We never go in the dorm to begin with.”
“Again, not possible,” Lexi sighed. “The Educators check every night after dinner for people who haven’t went back to their rooms. I found that out the first day here when we and my roommates lost track of time.”
“Then we’ll make sure they don’t see us,” Wes concluded.
Everyone looked at Coffee who in return said nothing. Even Stratton, who couldn’t see Coffee sitting on the bunk below his, leaned over the railing to look at our ingenious friend.
Guess Stratton really was interested in retrieving his profile.
“I don’t know,” Coffee admitted sheepishly and ashamed to have led his only friends to a dead end.
“Alight, fine,” Lexi sighed carefully, meeting all of our eyes. “There’s a custodian closet that doesn’t have a lock on it.”
Wes suddenly got a curious look on his face. “And you know this how?”
“Don’t ask,” she said dryly.
Wes was observing Lexi with a grin while she glared back down at him.
“Okay.” Coffee clapped his hands together breaking up the staring the two were having. They both jumped back slightly by the sound. “What’s the play-by-play?”
“First,” I answered, “we go to dinner. When the cafeteria is empty we go to the closet, and wait there until we think it’s safe to come out. Then, we’ll go into the Principal Educator’s Office, Coffee you’ll hack into her computer, we get the profiles, then come back here. No one will ever know but us.”
Everyone flinched when there were two knocks on the door. My heart gave one last desperate thud, then fell to my gut at the sight of our Counseling Educator.
Unlike my previous councilor this one was designed to appear male. He looked as calm and collective as any toaster or blender would, and as perfect as any other man-made killing machine.
“Hello,” he greeted us, “I am your Counseling Educator, and will be for the remainder of your stay in the Charlotte School. Now, I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help but to overhear what was just said. Tell me Miss Meadows, what is it that no one but you will know?”
“Can’t tell you,” I said indifferently. “It’s a secrete.”
“Oh come now, Miss Meadows. There is no reason you should ever feel the need to keep secrets from me,” our new councilor insisted.
Yet I could come up with a whole list of reasons on the spot. All around me I sensed the tension growing worse. Good thing our councilor was nothing more than a computer, and therefore immune to such a thing. The fact didn’t seem to comfort my friends in the least. He could easily rat us out, then all my friends would suffer their own “demonstration” of the shock bracelet’s power. They all knew it as well as I did.
Stratton was the only one in the room, aside from the councilor, who looked remotely calm. Then again, he was also the only one in the room who hadn’t witnessed the A.H.P.’s destructive abilities firsthand.
“How much did you hear?” I asked.
“Not much.” He walked into the room taking the seat at the desk. Wes sat back down on his mattress as the Educator walked passed him. “I only heard, and I quote, ‘No one will ever know but us’.”
From beside me Lexi flashed an I-told-you-so look. Coffee sat stiff, absolutely terrified, and though I couldn’t see Wes, I knew he must look disappointed. He really wanted his profile.
Luckily, the councilor directed the conversation towards me. Should things take a turn for the worst, I could take full responsibility. Since all of this was my idea to begin with, it made getting caught my fault. No way was I about to let my new friends take the fall for this. On the other hand, no one was officially caught.
“Stratton was telling us a little story about his past,” I explained, Stratton’s head lifting to look at me. “Apparently his father was friends with the Charlotte himself, and for all we know, may still be friends.”
So it wasn’t a great excuse. It was the best I could come up with on such short notice. Our councilor rose to his feet, never once looking away from Stratton.
Maybe bringing Stratton into this wasn’t such a great idea. If he knew I was lying then Stratton might be the one in trouble instead. The fact that it was impossible to read a toaster’s blank expression wasn’t calming either.
“I heard rumors of such a thing,” the Educator said in awe. “Rumors saying a member of a certain family was attending this school who had a close connection to the Charlotte. How wonderful it is to meet you face-to-face, Mr. Stratton!” The Educator sounded even more freakish when he got excited.
Stratton glared at him before he twitched his head in my direction, giving me a you’ve got to be kidding me look that nearly made me laugh. I exhaled a deep breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
Stratton was safe.
“But he doesn’t want anyone to know,” I jumped in. “He’s worried kids here will think his family connection to the Charlotte makes him superior to the other students. That’s why I promised Stratton that no one would ever know but us. Can you promise to keep his secrete?”
“Naturally.” He nodded before sitting down in the desk seat. “Anything for a personal friend of the Charlotte.”
After that, things went by easily. Our Educator realized Lexi wasn’t a dorm member, and sent her back to her own room, claiming her councilor must be worried about her. He asked the rest of us questions to figure out how we became friends, how we were adapting to this new lifestyle, etcetera. After a long, pointless conversation with the Educator, he finally got up and left.
Even after the door shut we all paused for a solid three seconds before talking again.
One… Two… Three…
“You are one gifted liar!” Wes sprung out of his bed to the floor, causing the bunk to rattle. Coffee jumped up next to him, smiling in disbelief.
“A.H.Ps have built-in lie detectors.” Coffee beamed at me. “Very powerful equipment, yet you managed to trick it.”
“You are one gifted liar!” Wes repeated even louder.
“And you.” Coffee turned on his heels towards Stratton. “You’re pretty brave not to respond when the Educator asks you something.”
“You are one gifted!¾oh wait,” Wes cut himself off. “Never mind.”
Coffee had a point. Wes was easily impressed, but Coffee had a valid point. The councilor would go around asking all four of us questions, one per person, and when Stratton’s turn came around he’d stare back at the Educator saying nothing. When the councilor would repeat the question, Stratton would blink.
Stratton shrugged then plopped his back against the mattress of his upper bunk, shaking Coffee’s bed down below. “I’m not afraid of toasters.”
“I don’t think you fully understand what all this particular toaster is capable of,” Coffee objected.
“It’s a computer program,” Stratton stated. “What’s it gonna do? Go into overdrive on me?”
“Hah!” Wes yelped at Stratton who jumped at the sound. “You just answered to someone other than Meadows.”
Stratton leaned his head back on a pillow closing his eyes and staying quiet. He’d been caught.
Wes laughed, crawling back into his bed beneath mine. “So what do you think the councilor meant about hearing rumors of someone who knows the Charlotte?”
“Maybe Meadows was telling the truth,” Coffee wondered aloud, getting back into his own bed and fluffing his pillows. “Maybe Stratton really is the Charlotte’s best friend, and he doesn’t remember it.”
“It’s possible,” Stratton agreed. “Would explain how Meadows was able to trick the lie detector.”
I plopped my back onto the mattress, my head hitting the pillow, but unlike when Stratton did it, I wasn’t strong enough to rattle the bunk. “I doubt it. I’ve always had a talent for lying. I can tell a lie better than I can tell the truth. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
“What if it’s not Stratton who knows the Charlotte, but someone else who goes to our school?” Wes asked. He was full of questions tonight.
“The councilor did say it was only a rumor.” I leaned over the railing to peer down at Coffee who was laying curled up in a brown ball under his covers. “Is it possible for A.H.P.s to gossip?”
Coffee hesitated, giving it a little extra thought. His eyebrows wrinkled together in concentration. “In a way I suppose it’s possible. Every night during recharging hours new information obtained by any A.H.P. is transferred into all of them so they each remain updated. It’s possible an Educator overheard some kids talking and passed on what they said to the other programs.”
Wes shifted down below, shaking my bed. “Are we still getting our profiles?”
“I still want to,” I yawned.
“Good,” Wes exclaimed. “Then whose doing what in the plan?”
“Me and Coffee wait in the closet. Coffee will fix the computer, I grab the profiles, then we’ll bring them back to the dorm for you.”
“How come only you and Coffee get to go?” Wes protested.
“The fewer people that go the better,” I explained. “That way if we get caught not everyone gets in trouble. Coffee has to go because he’s the only one who knows what he’s doing, and I have to go because I’m the only one who knows how to find the Principal’s Office. The rest of you stay here.”
I was taken aback hearing Stratton object instead of Wes. What did he care? I though he’d rather be oblivious to life. After all, things were more entertaining that way.
I shook my head, unsure if he even saw it. “There no need for you to.”
“Actually, Meadows,” Coffee interrupted before Stratton had the chance to argue. “I think I would feel a lot more confident with the plan if Stratton came with us.”
“If Stratton goes, so do I,” Wes stubbornly proclaimed.
He wasn’t making this easy. “Lexi won’t want to go. Someone has to stay here and keep her company.”
Wes sighed defeated. “Fine.” He sounded disappointed, but I’d be willing to bet money he was all for the idea of being in an empty room with Lexi for half a night.
Stratton’s sudden desire to go was uncalled for. The guy could hardly stand being around me in a dorm full of people, let alone trapped in a tiny closet with me. But, as long as Coffee felt safe, it was worth letting Stratton go. If it weren’t for him, I would have told Stratton to stay.
Maybe Stratton wouldn’t mind coming, otherwise why would he have insisted on going? Talk about mixed signals. Like the fight on the second day of school, or how he would only talk to me,¾until tonight, apparently¾or how he forced me to sign up to be roommates with him.
Obviously he wanted me around. But if that was true, throwing hostile looks when a girl introduces herself isn’t exactly the best way of charming her. Let’s hope that’s not his way of wooing somebody.
“So when are we going through with all this?” Wes asked before yawning.
“Tomorrow.” I rolled over on my side, hugging a pillow. No one objected. Lexi would have, but Lexi wasn’t here.
“Sounds good to me,” Coffee said from somewhere underneath me. “Goodnight, guys.”
Someone flipped off the lights, leaving nothing but pure black surroundings.
The dream came back, this time worse than before. My body took on a life of its own; eyelids peeling open instantly, and body springing up so fast and with such a force that for once I managed to shake the entire bunk. I couldn’t get the cool air into my burning lungs fast enough. I was even making small whimpering sounds with every exhaled breath.
Just a dream, I told myself, Just a dream, that’s all. Nothing to panic over.
There was a thump on the floor. Something grabbed my shoulder. Not a dream! Definitely not a dream!
Flinching away from it, I threw my head into the wall. The blow didn’t even hurt, no amount of pain could be detected with this much adrenalin pulsing through me.
Even in the shuttering pure darkness of the room it found my shoulder again. This time I recognized the outline of a hand.
“Calm down, Meadows, it’s okay,” an angel’s voice rang. “You were just having a bad dream.”
And apparently I was still in one.
A good one though. Surly nothing sounding so kind, sounding as natural as the gentle flow of water from a back-hill stream, could be any sort of a creature of nightmare.
So, if I was still in a dream¾which I hadn’t first thought I was¾then why did my angel sound somewhat familiar? “Stratton?”
“It’s me,” my angel whispered, another hand reached for my cheek, his thumb caressing away little beads of sweat. “You’re okay, it was just a dream.”
“Stratton?” I whimpered, still struggling to believe it was him.
“I’m here, don’t worry. Nothing is going to hurt you. Lay back down, try and get some rest.”
I did as my angel instructed, wishing I could see the face that matched the voice. The voice, however, was the only light in the room.
His fingers slipped away. I reached out to find them, to find him, but he was gone.
For a moment I began to panic, then laid my head down, and closed my eyes. Everything would be okay. My angel promised me it would.
The following morning I was the first one out of bed. Or that’s what I thought until I noticed Stratton’s empty sheets. I shivered when my bare feet hit the icicle-cold floor.
“Morning Meadows,” Coffee yawned.
“Good morning, Coffee.”
Stratton stepped out of the bathroom then, scratching his wet hair with a towel. He paused when he saw me, a shocked expression on his face.
Again with the weird looks?
I swerved passed him through the tiny space beside him. Being small came in handy every once in a while. Heading for the bathroom I changed into fresh clothes. Coffee was up and around by the time I came out, but Wes was dead for all I knew.
Lexi arrived at class before either Wes or Stratton showed up. She looked perfect as always with her long blond hair shaping her face and illuminating her green eyes.
“Please tell me we’re not still going through with the plan,” she begged.
“Of course we are.” I shrugged. “Why wouldn’t we?”
She shook her head in denial. “It’s too risky, and, quite frankly, pointless. What do you want your profile for anyway?”
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
“Luckily, I’m smarter than a cat.”
She parted her lips, about to argue further, but we both stopped and turned at the sound of my name. A group of girls sitting across the room had been looking at us, but glanced away quickly as I turned to look at them.
“That was weird,” Lexi noted.
Stratton walked in nearly dragging Wes all the way to our corner. He dropped Wes’s head against his desk with a thud, but Wes was too out of it to notice.
“What happened to him?” Lexi asked reaching out to poke Wes’s arm. He didn’t budge.
“He didn’t get much sleep last night,” Coffee explained.
“She yells in her sleep,” Wes said, laying perfectly still except for his mumbling lips.
“She doesn’t yell,” Coffee objected. “She just kind of moans a bit.”
“She yells,” Wes exclaimed, flat, and louder.
My cheeks grew hot as I realized what they were talking about. I buried my face in my hands shaking my head. “Please tell me they’re not talking about me.”
“It’s okay,” my angel interrupted. “Ignore Wes, its always worked for me.”
No way I was dreaming again. My hand slipped into my hair and I felt it. The great lump that developed from idiotically throwing my head against a wall. It would be a miracle if I didn’t have a concussion.
“You hit your head pretty hard last night.” Stratton said, once again using his normal voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I thought you were having some sort of panic attack.”
Oh, that was comforting.
“Was it really that bad?” Lexi wondered aloud. No doubt she was worried.
“It wasn’t all that bad,” Coffee’s petite voice came off unconvincingly. “She slept perfectly after Stratton got up to check on her.”
Brilliant. No way would I ever live this down.
Had Stratton always sounded like that? I never really paid much attention before, but I would have noticed. On the bright side there was now a face to go along with the voice.
He may have sounded different, but his face was the same as always. Suntanned skin, piercing blue eyes, and mahogany brown hair ratted up in a perfect mess.
Still Stratton. Really looking at him made me realize that together, him and Lexi would make the perfect couple. Lexi was insanely gorgeous while Stratton had the voice of an angel with the face and body of a model.
I laughed, literally out loud, at the thought. Stratton was too rugged for modeling. It was easier picturing him¾with his built up muscles, and perfect face¾as a boxer who was too fast to get hit in the face much.
“What’s so funny?” Lexi asked.
I shook my head. “Nothing. I just want to forget this ever happened,” I said referring back to last night.
The bell/buzzer rang, class began, and our original Educator had returned.
Oh happy day.
Today’s lesson had been over the Charlotte’s mansion. Mostly I tried not to listen. From the few parts that caught my attention his house sounded more like a dungeon than a mansion. He even had a prison built underneath his bedroom for the most serious of criminals. Not the smartest idea in my personal opinion, but what was that old saying? Keep your friends close, and your enemy’s closer?
After class Lexi went back to her dorm before joining us at lunch. Chances are her roommates didn’t like being blown off for the four of us every time Lexi got the opportunity to do so.
It didn’t take me long to finish lunch. It never did. Afterwards, I broke a nail trying to scratch underneath the bracelet which remained perfectly secured in place. Fortunately it wasn’t made of nickel, the very thought was enough to make me cringe. Wearing this thing was hazardous enough without the allergenic breakout. It was already so annoying that had it been made with nickel, I would have gnawed off my hand by now.
Still, rash or no rash, shock or no shock, it was tormenting. The rim would press through skin, to grind against the bone, and leave behind a deep, red throbbing indention. The thing was so tightly clasped in place that it was impossible to so much as wash under.
One more thing to add onto my Why-To-Hate-The-Charlotte list.
Coffee arrived at the table with his trey of food. “Don’t do that!”
“I can’t help it,” I told him. “This bracelet is torture. Literally. It’s like a crucifixion for my hand.”
I did. I was accustomed to the quiet Coffee who mumbled uncomfortably, not this solid harsh tone he spat out. I was being scolded! Like a puppy for peeing on a rug! By Coffee?
“I’m sorry Meadows,” he answered to my surprise. “It’s just that fiddling with that thing is a very bad idea. Trust me, the last thing you want to do is damage it.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
Coffee knew more than I did, that was more than obvious, and I’d take his advice to the grave if that’s where it led me. He said not to damage the shock bracelet, so I wouldn’t endanger it.
But it was so irritating! A festering wound laced around my arm.
Lexi finally showed up. Coming straight to sit at our table she didn’t even bother to go through the lunch line.
“Everyone is talking about you.” She sat turned in her seat facing me.
Lexi glanced quickly at all the tables surrounding ours. “Everyone,” she whispered.
I glanced around too, following the general way her eyes went. My eyes met dozens of others that swiftly averted as a reaction. It wasn’t until then I noticed the noise level in the room. For once, it sounded like a normal cafeteria. Not everyone was looking my way, but just enough to make a girl wonder. “What are they saying about me?”
“Not completely sure,” she admitted. “Something about the bracelet you’re wearing, I think. Oh, and of course your little ‘disagreements’ with the Educator.”
Ah, so everyone thought I was some sort of troublemaker on strike.
For once our table was the quietest in the room. Wes was still coming around to conciseness, and Stratton had converted back to being a silent eye-mime. At dinner I noticed a lot more people watching me as I walked through the lunch line. Dinner was nearly as silent as lunch had been. Well, for us anyway.
I wasn’t the least bit worried about the plan, everyone else was a different story. Lexi kept fidgeting with everything within her reach, while Coffee was more quiet and reserved than usual. Even the fact that Stratton went back to not talking led me to believe he must be nervous. Other than that he played it cool.
As for me, I was bored, wishing time would hurry itself up. What was the worse that could happen if they caught me? I’d take the blame, get my friends off the hook, and then I’d be shocked. Again. So it would hurt¾big deal¾I survived once, I’d survive again.
One by one the kids around us left, leaving nothing but abandoned tables. Before long it was only the five of us.
“Where’s the custodian closet?” I asked Lexi. “We’re going to have to hurry before the Educators come.”
She put on her best pleading face. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Just tell us Lexi,” Wes chimed in. He looked around trying to find it himself, but came up short.
Lexi sighed knowing she wasn’t about to sway us on this. “Over there.”
Wes shoved his silver blond hair out of his eyes and squinted. “I don’t see anything.”
He was right. There wasn’t anything but a blank wall in the direction she was pointing.
“I know you don’t, follow me.” She got up unwillingly, leading us over to the vacant wall. It wasn’t until I could reach out an touch its smooth surface that I recognized the outline of a little white doorknob. It blended in with perfect camouflage.
The Charlotte definably went through some extreme measures to keep things hidden around here. First with the secret passageway to the Principal’s Office, and now this. Makes me wonder, how many allusive halls, or hidden rooms, do I walk past everyday without ever noticing?
So what is it the Charlotte is working so hard to hide?
“This is it,” Lexi said as she cracked open the door.
Inside was bizarrely clean for a custodian closet, which was good. The bad thing was its size. There would scarcely be enough room for the three of us to fit.
“Suddenly having to stay in the dorm doesn’t seem so bad.” Wes clapped his hands together. “Well, have fun staying cramped up in here for half the night.”
Coffee stepped in first followed by me, then Stratton. Good thing none of us were claustrophobic. Then again, Stratton might be and simply not remember until it was too late.
“Good luck, and be smart about what you’re doing.” Lexi gave me one final, hard look before shutting the door.
We all stood there clustered together in silence not sure what to do. Pushing passed the two of them I flipped a bucket upside-down and sat on it. Stratton did the same, pulling his own bucket up next to mine while Coffee sat in a corner on the floor.
“At least we have a light in here,” Coffee noted.
Hours passed by slowly in our square room. Stratton wasn’t showing any problems with being in a tiny, crowded area. On the contrary, he seemed to love it. Stratton sat perfectly still on his bucket looking snug, and leaning against a wall like he was meditating. Ever so calm and cool.
I switched positions every two minutes. A person could only sit frozen for so long before they lost their mind, which Stratton had actually lost already. That explained a lot.
Being concealed in a closet made it impossible to concentrate on anything other than the agony my left wrist endured. There was nothing around to use as a distraction of the pain. Before I ended up leaving this school, I’ll most likely have a scar painted around my arm from the mini-torture device. I knew enough not to rough around with the bracelet, but if I could only find something slim to slip underneath the flat strip of metal and scratch skin, that would be enough.
Bingo! Laying on the shelf beside me was a feather duster. The handle was a pointed metal tip which just might work. I grabbed it examining it closer.
“Didn’t Coffee warn you about that?” Stratton asked. His eyes were closed, and I had scarcely even began to dig under the bracelet. What was he, a mind reader?
“I’m being gentle, I’m not about to damage it. You don’t understand how irritating this thing is.”
“Here.” Leaning over he took the duster away. Flipping it around he eased one of the feathers beneath it and found skin. It worked like a charm, the feather turned out to be the perfect cure for the itching. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, taking it from him and working the feather all the way around my wrist.
“You know, you didn’t have to sign up to share a dorm if you didn’t want to.”
I knew he was watching me as he spoke, but I was looking down at the black feathers. “What do you mean?”
“Do you remember the other day when the A.H.P. started stuttering?”
“When he handed back the slips with the new dorm assignments you looked sick. You told Lexi you were fine but obviously something was bothering you. If I knew you felt so strongly about sharing a room I wouldn’t have made you sign.”
He saw through my lie? That was a first. “That’s not what was bothering me.”
I looked up and he cocked an eyebrow.
“We were assigned to dorm five hundred twenty eight,” I explained. “Rounding up that means there’s about five thousand people trapped here.”
Stratton paused allowing the numbers to sink in, probably doing the math himself. “And we’re not the only school like this. So you think everything has really been taken over? I mean five thousand people is a lot, but there’s millions of people in the world.”
“I know. If you tell someone they’re one in a million you’re telling them there’s one thousand eight hundred of them in China.”
He laughed. “How do you know that?”
“Just take my word for it.” No use in telling him how big a nerd I use to be when I couldn’t care less for my studies now.
“Okay then.” Stratton leaned back against the wall folding his arms across his chest. His legs stuck out as far as the closet walls would allow, and he closed his eyes.
“You know you didn’t have to come along with us tonight, right?” I asked filling in the silence.
“I wanted to come,” he assured me not moving from his same old position.
“There’s no reason for you to be here.”
Stratton laughed once as if there was a reason, and it was an obvious one. “Someone had to make sure you stayed out of trouble, seeing how you seem to have a hard time accomplishing that yourself.”
“Not true,” I snapped, pausing my feather scratching frenzy to glare up at him. “When the councilor walked in on us devising our little plan here I managed to keep, not only myself, but everyone from getting busted.”
“True,” he nodded without opening his eyes, “but only because you turned the story on me.”
“I would have come up with something with or without you. I’m a talented liar, it’s what I do. I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, I’ve notice. You’ve done such a lovely job controlling yourself around the Educators so far. As a matter of fact,” He opened his eyes leaning towards me. “You did such a lovely job at it that they hooked you up to a torture device. Yeah, way to take care of yourself.”
“It’s different with A.H.P.s. I do perfectly fine around real people.”
He nodded sarcastically. “You mean like the second day of school when those two guys were trailing after you?” He paused, pretending to think about it. Stratton nodded his head pursing his lips. “You did seem to handle that well, apart from the fact you didn’t handle it at all. I did.”
“No you didn’t.” Well, actually he did, but I wasn’t about to let this go that easily.
“Actually, I did. He had a hold on your arm, and he wasn’t about to let go until I broke his nose for you.”
“You didn’t break his nose, or there would have been more blood. Besides, he would have let go eventually.”
“And what if he didn’t?”
Stratton had crept dangerously close without me even realizing it until I could feel his breath on my cheeks. How he managed to get here I had no idea.
I didn’t like the twist our argument had taken. It was like he was pushing all my buttons just to see what each one did. He had used his “angel” tone, but that didn’t make him any less aggravating.
Who was he to say what I was or wasn’t capable of?
“You’re angry,” he realized. Then, like he just discovered he had unconsciously crept inch by inch in my direction, he pulled back.
“I liked you better when you didn’t talk,” I told him.
“Fair enough.” He moved back to his place pressed against the wall. A few minutes of awkward silence passed.
Chances are Stratton would never talk again, not until I gave him the “okay” at least. But would he even talk then?
Doubt it. Stratton could outlast a mime at the no talking game, then when the game ended give him a list of pointers and tips.
Why did that bother me? I had made it through the seventeen years of my life fine, and now all the sudden I couldn’t survive without hearing some guy’s voice? Where was the logic in that?
Stratton tilted his head in my direction. Barely opening one eye he watched me mischievously as I stared back in silence. He was more annoying than the shock bracelet’s itch.
He grew a smug grin like he knew exactly what it was his not talking was doing to me. Facing forward again he shuffled his shoulders against the wall making himself cozy all over again. Stratton was teasing me, and he knew it.
“I lied,” I finally told him.
He didn’t move.
“I didn’t mean it,” I pleaded. “You’re better when you talk.”
The only part of him that moved were his lips. “Admit it.”
“I just did, what more am I suppose to say?”
This time Stratton sat up meeting my hazel eyes with his brilliant blues. “Admit that you need me.”
“I don’t need anyone.”
“So you say.” He shrugged. “You’ll admit it sooner or later.”
Going back to the feather duster I pretended to ignore him, laying down the same card he had used on me.
“I’m sorry for my behavior the first day,” he apologized.
Out of the corner of my eye there he was, focusing on me like I was the only interesting thing in the room.
“Really, I am,” he continued. “The first day here was just so confusing. Not being able to remember anything plus trying to figure this place out at the same time. What would you think about starting over?”
He extended his hand, purposely using it to block my line of sight to the feather. Reluctantly I met his gaze.
“Hi. I’m Stratton.”
The whole thing was silly, but I shook his hand all the same, and he smiled ever so slightly when I did.
“So you really don’t want your profile?” I asked him.
“No, not at all.”
“Then we might as well go back to the dorm. You’re the reason we even decided to do this in the first place.”
“Oh no.” He shook his head. “You can’t pin me for this. It was you and Wes who were so determined to see this through.”
“We’ve been here for hours,” Coffee’s voice interrupted. “It should be safe to leave now.”
I felt a flush of embarrassment. All this time and I had completely forgotten Coffee was here, though he never moved from the same corner.
“Let’s get going then.” Stratton got to his feet and turned back around to me. “Come on Em, I’ll help you up.”
Midway through standing I stopped and sat back down. “What did you call me?”
Stratton hesitated before responding, making sure he hadn’t offended me. “Em. All I did was shorten Meadows to the first letter.”
There was only one person who ever called me Em, and that was my best friend. Sadie. When we were kids she would call me Em and Em, like the candy because my initials are .M.M. Monica Meadows. Once we got older she shortened it to simply Em.
“Is it okay if I call you that?” he asked, still vigilant not to upset me.
I nodded, unsure if I could speak. Placing my hand in his he helped me to my feet.
The last time Sadie had used my nickname we were hiding in a closet from the A.H.P.s, just like now. But Em, what if we’re separated?
I didn’t much care for the coincidence.
Before leaving I put the feather duster back in it’s place on the shelf as it was found.
“Wait.” Stratton picked the duster back up. “We’ll be needing this.”
We stepped outside the closet, the door shutting with a gentle click behind us, and I couldn’t help but stop and admire the nighttime view of the cafeteria. All the lights were off, the only exception being the lights outlining the walls, which shown down like runway beams along their smooth surfaces. In every place without a shinning light nothing was there but pure, distilled darkness.
“They should keep it like this during the day,” Stratton implied creeping up behind me. “Looks awesome.”
“It would hinder their visual monitors,” Coffee’s voice came from the shadows. “Lead the way, Meadows.”
Walking close to the walls to avoid tripping over an unseen table, they followed behind me, out of the lunch room, and through the U-shaped hallway. Luck was on our side. The hallways were lit with just enough light so that someone could see where they were going without walking face-first into a wall.
At night the Charlotte School offered a more intimidating presence. More fitting for such a place.
During the day every light was on, illuminating each crevice. Many times in life I’ve envisioned what hell might look like, and every time it was a gloomy, dire, and dark place. It wasn’t until I arrived here that my imagined images of hell turned full-out white.
At night the school matched my old description much better. The hallways were desolate black, the only light a acting as a single beam of luminosity that shot down like a spotlight every now and then. When you stepped out of the light, you became invisible, fading into the darkness lead only by looking ahead to the next beam of light as your guide. Every so often when walking through the darkness Coffee would step on the back of my shoe mumbling out a hushed apology.
With the exceptions of the flames, this place met hell’s description head on, complete with its very own demons.
The Artificial Human Programs.
Which made the Charlotte Satan.
When we reached the last corridor I had to drag my hand along the wall’s surface to find the opening. Slipping into the allusive passageway there was only one light which shone down on the principal’s door.
“Moment of truth.” I twisted the handle and the door drifted open without even the smallest creek.
Her office was every bit as bright as it was during the day hours, meaning our little uprising would be much easier. Stratton bent over placing the feather duster in the crack of the door. Oh, now I understood. This way we wouldn’t get locked in, something that had slipped my mind entirely.
“Told you, you need me,” Stratton taunted.
I was about to say something back, but we all stood frozen at the sight of the Principal Educator, sleeping in a chair.
No, not sleeping. Recharging.
She wasn’t sitting behind her desk this time. Instead, she sat in a chair consumed by wires. The seat seemed to fold out from the closet door I had first thought would lead to her dorm.
Mesmerized, I moved in closer for a better look. She was so still and tranquil. A slight buzzing noise hovered in the air.
“Careful,” Coffee warned not bothering to whisper. “It won’t wake up as a reaction to sound, but if you bump it, it might. Once she’s awake, a signal goes out waking them all up.”
“No touching.” I nodded. “Got it.”
He walked up behind the desk theatrically making himself plenty cozy in the principal’s throne of a chair. The computer roared to life drowning out the buzzing as I examined the latest of modern day technology.
She looked peaceful. Her eyes were closed, and her face baring a care-free easy-going expression. Anyone could mistake her for human when she was like this if it weren’t for the black wires that curled around, and into, her ears. Her backside was another story. On the back of the recharging chair her shirt opened. Metal holes ran down from her neck to the small of her back. Attached to the chair looked to be something like a metal spine where needle-like bars latched themselves into the holes. Had she been living, she’d be in a lot of pain. It was almost sad she wasn’t living.
There was a soft click-shift sound on the opposite side of the room. A quick glace was all it took to find that Coffee, boy genius, had reveled the handles to the file cabinets.
By the time I made it to the silver wall, Stratton was already digging through one of the drawers. First thing first, the S section.
Sanders-Sellmen… Shields-Smith… Stafford-Stone! After finding the right drawer it was easy. Turns out there’s only one Stratton in the entire school.
Stratton already had one profile tucked under his arm, flipping through another list of folders for another.
“Who’s left?” I asked.
He pulled out a second profile sliding it under his arm next to the other. “We still need to find Lexi Burg and Weston Fauss.” He closed the drawer. “Don’t worry, your’s was the first one I got.”
I had to grab Lexi’s, the cabinet containing Wes’s file was out of my reach. It was hard not to notice how thick Lexi’s file was compared to Stratton’s.
“We’re in trouble, guys.” Coffee’s typing ran rapid. “We were in the closet longer than I thought. She’s scheduled to wake up any minute.”
“Can you get this thing off my arm?” I indicated to the bracelet.
“I could, but it wouldn’t be smart.” Coffee kept his brown eyes intent on the screen the entire time, his fingers playing a symphony against the keyboard. “If our Educator were to notice it missing that would ruin everything. They’ll know we broke in here.”
Stratton slammed the last drawer shut, and by Coffee’s command the handles disappeared with a click-shift.
“What are you two still doing here?” Coffee demanded. He looked up at us briefly for the first time. “Go! She’s about to wake up, and you don’t want to be here for that. Severe punishment, remember?”
“We’re not about to leave you here,” I protested.
“I’ll be out right behind you, I only have one last thing to do.” Coffee didn’t bother to hide his impatience. He looked up again when it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere. Only this time, he wasn’t looking at me.
“Stratton, could you?” He twitched his head in my direction, focusing on the computer screen like it was his lifeline.
I didn’t understand what Coffee was wanting him to do. Stratton, on the other hand, understood instantaneously. He took the profiles from me, adding them into his own stack. Grasping both my wrists in one of his abnormally large hands, Stratton hauled my feet from the ground, swinging me over his shoulder like my weight was nothing extra than that of a feather. He started walking, no jogging, straight for the door.
“Put me down,” I demanded. He ignored me fluently, both in protest and physical struggle, as he yanked open the door and left the room for the past.
In a final glimpse I saw Coffee. He looked up, checking to see if we would actually leave him behind like this. Ours eyes locked. Coffee was once again the little lost stray, and all I could think was: But Em, what if we’re separated?
And the door shut. Nothing was left visible but the diminutive crack of light the feather duster provided by propping open the door.
Stratton descended further down the hall. Despite my squirming, it was impossible to break away from Stratton’s hold. It wasn’t slowing him, if anything his speed escalated to a sprint.
“Go back,” I cried, “we can’t leave him there, dang it! Go back!”
“We can’t.” Stratton stopped under a beam of light. His eyes squinted to check a door’s dorm number. He grunted and continued to run.
“We have to,” I screamed, voice parading all over the walls, not caring who I woke up. “What if he’s caught?”
Stratton didn’t respond, didn’t seem to have an answer. I fought to free myself to no avail. We passed through one beam of light, then another like the reoccurring flicker of a strobe light. One second we were invisible, the next we were nearly blinded. It was comparable to being on a rollercoaster through a haunted house ride, only much more painful. Stratton’s shoulder was sawing my waist in half. Bit by bit I slipped from his hold, just as I planned. He slowed, draping me back into his secure grip, foiling my attempt.
“Stop it!” The frustration gushing through me, made my voice venomous. Stratton didn’t notice. Or he chose to ignore me.
He paused again to check a room number only to turn and run back in the direction we came. Stratton rotated swiftly, unexpectedly, causing me to slip greatly down, and into his arms. I ducked underneath him trying to run, but Stratton caught me once more, suppressing me right up against him. He swung open a door which stood in the darkness, a door that completely surpassed my eyes. He shoved us both inside as one, me still concealed against him, struggling.
“You’re back,” I heard Wes say, but all I could see was Stratton’s chest as he shut the door behind us. “Finally. Lexi is starting to drive me crazy. She keeps folding, then unfolding, then refolding all our clothes.” He paused. “What are you doing to Meadows?”
Stratton didn’t respond, but he did finally release me. I shoved him away as if I were actually strong enough to do so against his will. Which I wasn’t, and I doubt anyone was fooled.
“You’re back!” The bathroom door flung open. There stood Lexi. Not worried really, just anxious. “How did it go? Did you get it all?”
“We have to go back,” I demanded, twirling around Stratton, back toward the door.
Lexi was the first to notice. “Where’s Coffee?”
The door knob wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I tried. Even with all my might all I could do was wobble my hand around it, somehow managing to rattle the entire door. I pounded my palm against it knowing it wouldn’t do any good. “No!” I fought back the tears of being beaten by a door. “I can’t leave him.”
“It’s okay Em, calm down,” Stratton said, using his soothing voice. He tried to pull me into a hug, but I shoved him away. Stratton took a step back, not because of the weak force of my push, but out of courtesy. Backing off was the least he could do for me now. Still, he appeared almost wounded by my refusal.
I ignored it as easy as he ignored me, returning back to the door and my desperate attempt to open it.
“You left him?” Lexi asked, more demanded really, her voice harsh and full of panic.
“He told me to get Meadows out of there.” Stratton explained like it was no big deal. Like he hadn’t just left a friend to be tortured, and the run we just took was nothing more than a leisurely stroll through a park. “So I did. That’s what Coffee thought would be best.”
“No,” I muttered over and over again. “That’s what Sadie thought, too. She was wrong, Coffee was wrong! We have to go back.” I gave the door one last and final kick. My foot throbbed. Resting my back against the wall, I slid to the floor in surrender.
Stratton sat down next to me. I refused to look at him, even as he slipped an arm around my shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
My first instinct was to push him away, jump to my feet, and demand he never touch me again. I fought the urge. He was only trying to help.
“I didn’t want to leave him behind either, but I needed to get you out of there.” It sounded like he meant it. But I was out now, I was safe. Whose there to save Coffee?
If I got electrocuted for common back talking, there was no telling what the Principal Educator might do if it woke up to him hacking into a secure system, pilfering privet information. I was suppose to be there to take the blame, not Coffee. Chances are it would be awake by now. The last thing I wanted was to see Coffee walk through that door with a hunk of metal laced around his wrist, blood veins illuminated. But for him, it would be so much worse. Not only would it wound his already-fragile ego, but the shock for me had been on the lowest notch. Surly she would crank it up higher for something like this.
I buried my face in Stratton’s chest, an attempt to shake the thought from my mind. He pulled me closer, and we waited. Neither Wes nor Lexi made a sound. What seemed like hours, but in reality was probably only minutes, the door opened, and there he stood.
“Coffee!” Using Stratton as leverage I pushed to my feet. “You’re okay.”
He laughed as I pulled him into a hug. “Good to see you too, Meadows. It’s been what? A whole five minutes since I last saw you?”
“Don’t tease me, Coffee. I think I’ve been through enough in the past couple of weeks to make worrying plausible.”
“I agree,” Lexi exclaimed. Nice to know I wasn’t alone. She had crept up behind where me and Coffee now stood. Wes and Stratton remained sitting, Wes on the edge of his mattress, Stratton on the floor.
“Sorry,” Coffee mumbled. He turned back to the door, which he had been holding open, and slid the feather duster into the crack.
“So what was so important that you had to stay behind?” I insisted.
“This.” Coffee held up a large folded piece of paper I hadn’t notice. It looked like some sort of pamphlet. “It’s a map of the school. I had it printing as you left. By the time this was ready, and the computer back to how I found it, the chair was unlatching itself from the A.H.P. Got out of there in the nick time.”
“Did you get the profiles?” Lexi asked.
“Here,” Stratton mumbled. He held up all five profiles in one hand, passing them off to her. Lexi took them and began flipping through to discover hers, until she was interrupted.
“It’s too late,” Wes moaned. “We have all tomorrow to dig through our files. Let’s go to sleep. Somebody turn out the lights.” He was already in his pajamas, sprawled out across his bed.
“Wait,” Lexi objected. “Where are we going to put all this? We can’t leave it anywhere, especially with the Counseling Educator poking around.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Stratton got up from his place on the floor. He walked over to his and Coffee’s bunk, swinging himself up onto his mattress. Suddenly, Stratton punched the ceiling, and out popped the tile. “Will this work?”
“Perfect,” Lexi proclaimed, handing everything up to him. She stood admiring the now available space above all our heads.
Stratton put the stuff in the ceiling and slid the tile back into place. No one would ever notice a difference between that tile and the others.
“Guess I should be going now,” Lexi exhaled. “I really don’t want to walk back to my dorm alone with the Educators being awake.”
“I’ll take you.” Wes sprung up from his bed with renewed energy. Keeping the door propped open with his foot, Wes threw Stratton the feather duster to add to our secrete compartment.
By the time Lexi and Wes were out the door, I was curled up in bed, and asleep before Wes got back.
Morning arrived all too quickly. I had half a mind to stay curled up in bed, and blow off class for the day. We couldn’t have gotten more than an hour of sleep, so each of us was doomed to be miserable. I could picture the look on poor Wes’s face already. Breakfast had been skipped for extra rest.
“Come on, get up,” Coffee moaned. “We have to be in class or the Educator will note our absence. The last thing we need now is to raise suspicion.”
No way was I about to move. My bed was cozy, warm and I was tangled up in the most comfortable position. Yet somehow, I was moving. Only slightly, but still it wasn’t me doing it.
The lights flicked on. A grumbling protest hummed in my ear. Stratton was in my bed, beneath the blankets, our limbs intertwined. I leaped, startled by the sight.
“What are you doing?” The words scratched their way out. I would have sounded more demanding had my voice not been so deep with sleep.
“Sleeping,” he said through I moan.
“What’s wrong with your bed?”
“It’s a long story,” he exclaimed. “Now lay back down, I was comfortable.” Stratton tugged on my arm.
“Please tell me this is a nightmare that I’m about to wake up from.”
“This is a nightmare,” he whispered, pulling me back down. “Now go back to sleep.”
“No,” I heard Coffee object. An instant later the covers were yanked down to the foot of the bed. A door opened and closed.
“What are you guys doing?” I recognized Lexi’s voice. “Get up.”
“I would, but Stratton is laying on top of me. I can’t move.”
A moment of silence from her end. When she spoke, her voice was skeptical. “What exactly is he doing in your bed to begin with?”
“Good question.” I shoved him, rolling Stratton to his side. I had to hold him up to keep him from falling down on me.
“He was only trying to help,” Coffee explained. “Meadows was having nightmares again. Every time Stratton would get up to check on her, she would stop… well, you know. She’d stop making noises. When he went back to his own bunk, she would start. Eventually he stayed there, no harm intended.”
I slid down the ladder onto the floor. The gleaming light made me squint, I had to shield my eyes with my hand to look at Coffee, something people typically didn’t have to do unless they were outside. “I’d rather sleep with nightmares than wake up in one.”
“You were the only one actually asleep. You sort of kept everyone else awake.”
It must have been bad if even Coffee complained. “Oh. I’m sorry, Coffee. Really.”
“Don’t worry about it. You didn’t bother me so much,” he lied. “Besides, everything was fine once Stratton took over.”
“What are you waiting for, Meadows?” Lexi interrupted before I could apologize again. Or before I could insult Stratton. “Go get ready.”
All I did was change into fresh clothes to match everyone else. Part of the daily routine. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened when you lived in the Charlotte School.
When I came out of the bathroom Lexi was battling Wes. She flicked the covers to the end of the mattress, and shook his arm. Yet, despite her many efforts, Wes hadn’t moved from his original position. In one fluid movement she yanked the pillow out from beneath his face, bringing it back down to slap it against his head.
“Wake up!” She shoved his shoulder. Wes rocked slightly, but remained unconscious.
“Coffee sat with his feet dangling off the side of his bed. “Will you try and get Stratton up? He scares me.”
I nodded, heading for the ladder. I climbed halfway up, and flipped back the blanket he had used to cover his head. It didn’t take a genius to understand why Coffee was afraid. The instant the covers folded back Stratton glared at me which a tormenting gaze and bloodshot eyes. Even the fact that his normally messy hair had been pressed flat made him appear more intimidating.
Oh well. I had faced worse. “Get out of my bed.”
He hesitated, holding his penetrating gaze. Without so much as a word he threw off the blankets, and swung over the railing to the floor. Stratton turned to Lexi who seemed startled by the very sight of him. He grabbed Wes’s arms, dragging him off his bed, and struggled to toss him over his shoulder. Stratton walked straight for the door, closing it behind him as he left.
“I can’t believe Stratton can carry him,” Coffee said.
Lexi snorted. “I can’t believe Wes was one of the first ones out the door.”
We all paused. Suddenly it was us who had fallen behind. The slackers had moved past us. We all three exchanged a look, moving towards the door without a word.
For once I wasn’t the first one in class. Nearly every seat had been filled. Stratton had reserved our usual chairs in the corner, where he now lay, head buried in his big arms. Wes, sprawled out across his desk, probably hadn’t moved from the position Stratton sat him down in. I was greeted by people flashing me strange looks as I walked through the door.
No, they weren’t looking at me. They were looking at what I wore around my wrist. Coffee had been right to leave it on, if the Educator wouldn’t have noticed, our fellow students would. For once though, the room buzzed with conversation.
Not one of us¾Lexi, Wes, Stratton, or even Coffee¾could recall what today’s lesson was over. Not that we cared. For us, class was a time to get extra sleep. By lunch, we were all too hungry to sleep¾with the exception of Wes, of course, who remained unconscious.
“So are we going to pilfer through our files when we get back?” There was no need for Lexi to even whisper with all the surrounding noise invading the cafeteria. Seemed like every passing day the teenagers here started treating this place like they would any other school.
Coffee swallowed the bit of food he had been munching on. “Definitely. I’m kind of curious to see what all they’ve got on us.” He pressed more food to his lips.
Lexi shuddered. “Hopefully they won’t have much against us. It’s too creepy to think about. It’s like the Educators were stalking us or something right before the takeover.”
“They can’t have too much,” Coffee said with a mouth full of food. “I’m not sure how much information they were programmed to obtain, but it couldn’t have been easy to go about collecting it for everyone. I mean, they’d have to invade hospitals, and work offices to collect it all. Not to mention do a lot of computer hacking.”
“Hey Coffee?” I wasn’t sure how to phrase my next question. I didn’t want Coffee to take it personally considering how upset he got when Wes had freaked out over his participation in the A.H.P. creation.
“Huh?” he said as soon as I hesitated.
“Exactly how did the Charlotte gain control over the A.H.P. project?”
“Who knows?” Coffee replied simply. But there was something dark hidden in his eyes that told me he wasn’t sharing all he knew. He changed the subject before anyone could ask. “Do you think Wes would mind if I ate some of his food?”
“Take it all.” Lexi slid his trey down to Coffee. “He’s too out of it to even realize it’s missing.”
“He’s going to be hungry when he wakes up though.”
“Then it’s his fault for not getting up this morning,” she retorted.
“And what about you?” I asked Stratton, desperate to get him to speak. He wasn’t about to go back to silent ways, I would make him talk at least once today. “Aren’t you curious to see what they have in your file?”
He shrugged dismissively. Why did that aggravate me so much?
“I swear people have staring problems,” Lexi said. I glanced around quickly to see what she meant. Everyone was looking in our general direction like we were the center of the room instead of off to the side.
“That’s starting to get annoying,” I said, not bothering to hide my obvious distaste in the matter.
“According to my roommates you’re the Charlotte School’s hot topic,” Lexi informed me. “Notice the noise level in the room? Chances are they’re all talking about you.”
I finished off my water. “Must be a boring conversation.”
“You never know,” Stratton cut in, “some people might find you rather intriguing.”
“Yeah, right,” I snorted. Then smiled. “I got you to talk for the first time today.”
Stratton thought about it only to shrug and keep eating. How irritating. Speaking of irritating, that reminded me.
My wrist was killing me.
I scratched beneath the bracelet the best I could. My nails weren’t doing much good, they couldn’t slide under the metal where it ached the worst. If I could just lift the bracelet only a tiny bit to make a big enough gap…
Tugging on it turned out not to be the brightest idea, an instant shock rippled up my arm. It was a good enough warning sign. The bracelet’s power would not handle being underestimated, and therefore it was not to be tampered with. Though it was only my arm that felt the minuscule shock wave, my entire body shivered. I broke out in goose-bumps. Luckily nobody noticed.
“You okay, Em?” Stratton asked.
Crap. Guess somebody did notice. “Fine.”
“Em?” Lexi questioned my newly given nickname. Well, new for them anyway.
“It’s short for Meadows,” Coffee answered.
Lexi grinned. “I like it.”
“Where am I?” Wes was only now lifting his head for the first time today. He scanned the room through squinted eyes.
“Lunch,” Lexi explained in a rush. “So hurry up and finish off your food, we’re wanting to go dig through our profiles.”
Wes didn’t wait to be told twice, didn’t notice the missing scraps Coffee took. Using both his hands he grabbed every last bit of food on his trey cramming it all in his mouth at once. Cheeks bulging, his mouth was so full he could barely move his jaw to chew.
“Oh, that’s attractive,” Lexi sneered scrunching her face.
He grinned, still chewing, his voice hardly understandable through the food. “Let’s go.”
Stratton lead the way down the hall. Not because he was anxious or anything, Stratton naturally walked fast. He was so tall! When we arrived back in the dorm Stratton went straight for his bunk, swinging himself up. I climbed the latter to my mattress. Wes and Coffee made themselves cozy on Wes’s bed out of my view, while Lexi took the desk chair.
The tile popped with the inflicted punch. “Java Coffee. Lexi Burg.” Stratton read the names as he tossed the file to its appropriate owner. “Weston Fauss. Monica Meadows, and Nobody Stratton.”
He threw me my profile along with his. I looked at him questioningly.
“Just don’t tell me what you find,” he instructed.
Stratton may not be interested in his past, but I sure was. I called it excessive compulsive curiosity. If he didn’t want to know, I could respect that. Like he said, there wasn’t any suffering for him so long as nothing came up that might reinstate old memories. Ignorance is bliss, after all. No harm intended, no harm done.
I threw my profile to the foot of the bed, flipping open Stratton’s. Already I knew exactly what it was I wanted to find. His name. But Stratton’s profile was considerably smaller than the rest of ours, there was nothing in it except a few papers containing next to no information.
“There’s not much in here. Practically nothing.”
“Not surprising.” Stratton didn’t appear the least bit concerned. He had stretched out across his mattress, hands folded beneath his head. “If they had more stuff on me my tag would probably say more than ‘Stratton’.”
“Wait a second.” I pulled out a paper, sweeping my eyes across the print. “Here we go. I found a list of sports you played.”
“Oh, let me guess,” Wes said from his bed down below. “You played football didn’t you, you little American?”
I glanced over at Stratton who nodded, giving me permission to answer. “Wes is right. Two years of football.”
“I knew it!” Wes exclaimed.
A folded piece of grey paper slid from his profile. I picked it up recognizing it as a scrap of newspaper. “However, football apparently wasn’t his more favored sport. Eleven years of boxing.”
“You know, that really doesn’t surprise me either,” Wes said.
From across the room I could see Stratton grinning. The fact obviously pleased him. Great, that’s exactly what his ego needed, another confident-booster.
The newspaper didn’t look very old, but it gave me more information about him than anything else in his pathetic excuse for a profile would. Stratton had a whole article dedicated to him for some big boxing championship he won. It read:
Another Stratton Family Win
In recent events, the eighteen year old son of Stanley Stratton takes home state championship in middle-weight boxing. Following in his father’s foot steps the boy has been boxing for eleven consecutive years, Stanley being his own son’s personal trainer. It seems there is a bright future ahead of young… (see page 12)
There wasn’t a page twelve attached. Therefore, his name remained a mystery. Dang it! He was frustrating even when he wasn’t the one responsible for his being frustrating.
“Would you like to know how old you are?”
“Sure,” Stratton replied.
“Eighteen. At least, you were when this article was written. The paper doesn’t look too old, so I’m assuming¾” I cut myself off. The newspaper had unfolded itself in my hand. A large black-and-white picture down below the “Stratton Family Success” story stared me in the face.
It was him. Topless, I might add. Without meaning to that was the first thing I noticed, but sadly, the crinkly grey paper hardly did his body justice. He had his arm draped around a girl’s shoulder pulling, her in closer to take the photo with him. And she was absolutely beautiful. She could even compete with Lexi’s looks, and that was saying something. In the background a corner of the boxing ring was visible. The picture was probably taken right after his winning match. Stratton was wearing a semi-cocky smile. The only smile he ever really wore, and the girl, well, she wasn’t even looking at the camera. She was looking at him. Right into his shiny golden-blue eyes¾un-captured by the camera, but I knew simply from experience how captivating they could be. She wore an accusing, yet somehow stunning, I-can’t-believe-you’re-making-me-take-this-stupid-picture smile. All the same, they looked so happy simply being next to each other…
“What?” Stratton’s voice interrupted. “What’s wrong?” He wasn’t concerned, only curious why I stopped mid-sentence.
“I found a picture of you and some girl. Do you want to see it?”
“Are you sure? I mean absolutely positive? She’s really pretty. She doesn’t seem like the type of person you would want to forget.”
“I don’t want to see it,” Stratton said with a sense of finality.
“Fine, suite yourself. Your loss.” And yet, I was somewhat glad he didn’t want any part in remembering her…
“They have a list of all the places my parents visited,” Lexi cut in. “Every last place down to the city.” Clearly she was both amazed and disturbed. Who wouldn’t be? That sort of information was just plain stalker-creepy.
“Check it out,” Wes said bemused. “They have my dental records!”
“There’s over a hundred places on this list,” Lexi continued, competing with him.
“Yeah? Well, by the time I was six I had seven cavities. Bet you didn’t know that.”
Lexi wrinkled her nose at him. “Uh, no? Why would I even want to know that?”
They continued trading remarks while I proceeded through the rest of Stratton’s papers. There was no name to be found on any of them. Even his “Immediate Family” section went empty. How did he make it from one day to the next without a rush of loneliness consuming him?
“There’s nothing else in here.”
“How do we know you’re not one of them?” Wes interrupted, not giving his friend the opportunity to speak. “For all we know you could be one of the Charlotte’s freaky android people.”
Stratton’s body tensed. “That’s not funny Wes.”
“It wasn’t meant to be funny. I’m being serious. No memories, no family, no name. Heck, you might as well have never existed before now.”
He went quite. On the ladder attached to his buck was the sharp tip of a nail poking itself out. Stratton was as calm as always as he leaned himself over the railing, running his index finger across it. A long drop of blood trickled down.
“Not yellow.” Stratton moved once more into his comfortable position. “Guess I’m human.”
“That was real smart,” Lexi said sarcastically. He shrugged, confident it was no big deal. As indifferent as he tried to seem I swear he looked relieved by his blood, and the falsity of Wes’s remark.
“You shouldn’t have had to do that.” He looked over at me with a questioning look, so I continued. “Maybe we don’t know your name, but you had a family. This article mentions your father.”
I don’t know why I was coming to his defense when he had clearly handled it on his own. Maybe I did it because of how reassured he looked by the sight of his own blood. He shouldn’t feel the need to have to prove something to others as well as himself. Or maybe I simply felt sorry for him because, yes I missed my family terribly, but I know somewhere out there they’re missing me too. Stratton didn’t have that, well at least, as far as he was aware he didn’t have that. He had to know somewhere someone cared about him, so I told him.
“Huh,” Stratton said. And he left it at that.
“You sure have been quiet, Coffee,” Lexi began. “Find anything interesting in your file?”
Coffee said nothing. I reached for my profile, tossing Stratton’s annoyingly empty one aside.
“Coffee?” Something in the way Lexi stressed his name sent up a red flag in the back of my mind. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
He sat unmoving on his bed. Had he not been sitting up-right Coffee might look dead. His hand clutched a piece of paper which he stared fixedly at. He eyes bulged, but seemed determined not to cry.
He did seem to be doing his best to keep the situation casual so I figured it best to do the same. “What have you’ve got there, Coffee Cup?”
“It’s a letter. From the Charlotte.”
Forget casual. I jumped over the railing to the floor so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash imitating what I had seen Stratton do. I took a seat next to Coffee on his bed when he handed me the paper. Lexi scooted closer in her chair while Stratton swung himself to the floor joining Wes on his bed.
“I found it under my ‘Immediate Family’ section,” Coffee explained, his voice barley more than a whisper.
“Read it out loud,” Wes insisted eagerly.
As a direct order from the Charlotte Himself, Allen Coffee, and Brittney Coffee are to be exterminated for the containment of too much knowledge in regards to the Artificial Human Programming technology. The two accused obtain a son, Java Coffee, who passes unexpected of containment of knowledge. As a result the un-accused may survive if necessary. The burning of the Coffee residence is imperative and required to demolish stray information that may be stored there. The termination of the two accused must be absolute. No exceptions.
Beneath the Charlotte’s signature was a stamp of the flacon to prove the letter’s authenticity.
Everything about it was sickening. What kind of person would do something like that? Well, the Charlotte would obviously. And how many other families had been executed for the same thing? If the Charlotte wanted Coffee’s parents dead for knowing too much then he was an idiot for not taking Coffee down too. My friend probably knew every bit as much as his parents did.
Killing somebody for knowing something? What good was that going to do? Then it clicked.
Hidden knobs on the filing cabinets. Splitting up each member of a family, sending them to separate schools. Disguising passageways and doors to blend into walls. Murdering people guilty only of knowing something. It all made so much sense.
“He’s afraid.” For the first time I looked up from the letter.
“Who is?” Lexi asked.
“The Charlotte, of course. Who else?”
“Of what, exactly?” Stratton asked.
He nodded, leaning back against the pole of the bed to relax himself. “Makes sense.
“I don’t get it,” Wes admitted.
“Well wouldn’t you be afraid, too?” Lexi jumped in. “If you took over the world you’re bound to upset a lot of people. Everybody is going to want you dead, and if everybody teamed up then what’s the power of one mortal man compared to the angry wrath of the entire world?”
“Good point,” Wes mused.
Out of the corner of my eye Coffee twitched, reminding me he was there. I swear the kid could pass for invisible when he felt like it. In fact, that’s probably exactly what he felt like right now. Desperate to disappear.
“Is that why the Educators are trying to teach us to love the Charlotte?” Stratton wondered.
“Maybe.” I shrugged. “I mean, how could you rebel against someone you love, and idolize? That probably what he’s aiming for.”
Lexi sat, rubbing her palms together. “At least we won’t be fooled.”
“But is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” Wes asked, voice hoarse. “I mean, the Charlotte kills people who know too much. Now we know too much.”
Coffee snorted like the prospect of being killed was the most ridiculous thing he ever heard. “I’d rather die than live according to him, anyway.”
“Right there with you,” Lexi cheered.
“I have to disagree.” All eyes shot in my direction. Lexi looked as if she might lunge for my throat. “Let me explain! I would much rather live, and play the Charlotte’s game. Keep my life, pretend to follow his laws, get close to the man. I’d play him like a harp, pulling all his strings. And sabotage him when his back is turned. When harp symphony is finished I won’t be living under the Charlotte’s rule anymore. No one will be.”
Wes gave a menacing grin. “I’m taking Meadow’s side on this one.”
“I would too,” Lexi agreed to disagree, “if it were possible. But it’s not possible for four teenage kids to accomplish all that.”
“Don’t be so sure of that,” Stratton reprimanded her. “We are, after all, the Charlotte’s greatest fear. If Em is right, the Charlotte wouldn’t be found of how close our little group is here. I mean, this is the closest thing I remember having to a family. Plus, we may be the only one’s not working for the Charlotte who know about the A.H.P.s. Everyone else was probably terminated. Coffee alone is a huge threat. Add the two together, and a bunch of kids have officially struck the longest string on the harp.”
I smiled at his reference.
“So what’s next?” Wes asked.
“We rebel.” Coffee had grown to love the idea already. You could hear the smile in his voice despite how serious his face was.
“The rest is up to you then,” I sighed, “there’s not much I can do with this thing stuck to my wrist. Believe me, I’d love to start a riot, but I’m not too thrilled by the idea of being tortured again.”
“Just like that, and your harp playing days are over?” Wes asked, more demanded, really, throwing his hands up in mock outrage.
“Not even close,” I stated. “First things first. The only way we get out of this school is if the Educators believe we agree with the Charlotte and his causes. I obey from now on, get this thing taken off my arm, and we leave this place for good. What happens after that, I’ll tell you once I know.”
“I’m in,” Wes proclaimed, utterly infatuated by the idea.
“We’re all in,” Stratton declared.
Two knocks on the door set everyone into a sudden frenzy. The councilor had warned us he would be stopping by. In one great motion Stratton leaped from Wes’s matters, grabbed onto the railing of his bed, and pulled himself up. We all bombarded him with our profiles at the same time, as he popped open the ceiling. Just as he was placing the tile back into its place our Counseling Educator stepped into the room.
“Good afternoon, everyone.” He paused, waiting for his welcoming in return.
He never got one.
Stepping on Wes’ mattress I attempted to pull myself up onto my bunk. In the end I did a sloppy job getting there, but at least I made it. From across the room Stratton made no attempt to hide his amusement at my poor imitation of him.
There was a crackled where my knee landed. My profile was laying exposed on my bed for all to see. Stratton seemed to realize it too, and suddenly all amusement was gone.
I threw my blanket over it, praying nobody noticed.
“Miss Burg, how nice to see you again. However, I think it would be best if you were to proceed back to your own dorm so as not to worry your Counseling Educator.”
“Oh, okay then.” Lexi got to her feet. The counselor took her place in the chair. “Guess I’ll see you all later.”
The councilor never noticed a thing.
A small string of the harp had been pulled. Small. But pulled nonetheless.
The next morning I awoke to find myself wrapped tightly in Stratton’s arms.
“Stop sleeping in my bed.” I pulled off the covers trying to tangle my way out of the mess.
Stratton took a deep yawn, stretching his arms out over his head. “Stop crying in your sleep and I will.”
“I agree.” Wes rolled out of bed walking straight for the bathroom to get ready. He didn’t even bother to shut the door while changing. “Stratton shouldn’t even bother going to his bunk in the first place, seeing how you won’t be silent until he’s there.” He walked back into the room dressed in all new, but still the same, clothes.
Simply the fact that Wes was already awake bothered me. That meant Stratton would have had to have been in my bed for most of the night.
“Next time I wake up to find you in my bed, I’m throwing punches,” I threatened.
Stratton laughed, sitting upright to face me. “Sure you will.”
“Go for it, right now.” He stretched his arms as wide as they would go. “If anything you’ll only hurt yourself.”
“Don’t push me.”
“Careful,” he rationed, “you never want to get too cocky in a fight.”
“I’m not cocky, I just know what I’m capable of.”
He grabbed both my wrists in each of his hands, and brought them too our faces. “Look at how tiny your hands are. Not capable of much damage.”
I made a fist.
“And obviously,” he continued, “you’ve never thrown a punch before.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I cautioned, despite him being right.
“I’m more than sure. Here’s a tip for future reference. When you make a fist you never hold down your thumb, or it will break when you punch something.” Stratton slid his hand up to my fist, and using his thumb popped my thumb out from beneath my fingers. His hand practically ate mine. “That’s how you throw a punch.”
With that, Stratton used my own fist to tap me on the jaw. Letting both my hands free to fall, he swung himself down to the floor.
Not the greatest way to start the day.
“Today is the day you will all be taking your first test,” our Educator began as class started, while he passed the papers down each row. “There is no need to stress over it as it will not be counted as a grade. This is a special examination designed to portray fitting career paths you might pursue once you graduate.”
How did I not suspect he was a robot from the first day? His voice made it all too obvious.
“There will be a standard potion that will figure your strengths and weaknesses in subjects such as math and science. Lastly, there will be a portion dedicated to discovering your interests and work ethics. Simply question those answers honestly. You may begin when you’re ready.”
Normally I didn’t participate in class assignments other than a doodle here and there, but this caught my interest. What would jobs be like in the Charlotte Empire? He would probably continue to use A.H.P.s to do his dirty work. So did that mean the typical everyday jobs would be generally normal?
Only way to find out was to take the test.
The standardized portion of the test was easy, though I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t a section of the exam dedicated to history. Possibly because everyone here was from different countries, but probably because, well, how could anyone learn to love the Charlotte when they’re reminded of their true forefathers.
It was the interest and work ethnic part that was irritating. You had to fill in the blanks to answer the questions. Things like:
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?: A human
Your pet peeve is?: Being forced to take stupid career tests
What is you favorite color?: Clear
If you were a can of soup, you would be?: A can of soup
Once finished I resorted back to my original sketches, and continued to try and scratch the festering skin hidden by the bracelet, until the lunch bell buzzed.
“Do you ever think the Charlotte is trying to bribe us?” Lexi pondered as we sat our treys on the table. “I mean, look at the food. It’s so decadent, not the kind of every day meal people are use to. Then there’s the cozy beds they provide us with, allowing us to pick our roommates.”
“Yeah,” Wes joined, “give us a warm place to sleep, some good food, and we’ll simply forget the genocide you raged. The Charlotte is an idiot if he thinks that will work.”
“Did anyone else find a letter in their profile?”
The jokes stopped, our eating stopped, all at Coffee’s question. Two seconds ago he was so quiet no one noticed he was there. Come to think of it, he hadn’t said a word since last night. After he read his profile.
Forget the stray puppy comparison, Coffee had become a shadow. He was always there wherever I went. In fact, he was there so much I had begun to overlook is presence. Like a shadow.
Now my shadow wore a sad face. A confused face.
Not one of our friends had received any sort of letter.
He sighed. “I didn’t think so.”
“It will be okay Coffee Cup,” I cooed.
Coffee glanced back up, and even smiled a bit. “Coffee Cup?”
I nodded. For a short while the new-found nickname made him smile again, but it didn’t take long for the water to return to his eyes.
“It’s not so bad, Coffee, really,” Lexi joined our relief efforts. “I didn’t receive a letter, but my boarding school had been burned down, too. They thought it might be possible that people were hiding from the A.H.P.s inside it.”
Would the Charlotte stop at nothing? How determined¾no, how sick¾could one man be? Nobody had a choice any more. No choice but one. Follow the Charlotte, or die to make room for someone who would.
Lexi’s comforting attempt backfired. Coffee seemed determined not to cry, but the tears could be heard in his voice. “I don’t care about my home. I want my family.”
“Hey, hey,” Wes jumped in, “it will get better. Both my parents died in a car crash, long before the Charlotte made his début. All you need is a little bit of time to let the scars fade.”
Coffee lifted his head up, and met Stratton’s eyes. “You have no idea how lucky you are; not being able to remember anything. It’s not fair.”
Stratton didn’t seem to have a reply. He merely sat there, a look of guilt consuming his face. The question was written within his eyes; why should he, of all people, have been kissed by ignorance, and its sweet, sweet bliss?
A group of four kids, three guys and one girl, walked by. Slowly, refusing to pass until they saw what they were looking for. It was me they were eyeing, but it was the shock bracelet they wanted.
I couldn’t take it anymore! I was trying to comfort a friend, the bracelet even in neutral was torture enough, and people I had never met, never so much as glanced at in my life, watched me no matter where I went. I could go to the restroom and be the star of the show. And because all this was simply not enough, to top it all off, I was trapped. A prisoner in the Charlotte’s hell.
“What?” I screamed at the four. Despite the high level of noise in the lunchroom my voice still echoed. Suddenly it got quiet.
The four paused, but said nothing.
“Stop looking at me! What? Am I some sort of criminal to you? Seriously, do you not have anything better to do?”
One the boys stepped forward, palms up in surrender. “We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to upset you. We were only hoping we might get a glimpse of that thing they put on you.”
“Keep walking.” My hand was set securely beneath the table.
“We don’t think you’re a criminal,” the girl admitted. “Honestly, we don’t. You’re much more of a hero.”
“And you’re a liar,” I defended.
“She not lying,” the boy defended as he pushed back in front of her. “You might not have known it, but when you spoke back to the Educator you were speaking for all of us. You defended everyone who watched their life disintegrate due to one man, so on behalf of everyone here, thank you. We’ll get out of your way now.”
The three guys started to leave, but the girl lingered, caught between following them or saying something.
She almost had the same natural curls as Sadie.
I put my arm on the table, revealing what she was hoping for. She merely nodded once, then hurried after the others.
Just like that, the sound barrier broke, and the lunchroom was flooded with conversation. So the people here thought I was some kind of hero, that my condemnation was to be worn with honor.
Hah, if they were so interested in the stupid thing, they could have it. The bracelet wasn’t a trophy, but a demon content on slowly draining the life from me. I was no hero. Merely a small girl angry at the world.
“You coming, Meadows?” Wes called.
The table was empty now, everyone was making their way back to the dorm “Yeah. Right behind you.”
We sat around wasting time for the rest of the afternoon. Dinner dragged on, and on. I finished my food while the others engaged in conversation. Even Stratton got a couple of words in. Lexi didn’t come back to our dorm with us afterward, and I didn’t hear her excuse. As for the four of us, we curled up in our beds as we usually did, and talked for awhile. Wes did most of the talking, and, if you can believe it, so did Stratton.
I laid there simply listening to their voices, never once actually hearing the words. My thoughts were too preoccupied.
As much as I wanted to believe what was said at lunch, I couldn’t. Standing up to someone for your beliefs doesn’t necessarily qualify you as a hero. It merely makes you rebellious.
Truth be told, I was scared. The old Monica would have obeyed every rule, completed every assignment. The old me would have kept quiet along with everyone else at this school. Simply because Meadows was born in Monica’s place didn’t make me fearless. It made me careless. Empty.
Monica died in the helicopter, but not her ability to fear. That carried on to Meadows.
Even the fact that the Educators were computers did nothing to easy the terror I felt. If anything, it heightened it. For all I knew their main functioning chip could be in their pinky toe, meaning a single A.H.P could take bullet after bullet and still charged after their victim. Their programming gave them perfect aim of a gun, they were fast, built strong. Their bones very well could be made of cast iron. Each one of them was the perfect murder machine.
I snuggled into the blankets, wishing for the hundredth time that I would wake up to find this all a dream. To find my sister bouncing on my bed to get me up on my one day to sleep in. To shake off this undying nightmare, and arrive at school where Heidi would be waiting for me. Simply to wake up and find that I felt something inside. To feel alive again. How great that would be.
If only that were possible.
I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling claustrophobic. I moaned at the dizziness, and my unanswered prayer.
“And there she goes,” Was complained from down below.
There was a thunk on the floor. The familiar sound of Stratton, the man to whom which ladders were useless. The bunk rattled, but I kept quiet as Stratton swung himself up on the railing to my mattress. He would have ended up here eventually, anyway.
“So when are you going to tell her?” Wes asked.
“Tell her what?” Stratton crept over, careful not to disturb where I was laying. Taking the side nearest the wall, he stole half the covers.
“That you’re in love with her,” Wes pressed.
“I’m not,” he answered.
“Well, why not? She has a right to know,” Wes sounded more than determined.
“I mean I’m not in love with her.”
Wes snorted, unconvinced. “If it’s rejection you fear, my friend, then you are blind. She has a thing for you, too.”
Stratton didn’t reply.
Whoever she was, at least she seemed to like Stratton back. Maybe they were talking about Lexi. That was the only other girl in the Charlotte school we knew. I could picture the two together, but they would most likely be one of those on-again-off-again couples.
“Tell her,” Wes pushed.
“Go to sleep,” Stratton ordered him. Two seconds later the lights went off.
On the way to class we met up with Lexi who looked perfect, as usual. Her green eyes were glowing, and she had somehow found a way to curl her hair.
Now that just wasn’t fair. I always envied Sadie’s curls, and now Lexi had something similar. My hair couldn’t get any more straight.
“Do you like it?” Lexi asked as she caught me admiring her new hairdo.
“It looks nice.”
“How about my jeans?” The pants everyone was provided with were a dark blue, but somehow Lexi managed to make a stylish fade down her thighs.
“Cute,” was all I could say when I realized all three guys were now examining Lexi’s legs, Stratton included.
“I could do your’s, if you wanted,” she continued. “I bet it would look great on you.”
“You know what?” Wes clapped his hands together, capturing all the attention for himself. “I bet it would look great on Meadows, too. Don’t you agree, Stratton?”
Stratton glared at his friend with a look that would have made any other man run for his life. Wes simply smiled, and Stratton pushed passed him on his was to class. We followed in suit behind him when suddenly someone flung their door open with unnecessary force. I had to jump to keep from getting hit in the face.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t know anyone was there,” the boy who stepped out explained. He was a bit on the small side with sandy hair.
“Don’t worry about it.” I shrugged, about to walk off, but found myself backtracking. Almost instinctively my eyes went straight to his wrist. “You’ve got a shock bracelet!”
Lexi, Coffee, Wes, and Stratton crowded around. The boy blushed. He hardly seemed like someone who would rise up against the Educators, but then again that’s probably what everyone thought of me. “Got it put on yesterday.”
“Way to go, kid,” Wes complimented.
I sighed in genuine relief. “I’m not the only one anymore.”
“I’m Bryan.” The boy offered his hand, and I accepted. “I can’t believe I’m actually talking to the Meadows.”
“Well, believe it. I’m really not that great.”
Bryan shook his head. “I don’t believe that. You’re the Charlotte School celebrity.”
Someone appeared in the doorway behind Bryan, another boy. This one was taller, and a little on the heavy side. “Come on, Bryan, we’re going to be late. Oh¾” a strange look flashed across his face as he recognized the group standing outside his door. “Hi. I’m Trevor.”
I shook Trevor’s hand. It might have been my imagination, but Trevor didn’t seem to want to let go, shaking my hand just a little too long. “It’s great to meet you,” he said, still not surrendering my hand. I smiled in the awkward silence that followed.
The eager handshake continued.
“Down boy,” Wes commanded, as if scolding a dog.
It was strenuous maneuvering my fragile hand from his fat, stubby fingers. “We should really be heading to class now.” I motioned to my friends to start walking.
“Oh, okay then.” Trevor nodded. “Hey, if you want, I could walk you there.”
He did his best to make it seem like an afterthought.
“She’s already got someone to walk her to class.” I jumped at how suddenly Stratton appeared beside me. Before Trevor could muster any sort of reply, Stratton walked off, brushing my shoulder as he want. A sign that I was suppose to follow.
We left behind both Trevor and Bryan in the doorway. About halfway down the hall Lexi and myself gave up trying to keep pace with the guys and willingly lagged behind.
“I never took you for the jealous type.” Wes’ distinctive voice traveled the length of the hall, back to us.
“Shut up, Wes,” Stratton demanded.
By the time we got to class every seat was filled except for our vacant corner in the far back. The bell buzzed before I ever got the chance to sit down.
“I have good news this morning,” the Educator announced as Coffee, the last to reach the corner, finally sat. “The results of your career tests are in.”
Dang, that was quick. I guess things operated fast when completely ran by high performance technology. The Educator stepped up in front of the class with two sheets of paper in his hand.
“There are some individuals in this class that deserve special recognition. Miss Meadows, would you care to stand please?”
Well, crap. My name mixed with “special recognition” couldn’t equal up to anything good. I was suddenly very aware of the bracelet’s presence around my wrist.
“I’d rather sit.”
“Fair enough,” the Educator concluded. “You do not have to stand if you do not wish to stand. First off, Miss Meadows, I would like to ask how is it somebody with a zero percent in my class managed to test remarkably well on this test.”
I shrugged. “Natural born brilliance, I suppose.”
“Indeed, according what I hold in my hand. No one else in this school received the same predicted ranking as you. Therefore, though this was not intended to be given as a great, the Principal Educator and myself have agreed to raise your grade to a one hundred percent.”
“Seriously? Over some stupid career test?”
He saw no condemnation in my words, though they seeped with disgust. They would stop at nothing to win people to their cause.
“The test results give the top three best results for your career. Your number one, and most likely career path, is becoming the Charlotte’s personal assistant.”
I shook my head in denial. “That’s not my test. You’ve confused mine for someone else’s. I could never be that man’s assistant.” Because I hate him and hope he dies a violent death.
As if the bracelet read my mind, it seemed to grew heavier.
“There is no mistake, Miss Meadows. Is this not your usual sketch of a dieing falcon?” He held up the paper for further speculation. Sure enough, there was my doodle of a desecrated Charlotte’s symbol.
Despite my momentary shock, I had to smile at my vivid little picture. “Yep, that’s mine.”
“Then I offer you a thousand congratulations. You shall go far in life, that I guarantee.”
Yeah. Now watch me end up in prison for assaulting the Charlotte, or something along those lines.
“There is one other student who deserves special recognition as well,” our Educator continued without delay. “Mr. Coffee, would you stand please?”
I shot a look over at Coffee, who straightened up immediately upon the sound of his name. Without being able to help it, he threw a sidelong glance in my direction.
“I’d rather sit.”
“Very well, you do not have to stand if you do not wish to stand. Congratulations to you as well. Your most likely career path is an engineer in future technology, a feat not easily accomplished. It is a rigorous field operated by only the most ingenious of people. Now class, how about some applause for Miss Meadows, and Mr. Coffee, who we are most fortunate to have walking the halls of this school.”
I was still waiting for the punch line.
It never came.
The class hesitated clapping, and when they finally did it was half-hearted. They were confused. One minute I was their hero, the next I’m the Charlotte’s best friend.
The Educator passed everyone their results. On mine, right beneath the dying falcon sketch, read the words:
1) Personal assistant to the Charlotte
2) Profile developer
3) Head of police force
None of them sounded like me. Profile developer was somewhat ironic, seeing how I’d already been messing around with people’s profiles. As for joining the police force, that would be impossible. I myself had no intention to abide by Charlotte law, let alone enforce it.
Oh well. I was only a stupid test. No big deal.
“What did you get?” Lexi asked Wes.
He flashed the his sheet at her. “Different things, all involving mechanics.”
“That’s good, right?” she pressed. “Didn’t you say you and your brother owned an auto shop?”
“Yeah, we did. How about you? What was first on your list?”
“They all say I should go into different fields of combat.”
It was clear by Wes’ expression he didn’t believe it. She handed him the paper, and he eyebrows rose at the unexpected truth. “And here I thought you would become a professional maid.”
She scowled, both beautiful and angry.
“Hey,” Wes defended, “it’s not my fault you’re a compulsive cleaner.”
I turned to Stratton. “What did you get?”
He didn’t say anything, just handed over his paper, and sat tentatively for my response.
Stratton nodded. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or not. He was leaning back in his chair, legs stretched far, as comfortable as could be. Did anything ever reach him? Or matter to him at all?
Probably not. This was Stratton, after all.
“Educator Overseer?” Wes turned around in his seat, joining the conversation.
Stratton shrugged. “Makes sense. The Charlotte school is the only life I know.” With that he sat up, and peered around me to Coffee. “What’s an Educator Overseer?”
“That’s the person who makes sure the programs are running smoothly,” he answered. “It wouldn’t be a fun job, that much I can tell you. You’d be staring at a computer screen all day, miles away from the actual school. Just sitting, watching, and listening for defects.”
I laughed. “Enjoy.”
Stratton cocked an eyebrow. “I’d take that over being the Charlotte’s personal assistant any day.”
He had a point.
How could this have happened? How could it have labeled everyone around me so succinctly, and me so backward? Coffee was an engineer, which he practically already was, Stratton was an overseer, which, as he pointed out, school was his only recallable life. Even Wes got the same job he held pre-Charlotte era, and for some reason, despite all her beauty, I could easily picture Lexi on a battle field. So why, oh why, did I get this?
Without so much as a second thought I wadded up the test in an angry fist. No way would I ever become that man’s pet. The bell buzzed and I dismissed the ball of paper, tossing it to the floor. I wasn’t even hungry now.
“You’re in a hurry to get to lunch,” Wes commented.
“I’m not going to lunch,” I said, “no appetite at the moment. I’ll be in the dorm if you need me.”
“Wait, Meadows.” Lexi trotted up to me. “I need to ask you something.”
“I was hoping I could move into the dorm with you guys. My roommates are starting to get annoying.”
“Sure, you can move in if you want. Why are you asking me?”
“Well, there’s only four beds. I would have to share with someone.”
“We can share my bed,” Wes offered.
Lexi glanced over her shoulder. “No thanks, I’m only willing to share with Meadows.”
“Why share with Meadows when you could have a bed all to yourself?” Wes’ tone was dipped in a plot.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Take Stratton’s bed. He never uses it anyways.”
Stratton made no objection whatsoever. Lexi turned to him. “Would you mind?”
He shrugged. “Take it.”
Oh yeah, take it, that why he would have a plausible excuse to crawling into my bunk. He didn’t make any sense.
By then we finally reach the door leading to our dorm. They were all walking away, going for lunch, when I hear Coffee say, “Are you coming Stratton?”
“I’ll meet up with you later,” Stratton promised as he walked in the dorm, shutting the door behind him. “Are you okay, Em?”
Was I okay? Was I ever okay? No. I would never be okay so long as I was here. “Yeah, fine.”
I tossed my textbook on the desk with an echoing thud. Not bothering myself to so much as climb up to my own bunk, I collapsed onto Wes’ mattress with my feet firmly on the floor.
“You don’t sound fine.”
Well spotted, Mr. Obvious. “Nothing gets past you, does it?”
He sighed, disheartened. “You’re in one of your moods again.”
“You know, one of those little sarcastic hissy fits you like to throw when something bothers you.”
I pulled my head off the mattress to glare at him. He stood casually, hand dipped low in his pockets, without a care in the world it seemed. “I suppose I should be more like you and not care about anything, is that it? And I do not throw ‘little hissy fits’,” I added.
“No,” he agreed, “you don’t. You throw a whole dang parade.”
Reaching for one of Wes’ pillows, I chucked it at his head.
Stratton dodged it effortlessly, shaking his head. “And now you’ve resorted to throwing pillows. Sad.”
I could barely hear him over my own thoughts. I hated this stupid school. All around the walls were staring. You’re not going anywhere, they seemed to say.
And it was true. At least now they merely stared, and not laughing.
For the millionth time I laid in bed praying to rise off it and feel something inside. To feel life in place of this new me that only ever felt dead. Knowing that wouldn’t happen, I kept my back pressed against the mattress.
“Em?” Stratton’s voice rang soft, smooth. Like it did when he was waking me from one of my nightmares. Before I knew it, he was there on Wes’ bed, sitting next to me. I closed my eyes. “Tell me something, Stratton.”
“What do you want to know?”
“You hated me on the first day of school, so why did you fight that guy the next day?”
“I like to fight.” He was back to his usual tone. “It’s one of the few things I actually remember… And I don’t hate you.”
“Then you did.”
“Meadows, don’t you remember what it was like to wake up in this place?” For once he didn’t sound casual. He sounded frustrated. “Don’t you remember how scary, and confusing everything was?”
Not really, no. For me, I understood most of everything the Councilor was telling us. I did recall, however, how slow and disturbed my roommates behaved. Chances are, had Monica never had died, and Meadows not reborn in her place, I wouldn’t have been any better off than the rest of them.
“Yes,” I answered anyways.
“Now imagine on top of all that fear and uncertainty, you don’t even know who you yourself are. Not knowing one detail about yourself. All you have to go on is a silver chain with the word ‘Stratton’ engraved in it.”
I opened my eyes. He sat next to me, his feet a pair next to mine. It drove me crazy how relaxed he appeared over something I knew to be personal.
He continued. “I walk into class and there you are. Did I know you, was I suppose to know you? Should I say something? And if I do happen to know you, what are you to me? A friend, sister, cousin? Same thing pretty much applied to everyone who walked by. It got frustrating. When lunch came and you offered me a seat I figured I must know you. I tried to remember you, but there was nothing to recall. Then you introduced yourself and I realized I didn’t know you, which was surprisingly disappointing.”
“I was hoping you could explain things to me. I didn’t hate you, really. It was irritating, was all. Wes made it worse. That’s why he wasn’t there with me at lunch that day. I ditched him.”
I would have laughed if not for the gravity of the conversation. “All this time, and Stratton had a soft side after all.”
“It’s your fault.”
“My fault? How is any of this my fault?”
“You just had to introduce yourself,” he teased. “You’re fault. You were all I knew from then on, and therefore all I had to care about.”
I paused, stunned in momentary silence. “What about Wes, Lexi, and Coffee?”
“Well I care about them now, of course. But do you want to know a secret?” He rolled over on his side locking our eyes for a brief moment before moving his lips down to my ear. “You’re my favorite.”
Honestly, I had no idea what Stratton meant. He didn’t give me much time to think about it; the next thing I knew his lips were in between mine. My pulse accelerated, and I felt the newly arrived butterflies twisting strings that knotted my stomach.
Wait. I felt, something I didn’t think possible for this new me unless it was pain, death, or emptiness. In this moment I couldn’t recall what any of those felt like. I was safe
It felt good to feel.
So long as I was with Stratton, I was alive.
Park City, Utah
A Field Of Paper Flowers, California
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This book has 7 comments.
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They change every day. Today's is this: "But sometimes the sun has been up for a long time and we just refuse to open the curtains." ~the woman I met on the street that one time.
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last night i lay in bed, looking up at the stars and i thought to myself, where the heck is the ceiling?
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"Every cloud has a silver lining" and "I don't get distracted easil-SQUIRREL!"
1 article 0 photos 57 comments
"Every cloud has a silver lining" and "I don't get distracted easil-SQUIRREL!"
1 article 0 photos 57 comments
"Every cloud has a silver lining" and "I don't get distracted easil-SQUIRREL!"
3 articles 0 photos 1 comment
"You can say you know me, but you have no clue what my dreams could show you."
I really wasn't planning writing any more on this story, but to see someone care that much for it has inspired me.
I'll add more as soon as possible, promise.
1 article 0 photos 57 comments
"Every cloud has a silver lining" and "I don't get distracted easil-SQUIRREL!"