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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Sci-Fi & fantasy  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  Adventure

Seeds of Foreverland

 
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Good people do bad things.

So do bad people.

1

Flies are stupid.

They were drawn to windows like addicts, pounding their brains against a pane of glass until they died on the windowsill, their short, useless lives spent wishing for freedom but never finding it.

Occasionally, one would get smart and turn away.

It landed on a spiral-bound notebook between two faded lines. Harold sat absolutely still. He’d seen enough Discovery Channel documentaries to know a good predator was patient. They rarely blinked until the kill was made.

Musca domestica. The common housefly had two wings instead of four, and compound eyes that wrapped around its head, with four thousand lenses that gave it multifaceted, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree vision. Some of those lenses were watching Harold, his hand unfurling like a sunflower, coming to rest on the desk’s edge.

And there it sat. There it waited.

Like a good predator.

The housefly cleaned its legs and flicked its head. Did Harold look like a tree? Did the fly smell death? Did it know that a five-finger death punch lay twenty inches away?

Of course not. Because flies were stupid.

What good were they? They licked crap and annoyed the world. Nobody liked flies. They were pests.

The trick to catching flies was to aim where they were going, not where they are. They were built for quickness, their eyes picking up the slightest movement. The sweet spot was four inches above their resting place.

And that was where Harold aimed.

A quick swipe, fingers clamped. In the fleshy pocket of his hollow fist, he felt the light touch of membranous wings. The cheetah had downed its prey, blood dripping, mouth salivating. If not for his sleeve, the kill would’ve been flawless.

It caught his notebook and splashed it on a book bag.

Mr. Long was jotting a long string of symbols on the board. No one seemed to notice, especially John Lively, whose book bag was buried under Harold’s notebook.

Harold shook his hand like a high roller, stunning the fly inside his fist. He needed the prey to relax, needed it alive for the next step. John woke up long enough to notice the notebook sprayed across his book bag. He slapped it away and retrieved the half-empty bottle of Coke from the side pocket.

“Douche,” he hurled at Harold.

The plastic cap swirled off the top. He took a swig.

“John.” Mr. Long pointed. “No drinks in class.”

Everyone turned toward the back corner. Harold took cover behind the overdeveloped sixth grader. John had full sets of armpit hair but still hadn’t discovered the magic of deodorant. He took his time screwing the cap back on and sighed with the satisfaction of a Coke commercial before stowing the plastic bottle back in the mesh pocket.

The unrelenting march of algebra continued.

Harold bided his time while the prey settled inside his clammy hand. Escape was impossible. John began wilting into a nap around the time Mr. Long was solving for x. Harold took cover behind his slumping shoulders and dug a binder out of his book bag.

A very special binder.

Carefully, systematically, he stacked textbooks to block views coming from the right. Karen Duluce wasn’t paying attention. She was all about As.

Girls getting in his business were rarely a problem for Harold, but he stacked the books anyway. With the window on his left and John already a bobblehead, he laid the binder on the desk. The white cover was gray and ragged with monstrous faces inked on the cover, fantastical gods from another universe. Not gods, really.

Harold liked to think of them as servants.

He pried it open, the stale smell of funk and rot wafting out. In the left pocket were Ziploc baggies. Tucked into the right pocket was a single page of card stock smudged with a variety of bug parts.

The operating table.

Mr. Long had moved to the left side of the board, eraser in one hand, marker in the other. John, in a stroke of good fortune, was listing to the left and provided a perfect screen. Harold pried open a Ziploc with his free hand and inserted his fist.

This was the hard part.

How many times had he watched a fly escape between his fingers before the bag was sealed? Invariably, the stupid thing would land on the window and he’d catch it again. Still, it bothered him.

After several violent shakes, the fly sufficiently stunned, he masterfully zipped the prey inside with a swift, satisfying snap. The little dummy was trapped. Once that cheetah got its mouth around the windpipe, it was all over.

Harold debated saving it for next period, but there was still twenty minutes left in algebra. And this was the best class for cover. Besides having a seat in the back corner, John was a master napper, somehow keeping himself upright in deep sleep with only the occasional twitch.

Anticipation melted his stomach like hard candy on summer concrete as he retrieved a hard plastic case from his book bag. Steel implements rattled inside. It snapped open, revealing tweezers, pins and other pointed tools.

The fly was buzzing. Perhaps, he thought, it suddenly realized what was coming. The thing wasn’t suffocating. He’d kept bugs in plastic bags for weeks. They never ran out of air.

Harold licked his lips.

Karen glanced over. She couldn’t see what was happening, but he straightened up, smiling at her. She smiled back. Another warm, sweet feeling melted in his stomach, this time wicking into his chest.

She went back to her notes and for a time Harold pretended to look at Mr. Long, squinting and mouthing nonsense like he was trying to solve for x. He caught himself looking at her from the corner of his eye and noticed her lips silently moving the way his did when thoughts slipped down to his tongue. It was how he made sense of this complex world. As if that were possible.

Harold got back to work.

He trapped the fly between two fingers, the plastic pressing against its wings, then pierced the thorax with a needle, effectively mounting it to the card stock.

The fly continued buzzing. It was like it couldn’t feel it. What would it be like to not feel pain, to just go through life with no fear of agony, no threat of death? Everybody dies, that was a given. We would all lose out, that was a heavy fact Harold carried at a very young age. He didn’t want to die.

With scalpel in hand, he sliced open the plastic bag, laying the flaps open like skin. The insect spun circles on the steel pin, the fresh air invigorating hope. The buzzing was loud.

Saliva pooled beneath Harold’s tongue.

Two more pins stabbed the insect in place. No longer spinning, the tweezers were next. He removed one of the wings, tearing it out like a tooth. Most insects had four wings. Flies only developed two. Lucky for the fly. He pinned the wing alongside the flailing specimen, now a useless detached appendage he would later sketch. Once the other wing was in place, he’d pluck one of the compound eyes—

“Harold?”

It wasn’t his name that stopped him. It was the silence that followed. Everyone was looking at him. Mr. Long pointed at the board expectantly.

“X equals eight,” Harold said.

“That wasn’t the question.”

“Oh. Then C.”

“Eeeeeew.” Karen pushed back in her chair, the legs scraping the floor. She was staring at the notebook. The textbooks were out of place, his paper mausoleum on full display. It wasn’t the sound of disgust she made, or the snarl or the horrified whites of her eyes.

She was looking at him. Because he was gross.

He was a monster.

Everyone in the room had squashed a thousand bugs. Everyone hated flies, swatted them down without a thought, watched them struggle on sticky flypaper, but he was the monster.

“Holy crap.” John twisted in his seat. Before Harold could slam the door on his experiment, John snatched the card stock up for everyone to see. “Holy, holy crap!”

“John,” Mr. Long said.

“Look at this!”

A collective sigh inhaled the room’s oxygen. Chair legs scraped the floor, hands went up to mouths. The girls went [_ewwwww. _]The boys stood up for a better view.

“Class,” Mr. Long attempted, “sit down.”

Harold swung for the card stock, the needle poking out like a spine. John stiff-armed him and hauled the prize around the room, the thick paper crumpling in his fist. He shoved it at the girls, presented it to the boys.

Mr. Long caught him by the wrist and lifted the hefty sixth-grader onto his toes, plucking the card from his fingers. He told John to sit down and got the boys and girls to turn around and get back in line. They straightened their desks and put them in rows with a slight bowing around Harold like a repellent invisible force field surrounded him.

Or he was contaminated.

“This is not biology.” Mr. Long held the paper at arm’s length. “This will be at the office, Harold. If you want it back.”

He dropped it on his desk and finished filling the board with numbers until class ended.

Harold was the last to leave.

2

Harold was at his locker, face half-hidden behind the metal door, one eye watching a group of girls. They were three classrooms down the hall, talking about whatever sixth-grade girls talk about. Music? Basketball games? The war on drugs?

He had no idea.

He just knew when he was near them, his stomach stirred. It was their smell, their eyes and rosy cheeks. The smoothness of their skin. It twisted him all up. Especially that Karen with her blonde ponytail and fair eyebrows, the way she bounced when she laughed.

Now she was looking in the mirror taped inside her locker. Harold moved behind his locker door, just his right eye beyond the edge of it. It looked super creepy, yeah. It was.

He didn’t care.

There were mirrors in all the lockers, glued down from former students. Harold taped a picture over his. He didn’t want to see his face. When Karen looked in the mirror, she had to like what looked back. What did she see when she looked at Harold?

A prepubescent doughboy with blotchy skin and perennial bedhead; a mouth-breather that picked his nose in the morning and rolled the boogers into tight little balls he’d drop on the carpet; a precocious only child of academically ostracized parents, whose hobby was pinning insects to poster board.

That was what she’d see.

That was why he’d plastered a photo over the mirror in his locker. Palm trees. He’d printed off a photo of palm trees and glued it over the mirror to remind him that one day he’d get out of New England’s dreary weather and reinvent himself, become whatever he wanted.

One day, he’d move to the tropics, maybe buy his own island a million miles from anywhere. He’d build a house out of palm fronds and power it with solar panels. Clothing would be optional. Maybe someone like Karen would move out there with him.

He’d wait until they were older, of course; give her time to forget about the kid torturing houseflies in math class. Maybe when they were in their thirties he’d send her a mysterious invitation, one she couldn’t resist, tell her he was changing the world, his inventions were ground-breaking, original, mind-shattering.

How could she say no?

He had to invent something first. Something no one had ever thought of. Shouldn’t be too hard. And if he couldn’t think of something or afford his own island, he’d still move anyway. Because the weather sucked.

CLANG.

A banana slammed against the back of his locker, the metal backing ringing like a gong of sheet metal. The gooey insides squished from the blackened peel, the rotten banana sticking like a magnet.

“That’s for your collection,” John said. “They’re probably hungry.”

The ape stopped in the hall. His shadow, Blake Masterson, was there, too. They sort of laughed the kind of mirthless imitation of good cheer that was more cutting than joyous.

Harold just stood there.

“What’s wrong with you, Ballard?” John said. “You got a screw loose?”

“No.”

“Why you so weird?”

“I’m not.”

“You think you’re normal?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“What’s normal?”

“Not pulling apart flies, I can tell you that.”

John pulled the Coke from his book bag and slugged down the remains before tossing the empty bottle into the locker.

“There’s a new house for all your friends.”

The hallway was thinning out. Harold slowly peeked around the edge of his open locker, watching Blake and John jog out the front doors.

All the girls were gone except one. Karen pretended not to be watching.

He slammed the locker shut and went in the other direction.

The banana would stay there for weeks.

3

Both cars were in the driveway.

They hadn’t moved, not since Harold caught the bus that morning. Actually, they hadn’t moved in weeks.

The back door was unlocked because he’d forgotten to lock it that morning. He sort of wiped his shoes in the mudroom and dropped his book bag.

“Mom? Dad?”

The house was quiet. The refrigerator clicked on.

Harold moved down the hallway. The basement door was below the staircase, the knob brassy and dull. He wrapped his fingers around it, the metal hard and cold. It wobbled slightly, but didn’t turn far before catching the latch. Sometimes they forgot to turn the lock, instead using a deadbolt. Harold was sure he could barrel through the locks like an adrenaline-jacked cop, throwing his shoulder into it linebacker style. But then what? His father would have a cow, then send him to his grandparents.

The last place he wanted to be.

[HOME, _]he texted. The word lined up beneath all the other texts he’d sent to [_Mom _]and _Dad.

HOME.

HOME.

HOME.

He dragged the book bag into the kitchen. The milk and orange juice were still on the table, next to a soggy bowl of cereal. He forgot about those, too. Usually, Mom put things away. Obviously, they hadn’t left the basement.

Harold grabbed a milk crate in the pantry and loaded it with granola bars, a box of Lucky Charms, a bag of marshmallows, and a fresh jug of milk from the refrigerator, nice and cold. The cabinet was nearly void of clean bowls; the silverware drawer was down to three forks and a spoon. He took the last spoon and two bottles of Coke before hauling the cache to the steps.

The front door was ajar.

A quick chill rode up his back, thinking maybe Babadook or some other malicious spirit was waiting for him upstairs, but that was probably his fault. He’d run out the front door to catch the bus and couldn’t remember if he closed it.

His phone buzzed and nearly made his heart stop.

Busy a bit longer, hon. Order pizza.

Harold looked at the basement door, wondering if they’d want him to slide two slices under the door. He didn’t text back. They rarely read it when he did. Instead, he trundled up to the third floor.

Didn’t bother ordering pizza.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

The third floor belonged to Harold.

It was an attic at one time. When he was born, his room was on the second floor, right next to his parents’ bedroom. He had foggy memories of his mom coming in at night and rocking him to sleep. She would sing these soft tunes that always made him feel good. She had a great voice. He was convinced it would kill on America’s Got Talent.

There were glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. He remembered staring at them, wondering if that was the sky. He wasn’t quite two years old and he was already dreaming about the universe. About what was possible, if this was all that existed.

When he was five, his father finished the attic room. That was when he was between jobs and didn’t have much to do. It was Mom that convinced him to make the third floor Harold’s.

It had been ever since.

The room was hot. In the summer, it was nearly unbearable. He’d wake at night sweating through the mattress. Now that it was autumn, he could sleep beneath the covers.

The lack of insulation didn’t help, but it was the computers that made it such a problem. There were six towers and two laptops, all of them networked on a series of overlapping desktops. His father helped him connect the first two computers (between careers this time; whoever heard of a neurosurgeon becoming a computer analyst?), but Harold had done the rest.

The desks were littered with half-empty bowls of cereal, cups of fermenting milk and flat soda, and plates with hardened globs of ketchup. He stacked them in the corner, where flies lapped up the leftovers. (He’d catch them later.)

Milk dripping from his chin, he slurped spoonfuls of Lucky Charms while tapping spacebars. Monitors woke up with the latest social media streams. No one had posted anything about Mr. Long’s class. Not even John. Karen had posted a photo of her sleeping cat with a pair of sunglasses teetered on his head.

Next, he checked the stock market.

His father had set him up with a beginner’s account, something that would teach him the value of investing. Harold learned about algorithms in math class (Mr. Long’s class, actually) and how it applied to investing. Algorithms seemed to apply to everything nowadays. Seemed stupid not to catch the wave.

He wasn’t cornering the market with models he stole from the Internet, but he was making money. Networking, his father once said, was a beautiful thing. No one person could become everything to everyone. But if people could link their minds like computers, they could all become something greater.

Harold wasn’t sure what he meant by that. The computers were networked, he got that. They shared resources. But human brains—God’s organic computer, his father called it—couldn’t be networked.

A few floating charms of luck stayed in the bowl. He put it on the windowsill and began scooping the bug carcasses into the palm of his hand. The bay window stretched six feet across the south wall of the house, letting in sunlight that turned the room into a summer furnace or winter haven. The never-ending horde of insects feasting on the dirty dishes always came to the window to bash their brains inside out.

Harold scraped them into a neat little pile of wings and dried legs. The bottle of Coke fizzed as he twisted the lid. The first three gulps burned his eyes, a belch exploding from his thick lips.

A telescope was mounted on a tripod in the center of the window. A Christmas gift when he was ten years old, he could swivel his big eye in almost any southern direction. At night, he’d count the stars. But during the day, he checked the houses. It was amazing how many people didn’t shutter their blinds.

A squirrel tightroped a power line, pausing midway to eyeball Harold on the third floor. The furry-tailed rat knew he wasn’t going to do anything. If their neighbor Mr. Willis was there, he’d be running for his life. The old man was a war veteran and had trained snipers until he retired.

He was teaching Harold how to calibrate a scope, how to pull the trigger between breaths. They used to fire on aluminum cans, the pellets plunking with hollow finality, the frayed edges of metal blasting out the back side.

But Harold had graduated to squirrels.

[_Vermin, _]Mr. Willis called them. [_Just ’cause they got furry tails don’t make them any different than rats. _]

There was a distant scream. Harold spun the telescope to the left, aiming it across the street. In the thin slice of space between two houses, he focused on a picket fence that enclosed a backyard. John was holding a stocking cap over his head. Someone else was trying to get it. Each time they jumped, he shoved them down. No one was having any fun but John.

Harold chugged the Coke until it was half empty, then peeled back the label and scribbled two words on the inside with a green marker. A dab of glue and the label went snugly back in place.

Next, he tore a sheet of notebook paper out and twisted it into a tight funnel. Placing the small end into the Coke bottle, he swept the pile of insect parts into the open end, replaced the cap and shook it. The parts floated in the carbonated fizz.

He peered back into the telescope. John had two stocking caps now.

Later that night, when he was asleep and dreaming of palm trees, he heard his mom come in the room. She pulled the covers over his shoulder and kissed his forehead.

4

The pinging radar was followed by an incessant buzz.

Harold dreamed the flies were coming for him, that they’d pick him up like the corners of a giant jelly sandwich and take him to a lair of humid, steamy dog turds. But then the buzzing stopped. Then started.

Stopped. Started.

It was his phone.

The alarm didn’t go off. Instead there were five missed calls from the grandparents. He looked out the window. There was no one down the street. The bus had already picked up. Somehow the grandparents knew.

“Crap.”

He was still wearing the same clothes from yesterday, socks and shoes included. He threw a sweatshirt over his T-shirt, in case someone noticed. It’s the End of the World as We Know It, was written on the front—a ketchup stain below the word End. His favorite sweatshirt he’d found at a resale shop. It never got washed. Odds were no matter what sweatshirt he grabbed, there would be a stain.

He snatched his book bag—loaded and ready—and took the steps three at a time. On the way to the kitchen, he stopped.

The basement door was open.

It was just a crack, a thin line of blackness inside. It had been years since he descended into the dank basement, old wooden steps that led to a place of humid dampness where mold devoured cardboard boxes. That was before his father converted it into a study. Equipment had been lowered down skids, lights erected and dehumidifiers chased away the spirits.

He ached to insert his fingers into the crack, to see if the draft wafted out cold and humid, but Mom was sitting with her back to him, elbows on the kitchen table, a coffee mug hoisted to her lips.

She turned at the sound of the creaking hallway.

“Good morning,” she said. The words puffed through her lips like dust.

“Morning.”

“You missed the bus.”

“I know. It was my master plan, been working on it all night. Can you take me?”

“Not today.”

She turned back to the coffee mug perched just below her nose. A long paisley scarf was wrapped over her head gypsy-like, the tail dragging between her shoulder blades. The day before, it was a plain gray scarf that matched the rings beneath her eyes. The day before that, a shade of yellow that matched her skin.

She sipped loudly and sighed.

Harold pried three frozen pancakes from the freezer and popped them in the microwave. “Want some?”

“No, thank you, hon. What’d you eat for dinner last night?”

“Pizza.”

“You did?”

“No.”

“Didn’t your father say to order some?”

“It sounded optional.”

The microwave hummed. Harold snagged a Coke from the refrigerator, twisted the cap, and the carbonation hissed as the microwave finished.

“No, hon.”

“What?”

“No soda for breakfast.”

“Studies show that carbonated drinks strip antagonistic bacteria from morning breath as well as jump-start digestive enzymes. It’s all in the literature, Mom. Numbers don’t lie.”

He sipped loudly. Burped.

She was too tired to argue. She was always too tired for anything, and as long as he used words too big for his age and preceded them with “studies show,”[_ ]he was in the clear. [ Studies show television creates 250% more working synapses than silence, Mom. Numbers don’t lie. _]

She was a scientist. Well, a scientist before she got sick, but still a sucker for data.

He painted the elastic pancakes with butter and drowned them in syrup. The first bite made his head buzz. He washed it down with fizzy Coke and nearly began shaking.

“Homework done?” she asked.

“Have I ever let you down?”

“Mmm.”

“Have I?” He stabbed the pancakes. “Have I?”

She chuckled and shook her head, a smile blooming like a daisy on a cloudy day.

“Where’s Dad?”

“Sleeping.”

“In the basement?”

She emptied her mug and went to the coffee pot for another fill, the spoon clanging on the inside. The gray cloud followed her to the table.

The basement was supposed to make her better.

That was what they told him when they started going down there and locking it. Well, that was what Mom told him. His father just went down there. Harold would occasionally see him going to his office, but that was it. Instead, the basement was draining the life out of her. She looked like a runway model sucking on the business end of a vacuum.

_She needs a Coke. _

She was brittle bones and gray, yellowy skin in the mornings. The afternoons, she was a bit sunnier, a little more alive. If he asked her how she was doing, she turned gray. So he just kept it light, kept it positive. But sometimes that didn’t feel like the thing to do.

He couldn’t help himself.

“Why aren’t you sleeping, too?” he asked.

“It’s complicated.”

“Sleeping?”

“That, too. Becoming an adult, all that.”

“Is that what you’re doing down there, becoming an adult?”

She didn’t reply.

“Looks more like you’re dying,” he said.

“No one wants to die.”

“That includes you, right?”

“Of course it does.” She tried to smile like before, but it wilted.

Harold mopped up the syrup in one last bite and placed the plate on a growing stack in the sink. His phone began buzzing. The grandparents were out front.

“You need to clean your room,” Mom said. “And when’s the last time you brushed your teeth?”

“Last night.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“It’s complicated, Mom.”

“Don’t give me that.”

Harold swished the last swallow of soda and gargled it loudly. He rubbed his fingertip over his front teeth and smiled big and bright.

“See?” he said. “Coke is a teeth whitener, too. Numbers don’t lie.”

“You can’t have that at school.” She gestured to the half-full bottle in his book bag.

“I’ll throw it away, don’t worry.”

He slung the strap over his shoulder and started past her.

“I love you,” she said.

“No, don’t.”

“What?”

“Just… don’t say it like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re going away, that’s all. It sounds like you’re boarding the Titanic. Just say ‘love you’ without the I, it’s more real.”

The smile returned to her. The real one.

“We’ll order Chinese tonight,” she said.

“And you’ll eat?”

“Of course.”

The phone buzzed again. He held up his hand on the way past her. She high-fived him, squishing his knuckles in a five-finger hug. Harold pulled away from her but stopped next to the basement door. The blackness so tempting.

“Does he make you do this?” Harold said, his words as hollow as his mom’s eyes.

“What?”

“Down there… is he making you do it?”

“No, of course not. This is my idea. Your father… he’s helping me, that’s all. I promise.”

There were times Harold considered calling the police. How could he stand by and watch her shrivel up like that? His father, though, he’d kill him if he called the cops. And then Harold would have to live with the grandparents. At least here he had the house to himself. His parents were adults; they knew what they were doing.

And they were going to keep doing it.

All of a sudden, the syrup and Coke mixed like combustible fumes. He’d have to hit the bathroom when he got to school.

“See you after school,” she called. “Love you.”

But the door would be unlocked when he got home. The basement door would be.

And he wouldn’t see her.

5

“You’re dead meat.”

The sound Harold’s head made against the locker door was a gunshot. White light exploded behind his eyes. His legs gave up, but a pair of hands held two wads of his sweatshirt.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

John slammed him into the locker again, the tin explosion loud and alarming. Harold might’ve eaten a row of knuckles had he not collided with someone retrieving books from the locker next to his.

Harold’s momentum crashed past bystanders like bowling pins. John snatched the back of his sweatshirt and was winding up for another meet and greet.

Head meet locker. Locker, head.

The excited chaos of an after-school fight buzzed in the hall. An opening quickly gave way, an impromptu ring of bodies. It wasn’t going to be much of a fight. If this was behind the bowling alley or even in the parking lot, the crowd might’ve seen the one-drop shot John was about to plant on Harold’s chin.

“That’s enough.” Mr. Long threw an arm across John’s chest. “What are you doing, John?”

“This.”

John shoved something at Mr. Long. The math teacher got between him and Harold, holding the plastic bottle up like the fluorescent hall lighting were magic X-rays.

“You do this?” he asked.

“What?” Harold said.

Mr. Long shook his head and stated deadpan, “You did it.”

“I didn’t do anything. John’s got a problem. I think he needs to admit it.”

“He switched it out.” John held up his book bag, pointing at the side pocket. “In your class.”

“Did not,” Harold said.

“Is that a banana?” Mr. Long asked.

Harold looked in his open locker. The banana had slid to the bottom, the peel black and curly, mucky fruit trailing along the wall, a mucusy slug track.

“Yeah,” Harold said. “You want some?”

“You’re such a tool,” John said.

“You got a bug fetish. It’s a cry for help, everybody knows it.”

John moved quickly for a kid that could play high school football and swung a roundhouse around Mr. Long’s roadblock. His fist smashed Harold’s shoulder like a runaway logging truck. Pain tingled down Harold’s shoulder.

The crowd reacted.

“All right, all right,” Mr. Long said. “Both of you, down to the office. Now.”

“You’re going to need a surgeon,” John said. “Someone will have to put you back together.”

“You hear that? He threatened me! Put that in the notes, Mr. Long. Somebody filming this? Upload it, it’s proof. Anything happens to me, come for John, the one with the bug fetish. Remember that, everyone!”

John made another charge. Mr. Long intercepted this one, holding the portly sixth grader as other teachers directed traffic. He pointed a long finger down the hall for Harold to follow.

“You need to search his locker for body parts,” Harold said. “I mean, all I got are bananas. He’s got like severed fingers and toes, I guarantee it.”

John’s face caught fire.

“Go,” Mr. Long said.

“I’m just saying.”

The middle-schoolers that weren’t ushered away stood along the walls and peeked out of their classrooms. Some were smiling. Mr. Long caught up to Harold, leaving John with the gym teacher. He chaperoned Harold to the office, where he delivered him along with the evidence John had given him.

[It’s the End of the World as We Know It. _]And on the back of Harold’s sweatshirt, it read _And I Feel Fine.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

Harold rubbed his arm while Mr. Tanner studied the plastic bottle.

The bone hurt.

Right below the skinny part of the bicep, John’s knuckle had connected with Harold’s humerus—the big bone that went from shoulder to elbow. It was throbbing in a dull, sort of fractured way, the kind that got infected if it didn’t get treated, he was pretty sure.

Reminded Harold of the time he got a tetanus shot. His mom had to hold him down while rocks were injected into his arm. His father told him to act like a man.

Mr. Tanner picked at the corner of the Coke label, dried glue snapping. He unwound it like a scroll and read the message written in green ink. It was only two words, but he stared like he was reading the Constitution.

Eat me?” he finally said.

Harold shrugged. “Weird. Why would Coke do that?”

Mr. Tanner reached into a drawer and dealt a stiff page across his desk. Harold’s fly museum was smeared across the surface, the one from Mr. Long’s class. Mr. Tanner looked over his glasses and swirled the Coke bottle. Little wings and compound eyes stuck to the inside.

“See the connection?” he asked.

“Doesn’t prove anything,” Harold said.

“That’s an admission of guilt.”

“It’s a statement of fact. In a court of law, you couldn’t convict me. And besides, I think he broke my arm. Why isn’t he in here?”

“This isn’t a court of law. And I think you’ll live.”

“Oh, right. This is a fascist dictatorship. I forgot.”

Mr. Tanner leaned back, twirling his glasses. He studied Harold. The curiosity made Harold uncomfortable, the long silent pauses were like surgical strikes of self-doubt. Mr. Tanner was a reflective ninja that could stamp out confidence and instill a compulsion to confess.

“What’d you think was going to happen?” Mr. Tanner finally said. “John’s not a bright kid, but a dog could connect the dots here, Harold. You knew he would. You also knew he was going to knock you into next week. Is that what you wanted?”

“I’m innocent until proven guilty.”

“This is a fascist regime, remember? And you’re guilty, Harold. We both know it. What I want to know is your endgame. You’re sharp, no question. I mean, your grades don’t show it, but you’re intelligent. So why don’t you act smart?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Mr. Tanner, but you’re a terrible counsellor.”

“You think if I graduated from an Ivy League school, I’d be at a middle school? This is what you get, kid.”

Harold shrugged. Made sense. “You got your degree from an online college?”

“What was your plan?” Mr. Tanner said. “I’m just curious, that’s all. You filled a Coke with fly parts from your collection, I’m guessing. You did that at home or the bathroom, doesn’t matter. He sits in front of you in math class, so when he falls asleep, you slip it into his book bag.”

“You missed your calling, Mr. Tanner. I’m thinking detective.”

“Hold the jokes for second, all right. John’s a future convict, all right? Tell anyone I said that and I’ll deny it and bury you with detentions. The kid’s one of the worst bullies I’ve dealt with, and he’s not a smart one, I get that. So you give him a taste of his own medicine, right? I mean, after he paraded your collection around the room”—he nudged the page of bug parts—“you decided a little revenge was in order. But what good is revenge if he doesn’t know you did it, huh?”

Harold’s jaw clenched and unclenched. Most teachers or school administrators would’ve thrown Harold out of the office with detention or called his parents. Not Mr. Tanner. He was a ninja counsellor.

“Am I getting warm, Harold?”

“He’s a waste.”

“John?”

“He’s an idiot taking up space, breathing our air and ruining lives. And he’ll have stupid kids just like him that will breathe our air, and they’ll have kids and they’ll have kids and they’ll all live pointless lives.”

“So why should he live, is that what you’re saying?”

“You mean kill him?” Harold aimed his phone like it was recording. “Did you say I should kill him, Mr. Tanner?”

Mr. Tanner took the phone and laid it on the desk. He scratched his beard, speckles of premature gray whiskers peppered in a thicket of black.

“I like you,” he said with his wire-framed counsellor-glasses twirling between his fingers. “You’re a chubby kid that’s too smart for his own good. And all this is a cry for attention, and yeah, that’s straight from a psychology 101 textbook, but it’s the truth. I don’t know what’s cooking at home, but I know your parents have a lot on their plate, probably not giving you a whole lot of attention.”

Harold fidgeted, the creaky chair giving away his agitation. His family history wasn’t exactly a secret. But Mr. Tanner and the rest of the world didn’t know half of it. _Neither do I. _

“You’re too smart to go toe to toe with John. He’d stomp you like one of your pet flies, Harold.”

He nodded at Harold’s arm still throbbing with the promise of a gnarly bruise. Harold tried not to rub it, but the attention was making it hurt worse.

“Here’s what worries me,” Mr. Tanner said. “All this bully stuff in middle school is small fry compared to what adults do. You get older and take all those smarts with you and get some real vengeance. Next time it won’t be fly guts in someone’s drink.”

“You saying I’ll be a serial killer?” Harold laughed. “For a second, I thought you were kind of pulling some slick counsellor move on me. A serial killer, really? Okay.”

“You watch movies?”

“No.”

“Sure you do. You ever see the dystopian ones, the ones where people do unthinkably dark things?”

“Those are movies, Mr. Tanner.”

“Sometimes, Harold, a good seed grows into a weed. A weed that smothers all the plants around it, poisons the soil with thickets of thorns and strangles the world. Is that you, Harold?”

“Are you talking about pot?”

Mr. Tanner didn’t smile, but he didn’t throw Harold out, either. Didn’t even sigh. Just leaned back in an office full of creaky chairs and bookcases of old books and studied Harold like an enigma.

Harold was beginning to feel the first pinch of claustrophobia.

“What do you want, Harold?”

“I’m twelve, Mr. Tanner. What do you think?”

“I can see it in your eyes. There’s more to you than this petty stuff. All these jokes are just a diversion. The fly dissections weren’t torture. It was curiosity, wasn’t it?”

“Am I in trouble?”

“Are you?”

Harold exaggerated confusion. “Is that like a Zen koan?”

This broke Mr. Tanner’s serious front with a burst of laughter. Here he was dealing with a precocious sixth grader that just threw out the term koan—a Buddhist term for an unanswerable question—like they were in some dharma battle.

Harold had only heard the word in social studies the other day when they were studying religion. If anything, the joke broke the unperturbable Mr. Tanner to the point that tears welled up from laughter.

_Precocious indeed. _

“Can I go?” Harold asked. “I’m late for class.”

“How’s your parents, Harold?”

“Is this the counselling part?”

“Just a question.”

“They’re great. We’re going fishing after school and having a picnic. I’d invite you, but my mom doesn’t like to mix business with pleasure, so…”

“They still at home?” He had resumed the counsellor pose with fingers scratching chin.

There was no escape.

“As far as I know.”

“Your mom all right?”

“Super.”

“She was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. Was that it?”

“It was that or Ebola. I can’t remember.”

“Those other treatments? How’d they go?”

Harold began to wilt. There wasn’t a single light bulb in the office, but he could hear his insides spattering like frying bacon.

_The other treatments. _

His mom had gone away for a couple of days after she was diagnosed, said she was getting help. A few weeks later, the neighbors asked how she was holding up. Seemed like everyone knew she was getting alternative treatments. Harold was the last to know.

Electroshock therapy was back in fashion.

She thought there would be benefits to stimulating or suppressing parts of the brain. It was her research; she was just volunteering herself for testing. They did it in her lab. She seemed a little off when she got back, but Harold just thought he was imagining that.

It’s a sad, sad world, she once said.

“How old are you, Harold?”

“You don’t know?”

“You should be homeschooled. You’re too smart for this place.”

“And miss all the fun?”

“It gets better in high school.”

“If I leave, John gets away with everything. Who’s going to spike his drinks?”

“A superhero, is that how you see yourself?”

“Oooh, you were so close. I mean, you sort of went textbook earlier, but now you’re just reading the script. I feel so bad for you.”

“You going to protect the helpless?”

“No. Just Harold.”

“You sure you’re twelve?”

“You sure you’re a counsellor?”

“The degree says I am.” He pointed at a framed certificate at the top of the bookshelf. It said Harvard.

“You print that off the Internet?”

“How else was I going to get work?”

Mr. Tanner threw the Coke bottle with all the bug parts in the trash. It thudded like an apple. He tossed the heavy-stock fly museum on top of it and walked to the door.

“Be careful.”

Harold hiked the book bag on his shoulder and marched out of the office, his head spinning. He had been counselled against his will. And didn’t even see it coming.

“Harold.”

He turned toward the lanky middle-school counsellor leaning in his open doorway.

“There’s no such thing as superheros.”

“What about Santa?”

He slid the wire-framed glasses up his nose. “Well, I don’t want to ruin all the surprises.”

6

The kitchen sink was cluttered with dirty dishes from Harold’s room. There was a note on the table. Harold stood between two volcanic baskets of dirty clothes, one from Harold’s room and the other filled with Mom’s kerchiefs. The handwriting was blocky and hard, the lines crisp and forced, like the author was punishing the paper.

Get the dishes done and the laundry. We’ll be working late. Text us when you read this. Your grandparents will pick you up when you’re finished with chores. And stop being a pig.

At least Mom would’ve left money for snacks and emergencies.

Harold slipped off his shoes and slid his stocking feet across the floor to avoid creaking floorboards. He wrapped his fingers around the brassy doorknob of the basement and turned in slow motion. When the latch pressed against the lock, he returned it without making a sound.

Yeah, they were down there. For the long haul.

That was why the grandparents were coming. His parents would be busy for a few days, maybe more. Every time they went on these marathon missions of research, it was a little bit longer. And Mom came out of it a little bit thinner.

A bit sadder.

With the clothes basket on his hip, he looked around the first floor. The office was in the back corner of the house, just off the dining room. It was an entertainment room when they first moved. Harold threw a fit when they moved the billiards table to the garage. The day after that, the oak desk was moved in.

Harold hooked his finger in the brass loop of the sliding door, tugging it open just enough to slip inside. The greased rails wobbled but hardly made a sound. The cold thrill tickled his insides, like he’d walked through an invisible barrier of gamma rays that melted his intestines into sugary puddles.

He set the clothes basket down and slid across the hardwood to the oak desk. The heavy curtains were drawn, a sliver of light bisecting the darkness. Harold rolled the chair back without a sound.

The desk was massive with three drawers on both sides, each with a little keyhole. The lock could probably be picked with a little help from a YouTube tutorial, but any sort of damage and the jig was up. Harold didn’t want to test the extent of his father’s anger and this was without a doubt a horrible idea.

But he couldn’t stop himself.

It seemed the more he shouldn’t do something, the more he couldn’t stop. Mr. Tanner saw right to the heart of that.

The desktop was orderly and clean; family photos that Mom framed were propped around the edge. There were pictures of his father standing with prominent figures at a neuroscience convention where his father, of course, was the keynote speaker talking about marriage between technology and the brain. It was titled The Organic Network.

Harold tapped a keyboard. The computer monitor splashed electric light across the room. The picture of his mom smiling in the park. That photo had been locking the computer since Harold could remember, a photo when she was young and smart. And happy. That was the only common ground Harold and his father seemed to share.

A love for her.

The work space was covered with a calendar. His father, a techno-geek at heart, liked to duplicate his appointments with pen and paper. Redundancy, he would say, made the brain a magnificent tool.

Harold lifted the bottom corner. In the darkness, the dull outline of a copper key bled into the rich grain of the oak desktop.

He’d discovered this jewel on one of his many exploratory missions. These he took whenever his parents left the house or, nowadays, went to the basement. There was no book or drawer undefiled by Harold’s curiosity, no item his grubby fingers hadn’t turned over or, when the occasion made sense, went into his pocket.

They were usually small tokens, things no one would know were missing, or something he couldn’t resist, like shiny black stones he’d found in a box beneath their bed or a deck of Vegas poker cards at the bottom of his father’s sock drawer.

Little things.

But the bigger things, like jump drives of data or external hard drives, were off-limits for sure. Not that Harold didn’t try to peek inside the computers. There had to be something good inside, something secret, something he just had to see. He just couldn’t find the password.

The desk, however, yielded a veritable gold mine.

Harold slid the toothy key into the bottom right drawer. The lock tumbled with a satisfying click. The drawer released its grip on the desk, exhaling its classified air for Harold to inhale. It smelled like fresh ink.

Harold carefully unloaded the stacks of paper, the folders and notes, remembering exactly where everything was. He could do that quite easily, remember what he had seen. This benefited his habit of exploration. Every last item was in its place when he was done.

He would’ve made a great Boy Scout. He wasn’t so honest or trustworthy, but he could clean a campsite.

When he reached the bottom of the drawer, he pried away the false bottom to reveal a metal box. Discovering this was a bit of luck, how he noticed the depth of the drawer didn’t match the others, even if it was only by a few inches. Further investigation revealed the snug fit of quarter-inch plywood. Below that was the gold mine. Not gold, but the closest thing to it.

Money.

They were in stacks of hundreds. Harold wasn’t foolish enough to pocket a hundred-dollar bill. It would only be a matter of time before someone questioned what a twelve-year-old was doing with a pocket full of hundreds. But there was a stack of tens and twenties.

Those he could skim.

He wasn’t greedy. And he was smart. Only one twenty-dollar bill and one ten. He counted the stack and made a mental note of how much was there. Was he worried his meticulous father would notice the stacks were light? Sure. But so far there was no mention. Harold’s only guess was that Mom had no idea about the money.

Thus the false bottom.

Harold didn’t really need the money. He took it because it was fun. He would add it to the cache that was accumulating in a plastic container buried behind the garage. It used to go into a slice he put in the mattress, like a cushy piggy bank. Then he taped it beneath his desk, then hid it inside a dead computer tower. All of those were horrible locations.

No one would look behind the garage. No one would dig in his special spot if they did.

That savings account was his special fund for the day he would run away. That was how it started, at least. He had threatened to go it alone at least three times. Each time he would get hungry or cold. Once he even slept in the garage. But he always returned to his father’s cold stare. Had enough?

If they lived down South where it was warm enough to sleep outside, he would be long gone. No one would hire a sixth grader. That was what the money was for.

Each item went back into place, the folders in the same order, the papers cocked at the proper angle. The lock snapped tight. Harold’s heart rate still pounded in his throat as he pushed the key beneath the calendar at precisely the same spot.

Just before the screensaver went dark, a glimmer of light reflected off the desk.

Something was lying just above the calendar. It was a glass vial. Harold brought the screensaver back on and, just before picking up the vial, mentally noted the exact angle. He held it to the crack between the curtains, the sunlight illuminating the clear gelatin inside. Some sort of nutrient agar used to grow bacteria.

The rubber lid was greasy, a smear of gel on his fingertip. It seemed out of place, nothing computer related. And nothing Harold had ever seen lying around the house. He had the urge to pocket this, but he knew where the line of stupidity was drawn. Steal money from a secret stash, sure, but nothing off the desk.

He took a picture of it with his phone, instead.

He replaced the vial exactly where it had lain, careful not to smudge the calendar or desktop with a trace of gel. He snuck out of the office with the clothes basket under his arm. The crash of endorphins left him empty and tired, a thrill junky coming off the edge of a deadly cliff.

Luck, as it turned out, was on Harold’s side.

He had started a load of laundry, and on his way to his room, he noticed the office door wasn’t completely closed. It was only a tiny gap, but enough that he would have to explain why he was in the office.

When he went to quietly close the door, he noticed the pink kerchief on the floor. It must’ve fallen out of the basket. He shoved it in his book bag, cursing himself for being so careless. It was the flawless execution of dirty deeds that made them so delicious.

This was an utter fail.

But just as one domino can bring a million others down, this was the first in a series of devastating events.

And the pink kerchief would be the lead domino.

7

A week passed at the fart factory.

Harold was sentenced to the grandparents’ extra bedroom—a storage room with a fold-out sofa bed and a mattress as thick as gauze. He woke after a night of being beaten in the back with an iron rod.

The coffee machine went off at five a.m. like an old truck missing a cylinder. His grandparents shuffled across the floor to fill their cups and pass gas like a couple of dueling trumpeters. Then the old-fashioned radio knob clicked on to report NPR in soft, soothing tones. The paneled walls were so thin that it all played out like the kitchen were in bed with him.

The only television in the house was in the front room. They had basic cable, so there was nothing to watch. Harold spent the nights on his laptop until the grandparents said it was time for bed, after which he’d surf on his phone under the covers.

He’d only packed clothes for three days. Grandma told him she’d pick up more clothes since his parents were still busy. He stopped by the house after school. The basement was still locked and the clothes still in the dryer—the ones he washed before leaving. He sneaked a few bills from the office.

The tube of gel was gone.

That night at the grandparents, he lay in bed with the pink kerchief, the one that had fallen out of the laundry basket. It smelled like his mom, soft and perfumy. There was a dark spot on it. When he rubbed it between his finger and thumb, it felt oily, reminding him of the clear gel.

A wave of panic passed through him.

Did he get it on his fingers? If he contaminated the kerchief, then it must’ve gotten other places, too. Was there a dab on the desk calendar, a smudgy fingerprint where the key was hidden? He didn’t notice it, but the office lair was bathed in its usual darkness.

He’d have to beat it home after school again.

They’d be locked in the dungeon. He could scour the place, buy a new desk calendar if he had to. Whatever it took, he could make things right.

He took a deep breath and smiled.

Finding a way out of trouble, walking as close to the edge as he could without falling, that was where the juice was at.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

School crawled to an end.

The yellow buses lined the roundabout, exhaling black clouds like rolling factories. Harold shuffled toward number twenty-two. He was nervous. If his father was waiting on the porch with the calendar, that dark look possessing his brows, well then he’d keep on trucking. Later that night he’d sneak behind the garage and grab his loot to hit the road. Somewhere a restaurant needed a dishwasher.

“Bus toll.”

John was blocking the open door to bus number twenty-two. His hand was out. The driver was hunched at the wheel, texting.

“What?” Harold said.

“Bus toll. School charges to ride the bus, like buses do, dummy.”

John had forgotten about Harold and the fly-soup soda. He’d gone back to dozing off in class and rumbling out of the school as fast as his fat feet would move. It didn’t matter if he forgot or not, collecting “bus tolls” was just what he did.

“Come on.” John shook his hand. “A buck. Pay up.”

“Pay you?”

“Yeah, me. I’m collecting for the school. You’re holding up the line.”

There was no one behind Harold. He shook his head. Not really saying no, just couldn’t wrap his mind around this moment. No one did stupid stuff like this anymore. But the driver hardly cared. Neither did anyone else.

“You deaf? You need me to spell it out, dummy? You need sign language?” John made a fist. “Pay the toll and get a ride.”

Something snapped.

It sounded like a twig between Harold’s ears; a thin line held taut between his brain and heart pulled too tight and plink. A cascade of emotions tumbled out, like a trapdoor had released a boiler tank full of rage in his gut.

Harold lifted his fist, knuckles tight and white, fingers curled. A small grin crept over John’s face like a shadow of dark clouds. This would be better than a bus toll. Harold taking a swing would be an open invitation for John to pound him like a fence post.

Harold eased his grip, the tension releasing the cords on the back of his hand. His middle finger unfurled like a billowing sail.

“Sign language,” Harold said.

John’s smile died.

A demon twisted the corners of his mouth and flushed his cheeks with hate. His eyes hid in the recesses of his hooded eyebrows.

“Hey, let’s go,” the bus driver shouted. “On or off.”

The door rattled. John wouldn’t be able to do anything, not now. Not with everyone watching. Harold wished he would. He’d take a shot to the jaw if that meant John was suspended. Or expelled. Totally worth it.

John’s hands curled into wrecking balls. They hung at his sides, his eyes flickering around. He was holding back, thinking about the possibilities, the outcomes. But thinking, as an honest career counselor would tell him, was not his strength.

Harold returned a daring grin.

That, he thought, would push him over the edge where he already teetered. Just a slight breeze and he’d come in swinging. Harold would take one for all the middle-school prey. He’d throw himself in front of the rogue predator, sacrifice himself for all the helpless and hopeless.

A superhero.

“Hey, what’s this?” someone said.

Harold sensed the shadow behind him pretending to grab something off the ground, felt it graze the back of his legs. Before he could turn or step away, John flinched one of those gotcha moves that would make anyone a little nervous, make anyone step back—especially someone already waiting for a roundhouse.

Harold’s heel caught Blake’s leg.

The weight of his overstuffed book bag carried him the rest of the way. There was a great crunch when he hit the curb, like the sound of a thick windshield. The book bag absorbed the impact, but his head whiplashed to the ground, the sharp edges of rocks and grit lighting up his crown.

For a second, he was dreamy.

There was a blue sky and white clouds. The smell of pollution. The tang of copper. A clock was ticking, the second hand thumping backwards one step at a time.

Tick.

Tick.

How can time go backwards?

The world rushed back with a whirl of slurring laughter. “Look at this,” Blake shouted.

“Give me that,” John said.

A shadow dipped over Harold. The pink flutter of a flag waved in his face.

“This your blankie?” John asked. “You take it to school?”

Harold sat up. Liquid sunlight spread across the back of his head. John flapped the pink flag again, snapping it like a weapon.

[_Mom’s kerchief. _]

Against his better judgment, Harold reached for it. John pulled it away, a bullfighter teasing his game. Laughter bellowed, the kind that punched you in the heart and stomped the wind from your stomach.

“Look what Harold has.” John waved the pink kerchief over his head. “He’s got a pink blankie! Ain’t that cute?”

The bus driver was yelling, but nothing short of riot police could stop John from dancing. It was a scene from the bully manual—the chubby kid on the ground, the oversized moron waving his sick mom’s pink kerchief just out of reach.

In a feel-good movie, this was the part where the kid gets off the ground and plants one in the bully’s midsection, followed by a high-arching roundhouse kick to his accomplice’s wide open laughing mouth.

This was no movie.

Harold rolled to his knees, moving like a walrus ready for a nap. Glassy specks rained from the top of his book bag, the zipper partially open. The pixie dust of his shattered laptop fell across his neck.

A hundred bottles of bug soda couldn’t make up for this moment. Even if Harold crushed the remains of a thousand cockroaches into a box of cereal and watched John slurp out the sugary milk from the bottom, it wouldn’t fill this gaping wound.

John was good. He was a damn good bully. If he could make a career out of it, he’d be a professional. Harold had to give him that.

“Want it back?” John sang. “Want your blankie back?”

Harold was about to zip up his book bag and go home. He would salvage the laptop for parts and then look through his telescope, anything to forget about this.

“Hey!” John shouted with an empty hand over his head.

The pink kerchief sucked through the open slit of a bus window that quickly snapped shut. It disappeared behind the glass reflection of clouds. The bus driver blocked the door and threatened John. She would call the principal if he didn’t leave.

“You can’t make me walk,” he said.

“You can sit up front, then,” she said. “Right next to me.”

Harold had the remains of a fifteen-hundred-dollar laptop in his book bag and all John had to do was sit up front. He didn’t do it. Of course not. He walked off before she thought twice about the principal. Blake, his partner, his lackey, the idiot that pretended to be picking something up so that Harold would trip, followed.

“Well?” the bus driver said. “On or off?”

Harold climbed into the bus, his book bag ringing sick little broken jingles. All eyes turned on him, a boy making the long walk of shame. He’d sit in the back where troubled and forgotten boys and girls went. Halfway down the aisle, the pink kerchief fluttered.

Karen had it.

She’d reached out the window when John was taunting him, and snatched it from his grubby fingers. He wouldn’t do anything to her for betraying him. She was too pretty. Too popular.

Harold took it from her on his way to the back of the bus, wadded it in a ball and shoved it in his front pocket. The door squealed shut and the bus jerked forward. At some point, they all forgot about Harold. All of them except the girl sitting in the seat in front of him. She turned around with an arm across the bench and sort of sneered.

“You could’ve at least said thank you.”

He supposed he could’ve thanked Karen. She didn’t have to do that. But what would that have mattered? She only did it because she felt sorry for him. Because he was a loser.

A fat, helpless loser.

And his parents were weirdos.

A mountain of rage sat on his chest. He could hardly breathe. He didn’t want to feel this way, just wanted these feelings to go away.

What did you think would happen?

Maybe he flipped John the finger because Harold wanted to feel this way. Anger, at some level, felt good. Gave him a reason to do something. To get back. What did he think would happen?

He didn’t know.

But Mom always said the subconscious did most of the thinking.

8

The sidewalk had been swept.

Harold paused on the front porch. He could hear voices through the door, a high-pitched murmur followed by a lower tone. In ninja-mode, he crossed the porch without making a sound and leaned near the window closest to his father’s office. There was no mention of gel-smeared calendars or stacks of missing money.

Then again, he couldn’t make out half of it.

For a moment, he considered leaving. He wasn’t going back to the grandparents already; he’d just buy a bus ticket and head south. A little foresight and he would’ve skimmed the money drawer a little deeper.

The front door was unlocked.

Harold slipped inside the house and quietly crossed the foyer. His father’s office doors were partially open.

“How long have you been planning this?” Mom said, not quite shouting.

“It’s the only way, Patricia.”

“You’ve been thinking this all along, then?”

His silence was telling.

She paced. “What about Harold?”

“He’ll know the truth.”

“He’s twelve, Tyler.”

“We can’t wait much longer.” A desk drawer opened. “Not after today.”

“We shouldn’t be hasty.”

“We can’t afford to be negligent. We’ll never have the support of the university on this, no matter what the findings. We push forward on this, Patricia. It’s right there, just like we planned.”

“This is absurd. You didn’t consult me.”

“No, but this is still ours. Yours and mine, we discovered it. We’ll make it happen. We can’t take this lightly.”

Mom walked by the door’s opening. His father leaned over the corner of the desk. He was wearing a flimsy cap pulled over his forehead. He unlocked the money drawer. He wasn’t digging to the bottom, wasn’t pulling up the trapdoor in front of Mom, but he appeared to pause.

And then he looked up. He looked right at Harold.

“We can talk about this later,” he said.

Mom looked through the doorway, a paisley scarf wrapped around her head. She stepped out in a hurry. His father closed the doors behind her. His flimsy cap was actually a light blue surgical cap.

“Hon, didn’t hear you come in,” she said. “Where have you been? I was worried.”

“Stopped at a friend’s house after school.”

That was a lie. He got off the bus and went to McDonald’s and hid in the back corner, eating French fries and Quarter Pounders. He needed some space, needed to think. Mr. Tanner’s voice was in his head, making too much sense.

He needed that gone.

Mom wrapped her arms around him; they were bony and strong. She kissed his forehead, her puckered lips stiff and dry. It was like hugging a scarecrow.

“You all right?” Mom asked.

“Yeah. You?”

“Good.”

She asked about the grandparents while straightening loose shoes at the front door. Harold followed her into the kitchen, the basement door slightly ajar, the blackness foreboding and cold, like Mom’s skin.

She was setting up the coffee machine to go off in the morning and chatting while she did so. Her color was good. Harold couldn’t decide if she was wearing makeup or not, but the gray clouds had dissipated. Her eyes were no longer rheumy, shoulders no longer slumped.

“Are you sick?” he blurted.

“What?”

“Are you sick?”

“No, hon.” A serious tone returned. “I’m fine.”

“Because Mr. Tanner knew about your treatments.”

“I was sick. Not anymore.”

“Is that what you’re doing in the basement?”

Another long pause. “It’s bigger than that.”

She tried to change the subject while pouring old coffee in the sink. Her hands, once solid and still, quivered as she fished a coffee filter from the cabinet.

“Bigger than what?” Harold asked.

“Bigger than a lot of things.”

“I heard you guys in the office.”

She laid her hands flat on the counter, back to him. Head hanging. The weight of a thousand thoughts sat on her shoulders once again. After a long pause, she went to the front door for her shoes and returned to the kitchen.

“Come on,” she said, whispering.

Harold followed her out the back door.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

The backyard was long and skinny. The garage occupied the back half, the door grimy with age and algae. The grass hadn’t been mowed since mid-summer. That was Harold’s job, but no one seemed to notice he’d stopped.

Mom went to the little patio just off the back steps, a circular paved area his father had built for her years ago. It was surrounded by little gardens that used to be flush with herbs and marigolds. In the summer, she’d stake tomatoes and peppers.

Now it was weed choked; the dried remnants of tomato stalks twined through metal cages next to a mosquito-infested pond of green sludge.

She sat on a black metal chair. A mug was on the wobbly table, the cold coffee inside littered with cigarette butts. A crumpled pack of menthols was next to it. She tapped out a cigarette and lit it.

“When did you start smoking?” Harold asked.

Mom waved her hand with the cigarette wedged between her boney fingers—the knuckle knobs leaving a perfect gap for the cigarette—huffing a column of minty blue smoke. She pointed at the empty chair and leaned on the wire table, the uneven legs sloshing the cold, ashy coffee.

“We love you very much,” she started.

“Dad doesn’t.”

“He does in his own way.”

“You sound like a battered spouse.”

“Stop that.” She pointed her smoking fingers at him. “Your father is under a lot of pressure. We both are.”

“And my life is a fairy tale.”

The clapping of a pellet gun echoed from over the fence. Mr. Willis, the gun-toting veteran, was sitting on the back porch, pumping the gun. He was behind the privacy fence, but Harold knew he would be sitting on the back porch adjusting the sights, loading lead-ammunition pellets, the well-oiled components sliding into place with definitive snicks.

“Your father is very focused and… he just, he has a lot on his mind.” She took a shaky breath, not buying her own BS. She flicked the ashes in the old cup of coffee. “We’re not good parents, Harold. We wanted to be, but some things are bigger than family.”

“Right. Saving the world, freeing the slaves, that sort of thing. I get it. It’s hard being a superhero.”

“Sometimes good people do bad things.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

She inhaled, looking off. She let the smoke leak from her lips. There was no answer for that.

“You didn’t plan on having me, did you,” Harold said.

“Your father didn’t.”

“Big surprise.”

“I dreamed of you, Harold. I wanted to be your mother, so I… you know, I got pregnant. It wasn’t fair to your father. I mean, it wasn’t fair to either of you, I guess. And I’m sorry all of… of this…” She waved her hands, a gesture that encompassed all the crap. “All of this got in the way.”

“So what is all of this?”

“Problems, Harold. Problems that lead to problems.”

“But you said you weren’t sick.”

“I’m not. But in some ways…” She shrugged.

“What does that mean? You’re either sick or not. Do you have Alzheimer’s? I should know, you know. That crap is hereditary.”

“I’m not normal, Harold.”

He snorted. “I got news for you, neither am I. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re the freaking Addams family, Mom.”

Crack-snap.

The neighbor pulled the trigger. The round snapped like a breaking board, the pellet ricocheting off the back fence.

A sigh rattled through Mom. She dropped the cigarette into the mug, a dead fizzle putting it out. Her eyes had grown pained, sorrowful. Regretful. Just twenty minutes earlier she was bright and hopeful. Now she was back to the Mom he had come to know so well.

“Some things are bigger than love, hon.”

“Like…?”

“You’ll learn soon enough.”

“That’s not enough, Mom. What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong. In fact, it’s all very right. I just hate how it’s affecting you.”

“How is it right? I mean, that doesn’t make any sense.”

She nodded in deep thought. When she looked up, the fog had left her eyes. The pain dissolved and a smile broke open. He was looking into the face of madness.

“If there was a place,” she said, “where you could have anything you wanted, a place that fulfilled every desire, a world that could be whatever you wished, no pain or sorrow, no suffering, would you go there?”

“You’re talking about heaven.”

“I’m talking about dreams that come true, Harold. I’m talking about building worlds with our imagination, dreams that are as real as this table.”

“Mom, don’t take this the wrong way. But you might be insane.”

“What would you give for a world like that? And what if you could give that gift to the world, would you? It would cost your only beloved child a normal life, but would that be worth it?”

She reached out with those cold, boney fingers and clasped his hand. It was the touch of death, a shiver that leaked into his arm, clenched his chest. But her dark eyes were loving, hopeful.

“You sound crazy, Mom.”

“I know.”

“Just because you know you sound crazy doesn’t mean you aren’t.”

“What would you give?”

“What am I supposed to say?”

“You would give anything, hon. And you know it.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

She sat back, adjusting the tightly drawn kerchief around her head. He noticed a dark spot bleeding through the forehead. It looked like the gel stain he’d noticed on the pink one.

“Are you going to tell me?” he asked.

She smiled. She still hadn’t come to accept his father’s side of the argument they were having in the office, that it was indeed time to tell him. If he was honest, he wanted to know now more than ever.

She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, then went inside. Harold sat alone, the wire seat biting his bottom.

The pellet gun clapped and fired.

A squirrel spun on a barren branch, clinging for a moment before falling. It bounced through the tree and thudded on the neighbor’s lawn.

9

His father wasn’t around much.

When he was in his office, the doors were closed and locked. He never locked the doors. Harold would sometimes press his ear to the door to eavesdrop on murky phone conversations that would abruptly stop. He didn’t stick around to hear what happened next.

His father left for days.

“On business,” he would announce with the distant eyes of an online gambling addict.

Mom wasn’t much better.

She spent her days in hour-long naps and sluggishly moping through the house. He came home from school and smelled the cigarette smoke before rounding the back corner, where she sat bleary-eyed and vacant. She appeared to be giving up on whatever life-changing discovery she’d guaranteed only a few weeks earlier.

Harold spent all of his time in the attic. The room was, once again, littered with empty pizza boxes, dirty dishes and half-empty soda bottles.

The basement remained locked. Occasionally, Mom would venture down but only to climb back up the steps a few minutes later, her footsteps pounding the old wooden steps.

They made the Addams family look normal.

Mid-November, Mom made the trip up to his room. She informed him without judging the usual dismal state of his room that he would be going to spend a week or more with the grandparents. It wasn’t the week that bothered him, or the thought of eating dry turkey for Thanksgiving. It was the last part.

_Or more. _

They were going back to the basement.

She didn’t say so, but that was the only reason he went to his grandparents. It wasn’t anything they hadn’t done before, but the or more part suggested something different.

[_They’re not coming back up. _]

He believed that. He knew it was true. They were gearing up for something big, and despite his mom’s promise they would tell him what they were doing, they were going ahead without telling him. He wasn’t sure if that pissed him off more than a permanent move to the back room of the fart factory.

Harold sat in the attic, stewing.

He didn’t like being left out. Mom threw a bomb on his lap, said they were inventing Nirvana and they were leaving him behind. He was a Ballard, damn it. He was part of this messed-up family and they thought they would abandon him?

He peered through the telescope, focusing between houses where neighbors were playing a game of kickball. John drilled one of them in the face, the rubber ball bouncing sky high. Harold didn’t like being ignored.

So he’d do what he did best.

Because the school counsellor was so right.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

“I’m going to do some homework,” Harold told the grandparents. “Probably take a nap.”

They liked it when he did homework. They never asked to see his grades, just liked to think he was in the back room, frying his brain on quadratic equations. The bedroom window slid open with a bit of noise, but nothing they would hear. He crawled out backwards, scraping his hands on the ground.

It was four o’clock by the time he reached his house.

He ran most of the way, stopping half a dozen times to catch his breath. His legs were wet noodles as he climbed the back porch and, quietly, let himself inside.

The house had the eerie silence it always did when his parents were in the basement, as if ghosts were enjoying the empty space and vacated only moments before the door opened. Harold silently crossed the house, his wheezy breath the only sound that might give him away.

He carried three Mountain Dews to his bedroom.

By five o’clock, the day had turned into that New England gray depression and Harold had finished the last of his soda. He was positively vibrating with caffeine.

He aimed the telescope between the houses. The yard was now empty. The neighborhood kids had been doing their usual horsing around, but now that dusk had arrived, they were gone. It was too early for dinner. Most of them were out until dark. Harold had been watching them for the past week, keeping notes. Today was the day.

And now they were gone.

He spun the telescope, about to give up when he spotted the basketball. They were three houses to the right and a block over. The basketball rim was parked on a curb. Blake and John were lazily throwing hapless shots at the thing, probably talking about girls or the next sixth grader they were going to fleece at the bus stop.

Harold watched them tool around for another five minutes. His legs were still jelly from the run; the exertion seemed to have drained his courage. It wasn’t until John shoved someone to the pavement on a rebound that the slow drip began fueling his furnace of rage.

Exactly what he was looking for.

Sometimes good people do bad things.

Mom wasn’t talking about John. People like John were bad all the way through. They were a rotten bone, an infected tooth. They were nothing but trouble, a waste of a human body. And they would only bring harm to everyone else.

Harold thought this as he watched the kid get up from the pavement with scuffed palms.

Harold would be a superhero. He would be the one that put a stop to this infection because sometimes good people had to do bad things. Batman didn’t kill people, but he beat them until they wished they were dead. And criminals never forgot that beating. Harold wanted to deliver a message that John would never forget. Change his life. And everyone else’s life.

Like the kid getting up off the pavement.

He made sure the house was in order as he snuck into the backyard. The little wire table had been cleaned up, the coffee mug of cigarette butts gone. Harold ignored the hope that things would change without him having to do something about it, the hope that a normal, happy family would emerge from the basement. But he didn’t believe in hope.

He believed in taking charge.

The fence was hard to climb with such weak legs. He fell behind the neighbor’s garage and wiped himself off as he peeked around the corner. The lights were off. More importantly, the neighbor’s back porch was exactly as he expected it to be.

No ninja skills this time; Harold blundered onto the back porch. The pellet gun leaned in the corner; the clear-lensed safety glasses hung on the trigger guard. A chalkboard hung on the wall, where marks measured the number of dead squirrels for the month.

Harold carefully placed the glasses on the floor, making a mental note of how they were hanging and which way the rifle was leaning. He loaded a single pellet into the chamber. There would be time for one shot. Then he shirked the book bag and wrapped the gun with a brown blanket.

Running back to the corner of the yard, he positioned a log as a step and lowered the rifle to the other side, careful not to knock the scope out of adjustment. No opportunities to train the sights. This mission would be one and done.

Harold set a boulder on the other side of the fence as a step for when he returned.

Dusk was falling like fog. There would only be twenty minutes left of good light. He pulled a dark hood over his head and crossed the street with the rifle strapped to the back of the book bag, as casual as a bored teenager. Once he passed Mr. Dushane’s privet hedge, he dipped into the side yard and army-crawled his way to the corner.

The angle was no good.

He could hear the basketball, but there wasn’t a clear shot. He made his way to the other side of the yard and found a spot between a group of hydrangeas. He’d have to run through the backyard to escape.

The shrubbery was sparse, but he’d dug into the middle, snapping twigs until he created a sightline to the basketball court. Unwrapping the pellet gun, he watched Blake and John toss the ball around. The other kids were gone. It was just the two of them.

Even better.

Harold mounted over the top of his book bag and steadied the rifle with his eye behind the scope. What little strength was still in his legs was drained by a wave of nerves. He was about to do this.

And there was no going back.

He began to count his breaths to settle his quivering hands, to quiet his racing heart that had become a rhythmic pounding in his ears. That last Dew was maybe one too many. He closed his eyes, counting to ten. He did it again. And again.

The basketball stopped thumping.

They were sitting on the curb, their phones illuminating their faces. The rest of them was cloaked in the fast-falling night. Harold settled behind the scope once again. Blake’s lips moved silently in the crosshairs, eyes cast down. John sat like a heap of mouth-breathing flesh, waves of stupid beaming all the way through the scope.

Harold sighted on his phone.

He could put the pellet through the casing and shatter the back side. If he was lucky, it would break his finger, too. John’s parents would pay for a new phone and that wasn’t exactly punishment. He could put the pellet on his neck, leave a nasty welt. Maybe even break the skin.

But Harold wasn’t there to break a finger or leave a red spot on John’s neck. He was there to change that boy’s life. He was going to make that shot count.

Slowly, he raised the end of the barrel.

The crosshairs moved over his chin and rested between his stupid eyes.

Fifty yards out. No wind.

Pellets weren’t perfect ammunition for accuracy. There would be some luck. But his neighbor, a war veteran, a man with sniper training, taught him to cut luck to a minimum. Harold raised the crosshairs to the top of John’s forehead to allow for a slight drop.

John sat perfectly still.

Squirrels were more of a challenge.

Finger tightening on the trigger, Harold let his breath leak from his lips. Snipers pulled the trigger between beats of their hearts. Harold closed his eyes, recalled all the bad things John had done to him and others, fed the hate-boiler churning in his stomach.

Last breath. Pause. Squeeze.

Crack.

The barrel recoiled. The pellet began its trip across one yard, over the street. Harold saw it rip through the air, saw it hit its target slightly to the left of where he was aiming. He swore he could hear the wet impact.

John’s head snapped back.

A deep bellow was followed by a long stretch of silence that was shattered by a pained and panicked screech. It was sharp with edges of fear.

Blake dropped his phone. John thrashed like a high-voltage line had fallen across his face. His cries rang like a natural disaster that drew people out of their houses. Someone’s mom was the first to reach them, kneeling next to John while Blake blabbered useless observations.

There were calls for help. Another adult picked up John’s phone.

Harold was there too long.

He should’ve crawled out by now. The realization of what he’d done landed on him with great force, pushing him into the ground, an elephant with all four legs in the middle of his back.

What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?

Calls for help were getting louder.

John had yet to hold still despite the efforts of moms and dads. The cooker of hate and rage had gone cold and sour in Harold’s stomach, spewing greenish fear and disgust. He clamped his hand over his mouth and dry heaved as quietly as he could.

That forced him to move. It broke the paralysis and allowed him to begin backing out. Parents were looking around. John was babbling about hearing a sound, but he wasn’t quite sure where it came from. If not for the darkness, they would’ve seen Harold crawl out of the hydrangeas and move down a side yard.

Once out of sight, he got on cold, dead legs and sprinted across the street, gun unwrapped and out in the open for anyone to see. He raced between houses, around the block, and made it to the back of his house. If someone was coming for him, he couldn’t hear them through the pounding of blood in his ears.

He scrambled over the fence, dropping the rifle as he fell on his ass. His neighbor’s house was dark. Had he been home, he would’ve heard Harold fall on the porch and knock over a chair.

Panic landed sucker punches deep in Harold’s midsection, but he had enough wits to carefully replace the safety glasses and the trigger guard. Without pausing, he retraced his steps over the back fence.

He ran all the way to his grandparents’ house, stopping twice to breathe. The second time he heard sirens and barfed a puddle of slime. He didn’t have the strength to climb back through the window. He climbed on a trash can to throw himself inside the room.

A thud filled the house.

“What was that?” Grandma was in the kitchen.

Sweat-soaked, he crawled under the covers. When she opened the door, Harold said he was having a bad dream and must’ve kicked the wall. That was why his face was flush, why he was out of breath.

She didn’t notice the open window.

In the morning, Harold pulled twigs and leaves from the bed and replaced the trash can.

But no one had come looking for him.

10

John returned to school after Thanksgiving break.

He had a patch over his eye. It was a thick pad of white gauze taped into place. Over that was a black pirate patch strung around his head.

The doctor saved the eye, but there might be permanent damage. Rumor was he had a fake eye inserted in his head, one that could see in the dark and take X-ray pictures. Once he had the patch off, he’d be able to see through clothing.

Naked vision or not, he was a middle-school celebrity.

Whatever guilt was lurking in Harold’s midsection evaporated when all his classmates posted photos with him on social media. He was a real-world victim of violence, minding his own business when some psychopath shot him. John had never done anything to deserve it.

Nothing at all.

There was an investigation, of course. The police were involved. They went door to door. When no one answered at Harold’s house, they called the grandparents. “His parents are unavailable,” Grandma said. “And Harold was here when that young man was shot.”

John fixed his good eye on Harold in between classes, staring a long moment. Maybe he was wishing Harold would shy away, give some sign of guilt. Instead, he gave him a thumbs-up, like a glad-you’re-okay-buddy rather than a too-bad-your-eye-didn’t-pop.

Mr. Tanner didn’t say anything to Harold, but a heavy-lidded glance across the hallway convicted him without a jury. The school counsellor ran a fascist regime, after all. He was the true purveyor of X-ray vision, seeing right to the truth.

[_What did you think would happen? _]

Harold thought he’d get some payback for all the crap he’d eaten from that waste-of-life John. He couldn’t beat the oaf in a straight-up punching match, but he’d beat his ass in a game of smarts.

Harold would likely go to college and graduate with honors and run a multimillion dollar corporation. He could buy whatever construction company John would be pounding nails for and make his life miserable, but who has that kind of patience? Harold wanted a little taste of retribution now.

Not later.

So he put a pellet in his eye.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

“I know you did it.”

The accusation trickled through Harold like frozen shards of glass, cutting him all the way to his feet. He closed his locker door. Karen stood on the other side, books folded across her chest. A blank expression lay across her face.

Harold looked around. Is she talking to me?

“You know, the smeller is the feller,” he said. “Sooooo…”

“Why’d you do it?”

“Do what?”

“He’s a jerk, I know. But that?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Is that what you are, Harold?”

That stopped him. He had a quick retort (he always had a quick retort loaded), but that stopped him. She didn’t say [_who _]you are. She said [_what _]you are. Like that action made him less than human. A thing. Because no one would do something that low.

He wanted to tell her it was a bad shot, that he was aiming for the jerk’s (her words, not his) forehead. Harold wanted to leave him with a scar between the eyes for the rest of his life, so that when he was at his lowest, when he was trying to make his life better, whether that was in alcoholic recovery or drug addict rehab, he would remember [_all _]the people he hurt. Not just the ones in adulthood, but the lives he altered in middle school.

Every time he looked in the mirror, he would be reminded by that little dent. Instead, he’d have a bum eye that would be corrected with glasses or laser surgery, something that he’d forget ever happened.

He wanted to remind her that John was the bad guy.

Bad guys don’t win. They aren’t turned into heroes. They don’t pose for selfies when they get what’s coming. They don’t get sympathy. He was a jerk and he deserved what he got. He deserved more than that. If she knew how many lives he was going to screw up, she would thank Harold for trying to make a difference.

She would like him.

“I wish I would have shot him,” Harold said.

That was as close as he came to admitting it.

And that was the last time she ever talked to him. They were only twelve, but he would never forget that.

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

It was mid-December when school was back to normal.

Everyone ignored Harold, the girls didn’t talk to him, and John went back to punching slowpokes in the back and nodding off in class.

His star quality dimmed once the eye patch was gone, leaving him with a less than sympathy-worthy pink-puffy left eye for his followers to worship. Injury-attention only lasted so long.

Things had become so normal, in fact, that Harold had gone back to secretly pulling wings off insects in class. It was winter, so houseflies were hard to find on the windows. Occasionally, he unearthed an earwig at the bottom of his locker and surgery would be scheduled during the next class.

The last day before Christmas break was a half day.

He had been living at Flatulence Castle for almost a month. Harold received a text from his mom’s phone at the beginning of December, a short message that hoped he was doing well and they would see him soon. It wasn’t his mom that sent it, though. She didn’t send short sterile messages that were empty and pointless.

Had to be his father.

Harold just wished Christmas wouldn’t be like Thanksgiving, eating jellied desserts and drinking tepid water for dinner. Besides, who was going to buy the presents? The grandparents didn’t believe cash was a gift and what they wrapped was too sensible. He was good on socks and underwear.

John wasn’t at school that day.

The teachers didn’t give out homework, everyone got to talk, and no one took a set of knuckles between the shoulder blades for walking too slow in the hallway.

It was like Christmas came early.

Harold took the bus route home. He wanted to skim the cash drawer one last time. He promised it would just be the last time until his parents came out of the basement.

A few parents waited at the bus stop. There was also a high schooler buried in his phone, waiting for his little sister or brother. His coat was open, his concert T-shirt worn out and ragged. Harold climbed off the bus with the other kids in his neighborhood.

His street was empty.

Dead strands of Christmas lights dangled from trees and eaves, waiting for night to light up. The Ballard house showed no sign of celebration. Christmas died on the front step.

“Hey!” someone shouted. “Wait up.”

It was the high schooler from the bus stop. His coat was still unzipped, the face of heavy metal on his T-shirt trotting toward Harold. An earbud fell out of his right ear as he picked up his pace. He was ten yards away and still running at a full sprint.

Harold turned and got two steps down the sidewalk when he felt the flat side of a boot on his book bag. The force sent him stumbling forward. The concrete raked the skin from the pads of his palms, his fingers stinging with cold numbness.

“You that fat little Ballard asshole?” The kid was winded. “Huh?”

Harold rolled onto a neighbor’s lawn, the grass stiff against the back of his head. The high schooler sniffed back a snarl and planted the tip of his boot into the soft spot below Harold’s ribs, pain knifing through his internal organs.

“What are you doing? Get away from him before I call the police!” A neighbor was on the front porch, a stack of mail in her hand.

The high schooler backed up and looked at Harold with half a thought to stomp him one across the forehead. If the neighbor hadn’t come down the steps, he would’ve. Instead, the stoner turned to run.

“You all right?” She crossed the street and helped Harold sit up.

“I’m okay.”

“You’re bleeding.”

He touched his lip. His fingers came back red.

“We should call the police,” she said.

“No, no. It’s all right.”

“That boy attacked you.”

“It was just some bully. It’s no big deal, really. I just want to go home.”

She helped him stand, brushed the debris from his coat and watched him start toward his house. He didn’t say thank you. A few days later, the police would interview her along with all the other neighbors. She would tell them about the assault, that Harold seemed like a nice boy. That it wasn’t his fault.

He kept his head down, avoiding grabbing his side where he swore his kidney was bruised and possibly bleeding. Maybe he would die in the front of the house and his parents would find him when they finally came up. Merry Christmas!

Mom would be upset. His father, well, it really would be Merry Christmas.

He didn’t know the high schooler, had never seen him before. It didn’t take an episode of CSI to connect the dots, though. John figured out the mystery shooter. And he was smart enough to have a friend send a message. And there would be more messages.

What did you think would happen?

When Harold reached his driveway, it was clear that John wasn’t all that smart, after all. Because he stepped out from behind the bushes along with his creepy little sidekick. They had been watching and waiting. If they weren’t such idiots, they would have waited a week or two, let Harold worry himself into an ulcer before sending another message. But a dinosaur brain can only think so far ahead.

The neighbor had already gone inside her house.

Maybe if she was wearing a coat, she would’ve stood on the sidewalk until he was safely inside his house.

Harold was in the driveway, ten steps from the front steps. John was five steps away. Blake pulled his finger across his throat like a bad actor. Harold had never actually punched someone, but if John wasn’t standing in the way, he was sure he would pop that cherry in the middle of Blake’s face.

“Merry Christmas, you tool,” John said.

A tear slid down his cheek. His eye would forever be leaky. Especially when it was cold. There would be times when a tear dripped on his dinner plate or it looked like he was crying in front of the boys. He would always have Harold to thank for that. Harold was going to pay a pound of flesh for those future hassles.

He was going to pay in advance.

“Got you a present,” John said. “Guess what it is.”

No point in asking why. It was pretty clear. “Right here?” Harold said. “In the front yard? Broad daylight?”

“Maybe,” John said.

“All right. Well, I’ll call the police and have you arrested. That’s assault, idiot.”

“You think I give a damn?” He wiped a tear.

Harold couldn’t explain why this shook him.

One day, looking back, he realized it was the grim determination set deep in John’s bad eye, a burning vengeance that seriously didn’t give a damn. It was a disconnect, a loose wire in John’s psyche that short-circuited any guilt for his trespasses.

Harold would come to emulate that very same disconnect one day himself, would learn how to separate himself from the things he would do to other people and the guilt that told him not to.

But unlike Harold, John wasn’t going to amount to anything. His acts of cruelty had no purpose. They were just what he did, for no real reason. He was an animal and he knew it. Harold knew it. The whole stupid world knew it.

So why not make Harold pay for the whole world to see?

“Your crazy parents ain’t home,” he said. “They don’t give a damn, either. They won’t care if I knock all your teeth out. They can’t stand you, that’s why. That’s why you don’t live at home, why you get sent to your crazy grandparents. You know why they can’t stand you?”

“Because I’m so smart?”

“Because you’re scared, that’s why. And the only way you can get back at what scares you is to hide in the bushes with a gun. To run away and hide and hope no one catches you. Right?”

Harold’s reply stuck in his throat, the words wedging in a swollen ball that bobbed up and down. On cue, the clapping of the pellet gun snapped in steady beats from behind the neighbor’s house. At first, he thought it was some phantom sound that would haunt him like Edgar Allen Poe’s beating heart. It was followed by a dull explosion. And more clapping.

This lit the short fuse in John’s memory.

That was the sound he heard just before the blinding pain. That was the gun that shot him. Maybe he was just guessing before that, but not anymore.

He charged Harold with a major-league ass-whipping in his hands.

Harold could’ve yelled for the neighbor, but the words were clogging his throat. He sprinted down the driveway, praying the back door would be unlocked. Blake or John caught him by the book bag halfway down the driveway, but Harold shimmied out of the straps. The heavy book bag fell and tangled their feet. A crash ensued.

Harold didn’t look back.

He swung up the back steps, nearly pulling the handrail over. The knob slipped from his fingers. He tried again, felt sobs oozing from the knot in his throat, and resisted the temptation to pound on the door and call out for his mom.

The door opened.

Harold slammed it shut without looking for fingers that might be lopped off in the doorjamb. He slid to the floor, back against the door. A heap of quivering panic.

This had never happened before.

This was real.

He was scared. That future convict wasn’t going to quit. He would get retribution for his eye. If not for his eye, then for fun. And there were more like him. The kid at the bus stop was just one of them. They’d be lined up to take their shots all through middle school and high school. And Harold was alone. There’d be no one to help him.

His parents would be in the basement.

He wanted to let it all out right there on the floor. Just become a blubbering mess, cry like a little baby left all alone. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried. As an infant, sure. But after that, he had no memory of grieving. For anything. This was something new.

The tears would’ve come right then had there not been a sound on the porch. He reached up for the deadbolt, just to be sure, but realized he’d mistaken the direction of the sound. It wasn’t out back.

Someone was at the front door.

Through the kitchen and down the hall, he could see the doorknob slowly turning. The latch released in the doorjamb. The weather stripping made a sucking sound as it broke open, light streaming around the perimeter.

John poked his head inside. “Mom?” he shouted. “Dad? You home?”

Long pause.

He stepped inside and closed the door.

Blake knocked on the back door.

The psychos knew his parents wouldn’t be there. They’d tried the front door on a guess it would be unlocked. And they guessed right.

Harold slipped on the floor. He wobbled on newborn legs, reached the kitchen table and began pushing it down the hallway, the chairs falling over, the edge of the table scraping the wall. John watched him barrel the table like a battering ram, the legs scratching the floor. He even grinned. It was as stupid as it was comical. He’d wait until Harold reached him then beat him with a table leg.

But Harold didn’t plan on going that far.

He just needed to get past the basement door. When he did, he didn’t bother trying to open it, just leaned his shoulder into it. The flimsy deadbolt cracked from the doorframe, screws pinging down the steps.

Harold stepped into the dark.

11

The old steps were steep.

Harold caught the creaky railing attached to the wall, but he couldn’t see the stairwell. Halfway to the bottom, he began missing steps. Hands out, he fell forward, the air rushing past him, the edges of the wooden steps biting his ribs and elbows.

He met the concrete floor and slid to a stop, his wrist twisting the wrong direction.

It had been years since he’d been down there. Once dank and moldy, humming dehumidifiers turned the air clean and dry and something else. Like an open wound.

Harold scuttled away from the stairwell with his wounded hand to his chest. His head hit the wall and soon he was tucked into the corner. The sharp square of light beaming from upstairs overwhelmed the dark corners of the basement, but he could see the tiny green and red lights of instrumentation. In a few minutes, his eyes would adjust and he would see the rest.

A dark form filled the basement doorway.

“Come out, come out,” sang John. “Ollie, ollie in come free.”

His boot hammered the first step. Blake fell in behind him. The darkness seeded them with caution, their hands tracing the rickety bannister. Harold hoped they wouldn’t see him—despite the fiery pain in his wrist, he had become inanimate—but the light from upstairs fell on him like a moonbeam.

John locked on.

Harold wondered if John felt the crosshairs just before he pulled the trigger, if there was a quiver of prescience that something was about to change his life. Because at that moment, Harold felt it.

His life was about to change.

John was midway down the steps when something moved. It was a wet smack, the sound of a gummy tongue on dry lips. He stopped. Looked right.

Harold followed his dead gaze.

Bathed in the green and red glow of electronics, there were two tables pushed together, their stainless steel frames reflecting points of light that Harold had mistaken for actual computers. Sunk halfway on top, the curving forms of bodies took shape. Thick cables lay across their midsections and snaked around their necks.

It was still so dark, the details so murky, but Harold could swear the largest electronic artery was plugged in near the top of the head.

A swish of fabric.

A hand began to rise as if floating on a cloud of helium, a hesitant quiver from a puppeteer. It went up to the head and appeared to rest at the root of that thick cable.

A wet slurp licked the room.

The cable pulled free.

A stampede of boots pummeled the basement steps. Blake and John didn’t bother closing the doors on their way out of the house. Later, when the story would break, a neighbor would report seeing them leap the front steps and sprint down the street.

The body sat up and leaked a long, painful sigh. He swung his legs over the edge. The lights sensed his waking, dispelling much of the darkness.

“Come, son,” his father’s voice called. “It’s time.”

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\////////////////////

It’s time.

His father’s voice always sent a wave a panic through Harold. It carried a rich, stern power that could crush his confidence with a single word or a grunt. This time it was coupled with the cryptic message.

It’s time for what?

“I think I broke my arm,” Harold said.

That, he reasoned, might sway his father to ease up on the punishment for nearly smashing the basement door off its hinges. He was already hurt, wasn’t that enough? Besides, it wasn’t his fault. John chased him into the house. What choice did he have after shooting the kid in the eye?

It took a long minute for his father to stand up, and another minute to let go of the bed. He walked with the shuffle of the undead, teetering when he stopped at the bottom of the steps. In the eerie light, greasy gel reflected from the middle of his forehead.

“You hurt your arm, mmm? Your mother has endured so much more and you hurt your arm. Don’t make me come for you, Harold. You must come out on your own.”

He swayed a bit longer. When Harold didn’t move, he went to a work space near the foot of the beds and sat down. From Harold’s vantage point, he could barely see his mom. But the walls were in plain view. They were lined with shelves that contained glass boxes and wire cages, the kind that would contain pet snakes or parrots.

But nothing moved inside them.

“Take it in, son. This is your inheritance.”

Harold still feared his dad, but it was that moment he sensed something warm in his voice. It was as close to fatherly as it had ever been.

Your inheritance.

“What are you doing?” Harold asked.

“All of this, son, will change the world. It will change our concept of reality. It will unlock the doors behind which God hides. And it will all be yours.”

He paused for effect, letting the words sink their teeth into Harold. A smile appeared to soften his face. He popped open a tube and massaged his forehead with a new layer of gel.

“What… what did you do to Mom?”

“Don’t cry, son.”

“I’m not crying. What’s wrong with her?”

“This is all her vision. She discovered the true human potential. Now come here.”

The words dragged him from the corner. Harold’s arm was numb. He stood in front of his father like a specimen. Mom lay so still that he couldn’t be sure she was alive. He didn’t notice if her chest was rising and falling because there was something attached to her forehead. The cable seemed to be glued to it.

Her hand lay on the empty bed next to hers where his dad had risen, as if they were holding hands in their sleep. On a wrinkled sheet lay another cable, the one his father had removed from his head. It wasn’t magnetic or glued. The end of it was long and wet and pointed.

A needle.

He looked back to his father, to the gel on his forehead. There it was, the puffy red flesh surrounding a thick, black hole.

Harold’s entire body went as numb as his arm.

“Look around you,” his father whispered.

The cages were not empty after all. There were animals inside, as flat and still as his mom. Wires and cable were strung to the wall. Each cage had at least one wire dropping inside it, hooked between the eyes of frogs and squirrels, rats and rabbits. And those wires fed into a bank of servers arranged on steel racks.

Computers. Were they powering the computers? Controlling them?

“Our separateness is an illusion,” his father said in his cryptic voice again. “We are all energy, son, caught in the self-centered dream of our desires and instincts. But your mother and I have seen through the barrier, we have torn down the wall of delusion. And we have seen beyond.”

Connected.

The animals were networked, their brains connected through the cables. The computers were facilitating the communications; they were the conduit for the brains to meet each other face to face.

The organic computers.

“We are much greater together than we are apart,” his father said. “We are all God.”

“But… you never went to church.”

His father slapped him. Harold’s cheek stung, white hot.

“Enough with the tongue, son. It’s time to grow up. There is no more time to be childish. This is the future. Do you understand me? You will bring the future to the world.”

He wanted to remind his father that he was twelve years old. But he had slapped the child out of him. Harold didn’t dare sharpen his tongue. Ever again.

“You are at the foot of changing the human race. I want no more jokes from you. Your mother and I have discovered freedom that you cannot fathom. And it will be yours to see it through.”

“See what through?”

“Dreams, son. We have freed the mind. The mind is the fertile ground that gives rise to new universes. We are the seeds of embryonic realities, you understand. Each of us is a soul that can give birth to new universes, new realities. New gods. We’re counting on you.”

“On me? I don’t… I mean… I don’t understand.”

“Shhh. Stop for a moment. It’s a lot, but there isn’t much time. You’ll have to trust me on this. Put your arm here.”

He patted the workbench.

Harold laid it down. His father, the neurosurgeon, the computer geek, poked it and prodded, told him to move his fingers and turn his hand, then diagnosed it as a sprain.

“Put some ice on it.”

That was what he said and got up like they had been discussing Little League baseball. Not gods and angels. Not helpless animals brained by a needle. Not dreamworlds that were real.

Dad checked the readings on a few instruments, but the monitors remained blank. He stood over Mom and then pointed.

“Upstairs,” he said.

“Where we going?”

“You’ve had enough for now.”

“Shouldn’t you… I mean, if I’m going to dominate the world, shouldn’t you show me how it works?”

Even in the dim basement, his father’s furrowed brows darkened; his eyes became dark holes. Creases cut his forehead, wrinkling the slick shine around the hole. That was as close to jokes as Harold would get.

“What about Mom?” Harold asked. “Is she okay?”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Can we wake her up?”

He shook his head.

“What do you mean?” Harold whined.

“She’s in a good place now.”

“She’s—” Harold almost fell down. His father was talking about her like she was sleeping.

“She’s not dead,” he said. “In fact, she’s never been so alive.”

“How long does she have to stay?”

He didn’t answer.

That was when Harold noticed the other tubes, the clear ones running from the insides of her arms. She was being fed. His father didn’t have those. He must’ve been getting up and taking care of things while Mom stayed there. Already her knees and elbows were bent, fingers curled like autumn leaves.

That was why the tube was gone on the desk. His father had gone up there, he had been doing business. That was the gel they soothed their foreheads with before the needle plunged.

“Son.”

His father grabbed his arm, but Harold yanked away. He took his mom’s hand, his fingers fitting into hers, the palm warm and dry. Her lips were parted, a fresh sheen of balm gleaming on them. [_Had he put that on, too? _]

The needle. It was so long, so firmly rooted.

His shoulders began quaking. That knot of fear that swelled in his throat was back, only this time it continued growing until it broke in a puddle of tears that spilled down his cheeks. He tried to stop the sobs, tried to keep quiet, waiting for his father to come around the table and slap the child from him again. But he didn’t. He let Harold cry for his mom.

Because she wasn’t going to wake up.

Harold bawled until snot leaked from his nostrils. He just wanted to talk with her, that was all. Just wanted her to open her eyes so he could tell her something, just one last thing before all this was over. If he could just go out on the patio and she could smoke a cigarette, he could tell her not to go down into the basement. Not to put the needle in her head.

The world could wait.

“Life.” His father’s hands rested on Harold’s shoulders like stiff paddles. “She’s creating life, son.”

“I don’t care.”

“Her dream will become a new reality where anything is possible, where she can be a benevolent goddess, a caretaker for a new world. There will be no death, son. She will create a universe that lives forever.”

Harold continued crying.

His father went to the head of the bed and gently combed through Mom’s short, choppy hair. It had been months since Harold had seen her without the kerchief. Without it, he would’ve seen the hole.

“All our test subjects are in their own worlds,” his father said with a quiet, calm tone. “The computers augment their dreams. They make their own reality, son. But their minds are small, their worlds limited. The most they can experience is a tiny bit of space. But your mother…”

He stroked her cheek.

“Her world is so much bigger.”

“I don’t care.” Harold wiped his eyes.

“You have to accept this.”

“Why?”

“To be a goddess requires total commitment.”

In time, he would learn how to deal with his sleeping mother, but he would never accept it. Perhaps she wanted to do this like his father said. Maybe this was her idea, her master plan. Later, doctors would explain that the brain damage sustained by his father’s technology was irreversible, that removing the needle would end her life.

He would always hold it against him.

His father pried Harold’s hand from his mother. Gently, he guided him to the steps. When Harold resisted, he pushed.

Harold didn’t look back.

12

Harold was shipped off to the grandparents.

He returned to pick up clothes or a toothbrush and find his father in the office. The doors would be closed, but drawers would be opening or closing, his business-voice would be on the phone. The conversations were often heated.

Harold would eyeball the basement door, but his father would always sense him in the house, peel open one of the doors and stare. Sometimes he’d say something.

Most of the time he’d just stare.

It was just before the police arrived in their unmarked cars that Harold had snuck over early one morning on his bike. They would park black SUVs in the street and knock on the door. His father answered as if expecting them. His office was in order, papers for Harold’s custody to be awarded to the grandparents and his wishes for his wife’s care. Federal investigators put him in the backseat and drove him off.

Harold would never talk to him again.

Blake and John told their parents what they saw. At first, they just wanted to get Harold in trouble. However, their parents alerted the police and they quickly went to federal authorities. Tyler Ballard’s arrest was imminent.

Almost planned.

His mom would remain in the basement. Months later, Harold saw them escorting her out of the house with a bevy of electronics below the gurney and the needle still in her forehead.

But before all that, Harold snuck into the house to see the office doors slightly ajar. His father was asleep, his cheek pressed against the desk calendar.

The basement door hinges squeaked.

Harold pulled the door open enough to slip inside and descend into the darkness. He paused on the bottom step, waiting for his eyes to adjust while the industrial dehumidifier hummed in the corner. He stood there so long that he expected his father to pull the door open.

In the green and red electronic light, his mom rested peacefully.

He tried not to look at the needle spiked in the middle of her forehead, tried not to imagine the queer sensation of the cold shank sliding into her front lobe or the gel slipping it through a surgically installed stent. Was she in pain? Did she feel the cold splinter in her head, an itch she couldn’t scratch?

His father had been down here, he was sure of that. Her hands were no longer at her sides but now folded across her stomach; her lips glistened with a fresh coat of lip balm, the corners turned up slightly. Or did he imagine that?

She already looked older.

The bed began to whir. Her body rolled in a rhythm that massaged her from beneath. A special bed for the comatose patient that was likely to suffer from bed sores.

There was a temptation to pull out the needle, to force her awake. She could put it back if she wanted, go back to her dreamworld, that place that his father said would last forever. But just one more time, he wanted to talk to her.

Why didn’t she say goodbye?

His father never explained how they did all this, what the protocol required or the software backups that sustained his mother’s body while she dreamed. Many years later, Harold would understand. He would take the technology to even greater heights and use it in ways his father never dreamed of using it. But for now, as a child, all he saw was a needle.

Where is she?

If he pulled it out, would she be in there? Or would that just be an empty body, a place where his mother once lived? That would be Harold’s greatest discovery; one day he would learn the identity was not bound to the body. It only needed a vehicle, and the body was such a poor one, indeed. The senses easily fooled, the mental filters willfully delusional.

He took her hand. It was cool but lotioned. Her elbow moved like a rusted hinged. He tucked his fingers into hers and felt the tears wanting to gush up, but he put them back. He just wanted to stand there as long as he could, until his father came for him.

He just wanted to be with her in case it hurt.

Perhaps he imagined that she knew he was there, could feel his touch and squeezed back, because one of the monitors came on at that moment, the black screen crackling like a sheet of plastic. Images slowly replaced his reflection, emerging from the dark of a long, deep sleep.

At first, it seemed like a screensaver had been activated. It appeared to be a stock photo of a long, empty beach, the kind Harold longed for. The sun was rising off the horizon, slices of fire brimming the distant surf. The sand was slick and smooth, the incoming tide licking the beach with thin foamy sheets that eroded a set of footsteps.

Harold followed the tracks to a distant figure.

She was wearing a flowing dress hiked to the knees. She stopped to pick up a seashell, examining it before tossing it in the tide.

The tears came for Harold again. He couldn’t stop them this time, their salty tracks resting on his upper lip. Eyes blurred, he watched the woman idly wander in her new world.

Wearing a pink kerchief.

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The Annihilation of Foreverland

BOOK 1

The Foreverland trilogy

1

Click-click-click-click.

The walls inched closer. Reed gripped the bars of his shrinking cell.

His legs, shaking.

The cold seeped through his bare feet. The soles were numb, his ankles ached. He lifted his feet one at a time, alternating back and forth to keep the bitter chill from reaching his groin, but he couldn’t waste strength anymore. He let go of the bars to shake the numbness from his fingers.

He’d been standing for quite some time. Has it been hours? Occasionally he would sit to rest his aching legs, but soon the cell would be too narrow for that. He’d have to stand up. And when the top of his cage started moving down – and it would – he’d be forced to not-quite stand, not-quite sit.

He knew how things worked.

Although he couldn’t measure time in the near-blackout room, this round felt longer than previous ones. Perhaps it would never end. Maybe he’d have to stand until his knees crumbled under his dead weight. His frigid bones would shatter like frozen glass when he hit the ground. He’d fall like a boneless bag, his muscles liquefied in a soupy mix of lactic acid and calcium, his nerves firing randomly, his eyes bulging, teeth chattering—

Don’t think. No thoughts.

Reed learned that his suffering was only compounded by thoughts, that the false suffering of what he thought would happen would crush him before the true suffering did. He learned to be present with the burning, the cold, and the aches. The agony.

He couldn’t think. He had to be present, no matter what.

Sprinklers dripped from the ribs of the domed ceiling that met at the apex where an enormous ceiling fan still moved from the momentum of its last cycle. Eventually, the sprinklers would hiss another cloud and the fan would churn again and the damp air would sift through the bars and over Reed’s wet skin, heightening the aches in his joints like clamps. For now, there was just the drip of the sprinklers and the soft snoring of his cellmates.

Six individual cells were inside the building, three on each side of a concrete aisle. Each one contained a boy about Reed’s age. They were all in their teens, the youngest being fourteen. Their cells were spacious; only Reed’s had gotten smaller. Despite the concrete, they all lay on the floor, completely unaware of the anguish inside the domed building.

They weren’t sleeping, though. Sleep is when you close your eyes and drift off to unconsciousness. No, they were somewhere else. The black strap around each of their heads took them away from the pain. They had a choice to stay awake like Reed, but they chose to lie down, strap on, and go wherever it took them. They didn’t care where.

In fact, they wanted to go.

To escape.

Reed couldn’t blame them. They were kids. They were scared and alone. Reed was all those things, too. But he didn’t have a strap around his head. He stayed in his flesh.

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Started counting, again.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…10.

And then he did it again. Again.

And again.

He didn’t measure time with his breathing. He only breathed. His life was in his breath. It ebbed and flowed like the tides. It came and went like the lunar phases. When he could be here and now, the suffering was tolerable. He counted, and counted and counted.

Distracted, he looked up at the fan. The blades had come to a complete stop. The air was humid and stagnant and cold. Around the domed ceiling were circular skylights that stared down with unforgiving blackness, indifferent to suffering. Reed tried not to look with the hopes of seeing light pour through them, signaling an end. Regardless if it was day or night, the skylights were closed until the round of suffering was over, so looking, hoping and wishing for light was no help. It only slowed time when he did. And time had nearly stopped where he was at.

1, 2, 3—

A door opened at the far right; light knifed across the room, followed by a metallic snap and darkness again. Hard shoes clicked unevenly across the floor. Reed smelled the old man before he limped in front of his cell, a fragrance that smelled more like deodorant than cologne. Mr. Smith looked over his rectangular glasses.

“Reed, why do you resist?”

Reed met his gaze but didn’t reply. Mr. Smith wasn’t interested in a discussion. It was always a lecture. No point to prolong it.

“Don’t be afraid.” The dark covered his wrinkles and dyed-black hair, but it couldn’t hide his false tone. “I promise, you try it once, you’ll see. You don’t have to do it again if you don’t like it. We’re here to help, my boy. Here to help. You don’t have to go through this suffering.”

Did he forget they were the ones that put him in there? Did he forget they made the rules and called the shots and forced him to play? Reed knew he – himself – he had gone mad but IS EVERYONE CRAZY?

Reed let his thoughts play in his eyes. Mr. Smith crossed his arms, unmoved.

“We don’t want to hurt you, I promise. We’re just here to prepare you for a better life, that’s all. Just take the lucid gear, the pain will go away. I promise.”

He reached through the bars and batted the black strap hanging above Reed’s head. It turned like a seductive mobile. Reed turned his back on him. Mr. Smith sighed. A pencil scratched on a clipboard.

“Have it your way, Reed,” he said, before limp-shuffling along. “The Director wants to see you after this round is over.”

He listened to the incessant lead-scribbled notes and click-clack of shiny shoes. When Mr. Smith was gone, Reed was left with only the occasional drip of the dormant sprinklers. He began to breathe again, all the way to ten and over. And over. And over. No thoughts. Just 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3… 1, 2—

Click-click-click-click.

Reed locked his knees and leaned back as the cell walls moved closer. Soon the fan would turn again and the mist would drift down to bead on his shoulders. Reed couldn’t stop the thoughts from telling him what the near future would feel like. How bad it was going to get.

He looked up at the lucid gear dangling above his head.

He took a breath.

And began counting again.

2

“Danny Boy!”

Danny’s aunt’s voice was muffled. She was calling from his bedroom with that thick Irish accent, obviously thought he was still in bed. Eventually, she’d come up to the attic where Danny was hunched over the keyboard, eyes on the screen. His mother had cleared a space out of the corner just for him, no one else, and even when the weather was too hot or too cold, Danny would sit up there all day.

“Danny Boy! Where are you, darling?”

He couldn’t be interrupted now. He’d been acting sick for two weeks and got behind in school work. His mother trusted he was getting the homework done but he’d spent all his time modding the computer to do exactly what he was doing now.

_People are stupid. _

They used easy passwords and repeated the same one over and over. [Who thinks the word _]password[ is a password? Morons._]

It wasn’t difficult to get past the school’s firewall. Danny broke the encrypted password – using a program [he _]wrote, thank you very much.[ _]In two seconds, he’d be a second grade, straight-A student. Once again.

Thank you very much.

Wait. I’m 13, not 7.

“Danny Boy?” The steps creaked. “Are you up here all ready? It’s not even six o’clock in the morning, sonny boy.”

Danny’s fingers danced over the keys.

“Danny Boy… what are you doing?”

One more stroke and—

CRRUNNCH!

Danny fell out of the chair. The sound was deafening, like a metal pole plunging through the roof, smashing wood and shingles. Dust swirled in the new light. The steps creaked again, but something had changed. There wasn’t insulation hanging from the ceiling anymore and there was a pile of boxes that wasn’t there before.

The house changed.

“What are you doing in the attic?” A man was on the top step holding a golf club.

Danny blinked but it wasn’t his aunt. And he wasn’t in front of a computer anymore. He was lying in a crib. He was a thirteen-year-old kid in a baby’s crib. In someone else’s house.

The man’s golf shoes sounded funny on the wood floor. He stopped short of the crib with his hands on his hips, the club teetering in his left hand. “Son, what in the hell are you doing? You think you’re still a baby?”

Danny didn’t move. Then the man smiled like a proud father.

“Well, if you want to do the baby thing again, let’s give it a try.”

He dropped the club and started tickling Danny’s ribs. His fingers hit the funny spot and Danny gave out a chuckle. The man was all smiles, making happy-daddy sounds as he tortured him with loving grabs. Danny tried to knock him away but the man was too strong. Danny was about to piss his pants he was laughing so hard.

“Come here, you.” The man snatched Danny up by the arms with a strong grip, but it wasn’t strong enough. Danny slipped out of his clutches. He heard the man gasp as Danny fell out of the rickety crib, thought he’d land on his feet but the drop was farther than he expected. He crashed, all right; not on the floor, but on grass.

The sun was over him. The house was gone.

A crowd cheered. Danny was wearing a baseball uniform with a glove on his left hand. He’d never played baseball in his life, but there he was in center field with a cap pulled down just above his eyes.

Somewhere, an aluminum bat went ting.

The players on the infield turned around. The ball was high in the sky. The sun was in his eyes. He lifted the glove but couldn’t see it. He tried squinting, tried covering the sun with his right hand but it was blinding. And the ball was going to hit him smack in the face. But he couldn’t let the team down. He had to catch it. He had to—

And then he was swimming in the ocean. The waves crashed around him. There were other kids, too. Danny had never been to the beach, but there he was, swimming in water that churned at his waist—

And then he was coloring Easter eggs. There was a lady at the sink with an apron and some little girl across the table. He’d never seen her before—

Opening birthday presents and people were singing. People he’d never—

Playing Hide and Seek. He was hiding behind a bush with someone he’d—

Baking cookies—

School bus—

The scenes stacked on top of each other until he couldn’t tell where one began and the next ended. It was all a blur. All a blur.

All a blur.

______

The throbbing.

That was the first thing Danny noticed before he cracked the seal of his sleep-crusted eyelashes. The head-splitting throb. His forehead felt like it had been punched with a dental tool.

“Don’t sit up just yet, young man.” A soft hand was on his arm. “Give it a few seconds.”

He did what the man said.

When he opened his eyes, the light seemed bright. It took a minute of rapid blinking to adjust. He was in a doctor’s office, on a patient’s table. The paper that covered the table was bunched up under him, crinkling when he moved. There was an old man sitting on a stool next to him. His face was plenty wrinkled and his hair as white as the coat he wore.

“I’m Mr. Jones.” The man broke out in grin worthy of a father looking at his newborn.

“Wa…” Danny’s tongue was gummy. “Water, please.”

“Sit up first, all right?”

When Danny was up, Mr. Jones passed him a paper cup and watched him chug it.

“More, please.”

“Let that settle for a moment, okay. There’s more when you’re ready.”

He wrapped a band around Danny’s arm and took his blood pressure. Then took his temperature and pulse. He did some scribbling on a clipboard, occasionally looking up and humming.

The room, now that Danny had a chance to focus, was less like a doctor’s office and more like a lab. There seemed to be large equipment attached to the wall that could be pulled out and centered on hinged arms. And behind him, the room went back another twenty feet with a treadmill and monitors and more machines.

“You go by Danny Boy?” the man asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were dreaming before you woke up and mumbled Danny Boy. I thought maybe that was what you preferred to be called. Danny Boy.”

“My aunt… she called me that…”

“Ah, yes. Aunts are special, aren’t they?” He grinned, again.

Danny reached for his head that felt so full of… stuff. But Mr. Jones caught him by the wrist. “Just relax a second, Danny Boy.”

“I was having this weird dream… like it was a bunch of dreams all crammed into one.”

“Dreams are like that.” Mr. Jones quickly looked at his clipboard.

“Where am I?”

“You’ve had an accident, but you’re okay now. Would you like some more water?”

“Yes, please.”

He downed a second paper cup and wadded it before handing it back.

“Um, Doctor…”

“You can call me Mr. Jones.”

“Mr. Jones, am I in a hospital?”

“You’re somewhere much better than a hospital, my boy. You’re in a special rehabilitation center that is unique for your condition. You’ll have the best care that money can buy while you’re here and you’ll get to do things no other kid on this planet has ever tried. You’ll also… ah, ah, ah… don’t touch.”

Danny reached for his forehead. There was a round band-aid the size of a Bull’s eye right in the middle where it hurt. He tried to remember an accident, anything that he would’ve been doing that would’ve knocked him on the head, but all the memories were gibberish. He couldn’t remember his home address or phone number. If his aunt hadn’t been calling for him, he wouldn’t remember his name.

“Is this why I’m here?” He tried to touch the bandage again.

“In some ways, yes.”

“Did I fall on an ice pick?”

“No.” Mr. Jones snorted. “You’ve been asleep for a long time while you’ve undergone treatment, so you may feel a bit woozy when you stand up. Be careful, all right? I want you to lean forward and let your toes touch the ground… good. Now stay just like that a second.” Mr. Jones spun on the stool and coasted to the computer behind him. “And don’t touch your forehead.”

Danny’s toes were tingly. Just the little weight that was on them, he could tell standing wasn’t going to go well. He left his forehead alone, reached for his stiff neck, instead. It was sore, too. And there was a knot between the vertebrae. It felt like a band had been inserted just under the skin about the width of a wedding ring that made it seem like one large neck bone. Mr. Jones had one bulging on his neck, too.

“What’s this?”

“That’s part of your treatment,” Mr. Jones said without looking. “It’s new technology meant to stay in touch with your nervous system. We’ll talk more about that later.”

“Okay,” was all Danny could think to say. He was thirteen. When an adult said something, he listened and that was that. But nothing was making sense, not the strange lab or Mr. Jones and his proud grin like everything was normal. His head was just so full.

“Where are my parents?”

Mr. Jones took several moments at the computer before he stood up with the clipboard over his stomach. “They want you to get better, Danny Boy. And that’s what you’re going to be… better.”

Smile.

“When will I see them?”

“Can you put all your weight forward?”

He held out his hand and Danny took it. His weight was a little wobbly, but he felt better on his feet than he thought he would.

“Where are we?” Danny asked.

“Take a step for me and I’ll tell you.”

He took one step, then two. They reached the door and Mr. Jones opened it without letting go. The hallway was long and white.

“We’re going that way.” He pointed to the left. At that end was a glass wall.

Danny dragged his feet the first couple of steps. He was already breathing a little hard. Mr. Jones was slightly hunched over next to him. Danny put his hand on the wall and traced it with his fingers. His knees were weak but Mr. Jones watched him with a smile like everything was just okie-dokie. His touch became lighter as Danny’s footsteps became more confident. When he let go, Danny still touched the wall but was walking closer to normal when they reached the end.

The glass wall was slightly curved like the building was a giant cylinder. They were a few stories above ground. A little ways away was the back of a horseshoe-shaped building. Beyond that was a large green field with people.

“You’re going to love it here, Danny Boy,” he whispered.

The field looked like a college campus lined with tropical trees and palms with giant white birds. Danny was smart but he wasn’t college-smart. Unless something happened to his brain. He reached for his forehead. Mr. Jones gently caught his arm before he could graze the band-aid with his fingertips.

“I’m going to be your Investor while you’re here. I’m invested in your future, Danny Boy. If you ever need anything or have any questions, I’m the one that will help, all right?”

Danny nodded.

Mr. Jones smacked a sticker on Danny’s shirt. Hello, I’m Danny Boy.

“I’ll be by your side the whole way, Danny Boy. That you can trust. We have a deal?”

They shook hands and watched the activity below. It looked like one big summer camp on a tropical island. Danny’s parents weren’t rich, they couldn’t afford something like this. At least he didn’t think so. He couldn’t remember them at the moment. But he wasn’t going to ask questions, even though Mr. Jones said he could.

“Let’s go down to the Yard,” Mr. Jones said, gesturing to the wide-open field, “and meet your fellow campers.”

By the time they reached the elevator and selected the ground floor, Danny had already forgotten about the doctor’s office and the dream and the confusion. He stared at the doors inside the elevator; the reflection of a red-headed kid with a slight body and freckles looked back. He looked like a stranger with a name tag stuck on his t-shirt.

“I’m Danny Boy,” he whispered.

3

They walked through the woods for ten minutes. The path was mulched and the trees thick above them with dangling vines and scrubby palms. Mr. Jones was sweating through his shirt and had to stop midway to catch his breath and wipe his face. He was all hunched over. Danny found a stick and Mr. Jones said thank you.

They came out of the trees at the back of the horseshoe-shaped building that had no windows. It was a huge blank wall tinted green with algae and one door right in the middle. They went inside.

Danny’s room was smack in the middle of the building. Unlike the back wall, this side of the building faced the Yard with plenty of windows. Danny could see to the other side. It was big enough to hold five or six football fields.

Mr. Jones sat on the bed wiping the sweat from the folds of his neck. He gave Danny a feeble smile and pointed to things. “There’s your sink and the bathroom is next to the closet. Your drawers already have clothes folded in them. The hamper chute is down the hall.” He took a few wheezy breaths. “You can get new sheets once a week.”

Danny opened the closet and thumbed through the shirts and pants that were all brand new and all pressed and ready to wear. All exactly his size. Mr. Jones attempted to stand but the mattress drew him back down. Danny offered a hand but he ignored it, doing sort of a side roll to one buttock before throwing himself onto his feet. He nodded with a pained grin.

“Out there, Danny Boy,” he said, sweeping his hand at the window, “that’s where most of the boys hang out in their spare time. The Yard is where you’ll find them.”

The Yard sounds like a prison.

The area near the dorm was crisscrossed with sidewalks forming an X with – from what Danny could tell – a giant sun dial in the middle. Tables were in between the sidewalks but the Yard beyond was grassy.

“But you’re not limited to the Yard. You can go wherever you want, I mean it. You’re free here, Danny Boy. Go climb a tree, hike the trails, fishing… whatever. Well, you can go anywhere,” he lifted a finger, “except where I live. None of the campers are allowed in the Investors’ quarters.”

“Where’s that?”

“We have accommodations back where we came from, only a little further. Besides that, the sky’s the limit, my boy.”

“Can I go home?”

Chuckle. “Not unless you’re a real good swimmer. We’re on an island, Danny Boy. It’s about five square miles or so, but there’s nothing but water as far as the eye can see. Even if you’re a good swimmer, I don’t recommend it. Sharks and ship-eating coral and the like will tear you up.”

He wanted to call them, but there wasn’t a phone in the room and Mr. Jones didn’t have one on his belt, either. There wasn’t even a clock. Besides, Danny was having a hard time remembering what his folks looked like and that disturbed him, so he tried to forget it.

“Where are we?”

“Let’s just say we’re plenty isolated.” Mr. Jones shuffled closer to the window. “Now, this isn’t all recess, just so you know. You see over there on the left is the library where you’ll be taking classes, but don’t get nervous. They’re not like high school. You don’t get grades, they’re just fun classes to keep your brain active and strong. And next to the library is the gym to keep your body active and strong.” Mr. Jones flexed his biceps and said with his best Russian accent, “Strong like bull!”

He lifted Danny’s arm, smacked his bicep like he was trying to wake it up.

“Listen, Danny Boy. We just want you of sound body and mind when you’re ready to graduate. Only the best, only the best, my boy.”

The cafeteria, Mr. Jones said, was on the west wing of the dormitory. As long as Danny was here, everything was free. Games, food, classes, all of it paid for. By who, he didn’t say. He might have some limitations on food because, Mr. Jones said with a chuckle, “I don’t want you getting fat on me.”

“They’re all boys,” Danny Boy said.

“Pardon me?”

Danny pointed at the field. “This is a boys’ camp, right?”

“Well, it’s easier that way, Danny Boy. Girls can be a distraction and we want all your attention on improving your body and mind. But just between you and me,” Mr. Jones winked and nudged him with an elbow, “you’ll have plenty of chances to meet girls when you’re ready. Nothing wrong with that, if you ask me. Nothing wrong, indeed. By the way, see those boys down there?”

He pointed at a group sitting at one of the many picnic tables.

“That’s your group. You ready to go meet some of your fellow campers?”

Danny didn’t know what to say. Didn’t seem like he had much of a choice. Mr. Jones walked a little easier to the door this time. He stood a little taller and started to open the door.

“What’s that building over there?”

Mr. Jones answered without looking. “We’ll talk about that later.”

It was past the far end of the field buried in the trees. Its dome-shaped roof was just above the forest canopy. Sunlight reflected off the circular skylights.

“Come along, Danny Boy. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Danny followed him, reluctantly. He was thirteen years old. When an adult says there’s nothing to worry about, there’s usually plenty.

4

Everyone stared.

Mr. Jones walked damn near zero miles an hour. Danny kept his eyes straight ahead. They cut across the grass. Everyone seemed pretty tan, but the sun bit into Danny’s fair skin. They were aimed at the group at a picnic table near the sun dial. Four of them were playing cards. The fifth was watching. When they got close, the game stopped and they watched the painfully slow approach of Mr. Jones and his sidekick.

“Well, lookie there,” one of them mumbled. “We got ourselves a new poke.”

Mr. Jones leaned one hand on the table.

“Boys.” He took a long breath. “This is your new camper. I’d like you to meet Danny Boy.”

“Hey, Danny Boy,” one of them said.

Most gave a head nod. Danny sort of smiled, waiting for Mr. Jones to either leave or die.

“This is your group, or camp,” Mr. Jones finally said. “You’ll be going through your work with them for the next couple months, so you’ll get to know them pretty well.”

“We love pokes,” someone said.

“Now be nice, boys. You remember what it was like when you first got here, extend some courtesy to this young man. I don’t want to hear about any funny business. You remember that, now. I’ve got my eye on you. Anything happens to my Danny Boy I’ll come down here and tan your hides, you understand?”

My Danny Boy?

The card dealer with a shag of black hair waggled his bushy eyebrows and those around the table smirked.

“I’m not kidding, boys. You try me and see how fast I can reach into my pocket.”

Danny wondered what was in the pocket. A notepad or a laser beam?

A golf cart silently pulled up while Mr. Jones eyeballed each of them. The driver was older than Mr. Jones. His gray hair looked wet and parted on the right. The white line of his scalp showed through the part as straight as a razor. He set the brake and made an attempt to get out but his belly was rubbing against the steering wheel. He got it on the second try.

“Mr. Miller,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Miller acknowledged Mr. Jones with a nod but ignored the rest of them. He walked to the other side of the table to speak with a gangly kid with an Adam’s apple the size of a walnut. His cheeks were pasty and he stared vacantly at the table while Mr. Miller spoke quietly into his ear, occasionally nodding. The walnut bobbed up and down. Mr. Miller patted him on the back and waddled back to the cart without making eye contact with anyone, again.

“Remember, I’m watching, boys.” Mr. Jones pointed two fingers at his eyes, then at the rest of them. Danny needed him to leave for a whole lot of reasons. If the rest of the Investors were as decrepit as Mr. Jones, they would be as much help as a box of kittens.

And when he thought it couldn’t get any worse.

Mr. Jones waved him over to the cart. He stopped a couple steps away. Mr. Jones pulled him closer and put his hand – soft with lotion – on Danny’s cheek, lovingly. “You call if you need me. All right, my boy?”

He did not.

Do.

That.

Danny jumped back and shook like a wet dog. Mr. Jones looked a little hurt, but then nodded like maybe he realized and understood that you just don’t do that TO A THIRTEEN YEAR OLD BOY!

Unless you wanted him to die of embarrassment, of shame and humiliation.

The entire world would have to be on fire before he called Mr. Jones for help.

The card game was more important than Danny. That was a good thing.

He walked away to get some space. If he was going to hang out with them, he needed to make a new first impression. He shoved his hands in his pockets and turned his back, looked around the Yard. There were maybe a couple dozen boys out there, but they were a mix of race and nationality. He heard someone speaking French. Regardless, they were all boys. Every last one of them.

But you’ll get your chance.

There was only one loner. He had his shirt over his shoulder. His long hair was dark. He walked slowly, one foot in front of the other, like he was just soaking in the sun with nowhere to go. Even from where Danny was standing – about fifty feet away – he bet he could count the kid’s ribs.

“Hey, I’m Zin.” A kid about Danny’s height stepped next to him. He was plump, brown skinned with a shaved head and a mean looking zit in the middle of his forehead. “You’re Danny Boy, huh right.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Danny peeled off the nametag.

“Ain’t much of a welcome wagon, but that’s the way it goes around here. You’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“How soon is that?”

“It’ll feel like home in a day. Two, tops.”

Danny had transferred to a new school when he was ten (or was it five?). His dad was a teacher (or was he an engineer?) and got transferred to the mountains (or was it the beach?). Danny got in a fight the first day (or did he run away?). The biggest of the bunch got up right in the middle of class and slapped him while the teacher had her back turned. They duked it out after school.

(Or was it lunch?)

“How long you been here?” Danny asked.

“Long enough. I can tell you one thing, I didn’t get a welcome half as warm as you got. As soon as the Investors left they threw me in a trash can.”

Yep, there it is. This was prison because he was standing in the Yard and there were no girls, just boys. No need for barbed wire when you were surrounded by “sharks and ship eating coral and the like”.

He remembered a time he got in trouble, something about a computer. Danny knew that if he was right – that this really was some sort of prison enclosed by water – then there had to be rape. He’d watched enough [_Locked Up _]episodes to know the weak got it good and these guys were going to bust into his room for a little midnight snack and who was going to stop them? Mr. Jones and his team of geriatric superheroes?

“Listen, it’s a little intimidating the first day,” Zin said, picking up on Danny’s expression or the pale color of his cheeks, “but you get used to it in no time. And these guys aren’t going to do anything to you, so don’t worry. We all look out for each other.”

“How’d you end up here?”

“Same way as everyone else.” He shrugged. “Woke up with my Investor staring at me and couldn’t remember a damn thing. I take that back, I remembered too many things and nothing made sense. You?”

Danny wanted to just forget about the dream and the weird feeling in his head and Mr. Jones touching his cheek.

“That’s what I thought. Listen, don’t sweat it.” Zin lightly punched his shoulder. “This place has its ups and downs, but it ain’t so bad… look, that’s the library over there… and the game room is behind the gym…”

Another orientation, but this one felt better coming from Zin without the creepy grin Mr. Jones was wearing when he did it. The buildings were all dome-shaped besides the horseshoe-shaped dormitory. Zin pointed everything out and then named everyone in their camp.

“And if you want to know what time it is, there you go.” He pointed at the sun dial. “It’s never wrong.”

“What’s that?” Danny pointed at the round building across the Yard, the same one he’d seen from his room.

“That’s the Haystack. You’ll find out about that in a few weeks when we start a new round. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

“That much fun?”

Zin thought about it. “Yes and no.”

“He looks like he had a blast.” Danny nodded to Mr. Miller’s kid, still staring. Saliva glistened on his lip.

The kid with a mop of black hair dealing the cards had been listening. “Yeah, old Parker here is about to get smoked, ya’ll.” He smacked zombie-Parker on the back and rattled his head. Parker didn’t seem to notice so much. Or care.

“Sid means that Parker’s about to graduate,” Zin said. “We all graduate at some point.”

“From what?”

“From the island. You’re here because you got problems, Danny Boy. You’ll learn that problems start with your mind, that we assign concepts and requirements to life that create friction and chaos. If we want to heal, we start with the mind. Or at least, that’s what the Investors tell us. Who the hell knows.”

Zin’s smile was infectious.

“You believe that?” Danny asked.

“Sure, why not? Don’t you see, Danny Boy, the universe is perfectly imperfect.” Zin wiggled his hands in mysterious-fashion. “There are no problems, you just think there are. And you believe what you think, and that’s why you’re here. We’re going to fix you.”

Zin jabbed at Danny’s forehead.

“And once you’re fixed, you get smoked. And once you’re smoke, you’re out of here.”

Zin pointed at the cylindrical building rising up from behind the dorms. Bands of glass windows alternated with bands of metal. Five floors. One of those glass floors was where Danny woke up and walked down the hall. The top floor was black glass. At the very top was a long chimney.

“That’s right,” Zin added. “Once you go to the Chimney, you leave the island. It’s graduation time, kind of like how they pick a new pope, when someone graduates the Chimney puffs and then it’s sayonara, baby.”

“Where do we go?”

“Home, I guess. Where else?”

The thought of going home wasn’t as comforting as it should’ve been, mainly because Danny couldn’t quite remember it.

“Come on.” Sid slung his arm around Parker’s shoulders. “Let’s have some fun before they smoke you, pal. What’d you say, huh? Old times?”

Parker was glassy-eyed.

“That’s the spirit. Let’s go, ya’ll.” They chucked the cards on the table and left the mess behind. “Zinski, bring the new poke. We’ll need him to take Parker’s spot on the team so let’s get him to the game room. We got a match in an hour.”

Zin pulled Danny along. Sid walked with his arm around Parker. It didn’t look like he was going to make it unless someone kept him propped up. A cold feeling crept into Danny’s stomach. He had a feeling what happened to him.

“What’s a poke?”

“That means you’re a rookie, a virgin that just got popped.” Zin pointed at the round band-aid on Danny’s head. “You got poked, Danny Boy.”

Danny touched the bandage. He felt a little guilty after Mr. Jones told him not to, then he noticed the zit on Zin’s forehead. When he first saw it, it looked like a deep blackhead. It was a little red and puffy around the edges, like maybe he was squeezing it. Is that a hole?

A cold feeling trickled into his legs.

Danny noticed the loner kid with the shirt over his shoulder. He was hardly a kid, looked like he was nineteen or twenty. Easily the oldest one around. An old man (there seemed to be an endless supply of them) limped toward him. There were a few words exchanged.

“Yo, Danny Boy!” Zin was calling. “Don’t get lost on day one, hurry up!”

Danny watched the long-haired kid follow the limping old man. Maybe he was going to get smoked.

5

Mr. Smith didn’t talk much. Reed expected that.

The old man limped along with a small grunt whenever he heaved his bum leg forward.

The elevator was in the center of the first floor. The inside was curved like a big tin can. There were only buttons for four floors. Nothing for the fifth. The doors remained opened while Mr. Smith looked at the numbers and the small camera staring back. A few seconds later, they closed and the elevator made the gut-dropping rise to the top of the Chimney.

Mr. Smith put his hand on Reed’s chest. “Wait here.”

The elevator opened. There were no walls on the top floor. Just one big room. One section had bedroom furniture, another office furniture; there was a bar with liquor bottles. But nothing in-between.

On the far side, by the dim windows, a large man wearing a flowery shirt was looking through an oversized telescope. Mr. Smith limped over. His words murmured across the room. The Director never looked up from the eyepiece but occasionally muttered back.

There had been other boys that failed in the Haystack for whatever reason and they just disappeared. No graduation or farewell just [_poof _]– they were gone. Didn’t matter if they went mental or the needle lobotomized them, it was game over.

Move on to the next contestant.

But they had been patient with Reed. He was nineteen. He’d be twenty in a couple months. And twenty – for whatever reason – was a magic number. Poof.

Mr. Smith didn’t look happy.

He was trying to hold his voice in check and kept stealing glances at Reed when he got too loud. The Director never bothered to pull off his telescope while Mr. Smith waved his arms and smacked his fist. And then he was dismissed. Mr. Smith came back like a peg-legged pirate that dipped his hair in a bucket of ink.

His cheeks were flush.

“The Director would like a word.”

______

“Reed, my boy, come here.” The Director was still hunched over the telescope when Reed approached. “You don’t want to miss this, take a look.”

Reed hesitated. The Director stood up and stretched his back. “Well, do I need to mail you an invitation? Come on, you must see this,” he said, happily. “Nature is happening, son.”

The Director was a large man with a scraggly beard and squinty, smiling eyes. He was wearing baggy shorts and flip-flops. Reed stopped short of the telescope, peering out the window at the back side of the island – a view rarely seen by any of the teenage campers. Rarely was one of them brought up to the Director’s office. The Investors’ living quarters hundred yards away, right on the edge of the island – the Mansion with stately palms. Beyond that was endless water.

“Reed, unless you can stretch your eyeball out of your head, you’re going to have to bend over to see what I’m talking about.” The Director smiled. “Take a look.”

Reed did so. Slowly. He adjusted his eye around the lens. It was focused far out into the ocean. Everything shimmered blue.

“You see it?” the Director asked. “Don’t touch the scope, just look with your eye. Just stay open and you’ll see it.”

There was nothing. Suddenly, there was a spray of water. A humpback whale broke the surface, its slick body rolled over and the white speckled tail slapped the water. He wanted to see it again.

“Magnificent, right?” The Director slapped him on the back. “Nature.”

Reed stayed perched over the telescope. Moments later, another one came up for a breath and disappeared beneath the waves, free to go as deep and as far away as it wished.[_ _]

“How many rounds have you been through, Reed?”

Reed stood.

The Director was at the bar near a section of plush furniture. Ice rattled in a couple of tumblers and the Director poured drinks. One with Coke, the other whiskey. He brought the Coke to Reed, handed it to him with a stiff smile, the eyes still crinkled.

“I’ve lost count,” the Director said. “Twenty-five, would you say?”

“Sounds a little high.”

“Math wasn’t my strong suit, but twenty-five times you’ve been through the Haystack, Reed.” The Director took a drink and grimaced. “You like punishment?”

“I’ve discovered my inner masochist.”

“Well, then, how about I punch you in the face and we’ll have a ball.” He smiled wide and laughed loud. Reed joined him. They were both in on the joke for several moments, although the Director laughed a little hard.

The Director leisurely strolled away. He swirled the glass. He stopped at a large cage behind the expansive mahogany desk. It reached up to the ceiling, inside were a pair of large white parrots. He looked up at them, said, “Why won’t you take the lucid gear, Reed?”

“I’m not crazy about getting punched in the head with a needle.”

“It’s not a needle, Reed. It’s lucid gear, and it doesn’t hurt, you know that. The other boys have told you so. Hell, I’m telling you.” He pointed at the neat little hole in his forehead.

“Forgive me,” Reed said. “The needle-like lucid gear goes through the skull. It can’t feel good.”

The ice rattled. The Director sipped, nodding. He looked over, head cocked. A grim smile. He jerked his head, signaling Reed to come over. The glass of Coke was still full, soaking in his hand. Sweat or condensation?

Together, they watched the birds.

“This is my island, Reed. It’s my program, my vision that happens here. These…” He waved his drink toward the Mansion. “These Investors fund it, but it’s my vision to use cutting edge technology – revolutionary ideas – to help people like you, Reed.”

“I didn’t ask for help.”

“Yes, you did. You just don’t know it.”

“I don’t know much of anything, thanks to you.”

The Director ignored the insult. “You’re a kid, Reed. You don’t know anything about life and your place in it. And it’s a damn shame to see a kid like you with so much potential just waste away to nothing. I can’t accept a world that turns its back on people that need help, Reed. I can’t. I won’t.”

Reed realized the floor was slowly rotating. His view of the Mansion was slightly askew from when he arrived. Eventually, they’d be turning back towards the dormitory and the Yard.

“Why do you think I brought you here, Reed?”

“You know I don’t know that.”

The Director was nodding. He knew that Reed couldn’t make sense of the multitude of memories that crowded his mind; memories they both knew were implanted in Reed’s head to keep him confused, to keep him from remembering his past.

The Director put his drink on a small table and opened the doors beneath it. He pulled out a small cage squirming with oversized cockroaches. The parrots flapped madly, squawking. Feathers floated out of the cage.

“You think I brought you here to torture, mmm?”

“It’s crossed my mind.”

“You think I get my jollies by filling an island with young boys to torture?” He popped the lid and reached inside. The cockroaches hissed. “You think that’s me?”

“I don’t know who you are, Director. Like you said, I don’t even know who I am.”

A wingless cockroach clung to the Director’s finger, blowing air from the spiracles on its abdomen to hiss loudly. He held it close to his face. The cockroach hunched over and went quiet.

“I like you, Reed. You remind me of myself, all full of piss and vinegar. For all I know, you’re refusing the lucid gear just to spite me, to spite Mr. Smith. And I can respect that. I mean, Jesus lord, you’ve withstood some discomfort, son. I don’t think I could’ve done it when I was your age and I was one tough son of a bitch. You believe that?”

There was a long pause. The Director turned his hand over; the cockroach clung to it upside-down.

Reed answered, “Believe what?”

“That I was a tough S-O-B?”

“Again, I don’t know you, sir.”

“Yes, you do, Reed.” The Director glared, intensely. “You know me.”

Reed turned away. He didn’t know the Director, but that look told him everything he needed to. You know what I do.

The Director plucked the cockroach off his hand. It threw a fit, hissing and scratching for a grip. He pinched it by the abdomen. The birds jumped to the branch nearest the cage, their beaks jawing open and close, open and close. The Director dangled the cockroach just out of their reach. Feathers flew.

The cockroach hissed and hissed, and then it ended with its exoskeleton crunching loudly in the curved beak of the larger bird. The Director took a sip of his drink, watching the bird pull half the insect’s body, legs flailing, out of its mouth with its claw, chewing on it like popcorn.

“What makes you so tough, Reed?”

“I don’t know, sir. Maybe my father was a Navy SEAL.”

The Director stepped directly in front of Reed. They were eye to eye, only inches apart. Scotch was on his breath. “Every single boy that’s been to the island has taken the lucid gear the very first time they go to the Haystack. Not one has resisted, and you’ve done it… how many times, Reed?”

Shrug.

“Twenty-five,” the Director said. “You get it wrong again, I’ll slap you.”

He stayed uncomfortably closer, staring. The bird grinding the insect into bite-sized pieces.

Reed knew how he resisted, but how did he tell the man responsible for all the misery around him that it was a dream that told him not to take the needle? Sounds crazy, but what doesn’t?

It happened when he woke up in the lab with Mr. Smith staring at him. He clung to a memory as he opened his eyes. It was a girl with long red hair. She told him – as if she was talking to him – to resist. She told him that if he did, they would be together again, one day. It wouldn’t be easy, but he had to resist. If anyone could do it, he could.

He didn’t know what resisting meant until he entered the Haystack.

And when his resolve faded, when he considered reaching for the needle because he just couldn’t take it anymore, when he just wanted it to end, he would have another dream.

Resist.

The Director, looking as far into Reed’s eyes as he could and seeing nothing, stepped away. He sipped, thinking. Reed noticed the lump on the back of his neck when he bent over for another cockroach, the tracker imbedded between the C4 and C5 vertebrae. No one went unchecked on the island, not even the man at the top.

“I can’t accept watching you piss away an opportunity, Reed. Do you know what’s right in front of you? The effort Mr. Smith and I made to bring you here, to offer you freedom from your problems, to give you a nobler life. Do you know what it costs every day we keep you here and watch you deny the healing we offer?”

He squeezed the cockroach in his palm, crunching inside his closed fist.

“Do you know how hard we work TO GIVE YOU A BETTER LIFE?”

The birds jumped. So did Reed.

“We’re pioneers, Reed,” he said, softly. “We’re forging into new ground of healing the world. You’re a pioneer, do you understand that?”

Reed nodded, slowly.

The Director held his gaze, then offered his hand to the unfed bird. It pushed its beak between the bars and snatched the cockroach out of his palm. The Director flicked the slimy remains on the bottom of the cage and walked away wiping his hands with a paper towel.

The Director went to another telescope at the perimeter of the room, this one aimed over the Mansion. The floor had rotated. Reed was looking at the dorm and the Yard beyond.

“You have a shot at a second life, but I can’t make you take it. All I can do is offer you healing. No one can make you go lucid, you have to want it. Don’t you see, that’s why we make you uncomfortable before it’s offered? Your mind detaches from the body when it’s in pain, yet you continue to stay. You won’t take what I offer, Reed. And I can’t understand that.”

The Director spent a few minutes focusing on a new target. He stood up, hands on his hips. Staring out, pensive. Struggling with a thought. A decision. “Five more rounds, Reed.” The Director looked at Reed over the couches and tables and space in between. “I’m giving you an opportunity to help me help you. This is your last chance to take my outstretched hand. I can’t help the unwilling, son. You understand?”

The Director smiled, eyes squinting.

“If you don’t, then I’ve failed you, son. And I’m sorry for that.”

The Director went back to the telescope. The birds licked their beaks. Reed looked at the Yard below, wiping his slick forehead where the needle hole had long since healed.

6

Danny remembered going to summer camp… or something like that. The more he thought about it, maybe it was just camping. They went fishing. It seemed like a really fun time in his life.

The island was even better.

No one assaulted him in his sleep. No one dumped him in a trash can or even so much as gave him a wedgie. It was ten days of non-stop fun.

It started in the game room which turned out to be a game building. Flat screen monitors were positioned around the perimeter showing on-going games or flashing team standings of various competitions. Most of them were small capsules where campers could experience three-dimensional action while some were simple screen games for one or two people.

On the first day, Sid led them through the crowd. There were about twenty-five people – all boys, no old men – watching or playing. They made their way to center stage: a twenty-foot wide circular platform enclosed by a clear dome. Inside was a small scale layout of a war-torn city with smoldered buildings and overturned cars. Digital troops strategically stalked the cityscape and miniature helicopters rained bullets and missiles into clouds of smoke and fire.

There was a group on each side that controlled the tiny figures and with each explosion and each death, numbers changed on the four-side scoreboard hanging from the ceiling. Names repositioned in the standings. An hour later, one team stood victorious.

Zin smacked Danny in the chest. “We’re up.”

The taunting started when they stepped onto the small stage vacated by the losers, a group of Middle Eastern boys in their early teens. Danny saw the other team on the opposite side of the dome – they were Russian, maybe – pulling on black gloves. Sid was trading insults with the crowd, pointing at the scoreboard and thumping his chest. Zin gave Danny a pair of gloves and knee pads.

“No time for instruction. You’ll figure it out.”

The gloves slid on like silk embedded with fine wire mesh. The knee pads strapped on without anything special. Sid passed out yellow-tinted goggles with embedded earbuds and miniature microphones. Danny was still playing with the goggles when he was assigned to a tower and told to keep his head down.

“Watch and learn.” That was the only time Sid addressed Danny. “And try not to get killed, poke.”

The game started.

Instead of watching the action like the spectators, Danny saw it inside the goggles. The view was first person, like he was inside the dome, shrunk down to size. The goggles absorbed his vision. When he turned his head, the view changed.

He was in a tower with a two-ton bell. For the first twenty minutes, he did what he was told, experimenting with the controls and not getting killed. He learned his movements were controlled by bending his knees. The gloves controlled his hands and weapons. After that, he watched half of his crew get slaughtered on one of Sid’s stupid ambushes.

When there was nothing to lose, he went to the ground.

He felt the rubble under his feet, the heat of burning automobiles. He ran from building to building and by the time he neared the action, Zin was the only one left. He was hiding inside a bunker that was about to be flamed.

When Danny was later asked how he slaughtered the opposing team, he didn’t have a good answer. He just said that it made sense, that he didn’t realize he was intuiting the enemy’s moves and shot them with effortless accuracy and moved with the grace of a veteran assassin. He just did it.

He sniped the last enemy from three hundreds. After that, everyone in the game room knew his name.

There were classes, too.

Although, like Mr. Jones said, it wasn’t really class. They talked about economics and geology and philosophy, but it was just talk. There was no homework, no tests. The instructors were the old men, of course, that insisted they exercise their whole brains when they thought about various topics, so they kept the discussion lively. The boys debated loudly, acted out their passion and shook hands when it was all over. It wasn’t bad, Danny had to admit. Without the busy-work of homework, he was interested in class.

Sort of. Kind of.

Strange thing, though. There was no Internet, no email, text messages or phones. There weren’t even computers. There was plenty of time for worldly things, the Investors said. Just not now.

Occasionally, Danny would hear a bell ring three times like a gong. Then he’d see boys heading for the Haystack and sometimes leaving it. Once, someone was carted away from it. An Investor was driving a utility vehicle and another old man was on the flatbed with the boy lying down. No one said much and the Investors stared straight ahead as they drove around the dormitory toward the Chimney.

In the first couple weeks, Danny saw the Chimney smoke three times.

______

Danny sat with his camp at lunch. He didn’t know anyone else.

He half-listened to Sid layout their next game strategy and watched people move through the line. Another group returned from the Haystack, this one Hispanic. They hardly spoke.

One of them was a new poke. The band-aid.

Mr. Jones took Danny’s band-aid off within the first week. He was a little more chill after the hand on the cheek incident. Danny decided if it happened again, he was swimming for it, screw the sharks. But Mr. Jones was cool. He just wanted to make sure Danny was getting everything he needed and followed his schedule. He had a knack of always finding Danny, but then he remembered the tracker in his neck. Mr. Jones could probably count the number of turds Danny dropped in the morning.

Danny peeled the band-aid off. Beneath it was a neat little hole. It wasn’t red, wasn’t sore. Just a hole. Mr. Jones wiped it with some alcohol, said the stent was healing just fine. He sensed Danny had a question – as anyone who woke up with a hole in the head would have – and said the hole was for healing. And not to worry.

[_Don’t worry, my boy. _]He said that a lot.

“You listening?” Sid snapped his fingers in Danny’s face. “Come on, man, you need to pay attention. This next battle is our last before we go to the Haystack. That’s when it gets real, son. You’re good with the gloves but things change when you get inside.”

“Danny Boy isn’t going to be any good the first round,” Zin said, swallowing the last of his milk. “He shouldn’t even be on the squad until he gets a few rounds inside the Haystack, you know that. You forget, he’s a new poke.”

“Yeah, just in case, Zinski.”

“That’s what we do in the Haystack?” Danny asked. “More games?”

Long silence.

Silence, every time the topic of the Haystack came up – and what the needle was. Danny knew what was likely to happen, it didn’t take a genius. There was a needle and there was a hole in his head. It didn’t take an engineer. Still, it was hard to imagine a needle going through his skull, so there had to be other explanations. He didn’t want to think about that.

When everyone was on another topic, Zin leaned over. “We’re going inside the Haystack in two days. Everyone gets a little edgy, but don’t let them worry you. It’s all cool.”

“So what happens, exactly?”

“It’s a good time. You won’t remember much, though.”

“What are you going to be doing?”

“Uhhhh…” Zin looked around then smiled, mischievously. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of these war mongers, but I’ll be hooking up with my lady. If there’s time, I might join them for some shoot ‘em up, but that ain’t my priority. I promise you.”

“Girls?”

“Oh, yeah.” Zin looked around again but no one was paying attention. He mouthed the word with a smile.

GIRLS.

They were going to see girls? There had never been one on the island – coming or going from the Haystack – unless they were dropped off on the back side of the island and snuck into the back of the building. Danny thought of the possibilities. Boys were in the Haystack alone for half a day or longer. If there were girls in there, too, then all kinds of things could be happening. So far, the island was a summer camp, but the way Zin was smiling made him wonder if it had some real-life sex education.

Just keeps getting better.

The last people in line were grabbing their trays off the dessert table. The last one was all alone, something Danny rarely saw. Everyone travelled in packs. There were no loners on the island, except for the guy at the end of the line – the long-haired kid Danny saw his first day. He moved slowly, carefully. Occasionally, he turned his head listening to something, looking around the cafeteria. Then he slid his tray along the service line.

“We’re going to be down three men,” Sid was saying. “Parker’s going in with us but he ain’t going to last long. He’ll be smoked, after this. Am I right, Parker?”

Parker breathed through his mouth, holding an empty spoon over his tray. His food was untouched. He shrugged his shoulders when Sid snapped his fingers.

“Easy money,” Sid said. “Anyway, Zin’s right about Danny Boy clumping up like a vegetable, so we’ll be short-handed. We’ll have to play some defense.”

“Who’s the third person?” Zin asked.

“Oh.” Sid twitched his chin at the loner in line. “Forgot to tell you, we got the freak.”

There was a collective moan and some pissing to go along with it.

“Who is he?” Danny asked.

“That’s Reed,” Zin said. “Guy’s been through, like, 100 rounds or something like that without taking the needle.” Zin shook his head. “One tough dude, man. Someone said his head got all scrambled when he first got here. Ask me, I think he’s just some badass that wants to piss in the Director’s cereal.”

“Where’s he been?”

“He goes to the beach on the north end, stands there looking at the water all by himself. No one goes out to the beach, man. The bugs and the wind and no one’s going swimming. There are a thousand better things to do, trust me.”

“That makes him crazy?”

“You wait and see, no sane person would do what he’s done. He just doesn’t have any friends and no one wants to get near him, afraid his crazy will rub off. Can’t say I disagree.”

Reed stopped at the dessert table and held still like someone hit pause on him.

“See what I mean?” Zin said. “He’s an odd dude named Reed, the kid that bends but don’t break.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You’ll see.”

Reed nodded. He was either agreeing with himself or with the voices Zin said he was hearing. Reed left his tray on the dessert table and grabbed an apple. He left the cafeteria.

“I rest my case,” Zin said. “Whack-a-do.”

Reed didn’t walk like he was crazy. Danny didn’t exactly know what a crazy man would walk like, but it didn’t seem like it would be confident, slow and steady. Just because someone doesn’t fly with all the birds doesn’t mean he’s nuts.

The flock could be going in the wrong direction.

7

Danny woke up two hours before the sun rose. His eyes opened and refused to shut. He stared at the ceiling. The unknown was terrifying. Everyone else seemed excited. Danny rubbed his forehead, making a tiny circle around the hole. No way they stick a needle in there.

There was a soft knock.

Danny pulled the sheet up to his chin. Mr. Jones opened the door. Danny realized he looked pathetic, but he couldn’t will himself to get up anymore than he could make himself sleep. Besides, he was in his underwear and even though Mr. Jones wasn’t so creepy, there was no need to roll the dice.

“Good morning,” Mr. Jones said.

Danny didn’t answer.

Mr. Jones, usually cheery that time of the day – usually throwing open the curtains and welcoming the morning and telling Danny it was a great day to be alive – this time he went directly to the chest of drawers and began to fold Danny’s clothes. When his shirts were organized, Mr. Jones put his hand on the desk. His cheeks moved like he was chewing on his tongue.

He sat on the bed, sinking into the mattress and rolling Danny closer. Thankfully, he placed his hands on his own lap.

“Danny Boy,” he started and let out a sigh. “Today is a big day. It’s a big day, my boy. You can’t imagine what it means to me. The journey you’re about to take will be revolutionary. You should know that, so that in your darkest hour you have something to hold onto. The Haystack is critical to what we do here on the island, you understand? We wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, but sometimes you have to go to the dentist to stay well, am I right?”

Danny pulled the sheet just under his eyes. He wanted to pull it over his head but that wouldn’t make the bogeyman go away.

“Here.” Mr. Jones held a pill between his finger and thumb. “Put this under your tongue, it’ll boost your immunity. I don’t want you catching cold while you’re in there, it just makes things harder.”

Danny didn’t move.

Mr. Jones had to pull the sheet down and put it on his lips. His fingers smelled like old leather. Danny let the pill fall into his mouth just so he’d get his hand away. It dissolved like candy.

Mr. Jones sighed again, looked at the ceiling. His eyes looked a little wet. It was times like this Danny thought he might be regretting something. He squeezed Danny’s knee. “You’re a hero, son. A real hero.”

And then he got up, after two attempts, and went to the door looking more hunched over than usual. He put his hand on the knob and, without turning, said, “You go on and get dressed now, you hear? I’ll be back up in an hour to escort you over to the building. No one goes into the Haystack alone, my boy.”

The door clicked behind him. Danny stayed in bed with the sheet pulled up. He remained there for a while and only got dressed because he didn’t want Mr. Jones in the room when he did.

All modesty was about to disappear from Danny’s life.

______

Danny walked the Yard with Mr. Jones. This time he had no problem with his slow and steady gait. The others were walking with their Investors, too. They were all spread out, heading in the same direction: the multi-eyed round roof peeking above the distant trees. Their paths converged the closer they got.

They got in line as they entered a narrow path. There was little talking. But the silence was more than that; it was the sort of intense concentration that spontaneously happened before a big game, before surgery or some other life-altering event. Even Sid, walking a few bodies ahead of Danny, was quiet.

Suddenly, the path ended in an opening. The Haystack was at the far side. Its concrete wall was painted dark brown, stained with algae and sucker-cups that remained from vines stripped away. A man stood at the entrance with a clipboard in his folded arms. He was old, but kind of young among the old men. He had gentle gray eyes inside folds of skin. He began checking off items on his clipboard as they entered.

A bell rang three times.

Danny didn’t look around but once. Zin was to his left. He lifted his eyebrows in mild celebration. Just past Zin was Parker as glassy-eyed and slack as ever. He wasn’t looking around. He didn’t even look like he knew anyone else was there.

“Welcome, young men,” the man at the door suddenly said. “My name is Mr. Clark. I’ll be supervising this round. Most of you know the drill. I know some of you are nervous, as would be expected, but I assure you that your experience will be just as exciting as the previous ones have been. For the newcomers, you will follow your Investor inside and he will orient you on what to do. But there’s nothing to worry about, things are very simple inside.”

Mr. Clark looked at his clipboard.

“Before we enter, are there any questions?” He looked around with the same welcoming smile. “Very well, then. Let’s begin, shall we?”

He pushed the door open and stood to the side. Mr. Jones’s hand fell on Danny’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. Danny immediately tensed, but noticed every Investor was doing the same move with the hand on the shoulder, guiding their kid into the Haystack in some sort of ritual. Danny got in line. When they stepped inside, it was cold and dim.

It was the last time he would see the sun for quite some time.

______

Danny clenched up, a full-body seizure.

His knees locked and he pushed his weight against Mr. Jones’s hand. It wasn’t the dim light coming through the skylights or the giant steel fan that waited to chop them up or the smell of urine or the dank-dungeon cells that lined both sides of the aisle that made Danny step back. It was a sense of panic, of fear, that saturated the atmosphere like an electrical current, tingling in his bowels. The boys ahead of him didn’t seize up, but they stutter-stepped. Like the end of a ship’s plank was dead ahead.

Danny felt this type of fear spreading through his groin like cold fingers once before. A memory emerged in the soupy sea of memories inside his head. He remembered getting pulled out of the back seat of a car with his hands cuffed behind his back by someone. But then like everything he tried to remember, there were gaps.

There were FBI shirts, and big doors—

“It’s all right, Danny Boy.” Mr. Jones gently urged him forward.

Danny’s knees refused to unbuckle. The cages were open and waiting. The boys ahead of him each walked inside one without resistance and their Investor closed the door.

“Come on!” someone shouted from outside. “We’re waiting, Danny Boy!”

“Come along, my boy.” Mr. Jones pressed forward, pushing Danny ahead. “It’s all right. It’s all right.”

Danny walked with his weight leaning into Mr. Jones’s hand. The old man showed surprising strength. His hand was like a talon. It guided him past the open cells. No cot or toilet or window on the walls. The boys were stripping off their shirts. That’s when Danny realized the cold wasn’t just fear eating away his innards but the humid cold air dimpling his skin.

They stopped about halfway down the aisle. Mr. Jones turned Danny to the left. He tried to squirm away but the old man’s claw shoved him inside the open cell. The door latched closed before he could turn around.

Mr. Jones grabbed the bars.

“Why are you doing this?” Danny suddenly wanted to be back in his bed. He didn’t mind if Mr. Jones sat on the bed and patted his knee. He would let him touch his face, if that’s what he wanted.

“Danny Boy, trust me. Everything will be all right. It’ll be better than okay, you just trust me now, son. These boys have been through this already and they’re doing better, I promise.”

No one else needed to be pushed inside a cell. They knew the deal and didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t look happy, but they weren’t freaking out.

“We’re about healing the world,” Mr. Jones said, quietly. “This is the work that we ask you to do. As with any work, it is not always easy. But it will be rewarding, my boy. Richly.”

The Haystack was silent except for the somber mutterings of a few Investors. The rest of the boys were taking off their clothes. First their shirts. Then shoes, socks and pants. And finally underwear.

Completely naked!

Mr. Jones held out his hands. “You need to hand me your clothes, Danny Boy. We enter the work like we enter life, completely exposed to the world. We are reborn into our flesh, revealing our humility for everyone to witness.”

Danny backed up. The others were folding their clothes and passing them between the bars, neatly stacked. They stood unabashed with various amounts of pubic hair. The cold had shriveled most of them to embarrassing sizes, but no one seemed to care all that much. None of them were looking around like Danny.

“No one can touch you, Danny Boy.”

Mr. Jones was right. There was a gap between the cells on each side. Even if he reached all the way through, he wouldn’t be able to touch the person imprisoned next to him. He noticed the walls were set inside slots that could slide but it only looked like the cell could get smaller.

“You’re safe inside the cell. No one will bother you.”

“But… but why? Why do we have to do this?” Danny’s voice cracked with an embarrassing whine.

“You’ll understand. You’ll just have to trust me.”

Danny hugged himself. “I just don’t want to. You can’t just expect me to… I’m not just going to get naked because everyone else is. I’m not doing it.”

“Stop pissing around, Danny Boy!” Sid shouted from across the aisle. His penis had shrunk into the bush of pubic hair that crawled up and around his belly button. “The longer you go on like that, the longer it takes… NOW GET NAKED, BOY!”

Investors were already leaving. Mr. Jones stood with his hands around the bars. His expression was silent and sympathetic. Sid was growling and pacing inside his cell. But Danny couldn’t break the grip the cold hand of fear had on him. He just wasn’t going to do it. He just wanted to close his eyes and disappear. He wished this would all go away, that he could somehow escape his body and go somewhere nice and warm and safe.

“Hey.” Zin was pulling his shirt over his head in the cell next to him. “Listen, you got to do this. I know it’s all weird, but it’s no big deal. It’s like showering in the gym. I can tell you, nothing happens.”

“Then why do we have to do it?”

Zin shrugged while he stepped out of his shorts. “To make the first part more uncomfortable, I guess. To humiliate us, to make us want the needle. I don’t give two craps either way. All I know is that we got to get this thing going or it’s going to suck being here even longer.”

Zin folded his shorts and shirt into a stack and placed his flip-flops on top. His Investor gave him a nod and left.

“Danny Boy,” Mr. Jones said. “You should understand that in life, there is joy and there is suffering. Your work includes everything. The Haystack is designed to allow you to experience suffering safely, to learn to let go of your physical body so that you may experience another level of your existence. But I can’t make you, Danny Boy. I can’t make you do it. You’ll have to do it on your own.” Mr. Jones held out his hands. “You’ll have to walk naked alone.”

Others had joined Sid in the taunting. Danny could see there was no way to escape. And the others had been through it and they didn’t seem to mind. Zin, too.

Danny’s shirt came off, first. The cold air pulled his skin tight and his nipples were like BBs. He was shaking when he took off his shorts. Despite Sid screaming to go faster, he took his time getting his shoes off.

His underwear was last.

He took a long shaky breath before pulling them down. Unlike Sid and Zin, he didn’t have much hair downstairs. What little he did have was bright red and barely covered his boyhood that looked more like a mushroom cap.

He threw the clothes at Mr. Jones’ feet and cupped his hands over his genitalia.

“I’ll need you to fold the clothes, Danny Boy.” Mr. Jones didn’t stoop to pick them up. “It’s our attention to every moment of our life that matters. To make room for this very moment, to allow it to unfold. To care for life. Now, please, hand me your clothes properly.”

Danny squatted down and did his best to put his clothes in order like Zin had done. Mr. Jones didn’t seem completely pleased with the quality of his stack, but he nodded and stepped back. He nodded again and without another word, exited the Haystack.

The wrath of the others didn’t stop. Danny backed up until he pressed against the bars, wishing it was dark enough to hide him. He kept his hands over his privates. The room had become loud with anger, vibrating inside Danny’s head. Even Zin had his hands on the bars, shouting obscenities until finally one Investor was followed by another until they were all gone.

Sid tried to shake the solid bars on his cage, shouting, “Come on! Come on, already! LET’S GO!”

It seemed to go on forever. Danny’s shoulder blades had numbed on the cold steel when a loud clank erupted from the ceiling. Everyone cheered as the dim light began to fade. Shutters inside the skylights were turning. What little light was available disappeared.

Danny shivered in the dark.

“Danny Boy?” Zin called.

“Yeah?”

“Welcome to the Haystack.”

8

Danny moved to the center of the cell. It was so dark that it didn’t matter where he stood, no one would see him. The worst part was the concrete, slick and cold. Danny began to pace to keep warm.

“Save your strength.”

There was a lump in the darkness to Danny’s right. Slowly, the details of the room began to return with grainy, gray detail and fuzzy edges. The lump was Zin, sitting in the center of his cell with his knees pulled against his chest and his arms wrapped around his shins.

“You want to protect your core, Danny Boy,” Zin said. “Do whatever you can to conserve your body heat. Walking around is only going to waste it. It might feel good now but you’ll pay for it later.”

“Why are they doing this, Zin?”

“Sit down and do what I told you,” he snapped. “And use your legs to keep your balls from touching the floor. You don’t want those getting cold.”

He didn’t have to worry about his scrotum touching anything. It had shriveled up like a mummified prune. The floor felt like a glacier. He stopped rocking back and forth before Zin snapped at him again, but he couldn’t control the shivering.

“You good?” Zin asked. “Now, get into a breathing rhythm. Slowly, take in a breath and let it exhale on its own. In.” Zin sucked air through his nostrils, loudly. “Out,” he said, letting it leak out. He did it again, and again.

Danny followed his example. The chattering continued, but he felt less scattered. A little more settled. The fear that was strangling his insides had subsided to mild warmth. The muscles that were bunched around his shoulders released.

In.

Out.

He continued.

The room was mostly silent. Some of the others were talking. There was subtle laughter. Someone was whimpering.

“Here’s the deal,” Zin finally said. “We come here every two weeks, get naked and wait for the needle.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll find out. After this round, we’ll screw around for two weeks like we’ve been doing until the next one. You get the picture.”

“How long do we do this?”

“Don’t ask that question. Just count your breath, that’s all you need to know.”

Laughter crackled through the room. Someone said to shut the hell up, then added, “God, I hate this freaking part.”

Danny went back to breathing like Zin. It wasn’t helping, he was getting colder. But there wasn’t much choice. Danny could make out more details, could see that Zin was sitting with his back straight and legs folded beneath him, his hands in his lap. His chest rose and fell.

Danny didn’t know who was in the cell on the other side, but he was standing and shrouded in darkness. He hadn’t uttered a word.

Across the aisle, Parker had not moved. He stood in his cell hunched over. He looked disconnected already. He didn’t seem to care whether it was hot or cold, whether he suffered or not. Like some spirit from another world.

The seconds stitched together and became minutes. Zin told him when to get up and walk around, when to rub some feeling back into his buttocks, and when to sit still and breathe. Danny was still shivering. There were moments when he swallowed the knot in his throat that threatened to break out sobs.

Danny lost count of how many times he and Zin walked, how many times he rubbed the feeling back into his buns, and how many breaths he’d counted. But he would remember for the rest of his life the sound the fan made when it engaged.

It started with a buzz. The long blades began to crawl in a circle. After one rotation, they picked up speed and the breeze came down with a slow helicopter sound.

[_Wop-wop-wop-wop-wop. _]

Then came the hiss of the sprinklers. A fine mist swirled in the current and settled on the floor and everything else.

“I won’t talk after this, Danny Boy, no offense,” Zin said. “This is where the real work begins. Just remember when the needle drops, push your tongue against the roof of your mouth.”

“Why?”

Zin began to pace. “Or else you’ll bite it off.”

And that’s when the lump in Danny’s throat broke. He tried to smother the sobs but failed. No one said anything.

No one laughed.

______

The fan would stop. So would the mist.

Then start again.

Danny stopped the breathing exercise. He hadn’t done it since the fan began. He was curled up on his side with his legs drawn up to his chest. He had cried out all his tears. His stomach ached.

He found strength watching Zin. He sat so still. He was getting up more often and walking back and forth with a steady, measured pace; his hands folded over his stomach. His head was slightly bowed.

And on and on, it went.

On and on, it went.

______

There were large patches of forgetting.

Danny wasn’t sure if he’d fallen asleep or just blanked out. The floor had begun to grind into his hip and his neck hurt from lying down. He started to walk like Zin but didn’t talk to him. It was just back and forth, back and forth.

The guy in the other cell turned out to be Reed. Danny only guessed from the long hair. He faced the other direction. He didn’t fidget. Didn’t much move. He just remained steady.

The fan finished another cycle of turning and they were in for a short reprieve. The following silence was interrupted by shuffling and a cough or a moan. Droplets of water condensed on the bars until they fell with a heavy drip.

But there was a new sound.

Above Danny’s cell, a tiny mechanized motor turned.

The atmosphere changed. A heavy pause, like a collective breath.

Everyone stared up.

Danny saw a black box fastened in the center of the barred ceiling of his cell. Something was moving inside it. He didn’t see the tiny door open, but heard the wire and straps fall out.

A jubilant roar shook the room.

The others were on their feet, calling to each other. There was laughter. They all reached up.

Zin stopped pacing. He paused for one final breath before reaching for the black box and pulling down a gaggle of straps and wire. He sat down and pulled the line from the box until there was plenty of slack on the floor. Then he took the straps and fastened them over his head like some sort of wrestling gear, but instead of ear protection there was a single knob that centered over the middle of his forehead. He didn’t look at Danny, only took a deep breath and lay on his back.

His body convulsed once, his back arching off the floor for a long moment.

Then it went limp.

Everyone was in the same position. It was suddenly silent. No labored breathing. No groans or whimpers. Just complete silence.

He reached for the mess dangling from his cell. His joints ached. The straps were cold leather; the wire a thick cable. The knob was hard. He was reluctant, despite the agony. There was a needle inside the knob, he knew it had to be. It would plunge into the hole.

The thought was as cold as the floor.

He sat down, unable to put it on. But when the fan began to whir, Danny was in motion. His body moved on its own. He couldn’t stand the cold, wet air anymore. Not when everyone around him was so peaceful. He just wanted out.

Away from this body.

The strap fit snugly around his head. He pulled extra cable from above until it pooled at his side. He shifted the knob over his forehead. If there were any tears left, Danny might have squeezed out a few. Instead, he just squeezed his eyes shut.

The knob began to squirm like flagellating lips, like the bottom of a snail. It numbed the skin beneath the knob. A cold fire spread into his forehead, like a river of icy water gushing inside his brain. His bladder released; a warm puddle grew between his legs. It was embarrassing, but he didn’t care.

He just wanted out.

The cell walls shifted. The one next to him got smaller. Reed had turned around, staring down at him.

Then came the needle.

9

Danny tasted steel.

The needle plunged into the frontal lobe. The pain was minimal, but his body thrashed on the concrete, scraping his elbows and cutting the back of his head.

All Danny felt was the dull blunt force of metal and the crunching sound of the hole reopening. He no longer felt the cold floor or the frigid mist blowing over his naked body or the warm blood seeping from the back of his head. He was in another type of darkness.

Bodiless. Sightless.

Somewhere else.

Once he’d ridden a three-story water slide. He flung himself into the dark tube and plunged into the unknown where turns tossed him left and right and the water surged over his head. His stomach twisted with fear and excitement until he was shot out the bottom of the ride.

He remembered that. The whole thing.

The memory seeped into his mind from somewhere in the dark.

Danny was on another sort of ride that caused his stomach – if he still had a stomach – to buck and he was thrown through a series of twisting turns. But this ride swirled up and down and side to side, and it kept going and going. Until, finally, he fell through the bottom into a soft pit that was still black. Still nowhere.

There was a sense of floating. It was amniotic, thick and fluid. He tried to shout but had no lips, no throat. He was just somewhere, and that somewhere was better than his flesh.

He was seven years old. He slept in tee-pees and ran through icy streams and shot arrows and threw knives. He didn’t change his underwear once. It was the best week of his life.

That was summer camp. He remembered! The memory was whole again. It was him.

[_A small man with a badge on his belt put his hand on Danny’s shoulder and walked him up wide concrete steps that led to big wooden doors. _]

He had done something seriously wrong. He and some friends got caught writing computer code and hacking into websites. They did it as a goof, didn’t think they’d get caught. And if they did, they were only seven or eight years old at the time. What were they going to do, put them in prison? They were kids. But the men and women waiting for Danny inside the wooden doors wore FBI t-shirts.

The needle was bringing back his memories. He felt more like himself.

There were sounds. It was distant, as if coming through a long pipe stuffed with towels. At first, it didn’t sound like much, but then it took form. It sounded more like… laughter. The kind that comes from a playground.

He tried to swim towards it, but he was just floating, just listening. But it got louder. Words were popping up, now and then. They seemed to be running past him.

“Danny Boy!” It was right in front of him, just on the other side of the darkness. On the other side… of… his eyelids?

“I knew it,” the voice said. “He ain’t worth crap and in the middle of the field. Someone get him out of the way!”

There were footsteps. More voices. Some very far away, others going past him. Someone was nearby, out of breath from running.

“This is Danny Boy.”

[_Zin! He’s right there, just out of reach. _]

“That’s him?” There was a girl with him. A [_girl. _]Colors swirled in the dark when Danny had the thought. “I thought you said he was some big deal,” she said. “He’s barely old enough to be here.”

“Yeah, well you never saw him in the game room. The kid’s some kind of prodigy with the computer sticks in his hands. I mean, there are kids on the island that have been here longer than me that aren’t half as good as Danny Boy.”

“Video games?” She sighed. “Seriously, who cares, Zin?”

“You want to help me move him, Sandy?”

The darkness shifted. Danny had a sense of the ground below him, the open sky above. Zin hooked his arms under Danny’s armpits and Sandy took his feet. He felt the jostling of their footsteps. The breeze whistled past him and the grass was soft on his cheek when they put him down.

“Zin!” Sid called. “Don’t get lost, I want you at the sundial when it hits noon, you got it?”

“Aye—aye, Capitan!”

“You’re not really going to play that game again, are you?” the girl said.

“Naaaaaw.”

“Seriously, Zin. We don’t know how many rounds we have together and you’re going to waste time gaming?”

And they went back and forth. Danny imagined the wry smile on Zin’s face, what he usually looked like when he lied right in your face but still made you laugh. The image looked so clear and vivid, like he was looking right at it. Then he heard someone laugh.

Zin and Sandy were quiet. There was laughter again, and this time he felt it.

It was him.

“Danny Boy! Holy crap, did I tell you this kid was a winner, Sandy?”

Zin was very close, his voice soft but loud.

“Open your eyes, kid. Get here, man. Get all the way inside?”

Danny didn’t know how to open his eyes. It was like telling a quadriplegic to move his legs when he didn’t even know where they were. But then he felt pressure from the outside and recognized his face. There were hands on him. Once he knew where his cheeks were, he followed the pattern to his eyes.

They opened with a crunch, like years of sleep were crusted on his eyelids. There were blurs of color. A few blinks and smudges merged into a face. Zin was inches away, a big smile warping his lips.

“Danny Boy, you did it, man. You went fully lucid on your first round. How about that?” Zin looked back at Sandy. “Did I tell you? Who goes lucid on the first round? No one does, that’s who. No one except Danny Boy. Freaking all the way inside on his first round.”

Danny felt a smile on the inside, but he was still completely numb. His eyelids were already too heavy to keep open. Zin lightly slapped him.

“Not yet, don’t go to sleep yet.”

“Let him go down, Zinny,” Sandy said. “He’s not going to be able to move and I want to spend some time with you. The clock is ticking.”

“I know, baby. I know. I just want to keep him lucid as long as possible. That will make the next round a lot easier.”

Zin reached under Danny and propped him against a wall so that he was looking across a green field. He blinked and thought he was dreaming. He was sitting against the dormitory looking at the Yard and it didn’t look a whole lot different.

“You see that, Danny Boy? We’re inside the needle, somewhere between your mind and the Haystack’s network. The needle is sunk inside your brain right now, boy. It’s realigning your synapses so the computers can link directly with your frontal lobe. You’re about as useful as a bowl of pudding, but you can see, Danny Boy. You can see, and the next time you’ll be moving around. Next time, you’ll be able to do this.”

Zin lifted a boulder above his head. He tossed it over the distant trees.

“Peter Pan went to Neverland, but this is Foreverland, Danny Boy! We can do anything here. ANYTHING! There are no rules, no laws. Where gravity doesn’t exist if we don’t want it to. Where magic is limited only by our imagination.”

Zin opened his hand and a long-stemmed rose grew from his palm. He took a knee in front of Sandy and kissed her hand. She rolled her eyes. She pointed over her shoulder and a truck squeezed out of her finger like a cartoon, but bounced on the ground like a ton of steel.

“It’s not magic if everyone can do it,” she said.

“Magic is not defined by the number of people that can perform it, but by the manner in which it is done.”

“Okay, Socrates.” She wrapped her arm around his neck and whispered. “Can we go?”

She whispered something else. Zin smiled wide.

He twirled his arm in front of his stomach and half-bowed. “I must bid you adieu, Danny Boy. There’s only so much time and we work so hard to get here.” He began to backpedal while Sandy pulled at him. “But don’t give up hope. The first round sucks because you suffer without a payoff, but you’ll see, Danny Boy. The next one will be better, you’ll see!”

And they were off, running across the field, gleefully trotting like long lost lovers.

Danny didn’t stay awake long. He managed to keep his eyes open to see the magic Zin was talking about. What seemed so ordinary when he first opened his eyes quickly turned into Foreverland. People were shapeshifting into lions and tigers and eagles. A mastodon thundered past with a horde of spear-chucking warriors that jumped off and floated away with their arms spread out.

It was everything that made dreams. But it was so real.

______

A long blink and the sun was lower. The field was nearly empty. There was half a spaceship buried a hundred yards away, its back half was on fire. It looked like the Millennium Falcon. There were distant explosions and gunfire. Someone shouted orders nearby. Another person went flying past on the back of a dinosaur.

______

Another long blink and it was night.

The ship was gone, replaced by an empty crater. Two moons were high, one full and the other half-crescent. There were several campfires in the field. Some people were singing, others laughed loudly while chasing each other. Girls squealed. It looked a lot like summer camp. Except for the people flying past the moon.

______

Dawn arrived.

The Yard was empty, except for the crater and dead campfires.

The sun was rising somewhere behind him. The shadows were long and dusky and the sunlight turned the trees a weird shimmery magenta. The quiet was disturbed by an occasional frog. Danny closed his eyes again. He was going to sleep when he felt someone very close. It was a girl.

She was inches from his face. Her eyes were green and her hair red, like candy. Her nostrils flared and her eyes searched his face. There was desperation in them, the eyes wide enough to expose the whites around her irises. She leaned in and pressed her cheek to his. She smelled like a beautiful flower.

“Find him,” she said. “Tell him we found you.”

And then she was off.

Danny hadn’t even blinked. She moved so fast, it was like she hadn’t been there. Maybe he would’ve believed he imagined it if not for the lingering scent.

He went to sleep for the last time. The next time he would wake, it would be in his bed, back in his body. But he would wake with her smell upon him and her words.

Tell him we found you.

*This has been a preview of *

The Annihilation of Foreverland

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Seeds of Foreverland

Harold Ballard's breaking point came in the sixth grade. John Lively was a mouth-breather that no one cared about, an over-sized sixth grader voted most likely to see jail. In Harold's opinion, God had wasted a body on John Lively. Harold was a curious loner that sat in the back of the classroom. Unlike John's family, Harold's parents loved him. They just didn't have time for him. They spent days in the basement working on something that would change the world. Sometimes they were down there for weeks. Harold was tired of being forgotten and pushed around. So he pushed back. That day would change the world. INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR HOW IMPORTANT ARE NAMES TO YOU IN THIS BOOK. DID YOU CHOOSE THEM BASED ON SOUND OR MEANING? Almost all of my books have names with special meaning, some foreshadowing a big twist. In The Annihilation of Foreverland, Reed’s name was symbolic of his ability to tolerate suffering, bending in the face of gale forces but never breaking. WHERE DOES YOUR TOMORROW SPRING FROM? IN OTHER WORDS, HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE CRAZY WORLD? Sometimes, I can’t remember how the story started by the time I get to the end. The Annihilation of Foreverland started with the premise of identity. I wanted to write it as a YA book in the science fiction dystopia genre in a way that slowly unfolded as well as questioned who we are and explore our fear of death, and what we’re willing to do to avoid it. Like all of my stories, it does have a romantic angle mixed into the action. Because it should. GIVE YOUR BOOK THE BECHDEL TEST. IT HAS TO HAVE AT LEAST TWO (NAMED) WOMEN IN IT WHO TALK TO EACH OTHER ABOUT SOMETHING BESIDES A MAN. I failed because there’s only one female in The Annihilation of Foreverland. However, the young adult sequel (Foreverland is Dead) passes with flying colors since its mostly female characters that rarely talk about men. WHAT SORT OF BODY COUNT ARE WE TALKING HERE? The bodies die, but not necessarily the characters. Chew on that a second. DO YOU WANT YOUR TOMORROW TO MAKE IT BIG, AS IN JK ROWLINGS-BIG? WHY OR WHY NOT? Believe it or not, no. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to make enough cash to pay off this house and send my kids to college, but I’ll pass on fame and fortune. Anonymity is a blessing. YOU CAST YOUR CHARACTERS FOR A MOVIE. WHO MAKES IT? In The Annihilation of Foreverland, I only casted two characters in my head while I was writing it. The Director is Jeff Bridges and Mr. Jones is Anthony Hopkins. It was like watching a movie as I wrote. HAVE YOU WRITTEN IN ANY OTHER GENRES BESIDES YA DYSTOPIAN? WHAT DREW YOU TO YOU THIS GENRE? I’ve been fascinated by consciousness, identity and what this all means since I was young. I would read my grandfather’s science fiction books with elements of artificial intelligence and alternate realities and wonder what happened when they died? I suppose that’s why all of my writing deals with the big mysteries of life in one way or another. In a way, I write for my own exploration, in a sort of thought experiment approach, pulling apart our identities, exploring what makes us who we are. If I lost my memories, would I still be me? If I had my body parts replaced with synthetic replications, at what point would I not be me? Do I even need a body? What am I? A few years ago, I figured I’d write a romance novel. Since all of my books have a romantic element, I thought it would be fun. Halfway through the novel, I found myself thinking more and more about the next project—a dystopian idea. So 40,000 words in, I scrapped the romance novel and got back to what I love. Science fiction.

  • Author: Tony Bertauski
  • Published: 2017-04-28 03:20:17
  • Words: 36678
Seeds of Foreverland Seeds of Foreverland