The First 7 Chapters
By Clover Autrey
Copyright 2016 Clover Autrey
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
This eBook preview is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook preview may not be re-sold. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Table of Contents
I can’t move.
“Jeremy.” I try to turn my head to find my brother, but my muscles aren’t cooperating. I can only stare straight up at the shadowy underbellies of clouds that are pulling apart like wet tissue in the darkening sky. “Jeremy,” I gurgle wetly and warm blood spills between my lips, slides down my face and into my hair. I cough and my ribs rub together wrong, shooting needles of ice picks through my sides. The gravel road digs into my back.
My truck is upside down in the ditch. The roof is crumpled down into the bench seat. I’m no longer inside, but sprawled on the road. Settling dust wisps across the truck’s faded red paint. The front tires are still spinning, the engine whining. You’d think after hitting the ditch and somersaulting through the air, it would have shut off.
Jeremy and Tyler. Are they still inside the crushed truck?
I can’t lift my head to see.
My throat tightens.
A loud whop-whop-whop overcomes the whine of the engine, vibrates painfully through my ribcage. A dark shadow passes above. Helicopter. My heart takes a painful little pull. “Help,” I scream, though it’s not even loud enough for a whimper. My mouth fills with thick metallic-tasting blood, choking off the dusty air.
The wind blows my skirt up around my hips. Turbulent gusts toss pebbles onto my bare legs as the helicopter lands on the road. My hair blows over my face, dirty blond strands getting stuck in the blood and obscuring my view of the sky. I can’t breathe. Panic wedges in my chest, a hard lump I can’t get air past.
Help, please help.
People rush past me. I get brief glimpses of the bottom of shiny black brief cases and black-clad legs and shoes, kicking up loose gravel. One of them stops and kneels at my side. He turns my head and the choking liquid drains down my cheek.
“Help,” I manage to grate out with a new spurt of blood.
His hands flinch on my face. “This one’s alive.”
A woman’s face pushes into view, sharp angled brows slant over green eyes. The wind from the slowing helicopter blades push strands of dark hair out of her whipping ponytail. “What’s her condition?”
“Broken spine, ribs, punctured lungs, body’s in bad shape.”
A hard jolt locks up my muscles.
They both stare down at me. Debating.
“Extract her.” The woman in the ponytail says.
“What about the other two?”
“See if they are viable. We need to extract as many as we can.”
Relief slips over around my pain. They’re going to extract us from this wreckage and get us some help. I want to turn my head to get a better view of what is happening, but my body isn’t working, it’s not responding the way it should.
I hear the man report back to the woman. “They are both unresponsive, out cold. I’ll assess the damage one at a time.”
The woman hovering above me grunts and moves out of my line of vision.
“This one is gone.”
“Check the other,” comes her response as I hear her returning close to me again.
Gone? Panic burns through my laboring torso, squeezing my lungs like they’re filling with water. “Jeremy,” I rasp. “Tyler.” I hear myself screaming loud and anguished though I know it’s only in my head. Where are they? What did he mean by “this one is gone”? Who are they talking about? I try to move again, struggling to see where they are, but liquid sloshes up into my throat, my lungs turn into hardened stone, too painful to breathe around it. I’m suffocating, choking in my own fluids.
The woman crouches down. Please help me, help them! Her black case clicks open near my ear. I glimpse a flash of metal as she turns my head to the side, toward my bright ruined truck. I’m gasping, trying to pull in air. With my head turned, blood gushes more forcefully out of my mouth. Her plastic gloves are cold, prickling the back of my neck.
But finally I can see Jeremy. He’s on the ground. The rotor wash from the helicopter’s blades blow his fine blond hair around his still face. The man kneels at his head. They’re helping him. He’s not gone if they’re helping him. My sight blurs behind a wash of gritty tears. Another man is crouched beyond him, taking care of Tyler. But if they’re taking care of Tyler that means its Jeremy who’s gone. Or maybe they’re both gone. Nobody has commented on the condition of the last victim. I have no idea if the men are helping the boys. Help them! All I can see is the end of Jeremy’s long legs, his scuffed sneakers. His laces are untied, the ends flapping in the backwash.
“Begin the Extractions” I hear a man say, and I hold onto the hope that it’s my brother they are saving.
A slight pressure pools at the base of my neck. Cold, cold liquid stings through my veins. There’s a snap inside, something tearing. Then pain, incredible pain rips through my spine like somebody reached in, grabbed it, and pulled it out through the back of my head. My entire body jerks off the ground. Everything explodes in red, the same red as my truck, the same red as the blood the guy beside Jeremy is kneeling in. The man closes his black case and stands to leave. Leaving my brother on the red red gravel.
I don’t know what anything means beyond the red and the ice cold current stabbing through my spine and the breath I can’t get past the liquid closing my throat, bleeding everything away. Gone. Jeremy is gone. They’re giving up on him. No. My world, the redness of everything turns black and liquid rolls down the side of my nose. No. Help him. They have to help him. The whop-whop of the helicopter fades into the slowing beat of my pulse and whatever has started tearing inside me suddenly rips fully away taking me with it.
I pull out of the dark into subdued light and white walls. The pain is gone, completely gone. The edges of the world are hazy. I feel funny. Where am I? A hospital, I think from the plain walls and low buzz of machinery. Alone. I’m alone.
No, not alone. I’m in one of those long rooms with several other beds, twenty or so. All but two are occupied with other patients. It’s too dark to make them out well. There aren’t any windows. Just darkness and dim lighting coming from small muted bulbs above each bed. All the patients look young from the few faces I can see or the smaller shapes beneath blankets. This must be a children’s hospital. I’m in the last bed on the end near the door.
I shift up enough to raise my head from the pillow to look around and the relief that I can move, that blood isn’t filling my mouth anymore makes me dizzy.
“Jeremy,” I call out. My voice rasps, tissue paper thin. My throat is dry like I haven’t used it in a long time but it doesn’t hurt. It just sounds funny.
The figure in the bed next to mine props up on an elbow. It’s a guy about my age, maybe a little older. I can tell by his build though I can’t see him well. “Tyler?” My throat catches. Maybe he’s all right.
The guy swings his legs over the side of his mattress and pads to my bed on bare feet.
“What did you say?” he whispers. “Who’s Tyler?”
“My boyfriend.” I think. Angry words between us flood my head. We’d been fighting in the truck when I flipped it. I can’t remember straight. I think I broke up with him. I had intended to though I’m not sure I actually made it that far before the truck jerked and the world went spinning. I shake my head, trying to remember. “He would have been brought in with me.” I look up at the guy. “And my brother…”
“Shhh,” he hisses so hard it startles me quiet. He runs a hand back through his hair. “You remember.” It comes out, a shaky plea.
“Please. I need to—”
“Shhh. Don’t say anything else.” He leans down to get right in my face and I see him clearly. He’s, well, beautiful about covers it. Almost. It startles me as much as his shushing had. His is a pale face of sharp angles softened by large brown eyes and shiny dark blond bangs scooping low across his forehead. His eyes are intense, his voice low. “Listen to me closely. You are not supposed to remember anything. Like an amnesiac. Okay? Pretend. You have to fake it or they will take your memories away.”
I blink. What is he talking about? “What’s going on? Why would I—”
The door at this end of the long room clicks, the knob turns.
The guy’s hand curls around my wrist almost painfully. “This isn’t a joke. You’re whoever they say you are.”
He lets go and straightens just as the door swings wide. The woman from the helicopter after the accident steps through. Her brown hair is pulled neatly back in place in a low straight ponytail. Her black uniform is neat and clean. Her impassive face lifts to the boy’s. “Mitchell, why are you out of bed?”
The guy’s features have completely transformed into something without emotion. “She woke up. She’s loud. It was annoying.”
The woman’s angled brow arches. “You thought you’d put her back to sleep?”
Mitchell shrugs one shoulder.
“Go back to bed, Mitchell. I’ll take it from here.”
“Yes, Helena.” Mitchell gives a tight nod and turns on his heels to climb onto his own mattress where he slides down to his side, facing the other direction.
The woman, Helena, comes to the end of my bed. “Katherine, how are you feeling?”
My gaze wrenches from the boy’s back to her. Katherine? You’re whoever they say you are. “I…” There is a pit in my stomach, pressing tightly to my insides, warning to play along. But that’s stupid. My name isn’t Katherine. They should know that. “I’m…fine. I think. Where am I? What’s happened? I don’t understand.” I open my mouth to ask about my brother, ask where my parents are, but my gut twists.
Something flashes in the woman’s expression and then is gone just as quickly. “Of course you don’t. I know this is hard. You’ve been ill for a very long time. But don’t worry, we’ll take very good care of you. It’s time for your shot anyway.”
She smiles kindly. “Just a booster. Nothing to worry about.” Taking my arm she knots a plastic tie around it and taps the inside of my elbow, looking for a good vein. I blink, staring at my arm. Something’s off but I don’t know what. Everything’s so blurry. I flinch as the needle slides into my flesh. The woman watches my face as she pushes the plunger in and then sets the needle aside on her little tray. “We’ll talk in the morning, but for now get some sleep, yes? No more disturbances.”
It isn’t a question. That much I get. Sliding down under the covers, I nod and close my eyes.
I feel her watch me for an uncomfortable length of time before her shoes whisper across the floor and the door squeaks open and closes behind her.
Opening my eyes, I rub at my arm. The injection site throbs. The tray is gone.
“Mitchell,” I whisper, wanting more answers. He owes me that for going along with whatever this is. “Mitchell.”
I can tell by the rigid line of his spine that he isn’t asleep, but he also doesn’t turn back to talk to me. Whatever. Next time Helena comes in, I’ll get this sorted out.
In the morning, Mitchell’s bed is empty, the mattress bare, stripped of sheets and blanket.
I’m different. I don’t know exactly how, but I feel different. I am different. I don’t look the same. Although there aren’t any reflective surfaces to see my face, my body is radically changed, thinner, paler. I wonder if I’ve been in a coma or something from the accident, asleep so long I’ve wasted away in a muted room without any sunlight. Which would account for my parents not being here. Have they been called yet, told I’ve awakened? Are they on their way?
Except I know it’s more than that. I pull the blanket off, lift my arms. They are different. My toes and feet have a different shape altogether. The second toe that is longer than my first toe is now shorter, the scar on my ankle from getting tangled in barb wire two summers ago is gone. A slow shiver works its way through my body. I flex my feet. It’s weird that they actually move because they aren’t my feet. I try and fail to come up with any explanation that makes sense. Skin grafts? Artificial limbs? How badly had I been hurt when my truck rolled?
Some of the other beds that were occupied last night are empty as well. I study the rest of the kids, mostly sleeping lumps beneath blankets, and try to find Tyler and Jeremy. I’m hesitant to get out of bed and look for them among the others.
Some kind of nurse comes in and takes my vitals. I hesitate to ask her what is going on, to let her know they’ve made a mistake, that I’m not this Katherine they think I am. Our charts must have gotten mixed up. But something keeps me from speaking up. Like Helena, the nurse also wears her hair pulled back from her face, collected into a severe knot at her nape. She barely says a word and gives me some clothes, a gray top and pants similar to athletic warm-up sweats, with a matching jacket, and white sneakers and socks, and then directs me to a small locker room with instructions to quickly change out of the thin hospital gown.
There’s soaps, shampoos, towels, combs, and elastic bands provided along the counter by the sinks. There’s only one mirror. A hand mirror over by the soaps. Everything’s in neat, tidy rows, the towels folded precisely the way Mom has struggled and failed to get me to fold them. I change quickly. I just want to know what’s happened to Jeremy and Tyler.
That tight wad of fear pulls at my belly. Gone. That woman, Helena, had said one of them was gone.
A man is waiting outside the locker room. He says he’s to escort me to the director’s office but doesn’t offer anything else. We walk through quiet empty hallways. My new sneakers squeak on the gray marble tile. Everything is gray. Except for the man’s black uniform. Gray track suit, gray floor, gray walls broken only by tiny flashes of color within framed watercolor landscape prints and the greens of potted plants in identical silver containers. Even the casings holding the security cameras mounted at intervals along the ceiling are gray.
The director is waiting inside his office with the door propped open. “Come in, come in.” He ushers me inside and gestures for me to take the hard wooden chair in front of his desk. The guy who escorted me here closes the door behind us with a soft snick.
The office is compact and as meticulously void of personality as the gray corridors, though the walls in here are painted a soft brown.
The director doesn’t fit the cramped room at all. He is large, tall and broad—when he moves back around his desk, he sinks in his wing-backed chair with the fluid ease of movement unexpected for someone his size.
He spreads large palms flat across his clean desk and pulls in a long breath, looking me over like someone hesitant to deliver unwelcome news.
My pulse ricochets like a marble gone wild against my skull.
“This must be hard for you.” His voice is pleasant, streaked with just the right amount of concern.
Pale blue eyes study me, waiting.
I want to ask about my brother, about Tyler, about everything that’s happened. What is this place? Where am I? Down by my thighs, I pinch the material of my gray track suit. “I don’t understand what’s going on.” That’s true enough. It takes everything to not let Jeremy’s name rush out. I look for a phone. There’s nothing on his desk, not even a laptop.
The director leans back in his chair. “How so?”
“I don’t remember anything.” The lie comes easily, born of the wariness in the pit of my stomach. That and the intense brown eyes of a boy I don’t even know. But something is off with this place. With me. The boy’s warning circles my thoughts. Fake it. So I fake it. It won’t hurt anything for now and when I figure out that he is full of crap, I can suddenly have a miraculous memory break through.
“Nothing at all?”
“No.” I shake my head. “I’m told my name is Katherine.”
“Was I in some kind of accident?” I venture. A muscle in his cheek twitches and I know immediately I have made a mistake. This is stupid. Why do I feel this unease? My gaze drops to his hands still spread flat on the desk. He has a dark mole near his thumb.
“What makes you think that?”
They’ll take your memories away. “I can’t remember anything and I woke up in a hospital. Is that what happened to me?”
“Of a sort.” His features smooth into a pleasant mask. He’s about forty, I think, though it’s hard to tell. He’s blond, thick-jawed, light eyes, like an old Californian surfer. Goose pimples rise along my skin. He watches me intently and I’m getting a little freaked out by it.
I’m not this Katherine. I know I was in an accident. I wasn’t ill. I lean forward in my chair and clutch at the edge of the desk, trying to look desperate for answers. It isn’t a stretch to pull off. I am desperate. “Please, can you help me understand?”
“I can, yes, though it will be difficult for you to hear.”
My fingers curl harder around the edge of the desk. I nod for him to go ahead.
He glances at my hands, rearranging his expression into one of sympathy. It doesn’t sit on his skin right. “You’ve been ill for quite a long time.”
I stare at my thin, pale arms.
“The country’s been hit with a terrible plague. Hundreds have died, parents, children, brothers…” He lingers on the word. “Those who have survived…the children left without parents…are brought here to this school where you’ll be provided for and given an education to become a productive member of society.”
The way he says productive scatters chills across my shoulders. It’s all possible. After the accident, I could have contracted a disease, especially one so rampant that it has taken the lives of hundreds, especially if I was already recovering in a hospital where others with this illness had been taken. With all that happening, it isn’t beyond belief that I could have gotten mixed up with some girl named Katherine, brought here instead of her. I should tell the director this, ask him to contact my parents because I know they’re alive and will come to get me and Jeremy. They must be going crazy with worry.
My heart pounds. I’m afraid. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I should trust that boy instead of the director of a facility helping people. I’ll keep playing along for now. I can’t explain why—just a feeling of wrongness. But wouldn’t waking up after a long illness feel this way? Feel wrong? Disconnected. Or maybe it’s not that I feel wrong, just weird. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve just been in an accident and I don’t know where I am or where my brother is.
“Why can’t I remember any of what happened after the accident?”
The director doesn’t miss a beat. “A side-effect from the illness. Neural networks within your brain, or nerve cells, were unfortunately dealt a blow to the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory. Altered. It’s a terrible thing to wake up like this, I know. Some things are remembered like how to speak, read, movies once seen, lyrics to songs, but large chunks of who you are and your family, friends…gone. I’m sorry for that. Truly grieved by it.” His voice is swallowed beneath the rushing of blood in my ears. “…in the end, it’s better to be alive, to have survived such a terrible tragedy. You’ll find all the children here suffer from the same malady. This is a good place to be, Katherine, among others as yourself, where you can learn to cope…”
Including that boy Mitchell. I shouldn’t believe someone whose brain cells are scrambled. I should believe the director of the school that has taken in recovering orphans. Except I’m not one of them. I’m not an orphan. And my brain cells aren’t altered. I remember everything. This has all been a mistake. I don’t belong here. I need them to call my parents, let them know I’m here.
I start to tell him that I do remember. That the illness didn’t affect me that way. They should be happy—thrilled—to have a survivor unscathed from memory loss, but the words bloat inside my throat like bread that has gone down the wrong way. My eyes water and I blink rapidly.
“With so much lost,” he continues, “we’ve found it’s a kindness to not try to force anyone to remember.”
A kindness. Instead of telling him everything, I choke out, “My parents? You think they are both dead?”
“Both?” Light brows wing up.
I shake my head. This isn’t like explaining to Mom why I came in late from a movie when I was really at Tyler’s. “Did I not have both?” He really doesn’t know who I am. “Do you know who they are? Maybe one survived.” It kills me not to ask about Jeremy or Mia, my two-year-old sister. What if they’d gotten sick too? What if Jeremy didn’t survive the truck rolling over? No, no, they think I’m Katherine. I wet my lips. They expect me to simply accept that I’m her for some reason. I can’t ask about Jeremy. It’s killing me. But if I’m supposed to have no memory, how would I know the difference? I have to figure out what is going on, then maybe I can find a phone, call my parents. They’ll come for me, get this all straightened out. Jeremy and Mia are with them. Safe and healthy. They have to be.
My throat tightens. Why didn’t they come before now? In the hospital mix up, were they told I was dead? This doesn’t make sense.
All of a sudden I can’t wait to get out of this cramped office. It’s too hot. It’s hard to breathe. I need to find a phone. I glance at his jacket. There has to be a cell phone in one of those pockets.
“Are you all right?”
My head snaps up. “No. I just found out my parents are gone and I have no memory of them.” The lie comes out awkwardly, surreal. “Do you have pictures of them? Names?”
His eyes widen. That question seemed to throw him off. Like it’s never been asked before, which if what he’s telling me is true, why wouldn’t it have been? If they’ve been taking in orphans who don’t know who they are, he should have heard that question dozens of times, anticipated it.
As it turns out, he has. He pulls out a file from the desk drawer and flips it open and hands me a photograph of a dark-haired woman and balding man, posing in front of the giant heads of Mount Rushmore in the distance. I’ve never seen them before. They are strangers.
“Aida and Shawn Freemore.”
I rub a hand beneath my eyes. I don’t know these people, but it hits me hard that somewhere there’s a girl named Katherine who belonged to these people. Does she even know her parents have died or is she one of the nameless victims of the disease who can’t remember them? If she even survived. “Can I keep this?”
The director’s face softens. Maybe I simply imagined the hardness I saw before. “Of course.”
I take the small photo and cup it in my hands, willing all of this to be a dream I’ll soon wake up from, but the glossy picture in my palm is real, even though the people are not. They can’t be. At least not for me.
The director comes around the desk, dwarfing me with his size and extends his hand. “Cecelia will show you to your room.”
He opens the door, which I take as my dismissal and I go out into the sterile corridor. The director never even told me his name.
There’s a girl waiting, standing rigid like she’s at attention or something. She wears an identical gray tracksuit like mine. Her dark blond hair is pulled back into a low pony-tail, the same as Helena’s from the accident, except this girl is stunning. Her skin is the kind of flawless that you know cover models only get after being airbrushed on magazines. Her wide green eyes are heavily framed by thick lashes, giving her an innocent quality even as she looks me up and down.
“Hi.” I glance up at her through lowered lashes. She’s much taller than me, again seeming more like a super model.
She barely nods. “Student quarters are this way.” She heads briskly down the hallway and I scurry to keep up with her long strides, taking two steps to every one of hers. Even though I apparently just woke up from an incapacitating illness, I’m not winded by her pace.
We come to a corridor that has windows. I stare outside as we hustle through the hall. Snow covers a wide expanse. I imagine there is grass beneath that runs up into the white-shrouded tree line beyond. It was spring when I flipped the truck. Either months have passed or I’m not in Wyoming anymore.
“Stop ogling.” Cecelia’s at the end of the hall, her arms crossed. I hadn’t realized I stopped beside one of the windows.
“Sorry,” I say automatically and hurry to catch up. “So, um, you were sick too?”
She throws me a look over her shoulder and nods.
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
One of her shoulders lifts in a faint shrug. “Can’t miss what you don’t remember.”
I guess she’s right, though I hurt for her. What if she had a brother and sister that she’ll never know about, never remember? I can’t help wondering if my memory was really gone, if somewhere inside of me I’d feel Jeremy’s and Mia’s loss. How could I ever forget them?
We pass by closed doors of classrooms. I glimpse students sitting at desks and tables through the squares of glass in the top half of each door. All are wearing the same gray tracksuits. Is this a type of military academy?
After the classrooms, the hall widens out into a foyer with tables and chairs scattered around. There are several flatscreen TVs with gaming consoles and remotes beneath. There’s more security cameras in each corner of the high ceiling. Two more corridors angle out on either side of the lounge area. Tall windows provide a view of more snow and distant trees. There’s a yard with playground equipment. The entire area just before the trees is sectioned off by tall chain-link fences.
Cecelia leads me into the hallway on the left. It doesn’t look much different than the rest of the facility, though the walls here are white instead of gray and the doors are spaced closer together. Cecelia stops at one a few doors down from the end of the hall. “This is our room.”
She swings the door open. It wasn’t locked. She waits for me to enter. It, too, is void of color. I don’t know why I expected it not to be. It’s small with two beds against each side of the wall with just enough room for a desk and two chairs between the beds below a shuttered window.
The same gray tracksuits hang neatly in two small open closets on either side of the door at the foot of each bed. So much for variety of a wardrobe.
One bed is made up while the other mattress has folded sheets, a pillow and a blanket on it, ready to be made. I guess that’s mine.
“That tablet is yours.” Cecelia points to the electronic pad on the desk. “Bring it to all your classes. The instructors will show you how to key in. The bathroom facilities are across the hallway. Showers begin in the evenings between eight and nine and lights out at nine-thirty. You can use the bathroom now, and then I’ll escort you to the cafeteria in ten minutes.”
“Are there any phones?”
Her eyes narrow. “No. Not for students.” A frown mars her smooth mouth. “Who would you call?”
“I don’t know.” I shrug. “Just wondering.” My gaze shifts to the tablet on the desk.
She sits smoothly on her bed, waiting for me to decide whether to use the time to wash up or remain here with her.
I bolt for the door, needing a few minutes to regroup. None of this is real. It can’t be happening. I rush across the hallway and into the dorm-like bathroom, not paying much attention to my surroundings and lean heavily against the counter with the row of sinks. My stomach coils, trying to push out any contents, except I don’t know when I’ve last eaten, have most likely been hooked to an I.V. line for however long I was in a coma.
My arms are tight, hands pressing hard on the counter to keep myself up. My head is nearly as low as the sink in front of me. Shaking, I turn on the faucet and splash water over my face.
I look up at the mirror.
And the entire world drops out from under my feet.
It’s not me. That’s not me in the mirror. I’m frozen, can’t move. A low tremor rolls through my body. That’s not me. That’s not me. That’s not…
I’m going to be sick. I lift my hand to my cheek, not realizing I’ve made the movement and watch the reflection do the same. My throat clamps tight. Damp dark hair floats just below her neck in a type of bob cut. Her eyes are light brown, overly large and widening as I clutch the counter. She’s beautiful, this girl, that same kind of unnatural beauty like Cecelia and Mitchell that can’t possibly be real. None of this is real. It can’t be. This cannot be happening.
I back away as though distance from the mirror will make my reflection distort back into who I am, short black hair melting into long blond strands, freckles emerging across the bridge of my nose and cheeks. But of course that doesn’t happen.
I can’t look away. My chest is moving in and out like I’ve been running full-out. Her chest moves in and out the same. I grasp onto any explanation my freaked-out brain can come up with. I’m dreaming, locked tight in a coma from the accident. A long convoluted, realistic crazy-as-crap dream, but just a dream.
I know who I am.
This isn’t real. It’s not real. It’s ridiculous, a huge cosmic joke. What? I’ve jumped into another girl’s body?
Coma induced hallucination? Fun-house mirror? My stomach curdles. My legs are rubber.
I pull a strand of my hair in front of my face so I can see it outside of the mirror. Black. It’s black. I have dark hair now. My heart thunders against my ribcage.
Cecelia’s behind me. Our gazes meet in the reflection of the glass. Does she know this is a freaked-up dream? Or that she’s not the person she believes she is? We’re not two girls, but shadows that don’t exist. Reflections of people not real.
She tilts her head, studying me. How can this possibly be real? I’m losing my mind. I have to pull it together. “What?”
“It’s time for lunch.” Her voice echoes musically along the tiles of the empty bathroom. She holds my tablet out for me to take. “It fits in the large pocket lining the inside of your jacket.”
My hands are numb. I barely feel the tablet when I slip it into its pocket and follow Cecelia back through the dormitory hallway and the student lounge area with the tall windows, and into the corridor of classrooms.
The very air crowds around me, pushing heavily against my skin.
I don’t know what to do.
How is this real? Yet how can it not be?
The counter, the floor, the clean antiseptic smell of the place…
I walk along with Cecelia, my brain churning out impossibilities. Just go with it until I wake up? How can I be asleep? I stop, stunned, because that’s the crux of it all. I’m not asleep. I’m not dreaming. I don’t know how I know, but I do.
This is real. Horribly, unbelievably real. I don’t get how. It doesn’t make sense. But I’m not me anymore. On the outside. Somehow, I’m this Katherine.
Students are filing into the hall though there has been no sound of a bell or buzzer to mark interruptions between class periods. It’s weirdly subdued. Not that there isn’t any conversations or kids sectioning off into peer groups. There is, but it’s quiet, tamed, like everyone adheres to a strict code of obedience. It’s, well, creepy.
And they’re all so…perfect.
Cecelia’s fingers nudge the small of my back to get me moving again. We merge in with the herd of gray-clad students, all headed in the same direction like sheep. We’re sheep. Gray sheep. No last minute break-offs for someone to run and retrieve forgotten homework from their room. It’s all so…orderly.
A few kids look back to give me curious once-overs, but no one bothers to smile in greeting or speak to me. I find myself searching each face that turns for Jeremy or Tyler. If I’m here, they’d be here, right? Brought in from the accident. Right now, I’d even settle for that guy Mitchell.
He may have been jerking me around, but I’d like a second crack at him to gauge whether he’s the liar or everyone else. How can I be someone else? How can I be Katherine when I’m AnnaLee? I know who I am. I’m AnnaLee. I have to find this Mitchell.
He’s the key to understanding what is going on. I feel it.
Our steps ring as hollow on the tile as the inside of my stomach. Everything’s hazy at the edges.
I see the back of a blond head that could be him so I walk faster, easing between teenagers. Several students stare at me as they side-step out of the way.
I’m so focused on reaching Mitchell, I’m not paying attention to each turn of the halls and suddenly the students spread out as the corridor opens into a typical looking cafeteria.
They form into lines to get their trays and sit at long tables.
The atmosphere changes, conversations, though still quiet, become more animated. There’s a murmur of subdued energy riding along the air.
I’ve lost sight of the guy I hoped might be Mitchell and keep scanning the students for him. There are a lot of tall blondes. One thing’s for sure, these kids, every single one of them, are staggeringly pretty. They don’t look anything like children who have lived through a terrible disease and come out the other end. They’re flush with health. It’s more like beautiful athletes gathered at an Olympic village. All are in great shape, trim, with glossy hair, perfectly straight white teeth, unmarked, undamaged skin… In any other school cafeteria, you can tell by appearance alone, which table hosts the geeks, or the outcasts, or the cheerleaders and jocks. Here they’re all homecoming queens and star football players.
“Why did you rush ahead?” Cecelia glares down at me, a delicate brow winged up.
“I wanted to see where everyone was going.” I wince. Even my voice sounds different, softer in pitch.
Her perfectly tinted lips tighten, but she nods and guides me over to the end of the far line. “This is our station.”
I lift my brows in question.
“For those of us over fifteen.”
I see now that each of the four lines are, in fact, grouped by age. The youngest kids are about four to eight years old and a wave of sadness hits me that kids so young have lost their parents. I blink, startled at how fast I begin to believe this story about an illness. Could an illness so drastically change someone’s appearance? What was the director saying about brain neurons? Maybe I just see myself different. Or remember myself differently. Is that possible? No. I know who I am. My fists clench. I’m determined to hold on to my own reality.
The groupings give me a chance to narrow down my search though. Unconsciously I’ve calculated how many students are in here. Seventy-three. Not a very large student body if this is the only lunch period. I look over the next line of kids anywhere from ten years old to fourteen, but I don’t see my floppy-haired brother anywhere. Although, really. I shouldn’t expect to. How would I know if Katherine who I’m supposed to be even has a brother.
A horrible thought floods my mind. What if I conjured up AnnaLee while I was sick? What if that is all the dream? What if Jeremy never existed?
He exists. And he’s alive.
Where had that thought come from? How could I have made up an entire life? Except, none of this is possible. I cling to that, determined to find out what’s really going on here and get back to my family. Back to myself. AnnaLee. I don’t care who they say I am.
Jeremy’s probably at home, worried about me, except the niggling little fear in my gut warns that it’s not true. That he’s here.
As I load my tray from the assortments of fruits and some kind of casserole, I keep looking through all the beautiful faces, growing sicker and sicker. There’s no Jeremy and no Tyler.
I follow Cecelia to a table with kids mostly in our age group seated around it. I’ve been looking into faces this whole time, yet suddenly I feel someone staring at me.
Looking back over my shoulder, I find Mitchell seated at a table across the room, watching me. As soon as our eyes meet, he looks away.
I don’t know if we’re allowed to move from table to table. No one else is. Once the students have gotten their lunch and sit, they remain seated, talking amongst their own little clusters while the adults scattered around the edges watch us like lunchroom monitors. Lunchroom monitors all in black uniforms. A few jot things down with stylists on their tablets.
“This is Katherine,” Cecelia informs the six others at our table. They nod politely. There are none of the usual questions asked of a newcomer. “Where are you from?” “How do you like it here?” I guess since none of us can remember those things, it would just be awkward.
Of course it’s awkward anyway. I slip stray glances back toward Mitchell to see if he looks my way again.
“I’m Lillian.” An Asian girl with a ponytail so long she sits on it, gives me a shy smile. It’s the kindest reaction I’ve had here, and it’s so normal, the stiffness in my shoulders relaxes a bit.
“This is Sterling, Geoffrey, and Harrison.” Lillian gestures to the three boys on her side of the table and they all nod again as though nodding is the only safe way to navigate uncomfortable greetings, almost as if none of them remember how to be social, how to just be kids. Then again, since we all are supposed to be amnesiac orphans, finding topics must be like stepping around broken glass on a playground.
The blond-headed boy beside me picks up his apple. “I’m Lawrence and this is Gideon.” He gestures with his apple toward the younger guy on his other side who barely acknowledges me. “He just woke up too.”
“From the disease,” Lillian supplies helpfully. “It’s not easy, waking up like this. We all went through it of course.”
Except they all didn’t have memories of a former life. Or did they? I’m not buying this crap of a phantom disease or erased memories. I was in an accident. I rolled my truck.
I don’t know what’s okay to ask or what’s off limits.
“Did they tell you anything about what happened to your families?” I venture out into the territory of broken glass.
Everyone goes quiet. Well, more quiet.
“I know a little,” Sterling says. “They’ll tell you if you ask.”
On Lawrence’s other side, Gideon’s fingers curl. He stares at the barely eaten food on his tray. I don’t have much of an appetite either.
Cecelia hasn’t said anything through the whole exchange. I feel the weight of her listening.
“The therapists say it’s better to wait until we’re adjusted.” Lillian moves her casserole around with her fork. “It’s more harmful to dwell on it. Better not to know. I haven’t asked yet.”
“I wanted to know,” Sterling says. “To see who I came from.”
“Did it help?” Lawrence leans over the table almost conspiratorially. He has deep penetrating blue eyes, a blue so dark they’re like the gloss on a crow’s wings.
Sterling shakes his head, frowning. “I didn’t feel anything. They were strangers.”
I frown with him, thinking of the picture in my pocket. I know the feeling of not being able to connect with people the director said you should know.
“That’s why I didn’t ask,” Lawrence goes on. “They’re dead. What difference does it make now?”
“That they were your family,” I blurt out. “That they loved you. That you’re who you are because of them.”
They all look at me in varying degrees of shock and horror. Even Gideon. Lawrence cracks a disbelieving smile. “I don’t remember them. I don’t remember me. Who I am now is what the school is making me. So what of you, new girl? You asked, didn’t you?”
Of course I did. I know who my parents should be. Not the people in the picture. I nod.
“And?” I don’t like the smug undertone to Lawrence’s voice.
I pull out the picture from my pocket. “The director gave me this.”
They all lean in close like I’m holding a Christmas present instead of a glossy photograph. Gideon stretches his neck to see.
“You don’t look much like them,” Lillian says. I don’t look much like myself either.
“Does it help?” Dark blue eyes challenge with a flash of something else, something vulnerable and I realize Lawrence is searching for something he’s afraid to hope for.
I meet his gaze evenly and answer with the truth. “No. It doesn’t help. Not at all.”
Cecelia takes me to my first class after the lunch period, then leaves, going to her own class. Regardless of her chatty sparkling personality, I’m a little nervous without her guidance in this environment.
But Lillian and Geoffrey are in this class and show me how to key into my tablet. It’s not like any electronic device I’ve ever seen before, not even on commercials. Geoffrey pulls up my schedule and a simple map of where each classroom is, which is helpful since none of the doors are marked with numbers or anything. As soon as no one’s watching I’m going to search for texting or email capabilities. The sense of relief at having that option in my hands and the probability of getting out of here once I make contact with my parents relaxes me more than I’ve been since I woke up. I run through possible ways to phrase what’s been going on, imagining their shock at hearing from me. They have to be worried sick.
This class is multivariable calculus and matrix algebra. Together. Lovely. I’m thrilled to start off with my worse subject ever. Any kind of mathematics. I don’t even know what multivariable calculus is. Can’t wait. Next is languages. Not Spanish. Or French. Or Italian. But apparently all three. They’ve got to be kidding. Last is two hours of training in Gymnasium B. I’m getting warm fuzzies all over at this wonderful schedule while wondering how I got put into these higher education courses and what the process is to get transferred into some ordinary subjects. I mean, geez. Did they have no access to my former transcripts? Oh, right. Katherine must be one of those overachiever types. At least I won’t have to worry about it too long once my parents come for me.
The instructor comes in. Surprise, surprise, a man in a—wait for it—black suit. His is not a uniform like Helena and the cafeteria monitors wear, but more business casual, trousers and sweater.
He taps his own tablet and immediately all of ours load to a page of equations on a mathematical scale that makes my eyes begin to glaze over and my brain hurt.
The instructor starts explaining the process. I tilt my head, and…wait a minute, this stuff kind of makes sense. I scroll across the page, taking in several equations and formulas. It makes a whole lot of sense. I go through the problems, forming numbers and answers, possibilities in my head like a mathematical genius. This stuff isn’t hard at all. It’s like my brain cells suddenly tripled and showed me another way to look at these numerical codes. I whiz through the page, tapping in solutions that get stored in the tablet’s systems.
I’m awesome. I could do this all day. Before I know it, the page tabs off and it’s time to find my next class. I’m almost disappointed. I was on a roll. Who knew I had the makings of a mathlete?
Lillian tugs on my arm. “Come on. You know where your next subject is?”
“Uh, yeah, language. Across the hall to the right.”
“All right.” She nods, then adds tentatively, “I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch?”
“Sure.” I smile for her. Where else could I go? It seems the school has us on a pretty structured schedule. Until I get hold of Mom and Dad.
It turns out I have an ear for German. I identify the subtext and am able to stress the focus of the sentence readily and repeat back the nuances of the dialect with perfection like I’m fluent. Stress the focus of the sentence? Geez, listen to me. I’m better than some of the other students, but not by much. We could all step into any German city today and manage our way around.
It’s weird, like the illness unlocked a part of our brains that lets us absorb learning in ways I couldn’t imagine before. I kind of wish I had paid more attention to what the director was saying about the side-effects to our neurons and stuff. Short-circuited our memories, but boasted our smarts. Except…my brow wrinkles. I retained my memories.
I’m AnnaLee, not Katherine. Okay, I’ve become super smart overnight, but I’m still me. AnnaLeeAnnaLeeAnnaLee. I won’t forget myself.
My next class is some kind of training in the gymnasium. Here the fun really begins. The floor is set up like a military training course of horror. I’m ushered into a locker room where one of the adults hands each of us a red sweat suit. The contrast is bright against the constant gray. There are no changing rooms or separation between boys and girls so I turn to face the row of lockers and change as quickly as I can, bottoms first and then my top, and head out to the gym.
It’s broken up into stations, each with a couple of teachers, or more likely coaches, tablets at the ready to mark scores.
There’s a ropes course, knife throwing area, punching bags, some kind of wooden blocks area, and several mats where students are pairing up and beginning to spar. Is this for real? It’s less P.E. and more Combat Training 101.
And these kids aren’t playing around. There are students from all the age groups here. There are two other gymnasiums, A and C on the map, and I imagine the same type of exercises going on in both of them.
A small boy scurries up a hanging rope like a monkey and then swings along the bars. A brown haired girl throws a guy twice her size down on the mats, where he in turn tosses her yards away like she weighs nothing.
A pair of boys go at each other with long poles, clacking at each hit. Their strikes are so swift they seem blurred. Unease raises goose pimples at the back of my neck.
I see Mitchell. He’s throwing knives at a stuffed dummy. Every strike hits a vital spot marked in black. Head, heart, stomach.
I make my way toward him, and suddenly Cecelia is at my side. “The trainers want to test your strengths. Report to the ropes course.”
I glance around at the precision and strength that the other students are demonstrating. I hope the trainers are able to handle disappointment well because, athletic I am not.
I wait for another guy to finish the course, craning my head back to watch how he does it, where he places his hands and feet. It’s a climb up the ladder about twenty feet to horizontal bars, then across a single rope to a platform where you have to make your body swing across two yards of space and grab hold of a second set of horizontal bars before climbing down a fake rock wall with tiny handholds. The course is totally dependent on upper body strength, which has never been something I’ve had an abundance of and I doubt Katherine’s slight form has much of either.
Though looking at that course, I’m not sure Tyler would make it through his first try either. It’s pretty intimidating.
The thought of Tyler sends a jolt through me and I see his angry frown. I was driving the truck. Tyler was on the passenger side with Jeremy between us.
“We’re through,” I shout, clenching the steering wheel.
“Yeah, right. You said that last week.”
“I mean it this time.”
“You’ll come crawling back.”
I take my eyes off the road. “No, not this time. I’m done.”
“’Cause I smacked your brother a bit? Get over it, Anna. Runt needs to toughen up.”
Jeremy looks up at me with wide eyes, the shadow of a bruise forming on his upper arm beneath the edge of his sleeve. No, there was no way I was having anything to do with Tyler after that. He’s a bully, always has been. I just didn’t want to see it. “He’s half your size.”
“Exactly, the smaller you are, the tougher you have to—”
“You’re up,” the trainer at the ladder says and I flinch. I glimpse my—Katherine’s—picture in the corner of his tablet screen. I’m curious to know what the words surrounding my picture say.
Whatever it says, any scores already entered will go down after the poor performance I’m about to give.
The climb up isn’t awful. I grab the first bar and swing out. It’s not so bad really, just a little higher than normal monkey bars. And there is a wide net below it. Grunts of exertion and wood whacking against each other echo up from the students training down below on the mats.
I cross to the rope and make my way across hand-over-hand. It’s much easier than I anticipated. I’m not winded at all.
At the platform, I stop to figure out how to get across and feel someone watching me again. I look down to see Mitchell waiting his turn to spar with the poles on the mat. His face is lifted toward me.
A cry yanks my attention to the other side of the gymnasium, one of the younger girls is down on the mat, her arm bent behind her at an unnatural angle. Even from up here, I can tell it’s probably broken. The older boy she’s sparring with hops from side-to-side like he’s ready to keep fighting. Everyone has stopped what they are doing, but no one is helping her. Not even the trainers.
I look around and find the woman who brought me here, Helena, watching the scene intently.
A little girl is hurt.
Without considering how to do it, I simply react. Pulling back, I launch off the platform. My hands lock around the first horizontal bar as though I’ve done this a hundred times. I cross quickly and climb down the rock wall, tearing the pad of my finger on one of the jutting stones, so I jump the rest of the way.
The trainer taps his tablet. “You hesitated at the platform. Go up and do it again.”
“In a minute,” I tell him and rush off. From his startled expression, I’m guessing students don’t tell him no. I’m almost to the mat when someone steps in my way and hisses. “Don’t.” It’s quiet, but firm, and then he’s gone, pushing by me and away. Mitchell.
What is wrong with everyone?
I’m almost at the mat when the trainer there tells the girl’s opponent to finish it. His head snaps up. It’s Lawrence from my lunch table.
“She’s down. I’ve won.”
The trainer writes something on his tablet and I have the queasy feeling it’s something about Lawrence ending the bout before it should be finished, rather than any points scored.
The little girl suddenly rolls into Lawrence’s legs, knocking him flat on his back, spins up and onto his stomach where she slams the point of her elbow into his collarbone. We all hear the crack of bone and Lawrence’s cry before he chokes if off. The girl lifts her uninjured arm again, poised to slash down across his throat. My breath hitches, instinctively knowing it’s a kill strike, but this time the trainer intervenes. “Sarah. Enough.”
Soft green eyes lift, swimming in disappointment and the little I ate for lunch threatens to come right back up.
The trainer walks to the center of the mat and stands above both of them. “It takes only seven pounds of pressure to snap a collarbone. You see, Lawrence, broken bones will not stop a determined opponent.” He moves his stylus across the screen of his tablet.
Jaw clenched, Lawrence nods, and smiling prettily, Sarah climbs off of him, shoving his leg as she does.
“Report to the infirmary.” Helena comes forward.
Cradling her arm, Sarah walks away, though Lawrence is having a harder time of it. He’s trying to roll over to his knees but is in so much pain he can’t do it.
The moment I step onto the mat, I hear gasps, and then silence as once again the entire room stops what they are doing.
I crouch beside Lawrence and slowly help him turn over to balance on his knees.
“I can do it.” He hisses, holding his arms tight against his body to keep the bones of his collarbone from shifting. His face is wet with perspiration.
The mat sinks as someone else steps upon it. I look up at Helena. She’s frowning, though not unkindly.
“It’s important for Lawrence to stand on his own power, isn’t it, Lawrence?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lawrence grates out. A drop of sweat falls and makes a tiny dark circle on the charcoal mat. He gets one knee bent and his foot under him.
“Back off,” he practically growls at me.
So I do. I back far away and stand up, clenching my hands while Lawrence struggles to his feet. His face is the color of milk.
“You’ve just awoken so you don’t understand.” Helena speaks loud enough for all to hear. “It’s vital that you all learn to stand on your own in order to be strong. For with this disease, you have been changed. Give in to no weakness. Revel in your strength. Rely on no one.”
The students cheer. It’s the most animated I’ve seen them. All around us, beautiful faces twist in determination. It’s frightening, yet I can’t help getting caught up in the vibrancy and the hope. If everything has been taken from you down to the fragile strands of your memory and who you are, regaining the strength to get up from an injury on your own is empowering.
I see it in Lawrence’s face as he rises to his full height and the students chant out. “No weakness, only strength. Rely on no one.”
The chant goes on, slower and slower, resonating like a failing heartbeat through my chest.
I meet Helena’s gaze and she smiles.
We go back to our varying stations to finish out the rest of the allotted training period. Training for what? I wonder because this seems a bit much for regular physical education. With all the notes the trainers load into their tablets, it feels more like we’re all being evaluated for some new and improved training protocol. Then again, considering the mysterious plague, that’s probably not too far off the mark. Of course scientists would want to study the after-effects of this kind of a disease, especially since the after-effects seemed to be improved stamina and strength. Unless all us survivors were already pre-disposed to superhuman strength and brain power, which accounts for why we all survived, while hundreds of others didn’t. I’m living in a comic book.
Cecelia snags my arm, giving a little pinch. “Don’t do that again.” Her whisper sharpens with anger. “I don’t need any trouble.” She strides away.
How am I giving her trouble? Because she’s my roommate?
I go back to the ropes course. The trainer gives me a strange look, but doesn’t say anything. He cants his head toward the ladder, indicating I should start while he brings up my statistics on his tablet again. I would love to know what that says about me, well, Katherine, and decide to ask the director later if I can see it.
I finish the rope course like it’s equipment on a kindergarten playground and am told to go to the knife throwing targets.
That I’m not so good at. Apparently eye-hand coordination is not my thing. I don’t even know how to hold a knife to throw it. I look at the guy next to me to see how he does it. Half of my throws sail beyond the target and smack into the wall beyond. Well, if I ever have need of taking out a hanging mannequin, guess I’ll climb a tree instead. Like this will ever have real world application. We’d be better off throwing darts. Now that’s a skill I could use back home at Jeffries Point Super Bowl-a-Rama.
My muscles tighten and my next throw flies so off-mark it hits the mannequin next to mine.
The guy throwing blades at it glares at me. His eyes narrow and his lips lengthen in such a Tyler way that I freeze, shocked.
Then the similarity is gone and he snickers, throwing three blades one after the other, all penetrating the mannequin’s stomach around my blade.
He walks over to the target and pulls my blade out, leaving his there, and drops my knife on the floor before walking away.
By the time we’re released to go to dinner, I’m exhausted, more emotionally than physically. The different stations grew more difficult as I moved to each one. I had no idea what to do during sparring, so quickly went to Wyoming wrestling style and pinned the other girl.
It feels good, powerful, to be able to make my body respond how I want it to.
I see Mitchell walking just ahead. I want to corner him about what he’d said in the infirmary about pretending memory loss that I speed up automatically and have to make myself slow down. I can’t assault him with questions in front of everyone. He looks back over his shoulder as though he knows I’m staring at his back. I don’t look away.
Dinner consists of a kind of meatloaf, baked potatoes and several choices of salads. Where I didn’t eat much at lunch, I’m starving and practically inhale everything on my tray.
Lawrence is noticeably absent from our table, but no one says anything about it. Cecelia is stiff beside me, probably tensing to cut me off if I attempt to bring him up or whatever that chanting was about in the gymnasium.
My gaze strays toward Mitchell, hoping he’ll look my way, but he pointedly looks everywhere else.
I also search the tables for the boy who was at the knife throwing station and hitch in a breath when I spot him, staring with direct intensity at me.
“What is it?” Lillian asks.
I shake my head. “Nothing.”
She frowns. “The first day is the hardest. It will be better tomorrow.”
Hopefully I won’t be here tomorrow. I haven’t had a chance to search for an email program. I look back at the guy. He’s still staring. His dark eyes seem depthless.
I’m not going to let him intimidate me. I raise my brows high in a what’s-your-problem expression.
One side of his mouth quirks into a half-grin. What can I say? Even here there’s bound to be jerks.
We can leave dinner whenever we finish to go to the student quarters.
Without the instructors and trainers in the lounge area, the atmosphere is more relaxed. There’s even the occasional bouts of laughter. A few linger in the big recreation room with the windows, several ease back in larger overstuffed chairs and play on the gaming consoles. All of the games seem to be military type programs. Like we haven’t had enough sparring in real life. Others head to their rooms or showers. Cecelia said we have free time from seven to nine before lights out.
Finally alone, I sit on my bed and turn on my tablet. It boots up quickly, but all that comes up is my schedule—classes even on Saturday and Sunday—seriously? No weekends off? The map of the student areas: living quarters, gymnasiums, there’s a movie room that looks promising, cafeteria, director and staff offices and infirmary. The building is much larger than this, but those are the only areas marked. There’s absolutely no wi-fi signal or any kind of programs or apps to get a message out.
Frustrated, I deposit my tablet on my side of the shared desk. There has to be another way to contact my family. If I can’t get that Mitchell guy alone tomorrow, I’m just going to talk to the director anyway, tell him there’s been a mistake, that I remember who I am. All he’ll have to do is contact my parents and they’ll come for me. Except…I don’t look anything like me. Or the me I thought I looked like. What if they don’t believe I’m AnnaLee?
My stomach takes a plunge at that thought, alarm bells going off in the way my stomach starts cramping. I have to figure out what is going on first. Why they think I’m someone else. Just a mix up. It has to be. I rub my head. I think I’m going crazy. Things like this don’t happen. Okay, say I did catch the disease after the accident, and it messed with my brain neurons or whatever, is it possible it messed with how I see myself too? Or how I believe I used to look? It’s just my outward perception of myself that got jumbled in my brain. I’m still me and I’ll look like me to them.
If so, my parents will still know me and everything will be cool.
I glare at the floor. This is stupid. The director is here to help. He’ll be happy to get hold of my parents.
But the sense that he won’t help persists.
Groaning, I find what I suppose is sleepwear folded neatly in a military type trunk locker at the bottom of the open closet. They look like hospital scrubs, white, which is a step-up from the gray.
I take those into the bathroom. There are a few others already in here—girls and boys, but there’s plenty of shower stalls open this close to the end of dinner so finding one empty isn’t a problem. There’s little bottles of shampoo and bars of soap, towels, razors, combs, toothbrushes, and toothpaste—everything we could possibly need—lined up in neat rows on the counter like in the infirmary’s locker room. I gather the supplies I’ll need.
I pull the thin shower curtain closed, grateful for any measure of privacy and sink beneath the warm spray. I want to stay in here for hours, away from everybody, especially any of the trainers gauging my reactions to everything.
Under the circumstances, you’d think they’d ease a person into their new life. Tears squeeze between my lashes and fall with the water. I don’t bother to hold them back. I don’t dare take too much time in the shower, afraid that I’ll take more time than allowed, and that someone is also inputting “shower time” data into my file.
At least there aren’t any security cameras in here.
I roll my eyes. How long I stay in a toilet stall will probably be documented as well. I’m tired, feeling snarky and overwhelmed. It’s been a long day.
I just woke up from a coma. I should be entitled.
I towel off, put on the sleeping scrubs and drop the ugly gray track suit into a wide hamper built into the wall like I see the other kids do.
The clothes slide down an aluminum chute, I guess to a laundry room in a basement below us.
I cross over to our room and sit on the side of my unmade bed, not knowing what to do next. The last thing I want to do is go out into the foyer where all those strange kids will sneak glances at me.
I work the comb through my short wet hair, my mind crowding with thoughts I’m too numb to think about. The quiet is uncomfortable, allowing my mind to stray on the strangeness of it all. How can I look like a totally different person?
I don’t bother making up my bed, just pull the blanket over me. Lying on my side, facing the wall, I’m too exhausted to hold back the tears.
I don’t want to believe this is real, but how can I not? Everything they’ve told me makes sense when faced with a stranger in the mirror. I’m just another orphan who woke up from a terrible illness without any recollection of her life.
That other me—AnnaLee Johnson from Jeffries Point, Wyoming never existed. She’s just a made-up filler from a fever-induced mind. But I experienced it all, from childhood to the accident. I felt it, lived it. I know the human brain has the capacity to conjure many things, but an entire life? No. I’m AnnaLee.
There are people that I love. My parents, my baby sister. And a younger brother who’s been my whole world since the day I first got to hold him in the hospital and his light eyes latched onto mine.
I didn’t make that up. I didn’t. How can you make up other people like that?
Sobs tremble through my body. Tears wet my face and the already damp pillow from my wet hair.
“Katherine.” Cecelia’s palm slips onto my shoulder. I never heard her come into the room. The mattress sinks a bit as she sits beside me. Her hand is stiff, unmoving, as though she doesn’t know how to comfort someone. I remember that this is all new for her too.
“I’m okay,” I offer, my back to her as I stare straight at the sterile white wall. I feel her nod, her default gesture to any uncomfortable situation.
Wiping my face with the back of my hand, I turn onto my back and look up at her. She really is beautiful. Those wide expressive eyes could draw anybody in with their seeming innocence. “Cecelia, how long have you been here? When did you wake up?”
Her smile is sad. “A year ago.”
Another tremor racks my spine and once again my eyes fill with tears I can’t stop. A whole year? If I can’t email my parents… If… I swallow. This is what I have to look forward to until I’m old enough to get out? Gray clothes, gray walls, gray…everything.
The thought is suffocating and I claw to go back to being AnnaLee, even to just dream of being her in color, being carefree, adventurous, and alive. And free, where I loved and was loved. I didn’t know then how good I had it.
But that would be crazy, right? I have to learn to live in this bleak reality. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll request a visit with the director and tell him about my memories. I’ll tell him about AnnaLee, and then, maybe then, if he has an explanation for it, if they really are dreams, I can let her go, let Jeremy and Mia go.
I turn back to the wall, and feel Cecelia slip away, hear her climb into her own bed, while I fist my hands, pushing them hard against my chest as though I can somehow hold together all the pieces breaking off of myself, breaking off of AnnaLee Johnson.
I race up the stairs to my room and throw my backpack on my bed. I hate Mandy! I shove my pink shirt off, vowing to never wear it again and throw it across the room. It did not come from Good Will.
I hear the sound of someone making fake gunfire with his mouth and Jeremy’s face peeks up from beneath my bed. He likes playing with his Army men under there because my canopy bed is higher off the floor. He uses the wooden slats to tie yarn for jungle vines for the soldiers.
I toss my arms across my bra and scream, “Get out of my room!”
His face crumbles and he crawls out. “But Anna…”
I can’t deal with him. First day of freshman year and Mandy Hopkins has ruined my life. “Get out!”
His eyes go wide, chin quivers, and he flees out the door.
I grab another shirt from my closest and pulling it on, I sink onto my bed. He didn’t deserve that, but he doesn’t always have to be in my room. He has plenty of places to play soldier.
Jeremy stands half-way in the doorframe.
I shift up, leaning on the back of my elbows. “What?”
He looks miserable, but asks about me. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. You just don’t always need to be in here.”
He lowers his head and looks at me through the thick fringe of his bangs. “I’m sorry. I was waiting for you so I could tell you about school.”
This was his first day in a new grade too. I’m a jerk.
“I’m sorry.” I pat the bed and he runs in and climbs up beside me and just like that I’m forgiven. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“It wasn’t your favorite day?” His young face scrunches.
I sling an arm over his shoulder. “It was pretty rotten.”
“Here.” He opens his palm to show me the smooth blue stone we found skipping rocks down by the ditch. It was so out of place among the brown and gray rocks, he knew it must be special. “If you take it with you tomorrow it will fix everything.”
I had told him that the day his appendix burst and he was freaking out. I slipped it in his hand and said it had magical healing properties and would fix everything, and he believed me with that kind of rare trust I really didn’t deserve.
And he’s giving his prized stone to me. He must have run straight to his room to get it. I really feel like a loser now, but there’s no way I’m not going to accept his gift.
I hold out my hand and he places the small stone in my palm. “Thanks, Jer, I’m sure it will make everything better. Its magic is so powerful, I’ll probably only need it for one day.”
His face cranes up and I hug him so he can’t see my grin at his hopeful expression that he’ll get his dumb old rock back.
“Jeremy.” I wrench out of sleep on my brother’s name. Disoriented, I blink at the white walls.
Toweling her hair dry, Cecelia arches a brow. “Who’s Jeremy?”
“Who?” I cover.
“You called out for a Jeremy.”
“I…I did? I don’t know. Weird dream.”
Cecelia eyes me a while longer before turning to grab an elastic band from the desk and begins pulling her hair back into a low ponytail. “We have twenty minutes before breakfast.”
I’m more confused than ever. The dream was so real. Because it was real. I can’t make up this stuff that encompasses everything that is Jeremy. No way. My brother is not a fever dream. Whatever else has happened, whatever is going on with my body not looking like me, my life as AnnaLee happened. My brother happened.
For all I know, the illness scrambled my head so badly that I simply dreamed myself looking different. So maybe I never was blond or taller. The mind can play crazy tricks. I’d rather have what I believe I once looked like scrambled than lose all my memories.
I slide out of bed and head to the bathroom. When I get back, Cecelia’s gone. I guess she figures one day as helpful guide is sufficient.
I dress and grab up my tablet. Should I wear the gray track suit or the gray track suit? Decisions, decisions. Having only one choice of styles would send Mandy Hopkins into a hissy fit.
I clench the tablet hard. I’m not so certain anymore of my decision to talk with the director. What if he won’t let me contact my parents? What if he doesn’t believe I’m AnnaLee and not this Katherine they’ve mixed me up with? I need to find a way to call them on my own before I say anything. I don’t want them making it even harder if the director decides it’s not good for me to try. Or if he thinks it’s a side effect of the disease that I’ve conjured up fake memories.
I can’t give up on my little brother. I have to find out what’s happened to him no matter what they think. Even if they say he’s not real, I know he is. I’m not going to let him be therapied away.
I grab a glass of orange juice and a muffin and slide into my place at the table just as Cecelia finishes her bowl of oatmeal and then gets up to leave. Right. Nice talking to you, roomie.
Lawrence is there, his right arm held immobile to his chest with a red sling. It’s bright among all the gray.
Gideon’s quiet on his other side, picking at his own muffin. Harrison and Geoffrey haven’t come yet or have come and left early for classes like Cecelia. Though who would want to do that?
Lillian and Sterling both watch me eagerly.
“Good morning?” I say. It’s obvious they want to ask something.
Lillian glances at Sterling and licks her lips, before looking back to me. “Why did you do it?”
“Go to help Sarah. She’s awful.”
“She wouldn’t know that,” Sterling points out. “She only woke up a day ago.”
“She’s a little girl. Her arm was broken. Lawrence wasn’t going to keep fighting her either. Why look at me?”
“My mistake.” He taps a finger on his sling.
“We’re not supposed to do that.” Lillian’s eyes dart toward one of the lunchroom monitors. “It doesn’t help with our rehabilitation from the illness. We have to learn to be strong on our own.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. People are stronger when they help each other. Like how the school is helping us. Where would we be if they didn’t take us in?”
Lillian’s dark brows draw together. “But it’s the director who tells us that. You’ll see.”
I see all right, because the first class of the day is Group Therapy. It’s led by Beatrice LeRoy, a bright oddity in the bland scheme of the school. In her early fifties, she flows with color and animated movement in a pastel green prairie style skirt with a crème top that she has layered in plastic bead necklaces and bangle bracelets that clank every time she lifts her arms for emphasis, which is every time she speaks. The only gray about her is the streaks at the sides of her loose curly brown hair. I like her immediately, mostly for her ability to thwart the norm of this flat place.
There are seven of us, all new students who have only regained consciousness within the past month. I wonder how many more kids are in hospitals around the country, lying comatose and dreaming. Or is this the only school that has taken us in?
Gideon is here, sitting by another boy, Oliver, who is also about his age, twelve or thirteen. Jeremy’s age.
I’m surprised that the boy from the blade throwing station also recently awoke. He seemed so completely at ease, I assumed he’d been here longer. Miss LeRoy introduces him as Benjamin and his lips bend in distaste.
There is another guy in our age group, Nicholas, and the rest of our group are two girls. One’s so young and frightened, I feel like scooping her up in my lap. The thought of my little sister Mia waking up afraid and alone in a cold sterile place like this breaks my heart. Except Mia’s at home. Safe. The disease hasn’t touched her. I force myself to believe that but my chest aches anyway.
Beatrice LeRoy opens up the session saying, “This is a safe room. What’s said here, stays here.” Huh? Like Vegas. My gaze slides up toward the security camera. Or maybe not. “You’ve all been through a horrific ordeal, but we at the school are here to help you in any way we can.” Her smile is sympathetic.
We’ve been arranged in a wide sharing circle. I lean forward in my chair. I’m actually anxious for the session to really begin because I want to know if anyone else has retained their memories.
But first the therapist launches into a recital of school rules, all for our own safety and well-being during our time here.
No going off into restricted areas.
Attend all classes unless directed otherwise.
All work to be filled out upon the tablets.
Lights out promptly at nine-thirty each evening.
I tune her out as I search all the faces within the circle, gauging how each of them is taking this new life. Of course, if none of them have memories like I do, they don’t have any experiences to compare to.
They wouldn’t know that being super intelligent isn’t out of the range of normal, would they? Or that they had people in their lives that they lost. Maybe it’s better that way, not to remember.
“…not to aid in another student’s work.”
My ears pick up on that one, wondering what else I missed.
“Why?” I blurt out without thinking. Okay, maybe I’m not so super intelligent
Miss LeRoy pauses, confusion wrinkling her forehead. “Why what, dear?”
“Why can’t we help each other?”
She blinks, startled by my question. “Of course we encourage helpfulness. It’s just that until you’re able to leave this place, you must each learn to be independent and strong in your own right. Since the plague, the world outside these doors has changed. You, who have survived the illness, are our best and our brightest. You must learn to stand on your own. No weakness, only strength. Rely on no one.” The same chant from yesterday.
Nicholas frowns at the reminder of the creepy motto. His right leg starts bouncing and he rubs his knuckles down his knee to stop it…and the room narrows down to his hand. My throat is bone dry, my heart thudding. Miss LeRoy is still talking, but I can’t hear her anymore.
Tyler does that. Exactly that. It’s a nervous habit he picked up after he wrenched his leg in a bad wrestling catch. I’ve never seen anyone else bounce and rub his leg in exactly the same way.
I stare at Nicholas, his dark hair and strange handsome features for any hint of familiarity.
But how would that even be possible? He’s new too, the right age, just woke up too. Nicholas notices me staring and his frown deepens. I look away to the two younger boys. Oliver and Gideon.
No. What am I thinking? There’s no way. Just because I remember myself differently… That’s just a weird side-effect, brain trauma. I can’t look away from the boys.
Same ages as Jeremy and I bolt out of my chair and run across the room to the wastebasket in the corner and heave my guts out.
“What did you think of therapy?” Lillian asks at lunch.
Besides puking in front of everyone? “I understand a little better now.” That’s a lie. Everything is jumbled. The things I’m thinking are impossibilities. Science fiction impossibilities.
“About what you did wrong yesterday?” Lawrence asks.
“Yes,” I say with a little too much harshness and push the salad around on my plate. I’m still a little queasy.
I feel Gideon looking at me from the other side of Lawrence. I don’t look back. He can’t be Jeremy. It’s not possible. The kid’s too quiet anyway.
It hurts thinking about it. I should have told Miss LeRoy about my memories. I can make a private appointment with her. Or the director. If I don’t, the memories will drive me insane. Now I’m looking for signs of my brother and Tyler within unfamiliar faces. Who does that? Crazy people.
I can’t look for a lost little brother in every young face I see. Jeremy’s not here. Or he’s… My hands clench. It hurts to even think of the other possibility.
“So…” I spear a tomato slice on my fork. “We get to leave this place at eighteen. Where do we go?” I wasn’t going to stay three years here. I wasn’t going to stay three days. I have to find a phone or a computer with internet access. “I mean, do we have jobs lined up for us or are we just booted out?”
Sterling’s eyes widen. “They wouldn’t just do that, would they?”
“After the training and education they’re ensuring us with?” Cecelia says. “No. We’ll get an assigned job of course. One we excel at. It sounds perfect to me. We get out of this boring place and already have a career lined up.”
Training, right. “Feels more like being trained for military service. Have you ever heard from anyone who graduated from this joint? What are they doing?”
Every expression is blank.
I raise my brows. “Email? Letters? Not even a postcard?” I’m fishing for information hard and hope I don’t oversell it.
Cecelia shrugs. “Why would they? They finished here and moved on.”
“No one keeps in touch?”
Cecelia shakes her head angrily. “Why would they? The school is a transition from a terrible fate we all experienced where we’re given a chance to overcome and make a better life. Once I’m out, I’m putting this place behind me forever.”
It was the most heartfelt reaction I’d seen from Cecelia.
No one speaks after that. We finish our meals in silence.
When I pick up my tray to leave, Lillian hurries and picks hers up as well. Walking by my side, she whispers, “I’d like it if you wrote to me.”
The following day in calculus/algebra, I work through the equations with ease. It’s exciting to see how the mathematical patterns form across the tablet. It’s almost like a computer game. At the desk beside mine, I hear a sharp intake of breath. I glace over at Lillian. Her face is milk white and she’s visibly shaking. I follow her gaze to the door where four adults have come in. Three men and a woman. The woman wears a lab coat, while the men are in the black military style uniforms that Helena and the trainers wear.
“David, Gabrielle, Sterling, and Adam. Come with me,” the woman calls out.
Sterling grips the sides of his desk so tight, it jerks when his name is called. He lifts distressed eyes to Lillian and his Adam’s apple jumps in his throat column. Lillian’s only movement is the tightening of her lips.
Leaving their tablets on their desks, the four teens get up and make their way to the door. Face lowered behind a dark fall of hair, the girl stumbles, a clumsy slip of her foot that is so rare among the usually fluid orphans that it looks more awkward than it really is.
The guards, because what else could they be, file from the classroom after them and the teacher instructs us to resume our equations as though there was no interruption.
“What was—?” I go to ask Lillian what that was about, but the forceful shake of her head cuts me off. I can’t get back into the math. I just solve them one after the other without much thought put into it, my mind stuck on the fearful look in Sterling’s eyes and the way everyone went quiet. The room vibrates with tension.
It’s not until dinner that I get a chance to ask. Sterling, of course, is not there.
I lean over the table to speak as quietly as I can. “What happened in calculus?”
Lillian glances up at Cecelia, then down. “It’s their turn in the lab. That’s all. They’ll be back.”
Except everyone looked scared to death. “What happens in the lab?”
“Tests,” Cecelia answers. “They just want to discover what we excel at. Everyone gets tested. Don’t worry about it.”
“Who knows?” Geoffrey forked a bite of today’s mystery meat loaf into his mouth. “Sometimes a kid surpasses all expectations and gets to get out of here early. That’s a good deal.”
Everyone around the table nods, except for Gideon and myself. Being new too, this must be as confusing for him as it is for me. Those kids were definitely afraid of the lab. I wonder if any students were taken from Gideon’s classroom, if he saw the reactions it triggered.
“So when will the tests be finished? When will Sterling be back?”
Lawrence shakes his head. He’s been quiet. “Like they said, he may not come back. Maybe he’s one of the lucky ones.”
“Or it could be a few days,” Geoffrey picks up. “The tests are strenuous and you’re given a few days to rest in the infirmary.”
Rest. All of us have extreme endurance. I think about all the kids that were in the infirmary when I first woke up. I think about Mitchell. Were they resting from their tests in the lab? What kind of tests are so difficult that we need to rest from them?
They aren’t giving specific answers, and Lillian looks like she’s ready to cry.
Cecelia rolls her eyes. “Stop being dramatic about it. They do blood tests and other stress and endurance tests so some kids are babies about that, but it’s all really for our own good. Everything they do here is.”
No one says anything to that and I have a distressing feeling that even she doesn’t fully believe it.
Gym this evening is brutal. Instead of meeting in Gymnasium B, our tablets ping and direct us to go to the outdoor facilities. What I thought was playground equipment outside the recreational room is actually more training courses.
The snow has been scraped away, but the metal is cold and icy in places. I suppose that amps up the challenge for the trainers to note in the tablets.
Neither are coats provided, another test of endurance, though freezing teens who have just awakened from a plague doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. I tuck my hands between my body and arms, trying to figure out where to go.
There are no specified stations. Today it’s a free-for-all and rather than relaxing and taking it easy, everyone is full-on attempting to outdo each other. They swing through the rope courses faster as though racing, and they fight with more aggression in the squares laid out for bouts. There are no soft mats to fall onto out here, just frozen gravel.
I’m reluctant to go anywhere but feel the trainers’ eyes on me. Helena stares with a calculating gaze. Sighing, I head toward the blade throwing again. At least no one’s chucking knives back at me there.
Someone’s shoulder shoves me forward from behind.
“Watch it!” Mitchell strides past and spins around with a scowl.
“You watch it.” I’m not about to put up with his crap.
He stomps back to me, glaring, but there’s no heat in his tone when he leans in close. “Go to the top of the boards.” And he strides away.
I glare after him. The last thing I need is more games from him. I’m confused enough, but I want to know for sure why he warned me to fake amnesia when I first woke up in the infirmary. I’ve been doing it ever since just on his say so alone. That, and the churning in my gut every time I think about telling someone else.
Fine. If he wants me to climb up to the stupid boards, I’ll play along. Maybe after that, I can get this all figured out and just go home.
My hands are cold on the metal ladder. The boards are two wide wooden planks spanning between two ladders, the highest structure on the playground and I can’t guess at its purpose. A test of balance maybe? No one else is using it. Until Mitchell comes up on the other side, a long stick held horizontal in his hands. He walks easily out to the middle and bends his knees in a fighting stance.
He wants to spar up here? I don’t think so. Okay, there is a thin safety net stretched below us between the ladders, but it could just as easily be missed as fallen into. No thank you. I think I’ll let stupid Mitchell keep all his stupid secrets to himself.
“I won’t hurt you, little girl,” he taunts and lowers his gaze meaningfully.
Oh great, there’s a trainer standing below us, looking up. I have the feeling backing down won’t show up so well on my record or for future career placement. Because scoring a job where you knock people off of boards is exactly what I aspire to.
“There’s a stick in that tube next to you.”
“So there is,” I say dryly and pull a wooden stick out from a tube attached along the side at the top of the ladder.
“Use it for balance.”
Mitchell is pretty helpful for a guy who’s anxious to knock me off a great height. With my luck, the stick will probably skewer me when I hit the net.
I ease out onto the boards. The wood is icy. When I’m close to Mitchell, he tells me to crouch a little in a stance mirroring his.
“Now watch me like you’re trying to figure out where to attack. Just hold there and we can talk.”
“Thought you wanted to spar.”
“No, I want to look like we’re sparring.”
I raise my brows.
That’s not difficult.
“This is a sweet spot up here. One of the few places they can’t hear us. I’m going to gouge my pole toward you. Don’t jerk too much or you’ll fall.”
He jabs an end toward me. Even knowing it’s coming, I react, stepping back on the boards, but not so much that I overcompensate and fall off the other side.
“That was good,” he praises. “It looked real.”
“Well, I try.” My heart pounds against my ribs. It’s really high and slick up here.
In a move I don’t anticipate, he spins me around and slams my back against his chest. My foot slips off the board and I totter, but Mitchell keeps me from falling, although my stick flies end over end toward the ground. The trainer jumps back out of its path.
Dizzy, I’m trapped within the strong circle of Mitchell’s arms; his stick lies across my captured arms. Across from us, the roof of the school bobs up and down.
“Good.” Mitchell’s cheek is next to mine. His breath spools out in wispy drifts. “Place your hands on the stick and pretend you’re trying to push it off.”
“What if I do push it off?”
He huffs a laugh. “You won’t. Just pretend to push and listen. We don’t have much time. You remember your old life, don’t you?”
My breath becomes a hard ball in my chest. “Yes. Except the way I remember it, I’m a different person.”
“You’re not a different person,” he says with such conviction I flinch against him. .
The muscles of his arms are rigid along mine. “Keep pretending and you’ll be okay.”
“But why? I don’t get it. Why do I have to pretend?” I want to contact my funny out-of-touch parents so badly I can smell the cool Wyoming air. I want to know what happened to Jeremy. Is he okay after the accident? “I need to get a hold of my parents. Are there any phones or wi-fi?”
“Your…?” His head shakes minutely behind mine. “That’s not a good idea.”
“But why? They’ll come for me.”
“They…I can’t explain it right now, but just…don’t try it. I’m asking you to trust me.” Mitchell’s breath warms my cheek. “Whatever you do, don’t let anyone know you remember—or they will take your memories away.”
“You don’t want to know.”
But I do want to know. I don’t understand any of this. But I definitely don’t want to forget who I am. Even though the memories hurt. I don’t want to lose them. “You haven’t even explained.”
“I will. We don’t have enough time up here though. I’m going to throw you off before they get suspicious. Keep your arms tucked in.”
But I’m suddenly airborne, flailing my limbs. The net smacks me in the face and I bounce upward, flailing once more. This time I pull my arms and head in and roll on the net, hitting lightly and only bouncing a little, unlike the thoughts pinging around inside my brain.
The following morning my tablet displays that I am to report to Gymnasium C after breakfast. Cecelia, Harrison, and Gideon are also assigned to this class. I’m quiet, my mind filtering through the conversation with Mitchell.
I expect to find the same type of stations and rope courses that are out in the yard and also in Gymnasium B, but this gym is smaller, the floor covered in thin wrestling mats.
Our trainer today is Helena. She surveys us as she drones on about different self-defense techniques. Her lithe body demonstrates them like a martial arts expert. I don’t get why they put so much importance in all these exercises. Helena pairs several of the kids up to go through the techniques while the rest of us watch.
Cecelia shoves the length of her forearm hard into Harrison’s stomach. Her features are tight with determination.
Across the mats, it’s the same. Opponents are going after each other as though an anger switch has been flicked on. Uneasiness fills the pit of my belly. It’s too aggressive for strictly self-defense. I know, because when I picked Jeremy up from Karate, I’d watch for the last couple of minutes.
I jolt at the recollection and my gaze instinctually slides toward Gideon. He’s paired off with Benjamin the knife-throwing jerk even though Benjamin is a few years older. He keeps jabbing and feinting, testing for the kid’s weaknesses.
In a dizzying move, Benjamin throws Gideon to the floor and pins him beneath him.
I’m riveted, willing Gideon to push back, but his face is impassive. Unlike the others there is no anger or determination at all. He’s very very still.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I lean forward, waiting for Helena to call the older boy off as he has clearly won the bout. Gideon isn’t fighting back, but Helena only watches as well.
Straddling him, Benjamin raises his fist to strike. No, that’s not fair. Gideon is already down.
I push to my knees to, I don’t know what, shove the guy off, when I see it.
Gideon rolls his hips sideways just enough to lift his opponent, grab his jewels, and squeeze. It’s mean and it’s dirty and purely Jeremy.
All sound disappears behind the heavy churning of my pulse.
My brother once got Tyler off him that same way the one and only time Tyler thought it’d be fun to pin him down.
Benjamin rolls off, groaning, holding his privates.
I’m on my feet, stunned, before I realize I’ve moved. My body responds with the sudden alertness of ice water poured down my back. The tiny hairs on my arms stand on end. That’s my brother. Gideon is Jeremy. I know he is. I know it.
The roar in my ears grows louder.
Gideon—Jeremy—starts walking off the mat, but Helena grabs his arm and spins him around to face her. “Finish what you started.”
All the other bouts stop. Everyone is watching.
Jeremy tilts his face up, defiant. “It is finished.”
Helena’s lips flatten. She hauls Jeremy in close. The beat of my heart thuds like a dried up skull rolling down the stairs. I’m moving forward, but two sets of hands press me back on either side. Cecelia and Harrison. Harrison shakes his head in warning.
I stop. Their hands on me lift and fall with how hard I’m breathing.
“You’re finished when I say you’re finished,” Helena grounds out into Jeremy’s face. What kind of self-defense is this? On the ground, Benjamin has somewhat recovered and is rolling to his knees. He’s getting up.
Jeremy’s scared. I can see it in the way his eyes track away and his fingers twitch. He may not remember who he is, but he’s still Jeremy. I don’t know why I didn’t see all the little mannerisms before.
Which means…Mitchell is telling the truth. Our memories have been taken from us. Except for mine. And his. But why don’t we look the same? My legs buckle and I start to go down. Cecelia’s fingers pinch harder, grounding me.
I don’t understand how it’s possible, but I’m not Katherine. I’m AnnaLee Johnson from Jeffries Point, Wyoming and that’s my brother. He didn’t die in the accident.
“No.” Jeremy’s quiet denial to the order flits around the high walls. My brother. He doesn’t know himself. He’s lost and alone, yet still he won’t hurt someone who’s down.
Helena’s jaw tightens even harder and she shoves him away, still holding his wrist so his arm is stretched between them.
Benjamin is on his feet and surging over. I gasp when his elbow comes down on Jeremy’s arm and I hear the crack of bone.
Crying out, Jeremy curls over his arm and drops to his knees. Helena’s grip on his arm is relentless, uncaring of the injury.
I’m moving again and getting nowhere as Cecelia and Harrison once more hold me back.
“Don’t be stupid,” Cecelia hisses. “You’ll only make it worse for him.” But they don’t know Gideon is my younger brother, that I’ll do anything for him. They can’t know that. No one can.
I stop pushing against them. They’re right. I’ll make things worse.
Helena pulls back on Jeremy’s hair to force him to look up at her. “You will learn that the world outside these walls is a cruel place. If you are to survive, you will learn never to leave an opponent able to come after you.”
Jeremy glares at her and tries to yank his head away, but Helena holds firm and laughs before letting go. “Get yourself to the infirmary.”
I can’t even help him get to his feet. No one can. I clench my hands so hard my nails bite into my palms. I watch him struggle on stumbling legs, holding his injured arm tight to his thin, shaking body, and leave while a cold rage claws in my throat.
Self Defense isn’t finished so the rest of us find partners for the mats. I know exactly who I want to fight even though he’s already taken his turn. Without waiting to be paired up, I stride over to Benjamin, blocking his way and cock my head toward the mat he’d just destroyed my brother on.
His brows rise questioningly before a cocky smile slides across his handsome face and he walks back onto the mat. He’s limping a little from Jeremy’s ball squeezing maneuver. Good.
I slap his face the moment he turns around. It’s a girly move, but exploded out of rage. That’s for Jeremy, I wish I dared shout.
Benjamin stumbles back a step, off-guard. Then drops into a fighting stance, eyes gleaming. “Spitting little cat. You found your claws.”
That has me really losing it. I fly at him, arms and legs going. I’m not as skilled and it isn’t pretty, but Dad had shown me how to throw a punch and stomp down hard on the bones of the legs. He also taught me to get in close to an attacker, take their advantage of a longer reach away. So far, none of that has been taught in the school. It’s unexpected.
So that’s what I do. I keep hitting and kicking, anger fueling my attack.
Benjamin broke my little brother’s arm. He hurt a younger kid. On purpose. I don’t care that Helena made him do it. He enjoyed it. I hate Benjamin. I want to hurt him. I’m fighting sloppy, but sloppy is all I have. But sloppy works because I’m quick and strong, each hit more forceful than I would have believed I’m capable of.
Even so, Benjamin isn’t slowing. My hits aren’t doing as much damage as I hope. In fact, he’s smiling, taking some hits, dancing away from others. Benjamin enjoys this.
My anger fades with each missed strike, and I realize what he’s doing. He’s letting me wear myself down.
My head rocks back as his fist connects with my cheek just before he sweeps my legs out from under me.
I go down hard and find myself blinking up at him in a daze.
I know what comes next. Time to finish me off…which means I’ll end up in the infirmary where my brother is.
I go perfectly still, clenching for it.
Benjamin’s eyes narrow. He drops his fist.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Why were you?” I shoot back.
Come on, do it. It’s worth it.
His fingers curl again and he leans over me. He’s going to do it, go for an incapacitating punch…
The whistle blows. Class time is over.
More adventures from …
Great Expectations Finalist 2012
My only thought was for Aden. I ran to him, kicking up water and called out his name. He turned and my heart skidded, crumbled and dropped to my feet.
Not Aden, but Brad. Then where was . . .?
I looked down to where Brad’s gaze had been focused, down, down, in the murky water towards the center of the pond. No. Noooo! I shouldn’t be able to see him through the stirred-up sediment, but I did. Pascual was drowning Aden just as he had drowned Brad.
Highland Sorcery Books
The Vampire and the Highland Empath
A Highland Sorcery Christmas
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