Rachael looked down at the photo in her hands. It was her favorite picture of herself with her real parents. She stood between them, already almost as tall as her mother, even though she was only 7. She didn’t really look like either of her parents, like some children do, but all three of them had the same dark green eyes, and she had the same light red hair as her mother.
They had been very happy until her parents had disappeared. They had told her they were going out for a meeting, but they were gone for a while and she went to bed before they got home. When she woke up the next morning, they still weren’t there and she called the police. They searched for a couple of days, but even at 7 years old, Rachael thought that it didn’t seem like they were trying very hard, and they stopped after only two days, making sure, of course, that Rachael ended up in a group home. Rachael had continued the search, and was still looking, even now. Unfortunately, all that she had available was her own eyes and the internet. The internet has a lot of information, but it doesn’t have everything. She had never found any more than a few conspiracy stories that were similar to her own story.
Rachael put the photo back on her nightstand and settled into her mattress, leaning back against the wall. She looked across at Ann who was sitting on the other end of the bed, rambling on about some boy. Rachel had known Ann for almost 7 years—since they were 10. They had always been there for each other, and she was pretty sure they always would be.
Bing. Rachael spun in her chair to see who had e-mailed her. It was from Ann.
Hey Rach, how’s everything? Just wondering if you wanted to go to the Funky Bean later. It’s that new coffee shop right next to that weird office building on the other side of the city. Anyway, let me know, and tell Uncle Frank I said congrats on the new job.
“Uh… Ann?” she said, trying to figure it out. Ann was still going on about the boy. It could have been that she had sent it earlier, and it had gotten lost until now. E-mails did that sometimes. But there were a couple of other things that didn’t quite match up. First of all, Ann had never called her ‘Rach’. She was also pretty sure that the Funky Bean was closed on Sundays, but maybe Ann didn’t know that.
“Ann,” she said, louder this time. “Did you send me an e-mail?”
“Well, I’ve been here.”
“I know, but earlier maybe?”
“No, not since I sent you the updates on that project. That was a few days ago.”
“So you don’t actually want to go to the Funky Bean?” Rachel asked, even though she knew the answer already.
“I’m pretty sure they’re closed on Sundays.”
So the e-mail definitely didn’t come from Ann. Where did it come from then? Rachel’s first thought was that it was just spam, but whoever sent this knew about the area. They had even mentioned Uncle Frank, which was what Ann called Rachel’s foster dad.
Rachel had been in and out of foster homes and group homes since before she had met Ann. It wasn’t exactly a secret with her friends, but why would a stranger know these things? She thought for a minute, then her fingers flew across the keyboard.
Who are you?
It wasn’t exactly strategic, but at least it would let them know she knew what was up. She only had to wait a few minutes for the response. It came from Ann’s address again, but whoever it was no longer pretended to be her.
Rachael. We know who you are, and we have information you’ve been looking for. Let’s help each other out. Come to the Smithford building at 2:00 today. Ask for Robert Lowman’s office.
Under the text there was a picture of her family. Her real family. In fact, it was the same photo that she kept on her nightstand.
“Ann, I need to go.”
Ann stopped midsentence. “Oh. What’s going on?”
“I forgot about something that I need to do,” Rachel said, somewhat absentmindedly. She was already thinking about how she was going to get to the office building. “No need to ask what.” Rachael hated to lie to Ann. She almost never did, but she had much more important things to think about, and Ann would understand if she knew. Rachael might finally find out what happened to her parents!
“Ok,” Ann responded. “I guess I don’t need to know what’s going on.”
Rachael ran down the stairs. “Dad, I need to borrow the car.” He was sitting at the counter with the newspaper.
“Rachael, dear, if you want to be able to drive, you need to get your license.”
Rachael had never bothered to get her driver’s license, because she didn’t really feel like she needed it, and it seemed like a lot of extra work. Not having a license would have been a problem for most people, but Rachael was very different from most people. Her voice became calmer and took on a soothing tone that was very well practiced.
“Dad, I know that a license would be helpful, but it’s really not that important, is it? I need the car because I have something really important to do. That’d be ok, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, I guess you’re probably right. Go ahead and take it, just be careful.”
Rachael was very different indeed. She had always been a very persuasive person. Even when she was 5 and 6 years old she’d convince strangers to buy ice cream or candy for her, for no reason. But when she got older, especially after she lost her parents, she started to notice that there was more to it than just being persuasive. She could talk someone into doing or thinking something that didn’t even make sense. She could convince her foster families to change their entire vacation plans to what she wanted. She could convince the cashier at the drug store that, instead of having to pay for whatever she was buying, the store actually owed her money. Of course, morality quickly took over. Her parents may not have been around for long, but they taught her a lot about life while they were there. She knew that getting people to do things that would be harmful to them would come back to her in the end, and tried not to do that if she could help it. Instead, she would use her skills to convince angry friends to make up with each other, or to encourage a teacher to go easy on a student who was having a rough day. It wasn’t as much fun—not even close—but it kept her out of trouble, at least most of the time.
“Need a ride?” she muttered to Ann as she grabbed the keys and headed for the car.
“So where exactly are you going?”
Rachael had been hoping Ann wouldn’t ask. Maybe she could avoid the answer she didn’t want to give. “I’m taking you home.”
“Yea, but after that.”
There was no way around it. Unfortunately, this power that Rachael had discovered didn’t work all of the time. It tended to be more likely to work on someone who was in a weaker mental state, or just not very intelligent in the first place.
When she was 13, she went through an experimental phase, trying to figure out exactly what she could do. Her foster parents at the time, while very kind to her, happened to be particularly unintelligent. One night, while her father was absorbed in what was happening on TV, she convinced him that she had been hired as a CEO of a major company, and that he needed to send an e-mail to her teachers letting them know that she wouldn’t be in class. When she handed him a legal pad and told him it was a laptop, his fingers started tapping on it as if he were typing.
However, Ann was much smarter than he had been. Rachael had gotten lucky earlier, because Ann had been distracted, thinking about her boy, but she was much more focused now. Simply telling her that she didn’t want to know wouldn’t work. If Rachel wanted to hide it, she’d have to be more tactful.
She could probably make up a story, and then convince Ann to believe that it was true. That might work. But Rachael still felt bad for being dishonest earlier. She decided to just tell her the truth. She had time now, and she couldn’t actually think of any reason that it needed to be a secret, except that Ann would probably try to stop her.
“I found someone who might know something about my parents.”
“That’s great! Who is it?”
“I don’t know.”
Ann paused. “Well that’s not great. You don’t know who you’re going to see?”
Rachael told her the story about the e-mails.
“Rachael, that sounds really dangerous.”
“Yeah, I know, but I can handle myself. I’ve made it through worse situations.”
They argued all the way to Ann’s house, but Ann knew she couldn’t do anything, partially because Rachael put the thought in her head.
Ann got out of the car and then leaned back through the open door. “Just be careful, ok? This feels really weird, and I need you to come back.”
Rachael knew how she felt. She would have said the same thing if Ann had been the one trying to run off and do something dangerous. “I’ll be safe. See you soon!”
Ann hesitated, then closed the door. She watched Rachael drive off, waving back at her.
Rachael arrived at the Smithford office building and parked in the deck next to the building. She didn’t have any money with her, but she wouldn’t have to pay. Parking deck attendants tended to have weaker minds, probably because of the monotony of the job.
She walked around the side of the building and through the front doors. The lobby was enormous. It was three stories tall—she could see the office windows that were on the inside wall. There were two giant chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and the whole room had a shininess to it. It also had a strange feeling that she couldn’t quite place. It almost made her feel like she didn’t belong there, like no human belonged there. She took a breath and walked to the reception counter.
There were five receptionists standing, spread out along the counter. Two were already talking to someone. Out of the remaining three, she picked the one that looked the least menacing and approached.
“Hi, I’m looking for…Uh…” She was feeling intimidated and it was throwing her off. “…Robert Lowman,” she remembered.
The lady looked up from behind the counter, as if caught off guard. When she saw Rachael, her eyes widened a little. After a pause, she said, “He’s on the 49th floor,” and went back to whatever she was doing.
“Thanks,” Rachael replied, absent mindedly. The weird feeling was growing on her, and she was ready to move on. She was feeling more and more like this place shouldn’t even exist. She left the counter and hurried to the elevator.
There was already a man standing in front of the elevator bank. His elevator arrived just as Rachael walked up. When he turned and saw her, she thought she saw his eyebrows jump, as if he recognized her, but then the expression was gone. Maybe she had imagined it.
“Go ahead,” he told her when the doors opened. “I’ll take the next one.”
When she was in the elevator, she spun around to point out that he could ride too, but he was gone and the doors were closing. She took another breath, hoping that this weird feeling was just in her imagination.
She pushed the button for the 49th floor, lost in thought. The elevator shuttered, and then began to accelerate up. She just had time to think about how far up she was going before the elevator stopped suddenly. It knocked her down and she stayed down. She was really freaking out now. She heard a faint hiss near the top of the tiny room, and immediately noticed a smell. It reminded her of something. A dentist’s office maybe? Or a hospital?
Her eyelids started to droop. Then the elevator dropped. The surprise woke her up a little, but then her eyes were closing again. She knew she was in over her head. She was unconscious before the elevator stopped at the bottom.
Her eyes opened. She was awake. There was no drowsy period in between, more like a switch. Just, awake.
Everything around her was white. She was in a tiny room, maybe a third the size of her bedroom. It was completely empty, except for her and a twin mattress in the corner, covered in a white set of sheets. Someone had left her on the mattress. The walls were soft and squishy. The only thing missing was a strait jacket.
Rachael sat up, taking everything in. This was nothing like any situation she’d ever been in. Sure, there were a couple of aspects about her that might seem crazy to some people, but she did a pretty good job of keeping that a secret, and was otherwise a completely normal high school kid. She had never been in a padded room—never even seen one in person. What was going on?
For a while, she just sat there, staring at the room. What else could she do? At one point she tried voicing her thoughts. “What’s going on?” There was no response, and she felt kind of silly.
After a while, she gave up and flung herself back down on the mattress, staring at the white ceiling. She started thinking about how she had gotten there. She had walked into a perfectly normal office building, talked to a relatively nice receptionist, and gotten on a regular elevator. Except maybe they weren’t any of those things. Maybe her intuition had been right in the first place. The building had had a weird feeling, and now that she thought about it, the receptionist and the man at the elevator had both been acting like they were in on some important plan. Part of her thought that was silly and irrational, but then she reminded herself that she had been kidnapped by an elevator, and then locked in a padded cell, probably underground. There weren’t very many things that were more irrational than that.
Then she remembered why she had come here in the first place. They had promised her information about her parents. That was a very personal and sensitive part of her life that she didn’t talk to a lot of people about. Of course, it wasn’t a secret that she didn’t live with her real parents, but she couldn’t think of anyone, other than maybe Ann, who could know how much she had been looking for them.
So they obviously knew a lot more about her than they should. How much did they really know?
Whatever they had given her in the elevator was apparently still in her system, and trying to work through everything was exhausting. As her eyelids started to droop, she wondered for a second if this could just be a really weird, realistic dream. The thought was comforting, and she almost smiled a little as she dropped off to sleep.
Her eyes shot open, just like last time. Crap. Not a dream. The drugs were mostly out of her system now, and she was a little anxious. She sat straight up and looked around. Everything was the same as before, except that there was a plate of food on a tray that extended out from the middle of the door. It reminded her of a high-security jail cell from every action movie she had ever seen. She wasn’t hungry, but she got up to see what was there. It was the most interesting thing in the room, after all. Maybe there was something that could help her.
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