Chapter Thirty-Six – Interlude

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

A bouquet of flowers and a fresh eggplant were the next two things on her list. She walked through the collection of market stands, twirling her pencil between her fingers as she examined the paper in her other hand. Yes— a bouquet of flowers. But what sort of flowers would be best for the occasion? She liked all sorts of flowers. And Dale didn’t really care either way. Maybe she would just continue walking around and looking until something finally happened to catch her eye. Yes, that sounded like a plan.

She listened to her shoes scuff against the dusty ground as she continued walking, expertly weaving around and smiling at the other people around her. There had been a rainstorm just a day or so ago, but the resulting heat had burned all the moisture away after just a few hours. Summer’s last goodbye, most likely. Hopefully as autumn approached it would become cooler and wetter. They certainly needed it. She couldn’t help but wonder— had it rained at the Academy, too? How did they deal with rainstorms over there— did the students still have to walk about? What if one of them caught a cold? Who would give them hot soup and tuck them into their beds if that happened?

She shook her head exasperatedly. Why was she worrying so much? She had other things to deal with. Like flowers. She would get the flowers first. She looked around until a patch of color caught her eye. There was the flower stand. She walked toward it, smiling at the merchant standing behind the counter. “Good afternoon!”

The merchant rested his hands on the countertop, a toothy grin spreading over his face. “Good afternoon, Carmen. What can I get for you this time?”

Oh, goodness. He knew her by name. She came here much too often, didn’t she? Carmen tried to wipe the flustered smile off her face, realizing that the merchant was staring at her. “Um— yes. Can I get… that bouquet, please?” She pointed to the vase sitting right at the front of the countertop.

“The roses and sunflowers? Good choice, madam. That’s my featured bouquet for today. Very summery, if I do say so myself.” He bent down and sifted around beneath the counter for a moment. He raised his eyebrows as he stood up straight again, handing a near-identical copy of the model to her. “Special day for you?”

“Ah, um— yes. I suppose that it is.” She smiled, crinkling the paper cover over the bouquet with her fingers.

The man stared at her for a while before a flicker of realization passed over his face. “Ah! It’s about your son, isn’t it? Peyton?”

Carmen chuckled. “Yes. It technically is, I guess.” She looked down at the flowers, tracing her finger along one of the roses. “It’s going to be my first… special dinner with Dale, if you will. The first after he went off to the Academy.”

“Really, now!” The merchant grinned at her as he wiped a few petals off of the counter. “How long has it been, now? A month? Two?”

“About that long.” She waved her hand in the air. “I haven’t really been keeping track, if I’m being honest.”

“You haven’t?” He tossed his towel over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow.

“Not really, no. I feel like I haven’t been doing much of anything since he’s left. Everything is still just so… surreal, you know?”

“Ah, the post-child rearing phase. I remember that like it happened to me yesterday.”

The merchant chuckled, scratching at his thin beard. “Quincy’d never been that close to me, so it’s probably worse for you, but I remember that Xia and I had no idea what to do with ourselves for a few weeks after she left, either.” He chuckled, taking the towel off his shoulder to rub the counter again. “Never saw Quincy again, after she got on that bus. Heard that she works at the Academy research center now, though. That’s nice for her. Me? I’m happy selling flowers here in Silverhill.”

“Oh.” Carmen forced a smile, a small, sad smile. It was all she could do to keep her heart from racing; the merchant’s words were less than reassuring to say the least. Her fingers continued tracing the rose petals. They were soft, velvety. Like a baby’s skin. “Well— Peyton and I were very close, so I think that my— our— experience will differ a bit from yours, don’t you know? I’m sure I’ll see him again. He will come and see us again.”

“Ah, well, I’m not surprised to hear that. Peyton always seemed like a bit of a mama’s boy to me.”

Seems. Doesn’t. Present tense. He still exists, you know. Carmen pushed away the thoughts and nodded instead. “Yes. I suppose he does. But I’m sure that the Academy will help him get out of his shell and become more independent.” Or maybe, by some chance, it wouldn’t. Maybe he would stay a “mama’s boy” forever. Carmen couldn’t decide which one was better or which one was worse.

“Mm-hmm.” The merchant bobbed his head up and down as he finished polishing the countertop with a flourish. “Anyway. I don’t want to hold you back from the rest of your shopping for any longer. That’ll be twelve, please.”

“Alright.” Carmen dug into her purse and pulled out the cash, placing it into the merchant’s awaiting hand. “Thank you!”

“Thank you, madam. Have a nice day!”

Carmen smiled and waved before she walked off, tucking the flowers into her basket. Then, after a moment of thought, she pulled it back out and gave it a better examination, stepping to the side of the market so she wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. The burgundy-colored roses contrasted nicely with the bright yellow sunflowers. Deep green myrtle leaves and white baby’s breath accented the spaces between the flowers, completing the bouquet.

A nostalgic smile passed over Carmen’s face as her fingers traced over the baby’s breath flowers. She could still remember the bouquet she had gotten when she and Dale had brought Peyton home for the first time, and baby’s breath was one of the primary flowers that had been in it. There had been hyacinths too, soft blue and violet, but Carmen had liked the baby’s breath the most. Maybe it was because of the name, or the soft, sweet scent. She didn’t know. It was fitting, though— the first flowers they had gotten when Peyton had arrived, and the first ones they’d gotten after he’d left.

Now that she thought about it, wasn’t the new group of babies supposed to be arriving soon? Maybe even today? She hadn’t seen anything that suggested so… but then again it was already late afternoon, so the shipment could have arrived earlier.

She craned her neck, scanning over the people walking past and in front of her. No, no… wait— yes. There were a few sporadic people walking around with babies tied to their stomachs, or strapped tightly into shiny new strollers. Carmen watched them pass, feeling something akin to melancholy well up within her. Was she happy for them, or sad for herself? She wasn’t quite sure. What she did know was that it felt like she was about to cry.

Wiping at the corners of her eyes, she stuck a bright smile onto her face— she was happy for the new parents, after all— and continued walking. But with every new baby she saw, her mood grew a little more… sour, was the best way to describe it. She didn’t know what it was specifically. Was it regret she was feeling? Nostalgia, or longing? A combination of the three? Could it be that she was rethinking her choice not to submit an application for another baby with Dale?

She shook her head, exhaling sharply through her nose. She had discussed with Dale extensively that they would not have another child after Peyton, not for a few years at least. They had both agreed that they were ready to return to the workforce, to have a little less to stress about for a while. Now, though, as she looked over the couples doting over their brand new children, she couldn’t help but think about when she’d first set her eyes on Peyton’s chubby little face, and the way he used to coo and gurgle when she sang his name. She could still remember how he wiped off the kisses she planted on his cheek when he was with friends, and the way he tried to hide his smile and his blush when he turned away. Where had all that time gone?

Was she starting to tear up again? Carmen blinked rapidly a few times, setting her jaw as she continued through the stands. Now wasn’t the time to get so sentimental. Besides, she needed to get… eggplants, now. And tomatoes. And bell peppers. No more thinking about babies. If she thought about them and Peyton for too long, then she would inevitably start thinking about—

She cut off the thoughts, slowing to a stop near one of the vendors. There was someone over there already— two somebodies, in fact. And she recognized them. A smile crossed her face, and she stepped forward before they could have a chance to leave without noticing her. “Bailey, Fallon! It’s been too long, hasn’t it?”

Bailey and Fallon turned around. Carmen stopped mid-step. Strapped to Fallon’s stomach, face to her chest, was a baby. It took a long, painful second for Carmen to get over her shock. Once she did, she put that smile right back onto her face like nothing had ever happened. “Oh, you have another child? Congratulations! So much has happened in the time we haven’t seen each other, right?”

Fallon blinked. Then, as if just remembering, she looked down and placed her hand on the sleeping baby’s back. “We do. Isn’t he wonderful? His name’s Jasper, Jasper Gray. We got him last night— late last night, actually. Would you like to see his face?”

“Oh, of course. That would be wonderful.” Carmen took a few steps forward, trying to peer past the cotton swaddling. Bailey grasped the baby’s face and turned it so that it was facing Carmen.

He was quite precious looking. Brown skinned just like his parents, his dark lashes rested on his cheeks and his ruby lips had just the smallest amount of drool dribbling out of them. Carmen felt her heart swell, and she smiled. “Oh, Bailey and Fallon, he’s beautiful. I’m sure that he’ll fit into your family just perfectly.”

“Thank you. He’s lovely, isn’t he?” Fallon drew away, combing the black fuzz atop Jasper’s head with her fingers. “We’re a lucky pair of parents, that’s for sure.”

“Mm-hmm.” Carmen nodded. “And then, in just a few years from now, he’ll be off to the Academy. But it’ll just have gone by in a blink of an eye for you all. That’s how it felt with Peyton for me.” She paused. “Did it feel like that for you all with Kendall?”

Bailey looked to the side, put his hands on his hips, and sighed. “Yeah. I guess so. It did kind of go by in the blink of an eye, in retrospect.”

Carmen nodded again. “Mm-hmm. I wonder what they’re doing right at this moment?” It was the late afternoon, so maybe they were about to go down to dinner, or perhaps doing homework together. With Olive too, of course. All three of them together as friends, just as they always had been. Reese had said that Peyton would continue being friends with them after he’d left, hadn’t she? Hopefully, that was the case. That had to be the case. How would Peyton cope with the faster-paced Academy otherwise? It wasn’t like he could come back so she could comfort him, like it used to be in primaries.

Fallon and Bailey remained silent. Then Fallon finally shrugged. “Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s great.” She looked down to Jasper, rubbed his head, then glanced back up to Carmen. “Did you get a baby, as well? Is Dale at home taking care of it?”

A pit began to grow in Carmen’s stomach, and she felt her lips twitch. “Oh, no, we didn’t. We decided that we needed a break after raising Peyton, you know? Maybe we’ll try again next year, or the year after that.”

Fallon angled her head to the side, the smile on her face wavering at the corners. “Oh. I see.”.

Bailey sidled up to his wife to put an arm behind her back. He leant down to touch Jasper’s head, then looked back up to Carmen. “Are you two planning on going back to the workforce in the meantime, then?”

“Well— it isn’t like we have much of a choice in the matter, do we?” Carmen managed to let out a chuckle, combing her fingers through her hair. Already it felt like the parental aids they had been given throughout the years were starting to run dry. They’d have to get comfortable in their jobs within a few months so they could begin to earn a steady income again. “My artistic muscles have been itching for a while now. I think I’ll be happy to finally be able to jump back into painting.”

Fallon briefly glanced up from Jasper to nod. “Oh. Yeah, yeah. I agree.”

Carmen brushed an awry strand of hair out of her eye. She groped around the depths of her mind for something she could say to continue the conversation. “Well— to be completely honest, I don’t think that we’re quite over Peyton yet. Getting a new child now would— it would almost feel like we were trying to replace him.” She realized a second too late the implications that sentence carried. “I mean— that isn’t a slight against you, or anything. That wasn’t my intention at all. It’s just an issue that Dale and I have personally. You get what I mean, don’t you?”

But it didn’t look like they did. If anything, Bailey looked confused. “Well— I suppose that may make a bit of sense,” he said. “But that isn’t really what we’re in it for. We just want to raise children for the benefit of the City.”

“O-oh. I see.”

“Yes.” Fallon nodded, once again doting on her baby. “It’s such an accomplishing feeling, don’t you think— knowing that you’re helping out?” She looked up to Carmen again, that smile still plastered onto her face. “I hope that you’ll be able to experience it again. At least one more time.”

Carmen took a step back, forcing yet another laugh out of her. “I hope that I’ll be able to do that, as well,” she replied, not quite sure if she was telling the truth. “I think that Dale and I’ll be able to do it one more time yet.”

Bailey grinned. “I hope you do. We can bond over the experience, again.” After a second, he looked back to the basket in his hand and swung it from side to side, as if he had just remembered that it was there. “Anywho. I think that we should be getting home, now. Right, dear?” he asked, looking to Fallon.

“Oh— yes. I think that Jasper’s about to wake up.” Fallon placed a tender hand on the baby’s head. She used her free hand to wave at Carmen. “It was nice catching up with you. Hopefully our next meetup won’t be so spontaneous. You can come by to our house with Dale. Or we can come over to yours.”

“Of… of course.” Carmen took a step back of her own, slowly raising her hand. “I ought to get back home too, so I… so I can prepare dinner. I’ll see you two around, alright?”

“Sure. Have a nice evening.”

Carmen waved again, but Bailey and Fallon had already turned away to dote on their new baby. A strange sort of bittersweetness squeezed at Carmen’s chest. She watched them walk away for a minute before turning back to the vendors. Of course she would find herself reconsidering her decision not to apply for a new baby now. True, there was always next year… but time was running out. If a parent raised three children back to back right from the age they were allowed to do so, they would be just about the age where they’d become ineligible for application by the time the third and last child went off to the Academy. So realistically, each City citizen only had about three opportunities to raise a child up to Academy age.

Carmen and Dale were already older than the average City parent. And they’d raised… one child all the way up to Academy age. Carmen did the math in her mind as she walked up to one of the vegetable vendors. If they applied for a child next year, and got accepted, then… that would absolutely be the last chance they would have before they were ineligible. They would most certainly not be chosen after that. Carmen wouldn’t have been surprised if she figured out that they were on the backburner already— or maybe their age and experience could somehow be an advantage?

She continued wallowing in her thoughts as she picked up some more vegetables— the eggplant, some tomatoes, bell peppers, some black beans and some broccoli. Bailey and Fallon were a lucky couple. They’d gotten Kendall right when they’d turned twenty-five. Now they were only thirty-nine and they’d gotten another child to raise right off the bat. If they got accepted to raise another baby after Jasper got shipped off to the Academy, then they would have raised three children by the time that child went off to the Academy. What a fulfilling experience. What a fulfilling life. But it didn’t even seem like they were in it for the fulfillment— they just wanted to have the privilege of raising another child for the City’s gears..

Carmen pursed her lips, tucking two ears of corn into her basket. She and Dale had gotten together because of their love of children and their desire to raise as many as possible— more likely than not it had been the primary factor that had gotten them paired together. And now look— forty-six years old and they had only raised one to the Academy. Sometimes life just worked out in strange, disappointing ways, didn’t it?

She tried to shake the thoughts out of her mind, and half succeeded. Her grocery list crinkled between her fingers as she raised it to her fingers and crossed out spaghetti. That was the last thing she had to get. There was no need to continue walking around the market and seeing all the couples with their new babies, was there? She had to go back home and start preparing dinner. Yes, preparing dinner sounded nice.

Tucking her basket closer to her side, she hurried through all the stands and people to get to the front of the market. She tried not to look at the babies being carried around in carriers or strollers anymore— they were just serving to put her into more of an unhappy mood. When the crowd started to dissipate, she finally looked up from the ground. Thank goodness— there was a bus already here. She didn’t have to wait. Her pace increased as she hurried toward it, raising her arm to wave at the windows. Please don’t leave, please don’t leave.

Thankfully, it didn’t. The doors remained open in time for her to get onto the stairs and into the aisle. Pressing her thumb onto the screen at the front, she looked around. There was an open seat near the front; most of the passengers had collected near the middle and the back. She settled down there, putting her basket on her lap and looking out the window. After a minute, the doors hissed shut. Carmen lurched back slightly in her seat as the bus began to drive forward, the voice announcing the address it was going to as it usually did.

It was going to be a decently long drive. Perhaps not as long as it would be if Carmen lived at the border of Silverhill, but there would still be more than enough time to sit back and relax as the bus drove around the community, picking up and dropping off people. A twenty or thirty minute drive until she got to her own stop, probably. The first few days after babies arrived always were a bit hectic. Parents always had to get last minute supplies, neighbors always had to pick up “Congratulations” cards, friends always wanted to stop by to see the brand new addition to the family. Carmen could remember it all as if it had happened to her yesterday.

She slouched in her seat and pulled her grocery basket closer to herself. She closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them to look out the window. For some reason, she was feeling exhausted. Exhausted and… odd. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Actually… was it her herself who felt strange… or was it an external force that was making her feel as such? Carmen sat up, peering out the window as they neared the end of the neighborhood plaza. There were still plenty enough people walking around here to see what was going on.

Carmen rested her hand on her chin and watched the figures walking around beneath her. Yes, there were plenty of couples, and plenty of babies, but… was it just her, or did it seem like there were less young children out and about? Fewer toddlers, fewer tweens… could sessions have started up again already? She hadn’t been keeping track of the time, so maybe they had. But that didn’t make much sense, either— didn’t most of them take place earlier in the day? It was nearly time for supper now. And besides that, the whole atmosphere in the district felt… weird. Carmen watched her face screw up in her reflection. Maybe it was just her bad mood. That had to be it. Why else could she not realize any concrete problems with the neighborhood?

The bus came to a stop multiple times. Each time, some people came on and some people got off. Carmen watched them come and go curiously. She recognized a few, but some were new… a lot of them looked like they were just a little older than Peyton. New Academy graduates, maybe? It made sense.

Carmen pursed her lips. Where would Peyton go off to when he was done with the Academy? Only time would be able to tell. Maybe his career would require him to come back to Silverhill. They could chat and have tea with each other, like they used to do. Maybe he would even be able to live with them. And even if he didn’t get stationed in Silverhill, surely he would still come by occasionally to chat? That would be nice. That sounded like something he’d do. He wouldn’t be like the merchant’s daughter.

The rest of the bus ride went by in a haze. When the bus jolted to a stop, Carmen looked out the window. She recognized the houses out here. This was the stop just before her own. It wouldn’t be long now. It seemed like nothing special was happening outside the windows, really. Nothing unusual, nothing odd. The few people who were out and about were people she recognized. It didn’t seem like any of them had new babies. There were a few toddlers that she knew, though.

Carmen sighed as the bus began pulling away once again. Maybe she had been overreacting before. That, or she had jumped to too many conclusions. Everything looked fine. Everything was fine.

They went through the long, winding roads for a few minutes longer. When the bus stopped this time, Carmen was ready. She stood, clutching the back of the seat in front of her for support, before shuffling to the aisle. Some people smiled and waved at her as she walked to the front of the bus. She smiled and waved back before she climbed down the stairs and entered the street.

Her house eventually came into view. Carmen exhaled, feeling almost relieved for some reason. The humidity must have been making her feel tense. She snuck a glance behind her as she approached the front door. Her hand, slick with moisture, fumbled with the doorknob for a moment before it managed to open up. She stepped inside, toed her shoes off, and stepped into the living room. “I’m back.”

Dale shifted in the loveseat to turn around and look at her. A smile spread across his face, and he pushed his reading glasses back up his nose. “Welcome back. Starting dinner now?”

“Mm-hm. And look— I got flowers.” She dug into the basket and pulled out the bouquet, holding it out to him.

“You and your flowers…” he shook his head exasperatedly, but leant forward to sniff the blossoms anyway. “You’re putting them on the dining room table, I’m guessing?”

“Mm-hmm. I’ll go do that right now.” Carmen put the bouquet back into the basket and walked into the dining room, plucking the glass vase off the center of the table. Then she walked into the kitchen, putting the basket on the table. She walked over to the sink and switched it on, filling up the vase with water. Removing the paper covering off the flowers, she dropped them inside and looked toward Dale. He had his legs crossed and his feet propped up on the footrest, flipping through the newspaper. Carmen cleared her throat. “Reading anything interesting in there?”

“Sort of. I guess.” He flipped through the paper, finally stopping at something near the front. “Says here that the districts are supposed to be getting their new babies soon. Everything else is mostly just fluff, feel-good stuff.”

“Is that an old copy?” Carmen walked into the dining room, putting the now-decorated vase at the center of the table again.

“I don’t think so.” Dale’s voice carried into the room. “Why?”

“The babies arrived last night. In Silverhill, at least.” Carmen walked back into the living room, plopping down next to Dale in the loveseat. “I saw a bunch of couples carrying them around in the market. Bailey and Fallon even have one again.”

“Really? So soon?”

“I thought the same thing too— but hey, if it makes them happy, then I guess that I can’t judge…” She trailed off. “His name’s Jasper. Gray’s his middle name.”

“Jasper Gray McCloud?” Dale puckered his lips, as if tasting the name. “That’s nice. Wonder if Kendall knows he has a brother now.”

A sharp bitter feeling rose up Carmen’s throat. “Yeah,” she managed to say. “That would be… interesting. They should… write a letter to him, or something.”

She watched Dale’s face drop. Carmen tried to say something, but found that her voice had gotten stuck in her throat. Maybe it would be best if she went to go start dinner. She curtly turned on her heel and walked into the kitchen. What to start on first? Prepare the tomatoes? Boil the pasta?

“Guess Peyton’s having too much fun at the Academy to send letters to us, huh?”

Carmen waved her hand. “Oh, we were just joking about all of that, weren’t we? I don’t even think you can send letters to or from the Academy, anyway.”

“I guess. If you say so.” Dale’s voice dwindled away. He had never been the one to raise his voice, not even so he could be heard between rooms.

“Mm-hmm.” Carmen swallowed, unclenching her jaw. “I don’t want him to worry about us, anyway. Just let him focus on his studies and making new friends.”

It was a while before Dale spoke again. “You still miss him?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I miss him.” Carmen shook her head, tossing the tomatoes into a pot. “The house feels… it feels so empty without him being around, don’t you think so? In fact, everything in Silverhill feels sort of… off.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” she said, honestly. “But… it does. I’m sure you would have noticed it too, if you had come out to the market with me. Everything felt sort of weird. Like— there were a lot of babies, but I didn’t see that many toddlers or young children. You know, like ten and eleven year olds and stuff. That kinda struck me as odd.”

Dale paused. “It’s too late for any sessions to be going on,” he said. “Maybe they all just had early bedtimes. By some sort of coincidence.”

“I don’t know.” She poured some oil into the pot and shook the handle around, frowning. “I guess you may be right. But it’s still weird.”

“I wasn’t trying to deny that.”

“Alright.” Carmen stirred the softening tomatoes in the pan. “Hey— could you come and slice the eggplant for me? Then I can finish seasoning them.”

A heavy sigh came from the living room, then the paper slapping down on the table. “Alright. Just a second.”

“You’re so lazy, Dale. You know what? Nevermind. I’ll cut the eggplants myself. Just stay there and wait until dinner’s ready.”

“I was going to—”

He was cut off by a knock on the front door.

Carmen blinked. She turned down the burner and walked into the living room. Dale had sat up in his seat. For a moment, the only sound was the tomatoes sizzling in the pot. Then Dale turned to Carmen. “Um… expecting anyone?”

“N-no…”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get it, see what they want.” Dale grunted as he pushed himself off the couch. “You can keep cooking.”

Carmen swallowed, taking a step back. “Al— alright.” She walked back to the kitchen and continued stirring the tomatoes around. They were basically nothing but slush and skin left of them now. It was almost time to add the peppers… or maybe she would cut and season the eggplant next. Or boil the pasta? How did she usually go about this? Maybe she should have added another portion for the person outside… Her hands danced around the stove and cabinets, but they froze as she heard the door open.

Dale’s voice. “Hello?”

And then a stranger’s voice. “Hello. This is…” His— she assumed it was a man— voice became too quiet to be intelligible for a moment. Then, “is Carmen home as well?”

Carmen switched the burner off completely. She hurried out the kitchen and into the living room, stepping up behind Dale. “Hi,” she breathed, reflexively forcing a smile onto her face. Her eyes flickered over the person— no, there were two people— standing at the opposite side of the door. A man and a woman, wearing identical dark blue uniforms. A small bird was perched on the man’s shoulder, its beady black eyes all too intelligent for Carmen’s liking. She swallowed, feeling her heart start to pound for some reason. “Is there— can we help you with anything?”

The man and the woman exchanged glances. Then the woman turned back to Carmen and Dale, her face still stony, mirthless. “May we come in?”

Carmen took a step back, opened her mouth, closed it. “I— I— of course. Please, come in.” She took a step back, gesturing to the inside of the house. “I apologize for the smell. And the— the mess in the kitchen. We were just about to make dinner— actually, would you like to stay and eat with us? There’s more than enough for everyone. It may take a while to get ready, but—”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. We had something to eat before we came here.”

The woman stepped in, the man following after him. The bird on his shoulder darted its head from side to side. Both of them ignored it. “We would appreciate a place to sit, though,” the woman continued. “Perhaps the couch? Or at a table?”

“O-oh.” Carmen hesitated, then nodded. “How about the dining room table? It’s right at the end of the hallway— just walk through the kitchen and you should see it. I’m so sorry for the mess…”

“It really is alright, madam. We understand that you were preparing your supper. And we’ll leave you to it after we chat.” The woman strolled through the living room and into the kitchen. The man followed, leaving Carmen and Dale to hurry after them like it wasn’t their home they had just abruptly entered.

Upon entering the dining room, the man and the woman sat next to each other at the table, patiently waiting for Dale and Carmen to follow suit. Then they just sat there for several long, uncomfortable seconds, staring at each other while they waited for one of them to break the silence.

Carmen was the one to do just that. “Um—” she shifted her weight, playing with her fingers. “Would you all like something to drink? I squeezed some fresh lemonade just yesterday. Or— would you like some water? I’ll gladly get some for you—”

“Please, Carmen.” The woman held up a hand. “There’s no need for such formalities. I’m sure that you two know who we are. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you knew what we may be here for, already.”

Carmen squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and opened her eyes. The two Seekers were still staring at her. “N-no,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re here for.”

The man rubbed his forehead, his posture going slack. He looked over to his partner and sighed deeply. “Maybe we should have those glasses of water.”

Dale immediately got to his feet. “I’ll go get them.” He walked out the room, leaving Carmen and the Seekers alone. They were pushed into a stiff, uncomfortable silence once again.

Carmen swallowed the lump in her throat. “So… what have you two come here for, then?”

“Let’s wait for Dale to return,” replied the man.

“Oh.”

Silence. Then Dale came back. He set down four glasses, and then sat down himself. He folded his hands on the table and looked down at them, his fingers twitching. Nobody spoke for a minute or so.

Carmen finally, somehow, found the courage to speak again. “W-well… could you tell us why you’re here?”

The man fidgeted in his chair, while the woman exhaled slowly and softly. Then the man looked back to Carmen and Dale. “Please get comfortable, you two. What we’re about to tell you… won’t exactly be pleasant.”

The bird flapped its wings wildly and opened its beak. It leaned forward like it wanted to caw, but nothing came out. The man reached up and touched it, and it went still.

Carmen shuddered and shifted in her chair, and came to find that she couldn’t get comfortable no matter what position she assumed. “What’s the matter?” She was getting lightheaded. “Please… please tell us.”

The man opened his mouth, faltered, looked away. The woman sighed and put her hand on her temple. The tension in her face melted away, and she rested her fingers back on the table. “We’re here to discuss the status of your son, Peyton Rory Williamson.”

Carmen felt her heart stop. A cry slipped from between her lips before she could keep it in. The sound of chair legs screeching against the floor pierced her eardrums, and Dale rose to his feet. “What happened to him?”

“Please, I ask for you to return to your seat.” The woman gestured for him to sit back down almost dispassionately. “We can’t continue this conversation if you’re in such an upset state.”

Dale stood for a few seconds longer. Then he slowly sat back down, his fingers clutching the tablecloth.

The man was staring at the table as well, his lips set into a thin line. The woman, on the other hand, didn’t take her eyes off of Dale and Carmen. “I’m not quite sure how I can say this in a gentle manner,” she said. “But… it is with great regret that I inform you that your son is missing.”

She found it hard to breathe. Her vision was spinning. “What— what… what do you mean?”

“We mean that he’s gone, madam. He’s disappeared, and we have no idea where he is.”

Carmen’s arms started shaking. She buried her face in her hands and took in several heaving breaths, but she still couldn’t get enough air in. Dale hesitated, then rested his hand on her shoulder, rubbed it uselessly. It was shaking. The two Seekers looked on silently.

Carmen somehow managed to peel her hands away from her face. She hiccuped, coughed, then opened her suddenly incredibly dry mouth. “H-how long? How long has he been gone?”

“We believe that he’s been missing for about three weeks now, miss.”

“He’s been missing for three weeks and you haven’t said anything to us?”

“Madam, you have to understand that discovering and processing situations like this takes a long time. We had to make sure that—”

“I don’t care! I don’t care! That doesn’t matter! I— I…” she shook her head, digging her nails into her scalp. “Why are you even telling us this? Why do we have to know this?”

Then the man started to speak, his voice low, regretful. “We’re telling you this because we need to ask you a few questions about the subject, madam.”

The subject. Like it was just some mundane thing they talked about every day. Carmen closed her eyes and shook her head again.

Dale’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “You just told us that our son is missing, and we had no idea. What makes you think that we’re even going to be able to answer these questions?”

“We don’t expect for you to have any concrete answers for us,” the woman replied. “We’re simply asking for your cooperation, and for you to answer any questions we ask of you to the best of your ability. After that, we’ll leave you in peace to allow you to… to recover.”

To recover. Carmen somehow managed to laugh at the absurdity of the word choice, but it devolved into a low moan. “F-fine. Fine. Ask us your questions and then just leave us alone. Please.”

The man furrowed his brow, then looked away again. The woman stayed as stony-faced as ever, though she did clench her jaw ever so slightly. “Do you believe that Peyton may have been negatively influenced? By a person, or an event, or anything else of that sort? Anything that may have caused him to develop any impulsive or unusual behaviors. Can you recall anything like that, Carmen? Dale?”

Carmen shook her head. “N-no. I don’t remember anything unusual…. things were normal up until he left.” She could retrace those last few days and hours like she had just lived them. Watching Peyton jumping onto the bus, preparing pumpkin muffins for his last breakfast with her and Dale, shaking him awake for the last time, and… and…

Carmen felt her lips turn to ice. The last day— the last night, the night before he’d been sent off to the Academy. The conversation they had shared with each other… Peyton’s headaches and trouble concentrating… could that have been—?

“Is there something that you want to say, Carmen?”

Carmen shot her head up, almost flinching at the sound of the woman’s voice. “N-no. It’s nothing. I was just.. was just…”

“Nothing?” The woman raised an eyebrow.

Carmen shook her head. She held her breath, but by some miracle the question was not pushed any further. If she answered, though, would they be able to find him faster? To make sure he was safe sooner rather than later? Would it be best to say something?

She didn’t get the time to think about it. “Well,” the man said. He cleared his throat, adjusting the collar of his navy blue uniform. He looked at the woman, then back to Dale and Carmen, pursing his lips. There was sweat beading on his brow. “If you don’t have any answers for us, then I suppose that we can take our leave?”

Carmen shot to her feet. “No. No! You can’t leave!”

Dale reached up and touched her elbow. His hands were still shaking, the coward. “Carmen, please calm down. Escalating the situation isn’t going to do anything for any of us. Please—”

“I’m not escalating the situation!” Carmen ripped her arm away from him. “We just found out our son is gone, and you’re telling me to calm down? I can’t calm down!

The woman pushed herself away from the table. “Rest assured that we will be doing everything within our power to find him and bring him back. You don’t have to worry that we haven’t dealt with situations like this before. There have been cases like this before— in fact, there are various other incidents like this occurring right at this moment. We will be searching for them. All of them.”

“There are multiple children missing?” Carmen felt her stomach churn. She was going to be sick, right there on the tablecloth. “I can’t— I can’t believe nothing’s being done about it yet. What are you guys doing?”

“There are things being done about it, miss. The two of us do not make up the entirety of the Seeker branch.” The woman stood, and she didn’t spare a glance to her partner as he hurried to follow her. “We give you our deepest condolences. We will find them, and then things can go back to normal for you.”

“Go back to normal?” Carmen’s voice cracked. “You expect things to go back to normal for us?”

“Yes. They will go back to normal. It will be like he never left for you.” The woman stepped back, neatly pushing her chair back into its place at the table. “In fact, you won’t be thinking of him at all.”

Carmen stared at her, at a loss for words. Then it all clicked. “No. N-no. No. What are you— what are you talking about?”

The man looked down as he approached the hallway, as if he couldn’t bear to look her in the eye. “It’ll probably take up to an hour for the process to be fully complete. If we find Peyton, then of course we’ll undo it. But trust us when we say that this is for the best. It’s the best thing for all of us. You won’t have to stress about all of this anymore, while others can—”

No! It isn’t for the better! No!” Carmen shook her head, already painfully, terribly aware of the tingling in her left wrist. She staggered back, her chair clattering to the floor, and she rushed after the retreating Seekers. They were already in the hallway. Carmen stumbled and fell to her knees, but she still managed to shoot her arm out and grab the hem of the male Seeker’s jacket. “Please—” she said, barely keeping herself from sobbing—  “pl-please don’t. I can’t… please don’t make us go through his again.”

“Again?”

The woman turned around, staring down at Carmen. She looked over to the man, before she raised a hand to her ear and murmured something unintelligibly.

The man, however, crouched down and smoothed Carmen’s hair out of her eyes. His face was set into a hard, stony expression, a caricature of conviction. “I promise you, Carmen, that we’ll find him. We’ll find all of them. You don’t have to worry. Continue living life as you have, and we’ll do the rest. Things will right themselves soon.” Then, saying nothing more, he pried her fingers away from his coat. He stood up straight and nodded at the woman. They started walking down the hallway again.

Carmen shook her head. She covered her face and felt tears soaking the palms of her hands. Every gasp she took in escaped her in a series of guttural sobs, and she couldn’t stop them. Dale crawled up beside her wrapping his arms around her torso. She took her hands away from her eyes, barely noticing how they shook. The man was standing near the end of the hallway, staring at them. His eyes searched their faces and he opened his mouth, like he wanted to say something. But then he turned around and continued to leave.

Carmen coughed, wiping her eyes with the stinging inside of her wrist. “It isn’t fair,” she whispered, trembling even as Dale pressed his face into the crook of her neck. “It isn’t fair! It’s not right! You are failing all of us!”

This time, the man did not look back.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Six – Interlude

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

She kept her hand raised above her head until the bus was well out of sight. Only once she knew there was no way they could see her did she allow herself to relax and let a little genuine emotion overtake her. It was always such a bittersweet event— seeing her children off to the Academy. For nine years she had raised them, and she had known most of them before that. To know that it was the last time she would see some of them made her feel melancholy. Pensive.

A quiet cough pulled her from her thoughts. “Miss Campbell?”

She sighed. “Yes?”

Carmen fussed worriedly behind her. “Are— are you okay? Why are you staring off into space like that?”

Reese could see all four parents shifting around out of the corner of her eye. They almost seemed to be unfocused, disoriented even. Now that their primary purpose in life had been shipped away to begin their journey of finally contributing to society, they had no idea what to do with themselves. Poor parents. Reese herself had never been given the privilege to raise a child. Nor would she ever— her job prohibited it. But at least she got to experience the better parts of doing so through the trade. Everything worked out in the end. And that was enough for her, really.

Carmen was still waiting for an answer. Reese swiveled around to look her in the eye, plastering a smile onto her face. “I was just thinking about how your children are going to do such a great job at the Academy. It’s been such a pleasure to watch them grow and mature over the entire time I’ve known them.” She clasped her hands at her pelvis and cocked her head. “Are you excited for them? How about you, Bailey?”

Bailey nodded with a laugh. “Oh, I am. Kendall barely ever stopped talking about the Academy ever since he found out about it. It makes me happy he’s finally going there to experience it for himself.” He looked down and scratched the back of his head. “To be honest, I’m a little happy to have him out of my hair for a few years. He’s so passionate about learning and everything. I’m happy about that, but— it can be pretty overwhelming. I’m glad he’s in a place where the people there are actually equipped to deal with that.”

“I suppose that’s understandable.” Reese’s hands squeezed tightly around each other. Her lips trembled. “How about you, Dale and Carmen? Are you excited for Peyton’s journey?”

She hadn’t expected Carmen to burst out crying. Dale moved to wrap his hands around her shoulders, whispering sweet nothings into her ear as she sobbed into her fists. The crease between his brows deepened when it didn’t work to placate her. “We’re sorry,” he flustered. “We just— we’re a little emotional at the moment.”

Carmen managed to pull herself together enough to stop blubbering. “I’m sorry— I’m sorry,” she whimpered. “Peyton— we love him, but you know that he’s just— he’s so shy. What if he doesn’t fit in? I know that Olive and Kendall are probably going to make friends easily and— I don’t mean to be rude, Bailey and Fallon but— but I’m afraid that they’re going to leave him behind once they find other people, and, and— I don’t want that to happen! I want him to do good! I don’t want him to— to—” she broke off again to weep into her palm, tears streaming down her face.

“Carmen, Carmen… relax.” Reese walked up to her. “There’s no need for you to worry. Just because Peyton’s a little timid doesn’t mean that he won’t succeed. He’s an incredibly bright child, with one of the biggest loves for learning I’ve ever seen. The instructors at the Academy are understanding and accommodating. And there’s going to be children there with similar personalities and interests as him, you know. Peyton’s going to thrive.”

“But what if he—!?”

Dale jostled her gently. “Carmen, please! He’s going to be okay. We’ve told you that already. Stop worrying.” He looked up at Reese, an apologetic look falling over his face. “I think we should get back home now. We’ve had a stressful past few days. I’m sure we all have.”

“That’s completely understandable.” Reese softened her smile. “It’s about time that I start making my way home, myself.” She stepped back, giving the couple room. “Please don’t worry too much about Peyton. He’s going to be just fine, Carmen. Have a little faith.”

Sniffling, Carmen looked up at Reese. A smile crawled its way onto her face, warping the smeared makeup on her cheeks. “Y-you’re right. I need to believe in Peyton more. I’m underestimating him. He’s— he’s going to be okay. You’re right. Thank you.” She enveloped her in a crushing hug, resting her head on her shoulder. “He’s just my sweet little baby, that’s all. I just want him to be okay.”

Reese rubbed Carmen’s back and ran her fingers through her dark brown hair. She smelled of cinnamon and perfume. “Shh. He will.” Slowly, she pulled away, clutching her shoulders. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to me if you feel the need to talk, okay?”

“I won’t. I mean, I will. I will.” She looked away, stepping out of Reese’s grasp. Reese rubbed her arm. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Peyton had gotten his personality from. Or his tenaciousness.

Dale stepped forward for a hug as well. Reese gladly returned it, unflinching even as his fingers brushed over the small of her back. She eventually loosened her arms and pulled away. “Have a nice day, you two.”

“We will. Thank you, Reese.” Dale patted Carmen’s shoulder. “Let’s go, love.”

Reese watched them leave, Dale patiently leading the way back to their home as Carmen tottered along the walkway with her bare feet. How sweet. She looked back to Fallon and Bailey with a smile. “They are such a nice couple, aren’t they?”

“I suppose they are.” Fallon brushed her hair behind her ear, sniffling. “Peyton was a very sweet friend to Kendall. I’m sure he’ll continue to be. They raised him well.”

“That they did. They raised him very well.” Reese nodded. It was no secret that some parents only raised a child because it was a duty for every eligible adult to do so at least once in their lifetime. It was easy to see who had the passion for the task, and the Williamsons were a prime example of that sort of couple. They had decided to try again after the first, after all. Peyton was their precious gem, an opportunity for a second chance. “How about Olive?” Reese asked. “What do you think of her?’

“She’s… something.” There was a brief hesitation from Fallon. “She really helped Kendall come out of his shell and quit being so high-strung. That’s always a good thing. I’m sure she did the same thing for Peyton as well.”

Reese chuckled. “Oh, she did. Trust me.” After nearly six years of Olive’s hushed, almost shy aloofness in her sessions, she had suddenly latched herself to Peyton and refused to let go. Kendall too, but it was clear to anyone who had spent more than a minute in Reese’s classroom that Peyton was clearly her favorite. “I hope that she’ll continue that for him in the Academy. For him and Kendall. It would help them out a lot.”

“Mm-hmm.” Fallon stared off into the point where the bus had disappeared. “Yeah. It’s gonna be interesting.”

Reese nodded. Yes, it would be interesting indeed. Olive and Peyton would be quite… no, this wasn’t the time to think about that. Later. When she was on her way back home. She looked to the road the bus had just coasted down. “Yes,” she said. The word fell unceremoniously into the awkward silence that had come between the three of them.

Bailey cleared his throat, adjusting the collar on his turtleneck. His dark face was shiny with sweat. “Well, Miss. I think it’s time that we start getting home. There’s no use in standing here for the next hour, now is there?”

“No. You’re right. It’s about time I get home, too.” Reese stepped forward and held her arms open.

Fallon was the one to accept the hug first. She loosely wrapped her arms around Reese’s waist, and they dropped all too quickly. Bailey was a little more heartfelt with his embrace. He wiped his eyes as she pulled away. “Thank you, Reese,” he said. “We’ll be sure to keep in touch.”

“Likewise. Have a nice day!” Reese smiled warmly at him. She stared after the pair as they began their trek back to their home. Then she walked alone.

It didn’t bother her much, being by herself. The solitude just came with the job. Dealing with children on a day-to-day basis was nice, but it didn’t bring what Reese would call a fulfilling social life. But it didn’t matter much to her. She’d always been more of the introverted type, anyhow. Even in the Academy she’d preferred to be cooped in her room, studying or reading. It gave her room to think. Like walking did. Strolling down the cobbled roadway was so much nicer than sitting in a bus filled with whispering passengers and offbeat glances. Her home was on the very edge of Silverhill, a forty-five minute walk from the bus stop, but it didn’t matter. It was peaceful.

Poor Peyton, Kendall, and Olive. They had always enjoyed their long walks to and from her sessions. It was unlikely that they’d be able to do things like that, now. Or perhaps they would. Who knew? They could probably find a way. Especially Olive, if she ended up being separated from her beloved Peyton. She was shrewd like that.

Reese lowered her eyes. Olive had become quite close to Peyton once she had decided to take the initiative to befriend him. There had never been such a bond between Olive and Kendall, had there? Yes, they were still close, but Olive almost seemed to baby Peyton. Reese snorted. As amusing as it was to think about, it couldn’t possibly be beneficial to either of them to have such an unconventional relationship. Carmen was right to express her worries of Peyton struggling socially in the Academy’s larger and more impersonal community. It would be impossible for him to develop socially if he continued clinging to Olive for all of his emotional validations.

Now that Reese thought of it, Olive was quite an enigma. Her parents were barely around— not that Reese had never had the need to contact them often; Olive was a well-behaved, if a bit eccentric student. But not a day had passed that she had ever seemed particularly unhappy or upset. That wasn’t right. The importance of expressing one’s genuine emotions was pushed exhaustively into her students’ minds. It was imperative to the well-being of society. Could Olive be putting on a mask? What effect would that have on Peyton? Well, Peyton was nearly the opposite, to be fair. He always wore his heart on his sleeve. Always emotional, and quite adept at overreacting to the most trivial of issues. That wasn’t a good thing, either.

Reese looked up from her shoes to survey the pond at the side of the road. It lapped against the grass and soil, agitated by the increasingly swelling wind. A pair of Seeker birds were perched on a tree branch above the reservoir. She smiled and waved at them. Of course, they didn’t respond, merely cocking their heads and blinking their bulbous little eyes. But they had given her an idea. An important idea. She just had to get home first. Picking up pace, she continued her trek to the edge of the district with a refreshed mind and a new plan.

It didn’t take her very long to reach her house— or at least it didn’t feel like it took very long. She almost didn’t notice she was there until she was going up the walkway, she was so immersed in her thoughts. Her hands, slippery with perspiration, fumbled with the doorknob for a moment before she could let herself in. Pulling her shoes off, she went through the short walkway into her kitchen. There was a gnawing at her stomach. Some quick brunch before she got to work wouldn’t hurt.

She grabbed the basket of vegetables freshly picked from her garden and let a random assortment spill out onto the countertop. A pepper, two tomatoes, a carrot. That would do. Reese put the basket back in the corner and got to work. It was nice to work on things like this. There was no rush to get something into her stomach before she had to go and teach class. The month long summer break was something she looked forward to all year. No stress, no worrying about the behavior of her twenty- to thirty-something students. Speaking of that. Reese pursed her lips as she sawed through the vegetables. One of her younger students had been quite disrespectful when Peyton, Olive, and Kendall were giving their presentation yesterday. Francis. It was unacceptable. She would need to put a swift stop to that once sessions started back up, lest the situation got any worse. There wasn’t any reason to go for the more extreme solutions if the more extreme issues could be prevented beforehand.

Flicking on the stove burner, Reese put a pot on top and fished around in the cupboard for the black beans. Yes, that was what she would do. She would tell Francis that the ill-mannered behavior would have to stop before there were consequences. If that didn’t work, she would tell her parents. They wouldn’t mess around. Reese knew that from experience. And if that proved to be fruitless… well, it’d be out of her hands then. She didn’t like that happening. But it was for the greater good in the end, even in the worst case scenarios.

Reese dumped the sliced vegetables into the pot and stirred them around with a spoonful of oil. She took a plate and a fork out of the cupboard, resting them on the countertop. What she was about to do was for the greater good, as well. For the good of the City, Peyton, and Olive. She had to remember that. Dumping her food onto the plate, she carried it to her desk and sat down. The food tasted nice.

There was a stack of blank papers and decorated envelopes at the left hand corner of her desk. Setting her still-full plate on the floor, Reese plucked up a sheet and her best black pen. She tapped her fingers on the desk several times. After a minute, she placed the nib of the pen down and started to write.

Mr. Presley,

Hello. It’s been a while since we’ve last talked, hasn’t it? I hope you’re doing well.

I address this letter to you to come forth with a notice. Today, I sent three of my former students to enroll at the Academy. Their names are Peyton Williamson, Olive Zaretsky, and Kendall McCloud. I believe that the two former— Peyton and Olive— may present a potential harm to others at the Academy. I suspect that their scores on the Equanimity Spectrum may be on the lower side of normal. Particularly Peyton’s. He expresses a dependency on Olive that could possibly evolve into emotional instability under the wrong circumstances. Olive, on the other hand, seems to accept and even encourage this behavior. Whether she is doing it with malicious intent or not is not known to me. I admittedly have not done anything to try and assuage these actions, and for that I apologize. At the moment I do not believe that it is certain that they will cause conflict at the Academy. This letter is by no means a request for neutralization. I merely ask that you keep an eye on Peyton and Olive in the meantime, just to be safe. Perhaps you should give them a Spectrum evaluation upon their arrival. I would take any unusual behavior from them that would otherwise be ignored as an increased risk of volatility for them.

Wishing you well during this busy time,

Reese J. Campbell

Reese set down her pen and read over the letter twice, thrice. Satisfied, she folded the paper in half and leafed through her assortment of envelopes. She chose one near the end, one just slightly thicker and heavier than the others. She nudged the letter inside, sealed it shut, signed For Mister Jordan W. Presley on the front, and pushed back her chair, standing up. The envelope fluttered in her hand as she walked out the room, through the kitchen, and out the back door. A slight drizzle had begun to fall. Reese ignored it as she ambled through her blossoming garden and up to the mailbox, pushed flush against the mountain that signified the natural end of the Silverhill district. She pushed it inside, leaving a bit of the corner peeking out, and stepped back, looking to the sky. Light droplets hit her face. It would probably take until the weather cleared up, but the letter would be shipped for Presley to read soon. Everything would be okay.

Reese looked back to her house. No use in staying out here in the rain, she supposed. Her brunch was getting cold. And she still had to deal with the whole Francis situation. Pushing back through her garden, she approached the still-ajar door and swung it completely open. The sight of the kitchen made her sigh. That had to be cleaned up, too.

She walked back into her room, sitting down at the desk. The plate still felt warm under her fingers as she picked it up. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. The plate was scraped clean in a matter of minutes. Wiping her mouth, she stood up and made her way back to the kitchen. She turned on the sink and dumped the knife, cutting board, pot, plate and fork in, scrubbing the cutlery with a washcloth.

A sudden blur of darkness alerted her to the backdoor window. Resting the soapy plate back into the sink, she walked over and peeked into the garden. A Seeker bird had perched on her mailbox, its blue-black feathers slick with rainwater. Reese watched as it jerked its crested head from side to side, as if it were looking for any snoopers. Then it dove forward and clutched the envelope in its narrow beak— right where the chip embedded into the envelope was. Without any other delays or flairs, it took to the sky, leaving as suddenly as it had come.

Reese smiled. Off to the Academy, off to tell Mister Presley and the other officials of her concerns. Everything was going to be alright. Of course everything was going to be alright, she told herself as she went back to the running sink. It was part of her job to ensure just that. She wouldn’t have been chosen to monitor the behavior of Silverhill’s children if she hadn’t been suited for the task, now would have she?

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Five

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Peyton adjusted his tie for the hundredth time, staring intently into the mirror. His shirt was much too stiff, the collar bit into the sides of his neck, and his newly washed and ironed black khakis chafed irritatingly against his legs. The shoes squeezing his feet warped his gait from an acceptably confident walk to a rather undignified limp. But he looked good, and that was all that mattered for today— giving off a good first impression.

In the reflection of the mirror, he could see Father push the door open and step inside. He turned around and forced a smile. “Hi… can you fix my tie for me, please?”

Father reached toward him, untying the garment and fixing it back up in seconds. “Is that better?”

Peyton nodded, fingering his now unrestricted neck. “Yeah. Thanks.” The corners of his lips trembled.

Father reached down and tucked an awry strand of hair behind Peyton’s ear. “Your mother and I are very proud of you. You know that, don’t you? We know you’ll do great at the Academy. Don’t worry.”

Peyton shrugged and looked away, the grin on his face melting away as fake grins usually did. “I know that, Father. I know you want me to do good, but—” Mother’s distressed cries and Father’s futile consolations from last night flared back to the surface. He squeezed his eyes shut instinctively. “S-sorry. I can’t help but be nervous. I’m not as nervous as yesterday, though. I think I’ll be okay.” He glanced up, making his face as pleasant as possible. “I’ll try to turn some of that nervousness into excitement for you and Mother. So you two don’t need to worry so much.”

“I appreciate that, Peyton.” Father rubbed his shoulder. “But don’t worry too much about us. Worry about your studies and making new friends, and having new experiences instead. We’ll be just fine here.”

Peyton couldn’t hide his wince. The idea that he would be away from his parents for more than a few hours, let alone a few years, for the first time in his life still made him feel odd. That feeling had only gotten worse since last night. “Well, I still plan on writing to you guys,” he said. “Once a week, at least. Will you write back?”

“Of course we will. And you’d better keep your promise or else we’ll come over there and force you to tell us what you’re doing in class all day.” Father nudged him gently.

Peyton couldn’t help but laugh. That would be impossible— the busses to the Academy only came once a year, and students were the only ones allowed on— but thinking of his parents going all that way just to talk to him about his day comforted him, somehow. “I will, I will. Don’t worry.” He paused. “Is… is Mother almost ready?”

“She’s supposed to be. Probably still applying her makeup, or something.” Father glanced at his watch. “We still have time. It’s only seven-forty. Still, though… Carmen!” he called. “We’re ready to go!”

“Sorry! I’m here!” Mother hurried into Peyton’s room as best as she could in her heels. Flipping her dark hair over her shoulder, she gave Peyton a big, lipstick-coated kiss on the cheek. “Does my dress look okay?”

“Your dress looks fine, Mother.” Peyton rubbed the maroon stain off his face. So much like her to put on such an extravagant getup just to watch a bus drive away. He couldn’t find himself able to get exasperated at her, though. “Can we leave now?”

Father grabbed the strap of the duffle bag, picking it up with a grunt. “I’ll get the door.” He walked out the bedroom.

Mother wrapped Peyton into a rib-crushing hug. “Let’s go, sweetie.”

Peyton hesitated. This was it— this was the last time he would be in this room, the last time he would step out of the house, and eventually the last time he would hug his parents, for a minimum of four years— and it would probably be longer than that, realistically. Once he got onto that bus, there would be no turning back. When Mother pulled away, he found himself grasping for her hand. When he found it he clutched it as if he would never let go. Mother silently wrapped her fingers around his own, and they walked out the bedroom, into the kitchen, and out the door together.

The weather outside fit Peyton’s mood aptly. Light gray clouds covered the sky, the sun a valiant pale dot shining through the thick veil. Peyton tucked his chin into his chest as he walked, eyes fixed intently on the cobblestone ground beneath him. Looking at all the surroundings that he’d grown up with for the past fourteen years would only end up making him more emotional. Already he felt like he would cry.

As they continued to walk, Peyton found himself slowing down, trying to savor it all for the last time. Neither Mother or Father objected to his loitering pace, not even when his newly polished shoes began to drag on the pavement. Mother was probably secretly grateful— she had tired of her heels twenty steps in and was now walking barefoot, holding her shoes in the hand not occupied with Peyton’s. Father had thrown the duffle bag over his shoulder, staring up to the sky to try and hide his early morning bleariness. No conversation happened between the three of them, but the silence was comfortable, peaceful. It almost felt normal, like they were walking down the road to catch the bus to Miss Campbell’s class. But no matter how slowly they walked, Peyton knew that they were going to reach their destination far too soon for his liking.

The bus stop was already occupied by five familiar faces. Peyton’s heart jumped in his chest as he recognized the person waving at him— “Miss Campbell!” He ran over and threw his arms around her. “I thought you weren’t going to come! Thank you for coming!”

“Of course I was going to come, Peyton. I told you I would yesterday, didn’t I?” She returned the hug, rubbing his back. “I see all of my students off to the Academy. There was no way I’d make an exception for you, Olive and Kendall.”

Peyton managed to drag himself away from her at last, stepping back to where his parents stood. Miss Campbell nodded at them and smiled lightly, as if she had just noticed them. Peyton’s gaze wandered off to the other four at the stop— Kendall’s parents, Kendall himself, and Olive in tow. They grinned and waved at him. Miss Campbell had come for them too, of course, but she had specifically said that she was coming to see him off yesterday. She had meant that, hadn’t she? He pushed down the growing twinge of jealousy. Of course she would saw all of her students off. She cared for all of them equally. He shouldn’t have expected her to behave any different toward him than the others.

“Peyton, are you okay?” Mother’s hand rested on his head. “You’re going to do great, sweetheart.”

Olive nodded. “She’s right, Peyton. Don’t be nervous! We’re gonna do just fine.”

“I’m fine, you guys.” Peyton felt his face grow warm from suddenly becoming the center of attention. “Are you okay, Mother?”

Mother stubbornly blinked away the tears gathering in her eyes. “I’m okay, honey. I’m just so proud of you.” Pulling him closer, she gave him another sloppy kiss on his cheek. “Don’t forget to write letters to us, okay?”

“I won’t, Mother.” He reached up to wipe the lipstick away, then paused. “I think I hear something.”

Father glanced at his watch. “Seven fifty-nine.” He shrugged the duffle bag off his shoulder. He set it on the ground. Peyton could only stare at it. This was it. This was really happening.

“It’s coming!” Kendall’s mother tore Peyton’s eyes away. “I can see it!”

He followed her finger to the point in the distance. Yes— a sleek, short black bus was coming down the street toward them, a stark contrast from the white pedestrian busses that usually went through the district. Peyton fumbled with his arms, trying to pick up his bag and hug Mother at the same time. He chose to get his bag first. Once it was lugged over his shoulder, he managed to give Mother a lopsided hug. “Bye, Mom…” he pushed his face into her chest. When he pulled away there were wet streaks on her pale dress, a burgundy stain smeared next to them. He was crying? No, this wasn’t the time for that.

He rubbed his cheeks and turned to Father. “Bye, Father. I’ll miss you.” He hugged him shortly, then pulled away. There wasn’t much time to waste. The bus was getting closer by the moment. “Bye, Miss Campbell.” He wrapped his arms around her ribcage and squeezed tightly. Miss Campbell hugged him back, resting her hand on the back of his head. When she finally released him, the bus was coming to a stop in front of them. Peyton backed away. “I’m gonna miss all of you.”

“We know, dear. We’ll miss you too. Now—” Mother raised her hand— “go! Don’t keep the bus waiting.”

Peyton took a few more steps back, taking in their faces for the last time. Then he forced himself to turn around. The bus had swung its doors open, and Kendall and Olive were already standing on the stairs, looking at him expectantly. He hurried up and jumped onto the steps, pulling the duffle bag back on his shoulder. Olive led the way through the aisle. Peyton followed her, staring at the polished metal floor of the bus. Only a few other kids were on the bus already, leaving empty spaces all over. He slipped into the seat Olive had chosen for them near the back. Kendall sat down after him, Peyton uncomfortably sandwiched between the two.

The doors slammed shut. Peyton was jolted backward as the bus began to pull away. “Now departing for district Cascadefalls: 5469 Blue Point Avenue,” the automatic voice stated.

Peyton leant forward, staring past Olive to the five figures outside the window. Slowly, he raised his hand and waved to them. He had no idea if they could see him— the windows appeared to be blacked out from the outside when he’d looked— but as the bus started to pick up speed, they lifted their arms and began to wave as well.

The bus was going the way it had come, and Peyton continued to stare after Mother, Father and Miss Campbell until they were only mere dots in the distance. He twisted back around and slouched as best as he could in his seat, all his energy fluttering out of him with a single sigh.

“It’s gonna be okay, Peyton.”

A hand rested on his own. Listlessly, he glanced up to stare at Olive. She smiled at him. “I told you not to worry,” she said. “Me and Kendall are going to be there for you no matter what, got that? We’ll get through this together.”

Peyton couldn’t find the energy to offer anything stronger than a small nod. Olive didn’t seem to mind, though. She let him face the front of the bus and stare out the windshield again, keeping her hand on his. The roads were barren save for their bus, and they cruised through the district quickly and smoothly. Peyton sat up slightly as they approached the Cascadefalls sign. They were about to leave Silverhill.

He looked behind him as they passed the border, his former home shrinking away with every second the bus continued to drive forward. This was actually happening. Every time he thought the finality of the situation couldn’t set in any deeper, it managed to prove him wrong. Slowly, he turned back around, slumping in his seat again. His eyes flickered up to Kendall. The boy’s lips cocked up in a tiny smile, but even he looked nervous as he resumed looking out the windows.

Arriving in Cascadefalls was like stepping into a whole new world. Instead of short, jaunty bright green foliage, there were towering trees covered with drooping fronds dotting the sides of the streets. They were called weeping willows, Peyton believed. The bus weaved through winding rows, passing small ponds and thin streams. The stops were quick and short, picking up all the other students coming to the Academy. A brooding boy with dark hair hung over his eyes at one stop, two perky girls whispering to each other at another. A kid clutching a notepad actually nodded and smiled at Peyton as he walked past. Peyton returned the smile, but it melted away as soon as he was no longer being watched.

This was going to be such a long drive. Rosenvale and Zephyrpoint would probably take half an hour each to get through, and then it was a two hour drive to the Academy after that. Why had they made it so isolated in the first place? Peyton pouted. He’d never ridden a bus for longer than thirty minutes before, and now he was expected to be thrown into such a long ride so suddenly.

Olive squeezed his hand. “Go to sleep if you’re bored. Or you can talk to me. I don’t mind.”

Peyton looked at her, then to his right. Kendall had seemed to take initiative a while ago and now had his head bowed, eyes peacefully shut. Napping would make the time go by faster, or at least make it seem like it was. But talking to Olive would give him some much needed comfort. Would she get annoyed at him if he began to vent all his emotions at her? He shrugged ruefully. “I— I don’t know what I want to do”.

Olive smiled. “I think you’re tired. Lay your head on my shoulder.”

“I— alright.” Slowly, he leant to the side, putting his chin on her shoulder. The physical contact was quite relaxing. A soft sigh escaped him, his body melting against hers.

Olive patted his shoulder. “That’s it. Just go to sleep now, okay?”

Peyton shrugged again. “I guess you’re right. I didn’t get a very good sleep last night.”

“Really? Want to talk about it?”

He shook his head. There wasn’t any need to concern her over it. Knowing her, she would talk about it for the entire ride. “It’s alright,” he said. “Wake me up when we get there, okay?”

“Sure.”

Despite the emotions boiling inside of him, Peyton felt a small smile grace his face. He shut his eyes. “Thanks, Olive.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Peyton didn’t respond. He’d almost forgotten how nice sleep felt without having to worry about headaches or bad thoughts. Might as well get a little shut-eye in now before they arrived at the Academy. Shifting his body so it was sitting closer to Olive, he let sleep overtake him.

~ * ~

He wasn’t sure what ultimately woke him up in the end— Olive’s gentle prodding, or the bus coming to a sudden, jerky stop— but the second his eyes cracked open, he knew that they wouldn’t be closing again. There was just so much to take in outside the windows, he couldn’t allow himself to miss a single second of it.

Lifting his head from Olive’s shoulder, he basically crawled across her to press his face against the glass. Busses identical to theirs, more than he had seen together in his entire life, were lined up next to theirs in neat little rows. Beyond them, buildings rose out of the ground— some only about twice as tall as the busses, others so tall that they appeared to touch the sky, nearly overwhelming Peyton with their extraordinary size. He could feel the hairs on his nape stand on end. This was the Academy. This was going to be his new home.

“Cool, huh?”

He looked back at Olive, suddenly remembering that he was bent halfway across her lap. “Yeah.” He pulled back and settled back down in his seat. “Sorry. I just— I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Olive laughed. “Don’t worry about it. It was pretty moving for most of us. Kendall even started tearing up. As much as he wants to deny it.”

“I did not.” Kendall scowled, lifting his bag from the floor and dropping it on his lap. “When are we getting out of here, anyway?”

“See what I mean?” She tittered again. “To answer your question, I’m not too sure. There’ll probably be an announcement over the speakers or something. That’ll tell us what to do.”

Peyton nodded. “Yeah. You’re right.” He picked up his own bag, fumbling with the strap. He glanced out the window again, at the black and silver buildings ten times his height. The initial blaze of excitement had died much too quickly, eaten away by the unshakable nervousness that had been growing within him over the last few days. “You guys are going to be staying with me, right?”

“We’ll be right by your side.” Olive patted his hand.

“Mm-hmm,” Kendall said. “Until we have to go off and do our own separate things, of course.”

Peyton nodded. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Yes, they’d have to disband eventually. He’d just have to find a way to cope with that… as difficult as it would be.

A light crackling drew their attentions to the ceiling. “Good day, new arrivals!” a tinny, cheerful voice sounded over a hidden speaker. “Congratulations on arriving here at last. Welcome to the Educational Academy for City Adolescents! As you know, you all will be living here for the next few years. Please take some time to get accustomed. You all have probably realized by now that this place is much more extravagant than the district you’ve come from. It can be intimidating, but by the end of today I assure you that you will be as comfortable as can be. To start, please exit the bus and line up into six columns as neatly as you can in front of them. Some of our officials and I will be there to greet you and help you get organized.”

The doors slowly hissed open. Outside the window, Peyton could see all the other busses opening up as well, children beginning to file out of them. They all had to be as nervous as him, right?

Olive stood up shakily, nudging Peyton. “C’mon, let’s go. There’s no time to waste.”

“Yeah. Sorry.” He rose to his feet, dragging his bag up with him. “Can we go, Kendall?”

“Just waiting for the aisle to clear up.”

“Oh.” Peyton stood on his tiptoes, staring past Kendall’s head to watch the last of the other students clamber through the bus and climb down the stairs. Once the bus was clear, Kendall left the seat, Olive and Peyton following closely behind him. The aisle seemed to stretch on forever to Peyton. Olive was behind him to give him a small prompting forward whenever he slowed. After what seemed like an eternity, they reached the exit. Kendall was the first to climb down, turning back to look up at Peyton and Olive. Peyton forced his feet to go on the stairs, one at a time. Stepping onto the ground at last allowed him to release the breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Olive jumped down behind him. “Let’s get to the line and see what’s going on.” She bounded forward without warning, and Kendall and Peyton had to hurry to catch up to her. The crowd only grew denser as they advanced, and Peyton found himself having to squeeze between gaps to keep up, apologizing hastily to each student he pushed past. Olive didn’t seem to notice his struggle as she fought her way to the front of the throng. It felt like every eye in the place was trained on the three of them as Peyton forced himself through a cluster of students and staggered over to Olive, his head swiveling to take in the spectacle of towers before them.

“Come on,” Kendall said, tapping Peyton’s shoulder. “We have to get into the lines, now.” The rest of the crowd was drifting into neat columns in front of the busses.

Olive took Peyton’s hand into hers. “We should get into the same line.” She was already pulling him to the leftmost column, causing him to bump into more than a few students.

Peyton staggered into the spot behind Olive, almost crashing into the person standing behind him. “Sorry,” he muttered.

Whatever response the student had for him was drowned out by an excited commotion. Someone was approaching, Peyton realized, and he peered over Olive’s frizzy mane to get a better look. An adult, most likely in his late twenties or early thirties, his blonde hair cut short and styled neat, swept his keen eyes over the mass of students before him.  The smirk on his lips only grew with each new face he regarded. “Greetings, everyone! I am Jordan Presley— but please, call me Mister Presley.” His voice matched the one that they had heard on the bus. “I am the counselor and the head of student conduct and relations, and I will be helping you get acclimated to the Academy as much as possible today.”

He adjusted his tie and glanced over the students once more. “This area is close to the center of the Academy— it’s been unofficially declared to be our plaza, in fact. Our destination is the resident headquarters in the student center building. Luckily for you and your feet, that building is merely a few minutes’ walk from where we are at the moment.” He pointed behind him. “Once we’re there, we’ll work on getting all of you registered and ready to explore the Academy and all it has to offer. Those of you who will be sharing a room with an older student, there is a decent chance that they will be there to help show you around before the official tour at seventeen o’ clock. The rest of you will have me or another official as a guide, so worry not. Nobody will be left out today, I assure you.”

He grinned brightly. “If there are no questions, I will lead you to the student center now. Please remain in your lines as that will ensure that this process goes as smoothly as possible. Then we can get into the more interesting parts of our day.” Pivoting curtly on his heel, he began to strut away.

Olive looked over her shoulder and grinned at the students behind her. “Guess we’d better get going, then.” She did a little hop in place before following Mister Presley.

Peyton hesitated only for a brief moment. A light shove from behind prompted him forward. He craned his head back, taking in the new sights and scents of this unfamiliar new place. From what he could see from the corner of his eyes, nearly everyone else around him was doing the exact same thing. With every building they passed and nearby administrator they noticed, his apprehension grew. In a matter of minutes, he would officially become a bona fide member of the Academy. He would finally be getting his first taste of independence. He sped up just enough to rest his fingertips on the bag tossed over Olive’s shoulder. “Do you think we’re almost there?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” she whispered back. “It’s that silver building to the left, see?” She pointed to the relatively humble building Mister Presley appeared to be drifting toward. “Just a little longer to go. You excited?”

“I guess so. As excited as I can be, at least.”

“I keep on telling you that there’s no need to be nervous.” She chuckled quietly. “There’s gonna be people to help you around. Do you know if you have a roommate or not?”

“I— I’ve never checked.” Heat rushed to Peyton’s face. He’d never bothered to look at the envelope inside of his bag when it had been sent to him, and Mother and Father had never asked him about it. It had never crossed his mind what sort of information it could have had in it until now. “I’m so dumb.”

“Don’t worry about it too much, Peyton. I’m sure that the officials will tell you if you ask. Look, we’re getting ready to go in.” She began to slow down, eventually coming to a stop when Mister Presley turned around to face them once more. “Are we going in now?” she called out.

Mister Presley was apparently unfazed by the distasteful manner in which Olive asked her question. If anything, he seemed pleased. “Indeed, we are! I ask for you all to stay in your neat lines. There are six people at the table inside to assist you, so staying organized will help this go as smoothly and quickly as possible like I stated before. Once you are officially enrolled and given your papers, feel free to find your roommate as specified on your sheet or get close to one of our adult guides— either one is okay by us as long as you don’t overwhelm one single individual. Are we all good on that?”

A resounding “yes” came from the crowd, and he beamed. “Fantastic! Then feel free to follow me inside.” With a flourish, he pivoted around and walked to the glass double doors in the front of the building. He fumbled with something to the left, and with the faintest beep, the doors swung open.

There was more than enough room for all six rows to enter at the same time, but nobody acted like it. Olive rushed in at a near jog, and Peyton had to hurry to keep up with her. The inside of the room was quite simple— white all around, brightly lit by fluorescent lights dotting the ceiling. At the opposite end of the room, there was a long desk table where six people and dozens of paper piles sat. Apparently that was where they were supposed to go, because Olive bounded over to the leftmost person and waved eagerly at them.

The room was quickly filled with hushed conversations and the rustling of paper. Peyton strained to hear the exchange going on between Olive and the administrator. He couldn’t hear much, but what he could hear didn’t sound like anything special. Well, he had to be patient. He’d get to experience it for himself once it was his turn.

His turn came quicker than he had anticipated. After what couldn’t have been more than five minutes, Olive pulled away from the desk, now clutching several documents to her chest. She jerked her thumb to the side of the room as she turned to Peyton. “Meet me over there when you’re finished, okay?”

“Uh— okay.” He watched her walk away, leaving him by himself with the official— a middle-aged woman with brown hair and bright eyes. She looked almost like Mother. Peyton stepped forward when she beckoned for him to do so. “H-hello.”

“Good afternoon. Full name?”

“Um—” his mind went blank for an embarrassing few seconds. “Peyton. With an ‘e.’ Peyton Rory Williamson.”

The lady scribbled something down onto a clipboard and jabbed some letters into a small electric screen. “Peyton. Welcome to the Academy. Give me a moment to find your papers.” She flipped through the folders on the desk at an impressive speed before plucking one from the stack. “Here we go.” Thrusting it into his hand, she went back to the screen and tapped a few more things in. “That contains your room information, the itinerary for today, your weekly schedule, and other important things. Make sure you don’t lose it.”

“Okay. I will. I mean, I won’t.” He watched her continue fiddling with the screen, then frowned as she picked up a black, pen-sized rod from her side. “W-what is that for?”

“Hold out your left wrist, please.”

So he did.

The lady took his hand in hers before looking up at him. “Don’t worry, this won’t hurt any more than a pinch.” She pressed the tip of the rod against his wrist and pushed a button on the side. She was right— he barely felt anything at all as the tool clicked softly. There wasn’t even anything visible on his arm when she relinquished her hold on him. “It’s just a little thing everyone in the Academy gets when they come here,” the lady explained. “You’ll find scanners to the side of most of the doors. Press your wrist to it and it’ll open right up for you if you’re authorized to go in. Your dormitory, for example.”

Peyton nodded, cradling his hand. “Y-yeah. That makes sense.” Mister Presley must have been doing that when they had come in. The amount of new features and technologies this place had compared to Silverhill was so overwhelming. How was everyone else dealing with it? He glanced to the side of the room. Olive was already talking to a girl, an official or a student guide probably. His grip on his hand tightened. Olive had told him to meet him when he was finished. Would the girl she was talking to be mad at him if he went over there?

“Peyton?”

He looked back at the lady, biting his cheek. “Sorry.”

“It’s quite alright.” She looked in the direction Peyton had been staring at. “Looking for your friends?”

“Y-yeah.”

“I see. You have two roommates, you know that? Perhaps you’ll see one of them over there.”

“Really?”

“Mm-hmm.” She gestured to the manila folder clutched in his hand. “Their names should be on the first sheet you see when you open it. Try asking around to see if you can find either of them. It’s a good idea to get to know them as early as you can.”

Peyton brought the papers to his chest, almost taking a step back before he remembered where he was standing. “Okay. I guess I will. Thank you.” He shifted his weight from side to side. “Can I leave now?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” She smiled at him. “Go over there and meet some new people! The first day is supposed to be fun.”

“I guess… thanks again.” Now, what was the best way to maneuver around all these people? He exited the line to the left and walked up to the front wall behind the table. Maybe he could squeeze between it and the table, and get to the right side of the room where Olive was. Ducking his head down, he pushed his body in between the table and the wall and trudged forward, trying his best not to bump into any chairs or step on any haphazard pieces of paper on the floor. The tiny gap seemed to stretch on perpetually, but somehow, he finally reached the end.

After reclaiming his bearings, he raised his head and glanced around. Where had Olive went off to now? It was amazing how quickly even her distinctive hair could get lost in a sea of other heads. He continued scanning the crowd. There she was, near the right hand corner of the room. He began to walk forward, but his feet ground him to a stop as his eyes landed on the face next to hers. She was still talking to that girl. He stepped back, rooting himself in place. When would she be finished talking to her? He couldn’t just walk up to them. That would be rude. Was Kendall almost finished with his registration? He turned back to the table, standing up on tiptoes as he searched for him. It looked like the official was still speaking to him. Peyton scowled as he watched Kendall’s face light up with laughter, his hand held out to shake with the woman’s. He made it look so easy. Him and Olive.

Several more minutes passed. Kendall nodded at the woman once more before exiting the line, swiftly walking through the group of people to the opposite side of the room. Peyton tried to make sure his face looked as neutral as possible as Kendall approached. “Did it go okay?” he asked.

Kendall nodded, glancing down at his forms. “Have you found Scout yet?”

“S-Scout?”

He looked up. “We’re sharing a room with another student here, Peyton. His name is Scout. Scout Davis? Have you found him yet?”

“Oh.” Peyton shook his head. “Not yet.” He should have remembered to check his forms. He’d been reminded twice in the past hour, for goodness sakes. “But— but we can look for him now, right?”

Kendall sighed. “I guess we can.” He turned away from Peyton. “Let me go ask one of the staff if they know where he is.”

“Okay.” Peyton followed Kendall silently. Now that he thought about it, it wasn’t actually so bad that he got paired with Kendall instead of being the only one placed in a room with this stranger— Scout, it was. That would have been terrible. At least with Kendall, he had that familiarity to cling onto. How was Olive dealing with everything being so different? He looked over in her direction. She was still talking with that girl. Better than him, apparently.

He was jerked out of his thoughts when he nearly crashed right into Kendall. Stepping back, he readjusted his duffle bag and looked up sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright.” Kendall glanced to Peyton for a moment, before gesturing to the person in front of them. “This is Scout. Scout, meet Peyton.”

The boy— Scout— brushed his hair out of his face and raised a hand. “Hello.”

Peyton forced himself to nod and smile. “Hi. I’m Peyton.”

“I figured as much.” Scout nodded, staring out to some point in the distance Peyton couldn’t pin down. “I read over your forms yesterday, before you came. The personality and mannerisms mentioned in matched you two perfectly. It wasn’t hard to find you.”

“Mm.” Kendall fished around in his folder for a moment before taking out a sheet, holding it up to Scout’s face. “You said that you would show us around before the assembly?”

Scout plucked the paper from Kendall’s hand and skimmed it over. “I guess I can,” he said at last. “Where do you want to go first?”

“I’d like to see our room, if that’s possible.” Kendall shrugged his sliding bag back onto his shoulder. “It feels like these get heavier the longer you carry them.”

“Y-yeah,” Peyton said. Now that Kendall had mentioned it, he could no longer ignore the strap biting into his shoulder. “And— and I’m pretty tired, too.”

Scout glanced over to him, his lip curling. “You can’t go to sleep yet. You need to go to the newcomer’s assembly a few hours from now.”

“Oh… oh, yeah. I guess I forgot.” He looked away and intertwined his fingers. “Sorry.”

Scout didn’t respond. Instead, he looked back to Kendall, handing back the paper given to him. “Just follow me. I guess I can point out all the buildings we pass on the way there. It isn’t a very long walk, though.”

“Sure.” Kendall gently nudged Peyton. “Come on.”

Somehow, Peyton managed to force his feet off the floor. It took forever to trudge through the hundred-odd people, yet at the same time, they reached the entrance much too soon for his liking. He hadn’t had the chance to… lifting his gaze from the floor, he glanced behind him. From the opposite side of the room, Olive was watching him. As their eyes met, she grinned and waved. Peyton raised his hand and waved back.

A subtle, but insistent cough from Kendall was the only thing that made him break eye contact. He turned away, squeezing his eyes shut. Maybe that was the last time he would ever have an interaction with Olive. Maybe they wouldn’t even have any sessions together, and she would be housed so far away from him that they wouldn’t even see each other ever again. Then he’d only have Kendall to talk to. And Kendall probably liked Scout more than him already.

Peyton bit his lip, ignoring the metallic tang on his tongue as he tried to keep the tears from bubbling over onto his cheeks. Neither of his companions seemed to notice. They only walked on, silently stepping past the threshold of the building and into the yawning, labyrinthine place that was now considered their new home.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter Three

P r e v i o u s N e x t

 

Peyton zipped up the duffle bag and stared at it as if it would vanish at any moment, like the normalcy of his life soon would. Everything that he could carry with him had been pushed into the sack. The words The Academy- Peyton R. Williamson stitched delicately on its side were bulging out, warped due to the over stuffing. Was he packing too much? He looked around uncertainly. His bedroom had never been very fancy before, but it now looked disconcertingly barren without his trinkets decorating the walls and tabletops.

He clenched his eyes shut. There was no need to be thinking so pessimistically about it. He’d be able to redecorate at the Academy once he got settled in. Unless the person he’d be living with didn’t like his little knickknacks and novelties for some reason. No, he’d sent that information form with all his interests and likes and dislikes and stuff. That had been several months ago, more than long enough to be carefully analyzed. The letter the student relation officials had sent assured that the roommate chosen for him would mesh with his own personality as closely as possible. Hopefully they would be right.

Peyton stood up, dragging the duffle bag from the center of the room to the foot of his bed. The scent of Mother’s cooking was wafting from under the closed door. He’d only eaten a muffin since he’d gotten home from sessions, and the mouthwatering smells coming from the kitchen only intensified his hunger. He’d all but finished packing, for the most part. Was there any need to stay in his empty room for any longer than he had to?

He opened the door and walked through the hallway, entering the kitchen. Mother was standing by the stove, stirring something in a tall pot. He brushed up against her side, and she jumped at the sudden contact. Turning the heat down, she turned to him and wrapped him in an unexpectedly tight hug. “You scared me, Peyton,” she said with a light chuckle. “Are you finished packing up?”

“Mm-hmm.” He squirmed about, managing to escape her embrace. “What are you making for dinner?”

She smiled softly. “Your favorite— potato stew. It’s almost finished, now.”

“Okay. Great.” He returned the smile, leaning past her to sniff at the opened pan. “It smells good, Mother. I can’t wait.” If he were to be completely honest, potato stew hadn’t been his favorite meal for quite a few years now. He’d just never had the heart to tell his parents, despite the fact that they’d continued to make it at least five times a month since he was eight. It wasn’t like there was any reason to tell them now, though. “Hey— um, what’s the food at the Academy like?”

Mother looked back at him. “It’s okay, I guess. They have a lot of options for everyone, so you don’t need to worry about going hungry or anything.” She leant over and kissed him on the cheek. “But if you ever get tired of it, just write and we’ll send you a home cooked meal, alright?”

Peyton laughed, wiping his face. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“Well, if you say so.” She chuckled, pouring the contents of the pot into a shallow bowl. “Dale! Supper’s ready.”

Peyton took the bowl from her and carried it to his seat at the table. Sitting down, he poked his fork into the mix, licking the juice off the tines. Mother sat down with her own bowl, and Father walked out of the bedroom to pour himself a serving. He nudged Peyton’s shoulder as he walked by. “Hey, Pey.”

“Don’t say that, Dad.” Peyton covered his face. “I’m not a kid anymore.”

“You’ll always be a kid to me.” Father smiled, plopping down in his chair despite the furniture’s whiny groan. “Even when you graduate and go off to do your own things in life, you’ll always be our little baby.”

Peyton sighed, poking a half-smushed bean with his fork. He watched it float around pathetically within the soup of vegetables and broth. “I guess if you say so… can I have some lemonade, please?”

Mother grabbed the pitcher from the center of the table, pouring the lemonade into Peyton’s glass. “There you go.” She watched him pick up the glass and swallow half the contents in one gulp. “So, how was your walk with your friends?” she asked.

He took another sip out of the glass. Setting it down on the table, he swallowed and shrugged. “It was— okay. Nothing weird really happened. It was just… one last walk before we have to go away. That’s all.”

Father reached over and grabbed the lemonade pitcher. His eyes didn’t leave Peyton as he filled his cup. “You guys will still be able to hang out at the Academy, you know. You three are in the same year, so you’ll most likely be grouped together for activities and such often. And all three of you are planning on pursuing the same working field, aren’t you?”

“He’s right.” Mother nodded. “Don’t think that you all will be separated forever, or anything. And even if you do drift apart from each other for one reason or another, there’ll be plenty of other people your age for you to befriend.”

Peyton bit into the carrot he’d picked up and dropped his spoon back into the bowl. “I’m not worried about drifting apart. Olive said that we’ll always stay best friends no matter what happens while we’re at the Academy.”

He didn’t miss the glance Mother and Father shared with each other. “Of course, Pey,” Father said at last. He picked up some of his food, placing it into his mouth and chewing deliberately. Washing it down with a swig of lemonade, he glanced between Peyton and Mother. “So. What are you excited for most tomorrow?”

Peyton shrugged again. “I don’t know. I don’t know very much about the Academy. Nobody’s ever told me very much about it, really.”

“What are you excited to learn about?” Mother leant forward, folding her hands under her chin. “You want to become a researcher, right?”

“Or a doctor.” Peyton sighed. “I guess I’m excited for science classes and stuff, but…”

Father raised his eyebrows. “But?”

“I guess—” he faltered. “What if everyone there does better than I do in science, and doctor stuff and things like that? And then I get chosen to follow something I don’t want to do?”

“Oh, Peyton.” Mother reached over to place her hand over his. “Don’t worry about that. You’re going to do just fine.”

He pulled away from her. “I know. But it’s just— you know Kendall and Olive are so much smarter and outgoing and cooler than I am. They’re probably going to do a lot better than me just because of that. If they get chosen to pursue a career in science or something, and I don’t, that’ll leave me alone.” He swallowed, hunching his shoulders. “I don’t want that to happen.”

“Peyton, Peyton, sweetheart.” Mother frowned. “You just said yourself that you and your friends will be friends forever, no matter what happens. Even if you are chosen for something different, that’s not going to affect your relationship.” She leant back, her lips curling softly upward. “Do you want me to tell you a story?”

“Um— okay.”

She stirred the stew in her bowl. “Back when I was your age, I wanted to be involved with animals and plants. A biologist, maybe. I thought that was my special calling. I studied hard through primaries and secondaries, and I climbed to the top rankings for every science class. I was sure that I would be chosen to train to become some sort of researcher, perhaps even one in those facilities within the Academy.” She paused. “And you know what? I was elected to become a painter, instead.”

Peyton looked up at her. Instead of the regretful frown he had been imagining, that small smile was still there on her lips. Curiosity managed to overpower the apprehension bubbling in his chest. “What did you do?”

“Oh, I was very disappointed at first. I thought some sort of mistake had been made, or maybe that the officials were doing this just to annoy me. I tried to renounce their decision, but they insisted that they had made the right choice. So I went off to study painting. And I enjoyed it. A lot.” Her smile grew. “I’d always been quite talented in the arts, but I’d never noticed it compared to my science abilities. When I finally got to focus on it, I realized just how much it fit me. Sure, science would have been nice, but I wouldn’t trade where I am right now to start over.”

Father nodded. “And your friends don’t have to be in the same field as you for you to remain close with each other. I’m in engineering— quite different from your mother. We’re still happily together, aren’t we?”

“What we’re trying to say is that you shouldn’t worry so much about your future of your career or your friendships, right now.” Mother patted his hand again. “You still have a few years to discover yourself. Just go with the flow, and everything will be okay in the end.”

Peyton hesitated, then nodded. “Okay.” He stirred the stew around in his bowl. It was cool now, steam no longer rising from the broth. He pushed it away. “I’m not that hungry. May I be excused from the table, please?”

“Peyton—”

“Let him go.” Father rested a hand on Mother’s shoulder. “Go get ready for bed and go to sleep if you’re ready to, Peyton. Want to save your leftovers for breakfast?”

“It doesn’t really matter.” Somehow, Peyton knew that he wouldn’t be very hungry when he woke up the next day. He rose from his seat. “Thank you for excusing me.” He hurried from the table, out the kitchen, and down the hallway.

“Don’t forget to take your medicine!” Mother’s voice carried to his ears even as he closed the bedroom door behind him. His medicine. Right. The last dosage he would ever take in Silverhill. Walking over to his wardrobe, he slipped his hand into the paper bag on top and dug out the syringe. He sat down at the foot of the cabinet as he always did, breathing in deeply. In and out, near-parallel to the wrist, as quickly as possible. That’s how everyone had been taught to do it. It minimized the pain and allowed the medicine to flow through the body as smoothly as possible.

The needle punctured his skin, and he pressed down on the plunger, allowing the cloudy contents to surge into his body. Warmth spread down his arm and into his chest. The medicine was taking effect on him— he could feel it. His heartbeat was slowing, and the pressure in the back of his head that would inevitably turn into a migraine subsided a little. And yet, it did nothing for the feelings pulsing constantly in his mind.

He shook his head derisively, dropping the needle into the bag. Maybe going to sleep could help. He couldn’t think if he was sleeping, could he? Sure, the thoughts could follow him into his dreams, but he’d never been a very vivid dreamer anyhow. Then again… the medicine usually helped him still his thoughts before he went to bed. It clearly hadn’t been working as it should have in the past few days. What if it didn’t work for his dreams either? This was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid, all these worries and grievances. He squeezed his eyes shut. When he got into bed they would all melt away, surely.

After taking off his clothes, Peyton walked into the bathroom and up to the sink. He squirted toothpaste onto his worn toothbrush, scrubbing his teeth until his gums were raw. Turning on the faucet, he rinsed and splashed his face with the coldest water setting he could handle. He leant forward to examine his reflection. Water stuck his dirty blonde hair to his face, making him look just as unkempt and stressed as he felt. Light bags under his eyes only completed the entire look. Sleep would definitely do him some good.

He patted his face dry with a towel before going back to his room. The bed had been stripped of everything but a light top sheet and a pillow. It would only be for tonight, he had to remind himself. He flipped the light switch off. It was still relatively bright outside, the sunset’s gleam casting shadows on his walls. That didn’t stop him from slipping into bed, drawing his knees up to his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut. Time to relax, time to go to sleep.

The request for his body to comply did nothing to help. If anything, it caused the dull pain in his skull to throb slightly. It wasn’t anything severe, nothing worse than the headaches he got when he was sick, but it still hurt, and it still kept him awake. Maybe he was getting sick. Would he still be allowed to enter the Academy if he was ill? Or would he have to wait until next year? Through the haze, he felt and heard himself inhale. Olive and Kendall would probably leave him behind without a second thought.

That’s not true. Peyton flipped to his other side, hugging the pillow flush against him. Breathe in. Breathe out. Just go to sleep, will you? Every time he felt himself beginning to drift away, an awry thought or a twinge of pain in his head would bring him back to the realm of consciousness, which only served to make him more frustrated. Tossing and turning, controlling his breathing, and counting sheep did nothing to help at all. The thoughts and spasms always returned. When the pangs in his cranium had evolved into a full-on gnawing sensation, he cracked his eyes open to look at the clock on his bedside table— one of the only things he hadn’t packed as it belonged to his father. The white light peered back at him, almost seeming to mock him with the time. 21:44. He had been trying to fall asleep for the past two hours.

He couldn’t take this anymore. At this rate, he would be up all night. Quietly slipping out the bed, he tiptoed to the door. The hallway was dark, the floorboards creaking quietly under his feet. Had Mother and Father gone to sleep already? Just when he was about to enter their bedroom, a dim light in the kitchen flickered on. He slunk into the kitchen, peering past the doorway. Mother was by the sink drying some dishes. Peyton stepped forward. “M-mom?”

She whipped around, eyes like dinner plates in the faint yellow light. “Peyton? You should be sleeping! I don’t want you to be tired tomorrow.” Putting down the mug she had been polishing, she walked up to him and placed a hand on his forehead. “Are you okay? Do you want some tea? Or are you hungry, now?”

He took a step back. “I’m— I’m alright. I just wanted to ask— um—” he paused. “Can you tell me some more things about the Academy? Maybe it’ll help calm down my nerves, a little.”

Mother’s face softened. “You know I can’t tell you everything, Peyton. You’ve been asking me about the Academy since you learned about it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to answer anything else for you. You’ve milked all the answers out of me.” She chuckled, planting a kiss on his forehead. “But I’ll try my best. What do you want to know?”

Peyton hesitated, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I’m not exactly sure what I want to know. Maybe, well… do they give you medication at the Academy, too? Is it stronger? Does it work better?”

“Of course they still give you the medicine. Everyone has to take it until a certain age. The potency varies depending on the person, but yes, they do give it to you. They’re going to give it to you during the tour, actually.” Mother paused. “Why?”

He couldn’t hide his wince, not even as he fixed his gaze on the floor. “I— I haven’t… I haven’t been feeling very good lately. Um— I know it’s probably just stress, but… but I haven’t been able to stop myself from worrying for the past few days. Like I said, I’m probably just worried about the Academy. But… I’m also getting headaches. And I’ve been having issues with concentration.” He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. “What do you think? Could the medicine help with that?”

There was no way to mistake the distressed expression that had flashed over Mother’s face. “A-are you sure you’re feeling okay, honey? You don’t have a fever or anything, right?” She put her hand on his forehead again. “I hope you aren’t getting sick. The medicine isn’t for things like that, you know. You have to take something else for illnesses.”

“I know. I feel okay besides that. You know what? I’m probably just nervous, like you said.” Peyton smiled, then gave Mother a hug. “I feel better now,” he lied. “I’m going to go back to bed now. Goodnight.”

He pulled away and was about to make for the hallway when Mother’s voice stopped him. She sounded almost desperate. “Wait. Peyton.”

Peyton turned around. “What’s the matter?” He forced a smile through his pulsating headache. “I’ll be alright. Just— forget I said anything, okay? I’ll talk with you some more tomorrow.”

Mother opened her mouth, then shut it. At last, she nodded. “Okay, Peyton. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

The tension hung between them like a taut rope. Peyton forced himself to turn away and walk back to his room. Behind him, he could hear Mother’s footsteps padding against the wood, going to her own room to lay down with Father. He tried to ignore them as he shut the door behind him. Climbing into bed, he looked back at the clock. 21:59. He groaned, throwing the sheet over his head. How was he supposed to go to sleep like this? Nothing had improved since his talk with Mother. If anything, things had only gotten worse. Maybe he could ask to lay down with her and Father. Just the idea alone made his face flush with embarrassment. He was acting like a stupid baby. But… he was so tired. At this point he would try anything to get to sleep, if only to keep him from being absolutely exhausted the next day.

For the second time, he sidled out of bed. The floorboards creaked precariously under his feet as he snuck to the door. His hand reached for the doorknob— and then pulled away as voices came from the other side.

Mother and Father were talking. Guilt rushed through him for unknowingly listening in on their conversation, but some unseen force kept him rooted to the spot, the side of his head pressed to the door. What were they talking about? Was it about him?

“Carmen.” Father sounded exasperated. “Carmen, please. Everything is going to be fine. Don’t let—”

Mother sounded as if she had been crying. Or maybe she still was. “I told youI told you what he said! What’s happening to him is just like— we aren’t going to be able to do anything about it, and then— and then— I can’t do this again, Dale, I can’t.

“You’re worrying yourself over nothing, Carmen. Please calm down. He’s just a little stressed out, that’s all. He’s like every other kid. Everything’s going to be alright.”

“We can’t afford to lose another one, Dale, we can’t.” Her voice broke with another sob. “I can’t lose another child!”

What?

“Carmen, please. You’re going to wake him up. We aren’t going to lose him. Stop saying that.”

Mother sobbed out something else, but Peyton wasn’t listening at that point. His locked muscles finally loosened, and he backed away from the door as if it were a cornered animal. As silently as he could, he tiptoed back to his bed and climbed under the covers, pulling them up to his chin. His eyes remained wide open, staring at the ceiling. Lose another one— another child? What did they mean by that? Had they had a child before him— one that he had never met before? Why had they never told him about them?

He turned onto his side, trying to get air into his suddenly faltering lungs. It felt like his entire body had been filled with cement. Could those children have been forced to stay in the Academy forever, because they had done so poorly in their studies? He could see it now— forced to sit in a tiny room for the rest of his life while everyone slowly forgot about him, students entering and leaving the Academy year after year without a single care for him. Mother and Father would forget about him. And Kendall and Olive…

He curled up on himself, mouth stretched open in a soundless scream. He couldn’t breathe or move. His head was a jumble of pounding agony, black spots slowly dominating his blurred vision. This was it. This is how he— how he would—

A sharp jolt rushed through his chest as his lungs were suddenly filled with painful, life-giving air. For a second he just laid there, continuing to challenge just how much oxygen could enter his system with each gasp. The colossal weight in his cranium slowly melted away, leaving behind a dizzy lightheaded sensation. His once rigid muscles turned to jelly. He felt so… so calm, as calm as one could feel when they were pulled back from the edge of madness. Slowly, still not trusting his body, he unwound himself and rolled onto his back, focusing as best as he could on his breathing.

“Peyton?”

He could see the door open through his returning vision. Father was there. “You okay?” he asked. “I heard some moving about in here.”

Peyton didn’t really know what to say, but he somehow managed to find his voice and pushed it through his dry lips. “Yeah. Mm-hmm. I just had a nightmare, I think.” He coughed. “I— I was waking up from it. I’ll try to be quieter. S-sorry.”

Father continued to stare, and for a moment Peyton thought that he could see through his lie, that he knew what had just happened, that he now realized that Mother was right— there was nothing they could do to save their son from being lost. But all he did was nod. “Okay. Try to get some more sleep, okay? Big day tomorrow.” He walked out without another word.

Peyton stared at the door, unable to muster up the strength or the will to get up and close it. Instead, he rolled back onto his side, hugging his pillow to his chest. Exhaustion had fallen over him like a lead sheet. Just a minute ago he could think of doing anything but sleep, and now it seemed there was no way to stop his consciousness from slipping away. What was happening to him? He couldn’t worry about it right now. He closed his eyes and pushed his face into the pillow, slowly fading into oblivion. The only thing that remained was Mother’s tormented cry of “I can’t lose another child!” echoing in the dark emptiness.

P r e v i o u s N e x t

Chapter One

N e x t

He slackened his arm and pushed the needle into his wrist, depressing the plunger to let the liquid inside rush through his veins. Just as he did every morning and every night, he let a warm shiver pass through him, his eyes fluttering shut as the effects took hold almost instantly. The medication loosened his muscles and relaxed his mind, making his worries seem insignificant in the moment. It wouldn’t last long, though. It hadn’t been working very well to calm him down for quite a while now. How could it, when the event that would change his life forever was less than a day away?

He shook his head, dropping the needle back into the paper bag. There wasn’t time to think about that right now, and worrying would do him no good, either. Pushing himself to his feet, he hurried to the door and pulled it open. Mother was already at the entrance. Her hand was reaching for the doorknob, and she pulled back when he revealed himself from behind the door. “Oh. Good morning, Peyton,” she said. “I was just coming to get you for breakfast.”

Peyton walked out into the hallway, smoothing out his shirt. “I was just taking my medication. Sorry.”

“You don’t want to be late today, do you?”

He looked away. “I know, Mother. I’m sorry.”

“Mm-hmm.” Mother fell quiet for a moment, bringing them to an awkward silence. When she did start speaking again, her voice was quieter. “Your father’s still asleep, but I’m sure he’ll be awake soon. I made muffins for you all this morning.”

“Pumpkin?”

“Of course.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Sure enough, the hallway was thick with the sweet scent of nutmeg and cinnamon, and it only got stronger as Peyton approached the kitchen. Father would be sure to emerge from his bedroom at any moment from the smell, bedraggled and baggy-eyed, ready to give Peyton and Mother morning kisses before he devoured three muffins with a swig of orange juice to wash them down. It was so strange to think about how that wouldn’t be happening again— not for the next four years, at least.

“What’s the matter? Pumpkin muffins are your favorite, aren’t they?” Mother asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.

Peyton pulled away. He slipped into one of the four seats at the kitchen table. “You know what the problem is. I’m nervous about tomorrow. And… and today too, I guess.” He looked to the wall. The clock read 9:20. There wasn’t much time to eat before the bus arrived. “We have to do the speech today, remember?”

“There’s no reason to be nervous. Your father and I got through the speeches, and the Academy easily. Why should you be any different?” She slipped a muffin and a sliced apple in front of him. “Kendall and Olive will be there to help you if anything happens, too. There isn’t any need to worry.” He didn’t respond. She frowned. “Peyton?”

Peyton forced a smile onto his face. “I guess you’re right.” He swallowed the chunk of muffin half-chewed and stood up. “I have to go now. The bus will be coming soon.”

Mother grabbed the apple and thrust it into Peyton’s hands. “Take the fruit, at least. I don’t want you to be hungry.”

“Thank you, Mother. I’ll see you later.” He stepped forward, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. “Save some muffins for me before Dad eats them all, please.”

“Peyton—” Mother began, but Peyton was already by the door, swinging it open to allow the sweet, late-summer air to rush in. He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, and bounded down the steps before Mother could get another word in.

Of all five districts that made up the City, most people said that Silverhill had the best scenery. Peyton wasn’t the best person to ask about that— he had never been to any of the other districts, after all— but from what he’d seen in his fourteen years the view was very pretty. Lush trees and shrubs sculpted into perfect spheres dotted the entire area. Instead of the man made walls that enclosed the other four districts from the Outskirts, a towering gray line of rocky mountains replaced them, giving the district its namesake. The townsfolk were as proud of that as they were of their pastel-coloured bungalows and cottages. Peyton tried to savor it all as he walked down the cobblestone walkway. This was the last time he could do this, and it was important to make it count.

The bus eventually did come into view despite his deliberate pace. The double doors swung open with a hiss as he approached. Climbing up the steps, he pressed his thumb into the screen at the head of the seats. A green light flashed, and the doors shut behind him. He found a seat in the back and sat down just as the bus began to pull away, a tinny voice announcing, “Now departing for 3197 Chrysanthemum Lane: Miss Campbell’s Primary Learning School for Young Children.”

Most of the seats on the bus were empty. Those that weren’t empty were occupied by other children who attended primaries with him, none of them quite old enough for him to really befriend. Half of them still needed their parents to escort them around the town. Neither Olive or Kendall were on the bus— they lived closer to the school and could walk there together regularly.

Peyton pressed his cheek against the window and shoved pieces of the apple into his mouth. No other buses occupied the road yet, so he could see the neighborhood clearly. The brightly colored houses transitioned to brightly colored booths and boutiques the further they went. A pair of Seeker agents wound through and around them in what had to be their second or third patrol of the day by now. Donned in navy uniforms with large black birds perched on their shoulders, they nodded and waved at the bus as it passed by. The bus drove by a couple playing with their young child, two women conversing, a man tending to his flowers. Everything was so tranquil. So peaceful. Peyton frowned. Of what little he knew about the Academy, it would be nothing like peaceful, quiet Silverhill. How would he be able to cope?

There wasn’t much time to think about it. The bus began to slow, pulling up to its destination. It was always a short drive, even with Peyton’s home nearly on the edge of town. He would have been able to walk, if only he hadn’t been so late. Maybe he would walk home with Olive and Kendall today. He rose to his feet and hurried down the stairs, walking up to the peach bungalow that he had called his second home for the past nine years.

There were still people mulling about in the lobby. Class hadn’t started yet, thankfully. Peyton returned the waves thrown at him by the loitering students and parents before he entered the doorway near the back. About thirty children between the ages of five and fourteen sat in clusters of desks— older children in the back, younger in the front. Most of them were talking to each other in hushed tones, while others colored, read, or played with small toys. Olive’s big, frizzy red hair distinguished her from the others immediately— her enthusiastic wave helped too, of course. Kendall sat next to her as usual. Peyton felt the corners of his lips pulling upward.  He hurried to the back of the room, slipping into the empty seat across from Olive.

“Peyton!” Olive hopped forward, a grin spreading across her face. “Can you believe it? All we have to do is get through today, and then we’ll finally be going to the Academy! Can you even believe that it’s finally happening? Are you excited? What about the speech we’re giving today— are you excited about that, huh?”

“Y-yeah. I guess I am. For both things.” He shrugged, looking down at his folded hands. A small pile of note cards sat in the corner of the desk, and he reached to pick them up. “What are these?”

“They’re for the speech we’re giving.” Kendall sat up straighter in his seat. “We’ve been working on the memory notes. Remember?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Peyton tried to laugh as he flipped through the cards. Of course. They’d spent hours at his or Kendall’s house over the past few weeks, slaving over the two and a half minute long oral presentation. How had he forgotten?  He bit the inside of his cheek. “I remember…”

Olive reached over and patted his hand. “Don’t be nervous. You know that it’s all just generic stuff every other graduate’s said. We’ll be fine. And I’ll pick up the slack if you get all stuttery or anything.”

Peyton let the silent and you probably will dissolve between them. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right,” he said at last. “I’m just lucky to have you two here to help me. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to go to the Academy alone. It’d really suck to have to go by myself and not know anyone there. I don’t know how I’d be able to manage.”

“Shh.” Kendall brought a finger to his lips. He twisted around to look to the front of the room. Peyton raised his head, watching as Miss Campbell walked into the room. A flutter in his stomach tickled his lips and turned them upward against his will.

“Hello, class!” Miss Campbell clasped her hands at her waist, smiling brightly when everyone returned the greeting. “I’m sure you all know that today is a very special day. Yes, it’s the last day for us all, but it’s the very last day for three of our students.” Her gaze flickered to the back of the room. With it, about thirty other pairs of eyes followed. Peyton tried to hide his face.

“Today,” Miss Campbell continued, turning to the blackboard behind her, “is the last time Kendall, Olive, and Peyton will be here as students. This time tomorrow, they’ll be off to attend the Academy, ready to start the next part of their lives and be one step closer to becoming productive members of society.” She pulled away from the blackboard to show three names and a rather crude drawing of a set of buildings. “Why don’t we give them all a big round of applause?”

Clapping and cheers filled the room. Peyton’s cheeks burned. It wasn’t that big of an accomplishment, really. Everyone went to the Academy once they turned fourteen.

Miss Campbell continued, the applause dying down as her voice grew louder. “Those of you who have been with me in the past years know that the advancing students always deliver a speech to the others before they leave. Kendall, Olive, and Peyton have actually decided to collaborate on their speech, and deliver it together.” She nodded at them. “Come on up, you guys. Now class, please remember to be quiet and respectful. You all will be up there one day, in a few years— that includes you Francis, please do not stick your tongue out at them! You wouldn’t like that if you were the one giving the speech, now would you?”

Peyton tried his best to ignore the giggling that bubbled between the students. He rose with Kendall and Olive, running his fingers along the edge of his cue cards. The faster he could get this over with, the better. Walking to the front of the room, he turned to face the class, sandwiched between Olive and Kendall. Who was going to speak first? He looked down at his cards— there weren’t any numbers signifying the order in which they would be spoken.

He looked up. Olive was smiling at him encouragingly. Oh. He swallowed, his eyes sweeping over the expectant audience. “Um. Today— today I want to thank you all.” Which cue card was he supposed to use first? His hands shook as he fumbled through them. “I cannot even begin to describe how much you all have helped me— helped us— learn and grow as people for the past nine years,” he said. “We leave this place knowing that we couldn’t be any more prepared for this next step in our lives.” He paused to flip to the next card. “Each and every one of you, whether if you’re a fresh new face in the classroom or if you’ll be joining us at the Academy next year, have all had a positive impact on our education and— and our f-future.”

He trailed off, hastily skimming the cue card. Olive suddenly jumped in. “The three of us know full well that all of you will go on to do great things. You will excel here, in the Academy, and beyond, contributing to the success of our City and making it a better place to live. Don’t miss us while we’re gone, but rather take comfort and inspiration in the fact that we are one step closer to becoming productive members in this lovely world of ours.”

She stopped. Peyton could see her look over and nod at Kendall. Kendall took a tiny step forward, clearing his throat. “We would like to thank our parents and Miss Campbell for their bright spirits, intelligence, and encouraging nature most of all. Miss Campbell especially. If it hadn’t been for her, we might not be up here right now, just a day away from the next step of our lives. She has done much good for us and we are sure that she will continue to do great things in the future. I ask my fellow students to take full advantage of everything she teaches us, for it will surely help you out in the future.” He looked up and deftly folded his cue card in half. “Thank you for listening.”

Miss Campbell and the students burst into applause. “Very nice, you three,” Miss Campbell said. “I am so proud of you all. What they said is right, class. All of you have the same amount of potential, and I’m sure that each of you will go on to do amazing things once your time to advance comes. Now, why don’t you three return to your seats? I’ll talk some more about what exactly the Academy is for the rest of us.”

Peyton followed Olive and Kendall back to their desks. Sitting down in his chair, he stared down at his twitching fingers, listening to Miss Campbell wipe away their names to begin her lesson on the Academy. It was tradition— there was always a lesson on the Academy whenever students in the class moved on up. Every year for the past nine years, Peyton had listened to Miss Campbell’s lesson on the Academy. He could probably teach it verbatim by now. Thank goodness he didn’t have to, though. He would probably blow it. Just like he did with the stupid speech.

Miss Campbell began to scribble words on the blackboard. “The Academy, or secondaries as it is sometimes called, is where all children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen go to live and learn before they’re sent off to work in the City. It’s almost like living here in Silverhill, except most of the townspeople would be kids the same age as you all. Of course, there are adults there to teach and take care of the students, so don’t get any silly ideas!” She smiled at the giggling that passed through the room.

“The four years that the students spend at the Academy is spent undergoing a rigorous academic regimen to prepare them for the rest of their lives out in the City. What a student will be doing once they leave, of course, is decided by said student’s strengths and interests that they display while attending the Academy.” She turned to face the class once more. “What do you all wish to be chosen for once you enter the Academy? How about you, Peyton? Is there anything that you would want to do, more than anything else?”

Peyton jerked up. “M-Me?”

“Yes. What would you like to do when you’re grown up? What do you look forward to?”

He hesitated, voice faltering. Everyone was looking at him. Francis’s hand was placed in front of their mouth in what looked to be a snicker. Olive smiled brightly at him, and Miss Campbell tilted her head, patient but expectant.

Finally, he found the strength to open his mouth. “I— um— well… I think I want to be some sort of doctor, or— or a scientist, maybe. I guess I’ll be looking forward to all the science classes. To learn more about the things that we can’t really learn much about here. And it— it would be cool to do research, and help people when I graduate.”

Had that been the right thing to say? Apparently, it had been, because Miss Campbell’s warm smile only grew larger. “A doctor or scientist? A lovely choice, Peyton. I wanted to be a scientist when I was your age, but the Academy’s officials decided I would be better off as an educator instead. Now, I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’m sure you’ll love whatever you are assigned to do, just like I do.” She turned back to the board and continued to write.

“Th-thank you, Miss Campbell.” Peyton slouched in his seat, his cheeks growing hot.  Was she being genuine with her praises? He couldn’t see anyone that the Academy taking him seriously if she didn’t. Olive and Kendall were already so much more confident and articulate. Peyton knew that they both wanted to work in the similar fields as he wanted to. What if they did better in the Academy? There would be so many more people their age there, many with similar interests and goals…. would Kendall and Olive abandon him if he ended up holding them back?

He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. Don’t think stuff like that. You’re being silly. The three of them had been friends since they had been born. Why would things be any different in the Academy?

As if hearing his thoughts, Olive glanced toward him. She tilted her head. “What’re you thinking about?”

“Oh— um, nothing, really. Just getting lost in my thoughts a little. That’s all.”

“Yeah, I understand.” She chuckled under her breath, then began to fidget in her seat. “I’m just so excited! Only a few hours to go, right?” She looked to the clock on the wall. “Twenty minutes to go until we’re out of this place forever.”

“Already?”

“Yeah. The last day is always just a little over an hour, don’t you remember?”

“Oh. Yeah. Of course I remember.” The clock read 10:40 already. It was almost scary how fast time was passing.

“Mm-hmm.” Olive leant back in her seat, teetering on the two back legs. “Want to walk home with me?”

“Oh— sure. I want to take everything in before we have to leave tomorrow.”

“One last good memory?” Olive leant forward again, the chair’s metal legs clunking back into place. She barely paid attention to the annoyed glances shot her way. “That’ll be nice. One last peaceful walk before we get thrown into all the chaos and hard work, hm?”

“Yeah. Y-yeah, that’s right.” He nodded. “Are you going to walk home with us too, Kendall?”

“I’m planning on it.” Kendall tapped his fingertips on the desk. “Can you two please talk a little more quietly, though? I’m trying to listen to the lesson.”

Olive pouted. “We’re already whispering. And the lesson isn’t anything you don’t already know, anyway.” Kendall didn’t respond, and Olive snorted. “Sometimes you can be so uptight.”

“He’s right, Olive. We don’t want to annoy anyone,” Peyton said.  “Let’s just quiet down until the lesson’s over.”

The chalk striking the blackboard punctuated Miss Campbell’s words. “I’m almost done now. Just hang tight for a moment.” She looked back to the class, that ever-present smile gracing her face. “The last thing I’d like to speak about is the facilities within the vicinity of the Academy. I don’t know much about them, but what I do know is that some important things do go on in there.” Her eyes rested upon Peyton, Kendall, and Olive. “This applies to you three most of all, so listen closely.

“Even though they’re situated in the middle of the Academy, those facilities are among the most prestigious places to work in the entire City. Only the best of the best are allowed to enter those buildings, let alone work there full time. Many secrets are held in those buildings.” Her face brightened. “Perhaps if you three work hard enough, you will be chosen to work in there after you graduate, or perhaps even visit during your time studying in the Academy. I know it would be a great honor for any of you to be given that privilege. Just a little bit of inspiration before I send you off.” She clasped her hands by her hips again. “Class is dismissed! If you’re planning on staying, please remember and respect the rules, as well as the toys. If not, I’ll see you all next month! Be sure to tell me all about your adventures over break when we get back.”

Kendall at last broke his impeccable posture to stretch. “That’s already one thing I don’t like about the Academy. Their lessons start just as the primary classes’s teaching time ends. We’re just thrown into everything the day after we arrive.”

Olive shrugged. “I guess the people in charge over there want us to adapt quickly.” She jumped to her feet. “Let’s go!”

“Wait just a moment, please.”

Olive pivoted around. “Oh. Hi there, Miss Campbell.”

“Hi, Olive.” Miss Campbell nodded at her. “I’d just like to have a quick chat with Peyton, if that’s okay? It won’t be long.”

“Me? Um, okay.” Peyton glanced back at Olive and Kendall. “I— um, you two can walk ahead, if you want. I can catch up later.” He watched them turn away, walking out into the lobby. Hopefully they wouldn’t go too far without him. He looked back to Miss Campbell, swallowing. “What— what’s the matter?”

“I just wanted to make sure that you’re alright, that’s all.” She brushed a strand of hair from her face, leaning down so they were face to face. “The days leading up to going to the Academy are stressful for everyone. Don’t think for a second that you’re embarrassing yourself, or that you’re inadequate in any way. Have you been taking your medication as you should?”

Peyton felt his throat constrict. “Of course I have, Miss Campbell. I’m sorry— usually I don’t act like that. It’s just— I was just—”

“Relax, Peyton.”  She rested a hand on his shoulder. “I remember how nervous I was for my first day. You can imagine how long ago that was. I was acting almost exactly like you, really. Maybe even worse. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t feel bad about your nervousness— even if it’s unnecessary. I’m sure your friends feel the same way, even if they don’t show it as much as you do.”

Your first day couldn’t have been very long ago. You don’t look that old. The words died on Peyton’s lips as he looked up into her face, his cheeks suddenly warm. “I— okay. I understand. I’ll try to do better, so it won’t happen again. I— I mean, I know it won’t happen again, because this is my last day here, but— um—” he took in a deep breath. “I’ll try not to be nervous anymore, okay?”

Miss Campbell laughed. “Trust me, Peyton, there’s no need for you to be nervous. You’re one of the brightest children I’ve had the pleasure to teach.  I’m being one-hundred percent honest. I’m sure you’ll do great at the Academy.”

“W-wow. Really?” He swallowed, forcing away the blush he just knew was spreading on his face. “Thank you, Miss Campbell! I’ll do my best. I promise.”

“I’m sure you will.” She lifted her hand from his shoulder, allowing him to relax a little. “Are there any other worries you’d like to talk to me about?”

Peyton hesitated. There were a countless amount of questions flying through his head, too many for him to even flesh out properly. What was he supposed to ask? Dumbly, he opened his mouth, and words came tumbling out.  “The Academy— what was it really like for you? What did you do during those four years? And what happened after?”

The flicker of emotion flashed across Miss Campbell’s face so quickly that Peyton wasn’t able to decipher exactly what it was before it disappeared. “That’s for you to figure out on your own, silly,” she said. “Every person has to discover everything the Academy has to offer on their own. Trust me, you’ll be fine. Now—” she raised her hand and waved him away— “Kendall and Olive are waiting for you, aren’t they? You should go and catch up to them, and have a nice, peaceful walk on the last day.”

He stepped back, staring at Miss Campbell and her ever-smiling face. Eventually, he nodded. “Yeah. I should. Um— thank you for teaching me for all these years, Miss Campbell. I really appreciate it.”

Miss Campbell walked forward, closing the gap Peyton had created. Her arms stretched outward, and then they were suddenly wrapped around Peyton, and he could only stand there and try and control his breathing as his cheeks set ablaze. He managed to calm himself down enough to wind his own arms around her, but she was already pulling away by then. “You’re welcome,” she said. “I’ll try my best to come and see you off tomorrow, alright?”

“Okay. I’ll— I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stepped backward again, only tearing his eyes from her face when he forced his feet to turn him around. There were still students in the classroom and the lobby. Any one of them could have seen his exchange with Miss Campbell, he realized with a wince. At least he wouldn’t be around to see them judge him for it tomorrow.

He walked out into the lobby, then to the door, pushing it open. Kendall and Olive were waiting for him just outside. They smiled as he walked out of the building, Olive walking over to wrap an arm around his shoulder. “What did Miss Campbell want to talk to you about?”

Peyton shrugged, staring down at the cobblestone ground. “She just wanted to make sure I was okay. I was acting nervous, she said. I-I’m fine, though. She said she would come and see us off tomorrow.” He swallowed. “I— I’m going to miss her.”

Olive pulled him closer with a mischievous grin “We already know that you’re going to miss her. You make it so obvious. But don’t worry. I’m sure there’ll be other teachers at the Academy for you to—”

“No! Not this again!” He pushed her away, hoping his frustration wasn’t betrayed by the involuntary heat in his cheeks or the smile threatening to appear on his face. “I don’t— it isn’t— can’t we just go home, now? Please?”

Olive laughed. “Of course, of course. Let’s go, Kendall.”

She suddenly skipped away, and Peyton and Kendall had to hurry to catch up to her. Most of the other students and their parents had taken the bus, or had already walked far enough that the three of them had the road all to themselves.

It was quiet. The drone of the summer insects was only disturbed by Olive’s incessant chatter and Kendall’s occasional grunt or hum in response. Peyton tried to take it all it in for one last time. This was the last time he’d be able to ever do this again. The thought dampened his pleasant mood no matter how hard he tried to push it away. What had been going on with him in the past few days?

He craned his neck to look up to the sky. A pair of Seeker birds coasted lazily above him, their shiny black feathers a smudge on the otherwise light blue surface. Peyton shivered, a twinge of discomfort prickling the back of his head. This was the last day he’d be considered a child. He’d be getting his first taste of freedom less than twenty-four hours from now, his first taste of independence and freedom. He’d finally be able to experience just what the City truly was. So then why did he feel so uneasy?

N e x t