Chapter Forty-Eight – Interlude

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

 

If there existed one thing Beverly feared more than anything else as an instructor of the Academy, it was the amount of sheer volatility that could be fit into young children. From the time he had been a young boy himself, he could sense it: the crackling of dangerous energy coiling within his peers, waiting for just the right moment, just the right thing to set themselves off and send everything and everyone around them spiraling into chaos.

It had always been unnerving, and it had only become worse as he aged. Such energies needed to be controlled, squashed, even. So when Beverly had been given the opportunity to work at the Academy, the very epicenter of adolescent disequilibrium, of course he had jumped onto the chance.

It all still unsettled him. The students were around him just about all the time now, each of them more than capable of unraveling everything that had been accomplished so far. It was hard not to be unsettled. But with that ever present, tense lump of fear that lived in his stomach, a new emotion had also developed in there during his years that he had worked at the Academy— something, he supposed, that could best be considered spite.

He never showed it, of course.  Not even when he was pushing his way through the current of others to get to the end of the hallway, like he was doing now. But it was constant— the spite, fear, and worry all pushing against each other within him, never leaving their shared cage until he allowed them to in small quantities, only just enough for him to send his fingers hovering to the piece of metal tucked snugly into his right ear or to ready his tongue for a reprimand, to say something, do something.

He still did that often. He was doing it right now, even as he approached the end of the hallway, about to turn the corner. The children milled about him and bounced off one another, and Beverly watched it all. He felt it all. A boy shouldered a girl into the wall as he was walking past and continued forth without looking back— another child raised their voice just a smidgen too loud— it always sent his hand to his right ear, always made him poised to speak, to say something. But as of late, he always had to stop himself.

Beverly felt the contempt inside him flare a bit more strongly than the rest of his feelings. He pushed it down, letting his arm fall back to his side. There wasn’t any need to grow upset, now. No need to release more negative emotions into the air than there already were. It would only make the situation worse than it had already become. That was the last thing he needed— that anybody needed. It was imperative not to create any more problems, not when they were already compromised so thoroughly.

Beverly went to the elevator and nudged his way through the waiting crowd, making his way to the stairs instead. The stairs were quieter; most students preferred to take the elevator, especially the first- and second-year students. Understandable that they wanted to absorb as much of the new technology as possible, after they had spent over the first decade of their lives in the simple districts. That was alright with Beverly. Especially since he had certain people within that group he would prefer to avoid.

He was halfway up the staircase when he felt it— a crackling in his ear. Instinctively, he raised a hand to the side of his head and dropped his gaze to the floor, almost stopping right there on the staircase. The crackling continued for a few long, tense seconds before the fragments of audio finally coalesced into an intelligible voice. “Mister Beverly, please come to my office. Mister Beverly, to my office.”

Presley.

Beverly pushed down the sudden ache pulsing in his chest. He bowed his head even more and parted his dry lips. “Of course,” he murmured, quiet enough only for him to hear. “Right away, sir.” Going upstairs had been a mistake, then. At least he had the fact that sessions were over for today to serve as consolation.

Beverly walked up to the next landing, turned around, and started his way down the stairs. The Cassidy building was but a few minute’s walk from Presley’s office, but he still couldn’t quite rid himself of the worst of his annoyance or his apprehension. He still had to fight his way through a sea of Academy students. He still had to repress his urges to report every danger and threat that he saw. And at the end of it all, he still had to meet Presley. But he had to suck it all up and do what he had been ordered. It was what he was expected to do, after all.

Beverly reached the first floor and went to the door. It probably didn’t take much more than thirty seconds to walk through the soupy, lukewarm courtyard, but it felt much longer than that. The crowd was less densely packed out here, but the courtyard’s wide span of the courtyard made it all too easy to see the haze over everything— a thick, foggy haze that made his eyes water and his lungs strain for fresh air. But he kept his face blank, his pace steady. Allowing stress to control him wouldn’t help with a single thing. Being headstrong and unaffected would. That was his philosophy for all sorts of things, including teaching his sessions. It was the only way he could get through it all without being driven insane, without becoming the very thing he despised so much.

He slipped through the doors to the building, letting them swing freely shut behind him. The secretary at the desk didn’t seem to notice his arrival. She was looking down at the papers in her hands, a look of distant concentration on her face. Beverly walked toward her, clearing his throat. “I’m here to see Jordan Presley,” he said, curtly.

The secretary sighed, dropping her papers onto the desk, but then she looked up and the frustration melted away. “Oh… oh,” she stammered. “Of course. Certainly. Do you… have an appointment with him, by any chance?”

“Not quite. He called me down here just several minutes ago.” He stood up to full height once more, adjusting his collar. “Am I allowed to enter his office?”

“Of course,” the lady forced out again, pointing into the hallway. “He’s right in there.”

Beverly bowed his head. “Thank you, madam,” he said. He could feel the woman’s eyes burning into the back of his shirt like two extinguished matches even as he turned away, hiding his face and eyes from her. Odd. Maybe she thought he was intimidating. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Even before he could see the door to Presley’s office, he could almost feel him: his energy rolled over his clothing and his exposed skin as if it were needles suffused into the air. He would have found it almost intimidating, if he wasn’t used to it already. How did other people feel when they were faced with it? How did children feel? Did he truly want to know the answer to that? He wasn’t sure.

He shook off the trepidation hanging over him and approached the door to his office, staring clinically at the Mr. Jordan Presley- Counselor cut into the wood. Raising a stiff fist, he knocked once, twice, thrice. “Mister Presley, sir?”

The words were just barely out of his mouth before the door swung open. Presley was standing at the other side, of course. A bright, toothy smile split his face in half as he regarded Beverly the way an instructor would regard a student. “Ah, Mister Beverly. Please, do come in, won’t you?” He stepped back and gestured to the inside of his office, the smile on his face never wavering.

Beverly ducked his head. “Thank you, sir.” He walked inside, and— after a moment’s hesitation— sat down in the chair opposite of Presley’s desk. He could barely fit into it. Swallowing his discomfort, he rested his folded hands on Presley’s desk, waiting for him to return.

And return Presley did. He shut the door behind him, swept over to his chair, and sat down with a flourish, mirroring Beverly’s pose before he blinked, curiously. “Well. How are you doing today, Mister Beverly?”

For once in his life, Beverly found himself searching for more than a second the right words to say. “I am doing… well,” he said at last. “I’ve been better, but for the most part, I have been doing well. And you, sir?”

“Oh, yes— I’m doing fine, quite fine.” Presley nodded, glancing down at his clasped hands. He nudged his pencil holder to his left, adjusted the pile of papers to his right. “I’m doing— excellent, really. Fantastic.”

Beverly felt a crackle of heat go down his forearms. His voice, for a second time, got lodged in his throat, and he fought to get it out. “That makes me happy to hear.  But… if you do not mind me asking— how could you be doing so well? With all due respect, Presley, I’m sure you’re aware that things have been more unstable than they have in years. Perhaps decades. How can you possibly be doing so well?”

A silence stretched between them. Then Presley chuckled, unceremoniously bringing an end to the halt. “That’s actually what I called you down for, Beverly, now that you have some free time to speak with me. I was curious to know how you were coping under these circumstances. I take it that you aren’t doing very well, despite what you’ve told me?”

Beverly didn’t say anything at that. His fingers curled up and he brought his hand to the side of his head, before he stopped himself. No. He wasn’t allowed to have nervous tics. He had to pull himself together. “I suppose I am feeling a bit anxious.  I have, admittedly, been better. I understand that I should have worked more to adapt into this… new transitional phase. I apologize for not doing so fast enough, sir.” He paused, stopping himself from shifting in the uncomfortably small seat. “I’m sure you can at least understand my inability— or perhaps, my unwillingness— to do so.”

Presley didn’t respond. He tilted his head to the side, staring into Beverly’s eyes with an expression that could be best described as… condescending. Beverly tried not to show his discomfort. He was usually so good at that. He had to be good at it— how else would he excel at his job?— but with Presley, he was little more than clay in the other man’s hands. And from what he’d heard and seen from Presley’s encounters with other people, he wasn’t the only one with that experience. But he couldn’t show his unease as readily as them. He wouldn’t. He raised his head and cleared his throat. “Well, Mister Presley?”

“You talk to me as if I’m one of your students, Beverly.” Presley paused to adjust a pencil sitting in its holder, the mirthful cadence to his voice never disappearing. “I understand what you mean. Some of the others have expressed such concerns, as well. Mallory, Robin, Hunter— they’ve all been worried. But none of them as much as you seem to be. I find it intriguing.”

He fell silent. Beverly pressed his fingers tighter together, the tips of them slick with perspiration. “And what did you do to reassure them, Presley?”

“I told them that it would be worth it in the end. That’s all it took.”

“Really? That’s truly all it took?”

“Of course that was all it took.” Presley’s lips pressed together, turning his toothy grin into a thin simper. “You just need to have a little bit of faith in us and in yourself, Beverly.”

“I’m aware that I should, sir.”

“Then why don’t you?”

Beverly inhaled, then exhaled, quietly. “I’ve already explained to you,” he said, “that I have been putting my best effort toward focusing on the… advancements that have arisen. Surely you can empathize more with me on this situation than you seem to be doing. It is imperative that we keep order within the Academy and the City while we’re in these trying times.” Gooseflesh rippled across the tops of his arms, and he had to resist the urge to rub them away. “I’m almost certain that the average Academy’s score on the Equanimity Spectrum is way lower than it had been a few years, or even a few months ago, and it’s only going to get worse from—”

“Oh, that old nonsense?” Presley waved his hand in the air, as if he were dealing with a irritating insect. “Please, Beverly. There isn’t any need to worry about that. It’s outdated and unfair.” He leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. “And even if what you say is true, and even if I thought that scale was reliable, well— the period right before a change is almost always less than ideal. You can’t expect things to be perfect all the time, can you?”

“Of course I don’t anticipate things running smoothly all the time.” It was quite the opposite, in fact. Beverly found himself conflicted as to whether he should have been insulted by the keen, almost patronizing look in Presley’s eye. He had shown more than enough vulnerability as it was. “I… perhaps I should put it this way for you, Presley. Things were doing just fine before these… advancements came along. Did these changes really have to be made? It is a valiant effort on your part, but are all these risks you’re taking on really worth it?”

Presley didn’t say anything in response to that. He put his fingers to his upper lip, and stared into Beverly’s eyes, unblinkingly. An icy needle scratched its way down Beverly’s spine, and he suppressed the urge to shudder.

Then there was a knock at the door.

Presley’s eyes continued to squeeze a vice around Beverly’s rib cage, even as he finally shifted positions. He rose from his seat and drifted to the door, his fingers hovering by the doorknob. “Come in,” he said.

The door remained sealed for a second longer, before it started to creak open. For the briefest of moments, Beverly felt nothing, then the flame inside of him was fighting again, begging to be released in the manifestation of some sort of action against what was about to happen. Beverly’s teeth drove into his tongue in a painful attempt to keep his face straight.

Presley’s voice came out silky-smooth against the room’s jagged atmosphere. “My darling Zaretsky. Please, do come in.”

The door nudged itself open, and the newcomer stepped inside. Her eyes flickered toward Beverly. Before she could say or do anything, Presley put a hand on her shoulder and guided her farther into his office. She pulled away from him the second she could, looking at Beverly again. She smiled, shakily, sending acid from his stomach to his throat. He looked away, pushing his fingertips into his thigh. Of course. Of course it was one of the ones he’d been hoping to avoid. If his distress wasn’t showing visibly, it surely had to be palpable right at that moment.

She didn’t seem to care. “Is there another chair I can use?” she asked.

“Right here.” Presley gestured to the seat next to his own.

There was a pause. The corners of the girl’s lips grew feeble, but she went and sat down anyway. Presley followed after her.

Beverly wiped the sweat from his hands onto his pants, pushing his chair away from the desk. “Shall I take my leave, Presley?”

“No. I suggest that you stay. You may find our conversation to be of interest.”

Beverly’s mouth tasted of sour metal. “Very well,” he said.

Presley turned to the girl, curiosity etched all over his face. “How are you doing today?” he asked, voice still soft and smooth.  The acid burned at Beverly’s throat.

“I’m doing… alright.”

“I see,” Presley replied.  Silence.  “Before we begin, tell me— no, tell Mister Beverly. Do you think that everything you’re doing is going to be worth it?”

She crossed her legs, uncrossed them, squirmed in her seat. “In front of him?” she finally asked. “Tell him? But what if he—”

“Nothing is going to happen to you, trust me. Don’t forget that all processes must go through me, first and foremost.” Presley reached over to her, adjusting her askew collar. “Besides, he knows already.”

“He does?”

“I assure you— he does. How couldn’t he?”

She pursed her lips, tapping her fingertips on the desk’s surface, and didn’t respond. Uncertainty rolled off her in waves of fog, and when she did finally speak, her voice was quiet, tiny. Hesitant. “If things go as planned, then… then things will be better. There’ll be no more unnecessary terminations. There won’t be a need for the Neuroleptika and all the side effects that it brings. There won’t be a need for the physical or emotional turmoil that comes with any of it. Things will… be happier. Better. Humans will be able to live the way they were supposed to in the first place.” She lifted her gaze, staring Beverly in the eye. “Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound like something worth fighting for?”

Disgust coiled around Beverly, sharpening his tongue like a whetstone of frustration. “It doesn’t.  Things were curated the way they were for a reason. Changing that is asking for nothing but trouble.”

“The way things are right now are hurting innocent people. They have been hurting people. They’ve been hurting all of us.” Her nails dug into the wood of Presley’s desk.  “Do you really want people to keep getting hurt? Even someone like you should be against that.”

Beverly tasted the copper on his tongue, but he continued speaking.  “What about the sacrifices that you have already made for those plans? There’s already been many. Too many.  Do they not count in the people being hurt?  Or do they not matter to you— are they just byproducts of your little revolution?”

“You… you’re not the one that gets to determine that.” She scowled and brought a hand to her temple, as if she were trying to assuage it of pain. “One of those was your fault.”

“I was simply doing what I had been asked to do. What I was required to do. And you know full well that Presley played a part in that, as well. It isn’t my or his fault that others got caught in the cross-hairs of your own decisions.”

“Beverly.”

For what was perhaps the first time since he had entered adulthood, Beverly flinched at Presley’s uncharacteristically harsh tone. He brought a hand to his ear, then his mouth, then finally rested it back in his lap, curling it into a fist. “I… apologize. I forget myself.”

“Please let her continue without worrying for your unnecessary side comments.”

“Yes, Presley. I apologize.”

The girl looked down at the desk, a frown etched into her face. “Of course… of course I regret that. I— I felt so bad about that. I still do. But… but it’ll all be worth it, anyway.  That was a side effect of the way things are right now. It’s what we’re trying to put an end to. You know that. That happening was what— it was what pushed me to do things so quickly. We can avenge her. I can avenge her. It’ll be worth it all. It will.”

Beverly dug his fingers into his palm. “And what about your friend? Was losing him worth it all, too?”

The energy around them glaciated before he had even finished his sentence. Presley’s smile fell. Heat crackled like lightning beside him, and the girl’s breathing grew heavy, ragged. “No,” she said. “No. Don’t talk about him. I— he’s—”

“You are planning on bringing him back sooner than later, aren’t you?” Presley’s voice took on that silken quality once again, and he leaned toward her. “He’s the first one you’ve ever worked on, isn’t he? The first one you’ve opened? Do you think that you doing all of that to him could have made him lash out the way he did? Could that have led to the series of events you’ve experienced the last few months?” He trailed away, examining her. “I couldn’t imagine the guilt. He is very special to you, isn’t he?”

Silence. None of them said anything. Presley smiled yet again, folding his hands under his chin again. “Wasn’t he?”

A chunk of ice nestled itself into the pit of Beverly’s stomach. He watched as she squeezed her eyes shut and inhaled deeply, reedily. “He was… he was scared,” she finally whispered. “He was so scared. That’s the last memory I have of him. That was the last thing I felt from him after I sent him down.” She bowed her head, a swathe of red obscuring her face. “I don’t even know if he’s alive anymore.”

“That’s why you should have come to me first, my dear.” Presley tapped his index finger on his cheek, as if he were thinking.  “I’m sure we could have figured out some sort of compromise. What was I supposed to think with him running around like that?”

Her shoulders grew stiff, her voice hitching in her throat. “How was I even supposed to know? You didn’t tell me anything.”

“I’m flexible, you know that. I’m sure I could have been readily convinced if you’d shown me what you were planning. But you didn’t, not until everything went wrong. But I’m sure you’ll know better in the future.” He lifted his head and clapped his hands together. “But there isn’t any reason to ruminate on what could have been, is there? I’m sure that your friend is fine. The important thing is focusing on what’s here now.”

Slowly, the tension in her muscles melted into the air. “He… he is. I know he is. I’ll bring him back as soon as everything is stable. He’s safer down there than he is up here right now— I’m sure of it. But I’ll bring him back.”

“I will be looking forward to it, then.”

She stood before Presley’s hand could rest upon her shoulder. “Everything is going to be okay,” she said. “We’ll continue working things out. As long as things don’t get out of hand, then… then things will work themselves out. They will. I know it.” Her breathing was still sharp, still shaky. “I don’t want anybody to be hurt anymore. This is the only way to go about it that will give the best outcome to everyone.”

“Oh, they will. I’m sure of it. You’ve done a great job at things.” He watched her go to the door, raising an eyebrow. “You aren’t going to stay? Didn’t you have something else you wished to discuss?”

She brushed her hair out of her face, revealing her eyes, and glanced at Beverly for a split second before she looked away. “No. It’s fine. I’ll talk to you later.”

Presley’s smile wavered. “Well, then. I’ll be eagerly awaiting your return.”

The door creaked open, then clicked back shut. Silence reigned.

Presley’s smile faded. “Well, then? Is it worth it, Beverly?”

Beverly pushed his seat back. His tongue was a dead weight in his mouth, dry and numb. “I believe—”

Presley held up a hand, shutting his eyes. “It was supposed to be a rhetorical question, Beverly. Don’t answer. Just think about it for a while.”

Beverly pressed his lips together, compelling his voice to revive itself. “I will do that, sir.”

“Then I will look forward to hearing your answer in a few days.”

“Of course, sir. Shall I take my leave?”

“Oh, of course, of course. Don’t let me hold you back from your duties for any longer.” Presley sat back and gave him a lackadaisical wave. “Have a nice afternoon!”

Beverly stood from the cramped seat, left the office, and shuddered as the tension that was cloaked around him snapped away like a rubber band, leaving him burned and exposed. He did not look the secretary in the eye as he walked through the lobby and pushed open the door to the courtyard. He had to calm himself down, spread the stony visage of his exterior to the emotions boiling in his stomach. It was now more important than ever to remain calm.

Head held high, Beverly started his way back to the Cassidy building. Several of the Academy students that were still out and about moved out of his path when he approached. He still had it within him, then. That was how they would get out of this— if not fully intact— still alive.

Before entering the Cassidy building, Beverly turned to survey the Academy in its entirety before the last few threads of its normalcy could burn into thin air. Decades, centuries of work, effort, peril and suffering had gone into all of this, and in a matter of weeks, barely over a month, it was all at risk of falling to shambles. The most important committee had been overthrown and radicalized by the actions of one naive, dangerous little girl— and not only was the head of the second most important committee aware of that, he was encouraging it. And why? Did he truly believe that anything good would come out of any of this? Was he simply looking for some sort of excitement, to see just how far things could go off the deep end? Was either answer truly any better than the other? It seemed like not.

Beverly turned away, pushing down the lump in his throat. The next few months— or perhaps even the next few weeks— that followed would ultimately dictate the fate of the City. The most important bureaus were all but compromised, and the children— the unpredictable, fervent children— were more than likely being pulled into the mess being created. Was there anyone left fighting for normalcy, for serenity? The few that were couldn’t be powerful enough to change anything.

Beverly walked through the doors and approached the elevator. The hallways were all but empty now, bereft of any people. He entered the elevator, pressed the button, watched the doors close, and felt the last of the fire within him die. If anything or anyone is listening, he thought, help that girl. Help the Academy, and help the City. We are approaching the end times.

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

Chapter Thirty – Interlude

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

 

She forced herself to ignore the burning in her arms as she finished scrubbing away a particularly stubborn stain on the tile floor. Dunking the mop back into the bucket, she stepped back and sighed, observing her work. The floor looked a little more presentable now. It usually did— it had to, in order to continue passing the health codes. And everyone knew how important passing said health codes was, especially now.

She swallowed, nibbling at a loose piece of skin at her bottom lip. The fresh and shiny polish would be ruined when everybody walked out for the night, but that was alright. The polish wasn’t what they had to be worrying about right now. That was the least of their worries at the moment.

“You alright over there, Shelby?”

Her heart leapt to her throat. She whipped around a little too quickly, and tried to compensate by throwing her hands behind her back in what she hoped looked like an act of innocent daintiness. “Yeah. Mm-hmm. I’m alright,” she said, softly. “Are you alright?”

Kegan brushed his disheveled, dirty blonde hair from his muted blue eyes. “I’m fine.” His voice was deep, rough with exhaustion and an ever increasing frustration. “I just want to get done with today and go to sleep.”

“Y-yeah. I totally understand that.” Shelby trailed off into an uncomfortable silence. She licked her bottom lip. It tasted of blood and sweat. “Today’s been a… pretty hard day for all of us, hasn’t it been?”

Kegan snorted. “You tell me.” He put his hands on his hips, looking around the lab. “It’s probably been one of the hardest.”

Shelby followed his gaze. The room was getting clean, but the mindsets of those fixing it up seemed anything but. Dana’s dark face seemed even darker with the bags hanging under his eyes, his curly black hair even more messy and ruffled than Kegan’s mane was. Riley and Parker were storing away the last of the microscopes for the night. It seemed that when one of them wasn’t yawning or rubbing their eyes, the other one was. Owen was struggling not to nod off in one of the chairs. The energy in the room hung down on them like a sodden cloth, stifling, suffocating. Shelby felt her face screw up into a wince. “It’s so sad,” she whispered, more to herself than to Kegan. “Everything had been going so well. We were doing so well. And— and then… and then…”

“And then they had to go and ruin it. You can say it, Shelby. I doubt anybody here save for a few people will blame you.” Kegan turned away, scratching at his five o’ clock shadow. “I need help organizing the Petri dishes for tomorrow. Come and help me when you’re finished with the floor.”

“Alright.” Shelby watched him walk away, fiddling with the hem of her shirt. That was right… the apprentices were supposed to be helping Kegan survey the effects the developing Neuroleptika tincture had on various human body cells tomorrow. Just a few weeks ago, she would have been elated. Spending the entire day with Kegan and her friends, knowing that what they would be doing would eventually help the City become a better place? That would have been wonderful. But thinking about it now only left a bitter taste in Shelby’s mouth. Did the others feel the same way? She looked toward Riley and Parker, then to Owen. Well, they didn’t look very happy or excited, that was for sure.

She sighed, then turned back to the bucket of dirty water. The mop was still slowly rocking back and forth in the cocktail of soap, water, filth, and paper bits. The movement churned the mixture into a frothing mess that Shelby did not want to have to deal with at all. But she had to. Everybody had to do their part.

She picked up the two handles of the bucket, lugging it up. She hobbled toward the sink, set the bucket onto the edge, and tipped it over, watching it all rush down into the drain. Then she rinsed out the bucket and put it back into the cabinet underneath the sink. Drying off her hands, she looked to the opposite side of the room. Kegan was crouched over the countertop, undoubtedly dealing with the delicate Petri dishes that they would be using tomorrow. She stood still for a second, watching the way his sturdy arms moved with a controlled delicateness over the station. Then she walked over to him, smoothing out the bottom of her hair. “Hi. I’m finished cleaning up the floor.”

Kegan grunted. “Good.” He handed a stack of Petri dishes to her. “Just lay them out in a three by three array in that left corner over there.”

“Oh. Okay.” There was nothing in them yet. Well, of course there wasn’t— the cells would probably end up dying if they put them in now and waited overnight. Who would be responsible for putting those in? She shuddered. Hopefully not her. Honestly, it was a shock that she had been chosen for this career in the first place— she didn’t like anything that had to do with human body parts at all. Well, to be fair, the job mostly involved psychology and medicine. But still. She probably would have been so much happier if she could have had another job in the human development branch. Taking care of the newborn babies, for example, or even being a clandestine Seeker in one of the districts…

“What’s the matter?”

She looked up. Kegan was still focused on the countertop, but his face had softened a little bit as he put the rest of the glass dishes into position. “Tired?” he asked. “I am, too. But we’re almost done. Put these back into the drawers for me, will you? They’re extras.”

Shelby watched him slide another stack of dishes her way. “Alright. I will.” Gently taking them into her hands, she walked over to the drawers. She brought her hand to the leftmost drawer, pulled it open and—

“Everyone! May I get your attention for a moment, please?”

Shelby flinched. A single dish slid off the stack. It fell to the ground in what almost felt like slow motion, shattering the instant it hit the tile. Shelby screwed her face up, hurrying to put the rest of the dishes on the countertop so she could squat down to the floor. Her hands danced around the mess, her fingers twitching as she tried to figure out what to do. “Um— guys? Can one of you get me the broom, please?”

Nobody heeded her call. She looked up, exasperation slowly rising up in her, before her eyes landed upon the reason nobody was paying attention to her— or to any of their closing duties, for that matter. “O-oh.”

At the front of the room, Dana relaxed his tense expression and stepped forward, holding one of his arms out. “What’s the matter, Callahan?”

Callahan stepped away from Jaime’s side and walked forward, the double doors clicking shut behind them. She paused and looked over the gathering committee. “If I may—” she paused to cough, harshly clearing her throat— “if I may get your attention, please. Everybody’s attention.” Her eyes flicked to the back of the lab.

Was she talking about her? But the broken glass… oh, well. This was more important. Probably. She stood and brushed off the part of her coat that had been touching the floor, looking up at Callahan.

“Thank you.” Callahan cleared her throat again. “I have some… news to share with all of you. An update, if you will.”

By the counter with the Petri dishes, Kegan crossed his arms. “Good news, or bad news?”

Callahan didn’t speak for a moment. When she did, her voice was so quiet that Shelby had to strain to hear it. “Bad news, unfortunately.” She adjusted her glasses, her shoulders rising up and down in a heavy sigh.

Kegan blew a harsh puff of air out of his nose. He looked toward Shelby. Shelby could almost hear the words not yet released from his lips: I told you so. She looked away, fiddling with the bottom of her braid again.

“What’s the matter now, Callahan?” Dana’s voice was gentle, but his stature was slightly more rigid than it had been a minute ago. A little colder. Shelby couldn’t look at him when he was like that. She glanced down at the floor. Her pointer finger ran over the loose ends of her hair once, twice, thrice, and she found herself calming down just a little bit as she continued that action several more times.

Callahan continued speaking, apparently not caring that one of her subordinates was no longer willing to look her in the eye— and thank goodness for that, too. “In the Academy…” she trailed off. Shelby snuck a glance up at her. Callahan shut her eyes, took in another deep breath. “Things at the Academy aren’t going so great,” she finally said. “In fact, I may even dare to say that they are the worst they’ve ever been. Though it may not be obvious to many there, yet.”

Shelby’s jaw fell open just as a confused ripple went through the rest of the committee. “Wh-what do you mean? What’s going on over there? Are the kids over there alright?”

Callahan glanced over at her. “I was just about to get to that.” She reached up to her glasses, taking them off and rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Most of the students over there are doing well. However, I cannot say that about some of them. Four of them, to be exact.”

“W-what happened to them, Callahan? Are they okay?”

“Please let her speak, Shelby.” Jaime narrowed his eyes. “She’ll get to that subject in due time.”

“O-oh. Alright. I’m sorry.” Shelby bowed her head, biting the tip of her tongue. She had only left the Academy about three years ago. She knew some of those people Callahan was talking about. Perhaps not personally, but she couldn’t not be concerned for them and their safety. And the new students that had come in just a few weeks ago… they were only fourteen years old. Children. The thought of anything bad happening to them made her stomach hurt. Punishments, neutralizations, terminations, anything— she hated it all. And she hated that this job made it so that she had to know about it all.

It wasn’t until she saw Kegan walking up to her out of the corner of her eye that she snapped back to the present time. Callahan was saying something, and she hurried to pick up the rest of her sentence. “…have disappeared into the Outskirts without so much more than a trace. One of them had a termination request set upon him. Needless to say, it was not fulfilled.”

Shelby winced. She shuffled as close to Kegan as she could while still being able to feel comfortable and inconspicuous as possible in this sort of situation. Just knowing that he was there, that he came over here out of his own accord made her feel a little bit more secure. That was exactly was she needed. Gathering a little bit of courage, she looked up to the front of the room. “What’s going to happen to them now, if they weren’t terminated?”

Callahan pressed her lips together as she regarded Shelby, her eyes growing just a little more dark and tired. “At least they have a little more of a chance in the Outskirts than they did here, Shelby.”

“O-oh.” Shelby wrung her braid. Callahan was right. Really, how could it be taken in any other way? If they hadn’t escaped, they wouldn’t even have been capable of having this conversation right now. At least they had a little bit of a chance in the Outskirts, however abysmally low that chance was. Maybe… maybe they would even be able to find Director Ellis. Who still had to be out there, alive and kicking. She refused to let herself think anything different. Perhaps he would even come back one day, ready to right all of the wrongs that had occurred in his absence. That would be a wonderful day.

Beside her, Kegan curled his lip. “Why are you telling us all of this, Director Callahan?”

Callahan returned Kegan’s gaze coolly. “Because, Kegan, if this trend of disappearing students continues, then Presley will come to contact us about the situation. And then he will realize that Ellis is no longer here. He may already be suspicious as it is— the boy who had a termination request put on him can still be easily remembered, for example, and I’m sure the disappearances of the other three students have been recorded a long time ago.” She brought a hand to her lip, furrowing her eyebrows. “In fact, I’m surprised that he hasn’t contacted us about everything yet. But since he hasn’t, it’s safe to assume that he will soon, if something positive doesn’t happen, and in the near future.”

“So what do you suggest we do then, Callahan?” Dana asked. “There’s nothing we can really do for the lost students now. We don’t send out search patrols to the Outskirts, so that’s out of the question.”

“Yes, Dana, you are correct. I was not going to suggest taking a search patrol to the Outskirts. That would be a dangerous and foolish, and most likely pointless conquest.” Callahan sighed. “My suggestion was that we had to crack down on the Neuroleptika production as hard and as quickly as we can while still being efficient. If we manage to release it by or before its estimated release date, then we may be able to stave off the worst of the suspicions for a while longer.”

The room remained silent, save for a few noncommittal whispers bounced about here and there. A notion suddenly reared its head in Shelby’s mind. She shot a hand up, waving it around like the Academy student she had been just a couple short years ago. “W-wait, Director Callahan! I have an idea!”

Everyone in the room looked over to her. She quickly dropped her hand to the side, but it was too late to go unnoticed now. “You do, Shelby?” Callahan asked, her voice airy and tired. “Well. Feel free to share it.”

“Um… okay.” Shelby brought her hands up to her hair again, but caught herself just in time. “Well— you know the Seeker birds? Like, the ones actually used for seeking— the ones that can take a person’s scent and track them down basically anywhere in the City? Maybe we could use those to find the lost people.” Nobody replied, or really even changed their expression. Shelby hurried to continue. “Like— if their dormitories haven’t been disturbed yet. Take their pillow, or one of their uniforms, and… I think their scent would still be on it enough for the birds to pick it up and– and…” she trailed off, shrugging sheepishly. “I don’t know. I guess it sounded like a better idea in my head.”

“No, no…” Callahan held up a hand. “That… actually isn’t that bad of an idea. It’s a good one, actually. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Of course, we would have to assume that they haven’t traveled far enough to evade their scent-tracking abilities— and also assume that the foreign scents in the Outskirts wouldn’t throw them off. But it is still something that can be seriously considered. Thank you for suggesting it.”

She forced the blush that was surely appearing on her cheeks down. “I know. Like— if the Seeker birds can help find them, then we can bring them back, and— you know? It could be a great help, I think.”

“Spare them from a harsher, more suffering-filled fate in the Outskirts? Yes, you’re right.” Callahan nodded, looking down and rubbing her chin in a way that suggested that she was probably talking more to herself than to any of the others. “A termination would be more merciful than what they may be going through right now… maybe we could even try sending one out for Ellis… yes, that could work.”

“Wait— what?” Shelby’s jaw dropped, her voice coming out in a harsh whisper. “No! I didn’t mean it like that.”

“It’s alright, Shelby,” Kegan murmured. “I doubt that she’ll actually be going through with it, anyway.”

“You think so?” She stared down at the checkered tile floor, pulling at her loosening braid. If she had just unwittingly taken away any chances of survival that Director Ellis and the runaway Academy students had, she would never be able to find the will to forgive herself. If she’d just condemned Director Ellis to termination for no real reason at all, then she’d probably have to step down from her position in some sort of feeble attempt to deal with the guilt she would undoubtedly feel.

Kegan didn’t get the chance to answer before Callahan began speaking again. “Anyway, even if that plan does come to fruition, it is doubtful that it will be enough to assuage Presley’s— or the rest of his committee’s— rising suspicions. So unless anyone else has any better suggestions that could prove to solve all of our problems, it will have to be supplemented with the fast production of the Neuroleptika tincture. Everyone will be expected to give their all, and more, starting tomorrow morning. The very future of the human development and behaviors committee could depend on it.” She looked around, pressing her lips together. “Are there any questions for me? Or any questions in general?”

Nothing but silence responded to her for a moment. Then Riley raised a hand. “When does the Neuroleptika need to be released now?”

Callahan set her tired eyes on Riley, sucking in her cheek. “The tincture was projected to be released to the City in about seven months during Ellis’s reign,” she whispered. “Now, it would be best if it was released in six. Perhaps even five, if any new updates are heard from Presley.”

The silence in the room became much more tense. The bags underneath Kegan’s eyes suddenly seemed a lot more prominent. He turned away and pinched the base of his nose. He didn’t say anything. Neither did Shelby, or anyone else in the room, for that matter. The strain between them all felt like it could have been sliced in half with a knife, and Shelby wasn’t sure just how terrible the recoil would be if— or when— that happened.

Callahan pushed her glasses back onto her nose and sighed, breaking the reticence. “If there are no more questions or concerns that need to be addressed, then I will be taking my leave.” She turned back to the doors. “Finish cleaning the lab up. We will talk more tomorrow.”

Jaime put a hand on her back, whispered something into her ear. He looked over his shoulder and scanned over the group, his eyes blank, unbothered. Then he walked Callahan out of the laboratory. The doors slammed back shut behind them. The rest of the committee was plunged into an uncomfortable silence.

Kegan was the one to break it. “Well. Looks like we’d better finish cleaning up. Wouldn’t want to be able to take a rest before we’re thrown into even deeper waters tomorrow, now would we?”

Shelby hesitated, trying to find at least a tiny little bit of a silver lining to share. “W-well, um… to be fair, Director Ellis usually left us to manage cleaning up on our own. Callahan isn’t really being all that different in that respect, right? It’s the same.”

“It’s not the same. It’s nowhere near the same. Director Ellis wouldn’t have made us wear ourselves to the bone if it wasn’t completely necessary. He wouldn’t have thrown out the previous Director over some sort of holier-than-thou power trip. Director Ellis wouldn’t have allowed the children of the Academy to get into such a precarious situation. He wouldn’t have allowed the future of what’s arguably the most important committee in the City to be put at risk because of some arbitrary suspicions over the Neuroleptika.” He shook his head, stalking over to the countertop that held the Petri dishes again. “And Director Ellis wouldn’t have allowed one of his subordinates to cling onto him like some sort of child looking for some shallow comfort.”

Shelby bit her lip, rubbing the top of her arm as if she had been struck. “Sorry, I guess. I was just trying to make you feel better.”

Riley came up from behind her. “It was still a nice sentiment, Shelby,” he said. “Just not… just not the one that we need to hear right now.”

“Oh. I guess I’ll try to be more careful next time.” She ducked her head to the floor, following Riley to the microscopes. “Do you need any help over here?”

“Mm… no. I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “Maybe ask Owen, or Dana? Maybe they need some help. But I think that we’re almost finished cleaning up now, actually.” He looked around. “Didn’t you just finish up mopping the floor before Callahan and Jaime came in?”

“Well, yes. But I wanted to see if I could help around a little bit more. I don’t want to stand around or go up to rest while you guys are still working. I’d feel bad.”

“You’ve done your part already. Don’t worry too much about it, Shelby. Like I said, we’re nearly finished.”

“Alright. I guess.” She stepped back, kicking the toe of her shoe on the newly-polished floor. “But I’ll still stay here. Until everyone is finished and starts going up themselves, anyway.”

“Well, alright, then.” Riley went back to putting the last of the microscopes into the cabinets.

“Yeah. Okay.” Shelby turned away. Dana was almost finished wiping off the cabinet tops, Owen was finished making sure that all the machinery that had to be turned off was turned off, Riley and Parker were almost done, and Kegan was probably finished with the Petri dishes— and even if he wasn’t, he probably didn’t want her talking to him right then, anyway. She should have kept her mouth shut about Callahan and Ellis. What she had said was foolish, anyway. She shut her eyes and exhaled. And she’d thought that she’d disliked this job before. It wasn’t about to get any more enjoyable, that was for sure.

“Shelby? What are you doing standing in the middle of the room all by yourself?”

She snapped her eyes open, turning around. “Oh. Hi, Dana. Sorry, I didn’t see you there.” She forced a smile onto her face. “I’m just thinking. You know. About stuff. The future of the committee, and stuff.” The corners of her smile wavered. “That’s all.”

“You’re worried.”

Shelby’s smile dropped. “Of course I’m worried. Everyone here is worried. Aren’t you worried, Dana?” She squinted and looked away, curling an awry lock of hair around her finger. “It doesn’t make sense not to be worried. The future of the human development and behaviors committee is going to be defined by how these next few months go. I’m probably more worried than I’ve ever been in my entire life.”

“I’m worried, too, Shelby. Don’t get me wrong there. But I’m not going to try and make it so that it makes me pessimistic. Everyone else here is acting pessimistic, from what I’ve seen. Especially Kegan.” Dana glanced over at him, pursing his lips. His eyes glazed over in thought. “I don’t think that you should let that rub off on you, Shelby. You’re still young. You still have time to learn from your mistakes, and other people’s as well. I’m not asking you to pretend that everything’s going to be a hundred percent okay, here. Just— don’t be so hopeless. Things will be okay in the end. Things always are. It’s what we’ve been taught since our days in primaries. Why should that be any different here?”

“Well. I guess you do have a little of a point there.” Shelby let the strand of hair fall into a spiral in front of her face, bringing her hand back down to her side. “It’s better to be optimistic, right? We need to try and keep up morale. You’re right.”

“That’s the spirit.” Dana pat her on the shoulder, either unknowing or uncaring about her tensing up underneath his touch. “You should go and get some rest. Before we’re thrown into the deeper waters tomorrow, as Kegan so eloquently said earlier.”

Shelby took a step back, folding her arms against herself. “I guess that I should. I am tired, but… but I wouldn’t feel good about leaving everybody else behind while they were still working, and stuff.” Never mind the fact that they were all almost finished. She still didn’t feel good about being one of the first to leave… and at this point, she couldn’t find herself counting either Callahan or Jaime in that.

Dana smiled at her before turning away. “Suit yourself. I just hope that you aren’t tired tomorrow morning, that’s all. There’s no need for you to stay if you’re finished. You’ll just be making yourself unnecessarily tired. I’m going to be going up to my room now, myself. I’ll help with the Petri dish tests you all are supposed to be doing with Kegan tomorrow.” He walked off without another word, opening the doors and slipping out into the hallway.

Shelby watched him go. Then she sighed, returning her gaze to the floor. He did have a little of a point. But she still didn’t want to go upstairs and leave everyone behind. It was more important now than ever to keep together as much as possible. That was what Callahan had told them all the day after they had— the day after Director Ellis had been—

“What was Dana talking to you about, Shelby?”

She whipped around, then relaxed. It looked like Kegan didn’t mind still talking to her, after all. “He was talking to me about being optimistic, and stuff,” she said. “He told me that… that I shouldn’t be so worried that it ends up affecting the way that I work. And he also told me that I shouldn’t stay down here if I don’t have to, if I’m all finished up with my cleaning duties. Because it would cut into the time that I could be using to rest.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. That was all, really.”

Kegan flared his nostrils. He looked over to the door with his jaw visibly clenched. “I don’t trust that man as far as I can throw him, if I’m being completely honest. He’s probably the one most loyal to Callahan… besides that Jaime boy, of course.” He snorted. “Who’s to say that he won’t abandon us or rat us out if bad ends up coming to worse?”

Like he had just now? Shelby shook the thought away. He was just going to get some sleep; that was nowhere near betrayal. “I don’t know,” she said. “I mean— he’s still nice. And he still seems to be really loyal to the cause we set out to do in the first place. Not necessarily Callahan or her plan. I don’t know. I still trust him… maybe not as much as you or one of the others. But I still trust him.”

“I agree.”

Both Kegan and Shelby turned around at the sound of the new voice. It was Riley. He shrunk back a little, smiling timorously. “Heh. Sorry. I was listening in on your conversation a little bit. But I agree. I don’t think we should have to distrust Dana. He’s just doing what he think’s best.”

“Well, I still don’t trust him. Or at least, don’t believe in his motives or his loyalties at all.” Kegan walked back to the countertop holding the dishes, ignoring the way Shelby and Riley trailed behind him like a pair of lost children. “Anybody who so blatantly trusts and supports Callahan like that isn’t a person who can be a very good ally.”

Riley put his hands on the freshly polished counter and leant forward, kicking his feet up one by one. “Why do you think that?”

“Because none of this would have happened if Director Ellis was still here?” Kegan shook his head. “Why and how we were convinced so easily to drive him out is something that I will never be able to figure out— or forgive ourselves for. It was like something had possessed us.”

“Isn’t that the mob mentality? Or something similar?” Shelby flinched at the look Riley gave her. “S-sorry. I guess this isn’t the time to be brushing up on stuff that we learned back in training. But I don’t think that I’m wrong. It is the mob mentality, isn’t it?”

It was one of the first things that was drilled into the mind of every person who got to work at this committee. The right kind could be constructive, the wrong kind could be absolutely catastrophic. And if the right person— or rather, the wrong person— ended up creating the wrong type of such a phenomenon at the wrong time, they were a prime subject to termination. Of course, that usually didn’t apply if they were no longer of Academy age or younger. And certainly not if they were the new Director of the committee that had organized and sent out these terminations in the first place. Shelby dug her fingernails into her upper arm. She didn’t like where this train of thought was going.

“Yes, you’re right,” Kegan grunted. “But it still doesn’t make it any more justifiable. And it doesn’t change the fact that we were still better off under Director Ellis’s leadership. It does quite the opposite, actually.”

“Oh, I wasn’t trying to deny that.” She clicked her fingernails against the closest Petri dish. “I do wish that Director Ellis would return, trust me. I’m sure everyone here does. Besides maybe Callahan and Jaime.” Or maybe even they wanted him to return as well. Callahan always seemed so stressed out that if Shelby were in her position, she would have called out to the Outskirts every morning and every night, begging for him to return and make things normal again. And she’d only be able to hope that he’d answer her call.

Kegan knitted his bushy eyebrows together. “When Director Ellis returns,” he said, “we will welcome him back with open arms.”

Neither Shelby nor Riley responded. Shelby looked away and squeezed her eyes shut. The sob rose up her throat nonetheless. She turned away and put a hand over her mouth. “I— I’m sorry.”

“Shelby? What’s the matter?” Riley touched her shoulder blade.

She jerked away from his fingers, wiping her nose with her hair. “N-nothing.” Her voice trembled, and she found herself regretting trying to speak in the first place. “It’s— it’s nothing. It’s just— it’s just that… well, Director Ellis has been gone for so long already and— and d-don’t you think that he would have come back already if he wanted to? Or if he was still… you know.” She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat, trying and failing to control her breathing. “But he’s— but he’s not back yet. So I think— so now I don’t think that he’s ever going to come back! He’s gone forever! The Outskirts took him, and— and it’s all our fault!”

“Shelby, come on.” Another pair of hands went onto her shoulders and as hard as she tried to pull away she found that she didn’t have the strength to— it was Kegan holding onto her. “What did Dana just tell you about being optimistic? I’m sure that he’s still out there.”

“I thought— I thought you said that you didn’t trust Dana?” She finally managed to get away from his grasp when his hands loosened. An uncontrollable laugh bubbled out from her lips against her will. “Y-you just said that, Kegan, didn’t you?” She opened her eyes, the lids now puffy with tears as well as exhaustion. The rest of the people in the room were looking at her now. She was making a scene. That only made her feel worse. She buried her face into her hands and moaned.

“Shelby?” That was Owen’s voice, wasn’t it? “Um— don’t cry, Shelby. Everything’s going to be alright. You’ll see. Maybe— maybe you should go and get some rest now, okay? It’ll do you some good.”

Shelby sniffled. “Y-yeah. You’re right. I should probably and get some more sleep. Sl-sleep would do me some good. That’s what Dana just told me. I should have listened to him. I feel so stupid.”

“You aren’t stupid,” Riley said. “You’re just… tired. Everyone here is. We’re all gonna be going to sleep soon. You don’t have to feel like you have to stay behind when you’re already done with your job.”

“I know that. But— I feel like I have to. I feel like it’s my duty to try and help everybody here. To make sure that everyone sticks together, and stuff.” She shook her head, pulling the awry strands of hair in her eyes away. “I don’t know, I guess. I would like to be able to help keep the peace in the committee. You know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean. But don’t feel like you’re obligated to do that.” Kegan rested a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened, her face growing even hotter, but he didn’t seem to notice. “As one of the senior researchers here in the committee, I’m telling you now: go get some sleep. You aren’t helping yourself— or anyone, for that matter— in the condition you’re in right now.”

She sniffed and pulled away, wiping at her eyes. “Oh— okay,” she whimpered. “Thank you, Kegan. Good night, everyone.”

Turning away, she hurried to the exit with her head hung low and her hands clutched tightly at her hips. She threw the doors open and walked out into the empty hallway, listening to it close behind her.

She managed to keep herself composed enough until she got into the elevator. Then, as the doors clicked shut before her and the lift started to be sent up, she leant against the wall and buried her face into her hands. She swallowed, coughed, tried to keep the sobs in. It didn’t work. Warm, salty tears leaked down her face and between her fingers, smearing onto her cheeks and chin. She wiped it all from her face, then immediately started weeping again the second her face was dry. She was pathetic. At least nobody else was in the elevator with her to see her break down like this. It was a very small comfort, one that didn’t really make her feel much better at all.

It wasn’t fair. She had never wanted to be a part of this— any of this. Why had she decided to become a part of this committee, again? She’d known that she’d wanted to do something involving human development and behaviors, but not… not this. Whatever this was supposed to be. She’d wanted to be taking care of cultivating and maturing the babies, or, or… or maybe being a primary school teacher in one of the districts, or something. Anything that didn’t require this much stress. This much work. She couldn’t even have children of her own, working in this career. She had been blinded by pride and ambition when she’d first gotten the offer to work here, and now she was paying the price for it. Pride and ambition were really everyone’s downfall, weren’t they?

The elevator began to slow. Shelby wiped her eyes and cheeks and set her jaw, standing up just a little straighter. Hopefully her eyelids weren’t so red and puffy that anyone who saw her would notice that something was wrong. Hopefully she wouldn’t even walk past anyone in the first place. She was one of the first people to come up besides Dana, Callahan, and Jaime, though, so maybe not… unless one of them was walking around the hallway for some reason. That didn’t seem very likely, though. Everyone was exhausted. Why wouldn’t they be going to their beds as soon as possible?

Shelby was taken out of her thoughts as the elevator doors slowly slid open. She hurried out, immediately pivoting so that she was facing the direction her room was in. Bowing her head even though the area was completely barren of people except for her, she hurried down the dark gray, carpeted floors. Her room was smack-dab in the middle of the others— she had counted the doors, once— so there wasn’t much of a walk to reach it. She fumbled with her wrist, pulling up her coat sleeve just enough to put it against the sensor, and a forlorn sigh escaped her lips as the door opened up for her.

The bedrooms in this building weren’t that much different from the buildings in the Academy— they were just bigger, and tailored to fit one person instead of two or three. Shelby shrugged off her coat and threw it onto the bed. Then, thinking better of it, she picked it back up and carried it to the hook by the door, placing it on that. It was almost the end of the working week, and then she’d have to go and get it washed. She huffed, tugged off her shoes and placed them underneath the coat hook. The shower called for her from the opposite side of the room. She usually took her showers in the morning, but if there was any day that she needed a shower in the nighttime, it was tonight.

Stripping herself of the rest of her clothing, she turned on the shower and stepped into the stream of steaming-hot water. It took a moment for her to adjust to the temperature, but once she did, she went for the soap and lathered herself with it, feeling her muscles relax under her hands. She silently watched the foamy bubbles wash themselves down the drain. If only she could wash the dirt from her mind as easily as she could wash the dirt from her body.

She brought her fingers up to her hair, undoing and redoing the braid while knowing full well that she didn’t like going to sleep with a wet head. Today had been a tough day for all of them. The little update that Callahan had given them had done nothing to help at all. That was what had driven her over the edge from frustrated to despondent, hadn’t it been? Why would Callahan do something like that when they were about to leave for bed, leaving the thought weighing down on their heads for the rest of the night?

Why had she kicked out Director Ellis in the first place? And how had she convinced the others, even if just temporarily, that it had been a good thing? Kegan had been right. Everything bad that had happened over the past few weeks had been a result of that one event, as a result of their and Callahan’s decisions and actions. He was right. He usually always was.

Shelby suddenly found herself acutely aware of the miniature water projectiles beating down on her skin. She shoved her head underneath the stream and closed her eyes, spitting out the warm water that collected in her mouth. She was supposed to be helping Kegan with the new Neuroleptika formula tomorrow. That was going to be… nice. She liked Kegan. He was… also nice, despite how gruff and blunt he could sometimes be. And his light hair and eyes looked nice against his tawny face. It was normal to think that it looked good, wasn’t it?

She swallowed what felt like a lump in her throat and rubbed the last of the tears away from her eyes. Reaching over to the faucet handle, she yanked it over to the coldest side and tensed up her body. She still wasn’t prepared for the sudden shock that came crashing down on her. Her entire body shuddered as icicles beat down on her heated skin, but it worked well enough to dissolve the tension in her chest and the fire in her cheeks and belly.

She was quivering by the time she finally reached over to the faucet and switched off the stream completely. Stepping out onto the bath mat, she reached out for her fluffy towel and wrapped it around herself. Then she wrung her hair over the sink, squeezing out most of the excess water. She knew that it has been a bad idea to get her hair all wet, and yet she had gone off and dunked her entire head inside of the water stream. Now she just had to deal with the consequences. Maybe she could sleep in an extra pair of pyjamas tonight… that would make up for the fact that the water in her head would make her feel colder than usual.

Wrapping her hair in a small towel, she rubbed lotion into her skin and then pulled her pyjamas on. She stepped out of the bathroom, shuddering at the sudden change in humidity. Her bed waited patiently for her, its soft cotton sheets and plumate comforter laid down neatly for her to lay down in— and she was more than ready to lay down in them. But there was still one more thing that she had to do.

She went over to her nightstand and picked up the paper bag that sat on it. Unfolding the top, she took out the needle and turned it over in her fingers. Neuroleptika. It was normally just referred to as the medication by most of the population— some, if not most, of them probably didn’t even know what its actual name was. But to Shelby, Kegan, Callahan, and the rest of the committee, it was known as Neuroleptika.

Every person had to take it from the moment they were born. Babies got it in patches, applied to their chubby little arms. Toddlers and young children took it in the form of a gel pill. When a person turned twelve years old, they would finally learn how to apply it straight into their bloodstream through a syringe. They would then take it day and night for the next thirteen years. Then twice a week, for the rest of their lives. It was an integral part of their lives— an essential part of their lives. And Callahan was ready to take it all away from them.

Shelby squeezed her eyes shut, driving away the negative thoughts. Thinking about this right now was only going to make her feel worse. For now, she just had to focus on taking her Neuroleptika and going to sleep. She plucked the cap off the needle, placing it to the side. In and out, just like it had been taught to everyone.

She drove the needle into her vein, depressed the plunger, and then withdrew, dropping the needle into the metal canister so it could be cleaned and replaced. Then, upon a moment of thinking, she took the green jar out from the bag and let one tiny white pill drop out from its inside. She popped it into her mouth and let it dissolve into goo, feeling it run down her throat. She would probably depend on it to get through the night.

Screwing the cap on, she put the jar back into the bag and the bag back onto the nightstand. Then she climbed into bed, shimmying her legs underneath the blankets. Her hands went up to her head. She frowned, then slowly peeled the towel wrapped around her hair away. Her hair was still damp. Well, there wasn’t anything she could do about it now; she didn’t feel like getting out of bed to spend half an hour blow drying it. Her fingers went down her scalp and to the bottom of her breast, braiding her hair into two messy plaits. That would have to do. She would actually take the time to deal with it when the morning came.

She shuffled the rest of her body under the covers, turning over on her side and curling her knees up to her chest. The second her head fell upon her pillow, a sudden wave of exhaustion fell onto her, weighing down her eyelids. It’d been a long day. Longer than any day had the right to be. Sleep would wipe it all away, leaving a blank slate to be taken on in the morning. She couldn’t be all sluggish and unprepared for her lesson with Kegan, now could she? No, she couldn’t….

Shelby rolled over onto her stomach. She used her left arm to hug one of her pillows to her chest, and tucked her right arm in between her thighs. Fluttering her eyes shut, she willed herself to fall asleep. The Neuroleptika and the pill did their job quickly, thank goodness. Her body slowly fell into the grasps of dormancy, and her mind soon followed into the realm of pristine nothingness.

~ * ~

Shelby opened her eyes. The ceiling of the room was just beginning to brighten with the first few strokes of daylight. It was cold. She’d kicked her blankets off the mattress during the night. The medication had not worked as well as it could have, it seemed. Would the new tincture somehow manage to suppress that even more? Perhaps it would. Hopefully it would. That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

Shelby forced herself into a sitting position, dangling her legs off the side of the bed. There were still the side effects that had to be considered in the creation of the new Neuroleptika. Over-complacency. Confusion. Fatigue. Migraines. Paranoia. It had been recorded multiple times that as the effectiveness of the tincture increased, so did the strength of its side effects. How would they be able to combat that in the future?

Shelby put her face in her hands. She had woken up less than a minute ago. Why in the world was she thinking about all of this already? She might as well have stayed up all night, if she was just going to be plunged back into this negativity.

Parting her fingers so that one of her eyes was exposed, she looked over to the clock. 07:57. She had woken up just a few minutes before the alarm. At least it wouldn’t be able to rudely wake her up now. She reached over and pressed the button on the top of the clock, switching the alarm off. Then she just sat there for a while. Today would be a good day. She would be able to spend time with Kegan and the others, and get her mind off the events that had happened yesterday night. All she had to do was get up from bed and brush her teeth and fix her hair and get dressed and…

She clenched her eyes shut, shaking her head. No. She had to focus on one thing at a time, here. Trying to think about everything that she had to do would only make her more overwhelmed than she already was. She got out of bed and stretched. Oh… that already felt so much better. Stepping into the bathroom, she flicked the light on and stared at her reflection. Well, then. Maybe this would be more difficult than she had thought.

She used her toothbrush to scrub at her teeth until her gums felt raw, then she splashed handful after handful of cold water onto her haggard face. Cracking her eyes open, she stared at her face through her blurry vision again. That was slightly better. Patting her face dry with a towel, she then undid the plaits in her hair, combining her tresses into one neat braid that cascaded down her chest. Now, that was a lot better.

She stepped out the bathroom, took the first shirt and the first pair of pants she saw out the closet, and pulled them on. Then she swept over to the other side of the room and plucked her lab coat off the hook by the door. Shrugging it on, she paused to look around. She wasn’t forgetting anything, was she? No… she only had to bring herself to the lab today. That was how most days went, really. Breakfast was usually provided to them, as long as they were on time for it. So was lunch, and usually dinner. It was just like the Academy… except they were actually doing work. And said work was so much more important than all the things that a bunch of teenagers happened to be doing. Probably.

She swept out the door and started down the hallway. It was quiet, near silent save for her footsteps, and dark— it was always dimly lit in the boarding hallways, for some reason. It usually didn’t bother Shelby much. It was usually calming. But now, the darkness seemed to be stifling, the walls slowly but surely coming to close in on her. Pulling her shoulders closer in on themselves, she bowed her head and hurried to the elevators. The lab was two floors down. Not much of a ride.

Stepping into the elevator, she pressed the button to the lab floor and inhaled sharply as the lift began its jerky descent. What would today be like? Would Callahan really be pushing them to their limits? Shelby wasn’t sure how well she would be able to handle that. Being expected to work herself to the bone while working with Kegan on top of that— how was she supposed to deal with it? Of course, she already knew the answer to that: as well as she could. Better than as well as she could. The future of the human development and behaviors committee, as well as the City itself, depended on it.

The elevator came to a shuddering stop, bringing her out of her thoughts. She hurried to smooth out her lab coat, straighten her posture, and look as professional as possible before the door opened. It did open— only to reveal that there was nobody there. Shelby loosened herself up with a sigh, shaking her head. It would be best just to try and get to the lab and focus on actually getting stuff done, as well as getting through the day. Yes. That would be the best thing to do.

She hurried through the hallway, slowing only when the double doors that led to the inside of the lab came into view. She couldn’t see any movement coming from inside… she must have been early. Well, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She could show Callahan, Jaime and Dana that she was a hard worker, right? Right. She had to be optimistic, here. Optimistic and hard-working. The two most important things to be at the moment. If she kept repeating it to herself like a mantra, perhaps it would come true easier than it would if she didn’t. Inhaling deeply, she walked to the door and swung it open.

Kegan and Riley were at the countertop with all the Petri dishes. Riley turned around, smiling as he watched Shelby walk into the lab. “Shelby,” he said. “Hi.”

“H-hello.” Shelby nodded at him. “Kegan, good morning.”

Kegan turned around. Shelby flinched back. The bags underneath his eyes had gotten much more prominent than they had been last night. He was wearing a surgical mask over his face, but the frown of his face was prominent even behind the woven cotton. Shelby pressed her lips together. “Are you alright?”

“Mm-hmm. Just a little tired.” Kegan rubbed his face. “Come over here and help, will you?”

“O-oh. Okay.” Shelby hurried over to Kegan and Riley. Shuffling in between the two of them, she looked down at the Petri dishes they were in the process of preparing. “So, um… what are you all doing?”

“Didn’t we tell you yesterday?” Riley gave her an odd look. “We’re preparing the Petri dishes for the Neuroleptika testing, that’s what we’re doing.”

“Oh. Yes. Y-yes, I did know that.” Shelby nodded. “I just meant— what you were doing specifically. Like, um, organizing them, or labeling them, or…?”

“We’re inserting the medium into the dishes in preparation for the cells,” Kegan said. “Then we’ll be able to insert the cells, finally. We’ve labelled all of the dishes already.”

“Ah— I see.” Shelby nodded, flipping her hair to the back of her head. “W-well. When you need help, just tell me, then.” She looked behind her. They were still the only people in the room, it seemed like.

“You can start by putting on some gloves.” Kegan pushed a few of the Petri dishes to the side. “I’m almost done with the medium, but you can finish off the last ones while I prepare the cells. Or Riley can. It doesn’t matter. But you have to be helping out some too.”

“Oh. Alright. Alright, sure. I’ll help.” Shelby turned to go and fetch a pair of latex gloves. She opened the cabinets holding the gloves and surgical masks. As she sterilized her hands and slipped the gloves on, she looked to the front of the lab again. Strange— shouldn’t Callahan have been down already, along with Jaime? They were usually the first ones here. Shelby shook her head, plucking a surgical mask up from the stack to strap it around her head. There wasn’t much of a reason to have to worry so much about Callahan. She was probably just running a little bit late, that was all. Shelby ran late sometimes. But then again, she was an apprentice. Callahan was the Director. She shouldn’t have gotten as much slack, though she had seemed to be quite tired yesterday…

“Shelby?” Riley’s voice came from the other side of the room. “Are you alright over there?”

She turned around. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “I’m alright. Just got a little bit lost in my thoughts, that’s all.” She brought her hand up to her head, but then remembering that she was wearing sterile gloves, caught herself just in time. “I’ll be back over right now.”

She hurried back, peeking over Kegan and Riley’s shoulders to see what they were doing. Riley was pouring the last of the peach medium into a dish, his ruddy brow furrowed in concentration. When he was done, he rubbed his forehead with the back of his arm. “Well then. I think that’s the last of them, hm?”

Kegan looked over and nodded. “Mm, that looks about right. Shelby, go and bring the cell flasks over here, will you? They’ve been thawed out already. In the incubator by the freezer. Be careful with them.”

“Of course, Kegan.” Shelby nodded, but Kegan didn’t seem to notice. She took a step back, then turned around. Kegan was right. There was a flask holder in the cylindrical incubator, holding around six flasks within it. Shelby rolled the glass open, taking the holder delicately in her hands. She turned around— then blinked in surprise as the double doors leading into the lab swung open.

Dana was standing there, backed by Parker, one of the other apprentices. She smiled and made to walk over to them, when she realized the expressions on their faces. None of them looked exactly pleasant. Swallowing, Shelby turned away and hurried back to Kegan and Riley. “Here you go,” she said, setting the flask holder down at the countertop. “Dana and some of the other researchers are here finally, by the way.”

Kegan raised an eyebrow. “No Callahan?” He turned around, pulling the mask on his face down so the lower half of his face was showing. “Do you know where Director Callahan is, at any chance?”

“Good morning to you as well, Kegan,” said Dana. “I was just about to update you all on that.”

Kegan crossed his arms. “Well?”

“Callahan will not be with us today.”

Shelby’s mouth fell open. “What? Why?”

“I believe that she is beginning to fall ill.” Dana raised a hand, rubbing it against his eye. “She told Jaime and me that she has a severe migraine. It was difficult for her to even get out of bed this morning.”

The crease between Kegan’s eyebrows had grown even deeper. He turned to look at Dana, clenching his jaw. “I see. I am sure that we will make do without her for today. Right?”

Dana paused, before nodding. “Oh, yes. Of course. If you have any issues or questions, just direct them to me.”

“Sure. Of course.” Kegan slipped his mask back on and turned around. He shook his head, his scowl prominent now that he was facing the wall. “Unbelievable.

Shelby wrung her hands. “That really sucks. And… and what about Jaime? Where is he? He’s not sick too, is he?”

“Probably taking care of her like some sort of maid.” Riley snorted. “Parker, come over here and help us.”

Shelby shook her head, blocking out everyone else’s voices. If this was the way things were going to end up being like from now on, then what chance did they even have? Maybe it would be better to just give up, or something… no. That wouldn’t be better all. Just thinking about the consequences they would meet if it was ever discovered that they had driven Director Ellis out made her stomach churn with apprehension.

Shelby took a step back as Parker walked forward to peer into the Petri dishes. Kegan gently nudged him back with his elbow. “Careful,” he said. “Go and put some gloves and a mask on before you come and try to help. I think we’re already almost done with the preparation now, anyway.”

Parker nodded and darted away. Shelby turned back to the countertop, picking at the latex material on her gloves. Riley hummed a little tune as he delicately scraped cells from the bottom of the flask into the Petri dish. “You know what I heard from Quincy last night?” he suddenly asked.

Shelby had to hold back a spark of jealousy. “You mean the Quincy in the Infant Cultivation committee?”

“Yeah. She said that there are… well, a bunch of the zygotes died for no apparent reason at all. About fifty or so.” He shrugged, pursing his lips. “Wasn’t all of them, but it was enough for it to be a pretty harsh blow to the committee. Hope they’ll be able to recover from it soon.”

“O-oh. That’s terrible.” Shelby winced. “I hope they’ll be able to recover, too. That’s not going to be good for… for anyone, really.” Fifty dead zygotes, fifty nonexistent babies. Fifty disappointed couples. Fifty unfulfilled potentials. Shelby rubbed her eyes with the back of her sleeve. “Sorry. That’s just… really sad.” It seemed like the other committees had their own dark spots, too. It almost felt like everything around them was beginning to fall apart with Ellis’s disappearance, didn’t it?

“Guess stuff like that just happens sometimes.” Riley shrugged. “But look on the bright side— the new group of babies will be going out to the districts soon. That’s always a good thing, right?”

“Y-yeah. That’s right.”

Kegan turned to look at them for a few seconds. Then he shook his head, stepping back from the counter top. “Prepare the tincture to put into the T-1 dishes. Then come get something to eat. It’ll probably brighten you two’s moods.” He walked away, peeling off his gloves and taking off his surgical mask.

Riley watched him go, puffing out his cheek. “Well, then. Shelby and Parker, can you do that? Kegan and I’ve been doing most of the stuff until now.”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” Shelby nodded. Pulling her gloves tighter against her fingers, she swallowed back the rest of her tears as she leant over the Petri dishes. There were four groups: T-1, T-2, T-3, and T-4C. Kegan had said that the Neuroleptika was supposed to go into the T-1 group… she frowned, plucking the top of one of the dishes off. “Can you get the Neuroleptika sample for me, Parker?”

Parker walked away. Riley was already gone, probably off to eat breakfast or wash up after inserting the cells. Shelby was alone, now. She stared down at the Petri dishes with a morbid curiosity. There were three different cell types from three different subjects for all four groups. The dish that she had just opened read gw-blood; the one underneath it read sd-brain.

There was barely any signs that cells were even in the dish beside a few, near microscopic flecks in the medium, but it still made her a little queasy. She turned to look behind her, just in time to see Kegan push through the door at the back of the room. Well, at least it wouldn’t take very long, probably. Just one drop each in nine of the dishes. Then they would be able to see the effect it had on the cells.

Parker came back, a needleless syringe held carefully between his fingers. He handed it to Shelby before stepping back. “Remember, just one drop each. And only in the group T-1.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know all of that already.” Shelby narrowed her eyes as she leant forward even more. Carefully, making sure that she wasn’t disturbing the medium or the cells inside, she put one drop— just one drop— of the pale green fluid into each of the dishes. They stained the glass a dirty looking brown for just a few seconds before seeming to dissolve in the glass. Shelby leant back, watching the process happen. How interesting.

“Don’t forget to cover the dishes.” Parker’s voice broke her concentration. “Here, I’ll dispose of the leftover tincture for you.” He walked over, holding out a gloved hand.

Shelby turned toward him, dropping the syringe into his awaiting hand. Then she turned back to the cell samples. It would probably take an hour or so to see any changes— if there even would be any in the first place— but would she be able to wait that long? She wanted to see exactly would be happening to them right now. The faster every test, every experiment, every observation went, the better.

“Are you coming to get breakfast?” Parker asked, taking her out of her thoughts once again. “You know that it’s going to take several hours for any effects to be seen, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Shelby said. “I’m just… watching them, that’s all. I’m not that hungry right now, anyway.”

“But you still have to eat something. I don’t want to see you pass out.”

“I know, I know. I’ll be there in a second, okay?”

Silence. Then the sound of Parker walking away. Shelby didn’t move. She continued standing there by the Petri dishes, staring into them. Who did these cells even belong to, anyway? How had the committee gotten their hands on them in the first place— willingly or unwillingly? And were these people aware that the cells were being used in such an experiment? Shelby wished that she had the answers.

What if…? In a sudden burst of inspiration, she stood up on her tiptoes and reached up to the cabinets. Opening the one to her left, she pulled out one of the microscopes and rested it on some of the little free space on the counter top. She took her notebook and pen from her lab pocket, rested them aside, and then, with a carefulness she had never used before in her life, plucked up one of the T-1 dishes from its place in the counter. yg-capillary, it read. Shelby slid it underneath the microscope and peered through the eyepiece.

There was nothing much to see yet, obviously. There was the pale color of the medium, the dark green stain that had been placed into it… and just off to the side of it, a cluster of pink, white, and red cells. They looked small and almost helpless, even under the extreme magnification the microscope provided. They would be growing, though, in the next few hours and days. Maybe weeks. Shelby focused the magnification so she could see the contents of the dish in its entirety.

The Neuroleptika seemed to be spreading through the dish, and the cells were quietly, near imperceptibly pulsing with life. But wait…? Sensing an anomaly, Shelby zeroed in on some of bordering cells and narrowed her eyes. It wasn’t a hundred percent clear, but it almost looked like the cells on the outer clusters… weren’t moving. They looked a little duller, too, a little paler. Was this a bad sample?

Shelby increased the magnification on the microscope and adjusted the focus, staring down at the cells. No… they didn’t look healthy at all. Had her disturbing the dish caused this? Would it be best to tell Kegan? She looked up, toward the back door of the lab. They were probably still eating breakfast. She turned back to the microscope, looked back into the eyepiece— and then her heart dropped.

Just a few seconds ago, it was only the outer layer of the cells that were dull and unmoving. Now it was the first few layers. Shelby adjusted the magnification and the lighting yet again. Goodness, if she had ended up messing everything up because of her impatience she was going to get into so much trouble. Wait… no. She darkened the light, and then brought it up to its highest intensity. She could see the subtle green of the Neuroleptika. It was just beginning to touch the collection of capillary cells collected at the sides of the dish. And it was when the Neuroleptika touched the cells that they stopped moving.

Shelby’s heart seized. She shot her head up and looked around. There was nobody watching her. Fingers shaking, she took the Petri dish off the microscope and then put it back into its place. Her hands trembled above the countertop, going over to the notebook and pen— and then they suddenly shot over to the Petri dishes again, picking up the one labelled gw-capillary. Feeling almost light headed, Shelby put it under the microscope and peered into the eyepiece, blinking rapidly. It was the same thing. The cells grew pale and eventually stopped moving mere seconds after the tincture made contact with it. This had never happened before, had it? This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?

Shelby looked up again, her breathing harsh and heavy. She snatched up her notebook and pen and sprinted to the back of the room. “Kegan! Kegan, come out! I just—”

She was interrupted by the door to the lab clicking open. Her shoes squeaked against the tile as she skid to a stop, just as the door to the break room opened. Kegan, Parker and Riley came out. Kegan walked forward, holding up a hand. “What happened?”

Shelby took a step back. “I—” she looked to the front of the lab and its opening double doors. Had Callahan decided to make an appearance, finally? She watched as the door opened completely, along with Kegan and the rest of them. The person at the other side stepped in.

Shelby felt her mouth drop open. Then she smiled. Oh… how cute.

Kegan didn’t seem to share the sentiment. He stepped forward and narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing up here?”

“Oh, there’s no need to be so blunt about it.” Shelby touched his elbow. “Maybe— maybe she’s just lost.”

Riley snorted. “How can someone from the Academy get lost? The student buildings are right next to the research center.” But he stepped forward anyway, a coy smile quirking his lips upward. “Really, though. How did you even get up here?”

The girl didn’t answer. She merely stepped forward and smoothed out her tie, eyes bright behind her red hair as a thin smile spread across her face. “My name is Olive Zaretsky,” she said, “and I come to you with a proposition.”

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

Chapter Twenty-Three

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

 

“You’re making this difficult on yourself, Peyton. The faster you tell us what exactly he told you, the faster you’ll be allowed to leave.”

Peyton pushed himself further into the back of the chair, his breathing growing more and more frantic by the second. “I— I t-told you, he didn’t tell me anything! All he did was yell at me and then leave. I promise.” His voice cracked.  He squeezed his eyes shut, tears trickling down his cheeks. “I— I’m innocent. I swear.”

The woman pulled away from him, pinching the bridge of her nose. She put her hand down on the desk, barely acknowledging the way Peyton flinched at the sharp noise. “But he must have told you something while he was yelling at you, yes?” she asked.  “Can you tell us that? What exactly was he yelling about– being angry about the Academy, or the City? Or did any of your other friends say anything about that? Did you say anything to him to make him angry?”

He had. He’d overreacted and made him angry. He’d made all of them angry.  He’d made Olive cry. Because of him, Scout had told these people and gotten them all into trouble. This was all his fault. His fault. He deserved everything that was coming to him, didn’t he?

But something compelled him to shake his head. “No— no. At least— I don’t th-think I did. Or my friends.” He swallowed, then coughed, wiping the snot running down his lip. “All he said was that— that he couldn’t take all of this anymore. Anymore secrets. Anymore of— of a plan. And then he said he was leaving, to request a new roommate, and then— and then Presley came upstairs to ask me to come here, and— and—” he broke off, his shoulders raising in a feeble shrug. “And then I’m here.”

“Why was he yelling about the plan, Peyton? Those secrets? Do you know?”

Peyton tilted his head back, the ache ravaging it only getting worse. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He squinted, more tears leaking down his face. “He was yelling at me because— because I was mad at my friends for hiding secrets from me. S-so I tried to ask them about it. But I don’t know anything about the secret. I— I don’t. Really. I promise.  I… I don’t need to be here.”

The man in the corner of the room stepped forward. Peyton had forgotten that he was there, but now that he had his attention again he only made him more nervous. The man didn’t seem to notice that, though. “Why did you want to know this secret in the first place?” he asked. “Why did it upset you so much that you felt like you needed to ask them? People are allowed to have their own private thoughts and conversations, and they might not involve you all the time. It’s just another part of life. So why did you find yourself so bothered by it?”

Peyton put his feet on the seat and hugged his knees to his chest, closing his eyes. The wire connected to his wrist pulled taut. “Because— because I’m their friends. I should know. I deserve to know. They’re my friends.”

There was a moment of silence between the man and the woman, punctuated by Peyton’s quiet sniffles. A hand on his shoulder sent him jerking against the chair, his head shooting up with a gasp. It was the woman, only the woman, having stepped from around the desk to face him dead on. She pulled her hand away at his reaction. “Peyton, are you okay?” she asked.

He swallowed another gob of mucus. “Uh— uh-huh.”

“Are you fit to continue?”

“Uh-huh.”

She frowned, taking a step back. “Just because they’re your friends doesn’t mean they’ll share everything with you, Peyton. I’m sure even you have things that you’d prefer not to tell other people. There isn’t any reason for you to be so mentally distressed by that. But that’s a conversation for another day. In fact, right now, we want to know everything you know about the things Scout told you. We—”

“I told you he didn’t tell me anything! Why can’t you just ask him? Let me go!”

The woman and the man exchanged glances. “Because he’s refusing to cooperate with us,” the man said. “Just like you are. And even if that boy did talk to us, you’re still heavily involved in this situation regardless of whether you think you should be or not. You were who he spoke of when he was asked why he wanted to switch roommates. He’d said that you hated the Academy. He was incredibly distraught about this whole situation. He was taken in, and now he refuses to say anything more.  Like you.”

He moved closer, his breath hot and rank against his face. “But you can be the better person, Peyton. I feel like you’re not giving us the whole story. If you just tell us everything you actually know, then we’ll let you go.”

Tears stung at Peyton’s eyes again, and he brought a hand up to wipe them away. Scout had blamed him? Not even Kendall or Olive along with him? Maybe it would be best to just rat them all out. Let them deal with the consequences, like he had to because of their own disregard for him and his feelings. It was only fair.

He clenched the chair’s armrests and squeezed his eyes shut, breathing in slowly. The way Olive had acted, though… she’d been so worried about him. She had insisted for him to get away, so he wouldn’t be brought here like Scout had. It was like she believed Scout was in danger for telling Presley what was bothering him. Did she know something that they didn’t, and that was why she was so afraid? Why she had kept her secrets and her plans from him— to try and keep him safe?

The impatient tapping of shoes on tile. “Peyton?”

“I told you, I don’t know anything.”

The man drew away, a barely-concealed sneer curling his lips. “Fine, then. Don’t say anything to us.” He turned around, muttering a few words to the woman.

Peyton squirmed in his seat, sniffling. He opened his eyes. “Can I— can I leave now?”

The woman’s lips twisted into a shaky smile. “Not yet, Peyton. We still have to ask you a few more questions.”

Peyton squirmed in his seat. The small of his back hurt, and the wire picked at his skin until it felt raw. His mouth was dry and his head was pounding. “Wh-wh-what questions? I told you, I don’t know anything. He didn’t t-tell me anything. Can I leave? I… I want to leave.”

“Just a few more questions about you and your friends.” She crouched down so she was at eye level with him. “I know you say that you don’t know anything, but at this point, any information you can offer will be beneficial. It’s for the good of everyone here at the Academy. You understand, don’t you?”

The crushing pressure in his chest threatened to close his lungs, suffocating him. But he somehow nodded. “Y-yeah,” he lied.

“Good.” She pulled away from him. “Now. Do you believe any of your friends might be a threat to the Academy with this so-called plan of theirs? Have they expressed any desires to harm anyone, no matter how minimally?  Can you answer us that?”

Peyton bit down on his cheek, hard. It tasted like soured garbage, with a hint of the things he’d eaten at breakfast. That’d been when this whole mess had started with Kendall and Scout and Olive. Scout had told him that Olive was dissatisfied with the Academy for some reason. That didn’t mean she wanted to harm anyone, though. Did it? Why had she hid it so much from him, then? Did she hate him that much? Did everyone here hate him? With every minute that passed, it seemed like that was so.

Peyton swallowed and took in a shaky gasp, parting his chapped lips. “They want to harm someone? Um— no. No, they don’t. Th-th-they didn’t.”

“They didn’t? Are you sure?”

Dark spots danced at the edge of his vision. Tears ran down his cheeks. “I— I’m sure, I promise! Please just let me go. Please! I don’t want to be here anymore!”

”Are you telling us the truth? Nothing bad will to happen to you or your friends if you’re just honest and tell us everything you know, Peyton. All we’re concerned about is the well-being of the Academy.”

“I know! I know that! Stop telling me that!” He threw his hands to his head, digging his fingernails into his scalp. His temples pulsed with agony, and his jaw unhinged into a grating wail. In the distance, something dinged.

There was a commotion. His left hand was yanked from his hair and forced to his lap. Something pointy stung his wrist, and ice ran down his forearm. The haze began to melt away. Everything was blurry and spinning, each sound razor-sharp against his ears. Peyton lurched forward and vomited onto his shoes.

“Hey. You’re okay. You’re gonna be okay, Peyton.”

The woman’s voice assaulted his ears. He whimpered, drawing his body closer in on himself. A hand touched his shoulder and sat him back up. Peyton cracked his eyes open, only to close them again— everything was still hazy, still spinning. The beeping noise faded away, leaving a painful ringing in its wake. His mouth was lined with a cocktail of acid and half-digested fruit. He spat it all out before he could quite catch what he was doing.

“There, there.” A pair of hands rubbed his sweat-soaked arms. “Hunter, go tell Presley that we can’t do this right now. He’s much too unstable.” Fingers brushed his matted hair from his brow. “In fact, doing this in the first place was a bad idea, with the poor condition he was obviously already in.”

It was only when the pacing stopped that Peyton realized that it had been one of the noises crowding his mind. The man’s voice was gruff, annoyed. “So we’re done for today?”

“For today.”

Footsteps, then the door opening and closing. Peyton forced his head up, willing his breath to stabilize. “I— I’m d-done for t-tuh-today?”

“Yes, sweetheart.” His hair was brushed from his sweaty forehead.

He coughed again, wiping spit, puke and tears from his chin. “I want— w-want— I want to go home.”

“I know, sweetheart. You’ll be able to go and get some rest in just a few minutes, okay? Get cleaned up, have some lunch and dinner and then take a nice, long sleep.”

Peyton nodded and shut his eyes. All he wanted to do was go to his bed and sleep until he was physically unable to anymore. And then… and then, maybe he could start over. He could try to rebuild his life again, starting with his friends. He would ask Kendall and Olive and Scout to forgive him, and then they could go from there.

The door opened. The man’s footsteps returned, a little quieter now. “He told us not to push it anymore if we’re not getting anywhere. It’ll do us more bad than good.” A pause. “I guess we should send him to his room, then?”

“Yes. I’ll escort him there.” A pair of hands pat Peyton’s shoulders. “Come on, Peyton. I’m going to take you to your room now, alright?”

Peyton forced himself to stand. His knees shook and buckled under his weight, and he reflexively threw his arm around the woman for support. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, love. Take as long as you need.”

Peyton took a minute more to steady himself before he let the woman lead him through the room. He pointedly looked away from the man as they walked past him. So embarrassing to be seen like this in front of strangers, with his entire upper body covered with mucus and puke. It couldn’t possibly get any worse than this.

They left the room, walking through the short corridor— but instead of leaving it and returning to the lobby, the woman entered another room, shutting the door behind her. Peyton blinked as he found himself standing in a small passageway. “Um— what—?”

“You’ll be staying in here for tonight as we figure things out. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure that you’re as comfortable as can be.” She walked over to the bulky metal door in front of them and placed her wrist against the sensor. It dinged softly, and with a groan, the door eased itself open.

It was a bedroom. A very nice bedroom, at that— better than the dormitories, even, though it was definitely smaller. The walls were painted a soft dark blue, and a queen-sized bed was nestled into one of the corners. Next to it stood a night table with several books sitting on its surface, as well as a quietly hissing machine that periodically sprayed sweet-smelling mist into the air. It was almost like home. Peyton took another step into the room without thinking about it.

“Comfy, isn’t it? That’s the bathroom over there. You can get yourself all cleaned up.” The lady pointed to a closed door at the side of the room. “I’ll fetch you some clean clothes, and some lunch. Just get yourself comfortable, alright?” She pat him on the back, and then walked back out. The door clicked shut behind her.

Peyton was left alone. He bent down and slipped his vomit-caked shoes off, placing them by the entrance. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and his pants and added them to the soiled pile. Stepping into the bathroom, he turned the shower on as hot as he could stand it and let the scalding water cascade down his body. His skin quickly turned an angry pink, but he ignored it. He reached for the soap and scrubbed it all over his hair and body, its cloying lavender scent making his head spin. He slid down the wall and sat down on the tile floor and hid his head between his legs. The rushing water helped wash his tears away.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, but by the time he found the strength to stand and switch the water flow off, his skin was red and raw and cried out in pain as he wrapped a fluffy towel around himself. He stepped out of the bathroom, shivering at the sudden change of temperature and humidity. The messy heap of clothes he’d left by the door was gone. Replacing it were a neat pile of new clothes, a tray full of food— and a folded down, taped shut paper bag. His medication. Of course. He’d forgotten to take it today. It was so important, and he’d ended up forgetting because of how lazy he had been.

He hugged the towel closer to himself, staring down at the paper bag. It looked so innocent, yet so accusing at the same time. He’d forgotten to take it, after almost an entire lifetime of straight consistency. Was that why he’d been acting so bad? All because of a little skip in his morning routine? Kendall’s and Olive’s trust, his stable relationship with Scout, his dignity— had all of that been taken away from him all because of a stupid little mistake?

Peyton walked over and ripped the bag open. A collection of syringes fell out. Two were the pale green he was used to and marked Morning and Afternoon— the last was opaque and a more bluish hue, and labeled Night. Unusual, but Peyton didn’t pay much mind to it. He ripped the cap off the morning needle and plunged it into the tender skin by his wrist. He shuddered as the fluid entered his veins, all his senses almost instantly dulling. He fell to his knees, arms wrapped around himself, and just sat there for a few minutes, feeling his headache ebb away.

Lunch sat patiently next to him. A sandwich, hand cut fries, sliced fruit and a cookie were piled onto the tiny tray. A bottle of water accompanied it all. Peyton dove for that first, twisting it open and bringing it to his cracked lips. The cool, sweet liquid flowing down his throat was the best thing he had ever tasted right then. He attacked the sandwich and fries next, finishing both in the matter of two minutes. With his hunger sated and his thirst quenched, he ate the fruit and cookie at a more reasonable pace. They were nice and sweet, now that he took the time to savor the taste. Olive had probably loved them… before she’d had to run upstairs to warn him of what had had happened to Scout. The fruit on his tongue curdled, and it took everything he had not to spit it out. She probably didn’t even know that he’d been found. She would go to the back by the walls that night and find that he wasn’t there. What would she do then?

Peyton violently shook his head, banishing the thoughts. He put the next piece of fruit in his mouth, chewed, swallowed while barely tasting it. There was no reason Olive had to worry. He’d be out of here by tomorrow, and he could tell her everything that had happened then. Then she’d realize that she had been overreacting, that her overprotective worry of him was completely unwarranted.

The last morsel of food disappeared down his throat. He leant back and stretched out his legs— and then realized he still didn’t have any clothes on. He threw the towel back over himself and reached for the stack of folded clothes. There was a new uniform, new shoes, pyjamas, even a pair of night slippers . He put the pyjamas on and threw himself onto the bed, covering his head with the thick blanket. How long was he supposed to stay in here, anyway? The lady had said until they figured everything out… but how long was that? Until tomorrow morning? If this went on for too long he would end up missing his classes. He peeked his head out from under the cover and looked to the exit. Maybe he could go and ask.

He forced himself out from under the covers and walked toward the door, gingerly stepping around the tray and paper bag he’d left on the carpet. It was only when he was about an inch away from it that he realized an abnormality: the door didn’t have a motion detector, and there was no handle or sensor to be seen. He couldn’t get out.

Peyton swallowed and took a step back, the room suddenly feeling a lot tinier than it had a few seconds ago. He was trapped here. There was no way he could get out. No. This made sense. They just couldn’t have him walking around without them knowing where he was, right? This was to keep him safe. But still… he went back to the bed and sat down, staring at the door. There was a little hatch at the bottom, presumably to bring things like clothes and meals in. He could just use that to slide out a note if he had an urgent problem, couldn’t he? Of course he could. But that was suggesting that he would find himself in an urgent problem in the first place. He was safe here. He was.

The bed frame creaked as he threw his upper body down on it. His eyes fluttered shut, and he sniffled. He wanted to sleep, but he couldn’t. His mind prohibited it. Besides, if he took a nap now, then he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep later, when it was actually nighttime. So what was he supposed to do until then? There were books that he could read. Or he could explore the place, though there didn’t seem like much to explore. It was better than just staying sprawled on the bed and feeling sorry for himself, though.

He dragged himself out of bed again. The smell of vanilla from the machine hit him dead on as he crouched over the night table, examining each of the books. None of them were anything he hadn’t read before. He put them down and looked around the remainder of the room. Besides the table and the bed, it was essentially empty. Maybe the bathroom would be more interesting to look at. Walking to the door, Peyton pushed it open and stepped inside.

The lingering heat and humidity dotted his face with moisture, and the puddles underfoot soaked the bottoms of his pants as he looked around. There was the shower, the toilet, the sink, nothing too special. Peyton turned the sink on and washed his hands and mouth, watching the remaining bits of food spiral down the drain. He glanced up from the basin, and flinched at the haggard boy staring back at him. No— that was him. There was a mirror above the sink, of course. The repulsion rising in his chest forced him to look away.

A small window was above the sink and the mirror. Peyton tried to stand on his tiptoes to see what was outside. At this level, only the darkening sky could be seen. Hours must have already passed, between the time he had been sent down for interrogation and now. A jolt of apprehension went through him. What were Kendall and Olive doing now? Kendall must have realized by now that he would not be returning to his dorm. And Olive… Olive would find out that he wasn’t hiding by the wall later, if she hadn’t already. Peyton could only wonder what they would do in reaction to his absence. He forced away the growing pressure in his chest. Maybe getting some rest now would do him some good.

He walked out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The needles, his uniform, and the empty lunch tray were still scattered all over the floor. Maybe he would be able to leave earlier if he could show that he was well-organized. He walked over and gathered the uniform up in his arms. He put the shoes at the foot of the bed, folded the shirt and pants into a compact square, and put those at the corner of the mattress. They probably wouldn’t stay on the bed during the night, but it was worth a shot.

Crouching back down to the carpet, he pushed the tray right against the bottom of the door. He looked to the spilled bag of medication last. His fingers trembled a bit as he recapped the dose he’d taken earlier. There was no metal canister to place it in, so he pushed it into the unripped corner of the bag and nestled it in there as best as he could. He did the same to the afternoon dose. When was he supposed to take that, anyway? There were no clocks anywhere in here to determine the passage of time. The only way he could tell what part of the day it even was would be to look through the window in the bathroom.

He rubbed his wrist, which was still sore from the interrogation, and picked up the last syringe. The one labelled “Night.” It felt heavier than the other two. He turned it over in his fingers, watching the way the blue fluid sluggishly turned over itself. It couldn’t have felt very pleasant slipping into a vein. He would find out how it felt soon enough though, wouldn’t he? A shudder ran through him, and he shoved the needle back inside the paper bag. He took the entire thing up from the floor and started to make his way to the night table— and then he jumped at the shuffling noise that suddenly came from the door.

He whipped around. The bag, medicine and all, slipped out of his hands and dropped to the ground. He winced at the clattering noise the needles inside it made, but the continued sounds coming from the entrance distracted him from picking them up. He watched with a guarded curiosity as the hatch at the bottom raised up. A gloved hand shimmied its way through the opening, patting the ground several times before its fingers curled around something— the lunch tray. Both the hand and the tray disappeared back through the hole, but the hatch didn’t close.

Peyton risked stepping closer to the door, crouching down to see if the hand would return. It did, with another tray. This one was heaped with vegetable pasta, a roll of bread, and what looked like chocolate pudding. A sealed bottle of fruit punch rolled in after it. And then lastly, a small note, held delicately between the pointer and middle fingers. The hand dropped it, then drew away. The hatch clicked shut.

Peyton stood there for a minute longer, staring down at the meal that had been offered to him. Hadn’t he just had lunch a few minutes ago? He stepped forward and knelt down, plucking the note up. He held it up to his face. Eat whenever you get hungry, and remember to take your medications tonight. You’ll be released by tomorrow morning. ~JP

Well… if they said so. At least he had something to look forward to now. Peyton tucked the note under the tray and shuffled back. The food smelled warm and buttery with hints of spices, but he wasn’t hungry yet, and the knowledge that it would get cold the longer he waited wasn’t enough to convince him to eat it right then, either. All he wanted to do was rest.

He turned away from the meal and climbed into bed. Rolling onto his back, he stared up at the recessed lights in the ceiling and sighed. The afterimages of the lights shined in the darkness as he closed his eyes. What was Scout doing, if he’d been brought down for questioning too? Was he laying in his bed as well, waiting for the morning to come so he could finally get out of here? Was he annoyed? Worried? Peyton pushed his empathy for the other boy away. It was his fault that he was in this mess. Scout was the one who deserved to be stuck in this tiny room, not him. Kendall and Olive, too— they were the ones who had been keeping secrets from him, endangering the Academy or whatever the officials were so worried about. Hopefully they would be grateful when got out of here and told them that he refused to give away the information they had so desperately wanted to keep from him. It was more than they deserved.

No… he couldn’t think like that. It was that sort of mindset that had gotten him into this, not Olive’s or Kendall’s or Scout’s secret-keeping. If he had just stopped being so oversensitive… he covered his face with his arms. Maybe they were right. Maybe he really couldn’t handle whatever they were hiding. Maybe they really were hiding something that the Academy didn’t like. Olive’s urgency was certainly convincing enough for him to believe so. She had insisted that he couldn’t get caught by Presley… that hadn’t worked out well. What was she so afraid of? Was she afraid that something would happen to him?

The pressure in his head was returning. He rolled over on his stomach and buried his face into one of the pillows, ignoring the fact that he could barely breathe. She could have just been out to save her own skin, of course… but something about the way she had acted made Peyton think that wasn’t the case. There was so much coolness and self-confidence in her that she wouldn’t be scared of a man like Presley. She had to have been afraid that Peyton would be punished for her own wrongdoings. She probably would have tried to take his place in a punishment if it were possible that she could have. After all, hadn’t she already done that for him countless times back in Silverhill?

Peyton squeezed the pillow against his chest, burying his face deeper into it. The fact that she wouldn’t be able to bail him out in this situation was what had to have gotten her so nervous. That had to be it. The Academy wasn’t like Silverhill, where she could do that. Where they could do a lot of things that they couldn’t here.

Peyton felt the fabric by his eyes grow damp. What he would do to relieve the last few days of his life in Silverhill, where the most they had to be worried about was getting in trouble with one of the other children, or Miss Campbell… or Mother and Father.

His body seized like a bucket of ice had been dumped over him. He shot up from the pillow and gasped in a deep, sharp, ragged breath. The memories he’d last had of his parents came rushing back to him, sending his head reeling. The last night he’d been there— the conversation they had shared between each other while they’d thought he was asleep— they had been scared for him. Scared that he would… that he would become lost.

Bile rushed up his throat, and it took all the willpower he had inside of him to force it back down. Then the pain erupted in the rest of his body, and his stomach became the least of his worries. His head was starting to pulsate again, dark pits of nothingness clouding out his vision. He keeled over and pushed his head into the mattress, somehow aware through the pain that he had to somehow hide his cries from the people outside. The vice-like clamp around his temples grew tighter and tighter, almost crushing his skull. His airways had been filled with concrete, the pain was covering his entire body, and— and—

It started to melt away. Of course it did. That’s what it had done before, hasn’t it? Peyton gasped in a mouthful of air. The darkness dissipated to reveal the bedcovers again. His muscles dissolved into jelly, and he collapsed in on himself, bringing a quivering hand to the spinning mass he figured had to be his head. Pushing his fingers into his hair, he closed his eyes and took in one last gasp of air, forcing himself to relax. It was over now. It was over.

The window.

Peyton snapped his eyes open. The window? His limbs still refused to do anything but go slack, but he somehow managed to move his eyes toward the bathroom door. Toward the only room in this place that had a window in it.

The window. The thought came to him again. The window. He had to get to the window. He had to. It was probably the most important thing he would ever do.

His muscles screamed in protest as he forced himself up from the bed. He tried to stand. His legs gave out from underneath him, bringing him to the ground. Tears sprung to his eyes. He pushed himself into a standing position once more. He stumbled forward, almost collapsing into the bathroom door. His hand closed around the knob, and he pulled the door open. Falling to his hands and knees, he crawled inside. The cold, damp tiles directly on his palms made his stomach twist even in his urgency. A burst of energy allowed him to reach up and grab the rim of the sink, pulling himself upward. There was the window. It had gotten much darker outside; night was nearly here. He had done what he’d needed to, but that biting urgency was still there. What was he supposed to do now?

He was taken out of his thoughts by a ringing thump. His arms flew to his head, his eyes squeezing shut. There was silence— and then, suddenly, the same thump. It was coming from the window. Peyton opened his eyes. Grabbing the rim of the sink again, he forced himself to stand. He couldn’t see anything, standing below it like this. Would he even be able to see what was going on outside, what with how dark it had become? He looked toward the door, desperation running through his veins. As quietly as he could, he closed it and turned the lock in the knob. There was only one way to find out.

That clang from outside the window. And then another one.

Peyton put his foot onto the rim of the sink, grabbed the windowsill, and then pushed himself all the way up. His heart thrummed in his chest, almost coming up his throat. He could feel the stem of the sink creaking under his weight. Standing on the pads of his feet, his toes slipping precariously on the porcelain surface, he pushed his head up to the glass and looked out into the swarthy evening. His breath hitched.

Standing just outside the building, figure obscured by the lengthening shadows, was Olive. A pile of stones sat by her side. She raised her hands and gestured erratically, her face twisted into a caricature of desperation. Peyton couldn’t hear her words, or even determine what her movements were supposed to mean— yet in the depths of his mind, he somehow knew exactly what she was trying to say.

Come out.

Peyton felt a surge of energy rush to his head. He nodded vigorously, starting to look around the bathroom for anything he could use to help. Yes. He had to get out of here— he had to. But how? The window didn’t have a hatch or anything to open it with— and even if it did, the chances of heaving his entire body up there, let alone fitting through the opening, were slim to none. He held out a hand and tapped it against the window, shrugging helplessly though Olive probably couldn’t even see the motion.

Olive’s eyes widened. Her brow furrowed, and she looked down at the ground, bringing her fingers to her mouth. She looked back up at him with a jerk of energy. Her hand shot up, fingers and thumb curled together to make a circle. Peyton squinted. A circle…? A hole? His legs trembled as he forced himself even higher, eyes examining the pane. Yes— there was a hole at the very bottom, barely the size of a pencil eraser. What was it for? He tried pushing his finger into it: nothing. He looked back to Olive. “It’s not working,” he mouthed. “It’s not working!”

Olive screwed her face up. She continued her pantomime, raising both of her arms and bringing her left hand to her right wrist. Peyton squinted. Was she trying to say— medication. That was it. He nodded at her, risking taking his hand off the sill to hold up a finger. He’d be back.

His knees shook as he climbed down from the sink. The second his feet were grounded on the floor, he opened the door and ran back into the bedroom. The paper bag rested on the carpet, where he had left it. The needles were scattered across the floor. He picked the ones for the afternoon and the evening up, clenching the syringes in his fists. He hurried back to the bathroom, skidding to a stop as the sink came into view. He couldn’t climb back up to the window with his hands occupied like this. What was he to do?

He put the two syringes between his teeth, and his entire body shuddered. The cool, glassy plastic on his tongue felt disgusting. He tried to ignore it as best as he could, and hauled his feet back onto the basin. His arms strained to reach the ledge of the window. His fingers ached as he dug his nails into the paint to get better leverage. He fought against his body’s protests and made it up. Olive was still there waiting for him. He spat the needles out onto the shelf and stared down at her. What was he supposed to do now?

Her hand stretched out to him again with her fingers in the hole position. He looked down at the tiny space in the frame, then back at her. What did she want him to do with it?

Olive rubbed her face before looking back up at him again. She mimed the action she had used for the medication again. She wanted him to… put the medication in the hole? What would that possibly do?

Peyton didn’t have much time to think about it. Another burst of urgency sent his hands scrambling for the syringes, almost knocking them off the ledge in the process. His fingers closed around the one meant for the nighttime. He plucked off the cap with his teeth and jabbed the needle into the hole. Before he could comprehend what he was really doing, his thumb flew to the top and depressed the plunger.

The hole began to overflow with viscous blue fluid. Peyton dropped the needle. It rolled off the ledge, and the sound of it colliding with tile came from below. Peyton couldn’t go down there and clean it up now. He could barely breathe as it was, watching Olive pace around on the grass. She wasn’t looking up at him. Why wasn’t she looking up at him anymore? Had someone caught her? Peyton held up his fist, ready to bang it on the glass to alert her to his presence again.

That was when the window popped open.

He almost fell off the sink, both out of shock and because the frame of the window nearly hit him in the face. The alarm in his throat quickly gave way to an anxious excitement. It had worked. The window had opened! How had that even worked? Was there some sort of chemical sensor in the window? But why would that be…? Peyton shook away the thoughts. There was no time for that right now. He threw his forearm out the window and waved it around as well as he could. “Olive! Olive! It opened!”

She immediately shot her head up, feet grinding to a stop. Her finger flew up to her lips. Peyton clamped his jaw shut. Digging his fingers into the sill, he waited fervently for Olive’s next order. It came in the form of her throwing her arms up and pulling them toward herself. She wanted him to come out to her.

He had to climb out the window.

For the first time, uncertainty prickled at him. He was straining to just look out of the window as it was. How was he supposed to lug his entire body up there? And climb out, on top of that? It was at least a ten-foot drop, if he could even squeeze his body through the tiny opening in the first place. “I— I can’t,” he said, too quietly for her to hear. “I can’t! It’s too hard!”

She stomped her foot, clenching her fists. “You have to try!”

Peyton shrunk away. He inhaled, then. She was right. He couldn’t stay here. If he did, then he would be… he’d be lost. He couldn’t get lost— if not for his sake, then for Mother’s and Father’s sake. They couldn’t lose another child. He lifted his bare foot up, placing it on the smooth mirror’s surface. With all the strength he could draw to his limbs, he started to heave his body up to the ledge— and then his grip slipped.

He was falling. The only thing he had time to do was snap his eyes shut before his body made contact with the floor. Flames danced up his leg, yanking a strangled gasp from his throat. He opened his eyes and pulled up his pant leg. He had fallen straight onto the discarded syringe. Beads of red pooled on his skin; he wiped them away only for more to come back mere seconds later. Little chips of glass were embedded into his leg. Nausea started to bubble in his stomach, his hands shaking. His head lolled back and he screwed up his face. It hurt. It hurt a lot. But he couldn’t stop. He had to keep trying.  He had to try and regain his courage and—

Fervor that didn’t feel like his own flew through his limbs. He stood, the energy bringing him back to the sink as if nothing had ever happened. He basically leapt onto the sink, his fingers clamping onto the ledge and hoisting his entire upper body to the window. The mirror shuddered when the ball of his foot struck it. With a strength he had never before, he climbed all the way up to the ledge, crouching stiffly on the tiny shelf. He forced his head, arms, and shoulders through the window, barely feeling the pain of the small frame squeezing at his body.

Olive was waiting for him. She ran forward as his head popped out and held her arms out. “Come on!” she yelled. “Hurry!”

It was a far way down. Peyton bit down hard on his cheek, doubt quenching some of the fire that had burned so strongly in him before. He couldn’t stop now. He was halfway out the window, feet having long since left the safety of the sink. If he tried to climb back into the bathroom, the fall would give him more than just a nasty cut— and then he would have to deal with whatever else Presley had planned for him.

He forced his waist through, and then part of his hips. For once, he found himself grateful for his small frame. He was down to his thighs now. Olive was standing directly underneath him. He was going to fall face-first. He swallowed the thick lump in his throat. It did nothing to quell his racing heart. There was no going back now. He closed his eyes, pushed the rest of his body through, and screamed.

His scream was quickly cut short. There were needles, needles everywhere, surrounding him. No, not needles— branches. He had fallen into a bush. A thorny bush. They were digging into every exposed patch of skin he had. He screamed and thrashed around, not stopping even as he felt hands close around his ankles. He was pulled out the bramble, falling face-up onto the grass. His eyes cracked open.

Olive was crouched above him, searching his face. “Oh, god… Peyton, are you okay?”

He coughed. There was already dirt in his nose and eyes. His skin burned, his muscles screamed. He wiped his sleeve on his face and it came away streaked with red. But he somehow found it within him to nod. “I— I think so.”

“Then you have to get up.” She grabbed his wrist and yanked him to his feet, turning away. “We don’t have any time to waste.”

Peyton opened his mouth, but she was already running away. He hurried to catch up to her, his exhausted legs struggling to keep up.  He somehow managed it, though, the adrenaline he’d felt before flaring back to life again.

They didn’t stop until they were nearly flush with the wall. Peyton leant forward and rested his hands on his knees, catching his breath. “I— I’m s-sorry that I got caught,” he said. “I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t.”

“It’s fine, Peyton.” She took his chin into her hand, forcing his gaze up to hers. Peyton almost jerked away— there was a frightening intensity in her eyes, and her fingers were pressing against his cuts. “It’s fine,” she said again. “But you can’t stay here. You need to leave. Now.”

He pulled away from her. “But— but you told me to come here. You said I’d be safe here!”

“I know. But it isn’t enough.”

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry, Peyton.  I’m so sorry. But if you stay here, you’re going to get caught. I’m sure they’ve already got Scout. They’re going to come after you now, if they aren’t already. That can’t happen to you, Peyton. It can’t. You’re too important to me.” She leant forward, gathering him into a crushing hug. “I’m sorry. You need to leave.”

He pulled away from her, almost shoving her away. “And go where?

“You have to leave the City.”

What?

“It’s the only choice you have if you don’t want to be terminated!”

The silence that hung beneath them was brief, but it was tense enough to be sliced open with a knife. Olive started to pace back and forth, her hands shaking. “Listen, Peyton. Listen. Don’t talk. Around this area is a trapdoor. I don’t know exactly where it is, but you have to find it. It’s how you’ll get out of this place.” She took his hand and pushed something into it. It felt like paper. “That’s the code to unlock it. Don’t lose it. When you open it, climb down and go left. Go as far left as you can until you find something in the tunnel. I’ll stay with you as long as I can, I promise. I’m sorry.”

“But what—?!”

Go!

Peyton took a step back, and then another, his eyes fixed on Olive’s terrified face. And then he turned and ran.

His feet flew over the grass, his eyes streaking with tears because of how fast he was running. Or that it was just tears of desperation. He couldn’t tell. Where was Olive? He could only hear his own footsteps beating on the ground, his own ragged breathing and his own racing heartbeat. Hadn’t she said that she would stay with him? Against every one of his instincts, he snuck a glance behind his shoulder. Olive was running away— away from him.

He almost tripped. His feet dug into the dirt, bringing him to a stop. What was Olive doing? Was he going the wrong way? No— she was running back to the Academy, the very place she had told him to avoid. A lump grew in his throat, almost choking him. How could she just run away after promising him that she would stay? What was she doing? What was he supposed to do— follow her, call after her?

A sudden movement ripped him from his thoughts and brought his sights shooting upward. A dark shape, soaring through the air. A bird. No. Not just any bird— a Seeker bird. It dove through the sky, its wickedly sharp claws and beak glinting in the dull moonlight. Its head darted around, mouth opening and closing to take in the air. It was flying around the area he was in. It was looking for something.

It was looking for him.

Peyton gathered every last remnant of his willpower and put it all toward stopping the scream in his throat from tearing out. Slowly, oh so painfully slowly, he lowered himself to the grass and hid himself within it. The trapdoor. He had to find the trapdoor. Or else he’d be terminated. He would be lost.

Keeping his head low, he started to crawl through the grass. There was an endless amount of land to explore here. Who knew where this supposed trapdoor was? He closed his throat to keep the sobs from leaving his body. The near-silent flapping above him sounded like it was getting closer. If he made any noises or sudden movements, then…

He paused. In the distance, there was a disturbance in the pattern of grass. There were no plants sticking up in a tiny area of the yard. Could that be…? His scratched knuckles ached as he continued crawling in the dirt, lowering himself to the ground as much as possible. He couldn’t tell where the Seeker was, now. For all he knew, it was mere feet above him, waiting for just the right moment to strike. He closed his eyes and felt tears run down his cheeks. There was no one to comfort him, and no time to be comforted. Olive had said that she would stay with him for as long as she could, but she hadn’t. He had to deal with this by himself, now.

He neared the discrepancy in the grass, getting just close enough to touch it with an outstretched arm. The tips of his fingers fell upon something smooth and cold and definitely not grass. This had to be it. It had to be it, because if it wasn’t, then what would? He pulled himself over and raised his head just enough to get a good view of what he was observing. A silver metal surface, the sole handle on it rusted to such an extent that it would be impossible to determine what color it had been before. At its left hand side was a keypad. Olive had given him the code for this, right? He opened his hands.

The paper was gone.

A fiendish cackle screeched out from above his head.

Peyton shot his head up. The Seeker was circling above him. Adrenaline surged through his body, bringing tears to his eyes and ripping a desperate keen from his throat. He had lost the paper. How could he open the trapdoor without it? In a sudden, stupid burst of desperation, he grabbed the rusted handle, yanking on it as hard as he could. And it opened.

He couldn’t breathe for a second. How had it opened? It needed a code, didn’t it? Peyton almost couldn’t comprehend his luck. A thick cluster of flattened grass, wilted and yellowed, hung inside the hole the trapdoor was covering. Somehow, in some sort of unprecedented miracle, the grass must have prevented the lock the trapdoor had from activating. Tears ran freely down Peyton’s face as he put his first leg down into the darkness. Another caw sounded from above him, and he hurried to throw the other leg in. He shut his eyes, held his breath, and pushed himself down into the hole.

It was a long fall. He collapsed onto his hands and knees the second he made contact with the floor, pain shooting up his limbs. He moved his arms and legs one by one. They all felt fine, as fine as they could possibly be in this situation. He forced himself to his feet. The air down here smelled almost smoky, but he couldn’t help but gasp in mouthful after mouthful of it. Pulling his shirt over his nose, he looked up to the only patch of light the tunnel had. Besides the blades of grass around the opening, there was no movement around the hole to be seen. Would the Seeker bird follow him down here? He instinctively pressed himself against the wall. Left. Olive had said he had to go left. Hesitantly, he stuck out his foot and felt around. Then he started shuffling down the passageway.

The light from the trapdoor faded the farther he went. He could have closed his eyes, and it wouldn’t have made a difference in how far he could see. His heart was still racing. He tried to calm it down, but that was a near-impossible task while running through a pitch-black, reeking tunnel to escape punishment from the Academy’s most important officials. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on his breathing instead. It was then that the muted sensation of serenity fell over him, wrapping around his body like a heavy blanket. It was working. He was calming himself down.  Everything would be okay.  There was no need to worry.

So immersed he was in his thoughts, he almost didn’t realize that the floor had begun to wobble. A cry burst from his throat as he suddenly hit a dead end in the tunnel. His trembling hands reached out, feeling along the wall. There were no openings, no holes he could shimmy through. No doorknob. Had he made a wrong turn, a mistake? Had Olive? He turned around and started walking back. He hit another wall three paces in. The passageway had been cut off.

He was trapped.

A whirring sound trickled into the enclosure. “Welcome to the elevator leading to the Permanent Detention Center for Uncorrectable Civilians and Subjects.”

The voice was so warbled and fuzzy that it was almost unintelligible, clearly recorded a long time ago. It also sounded much too happy for the occasion. The melodic, tinny lilt it had to it was undoubtedly that of Presley’s. Peyton started beating on the walls with his open palms, the relative tranquility he’d felt before long since evaporated.

The message paid no mind to his protests. “If you are listening to this message, it should be clear to you that you have likely committed a transgression so severe that it is impossible for you to rehabilitate, reintegrate, or otherwise return to the life of a constructive member of society. Anything that enters the Permanent Detention Center for Uncorrectable Civilians and Subjects does not return to from where it came, for the safety and contentment of the members of the City. It is suggested that you end all longing after your past life in the City again during the three-minute descent into the detention center. It will assist in making the transition into your new life easier.”

A dim light flickered on. Peyton stumbled back as he was suddenly faced with his scraped, bloody reflection staring back at him. The walls were made of glass. Outside of them was a dark, jagged shaft— he couldn’t tell if it was concrete, dirt, or something else. The floor wobbled again, and the rutted texture began to move up. No… it wasn’t moving up. The enclosure was moving down.

Peyton’s eyes widened in the glass reflection. He started to bang on the walls to the point that his hands began to bruise, his heart thumping painfully against his ribcage. “No!” he screamed. “Let me out! I didn’t do anything! Please!”

“The Permanent Detention Center for Uncorrectable Civilians and Subjects has no guards or wardens. It is ruled and regulated completely by the prisoners. Provisions are sent down to its inhabitants through dumbwaiters much like this one. It is impossible to communicate with those within the City in the Permanent Detention Center for Untreatable Civilians and Subjects. Any and all emergencies— medical, civil, or otherwise— will not be acknowledged by any persons in the City.

“The Permanent Detention Center for Untreatable Civilians and Subjects is impenetrable, inescapable, and unable to be compromised in any way, shape, or form. All populated sectors of the Permanent Detention Center for Uncorrectable Civilians and Subjects are located beyond the City’s boundaries. If the lack of maintenance of the confinement make it so that weaknesses in the structures do occur, rest assured that any openings will lead to the Outskirts. There is no way to connect to, communicate with, or return to the City. Once again, it is recommended to abandon any thoughts of escape or redemption at this point, to help smoothen the transition into your new life. From this moment on, all the people, places, and experiences you once encountered while in the City now exist only in one place: your memory.”

Peyton collapsed against the wall and slid down onto his knees. A quiet weeping bounced off the walls, combining with the uncannily serene announcement. It was only when his cuts began to sting with salty tears that Peyton realized they were coming from him.

“Thank you for listening. The rest of your descent shall be in silence.”

There was a click. It was silent once more. Peyton curled up into a ball, vaguely aware that he was trembling. Bits of gravel and dust scratched at his face. He couldn’t find the energy to care. The fleeting, warm lull somehow graced him once again, and it started to fade away before it had even really arrived. Peyton held onto the last of it like it were a lifeline. All at once, that remote sensation was Olive, Kendall, Scout, Miss Campbell, Mother, Father, the Academy and the City itself— everything he had ever known, and everything he would never see again.

He closed his eyes, and then it was gone.

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

Chapter Twenty-One

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

 

The wrist sensor quivered as he slammed his arm against it, and he squeezed through the door the second it opened enough to do so. While most of the students and staff were going outside, ready to make their way to their sessions, he was the one fighting his way into the building and through the hallway. There were so many people going down the stairs, yet none of them were who Peyton was looking for. He pushed his way up the staircase, ignoring the way his heart started to race and how his breath grew strained and ragged. He had to ignore it all. Scout and Kendall still had to be upstairs, in their room. They had to be. But they would leave if he wasn’t fast enough. He couldn’t allow them to leave— not until they had given him what he wanted.

By the time he’d reached the fourth floor, his lungs felt like they had been set on fire and his knees were shaking. No— his whole body was shaking. Was the trek up the stairs that hard? Or was it that he was just that upset? He paused at the top of the stairs for a moment to catch his breath, his rising frustrations only making his anger worse. He couldn’t stop. They would get away if he stopped. He couldn’t let that happen. He had to keep going.

The corridor seemed to stretch on forever, but that didn’t stop Peyton from racing through it. People stopped to look at him, but he ignored them as well as he could. Just like he tried to ignore the doubt needling at the back of his mind. There was no time for doubt. He was right— he had to be right. All three of them were hiding something important from him. There was no way that there wasn’t anything going on. Olive wouldn’t have acted the way she had if that’d been the case.

He tried to control his breathing as he approached the room, tried to still his trembling hands, but he couldn’t. It was now or never, then. The anger would go away soon, and with it, so would his strength to question Scout and Kendall.

He pressed his wrist hard against the sensor. The door slid open. He clenched his fists, took in a deep breath, and screamed. “I know what you guys are doing! Tell me why—”

His exhaustion-filled voice hitched in his throat. Kendall was standing right in front of the door, hand still held out like had just been about to leave the room. Slowly, he withdrew. His dark eyes, concerned and confused and oh so earnest, searched Peyton’s sweaty, burning face. “Peyton?” he asked. “I— you aren’t— what’s the matter?” He stepped forward, holding out his arm again.

Peyton jerked away. He opened his mouth and found that nothing came out. His cheeks burned hot, tears prickling in his eyes. The confidence he had been feeling just seconds before leached out of him. He turned away. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to barge in on you.”

“No, it’s alright.” A hand suddenly rested on his shoulder Peyton lurched away again. Kendall’s quiet intake of breath raked against his ears. He sounded so worried. No. That wasn’t right.  Why was he worried? “What’s the matter, Peyton?” he asked again.

Slowly, Peyton turned back around. Kendall had lowered his arm at least, but the thought of having to look him in the eye still burnt a hole in Peyton’s stomach. He coughed back a sob, his tongue heavy in his mouth. “I— n-n-nothing is the matter. I was just joking.”

“Peyton. Don’t lie.” That hand on his shoulder again. He pulled back, almost completely out the door now. Kendall let his arm drop, but he didn’t stop looking at him. Why wouldn’t he stop looking at him? “Peyton…” he started.  “Is this about the talk we had the other day? Because if it is, then I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I really didn’t. I just… wanted to make sure you were okay.” He fell silent for a moment. “You don’t seem okay now. Please, Peyton. I’m your friend. I want you to be happy again.”

Do you? Do you really?” He squeezed his eyes shut, his fingernails digging painfully into his arms. “If you really wanted me to be happy, then you wouldn’t keep secrets from me! You— you wouldn’t team up with Scout and Olive and try to make sure that I didn’t know anything about it! That’s not what friends are supposed to do, is it? Is it, Kendall?”

“What are you talking about?”

The bathroom door suddenly swung open. Peyton flinched violently, but Kendall had already turned around. Scout walked out into the room with a towel to his hair. He narrowed his eyes as he saw Peyton and Kendall, his feet grinding to a halt. “Uh. What’s going on?”

Peyton looked toward Scout and suddenly found his voice escaping him once again. His words came out reedy and strained, only getting more incoherent by the second. “I— I—” he swallowed, furiously scrubbing his hand against his eyes. “What— what are you guys hiding from me?” he blubbered out. “Why are you hiding secrets from me? I thought— I thought we were supposed to be friends!”

“Peyton, please. Come inside. You’re going to make a scene.” Kendall held a hand out to him, stepping forward. “I can— I’ll explain then, okay? Just come back into the room. Please.”

Peyton realized that he was standing in the hallway then, just outside the doorway. Anyone who happened to be walking by would see and hear exactly what was going on. He stepped back into the room, stiffening as the door clicked shut and sealed away the light from outside. He looked up to Kendall, clenching his jaw painfully. “Tell me now.”

Kendall opened his mouth, then closed it. He bit his bottom lip, staring down at the floor. “I— well, Peyton. You know, I… I really don’t like seeing you like this. I really don’t, trust me.” He inhaled shakily. “But… I don’t think I can really tell you anything detailed in good conscience. It doesn’t have anything to do with you personally, really. It just wouldn’t—”

“You lied?

“What?”

“You said that you were going to tell me, but now you’re not! You lied to me! Again!” Peyton jabbed a finger into Kendall’s face. “First you lie by keeping everything from me and pretending that nothing was wrong, and now you do this? Do you even consider me your friend at all?”

“Peyton, please.” Kendall held up his hands, taking a step back. “You have to be able to listen to reason. I know that it hurts, but it’s not your fault. It doesn’t even have anything to do with you, not really. But… but I can’t say anything without running the risk of getting into trouble. Of getting all of us into trouble— into trouble with the Academy itself. Can’t you understand that?”

“We’ve been friends for years now, Kendall! We’ve known each other for our entire lives! I deserve to know!”

“I can’t tell you anything, for goodness sake! Why do you refuse to realize that!?”

Peyton didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He grit his teeth together, balling his hands into fists. There were tears in his eyes. He tried to blink them away. Some of them rolled down onto his cheeks. Flaring his nostrils, he took a step back, trying to find the right words to spit out, to scream, to find just the right words to describe the anger and despair and betrayal boiling through his veins at that very moment.

“You know what? I’m not doing this anymore.”

Everything he’d been thinking of sputtered away. Both he and Kendall looked over to Scout, watching him throw his towel down onto the floor. “Scout?” Kendall asked. “What—”

“You know exactly what I mean, Kendall. I’m not going to do this anymore. I refuse to. I’m not going to be a part of your and whatever-her-name-is stupid plan anymore. I didn’t even ask to be a part of it in the first place! I didn’t ask for any of it!” He turned to face Peyton, pointing a finger in his face. “And you. Do you really want to know what’s going on between your friends?”

Peyton shrunk away. He hastily shook his head. “N-no. I don’t want to. I changed my mind.”

Scout continued as if he hadn’t heard him, a sinister hybrid between a scowl and a sneer spreading across his face. “Your friend wanted us to keep everything from you. She told us not to tell you anything, and to treat you so nicely. She thought you were too much of a sensitive baby to handle it all if word ever did get out to you. But clearly, you’re not enough of a baby to just mind your own business.

“Olive hates the Academy. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. But she does. She told me that she wanted to improve it, whatever that means— I honestly don’t care what she meant. She’s never explained how, or why. She just dragged me into her stupid plan because you just so happened to be my roommate.” He kicked the towel. It flew across the room, landing at the foot of Kendall’s bed. His voice didn’t get any less venomous. “Well, not anymore. I can’t stand being around you two idiots for any longer. By the time today is over, I’m going to have new roommates. Or hopefully none at all. Wouldn’t want something like this happening to me again. I hope you all are happy.” He stormed to the door, violently pushing past Peyton as he did so. It opened, and he left. Kendall and Peyton were plunged into a long, harrowing silence.

It was difficult for Peyton to breathe. He brought his trembling hands to his chest, clutching his wrist painfully. A stinging moisture in his eyes blurred the dull colors of the room together. He opened his mouth, noticing how dry it had suddenly gotten. “I— Kendall, I—”

“Forget it. We’re going to be late.” The derision in Kendall’s voice was tangible. Peyton heard his footsteps, felt his warmth as he brushed by him. The door opened, and then it shut. Peyton was left alone.

Slowly, arduously, he turned to look at the door. The silver panel was almost uncomfortable to look at, almost as if he thought that someone would barge through it at any moment, just like he had. Scream at him, just like he had to Scout and Kendall. He swallowed the lump in his throat and wiped the tears away from his eyes. It didn’t help.

Covering his face with his sweaty hands, he stumbled to his bed and collapsed onto it, stifling his sobs as best as he could. They were right. This was all his fault. He should have just minded his business and let Kendall and Scout and Olive do whatever they were doing without intervening. Maybe they wouldn’t be his friends anymore, but at least they wouldn’t hate him. Not like they definitely had to now, because he had to go and mess up everything they had planned. He ruined everything he tried to get involved in, didn’t he? He was just that stupid.

His fingers trembled as he wiped the tears off his face. Blinking the blurriness from his eyes, he looked to the door again. He could hear the muted sounds of people walking past and talking to each other beyond it. That was right. Class was going to start soon. He had History 101, with Mister Beverly. The one class that he shared with Olive and Kendall. Fate was cruel like that, wasn’t it?

He brought his hands to his face again. It wasn’t like he could just refuse to show up. That would get him into more trouble than he was already in. But having to face Olive and Kendall again so soon… he could just try to ignore them, right? But Olive sat right in front of him, though. And Kendall was only a few seats away. He shook his head wildly and looked back up. No. He had to go. He could have misunderstood them, that was all. There was still time to apologize. They probably still wouldn’t want to be his friends, but… but he had to try. Beyond that, his unexcused absence in the class would definitely be noticed. Especially by an instructor as sharp-eyed and strict as Mister Beverly.

His legs felt like lead as he forced himself to stand from the bed and walk to the bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face, washing away all the tears he had smeared onto it. Wiping his sleeve over his face, he reluctantly walked to the door and out into the hallway. It was almost empty already. Class must have already started, or was about to. Peyton still had to walk all the way to the Cassidy building. He squeezed his eyes shut. It wouldn’t be that bad. It wouldn’t. But standing here to worry about it wouldn’t get him there any faster. Reluctantly, he lifted his feet off the floor and started his way down to the first floor.

~ * ~

The hallways in the Cassidy building were just as deserted as the hallways in the student center, but the thought of accidentally meeting the eyes of an odd passerby was enough to keep Peyton from looking up from the floor. Walking into the room to find the eyes of dozens of students staring at him would be terrible enough as it was. Each gaze would undoubtedly feel like an accusation against his skin, a condemnation of the wrongs that he’d committed. And he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. He shouldn’t have been able to. He deserved them all.

Despite his slow, almost dragging pace, he made it to the classroom door. The door was shut, hiding him from the people already inside. He could leave and everyone in the room would be none the wiser that he had been standing feet away from them just a few moments ago. He shuffled back an inch, heart rate rising. There was still time to return to his room, fall asleep and pretend that nothing had ever happened. He could think about what he was going to do later. He just couldn’t do this right now.

He started to turn around. And it was at that moment that the door decided to slide open.

“PRW-009. I’m happy to see you’ve finally come to join us.” Mister Beverly stood in the threshold, staring down at Peyton. His mismatched eyes scoured over his face casually. “Come inside, please. We’ve only just begun the lesson.”

Peyton’s jaw flapped open and shut uselessly for a few seconds before he could find the right thing to say. “O-oh. Okay. Um— thank you.” He bowed his head and hurried into the room. Even without looking at anyone, he could feel the countless pairs of eyes burning holes into his shirt and face. His teeth found his lip and he bit down, hard. The pain helped distract him from the growing pit in his chest as he looked around the room, at all the people staring at him. There were three empty desks, one of them his own. He walked over to it and slouched into the chair, tightly folding his hands together. All he had to do was stay inconspicuous. Nobody would bother him, then.

“Finally, you came! I thought you had gotten into trouble, or something!”

Peyton looked up as Olive twisted around to face him. “I— wh-what?”

“You heard me. I’m glad you finally decided to come.” She smiled broadly. “What took you so long, anyway?”

“B-but— we— this morning, I—”

“Don’t worry about that.” Olive waved her hand dismissively, that same grin still plastered over her face. “Everyone gets into arguments. That doesn’t mean I’m mad at you, Peyton.” She pursed her lips. “I hope you aren’t mad at me?”

Peyton hesitated. “N-no, I’m not mad at you,” he said at last, not quite sure if he was lying or not. “I was just upset earlier, that’s all. Not for any specific reason, or anything. I think— I think I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, you know?”

She laughed. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. We all have those days. We can talk more later, okay?” She gave him a thumbs up before turning back around to look at the screen.

“Y-yeah. Okay.” Peyton slumped down even further. His eyes flickered to the row in front of his, toward Kendall’s seat. He was sitting straight up, his posture rigid. He must have heard the words Olive had said to him. Was he trying not to react? Was he still angry?

Peyton looked away, biting his cheek. Maybe Olive wasn’t mad at him anymore, but Kendall most certainly had to be. And Scout? Scout had seemed furious at him. It wasn’t like it had been unwarranted, either. Peyton shouldn’t have barged in on them so thoughtlessly. He sank deeper into the chair, squeezing his eyes shut. What if he had gotten him into trouble? Scout had said he was going to request a change in rooms. What if the officials denied him that request, or worse— asked him why he had made such a request in the first place? Would he tattle on Peyton, and Kendall too? Tell them that they were hiding secrets? Peyton felt sweat beading on his brow. The troubles that would bring onto them… and it was all his fault.

Mister Beverly suddenly raised his voice. Peyton jerked to attention. What was he even talking about? Peyton couldn’t tell. His voice had become quieter again. Every few minutes, he would put his fingers to the side of his head and mouth a few words before he jumped right back into the lesson, which didn’t help things at all.

The droning went on for what seemed like forever. Peyton fluttered his eyes closed. The clicking of shoes on linoleum paused, and he snapped them back open. He had to pay attention, or at least act like he was. He sat up, twitched his fingers one by one. It would be bad if he didn’t pay attention, or was noticed by Mister Beverly for doing something wrong. A chill ran from the base of his head all the way down his spine, and he shuddered. Something bad would happen. He didn’t know exactly what, but something would.

Mister Beverly jabbed a finger at the board, looking out to the class. “And that’s precisely why the Department for Human Development and Behaviors was created. To ensure that each and every person living in the City remains healthy and happy, and to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. Everything that they’ve done has been for the benefit of society. Everything that they continue to do.” He paused again. His lips twitched as if he wanted to whisper something, but what came out was an address to the class. “Are there any questions?”

Nobody said anything. Mister Beverly scanned over every student in the room. His bright blue eye almost seemed to flicker. “Very well, then.” He glanced back to the screen. “I see no need to hold you all here when we’re already finished with the lesson. There’s only a few minutes before this session ends, anyhow. You all are free to go.” Murmurs broke out between the students, and he started to speak again. “Don’t act so surprised. I simply misjudged how much I could fit into the time frame for today. Don’t think this will happen again anytime soon, however. We will most likely be working for the entire session, after this.”

He placed his fingertips on his temple again, furrowing his brow. “Go. Use the time I’ve given you to work on your written evaluation. It will be due the next time we see each other. Good day.” Without another word, he turned away from them, starting to pace again.

The muttering continued, bouncing off the walls in tiny lilts and hisses as everyone slid out of their desks and made their way to the door. That session had been strange… even beyond Peyton’s arriving late. Mister Beverly didn’t seem like the sort of instructor to stop a session just because. What had happened for him to make that decision so abruptly? He looked up to the front of the room, and then the front desks. Kendall was already standing. He threw on his knapsack and walked out the classroom without sparing Peyton even the smallest of glances. Peyton winced. Still mad, then. He shouldn’t have expected anything different.

“Peyton? Are you coming?”

He looked up. Olive was standing in front of him. “Well?” she asked.

“Yeah… I’m coming.” He nodded, scrambling to his feet. “Sorry. I still don’t feel too good.”

“It’s alright.” She put a hand on his back, guiding him out of the room. “It’s nice to walk around when there aren’t a bunch of people you have to fight through, right?”

Peyton tried to shift away from her touch. This was too much like the talk they had shared this morning. The talk they’d had before he’d overreacted about everything. “Mister Beverly…” he paused to look around, as if he were afraid the instructor was somehow still able to listen to him. “What he did— don’t you think that was strange?”

“Hm? You mean letting us out early? Maybe a little. I’ve never had that happen in any of my other sessions. But hey, there are exceptions to everything.” She shrugged. “Why? Is it bothering you?”

He shook his head hastily. “No, not really. I just thought it was a little weird, that was all.” He forced a smile onto his face. “Well— I think I should leave now. It’d be nice to reach the student center before everyone else. I’m still tired from waking up so early.”

“Oh, sure. I was going to take the stairs, if that’s alright with you. Let’s go.”

Peyton hesitated. “Actually, I— I think I want to walk alone this time. I need time to think. Quietly.”

Olive’s mouth fell open. “What? Why? You can think while you’re walking with me, can’t you? I won’t talk. I promise.”

“I guess I can, but— I really just need some time to myself. To think about stuff.” He faltered. “About… about what happened this morning, and stuff like that. You understand, don’t you?”

She frowned. “Peyton, I already told you that that wasn’t your fault. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“I know I don’t. But I feel like I have to. I don’t— I’m not angry at you or anything. But…” He trailed off, shrugging feebly. “We can walk together another time. Maybe tomorrow morning.”

Olive still didn’t look wholly convinced. But she nodded anyway, not without some reluctance. “I guess so. Could we— can we eat lunch together, at least?”

“I already told you that I’m tired, Olive…”

She pouted, knitting her eyebrows together. “You don’t have to stay the whole time. You could go up to your room when you’re done eating. We should talk some more. I think you need it. You were really upset earlier. I think you’re still upset now.”

“I, um, appreciate the offer, but like I said, I’m really tired. And— and I really just want some time to myself. To think, that’s all.” He pulled away from her. “Maybe I’ll come down later. Or we could talk during dinner.”

Olive frowned, searching his face. Peyton thought that she would refuse to leave him be until she nodded at last. “Okay. I guess. But I’m holding you to that promise! We’ll meet up during dinnertime for sure!” She pointed a finger in his face, before she turned around and skipped to the end of the corridor.

Peyton stood there in the middle of the hallway for a moment, watching her go down the staircase. A frown found its way to his face. She was just so weird. Less than three hours ago she was in tears after he’d yelled at her, and now she was as chipper as ever. Like nothing had ever happened at all. Scout had said that she’d been keeping a secret from him, and she expressed no guilt about that, either. How could she just act like she always did with him, as if she hadn’t done something so mean?

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. No. This line of thinking was what had gotten him into such a mess in the first place. He started to the elevator, brushing past a crowd of students as he did so. Had the bell rang? He hadn’t noticed.

Stepping into the elevator, he pressed himself into the corner and watched someone else press the button to the first floor. Maybe the elevator would beat Olive there. And Kendall and Scout, too. Peyton winced. He didn’t want to have to face Kendall or Scout and see how angry they still were with him. But he’d have to, eventually, no matter if he went to lunch with Olive or simply went straight up to his room. Hopefully their anger with him had worn off somewhat. Peyton didn’t know what he would do if it hadn’t.

The elevator ground to a stop, its doors sliding open. Peyton slipped out, making his way outside. The courtyard was filling with students already, but it wasn’t enough that Peyton couldn’t weave his way through them. He hurried to the student center, rushed inside and made his way to the end of the hallway.

Jumping into the elevator before anyone else had a chance to, he pressed the button to the fifth floor and attacked the one to shut the doors. Then he sighed, leaning against the wall. Anyone else who wanted to get to the upper floors could wait. Or take the stairs. He just had to get up to his room and relax, and think about what he was going to say to Kendall and Scout before they had a chance to yell at him again. Maybe he wouldn’t have to face Scout again at all. Maybe he’d already gotten new roommates. But then again, didn’t he have to pack all his things up before leaving? Peyton closed his eyes. Scout had said that he didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. He could just go up there and do whatever he had to do without so much as looking at him, right?

Peyton almost didn’t realize that the elevator door had opened, so lost he was in his thoughts. He stood up straight, hurried into the hallway and up to his room, and went inside once the sensor had accepted his wrist. Slipping his shoes off, he jumped into his bed and threw the covers over his head. He closed his eyes and forced his breathing to slow. If he could get to sleep fast enough, maybe he wouldn’t have to encounter Scout or Kendall at all.

That proved to be wishful thinking. Peyton recoiled at the sound of the door opening. Someone stepped into the room, and then paused. “Peyton.” Kendall’s voice, still clipped, still upset. “Peyton. Are you awake?”

Peyton considered lying still and quiet until Kendall gave up, did whatever he came to do, and left, but his presence was overbearing. Even underneath the blankets, Peyton could still feel his eyes on him. Gingerly, he shifted under the covers and peeked his head out. Kendall was standing at the entrance of the room. Peyton wrapped the blankets tighter around himself. “Yeah. I’m awake.”

“So I realized.” Kendall put his hands on his hips and looked around.

Peyton followed his gaze. “Did— did Scout come upstairs with you?”

“No. Why would he? It isn’t like we’re friends, not really.”

Peyton winced. Kendall and Scout had never really gotten along, but his outburst earlier must have made things so much worse between them. Was Kendall blaming him for that, too? “I know,” he said. “But— didn’t he say he was going to leave and get new roommates? Shouldn’t he be coming to pack his things up?”

Kendall shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not going to let it bother me. I wouldn’t let it bother you, either.”

“Oh.” Peyton could almost feel the silence that hung between them. “W-well. Okay.”

Neither of them spoke. Kendall walked to his bed. Peyton could hear him fixing the blankets and fluffing out the pillows. He rested his head on his arm, closing his eyes again to hold off the familiar sting that threatened them. Would Kendall ever forgive him? It seemed like Olive had, but Kendall still acted like he was mad. Peyton hadn’t meant to make him mad. He’d just been so angry, that was all. That was why he’d went about trying to figure out their plan in such a poor way.

He slowly opened his eyes. Kendall was sitting at the foot of his bed, looking down at his lap. There was a crease in between his eyebrows. He must have had a good reason to hide everything from him. Kendall knew how sensitive he could be. And maybe what Olive had said earlier was true— maybe he did end up making a big deal out of nothing. There was a chance that Peyton could have been overreacting about nothing at all.

“Hey, Peyton.” Kendall’s voice ripped him from his thoughts. “I’m going down to lunch now. You’re free to come, if you want.”

Peyton lowered his head. “Maybe later. I just— I need some time to think for a while.”

Silence. Peyton didn’t look up, not even as he heard Kendall stand from the bed, or when he heard the door open and shut. He buried his face into his pillow. Just a few weeks ago, he was happy. He had Mother, Father, Miss Campbell, his friends— he had familiarity and contentedness, all that he’d ever needed. Then the Academy had taken all of that away from him. Ever since the full first day here, after his first session with Mister Beverly, it felt like a dark cloud of gloominess hung over them all, and it only got darker and thicker with each passing day. It didn’t seem like it would ever end. Did it ever get any better?

He forced himself to sit up and lean against the headboard. Exhaustion attempted to pull his eyelids down, but his mind was running much too fast for him to go to sleep. It couldn’t get any better if he didn’t at least make an effort to see that it did. It couldn’t be possible that everyone here was rude like Scout, or traitors like Kendall and Olive. There had to be people who would be genuinely happy to make friends with him, right? And even if there wasn’t— there still had to be a silver lining to everything. He would be out of here in the next four years. It’d be a chance to refresh, to change himself for the better. That was a good thing, was it not?

No. It wasn’t. Four years was too long for him to wait. Lasting that long with the way things already were would be an impossible task. He had to try and make a change now. But where was he to start? He chewed at his bottom lip, looking to the door. Olive and Kendall, and Scout… he had never really apologized to them. They could have been mad at him for that, too. Especially Kendall. Maybe his invitation for Peyton to come down for lunch had been a missed opportunity to do that. Lunch had just started. There was still a chance to make amends with them. It’d be hard, but it would be worth it. He just wanted to be happy again. But he’d have to put that into his own hands.

His feet hit the floor. Steadying himself on the bed, he put his shoes on and stood up straight, staring at the door. All he had to do was walk through it and go down to the mess hall. It would be worth it. It just had to take a little courage. He lifted his foot and took a step forward.

There was a bang on the door.

He staggered back, falling back onto the bed as the sound thundered through the room three more times. Scrambling further back, almost hitting the wall, he hugged his knees to his chest and stared at the door. Silence. Then three more thumps, faster this time. More urgent.

“Peyton?! Peyton, are you in there? Open up! Now!”

That was Olive’s voice. His throat felt like it had been filled with concrete as he tried to speak. “Wh-why? What’s the matter?”

“Peyton, please.” Her voice was laced with desperation, he could hear that even through the thick metal door. “Please just open the door. It’s important.”

He didn’t move for a moment. He couldn’t— it felt like his joints had been cemented together. His heart was thrumming out of his chest. There was another sequence of bangs at the door, even louder now. Slowly, he unwound himself and got to his feet, his knees almost buckling underneath him as he staggered to the door. It slid open when he got close enough, revealing Olive standing at the opposite side of it.

She immediately seized his shoulders and yanked him closer to her. “Peyton, where’s Scout? Where is he?

His first instinct was to try and pull away. “I— what? I don’t— what’s the matter with you?” He raised a hand to try and pry her arm off of him.

He might as well have been fighting against a statue. She pulled his face even closer to hers. “Peyton, what did Scout say he was going to do this morning? What did you tell him?”

It took him a few seconds to think of the answer in the haze of Olive’s urgency. “I… I— um—” he paused, catching his breath— “I got into a fight with him this morning. Y-you know that I was mad, right? I was just really mad and— so I started yelling at him, at him and Kendall. And then— he got mad too, so then he said that he was—”

“What were you yelling at him about?”

He cringed, trying to pull away. “About what I got mad at you about. The— the secret thing! And th-then he got angry too, and said that he was leaving. F-forever. He said he was going to find another group of roommates to stay with!” He tried to take her arms away again. “Why? Why are you yelling at me?”

Olive’s eyes widened, her grip on his shoulders going slack. “Oh, no, Peyton, no. No. No! Why did you do that? Oh, god…” She pulled away and started pacing around, head swiveling around madly as if she were afraid they would be caught. “Peyton, you have to leave. Go somewhere else. You can’t stay here right now.”

Peyton tried to take a step back into his room, but her hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. He tried to shake it away, panic rising up his throat when that didn’t work. “L-let me go! Why do I have to leave?!”

Olive loosened her grip on his wrist ever so slightly, her other hand going to his cheek to center his head. “They’re calling for you downstairs, Peyton. Scout isn’t down there, either. He’s always down there during lunch. He must have tattled on you when he went to go and ask to be taken out of here. Told them what you told him. Maybe even more. And that probably got him into trouble.”

Her fingers pushed into his cheek, fingernails just starting to graze his flesh. She closed her eyes, took in a few deep breaths, then took her hand away from his face. “If they’re calling for you, that means that you’re gonna get in trouble too. That can’t happen.” She was breathing heavily, each exhale blowing hot air straight into Peyton’s face. “So you have to get away. They’ll be looking here next. Just— run downstairs. Go outside. Get away from this set of buildings— try to go nearer to the back of the Academy.”

Peyton was breathing hard, yet he was still lightheaded, a deep-seated fear building in his chest. “But— but where am I supposed to go then? What am I supposed to do after that?!”

I don’t know!

Her hand clamped painfully over his wrist, and she lowered her head. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t. I’m sorry. This is all my fault.” She looked back up at him, then wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. “Please, just run. Stay at the grassy area right at the wall until tonight, at least. I’ll try to come and help then.” The pressure on his wrist disappeared. When Peyton didn’t move, she shoved him away from her. “Go. Run!”

Peyton ran.

The hallways were empty. That was a good thing. It should have been a good thing. It was, right? He turned the corner at the end of his wing, almost tripping as he did so. The elevator and staircase were at the very end of this corridor. Which one was he supposed to take? Which one was faster? He hesitated for a split second. Whichever one would be fastest for him once he finally got over there, he decided— whichever one it was, he would take that one.

His feet smacked painfully loud on the floor as he sprinted down the corridor. He could see the up button for the elevator flashing. Would it come up by the time he made it there? He dared to slow down by a small margin. The grind of the lift ascending to the floor was audible even through his heavy breathing and the blood rushing through his ears. He was almost there. It was almost there. It was a matter of seconds now.

The button stopped blinking. Peyton skid to a stop. The door slid open.

Peyton stepped back.

“Ah. Just the person I was looking for. Peyton Rory Williamson, is it not?”

He walked forward, completely unphased by the way Peyton heaved for air or the way he was trying to crush himself into the wall behind him. A thin smile spread across his lips as he extended an arm, clearly expecting a handshake. “Pleasure to see you. I’m Jordan Presley, the behavior counselor for all the students here at the Academy. Would you mind coming down to my office to answer a few questions?”

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

Chapter Nineteen

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

 

Peyton cracked his eyes open and immediately wished he was still asleep. It was still dark out, the beginnings of a sunrise only just starting to peek through the curtains. He laid a hand on his sweaty forehead and winced, the now constant pulsing in his temples only intensifying as he put pressure on them. This was the fourth day in a row he’d slept so poorly. His body felt like it had never experienced being well rested in his life. Ever since he had come to the Academy, he was only feeling worse and worse with every passing day. His body and mind hurt. He wanted to go home. But he couldn’t, not for the next four years, at least. He was stuck here, whether he liked it or not.

His entire body cried out in dismay as he forced himself up into a sitting position. It would be impossible to go back to sleep with the thoughts running through his mind now, and even if it were, it’d be time to get up by the time he dozed off. He climbed out of bed and tiptoed to the window, pulling the curtains apart slightly. He squinted as his eyes adjusted to the extra light. The sunrise silhouetted the tall metal buildings of the research center, and the Outskirts behind them. Peyton stared at them, trying to replicate the overwhelmed emotion he had felt when he had first laid his eyes upon it all, but he couldn’t feel anything more than bitter reminiscence.

He sighed, dejectedly plopping his chin down into his hands. It wasn’t like he had been thrilled about coming here before, but now that he actually was here, it was like the concrete walls and lengthened roads separating the Academy from the rest of the world were nothing more than an imprisonment.

He tore his gaze away from the window, turning so that his back was to the sunrise. He didn’t want to look at it, any of it. Kendall and Scout were still fast asleep. Blankets tucked up to their chins, faces relaxed and unbothered, they laid there silently, their chests rising and falling at an even pace. They may as well have been mocking him. They were so happy keeping their secrets in the dark while leaving him to worry about them, worrying about if they even liked him anymore.

He clenched his fists, then shut his eyes and took in a few deep breaths. Surely they had to have reasons for keeping their plans from him. For all he knew, they could have been planning to surprise him with something cool. Or maybe there really wasn’t any secret at all. Maybe he had misinterpreted what they had been talking about the other night. But that didn’t make sense, either. The words spoken the other night couldn’t possibly be interpreted in a way that there wasn’t anything covert going on between Kendall and Scout. Weren’t they supposed to be friends? Didn’t they trust him? Peyton shook his head. They had to have a good reason for this. They had to. And if they didn’t— well, he was sure they could still be friends.

Peyton simply stood there for the next few minutes, watching the way their faces twitched and their fingers wiggled, like they were in the middle of vivid dreams. Perhaps they were. They looked so nice and peaceful sleeping like this, definitely nothing like how they had sounded during their argument. Peyton decided he would leave them alone.

He walked to the closet and pulled out his uniform, tugging it on. The crisp, clean fabric felt nice on his hot and clammy skin. He couldn’t remember when he’d last taken a shower, but that was alright. It wasn’t like anyone really got very close to him nowadays, anyhow. He snuck one last glance at Kendall and Scout before walking out the door.

The hallway was empty save for him, and completely silent. It must have been earlier than Peyton had thought it was. He paused in front of his door, looking around hesitantly. Would it be okay if he was out and about before anyone else was? He wasn’t doing anything wrong, not really. The bell would be ringing soon anyway. And— it would probably be in his best interest to eat breakfast and leave the mess hall before Scout and Kendall came down.

The sound of his shoes padding on the floor was much too loud for his liking— it felt like someone would hear him at any moment and then he’d end up being scrutinized for being up before anyone else was. He tried his best to ignore it as he entered the elevator and pressed the button to the first floor. There would definitely be at least a few people down there— and if there weren’t he could just press the button up to the fifth floor and go back to his room. And face Kendall and Scout when they woke up. Peyton squeezed his eyes shut as the lift began to descend. That didn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It could be a good opportunity to try and reconcile with them. But only if they were willing to, of course— if they decided to at least explain to him why they were keeping secrets. Then everything could have a chance of returning to normalcy again. The thought attempted to pull up the corners of his mouth into a small, hopeful smile. It didn’t quite succeed.

The elevator door opened, and Peyton stepped out. At the end of the corridor, the doors to the cafeteria stood fully open. That was a relief. He buried the thoughts of having to encounter Scout and Kendall in the back of his mind as he entered the hall. A cloying syrupy scent mingled with the light fruity tang that Peyton was already familiar with whenever it was breakfast time. Were pancakes on the menu today? He turned to the food line, started to walk toward it— and stopped midstep.

Olive was there. And she was talking to somebody— two somebodies, to be more specific. A boy and a girl. Who were they? He shuffled backward, wrapping his arms around himself. She probably wouldn’t like it if he went up there and interrupted their conversation. He silently watched them laugh and chat as they got their food, and suddenly found himself desperately needing to talk to Olive no matter what. He needed to spill all his problems and worries onto her, regardless of what her new friends would think of him. Gathering all the courage he could, he pushed through his racing heart and shallow breaths, and began to walk forward again.

Almost as if she sensed his approach, Olive turned around to face him when he was halfway across the hall. A bright smile crossed her face, and she shifted her plate to one arm to wave eagerly with the other. She didn’t stop waving until he was directly in front of her. “Hi, Peyton! Good morning!” Popping a strawberry into her mouth, she waved away the two students she had been talking to. “What brings you down here so early?”

Peyton shrugged, staring after the boy and the girl as they found their own table to sit at. “I couldn’t get back to sleep,” he said, simply. “Who are those people?”

“Just some friends of mine from my other classes. Let’s get you something to eat.” Olive wrapped an arm around his shoulder and guided him to the front of the food line. “What kept you from going back to sleep? A nightmare?”

“Other friends?” Peyton tried to crane his neck to look behind him. “I’ve never seen you hanging out with them before.”

She laughed. “You’re so silly, Peyton. We usually hang out in the actual classes.” She plucked up a plate from the pile and handed it to him. “Don’t you do that with your other friends, too?”

Peyton hugged the plate to his chest, not quite able to look her in the eye. “Well— I, uh…”

“Don’t worry about it.” She ladled out a handful of fruit from the serving container and motioned for Peyton to hold his plate out. “Now. Did you have a nightmare or something?”

“N-not really.” He watched as fruit, yogurt, and french toast were gradually piled onto his plate. “I guess there were too many thoughts rushing around in my head, or something.”

Olive filled a mug with hot water and dropped a tea bag into it. “Thoughts about what?”

He hesitated. “Well— I guess— I guess… th-thoughts about Kendall and Scout, I guess.”

She handed him the tea and took a step back, tilting her head at him curiously. “I see,” she finally said. “Why don’t we go and sit down?”

“Okay. I guess.” He snuck the shortest of glances toward the boy and the girl. Was she going to sit with them and try to pull him along? He sure hoped not.

Thankfully, she didn’t lead them over there, instead going toward one of the back corners of the room. Peyton followed her, slipping into the seat across from the one she chose. He picked at the food heaped in front of him. It smelled sweet and doughy, almost excessively so. Like the kitchen at his house always used to. He pushed the plate away.

“What’s the matter? You aren’t hungry?”

Peyton looked up. Olive had already demolished a quarter of her plate and was staring at him like she expected him to do the same.

He shrugged, looking down at his own food. “I guess I’m not.” Pulling the meal back toward himself, he stabbed a strawberry with his fork and pushed it into his mouth. Its tart flavor immediately made his mouth water, but his stomach revolted as he swallowed the fruit. “It tastes good,” he said.

“Good!” Olive popped a handful of blueberries into her mouth, chewing them loudly. Peyton winced. She didn’t seem to notice, leaning forward to scrutinize him instead. “So. What’s your deal with Kendall and Scout then, hm?”

He frowned, finding Olive’s face suddenly difficult to look into once again. “I bet you already know what the problem is.”

“I do?” Olive’s eyes widened, and she leant back, apparently dumbfounded. “I don’t think I do.”

Peyton poked at a blueberry. His voice was stuck in his throat. “They’re—” he swallowed— “they’re acting weird. They don’t want to spend time with me anymore. Not even Kendall. I know Scout didn’t really like me to begin with, but I thought Kendall did. Now he doesn’t even act like it. And I’m— I think they’re keeping secrets from me. I don’t even know why.”

Olive didn’t say anything. Peyton hesitantly glanced up at her. She was stirring her yogurt around, a contemplative look on her face. “They don’t want to spend time with you?” she asked. “I thought they were being nice to you now, Peyton. Even Scout. I know you said he was rude to you at lunch the other day, but hasn’t he improved since then?”

Peyton floundered as he tried to think of a way to answer. “I— well… I— I guess he stopped being so rude. But he doesn’t talk to me, really. I— I know he didn’t before, but— but still.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “He’s still acting weird.”

Olive dug her fork into her french toast. “What about Kendall? He told me that he tried to get you out of your room and eat with us. You said no, though. That doesn’t sound like not wanting to spend time with you to me. Does it to you?”

The beginnings of a lump started putting pressure on his chest. “N-no, but… but… he doesn’t act like he doesn’t like seeing me cooped up. If he really did want to see me happy why can’t he just tell me what’s going on with him and Scout?” He clenched his fists. “I just— it doesn’t make any sense!”

He felt fingertips brushing against his knuckles. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Peyton,” Olive said. “I just wanted to know what was making you think that way. I think Kendall really does want to see you happy, even if he is hiding a secret from you for some reason.”

Peyton felt his frustrations melt away with the sound of Olive’s soft voice. He opened his eyes and relaxed his hands. “I— I guess you might be right. But— why would they be keeping a secret from me? Kendall and Scout? It’s such a weird combination. Kendall hates Scout. I don’t understand it at all. And— and what could they be keeping a secret about in the first place? Are they secretly friends? Do— do both of them sit with you during lunch or something?”

Olive laughed. “No, only Kendall does. And I don’t think Kendall hates Scout, not really. They just don’t click very well. That’s normal for people, like how you don’t really click with Scout, either. It’s just life, y’know?”

“W-well… I guess so. But—”

“Finish up your breakfast,” Olive said suddenly. She took her hand off his and tore a chunk out of her slice of french toast. “I want to take you for a walk.”

“What? Why?”

“It’ll help you calm down. I feel like I’m watching a coiled up spring, looking at you.” She snorted, resting her chin in her hands. “I don’t like seeing you so uptight. The stress doesn’t suit you.”

He opened his mouth to give her a response, but found that none came to mind. A coy smile spread across Olive’s face, and she nudged the plate closer to him. The food, most of it now either too cold or too warm to be fully appetizing, stared back at him. He sighed heavily, and started the process of shoving it all down his throat.

The morning bell rang just as the last spoonful of yogurt passed through Peyton’s lips. He slouched back and winced, his stomach audibly gurgling. “I never want to eat anything sweet ever again in my life.”

“Oh, you’ll get over it.” Olive grabbed his wrist and dragged him to his feet. “Come on, let’s go on a walk.” Taking both of their plates up, she led him to the front of the mess hall and dunked them into the soapy bin. They walked out into the hallway, Olive licking her fingers clean. “I know how much you like sweets, Peyton. You’ll be asking if they’re serving muffins tomorrow morning by dinnertime today.”

Peyton pulled his hand from her grasp. “Stop making fun of me.”

“What? It’s true.” She popped her thumb out of her mouth. “It’s not a bad thing. I like sweet things, too. I’m sure you can tell.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. The cool morning air hit him directly in the face as Olive swung the doors open, giving him a swift burst of energy. The courtyard was nearly empty, save for a few early risers like them wandering about. It was almost surreal, seeing the Academy so calm. Whenever he was out and about, hundreds of other students and faculty were usually out and about as well, running and pushing and trying to get to their destinations before everyone else. He raised his head and let the breeze go through his hair, staring up at the pink sunrise. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to get up early more often.

“Nice, isn’t it?”

Olive’s voice broke through the peace. He glanced over at her. She, too, was watching the sky, a small smile playing on her lips. It wasn’t until she looked over at him that he realized he was staring. He jerked his head away, and nodded slowly. “Yeah. It really is nice.”

“Mm. I knew you would like it.” She fell silent for a while, the two of them simply strolling through the collection of buildings as if they didn’t have classes they had to go to in the next hour. “I usually wake up early just to walk around, before everyone else wakes up and goes to breakfast,” she continued. “It helps clear the mind and relax the body really well.”

Peyton nodded. “You’re right. Maybe I should do that, too.”

“You should!” She looked at him, her grin spreading across her face. “It’d be fun just walking around with you. We wouldn’t even have to talk or anything, it just— it would be fun walking together and spending time with each other every morning. We could get Kendall in on it, too! It’d be like how we used to walk to Miss Campbell’s classes every morning, right?”

Unease jabbed at his gut. “Y-yeah,” he managed to say.  “That would be nice.”

Olive pursed her lips. “You don’t sound like you think it’d be nice. Are you still bothered about Kendall?”

“Well… yeah. Of course I am.” He stared at his shoes. The weight in his chest and head was coming back. “I still don’t think he likes me. And I think he’s keeping a secret from me, with Scout. What could he tell Scout about that he couldn’t tell me? Doesn’t— doesn’t he trust me?”

Olive remained silent for so long that Peyton figured she was purposely ignoring him. Any words that he thought could coax something out of her suddenly seemed silly when he was about to say them, so he said nothing, either.

The two of them continued walking, hand in hand, watching the Academy slowly grow more alive with the rising sun. Peyton looked up from the ground. They had walked farther than he’d anticipated— they were at the tall buildings near the back. The group of buildings that made up the research center. For a moment, he stopped and simply stared up at them, at a loss for words. Seeing them from his dorm window didn’t do them justice. They had to be at least twenty times taller than him, cloaked with silver and onyx that reflected the sun in dazzling colors. What could be going on in them for the people working there to require such grandness? What secrets were they hiding from him and the rest of the world?

“Peyton?”

Olive’s voice urged him back into reality. Realizing that she was a ways from him, he ducked his head and hurried back up to her. “Sorry. I was just thinking.”

“Thinking?” She raised an eyebrow, then followed his gaze up to the buildings before them. “Ah. You like the view?”

“Y-yeah. It’s… cool. It’s nothing like Silverhill though, right?”

“You’re right. It’s not.” Olive nodded, face deep in thought. “Do you like Silverhill more than the Academy, Peyton?”

Olive’s smile was as calm as ever, but a needling question lingered behind her eyes. She wanted an answer, and a truthful one. Peyton swallowed nervously. “Of course I do,” he said. “Silverhill’s my home. Our home. The Academy’s just… it’s just school. I know we’re stuck here for the next few years, but… that doesn’t make it any better than Silverhill. We just have to learn and start our adulthood here, don’t we? And besides, I like the views in Silverhill better than here. With the mountains at the border and stuff.”

“You do have a point there. I guess what I should have asked was: do you like the Academy?” Olive’s eyes bored into his. “As an entity separate from Silverhill. Do you like it here, Peyton?”

“Wh-why are you asking?”

“Because you’re my friend. I want to know if there’s anything I can help you with. You know, to help make you and keep you happy. Isn’t that what friends are supposed to do?”

Peyton faltered, his hands wrapping around each other. “Y-You’re right… that is what friends are supposed to do.” Kendall had been trying to make him feel better before, probably… and he’d just brushed him off. He’d left his room early so he wouldn’t have to face him again. That wasn’t the way to treat his friends. But Kendall really wasn’t treating him well, either— he and Scout were the entire reason he was in such a bad mood in the first place, what with their secret-keeping and their distant attitudes. And Olive, too, barely ever talking to him ever since they’d come here in the first place. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t.

“Peyton? You’re shaking.”

He looked down. His arms were trembling, his fingers squeezing painfully against each other. Forcing them to quiet, he looked back to Olive and blinked the stinging in his eyes away. “Sorry. I just— I just got stuck in my thoughts again.” He shook his head, as if that would help clear it. “The Academy… it’s not that I don’t like it, but— but I don’t feel like I belong here. Nobody but you and Kendall really like me. There’s too many people and everything’s too impersonal and fast-paced for me to try and make new friends. And— and it’s just so busy and loud and everything that I don’t like. So… so I guess I actually don’t like it at all. It doesn’t suit me. I just can’t wait until we can leave. And things can go back to the way they used to be. You know?”

“I understand exactly what you’re saying.” Olive touched his elbow lightly. “The transition from Silverhill to here was hard on all of us. But you don’t have to worry, trust me. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Peyton pulled his arm away from her. An unusual apprehension prickled at him, agitation curdling in his stomach. “I know that. You don’t have to tell me that all the time. I’m just in a bad mood, that’s all. I know that everything’s gonna be okay. I do.”

Olive frowned. “W-well, that’s exactly why I’m trying to cheer you up, Peyton. I don’t like seeing you so sad and distant. I want to know what I can do to help you. I’m sorry that the Academy’s harshness kept me from doing that. But now that we’re almost all settled in, things can start to go back to the ways they used to be. It’s gonna be a good year. You’ll see.”

“We’ve just been saying the same thing over and over again.” Peyton shook his head, and started to walk faster. “I know all that. What I really want to know is why Kendall and Scout are keeping me in the dark with their secret.”

“How do you even know that they’re—”

“Because I do!” Peyton wrapped his arms around himself, swallowing his voice. “I— I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scream at you. But… but I know that they’re hiding something from me. I heard them talking about it the other night. They— they were talking to each other and they said that they didn’t choose to be dragged into something… some sort of mess. And then they were talking about me, like I’m a part of whatever they were talking about, even though I’m not. I don’t even know what they were talking about. Kendall was— he was saying that Scout had to stop being so rude to me, or else they would get in trouble. That doesn’t make sense. I bet that’s why they’re always acting so weird whenever I’m with them!” He dug his fingernails into his arms. “It isn’t fair, Olive. I deserve to know what they’re saying about me!”

“Peyton, please!” Olive reached out and grabbed his shoulders. “You’re overreacting. I’m sure you were looking too much into it, that’s all. Kendall and Scout are just naturally standoffish, you know that. They could have been talking about anything, not necessarily some sort of strange plan. Maybe Kendall just wanted Scout to stop bullying you.” The sides of her lips turned up slightly in a nervous smile, her eyes silently searching his face. “And maybe the trouble they were talking about was me giving them a stern talking to if I found out you were being bullied by them. There’s no need to go to a worse-case scenario. You have to stop worrying so much.”

“I— I’m not over— overreacting.” Peyton struggled to control his voice. He took Olive’s hands off his shoulders and took a step back. “I know they’re distant, but they’ve never acted like this before. Especially not Kendall.” He furrowed his brow, shuffling away from her again. “Why are you defending them so much, anyway? D-don’t you trust me?”

Olive’s mouth fell open for a split second before she reclaimed her composure. “Of course I do,” she said. “It’s just that— I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. He stared at her earnest face, the gears in his mind turning. Olive’s relationship with Kendall, Kendall’s insistence that Scout’s bullying wasn’t good for any of them, their being pulled into an unfavorable situation by an outside party… what else could Kendall have been talking about when he said that Scout’s punishment would be bigger than a talk from him if he continued his bad behavior? A talk from someone who commanded them, of course.

Peyton staggered back, his eyes widening. “You’re— you’re in on it too! I know it! I know you are! You’re the leader! How could you?”

Confusion flickered across Olive’s face before she held a hand out to him. “What? Peyton, no, please. I—”

“No!” He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head violently. “No… I know it. It makes sense. The way you’re defending them so much, how you’re— you’re trying to say that there’s no secret to worry about. You’re trying to hide it from me, too! Don’t you— don’t you like me anymore? Can’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m not— I can’t—!”

What is it, Olive?” He leant closer to her, completely uncaring of the fact that people were noticing them and stopping to watch the commotion. “Tell me what it is. Tell me!

Olive stepped away from him, hands clutching tightly at the hem of her shirt. Tears were gathering in her eyes. “Peyton— I—” she turned away from him, covering her face. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, near inaudibly. She hurried away from Peyton without sparing him so much as a glance back.

He was left alone to stare after her retreating form. There was something crawling down his face. He reached up to brush it away and realized that it was a tear. Swallowing the mass that had grown in his throat, he looked around. There were students and staff alike stopped in their tracks to look at him, exchanging unnerved glances with one another. When they noticed Peyton was staring at them, they started to disperse, stubbornly avoiding eye contact with him.

Peyton felt the lump in his throat expand until he could barely breathe. Ducking his head so that his face was nearly parallel to the ground, he scurried away from the group, hands clutching tightly at his chest. Dark spots clouded his vision. His temples pulsed with agony. He rounded the corner of the nearest building and pressed against its wall, struggling to catch his breath. The stifling sensation slowly dissolved from his lungs, and he took in a deep breath. Rational thoughts returned to him as the air got to his brain. He put his hands on his knees, continuing to breath heavily. A strangled sob escaped his lips.

He knew it. He knew it. All of them were against him— Scout, Kendall, and Olive, of all people, the one person who had been his best friend for almost his entire life. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense at all. Why were they mistreating him? What could they possibly be hiding from him? Were they planning on leaving him alone forever, not even granting him the interactions that at least came with being bullied? It wasn’t fair. He clutched his stomach and keeled over, a sob escaping his lips. Nobody here even liked him. He didn’t have friends anymore.

He knelt there for a while, weeping into his sleeve. By the time his tears had dried up, his throat was sore and his eyes were burning. If part of their plan was to stop being friends with him— and they’d succeeded in that— maybe they could tell him what the rest of their secrets were. It was the least they could do. If couldn’t be their friends anymore, he deserved at least an explanation as to why.

Peyton slowly dragged himself to his feet, leaning against the building for support. He hadn’t heard the bell signifying the end of breakfast yet. There was still time. Kendall and Scout could still be in the dorm. He would go over there, and then… well, he didn’t know exactly what he would do. But whatever he did do, it would end with him finally knowing the cause of what had brought him all of  this mental torment for all this time. He would make sure of it, no matter what he had to do or say for that to happen.

The renewed fire in his stomach gave him courage to step out from behind the building. Everybody mulling about now hadn’t seen what had occurred between him and Olive a few minutes ago. This was his chance. He sprinted away from the research center and back to the student buildings. No matter what, he wouldn’t let Kendall, Scout and Olive get away with this as easily as they had with everything else. He would make sure of that.

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

Chapter Eighteen – Interlude

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

 

Olive had always been a bit of an enigma. From her wild, overgrown mane of fire to the vivacious, ever-optimistic charisma she used on every single person she got her eyes on, her entire existence made children and adults alike look at her queerly— and more likely than not, she knew that they did. She most definitely knew, and yet it never seemed to bother her at all. Where did she get such brazen confidence from? It was simply baffling.

At the moment, Olive was sitting at her desk, playing with her pencil and a piece of crumpled notebook paper. She doodled aimlessly on the lines, eyes downcast, chin propped up in her other hand. She looked tired. And if she wasn’t tired, she was certainly missing Peyton. It had been a very abrupt transition, going from spending time with him every single day to only exchanging words with him a few times a week, if even that.

Strange. She was just so strange. Back in the districts, she favored Peyton’s company above all else, even when he clearly wanted to be left alone with his thoughts. In the times she was unable to be with him, she became quieter, more reserved. Almost sad, at least in comparison to her regular mood, anyway. It was to be expected that such an effect would only be intensified in an environment like the Academy, where students were distributed between different classes and different teachers instead of being with the same one every day.

But the real question was why she preferred Peyton, of all people, over every other person that showed interest in her— and with her looks and charm, there were certainly many of those to go around. What qualities did she see in him that others did not have? Why did she keep him to herself so much? And why was she so ready to go to such great lengths to keep him happy?

“Your test result, KMM-007.”

Ah, yes. His test results. He looked up at the instructor, more than a little miffed that she had interrupted his thoughts, but he made sure not to show it as he nodded and plucked the paper out of her hand. “Thank you.”

He unfolded the paper. Eighty-nine percent. He hadn’t studied well enough. Sighing, he rested the paper on the desk, then folded it again, tucking it between the sheets of his notebooks. He would do better next time.

There was a shuffling to his left. “Hey, Kendall.”

“Yeah?”

“What did you get on the test?”

“Eighty-nine.” Kendall propped his head on his hand, regarding Olive coolly. “You?”

“Oh. I got a ninety-two.”

Kendall clenched his jaw. “Good job.” He started flipping through his notebook mindlessly. “You’re probably at the top of the class.”

“Me? Oh, no, not me.” A tinkling laugh escaped from her lips. “I found this test pretty hard, actually. I was afraid I was going to get a really low score.”

“But you didn’t. You got a ninety-two, which I’m sure is one of the highest grades any of us got. There’s no need for you to be so modest, Olive.”

Olive shrugged. She twirled one of her curls on her finger as she cocked her head as Kendall, smiling lightly. “Your score isn’t bad either. Eighty-nine? That’s definitely at the top of the class, too. Don’t be disappointed.”

“I’m not disappointed, really.” He tucked his notebook underneath his arm and stood. “I just know that I could’ve done better.”

The bell rang. Other students rose from their desks, moving as one body toward the door and out into the hallway. Kendall waited until Olive had finished packing up to make his way to the exit.

The two of them crammed into the rush of students, pressing their bodies into the crowd and walking along with the tide. Out of all the parts of his busy schedule, Kendall hated this part the most. It was claustrophobic, being stuffed in with all these different people, all their smells and sounds. If it weren’t for Olive’s presence, he would have been in the process of pushing through the teeming mass to get up to his room as soon as possible.

Which reminded him. “Olive,” he said, grunting as a person nudged between them to get ahead, “I’m going to my room for a bit before lunch.” He saw the question on her face, and answered it before she could get it out. “I want to put my books away. It’s been bothersome, walking around with them all day. I won’t be long.”

“Actually, it’ll be okay if you take a little bit.” Olive rested a hand on his shoulder. “I wanted to know how Peyton is doing.”

Kendall’s chest tightened. Of course she did. She always did. Kendall ensured that his face remained carefully blank as he looked over her concerned expression. “Well, he’s doing alright, for the most part. He’s been a little… distant for the past few days, I suppose. I think it’s because he misses his parents. Or maybe he just misses hanging out with us. Like we used to.”

He scrutinized Olive’s expression for any sort of reaction— a flicker of regret, determination flashing in her eyes, anything. A broad smile spread across her face instead. “Tell him that everything’s going to be fine! We’ll be able to hang out with him soon enough, once we’re completely settled here. And his parents— he doesn’t have to worry about them. I’m sure that they’re doing just fine.” She nodded contemplatively, as if she were approving herself of her own words. “Everything’s gonna be okay,” she said again. “It’s going to be a good year. He’ll see.”

“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” An unanticipated rush of optimism made Kendall much more inclined to return the smile. “I’ll be sure to tell him that.”

“Thanks, Kendall.” She took her hand from his shoulder, her grin only growing bigger. “I’ll see you at lunch a little later, then! I’m gonna be sitting with Scout.”

His good mood vanished as suddenly as it had come. Somehow, though, he managed to keep his expression bright and sprightly as he waved at her. “Okay, then. See you later.”

Olive returned the wave, already making her way to the elevator. She at last turned away, and Kendall couldn’t maintain his feigned smile for any longer. It fell off his face, and he lowered his head to the ground as he walked to the staircase.

Scout. Of course. He shouldn’t have been so surprised that they were going to be sitting with him— he was a part of their little unofficial party, after all. But by no means did that mean that Kendall was going to be fond of him. He was sure that Olive wasn’t exactly in love with him, either, and Peyton definitely wasn’t. All three of them surely believed that Scout was an insufferable, pompous brat who either couldn’t or wouldn’t take other people’s feelings into account, although none of them had the guts to say it out loud. Lunch today would be interesting, that was for sure.

Kendall entered the staircase and jogged up the steps, dodging around the few people that were on it already. Maybe he would be able to convince Peyton to sit with them, today. It was odd how he always seemed to want to spend more time with them here, yet outright refuse to sit with them during one of the best times to do just that. Afraid of the crowds? Kendall couldn’t exactly blame him on that one. But it was still strange.

He sucked in his cheek as finally reached the fourth floor, swinging open the door. It still didn’t make much sense to him. Why did Olive not encourage him? Surely she would prefer to hang out with him more often too. Kendall snorted, the amusement not quite reaching his face completely. She probably had a reason, just like she had a reason for acting like Peyton was the best thing to have ever happened to her. She simply didn’t want to say.

The door to Kendall’s room opened as he put his wrist against the sensor. The first thing he noticed was Peyton. He by the windowsill. He didn’t react to Kendall’s appearance, merely staring out to the research center and the Outskirts beyond. Lost in his thoughts, as usual. How intriguing.

Kendall walked into the room, letting the door click shut behind him. Peyton didn’t respond. He brought his fist to his mouth and coughed noisily. That caught his attention. He whipped around, nearly falling over in his surprise. “O-oh,” he finally managed to stutter out, wide-eyed and flustered. Gingerly, he got to his feet and faced him, clasping his hands at his hips. “H-hi, Kendall.”

Kendall’s heart suddenly began to beat a lot faster. He decided not to say anything at first. He nodded instead, walking over to his bed and tucking his books into his duffle bag. Then he sat down on the bed, and finally turned his attention back to Peyton. The other boy didn’t return the stare, favoring the floor instead. His face was downcast, fingers curling and uncurling delicately over themselves. His soft lips parted lightly as if he wanted to say something. Nothing came from them. Kendall found the corners of his own mouth turning downward. Why wouldn’t he look at him? “Peyton,” he said. “Are you okay?”

Peyton acted as if Kendall had said nothing at all. Kendall frowned, and he got off the bed, preparing to step forward to ask the question again. Peyton suddenly raised his head, a small, frail smile gracing his face. “Yeah. I’m okay,” he said. Both his face and his smile fell. He looked up at Kendall through his ruffled blonde hair. “W-why do you ask?”

“You look— I don’t know. Sad.” Kendall bit the inside of his cheek. He had to choose his words carefully. “We’ve been noticing how distant you’ve been since we got here, Peyton. By ‘we,’ I mean me and Olive. You don’t spend time with us, like we used to. I guess part of that’s our fault, too. We all got a little distant. The rigor of the Academy got to us all. But we miss you now.”

Peyton didn’t say anything. Kendall swallowed the lump in his throat, his mouth dry as he started to speak again. “Remember how we always walked home from Miss Campbell’s every day? How we sat with each other, hung out outside of academics? You seemed happier then.”

He hadn’t been expecting such a look of misery to flash across Peyton’s face. What had he said to hit him in such a tender spot? “Neither of us are blaming you or anything,” he continued, hurriedly. “We just want to know if you’re okay.”

Peyton said nothing; his expression remained blank. Kendall frowned. “What happened at lunch the other day— I don’t think I ever really apologized for that. I feel like we— Olive and I, I mean— I feel like we did something or said something that hurt you then. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I just want to apologize. Neither Olive or I like seeing you so downcast. We would really love for you to come back. Try and relive the old days.” The old days. It had only been a month or so ago, if even that. It was like time passed by abnormally here in the Academy. “What do you say?”

Peyton at last moved his head to look up, and Kendall had to suppress a gasp. The look on his face was jarring— dark shadows hung under his eyes, and his lips were cemented into a permanent pout, red and bitten on his porcelain face. Kendall’s stomach lurched. What had happened to him? When had this happened? He should have kept a better eye on him— he was his roommate, for goodness sake. The Academy had put them together for a reason. He had been neglecting Peyton, it would be foolish to try and deny it. Kendall rose to his feet. That would end now. “Peyton. Answer me, please.”

“I- I—”

“Everything’s going to be okay from now on.” Kendall fought the urge to go up to him and shake his shoulders, try and push the point into his stubborn mind. Thinking about it made his insides flutter about uncomfortably, his cheeks growing warm. He struggled to control his voice. “Things are going to get better once we’re completely settled in. It’s going to be a good year. I promise.”

Peyton didn’t meet his gaze. He wrapped his arms around himself, like he were attempting to give himself a hug. “I’m fine, Kendall.” His voice was nearly inaudible. “I just haven’t been feeling well the past few days. That’s all. I think— I think I might be getting sick.” He brought a hand to the side of his head, wincing briefly. “I need some rest.”

Did he really think he was fooling anybody? Kendall sighed, his energy seeping out of him with his breath. He wrung his hands awkwardly. “Well… if you really do feel sick, then I hope you feel better soon. But the best way to recover from being ill is to get nutrients and fluids into your system.” He stepped away from his bed, backing up so he was near the door. “I’m not forcing you, but it really would help. And— maybe socializing some would help, too. Staying cooped up all alone like this can have more of an effect on your physical health than you may realize.”

Peyton didn’t move, didn’t even glance up from his shoes. Kendall frowned, feeling a pit in his rib cage. “Well, if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You wouldn’t have to worry about Scout, if that’s what you’re so worried about. I’ll make sure he won’t bother you. I don’t think he’s even going to be sitting with Olive and me today.” Anything he thought would help change Peyton’s mind, truth or not, tumbled out of his mouth. Nothing did. He turned around, bowing his head. “I guess I’ll… I’ll see you later.”

The silence was broken only by the door sliding open. Kendall walked out, listening to it shut behind him. He walked to the elevator and stepped inside, silently pressing the button to the first floor.

The hallway was bustling with students, and the cafeteria was even worse. Kendall drew his body closer in on itself, shimmying through the crowd up to the serving line. He mindlessly picked up the first few servings he rested his hands on— some vegetables here, two slices of bread there. When his tray was sufficiently full, he turned around and surveyed the lines of tables before him. Olive’s florid mane stuck out to him immediately, though her eager waving surely helped a bit as well. Next to her sat a slouching, black-haired figure. Kendall clenched his jaw, but he stuck a neutral expression onto his face and walked to the back of the room, sliding into the seat next to Scout’s. “Hello.”

“Hi!” Olive swallowed a mouthful of food and leant forward, resting her elbows on the table. “How’s Peyton doing?”

“Ah— he’s… not doing great.” Kendall stirred the vegetables on his plate around, biting his lower lip. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He barely said anything when I was talking with him. And he looks terrible— like he hasn’t slept in days, or something.” He shook his head. “I told him he should come out and eat with us, but he refused. He said he was just feeling sick, but… I know that’s not true. He’s hiding something from us. I don’t know why.”

Olive sagged in her seat. “That’s not good. Really not good.” She sat back and put a fist to her lips, frowning pensively. “Things will need to change soon. They will change soon. They have to. I can feel it.”

Scout scoffed, not too quietly. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Olive. “Really? How can you tell?”

“I— I just can. And it just makes sense.” Olive frowned. “People are starting to see the light now. I know that. I’ve been talking to some of them, and they say the same things that we do. There’s going to be more in the future as more people realize everything.” She sighed, squeezing her eyes shut. Then she snapped them open, a bright smile spreading across her face. “We can’t just ignore this and try to run away. We need to face these problems head on. It’s going to take a while, but it’ll be worth it. I’m sure of it!”

Kendall nodded his head up and down. “Yeah. You’re right.” Scout remained silent.

“I’m glad you agree with me.” Olive flashed a bright smile at him. Kendall couldn’t help but smile back, feeling his nervousness melt away; even Scout seemed to loosen up a bit. She always did know how to sway other people’s emotions for the better. “We’re already going to bring more and more people into our cause,” she said. Things will definitely start to progress faster than before, I’m sure of that now. We just have to stay optimistic, okay? The future’s looking bright.”

Neither Kendall or Scout immediately answered her. Kendall looked down at his tray, pushing the untouched food around. It would be a lie if he said that he was as invested in this as Olive was. In fact, if he were to be completely honest, he probably wouldn’t care about it if it weren’t for her. But it was her. So he had to. “I’m excited to see what the future holds, then,” he said at last, a smile spreading across his face as well.

“Glad to hear it, Kendall.” The guile in Olive’s voice was obvious, even without looking at her face. “I didn’t mean to take time out of your lunch time, by the way. I won’t bother you two too much anymore.”

Kendall nodded. He finally brought a morsel of food up to his mouth, chewing it slowly, thoughtfully. The future had never really been anything he’d put much contemplation into, besides vague ideas of jobs he would be asked to take on, maybe whether or not he would decide to become a parent. Things he was sure everybody thought about, for the most part. How far ahead had Olive planned for her future? How far had Scout? And… how far had Peyton? What exactly did they have planned, for things that were years away from now? Dreams of being a parent, of starting a family? Olive clearly had very ambitious plans. Plans that she refused to reveal to him or Scout. Plans that Kendall wouldn’t be surprised to know involved Peyton.

He tried to hide his frown by gulping down his glass of water. That didn’t necessarily mean it was a bad thing. They cared about each other. If only Kendall had someone he could care about that much, someone who cared that much for him.

Suddenly, he found himself fiercely hoping that whatever Olive did have planned for them, it would work out well— better than well, in fact. It wouldn’t be surprising if it ended up not being in every single person’s interest— it could end up being downright bad for some certain people. That was to be expected, really. But did any of that really matter, if it meant Olive would make sure that Peyton was happy in the end?

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

Chapter Fourteen

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

 

Peyton trudged through the hallway, his eyes trained firmly on his shoes so he could ignore the students rushing past him as best as he could. It was difficult, but paying attention to every one of them would be even more so. He’d learned from experience. Some of the students would bump into him or slam their shoulders against his as they hurried by, but few would stop to apologize. Now that the first few days of being at the Academy had passed, Peyton had stopped apologizing, too. It wasn’t like anyone heard, anyway— by the time he could manage to get the words out of his mouth, they were already halfway down the hallway, barely having noticed that he was there. What was the point of wasting all that effort? They would probably just think he was silly, anyway.

He shook his head, hurriedly pushing through a gathered mass of students to catch up to Scout. What the other students cared about him or how they treated him didn’t matter. They didn’t care about him, so why should he have cared about them? Olive and Kendall didn’t see him as another number that happened to be in his way. If they were the only two people here that liked him, then so be it. They were the only two students here who needed to accept him. He didn’t need anyone else to—

A faceful of fabric hit him dead on, interrupting his thoughts. Gagging, Peyton pulled away as he tried to get the taste of detergent and sweat out of his nose. He looked up, and instantly felt his face heat up as he realized Scout was scowling at him. His momentary confidence vanished as he tried to reassemble his thoughts. “I— s-sorry,” he murmured.  “I didn’t mean to— I was looking at the ground and I didn’t notice you’d stopped.”

Scout huffed, his frown deepening. “You can’t just not pay attention when you’re walking through the hallway, especially not during the passing period,” he said. “You’ll get somebody hurt.” He sighed and looked back in front of him, his shoulders sagging. “Anyway. We’re here.”

“Sorry…” Peyton glanced down at the ground then hurriedly looked back up, Scout’s abrasive words all too fresh in his mind. He followed him through the doorway, keeping his head down low. He’d already anticipated this not going as smoothly as he’d like— his first session without Olive or Kendall with him was bound to be rough— but he hadn’t expected his face to be warm and his eyes to be stinging so soon. Furiously, he scrubbed his face with the sleeve of his shirt, hiding his eyes behind his hair as he looked at the screens on the desk. His seat was near the front, as it always was. Slipping into the chair, Peyton placed the notepad he was carrying on the desk and looked up at the screen.

A heavy sigh came from his left, taking him out of his thoughts. He glanced over, and reflexively shrank back as he saw Scout dropping into the seat behind him. “O-oh,” he managed to say. “We— we sit next to each other, huh?”

“Clearly, we do.” Scout propped his head into his hands and stared bitterly into the blank space in front of him.

Peyton tried to scowl at him, but it sputtered away before it could really do anything. He looked away, feeling oddly guilty. It wasn’t like Scout’s behavior was unwarranted. Peyton wasn’t exactly pleased over this whole situation either. But at least he didn’t feel the need to brazenly display his annoyance in such a passive aggressive motion. Kendall was right. Scout really was something.

Peyton exhaled softly, toying with the sheets inside his notebook. He had to be positive, and think optimistically. This was science, what he’d been looking forward to since he’d ever learned about the Academy. He’d been booted up with the second year students because of how good he was with it. Why was he trying to make himself miserable? After this, he could tell Olive and Kendall what he’d been up to, and they could tell him what they had done in their language class over lunch. Then maybe they could hang out for a while or something. Yeah, that was what they could do. Today was going to be a good day. It was.

The Academy logo on the screen flashed away. There were footsteps by the door. Peyton sat up, watching intently as the door opened and the instructor walked in. The man glanced around at all the students, before he nodded appreciatively. His hair was dusted with silver that contrasted sharply with his dark skin. Peyton wasn’t sure if he’d seen anyone as old as him, before. How long had he’d been working here? Probably decades, at least…

“Welcome, everyone,” the man said, cutting off Peyton’s thoughts. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Mister Mallory, and I will be your instructor for the Intermediate Sciences class. I hope we will be able to look forward to an enjoyable and successful year together.” He turned around without another word and jumped right into the lesson.

For the first time in quite a long time, Peyton found himself actually invested in a science session. Here he was, actually learning stuff. It wasn’t often that he learned new information when it came to the subject, considering that he had read all the textbooks Miss Campbell had of it in her own classroom when he was about twelve or so. He’d scoured over the ones involving biology and the more organic sciences. Miss Campbell had often let him stay even after class had ended so he could finish a section.

The nostalgia hit him suddenly, strong and unbridled from his unpreparedness. He sunk down slightly in his chair, his eyes scanning listlessly over the board. Did she miss him? She had said that she would. There was a couple weeks’ more break for her before she started sessions with the rest of the students back in Silverhill. What if she forgot him then, with how busy she’d be? Peyton frowned. No, she would still miss him. She’d miss all of them— him and Kendall and Olive too. When he could go back and visit them once he left the Academy, Miss Campbell would welcome them with open arms. He’d expect nothing less. And Mother and Father would be happy to see him, too. Mother would probably start crying at how much her little son had grown up, Father would ask him what he was going to be doing now and somehow be completely satisfied with whatever answer Peyton had to give him, and—

A quiet cough pulled him from his reverie. Realizing that he was basically slouching, he pulled himself back up, looking to the source of the sound. Scout. Of course. The boy had his cheek leant against his left hand, and his eyes were looking in Peyton’s general direction. When he caught Peyton staring he looked away.

Peyton felt his cheeks blaze again, though he couldn’t tell if it was his embarrassment or his rising frustration. What was going on with him? Did he always act like this in sessions? Peyton wouldn’t know— this was his first one with him. Maybe he’d have to ask Kendall if he had noticed anything weird going on with him when he got the chance. As long as he wouldn’t tell. Kendall had always been able to talk to Scout easier than Peyton could. But Kendall was much closer to Peyton. He wouldn’t betray his trust like that, right?

The rest of the session went by smoothly. Despite the relentless thoughts swimming about in his mind, Peyton found it easy enough to focus on the things Mister Mallory was teaching. He almost found himself not wanting to leave. When the bell rang, however, he suddenly became quite aware of the growing hunger in his stomach. He had eaten a pretty light breakfast that morning, he had been so excited to come to the session and not to hold Scout up. He had to give Scout some credit.  It had been nice of him to wait instead of just going off by himself and leaving Peyton to find the room by himself, admittedly. He could be a little mean sometimes, but he did have his kind moments.

Peyton idled near the door, waiting for Scout to finish packing up. He glanced over at Mister Mallory, watching him acknowledge each of the students as they walked out into the hallway. His dark eyes caught Peyton’s own. He smiled briefly, before looking back at the people exiting.

Peyton felt his own lips curling into a bright smile. At least someone in this room liked him a little. The grin faded a bit as he saw Scout approach with his scuffed notebook clutched in his hand. He forced a nod at him. “Hi.”

“Yeah.” Scout nodded, examining Peyton’s face. “What are you smiling for?”

I’m not even allowed to smile around you now? He looked away. “N-Nothing.”

Scout didn’t react for a moment. He swiveled his head around, looking at Mister Mallory. Yet another scoff escaped him as he turned back to Peyton. “Whatever. Let’s just go.” He left the room without another word.

“Okay.” Peyton kept his gaze focused on the back of Scout’s shirt as he followed him through the hallways and into the elevator. They were in the Cassidy building, so it would take a few minutes to get to the mess hall. “Are you going right down to lunch, or are you going up to the dorm first?” Peyton whispered to Scout.

“Up to the dorm.” Scout spoke without any sort of regard to the volume of Peyton’s voice. Peyton cringed as the other people in the elevator got an earful of the conversation they were having. Scout didn’t seem to care, naturally. “Do you still need me to help you find the cafeteria?” he asked him.

“N-no!” Peyton struggled to keep his voice low. “I— I don’t. I just wanted to know. You don’t have to be so loud, you know.”

Scout shrugged nonchalantly, not seeming to care about the hushed whispers and giggles bouncing off the walls of the elevator. Peyton’s cheeks set on fire. He ran out of the lift once the doors were open wide enough, clenching his hands into fists. Forget Scout. He could get back to the mess hall by himself. Running the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes, he rushed toward the entrance and didn’t miss a beat as he was brought into the warm, student-filled courtyard. He kept his head bowed and his feet quick, hurrying through the shrinking crowd of people toward the student center. He pushed his wrist against the sensor at the entrance, stepping inside as the door opened for him. The hallway was still packed with people. It took a while for Peyton to push through them all to get to the cafeteria.

He looked around. Had Kendall and Olive not been able to get here yet? They always had lunch down here— really, Peyton should have come to the mess hall more often as well; it was technically against the rules not to if the privilege or an excuse had not been given— but it wasn’t like he was hurting anyone by staying in his room. Maybe he couldn’t find them because he wasn’t sure where they usually sat during lunch…

“Hi, Peyton.”

He whipped around, a half-hearted frown appearing on his face as he saw who it was. “You really have to stop sneaking up on me like that.”

Olive laughed. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to do it this time, really. I promise.” She tilted her head at him. “I thought you usually spent lunch up in your room. What brings you down here today?”

“I’m hungry today, I guess.” Peyton shrugged, rubbing his arm. “And— I wanted to talk to you guys. You and Kendall. Is he here, too?”

“Of course he is! He always sits with me during lunch. He didn’t tell you?”

Peyton faltered.  “N-no…”

“Well, I guess it’s not such a big deal. You two always hang out together in your room, I’m sure.” Olive shrugged, her smile only growing larger. “Anyway, let’s get something to eat, hmm?”

“Yeah. Okay.” He nodded, struggling to put a smile on his face. Silently, he followed Olive to the serving counter. He watched her delightfully scoop up a plateful of salad, words festering behind his lips. Why hadn’t Kendall told him that they usually sat together? Maybe he would have made more of an effort to come down if he knew… shaking the thoughts away, he grabbed the ladle in a container filled with what looked like soup. It was normal for groups of friends to hang out without everyone in said group present sometimes. He, Kendall and Olive sat together during breakfast and dinner as often as they could, even if all three of them didn’t stay for the entirety of the meal. That was more than enough. And hey, he was down here now, wasn’t he? They could all catch up on what they had been up to today. He just had to stop worrying so much.

With a renewed, half-forced pep in his step, Peyton followed Olive to a table at the side of the room. Kendall was already there, halfway through his own bowl of soup. He wiped his mouth and dipped his head as they sat down across from him. “Peyton. You decided to join us today.” He nodded at his tray. “The soup is good.”

“Oh, really? That’s good.” Peyton smiled softly, stirring the contents in his bowl around. Vegetables and chunks of what looked like beans floated around in it. He brought a spoonful of it to his lips and let it sit on his tongue for a moment before swallowing. “It— it’s a little spicy,” he said.

“Doesn’t taste too spicy to me.” Kendall shrugged, and swallowed another spoonful as if to prove his point. “What made you come down for lunch today, anyway?”

“I… I just wanted to talk to you and Olive, that’s all.”

“Don’t we do that every breakfast and dinner already?”

Peyton suddenly found himself very interested in his bowl of soup for some reason. “W-well, I wanted to talk to you guys during lunch too. Talk to you about your language class, and— and stuff. Is that wrong?”

Kendall shook his head. “No, it’s not,” he said.  “Language wasn’t really that interesting, anyway. Basically just a harder version of Miss Campbell’s lessons. Why? What do you want to know about it?”

“I thought it was pretty interesting, actually.” Olive smiled at Peyton through her mouthful of salad. “I met some new people, learned some new stuff. Fun things, you know. What about you?”

Peyton faltered. “I— well—” he trailed off, shrugging hesitantly. “It went well for me, too. You know how much I like science and stuff.”

“I do know.” Olive chuckled. “And how about Scout? Did he bring you to and from class well enough?”

“‘Uh— y-yeah. He did.” Peyton swallowed. “It was— nice, I guess.”

Olive tilted her head. “Really?”

“Y-yeah,” Peyton said again, uselessly. “I mean— he was pretty aloof, like he usually is. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Tell me more.” Olive leant over, resting her chin on her folded hands. Across from her, Kendall stiffened.

“I— I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Olive…” he trailed off, playing with the collar of his shirt. It suddenly felt quite hot and stuffy in the mess hall. “Why is it so important, anyway?”

“I just want to make sure you’re alright, Peyton.”

Peyton swallowed thickly again, though he hadn’t taken another spoonful of soup in minutes. Kendall remained silent— uncomfortably so. Just a few days ago he would have jumped upon the opportunity to talk about Scout. What had happened between then and now? Weren’t they supposed to be friends, who told each other everything?

A sharp pain in his palm brought him back to reality. His fingernails were digging into his hands. Olive and Kendall were staring at him expectantly. He took his fingers away from his hand, rubbing them softly. “S-sorry.  Well, I guess he— I guess he was kind of rude. Um— ruder than he usually is, I guess.” He snuck a glance over to Kendall, whose face was carefully blank.  The white-knuckled grip on his spoon, however made it clear that he didn’t find the remark to be very funny.

Peyton suddenly found the words in his throat much more difficult to choke out. “W-we— we sit next to each other. In the class, I mean. I don’t think he was really happy about that. He— he didn’t try to hide it, you know? He usually tries a little bit to hide when he’s annoyed with me.” He sniffed. “And, uh— he embarrassed me on the elevator. He acted like I couldn’t find the cafeteria, or something.” He shrugged, drawing in his shoulders just a little more. “I don’t— I don’t know. W-What do you think, Olive?”

Olive stayed quiet. She curled her lip, playing with a strand of her hair. “Mm… I’m not sure! I guess you should try talking to him about it. Tell him that he hurt your feelings, and not to do it next time, or something. Tell him that I told you to do it, see how that works out for you.” She smiled. “What’ve you got to lose?”

“I— I don’t know…” Peyton looked down at his wringing hands. “Maybe he— he was just having a bad day. I don’t think it’s such a big deal.” He looked over to Kendall. “Right, Kendall? He hasn’t been acting that weird to you, has he?” As soon as the words left his mouth, Peyton found that he was much too invested in the answer Kendall would give. He wasn’t quite sure what sort of answer he and Olive would like, let alone what Kendall would actually say.

He didn’t say much. He shrugged, nervously flicking his tongue over his lip. His eyes refused to look anywhere but his thickening bowl of soup. “I— I’m not—” he started. “I guess so? Maybe?” He turned to frown at Peyton. “Why are we even talking about this, anyway?”

“I was just wondering…” Peyton swallowed the sour lump that had grown in his throat. “You know, I… m-maybe I should go back upstairs. I’m not really that hungry, anyway.”

Olive raised her hand. “Peyton—”

“It’s fine.” He stood, his seat scraping loudly against the floor. The look Olive gave him sent a jab of regret through his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, before flashing them open again. “S-sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. I just— I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night.” He grabbed his half-empty bowl of soup. The spoon clattered around the inside of it as he took a step back. “I should take a nap. See you two later. I’ll be— I’ll be in a better mood then.”

Before either of them could get another word in, he pivoted around, hurrying off toward the front of the mess hall. Four accusing holes burned themselves into the back of his shirt as he tossed his bowl into the soapy basin, remembering a moment too late that he should have dumped the remaining soup into the trash. The tightness in his ribcage threatened to make its way up his throat after realizing that mistake.

He threw himself through the door, keeping his head low as he rushed toward the staircase. It was completely empty except for him— somehow that made him feel even worse. The thumping of his shoes against the carpet was painfully loud as he ran up the stairs, each thud echoing accusingly in his reeling head. He stopped right at the entrance to the fourth floor and looked behind him. Maybe… maybe he would feel better if he went back and apologized. If Olive and Kendall had thought that he was overly sensitive before, what were they think of him now?

Despite his burning regret, he somehow couldn’t find the strength to will his feet to carry him back down the stairs. He was just too tired. Yeah, that was it. He was too tired. Besides, Kendall would come up to the room soon enough. Surely Peyton would be able to apologize then, without the disadvantage of heated emotions rushing through him.

He gently pushed the door open and walked into the hallway. A couple of students were out and about. Peyton refused to look at any of them as he trudged toward his room. The sensor took his wrist, and the door slid open.

He barely found the strength to pull off his shoes before he collapsed onto his bed. Wrapping the top sheet over his body, he curled his knees to his chest and sighed. Maybe a little rest before dinnertime would do him good. It would give him time to clear his mind, and figure out what he would say to Olive and Kendall… and Scout, too. He screwed his eyes shut, pulling the covers closer to himself. He was working himself up over nothing. Scout was probably just in a bad mood— a worse mood than usual, at least. And Kendall… well. He was probably just in a bad mood, too. That was all it was, wasn’t it?

Peyton shook his head. He rolled to his other side, thoroughly wrapping the blanket around his body. Stop worrying so much about it. He was only making himself miserable. There would be time to handle this problem later on. For now, he had to get some rest. He buried his face into the blankets, sighing heavily. Everything would be okay in the end. If he continued repeating that to himself, then it would have to become true.

His eyes opened, and only then did he realize how heavy his eyelids felt. Exhaustion had been having a tendency of sneaking up on him ever since he had arrived at the Academy. That already felt like so long ago. It’d only been a few days. Would he get used to it, or would it start getting worse as time went by?

Peyton swallowed, feeling his throat burn as a lump traveled down it. Maybe he just wasn’t built for the Academy, for its driven culture and ambitious students. But he would have to stay here for the next four years, whether he wanted to or not. At least he had Olive and Kendall to help him through it.

Peyton huffed loudly and shut his eyes. He had to stop worrying so much about this. Sleep would make him feel better. Yeah, he had to get some sleep before dinnertime. Somehow, he managed to clear his mind enough to relax. He didn’t know just how long he tossed and turned in the bed, but eventually, his mind finally gave him the mercy of drifting off to sleep.

~ * ~

A hiss at the door shook Peyton awake. He opened his eyes, blinking crust away from the corners. His throat was dry, and his left temple was pulsing with pain. What time was it? It looked like it was dark outside. Had he slept through dinner? He sat up, looking to the door. “O-oh. Hi, Kendall. H-hi, Scout.” His voice sounded tired. He cleared his throat as subtly as he could, unwrapping the blankets from around his body. His shirt had ridden up. He hurried to pull it back down.

“Hi, Peyton.” Kendall didn’t look up at him. “You were sleeping when I came in here earlier. I was going to wake you up for dinner, but…” he trailed off, shrugging ruefully. “Did you have a nice nap?”

“I— yeah, I did,” Peyton lied, sneaking a glance at Scout. He was standing at his nightstand, occupied with something Peyton couldn’t see. “Don’t worry about dinner. I’m— not that hungry, really.”

Scout turned to frown in Peyton’s general direction. “Still doesn’t change the fact that you should have been down there. You’re lucky you haven’t been caught yet, with the amount of times you’ve skipped lunch and dinner.”

“Drop it, Scout.”

Peyton’s jaw dropped. Kendall’s half-hearted glare didn’t last long, but it was more than enough to get a reaction from Scout. His nostrils flared, and his hands curled into fists. What was he going to do? A pit of dread grew in Peyton’s stomach— but as suddenly as the anger had come to Scout, it melted away. He turned away from Kendall, muttering something about getting ready for bed, and stormed into the bathroom. He slammed the door so hard that the walls shook. Peyton and Kendall were plunged into a sudden, unpleasant silence.

“I’m… I’m sorry about that.” Kendall shook his head, walking over to his own bed. “He is just unbearable.”

Peyton’s teeth found his lower lip. He drew the blankets tightly around himself again. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to make you two get into an argument.”

“It’s not your fault.” Kendall took his pyjamas off the bed. He walked into the closet and shut the door behind him without another word.

Peyton was left alone again. He slowly peeled the blankets away from himself, only then noticing how sweaty and grimy he felt. Scout was in the bathroom, so he couldn’t take a shower. There was no reason not to put on his pyjamas now. It wasn’t like he was going anywhere anytime soon. His stomach, having only gotten a few spoonfuls of soup in the past couple of hours, was nagging him for food. He pushed the feeling down. He would just have to wait until morning to get something to eat, that was all.

Maybe Scout was right. Coming up every day after sessions to lay around and barely do anything couldn’t be very good, for him or anyone else. Starting tomorrow, he would try and make an effort to go out more. And talk to Kendall and Olive more. If they even wanted to talk to him, after he’d been so hostile.

He shook his head stubbornly, sliding off the bed. Of course they would still want to talk to him. Everyone had their bad days, didn’t they? It wasn’t even really his fault. It was Scout who had started this whole mess in the first place… Peyton hastily pulled his pyjamas on. Then he climbed back into bed, throwing the covers over himself. There was no way he would be able to get back to sleep so quickly— he had been sleeping since early afternoon, after all— but any ideas of other things he could be doing fell flat in his thoughts. Apologizing to either Scout or Kendall would be a bad idea, with the mood they had been put into. He could review the things they had gone over in sessions today… but he didn’t feel like doing that. He would lie down here until he fell asleep, that was all. He needed the rest.

The closet door clicked back open, and Peyton shut his eyes. Through the barrier of fabric he had enveloped himself in, he could hear Kendall walk out and sit on his own bed. The sound of paper rustling reverberated through the room, and then quiet whispering, like he was speaking to himself. What was he doing? Studying?

Peyton didn’t get time to think of an answer. The door to the bathroom opened. Scout’s feet slapped heavily on the carpet as he walked out. “Bathroom’s free,” he grunted.

Peyton wasn’t sure if Scout was talking to him or Kendall. Before he could decide whether or not to sit up and take the opportunity, a hushed, nearly inaudible voice stopped him.

“You really need to stop being so rude towards Peyton.” Kendall’s voice had a detectable strain to it, like he was struggling to keep quiet. “It isn’t good for us— for any of us.”

“I wasn’t trying to be.”

“Well, try harder, then.”

Scout barked out a laugh, many times louder than the voice he had been speaking in. Peyton flinched, but neither of them seemed to notice.  He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Try harder?” Scout’s words were quieter now, but laced with a vitriol that was impossible to miss. “You’re acting like I asked to be dragged into this whole mess. In case you weren’t aware: I wasn’t.”

“Try to be a little more quiet, will you?” Kendall sighed a sigh much more heavy and burdened than Peyton had ever heard from him before, quiet as it was. “I didn’t ask to be dragged into this, either. But this is the situation we’re in now. There’s nothing we can do now but make the best of it.” He fell silent for a moment. Peyton could hear him shuffling about with something on his bed. “If you jeopardize this, you’re going to get more than just a talk from me. You know that, don’t you? I hope you realize that.”

“‘Course I do. It’s not like either of you let me forget.” Scout snorted. “I’m going to bed. Don’t bother me anymore.” Footsteps, then blankets being thrown off a mattress. The bed frame creaked as Scout jumped onto the bed, and he spoke no more.

Peyton remained as quiet as he possibly could. He barely dared to breathe as he heard Kendall scoff, then walk into the bathroom. Had they thought he was sleeping? Was that why they were talking about— whatever they were talking about? Did they not want him to know about it? Peyton screwed his face up, his mind involuntarily connecting the dots as much as he tried to force them away. Scout’s sudden excessively aloof disposition, Kendall’s behavior at lunch… were they hiding something from him?

He winced. It made sense, now that he truly thought about it. It would explain Scout’s reluctance to even just be around him, and Kendall’s discomfort at being interrogated about it. Perhaps— Peyton’s heart clenched— perhaps even Olive was in on it all. Scout had said that neither of them let him forget. If Peyton didn’t even know what the situation was, who else could he be talking about? Who else did Kendall talk to besides him and Scout? Olive, of course.

Peyton cracked his eyes open, risking the shortest of glances at Scout. He was already buried under his blankets, which rose and fell softly with his breaths. What was he planning with his friends— what plan devised by them would involve Scout and not Peyton?

A perverse jealousy boiled in his stomach and traveled down his limbs, eventually coming to a mass in his head. Clenching his fists around his blanket, Peyton bit down hard on his lip to the point of drawing blood. They had been here at the Academy for only a fraction of a year and they were already being separated— and they didn’t even tell him why, or what for. But Scout of all people was worthy enough to be let in on the secret?

The bathroom door swung open. Peyton shrunk back without thinking, watching wide-eyed as Kendall walked back into the room. The movement caught Kendall’s attention, and he looked toward him. A painful second passed as he noticeably faltered. “Ah. You’re awake, Peyton.” More silence. Peyton whimpered.

The tension was broken as Kendall yawned, as if he were attempting to bring an end to the awkward lull. “Well, I’m pretty tired,” he said, stretching his arms above his head. “Talk to you in the morning, then. Good night.” He waved halfheartedly at Peyton and climbed into his bed.

Peyton wasn’t sure how long he laid there, but when the lights automatically switched off for the night, he was still wide awake. He could hear Scout’s and Kendall’s soft snores coming from their own respective beds. Somehow, that only served to make Peyton feel even more upset. Sure, part of his restlessness was likely from taking such a long nap beforehand, but the stress they had imposed on him definitely had to be a factor. How was it fair that they were allowed to sleep so peacefully, when he was stuck here with the thoughts they had stirred up? He shifted so he could stare at them both, at their peaceful faces and unworried figures. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t.

Maybe he was overthinking things. Maybe they had a good reason for hiding it— or maybe there wasn’t an “it” at all, and he had just taken what they had said the wrong way. Peyton rolled back over in his bed, shutting his eyes. Maybe that was all true… but the feeling that it wasn’t was unshakable. All three of them— Kendall, Scout, and Olive— were acting strange around him all of a sudden. There was no doubt that they were hiding something— that they were planning something. But what could they possibly be planning? It was the one question that begged to be answered, but Peyton couldn’t think of any plausible answers. There was a reason they were trying to hide this from him— why?

There was only one answer Peyton could think of, and it was so undesirable that it left a bitter taste in his mouth: maybe, just maybe, they simply didn’t care about him enough to tell him anymore.

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

Chapter Eight

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

 

Peyton opened his eyes, then snapped awake as an unfamiliar room stared back at him. He clutched the sheets to his chest and sat up, looking around. Just as his bewilderment began to contort into fear, his eyes darted to the corner of the room. A familiar figure rested in the bed there. Of course. He took in a shuddering breath, forcing his heart to slow down. He’d completely forgotten that he and Kendall had come to the Academy yesterday. It would take a few days to get used to waking up in this dark gray dormitory rather than his familiar, pastel-colored bedroom back in Silverhill.

Quietly, he slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the window, looking behind him all the while. Neither Kendall or Scout stirred, and he let himself relax. His fingers curled around the curtains and pulled it open a crack. Pink and yellow streaks backdropped the silver buildings in the distance, slowly giving way to the soft blue of early morning. Peyton would always prefer watching the sunrise back in his home district, he decided, but there was something striking about the day starting in the Academy that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Maybe it was because the sunrise represented the last few moments of peace and quiet before everyone spilled out of their sleeping quarters and got about their day.

Peyton sighed softly. Already he knew that the hard-pressed, impersonal environment the Academy touted would start to grind down on him within days. It already was, to be honest. He felt like all the small pleasures he had back in Silverhill were slipping through his fingers like grains of sand. Releasing his grip on the curtain, he turned around to stare at Kendall’s sleeping form. Would they ever be able to hang out like they used to before? With Olive? Would they ever be able to act like kids again, with no cares or worries about the future?

He didn’t get the time to think of an answer. A piercing ding sounded from above. He jumped, almost stumbling into the window. He hurried to his bed and jumped up onto it, drawing his knees to his chest. He watched Kendall and Scout stir in their beds through wide eyes.

Kendall sat up and rubbed his eyes, looking over to Peyton. He blinked blearily before raising his hand in a wave. “Good morning.”

“M-morning.” Peyton nodded into his knees. “Do you know what that noise was?”

“Probably an automatic alarm. It’s probably the most efficient way to wake hundreds of people up, yeah?” He stretched, yawning loudly. “Right, Scout?”

Scout threw his legs over the side of his bed and scratched his unruly black hair. “Mm-hmm,” he said at last, voice thick with sleep. “It rings every morning. There’s also an announcement that tells everyone that it’s time to go to sleep at bedtime. And then the lights go off automatically. It’ll probably be hard for you two to adjust to this from being in your districts for the past fourteen years. But you’ll get used to it.” He looked to Peyton and Kendall in turn, raising his eyebrows. “So, what am I supposed to be helping you two with today?”

“We wanted you to help us find where we’re supposed to go for our sessions.” Kendall slipped out of bed and picked the itinerary off his nightstand. “Says here that History 101 is in the Cassidy building, seventh floor. That’s where our first session is.” He moved the paper from his face. “Right, Peyton? You’re with me for History 101, right?”

“Yeah.” Peyton nodded. “We’re in that session together.” If they were lucky, maybe Olive would be there too. Peyton hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to her since they’d been registered, even though she promised that they would. He’d caught glimpses of her during the newcomer’s assembly and official tour, but had gotten nowhere close enough to catching her gaze, let alone to speaking with her. They had to cross paths eventually, right? The chance of her schedule not aligning with his in any way had to be super low. Not being able to talk to her again would be a disaster. She was half of the friends he had, here.

Kendall looked over to Scout, holding out his itinerary to him. “Yeah. Would you be able to show us where that is?”

Scout heaved himself out of bed and walked over to Kendall. Grabbing the paper out of his hands, he skimmed through it and nodded. “I could. It says it’s room number five on the seventh floor. That’s the big room. Your class is probably going to be big. That’s good, and also bad.” He handed the paper back to Kendall.

“Why is that bad?” Kendall brought the sheet to his chest and cocked his head to the side.

“You don’t get as much personal attention in a big class than a smaller class. That means that you don’t have to act like you’re working as much, but it also means that you might not be noticed if you’re having trouble. It’s a double edged sword, really.” Scout snorted, turning away. “But you two seem to be smart and well behaved, from what I’ve seen. I don’t think either of you will have much of a problem.”

“Ah.” Kendall nodded. “I’m going to take that as a compliment, even if I’m not sure it was intended to be one.”

“Fine by me.”

Peyton watched the exchange with his lips tightly sealed. Kendall could interact with different personalities so easily. If only he had the same gift. Unfolding his arms from his knees, he got up from the bed and walked up to Kendall and Scout. “If— if it’s a big session, that means that Olive might be there with us. Right?”

Kendall glanced at him. “I guess it does.”

“O-oh. That’s a good thing.” Peyton looked down, playing with his fingers. “You should meet her, Scout. She’s really nice.”

“Is she?” He shrugged. “If I see her around, I guess. What does she look like?”

Kendall snorted. “You can’t miss her. Wild red hair, freckles all over her face, only a little taller than Peyton. And she’ll probably be talking someone’s ear off whenever you see her.”

“Hm. Well, I’ll keep an eye out for her. Or maybe we’ll see her downstairs at breakfast.” He pointed his thumb at the door to the hallway. “Ready to go and eat now?”

“Yeah, sure.” Kendall folded the itinerary and rested it back on the bed stand. “You coming, Peyton?”

Peyton blinked. “But— shouldn’t we change out of our pyjamas first?”

“Of course,” Scout said, turning to the closet. “I’ll get dressed in the bathroom. You two can change out here.” Before Kendall and Peyton could get a word in, he’d already taken his uniform out the wardrobe. Walking into the bathroom, he clicked the door shut and locked it.

“Well, then.” Kendall pursed his lips. “I think the closet is big enough for one of us to get dressed in. Want to take it?”

“Sure. I can dress in the closet. W-want me to get your uniform for you?”

Kendall had already turned around to start unbuttoning his nightgown. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Peyton didn’t respond. He walked into the closet, taking the hanger holding Kendall’s outfit off the rod. Sliding the door so that only a sliver of light shone through, he held the uniform out into the bedroom. Only when it was plucked out of his hand did he pull away to grab his own uniform from the hanger. It was nothing fancy, simply a white button up with a black tie and black slacks, and black shoes. It was what everyone in the Academy was expected to wear, however, and he undressed and put it on without a second thought.

Scout looked Peyton up and down as he came out, then nodded. “You look fine to me. Did you take your medication?”

Peyton paused, retracing the memories of the morning. “I— I forgot to. But I’ll take it now. It’s in the paper bag on my nightstand, right?”

Scout nodded. “I’ll take mine now, too. Don’t forget yours, Kendall.”

Peyton went over to his nightstand, grabbing the small paper bag on it. He unfolded the top of it and peeked inside. Hesitantly, he took one of the syringes out and turned it over in his hand. It was noticeably bigger than the syringe he used back in Silverhill, and the fluid inside was a pale, transparent green instead of the milky solution he was used to. An involuntary shudder passed through him as he removed the plastic cap from the needle and pressed it against his forearm. In and out. He plunged the medication inside of him, shivering again. It was cold, and the larger, blunter needle was definitely more obtrusive than the syringe he used to use. But he grit his teeth and hid his discomfort, putting the needle into the small metal canister hiding in the bag.

He turned around to see that Kendall and Scout had already finished and were looking at him expectantly. He rubbed his left arm. “S-sorry for taking so long,” he said. “We can leave, now.”

Scout nodded. He walked through the automatic sliding door, Kendall and Peyton following wordlessly. The hallways danced on the edge of menacing now that there weren’t a bunch of people walking through them. The walls were stark white, the plainness broken only by the silver doors embedded into them, and the dark gray carpet underfoot absorbed their footsteps. A shiver fell upon Peyton despite himself, and he sped up to match his pace with Kendall’s. “The Academy is so big,” he murmured, desperate to get any sound into the corridor. “How did you get used to it, Scout? How long— how long did it take?”

Scout glanced at him before facing back forward. “It only took me a week or so. It may take you longer. I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Peyton fell silent. “W-well, I bet Kendall will get it faster than me. He’s really good with memory. Right, Kendall?”

Kendall smirked. “I guess. I’m sure you’ll be fine, Peyton. I’ll help you when I can.” He looked to Scout, watching him press the elevator button to the first floor. “Scout too, of course. Right?”

“Yeah,” Scout said. “Sure.”

The elevator door opened, and they stepped in. Peyton watched the floors pass them by, barely keeping himself from pressing his face and hands against the glass walls. Kendall voiced what he was thinking: “The technology here is incredible. Silverhill is so… simple compared to it.”

“You’ll get used to it.” Scout didn’t seem fazed as the elevator slowed to a stop and slid open. “Come on. You remember where the mess hall is from yesterday, don’t you?”

“I’m pretty sure I do,” Kendall said. “Want me to lead the way?”

Scout looked back to Kendall, narrowing his eyes. “That won’t be necessary, but thanks.” Without another word, he strutted out the elevator, leaving them to hurry after him.

The mess hall was only a few strides from the elevator and staircase. The doors swung open as they approached, and they were instantly enveloped in all the smells of the food and the chatter of over a hundred other students. Peyton paused for a moment, overwhelmed by it all, before he realized he was being left behind. He rushed to keep up.

The food serving counters were at the front of the mess hall. They lined up in front of it, picking up trays and bowls along the way. Peyton peeked into the compartments of food. There was oatmeal in one, sliced up fruit in another, nuts, yogurt… with a pang, he suddenly remembered Mother’s warm, homemade cinnamon-pumpkin muffins. His mouth watered, and he wiped his lips in embarrassment. What he’d give to have one of those muffins right now. Or even just to see her. She’d always smelled of sweet spices and baked fruit. Funny how he only appreciated these things after he’d already left.

“What are you getting, Peyton?”

He looked up to see Kendall staring at him. His tray was already loaded with fruits and nuts, and a handful of granola. Peyton looked back down at the counter, shrugging. “I dunno. I guess a bowl of oatmeal, and maybe some berries to put in it. And… and a cup of tea. Or juice, I guess. If there is any. Do you see any?”

“I think it’s over there.” Kendall pointed to the opposite end of the line. “I’ll get a cup for you and bring it to our table. Which do you want?”

Peyton hesitated for a quick second. “Tea, I guess. With three sugars. No— four sugars.”

Kendall raised an eyebrow, but he nodded and walked off, leaving Peyton on his own. Scout was nowhere to be found— even if he was around Peyton doubted he’d stick by him until he was finished getting his food. Ducking his head to his chest, he grabbed the ladle to the oatmeal. He just had to get his breakfast as quickly as possible and walk over to the table. Hopefully they’d chosen one close to the wall…

He filled his bowl to the brim with oatmeal and topped it off with blueberries and banana. He put the tray back on the stack where he had gotten it from and picked up a spoon. Walking away from the counter, he looked around the room. Where had Scout and Kendall gone to sit? There were over fifty tables crammed into the hall, with five times as many people sitting at them. Peyton brought the bowl closer to him, his movements growing more frantic. They had to be around here somewhere—

A hand suddenly clapped down onto his shoulder, yanking him out of his thoughts with a pathetic squeal. He whipped around, nearly dropping the oatmeal. “What— wait— Olive!”

“Oh, goodness— you should have heard the noise you made!” Olive let go of his shoulder. She tried to put on a straight face before she doubled over yet again. “Okay— I’m sorry— I’m sorry— really!”

Peyton scowled. “Okay, I get it. You scared me.” The annoyance he felt quickly faded away, giving way to excitement. “I didn’t know when I would be able to talk to you again! Are you getting breakfast too?”

“Well, yeah. Why else would I be down here?” She smiled brightly at him. “I see you got your own already. Are you down here all by yourself?”

“Oh, no. I’m down here with Kendall and Scout— he’s my roommate. Kendall is, too.” He started to look around again, furrowing his brow. “If only I could find where they went off to.”

Olive looked past his shoulder, then pointed. “I think they’re over there. Kendall is, at least. I don’t know what Scout’s supposed to look like.”

“Huh?” He twisted his torso around, looking to where Olive had specified. Sure enough, both Kendall and Scout were sitting at a table flush to the wall. Scout was almost finished scarfing down his food while Kendall sat with his hands folded, looking intently in Peyton and Olive’s direction. Peyton could feel heat rushing to his cheeks. All this time, they’d been right in front of him. Why was he so stupid?

Olive gently nudged his back. “Go on. I’ll be there in a second.”

“I— uh, alright.” Peyton began to trudge over to the table. Putting down his bowl, he slipped into the empty seat next to Kendall. His cup of tea was slid in front of him, and he took it into his hands. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Kendall popped an apple slice into his mouth. “Is Olive coming over?”

“Yeah. She said she’ll be here in a second. She’s getting her own breakfast.” Peyton stirred around his oatmeal and swallowed a spoonful, glancing over to Scout. “Olive is—she’s the girl I was talking to you about earlier.”

“Really?” Scout swallowed his last bite of food. “I guess I’ll stay so you can introduce her to me.”

“Y-yeah.” He smiled and nodded, stirring around the oatmeal again. “Kendall, do you think she might be in our History 101 class?”

“Maybe. You’ll have to ask.”

“I guess. Look, here she comes now.” He smiled as she approached. “Olive, this is Scout, Kendall’s and my roommate. Say hi.”

Olive cocked her head to the side, then raised her hand and waved enthusiastically. “Hello! Nice to meet you.”

Scout didn’t seem very interested as she sat down next to Peyton and tucked into her bowl of oatmeal. “Yeah, hi,” he said. “They wanted to know if you were in History 101 after this. Just thought I’d tell you since neither of them have mentioned it yet.”

“Oh! Yeah, I am!” She looked toward Kendall. “You’re in the Cassidy building? Room five on the seventh floor?”

“Mm-hmm.” Kendall nodded. “I guess we’ll be able to hang out with each other after all.”

Peyton could feel his lips curling up into a grin. How long had it been since he’d actually smiled a genuine smile? It felt like forever. “That’s great! We should sit together like we did back in Miss Campbell’s sessions. Could we, Olive?”

Scout cleared his throat, cutting off the beginning of Olive’s reply. “I hate to burst your bubble, but seats are usually assigned here at the Academy. And the desks here aren’t like the kiddy group tables back in the district sessions. They’re individual seats. The Academy is supposed to teach you how to become more independent. That’s just one of the many ways they go about it.”

Olive tilted her head at him. “I see,” she said at last. “Well, we could always hope that we end up seated close to each other. There’s no reason to be pessimistic, is there?”

Scout shrugged nonchalantly, picking his teeth. “I guess. Look, you guys know where the Cassidy building is, right? You can get to it by yourselves?”

“Uh. We probably could.” Kendall raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Scout pushed his seat back. “Then I better get going. My session is pretty much at the opposite side of the Academy, and the breakfast period’s about to end. I don’t want to be late on the first day.” He stood up. “See you guys.”

“Wait,” Kendall said. “We don’t need to bring anything with us to the History class, do we?”

“No. It’s a lecture-based session. They’ll tell you if you need to bring anything in advance.” He walked away without another word.

Kendall watched him leave, then scoffed once he was out of earshot. “That was something. He’s… something.”

“He’s just eccentric, that’s all.” Olive pushed her empty oatmeal bowl away. “Do you think we should make our way to the Cassidy building now? We should try to be there early. See if there’s assigned seats and all, you know?”

“Alright.” Peyton shoveled the last of his oatmeal into his mouth, swallowing the mush quickly. “Y-you can lead the way. Either of you. I don’t remember where the Cassidy building is.”

“It’s okay. You’ll get it eventually.” Olive stood up and ruffled his hair. Before he could protest, she was already skipping off to the food line to drop off her dirty bowl. Kendall followed her right after.

Peyton fixed his hair with a pout. Grabbing his bowl, he rose from his seat and hurried to catch up. They dumped their things into the soapy tub before exiting the cafeteria, walking through the hallway, and leaving the building.

The air outside was thick and heavy, and left a moist feeling caked in the back of Peyton’s mouth. He didn’t complain, though— he felt content following Kendall and Olive as they strode through the tall maze of buildings. It reminded him of how they walked to Miss Campbell’s sessions back in the old days. The old days… it was less than half a week ago and he was already calling it the old days. Was the Academy changing him already? He wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly feeling cold despite the stuffy heat.

“See, Peyton? It’s this building over here.”

Peyton looked up at Olive’s voice, up toward the towering white building that they were approaching. “Oh. Yeah, I see. It’s really tall.”

“It’s only nine stories. The buildings at the edge of the Academy are taller. But you’re right that it’s probably one of the tallest buildings we can enter.” She turned around and smiled mischievously at him. “You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

He scowled. “No. Our dormitory is on one of the highest floors. I wasn’t afraid at all, not even when I rode the elevator.”

“We’ll see! This session is on the seventh floor.” Olive skipped away, leaving Kendall and Peyton to hurry behind her. When they approached the entrance, she was the one to press her wrist against the sensor and open up the doors.

The three of them walked into the crisp-smelling, air-conditioned lobby and approached the elevators. Kendall pressed the “7” button, stepping back as the doors slid shut. The lift began to ascend with a jolt, the world dropping from below their feet. Peyton clenched his jaw and refused to look at Olive’s smirking face. He thought he was going to crack just as the elevator slowed, then stopped completely at the seventh floor. The doors opened, and Peyton was the first to exit, steadying himself on the wall. Maybe he actually was a little afraid of heights. Heights higher than four or five stories, at least.

He didn’t get much time to rest before Kendall and Olive approached. Standing up straight, he looked to Kendall. “Scout said we had to go to the fifth room,” he said. “Do you know where that is?”

Kendall fished his map out of his shirt pocket. “We walk up the hallway to the left and make a right turn around the corner from here. There’s only one door on that side of the floor, it looks like. Must be a big room.”

“My roommate did say it was a large class.” Olive was already on her way down the corridor. “Apparently there are some second-year students mixed in with the first-year students too. That’s what my roommate told me, anyway. Maybe she’s in this class.”

“Oh.” Peyton nodded slowly. “Did… did she say anything about assigned seats? Maybe you’re— you might be sitting with her, or something?”

“Nope. But we’re gonna be finding out in a second, aren’t we?” Olive walked up to the door, jumping back as it slid open automatically. “Looks like there’s no sensor for classroom doors. Guess that means come on in.” She sauntered through the doorway.

The room was huge— easily half the size of the cafeteria, maybe even a little bigger. Over a hundred desks with chairs attached to them were arranged neatly into rows, with little white screens at their upper left-hand corner. Everything was either silver or white. The walls and ceilings were white, the desks, the lights… at the front of the room was a huge screen display, that currently showed the Academy’s logo at the center. Under the logo was a line of black text: “Welcome students. Please look for your name and number on the desk screens”

“I guess that means that the seats were chosen for us beforehand.” Peyton walked to the front of the room and began scanning through the screens. “Olive, I found your seat.”

“I’m at the front of the room?” She bounded up to him and peeked over his shoulder. “OKZ-002. That is my code. Huh. Well, I guess this is it. Don’t worry, Peyton. Maybe you’ll sit close to me.”

“It doesn’t look like it.” Peyton walked through the row of desks, then stared at the one behind it. “Oh… look! I’m right behind you!”

“Really?” Olive leant over to look at his desk screen. “PRW-009.” She looked around the room. “Maybe they’re organized by number?”

“They are.” Kendall sat down in the last seat in Olive’s row. “I have 007 as my number. And look, I’m five seats away from you.”

Peyton looked at the desks to his right, then his left. “Oh… you’re right! That means that we’re all near each other! Isn’t that great?”

“Mm-hmm.” Olive looked to the doorway, chin perched on her fist. “Looks like some more people are coming in. We better not talk so loud anymore.”

“I guess.” Peyton sat back in his seat and snuck a glance at the doorway. Other students were beginning to trickle into the room, reading the board and looking for their desks. Peyton could recognize a few of them from the bus ride yesterday morning— those two talkative girls, for example. The session would definitely be starting soon. What would they even be learning about? In Miss Campbell’s class, history was always a brief part of their session. It was never thoroughly discussed the way language or science was. So what new things would the Academy be teaching them? Peyton looked to the board, which still showed the Academy logo. They’d be finding out in a few minutes, hopefully. He rested his hands on the desk, tapping his fingers against the surface. Just a little while to go.

At long last, when every student had found their seat, the Academy logo on the screen blipped away. A sudden static noise filled up the room, and every person  looked up at the sound. The door opened, and a man walked in. He was tall, thin, and olive-skinned, with a face that was only just beginning to betray his age. The most striking part about him, however, was his eyes. His left eye was a deep chestnut brown, while the right glinted a brilliant, icy blue. Peyton couldn’t help but wonder if they were real as he sat forward, forcing a smile onto his face as the man regarded each student in the room.

“Welcome to class, students.” The man’s voice, deep and lightly raspy, reverberated off the walls. There was a microphone near his cheek, Peyton noticed. “I’m seeing plenty of new faces— and a couple of old ones, too. I suppose I’ll introduce myself.” He put a hand to his chest, clearing his throat. “My name is Mister Beverly. I will be your instructor for City History Basics 101. I am looking forward to a successful year with you all.”

He turned around to the screen. That was all the introduction they were going to get? It seemed like it. Peyton leant forward, carefully intrigued.

The white screen flickered away to display a new image. A ripple of excitement surged through the audience as they all suddenly realized what it was.

“Let’s start from the very beginning,” Mister Beverly said. “Today, you all will be learning about the end of the Unspeakable Times.”

Peyton sat up, suddenly much more interested than he had been before. Miss Campbell had never spoken about the Unspeakable Times in any way— she had barely even mentioned it. It had always been something that wasn’t for them to know, something they didn’t need to worry about. And Peyton never had. Out of nowhere, he felt his heart rate increase. What would Mister Beverly be telling them? He rubbed the back of his head, staring at the sprawling landscape of towering buildings on the screen before him with a growing uncertainty.

Mister Beverly raised his hand, and the whispers around them dissipated. “I will not be going into much detail. Not even I know much about the Unspeakable Times. All I will be doing is giving a brief history of the very end and contrasting that era with the present day.”

The buildings on the screen flickered away, to an aerial view of the same area. There were people walking through the maze of structures, similar to how people did in the Academy, but on a much larger scale. They looked almost like insects, skittering this way and that way with no sense of direction. Peyton found it beautiful, in some sort of funny, exotic way.

“This is what life was like during the Unspeakable Times.” Mister Beverly looked at his audience’s reactions, his face inscrutable. “This was before things made a turn for the worse, for that matter. As you can see, things were large, complex… disorderly. And everyone lived like this. Millions, billions of people. No sign of green anywhere, like there is in our districts. Could you imagine that?” He regarded the class further, silently interrogating each one of them personally. Peyton shrunk back. The thought of being crowded and stifled by thousands of other bodies his entire life made him feel sick. How did the people living back then manage to deal with it?

“As you can probably guess, these conditions did not lead to a high-quality society. Humans are simply unable to thrive in environments such as that. The situation eventually came to a boiling point. Conflicts broke out every day, so many that none can truly be viewed as significantly better or worse than the others. There was never a reprieve in the maelstrom. It got worse and worse as time passed. Eventually, the population dwindled enough that the few who had the attributes to live through it all rose from the ruins. They knew that they could not allow anything like this to happen again.” Mister Beverly’s eyes glinted. “So they— we— took it upon ourselves to build a new society.

“The first City’s rudimentary council applied the good things about the old civilization—however few there were— and molded it into the nation we have today. As time has passed, and the population has grown, more Cities have spread across the world, so that we will not have a repeat of what happened a hundred years ago. We’ve adapted and morphed the humans’ lifestyle so that everyone can be as content and as untroubled as possible. And is that not what everyone wants? Happiness and a peace of mind?” Mister Beverly looked around, as if he were asking for anyone to try and disagree with him. His mismatched eyes suddenly stopped— on Peyton.

Peyton felt his throat dry up. He shrunk down into his seat, his lips trembling. His voice was thin and reedy as it escaped his clenched throat. “I— I—”

“GMW-103. You don’t seem to be very pleased. What’s the matter?”

GMW? Those weren’t his initials. Peyton felt his entire body relax, relief rushing through his muscles like an overflowing river. Mister Beverly hadn’t been looking at him— he’d been looking at somebody behind him. Without thinking, he twisted around. There was girl at the very back of the room, slouched in her chair. Her downcast eyes refused to look up at Mister Beverly, or anyone for that matter.

“GMW-103?”

She looked up at last, before her gaze went back to her lap. There were bags under her eyes, Peyton noticed, weighing down the rest of her face. She was… it looked like she was shaking. “Nothing,” she said at last, her voice almost inaudible.

“It must be something.” Mister Beverly’s voice was gentle, but an unmistakable glimmer of curiosity shone in his mismatched eyes. “Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts.”

The girl said nothing.

“Could it be that you disagree with the message I’ve just shared, GMW-103?”

Peyton involuntary winced as GMW-103 flinched, her eyes squinting shut. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish before words began to stutter out. “I— I didn’t—”

“Please, don’t try to deny it. I genuinely want to hear your thoughts.” Mister Beverly cocked his head to the side. “Please, take your time. We’re all waiting.”

Peyton rested his elbow on his desk, partially hiding his face in his hand. The secondhand embarrassment he felt for the girl was making him nauseous. He could see Kendall clenching at his scalp as he glared forward into nothing, his entire body tense. Olive gaped openly at the girl, her face pale. It was clear that no one was enjoying this. Please, say something to make him stop, Peyton thought. Just let us get on with the session in peace.

Almost as if she had heard his thoughts, the girl looked up. Her fingers trembled as she folded them and rested her hands on her desk. “W-what happened to all of those people back in the Unspeakable Times, Mister Beverly? How could that many people simply vanish just before the City was founded? It just doesn’t make any sense at all to me. Sir.”

The air fled from the room. Peyton held his breath. Looking at the girl was almost physically painful now. He turned back to his desk, resting his forehead on the cool metal surface.

“If you were paying attention, GMW-103, you would have heard me state that the chaos of the Unspeakable Times was responsible for the decline of the population. The overpopulation, as well as their lifestyle, led to the mayhem that preceded the era of the City.” Mister Beverly’s body looked tense as he searched her face. “Do you have any more questions for us?”

The girl didn’t respond for a minute. When she spoke again, her voice was hoarse, as if it were being forced up her throat and through her lips. “How did all those people disappear, Mister Beverly? What exactly happened to them? And who did it to them?”

Mister Beverly said nothing. Peyton peeked up at him from his desk; he could almost see the gears churning in his mind while he searched for a proper answer. “The condition of their living qualities caused them to wage war against one another,” he said at last. “That’s all you need to know. All any of you need to know.” He raised his hand to his ear and mouthed a few hushed words before bringing his attention to the back of the room again. “In the meantime, GMW-103, please step outside of the room for a moment. I believe you need a moment to take a breather.”

Peyton slowly turned his head around to look at the girl. She didn’t move at first. Her eyebrows were now knitted together as she stared at her desk. She didn’t look up at anyone or anything when she stood, nor when she drifted through the aisles between the desks. She passed by Peyton’s seat, and he could see that her face was flushed red behind the curtain of dark hair obscuring it. He could hear the soft whirring of the door as she approached it. Her footsteps echoed as she walked through the hallway, before the door shut again and sealed every sound coming from outside.

Nobody said anything for a full minute.

“Well, then.” Mister Beverly was the one to chase the leaden silence away. “That was interesting, to say the least. I suggest that you all try to disregard what just occurred. It’s normal for many to have misconceptions about the Unspeakable Times and the genesis of the City, considering the fact that it’s such an unfamiliar and cryptic subject for many of us. This is what this class is for— to bring an end to those misconceptions. There is no need for any of you to worry. Let’s return to the lesson, shall we?”

Mister Beverly turned back to the board and changed the screen, but Peyton barely noticed what was on it. Mister Beverly’s voice sounded muffled and wrong.

Peyton squeezed his eyes shut, swallowing the growth of discomfort that had swelled in the back of his throat. No. He couldn’t act like this, or else he would be asked to explain what he was thinking, too. Like the girl. Sitting up, Peyton reached under his desk to the one in front of him. The tips of his fingers brushed against Olive’s hand. Her hand eventually wrapped around his own, and his lips quivered. He looked to the front of the room, his vision unfocused as he listened to Mister Beverly’s voice drone on to the script of the lesson.

The girl didn’t come back.

~ * ~

Peyton had been staring up at the ceiling for the past ten minutes. Or about that long, anyway. He had been focusing on the faint, constant tick of the clock since he’d entered the bedroom: every sixty ticks, he would scratch off a minute in his mind. There was more than a small chance that he’d miscounted by a little— or by a lot— but that didn’t matter. Diverting his thoughts away from the events that had happened this morning was what mattered to him.

Turning onto his side, he drew his knees up to his chest. The bed felt stiff and lumpy underneath him. Scout and Kendall had went down to lunch without him, and at that moment he was happy for that as an involuntary whimper bubbled through his mouth. What was wrong with him? There was no need to be this distraught over what had happened. But something about it kept him from simply letting it move on from his mind. Something about that girl, her subdued resolution, her fate… he couldn’t take his mind off it. It was obvious that Mister Beverly had been unhappy with her conflicting views of the city. That was why he had sent her out of the session. What would happen to her now? Would she be questioned? Punished?

Would she be… lost?

Peyton shot up and furiously shook his head. Black spots mottled his vision at the sudden change in blood pressure, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t be thinking about that. He’d already promised himself that he’d forget that conversation between Mother and Father. He didn’t want that to be one of the last memories he had of them. There was no need to be so pessimistic. He had to think of something else. Something happier.

He shuffled off the bed. Standing on trembling legs, he walked over to the windowsill and leant against it, staring out. The sun gleaming off the metal buildings in the distance made his eyes water. Beyond even those, he could see the top of the forest— the Outskirts. The tips of the tangled foliage were visible above the wall, their bright green contrasting sharply with the silver and black of the City. Peyton cupped his chin in his hands. For a moment, he thought about what it would be like to go into the Outskirts. Yes, it was an untameable place unfit for human life, but even if it were just for a second, would it not be pleasant to feel the fresh air on his skin, the leaves brushing against his clothes? To taste the unsullied scent of grass, rain and soil?

A knocking on the door pulled him away from his daydreaming. He turned around and hesitantly stood, walking over to the exit. “C-come in,” he said, getting close enough for the door to open. When he saw who was standing behind it, he blinked, somewhat surprised. “Olive?”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Olive walked into the room, the door closing behind her. “Why didn’t you come downstairs for lunch? I snuck up some stuff for you.” She held up a bread roll and an apple. “Not a lot, but it was all I could get.”

Peyton delicately took the food from her open palms, only then noticing how empty his stomach felt. “Oh. Th-thanks, I guess.” He rested them on the windowsill, tearing a small piece off the bread as he sat back down. “What are you doing in here, anyway? Can’t you get in trouble if you’re caught?”

“What? Are you planning on tattling?” A smirk crossed over her face, before flickering away. “Really, though, don’t worry. I’m on the fourth floor, too, so I can make a quick escape if I need to. Plus, I don’t think Kendall or Scout would be the ones to get too angry if they found me in here. I came in here to talk to you, actually. Privately.”

Peyton frowned. “About what?” he asked, although he was sure he already knew the answer.

“About this morning.” She stepped back, sitting down on one of the beds— Scout’s bed. The freshly made sheets crumpled under her weight. If she noticed Peyton’s wince, she did nothing to show that acknowledgement. Instead, she sat there for an uncomfortable amount of seconds, searching his face with those deep green eyes of hers. “Are you okay?”

Peyton opened his mouth, then closed it. He didn’t want to talk about this. He didn’t even want to think about this. Why did she have to push this conversation on him now? “Y-yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “Why?”

Olive looked down at her feet. “What happened during class this morning… I feel like it affected you a lot. N-not that you were super clear about it or anything,” she hurried on to say. “But you were acting so jittery and you wanted to hold my hand after and… I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. I don’t want us to drift apart while we’re here. Talk to me, Peyton.”

Peyton stared at her, a visceral discomfort bubbling in his stomach. Olive didn’t usually act like this. She was supposed to be optimistic and happy, not vulnerable and apprehensive. The events of the morning must have affected her, too. The Academy was already starting to change them, wasn’t it?

He shrugged. “I— the girl— it just surprised me, that’s all.” He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to reorganize his thoughts. “I didn’t expect the session to go like that. With the girl being sent out and everything. It was so different from Miss Campbell’s sessions, right?”

“I know.” Olive didn’t look up at him. “It was different.” She didn’t say anything else, the tense silence hanging between the two of them like a soaked cloth.

“W-well…” Peyton trailed off, looking helplessly at her. Every reassurance he could think up died on his lips before he could get it out. She was supposed to be the pillar for him, not the other way around. How was he supposed to go about this? “W-well, Olive, I don’t think you should worry too much about it. I’m fine, really. Plus, I wouldn’t do anything like that girl did to draw attention to myself. You know that already.” A weak smile crawled onto his face.

Olive suddenly stood and walked over to him. She rested her hands on his shoulders, making him look up into her face. “I know you won’t,”’ she said, voice filled with a newfound conviction. “Don’t do anything stupid like that, okay? Don’t be stupid. We’re gonna get through this together.” Her hands left his shoulders only to be wrapped around him in a swift, crushing hug.

Peyton hesitated, bringing his arms up to pat her back. Her hair smelled nice, like strawberries. When she pulled away, he noticed that her entire face was red. He drew away slightly. “Olive, a-are you okay?”

“Y-yeah. I’m fine.” She stepped back, hands behind her back. “I better get going now, Peyton. See you later. Don’t forget to eat that food I got you.” She took another step back, never breaking her gaze from him, before she pivoted around and walked through the door.

Peyton stared at the closed silver door for a moment, straining to hear Olive’s footsteps fading away. Why was she acting so weird all of a sudden? He shook his head. It was probably just Olive being Olive, that was all. Turning to the window, he looked back outside. Some stray clouds had covered the sun, bathing the Academy and Outskirts in a pale gray haze. He looked out, staring at the people below milling around underneath him. They all looked so tiny, like the people from the Unspeakable Times that Mister Beverly had showed on his screen. So tiny and insignificant.

Peyton clenched his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he focused his attentions on the bread and apple Olive had brought him. The piece of the roll he had torn off was still in his palm, he realized. Slowly, he brought the moist, smushed piece up to his mouth. It tasted bitter— or perhaps it was his thoughts jumbling up his senses. Pushing the rest of the roll away, he rested his elbows on the windowsill, bringing a trembling finger to his watering eyes. He wasn’t hungry.

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 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