Chapter Eighty-Four – Interlude

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

 

Seven o’clock in the evening, and her bottom hurt from sitting in this damn chair for so long. Her ears could pick up on her blood pumping through her skull and her stomach working to digest her measly lunch because the silence filled this room so completely. It may have been comforting, if she hadn’t known that the illusion would be immediately shattered the second she opened that door.

But she had to grin and bear it, no matter what. Maybe more grin than bear. Whatever it took to get herself— and everyone else— through these tough times, she would do. She had an obligation to. She’d known this from the start. Ever since she’d planned her take to power, she had known. And she would see that oath to the end, no matter what.

There was a knock on the door. She flustered, pushing her glasses all the way back up her face and smoothing out her hair before she turned around. “Who— who is it?” she said, clearing the stutter out her throat a second too late.

“It’s me. Jaime.”

Her chest fluttered. She took her glasses off again, rubbed her eyes again, put them on again. “Yeah,” she replied, allowing the sudden tension in her shoulders to melt away. “You can come in.”

The door opened, and Jaime stepped inside. He shut the door behind him as soon as he was all the way in, sealing the outside away from them. He stood there for a while, hands pressed against the door’s wooden surface like he could barricade the world away with his flesh, and stared at her. She stared back.

Then he brought a fist to his mouth and coughed, lightly. With their silent staring contest brought to an unceremonious end, he whispered, “What’s the matter? Why are you all holed up in here on your own?”

Callahan rubbed her entire face, hairline to chin, and sighed deeply. “Jaime….”

“Okay. Stupid question. I… should have known better.” He pushed himself from the door and walked toward her. “Do you think that would help you feel better?”

“No. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to solve it, not talk about it.”

“Well— you aren’t wrong. I just thought that maybe you’d feel better.” Jaime paused. Even through her downcast gaze and half-shut eyelids, she could still see him bite the corner of his bottom lip nervously. “I’m sorry, Callahan.”

“Don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Well— I know that. But… still. I still can’t help but feel bad.” Another pause stretched in between them, making the silence even more ponderous than it had been before. “Is there anything that I can do to help? Besides what we’re meant to do already, of course.”

“All I want is for you not to blame yourself. Nothing that’s happened so far has been anywhere near your fault, Jaime, It’s everyones’ fault but yours, really. Kegan, Riley… me. It’s our fault. Not yours.”

“It isn’t your fault, either. You didn’t do… this. You didn’t ask for that to happen.” He paused. “Are you ever going to punish Kegan and Riley?”

Callahan winced. She reached up, and rubbed the ring of still-tender skin wrapped around her throat. It stung. “I will,” she lied. “Eventually. But punishments aren’t supposed to be the top priority right now. Punishments aren’t going to fix the situation that we got ourselves into. They can wait for as long as they need to. Right now, what I want to focus on is how we’re going to help those girls. The City’s in more of a dire state than it’s been in years. I can’t forgive myself for allowing other people to pull even more people into the mess. I won’t forgive myself for it.”

“I know you probably don’t believe me. But you’re doing everything that you can to set things right and more. Sure, people have caused you slip-ups, but… it isn’t anything that you should beat yourself up over. It isn’t anything that you should feel bad over. Don’t feel like you need to forgive yourself for anything.” He shuffled an inch closer. Two inches closer. “You’re doing the best that you can.”

“I appreciate your optimism, Jaime. But this is going to be a part of my personal journey to fixing things. Realizing personally that I’ve done wrong.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him start to open his mouth. She held up a hand, and he slowly slid it shut. She continued. “If I don’t realize what I’ve done— or what I’ve allowed to happen, or however you would like to put it— is, and was, wrong, then I’ll become complacent. I won’t see it as a top priority to set things right again. If my guilt is what drives the need for all of us to improve, then so be it.”

Jaime still had uncertainty written all over his face, but he nodded. Callahan tapped her fingers on the desk. “Is that why you came in here? Just to comfort me?”

“Ah— no. I wanted to tell you that you best come into the lab, soon.”

“Is something happening there?”

“Well— yeah. Kind of.” He nodded, reaching up for another time to rub the nape of his neck. “It’s a… little bit chaotic. I think we could really use a calming voice over there right now. If you know what I mean.”

She knew exactly what he meant. She sighed, pushing up from her desk. “Okay,” she breathed. “Alright.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s alright.” This is what I’m supposed to do, Jaime.”

“Alright. If you say so.”

“I’m serious. Don’t worry so much about me. Then I’ll have to worry about you doing that. It’ll just be a vicious cycle of stress all the way down.”

“But I can’t not worry.” Jaime moved closer to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. Callahan could feel his warmth spreading over her already clammy back. Behind her, he sighed. “But… if you want me to stop talking about it, then I will. For your sake.”

She took in a slow, silent breath. Then she pulled away from him, walking to the door. “Thank you, Jaime.”

Her fingers were slick with sweat, the doorknob smooth. It took a bit of effort to get a proper grip on it and open the door.

For a second she stood in silence, straining her ears for signs of noise. At first, there was nothing— and then, carrying itself through the hallway like a ribbon in the breeze, the murmured suggestions of a din a while away. Voices. Many voices. Some of them loud, others louder. She couldn’t tell who was who, what words were being said and why, even as she walked into the hallway. “Jaime?”

“Hm?”

“What were they arguing about before you came to fetch me?”

Jaime visibly clenched his jaw, even as they began their slow amble through the hallway. “It was mostly just— general chaotic things. Worried things, you know? Stuff about what we’re going to do with those girls, especially. That was definitely the biggest complaint out of all of them.”

“That’s… understandable.”

“What do you plan on doing about it?”

She fumbled for a moment, trying to think of something proper she could say. “I’m… not quite sure about that, yet. What I do know for sure is that I’m going to help. I’m not going to let this ordeal drag on for any longer than it absolutely has to.”

They turned a corner. Now in the wing where the lab’s entrance was located, Callahan felt a twinge of apprehension prick at her chest. She stopped for the briefest of seconds, before she brushed it off as she should have seconds ago, and continued walking. “It’ll be alright,” she said, unsure if she was talking to herself or to Jaime. “Let’s just hear what everyone has to say, and use it as a launching pad from there.”

Though the doors were sealed shut, voices still managed to seep through the cracks. Though it wasn’t quite the cacophony Callahan wasn’t expecting, the majority of what she was hearing didn’t sound pleasant. It was time for that to change.

Callahan shoved the door open. It was like walking straight into the middle of a thunderstorm. Voices were tossed around like ice pellets, stinging the skin and the eye. The tension could be cut through with a blade. And— it didn’t seem like anyone was noticing her arrival. Jaime’s, either. Not that that was uncommon, really; it was quite common in fact.

She stepped further into the room, immersing herself in the din. She couldn’t easily be heard, but when she was seen, the effects were just about instantaneous. The voices ebbed away for a second, a split second, and then they were swelling even more powerfully than they had before.

Kegan was upon Callahan in a second. She instinctively shrank back, her hand flying to her collarbone as a useless shield. But Kegan didn’t go for it. He instead jabbed a finger straight into her face, nearly grazing the tip of her nose with one sharp, overgrown fingernail. “You,” he said, his voice acid in Callahan’s ears, “fix this.”

Callahan took a step back, a bitterness of her own growing in the bottom of her chest. She had to fix this? She hadn’t been the one to take the Seeker birds into the Outskirts. She hadn’t been the one who’d ordered them to pluck a pair women from the forest. She had been forced to comply with all of that, literally choked into submission— and she had to fix it all on her own?

The twist of fury shot up her throat— but Jaime was between her and Kegan before it had the opportunity to go anywhere. He held his hands out placatingly, like it would be able to stop Kegan if bad came to worse. “Let’s… let’s not get too upset with each other, now,” he said, the undertones of a nervous stammer jumping up the his tone. “Let Callahan speak. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what we’re going to do. Alright? Let’s all just stay calm.”

Kegan’s glare would have reduced Jaime to dust had it been any more intense. But to his credit, he nodded— once, curtly— and backed away. “Let her speak, for herself then. Don’t throw yourself between us for her.”

Jaime lowered his arms, backing away so he was just in front of Callahan. “I just want to make sure that nothing bad is going to happen to her. That’s all.”

Callahan rubbed her collarbone with her knuckle, swallowing down the nervousness swelling in her throat. “Thank you, Jaime. But that won’t be necessary. We can all solve this, diplomatically and cooperatively. I do not need you speaking for me, right now.”

Jaime hesitated, and then nodded. Thank goodness, he nodded. Backing away so that Callahan could face Kegan. once again, he gestured to her cordially. “Listen to her,” he said.

Callahan sighed through her nose, struggling to maintain her composure. “Tell me,” she said, “what is it that I have caused? What is it I have to fix, Kegan?”

“What do you mean, what it is you have to help us fix? I’m sure you know. I’m sure you know quite well what it is.”

“I do. But I do not see how it is my fault alone, Kegan. I am not the one who insisted on dragging us all into this situation.”

“You did that when you decided it was a good idea to throw Director Ellis out, you—”

Shelby pushed forward, and raised her hand before Kegan could finish his sentence. “Director Callahan… you see— we tried… we tried to get through to our… our… the people from the Outskirts.” She wrung her braid. “We tried talking to them. But it didn’t work at all. They… they were pretty unresponsive. If you could even call it that, I mean.”

“What do you mean by unresponsive?

She shrugged, starting to play with her hair again. “They— they just refused to talk. That, or they just couldn’t. I don’t know. But I couldn’t even get their names out of them.” She paused. Her voice grew quieter, more hesitant to leave her. “If they even had names. You know?”

Callahan took in a deep breath. “What is it that you told them, Shelby?” she asked, struggling to keep her fading composure completely in her tone. “Did you talk to both of them? Aren’t they located in separate containment rooms? Or— did somebody help you? You have a lot of friends here. Did they talk to one while you talked to the other?”

Shelby continued fiddling with her hair. She nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, kind of.”

“Kind of?”

She nodded another time, her mouth opening and closing the way a fish’s would. “Yeah. Sort of. We… took turns, trying to talk to all of them. We thought it may have been a bit stressful, all three of us ganging up on a single one of them all at once, you know? So we took turns. I tried, then Parker tried, and then Riley. But none of us really had any luck. They weren’t cooperating at all with us.”

Callahan narrowed her eyes— ignoring the way Shelby shrank back at her look. “How exactly did they act? What makes you think they were unwilling to cooperate?”

“They… cowered. You know what I mean? They weren’t violent, or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. Just— scared. They didn’t even want to be around us.”

She brought her hand to her lip, feeling a deep crease carve itself into the space between her eyebrows. “I see,” she said. “That’s…” it wasn’t good. But it was a bit more information. A bit more that they could work with, and figure out what to do. Her lips and eyelids felt a little less heavy. So did her heart. Then she snuck a glance at Kegan’s surly face and it all gradually came rolling back to her. She sighed and rubbed her face. “Perhaps I will go and see for myself what exactly what is going on.”

A ripple shot through the collection of subordinates at that. Kegan’s face screwed up into a patronizing little sneer, but he surprisingly remained silent. It was Dana, one of her trusted subordinates, who normally remained quiet and passive amidst the worst of the disorder, who stepped forward. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? You heard what Shelby and Riley had to say about them. There’s a chance that you may not be any different.”

She set her jaw stiff and made her gaze hard. “Yes, Dana. What you say is true. I may not be able to get through to them any more than Riley, Parker, or Shelby have. But, do tell me— what else do you think we should do, that wouldn’t compromise their safety or integrity? I would genuinely like to know— so your suggestions may be taken into consideration, and acted on appropriately.”

Dana turned his gaze downward. He was thinking, ruminating over his thoughts before he decided to say anything. If only Kegan could do the same thing. “We could always find someone who is… more equipped to handle these things, Callahan,” he said. “Perhaps someone adept in the practice of communicating with children? People who are more able to focus on… emotionally compromised individuals?”

Yes… that was true. “I can see your point, Dana,” she said. “But we do not want to attract any more attention to this than we already have, regardless of whatever consequences there may be.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kegan opening his mouth to speak, and raised her hand to stop him. Surprisingly, it worked. “I would like to see what it is we’re dealing with before I go off making any sort of brash decisions,” she continued. “Assessing the situation in person to take in all the nuances and details would be the best way to go about that. We must show the other committees—and the parties beyond the committees, in fact— that we are at least attempting to resolve this issue on our own.”

Dana still looked concerned, bothered. But he nodded, regardless of his clear indecision. “If that’s what you think we should do, Director,” he said. “And as long as most of the rest of us agree.”

Callahan’s chest fluttered. She turned a bit, examining the faces of those around her. Kegan had clear irritation carved into his features— expected, but still a bit disheartening— and Shelby, Riley and Parker seemed a bit uncomfortable, but no protests or complaints were sounded. “Thank you all for your cooperation and understanding,” she said. “We’re going to try and set things right. Everything.”

She didn’t get much of a response. Not the most heartening of signs, but… what else could she do? It was best to be grateful that they weren’t casting her out, like they had done of Ellis. All she did was nod and smile, and hope that that would be enough to placate them. It must have, because no words were spoken between any of them.

Callahan turned away. “You all are dismissed,” she said, disregarding the surprise that went through them all. “Yes. You are free to leave. Clean yourselves and this place up, and try to get some rest.”

Behind her, the committee— her subordinates— whispered and shuffled. Then there was the clack of shoes on tile, moving away from her. One pair, then two, then too many to count.

Callahan smoothed out her coat and brushed a few strands of hair out of her face. Then she started for the doors. The hinges glided effortlessly as she swung the doors open, but she still found herself going tense, as if someone would be alerted and pursue after her. Nobody did. She stepped out into the hallway, and her footsteps echoed.

She wasn’t more than ten paces away before the click of the door opening again lifted her— ungratefully— out of her thoughts. She stopped in her tracks and turned around, just in time to see a figure slipping through the open crack between the doors. She felt herself frown. “Jaime?”

He jogged up to her, almost sounding out of breath. “S-sorry,” he mumbled. “Are you alright?”

She turned back around. “I’m fine,” she replied. “Just tired.”

“Oh.” Jaime didn’t say anything more— but when Callahan began walking away again, he flustered and followed after her, his heels clicking fast on the floor. “Do you want to— talk about it, or anything?”

“Talk about what, Jaime?”

Another falter. “You… you just seemed to be a little upset. That’s all.”

“Oh. Well. I assure you that I’m fine. I just need to get some rest. You understand that, don’t you?”

“I… I do.” He searched her face out of the corner of her eye, his lips twitching like he had more to say. But he only said two more words, quiet and low: “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. Like I said, I’m just tired. I need rest.” She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand. “And you do, too. Don’t stay awake worrying about me. Okay? I dismissed you all for a reason.”

“I know. I know I shouldn’t worry about you so much.” He shuffled himself closer to her, the back of his hand grazing over hers, lightly, hesitantly. “I just can’t help it.”

Callahan swallowed the thickness in the back of her mouth, pulled away from Jaime, and began walking at full gait again. “Work on it,” she said.

She could basically feel the hurt jaunt off him, like a sharpened blade. Pins and needles ran down her arms, coalescing into ice at her fingertips, but she ignored it. Keeping her chin raised, her gaze forward, she began to walk away, leaving Jaime behind.

She felt bad about it. Of course she felt bad about it. But for all of Jaime’s intelligence, charm, and spirit, the one thing that remained for him to learn was the importance of boundaries. It wasn’t her place to teach him that. At least not now.

She continued walking. The farther she got away from the laboratory, the more the pressure in the sides and back of her head grew, threatening a terrible headache. She had been doing a decent job at hiding her stress, but how much longer would she be capable of keeping the act up? How much longer would it take before she cracked under the weight of those two girls, the committee, the entire City resting on her shoulders? It could be hours from now. It could be years. There would be no way of knowing when it would happen until it actually did.

She dreaded the time that that day would arrive. Her hands shook as she entered the elevator, fingers sweaty as she pressed the button to the upper floor. She almost couldn’t believe that she was thinking it, but… she almost wished that Ellis was still here, so he could help her fix this mess.

No. No. She didn’t need Ellis. They had never needed him. And even if they had— even if they did need him, right at this very moment, it was clear that he was gone. Kegan had sent out those Seeker birds specifically to find Ellis. All they had come back with were a frightened pair of young women who had no idea what this place was or what was happening to them. Why would they have come back only with them, if not for the fact that they were the only people in the Outskirts to be found?

She rushed out the door as soon as they were open enough for her. She couldn’t worry about Ellis, right now. What had to be worried about was sleep. Sleep would do a lot of help for her. Her feet working on autopilot, she drifted over to her room and opened the door.

She slipped off her coat and let it drop to the carpet— thought better of it, and hung it up on the hook. Then she took off her shoes, ambled to her bed, and threw herself upon it. She would deal with clothing, teeth brushing, and everything else in the morning. Right now, sleep was the most important thing. She shut her eyes again., forcing her entire body to relax, for her mind to slow— and just like that, she was gone.

~ * ~

“And you really think this is the best thing to do?”

“Of course it is.”

Jaime only pursed his lips. Callahan took a deep breath, let it out, wiping her palms off on the knees of her pants. Here they were staring at the sealed doors like they were lined with poison. Callahan adjusted her glasses, forcing a smile upon her face. “Everything will be alright. Even if things don’t end up working out in our favor, progress is still progress and should be treated as such. There are always other plans and ways to approach this— other things that can be done in order to set things right. This is just step one of the processes. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” He nodded. But he still looked nervous, sweat beading on his temples. Callahan couldn’t blame him. She observed the heavy metal doors before them. Two were occupied, she had been told; naturally, that meant that they held the two people she was looking to speak to. Had separating them played a part in their uncooperative behavior with Shelby, Riley, and Parker? So many questions, and there was no way of knowing if she would get any answers at all. Callahan fumbled with the key held in her hand, running her thumb along the metal teeth. Well. There was really only one way to find out, then.

She looked back to Jaime. Then she glanced behind her, as if somebody would be waiting for them at the end of the narrow hallway. Nobody was there, of course. The sooner she could get these thoughts off her nerves, the better it would be for her and for everyone. “Are you ready?” she asked.

Jaime nodded, pursing his lips for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”

“You don’t seem too ready.”

He ran his finger over the hem of his shirt. “I’m nervous,” he replied. “Aren’t you?”

“Of course I’m nervous. But I don’t think we have anything to worry about. As long as we keep our distance and pay attention to what’s going on.”

Jaime shook himself out, looking to his designated door. “Yeah. You’re right.”

“That makes me quite happy to hear.” Callahan fiddled with the key ring clutched between her fingers, until she was about to get the second key off. She handed it to Jaime without looking him in the eye. She didn’t wait to see what he was going to do. She walked up to her own door, stood in front of it for a moment, and felt a pensive frown twitch its way onto her face.

Her heart was a miniature drum in the side of her neck as she took the key, wielded it like a blade, and put it against its lock. It fit like a hand in a glove. Callahan swallowed. She turned the key, and the door opened.

The room looked… untouched. The bed’s sheets were still laid out perfectly, immaculately, as if a person had never once even looked at it before. All the books were still neatly stacked on the bed stand, their corners aligned with each other. Even the carpet seemed untouched. Was anybody even in here? Had they made a mistake, sending her to this room?

Callahan frowned. She opened the door completely, stepped inside— flinched as the door shut behind her with a final, resounding click. It was supposed to do that, she reminded herself. She could leave as long as she had the key on her. Considering how desperate this person was to hide, though… would she have to worry about an ambush?

She walked further into the room. Her chest jumped and fluttered; she was holding her breath in anticipation, she realized. Letting out a breath, she allowed more air to rush into her lungs— and nearly gagged. The sour, fetid stench of spoiled food was so intense, it had to be a miracle that her eyes hadn’t started to sting the second the door had opened. Someone had to be in here.

Callahan cupped her free hand to her mouth, taking short, jumping breaths in a futile attempt to mask the offensive scent wrapped around her. She walked further into the room. “Hello?”

No response. She should have figured. She shook her head, dropping her arm back to her side. Her disgust and curiosity was quickly yielding to irritation, now. She would check the room, see if anyone was in here— and if she didn’t find anybody after a quick look through, she would leave. Hopefully Jaime was having more luck than she was.

She approached the bathroom first. Twisted the doorknob with confidence; there were no locks anywhere in this vicinity other than the locks on the door and the window. True to her expectations, the flimsy bathroom door opened easily. And she was met with nothing. No water dripping from the faucet or dribbled in the basin of the sink, no lingering humidity to suggest that a shower had been taken recently. It smelled relatively normal, too; the rancidity was most certainly concentrated to the main bedroom.

Slowly, she backed out of the room, shutting the door once again. Then she turned around so her back was pressed to it, searching the room from a wide vantage point. Nothing, nothing at all… wait. What was that, squeezed underneath the bed?

She pushed herself off the door, taking a few steps away from it. Heart racing, she knelt down, peering into the narrow gap between the bed and the floor. There was definitely a dark lump underneath there, almost as big as Callahan was— but it wasn’t moving. Could this be what she was looking for?

She suffused as much gentleness into her tone as she possibly could. “Hey. Is anybody under there? Do you need help?”

No response was given, predictably. Callahan huffed the sour air out her nose, suddenly feeling quite silly. Maybe she was wrong, after all. That could easily have been a tangle of old clothes, or a spare set of bedding, stuffed and forgotten under the bed, or something. It didn’t have to be a person. Maybe there truly wasn’t anybody to encounter in here, after all. Callahan could leave, tell the secretary in front of the disgusting smell in one of their containment rooms, and be done with this for—

The mass shifted and Callahan jumped, almost falling back. It moved a little more, spread out like ink in a water glass— and then a pair of eyes stared out at her, white circles the size of saucers set into a dark stain.

It was only when darkness began to line the edge of her vision that Callahan realized she had forgotten to breathe. She pulled back even more, taking a deep breath. “Hey,” she whispered. “It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help.”

It— she— only continued staring. Callahan bit the corner of her lip. “What’s your name?” she tried, knowing full well that her chances of getting an answer were slim to none.

Those saucer eyes blinked once at her, then twice, never once moving away or relaxing. Then— to her surprise— a voice drifted from underneath the bed. “I don’t really have… a name.”

She could speak. And yet, she didn’t have a name? Callahan struggled to keep her expression mild. “You don’t? You don’t have anything that you’re called? Anything that you’d like to be called?”

Another bout of silence, made even more uncomfortable by the fact that she could speak. “Well… I… I’m called Sixteen.”

Sixteen? Sixteen was her name? No, that wasn’t a name at all: it was a number. If the pit of discomfort in Callahan’s stomach had been shifting before, it was at a boil now. “That’s an… interesting name,” she said.

The girl— would it really be right to call her by a number?— didn’t say anything in response to that. All she did was hunch up her shoulders, and what little Callahan could see of her face screwed up into a sorry little cross between a frown and a wince. Pity churned in Callahan’s chest. “I’m not going to hurt you. If that’s what you’re worried about— don’t be.”

She just looked up, then down again. Her eyes squinted, blinked, opened up to their full saucer-sized glory again. She didn’t say anything. Callahan bit her lower lip. “My name is Callahan,” she said. “Why don’t you come out of there so we can speak to each other more easily? Like I said— I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to help.”

Sixteen’s throat clicked with a loud, painful-sounding swallow. “I think… I think I want to stay in here.”

Callahan would have been lying if she tried to say she wasn’t disappointed with that answer. But from what she had been told before, all the tales of uncooperation and reticence— she was already doing much more than the others had. Progress, actual progress, was being made. She forced a smile over her face. “That’s alright,” she replied. “Hey— have you eaten or drunk anything since you’ve gotten here? Your voice… sounds dry.”

Sixteen wavered at that, her eyes darting back and forth. Slowly, she shook her head.

Had she eaten since being taken out of the Outskirts at all? Had the officials given her anything? She could have been on the brink of collapse, right now. What help would any of Callahan’s actions be, then? “Well. Do you want something to drink, then? Some water? Or maybe something to eat?”

“W-well… I got… something.”

“Something? Something stopping you from eating or drinking?”

“No. Something… something under here.”

Callahan blinked. Ah. She had dragged the food under the bed, then. No wonder that rancid stench had permeated everything so thoroughly. No wonder Callahan couldn’t find the source of it easily. Unless that was the scent of the girl, after she hadn’t bathed for so long? Nausea churned in her. “I see. And you didn’t eat it? Is that what that smell is coming from?”

Sixteen averted her gaze yet another time. That was more than enough of an answer. “Why didn’t you eat it?” Callahan asked. “Is it not up to your tastes, Sixteen? Or were you just not hungry?”

Her eyes stayed low as she shrugged, a low, crackly moan rumbling in the base of her chest. Callahan sighed. She looked over Sixteen’s sorry, dark figure, the gears in her mind churning. “Would you just like some water, then?” she finally decided to ask. “Just a glass of cold water, straight from the faucet. Nothing else added to it— it’ll be completely safe for you to drink.”

She didn’t look up at Callahan, but her tongue did dart out to swipe at her lip. That low, rumbly note in her throat again. Eventually, she nodded— slowly, as if it pained her to do so. And maybe it did.

Callahan didn’t want to think about it. She pushed herself away from that putrid underbelly of the bed, standing up straight. “I’ll be right back.”

Sixteen didn’t give her a response. Well, she gained some, she lost some. She was already making much better progress than the others. How was Jaime doing, in the room with the other captive? She could only assume that he was having this same streak of luck that she was. Maybe they had decided to have a change of heart, and that was why they were cooperating so nicely. Well, cooperating so nicely compared to the debacle that the others had experienced, at least.

Callahan shook her head, making her way toward the bathroom. She opened the door, welcomed the draft of mostly fresh air that greeted her with open arms and a slow, deep inhale. Then she walked inside, closing the door behind her. Placed neatly upon the sink was a plastic cup, probably for someone to use to rinse after brushing their teeth. Callahan plucked it up and ran it under the faucet, filling it with as cold water as the sink could manage. Then she thought better of it, turning the temperature to warm partway through. Anything too cold or too hot would cause a shock to the system. Lukewarm would be fine— then they could see about more solid, hotter things later on.

With just a bit of reluctance niggling at her, Callahan left the bathroom. That dark mass was still under the bed, much to her relief. She walked over and crouched back down, holding the cup out to her. “There you go. I don’t know how well you’ll be able to drink it, squished up under there, but…”

Stillness for a moment— and then a pale hand came crawling out of the darkness. It regarded the cup with an almost endearing sort of hesitation. Then it reached out and took it, pulled it back into the abyss it had come from. Callahan could hear gulping. Very loud gulping. Of course she had been thirsty. She’d been dragged through the forest for what could have been days, against her will— her body had to be devastated. And her mind, too.

Callahan watched with a grim fascination as she finished the entire glass in all but five seconds. Feebly, she took it away from her lips. “Thank you,” she said, reedily. “Thank you. I feel better now.”

“You’re quite welcome.” She paused, watching the way Sixteen closed her eyes and sighed. “If it’s alright with you, Sixteen… can I ask you a few questions?”

Sixteen immediately went stiff. Callahan was already prepared for the worst, already rushing words out. “If you don’t want me to, then I won’t. But I think it could be beneficial to—”

“W-what would you like to know?”

She was caught mouth open. She hadn’t expected it to be that easy. “Well,” she started, then paused. “You see— I wanted to know… why are you called Sixteen? You must have a real name as well, yes?”

“I… I used to. But I don’t anymore.”

Everything she said only added another layer of intrigue onto everything. Callahan pushed down her eagerness and her desire to just ask everything that came to mind. Restraint was what was needed. Restraint, and respect. “That’s quite interesting to hear, Sixteen.” She paused. “Say— would you like to have an actual name again?”

At that, she looked up. “A… an actual name again?”

“Only if you would like to. I would never force you to do something that you wouldn’t want to do.” She could taste the irony on the words leaving her lips. “But, if you would like one… I’m sure that something could be arranged. It would be nice, I think, now that you’re in the City and everything.”

Sixteen parted her lips. Callahan could smell the sour rot along her breath, and it took everything she had not to gag. Thankfully, Sixteen shut her mouth soon after. Then she nodded. “I… I think I would like that,” she whispered. “Thank… thank you.”

A genuine smile spread over Callahan’s face. “You’re quite welcome.”

“I… I don’t know what kind of name I should have, though. Do you?”

“It will be quite easy,” Callahan hurried to say. “There’s an automated list every year, for the new children— but we can just pull one off the list for you. I’m sure you could even choose for yourself, if you’d like.”

A pause. Her voice became quieter. “Oh.”

Callahan frowned. “Is there something the matter? You seem downcast, all of a sudden.”

“N-no. Nothing is wrong.” She trailed off. “It is only that— well, it’s that…”

“It’s what, Sixteen?” Callahan leant forward. “I won’t judge.”

“Well. Um.” She shifted, her tattered clothes rustling loudly against each other— she hadn’t changed into the new pair of pyjamas offered to her, either; maybe that was also contributing to the smell. “My… friend. M-my— my friend. One of them. I think she… she’s here. She’s here with me. With us. And… she— she had a name chosen for her.”

Every time Callahan figured her curiosity couldn’t grow any sharper. “Your friend?” she asked, slowly. “Is that the one who came to the City with you?”

“Yes. One of them.” Another nod. “She had… she had a… name like mine. But she got it changed. By our other— friend.” She paused. Her eyes squeezed shut. “I… I think I would like that for me.”

Callahan couldn’t do much more than stare. Something… big was churning in her stomach. Something heavy. It felt like dread— that blunted, unrelenting feeling that something was very wrong. “I see.”.

“Yes… yes.” Sixteen peered up at her through her hair. “Do you think that could be done for me?”

“I’m… I’m sure something could be arranged for you, Sixteen.” Callahan placed her hands on the carpet, the texture absorbing the beading sweat on her palms. “Do you… do you mind if I ask you some more questions?”

“Well— I guess if you want to, then you can.”

“Yes. Thank you.” Her fingers were shaking, she vaguely realized. “We’ll speak more about that later. Why don’t you tell me more about your friend? Your friends, I mean.”

Skepticism wrote itself over what was visible of Sixteen’s face. “Where… where are they? They’re here with me, right? They were taken to the City with me?”

“Yes, they were. You don’t need to worry about them. But… can you explain them to me? In more detail? What were they like, Sixteen?”

“Please. Please just answer me.” Sixteen’s voice grew louder, shriller. “Where are they?”

“Sixteen, we—”

Tell me! Please— just tell me if they’re here. Tell me if they’re alright. Where are they?”

“What are their names, Sixteen?”

Sixteen just curled herself up even tighter under the bed, sliding into the shadows. For the first time, a real jab of annoyance pierced at Callahan’s composure. “I need to know, Sixteen. What are their names?

“Jaden, and… and Ellis.”

Callahan’s vision went dark. “Oh,” she said, in a breath because she had no strength to say it louder. “Oh.”

“Are they alright? Are they okay?”

Callahan felt dizzy. She squirmed away, putting a hand on her forehead. Her tongue moved slowly, reluctantly. “I… Jaden is alright. Jaden is here with us. Don’t worry about her.”

“And Ellis? What about Ellis?”

“You… you know about Ellis?”

“He’s here with you all, right?”

“No. No, we don’t. He isn’t… he’s not here. We don’t know where he is.”

It was silent for a long, long minute. The wail that came from under the bed afterward should have sent chills down Callahan’s spine, but she was already covered with ice. Sixteen blubbered violently, ripping Callahan from her thoughts. She cried something unintelligible. Callahan clambered away, knees shaking as she pushed herself to her feet. Sixteen’s shattered weeping cut through her skin no matter how many shields she put up. She felt guilty for leaving her behind— or course she did, but… she couldn’t think. She wouldn’t be able to get a single word in with that uncontrollable sobbing. She had to leave. For both their sakes.

The cries continued raking against her skin even as she walked to the exit. Her fingers were slick with sweat. Shaking, too. It took a while to get a proper grip on the key, and wield it properly enough to push it through the lock. Callahan slipped through the opening the second it was big enough for her, immediately gasping in a lungful of fresh, unpoisoned air. The door closed behind her with a subtle click— and just like that, the screaming and crying stopped. It was like it had never even been there.

~ * ~

Callahan tapped her fingers on the table, barely able to sit still. There was so much that had to be done. So many things that had to be looked over and supervised, and so little time. Not to mention all the things that had to be thought about. But here she was, sitting in the breakroom, unable to go out and face the others because she was so afraid of breaking underneath the things she now knew.

Ellis was alive. Of course, many things may have happened between the time his friends were taken from the Outskirts and now, but even so, even if he wasn’t now— he had very recently been alive. After everything that had happened, somehow he was still holding on. Callahan wanted to know so many things, the biggest one being how. She could only assume that Sixteen and the other of their captives— Jaden— had decided to take him in, seeing him all sorry and suffering in the middle of the forest. Why? Now, that— that was a total mystery.

There really wasn’t any way to find out. Callahan had blown all of her luck away, telling Sixteen that Ellis was not here in the City with them. Jaime hadn’t fared much better. He’d done just about as well as Shelby and the others had, actually, if what he had had to recall held any merit. Truly, the only information they had gathered from their attempts to reach these two people was that Ellis was alive, still kicking, and had known them well enough for them to call him their friend.

She hadn’t told anybody about Ellis yet, not even Jaime. Maybe she never would. There was no need to give anyone false hope— or any further incentive to turn against her. If the Seeker birds hadn’t found him, then he likely would never end up being found. Why did anyone have to know?

She shut her eyes, allowing the darkness and silence to envelop her. Then she opened her eyes, took her chin off her hand, and began examining her fingernails. When she was younger, she’d had a poor habit of chewing them down to the nub, especially when she was nervous. Perhaps it should have been considered a testament to her willpower that she hadn’t picked up the habit again.

What were they going to do after all of this was over? After who they had requested for help would do what they could, and Jaden and Sixteen were… given whatever treatment they ended up needing? They still hadn’t perfected the serum, even after it’d been so long since Shelby had discovered it deteriorative properties. It seemed like they never would. Plans had already been lightly drafted out for an entirely different, brand new serum. It was only a matter of time before they completely switched to that. Maybe that was for the best— it wasted less of their valuable time.

The door swung open. Callahan jerked to watch it, heart thrumming violently. Seeing who it was, she let out a slow, shuddery breath. “Shelby. You… you startled me.”

Shelby stepped into the room, folding her hands at her hips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She paused, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She reached up and started toying with her hair. “Reese is here.”

“Already?”

“Yes. We just got the message. You… maybe you should come out so you’re ready for your arrival.”

“Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.” Callahan stood from her chair, its legs scraping against the floor. Any wisps of fatigue quickly whisked themselves away. “Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re welcome—”

But Callahan was rushing past her already, hurriedly smoothing her hair down. She should have braided it up, like Shelby had. She tied it into a clumsy ponytail instead, praying that it looked at least somewhat presentable as she entered the main lab. Turning to face Shelby again, she asked, “I presume she’ll be downstairs?”

“Um— yes. I think so. I wasn’t the one who took the call. You’d be better off asking Kegan— because he did.”

Callahan was already turning away. “Thank you, Shelby. I’ll go and check right away.”

Shelby may have said something else— or maybe it had been one of the others— but she was out of the room before the words could register in her mind. She hurried to the elevator, fixed her hair up into something more presentable as she began to descend. She exited as soon as the doors opened, making a beeline for the exit.

Yes— a lone bus sat outside, its sleek black silhouette stark against the grays and silvers of everything else. Callahan approached it, her shoes grating against the asphalt. A gust of wind blew some strands of hair into her face. She brushed them away. “Here we go,” she mumbled to herself, and stopped near the bus’s closed door.

It didn’t stay closed for very long. With a hiss, the door opened. A lone set of footsteps sounded from within— and then a lone person emerged from the darkened interior. Donned in a twee sweater with her hair piled atop her head, she offered Callahan a tepid smile as she stepped onto the pavement. “Good morning! Miss Callahan, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Callahan took Reese’s outstretched hand, giving it a firm shake. “And you’re Reese Campbell, yes? Thank you so much for coming all the way out here from Silverhill. It’s really appreciated.”

“There isn’t any need to thank me.” Reese let go, that soft smile still on her face. “It is nice to have a bit of a change of scenery. I haven’t seen this place in years.”

“Oh— yes, I guess that all is true.” Callahan stepped back, looking over her shoulder. “Let’s get straight into this, then? I really don’t want to waste much time.”

“Of course.”

Callahan hurried to keep pace with Reese as they approached the building, struggling for words. “We tried dealing with it all on our own, but each attempt failed spectacularly. I hope that you’ll be able to figure it out because if things continue on like this, then…”

“Then what?”

She shook her head. “Nevermind. Just come with me. I’ll show you where they are.”

“That would be much appreciated. I’ll bring them up to you all.”

They entered the building, and Callahan could almost feel the tension bubbling from the hallway. Guilt stabbed at her chest; she’d gone and left Sixteen behind despite her obvious distress. Even now she stood back, watching silently as Reese spoke to the secretary, was given something small and shiny, and was directed to the hallway. Reese gave Callahan a short smile, and then she was gone.

Callahan stood there for a while, uncertain of what to do as the secretary gave her an odd look. Well, Reese hadn’t asked for help. There wasn’t a need to stay down here— she would be much more equipped to handle things in the lab, anyway. Callahan gave the secretary a nod, turned on her heel, and walked back out. She couldn’t worry. Reese was the best of the best. Everything would be fine.

The trip back up to the research center was largely uneventful. Callahan took her time going back to the lab; she debated simply staying in her office but decided against it. The reception she received entering was a lot… warmer, this time around. Riley and Shelby gravitated toward her immediately, almost nervously. “She did come, right?” asked Shelby.

“She did. And she’s doing her work. She’ll come and talk to us when everything is stable and ready.” Relatively stable and ready, at least. A pulsing thrummed in her temple as she made to walk around them. “For now, continue working. Alright?”

“O-oh. Alright.”

Callahan nodded even as she walked away. She didn’t break pace, didn’t crumple under the eyes digging into her, until she had reached Jaime, who was in the corner of the room. “She’s here,” she murmured. “She said she’ll be up in a… while.”

“How soon is a while?

“I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Well— I guess.”

Callahan tilted her head bsck and shut her eyes. She stayed like that for a moment, debating returning to her office or the breakroom.

There was a knock on the door before she could decide. Her breath caught in her throat and she turned around. That had been fast, quite fast. Kegan and Riley were already on it, approaching the still-sealed entrance. Kegan reached it first. He pushed the door open. His muscles froze for a split second, and then he relaxed. He said something too quietly for Callahan to hear, stepped aside— and then Reese walked in. Alone.

Callahan felt the forced smile on her face drop away. “Did it not work out the way we hoped?”

“Oh, no. It worked out just fine. I only talked to one of them so far, but with a little bit of help, it looks like she’ll be just fine. With your research or otherwise.”

Help? What sort of help? Callahan frowned. “You brought her up with you?”

“I did. Would you like to see her?”

That stony pit returned to Callahan’s stomach again. Somehow, she nodded. “Of… of course,” she said, with some effort. “Everyone, give her— them— some space.”

“I don’t believe that will be necessary.”

The others were already backing away, though, having listened to Callahan. She moved with them, watching Reese slowly open the door. “Jaden?” she crooned. “Jaden. It’s alright. You can come out now, sweetheart.”

Jaden. Callahan hadn’t spoken to her yet. Instinctively, she moved back a bit more, Jaime’s heat pressing against her back. Jaime didn’t seem to notice. Nor did the rest of the committee. Nor did Reese. “It’s alright,” she continued. “You can come inside. Everything’s perfectly safe.”

Silence— and then, slow as death, a pallid-white hand fumbled against the doorframe. Callahan swallowed, the stone in her stomach growing larger by the second. The hand crawled the rest of its way inside, and then the arm, and then—

She wasn’t fast enough to look away. She wasn’t supposed to look away. She was supposed to be indifferent to less pleasant-looking visuals, but that didn’t change the fact that her insides writhed at the already burnt-in memory of brown-stained bandages and tally marks of burgundy wrapped around ashen skin. The slow, shuffling movements made it clear that the girl was either exhausted deeply sedated. Probably both. The worst thing of all: she was so tiny. Probably not even Academy-age yet. She could have been in the middle of being taught by Reese herself, in a different, fairer life. No wonder Sixteen had hidden herself. What had they gone through because of them? What had they forced upon these people? What had they done?

There you go. Good job.” Reese’s voice grew even softer. Callahan risked a glance over— the sight of rust-covered, matted hair was enough to make her look away again. Low, pitiful gagging sounded behind her. Riley? Or Shelby?

“You did such a good job. Poor thing. You’re still so dirty.”

Reese was met with silence, but she didn’t seem to mind. She fiddled with the filthy nest atop her head, still smiling pleasantly. “Do you know where you are, Jaden? Remember what I told you?”

A harsh silence stretched onward. Callahan realized she was holding her breath— because of the smell, or the tension? She slowly exhaled, and the blur at the edges of her vision dissipated.

Reese didn’t get a response. The girl stayed slumped on her chest, face hidden. Reese frowned. “Jaden. Remember what I told you? I’m your friend. I’m here to help you out. We’re all here to help you out.”

She shifted. Her voice came out like a used-up scream. “Y-you… are?”

“Mm-hmm.”

Bumps curdled over Callahan’s arms, but she didn’t dare wipe them away. She watched as the girl lifted her head and looked up at Reese. She had strikingly green eyes, even puffy, part-delirious, and shot through with crimson. Her split, bloody lips parted.

“Jaden? Sweetie? We’re here to help you.”

Reese took Jaden’s bandaged wrist into her hand, squeezing it gently. Jaden pulled herself away, and—

The room tremored. Callahan stepped back, her breath hitching. It wasn’t the room that was shaking but Reese— she fell to her knees, hand clutched at her nose. Jaden staggered back and collapsed against the wall. Her mouth dragged open in a silent scream— was it silent? Somebody was screaming, their voice ringing in Callahan’s ears— she just couldn’t tell who. Her face felt heavy, heavy, her mind swelled and burst—

—and then everything went still. Callahan jerked as her breath returned to her in one painful gust. Her vision refocused, and her head stopped spinning.

Two— no, three people were sprawled on the ground before her— Kegan on top of Jaden, crushing her, his fist pressed deeply into her elbow. He pulled away and Callahan realized a needle shook in his fingers, slickened with blood. Reese wasn’t moving. Neither was the girl— but then she was, her hands clawing at her hair like she was trying to get something out of it.

Callahan seized Kegan’s arm before she knew what she was doing. “What is that? What did you give her?!”

Hands shoved against her chest and she fell back. Pain lanced up her spine. Kegan stood. The girl writhed on the ground, thick, pulpy liquid dripping from her left nostril. Then her right. The needle Kegan had— had it been filled with that botched medication? The one that caused cells to degenerate?

Somehow, she fought against her dizziness and pushed herself to her feet. Kegan’s voice rang in her skull. She ignored it— ignored the indignant cries as she shoved past the people behind her— ignored her sweaty palms and swimming vision as she plundered a countertop, and then the drawers beneath it. Her fingers closed around something cylindrical, icy in her hand. A syringe.

Nobody moved to intercept her as she rushed back, cold fury screaming in her ears. The girl was face-down, her hand curled into a painful fist at her nose. Callahan grabbed her by her matted hair and jerked it so that her claw-stung neck peered up like a white. She plunged the needle in and wrested it back out in the span of a second, and the girl shuddered and went limp.

“What did you do?

The needle still felt cold in Callahan’s hand. She dropped it, shoving herself away before Kegan could grab her. “I— I saved her.”

She didn’t know if she was lying or not. She didn’t know what the botched medication would do— this was the first time the effects of the botched one had even been seen on a live subject. It’d worked so quickly. So cruelly. Callahan tasted acidic spit on the back of her tongue. “What did you do, Kegan? Why did you think that was a good idea, hurting an innocent girl?”

Innocent? Look at what she did!”

Kegan swept out a hand and Callahan looked. Reese still languished over the tile, staining the white stark red. The others— the others who hadn’t taken the chance to run out the room while they’d had the chance— had crushed themselves against the far side of the room. Some of the others were slumped over, even completely prone. And the red was everywhere. Everywhere. It was— it—

“She did this! She did this!

Kegan pointed viciously at the crumpled shell of a girl whose chest barely moved. Callahan’s mouth was stuffed with cotton, sharp cotton; it cut at her lips and tongue as she started to speak. “That doesn’t give you an excuse to do something as dangerous as that, Kegan. We had no idea what that serum did. What were you thinking?

“I was thinking of the fastest way to neutralize somebody who hurt our committee!”

“You shouldn’t have! You could have caused more damage than what’s already been done!”

“But I didn’t. She was dying. She wasn’t going to hurt people anymore. You had to go and ruin that.” Kegan loomed over her— over all of them?. “What are you going to do now, Director? Terminate her? Do what would have been done already, if you hadn’t intervened?”

The obstruction had spread to Callahan’s throat. She swallowed, staring at the girl’s sorry form. She looked almost pathetic. And yet, somehow, he had caused them all so much grief in such a little time.

Callahan breathed through the lump in her chest, digging her nails into the floor. “No.”

No?

Callahan looked up at Kegan. “No,” she repeated. “Do you have any idea what this could do for us? What sort of advancements this could bring around? Do you know how many secrets about human development these people can be hiding? She… they can help us, Kegan. They can help us work on the City. They can help us save it.”

“And who’s to say that she won’t end up hurting others again?”

Callahan forced herself to stand. “Whatever you gave her will. I don’t know how long it will last— or how long the counterbalance of the medication will. But there’s nothing stopping us from reapplying either. And we still have more than enough time to explain to her these new conditions she finds herself in.”

Deep grooves carved themselves into Kegan’s face, but he didn’t say anything. Callahan stepped over Reese, pushed past Kegan, and stopped at the girl. She was on the edge of consciousness now, her breathing short and shallow. She rolled over and stared up at Callahan. Past her delirium, past the pain and exhaustion, something new flickered in her dull green eyes: fear.

Callahan crouched, took her wrist, and pulled her dead weight up. “Come, now. Let’s take you back.”

The girl didn’t respond. She didn’t move to help her out, either. Well, she was light enough and weak enough for one person to handle. Callahan turned to look at Kegan, who was still standing there, slack-jawed. “Deal with the others for me, please,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”

Callahan ignored the silence she got in response. She opened the door, pulling the girl out with her. It slammed shut behind her, the harsh note punctuating the sun breaking through its thick, clouded prison. Everything would be alright. She’d make sure of it. She’d show the others that the City would be just fine— and, most importantly, that there was no need for Ellis to come back. This girl and her friend were going to help.

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

Chapter Six – Interlude

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

 

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

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

She sighed. “Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what if he—!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Presley,

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

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

Wishing you well during this busy time,

Reese J. Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s gonna be okay, Peyton.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? Want to talk about it?”

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

“Sure.”

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

“Don’t mention it.”

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

~ * ~

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

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

“Cool, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just waiting for the aisle to clear up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good afternoon. Full name?”

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

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

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

“Hold out your left wrist, please.”

So he did.

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

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

“Peyton?”

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

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

“Y-yeah.”

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S-Scout?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 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