What had I done to end up here?
I held myself erect in the stiff seating. Must show a strong front. Hide the terror vibrating inside me.
But the weird thing? Everything I’d seen since waking up in the desert hit me as both strange and familiar. I knew what materials like glass, metal and wood were, but I couldn’t recall any memory of being inside a building like this one with glass windows, some sort of metallic vents and wooden doors.
Artificially cooled air washed across my skin, a welcome break from the heat outside. But the air in this room smelled stale and claustrophobic.
Why did those people in blue uniforms, officers, bring me here when they’d left the other kids at that first place they took us? A jail. For delinquents. I understood the language and terms, but couldn’t grasp the clear meaning. The words sounded strange, as if filtered through multiple layers. Just like what they called this place. School.
Sure, I knew the definition of a school, or to be schooled on a topic. But the mental path I ran along chasing down those thoughts disappeared before I could find the end.
I rubbed my wrists, glad to be uncuffed.
One of the two doors to the room opened and three people entered. Elders. Two men and a woman. The woman and one of the men appeared to be around thirty years old. The other man had aged maybe twenty more years based on the gray in his hair and deep grooves on his face.
Correction. They weren't elders.
I’d heard them called adults. Sounded so out of place.
“I’m Dr. Maxwell,” the oldest man said as he folded his flabby body into a seat behind a large table.
I sat opposite him in a rigid chair, perfectly still and silent.
His age made him look the least threatening, but not his eyes. Stone-cold eyes that assessed and weighed everything. Dr. Maxwell pointed at the other two. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Brown, the benefactors of The Byzantine Institute of Excellence.”
Institute, another word for school, but just as odd sounding as the term adults. I kept tucking away every little piece of new information, sick of feeling so out of place.
I looked from one face to the next. The two men had much lighter skin color, especially the doctor, with thinning hair and skin so pale and dotted with age spots. But the woman’s skin looked familiar...like my own.
I considered not speaking until I had to, but I was tired of being pushed here and there. Tired of being confused. “Why am I here?”
Dr. Maxwell sat back, eyeing me with a flat gaze. “The Albuquerque PD said your fingerprints didn’t match those found at the Piedra Lisa Park breakin, but neither did your prints pop up right away in their initial run through the database. Since you were captured with the gang suspected of these crimes, you’d normally be held in detention while they decide what to do with you.”
I’d heard the other kids whispering about detention and something called juvie. Scared them. I held my silence and let this Dr. Maxwell finish explaining.
“The police deal with a number of Native American kids every year, most are no older than you, some are criminals and some have been turned out of their homes to survive on their own. The Browns–” He nodded at the other two adults as if I’d forgotten their names already. “Sponsor a handful of Native teens every year. The police know to contact them about potential candidates. While we wait to hear back from the detectives about your background check, you’ve been given the opportunity to remain here...as long as you behave and don’t cause any trouble.”
I wanted to ask what a Native American was, but something told me to keep some questions to myself.
At the jail, someone had called me a savage and shoved a handful of clothes at me. They’d sent me to a small room where I’d washed off most of the dirt. I now wore a thin maroon-colored chest cover called a T-shirt that was soft against my cuts and bruises, and blue pants — no, these were called jeans. I didn’t mind changing.
At least now I felt clean and people had stopped staring at me.
“Rayen?” The woman speaking to me had smooth skin, and warm hazel eyes above sharp cheeks. Like mine. But my eyes were blue. Sort of a green-blue. The eyes and cheeks I’d seen — but hadn’t recognized — in a mirror when I’d changed clothes. Who doesn’t know their own face?
Mrs. Brown smiled, the first welcoming expression I’d seen since opening my eyes in the desert. Her sun-colored yellow dress flattered her skin. The compassion on her face reminded me of another woman, one with straight black hair like hers and...I wanted to growl when the image never completely formed.
I realized she’d gotten quiet, waiting for me to say something. I went with the simplest reply. “Yes?”
“We’re here to help you, Rayen.” She sent her smile over to Mr. Brown, a tall man dressed in charcoal gray...Pants. Jacket. Shirt.
A uniform? No, something else. A suit?
Could that be right?
I wanted to ask if I was correct, but not now when three sets of eyes judged every breath I took.
Mr. Brown stood with his back against a wall of books...
Colors flashed in my mind again, prodding me to think harder. At least the pain wasn’t as sharp this time. Those were real books printed on paper. My heart thumped faster at the thought that paper was precious...then I hit a blank spot again. I curled my fingers, frustrated at failing to piece together yet another shattered memory.
Mr. Brown missed nothing, arms crossed, observing me with the intensity of a wise elder, dark eyes expectant. Not an easy man to read
When he flicked a look at Mrs. Brown, she moved closer to me, taking the chair on my right. “We’ve been told you have no identification.”
“Yes.” I wasn’t sure what she expected for identification other than my face. Eye scan? That triggered another half-memory that came and went. I wanted to pound the chair arm.
“And that you are reluctant to share information. Is that correct?” she continued.
“No.” I hesitated, battling over how much information to reveal. But what did I have to lose? “I just don’t have information to share.”
“Oh.” She paused and seemed perplexed, but her lips turned up in a reassuring way before she spoke again. “I’d like to tell you about our Institute.”
“Perhaps you’d fit in here.”
I had no interest in joining her school, but from the minute my hands had been tied this morning, I’d lost all control of my life. For now. What could be the harm in hearing her out? I nodded just to appear agreeable.
“Our program is for teens of high school age and is different from other schools in this part of the country in that we have two unique areas of study. We use a selection process based upon the skills of each student. Our diverse program was created to offer students with unusual abilities a chance to excel in areas not often taught in other venues. Or perhaps not taught in as specific a way as how we guide students here.”
What was she saying? At a loss, I gave her another nod as a prod to continue, and she kept talking.
“We pride ourselves on not only accepting students with brilliant minds who are headed for places such as MIT and Harvard, but also those who strive to develop their other senses, like their sixth sense.”
I understood the words being spoken, but their culture and terms were strange. MIT? Harvard? Sixth sense ignited a thought. Six senses. Touch, smell, hearing, taste, sight...and intuition, power or energy. Was that right?
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Rayen?” she asked, alerting me that she could tell my mind had wandered. Again.
“Yes.” That word worked a whole lot better than constantly saying no, like I’d been doing up until now.
Dr. Maxwell leaned forward, resting his arms on his desk, but his eyes hadn’t warmed at all. Snake eyes. “What Mrs. Brown is trying to tell you is that she and Mr. Brown award a small number of positions to select students from less fortunate homes, depending on how the student tests. We understand that some teens run away from bad situations. We can’t guarantee that you’ll get a placement here without gaining permission from your family, or if you don’t qualify after testing, but if you tell us the truth about who you are and where you’re from, we’ll assign you an academic advisor and see what we can do.”
They wanted me to stay? Here? Why? I couldn’t swallow past the knot of tension in my throat. I didn’t belong here.
But I had no idea where I did belong.
Mrs. Brown tapped a finger on my arm. “Who’s your family?”
A question I couldn’t answer with yes or no. “I don’t know.” I was tired of being viewed as a bug with no more sense than to run under the nearest boot heel. I opened my mouth to say, I woke up in the desert, disoriented and with a beast chasing me, but that survival instinct kicked in again, warning me that less was more right now.
“Don’t know?” Mr. Maxwell’s calm face slipped, showing his true feelings. Irritation. Disgust. He glanced at Mr. Brown, his tone dismissing me from this conversation. “We’ll know who she is by the end of the day once we get the police results on her fingerprints. I think we’re done here...right?”
Mr. Brown’s angular face still showed no emotion until he looked at his wife and his blue-gray eyes softened. “What do you think, sweetheart?”
Mrs. Brown swung around with a look of pleading on her face. “We haven’t gotten the results of the blood test to review yet, Charles.” She turned to Dr. Maxwell. “Would you check again?”
I’d known what they were doing with fingerprinting at the first place, though the ink pad they’d pressed my fingers on had seemed like a messy way to transfer prints. But I’d been puzzled over the small white bandage on my arm from where they’d jabbed me with a sharp needle. They’d drawn blood.
Everybody wanted my blood today. The beast I could almost understand, but what did these people want with it?
Dr. Maxwell flipped open the top of a thin metal case with an apple-shaped emblem on the lid and started tapping at it with his fingers. “The blood results just came through and–” He leaned closer, reading something, then his forehead creased sharply before he turned to Mr. Brown. “Uh, we do need to review this report.”
Mr. Brown’s eyes lit with interest.
Mrs. Brown slid forward in her chair, anxious, but before she could say anything her husband shot a pointed look at me and said, “You may wait in the next room.”
When I didn’t move, Dr. Maxwell stood and took a step toward me.
Tired of getting dragged, shoved and jerked around by strangers, particularly the el ... the adults, I jumped to my feet, arms loose, hands ready to defend myself.
Mr. Brown unfolded his arms and reached over as if to restrain the doctor, but he spoke to me. "Please go to the next room. Wait for us there."
Mrs. Brown stood just as quickly, putting herself between me and the doctor, gently cupping my arm. If either of the men had touched me, I couldn't say what would have happened, but her touch reached past the need to fight—to defend myself.
She looked up at me, smiling reassurance, and indicated a door with her free hand. “There’s a waiting room right in there. We’ll send someone for you in a moment, okay?”
I let out a breath that had backed up in my chest and nodded before turning for a second door that exited the room. As I passed through and pulled the door almost closed behind me, Dr. Maxwell spoke in a low, excited voice, but too quiet for me to understand.
I paused with the door ajar at my back and focused my full attention on his words. Heat bloomed in my chest, surprising me, then it radiated out through my body as I concentrated.
The more I focused, the clearer the voices sounded.
Dr. Maxwell was saying, “...I’m telling you there are markers in her blood like nothing we’ve had before.”
Mrs. Brown asked, “What specific markers?”
“With just one pass through the new software program, her DNA spiked alerts in four of our profile areas with the strongest being algorithmic–”
I didn’t understand the next part, a string of strange letters and numbers. I’d heard of “software” and “DNA” at some point. Software versus hardware. DNA determined ancestry. I could almost hear the words coming from something inanimate as it instructed me.
Mrs. Brown spoke up. “I say we put her in the computer science program and see what she does.”
What happened to ‘we can’t guarantee you placement without getting your family’s permission’?
And what of my family? Did they exist? Did they know what had happened to me? Were they looking for me? A dark ache stabbed at me. A hole so large it threatened to swallow me.
The door suddenly snapped shut at my back and I opened my eyes, quickly taking in my surroundings.
I stood inside a larger room that had chairs placed around the walls. There were three doors and several small tables that weren’t as tall as my knees.
And someone watched me–a young male. I corrected myself, mentally searching for words I’d heard in the last few hours. This young one would be a teen or kid, but the young ones captured with me had not called each other teens. Maybe because the adults often said it in a negative way.
A couple of the boys close to my age had called other males guys. That had seemed acceptable to all of them.
Trying to talk like everyone else here could only help me.
This ... guy lounged in one of the chairs that appeared more padded and comfortable than the one I’d had in the doctor’s room. This new stranger had skin a deeper brown color than mine, closer in shade to that of the drink he held in a bottle with writing half hidden by his fingers. His short black hair curled in tight circles, matching the color of his pants and shirt, but his shirt had...buttons. Yes, buttons was the right word.
Brown eyes watched me with an edge of intelligence that demanded others notice him.
Not sure of any order to the seating, I strolled over to the first open chair. One of the small wooden tables separated us. I sank into the soft material, sighing over how good it felt against my abused body.
“New recruit?” the guy asked.
Would there be an end to the questions I couldn’t answer any time soon? I flipped through my knowledge and came up with the word recruit. It meant being called to a task. I weighed what had been said before and after I’d left the meeting, deciding on another simple answer. “Possibly.”
“I’m Nicholas. You certainly appear to be new recruit material, since you’re adorned with that leg iron.”
I glanced down at my leg that still throbbed with pain.
Punishment for not listening to my instincts earlier when I’d first arrived here at this school. Those instincts had warned me not to jump at an opportunity that had “too easy” stamped all over it.
But my gut had badgered me to escape at my first chance.
The adults in blue clothes who’d delivered me to this place had turned their backs for a few seconds outside, long enough for me to try to vanish. But the minute I’d stepped through what looked like an exit gateway, a bolt of energy screamed through my left leg, the one with the wicked-looking metal ankle bracelet those adults had attached. I’d fallen to my knees, writhing in pain, then dragged myself away from the invisible field of current just as one of them walked up.
The man had chuckled and pointed to the metal contraption. “Guess I don’t have to warn you what’ll happen if you try to run with that latched to you. These fine people take in low-life scum and you half-breeds. You best show your appreciation and don’t give ‘em no trouble. Or you won’t like where we take you next.”
That might register on my barometer of concern if I had any idea where I was to begin with.
“Hey, just kiddin’ with you, sweetheart,” Nicholas said in a lighthearted tone, bringing me back to the present with a snap. “Don’t feel singled out. Recruits who arrive via government channels rather than being enrolled by family wear a security device until the front office receives all the records. The Institute is responsible for you. No big deal. They can’t risk being sued if you wander off the property. Not as though you’re in prison or something.”
That made sense, except for being sued, whatever that was. So this school had a place that gathered records. I hoped they would find information on me, something that would fill me in on my history. Who my people were.
Unless they found out I was a criminal. I didn’t feel like one, but would a criminal think of herself as such?
Nicholas leaned forward in his chair. “Where do you hail from?”
This guy didn’t sound like any of the kids I’d met earlier. He had a stiff way of talking and sounded more like one of the adults. I asked, “Hail from?”
“Your point of origin. Home.”
I couldn’t say ‘I don’t know’ one more time without losing my temper, so I summed it up all at once. “I know my name’s Rayen, but not where I’m from. I have no idea what I’m doing here or if I’ll stay. I hit my head in the desert and can’t remember anything.” I’d heard the kids I’d been captured with talking in the van–about me. One had made a comment that I could have lost my memory from the fall.
Sounded like an explanation for the empty spots in my mind.
“Word to the wise, sweetheart.” Nicholas glanced at me sideways. “Don’t tell anyone you’ve suffered a head injury.”
I didn’t see how that could complicate my life any more than it already was since I had to work through everything minute by minute at this point. Besides, what other reason would I have for not knowing answers? But he was the first person since Ghost Man to offer advice without a sneer. I asked, “Why not?”
He scratched his ear and took his time, as if thinking very hard or hesitant to share. At last he said, “If Dr. Maxwell thinks you’re damaged goods you’ll be withdrawn from here so fast you’ll get whiplash. Then you’ll end up in the detention center hospital. Those who go there experience mutatio.”
Hospital? I thought I might have heard that term before but not enough to track.
I felt like I was being tested, but still asked, “What’s mutatio?”
Smiling with regal superiority, Nicholas explained, “It’s Latin. Means change.”
Before I could ask what exactly he meant, one of the doors not connected to Dr. Maxwell’s room opened and a female entered...no, I should call her a girl or teenager. That’s what the uniforms had called me and another female close to my age when I was at the police station.
This one looked a year or so younger than me. She came bouncing into the room. White wires ran from her ears to a tiny pink metal square on her hip. She wore an orange, green and purple dress with wide side pockets. The dress was draped over striped purple-and-white tights that disappeared into scuffed black boots with three-inch-thick heels. She’d twisted her yellow-and-lavender hair into eight or ten ponytails that stuck out in all directions.
Every ponytail was tied with a different color ribbon that moved with the rhythmic shake of her hips.
Nothing matched on her, including her eyes...one brown and one green.
Two different color eyes?
She paused, took one look at me with those unusual eyes, then her lips curled in a quirky half-moon curve full of curiosity. She removed a wire from one ear. Her gaze slid over to Nicholas who said, “Where’s your broom, Gabby? Wouldn’t want you caught with no transportation.”
I couldn’t understand the connection, but read insult in her face just fine before she covered it with a wicked smile.
“Nick, you’re such a flirt. Careful or I might turn you into a horny toad,” she replied in a singsong voice, then snapped her fingers. “Oh, wait, someone already did.” She laughed, a fluttery sound that danced through the room.
Nick gave her an indulgent smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, seeming more amused than insulted. “What would we do without eye candy in this place? I salute whomever scours the country to decorate our halls with sweet things to entertain the male student body.”
I kept my face neutral, glad not to be the center of attention. Derision in his voice keyed a memory I couldn’t pin down beyond the distinct feeling of anger over being ridiculed for my differences at one time. I felt a fleeting camaraderie with this girl who smiled at him in spite of the demeaning insinuation beneath his words.
Gabby continued swinging her hips back and forth as if to some secret musical beat. “What you doing up here, Nick? Waiting for an optimum snitch opportunity?”
I tried to follow their conversation, but little made any sense. Nicholas enjoyed taunting this Gabby in a way that sounded harmless. I had my doubts. On the other hand, Gabby acted as if this was all just funny when I had the strangest sense that she kept her guard up the whole time.
But what did I know? Nothing.
Nicholas chuckled. “What brings you here, Gabby? You lose your crystal ball and get stuck having to navigate your way around humans?”
Her laughter tinkled with a sly undertone. “Oh, to be a mere mortal.” She pranced past Nicholas and out the last door that opened into a hallway.
“She’s schizo,” Nicholas muttered. “Stay clear of that one.”
“What do you mean by schizo?”
“Crazy. Rumor is she hears voices.” He spun a finger around his ear.
I talk to ghosts. No way I was going to admit that, but I did catch the warning note about Gabby in what Nicholas said.
Just then the door from Dr. Maxwell’s office opened again and another girl came into the room, as different from Gabby as the sun from the moon. This one wore her auburn hair straight and chin length, vibrant pink on her lips, and had a round face with such perfect features I peered close to see if she was real. Where Gabby had been a lightning display this girl was regal with her ice-blue eyes and russet-red dress that stopped at the middle of her thighs and a white jacket with the sleeves shoved up.
She held a fistful of papers and a thick, dull-green book against her chest, and cast a surprised glance at me. “I’m Hannah. You must be Rayen.”
When I gave my usual nod, she said, “I’ve been asked to show you around the school and take you to class.”
Her eyes rolled with impatience before she said, “You’ve been assigned to Mr. Suarez’s computer science class in room 217.”
“Oh.” A learning program. But with a person instructing?
“Follow me.” She issued that directive as though ordering people around came naturally to her.
Nicholas spoke up and this time his voice had a smooth texture. “How’s it going, Hannah banana?”
I studied Nicholas to figure out what had caused him to change from speaking in a somewhat superior way to one of light-hearted teasing.
Hannah even sounded different when she addressed him in a soft tone. “Fi-ine. And you, Nick?”
There were undercurrents here, but it was one more thing I couldn’t figure out.
I stood. Why am I being sent to a class? I just want to find out who I am. Where I came from. My family. The last being the most important.
As I started to move, Nicholas whispered behind me, “Remember, sweetheart. Tell no one.”
Lifting my hand to acknowledge I’d remembered his warning about my head injury, I murmured, “Thanks.” And I was thankful that he’d cautioned me before I made the mistake of adding to my problems.
The hospital sounded like a place to avoid no matter what.
Nicholas raised his voice just above a whisper, but I knew he spoke to me. “Any time. You need anything, you let me know.”
The only thing I needed was to fill the gaping hole in my memory and I doubted he could do that. I followed Hannah out into a hallway, but something Gabby had said nudged me to ask Hannah, “Do you know what snitch means?”
She gave me a strange look as though I’d asked her how many noses I had on my face. When she realized I was serious, she huffed out a noisy breath, answering as if she recited a definition. “A snitch is someone who takes you into their confidence and acts like a close friend, then shares that information with an adversary or enemy, quite often in trade for something they want. Got it?”
“Yeah.” Another name for a traitor. I had one more question. “What do you know about Nicholas?”
Her smile tilted with a sly angle. “He’s at the top of his class in computer science. He’s very popular with all the girls. And...” She swept a long look at me. “And he’s off limits to you, but you should be polite to him.”
“Why?” I ignored why he had limits and focused on her last words. “Are people mean to him?”
“Are you serious? No. He’s their only child.”
“Whose only child?”
“The Browns. They adopted him.”
My stomach dropped. I’d just spoken openly with Nicholas Brown, someone who could easily tell his parents that I was damaged goods.
I might not have wanted to be here to begin with, but I certainly didn’t want to go to that hospital and end up mutatio.