I had Hannah to thank for my full stomach, even if she had seemed put out to sit with me in the dining hall, as if my presence detracted from her. While I ate something with no flavor, she’d scanned her nails, the ceiling, the other kids. Did everything to ignore me. Which was fine with me. Food helped revive me some, but now I had a new challenge to face.
More people to meet. Me, the strange one. I felt like I stood out even wearing their clothes.
We’d run into students during lunch, but Hannah had spared me more questions by keeping the conversations turned to her, as though she knew I didn’t want to answer questions.
Didn’t being a better option than couldn’t. But I doubted it was actually in Hannah’s nature to do anything kind for someone she deemed unworthy. And she’d clearly passed that judgment on me.
I matched her pace as she moved down the sterile walkways in the building. Everything smelled well-scrubbed, but confining. She still carried the papers and the book with the hard green cover. It had to be two inches thick. I wanted to hold that book and touch the papers, but I wouldn’t ask.
Every time I said more than yes or no, people looked at me as though I lacked brains. Same as Hannah’s perpetual expression when she addressed me.
My internal defenses continued to bellow for me to escape.
Not going to happen this time until I knew how to leave without getting zapped by an electric charge.
Or knew where I was going.
She walked me up to a sliding metal door she opened by pushing a button as she explained, “Computer Science is on level two. This is the closest elevator to the administrative offices. You’ll find another one at the south end of the building.”
When she stepped inside the small room that would hold maybe ten people pressed together, I took my place next to her, holding my breath. The elevator, as she called it, moved slowly upwards.
Another new sensation. Not dangerous, but uncomfortable.
Exiting the elevator, Hannah pointed out areas of the school, explaining things in a bored voice.
A tone dinged three times overhead from some hidden source.
She waved a hand at rooms we passed that were full of kids. “That’s the final bell to be in class on time, but it takes a moment for the instructor to get things rolling so we’re fine.”
She pointed out plaques on the wall touting someone’s accomplishments and droned on about what had inspired the creation of the school, but my mind drifted.
I cut my gaze left, then right, taking in each classroom as we passed open doors. Heads turned my way, curious expressions, but not a flicker of recognition on my part or theirs. I’d never been here before or surely someone would have recognized me by now.
What would my fingerprints reveal? And couldn’t those be altered? Why not search their records for my face or retina scan, which couldn’t be altered so easily?
I stopped midstride. How did I know fingerprints could be changed...or about retina identity scans? No one had mentioned that. Should I?
Only if I wanted to be treated like a moron again.
Hannah had been in the middle of describing something about the school. Her monotonous voice faded as she kept walking then paused, looked around and spoke in a snippy tone. “Rayen.”
“Sorry.” I caught up to her.
She drew a deep breath, expelling the air slowly with a brief shake of her head then continued on whatever she’d been talking about. “As I was saying, the Browns are richer than God. They bought this place four years ago for the Institute. If you make it through here, you’re pretty much guaranteed a spot in a top college. You’re fortunate the Browns aren’t just loaded, but nice people to be so generous.”
I zeroed in on the one word that didn’t track for me. “Nice? Then why’d they give me this leg bracelet?”
She glanced at my ankle where the metal cuff barely showed below the bottom of my jeans, then met my gaze with her dismissive one. “It’s a security measure that Dr. Maxwell requires...for some students. Just until the staff is sure the student is ready to stay here.”
Meaning, Dr. Maxwell expected a certain number of students to try to escape. If this place was so good, and the Browns were such nice people, why would anyone want to run away? More questions without answers. I didn’t ask Hannah since I hadn’t heard one note of understanding in her voice.
Not for someone like me who didn’t fit in with her kind.
Stopping in front of the last open door in the hallway, Hannah rapped on the doorframe with her knuckles. She broke out a bright smile for someone inside and said, “I have the new student the office sent you the text about.”
Text? I didn’t ask.
Hannah backed up, clearing the way for a thin man to step out into the hallway. He wore a white shirt with half sleeves and pants the color of the desert. Strange clothes to me, but from the way everyone had reacted to my simple buckskin sack dress, as one person called what I’d been wearing in the desert, I was the strange one here. I wished they’d given me back my boots, which were more comfortable than the shoes I now wore. Sneakers.
Did that mean they made it easy to sneak around? If so, that might be useful.
Altering her voice to a superior one that reminded me of Nicholas, Hannah addressed the skinny man. “This is Rayen. No last name.” She turned to me, stabbing me with a serious gaze. “This is Mr. Suarez, your beginning computer science instructor. The Institute will give you additional classes once they know your academic level and if you’ll be staying.” Her look said that wasn’t likely and she didn’t care anyway. She handed several sheets of paper to Mr. Suarez then edged a step closer to me and thrust the book she’d been carrying at me.
I held it carefully, my fingers moving with respect and awe over the texture of the cover.
She tapped the hard cover. “You probably won’t get time to read much by the end of the day, if you can read, but this book will help you familiarize yourself with the school guidelines and programs offered. If you stay around, finish it this week. Oh, I almost forgot. You’re to be at Dr. Maxwell’s office at five o’clock today to meet with them again.”
The way she kept emphasizing if was starting to wear on me.
She tossed her head and turned away, prancing toward the classroom.
I asked, “Why?”
Hannah jerked around as though spooked, then recovered to snap, “Why what?”
“Why do I meet them at five o’clock?”
“To speak with the. . .” She glanced at Mr. Suarez and said, “Need a minute.” When he nodded, she closed the distance between us and spoke in a low, tight voice. “Look, I agreed to bring you, but I didn’t take you on as an understudy. Did you forget you got picked up by the cops this morning?”
“No.” Cops must be another term for police, but how did she know they’d captured me?
“Then I’ll make this simple. From what I heard, the detectives investigating the Piedra Lisa Park robberies are coming by to speak with Dr. Maxwell. You wouldn’t know anything about that now would you?”
I ignored her sarcastic tone. “No.” At least, I hoped not.
“Better hope not, because if they find anything tying you to the crime spree that’s been going on, they’ll take you with them.” A smug glow lit her eyes. “Just be sure to be in Dr. Maxwell’s office at five sharp or losing permanent placement here will be the least of your worries. You’ll be sent...somewhere else.”
She gave me another dismissive glare then walked calmly into the classroom.
Permanent placement? I didn’t want to stay here. But neither did I want to be shunted off to someplace worse.
Why had I left my home?
Did I have a home? My gut said yes.
“Let’s go, Rayen,” Mr. Suarez said with a cool politeness, lifting his chin toward the classroom. His voice was less hostile than Dr. Maxwell’s and not nearly as superior sounding as Nicholas’s had been.
I mentally marked Mr. Suarez as not a threat. Besides, like everything else today, I had no choice but to comply.
I hated having no say over my life.
A low murmur clouded the room until I walked in and everyone stopped talking to look. At me. I’d faced a sentient beast out in the desert. This shouldn’t be worse, but my stomach kinked at moving deeper into the room. Fifteen pairs of eyes took stock and judged me on the spot.
Not a friendly face among them.
Actually there were sixteen counting Hannah, but she ignored me. She’d taken her seat on the right side of the room and had her chin down, focused on setting up a slim rectangular unit on her desk. It was similar to the one with the apple-shaped emblem that Dr. Maxwell had used.
Based on the wide eyes and snorts of barely suppressed laughter, especially from the girls in the room, the general consensus was that I didn’t belong.
I couldn’t agree more.
“This is Rayen,” Mr. Suarez informed the room, then he told me, “Take one of the two seats in the back on the left, but don’t turn on the monitor.”
I passed small metal tables with light colored wood surfaces that each held two keyboards and two flat panels...I dug around in my mind and the word “screen” floated up then “monitor.” Each table had room for two students.
Monitors and keyboards.
Finally, something clicked. I knew what a monitor was, and a keyboard.
Maybe coming in here would rattle my memory.
Most of the kids seemed to be my age. As I walked toward the last desk on the left, one of the guys I passed studied me with blatant interest, then softly said, “Hel-looo, baby.”
I might not grasp every meaning, but I did understand that wolfish look, especially when the girl next to him hissed something angry under her breath. He just kept smiling at me. I might not belong here and had no idea who I was, but I knew when a boy was interested, and recognized female jealousy.
Some things were universal. But she wasted her energy. I had no interest in him or his leer.
I kept my eyes on the back corner. All I had to do was stay out of trouble and make it to the meeting in Dr. Maxwell’s office at five o’clock.
Mr. Suarez stepped behind his desk. He muttered something about finishing rollcall as he glanced up and down, eyes searching out each student after saying a name.
I settled into my chair, glad not to be in the front on display any longer.
The teacher scanned the room again. “Where’s Tony?”
When no one answered, Mr. Suarez scribbled on a paper pad, then turned and wrote words on a white wall behind him that read:
Deadline for the Top Ten Competition: May 15, 2013
Wait, I understood that. The words at least, but not what they meant.
The instructor set down his pad. “Deadline for this year’s competition. That’s two weeks from today, folks.”
I toyed with the date in my mind, but 2013 triggered no concrete memories. Surely something significant had happened this year in my life.
The more I studied the date it did feel familiar, and pressing. Significant. Why?
I was starting to hate that three-letter word.
Every time I tried to concentrate hard on anything, an ache bit into my forehead with sharp teeth. I rubbed my temple then dropped my hand. My fingers touched the green book.
As Mr. Suarez started talking about the project, I propped the book on my desktop and opened it, reading the first page of introduction. Hannah was right about how long it’d take to get through this thing, but I couldn’t get past how special holding a book felt.
Mr. Suarez paused.
The silence drew my attention.
He looked right at me when he spoke. “For those of you who are new, the Top Ten Computer Project’s a special event the Browns created where our best ten students in computer science will have a chance to compete for a full scholarship to any of the top ten universities in this country. You’ll each be assigned a partner for the first phase.”
Excitement flittered through the room, but I couldn’t have been less interested. I was locked on my book, blocking out Mr. Suarez’s voice so I could read as much as possible in what time I had. I started scanning the pages fast, really fast. Then I felt heat, or energy, swirl in my chest. The same type of feeling I’d had earlier when I listened to the Browns and Dr. Maxwell talk behind the partially closed door.
I clutched the book tighter and the energy rolled down my arms until my fingers tingled.
Pages fluttered past as if I fanned the pages, but I only held the book.
I caught every word, comprehended every sentence.
In less than a minute, I’d finished the book. And slammed it shut, earning a hard stare from a girl at the next table over. Her gaze ended with a frown that said, “freak.”
Pushing the book away, I looked at my trembling hands.
Was that normal?
Was I normal?
“Miss Landers and Miss Pearson make up the next team,” Mr. Suarez said, calling out names to match up partners for the project.
I took a couple of breaths to settle myself and did a quick head count again, relieved at the uneven number of students. No one to match me up with?
That suited me just fine. I’d only end up proving how clueless I was about everything in this room and in this school, except for the monitor and keyboard in front of me. I might not know how these units worked, but I was sure I’d seen something like them before.
“Whoa, I know you’re not startin’ my favorite class widdout me, Mr. S,” someone announced as he entered the room. A husky-built guy with chopped-off black hair and an olive tint to his skin.
He looked about my age but had an attitude years older. His dark-brown, calculating eyes searched out each of the other five girls in the classroom, and gifted them with a wink and a cocky grin.
I noted that all the girls returned his attention with varying degrees of smiles.
Even Hannah, whose lips quirked when she tossed a brief glance his way.
Mr. Suarez paused to frown. “You’re late, Tony. I told you the first day of school I don’t tolerate tardiness from anyone.”
“My apologies, Mr. S. A young lady needed my personal assistance.” His hands moved constantly, as expressive as his I’m-the-man tone. Here, there, touching a silver medallion at his neck, punctuating his words in the air. “Being a gentleman and all yourself, I know you wouldn’ta wanted me leavin’ the young lady on her own.”
“What kind of assistance?” the instructor asked, wary-eyed.
This Tony guy beamed a sneaky-cat grin I didn’t buy any more than I bought the grandiose performance.
And what was this guy’s strange accent?
Tony opened his hands in a what-else gesture. “New kid from Jersey and Italian, like me. Got lost her first day. I delivered her safe and sound to the front office. But I didn’t waste no time humpin’ it here. Like I said, sorry I was late, Mr. S, but I’m ready for the Top Ten Project. Seein’s how my last name starts with an S, I’m thinkin’ I’m paired up with the delicious Miss Georgiana Sanderson, right?”
A look came over Mr. Suarez’s face that knocked the foundation out from under Tony’s grin. “Miss Sanderson has been paired up. In fact, everyone has a partner. In light of your charitable nature to help new students–”
No. No way. Don't do it. I sat up straighter.
“–you’ll be teamed up with our newest student. Rayen.” Mr. Suarez pointed in my direction. “Take your seat, Tony.”
Tony’s eyes finally lit on me. All his smug attitude slid away leaving disbelief. He stepped over to the teacher and lowered his voice, but my sharp hearing caught every word he said.
“You kiddin’, Mr. S, right? You know how bitchin’ I am on computers. I need someone who can hang with me, not...” Tony cut a harsh glance at me then his face smoothed, all charm by the time he faced Mr. Suarez again. “Not somebody just off the reservation.”
One of Mr. Suarez’s eyebrows arched at a sharp angle. “If this was so important you should’ve been punctual and I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that last comment. Rayen is your Top Ten partner until I say differently. Take your seat.”
“Now, or you’re out of the competition altogether.”
That had Tony snapping to attention.
I’d grabbed the seat closest to the corner from which I now watched as Tony swaggered down the center of the room, scowling. As he drew closer, I could see part of an image in black ink that crawled up his neck, peeking out from beneath the collar of his shirt. The design was a creature with sharp pinchers.
Some memory niggled at me. Neck markings meant something, but what?
When Tony reached my table, he dropped into the chair and crossed his arms.
The minute Mr. Suarez turned to the white board again, Tony leaned over, a nasty smile on his face when he whispered, “Find a way to disappear or I’ll do it for you, sweet cheeks.”