Boy Robot CHAPTER 1 ISAAK
Another running dream.
They happen more frequently these days. For a few moments I lie in bed, stare up at the ceiling, and try to grasp at the last remaining fragments. The more I try to recollect it all, the more it pours right out of me. Such is the way of dreams: enveloping your entire being through the most vulnerable parts of your unconsciousness, but attempt to illuminate the shadowy transpirings and even the most significant plot points become shapeless craters where mountains once stood.
I’m scrambling around the edge of one of those craters now. This time someone died. I can still feel the loss, like an explosion within me. My cheeks are still wet with tears.
I throw off my covers and step onto the thin brownish green carpet. The floorboards creak beneath my feet, the sound of another morning getting underway. Mary, Mother of God, watches from her plastic perch above my dresser as I open it and get dressed for the day. It’s one of the many chintzy Catholic relics strewn about a room that isn’t mine to redecorate. A gilded, bloody Jesus, who more closely resembles an oatsy, white, folk-music artist from the sixties, stares up toward the ceiling in a cry of perpetual agony. I spare a moment to read the words scrawled below him.
Pro Omnibus Hominibus.
That painting, hanging above the dresser, used to terrify me and keep me up at night as a child, but now I just find it bizarre.
Black jeans and a red hoodie will do—my standard uniform.
All these years spent in this house—all of my years, period—and I still feel like a guest. An unwelcome guest. It isn’t that my parents don’t love me, since I’m sure they do, but they’ve never wanted me. There is a difference.
I’m grateful to have a home in the first place, as they’ve made it clear that I’m on my own after graduation. It wasn’t a surprise for me—I’ve been told I was nothing more than adopted since before I even knew what the word meant—but it’s still left me feeling abandoned and alone.
In front of the bathroom mirror, I run my fingers through my hair, notice bags under my eyes, and wonder what the hell I’d been dreaming about. I just can’t remember, but somehow it seems important.
I finish getting ready as quietly as I can, then head into the wood-paneled hallway. Dozens of faces fill old black-and-white photos that line the hall. Faces I’ve never been told much about, other than not-so-subtle reminders that I am not, in fact, related to any of them. I pass the kitchen, with its nearly ancient appliances and its linoleum floor with the looping ivy patterns. I go down the stairs past the kitchen, through the basement, and step into the garage, where the pungent smell of gasoline, oil, and mildew always chokes me a bit. I grab my rusted old bike, step through the side door, take a deep breath of the early mist, and push off.
The little red house sits near the top of a hill, right up against cave-filled woods, but here in the Ozarks there are a lot of hills and a lot of caves. Pacific, Missouri, is probably one of the tiniest towns to have ever been called a town at all. A relic of another America—one that had been built by trains and industry—the town now exists as a flicker on the way to St. Louis if you’re going up I-44. Small, dilapidated houses line the streets, where grandchildren buy one of the dilapidated houses just down the street from their grandparents and renovate it to fill with children of their own. The population here never really grows; about five thousand people always seem to stick around. Maybe a new generation will have a spurt of children and push it up to 5,255 or so, but somehow just the right amount of people decide to leave or die and it always evens out around five thousand.
Chilled air from a cave pours down the hill behind me. I imagine it would be strange to feel that for the first time, the way a cave releases a constant stream of cool air. Like it’s breathing. I feel it against my cheek, where the first rays of the late-springtime sun are now beaming.
At the bottom of the hill, I take a right on First Street and pedal off toward school.
At Walnut, I take a right and start up another big hill. I do this most every morning, except when it rains, and sometimes even when it does. The hill leading up to Blackburn Park is enough to get my blood pumping, and I think of it as the last step in my process of waking up. I have to get up a little earlier to make the detour every morning, but the view at the top is worth it.
Once the hill crests, I take a path that leads to the towering flagpole at the edge of the limestone bluff. There, the town’s giant American flag stirs in the morning air. Towns like these usually display flags this large in used-car lots, but Pacific has hers placed atop her highest hill.
I park my bike next to a picnic table and walk toward the chain-link fence, the only thing separating me from the two-hundred-foot drop down to the road below. I loop my fingers into the rough metal and inhale.
With the breath I take in the endless trees, the never-ending hills, the infinite sky, all of it. Standing up here on the cliff at Blackburn Park, the entire town beneath my feet, is almost what I imagine standing at the edge of the ocean would be like. I’ve never seen it myself, but I’ve seen it in movies and on TV, and from what everyone always says, standing next to the ocean is awe-inspiring. That the sheer scope of it can make humanity itself feel insignificant. I like that feeling, like there’s something greater out there than the sum of my own existence.
Pacific, Missouri, Pacific Ocean . . . almost the same thing.
The sun bathes the entire valley in a golden orangey pink, burning off the morning dew. Like clockwork, the cicadas begin their day-long, droning cacophony—the sound of summer’s impending arrival. The buzz melds with my thoughts, striking a chord as just another layer of my morning, my being.
I drop my backpack to the ground and pull out my plain black leather journal and a pen, then sit atop a picnic table and look out onto my very own Pacific Ocean. I write
Morning comes again
Sometimes some things are simply inevitable
Some things that never will change
But change is itself inevitable
And yet here I sit, yearning for the inevitable change to pass me by
To lose track of time
Forgo my progression
Progress me down
Down the hill, down with all the others
All the others who do not take the time to climb the hill
And breathe in the morning
And contemplate change
The change that is inevitable
Sun, stop rising higher
Don’t remind me, please
Another trip downhill awaits
Another day is here
Another try to test the fates
And somehow persevere
I’ve written poems and thoughts and whatever words came into my head since I was old enough to do so, but this one was especially emo. I laugh and draw a big X through the words, gather my things, and head off to school.
For real this time.
• • •
“How is she?” I ask.
The hallway buzzes, packed with students like a hive. Worker bees filing down the corridor in chaotic order, prepping for the day. The metallic rattle of dozens of combination locks being undone fills the air, and the scent of gas station coffee wafts over me from somewhere nearby.
I pull a world history book out from my locker as I go through another ritual with my best friend, my only friend, Jonathan.
“Fine. Seems to be taking to the new stuff they put her on.” Jonathan’s eyes linger, looking beyond the space of his locker.
We only talk about it like this—briefly mentioned, almost like an insignificant remark about homework before class. His mom is the only family he has, and I know how much she means to him. I don’t want to pry. I just want to make sure my friend is okay.
Jonathan Conner is a good head taller than me, with sandy brown hair he keeps at a buzz, eyes to match, and shoulders broad enough to show how much more he’s grown than the other kids already. He volunteers at the fire department, loves hockey and going to Blues games, and is probably one of those most likely to get that house for sale down the street from his mother’s come his twenties. He’s pretty good-looking too, though I’d never actually tell him that. We’ve always been polar opposites, but I think that’s why we became friends in the first place. Spending time with someone who sees the world differently than you can be comforting. It can also be frustrating at times, but I think that’s half the appeal. I know he will always have my back.
“So what’re we doing tonight?” Jonathan asks, just as one of the varsity hockey players crashes into me accidentally. My books and papers fall to the floor and scatter as he and his buddies take their Neanderthal horseplay farther down the hall.
“What the fuck, dude?” Jonathan yells, immediately outraged. He shoots through the crowd, grabs the guy who collided into me by his collar, and slams him into the lockers.
“I know you think you’re better than everyone else, but you’re not.” Jonathan boils with a deep rage as a crowd draws around.
His temper has always been bad, but he’s had a hard time keeping a lid on anything these days, much less when provoked by the school’s token asshole. Well, one of the school’s token assholes.
“Dude, I didn’t even mean—” the guy stammers as Jonathan slams the locker behind him, hard.
“I don’t give a fuck what you meant,” Jonathan sneers, even as he seems to realize what he’s doing. He lets go of the stunned guy as more spectators gather.
I’m quick to follow him as he pushes his way out of the gathering crowd.
“What the hell, Jonathan? What was that?” My words stop him in his tracks, and he faces me.
“He has no right. Who the fuck does he think he is?”
“Who do you think you are, Jonathan? It was an accident, but you completely lost it.”
His jaw clenches as he looks away.
“Look, I know you’re going through a really hard time right now—”
“Fuck you, Isaak,” Jonathan says as he walks away.
“Sorry, I just . . . I don’t feel well.” I know they’re the worst possible words to say at that moment, but they slip out anyway.
Jonathan turns back around. “Happy birthday, dude.”
And with that he’s gone.
It’s true though: I don’t feel well. I can feel a buzz in the back of my head, like the beginning of a headache. One that’s been building for days.
• • •
My head is throbbing by the time the last bell of the day rings. My head is an island on the verge of being swallowed by an ocean of pain—waves relentlessly crashing ashore, a tide pushing further and further inward. I wince at the light streaming into Mrs. Howard’s class, lagging behind as everyone else is leaving. Maybe it’s just a migraine.
“Are you all right, Isaak?” Mrs. Howard asks once the room has all but cleared.
Even sound has a dull pain to it.
“Yeah. I’ve just got a bad headache,” I say. “I think it’s a migraine.” I collect my things and stand.
Mrs. Howard pulls her purse from her desk and seems to talk into it. “I’m not supposed to give you guys anything, but I’m not about to let you walk home in pain.”
She hands me three pills, and I just look at them in my hand.
“Ibuprofen. Don’t worry. I’m not giving you the hard stuff. I think I might save those for myself today.” Her voice falters a bit, and I notice that her eyes are wet.
“I’m sorry, Isaak. You should probably go.”
“I hope you feel better.”
She can’t stop the tears from flowing down her cheeks now.
“Thank you for the medicine, Mrs. Howard.”
She nods. “You’re welcome.”
I make my way to the door.
She tries to give a faint smile through her tears, but it, too, falters.
I pocket the pills and leave Debbie Howard in her classroom, oblivious to the perfect day just outside the windows, the glaring smudge of red lipstick on her front tooth, and the fact that not a single one of her students had more than a passing shred of interest in trigonometry come sixth period.
• • •
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to get up the last part of the hill before reaching the little red house on Sand Street. I park my bike in the garage and make my way up the basement stairs and into the kitchen, which smells of lemon and bleach. My mom—standing over the sink, scrubbing dishes with her back toward me—doesn’t bother to turn as I walk in.
“How was school?” she asks with a cool indifference.
“I’m not feeling too well, actually.”
She turns to look at me, a suspicious glint in her eyes. “What’s wrong? Do you need to take something?”
“No. Mrs. Howard gave me some ibuprofen already.”
“A teacher gave you pills?” She takes her hands from the soapy water, dries them on the towel hanging below the sink, and turns fully toward me. “I don’t like the sound of that. I find that alarming. Terrifying, actually.”
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” I say. “She was really upset about something and said she didn’t want to see me in pain. It was totally innocent.”
“Handing out pills to students is completely unacceptable. I won’t tolerate some two-bit teacher drugging up my child.”
She only claims ownership of me when it bolsters her aptitude for getting offended. I’ve lost count of how many free meals we’ve received at restaurants after she just happened to find a hair in her food: “How do you expect me to let my child eat at such an unhygienic establishment? I think I may write to the Health Department!” I think the only thing she’s ever enjoyed about having me around is the wide world of indignancies having a child gives access to.
“Really, Mom, it’s okay. I just have a headache. Nothing to worry about.”
She purses her lips in the way she does when something disgusts her. “You know how I feel about that word.”
Mom. She means the word “mom.”
“I’m sorry,” I start, but before I can finish my sentence, it hits me. My knees buckle as one of the waves crashes ashore a little too hard. I fall forward and my forehead smashes against the corner of the counter. My head makes a loud crack on the floor when I hit the ground, and my mother shouts.
She rushes beside me and slips her fingers beneath my head, but her shouts quickly turn from those of a worried mother, guardian, to a scream of sheer terror, and everything goes dark.
Moments later, when I open my eyes, my mother is still screaming. But it isn’t a scream of concern.
I shoot up, confused, bewildered. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
She scrambles back from me, across the kitchen floor. Her eyes are wide and roiling in fear like a feral, cornered animal.
I touch a finger to my forehead and bring my hand down. It’s scarlet red, dripping with blood.
She’s praying now, almost inaudible, frantic mutterings, but I make out, “God save me; he’s a monster.”
“Mom, tell me what’s wrong!”
She screams in terror. “Get away from me!”
“What’re you talking about?” My hands tremble as panic takes hold of me.
She screams again and pulls a rosary from her pocket, holding it up as if to ward off a demon.
“Get out of my house! Get out! Now!”
“I am not your mother!” Her entire body shakes as she bellows this toward me. Her face trembles in rage and fear and tiny flecks of spittle fly from the corners of her mouth.
I pick myself up off the floor and run to the bathroom, where I slam the door shut, silencing the sound of her gurgled prayers. After a moment’s pause I look in the mirror and see it.
A huge chunk of skin on my forehead, a flap that’s been sliced loose by my fall, is sealing itself before my eyes. The skin reattaches from the edges and works its way to the middle. Where it reseals, it’s as if there never was a gash in the first place. Soon there’s no trace of the giant bloody wound that was gaping across my forehead mere moments ago.
I stagger back against the wall, bracing myself so I don’t fall again.
Footsteps race past the bathroom and down the hall to my parents’ bedroom. The door slams and the lock clicks tight.
Silently, I stare in horror and wonder at a face in the mirror I no longer recognize.
• • •
I stay in my room for what feels like hours, waiting for a sound, anything, from my mother. My black journal is in my hand, but I can’t write. I just stare. There are no words.
The late-afternoon sun is turning orange when I hear my father come in from work. Almost instantly the door to their room clicks open and I hear her feet scurry down the hall past my door.
She is going to tell him.
After a few minutes that feel like days, my father calls for me. My stomach drops. I don’t know what’s coming, but my heart is pounding harder than my head, and my palms have gone clammy with sweat.
Why am I so nervous? I haven’t done anything.
Each step down the green mile to the kitchen makes my heart pound faster. I walk in to find my parents sitting at the table, staring at its surface, refusing to look at me.
After a moment that feels like an eternity, he speaks. “Sit.”
I take the chair across from them and wait.
“Your mother and I—”
A slight clearing of her throat interrupts him. Carl closes his eyes for a moment and takes a breath.
“Patricia and I don’t know what you are, Isaak, and to be frank, we don’t want to know.”
My stomach falls away completely.
“We’ve cared for you, raised you as our own, did everything right by you, but we don’t know what to do about this.”
Her red, cried-out eyes are like two immovable boulders, firm and affixed to their spot on the table.
“Whatever you are, it’s not right, not natural, and we don’t want it around us.”
Panic, tears, and a million bubbles of fear well up inside me. The blood rushes to my face, and my mouth goes dry. “But . . . I haven’t done anything.” My voice is barely more than a whisper.
“It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s about what you are.”
“But I’m a good kid. I make perfect grades. I’ve never gotten into any trouble. I don’t know what else—”
“You’re an abomination!”
Her eyes now rage toward me. She trembles and shakes. Her bloodshot eyes lend her a startling appearance. This is a woman worn to the very edge.
“I wished for a baby.” A trickle of clear snot drips from her nose. “I wanted nothing more my whole life. I prayed and prayed and prayed so hard that one day I would have a baby of my own to love. To give a better life than the one that I had. And then you came to us. The answer to my prayers.”
Her breath catches.
“God had listened to me. My entire life spent praying and He finally listened to me, and answered.” Her eyes lock with mine. “I see now that those prayers were in vain.”
She takes the damp, crumpled tissue clenched in her hand and finally wipes her nose and upper lip while I sit, bewildered, unable to process thought or emotion.
“You need to leave.”
He can’t look at me when he says it. For a moment he gives yet another look to Patricia, as if hoping she will find some last bit of mercy and change her mind. Her eyes remain firmly affixed on the table again as her answer. He sighs and continues the task he was ordered to execute.
“You’re turning eighteen tomorrow, tonight, and we want you out by then. You’re no longer welcome in this house. You need to leave.”
It feels like I’ve been hit in the chest, with no air to breathe even if I could inhale.
With trembling legs I stand and find the courage to look directly at them, though they both refuse to look at me.
But there’s nothing to say.
I back up from the table and, without thinking, open the screen door and walk out into the late-springtime evening.
Then I run.
• • •
The throbbing in my head dulls as the adrenaline pushes me up the hill toward Blackburn Park. I’m running and I can’t stop, can’t give my mind a moment to think about what just happened. I push and push and push. Finally I reach the top and violently inhale.
I’m panting and out of breath and completely unsure of what to do next. I don’t know whether to cry or laugh or scream. So many emotions are swirling in my head. Too many. The reality hasn’t even begun to hit me yet.
Where am I supposed to go? What am I going to do?
Bile rises in my throat. My feet are on autopilot and take me toward my spot, to the bench under the flagpole. I need to sit down before I pass out again.
But someone is already there.
No one ever comes up to the park, no one I know at least, but in the pink light of the sunset the silhouette looks familiar. “Jonathan?” I manage to catch my breath on the walk over.
Jonathan turns and looks back to me. He has tears streaming down his face.
Instantly, my worries seem less substantial.
“She’s gone, Isaak. She’s gone.”
I sit on the table and take his hand in mine. I never would’ve done something like that before, but stupid pretenses fade away in the wake of tragedy. He squeezes my hand and grips it with everything he has, then looks me in the eyes. His are bloodshot and his face, crumpled. Tears fill my eyes as I wait for him to speak again, but he doesn’t have to. I know what happened.
“She’s dead.” He barely gets the words out before he collapses into me, sobbing.
Jonathan, for all of his strength and eagerness to prove it, has a mother who is fighting leukemia.
Had a mother who was fighting leukemia.
I hold him as he sobs. He cries and cries and his body shakes. His hands dig deep into my back, he clings so hard.
When he finally stops, he lets go of me and quietly apologizes.
We sit next to each other, hand in hand, and watch as the setting sun bathes the entire valley before us in a golden orangey pink. Almost like clockwork, the cicadas end their day-long, droning cacophony. We take in the endless trees, the never-ending hills, the infinite sky, all of it.
It’s almost like standing at the edge of the ocean.
• • •
When I start back down the hill toward the house, it’s already nighttime. Stars litter the sky, and the moon is heavy and large in the distance.
I didn’t say anything to Jonathan about what brought me to the park. That I’ve been kicked out of my own house, that I don’t know what to do and have nowhere to go. He needed me too much tonight. After all, what’s worse: losing one parent who truly loved you or losing two who don’t even want you?
I’ve almost forgotten the throb of my headache until I see my house, my former house, perched up among the trees on Sand Street. The living room lights are on. They’re still awake.
I sneak up to the porch, the first of the year’s fireflies blinking in and out of existence around me, and hear a voice from the kitchen. I duck down and, ashamed at feeling like a trespasser in my own home, I listen.
“I don’t care about the money. The checks stop coming after he graduates next month anyway.”
“No, we’re not going to wait for someone. We’ve already kicked him out. He’s gone.”
She’s on the phone.
“He’s an abomination is what he is, and he is not staying here any longer. You people knew exactly what was going on and you still . . . No, sir, there’s no need to . . . Now you just wait a minute! We’ve raised him since he was two days old and we’ve done a damn good job of it. We always knew something was wrong with him, but you didn’t tell us he was . . . Well, I don’t know what he is! Now he’s gone, and if you really were all that concerned for him you shouldn’t have given him up in the first place!”
She slams the phone back into the receiver and stomps out of the kitchen.
My mind races.
Gave me up?
My head hurts so bad that my vision blurs. I have to get up to my room and just lie down, sleep this off. Sleep off the entire nightmare if I can. They’re usually asleep by now. If I could get to my bed, I know they wouldn’t notice just one more night.
My fingers jiggle the metal handle on the screen door, but it’s locked.
Another twist of the knife.
I get up and creep around the side of the house, down the little slope to where the garage connects to the basement in the back.
A flicker of movement catches my eye in the trees across the way.
Just across the road behind the house is a little trail that makes its way up into the woods and into the caves. Memories come flooding into me of my childhood, playing in the mouth of the cave, convincing myself that the reason I wouldn’t go all the way in was because I wasn’t allowed and was afraid of getting caught. A little boy would never admit that he was just too scared of the giant, gaping maw in the earth to venture in. It was like a dark, ancient, abandoned cathedral, and something about the unending stream of cold air pouring out into the woods always seemed to frighten me.
I saw something now though, in the trees by the trail. Probably just a fox, or a homeless traveler, who sometimes hop off the myriad trains that come to a crawl through the town at night and make their way into the caves to find shelter.
I make my way down around the garage and up the other side of the house to where several small windows peer into the basement, right at ground level. I kneel down in the chalky white gravel of the driveway and brace my weight up against the window, trying to slide the rusty frame up.
Eventually, it gives.
I slide feetfirst into the basement, lowering myself down as best I can.
I drop to the floor, dust off my jeans, and come face-to-face with my father. Well, the man who used to be my father.
I can barely make out his face in the darkness, but the bright moon coming in through the windows and the tiny red glow of his cigarette reveal a tired man, exhausted to the very core.
I don’t know whether to speak or to run.
“I’m sorry, Isaak. I told her to leave the door unlocked, but . . .” He doesn’t finish the statement.
I watch him take a long drag from his smoke, the little red ember flaring up in the darkness. He hasn’t smoked in the house since I was a little boy. Hasn’t smoked at all in years that I could remember.
“I never meant for it to be like this. For things to turn out this way.”
I can smell the alcohol now.
“It was never enough, just us. Just me.”
His eyes seem to glaze over, lost in his own thoughts.
“She wanted a baby, needed it, and I couldn’t give that to her. I’d never prayed for anything, but you don’t know how hard I prayed then, for her to get what she wanted, for us to be fixed, be happy again.”
I can hear his voice trembling in the darkness.
“They went unanswered . . . all of them. All those years wasted just praying.”
“So we made a deal with the devil, and we got ourselves a baby.”
He cracks. One single sob. I’ve never before seen him shed so much as a single tear.
“You’re a good kid. You don’t deserve this. But we don’t know . . . and I can’t tell her . . .” He swallows. “I’m so sorry, Isaak, but you can’t stay here.”
He composes himself and wipes his face clean.
“You can sleep in your room tonight, but you have to leave by morning.”
I take a step toward the stairs.
“Don’t let her see you.”
Reeling with questions I can’t ask and a pain slowly eating me from the inside out, I make my way up the staircase and leave the crumpled man I used to call Father sitting in the dark, the glow of a cigarette in hand and empty bottle of whiskey at his feet as he tries in vain to stifle his tears.
• • •
I lie in my bed, tossing and turning. The moonlight streaming into my room is so bright it makes the walls glow blue. My head throbs and pulses. I am in agony.
It has to be close to midnight when I start to hear it.
Whispers, murmurs, and little buzzes seem to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. They are trickling in at the moment, but I know it won’t be long until the cracks shatter open and they consume me.
This all has to end.
I force my eyes shut, lost in the maelstrom in my head. The waves of pain are so intense that they rock me into nausea. Whispers become shouts, the buzzing growing into a droning howl within. I hope that as long as I keep my eyes closed it will all go away soon.
Eventually I begin to succumb, and drift into the most restless sleep of my life.
• • •
I don’t know how long I’ve slept, but something wakes me with a start. I’m instantly alert, holding the stillness of the entire night within my breath.
I hear the floorboards creak down the hall toward my room.
Someone is in the house.
My heart pounds. I don’t know whether to jump out the window, or to lie as still as possible. A primal, human instinct tells me I’m in danger.
The footsteps draw closer.
I draw the blanket up over my head and press myself into the mattress as much as I can, a toddler’s maneuver to make himself invisible. If I could laugh at myself for being so stupid I would, but I’m paralyzed with fear.
The metal of the doorknob clicks. My breath feels hot under the covers, reflecting back toward my face, and my heart is about to beat itself out of my chest.
And silence still. Someone is standing in my room and watching me. I know it.
My panic mounts. I can’t just lie here. It might be stupid, but I have to do something.
I jump up and rush toward the middle of the room, blankets and all, trying to tackle the intruder. With a muffled grunt, I’m briskly, deftly, thrown back onto the bed, tangled in my sheets, and pinned.
Two legs, strong and muscular, hold me firmly in place. Two solid arms hold my own. I am a helpless sack, subdued with barely any effort whatsoever.
I’ve never seen, much less been attacked by, someone so incredibly strong.
Wrapped in my blanket and completely bound, I know I’m about to be killed.
Slowly, my captor pulls the blanket down over my face.
The image before me is not what I expect.
A young woman—a girl just a few years older than me—straddles me. Boyishly short platinum-blond hair falls flat across her forehead. A pert mouth and big, wide gray eyes give her the appearance of a pixie. Her black cargo pants and form-fitting black track jacket, the clench of her jaw, and the look of pure fire within her demeanor indicate that this particular pixie can kick some serious ass. I know she could snap me in two with a mere flick of the wrist.
I have no idea how such a small form holds so much power, but here she is, this tiny girl on top of me, holding my life in her hands.
She claps a hand over my mouth before I can scream.
“I know you’re frightened, and I’m sorry for coming to you like this,” she whispers, “but there are people, very bad people, coming to get you tonight. To kill you. I refuse to let that happen.”
I stop my attempts to escape and lock eyes with her. The liquid pools of slate, glowing faintly in the blue moonlight, are sincere. She’s telling the truth . . . or some version of it, at least.
“Come with me if you want to live.” She pushes off the bed with such ease it’s like she floats, then holds her hand out to help me up. “Put your shoes on. You don’t need anything else.”
I stumble as I look for my hoodie from earlier, my head still reeling from pain and confusion.
The ferocity in her whisper is enough to get me moving. My shoes and hoodie are on in an instant, and then I’m standing in the hallway with the girl, all but silent.
She puts a hand on my chest, holding me back a pace as she leads me down the hall. My vision still blurs, and the pain in my head has gotten so bad that I almost can’t bear it.
At the end of the hallway we step into the living room, and I catch the silhouette of a man, a big man, passing by the curtained windows.
They’re already here.
In an instant she has me down the basement stairs. We reach the door that leads into the garage and try to open it silently, but the rusted metal creaks a bit.
As we tear through the garage and out into the moonlight, I silently thank my father for always leaving the door open after running contraband whiskey bottles to the dumpster late at night.
We dart across the driveway, over the road, into the trees, and start up the tiny, overgrown path. She thrusts me into the thicket at the edge of the woods, crouches down with me, and turns to observe the house in the dark.
We’re surrounded by poison ivy—I’d recognize it anywhere—but before I can open my mouth to say something, I see them.
People dressed in solid black seem to materialize out of the night and surround the house. They crawl over the roof, sneak into the windows, and make their way around the back to the garage. Masks cover their faces and they all have guns. Big guns.
A light goes on in a bedroom—their bedroom—and almost as soon as it comes, it goes out with a crash and a blood-curdling scream. The sound is muffled not even a second later, and the night is quiet once more.
The knowledge barely sinks in before the girl pulls me up. The men are circling now, and one has spotted footprints leading into the woods. Leading to us.
We turn and flee up the path behind us. Branches whip our faces, and the ground is littered with football-size chunks of limestone, but neither get in our way. We run.
The sky is clear and bright with stars, and shadows play all across the ground as we charge through the brush—tumbling over rocks, kicking up the white dust of the trail, trying to escape.
Then I see it. The mouth of the cave. A monolithic chamber of limestone gleaming white in the moonlight, hidden behind the house for so many years. It terrified and mesmerized me throughout my entire childhood, and now a nameless girl leads me into it, away from something that scares me so much more.
We climb over the boulders at the entrance and run down the slope of rocks until we hit cold, white sand. I stop to marvel at having not tumbled down the rocky slope just before a loud, whizzing ping ricochets off the ceiling above me.
“Hurry!” she yells.
They’re shooting at us, and not with regular bullets.
We run to where the moonlight ends in the main space of the cave. Only jet-black emptiness is before us. She takes hold of my hand and barrels into the dark just as the sound of dozens of feet begin to echo at the entrance.
“Trust me,” she whispers.
With my left hand firmly grasped in hers, she takes off into the nothingness just as fast as when I could see. I stumble and trip to keep up with her, yet somehow she is navigating us through the dark with perfect ease.
We run for what feels like an eternity. I know that if I stop, even for a moment, the pain throbbing in my head will take me down and leave me vomiting on the cavern floor. Adrenaline surges me forward. The sand turns to rock once again and slopes upward, while the sound of feet closing in on us still echoes behind. We push up the slope, and I see moonlight coming in again.
The exit is just above us, a tiny manhole about eight feet off the ground.
We are trapped. There is no way to scale the wall and no way to reach the exit so high above us without a foothold.
The echoes come closer. We are about to run out of time.
In a blink the girl leaps straight from the rocky floor to the exit. She throws her legs out of the hole and then slings her torso back down toward me.
She offers her hands to me and I grasp them. Without a hint of strain, she lifts me up and out.
I tumble over her into the moonlight, down about fifteen feet from an embankment overlooking Osage Street. I clamber down the rocky slope as quickly as I can without falling face-first.
My feet catch hold on the flat pavement of the road as I look up toward the top of the cliff and see the flagpole. We’d been chased through the hillside below Blackburn Park. I never even knew the cave went that far.
A train’s horn peals in the distance, like a ghost howling in the night. It sounds like a death knell.
I turn and for a moment I panic, not sure where the girl has gone. My eyes scour the cliffside and the trees.
“Come on!” She tears across Osage and begins to race down Third Street.
The horn rings through the night once more, closer now.
“We probably have less than a minute before the vehicles arrive,” she says while we run. “We have to get to the tracks.”
We pass another intersection when headlights swing around the corner behind us, and the engines of two black SUVs roar down the street.
I push myself harder than I thought physically possible. My legs flash beneath me, and my mind peels away everything but the instinct of Left, right, left. . . .
We cross St. Louis Street. The tracks are now just half a block in front of us, cutting over the road, east to west, as we run southward.
The approaching train rings out once more. It is close now.
The vehicles barrel down the street toward us, closing in.
Left, right, left, right, left . . .
A white-hot flash of pain shoots into the back of my neck as my legs give out. The motion in my body dissipates, leaving so abruptly it’s like I never knew how to walk in the first place. I feel my knees take the brunt of the blow as they hit the pavement, and my face takes the remainder. As my skin slides away, tearing against the rough, dirty pavement, and my lifeless bones press into the ground, I hear the girl shout.
From my new position, I can see that we’re right in front of the old nursing home parking lot, right by the tracks.
The horn blasts into my ears. The train is here.
The girl takes a firm stance before my paralyzed body, between it and the two black SUVs that have stopped a few yards away.
They leave the headlights on as the doors open and the men climb out.
Guns fire all at once. But not normal guns. The shafts are significantly wider, and though I know practically nothing about firearms, I can see that these guns do not shoot bullets, but something much bigger. The sound of the fired shots isn’t like a normal gun either. It’s quieter. A buzz, almost, like an electric sound effect from a cartoon.
With a flick of the girl’s wrist, a convex veil of translucent, electric-blue light springs forth between us and our pursuers. As each of the massive silvery bullets connects with the blue wall, the light fizzles and crackles and the bullets fall to the ground.
I can feel the train hurtling behind us, shaking everything as it roars past.
As the men reload, the girl turns to look back at me, and I see her eyes blazing with a bright blue light. The same color of the electric-blue shield she is wielding. In that brief moment, through the light, I also see regret, sorrow, and a pain welled up so deep within her that I know someday it will consume her. Something under her hairline flares with the blue light as well, but I can’t fully make it out before she turns around and withdraws a tiny glass orb from one of the pockets on her cargo pants.
With a flash the veil before us dissolves, and she hurls the glass orb at one of the vehicles. It crashes into the windshield and cracks open. The orb is filled with a sticky, clear goo that clings to the window, letting off a soft purple glow.
Before I can process what is happening, she raises her hands and the veil of electric light appears once more, except this time as a dome around the men and their giant vehicles. Without warning, a massive explosion erupts from within the blue dome. A raging hellfire that barely rattles the ground below and makes no other sound or vibration besides. It is completely trapped inside the dome—a nightmarish snow globe filled with a churning fire.
The fire goes out almost as quickly as it erupted. The dome flicks out of existence, and the girl bends down to me. I can see that her eyes no longer glow as she almost effortlessly picks me up from the ground, slings me over her shoulder, and runs toward the train.
I feel my body leave the girl’s shoulder and my back land on hard metal. Before I can make out what is happening, the girl is beside me, leaning up against a rusty wall behind her, face drenched in moonlight, hair whipping in the wind. I can see it clearly now: a patch of skin on her forehead, right at her hairline, that emits a faint blue color. A bioluminescent birthmark.
My eyes attempt to scan my new surroundings, but they won’t move in their sockets, and my head won’t lift. All I see is black metal and an open side panel where she sits.
For several moments she stares out into the night and takes in the landscape flying by, lost in thought.
I can’t even blink as I watch the mysterious girl who’s taken me from my home and saved me from the men. Had she saved me? I saw what she did to the whole group of them. Who was really in danger back there?
As the adrenaline fades, the headache comes surging back. My head feels like it truly may burst. The voices flood into me, threaten to overwhelm me entirely.
I try to clear my mind and watch as Pacific, Missouri, flies past me in the night. I say my silent good-byes to my home and to my parents, but both had been neither, ultimately. This was not my home, and those were not my parents. I don’t know who I am, or even what I am, and there is nothing left to hold me in this tiny town any longer.
I watch the trees and hills dance before me in the night as we zoom past and bid a silent farewell to everything and everyone I’ve ever known.
Everything is about to change.
• • •
She pulled her long black hair into a ponytail as she paced back and forth across the small hotel room. Motel, rather. She hated being stagnant, hated feeling useless, but right now they had no choice but to sit in this tiny, dumpy room in the middle of the country and wait. It was starting to get hot out—not the soothing dry heat like back in Vegas or LA, but the sticky, wet heat of the South and the Midwest. The cicadas droned on endlessly outside, but only the air conditioner and the old TV stuck on the news made any noise in the room. She hated it. All of it.
“Please relax for a minute. You’re stressing me out.”
She ignored him.
He seemed to be taking this odd limbo they’d found themselves in quite a bit better than she was. How could he, though? They needed to find her, and the other six as well. They desperately needed to find the other Gates in order to get to them, but after what had happened a few nights ago, they no longer had anyone to operate a Gate even if they did locate another one. They hadn’t even figured out how to get them through the Gates alive yet.
Maybe I should go to him? Maybe I should tell them the truth about what they are—
No. The thought was shot down in her head almost immediately. That was simply not, and never would be, an option. If there was any hope for the Underground, for her mission, then that couldn’t be an option. She couldn’t go. They’d never take her back if they found out. They wouldn’t believe her, and she would be ostracized. Then there truly would be no hope for her, or for any of them.
He got up from the bed, blocked her way midpace, and put his hands on her shoulders.
“We’re not going to get anything done with you losing your mind like this. You have to relax.”
Her eyes snapped back to him, back to the room around her.
“I’m sorry. I just hate this. I don’t know what to do. I always know what to do,” she said softly as she sat on the bed.
“Nobody ever always knows what to do.” He sat beside her and held her hand. “If we’re here for a few days, then clearly it’s for a reason. This only gives us more time to think.”
She held his hand in silence for moment, and her eyes drifted back out into the plane of her own thought.
“We need to send a Flare.”
“You know we can’t do that,” he said, taken aback.
“We don’t have a choice.”
She was serious.
“They’re not safe anymore. Sheriffs will be on us in seconds if they’re anywhere within fifty miles of here. You know that.”
“It’s a risk we have to be willing to take.”
“We can’t get reckless. Not now.” His eyes were locked with hers once more. “We’ve come too far. That could jeopardize everything. You know that.”
Her eyes narrowed and her jaw clenched tight.
“Pack everything up, get the computer ready to go, and we’ll find a place. Somewhere out in public, where we aren’t backed into a corner. We’ll send it out tonight, after midnight, and be ready to run if anything goes wrong. We have to find more of them.” She stood and began to round up her things. It didn’t take long for her to get ready to run.
She was always ready to run.
“Otherwise they’re all going to die.”