Track 16: Tonight’s All Right for Fighting

After the awkwardness of Nari and May having to be in the same room for the tutoring session, I went to Krieger’s office to brief him on what I was using the various materials for. He was only available this weekend because he was teaching Hell Semester again. Luckily, Krieger is kind of a work machine and was able to meet me at his office.

The office was in Sun Tzu, which meant less walking. I knocked on the office door.

“It’s unlocked, boyke,” a South African-accented voice said behind me. “Just walk on in.”

I turned around. There, looking as lion-like as ever, was Professor Karl Krieger, his mane-like beard a little less well-kempt than usual. He had changed out of his drill sergeant uniform and was wearing cargo pants, Hell Semester t-shirt, and a raincoat. Judging by how dry the raincoat was, he had been waiting for me.

“Actually,” remembering about Mendez and Gupta, “I was thinking we could talk outside.”

Krieger raised an eyebrow. “Of course,” he said. “It being such a lovely day and all.” To punctuate this, there was a clap of thunder. Also, since we were on the top floor, we could hear the sound of rain pattering down on the roof.

As we entered the elevator, Krieger asked, “So, why were you requesting so much raw material? And why was much of it explosive?”

“Nari Lee and I are entering the firearm business,” I said. “May Riley and Andy Sebaldi are also in on it, May very reluctantly.”

“And the explosives?” Krieger asked.

“We’re making our own ammo,” I said. “I… saw a need for something that can reliably penetrate Dragon’s Teeth armor when we were in Korea. Our weaponry wasn’t quite up to par.”

“And your plans on advertising and distribution?” Krieger asked.

“Well,” I said as the elevator dinged open, “there was a contest for a new FBI firearm because…”

“Because .40 S&W was having trouble penetrating exotic armor,” Krieger said, rolling his eyes. “I heard. I also heard that you need a recommendation to get in. You also need to be able to produce a hundred for testing purposes, plus ten thousand rounds to put through each gun for testing purposes.”

“Oh,” I said. That was one plan down the drain. As we headed towards the door, I added, “the first part, I have no idea how to do. The second part, well, that’s why we have Andy.”

“Even if you did get a pistol out,” Krieger said, “and the Dragon’s Teeth invade, the program is limited deployment. Only a few agents will get assigned one, mostly Parahuman investigations, HRT and FBI SWAT. And even then, you realize it’s just a pistol?”

“I was kind of hoping that would lead to others adopting it,” I said. “And also building a following that I could sell the SMG and assault rifle I’m designing to.”

“Still,” Krieger said, “those are just personal weapons. They might kill a few of the foot soldiers, but how are you going to deal with their vehicles? I recall you were also quite impressed with them as well.”

I shook my head. “Someone else will have to deal with that.”

Krieger laughed. When he was done, he said, “You’re learning, boyke! In the meantime, I have some friends who have… an understanding with the FBI. They could use an armor-piercing pistol, caseless or otherwise.”

I looked around. No one was coming. “In other news,” I said, just loud enough to be heard above the rain, “if you’re still annoyed by the way things are going, Officers Gupta and Mendez might be sympathetic.” When I saw Krieger nod, I raised my voice. “In other news, I feel kind of bad for dragging you out here. Do you want me to get you a drink?”

Krieger accepted, and we got something called a Caribou Lou. Let me just say, if you like rum, pineapple juice, and getting pretty sloshed, you’ll like a Caribou Lou.

The next week wasn’t anything special. I had schoolwork, of course, and I was busy trying to make the SMG. Meanwhile, Andy was finding a place to put his assembly lines other than Sunny’s basement. He was also working with Krieger to get the first order completed.

It went on like this until Fight Night came. As I was putting on the suit I had brought (by the way, thanks, dad for making me bring it,) my cPhone beeped. I picked it up, seeing it was a phone call from Eliza. “Hello,” I said.

“I just realized,” Eliza said breathlessly, “it’s Fight Night, innit? And you work at The Drunken Mercenary. You can’t make it, can you? Oh God, I’m a right…”

“Eliza,” I said, interrupting her, “The Drunken Mercenary closes on Fight Night.”

“Really?” Eliza asked incredulously. “Why the bloody ‘ell’d they do that?”

“I asked Dmitri the exact same thing,” I said. “Apparently, the first Fight Night after it opened, a few fights broke out and there were pretty serious casualties. Think about it: you’re wasted and someone from Britain gets his head bashed in by Ulfric. Then you hear some… I don’t know, French people laughing at it. What would you do?”

Eliza paused for a bit. Finally, very grudgingly, she admitted, “…I’d fuckin’ cut ‘em up.”

“Apparently,” I said, “what finally caused The Drunken Merc to close on Fight Night was the Fight Night Riot of ’94. All I know was that it had something to do with the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocide and it… got ugly after that. Plus some Parahumans decided that they didn’t like other Parahumans and…”

“Say no more,” Eliza said. “I’ll just fix me makeup, then I’ll meet you there.”

The Veranda was on the border between Rogue and Business territory. A good decision, as the Rogues and Business majors were typically the only ones who could afford to eat there regularly. As I walked, I noticed that a lot of businesses, specifically the ones that distributed alcohol, were closed. Also, Campus Security was out in force around the AMS/Shadowhaven areas. I saw four Bearcats and several checkpoints manned by Security officers in combat gear. The last time I had seen Security carry such heavy equipment carried openly was when the Grenzefrontier had invaded the campus.

When I finally got into the building the Veranda was located, I saw Eliza was waiting by the elevator. She was wearing a beautiful dress that was a bright, soothing green to match her eyes. She was also tottering a bit on heels, and she seemed a bit nervous. Behind her, guarding the elevator, were two female Campus Security Officers. They weren’t in full combat gear, but they both had slightly heavier vests on, and one had a SPAS-12 and the other had a P-90.

“Oh, there you are!” she said, moving towards me as fast as her heels would allow. “Finally! These blokes ‘ere were gettin’ a bit nervous!” One of the guards, a somewhat tanned-looking woman carrying the P-90, waved awkwardly. She looked away when Eliza embraced me. “Apart from that, you’re actually a little early. I was just nervous because, well, I’ve never done anythin’ like this before.”

“Me neither,” I admitted. “I’m glad I’m doing it with you.” We stood there standing awkwardly. “Uh…” I said, motioning towards the elevator, “do you…”

“Yeah…” Eliza said. “Yeah! Let’s go do that.”

“If you’re going to go up there,” the guard with the SPAS-12 said, her voice tinged with amusement, “we’ll have to check you for weapons. This is the only place on campus tonight serving alcohol, so you can’t be armed here tonight.”

After surrendering our weapons (I had my Berretta and my SIG, Eliza had a CZ-75,) we took the elevator up to The Veranda. Oddly enough, it was quite empty. I guess, since the Veranda didn’t have any TVs, people just stocked up on booze and watched Fight Night with friends.

Speaking of The Veranda’s interior, it reminded me a lot of how the Blackmoor-Ward looked. It was, in short, expensive. Everything, from the scented candles on the tables and the romantic lighting, to the intricately carved, yet surprisingly comfortable chairs, screamed that it was expensive as it was tasteful.

The most wonderful thing about the restaurant, though, was the view. It was located on the top two floors of one of the taller buildings on campus, with only the hospital being taller. The Veranda made use of its prime location by having glass exterior walls and ceilings, giving the diner an amazing panoramic view of the island. The effect was lessened on us due to the torrential rain reducing visibility, but from where we were seated, I swear I could see the outline of the Hell Semester Barracks in the distance and the lights they were using to illuminate Fight Night.

“Fucked up, innit, mate?” Eliza asked, following my gaze. Her ears were flattened, and I could tell she was remembering something by the way the normally mischievous gleam in her eyes had disappeared.

Just as I was about to agree, a voice said, “I take it that means you’ll want something to drink to start off?” We turned around to see a very trim Asian student with plastic-rimmed glasses and over-gelled hair arranged in a peak. He was wearing a tuxedo and an apron, obviously part of his uniform. Something about his attitude suggested that he definitely wasn’t an AMS, Rogue or Shadowhaven student. It was probably that when we turned to stare at him, he flinched. “Sorry,” he said hurriedly, “kind of a stupid joke…”

“But accurate,” Eliza said, obviously forcing some of her normal cheer into her voice. “If you’ve got any scotch, I’d like a double.” I noticed that her ears were still drooping.

I probably wasn’t looking very happy myself. Remembering the certificate included two free drinks, I added, “I’ll have your best bourbon.” Suddenly realizing our waiter hadn’t introduced himself, I asked, “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Oh!” our server said, suddenly realizing his mistake. “Hi! My name is Timothy, and I’ll be your server this evening. Would you like to order some drinks to start off your meal?” I noticed that when flustered, he had gone from a neutral, if somewhat clinical American accent to a slight Chinese accent. Still, his English was very good.

Eliza, however, was probably too busy laughing at Timothy’s mistake to notice his accent shift. Eventually, after Eliza stopped chuckling, we made our order again. This time, we were more specific about the kind of booze we wanted.

After Timothy was done taking our drink orders, he asked, “Hey, weren’t you one of the guys who killed Eric and James Roberts?”

I pointed at myself, a feeling of dread. Timothy nodded. “When was this?” I asked.

“Last semester,” Timothy said, “during the break-in at the hospital’s Secure Records section.”

“First off,” I said, “I might not have killed him. There was another person with me. Secondly…”

“I know,” Timothy said, a note of unrepentant glee in his voice. “But you might have killed him, so I should probably thank you. The guys were in my Project Management and Accounting classes. Even the other Nazi sympathizers hated them.” He then pocketed his pen and pad. “Anyway, your drinks will be right out.” He then hurried off, nearly skipping for joy.

“Bit of a sociopath, isn’t ‘e?” Eliza remarked when he was out of earshot.

I nodded. I was a little disturbed at how happy he was two people he had known personally were dead. Still, when he came back with our drinks, I noted that ours were filled to the brim, while our neighbors who ordered shots only had theirs filled three-quarters of the way. Timothy sure knew how to suck up.

Conversation was mostly light between Eliza and me. We did exchange drinks for a few sips just to see if we could tell the difference. We could. Timothy, however, made sure that they were filled up. When I mentioned that my certificate only covered three drinks, Timothy assured us that it was on the house. We still switched to water, me after my fourth shot, Eliza after her fifth. Needless to say, when some old acquaintances of mine came in, we were feeling pretty good.

“…so, those clients Krieger got us want five prototypes,” I was saying to Eliza as Timothy removed the plate my steak had been on. “They also want…” I paused. The group that had been drinking shots had left and the tables they’d occupied had been split apart. Sitting at one of them were Agents Takashi and Brosnan. As I stared, Brosnan raised his glass in a mock toast, a patronizing smirk on his face.

Champagne, I thought. The bastards are drinking champagne while people are beating each other to death only a few kilometers away. As soon as I thought that, though, I reminded myself, Hey, the only reason you’re here is because you’ve just eaten the most expensive steak you’ve ever laid eyes on. Don’t judge.

“What’s wrong?” Eliza asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Takashi and Craig are here.”

“‘Oo?” Eliza asked, cocking her head. Then, her ear closest to where Takashi and Craig were sitting twitched. “Wait, they’re the blokes near us oo’re drinkin’ bubbly and laughin’ it up, right?”

“Well,” I said, noticing Takashi now was directing a murderous stare at me, “Takashi’s not exactly happy.”

“Are… are they the guys ‘oo got you to…” Eliza began, “…to… to, y’know…? Then bleedin’ stiffed you?”

I nodded, desperately trying to keep myself from causing a scene. Takashi, however, was under no such restrictions. He stood out of his chair with such force that it fell over. In response, Eliza’s triple claws shot out of her hands. Before she could launch herself at Takashi, I grabbed her wrists, nearly setting my hair on fire from the candle.

“Eliza,” I said, staring into her pale, shaking face, “it’s not worth it.” The look on Eliza’s face was downright murderous. According to what I knew about Lupines (and Eliza in particular,) when the claws came out, that meant violence was extremely likely.

From his table, I could hear Brosnan call out warningly, “Takashi…”

Takashi, meanwhile had appeared at our table, and he was livid. “You…” he said.

I ignored him and kept staring straight into Eliza’s eyes. While Takashi’s expression was a little scary, Eliza was utterly terrifying. Her face completely white with rage, she was trembling with the rage only a berserk Lupine could muster, and blood was dripping from her extended claws onto the expensive white tablecloth. Her attention rested evenly between me and Takashi, ready to spring into action if he made a move.

“Eliza, look at me,” I said. “He isn’t worth it.”

“Do you know every person you killed?” Takashi asked, his voice quivering.

“Takashi!” Craig yelled. “Don’t aggravate the bloody Lupine!”

“Eliza,” I said, still ignoring Takashi, “repeat after me: he isn’t worth it.” I’m not even sure she could even understand me at that point. From my grip on her wrists, I could feel her vibrate with rage.

“Your little playdate in North Korea,” Takashi said, “somehow managed to kill a few of my close friends.”

At the word playdate, I almost let go of Eliza’s wrists. Yet somehow, I instead found the self-restraint to say, “He’s. Not. Worth. It.”

“Do you want to know how I know?” Takashi asked. Behind him, I could see his partner get up and begin to move slowly towards us, making obvious effort to appear non-threatening. Takashi was as oblivious to this as he was to the berserk Lupine. “I know this because the nine-year-old girl they were supposed to bring back miraculously ends up in your custody. She’s also carrying my best friend’s side-arm in footage you provided to us!”

That explained the team that wasn’t NIU, North Korean or Dragon’s Teeth. They were UNIX, and they were there for Nari. John was right. Ironically, he had figured it out when Takashi had shoved the barrel of his pistol into my eye.

At the moment, I had bigger problems to worry about. Takashi’s impassioned shout hadn’t just attracted the eyes of all the diners, but it had also pushed Eliza too far. She began to struggle violently to break free of my grasp. I knew the first thing she would do would be to rip Takashi to shreds. After that, I had no idea what she’d do, other than that it would most likely be extremely violent. The last time I had seen her even close to this, she had literally spilled someone’s guts. I had the pleasant experience of being in the same ambulance as that victim. Eliza had been much calmer in that situation.

Before she could break free, Brosnan grabbed his partner and flung him away from us. “YOU BLOODY GIT!” he yelled. “YOU FUCKING SHITSTAIN!”

“What fu…?” Takashi asked. He made a loud squeak instead of finishing his curse because Brosnan had kicked him in the balls.

“You fucking moron!” Brosnan shouted. “Now, I have to hurt you, or a Lupine goes on a bloody rampage.” Takashi yelped as Brosnan’s foot connected again. Brosnan continued, “You should know better than anyone what a Lupine can do when pissed, especially a Fighter-type female!” He stomped on Takashi. Hard. “You endangered a room full of civillians over a fucking vendetta.” He reached down and pulled Takashi up. “Get out of here. And be thankful I’ve not yet washed my hands of you.”

Takashi began to walk off, his suit rumpled and his nose and lips bleeding. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something, then he thought better. Eliza watched him leave. I was glad to note that the color was returning to her face.

After Takashi had left, Brosnan turned to us. “I apologize for the interruption,” he said. “Please, have a pleasant evening.”

“Oi,” Eliza said as Brosnan turned to leave. She was whispering in an out-of-breath, yet scarily controlled whisper.

“Yes?” Brosnan asked, turning around.

“Control your partner,” Eliza said, still in that quiet, yet dangerous voice. “Or next time, I will.”

“Of course.” Brosnan said. “I can assure you, of the two of us, it is not my partner you need to worry about.” He bowed and walked off.

 

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Track 6: Back in the NIU Groove

As I fell, I lost my grip on my Berretta, causing it to clatter to the ground. I quickly grabbed it and turned around, looking to see what I had tripped over.

Lying next to me, wearing a blue sweater, was an olive-skinned man with close-cropped hair. He groaned, and tried to get to his feet. “Mubashir?” I asked. “Is that you?” Mubashir Mubarak was one of the other three NIU infiltrators who accompanied me into this rat’s nest. His mission was a little different than mine: not only was he working for UNIX, but I also believed he was working with the CIA or someone to infiltrate Al-Qaeda.

As I watched him struggle to get up, I noticed that something was leaking from his eyes and nose. It took me a bit to realize that he was bleeding. “Jacobs?” he asked when he was finally able to look up, his voice confused. “What are you doing in my room?”

As he stared into my eyes, I saw that his pupils were different sizes. “This isn’t your room,” I said, the horror in my gut changing flavor. Moob’s boss, Salim, had it out for me. If we were caught together, it would be a death sentence for Mubashir. On the other hand, Mubashir was showing obvious signs of a concussion. If I let him walk off, there was a chance he would just fall down and never get back up again.

While I was considering this, Mubashir began looking around. “You’re right…” he said, “but where are we?”

“We’re…” I began, then looked around. We were still in NIU, but in a part I had never seen before. Over a white picket fence, I could see what I assumed to be Sun Tzu. Between Sun Tzu and the picket fence was a chain link fence.

I began looking around more carefully. Behind us was a white colonial-style house, like the kind back home. The house and backyard area we were in was well-maintained. To the left was a green house of a different style and what looked to be a convenience store. To the right was a blue house and some kind of office building.

“…Well, I’m not sure,” I said as I got up. “Maybe it’s the Kill Street. That’s pretty far from where I was when…” I shuddered. Not only had I been… assaulted by some Lovecraftian shit, I had somehow teleported here. Also, judging by the sun, it was a little after noon, yet I had no blank spots that explained the time skip.

“The what?”

“I kind of heard older students talk about it,” I said. “It’s basically urban/suburban combat training.” I turned my attention back to Mubashir. “You ok, man?”

I had good reason to ask. His efforts to get to his feet only made him look drunk, plus he was shivering like the temperature was sub-arctic. Also, while I couldn’t be sure because the rate was so low, I had the sneaking suspicion that the bleeding from his eyes and nose was still happening.

“I need to be,” he said, in a tone as frightened as it was dazed. “I… I have to get back. I’ve been blacking out like this too much…”

“Wait,” I asked suddenly, “you’ve been blacking out and ending up in strange places on a regular basis?”

“I…” Mubashir was about to say something, then his eyes drifted to my hand. I suddenly realized that it was still clutching my Berretta. “…I need to go,” Mubashir said. He then ran off.

“Talk to a doctor!” I yelled after him as he disappeared around the house. After a few seconds, I added under my breath, “fucking dumbass.”

The next step was to find out the time. That was easy, if disconcerting. I pulled out my phone. For a second, it said the time was 7:35 AM, which was about the time the weird shit had started going down. Then, after it finished reconnecting to the internet, it updated to 2:24 PM. I had lost seven hours.

The next step was to get out. That was just as easy. Since I didn’t want to attract any more negative attention to Mubashir than his bleeding eyes, frequent blackouts and disorientation normally would, I decided to scale the chain link fence. It was only after I had got down on the other side that I realized how much more healthy all the running around made me. That was the one good thing about being in the AMS: I may have already been shot, I may be mentally disintegrating, and I may have potentially been attacked by an Elder God, but at least I wouldn’t die from being overweight.

The rest of the day was a mess of wondering whether or not what had happened that morning was real. Either way, I probably should tell someone. It was just… I wasn’t sure if anyone I knew could do anything about it.

I mostly spent the time before the meeting doing school shopping. One of the first things, I have to admit, was buy some whiskey, one that was, apparently, tinged with honey. It was to be my reward for meeting up with Krieger. Once I had met with him, I was going to go straight back to my room and start imbibing.

I got to the Drunken Mercenary exactly ten minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn’t help but smile. The Drunken Mercenary was built into a dorm for fresh meat (or AMS/Shadowhaven students who hadn’t passed Hell Semester.) Once Hell Semester was over, the survivors would move into this dorm. Most of it was the same semi-modern style as all the other buildings on the island, but The Drunken Mercenary did its best to replicate an old tavern. An old-time sign hung over a Medieval-looking door that served as the bar’s entrance. Behind the blacked-out window was the trappings of an old European pub, plus a few pool and poker tables and a few TVs that invariably were tuned to soccer, or, as the people watching called it, football.

“Nathan!” A booming Russian voice called out. I turned to seem my boss, Dmitri Arkadyvich Popov, a tall, muscular Russian with a shaved head. “Why so early?”

“Just thought that if I could get here early, I could leave earlier,” I said.

“You poor fool,” Dmitri said as he got his keys out. “Now you will be waiting as well.” He then pushed open the door and I followed him into the bar.

Before he could turn on the lights, someone sitting by the door between the Drunken Mercenary and the dorm part of the building beat him to it. “You’re late, Dmitri,” a hard, female voice with a Russian accent said.

I turned to see a middle-aged woman with dark hair sitting at one of the tables. I recognized her instantly: Professor Zemylachka, the head of the Shadowhaven school. Dimitri laughed. “Rosie,” he said, “one of these days, your ninja horseshit will get you shot.”

“You’ll forgive me,” Professor Zemylachka said wryly, “if I’m not too frightened by that. Would you get me a drink?”

“Nathan,” Dmitri said, “you want to get some practice bartending?”

“Sure,” I said. “By the way, what are my hours going to look like?”

“I was thinking you could get your old times, plus Friday,” Dmitri said as I moved behind the bar.

“Sounds good,” I said, “all my classes are during late mornings or early afternoons.” I picked up a cup. “Hey, Professor, what do you want?”

“May I have the good stuff?” Professor Zemylachka asked.

“Is she a personal friend?” Dmitri asked.

“No sir,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Sorry, Ma’am. Rules are rules.” The rule in question was that when I was behind the bar, I had to run it like a kleptocrat, only unlocking the cabinet that contained the non-shitty alcohol for personal friends. Everyone else got a brand of beer from America that was famous for its lack of quality, cheap Russian vodka, and some unidentifiable liquid stuffed in a jam jar and disturbingly labeled “For Assholes. Free.”

Professor Zemylachka laughed. “What about Mr. Popov?” she asked.

I considered, then said, “He just pays the bills.”

The head of Shadowhaven laughed. Dmitri, weirdly enough, told me, “Good job. Remember, you are master of the bar.”

“What about me, boyke?” a growly voice asked.

I looked up. Leaning against the window, I saw Professor Krieger leaning on the wall next to the door leading out to the street. As usual, his light brown eyes were sparkling with insanity. Someone who didn’t know better would think that someone that big couldn’t sneak in like that.

I, however, had seen bigger be stealthier. “Sorry,” I said, “best I can give you is a twenty-five percent discount on the cat piss.” I indicated the tap to indicate what I meant.

“I’m hurt, Boyke.”

“You should be honored,” Dmitri said. “I only let people give discounts when they want to impress someone or negotiate with them, especially one that good.”

“Oh,” Krieger said. “In that case, I’m honored. A pitcher of cat pee for me and my friends.”

I got busy preparing the awful substance for them. Just as I was about done, Kyle Rockford walked in. One of the four survivors (not counting Nari) of the North Korean recon mission, he was recruited by Krieger and advised by Professor Zemylachka. He also had led a sting mission against Grenzefrontier sympathizers at NIU at the behest of The President.

That mission had come to a bloody end at the end of last semester. His team, mostly teammates from his high school who had apparently stood by him when he came out as trans, had all ended up dead. Needless to say, by the time of the North Korean expedition, he was kind of soured on the whole “being a spy” thing. In fact, I was surprised to see him back here.

“Oh no,” he said. “How long have they been talking to you?”

“Kyle,” I asked, somewhat confusedly as he walked over to me, “what are you talking about?”

“Listen,” he said, “Nate, you’re a decent person. Leave now while you can still live with yourself.”

“Are you threatening another student?” Professor Zemylachka asked.

“We both know full well what I’m saying,” Kyle said, turning to her angrily. He turned back to me. “Seriously, man,” he said, “I’m not threatening, I’m begging. They want to do the impossible.”

“And that is…?” I asked.

“We feel the school is not living up to its potential as a learning environment,” Kreiger said. “Some of our fellow faculty in the more… pacifistic programs have tried to make changes as well. Their approaches have met with failure as their methods required them to work with people who had vested interest in keeping things the same. As such, they failed.”

Things were now disturbingly clear. The faculty of AMS and Shadowhaven were planning an armed revolt. “I see…” I said.

“Nate,” Kyle said, “I came back to get as many people out as possible.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Their plan… remember those people at Hell Semester final? Remember how North Korea looked when we got there? That’s what’s going to happen.”

I paused. Then I asked Krieger, “Are your plans for change… playing into your strengths?”

“It depends,” he said. “We have some reasonable demands. Less brutal Hell Semester, students having more control over their own work, having punishments being less arbitrary… things of that nature.”

“And when would this be?” I asked.

“Now, boyke,” Krieger said, “you should know that we can’t really tell you anything more until you’re in.”

“And if I don’t join?” I asked.

“Depends on who else you tell,” Kreiger said. “We can keep disagreements civil if you can.”

I considered. Finally, I said, “I’ll have to think about this.”

Kyle’s face fell. Krieger smiled. “Take your time, boyke,” he said. “After all, we still have a lot of time.”

 

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Track 5: Get a Job

Eventually, Sunny came to get Nari. “I’m sorry,” Sunny apologized to May and me. “She’s supposed to tell me before she walks off.”

“Totally fine,” May said as Sunny began to yell at Nari in Korean. “She’s actually a… You aren’t listening to me, are you?”

Meanwhile, the clerk yelled, “Yes! Yes! Take her away before she breaks something please!”

Eventually, Nari and Sunny left. As she hurried Nari off, Sunny said, “Well, Nathan, I hope to see you soon!”

“See you too,” I said, waving as she left. When she was gone, I asked May, “So, you want to get breakfast?”

May shrugged. “Sure,” she said.

Breakfast was enjoyable, and I managed to seal the deal for investing in May and Andy’s company. It wasn’t a controlling share by any stretch, but I’d have a say in the major decisions and a percentage of the profits. I also learned that Andy and May had gotten… close over the summer. Mary, however, had kind of drifted off due to an argument.

“And you,” May said, doing that weird thing where she was suddenly drifting back to someone else, “also had quite the summer as well.” Damn. I was hoping she’d forget about that. She then got very quiet and watched me intensely. I could swear she was gambling on the awkwardness of the conversation forcing me to speak.

“John and I had…” I searched for the words, “… a job from The President.”

“Yeah,” May said, “you told me that. Now give me details.” She looked like she wanted to pester me with questions, but she continued with her version of the silent treatment.

“Ok,” I said, giving in and lowering my voice, “We went to North Korea to find out what the hell was going on.” When I saw that May had heard this (she gasped and covered her hands with her mouth,) I began speaking normally. People in crowded areas don’t usually pay attention to what strangers are saying, especially if they’re acting normal. My hope was that people thought May’s reaction was just her hearing some juicy gossip that didn’t concern them. Of course, that was kind of the truth.

“Basically,” I continued, “we were able to get in and out before the big reveal.”

“Before…” May said, somewhat in awe, “…before Drake came out?” Unsurprisingly, the genius caught on fast. Bonus points for making the Dragon’s Teeth sound like some closeted gay mutual acquaintance instead of an army threatening everything we loved.

“Yeah,” I said. “He let us go, but he kicked our ass. Anyway, if I wanted to get something analyzed on the quiet…”

May gave me an exasperated look. “Let me guess, The President doesn’t know about this.”

“He actually kind of does,” I said.

“What do you mean, ‘Kind of?’” May asked. Abruptly, her voice became dangerous. I had seen her like this only a few times. Every single one of these times, scary people would suddenly become scared of her. “I’d like specifics.”

“He knows,” I said, now irrationally fearing for my life, “that I’m keeping some souvenirs from my trip and he has an inkling of what I might do with them. If it makes you feel better, you can check with him about it. I just don’t want other parties getting ahold of the lab results.”

May suddenly got apologetic. “Sorry for snapping, Nate,” she said, reverting back to her usual bouncy self, “I just get kind of… irrational when I think…”

“Hey,” I said, cutting her off, “first rule of this place: trust nobody. Not even me.” Her eyes widened. I must have reverted back to my battlefield persona, the one that had earned me the nickname “Killer.”

Slightly guilty that I had scared her, I continued on. “Anyway, I can get the samples to you any time.”

“Yeah,” May said. “Well, uh… I’ve… I’ve got some stuff to do.” She got up to put her plates in the washing queue.

“We should meet again,” I said. “Maybe do a study group?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Anything I’d be able to help with?”

“Not sure,” I said. “Do you know anything about physics, calc and bio?”

“Nate,” she said, “you do realize that those are the hardest classes you can take as an AMS student, right?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ll deal with that when I get to it. Anyway, be seeing you.” Suddenly, my phone rang. “Oh,” I said. I was expecting Eliza. Instead, I saw an unwelcome name on my cPhone’s touch screen.

As soon as I accepted the call, an unpleasantly familiar voice with a South African accent asked, “So boyke, how would you like to meet with yer advisor before he goes off to Hell Semester?”

The voice belonged to Karl Krieger, my Hell Semester drill sergeant and student advisor. He was a white man from South Africa who had (based on his word and pictures in his office) gone from nerdly Nelson Mandela devotee to mad, lion-like mercenary and drill sergeant at NIU. Something had happened to him and now, every time I looked into his brown eyes, I could see a scary mixture of intelligence and insanity. Still, he wasn’t anywhere near the scariest or craziest person on the island. He also claimed to have good intentions (i.e. overthrowing the President) but anyone could talk the talk.

I sighed. It was probably going to be mandatory to meet with him. “Is it going to have to be tonight?” I asked. “I was going to have dinner with… a friend.”

“Ah, you can put it off a night if it is who I think it is,” Krieger said. “But if you want to do your scholarly duty and get your bartending job back, meet me at the Drunken Russian at eight.”

I sighed. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll be there.”

“Very good, Killer,” Krieger said, “I’ll be waiting at The Drunken Mercenary along with Dmitri and a few others around eight. See you there.” He then hung up.

I groaned. Well, I thought to myself, at least I might be able to meet up with her for lunch. I’ll call her.

I had already finished my food, so I began to head off as I called Eliza. I wasn’t really going anywhere, instead taking a leaf out of May’s book. It was the last day of freedom before the semester started, and the only day at NIU I had experienced that wasn’t raining, snowing, unreasonably hot, terrifyingly cold, or some combination. I was going to make the most of it.

“‘Ello, Nate,” Eliza’s voice came from over the phone. “What’s happenin’?”

“My advisor called,” I said. “I need to meet up with him by eight. Does that affect our plans to meet up…?”

“Yeah… about that…” Eliza said. “I already ‘ave some stuff on the table. Oro ‘n Bai kind of asked if I could go supply shoppin’ with ‘em. I ‘aven’t seen them since the term ended and… and Bai found out ‘bout what ‘appened with John.”

Oddly enough, the line to her was getting kind of fuzzy. Normally, a cPhone on NIU’s network produced the kind of quality audiophiles paid out the nose to get. Now it sounded like one of those radios on the movies, the kind that was constantly crackling.

Putting that thought out of my mind, I said, “Let me guess: Bai blames me for John getting shot.” That was bad. Not only was Bai John’s girlfriend, but she was a trained martial artist who had just started to learn how to shoot guns.

“What was that?” Eliza asked, the distortion from the connection barely making her intelligible. I had to repeat myself three times.

“Oh, that makes sense, doesn’t it?” Eliza said. “God the connection is…” She was cut off by a hiss of static. “…ing Vodafone is better’n this shite,” Eliza said, not realizing she had been cut off. “Anyway, yeah, Bai ain’t exactly pleased. She ‘eard about it through some medics, so she knows exactly how bad ‘e was.”

While I had been walking, I had somehow got to the wall that separated the campus from the rest of the island. Part of the reason for this was to keep some of the students in softer fields from walking out into an island dotted with mines and unexploded ordnance, especially while AMS and Shadowhaven students were using live ammo. Like the majority of the man-made structures on the island, the wall was made of red brick and mortar…

…Except for a brief moment (barely even a second) when it hadn’t. Instead, it had been a yellow-colored material, the kind you saw a lot in pictures of the Middle East.

“Oi!” Eliza said into the phone, “Nate! You haven’t said anything in ages.”

“Sorry,” I said, “I thought I saw something.”

“What do you mean?” Eliza asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, leaning in to the brick wall. At the time, I could swear I was going crazy, but the brick looked different. Before, I could swear the bricks had more variation, mostly due to weathering. Now, I was somewhat freaked out because I swore each one looked exactly the same. The coloring, the pattern NIU’s freak weather system had worn them down… all the same, or at least repeating with disturbing regularity.

“Is someone there?” Eliza asked. “Where are you? I can…”

Somewhere, I heard that Lupines, the kind of Parahuman that Eliza was, had heightened protective instincts. I believed that. “It’s ok,” I said. “It was probably my imagination.” Either that, or the SIG-Sauer and the Berreta tucked under my hoodie wouldn’t do that much good. “And if it wasn’t…”

My reassurance/outright lie was cut off by a God-awful screech of feedback from the phone, which formed a horrendous harmony with Eliza’s scream of pain. “Eliza!” I shouted. “Are you ok?”

“Sorry, Nate,” Eliza said weakly. “If this shite’s gonna continue…”

I nodded. Her foxlike ears are incredibly sensitive. If my ears were ringing, I could only imagine how she felt after that spike of feedback. “Totally fine,” I said. “Talk to you later, I guess.”

“Bye, Nate,” Eliza said. Then the line went dead. I looked at it. On the phone screen, there was a dropped call message on display. Oddly enough, the phone’s battery was rapidly changing. It was jumping from various numbers at random, being at a hundred percent one millisecond to being at one percent the next and anywhere in between. When the screen started flickering, I turned it off out of fear it would be damaged.

Suddenly, I heard someone speaking in what, to my ears, sounded like Arabic or a similar language. At first, I thought it was behind me. Suddenly aware of how alone I was, how few of my friends spoke Arabic, and how many Al-Qaeda people who attended NIU that I had pissed off during Hell Semester, I turned around, whipping out my M92.

As I faced the direction I thought I heard the voice coming from, the weak morning sun glinting off my Berretta’s chrome barrel, I suddenly became very afraid. Not because I had come face to face with a dozen terrorists with AKs (though that would be terrifying,) but because I couldn’t see anyone coming.

Suddenly, the voice began whispering and moving all around me, like it was right next to me and moving in a circle. I began spinning, trying to find a target. When I realized that sometimes it sounded like my tormentor’s mouth was between my gun and my face, I decided I needed a new strategy. Namely, running the fuck away.

That’s when I heard the voice start to become voices. They were all the same voice, but they were coming from dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of directions from all around me. I ran.

My plan was to make it to the main street. If I could get there, maybe this… thing would decide it didn’t want witnesses and leave me alone. Or maybe it would kill everyone else anyway. Or maybe I had finally gone crazy.

Now, the thing is, in order to pass Hell Semester and stay in the AMS/Shadowhaven programs, you need to be a good runner. So when the main street wasn’t getting any closer despite me running as hard as I could, I began to worry. Instead, I seemed to be slowly going backwards. Needless to say, this didn’t cause me to stop panicking.

To make matters worse, I suddenly felt hands feeling my body. Normally, this would be creepy enough. But these hands weren’t normal. To start, there was at least a pair of hands for every voice.

But the worst thing? They weren’t kept out by my skin. These hands caressed my tongue, prodded my throat from the inside and out, fondled things in my stomach, messing with my eyes, and pushing at the back of my throat, making me vomit.

When the hands began to violate me in more traditional ways as well as starting to feel up more important organs like my lungs and heart, and the distance between safety and whatever the fuck this was starting to increase rapidly, I decided to do something crazy. I made a ninety-degree turn and booked it.

Instantly, the hands stopped and I was moving forwards. I laughed. I was blind, covered in vomit and aching from how I had been handled, but I was free. Then I crashed into something.

 

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Track 11: When You Grow Up

I woke up the next morning wondering why I was feeling so good. By all rights, I should have a pounding headache. Well, two shots probably wouldn’t cause a headache. I suddenly realized that this was the first time in a long time I had just slept peacefully.

When I looked out, my roommates were still sleeping. However, I was completely awake. It was weird, but I felt too awake to go back to sleep. Instead, I went over to my desk and booted up my computer. I had some work to do.

It was hard to resist booting up Steam. It was hard not going to YouTube when I opened my browser. I had been working pretty much constantly for the past week. Instead, I opened up the Campus Network. I decided that first I’d do some actual work and set up an appointment with my advisor. I looked at who it was. Professor Karl Krieger.

When I had met him, he had been Drill Sergeant Krieger. On the one hand, he was one of the few people who believed I could make it through the Hell Semester. Not even I had believed it. On the other hand, every time I looked at his face, I could see his eyes sparkle with madness and he had an uncanny read on me.

I sighed. Well, no use fighting it. I quickly saw that the nearest appointment we could conceivably make was around the first week of February, almost exactly two weeks away. I then started my own research project.

First, I decided to check out Kyle. That would be the hard, since I didn’t actually know his name. When I typed his name into the search bar, I wasn’t surprised to get more than one result, even when I narrowed it down to people. I narrowed it to AMS/Shadowhaven students who had their first semester Fall of 2015. There was only one result, Kyle J. Rockford.

I clicked on his profile. It was very bare, but by no means unhelpful. Name: Kyle J. Rockford. Gender: Blocked. Country: USA. State: Blocked. Town: Blocked. Age: 19. Date of Birth: Blocked. Recruiter: Karl Krieger. Sub-School: Shadowhaven and Madam Antionette’s Finishing School. That last school was the rarely-used official name of the Rogue school. Major(s): Assassination and Subterfuge. Dorm Room: Blocked. There was also a feed of comments and status updates and options to friend, follow or block.

I stared at it for a moment. Then, I opened my profile and privacy settings in a different tab. It turned out that the things Kyle had blocked out were also blocked out on my profile. I checked several other people. Most had unblocked a lot of the information on their profile. I decided to unblock my gender and leave it at that. I also noted that the information was locked and couldn’t be changed. I briefly wondered why anyone would block gender. Kyle himself was obviously male. I mean, I had seen him in the shower, much as didn’t want to.

“So,” I muttered to myself, trying to talk myself through this, “you’ve blocked everything you can possibly, you haven’t put anything in your About Me folder, you don’t post updates, you only comment on class posts…either you haven’t bothered to change your settings or you’re hiding something. You also seem to be keeping Richard in line through intimidation.”

I thought back to Fight Night. In order to make him surrender, I had to beat the crap out of him, including breaking his nose and stomping on his privates. “Now, how are you intimidating Richard? He doesn’t intimidate easily, and you’re doing it in a way that makes it look like he’s in charge of you. That must be really hard. Richard isn’t scared of physical violence. Why are you putting in that much effort?”

I suddenly realized that I’d need to write this down. I got out a piece of paper and began writing down facts, conjectures and questions. I also decided to put in how strong the conjectures were.

I looked through the list. If Kyle was intimidating Richard, it couldn’t be threats of physical injury. Therefore, it had to be blackmail. I tried to think of the conversation Kyle and Richard had. The only thing I could remember was that they talked about someone called The Punching Bag. Also, Richard had called Kyle “Karen,” and in response, Kyle warned that anyone could have been listening. More questions, still no answers.

I sighed, and decided to look at Kyle’s profile some more. I found that I could see his friends list. Most were people in Kyle’s group, three with a bright red “deceased” stamped across their photos. Only two were left alive. There was also Richard and… now that was interesting. Taylor Smith was also listed as a friend.

One possibility presented itself: Kyle wanted to get close to Taylor and possibly the campus’s white supremacist community. To do that, he was using Richard, he would then…

I sighed. I had nowhere near enough information to determine what the next step of the plan was. Nothing Kyle had said made me think he was a virulent racist. However, he could agree with everything Richard and Taylor said. But if he agreed with them, why was he blackmailing Richard?

Another sigh. For all I knew, I could be completely wrong about a dozen things. I updated the document one last time and saved it. Then I gathered my stuff to have a shower.

After showering and having breakfast at Newton-Howell, I logged back into cNet. I eventually discovered I could make a list of friends or people I followed. I could also make notes on the people I was following. I quickly followed Kyle, Richard, the people in that immediate circle, and Taylor. I put them in a list I titled “White Supremacists on Campus,” and made some notes about their perceived positions.

The weekend itself was relaxing, once I had finished my various bits of homework. I discovered that there was a laundry room in the basement for the people in Marine. The best part about it was that it was free.

The rest of the week, however, wasn’t relaxing. I discovered that the mid-week period of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were going to be particularly brutal because I had both classes and my night job at The Drunken Mercenary. At least The Drunken Mercenary had calmed down a lot after the first week. I also got my first paycheck from Popov on Saturday. I was now richer by two-hundred and forty-seven dollars. That was a nice feeling. I remembered smiling a bit before heading back to the salt mines that were my classes.

I did manage to talk to Eliza sometime in the third week. “Hey, Eliza,” I asked during lunch on Tuesday, “do you know anything about a person called The Punching Bag?” We were sitting with Bai, Cross, and Oro because everyone else was in class, sleeping, or having a panic attack.

“I don’t know,” Eliza said. “I kept me eyes open, but I probably missed quite a bit of stuff.”

“Well,” Cross said, “I think I can probably tell you what this guy does.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t even know if it’s a guy. Could be a girl.”

“Actually,” Cross said, “this guy probably is a chick. You see, a punching bag is, at least in my world, someone you hire to beat up. Say you’re being initiated into a gang and you want to prove you’re cold. You hire a punching bag, and you and the people you wanna impress go up and mug them. You get a wallet with some cash, a few canceled credit cards, and a hell of a lot of street cred. They get north of five hundred bucks.”

“That sounds… really dangerous,” I said.

“I know,” Eliza said. “But us Lupines could make a bit o’ money, couldn’t we?”

Cross laughed. “My dad was insurance to a Lupine punching bag for a while. She was an ex-prostitute. For ten grand, you and the people you wanted to impress could ‘rape’ her. If you wanted to ‘murder’ her, the cost ranged from five to fifteen grand, depending on the method of execution and an extra fifty if you wanted to move her somewhere. If the client went too far, my dad would step in. He’d also collect late fees. All in all, he could earn five grand on a bad night.”

“It sounds as dangerous and degrading,” Bai said.

“I would not look down on her until I know how her story ended,” Oro said.

“She’s living in a nice house in Connecticut,” Cross said, “she put all three of her kids and two of her grandkids through college and still has enough left over to drive a Porsche. I think she’s doing pretty good.”

“Have you asked her if she thinks it was worth it?” Oro asked.

Cross opened his mouth, closed it, thought about it, then finally said, “I’d have to ask her.”

“When you do,” Oro said, “I’d be very curious what she says.”

Finally, the meeting with Krieger came around. It was the first Saturday in February and I was desperately hoping I could get it over with quickly and enjoy the rest of my weekend. His office, annoyingly, was on the top floor of Patton, meaning I had to walk halfway across the campus in a blizzard. To make it worse, when I finally got to Patton, I was I late and the elevators weren’t working, forcing me to run all five stories.

Panting, I began the walk to his office on the other side of the building. This part of the building, unlike the grey, dimly lit concrete basement corridors where the firing range were, was actually quite nice with red wood paneling and dark green wallpaper.

“I hope you’re not out of breath, boyke,” a voice with a South African accent said, coming from somewhere behind me. I turned around. There was Professor Karl Krieger, his bushy brownish-blond beard and unkempt hair making him look as lion-like as ever. He was wearing a shirt with a South African flag that revealed his lithe, muscular arms. His eyes sparkled with their usual mix of intelligence and madness. “You realize we’re going to be doing a run today?”

“Sorry,” I said, “I was a bit late eating breakfast and had to run here.” I was quite proud of myself for not panting.

Krieger nodded. “Fair enough.” He then began to the hallway in a completely different direction from where I had been going, motioning for me to follow. “Come, step into my office.”

When we finally got into his office, it was very simply decorated. There were a few pictures. They were all quite interesting. “Is that you with Nelson Mandela?” I asked. Mandela himself was easily recognizable. The person the great leader was shaking hands with wasn’t. I mean, it could have been Krieger, but his hair was too short, and he had no beard. Also, the smile he was giving the camera was one of a man meeting a hero.

“Not like I got to talk to the man,” Krieger said sadly. “He just showed up for a speaking role at my university.” He sighed. “Do you know the saying ‘never meet your heroes?’” I nodded. “Don’t listen to them. I already respected the man. It only grew after that.”

“What happened?” I asked. “You don’t really seem to agree with his pacifistic ideals.”

Krieger pointed to the next photo. Krieger was in that photo as well, this time as the link between the starstruck man and the somewhat insane man who stood before me today. However, Krieger was pointing at a large, potbellied man with a shaved head and a sort of Gandalf beard. There were several other people of various nationalities, but they were all united in that they wore camouflage and carried large guns.

“I met this man, Rolf Larsson,” Krieger said. “He was very interested in finding ways to make humanity a better while making a profit and having fun.” He shrugged. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about you, Nate! Come on, sit down, take off your coat.”

I sat down in a red vinyl chair. “So,” I asked, taking off my coat, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Well first off,” Krieger said, “you haven’t declared a major. I know it could take a while, but the sooner you figure it out, the better.” He paused. “How about covert ops?”

I laughed. “No. No, no, no. God that would be awful. Not knowing who I was supposed to trust, worrying about being asked to betray I actually care about more than my superiors? No thanks.”

Krieger nodded. “So I see you would be more interested in the Academy of Military Science. Any particular areas you’re interested in?”

I considered it for a bit. Finally, I said, “I kind of want to retire from the whole killing people thing. Yeah, I want to save the world, but then I want to go into some desk job where I can work regular nine-to-five hours.”

Krieger nodded. “Well, if you wanted to look into coming back here as a teacher…”

I stared at him. “I’ve been here for a semester, and already I know how fucked up this school is. I’m not planning on coming back.”

“What if things changed?” Krieger asked in an overly-casual fashion.

“Are you going to change things?” I asked.

“The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Krieger said cryptically, “but sometimes it has a jump start, I suppose.” He then changed the subject. “Anyway, if you are continuing with AMS, one of the requirements is to obtain a driver’s license. Obviously, the lessons won’t begin for a while.”

I looked out the window. The snow was falling down in sheets. “Yeah,” I said, “it’d be pretty hard.”

I considered the things that Krieger was saying. Somehow, I doubted that he was on the team of white supremacy. If so, I doubted he’d be keeping a picture of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela or quote Martin Luther King.

“If I don’t believe you about this place changing,” I said, “what major do you recommend, outside of a sub-school transfer?”

“Officer Candidacy,” Krieger said without hesitation. “It has a lot of logistics training, business classes, plus engineering courses. I know plenty of people who took that course and transitioned into being a suit.”

“Cool,” I said. “I think I’ll take a few major-specific classes, then I’ll see. Anything else you want to ask me about?”

“Just want to congratulate you,” Krieger said. “Popov says you’re doing a great job at The Drunken Mercenary and I’m enjoying your radio show. You and Andy have… interesting chemistry.”

I nodded. My most recent show, I had made a lot of weird animal noises. Andy just laughed because, honestly, when the person you’re trapped in a small room with is making cat sounds, what else do you do? Apart from calling the insane asylum, that is.

“No,” Krieger, “this is the part of the interview if I ask if you have any concerns.”

I decided to take a gamble. “Well,” I said, “there is something I think you should know. I was looking at the cNet profile of someone you recruited, Kyle Rockford. He’s hanging out with some kind of dangerous people and…”

Krieger nodded. “I know Kyle. He’s a tricky bastard. Even I have trouble figuring out what’s going on in his head sometimes. But his intentions are almost always more noble than they appear.”

“Really?” I asked. “Do you know what his plan is?”

“That would be telling,” Krieger said. “Now come, I want to show you something.” He stood up and motioned me to follow him.

I did so. We walked down the hallway to the front of the building where there was a window looking out at the nearby buildings. Krieger, however, turned around to look at the wall. On it were dozens of photos. “If you believe that all of the teachers here are sociopaths, I hope this makes you reconsider.” He walked towards one in particular, this one of an old man in a US Army dress uniform with several medals pinned to his chest. “Some of us are bloody heroes. This man in particular nearly lost his hand tossing a Nazi grenade away from his unit. He was also one of the first Americans to enter a concentration camp.”

I took a closer look. The man’s face was very familiar, like an older, scarred version of someone I knew. I took a gander at the plaque that said his name. It read Kyle Chapman.

Suddenly, I realized that the person he looked like was also named Kyle. I turned to Krieger. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “You’ve been a big help.”

Krieger smiled. “Anytime, boyke,” he said.

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Crash

Have you ever had that defining moment in your life? You know, that one moment that can you say for certain changed forever, and all decisions I’m pretty sure there’s a word for that and that it’s either German or French. They seem like they’d have a word for that.

I had two. Funnily enough, they both came after car accidents. Actually, I’m not sure that’s really funny or even ironic. I wasn’t ever really good at English, and that’s the kind of stuff they talk about. I’m pretty sure the correct word would be interesting.

Speaking of things that are interesting, for a long time I believed that people wouldn’t find my life interesting, apart from having a few innovative surgeries done on me. In fact, during middle school and high school, I started to believe that my life was completely worthless. I didn’t really come to that conclusion on my own. I had help. I’m pretty sure other people had it worse, but I don’t really blame anyone. I kind of also had this idea that if I did enough good, I would be worth, I don’t know, something more than how people treated me.

It actually wasn’t until pretty recently that I had really decided that I had gotten the idea that I was somehow important. I guess inventing two groundbreaking products that could improve countless lives the world over and getting your name on a patent for a cancer treatment is an effective self-esteem boost. I mean, it isn’t by any means enough forever (except maybe financially,) but I do feel like I have some measure of self-worth now.

Now, I feel I can say with pride, “My name is May Riley, and this is my story.”

The first event that really changed my life was, if I’m honest, completely my fault. I believe I was about five at the time, and my dad was driving me and my twin sister Mary back from ballet practice. My dad was driving the minivan and, for some reason, the center row of seats had been taken out.

Now, the thing you should know about me is that I’ve had some problems with impulse control ever since I was young, and it’s driven my parents crazy. For instance, the seat-less middle row now looked like a stage for me to dance on.

Needless to say, everyone else in the car realized this was a bad idea as soon as I got onto my “stage” and said, “Hey guys, look what I can do!” I guess they didn’t notice that I had unbuckled my seatbelt because they were doing their own things. Dad was busy driving down the rainy highway, and Mary was distracted by (busy isn’t really the word) painting shapes in the fog with her fingers.

“Mmm that’s ni…” Dad began, then realized what I was doing. “MAY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” He turned around to stare at me in horror.

Mary, for her part, yelled at me. “May, what is wrong with… why are you…” To be fair, she might not have been stuttering. My memory starts to get very blurry here.

“I’m…” I began, realizing for the umpteenth time I was doing something wrong, but having no clue what it was, “…I’m showing you my dancing?” Whenever I do something that makes people yell at me for reasons I don’t know, I tend to make every sentence end in a question. Why? Because even back then, I knew I wasn’t really the best at following the unspoken rules normal people just agree on. If I make my sentences into questions, rather than just ask what I’m doing wrong, people are more likely to tell me.

“MAY, YOU HAVE TO SIT IN THE CAR OTHERWISE…” Dad roared.

At the same time, May screamed “DAD, WATCH OUT FOR THE CAR!” After that, I don’t really remember that much. What I do remember is feeling like I was airborne for a bit, waking up a few minutes later, my left side hurting like heck, especially my face.

I opened my eyes. Things were blurry, but I could tell I was still on the highway. A policeman leaned over me. “Jesus Christ,” he said. For some reason, my vision was really blurry and I could barely make out what he was saying. He also looked very flat for some reason.

“What..?” I tried to ask. “Why…? How…?” Then I blacked out again. Apparently, I came in and out of consciousness during the ambulance ride. I have no memory of this. Maybe it’s because they decided to put me in a coma, or maybe it’s because I had flown head first through a car window to land on my face and skid.

When they finally decided to wake me up, I was surrounded by my family and a bunch of doctors. I suppose Dad counts as both, because he’s this plastic surgeon that all these old rich people go to in order to look younger. Honestly, that almost turned me off from the medical stuff. Normally, I don’t worry about fakeness. I live in Beverly Hills. That being said, there’s something kind of wrong about spending thousands of dollars for the chance you’ll look a few decades younger. I’d be ok with it if it actually fixed the self-esteem issues, but it really doesn’t. It seems to make everyone else feel worse about themselves. Unless it goes wrong, then you end up looking like a freak. Like me.

Speaking of my looks, the first thing I said when I woke up, was “Hey guys, did I get any cool scars?” My dad started to cry. My sister looked horrified. My mom made a choking sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh. It was then that I noticed that half my face and my left arm were covered in bandages and there were needles and wires attached all over me.

One of the doctors leaned in. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Dr. Mark. I’d offer a hand for you to shake, but you’ve got a bunch of needles in you.” I instantly liked Dr. Mark. He was a big, friendly black guy with these huge gentle hands that made me think of The Rockbiter from Never-Ending Story. He continued on his soothing, friendly voice. “And, yeah, you got a whole bunch of scars. Your dad got pretty upset about that.”

“Sorry about that, Dad,” I said, more than a little contrite, “That was really stupid of me.” Then I got back to the important part. “So how bad is it? Do I get one of those cool scars that go down your eye? Can I take one off these bandages and see?”

“It’s a little more… extensive than that,” another doctor said, shuffling a bit, trying to avoid looking at my dad. “We had to graft a huge amount of skin onto the left-hand side of you. Your face got the worst of it.”

“So…” I asked hesitantly, “does that mean I’ve got other people’s skin on me?”

Most of the people there shuffled around awkwardly. Not Dr. Mark. “Yep!” He said, “Very clever of you. Some of it is artificial.” With that, I made up my mind that Dr. Mark was my hero.

“THAT IS SO COOLLLL!” I shrieked. “Omigod, omigod, I’m wearing other people’s skin! I’m like Leatherface!” Mom shot Dad a look as if to ask how her five-year-old daughter knew about one of the most infamous slasher movie monsters. He shrugged his shoulders. Mary glared at me, letting me know what would happen if I mentioned breaking into the “Mom and Dad movies.” I continued on oblivious, excited by the whole idea of wearing dead people skin. “So, I’m going to look like this human quilt?”

Dr. Mark laughed. “Actually,” he said, “A good chunk of the scars will be completely healed in a few years, and since we got all the tissue and the spare eye from the same donor, only a few people will probably notice that some patches are a little darker.”

“Donor?” I asked.

Dr. Mark nodded. “There’s a little girl by the name of Chelsea Park who was in a car accident a few weeks before you had yours. She was on a bus going to summer camp when it was hit by a car and was in a coma.”

I felt sick. “But couldn’t she wake up?” I asked. “Couldn’t you have taken the flesh and stuff from dead people?” In my five-year-old mind, wearing flesh from long-dead people was much better than taking it from another five-year-old who could wake up at any moment wondering where all her skin and her eye was.

“To answer your second question first,” Dr. Mark said, “We can’t use dead tissue. It’d either be rotting or embalmed. Either way, it would be unusable and really bad for you.”

“Oh.”

“The next question… well…” Here, Doctor Mark grew very serious. “The thing about Chelsea was that she was brain-dead. That means she wasn’t able to eat or breathe without the aid of a machine, and we’re reasonably certain any thinking would be physically impossible.”

“Oh.” What else could I say? Apart from, “What if a cure was found? Wouldn’t it be better to have waited?”

Doctor Mark shrugged. “Hard to say,” he said. “But I can tell you the facts. There’s a chance that if it did come, she would be an old woman. Also, there would be no guarantee of getting her memories back. All I can tell you is that there would be no way it happens tomorrow. Imagine, for instance, if you had woken up as an old woman, horribly burned and missing both your legs, doomed to spend the rest of your life in terrible pain.

“Also,” he continued, “while we were pretty sure we couldn’t help Chelsea, there was another little girl coming into the hospital who definitely would wake up, with the exact same blood type, and within a few weeks. When Chelsea’s parents heard that, they offered you these parts.”

“I wish there was a better way,” I said sadly. After a minute, I asked Dr. Mark, “Can I meet Chelsea’s parents?”

Dr. Mark looked at my parents. “I think,” Dad said, “that I’d like to meet them as well.” My mom nodded.

The rest of my stay at the hospital wasn’t very eventful. But I do remember one thing: Dr. Mark came into my room occasionally. We always chatted to each other, and one day the topic of what I wanted to be came up.

For the first time I had an answer. “I’m going to be a doctor,” I said. “I just really don’t think it’s fair that you had to choose between me and Chelsea. We should have been able to heal both.” I thought for a second. “I also think that it might be cool to look at flesh-eating viruses or bacteria or whatever. I mean, I know that most people think that’s really gross, and it kind of is, but that sounds like it would be interesting to study. I mean, all germs eat our body to some degree, right? I wonder why it eats so much so fast, I mean you think it would be easier for it if it killed the host before eating it. It’s actually pretty interesting. And then there’s…”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Dr. Mark said. “Calm down there, Rosalind Franklin. Don’t get ahead of yourself. First, you have to get your doctor’s degree.”

“That means I have to go to college, right?” I asked. “Is there anything I can do before then, you know, see if I’m any good at it? Like maybe get life guard training or volunteer at a nursing home or…”

“Actually,” Dr. Mark said, “I do this program called Young Doctors. Basically, I get an assistant who comes around and helps me with my day-to-day work. If you work hard, well, let’s just say you might be able to get into a good college. The problem is that you have to wait until you’re fourteen.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m really patient. I once waited five minutes in line to get a twizzler for Halloween! And I only picked half the top of the table off!”

I smiled proudly. Dr. Mark gave me a funny look. “Very… impressive,” he said, “but nine years is a long time. I hope you realize that.”

It turns out, I didn’t realize how long nine years was. Or even five years, which was how long I had to wait in order to take the various Red Cross courses, like first aid and CPR. In the meantime, I could read every medical book I could get my hands on at the local library and my parents owned.

This was complicated by the fact that, when I started, I couldn’t really read, so I began to throw myself into that. I knew my ABC’s, but it was hard having to sound out words like heterochromia, tonsillitis, and immunodeficiency. And those were just the easy ones!

I also realized that I didn’t know much of the math behind it, so I began to teach myself some of the math as well. Mom, for some reason, kept old-timey school math textbooks, so I started doing them out myself. I was careful to not actually write in them, because then mom would throw a fit. By the end of the summer, I had a basic knowledge of the immune system, the digestive system, as well as perfecting how to add and subtract, while starting to learn how to multiply and divide.

When I stop and think about it, it seems weird that I was excited for school. Every year, going back to preschool, I’d think, “This year, people will stop thinking I’m weird. This year, people will see how smart and kind I am and will be my friend.” And what happened each year? My life got worse.

The first day of first grade, I gave a twenty-minute talk on HIV, how it spread, and, when another kid asked me what I meant by “hobosexuality,” human sexuality. That included the process of making babies, homosexuality, and how anal sex was more likely to spread HIV.

I guess at some point I realized I needed to combat homophobia. I did this by talking about how the strategy of male giraffes is to penetrate anything that is vaguely in the shape of a giraffe vagina until they actually find one, and that many female giraffes seem to prefer lesbian sex to straight sex. That’s when the teacher sent me to the principal’s office.

“But I haven’t explained that you can’t get AIDs by sitting on a toilet seat an infected individual used!” I whined as she pulled me by the arm to the principal’s office. “Also,” I added as an afterthought, “you’re kinda hurting me.”

After hearing both the teacher’s summary and my attempts to recreate the speech (which were mostly congruent, though the teacher did oversimplify things) the principal asked if I understood why what I did was wrong. I told the truth and said I had no clue.

He then explained, in a very condescending manner, why I shouldn’t say things like that.

“So,” I said, “kids shouldn’t know about sex because they aren’t ready for it and their parents don’t want them to hear about it?”

“Well, no,” the principal said, then corrected me in the most long-winded way possible.

“That’s basically exactly what I said,” I said, “except with a buttload of baby-talk.” I paused. “You know,” I said, kind of annoyed, “I’m actually not a baby. I turn six in a few weeks. That’s not a baby.” And that is when the principal scheduled my first parent-teacher conference.

First grade eventually became a complete disaster, with me barely passing. My reading level stayed at the lowest possible level because instead of reading the baby books my teacher had selected for the lowest-level readers, I was reading Dad’s medical journals. In math, I was hopeless because I could only do the word problems. If I didn’t have any context to the problems, I would get bored and start sketching various bits of human anatomy on my paper. I think I was the first kid in my year to draw a phallus (all kinds: erect, with the scrotum, without the scrotum, cut-away view etc.,) the first to draw a vagina, and the only to draw every other part of the body, as well as the only person to do these drawings scientifically. Seriously, why draw a phallus if you are not going to do it realistically? Or on the desk where everyone has to see it? The only places genitals should be displayed to people who are not the owners are in scientific journals, porn, art books, or love-making places (bedrooms, strip clubs, brothels, etc.) You know, come to think of it, your first math test ever does not fall into any of these categories.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, First Grade!

I actually did manage to do well in all the other areas. Gym was nothing special, but I did impress people whenever I drew stuff, and I scored perfectly on every spelling and writing test they gave out. I guess that’s why I passed.

Socially, I didn’t do so well. No one really liked me, but unlike in Kindergarten and Pre-School, the people who liked me the least started to seek me out. I remember the first time it happened. It was at first recess after my speech about human sexuality (the first one, aka Human and Giraffes and How They Bang, and not one of several other ones) and Shirley MacIntosh and a group of her friends had prepared a critique of her speech.

They surrounded me while I was out wandering around by myself on the field. “You’re completely wrong, you know,” Shirley said.

“About what?” I asked.

“About fags,” Shirley said.

“What’s a fag?” I asked.

“You know, when a boy has sex with a boy or a girl has sex with a girl,” Shirley said. “My mom says that that’s not natural and that people who do that are pawns of the Devil and have no soul. Also, it’s not just a few fags who get AIDs and die, its every single one of them.”

“Who’s your mom?” I asked. “I’m just curious because I’ve never seen that statistic in a medical journal.”

“‘I’ve never seen that statistic in a medical journal,’” Shirley said mockingly, then said, “God, you’re just like those stupid liberals mom says will burn in hell.”

“Your mom sounds like a bully,” I said. That’s when Shirley jumped on me and started to punch and bite me. It was about two minutes until a playground teacher pulled her off me. That’s how I found myself in the principal’s office for the second time that day.

“Miss Riley,” he said, upon seeing me for the second time that day, “I see this is becoming a trend.”

I noticed he was rubbing his temples. “Do you have a headache?” I asked, “Because it could be stress I was reading in the Harvard Medical Journal that, while the spiritual elements are still mostly unscientific, Yoga has actually been shown to reduce stress with the various meditations and its way less of a risk than various prescriptions and also boosts your…”

“Thank you, Miss Riley,” he said, “I’ll take it under advisement. Now, why are you here? Again?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the teacher said, “I suddenly realize that some of the normal playground screams are actually a girl screaming for help. I come over and see that Shirley’s beating up May, and a group of other girls were egging her on. They scattered when they saw me coming.”

The principal turned back towards us. “So,” he said, in an exasperated tone of voice, “What happened?” I’m not sure I need to tell you that this scene would repeat many times over my school career.

This was when Shirley immediately jumped in, and started doing her best imitation of me, for some reason. “May said my mom was a bully, and all I did was just say how wrong she was about sex!” She wasn’t anywhere near as fast as I was, though.

There was a pause. Everyone looked at me. “What?” I asked. I had the strangest feeling I had done something wrong.

“Are you going to defend yourself?” The principal asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Well yeah,” I said. “I just thought it’d be respectful-er and efficient-er to wait until she was done. Was that wrong?”

“No,” the principal said, “just… unusual. You may make your case now.”

“Well, I admit I did say her mom was a bully,” I said, “but according to Shirley, her mom says homosexuals are unnatural and should burn in hell. And this was after I told her about the giraffes!”

“Would you shut up about giraffes?” Shirley asked. “God, it’s like…”

She shut up. Why did she shut up? Because I had given her my special look. Whenever Mary or my little younger siblings Kevin and Bridget have gone too far, I give them this look. It always shuts them up. It also tends to make anyone in the general vicinity cower a bit. For example, when I shot Shirley The Look, even the principal and the playground teacher shrunk back.

“Are you done?” I asked, using the voice I tend to use with The Look. Shirley nodded, her eyes wide. “You know,” I said, “I don’t remember interrupting you. Did I interrupt her when she was talking?” Both adults shook their heads, looks of terror on their face.

“Anyway,” I said, resuming my nice, cheerful attitude, “I’ll admit, that what her mother said was more wrong than bullying, although I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to call homosexual people fags, but that still doesn’t excuse Shirley jumping on me and punching me for a few minutes. Or the hair pulling. Or the biting. You know, I think you should have Shirley be checked for rabies. It just might explain the irrational behavior, the increased aggression, and the biting. I’m sorry, I just can’t get over that. Who bites people? I mean it’s not like I’m food or…”

“I’m sorry,” the principal said, “but I’m going to have to stop you right there, Miss Riley.” I stopped. When he was sure I wasn’t going to talk anymore, the principal began to talk again. “You see, Miss Riley, Miss MacIntosh, I really don’t want to call your parents. Miss MacIntosh, I don’t want to tell your mother you beat up another student on your first day at school this year. Miss Riley, although you haven’t done anything wrong this time, I do not want to have to call your mother for the second time today. I also don’t want to have your particular mothers in the same room in the inevitable meeting. However, my hand has been forced. You two have forced me into a position where I will either have to be trapped in the bureaucratic version of a torture chamber or desert my duty. Miss MacIntosh, you will return to class. Miss Riley, you will go to the nurse and she will document the damage.”

Both me and Shirley stood up. “Before you go,” the principal said, “a word of advice: Think very carefully before you do anything that might cause our paths to cross again. I have been very patient with you today, but I will not be so forgiving next time we meet. Understood?”

I think you can guess that both of us were there again, sometimes together, but usually separate. I also had similar talks with people after giving my lectures. A few of the nicer boys (well, the teachers and most other kids would probably disagree with me on that) would either come and congratulate me on a good lecture or ask why there wasn’t as much gross stuff. Usually, it would be a group of girls who would surround me and have a conversation about me, but pretend not to notice a single thing I said.

There were several groups. The worst were the ones that tended to be right. If they stuck to how I broke society’s rules (e.g. how much of a freak I was) they could usually break me down to tears. Sometimes I’d be able to break their momentum and get a reaction. With the worst group that wasn’t an option.

That group was led by a girl named Destiny, whose parents were both big-shot Hollywood actors. Since Dad was always trying to get in with her parents, she actually had a lot of ammo. In fact, she even used that. One time at a school meeting (ironically, an anti-bullying meeting) she was sitting behind Mary. She mistook her for me (or at least, so she claims) and decided to give her this lecture on how pathetic it was that my dad was always trying to get in with movie stars. I found this out because Mary was still in tears when she came home two hours later. We cried together until Mom and Dad came home. The only good thing about her was that she wasn’t in either of our classes.

Shirley, however, was easy. First off, her homophobia, militant heteronormativity, racism, and, surprisingly, an unhealthy dose of sexism, caused her to slowly lose friends. Secondly, and most importantly, she was just so wrong. She kept coming after me on grounds where I could beat her every single time. In fact, I began to actually look forwards to our verbal sparring matches because that was one of the few times people would laugh with me instead of at me.

This pattern of being abused, zig-zagging grades and being sent to the principal’s office for mysterious reasons remained the same for the rest of my Elementary school experience, except that in grade I didn’t have either Shirley or Destiny, just a few of the imitators, and in third grade I had both. Speaking of second grade, that was when Eminem and Kanye West personally introduced me to rap music.

It was at a New Year’s Eve pre-party Dad was throwing for various celebrities. It was so much of a pre-party that I actually asked Dad why he didn’t call it a Christmas party. I also had just starting my hair blond and frosting the tips purple because Mary was being mistaken for me way too often. I also had started noticing two things: first of all, most of the celebrities Dad was always trying to get in with were really fake, secondly, they hated him because he was even faker than them. I didn’t care. First off, my Dad was my Dad. I couldn’t hate him for wanting to hang out with celebrities, even if he did spend more time with them than me. Secondly, I had the distinct impression that celebrities were all like that.

The hair actually is why Eminem noticed me in the first place. I had just dyed my hair and Mom, who was busy setting up, told me that we’d “talk” about it tomorrow. I hadn’t found Dad all evening, so he hadn’t gotten a chance to even voice his opinion. All the other adults I talked to all seemed to be too freaked out by my scars. I was still somewhat happy with them, but the fact that everyone made fun of them was starting to take its toll.

I was taking my hundredth run or so at the potato chips (Ruffles and Pringles, my favorite) when I heard someone say “Now that’s some punk-rock shit right there, Ye.”

I turned around and there, towering above me were two men, one a stocky, somewhat round-faced black man. The other one, the one who had spoken, was a bit older, whiter than me, had obviously bleached hair, and the attitude of an eight-year-old trapped in the body of an adult. They both did a double-take when they saw my scars and mismatched eyes.

“Jesus,” the one I’d later identify as Kanye West said, “what happened to your face, girl?”

“Kanye,” the man-child said, “don’t be a ja… Don’t be a jerk.”

“Actually,” I said, oddly pleased by Ye’s bluntness, “that’s the best reaction I’ve gotten to this since it happened! Wanna know how it happened?”

“He…ck yeah, I wanna know what happened!” the blond guy exclaimed excitedly, getting on his knees to look in my eyes. From his new height, I was actually taller “It looks like you got your face turned into hamburger!”

“An’ I’m the jerk…” Ye muttered, looking away and shoving his hands into his suit pockets.

“Shut up, Kanye,” the other man yelled, gesturing wildly with an arm, nearly knocking someone’s wine glass out of their hands.

“Bite me, Mathers!” Kanye said. Mathers made a biting motion towards Kanye. “Man,” Kanye asked angrily, dodging the bite, “da fuck is wrong with you?”

“Hey,” I asked, “are you two going to fight or are you gonna listen to my story?”

“Sorry,” the older (yet less mature) man said, “my names Marshall Mathers. You can call me Marshall.”

I began to tell them everything about the crash, throwing in all the medical terms I could just so I could explain them. They actually both seemed pretty interested, Kanye because the only other interesting person at the party had tried to bite him, and Marshall because, again, he was an eight-year-old boy in the body of an adult.

“So,” I said, choking up as I came to the sad part, “that’s when I found out where the skin grafts and eye came from.”

“What do you mean?” Marshall asked, suddenly worried.

“Well,” I said, tears starting to spring to my eyes, “the skin and the eye had to come from somewhere, right? I mean, eyeballs don’t grow like potatoes. All this came from this girl named Chelsea Park and the reason she was able to give all the skin and the eye was because she was brain dead! That’s worse than being dead, because there’s always the chance you’ll wake up but we didn’t give her the chance because May Riley the stupid waste of space just wanted to show off to her Dad and twin sister her ballet moves even though she hates it and completely sucks! May Riley, the girl whose parents barely even notice her! May Riley, the girl who everyone at school hates because she’s such a freak and so different from all these stupid “normal” people! May Riley, the girl who’s so disliked, even her own twin sister avoids her because of her loser stink! You know what, I wish I was the one who was brain dead! Every time I meet Chelsea’s parents, they tell me how wonderful she was. She should be the one with the cool mismatched eyes and the awesome scars!”

Kanye, Marshall, and me just stood there in silence for a bit, me crying, the two grownups just staring at me with a mixture of shock and pity. It was Kanye who spoke first, “May,” he asked, “what do you know about hip-hop?”

“Only that my parents say I have to be eighteen to listen to any of it,” I said. “Why?”

“I got these two CDs I made,” he said, “I was going to give them to your parents because my publicist said to, but I think you need them.”

“Why would I need CDs?” I asked. “How does music help me?”

“May,” Marshall said, “when I was your age, I also had a pretty rough time. Hell, I don’t know anyone who didn’t have the occasional bad day. You know how people get through it?” He paused for dramatic effect. “Music. Music helps you get through all sorts of stuff. When you’re sad, angry, bored, hell, even hungry, you can pop in a song that will make you feel a bit better. I should know, I’ve been in this business for a long time.”

“Also,” Kanye said, “these songs I’ve written have sort of a theme on each disk. The one that dropped this year is all about taking your own path, not the one that everyone else tells you to take. The other one’s called Through the Wire. I wrote that one after I was in a car crash.”

Before I could say anything else, Marshall stood up. “I got an idea. May, do you have your own computer?”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s up in my room. Why?”

“Show me,” Marshall said. “I’mma make you the best hip-hop mixtape ever.”

“Oookay,” I said. Normally, I wouldn’t take strangers into my bedroom, but I was really bored. “Follow me, I guess.”

I led them up to my room, which two floors above the party. When we got into my room, I fired up my PowerBook. Marshall immediately began to poke at anything that was in plain sight that could easily be moved. “Wow,” he said, “you got an iPod. How old are you?”

“Seven,” I said.

“Man,” he said, “rich kids. When I was your age, my mom would never get me anything like this. He…eck, I almost didn’t let Hallie have one.”

“Is she your daughter?” I asked. “Is she here?”

“No way,” Marshall said, “my kids are all good kids. I mean, I’m an adult and I’m bored to tears. Kanye’s the only interesting person here.”

“Thanks, man,” Kanye said. He picked up a sharpie from my desk. “Is it cool if I borrow this?”

“Go ahead, Mr…” I said, hesitantly, not knowing what to call him.

“If it makes things less weird,” Kanye said, “you can call me Mr. West. But it’s still weird. I don’t hang with kids that much, an’ even the people who work for me all call me Kanye or Ye.”

“Oh…” I said, “Hey, Marshall, the computer’s ready.” I got up and Marshall sat down.

“Man,” he said as he brought up Safari, “this screen’s fucking huge for a laptop. How big is this?”

“Must be one’a the new 17-inches,” Kanye said, somewhat in awe. “Musta cost over three grand…”

“Fucking rich kids,” Marshall breathed. Then he covered his mouth.

“It’s ok to swear around me,” I said, “My favorite movie is Pulp Fiction.

Both of them turned to look at me. “Bitch,” Kanye said, “da fuck is up with your parents?”

“Hey!” Marshall said, “Don’t be calling seven-year-olds bitches! Not fucking cool!” He turned around towards me. “Seriously though, the fuck’s up with your parents?”

“Mom works for Capitol Records, Dad’s a surgeon,” I said, shrugging, “They’re busy.”

“Anyway,” Marshall said, “Let’s get this party started. Ye, you got any suggestions, man?”

“Anything by Fat Boys or Biz Markie,” Kanye said.

“And they say I’m corny,” Marshall said.

I looked over his shoulder. “Are you… pirating music?” I asked.

“No I’m not,” Marshall said.

“The website is called ‘Pirate Bay’ and its logo is a pirate ship.”

Marshall froze for a moment, then said, “Do as I say, not as I do, ok?”

And that is how I ended up with the forty best rap songs according to Kanye and Marshall. I actually didn’t realize Marshall was Eminem until he recorded a video to tell the FCC to leave me be.

Kanye was the one who suggested it. “Yo, man,” he said, “I don’t really want this girl getting in trouble with her parents…”

“She’s seven years old and she’s watched Pulp Fiction,” Marshall said. “I don’t really think she’ll get caught.”

“Or the FBI,” Kanye finished.

“I got an idea,” Marshall said. He then opened the video software that came with my web cam (why my parents gave me that, I don’t know) and started recording. “Yo,” he said, gesturing wildly, “This is Eminem and Kanye West comin’ atcha from May Riley’s bedroom. This musical downloading? That’s on us!”

Kanye leaned over to cut Marshall off. “That’s right! You come after Punk girl, I send my lawyers after yo asses! I be droppin’ singles, callin’ you pigs out by name…”

“Fuck pussy-ass lawyers!” Marshall said, giggling a bit while shoving Kanye out of the camera’s field of view. “Imma get Dre, Fifty and some UZIs and bust her out!”

“You’re joking, right?” I asked, horrified.

Marshall turned off the recording, and turned around, a goofy grin on his face. “This kind of joke’s a lot funnier when only I get it,” he said, winking.

“Man, you fucked up,” Kanye said.

When I started actually following rap music (How could you not after hearing ‘Damn it Feels Good to Be A Gangster,’ ‘Just a Friend,’ ‘Ghetto Superstar,’ and ‘Hail Mary’ back to back?) I started to realize that explained so much about Eminem’s music. I also began to wonder a bit about some of the bullies. Shirley, for instance, was becoming such a parody of herself that I had to wonder if she even believed a single thing she said.

Destiny, however, was definitely real. She had begun to steal some of my stuff and get physical. She and her group had begun to do stuff like step on the back of my shoes, “accidentally” dump food on me, and even steal stuff. That’s why I began to keep everything valuable as close as possible to me. I complained to the principal (he actually was the closest thing I had to an ally in that school) but he never was able to pin anything on Destiny.

Surprisingly, it actually got better in Third Grade when Destiny and Shirley were both in my class. Destiny seemed to think that the only thing more amusing than tormenting me was watching Shirley attempt to torment me. It got even better one day.

I was in the bathroom with a severe case of constipation when two girls came in. “Ohmigod,” one said, “guess what happened in Mrs. Brett’s classroom just now?”

“What?”

“Shirley MacIntosh just called Destiny Washington the n-word!”

I didn’t really pay attention too much. I had known Shirley had some pretty stupid views on race ever since she admitted to me that black people might be descended from apes, but white people were definitely god’s children. However, I didn’t realize at the time that this was the best thing that could have happened to me.

From then on, Destiny was focused like a laser on Shirley. The only time she would even say a thing to me would be to damn me with faint praise compared to Shirley. I would be hurt, but Shirley would be hurt worse. I tried not to take solace in the fact that Shirley was now even worse off than I had been.

Eventually, Shirley came down with something. After a week, the teacher came to me and said, “May, Shirley is behind on work. Can you take some stuff over there?”

I stared at her, disbelievingly. Then I said, “No.”

“May!” The teacher said admonishingly, “Shirley is your friend! Don’t…”

I laughed. “Mrs. Brett, you know better!” I said, after I had calmed down. “Before she got sick, you had to send her to the principal’s office for calling me the r-word and punching me. I’ve complained to you at least once week about her being mean to me. She’s a bully, but she’s so low on the pecking order that her only viable target is me! She’s a predator and the only one weak enough for her to go after is me. Send someone with a strong immune system who doesn’t have a history of being bullied by her. Or better yet, use the modern methods of communication at your disposal! E-mail her! Fax her! Mail it to her! Or better yet, let that sorry excuse for a human being get held back a year! She deserves it!”

The teacher slammed down the packet on my desk. “May, honestly! This is a sick classmate! I expect better of you. Do as I say, or Principal Zellweger will hear about this.”

I must have given her The Look, because she and half the class suddenly recoiled in horror. Destiny, who had never seen The Look before was probably even more terrified than Mrs. Brett. After a few seconds, I spoke.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my voice a shaky whisper, “because you’re right, that is what a decent human being would do in my position. However, I’m doing this because I’ll feel bad about myself if I don’t. I think we both know that if you sent me to the Principal’s office, he would suggest, like I did, that you avail yourself of the wonders of modern communication technology. He would also question the wisdom of sending a frequent bullying victim to her tormentor’s house.” I put the documents in my bag. “There are five minutes until school gets out. Do you have any further instructions, or will I be able to get on with my life?”

There was silence. The bell rang, and I left. In the entire time, not one person spoke. I walked down the hall. Anyone who noticed me quickly stepped out of my way. Finally, I saw Mary.

“Mary,” I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Did you give another speech?” Mary asked exasperatedly before turning around to see my face. Sometimes when I humiliate myself, my attempts to cover up my anguish at being made fun of can get my voice sounding very similar. However, when she turned around, she saw that I still had The Look on my face. Mary made a little squeak.

“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “Walk with me.”

Mom was waiting there in her Escalade. She cringed when she saw my face. “Please tell me you didn’t kill half the school.” She said as I got in. I don’t think she was joking.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m just being forced to visit a sick friend.” I opened my backpack and read off the address.

“That’s… that’s Shirley MacIntosh’s address…” Mom said.

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s just get this over with, ok?”

Shirley’s house was actually on the way to our house. It disturbed me because I never knew how close we lived. We got out of the car, and I walked up to the door, I tried to fix a smile onto my face. It was probably really fake. I rang the doorbell anyway.

What I assumed to be Shirley’s mom answered the door. She had the same hair, the same blue eyes, and generally just looked like an older version of Shirley.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m a…” I tried to say friend, but the words couldn’t come out. “…Classmate of Shirley’s. Mrs. Brett sent me to give her her homework.”

Her lip curled. “Oh,” she said, “you’re the retard, aren’t you?”

The horrible rictus on my face crumbled and The Look came back. “Congratulations. You’re even more unpleasant than your daughter. Now get out of my way, so we can all get this over with,” I said, venom dripping from my voice.

She got out of my way. From the look on her face, you would have thought I was covered in blood and carrying an axe.

“Thank you,” I said, as I walked by her. “Where is your daughter? I want to get this over with as quickly as possible.”

“At the end of the hall on the left,” Mrs. MacIntosh whispered, her eyes wide.

Thank you,” I said. To my ears, it sounded less like a nicety and more like a threat more terrifying than any detailed description of torture could be.

It was then that I realized how much I hated being angry. Normal people, when angry, get away from the situation. They stop being scared. Me? I get more scared. Not only that, but the people around me got scared and even hurt. I didn’t want that. I wanted people to like me. I wanted to be able to go to school without wondering what new horror would meet me.

Before I entered the room where Shirley was, I took a deep breath. Then another. I reminded myself that she was sick and would need this if she wanted to pass second grade. I knocked on the door. By the time I was calm enough to work up some sympathy, Mom and Mrs. MacIntosh had started yelling at each other.

“Shirley?” I asked cautiously. “It’s me, May. I’m here to give you some work.” There was no answer. I opened the door and walked in.

The room I was in was a TV room. On one of the couches, wrapped in blankets, was Shirley. She looked terrible.

“Shirley?” I asked. “Are you ok?”

“Come closer…” she whispered, her voice hoarse.

I ran to her. “What happened?” I asked, noticing her cheeks balloon. “What do you have?”

She grabbed my shoulders, then had a five minute coughing fit right in my face. When she was finally done, she said, with seething contempt, “Whooping cough.”

I pulled away. “First of all,” I said, “ew. Second of all, how did you get pertussis? Aren’t you vaccinated?”

“Vaccinated?” She laughed, which quickly into another coughing fit. “And end up a pathetic retard like you? No. My mom has more sense than that.”

I was shocked. “What, did I finally get to you?” Shirley sneered “What was it, me noticing how much of a loser you are or…”

I laughed. “Honestly,” I said, “it was you calling me a loser. I mean, that, that, is funny.” Shirley looked at me in shock. “You know,” I said, “I may not know anything about how to interact like a normal human being. I might say stuff that people randomly say isn’t ok, but I don’t do it to hurt people.

“But you,” I continued, “I think you know why people get angry or sad when you say these things. But you say them! And what’s galling is it gets you nothing! You’re now even more hated than I am, and you could just drop all this… this… this stupidity. This hateful, spiteful, stupidity, and people might like you. But you keep doing it, and I don’t even see what it gets you!”

“I’m right…” she said.

“No you aren’t!” I laughed. “You want proof? Three days after you got sick, I heard the nurse say how she was happy everyone else had gotten whooping cough vaccines. You see, out of the hundreds of kids who go to this school, there’s only one like me. The only one who’s been out this month… is you.”

Shirley looked at me, a look of fear on her face. “You’re lying.” She said. She didn’t sound convinced.

I kind of was. I knew for a fact that she was the only one in my class out sick. But if what she really had was Pertussis, the only people who would probably get it were unvaccinated. “Nope,” I said. “I’m telling the truth. I have never, ever, told you anything I wasn’t sure was the truth.

“Oh, and here’s something else that’s true,” I said, now feeling like I hit upon the truth of who Shirley was, “The reason you’re so pathetic? You made this little world that’s completely separated from reality that completely hamstrings your ability to interact with the real world. And the thing that would make it so funny, if I wasn’t suffering for your idiocy as much as you? It doesn’t make things better for you.” I slammed down her papers on the coffee table. “This is for you.”

I left that house as fast as I could. Shirley was back a little later. I noticed that she didn’t bother me that much anymore, or even talk to anyone. She just avoided people in general.

As the year wound down, most of the people Third Grade talked about how much they were looking forward to Middle School or going on and on about how they’d miss this school and their friends who were going to different schools. I personally didn’t care. Personally, this school had been a nightmare for me, and from what I heard, it only got worse as time went on.

I had one more visit to the principal’s office before school was over. I had actually been going less and less as the school went on. Mostly because I was learning when to say things. One of the rules I actually understood was if it took more than five minutes, it was best not to start. The reason was two-fold: first off, teachers needed to teach. They couldn’t teach if I was distracting the class. Second, the longer I went on, the more likely I was to break one of the other rules. I even charted it. After two minutes, it was a dramatic increase.

Anyway, a week before the last day, Mrs. Brett decided that for our final class trip, instead of going to a fun place like the local ice cream stand, we would go to the pond to feed the ducks. The gist of what I said was that ducks had terrifying sex lives and the best course of action would be to do anything but see ducks.

Everyone looked more than a little sick, even though I had skirted over as many details as I could. Mrs. Brett, however, shook her head. “May,” she said, “you were doing so well.”

After Mrs. Brett told a truncated version of my story, Principal Zellweger said, “Thank you, Mrs. Brett. Leave Miss Riley to me.” I noticed, for once, Principal Zellweger was not nursing a headache.

After Mrs. Brett left, I asked Principal Zellweger, “Hey, Mr. Zellweger, I noticed you aren’t clutching your head? Did you try yoga or that medicine I suggested?”

“May,” he said, for some reason using his first name, which surprised me, “I’ve been taking yoga since the day you first suggested it.”

“Oh.” I had no idea what to do with this information, other than say, “Sorry it didn’t work.”

Principal Zellweger smiled ruefully. “Oh it did,” he said. “You just always seemed to see me when things were most stressful.”

“I know,” I said, “I mean, it’s mostly my fault isn’t it? Look at all the things I said in class that got me sent down here. There’s also the dozens of times I had to complain to you because Destiny started taking things from me and…”

Principal Zellweger held up his hand for me to stop. “May,” he said, “this meeting is about the good things.”

“There are good things?” I asked. “How? Look at me, I’ve never come to see you when there isn’t some sort of trouble. I’ve nearly failed every grade, I don’t get social interaction like normal people do, and I’ve been sent to your office almost every month of my entire school career here! I’m not a good kid! Seriously, normal kids don’t talk about how often ducks rape other ducks or bring in pictures of smallpox victims for show and tell or…”

Principal Zellweger shook his head. “May,” he said, “you may be a terrible student, but you are a very good person. You are so passionate about learning that it makes me wish I was a teacher again. I know you care about what people think, but you also care about what is right. Keep that. The world needs that, but never appreciates it.”

“Thank you,” I said, then asked, “Does this mean you’re not going to call my mom?”

Principal Zellweger shook his head. “I think we can give you a pass this one time. Just, please try not to give any more speeches? I think it will serve you well in the long run.”

I nodded. “I’ll try.”

The Principal shook his head. “There is no try, May,” he said, “only do.”

Middle School was worse. Destiny mostly stayed the same, but there were less and less boys who were interested in my lectures. Instead, they started talking to my sister. Why? Puberty, that’s why.

Before puberty, I was pretty much the only girl boys talked to, because, well, I talked about giraffe sex and flesh-eating viruses. Seriously, tell a pre-pubescent boy something cool about dinosaurs and he won’t give a crap about cooties. He and his friends might even let you join in their football game if they think what you said was cool enough.

However, when puberty starts, boys suddenly start to care about what girls think. Some more than sexual reasons, others simply because of their desire to fornicate. I can’t speak to the percentages, because they stopped talking to me. You see, they could try to get with the weird girl who made it abundantly clear she wasn’t interested in going up to bat until she was comfortable with platonic relationships and ruin their chances with pretty much every single other girl in the school, or they could try and go up to bat with her twin sister.

They kept trying to get with me, though. That was because both me and my sister had more than a few curves, and none of them were in our stomachs. Mary had gotten even fitter than me because of her weird belief that she needed to be in some kind of sporting event each season in order to get into college, despite my assurances that it wasn’t needed.

She also seemed to be getting more friends. I remember when Mary first tried to get me to join a social networking site. I forget the name of the site, but it was definitely the summer between fourth and fifth grade.

“Look,” Mary said, “you can connect to all you old friends! I found Michelle who moved to Seattle in second grade, and we hang out all the time online!”

I frowned. Mary didn’t see it because Michelle had just messaged her. She probably hadn’t noticed all the times Michelle had given me flat tires or whispered mean things when Mary had invited her over.

“Yeah…” I said, “in case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t really have any friends.” I paused. “Who do I know on there?”

“Oh,” Mary said, evasively, “no one in particular…” Mary never could lie to me. She was really good at lying to my parents, but for some reason she could never fool anyone else. The question was who was on there that Mary knew would be a deal-breaker.

“Destiny’s on there, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Seriously, May,” Mary asked, “what can she do to you on the internet? I mean, it’s not like she could even see you if your account is private.”

“She can think of something,” I said. “I mean, have you forgotten what she did to you when she kept ‘accidentally’ mistaking you for me before I started dying my hair? She knew you’d tell me all this terrible stuff and it’d make me feel awful.”

“So you won’t be my friend on Facebook?” She might have said MySpace. I’m not sure, I’m just going with Facebook because it’s alliterative. By the way, did you know that alliteration started as a Latin pun? Can you also tell I read dictionaries for fun, sometimes? Anyway, getting back on track.

“I can be your real-life friend,” I said, “but you have to know that things are harder for me than for you.”

Mary sighed. “Whatever.” She turned back to her computer, effectively ending the conversation.

This was just a harbinger of things to come. First it was Mary saying that Destiny wasn’t as bad online. Then it was her trying to avoid me until she needed help with science work, which kind of hurt. I mean, we were twins. She didn’t have to ask me to stay in my room while her friends came over, I would probably have done that anyway. Her friends didn’t like me all that much and they were the kind of people who (like the rest of us) didn’t like school but spent all their time trying to be good at it so they could get into a “good” college.

I asked one of them what a good college would be like. All she did was list off a bunch of names like Harvard, Yale and MIT. “But what makes them good?” I asked.

“Because people recognize them,” she said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Yeah,” I said, “but they’re all expensive. That’s like buying clothes because it’s made by some designer and not because they last long or make you look good. I mean, I suppose Harvard makes you look good as well, but is it really worth the extra thirty thousand dollars? I mean, what do you learn there that you wouldn’t at a normal college?”

Mary’s friend sighed. “What do you want?”

“Conversation? Knowledge? Why else would I talk to people?”

“Can we not have this conversations while we’re both peeing?”

Things started looking up when I was in fifth grade. I could finally get to go and study for various Red Cross courses. I actually met people I liked there, even if I didn’t get to stay in contact with them for too long.

In eighth grade, however, things got worse. I had stopped talking to people, but Destiny and the various people like her went after me more and more. Whenever I tried to talk to Mom and Dad about it, Mary would always stand up for Destiny.

“So why did I come home every day this week soaked in grape juice?” I asked Mary.

“I’m not saying this didn’t happen,” Mary said, “I’m just asking if it really was Destiny? I mean, she’s always nice to me.”

I’ll let you fill in the proceeding conversation. Multiply it by several dozen, and you’ll get what life was starting to be like for me. The one thing that I was looking forward to was the Young Doctor’s program. I still was in contact with Doctor Mark, and before I applied he seemed cautiously optimistic.

“You’re grades are a little low so far,” he said on one phone call, “but I think that if you stay on topic and show off your passion for being a doctor in your essay, there’s a good chance you can get in.”

I was in the living room, talking on my old junky cellphone. “Thanks, Doc!” I said. “Also, I promise that I haven’t looked in that recommendation letter, but it’s still cool that you sent it! I mean, do you know how much that means to me?”

“Who’re you talking to?” I looked up. Mary had just walked in, holding a bag of freshly popped popcorn and a DVD.

“Is that Mary?” Dr. Mark asked. “Tell her I said hi.” There was a beep on his end. “Sorry,” he said, “I’ve got to take this.”

“No problem,” I said. He hung up. I turned towards Mary. “That was Dr. Mark. He says hi. We were just talking about the Young Doctor’s club. I think I’m putting in about as much effort into joining that as you are into getting into field hockey and play and band next year.”

“So you’re finally doing an extracurricular?” Mary asked. Then she added contemplatively, “Huh. When’s the due date for it?”

I stared at her. “Mary,” I said, “It’s a five-page essay and three recommendations, and its due in a week. I’ve re-written that essay nine times, and I still might not get in because, even though they’ll accept someone fourteen years old and with my grades, they want a fifteen-year-old with straight A’s. You’ll also be competing against kids from three counties. You can’t make it.”

“Just thought I’d give it a try,” Mary said, as she popped in the DVD. “I kind of want to be a doctor, and thought this might be a good way to do it.”

I tried not to get angry at her. “Mary,” I said. “This is not the program for people who ‘kind of want to be doctors.’ If you ‘kind of want to be a doctor,’ take a CPR or first aid course. You’re old enough. You are nowhere near hungry enough to be applying to YD at this point.”

She looked at me, somewhat hurt. “You don’t think I’d be able to get in.”

“There’s a possibility,” I said, “it’s just… I’d actually be kind of angry if you did. I’ve been preparing to get into a program like this ever since the accident since, you know, this.” I gestured at my face. “I’ve read more medical texts and journals than I could count instead of playing with Barbie dolls. Instead of going to the movies or hanging out at the mall, I’ve been learning CPR at the gym. I’ve stopped caring what people think about me, because I love learning about this stuff so much. Also, I actually like doing it. Remember when Matt had his seizure, how I told everyone what to do? That felt really good. Not the bossing everyone around, but the fact that knowing what I did helped someone. I probably didn’t save his life, but I helped. And you have no idea about any of this stuff.”

I paused. “Also, do you even know what this job entails? I’d basically be everyone’s coffee bitch and human speech-to-text software. Even an intern could boss me around. You’re always going for the stuff that gets you into the spotlight, and you keep complaining about having to pay your dues. I mean, of course…” I caught the hurt look on Mary’s face. “Sorry,” I said, “but it’s the truth. I’m, uh, just going to leave.”

She had recovered from the hurt by the next time it came up. That was when I got the acceptance letter. The only person who wasn’t happy about it was Dad.

“It says here that you’ll be in the American Recovery Hospital,” he said. “Isn’t that in Pomona?”

“It’s only an hour away,” I said, “and I only have work two days a week.”

“It isn’t the drive,” Dad said, “It’s the core market. The vast majority of these people are living below the poverty line.”

“So?” I asked. “It just means I’ll be doing more good than if I worked in a closer hospital.”

“Do you know how much crack and heroin they do there?” Dad asked, somewhat desperate.

“Don’t know,” I shrugged. “Probably less than the people in the high school I’m going into. People in Beverly Hills can afford it. People in Pomona can’t.”

“Oh, let her go,” Mary said. “She’s been waiting years to do this.”

Eventually, with the help of Mom and Mary, we persuaded Dad to let me give it a try. Then, the Saturday after school started, Mom drove me all the way to the hospital I was would be working at.

“Do you need any help finding the place?” My mom asked, hugging her purse tighter. I don’t get why. There were more than a few cops in the lobby, and the people there looked too sick and injured to attempt a mugging anyway. Maybe she was put off by the fact that a lot of them were speaking Spanish. Don’t know why. Spanish people are still people.

“I was basically told to ask the receptionist,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Mom asked. She looked hesitantly at the line. It was only two people deep, so I didn’t see what her problem was.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m sure.” I stood behind a group of three Hispanic men. Two of them were supporting a third. They were talking amongst themselves, with the guy in the middle complaining and groaning. As we got closer, I began to hear a dripping sound.

“Holy crap!” I said to the guy in the center, “You’re leaking!”

“Yeah,” he said, “I fucking know that, ok?”

Mom tried to move in front of me, but I shoved her out of the way. “What happened?” I asked. “Where’s the wound?” As I talked, I got out my backpack. I had two. One was a school backpack that, while nice, wouldn’t hurt too much if I lost it. The one I had with me was my essential pack. It contained my laptop, an MP3 recorder, a first-aid kit and some bandages. The first aid kit was what I would need.

“What’re you doing?” another one of the men asked.

“Stabilizing your friend until he can get proper medical attention,” I snapped. “Now let me see the wound!”

“Is this really necessary, dear?” my mom asked. “This is a hospital after all.”

“He’s still bleeding,” I said. “If he isn’t bandaged, I need… someone needs to do it now. I’m not sure how long he’s been bleeding, but if it isn’t disinfected and bandaged he could be at risk to infections, not to mention the possibility he bleeds out. This way, he lasts at least long enough for the doctors to look at him.”

Needless to say, I was late. After doing a few things to insure there wouldn’t be infection (“No, you can’t lie on the ground while I do this! Do you have any idea how many vomit and bleed on that?”) I finally got the guy bandaged up. After thanking me profusely, I finally was able to ask the receptionist for Doctor King. Then we were bounced around several times. Finally, we arrived to her office about twenty minutes late.

“I am so sorry,” I said when she finally let us into the office. “There was this guy in the waiting room who had been stabbed and I stopped to help bandage him up so he wouldn’t get infected with whatever was on the floor in this hospital and then two other people had taken our place and then we were bounced back and forth several times and then we got here and now I’m talking because I can’t stop and I’m really, really, really sorry.”

“Whoa, slow down,” Dr. King said. “You actually came at a really good time. One of my other patients had a bit of an episode, which would have delayed me.”

“An… episode.” Mom looked at the drywall. I followed her gaze. Three parallel lines scarred it close to the floor. “I see. So what is your specialty, Dr. King?”

“Parahuman pediatrics. One of my patients had a seizure,” Doctor King said.

“That must be really hard,” I said. “There are so many different kinds you have to keep current on and to make it even worse there are a bunch of subtypes, plus the risk you run into a completely new type you’ve never seen before. Then you also have to diagnose which ones have been damaged by industrial accidents, which ones are genetic, which ones develop in utero… Plus, they’re extremely rare and you’re doing this in a hospital with a very low-income market.”

Dr. King smiled. “You’re underestimating the rewards.”

I looked at her funny. “Really?” I asked, somewhat disbelievingly.

“You see,” Doctor King said, “The lupine population in LA has recently undergone a kind of baby boom in the poorer areas. Also, for some reason that I’ll leave to the sociologists, more parahuman parents are taking their kids to see doctors. Combine this with the fact that we still know very little about paras, and this is like another gold rush, except the reward is knowledge.”

“And,” I asked, a little suspiciously, “how does this help the lupines?”

Doctor King laughed. “You kidding? Us para-docs in LA can cut our rates so low, a few of us are cheaper than going to a normal pediatrician. For instance, I decided I didn’t really need a big house or a fancy car, so I cut my rates. They pay less, and I get more.”

“And the… risks?” Mom asked. She was still looking at the wall for some reason.

“That wasn’t a patient getting rowdy, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Dr. King said also nodding towards the wall. “I just got the first known case of an epileptic lupine.”

“Lucky you…” Mom muttered.

“Hell yeah, I’m lucky!” Doctor King said. “We’ve already been mentioned twice in the Harvard Medical Journal.”

“Have they named a disease after him?” I asked. “Because I totally would be ok with having seizures if it meant I got a condition named after me.”

“Not yet,” she said. “Anyway, do you know what you’ll be doing here?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “I’ll be taking notes for you, organizing documents, and basically being human text-to-speech software.”

“Got it in one,” Doctor King said. “Though we may be able to get you working on some more interesting stuff.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked. “This is like the wild west of pediatrics!”

“I take it I can give up on talking you out of this?” Mom asked.

“Why would you want to?” I asked.

She opened her mouth, then said, “Never mind, honey.” And that was how I got to go to spend my weekends learning about lupine kids. It was amazing because I’m pretty sure half the stuff was things no one knew before we discovered them.

For instance, claw layout. It always took a lot of coaxing, but when they did pop them, there were always two layouts. The first was the standard layout. Found in the vast majority of males, there were six claw bones located between the knuckles of the fingers, three on one hand, three on the other. These claws were also two-stages, with a second set of claws in them that could extend. We called this the Fighter Layout. The other layout, found in mostly the females was the Climber Layout. With this, the claw between the middle and ring knuckle was moved to the foot, and instead of being relatively delicate and two-stage, they are single stage and re-enforced. This makes them excellent for climbing.

We also noticed that there seemed to be something about the claws. Whenever they got popped, they seemed to release large amounts large amounts of adrenalin and testosterone and a small amount of a third chemical unique to lupines. We called it Vanarolin, after the Norse myth of the wolf Vanagandr (also known as Fenris.) We called it this because it seemed to induce a semi-berserker state in those affected. It temporarily decreased empathy, increased pain, but made the body more able to deal with it, and increased the likelihood of a fight response. It wasn’t a true berserker response, because they were still rational, but they were still much more likely to kill someone.

I was impressed with their self-control. Most humans, between the (amplified) pain of dislocating their knuckle joints so claws could pop through their skin, and three different chemicals telling them to fight would not have sat still. Every single one of these kids did.

That was one of the reasons I was confused at the California Lupine Medication Act. Basically, it required all lupines to take an experimental drug called Tyrinol. What it did, supposedly, was suppress Vanarolin, making it safer for everyone. I was skeptical.

“This doesn’t seem right,” when I saw that it had passed. “This bill doesn’t even take into account that there isn’t a recorded case where a lupine has popped their claws in situations that were not provoked or pre-meditated. It’s an instinctual response to someone presenting a clear and present physical threat, like a knife.”

“It’s for the safety of others,” Doctor King said. “People are scared of lupines. They tried de-clawing them and sterilizing them, but their healing factors prevented that. They’d go farther, but the last time that happened… well, the Untermenschen were born.”

The Untermenschen are sort of the parahuman’s answer to Hitler’s “final solution” to how Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, parahumans, and anyone else who wasn’t blond, blue-eyed and heteronormative. A bunch of them had formed together. After they killed Hitler and wreaked vengeance on the Nazis, they kind of drifted apart. Now, almost every pro-parahuman organization has roots with them, especially the violent ones.

“Ok,” I said. “That makes sense. But then again, by that logic forcing black people to take experimental medication because they account for a disproportionate amount of crime makes even more sense.” Did I mention Doctor King was black? I’m not sure. That’s important. At least, people make it important.

“That’s different,” Doctor King said. “I agree that this is not exactly well thought out, but black people don’t have knives built into their hands, unless they’re lupines.”

There were other questions to ask about lupines, though. For instance, why was so much of their behavior similar to that of wild canines like wolves and foxes? Why some have dog ears and/or animal patterned hair? Also, where did they come from? Unlike what some people said, lupines actually had less in common genetically with dogs than normal humans. I honestly didn’t care that I probably wouldn’t be the one to find out, I was just happy to be there.

However, the school stuff was kind of the exact opposite. The nice thing was that there were a lot more targets to distract bullies. The nasty flip side was that meant that there were a hell of a lot of more people who were trying to come for me. However, I could deal with it. Things hadn’t escalated like it did for other bullying victims in high school. If I just kept my head down, I could keep sane.

The biggest problem for this plan was Mary. I came home from school one day, and there was Destiny sitting with Mary at the kitchen table, doing homework. I tried to slip by, but Destiny saw me. “Oh, hi May!” she said innocently.

“Hi…” I said, instantly suspicious. I was wondering if I could get away with just leaving now. Nothing good could come from just staying there.

“So what happened to your art project?” Destiny asked sweetly. She was talking about a clay sculpture of the human brain I had been working on. It was really good. The only mistake I made was thinking my locker was safe. I came in to school today to find that someone had taken it out and given it a good whack with what looked like a baseball bat. They had artfully arranged it in front of my locker and spray-painted the word “loser” on my door. “Honestly, it’s like you don’t even know how to take care of art.” Translation: “Did you really think we’d allow you to feel good about yourself?”

I decided to answer the questions she had asked literally. “Like you don’t know how it got broken.” When she began to fake being offended, I walked out.

After I had almost finished my math, Mary barged into my room. “What the hell, May?” she asked. She was angry.

“What?” I asked.

Mary glared at me. “This was my first chance in years for people to know me as something other than the freak’s sister. You almost fucked that up.”

I sighed. “Honestly, Mary,” I said, turning back to the worksheet, “if you were relying on Destiny to get you into the cool crowd, you were going about it the wrong way.”

“And what would you know about being accepted?”

That hurt more than anything Destiny could have said to me, and I guess Mary could tell. “I’m sorry, May,” she said, “I didn’t mean…”

“I know you didn’t,” I lied. I continued on in a more truthful vein, “but Destiny… remember all the things she said to you in second grade? That was her at her nicest.”

“She’s gotten a lot better,” Mary said, “maybe if you just give her a chance…”

“Mary,” I said patiently, “she’s never stopped being mean to me. I can’t tell you how I know, I just know.

Mary looked like she was going to argue, but she changed her mind. “So,” she said, changing the subject completely, “I was Googling Lupines because you talk about them so much. Do you know what Tyrinol is?” Before I could answer she laughed. “Sorry, bad phrasing. Can you explain whatTyrinol is?”

After a half an hour of me raving about the evils of Tyrinol, Mary held up her hands. “Ok, ok,” she said. “I get it. Barely tested drug being force-fed to an under-represented population. That’s awful.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but you should probably get other sources than me. I’m kind of biased about this.”

“Yeah,” Mary said sarcastically, “in the same way climate scientists are biased about Global Warming being a thing or immunologists are biased about vaccines not causing autism.” She switched tones. “The reason I ask,” she said, “is because I was looking on Facebook on some doctor group and there’s this protest in front of City Hall in a few weeks. Want to come?”

Those few works were better than most. Destiny would still wind up in the house occasionally, but Mary would call to let me know ahead of time. I went to the post in question, and made sure we had everything we needed. With some reservations, dad drove us down to one of the courthouses in town where the protesters were gathering. We were assuring him we’d be ok when the leader walked over to us.

“You new?” he asked.

“I just got here!” I said. “If that’s what you meant, I mean. I actually work with Lupine kids and that’s how I heard this so…”

The guy cut me off. “I mean, is this your first protest?”

My dad looked indignant. “I would hope so. This is the first I’ve heard about it.”

The guy turned back towards us. “I should tell you: we’re holding this protest because the vote is today we know we’re going to lose it.”

My stomach fell. “So why are we doing this?”

“We want people to know,” he said, “that we still care about this. If the vote passes without incident, then people think it isn’t important.” His gaze hardened. “The question is, can you deal with that?”

“Yep!” I said. I was right. I could have dealt with that… until the texts started coming.

I had just finished free-styling into the megaphone. It was usually just something I did when I didn’t have my music with me and thought I was alone, but apparently I was good at it. Just as I handed the microphone back to the guy who had welcomed us, my phone bleeped.

“Must be Dad,” I said.

I flipped the phone open, and looked. It was a text message. It wasn’t from Dad. With a feeling of dread, I opened the message. Hey freak, it said, finaly got ur #.

“That’s Destiny’s number…” I looked over my shoulder. It was Mary who had spoken. Then my phone began to blow up. Every second there was at least one. It went for two minutes until I turned it off. By that time, I had about two hundred and forty-five messages.

That’s when someone called Mary’s iPhone. She took it out and said, “Hello.” Her face contorted into a rage. “You fucking bitch,” she snarled. The other protesters turned to look at her. “My sister has just gotten hundreds of nasty texts in the span of only a minute. You know, maybe if I didn’t see the first one, I would’ve been stupid enough to believe you. ‘Study group,’ my ass. I know I’m stealing from number one-fifty, but I hope an AIDS carrier bleeds into your eyes. Fuck off.” She had actually managed to quote one of the nicer texts word for word.

She hung up, then yelled. “Sorry,” she said, after calming down, “but I think I should call my parents now. We’ve kind of got an emergency.”

We kind of waited around after that, not really getting back into the protest. Occasionally someone would walk over to ask what had happened. Mom arrived eventually. “What happened?” she asked as she pulled up. She looked at my tear-stained face. “Did someone hurt you?”

“Not anyone here,” Mary said. “I’ll explain later.”

School was terrible from that day on. Before, they just decided once a week to once a day was enough. Now, the various tormentors tried to do something once a period. To top it off, they had also managed to get their hands on both my school email and my private one. My phone and private email I could just change, but the school didn’t want to change my email name.

“Well,” Mrs. Edwards, the principal said, “the purpose of student email is for students to contact each other. I guess it’s actually working.”

My Mom said, somewhat incredulously, “You call five thousand of the most despicable emails I have ever seen working?”

“Mom,” I said, “it’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad?” my Mom screeched. “When my parents were in school, the teachers would have put a stop to something like this! And they let boys beat each other to a pulp back then!”

“Your grandparents didn’t go to a school with the children of movie stars,” Dad said. “Do you think these girls’ parents will fight it?”

The rest of the meeting was filled with Mom and Dad having one of their knock-down, drag-out fights, with Mrs. Edwards trying to calm it down and have it end in her favor. I tuned it out. My parents had gotten into fights with each other after meetings with my teachers. Sometimes, they were worse. At the time, I didn’t realize that the worse ones weren’t all that common. Or maybe I just told myself that. Seriously, no one likes to think their parents might secretly hate each other.

Anyway, there were bigger problems. Doctor King and I were starting to get a lot of weird behaviors from our patients. A few months after the Tyrinol bill passed, our patients, especially the teens started showing minor depression symptoms.

“It’s the Tyrinol.” I said, a few months into the epidemic. “It has to be.”

“Not necessarily,” Doctor King said. “It could be any number of factors. Besides, the symptoms are minor. Lack of energy, vague symptoms of dissatisfaction, mood swings… these are typical teenager traits.”

“Actually,” I said, “I think you should get a few patients back in here.” Doctor King looked at me askance. “Just a hunch,” I said, “but I think a few of these patients are lying about considering suicide.”

Two weeks later, and our first patient was hospitalized. She used her claws to slit her wrists in the bathtub in her home. She would have died if her healing factor hadn’t sealed up the x-shaped gashes. She was only twelve.

They kept coming in after that. Most weren’t lucky enough to survive their attempts. The worst, according to the EMTs, were the ones who would drag their claws across their stomachs. For once, I was actively grateful that death was just a statistic to me. It wasn’t that I was all “oh all life is valuable, so we shouldn’t treat it as a statistic,” it was more that until I hadn’t realized that death is scary and awful and even worse when you’re in a position to stop it. The statistics are there to make sure people in my position don’t go crazy.

They also can stop the flow of corpses. After the third body (that was one of ours, the total was more like ten at the time,) I ran through the statistics. I remember that Doctor King had said the annoying thing about the epidemic was that it was mostly males, but not all male Lupines got the depression and not all females avoided it. For me, that was the tip-off. I decided to sort the Lupines not by gender, but by claw layout. I wasn’t surprised by the results.

For the male Lupines with the Fighter layout, the depression rate was about 95%. For female Lupines with the Fighter layout, the depression rate was 100%. The rate for a Lupine of any gender with a Climber layout? Five percent. That got me thinking: why? Why did it affect the Fighters, and not the climbers?

Maybe… maybe it had something to do with the Vanarolin they produced? Yes, that had to be it. Or at least that’s what I thought, but even if I was wrong about that, even if I was wrong about it being caused by the Tyrinol, I had found something statistically significant. I could make my case.

“…So what we’re going to need to do to start narrowing it down,” I said, “is start to look at Lupines in this age range who haven’t been exposed to Tyrinol.”

Doctor King looked at my research proposal. “Now, that last part is the trick, ain’t it?”

“Yeah…” I said, “We’d need to take samples of Vanarolin from live patients from teenage Lupines from outside Cali. Outside here… well, they’re kind of spread out, aren’t they?”

Doctor King frowned a bit. “Well… I do have a contact who might be interested and capable of this…”

“Really?” I asked. “Is he a doctor?”

“He taught a few psych classes at my school,” she said, “but he mostly taught… less nice stuff. I believe he called it less-legal.”

I thought about asking what exactly the guy did, then thought better. I would rather not find out in a way where he’d have to send someone to kill me. Instead, I asked, “Do you think he’ll be on board for finding subjects?”

Doctor King shuddered. “The real problem would be keeping Doctor Krieger away if he found out, especially if he found out the research framework was first made by someone under eighteen.” When she saw my horrified look, she said, “Oh, don’t worry, he would just try to enroll you in the university. I’ve honestly never seen him get interested in anyone in a sexual way.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, I kind of had some help. My sister Mary did some proofreading and I kind of want to tell her the good news.”

“Go on,” Doctor King said. “get outta here. I’m going to call the good doctor.”

When I got home, Mary was sitting at the living room table, a bag of field hockey equipment at her feet and a dark expression on her face. It had been becoming a more and more common sight. “Hey Mary!” I said. “Doctor King approved the research project!”

“Oh,” Mary said, a little distracted, “that’s good. That’s good. Let’s get something to eat! Mom won’t be home, so how about some pizza?”

I looked at her quizzically. As I did, I noticed her hockey stick wasn’t in her bag. Later, I would find out she had threatened another student with it. At least, that’s what Mary claims. The other student had been bragging about pouring her milk down my sweater. My sister had finally snapped. Long story, the hockey stick and a locker door got broken.

After that, Mary started to go crazy. On the surface, she still seemed to be the same preppy girl, but her record began to say different things. Her grades slipped from As to Bs, she would stay out late, come home bruised and bleeding, and racked up a couple suspensions. I began to suspect she dropped a few of her extracurricular to participate in an illegal fight ring.

This suspicion was confirmed one night when she called me from an abandoned warehouse in a really seedy area at midnight, asking me to pick her up. We were fifteen at the time. We were fifteen, so we both had junior driving permits. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to drive my Prius down to pick her up, but I figured it was an emergency.

When I got there, Mary and her then-boyfriend, another kind of preppy kid, were waiting outside the warehouse, along with a crowd of people, mostly black and Hispanic males. Her boyfriend looked scared and out of place. Mary looked triumphant, despite a black eye, bloody nose, bleeding lip, and a visible limp. Then, mid-fist bump with a large body-builder type, she saw my face.

“What the hell is this?” I asked as I slammed the car door closed. “Why, why, why, why am I in sweat-shop land, dragging your ass back home before our parents notice we’re gone?”

“She’s, uh, she’s working out her aggression,” Mary’s boyfriend said, looking around at the gathered crowd. “And my car got stolen.”

“Hey, no worries, ese,” one guy said, “I know the guy who stole it. Beemer, right? Guy’s driving it back to your home right now.”

“Thanks.”

I sighed. “Please tell me that this isn’t some illegal car thievery ring.”

“Have you seen Fight Club?” Mary asked.

“Even better.” I said, rolling my eyes. “Get in the car, you two.” They got in.

“Are you going to tell Mom and Dad?” Mary asked once we were underway.

“I don’t need to,” I said. “At least, I don’t think I do. Do you have any idea how bad you look? If our parents can’t notice a periorbital hematoma or that you’re limping, then I think I’ve lost all hope in them.”

I went into a rant for a good chunk of the drive. “…And that’s what you basically are,” I said, “a hippo flinging shit everywhere for no damn good reason, other than that you’ve given into instincts that we should have left behind when we started growing our own crops!” Mary laughed. “What?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said, “It’s just kind of weird to see this stuff get to you. You’re always in your own little world, you know?” She then got wistful. “Not that I blame you, the real world sucks. This here is kind of my only escape.”

“That’s it!” Mary’s boyfriend said, slapping the back of my seat for emphasis. “We’re done! This is just too crazy for me.”

Mary giggled. “Works for me, Chris!”

“Holy shit,” I said. “You’re getting a dopamine rush from this. The fighting, the bad girl thing…”

“Guess you’re right,” Mary said. “But it’s better than going crazy while your family speeds towards a train wreck.” I opened my mouth to argue, but Mary cut me off. “Don’t try to argue. You may be the girl of steel, but Mom and Dad just keep fighting and fighting. If you ever make the mistake of leaving your bubble where things are within a country mile of ok, you’d notice it, just like you’d notice all the flyers of you covered in grape juice posted on available surface or the half-dozen other indignities you suffer every day. Me, I can’t help but notice everything now.”

The rest of the night was spent in silence. I woke up next morning to a new text message and a note reminding me that my parents had gone to a couple’s retreat in Florida for the week. The text message was from Doctor King. It said, “Krieger’s here. Bring ur sister after school. Doc Mark, Krieger + me want talk. cu.” A few minutes, the address to an ice cream place near the school popped up.

Needless to say, we were there. I was actually kind of intrigued by the mystery of Doctor Krieger. I wondered what he did.

That question was almost answered as soon as we saw him. Krieger looked more like a mental patient than a psychologist. He was wearing a South African soccer jersey, cargo pants the color of desert or beach sand, and matching combat boots. His hair was ill-kempt and had a matching lumberjack beard.

His eyes, however, were what made him look crazy. They shone like headlights with intelligence and madness. “Ah, it’s the Riley twins!” he said in a strange accent halfway between German and English. “I’m a big fan of your work! You’re very smart. I’ll admit, I know a bit more about Mary’s area of expertise. Nice fight last night, by the way.” Mary’s eyes widened. Krieger continued on, smiling a bit at her reaction, “Was it your first?”

“No,” she said. “I’ve been trying to do one every few weeks. I just won a big championship that night, that’s all.”

“Good on you, girlie!” Krieger said enthusiastically. “Practice makes perfect!” As we sat down, I caught a glint of silver under his jersey. He was carrying a gun. “Anyway,” he said, reaching into a bag, causing his jersey to expose more of his huge gun, “I’ve got something extra.” He pulled out a folder, and set it down. “You guys want to see this?”

“Oh stop keeping us in suspense, Professor,” Doctor King said. “What did you figure out?”

Krieger smiled as he set out four pictures of chemical compounds. “Where is the fun of just telling you?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be more fun if you just guessed how these guys reacted? Also, you’ve graduated. Call me Karl.”

I quickly took a look at the pictures. I recognized one as dopamine before I even read it. One was labeled Tyrinol (or T.) The other two were labeled Fighter Vanarolin (FV) and Climber Vanarolin (CV.)

I took card T and inspected it. The ways the chemicals bonded looked very complex, but there were certain patterns. I then looked at the other cards. “This is a puzzle,” I said. “This,” I said, grabbing FV and sliding it into Tyrinol, “bonds like this… allowing this,” I grabbed the dopamine card and docked it between the FV and Tyrinol molecules “to bond like this.” I paused. “Now the question is… Wait, never mind! I just realized how Tyrinol is supposed to work!”

“Go on…” Krieger said. Doctor King and Mark were also interested, but more like two theater-goers trying to solve the mystery in the movie before it ends. Krieger looked more like a teacher who’s student was about to do something impressive, like answer a question above their grade level. If the teacher was completely nuts, that is.

“Tyrinol’s job,” I said, “is to turn Vanarolin into something the brain can process to something it can’t. The problem is that there are two types of Vanarolin and one also soaks up dopamine! When that happens, it becomes much more difficult for the brain to physically experience pleasure.” I looked at the unwieldy molecule I had created. “However, it doesn’t look very stable… so it breaks apart…” I paused.

“Very good,” Krieger said.

“Wait,” Doctor Mark said, “you can just see how several chemicals will react just by looking at a diagram of them?”

“Well,” I said, “so can you. You just need simpler chemicals.” Krieger laughed at this. “Anyway,” I said, ignoring him, “I’m still unsure what happens when it breaks apart. I’m guessing that since Tyrinol is only designed to soak up Vanarolin (of which it only soaks up one of two kinds.) However, I don’t know much apart from the fact that the Tyrinol stays in the system. The dopamine and Vanarolin probably don’t revert back to their original state, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this mess…”

“Or maybe,” Krieger said, “the addition of the dopamine allows it to be absorbed before that happens.”

“Thought you wanted Scarface here to guess it on her own,” Doctor King said acidly.

Krieger shrugged. “I decided I wanted to do the big reveal.”

I didn’t hear. I was too busy staring in horror at the Frankenstein’s Monster of a compound. “It goes where dopamine is supposed to go, isn’t it?” I asked.

“I’m curious,” Doctor Mark said. “How are you guessing that?”

I pointed to the dopamine model. “Well,” I said, “this is the end where it gets absorbed. It is not” I pointed to the other end of the protein chain, “the end that is reacting with the Vanarolin and the Tyrinol.”

Doctor King turned her attention to the diagram. “So, the brain thinks that this bull shit is dopamine?”

“That’s my theory.” I said.

“Which is correct,” Krieger said.

“Is it just me,” Mary asked, “Or is this like having an alcohol enema?”

“No,” Doctor King said, “Alcohol enemas get you drunk if you do them safely… this… this is in no way safe or fun. The death count from this bull shit is nearing a hundred suicides.”

After that, it was mostly the adults deciding how to divvy up credit for the inevitable research papers. Krieger seemed somewhat keen that I get mentioned. When they were finally done, Krieger got up. “Here,” he said hand me and Mary a flyer each, “some literature about the school I teach at. You haven’t heard of it, but I can assure you, it caters to your specific needs. If you’re interested, email or call us and tell them Karl sent you.”

After that, things went quickly. Before I knew it, I was on a bit of a whirlwind tour. The paper was published. My name was on it. Teachers suddenly cared about me because they thought I had learned this stuff from them (I hadn’t.) I went to Sacramento to speak out against Tyrinol. Colleges began to headhunt me. However, whenever a college recruiter came to the door, I would remember that flyer with the blue crest and the quote from a ruthless robber-baron.

I would also be reminded by it whenever my parents fought, as they were doing more and more often. The flyer promised things that none of the others did. One of the things it said, for instance was “Why wait until after college to change the world? Our technology is ten years of anything you’ll find outside our campus thanks to our top students as well as our faculty.”

Before I knew it, it was the week before graduation. I was sitting at my desk, finishing up my last final, when the speaker crackled, “May Riley, please come down to the office.”

Confused, I did as the speaker voice told me after I handed in the file. I hadn’t spoken enough to get in trouble this week, and everyone had left me alone for a while. When I finally got to the front office, the secretary asked, “May Riley?” She glanced up. “Yeah, it’s you. Here’s your file.”

“My file?” I asked dumbly.

“Yeah,” she said. “You’re eighteen. The school system wants everyone to have a chance to look at their permanent record without their parents looking over their shoulders once they’re legally allowed to do so.” Now that she mentioned it, I suddenly remembered all the seniors being called down to the office. “Sign here.”

I signed. In return, I got the file folder. “You done with classes?” the secretary asked.

“Yep!” I said. “I’m actually just going to walk out of here. Then I’m going to try and spend the next few weeks forgetting all my wonderful classmates.”

The secretary laughed. “Sure wish I could do the same. The faculty are having their annual trip to the bar, and, as usual, they’ve neglected to invite me.”

“Well,” I said joyfully as I walked to the door, my file in hand, “I’d say see you later, but…” The secretary laughed.

When I got to my Prius, I opened the folder. The first thing I saw was a letter from my first principal, Mr. Zellweger. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Riley it began…

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Riley,

Your child, I think we can all agree, is quite special. However sometimes, being special has its downsides. Your daughter is discovering these downsides.

Now, when I suggest to someone that their child has special needs, sometimes they respond with, “but my child is so smart!” With Mary, I think we all know that she is extremely intelligent, scarily intelligent even. However, knowing what an erection is and knowing when to talk about the behavior of cows when they get one are two different things. Guess which one May is an expert in? A normal classroom is not equipped to handle this kind of child.

I could list every single instance that points to May’s need of Special Education, but I’ve already done that in previous emails and phone calls and I don’t think you want to hear it all again. I just hope that you do what’s best for your daughter.

Sincerely,

Principal Brian Zellweger

Instantly fond memories came flooding back. However, I also had questions. If I had been really been in need of being in a special school, why didn’t I get sent to one? I turned to the next page, and that question was immediately answered.

Dear Principal Zellweger,

I’m sorry, but no daughter of mine is mentally challenged. I am not going to be the laughingstock of all my friends because my daughter is in some kind of special school. Please don’t mention this again.

Sincerely,

Richard Riley

I stared at this. My Dad had kept me from any chance of happiness in school because he was worried about what his “friends” would think. What a joke! His only “friends” were celebrities who thought that he could introduce him to other celebrities. He was already quite hated by every celebrity.

I started driving. I wasn’t really sure where I was going. It was like I was driving drunk, but it was just the rug coming out from underneath my world. I thought my Dad cared about me. I was also wondering other things like, oh, where Mom was in all of this?

I didn’t know where I was going for a long time. In fact, I wasn’t shaken out of my reverie until I smashed into a tree. For a moment, I’m not sure I even noticed I crashed. Then, I just sat and thought about what I wanted to do. Finally, I decided I wanted to get away from them. My parents, I mean. I hated them. I had hated before, but I never looked at it. I mean, anger and hate never made me feel happy. But this time I had to do something.

I took my phone out and dialed the number on the flyer Krieger had given me. “Nowhere Island University admissions!” a chipper female voice on the other end said. “Are you calling to enroll?”

I didn’t hesitate. “Yes.” I said. “I’m enrolling.”

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Track 13: Stop Snowing!

When we had been revived from the gas, we had been forced into disinfectant showers. We cooperated only because we were still woozy from the gas and were outnumbered, outgunned and out-trained. We got new, clean uniforms and the people like me who took a drink of the gray-green stuff got some pills.

“What do they do?” I asked.

“They make ye vomit,” the medic handing them out said. He was Irish (or maybe Scottish, again, I’m terrible at identifying accents from the British Isles.) I raised an eyebrow. “Basically,” the medic said, “it’s a choice between barfing constantly now or shitting and barfing blood and bits of yer digestive track later.”

“Ok,” I said, more than a little horrified, “I guess I’ll take these… how many times a day?”

“Two pills now,” he said, “then continue it for every meal until you run out.” I took two pills. I started barfing halfway to the barracks. Well, technically, it wasn’t barfing because usually nothing was coming up, and when I did get something out, it would be stomach acid. It got so bad that I had to lean on Eric and Doc for support.

When we were in front of our barracks, Eliza asked, “Oi, what’s happened? You were in there longer than anyone else. And why’s Nate in such rough shape?”

A guard behind us said, “No talking!” I heard someone spit in response. We kept moving back to the barracks. I got into bed, head leaning over the side so I wouldn’t vomit onto the floor, then promptly passed out. Then woke up approximately two seconds later because I was dry-heaving.

The next few days were spent in a very similar state, with people dragging me out of bed occasionally to get something to eat and drink. I’m not sure how long this went on, maybe not even a day, maybe a week. Because of the whole constantly vomiting thing, I was kind of going a little insane from lack of sleep. After a while, I got to the point where I wasn’t sure what was real and what was my unhinged imagination. If I had to guess, whenever the few bits I do remember involved vengeful talking wolves, famous singers with hook hands trying to kill me, or the penis-stealing magical girl were times when I was completely out of my mind.

Then, one meal, I looked in the bottle of pills and realized that there were none left. I remember everyone at the table sighing with relief. I then went back to my bunk and passed out. I didn’t dream, just enjoyed the sleep.

When I woke up, Sergeant Krieger was staring at me. “God damn it…” I moaned. “Can I wait, like, a week to deal with you? Or at least until I’ve had a few more hours of sleep?”

“You hurt me, Boyke,” Krieger said. “You hurt me right deep.”

I debated doubling down, offering an apology, or remaining silent. I chose to remain silent. I really didn’t want to push my luck by being snarky or hostile, and a fake apology (which was the only type of apology I was capable of giving at that point) can piss people off more than a real one.

After a pause, Sergeant Krieger asked, “Aren’t you a little bit curious about why I’m here?”

I looked around. “A little,” I said. “I’m more curious about where Ray-Gun is. After all, you’re sitting in his bed.” It wasn’t just Ray-Gun who was missing. All the rest of the crew was gone as well. I wondered if this was pre-arranged. I also wondered where Eliza was.

“They’re just talking to security,” Krieger said casually, “they’ve got a few enemies, and we want to ensure them that they’re safe. They shouldn’t be back for a while.” It was pre-arranged. The entire point of this camp was to kill off the weak. I looked over his shoulder to see if Eliza was there.

Krieger noticed it. “Are you looking for someone, boyke?”

“Eliza Henderson,” I said. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to tell him something he already knew. In fact, why not tell him something he might not know? “She has the tendency to… follow me. I’m almost as scared of her as I am of you.”

“Really?” Krieger asked. “How am I scary, boyke?”

“You’re just like her,” I said. “You seem to have some interest in me. That, in and of itself isn’t worrying. The amount of attention you pay to me, however is… paranoia-inducing.”

“You know,” Krieger said, “it was my dream to see one of you fresh meat walk into this grinder and come out of it ahead of some of the scariest motherfuckers in the world.”

Was?” I asked.

Krieger laughed. “You know, most of the people here are actually not fresh meat? Almost all have had some kind of combat training before coming to this program. It also would be easier to list the people like you who haven’t killed anyone before this camp. And you…” here he leaned in close, “you’re the freshest meat of them all, aren’t you boyke?”

“I’ve taken Tae Kwon-do for ten years!” I protested.

“Aye,” he said, “that you have. But I think we both know that a green belt and a few sparring sessions is nothing compared to an actual fight.”

I nodded. “If by actual fight, you mean trying to kill someone, then yeah.” I was about to add how most people hadn’t, then considered what I had seen since I got here. Maybe being forced between dying and hurting was a lot more common than I thought.

“Even a playground fight’s much different than your sparring,” Krieger said. “In your sparring sessions, you get in trouble if you hurt someone. You wear pads to protect everyone involved. In a playground fight, or any other real fight, it’s all about hurting the other person.” He seemed genuinely impressed. “Do you know how hard it is to go from a life like yours, trying to never hurt another person, to straight up bashing another person’s head in with a rock?”

“Disturbingly easy,” I said. “I did it, remember?”

Krieger laughed heartily. “So that’s why they call you Killer, eh? You’re fucking cold, boyke.”

“Don’t call me that!” I snarled.

Krieger’s smile disappeared, but the glint of madness in his eyes grew brighter. “You want me to stop, Killer?” His voice was very dangerous, but still conversational.

Yes.”

Krieger considered me for a moment, then said, “Then make me.” After a pause he added, “Killer.”

I sized him up and down. I considered going for his throat. A blow there might shut him up. However, if it didn’t work, he was bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced, and quite possibly smarter than me. Therefore, he could probably beat me to a pulp and not even draw the Colt, knife, or taser strapped to his hip. “In this situation?” I asked. “Not likely.”

“See?” Krieger asked. “You’ve only been doing this since September, and already you’re better than some people who’ve been doing this since they came in. You think Salim would have bothered to size me up before he went for my throat?”

“My mother will be so proud,” I said sarcastically.

“However,” Krieger said, “there is one question I have for you: Why are you here?”

I stared at him blankly. “You mean,” I asked, “why am I at NIU?”

Krieger nodded. “Yes. What do you hope to achieve? What is your goal in life?” I didn’t respond, so he added, “I know most people can’t be specific, but it helps to be honest. Telling someone what you want, or admitting you don’t know what you want can help you get it.”

I shrugged. “Guess I got super hero syndrome,” I said. “When I started, I had this idea that I’d be ‘saving the world’ once I got out of here. Now… I’m not sure if I took the right path. I can’t see myself doing any good using the stuff this program taught me. Problem is, I’m reasonably sure I’ve made too many enemies to leave the program and return home.”

Krieger nodded. “You’re right in that you can’t go back to your old self,” he said. “But you’re wrong in that you can’t do good work. For instance, we’ve had plenty of our graduates join agencies like Interpol and the Society of Genocide Relief. Hell, UNIX was founded by NIU graduates!”

I almost gave myself away there. Or maybe he already knew. UNIX didn’t just have alumni, it was created by them! “I…” I said, “I didn’t know that.”

“If you want my advice, though,” Krieger said, “you shouldn’t hitch your wagon to just one group. You might be glad to have the option of saying no.” He got up, then added, “Oh, you might not have heard, but you guys are on break until Saturday. After that, we’ll start you guys on night patrol.”

He got up and adjusted his winter jacket. It was weird that I hadn’t noticed that before. I was wondering why he had one when he opened the door. As soon as Krieger opened the door, a howling wind and a huge amount of snow blew in to the room. He staggered out, the wind trying to push him back into the barracks. Wonderful.

A bit latter, Eliza came in, her face red from the biting cold and a hood pulled over her head. She walked directly over to me. “Nate!” she said, “You’re up! Think you’re gonna live, then?” She was flashing her trademark grin and her tone was as mischievous as usual, but for some reason I thought I detected a hint of actual concern.

“Potentially,” I said. “I doubt I’ll be vomiting up pieces of my stomach, but I kind of just lied to Sergeant Krieger.”

“Oh really?” Her smile became a bit forced at this. She leaned on Eric and Ray-Gun’s bunk and took off her hood. I hadn’t seen her for a long time, so this was the first I’d gotten a good look at her real ears. Instead of human ears, they were more cat or dog-like. They were facing towards me, so I could only see that the borders were black, and the very tips were white. Eliza continued, asking, “And what, pray tell, is your reason for lying to Krieger?”

“Basically,” I said as quietly as I could without whispering, “if I was a hundred-percent honest when answering his questions, he’d learn about my employer, my partners, and a group of seven people I’m supremely scared of.”

“Ah. I see.” Eliza looked somewhat terrified.

“To be fair,” I said, “it was more of a congratulatory pep-talk. Apparently, he’s always wanted to train some person with no history of violence into a brutal death machine, and I’ve done pretty well except for some motivational issues.”

“Is that all ‘e wanted?” Eliza asked.

“There was some stuff about what I missed, like guard duty and…”

“And what?” Eliza asked, cocking her head to the side.

“I think I’m way too paranoid,” I said, “but I think he knows who I work for, and he definitely knows more about them than me. It’s not anything tangible, or at least not anything I consciously recognized.” I paused, considering confessing that I was seriously worried that I was going insane. Instead, I asked, “So, how’s the weather?”

Eliza laughed. “Bloody awful. For some ungodly reason, it dropped from ten degrees to below freezing and started blizzarding. That’s Celsius, not whatever bleeding arbitrary bullshit you yanks use.”

“‘Blizzarding:’” I said, as I flipped open my compass/thermometer to get a rough “‘The act of working on something for four times as long as another competitor before announcing it, then delaying it multiple times.’” Eliza gave me a funny look. “Sorry,” I said. “Gamer humor. Anyway, apparently in Fahrenheit that’s a twenty-degree drop in… how many hours?”

“Four.” Eliza said wearily, her ears drooping.

“I can’t believe it was around eighty for a week after we got here,” I said. Eliza nodded in agreement.

From there, the conversation kind of died down. Neither of us really wanted to talk about the last event. Eliza came close to it when she accidentally mentioned that her section was entirely gone. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She said no. That pretty much killed the conversation.

I saw Eliza more than I used to over the next few weeks. It was still not a lot, seeing as she tended to like hanging out with Bai and Oro more than any of the people in my group. We also were very busy. In addition to all the craziness of gun and hand-to-hand combat, there was the fact that they were introducing grenades and rockets. I was lucky I went first for grenade throwing, because in the second group, some idiot nearly blew himself up. The girl who was standing next to him kind of laughed her ass off. Eliza’s response, when we were at dinner, was to say, “I want to be that girl when I grow up. If I was right next to some bloke who dropped his bleeding grenade right next to me, I’d shit myself.”

Luckily, I didn’t have night watch duty for a few weeks. I’d hear someone come back in at an awful hour, shivering from the cold and crawl into their bunk. Then there was also having to deal with the people you were patrolling with. John had the best story.

“So, how many of you guys saw the guy who knocked me out of the ring?” He asked, sitting down at breakfast one day.

Everyone shook their heads, except Cross. “That big fucker with the Jewfro? You know, the one with the unpronounceable Polish name?”

“Yeah, that’s the one!” John said. “I was on patrol with him tonight!”

We all laughed. “Seriously?” Doc asked. “The guy who almost broke your nose? Did he want to finish the job or something?”

“No, actually,” John said. “You wanna hear the crazy part?” Everyone answered with a resounding yes, but John hadn’t really waited. “The crazy part was that he was apologizing constantly! He was like offering to buy me drinks and stuff and I was like, ‘no dude, it’s cool, I totally get it!’”

“Really?” Doc asked.

“He is,” The Monk said, “as our American friends would say, a ‘chill dude.’”

“I sincerely hope,” I said, “that I get someone as chill as that guy.” At two in the morning, someone woke me up to tell me that I’d be patrolling with Richard, Salim and Ulfric. I grumbled in a mixture of dismay and annoyance as I pulled on as many layers as I could. The girl who had woken me up then went to go find Salim.

After we were both up, we trudged out into the courtyard. We both pretended to ignore each other while secretly preparing for a fight as we met up with Richard, Ulfric, Sergeant Burra, and a group of eight other students standing in the huge blizzard.

“G’evening, everyone!” Burra said, her voice much more chipper than should be allowed at that time. “So, I assume you all know which groups you’re in?” Everyone nodded and vocalized an affirmative. “Right then,” Burra continued on, “Group one, you lot get the inner perimeter. Your job is to go around on the inside here and check the buildings for break-ins and damage. Also, if you see any bloke out of bed, call it in on the radios we’ll give you. We’ll then get a drill sergeant to come help you secure the person. Just make sure you maintain visual contact.”

She then turned to the next group. “Now, group two gets the cushy gig. You lot get to wait by the barrels outside the main gate. No one gets in or out. Also, make sure the fires in the barrels stay lit. They’ll keep you nice and toasty, I here.”

She turned to Ulfric, Richard, Salim, and me. “That leaves you sorry bastards,” she said sympathetically. “You’ve got to go out and patrol the outer perimeter. Call if you see anyone besides yourselves out, would you?”

“Wait,” I said, “the outer perimeter? The place where there are unexploded mines?”

Burra shrugged apologetically. “The mines aren’t so much the problem if you keep within three hundred meters to the wall. Even then, you’ll probably be fine. It’s the bloody cold that’ll get you. It’s actually a couple degrees cooler out there than it is in the camp’s interior.” I assumed that she was speaking in Celsius. That would be a bigger drop than Farenheit.

She pointed to a cart filled with radios. “Here’s the radios. Take them and make sure they’re set to channel two.” After the radio check, she said, “Good job. Now off you pop!”

We popped off. Group two relieved the previous group at the entrance and we began heading off on our appointed rounds. I was in the front, Salim and Richard behind me, and Ulfric bringing up the rear. Needless to say, I was worried. I wondered if (or more specifically when) Salim and Richard would stab me in the back. That had to be the reason they were standing behind me, right? And then there was Ulfric.

“Ok,” I said, “before we turn that corner, I need to know who’s planning on killing me tonight. You know, just for the sake of my paranoia.”

“Not tonight,” Salim said. “I am a patient man. I can wait until the university no longer protects you. Until then… I can wait.”

“Maybe I’ll do it,” Richard said. “If Salim doesn’t squeal I…” He then made a squeaking noise. Salim and I turned to look at him.

Ulfric had reached out and grabbed Richard by the shoulder. He leaned in to Richard’s ear and said, with a slight southern twang, “I like Nathan.” After he was sure the message had gotten across, he let go of Richard’s shoulders.

“Thanks, Ulfric,” I said, my voice cracking. Ulfric giggled in response.

We continued walking for a long time. The cold bit at us and the silence gnawed at the backs of our minds. I had it especially bad because I was worried that Richard or Salim might stick a knife in to my back before Ulfric could stop them. Or Ulfric would decide that he was bored and painting portals to hell in our blood, marrow and grey matter would be fun.

Apparently the silence was getting to other people as well. After starting the second lap, Richard finally broke down. “Ok,” he asked, “are we just going to just ignore each other?”

“Well,” I said, “seeing as we how we all hate each other, I don’t think we’d have the most relaxing or educational conversation.”

“As always,” Salim said acidly, “You westerners fail to grasp even the most basic aspects of life. Conversation is not supposed to relax or teach, it is there to pass the time.”

“And as always,” Richard said, “you Arabs act like god speaks to you personally.”

“Hey, assholes,” I said, “can we not act like we’re getting high off the smell of our own shit? Salim, Richard may be an asshole, but he’s right about how much of a prick you are. Richard, you also described yourself in that statement. Get the fuck over yourself.”

We past Group 2. They were huddled around the fire in the barrel. They pointed at us and laughed as we walked by. They were speaking some far-east sounding language. We ignored them. A little while later, Richard spoke up again.

“So why are you here, Nathan?” he asked.

“Because I’m a fucking moron!” I shouted over the snow and wind.

“Thought Jews were supposed to be smart,” he said in a self-satisfied, sneering way. God, I wanted to punch him.

“If you know everything,” I asked, “why are you here?” It took all I had from adding asshole. I was kind of proud of myself I didn’t.

“Partly because my dad made me,” Richard said. “Partly because there’s a bigger problem that need to be dealt with.”

“What, bigger than Jews and black people walking about unmolested?” I asked. “Must be transsexuals.”

For someone Richard laughed. “No,” he said. “Trust me, you’re going to be really surprised at who’s in this little fight of mine, and what side they’re on.”

There was a pause for a moment while we processed that statement. “That was almost as evasive as my answer,” I said. “Congratulations.”

“And that’s all you’re going to get,” Richard said.

“I think” Salim said, “I will share more than you two.” He paused. “Aside from the elderly and people here, have you known anyone to die? Violently?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Richard said.

“Who?” Salim asked.

“My sister,” Richard said. “I was there when it happened.” His voice was very flat.

“I am sorry to hear that,” Salim said. “When did it happen?”

“Last year,” he said. “I saw it happen.” He paused. “I thought this was about you. Why don’t you tell us whatever sob story you have?”

Salim shrugged. “I was getting there.” He then began to tell his story, an air of false geniality masking seething anger. “When I was sixteen, I was still living in my village. I never really wanted to leave, you understand? All my family and friends lived there.”

I nodded. While I had always wanted leave home, I could understand not wanting to leave somewhere where everyone you ever knew lived.

“I remember the day everything changed,” Salim said. “It should have been a good day. A wedding.” His voice lost all pretense of friendliness. “I guess someone forgot to tell your government that. They must have seen the guns my family was going to shoot off or something, so they had a drone launch a missile into the crowd.”

“Oh,” I said. What else could I say.

“They saw that there were still people moving,” he said, “so they fired a few more. I was one of three survivors, and I was the one the least scarred. That was when I decided that I would not rest until you Americans learned terror. You too will learn the pain of losing everyone you care about seemingly at random and the terror of knowing it can happen again at any moment.”

Before anyone else could formulate a response, Ulfric giggled and said something in Arabic. We all turned to face him. Salim said something in response, possibly the Arabic version of “Say that again.” Ulfric said something different in Arabic.

In response, Salim threw himself at Ulfric, screaming in Arabic. Ulfric just grabbed Salim by the face and held him at arm’s length, muttering bits of Arabic between his signature high-pitched giggles.

“Jesus,” Richard said “what the fuck’d you say to him, Ulfric?”

Ulfric, his accent now Middle Eastern, said, “He was set free, now he’s like me! Violent and happy as can be. Trouble is, he doesn’t want to admit the truth, you see.” He giggled again, maybe at the cleverness of his own rhyme, maybe because he thought he was right, maybe because he was picturing squeezing and crushing Salim’s head (I had seen him do it before on his highlight reel,) or hell, he could just be giggling because that’s what Ulfric does. I didn’t know, and honestly I didn’t want to find out.

“HE’S A LIAR!” Salim yelled. “HE’S WRONG! HE’S SICK!”

“Do you want to hear why I’m here?” Ulfric asked.

“Not at the moment,” I said. “Richard, help me hold him back.”

“Got it,” Richard said. We each grabbed one of Salim’s arms and began to drag him away from Ulfric. Salim began kicking and squirming.

During this time, I was forced to look in Ulfric’s face. I didn’t like that, because his face… it’s not ugly, quite the opposite in fact, but there’s something about him that’s just off. Maybe it’s how childish he seems. Maybe it was the constant smile. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. I especially didn’t like it when Ulfric’s smile grew wider. “I’m here because of all the funny people.” He then let go of Salim’s face.

This surprised me and Richard, giving Salim the opportunity to wrench free with a blood-curdling scream and launch himself at Ulfric. Ulfric then grabbed Salim by the coat and flung him a few yards into the wall. Salim’s torso and head slammed into it, then he slid down a few feet.

Richard and I looked from to Salim, to Ulfric, then finally each other. Ulfric just giggled. I think Salim may have groaned, but the wind drowned it out. After a while, I said, “So it looks like they’re done. I’ll go check on Salim.”

“You do that,” Richard said as he eyed Ulfric warily.

I walked over to Salim. As got closer, I could see his eyes were opened, but unfocused. I shone my flashlight in his eyes. They were different sizes.

“Sssstop it…” he slurred.

“Salim,” I said, “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.” He nodded. “Ok,” I continued, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“That can’t be right…” he said, staring at my hand.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” I asked again, now scared.

“Eight?” I was holding up three, and only showing him one hand.

“Ok,” I said, “what did we have for breakfast?”

“The same thing we have every day,” Salim said, “that disgusting sludge.”

“Ok,” I said, “close enough.” I reached out my hand. “Come on, let’s get you moving. Don’t want to freeze to death, do you?” It was probably ten below in Farenheit (or -23 Celsius.) I doubt Salim could survive long if we just left him.

“Hey, Jacobs…” I heard Richard say, “I think I see someone.”

I turned around. Richard was pointing his flashlight at a point in the distance. I got up, telling Salim, “Wait here, don’t go to sleep.” I squinted as I walked to where Richard was standing. It took me a while, but I eventually could make out a pale figure with long dark hair in the snow.

“Yeah,” I said to Richard, “I see it too. I’m going to call this clusterfuck in. Unless you want to?”

“Go ahead,” Richard said.

I raised my radio, and looked back at the figure. It was now closer. “Sergeant Burra, come in. Repeat, Sergeant Burra, come in.”

“‘Allo, soldier,” Sergeant Burra’s cheery Australian accent came in over the radio. I could barely here her over the radio. “What’s up?”

“We’re kind of in a weird situation,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on the figure in the distance. “Ulfric and Salim got in a fight, and now Salim is concussed.”

“God’s still looking out for the fools, I see.”

“That isn’t all,” I said. “We’ve got visual contact with a person. Definitely brunette, possibly female Caucasian.”

“How close is she to your position?”

I checked. We were at the shooting range, a little ways away from where the shooters were supposed to stand. The contact was halfway between the wall and the shooter location. “About a hundred fifty to two hundred meters,” I said.

“Huh,” Sergeant Burra said. “That’s unusual. The contact usually keeps about three hundred meters back. Anyway, Spooky’s never hurt anyone so far. Carry on.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but has Spooky ever been closer than three hundred meters before?”

There was silence on the other end for a long time. Finally, Sergeant Burra said, “Continue on your rounds. If there is any change, contact me. Burra out.”

We looked at each other. Finally, Richard said, “I’ll get Salim. You can deal with Spooky.”

I glanced at Ulfric for some reason. A weird, dreamy look was coming over his face. I looked back at Spooky. Spooky was now seventy-five meters away. Now that she was much closer, I could see that Spooky’s hair wasn’t moving, despite the howling wind.

“Richard…” I called out, not taking my eyes off Spooky, “You got Salim yet?”

“Working on it!” he yelled back.

I took out my walky-talky again, and said, “Contact now seventy-five meters, repeat contact is now at seventy-five meters!”
The only response was static. I was now completely freaked. I was also losing feeling in my extremities. “Richard,” I yelled, “We need to go now!” I was now afraid to turn away. Every time I did, Spooky was significantly closer. Maybe she was like that sub-atomic particle that exists in multiple places at once when you don’t look at it.

Maybe Spooky had read my mind, because she (at least, I’m pretty sure Spooky was a she) started walking towards me. I raised my radio, and began yelling, “Contact is coming towards me! Send back-up now! Repeat, send back-up now!”

I began backing away. The snow suddenly picked up and changed directions, and I blinked. That was all the time it took for Spooky to disappear. I turned around clockwise, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Ulfric was still standing with a zoned-out look on his face, and Richard was trying to get Salim up.

When I finished a full rotation, Spooky was back.

Right in front of my face.

She was definitely a she, and she was extremely pale with a weird bluish tinge. Her body looked mildly mummified, but her eyes were somehow still functional. We stared at each other for a moment, her blankly, me in complete terror.

“You don’t trust anyone, do you?” She asked, her voice hoarse and monotone. I shook my head. “Very smart of you,” she said. As I watched, she turned into dust and blew away.

I picked up the radio. “This is Jacobs,” I said. “Boy, do I have a story for you guys.”

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Track of the day

Track 3: Preparing for Fight Night

As I mentioned before, Nowhere Island is an L-shaped sandbar. On the corner is an airfield that heads west towards the main campus. The main campus itself is kind of a small town. I know this because we run through it twice every day on our run. It’s gated off and is on a raised, rocky area, probably in case of attack. The buildings inside are that fusion of Modern and early 20th century architecture that schools back home tend to be nowadays: all brick, but with huge glass windows for the lobbies. However, looking at how weathered the bricks are, one tends to get the feeling that they’re from way before the style became popular. Also, the non-lobby windows tend to be smaller, more like murder holes in old castles. My guess is that in a pinch every building there can be turned into a bunker of some sort.

I’m not the best judge, but I’ve heard some people say that up to 20,000 people could be in that section. I guess I can see that, because except for some of the staff houses, the living quarters seem to be mostly multi-story apartment-style buildings.

To top it off, on the gate that led to the campus, there was written in bronze: “Any man may rob a railcar, but an educated man may steal the entire railway.” After the first run, I started hearing people joke that the gate to our camp should read “Arbeit macht frei.”

Speaking of our camp, it was quite different from the campus. On one side were five large buildings, designed to hold 200 people each. Opposite that were the cafeteria and the showers. To the south (that was actually one of the things we had learned, how to tell directions based on the sun and stars,) were the staff quarters, an armory, and a mysterious building which smelled like rotting carcasses called “The Chamber of Horrors.” In the center was the parade ground with a dirt floor. (Well, currently it was a mud floor.) That was where Fight Night would take place. Surrounding it was a wall that was meant more as a token defense than as a way to keep people in or out. Strange as it sounded, everyone wanted to be here.

That didn’t mean we didn’t complain. Popular topics of our moaning included grueling physical labor, baking heat, our instructors, the near-constant torrential rains, and our fellow students. These complaints were not without reason. Each one of these topics seemed like it was actively trying to kill us.

As John and I walked through the gates, completely out of breath, an announcement from the loudspeakers played. It was from the Head of the Advanced Combat & Military Science Academy, Professor Blunt. Great. Just what we needed to hear while being pelted by rain so heavy it felt like we were swimming.

“So you candy-ass fresh meat are all finally here!” Yep, he was another drill sergeant, all right. “Well, we’ve got a real treat for all you ladies! You get the rest of the day off for R&R! That means a whole day of hopscotch and knitting for you before you finally get your first real fight. Or maybe that isn’t tame enough for you snowflakes, I don’t know. Meals are at the usual time!”

“This has been another inspirational message from Professor Blunt,” I said. “If this message has made you feel uncomfortable in any way, you may call our toll free number 1-800-URAPANSY.” I must have said it louder than I intended because John wasn’t the only one who laughed. Sergeant Krieger, who was only slightly farther ahead of me, didn’t seem to care. Someone else did.

“You’re a funny guy, aren’t you, Jew-boy?” the voice asked. I stiffened. I would have kept moving, but John had stopped as well. John turned around slowly, and I did as well, wiping off my glasses. Whatever was happening, I wanted to be able to see.

“I’m sorry,” John asked, “but who the fuck are you?” We were face-to-face with the kind of person you see in old Army recruitment posters. I suppose his hair was too dark for a Nazi recruiting poster, but he was more KKK. He also did kind of look a bit like a younger version of those old Civil War Generals, I suppose.

“This is Richard Forest Taylor the… third, I think?” I said. He nodded. I continued on. “A few days ago, I was saying how I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. He suggested I join what he views as a prestigious part of American heritage. I call it the KKK.”

“I see.” John said. He was breathing harder now, and I doubted all of it was because of the marathon.

Richard, or Dick, as I liked to call him, cut in. “I like,” he said, “with all your limp-wristed talk of respecting others, you still talk over me.” Normally, I would have tried to reason with him, or point out that he hadn’t been saying anything, or maybe even walked away. However, I had just run twenty-five kilometers, I hadn’t eaten or showered, it was raining, and I had not had enough sleep. So, in retrospect, I think I can be forgiven for asking him, “Who fucking said anything about respecting you, bedsheet-face?”

In the moment, however, Richard called me uppity and something that begins with K, while punching me in the face. John, in response to that, tackled Richard and began rapidly punching him before I had time to process anything.

I didn’t really know how to react then. On the one hand, I wanted to ask John to move out of the way so I could take a turn beating the crap out of him. On the other, I felt my duty as a good human being would be to say something like, “That’s enough, John.”

“What’s this, eh?” Sergeant Krieger asked. I nearly crapped my pants and made a note to add motherfucking ninja to the good sergeant’s list of skills. Also, a few people were stopping to watch the show. Showers could wait, apparently.

John stood up, and looked directly in Krieger’s face. To his credit, he managed not to look scared. “The fucker on the ground insulted my friend and punched him in the face.”

“The ad’ole provoked de!” Richard shouted through a bloody nose, pointing at me. His eyes also kind of looked like at least one would be puffy in a few hours.

“By ‘provoking,’” I said acidly, “he means ‘responding to his BS.’”

Krieger regarded each of us with a disturbing intensity. Whatever animosity we felt towards each other, however intense, we all had a feeling that Krieger wanted us to put it on hold. Continuing hostilities would… annoy him. Annoying Krieger would result in the offending parties watching bemusedly as their blood watered the grass.

“Names.” I suppose it was a question, but it sounded more like a threat. A threat from Krieger was something you took seriously. We told him. Richard, I noticed, didn’t mention his middle name or the fact that he was version 3.0. I guess he realized that Krieger wouldn’t be impressed.

Finally, he came to a decision. “All right,” he said, pointing to us, “you two go shower.” He pointed to Richard. “You go to the canteen and get some ice.” Not being stupid, we obeyed. Apparently, they let people in the Soldier programs off easy for fighting, especially in basic training. As long as you could still fight, they were ok with it.

“Meet me behind the barracks after we eat,” John whispered to me as we headed off to shower. It made sense. While I had normally spent all my running with John, I spent mealtimes trying to talk to people. I didn’t want to break this streak for fear of attracting attention.

I was in the middle of my shower when Amir sauntered up to the shower head next to me. Amir was… very different from Richard. He was Al-Qaeda, so I suppose there were some similarities. However, unlike his cronies (he seemed to be the senior Al-Qaeda guy here,) his was an almost cordial hate. Whenever he talked to me, he would usually ask if I wanted to convert and join Al-Qaeda. I would decline. He would then politely threaten my life, then segue into polite conversation. Even his compatriots in terrorism thought he was odd. They just wanted to kill me and have done with it.

“So,” he asked, “have you given any thought to your future?”

“You’ll be happy to know I’ve ruled out Mossad,” I said, somewhat jokingly. He brightened, his foxlike face seeming hopeful. “Does this mean you’ve considered my proposal?” he asked, attempting to be neutral.

“Not really,” I said. “I figure law enforcement’s my speed. I was thinking FBI or Interpol, maybe UNIX.”

“Amir…” another Arabic-looking person asked cautiously, “what is this accomplishing?” He then asked another question in Arabic. It was a question that Amir’s men asked a lot around me, and I believed it could be translated as “Why don’t we just kill him?” I could be wrong, I don’t really speak Arabic, but the context was usually with one of them brandishing a shank in my direction.

I tried not to look, but Amir then threw his arm around the shoulders around the other man and began talking animatedly in Arabic, with exuberant hand gestures. The contrast between Amir’s taller, thinner body, and the other’s stocky 5’5” was made all the more distinct by the fact that they weren’t wearing clothes. Amir’s subordinate seemed a little disturbed by this, but wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise for a few minutes. When he finally was able to get a word in edgewise and protest, Amir withdrew, apologizing furiously, covering his crotch.

I continued showering while Amir and his friend kept talking. The guy I didn’t know, seemed to be making his point now. When I was just about done, Amir turned back towards me. “You should thank Mubashir,” he said very seriously, “he may have found a way to save your life.”

“Thank you, Mubashir,” I said, holding out my hand. He shook it with a medium grip. “They would probably make me do it,” he said, “and I don’t really want to kill people.”

“If that’s the case,” I said, “you may want to rethink your life.” With that, I decided to put on some pants before things became more awkward. At least no one got a boner. I think the bro code demands some form of ritual suicide at that point. I only had my underwear, pants, shoes, T-shirt, and jacket. All the various equipment and armor was put in a pile in the parade yard to be stored.

In the cafeteria, the lines had mostly died down. Basically, the way it worked is you grab a bowl and a cup, put them beneath their respective nozzles, swipe your student ID, then watch as your cup fills with water and your bowl fills with an unidentifiable sludge that looks suspiciously like diarrhea. You then stick in a spoon into your soylent green, and, if you have something to celebrate, grab one of those bendy straws that change color when you use them. The one I grabbed was yellow, but turned green in the water.

After you did that, you had the problem of finding where to sit next to. I knew that there was only one more infiltrator UNIX. I also knew that he wasn’t American, but I had gotten the hint that he wanted to be one.

“Hey, Nate!” a voice called. I turned and saw Cross. I smiled. Michael (not the Michael that Kreiger had broken) Croccifixio Castellan, “Cross,” to those who knew him, was a New York native with a… colorful network of family and acquaintances. I knew him because he shared a bunk with other Michael behind me. He was somewhat tan, with sandy blond hair and brown eyes and a perpetual friendly smile. That smile was a sharp contrast to that hard look his eyes had. It was a look I had never seen before coming to NIU, but now that I was here I saw it every day.

“Hey, Cross,” I said, “what’s up?”

“Not much,” he said, indicating the seat opposite him, “come on, man, pop a squat.” I obliged. “So,” I asked, “what’s this about?”

He laughed. “I’m homesick, man,” he said. “I miss New York, I miss my mom, and I sure as shit miss food that isn’t… this.”

“I hear you,” I said.

“That reminds me,” he said, “you got any paras up in Massachusetts?”

“Actually,” I said, “we’ve got the Minutemen on the hero side. On the villain side, they mostly work for the Triads and the Yakuza. The Bulger gang and the local Italian mafia can usually just drown them in men.”

“I actually heard about those guys,” Cross said. “The Kagemoto and the Jade Empire, right? Those guys are pretty much legends in… in my circle.”

“You’d know more about that than me,” I said. “I just here what happens when someone important dies or gets arrested.”

“Probably,” he said. “A lot of what gets in the news is the spillover. I actually met one of the Kagemoto kids at a party once. His name’s Sam and he’s a little older than we are. Dude was going to this private school, Fessenden, I think…”

“Holy shit,” I said, “my mom works there!”

“Really? Did she know him?”

“Probably,” I said, “She’s worked there literally for decades.” I paused, realizing my mistake. “I don’t really want to tell you what she did, you understand?” He nodded. “Probably shouldn’t even have told me she worked there,” he said. I nodded, but hopefully the fact that she had a different last name should put anyone off for a bit. Probably not, but it was nice to hope. Anyway, I already was using my real name.

“Anyway,” he said, “the guy has a sister who is our age.” He thought for a minute, then said, “Maybe we’ll meet them here,” he said. “This would be probably the best place for them to go.”

I kind of hoped not. While they weren’t the Jade Empire or ISIS, the Kagemotos were not the kind of people I wanted to deal with on top of Al-Qaeda, the KKK and whatever other dregs of humanity had come here.

We ate in silence for a bit after that. Eventually, Cross asked, “Hey, are you doing anything after this?”

“I’ve got someone to meet after breakfast,” I said. “Part of my secret stuff.”

He nodded. “Explains why you’re eating so fast. No one’s excited to eat this stuff.”

“Actually,” I said, pausing to slurp down the last spoonful, “this is kind of my normal speed. See you later, I guess.” I left him looking at where my bowl was, a look of shock on his face.

I walked towards Derek’s barracks. His was B2, mine was B3, the only co-ed barracks. They also seemed to be testing some TVs that had been built into the walls of the buildings facing the parade grounds. Due to the fact that the buildings were shiny black monoliths on the outside, I hadn’t really noticed them before.

The narrow corridor between the two buildings was a little scary. There was no place to hide, but you still got the feeling someone could jump out at you. Combined with the now-torrential rain, and the narrow corridor had the atmosphere of a horror movie. On the bright side, I was shielded from the worst of the rain if I walked on one side.

Ahead was a wall made out of the same black material as the buildings it encircled. Just above the sound of the rain, I could barely make out the sounds of two people fighting. Thinking it was Derek, I hurried forwards. When I finally got to the end, I was a little embarrassed.

There were two girls there. Both of them were engaged in some kind of sparring match. I knew this because they were obviously very good, but none of their blows seemed to be hurting the other. I was only a Green Belt in Tae Kwon-Do, but I knew enough to see that. They also were doing moves that, while fun, weren’t the kind of thing you’d do in a real fight. For example, a jumping axe kick might score you extra points when breaking a board on your promotion test, but it was something that was real easy to block and easily dodged.

The combatants themselves seemed to be in a world of their own. One was a small Asian girl with dark shoulder-length hair in a straight cut and a tattoo of two dragons, one black, one white, forming a yin-yang symbol on her left shoulder. The other was a tall red-head with her hair in a messy bun, taller than me. Both, however, were built like gymnasts. Looking up, I could see that they had chosen this spot because of an overhang over the rear shielded them from the rain.

I cleared my throat. They both turned to face me, their faces both unreadable. “Hi,” I said, “I was just wondering if someone else had been back here recently. I was supposed to meet him back here and…”

Their expressions didn’t change a single bit, nor did their gaze waver. That left me in a bit of a quandary. If I left, John might not be able to find me. If I stayed, they could beat me or even kill me. If I told them to tell John I had gone somewhere else, well, there were a million ways that could go wrong. All told, leaving would be the safest bet.

Before I could make my apologies and leave, the redhead spoke in what seemed to me (who can’t tell the difference between an Australian and a British accent) to be Cockney accent. “I’ve seen you before.” It was weird. Most people believed that Cockney accents would be hard to make threatening, especially if it was coming from a pale, skinny girl with a lightly freckled face. However, this girl had just proven she knew a bit about fighting, and there was something menacing about the stare her green eyes were giving me.

“Probably,” I said, in what I hoped was a conversational tone of voice. “We are in the same program. If you’re in the co-ed barracks, that’s probably where you’ve seen me.”

“You’re right ‘bout where I bunk,” she said, “but I’ve seen you poppin’ up all over and I’ve rarely seen you speak to the same person twice. It’s a little funny, innit?” The Asian girl gave her friend a surprised look at this, then turned back towards me, her look more calculating and violence-implying now.

“Well,” I said, “aren’t you a little curious about what’s going on here?”

“Random yank starts sticking his nose into everyone’s business, keeps telling the same joke to every person he meets, then the little bugger follows me here? I am bloody curious. You might say I’m right intrigued.” My eyes had widened when she mentioned the joke. Screw it, the last UNIX plant could contact me. Or John. Preferably John. My cover was blown.

“I was talking about the bigger picture,” I said, changing the topic. “I mean, yeah, I’m asking questions. But that’s because this is a weird place. I’ve talked to people who want to join Islamic fundamentalist groups, law enforcement, hate groups, organized crime, mercenary groups, military organizations… Normally, these people would only be in the same room together to kill each other, but we’ve all come here to learn.

“And the weird thing? We aren’t being encouraged to change our views by the staff. They aren’t trying to forge us into an army. So what are we here for? Why does this place exist?”

“Interesting questions,” the redhead said, nodding in agreement. “’Ere’s another: who’s funding your little study?”

“Is it ok if I assure you that I have no interest in you personally?” I asked. “I really can’t tell you anything about why I’m here, or how I intend to answer my questions. But as an act of good faith, maybe I can share some of what I’ve learned? My name’s…”

“Nathan Jacobs?” the redhead asked.

It was at that I started to become paranoid. Dozens of scenarios began to run through my mind, each more horrifying and implausible than the last. “I’m sorry,” I said, beginning to edge towards the alley, “you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

“Surprisingly well-mannered for a sneak, ain’t ya?” she asked cordially. “I’m Eliza, an’ this ‘ere’s Bai.” Bai just stared at me, still probably calculating the best way to make me talk. I got the feeling if she came to a decision, she could move very fast. “She don’t talk much,” Eliza added.

I calmed down somewhat. If they had been waiting for me, they wouldn’t have been sparring. I had just been really unlucky. “So,” I said with relief, turning on my heel to leave, “I guess I’ll be going. If you…”

“No.”

Oh fuck.

“Not yet.” I turned to look at Eliza and Bai. “Yes?” I squeaked. Eliza was leaning against the perimeter wall, seemingly at ease. “You were going to tell us what you’ve learned about this camp.”

I took a deep breath. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t really learned anything about the motives behind the staff. That would be a huge tip-off. I have been looking around, making connections, seeing if anyone here knew anything.”

“You thought any ‘bout this Fight Night thing?” Eliza asked. “Fellow like you’s got to ‘ave a plan or two.”

I laughed. “My plan? My plan’s to tap out as soon as possible. My bet is that most people will too.” Everyone knew the rules to Fight Night. If you were eligible for Fight Night, you had to attend. If you were attending, you would either have to be in three fights or beaten until you couldn’t fight anymore. Fights would last as long as the Drill Sergeants wanted them to. After winning three fights, you had three options: spectate, go to bed, or stay in the ring. If you stayed in the ring, you could call in whoever you wanted. If you spectated, you could end up being called back in. The person with the highest win streak got some sort of prize.

“However…” I said, noticing the look of disappointment on both their faces, “If one wanted to go for the prize, I might have an idea.”

“Go on…” Eliza said. I had both of them. I had the feeling that if I gave them good advice, at the very least I’d get a few more weeks of life. In the meantime, I’d have some time to prepare for any bad scenarios. Maybe find a weapon.

“Ok,” I said, “I’ve never been a fan of dividing the world into two groups. It rarely tells the full story. For instance, you could divide the camp into the people who’ve been in combat before and the people who obviously haven’t.” I paused for effect. My audience leaned in. “But that would be a mistake.”

“From what I’ve seen, there are four groups of people. There’s the group I’m in: the cautious. We’ve probably never been in a fight in our lives, and we’re definitely scared of it.”

“So,” Eliza said with a straight face, but some humor in her voice, “you think we should take people like you out first?”

“Not really,” I said, “and not entirely because I don’t want to fight you, though that is a big part of it.” She nodded, and I continued. “You have to remember that we can’t run. That is likely to make a few of this group panic and go full berserker. Therefore, you’ll want to win quickly. If they go down, only beat on them if they try to get up.

“The next group are the bullies. They have only been in fights against unarmed people who won’t fight back, and never without a gang to back them up or a crowd to watch them.” I smiled. “These people are really easy to spot. They go around bragging how great they are, or trying to go back to being the school bully. Then they meet up with the former soldiers.” The reason I was smiling was because in the first week there was this guy in our barracks who just did not get it. He had apparently been some kind of athlete at his school, and had gathered a small posse. He also seemed to like picking on my bunkmate.

My bunkmate and his four friends, as I believe I’ve already said, are probably former child soldiers and all in some sort of unit. Somehow, this guy didn’t pick up on that or didn’t care. One night, he was walking in, and heard my bunkmate and his friend talking in their native language. He then made some monkey noises. His friends laughed. To my surprise, so did my bunkmate.

The guy, or Dumbass McRacist as we’ll now call him, whispered something to his friends. He then walked up towards my bunkmate. My bunkmate’s on the top bunk, so I couldn’t really see his reaction, but I could see Dumbass McRacist and two of my bunkmate’s friends. Dumbass had a fake smile on his face. My bunkmate’s friends both had the same look as Bai had.

“You think I’m funny, do you?” Dumbass asked, his friendly tone of voice not really disguising his malice.

For the first time I could remember, my bunkmate said something in English. “Why yes, my friend,” he said in a booming, friendly, voice. He sounded genuinely puzzled. “Surely that was the intent, yes?”

Dumbass, living up to the name I had given him, pulled out a switchblade. “The thing about comedy,” he said, “is it requires suffering.” My bunkmate sighed. Then he kicked Dumbass in the face with both feet.

Apparently, that was all the warning my bunkmate’s friend’s needed. One of them caught Dumbass in a chokehold and shoved a clear, sharp piece of plastic into Dumbass’s neck. I could tell it was sharp because it was drawing blood, adding to what was already leaking out his nose. The other three formed a perimeter, using the beds to form chokepoints, pulling out shanks made from toothbrushes and shouting at everyone to keep back.

My bunkmate landed on the ground. He was surprisingly shorter than someone with such a booming voice should be. He had a buzz cut, and was dressed in his boxers, showing that he, like his friends, was dangerously underweight. He knelt down and grabbed the knife, then stood up.

“This is a nice knife,” he said. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but judging by Dumbass’s whimper, I was guessing it wasn’t anything good. Also, everyone was now watching. I swear you could hear a pin drop. “What is your name?” my bunkmate asked Dumbass. Dumbass muttered something. “Kyle?” my bunkmate asked, “Is that your name, my friend?” Dumbass must have nodded, because my bunkmate continued on.

“Well, Kyle,” he said, his voice rising to fill the barracks, “this may be a nice knife, but it is a PATHETIC weapon!” He raised the switchblade into the air, as if to show the world, or at least the barracks, how pathetic it was. He then turned to me. “You, Journal-man, do you have a marker?” His big brown eyes and skeletal features were strangely friendly.

I shook my head. “I have a pencil…” I said, unsure where this was going.

“I do,” Michael said. This was before he had been broken. He was surrounded by my bunkmate’s friends on three sides, so he had been paying attention just as long as I had. He held out a large black sharpie. My bunkmate took it. As he walked away, I saw Dumbass (seriously, what had he expected would happen?) take the opportunity to spit out a few teeth. They plinked onto the floor.

When my bunkmate took the sharpie, he held it above his head. “THIS,” he shouted, “is an extra-large sharpie! It was first designed by the Sanford Manufacturing company in 1957 and is produced in Downers Grove in America! IT IS MIGHTIER THAN ANY SWITCHBLADE!” I laughed. I couldn’t help it, and apparently a few others couldn’t either.

My bunkmate took a bow. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, just loud enough to be heard above the strangled giggles. “I, Eric the Entertainer, shall now prove to you its awesome power. With this, I shall write the word ‘loser’ on Kyle’s head. If I simply kill him, I could be expelled. Worse, one of his friends might stab me in the back. However, by humiliating him, I safely eliminate him.”

“You’re insane,” Dumbass said.

“And you, my friend,” The Entertainer said, “are a moron.” It took a week for the word “Loser” to come off Kyle’s face.

Getting back to the present, where Eliza and Bai were giving me their undivided attention, I said, “Then there’s the people like The Entertainer and his minions. They’re possibly the second worst people to fight, maybe even the worst, depending on the individual. I’m guessing they’re child soldiers.”

Eliza smiled. “They’ll be used to fighting with guns. That makes ‘em easy.”

“They’re also used to killing people,” I said, “and the people who kidnapped them when they were five probably only taught them how to fight dirty. Can you say the same?”

Eliza looked startled for a minute, then softly said, “They’ll stop the fights before that ‘appens.”

“They’ll try,” I said, “but you know that even a good punch to the stomach can kill someone. Or you should.”

“And the fourth group?” Eliza asked.

“That’s the good news,” I said. “You’re it, and you’re probably the odds-on favorite to win. My guess is that you’ve been training just as long as the fourth group, but some of you have never been in life-and-death combat. The other difference is the quality of your training and goals. You’ve been trained as a more long-term asset, I believe? It’d probably hurt the sponsors more if you die now then it would’ve hurt Eric’s recruiter if he had accidently blown himself and several of his comrades up in training.”

Bai spoke up for the first time. Her voice was quiet, but hard. “But the people who trained me for the cause say I should treat my life as meaningless next to our goals. Surely my life is worth a similar amount?”

“How long have you been training?” I asked.

“Since I was born,” Bai said, “and I won’t be finished for another four years.”

“The Entertainer’s training probably was just enough to learn how to use an AK,” I said reassuringly, “and you’ve probably had more experience in one-on-one fights. You’ve got an advantage.” I didn’t add that any child soldier who made it this far probably was very lucky. There wasn’t any way to plan against luck. “This kind of advantage took a huge amount of time and resources to give you. While they do want you to be loyal, you are not easily replaced.”

Bai nodded, apparently satisfied. “Anything else, mate?” Eliza asked. “That’s all I could come up with in a few minutes,” I said.

“Good job, then,” she said. “We’ll do this again some time.” The two girls left. I stood there wondering what Eliza’s next little chat would be about.

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