Track 8: Back to the School Where It Began

My schedule was somehow very grueling.  I mean, it was nowhere near as bad as Hell Semester, but the amount of work still surprised me. First were Mondays. I had to go to an English class around ten AM, which was located in the main academic building by the Newell-Howard Student Center. At first, I thought it was a good, relaxing class. We just had to read something as a class and do some introductions. Then the teacher gave us a five-paragraph essay about where we came from to write. “We only have one class a week,” she said.

Next, I had my radio show at three. The way radio shows worked was you first applied to Freshman Radio. They said that they would then put you in room with at least one other person for an hour at a time, and the two of you would have to try and keep your listeners entertained during that time.

When I got in to the Freshman Radio office around two forty-five (it was located on the second floor of Newell-Howard,) I was surprised to see it had a small waiting area with a window overlooking the cafeteria. There was only one other person, a young baby-faced white guy with slightly wavy dark hair and tiny glasses. He was looking at a laptop and typing stuff. I sat down in a red vinyl chair. He was about average height sitting down, but I could tell that if he stood up, he would be taller than almost anyone.

As soon as I sat down, someone came in from the radio room. “Hey, guys,” the newcomer said, “are Nathan Jacobs and Andrew Sebaldi here?” He was black, and, judging by his weight, was definitely not a Shadowhaven or an AMS student. We were required to spend a certain amount of time in the gym, and most of us (me and my roommates included) did daily exercises. This guy had a lot of baby fat on him. He then turned towards me. When he saw me, his eyes widened a bit. “Oh… Didn’t… didn’t, uh, see you there.”

“Are you talking about me?” laptop guy asked.

“Both of you,” the newcomer said. “Follow me, please.” He led us back behind the hallway. “Sorry about this,” he said, “we’ve still got a bunch of people coming in. A few planes were delayed in Alaska and Chile. Me and my partner had to cover two extra shifts. Follow me”

He then led us out into a hallway. There were two rooms, with a window in to each of them. Inside each of them were a computer monitor, microphones, headphones and a control board. The far one had a guy talking into a microphone. The guy we were with led us into the closer one and gave us a quick rundown of how to turn on music (the computer had iTunes on it and we could also plug in an MP3 player,) mics, and to switch to the other booth when we were done.

“Ok,” he said, “you guys got it?” We nodded. “Good. You have nine minutes, plus when our song finishes. Once it’s done, you’re going to read the station ID on that piece of paper, introduce yourself, and your show name. Excuse me.”

He walked out. We put on our headphones. Through them, we could hear the current show. “Hi,” my partner said after they were on, turning towards me and extending his hand, “I’m Andy.”

“Nate,” I said, taking his hand. He had a firm handshake.

“So,” Andy asked, “do you have an idea for a show name? Because I honestly have no idea.”

“How about Flounder?” I suggested.


“Yeah,” I said. “Because we have no idea what we’re doing.”

“Works for me.” Andy said with a shrug. “So, where you from?”

“Massachusetts,” I said. “I’m from a town called Maynard…”

“I heard of that place,” he said. “DEC was headquartered there, right? Then it became Digital. There’s still some tech companies there, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “My Dad worked there.”

“Cool,” Andy said. “My parents worked all sorts of places. New York, Boston, Austin, Silicon Valley… they were tech people as well.”

“So, let me guess,” I said, “you’re an art major.” He laughed. “Ok,” I said, “serious guess: you’re in the CompSci school.”

He nodded. “You too, right?”

“Academy of Military Science, actually,” I said. “It’s kind of hard to believe, I know. Sometimes, I don’t eve believe it.”

“Really?” Andy said. “I thought that they wouldn’t let people with glasses join.”

“Anyone who passes Hell Semester can join,” I said.

“Kind of egalitarian of them.”

“Hell Semester is designed to kill fifty percent of the people who enroll.”

Andy’s eyes widened. “Well,” he said, “I did not know that. Did anyone you know…?”

I shrugged. “I was lucky. I made friends and was able to learn the necessary skills to survive quickly. It was tough, but I did it.”

Suddenly, the light that told us we were on came on and there was silence over the headphones. Quickly, I turned on our mics. “Hello,” I said, while trying to find a song, “you are tuned into 87.3 FM and/or 87.3 HD. I’m Nate Jacobs…”

“And I’m Andy Sebaldi,” Andy said. I flashed him a thumbs up.

“And this…” I said, “…is Flounder.” The show went well. I found that we had a weird mesh of music tastes. For instance, I had started the show off with “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous” by Good Charlotte. I also had selected a lot of stuff from bands like Fall Out Boy, The Kongos, and Green Day. Andy had picked out a lot of slower stuff like Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins as well as some classic rock and punk like The Clash and The Beatles.

I also had some nice chats with him, both on and off air. We’d play two songs, then switch to talking bits. During my conversations with him, I found out several things about him. First off, he was very smart. He was a sophomore, despite the fact he was a sixteen-year-old who looked fourteen. He was majoring in Artificial Intelligence and his advisor was pressuring him to dual-major in Factory Systems as well because how he had used the school’s 3D-printer to make his own personal 3D-printer. Then he used that to make an assembly line in his bedroom.

I also learned he was a bit like May. He had this tendency to go into long rants about various things. They weren’t as charming as May’s, but they were much easier to tune out if they got annoying. All in all, even if he wasn’t useful, he was still a nice guy to get to know.

I shook myself at that thought. If he was a good guy, then I should definitely keep him out of what I was doing. After all, I was doing this to protect people. If I dragged someone into this, hell, if I hung out with people too much, there was no guarantee I could keep them safe.

However, if I didn’t make aggressive moves, someone here could make a death ray and wipe out New York or do a million other things that caused innocent people to die.

As we were relieved, I was still debating myself. Noticing my ruminations, but misinterpreting my reasons, Andy asked, “You got the back-to-school blues?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“The nerds of the island have a cure,” Andy said. “We’re holding a party on Friday at Graham’s Game Bar. It’s sort of like a nerdy nightclub. There’s going to be a LAN party, so if you play LOL, Counter-Strike, or Starcraft 2, you should bring your computer. Bring any friends you want.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m probably going to have supper with them now.”

True to my word, I did. I actually met up with John, Cross, and Eric and his gang. I told them about Andy’s offer.

“Do you think that they’ll have anyone who can hook me up with sixties Marvel comics?” Ray-Gun asked. He was one of Eric’s crew, and he had apparently gotten his nickname from his fascination with Silver Age American comics. His favorite was Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHEILD. I wasn’t sure if he had the complete set.

I shrugged. “Possible.”

“Do you think the girls would be interested?” John asked.

“Depends on which girls,” I said. “Maybe Eliza and her roommates would be interested. May probably wouldn’t want to get out, but I think it would be good for her.” Suddenly, there was a beep from my pocket.

“Shit,” I said, looking at my cPhone, “I’ve got class. Sociology. See you.”

“We will see you later,” Eric said, “and we will also make sure to listen to your show in the future.”

“Do you guys have radios?” I asked, getting up.

“They’re built into our phones,” Ray-Gun said. “These things are cooler than the Star Trek communicator.”

Sociology was really cool. The first class mostly went over the syllabus and addressed the various things that sociology covered. As my teacher explained, sociology is the study of how people interact. It may be a soft science, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t useful. In fact, it was actually fascinating. For instance, did you know that Karl Marx actually contributed a lot to sociology? The conflict theory is basically the idea that history is shaped by two ideological forces clashing together. I’m not exactly a full subscriber to it, but it makes a lot more sense than Communism.

Homework was very simple. Read a few chapters so we could have a discussion on it. That was the same for Philosophy of Government (another place where Mr. Marx showed up) and Military History, both Tuesday and Thursday classes. Our instructor for Military History reminded all us Freshman AMS and Shadowhaven students that we’d have to meet with our advisors by the month. I made a mental note to do that, then continued to take notes with my notebook.

Math, however, was brutal. John and Eric were in the class as well, and we were dismayed when the first thing our teacher did was to give us a test. After that, we were given a large amount of homework.

“Well,” I said, to John, “there goes Wednesday.”

“I know,” he said. “Plus, we’ve got this again on Thursday.” He paused, then said, “Fuck me, right?”

“Hopefully the night shift at The Drunken Mercenary won’t be too bad,” I said.

It was awful. The only person there that I knew was Mary Riley, and she was too busy breaking up fights. During the three days I worked there, I noticed a pattern. When I got in, it would be mildly rushed. When ten rolled around, the bar would become less crowded, but more rowdy. By the time midnight rolled around, we’d have to break up at least two bar fights. Once in a while, we’d even need the help of Campus Security. Then, around twelve thirty, it would suddenly begin to wind down, leaving only one or two people slumped in their drinks. Then we’d begin the process of closing up shop.

Mary explained the situation to me the first night as we closed. “Hell Semester gives people a taste of action,” she said. “A lot of people get addicted to it. This area is a place where they can get that feeling of adrenalin that you only get from fights. The rules are even relaxed for fighting here. However, actual weapons are a big no-no here.”

I didn’t really appreciate that until the morning. It was almost three and we were still closing up. I then went up and staggered into bed. I suddenly realized that I’d have to do that tomorrow and the day after. I think I cried myself to sleep.

Friday, after three days of math and bartending, I ended up going to a class that promised to be fun: Weapon Refreshment. The Patton Building, where the dedicated AMS and Shadowhaven classes took place, was quite the walk away. I had the class with Eliza, Eric, John, Cross, and Bai. Since it started at one, we all decided to walk down together. Since the class was at one, we decided to head down to the nearest student center, Sun Tzu to eat lunch at eleven.

We met up outside Squire Hall, our weapons in long cases. Eliza was a bit late. After she finally got down, I said, “So, who here thinks they can run all the way to Sun Tzu?”

Eliza laughed. “It isn’t about if we can all make it,” she said, “It’s about ‘oo gets their last.” She began running. “‘Cause that wanker has to buy us all coffee at Charlemange’s!”

“You’re on!” I yelled. It turned out to be a bad idea, at least for John. He lost by about five seconds and Eliza, Cross and Eric teased him mercilessly. I was happier than John because I almost beat Eliza, surprising everyone.

Eventually, though, Bai got tired of people teasing John. “You know,” she said, “John may have come in last, but at least he was not out of breath, Cross.”

After we sat down to enjoy our food (apparently, the Sun Tzu’s menu was Asian-style and the building was sort of styled off the Forbidden Palace,) I decided to invite Eliza and Bai to the party.

“So,” I said to the two girls, “There’s this party at a place called Graham’s Game Bar. I heard about it because my radio show co-host invited me to it. The rest of the guys and May are coming. We’re going to get supper here, then head over. Do you guys want to come?”

“I’m not sure…” Bai said.

“Don’t worry,” Eliza said, “Give me a few minutes with ‘er, and she’ll be coming. Should I bring Char and Jen?”

“Depends,” I said. “If you can contact them before we go…”

“They’re actually ‘aving Pistol Marksmanship,” Eliza said. “They should be finishin’ up by the time we get there.”

When we got there, they actually were all still there. I checked my phone. Class actually should be starting now. I looked in through the door that led into the shooting gallery. I could still see that the previous class was watching several people. I looked up and saw Richard Forrest Taylor the Third, and a group of his flunkies coming towards us. I recognized one of them. Kyle, I believe his name was. I also recognized that most, if not all, of Richard’s group used to be Kyle’s group.

“Oh look,” Richard said, his twang evident, “it’s the Jew.”

I sighed. “Really, Richard? You’re going to do this here?” Out of the corner I saw Eliza stiffen. I also saw Eric, Cross and John stiffen a bit. Eric, in particular, had reached into the duffel bag he was carrying. Bai just seemed confused.

“Yeah,” Kyle said, “this isn’t really the place, man.” Something about how Kyle was acting made me question whether or not it really was Richard’s group or if it was Kyle’s. This suspicion became stronger when Richard actually backed down. I made a mental note of it, and went back to looking through the door.

I had been watching for a few minutes when I heard Richard mutter something. I wasn’t really sure what he said. Eliza, however, was. Before I could even consider what Richard had said, I heard a wet schlick sound. I turned to see Eliza’s bone claws had ejected.

For the first time, I realized why she didn’t use them more often. To eject them, she had to dislocate her knuckles and pierce the skin between her fingers and the claws themselves were wet with her own blood.

Her expression was also quite something to behold. Her green eyes flashed dangerously and her ears were flattened. Her skin, usually somewhat fair under her freckles, was now a chalky white. “You wot, mate?” she asked, her voice dangerously quiet.

I turned to look at Richard and his group, as well as some other people in the class just joining us. One of Kyle’s friends, I noticed, had rolled his eyes. However, it was Richard I was interested in. Specifically, the fact that the left side of his pants seemed to be sagging.

I almost had a reason as to why that could be, when Richard derailed my train of thought. Smiling smugly, he said, “I see those ears of yours can’t tell you if what I’m saying’s any of your business.”

“You were talkin’ shit ‘bout me mate,” Eliza said. “That makes it my business.” Suddenly I realized what was probably pulling part of Richard’s pants down. Before I could warn Eliza, she had begun to rant. “‘Specially if it’s some bedsheet wearing bitch ‘oo’s acting ‘igh and mighty while perverting noble ideals ‘e barely understands.”

The smile slid off Richard’s face as he reached for something on his left hip. “Shut up, you mutie whore!” He snarled. When his hand came up, I was unsurprised to see that he was holding an M1911.

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Track 6: Tainted Trust

The day before we were going to go back, we had a meeting scheduled with our UNIX handlers. Originally, they had wanted to meet with us separately, but we had campaigned hard, even refusing to show up if we were separated.

We were meeting at the Sao Paolo Grill, a local Brazilian barbeque joint. It had gotten famous when I was in seventh grade. The owner had been attacked by a gangster of some sort, and everyone had come to show support. John lived in New Hampshire, but he figured he had to drive down here anyway since we were all flying out of Plymouth, so his parents dropped him off at my house the day before the meeting. Then, around 11:30, we began walking to our meeting.

“So,” John asked, bundled up tightly in his winter coat, “have you been to this place before?”

“Nah,” I said from inside my many layers, “but apparently, if you want meat on a stick, it’s the place to go.”

“Sounds good,” John said. “Any other places you eat at around here?”

That started a whole conversation about the various places to eat at Maynard. There are a lot. We’ve got several pizza joints, a couple standard family places, a bunch of bars, and a few ethnic restaurants.

Around the time we got into the downtown, city-like part of Maynard, I ran into an old friend. “Nathan?” a voice called out. I turned around. There, coming out of the street by the Town Hall/police station, was Mai Lau. Mai had moved from Beijing to Maynard in 2010. She was in my grade, but I didn’t really know her that well until we took a theater class in our senior year. It was hard to believe that was something that happened less than a year ago.

“Mai!” I said happily, “How are things going?”

She laughed. “Very good. Do you and your friend want lunch?”

“We’re actually heading out to the Sao Paolo Grill,” I said. “We’re meeting up with some scholarship people.”

“Oh yeah,” Mai said, “you went off to college. Where did you end up?”

“This international school,” I said. “Kind of in the middle of nowhere, but you meet all sorts of interesting people.”

John laughed. “You can say that again.” I instantly thought of all the people I had met. The Al-Qaeda terrorists like Amir (also the first person I had killed,) and his psychotic second-in-command Salim. Richard Forrest Taylor the third, a legit KKK member. Eric, Ray-Gun, Doc, The Monk, MC Disaster, former child soldiers who somehow became millionaires. There were also people like Eliza, Oro Okoro, Bai and Li Feng, and Ricardo Montana, people who, along with me and one other person, formed a group called The Seven Supreme. There was also May Riley, a certified genius with an eccentric personality and mutilated face, and her sister Mary, a no-nonsense girl training to become a combat medic. Then there was the horror in human form known as Ulfric Trollbjorn.

“Sorry we can’t meet up at the moment,” I said. “I’d love to, but this is kind of a private meeting.”

“Don’t worry,” Mai said. “I’m having lunch with Jesse there. After you’re done, we can talk, right?”

“Sure,” I said. “Oh, before I forget, this is John Marshall. We met this semester. John, this is Mai Lau, the only person in MHS who’s more interested in set construction and choreography than improv.”

After that, we had this big conversation about our year in theater class. It ended with me doing my beached whale impersonation as we walked into the parking lot where Sao Paolo Grill was located. It wasn’t exactly the same, due to the fact that I couldn’t lie down. Two people in trench coats and sunglasses looked up. It was Takashi and Brosnan.

“That,” Brosnan said with amusement, “must have an interesting story behind it.”

“It does,” I said. “Are we going to do this out here, or are we going to go outside?”

“Is she going to be here?” Takashi asked.

“Actually,” Mai said, “I see Jesse right inside. I’ll catch up with you later!” I looked inside the Sao Paolo Grill. There was Jesse, a small black girl who I think was a Junior in high school at the time. She waved at us. Mai and I waved back.

After Mai hurried off, I turned to Brosnan and Takashi. “So,” I said, “are we going to go in?”

“Actually,” Brosnan said, “this won’t take long.” He took out a wad of cash and handed to me. “Your work was substandard.” He kept a cheery tone of voice as he did so.

“Where’s John’s?” I asked.

Brosnan shrugged. “He didn’t do anything,” he said. “If you disagree, you can give him money from what we’ve given you.”

While he had been talking, I had been counting. There were ten fifties in the roll. “I’m sorry,” I said, “This is five hundred dollars. To split. You said a hundred thousand for each of us…”

“If you did a good job,” Takashi said. “Compared to the other students, your… essay was unacceptable.”

“First off, how was it unacceptable?” I asked angrily. “The prompt was to write about the other students. I think I got a very good picture of the student body. Second,” my voice dropped to a whisper, “I almost died several times. One of the only reasons I’m alive is John.”

“We told you,” Takashi said, “that this would be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. If you can’t do this…”

“Yeah,” John said, “you said it would be hard. You neglected to mention the projected casualty rate!”

“Don’t you mean dropout rate?” Brosnan asked.

“Oh please,” John said, “you knew that they fucking aim for a fifty percent death rate. We didn’t. There’s a difference between…”

“Please Mr. Marshall,” Brosnan said neutrally, “control yourself.”

“Fuck you,” John said. “There’s a difference between knowing the risks and not having basic information! Next time, fucking tell us if we’re going to be thrown into a fucking meat grinder with a bunch of psychotics! That way, we don’t have to have conversations like this!”

“Are you done?” Brosnan asked politely.

“He didn’t mention,” I said, “how you just tried to turn us against each other by stiffing me.”

“You’re right!” John said. “You know, I’m starting to think you don’t want us to succeed.”

“Now you have.” Takashi said, handing us each a small camera. “These microcams can take pictures with the big button on the right. If you hold down the small one on the left, it can translate a document to a PDF. Use it. Maybe this time, your fellow scholarship student won’t run rings around you.”

“Are you sure there’s only one other?” I asked.

“Of course,” Brosnan said, getting into his car. “Why would we lie to you?”

As the two UNIX agents drove off, I commented, “Y’know, I’m glad I don’t have a gun on me. I’d hate to explain why I just shot two UNIX agents on American soil in front of a bunch of witnesses.” I then handed him half the bills.

“Yeah,” John said, taking them and putting them in his pocket. “Those guys are assholes.” We then walked into the Sao Paolo Grill.

When we entered, Mai and Jesse immediately waved us over to their table. “What was that about?” Jesse asked. Both she and Mai were giving me concerned looks, though I noticed that Mai’s expression of concern was masking… something else.

“There was a bit of a disagreement on the scholarship front,” I said.

“Really?” Mai said. “I didn’t think disagreements over scholarships got that bad.” Suddenly, I realized where I had seen that look before. I had seen it on Bai’s face when she had considered killing me and I had seen it on Doc’s face when The Monk had executed a prisoner during our final. I suddenly realized that I had seen some… interesting things in Maynard.

They were things I had been things that had been there for a long time. Every time I had entered Maynard, there had been people with the tell-tale signs of having seen combat together. It was hard to see, unless you looked for it. It was an attitude, a way of moving, a look. The problem was that this wasn’t proof. It wasn’t even circumstantial. These telltale signs were often extremely contradictory.

There was also a sort of uniform a bunch of young people were wearing consisting of hoodies, baggy jeans and green t-shirts. Jade green t-shirts. I quickly took a look around. I noticed several other people in these t-shirts. One, I recognized as Jamie Washington, another person I knew in school. His t-shirt had a Chinese-style dragon, much like the kind Lang and his flunky had been wearing as lapel pins at the Kagemoto’s party. Suddenly, I felt very nervous.

Jesse reached over. “Hey,” she said, “are you ok? You’re looking pretty pale.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to regain my poker face. “I’m fine.” It was hard. I was now in a weird state of hyperawareness that would be hard to describe to someone who’s never been in combat. I’m sure John noticed it, but he said nothing.

“If you’re worried about paying the bill,” Jesse said, “Mai’s got us covered. I mean, didn’t you just inherit Lau Holdings? You kind of own this building.”

“Through some intermediary company,” Mai said dismissively. “Honestly, it took some digging to find out I actually had holdings here.”

That was quite interesting. We made polite conversation for a bit. Apparently, Mai was planning on opening a theater where the old DEC building had been. “It’s better than the Walmart they were going to place there,” she said. “Besides, you know me. I love theater.” That was Mai. Patron of the arts and math genius.

“Are you going to college?” I asked. “Because the college I go to would love to have you.” It was true. Even discounting my formless suspicions, I knew she was some kind of genius.

Mai shrugged. “Not at the moment. I actually have some things that I have to do right now, and college would just be a distraction.” She smiled. “Besides, there are cheaper ways to learn.”

Eventually, we had ate the food. Mai paid, and John and I excused ourselves. Once we got down the street a bit, John asked, “So what was that about?”

“Later,” I said sharply. I was still noticing things. That teen in the hoodie taking a picture of the store we were walking by. The beat up Pontiac with a bunch of guys in it driving right past. The black Dodge charger with blacked-out windows driving in the other direction. Stuff like that. “We’re being watched.”

“By who?” John asked, suddenly stiffening. Thankfully, he didn’t look around.

“Not here,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Let’s go back to my house and play some video games.”

“Sounds relaxing,” John said.

I was able to keep him from asking about it until we (we being me, him, Charlotte and Eliza) piled into Charlotte’s Maybach. “So,” he said, “who did you think was following us?”

I laughed. “Everyone. We’ve come to the attention of the Kagemotos and the FBI. I’m also pretty sure there was a Jade Empire presence as well.”

“Are you sure?” Charlotte asked. “I mean how do you know you were being watched?”

“I’m I can’t prove it at the moment,” I admitted, “but I know it. Besides, the FBI and Kagemotos watching us makes sense.”

“I don’t know…” Charlotte said. “You do sound a bit paranoid.”

“Well,” Eliza commented, “they are interested in ‘im. Just ‘cause ‘e’s a little paranoid doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

“Thank you, Eliza,” I said.

We then began the journey to the airport. The sun was not out yet, so we were all tired. Surprisingly, when we got there, we could board the plane, a Boeing 747 with NIU markings, directly. As we did, I noticed that Eliza’s only carry-on item was a tweed and brown leather guitar case. “Huh,” I commented, “I didn’t know you could play guitar.”

“It isn’t a guitar,” she said as she walked up the plane’s boarding ramp.

When she got in, a guard asked, “You carrying any weapons?” I was right behind her.

“Yeah,” she said. “I got an L1A1 in the case and a Browning Hi-Power in my pocket.”

“Ok,” the guard said, somewhat bored. “Next!” I stepped forward. “You carrying any weapons?” the guard asked.

“Why would I be carrying weapons on a plane?” I asked.

“Are you going to be this way, mate?” the guard asked. “Because you can either reveal the weapons you’re carrying, or I can get someone to strip-search you.”

“I’m not carrying anything!” I protested.

“Oi, Artyom!” The guard called out, “We’ve got a yank claiming ‘e’s not packing! Want to verify?”

“He isn’t armed!” John called out from behind my back. “His dad would freak if he brought guns into the house.”

“Ok, fine,” the guard said to me. “Go on, into the plane.” I walked into the plane, somewhat annoyed. I noticed that there were only a few people there, most of them white and/or sleeping. I walked over to where Eliza was struggling to insert the case containing her L1A1 into an overhead compartment.

“Need help stowing it?” I asked.

“Nah,” she said, finally shoving it in, “I got it. Thanks for the offer, though.” She had chosen a lounge area with four seats on each side facing each other.

Before she could close it, John came running up. “Wait,” he said, “I’ve got something, too!” It was a black ABS case.

“What manner of death are you illegally bringing aboard a plane?” I asked.

John smiled. “Mossberg 500 Hunting in the case, and a Browning Hi-Power under my coat. This means you’re going to have go out and buy stuff for us at the commercial airport stops.”

Charlotte, who had just come up behind him, said, “Yes. If you possess a firearm, you are not allowed to leave the plane until we get back to the university. Something to do with firearm laws. Shame, I rather like seeing new places.” I took this to mean she had brought her Webley with her.

“I should think so!” I said. “I mean, think about it. Some guy gets off the plane in, I don’t know, whatever international airport they have in the Midwest, then loses his temper and pulls his Glock on someone. By the way, I call window seat.”

“Yes, of course,” Charlotte said.

About a half an hour later, I saw a Lexus pull up. I was unsurprised to see Jennifer get out. Eliza, who also had a window seat, saw her as well. “Lovely,” she growled, her ears flattening, “Ms. Kagemoto’s ‘ere.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’ve got some questions to ask her.”

“Is this about yesterday?” John asked, “Because I still think you’re ever-so-slightly paranoid.”

“Paranoid about what?” We turned around. Jen was staring at us innocently.

“How did…” John asked.

“Jumper,” Charlotte, Eliza and I said in unison.

“Aww,” Jen said, “you spoiled the fun. I wanted to see how long it would take for him to figure it out.” She sat down besides Charlotte. “So,” she said, suddenly business-like, “what did you want to ask me?”

“Just curious,” I asked, “does there happen to be a big Jade Empire presence in Maynard? I went home, and I suddenly start noticing a lot of people wearing green.”

“Interesting…” Jen mused.

“What?” I asked. There was something ominous about how intently Jen was processing this information.

“Well,” she said, “there are some who believe that’s where the Empire was born. In fact, some of their most feared lieutenants come from there. It’s been considered Empire territory since 2010. You say you live there?”

“Yeah,” I said, “and I didn’t notice anything until yesterday. But looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was active in Maynard around 2010. There’re a few kids in my school who started wearing all green back then.”

Jennifer nodded. “Was it around spring?”

I shrugged. “Not sure.” After that there was a bit of silence. Then the plane took off. Apparently Cross was on a different flight. We also learned we’d be doing a sort of criss-cross with a couple other planes, stopping at a bunch of different airports. That translated to a lot of stops, many of which were in the kind of airports without restaurants. Apparently, I was the only person in the plane who didn’t deal with it by getting drunk as a skunk.

Charlotte, surprisingly, was the first. When the flight attendant came by, a massive Russian dude, Charlotte ordered some kind of mixed drink.

“Charlotte…” I said, “It’s nine thirty. AM. That cocktail has, like, three servings of alcohol in it.”

“But it seems so interesting!” Charlotte protested.

By the time we reached California, I was the only one who didn’t have a hangover. It was… unpleasant, to say the least. I thought people were going to start murdering each other. Or worse, they’d start vomiting.

“Never,” Eliza moaned as the plane landed, “let me drink this bloody much on a plane again.”

“I tried to stop you,” I said, getting up. “I tried to stop you all.” I hurried away as they all groaned. As I left, I realized that some of the accumulated stink was mine. God, did I want to get off this flight.

I saw them as soon as I was in the waiting area. May and Mary Riley. The twins were a year older than me, but May was both more intelligent and more childish than I was. She bounced up, her scarred face lighting up. When she was just a kid, she had been in a car accident, leaving one side a patchwork, except around her mouth. Also, an eye had been damaged, so now they were mismatched, one green, one brown. To complete the weird look, she had dyed her hair blond and frosted the tips purple.

She shot off at me like a rocket. “Wow, you’re here!” she said. “Man, I didn’t expect it, but I should have. I mean, you live in the states and go to the same school and you’re probably going to the same place, right? Wait, never mind, where else would you be going. That’s kind of stupid of me. I just made a hangover cure and…”

“Wait,” I said, interrupting her before her rant could gain any more momentum, “you made a hangover cure?”

“Why?” May asked. “You don’t seem to have hangover syptoms.”

“My friends do,” I said. “Please. I have to sit with them the entire flight.”

“Do I know them?” she asked, now business-like.

“Yeah,” I said, “you’ll know John and Eliza. You might not know Jen and Charlotte.” May brushed by me, moving with a determination I hadn’t seen. “Also, could you ask them not to drink so much?” I called after her.

“Don’t worry,” Mary said, “if I know my sister, they won’t touch a drop for the rest of the trip.”

“I believe you,” I said. “I’m going to get a pizza and fries.”

When I got back, everyone was fully recovered. They were also staring at May warily. I wasn’t surprised. May had an excellent death glare when she wanted something. Speaking of May, she had a tendency to rap songs from memory when bored. That is how some of us were introduced to people like Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Tech N9ne, The Geto Boys, Kendrick Lamar, and Lupe Fiasco. She was really good, from what I could tell.

However, it was still about forty-eight before we finally got to Nowhere Island. When we finally touched down in that hell hole in the Pacific, I was exhausted. I was done. It was in a daze that John and I got back to our dorm room.

Eric was the only one in the room when we got in. He looked up from his desk. “Ah, John! Killer!” I winced as he used my hated nickname. “You are back! This calls for a celebration! Would you like to go to The Drunken Mercenary?”

We stared at him for a second. Then we both shouted, “NO!”

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Track of the Day

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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.


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.”


“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?”


“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.”


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.


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.


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 5: Try a Little Scariness

When next I opened my eyes, I was in lying in my bunk. Immediately, I realized several things. The first was that there was a bandage pressing this gel-like substance into the hand I think I broke. The second was that, while the gel was doing wonders for me, my hand still hurt like hell. I groaned in pain.

“Oh good!” A woman with somewhat of a contralto voice excitedly said, “You’re awake!”

I turned my head around. The first thing I noticed about her was her face. Blond hair with purple tips in some areas fell randomly around her face. Despite how baggy and bloodshot her eyes were (the right was brown, the left green,) they still shone with childish excitement to match her ecstatic grin. However, the thing drew my eye the most was the network of scars on her face.

The largest one ran down from about an inch above her eye down to her jaw. A spiderweb of scars went from her nose to her ear. Strangely, the only scar that was on her cheek was the main scar.

She noticed me staring. “You like my scars?” she asked, pointing at her face, “or is it my heterochromia?” Before I could answer, she began to ramble on. As she did, I noticed she began to look less at me and more at random places. She also began to literally shake with excitement, bouncing up and down like a child who ate too much candy, all while making wild hand gestures. “I actually don’t have heterochromia. I got this eye the same way I got my scars. You see, when I was like five my dad was taking me and my sister to ballet practice (she’s my twin and goes here by the way) and I decided I was going to practice something in the car, so I took off my seatbelt and stood in the center, you know, between the two front seats, and dad turns to yell at me to put my seatbelt back on, and so he doesn’t see the car merging onto the highway so my sister tells him to watch out and he slams on the brakes and the next thing I know I’m awake in the hospital!”

She took a deep breath, then continued. “So, when I wake up in the hospital bed with my mom and dad and sister and, like, all the doctors and nurses ever looking down at me and they’re saying how they managed to get rid of some of my scars by sewing them from the inside and how I was the first person they ever did a full ocular transplant on and my mom just cried.” She paused, then said, “That’s when I decided I wanted to be a doctor. They get to do all this cool stuff.” She beamed even wider like this was some kind of an achievement.

Just a quick note: Whenever she talks, you should probably assume that there aren’t actually spaces between the words.

“So are you in the medic program…?” I asked hesitantly.

She shook her head. “Nah, too much hurting people, not enough helping people. Or research. Research is really fun! Did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally dissected a living HSR?”

She paused, waiting expectantly for me to answer. Her jitteriness appeared to have increased from anticipating my response. Patience was obviously not one of her virtues. However, her hand came to rest on her lap. “No…” I said slowly, “We’ve only just…”

“Oh yeah, right,” she said, then continued on, resuming her erratic hand gestures. “Anyway, I was doing this basic lab work, I think it was dissection, and he comes in and tells me that he thinks that there’s something moving in his stomach. One of the seniors at the time had told me he was, like, trying to biologically recreate a xenomorph from the film Alien, and I saw him give this oh crap look so I was totally like, ‘dude, we have to operate right the fuck now’ and he gets on the table without any prompting and says ‘do it here!’ I tell him I need to get some anesthetic, and he tells me that he’s a regenerator so it won’t work so I start cutting into him, desperately trying to find a baby xenomorph and he’s talking about where it’s going and for some reason he keeps calling me ‘mistress’ and flat-out begging me to keep cutting me and going on and on about how he deserves it and how pain is so wonderful, all while I keep having to deal with his tissue restitching itself and getting harder to cut. Then I realized that since he’s a regenerator, his immune system would probably be able to deal with a xenomorph egg.”

She paused, her head cocked to one side and her body perfectly still. “Also, now that I think about it, he… seemed way too happy about being cut up. Like, sexually happy.”

She shuddered, then continued in her normal motormouth way. “So I had been recording because what I was supposed to be doing was recording me dissecting a frog and I hadn’t stopped because saving regenerators from chestbursters was probably going to be interesting, so I post it on CampusNet. Next thing I know, it’s the most-watched video it CampusNet and there’s like all this fan art of me as a dominatrix floating around. Really creepy. Anyway, I guess the moral of the story is always, always, always… set your videos of surgery to private. Because people are fucking perverts.”

“Speaking of injuries…” I said slowly, “how am I doing?”

“Oh shit, I totally forgot about that!” the strange woman exclaimed. She pulled out a pen light and aimed it at my eyes. “I’m gonna need you to keep your eyes open. Standard procedure for any fight where you suffer a blow to the head. I don’t know if you remember, but you had a few during the fight. Plus, you kinda hit the back of your head on a rock when you collapsed. I know the point is to kill off a few of you but I really don’t like that.” I noticed that, for a moment, a very scary look crossed her face. It was very brief, but it still made my blood run cold.

Before she could start on another tangent, I spoke up. “So,” I said quickly, “my name’s Nathan. I’m sorry but I’m not sure I got your name.” I held my hand out for her to shake.

She grabbed (medium grip) and gave it a shake. “My name’s May Riley,” she said. Then she looked out into space. “You know,” she said, distractedly, “I don’t think I did tell you my name.” She then began to pick up speed. “I knew your name before, though. If I didn’t introduce myself, that would have been really rude and I don’t like rude people so that would make me a hypocrite which is really not good. By the way, you’re actually in pretty good shape because your hand is only slightly cracked and your arm is only dislocated which I was able to fix in two seconds with some of this cool tech we have here. Also, you actually don’t have a concussion which is really good because we can’t fix those or brain death. By the way your head seems to protect your brain well above average, so if you like, die or something, can I dissect you?”

“I don’t think my parents would like that,” I said. May looked like she was going to argue, then she covered her mouth. She seemed to realize how horrifying she sounded. Before she could apologize, however, a voice cut in.

“May, are you scaring the patients again?” a voice asked. The voice sounded exactly like May’s but with a different attitude. Instead of being a bubbly motor mouth, this person seemed to be much calmer and much, much less likely to take your shit. I looked over May’s head. There, standing behind May, was a woman who, I’m guessing, was her twin.

Her hair was not dyed blond and purple, but instead a natural brown. Her eyes were both brown and she wasn’t scarred, probably because she had kept her seat buckled during the car crash that had busted May up. She also seemed to take better care of herself, as her hair was much cleaner and her eyes were much less bloodshot.

May had also turned around. “Yeah… I kinda asked him if I could dissect him if he died. I’m pretty sure that’s not something normal people do,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry, Mary.”

“Well, we’ve got trouble,” Mary said. “The girl who beat this guy up is actually a feral.” For those of you who don’t know, (which I wouldn’t know how you wouldn’t, seeing as ferals are the most common type of parahuman) ferals are seemingly normal people with retractable bone claws, enhanced sense of smell, and a healing factor. They are also known as wolf-people, Lupine, or Homo Sapien Lupus. The power, from what I understand, messes with their head. I guess that might explain some things about Eliza.

May stood up. “Let me guess,” she said, suddenly all business, “someone found out the hard way.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “Guy sees that she’s beaten the past fourteen people to a fine paste, so he pulls a knife and gets her in the eye. She pops her claws and rakes across his belly.”

“Only once? Seems remarkably restrained for a wolf girl. Why aren’t we running?”

“Just… just checking in,” Mary seemed concerned. “You look like shit. If I had to guess, I’d say you haven’t had any sleep in the past 24 hours.”

“Maybe,” May said in a completely unconvincing manner. “But it isn’t important. Come on, let’s go save some lives.” She hurried passed Mary, pretending not to notice her twin’s suspicious gaze.

I decided to open the shelf under my bed to do some writing in the diary. I was still feeling a bit under the weather, so it was kind of hard to write. Also, I was distracted by the sounds of people yelling outside. Being inside did a good job of muffling things.

A little while later, the twins came back in. Their uniforms were covered in blood. Judging by the expression on their faces, the guy didn’t make it.

“Hey,” I said, “you guys ok?”

“We are,” May said, “aside from the fact that we lost our first patient.” She brightened a bit. “Hey, you’re still talking to me. Usually people stop being polite to me around the five second mark during the first conversation. I actually did a study on it in fifth grade, and then I’d ask them all these follow up questions because I like to be scientific, but they usually didn’t answer and the best I could hope for was not to have apple juice dumped on my head in the bathroom. It actually got worse in High School, but I still don’t have any answers for that.”

She took a breath, which allowed me to say, “I don’t know, it might be helpful if you pause and let other people talk?” I tried to say it as gently as possible, but she still paused. I kicked myself. Bad phrasing. She might be overly sensitive to that.

“I’m not?” She asked. She looked bemused by this. Then her face lit up again. “Oh!” she said as she sat down on the bed opposite me, “I know what I can do! I can give you like a virtual…? Verbal…? Yeah, verbal tour of the island. You AMS and Shadowhaven guys don’t get out of this place until your second semester so I can only tell you about the main campus. Come to think of it, that might not be a favor. Anyway, any questions?”

“So, what’s up with the green sludge they’re feeding us?” I asked.

May’s eyes lit up. “You mean the Power Sludge? I made that.” she said proudly.

“Oh.” I said. I didn’t really want to tell her how awful it tasted, and I doubted I could lie convincingly if she asked whether or not I liked it.

“Yeah, I know, I know,” she said, a little sheepishly, “it looks like diarrhea and tastes like chemicals, believe me, I know. I pretty much survived most of last year on it. But that isn’t the cool part.”

She leaned in close. “The cool part, and the reason why the school is actually paying me lots of money instead of the other way around, is that it’s an exercise aid. You see, when you exercise, your body releases all these chemicals like lactic acids. That’s why you feel this burning sensation after running. What this does is it causes them to do their job faster, then sweep them away.” She made a sweeping motion to illustrate her point. “Also, it does several other things, which they advised me not to talk about to make sure no one steals the formula. Anyway, it lets you do the whole death march thing every day. If not for Power Sludge, a few of you guys would have dropped dead from over-exertion. Also, it gives you a full meal’s worth of vitamins and nutrients.”

She paused, then asked, “Was that too much information? I think I go on and on way too much and put out like this huge wall of information that scares people off unless they know exactly what I’m talking about and that’s why I got shoved into a locker every day in high school. That, and because I told Chelsea Lyons that there was a chance that the people she was living with might not be her real family. It wasn’t because she had one hair color and the rest of her family had another, no they were all white but she was the only one in her family for the past ten or so generations who didn’t have black hair. Turns out she bleaches and I may or may not be a horrible person who really shouldn’t be digging through other people’s genealogy. Anyway, what were we talking about?”

“Power Sludge,” I said, trying desperately to keep a bland, non-horrified look on my face.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “and then I got sidetracked and I kinda got talking about high school which never leads anywhere good.” She sighed. “Sorry, can’t tell you more about Power Sludge. At least, I don’t think I can. Five percent of the time I go off-topic is because I’m about to say something that’s supposed to be secret. The other ninety-five percent is because I saw a butterfly or something.”

“Ok,” I said, “what is there to do on campus?” I noticed that at this point her sister had wandered off.

May brightened. “Oh, that’s easy!” she said. “You see, freshmen have to get a campus job and either join a club or take an independent study. The independent study thing is how I got the Power Sludge and that gel stuff that’s healing your hand, but I had to also do duty in the cafeteria. Don’t worry, it isn’t slave labor or anything. They pay you enough to go out and enjoy all the various things that campus life has to offer. Well, not everything. You can only eat at Martinelli’s once or twice before you realize how expensive it is. I’ll admit, Italians make the best pizza, but Americans make the best budget pizza which is why you go to Uncle Sam’s. Problem is, I had eaten at this place called The Best Catch five times and Martinelli’s twice so I was all broke until the campus picked up Power Sludge. But by then, I had kinda forgotten all about the dining halls which are free if you have a meal plan so I was eating Power Sludge for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“What about clubs?” I asked. “Any theater groups, radio, TV?”

“I’ll have to check,” she said thoughtfully. “I really don’t know.”

“Another thing,” I asked, “How are the fights going?”

“Dunno,” she said. Then she remembered something. “Oh, I forgot to ask about you, like where you’re from and all that. Rude of me, anyway…”

She was interrupted by another medic calling in, “Everybody, come quick! We’ve got a curbstomper!”

After that, May would only have bits and pieces of times she could talk to me. It was weird how it worked. We would sort of take turns where on one visit, one of us would be asking the questions and the other would be doing most of the talking. I also noticed that May’s train of thought didn’t seem to have any form of tracks or steering mechanism. However, with a noticeable effort (i.e., saying something like “Bad May, don’t tell people that!”) she’d be able to change it to something not even tangentially related.

I did learn some things, though. While the student body seemed to hate her more here than they did in high school, the professors actually trusted her with research. There was even this one professor who had put her name on a patent for a cancer treatment. From what she told me, she only did a small part of the work. All this only made me more curious about what she was working on.

I also heard a bit about what was going on outside. Apparently, after gutting the poor guy, Eliza decided to end her streak and spectate. By that point, she had also knocked out twelve people including me and put two more in serious condition. Later in the night, one would die from her wounds, bringing her kill count up to two.

In the next group, the first curbstomper came up. Apparently, there are three types of people who go on winning streaks. There are people who only care about putting their opponent down, called brawlers. They tend to put people who don’t surrender in critical condition. Then there are people like Eliza who make it a point to do as little damage to their opponents as possible. These were called surgeons, to May’s vocal disapproval.

Then there was Ulfric Trollbjorn. Ulfric Trollbjorn was a curbstomper. Curbstompers are the opposite of surgeons in that they like to see how many kills they could rack up. He also appeared to be inhumanly strong and, when given the opportunity, would fight multiple opponents at once. Then he would get bored and return to spectate.

When May would come in after one of his rampages, she would tell me about the damage he’d wreak in a broken monotone using the coldest medical language possible, tears streaming down her eyes. The second time she had to deal with one of his rampages, I asked her if she was ok after she was done talking about him.

Her face hardened into a disturbingly calm look of pure rage. “I hate him,” she said, her voice calm, yet still conveying her complete loathing.

“I see,” I said, taken aback by the sheer anger emanating from her.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “As a doctor, I see it as my duty not to hurt people, but to help them. I don’t kill or torture, and” here she paused like what she was saying physically hurt her “if someone beats him, I will do my best to save him. I’m a doctor. That’s my job”

“However,” she said, “I won’t treat him first, and if he dies, I won’t shed any tears.” She didn’t continue the topic after that, and I didn’t press her.

However, as the night went on, she got better at listening. In fact, by the end she was getting more info out of me than I was getting out of her. I remember one time where I almost got my cover blown.

“So,” she said, “What’s it like where you’re from? I assume you’re American like me but I could be wrong and you might be Canadian because they talk like Americans.” She then looked up, as if considering the ceiling. “There are also getting to be a lot of foreign people who talk like Americans. Well, actually, here everyone’s foreign.” She then shook her head to focus herself. “Anyway, you. Talk about you.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m from Maynard, Massachusetts.”

“Really?” she said. “I don’t know much about Massachusetts. Partly because I’m from California, partly because I never really paid much attention to history class in school. Anyway, I should probably shut up and let you continue.” She then grabbed her mouth.

“Well, climate-wise, Mass is pretty… varied.” I said the word varied with a certain amount of disgust. “I mean, it’s nice, but there’s all these weird times in March and April where we’ll have snowstorms and we occasionally get the fifty-degree day in February. Then the next day we’ll have completely different weather.”

“Well, at least the weather there is interesting,” she said, dropping her hands from her mouth. “Where I am, it’s like sunny, sunny, sunny, sunny, oh wow it rained I didn’t know they could do that!” She then slapped herself. “Bad May, let him talk!”

“Actually,” I said, “that was about the right length for a comment of your own.”

“Really?” she said. “I never knew that…” She then did that thing where she stared at nothing for a while. Maybe it was her way of processing information: avoid stimuli to focus on whatever was in her mind.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “I used to have trouble with that and some other stuff, so I got sent to a speech therapist. It wasn’t as bad as yours but…” I stopped, worried I had offended her. A dark look quickly passed her face, then moved on to be replaced by a somewhat forced version of her normal cheer. I continued on. “… There were people who were way worse than either of us. Most did way better, but there was this one guy who thought he was a fucking train for a year or two.”

May laughed. “It isn’t funny!” I said. “I had to get called out of class for seven years just to help that guy learn it was a bad idea to throw markers at teachers! It made it even worse that he never learned.”

“Hey,” she said, “either I laugh at how nuts this guy sounds, or I fly into a rage that society tried to teach him to act like a normal human being, but totally ignored me.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Anyway, I wasn’t given any crap for that because a lot of the ‘normal’ people also went to Special Education, and I was kind of smart. I was never the kind of person who took all honors and AP courses, but I was still grouped with the smart kids.

“Originally, I was going to go on to some school for game design after high school, but I took several summer camps for it, but while I like playing games and talking about them, I started to think that was something I didn’t really want to do.”

“So why did you join NIU?”

It was a perfectly reasonable question. However, it was one I didn’t really have an answer other than that stupid pun.

“Well,” I said, “I got a good deal on it. There was a scholarship I applied for that ended up being for this program, and I figured it was the best deal.”

“Yeah,” May said, beating a complex rhythm with her hands and feet, “but you knew what this program was. I’m sorry, I just can’t get into the whole mindset you guys have here. Every legal system in the world, at least the ones I know of, usually has murder as one of its biggest no-nos, higher than stealing or incest.”

She continued, now beginning to sound more confused, almost pleading for some understanding. “Yet you guys… some of you guys see it as a game. I can see sometimes having to kill because you need to eat, or someone’s trying to kill you. I’m a doctor. I get that sometimes you need that source of protein or those little microbes or cute wolves want you dead. That’s perfectly fine. But some of you seem like you kill just to test out which gun makes the bigger hole in a person or just to, you know, see them bleed out, and I just don’t get it!”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m not really one of them.”

“Then why do you go here? I mean, I doubt your parents would approve of this. God knows, sometimes parents can be stupid, but it sounds like your relation with your folks is better than most.”

“Maybe I’m worried that if I don’t do this, they won’t be there!” I’m not sure why I got angry. Maybe I was just stressed. Maybe it had something to do with the pain, or being tired. I instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean…”

May ignored me, and leaned in close to continue, “So that’s interesting. You don’t really want to kill, but you believe you have to. But what if people believe differently from you? Shouldn’t you try talking it out instead?”

“Yes,” I said, “We should. And I will always do my best to listen when someone tries to talk to me. But there are people who will hurt the people I love, maybe because of irrational hatred, maybe because they think it will make a point or profit, or maybe because they’re the kind of sicko who enjoys it. And these people are falling less into the ‘impotent whackjob’ category and more into the ‘legit terrorist/supervillain’ category.

“Seriously, it feels like the world’s collapsing every time I look at world,” I said. “And I feel like I need to do something to stop it.”

May looked at me suspiciously. “So, have you done anything to start, recently?”

“Mmmaybe…” I said. Before I could ask anything more, Eric came walking in.

“You waiting for Robert?” Eric asked, in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of way. “Gonna keep that bed warm for him?”

“Actually,” May said, “I didn’t know whose bed it is. Also, not interested in sex at the moment. I am looking for samples of crabs at the moment, though. You see, I’m kinda thinking that if you’re, like, hairy down there, you could spray some modified bug spray and voila, crab problem solved. Problem is, people tend not to want to talk about it, so I’m just gonna leave this here,” she pulled out a plastic jar with some paper and tweezers in it, “and he can follow the instructions. Also, another reason why I’m leaving it here is because I really don’t want to go probing around anyone’s genitals for a few years until that whole surgery video dies down so bye!”

With that, she set the jar on the bed and left, leaving Eric with a confused look on his face. He shot me a look as if to ask, “What was that?”

I shrugged. “May’s kind of weird. She’s pretty harmless, from what I can tell, so don’t give her a hard time.”

“Is she from the medical school?” he asked. “She seems too… flighty to really be one of the combat medics.”

“Yeah,” I said, “she’s from there. She’s got some sort of secret project that she’s been working on. I’m kind of wondering what it is.”

Eric gave me a serious look. “Trust me, my friend,” he said, “If one of these science people don’t want to talk about their stuff, it is a sign you shouldn’t ask questions.” He shuddered a bit.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“My crew and I took the campus tour,” he said, conversationally, “One of our guys, Doc, is taking the Combat Medicine program, which is a hybrid of the Med School stuff and the straight-up shooting stuff here. He got to meet with the research people, and they never would wait to tell him what they were working on. They might not tell him the details, but they would give him a general idea.”

“Yeah…” I said, “May doesn’t seem to be able to keep her mouth shut.”

“Are you sure,” Eric asked. “Or does she just know what to talk about to talk about to distract others? It sounds like the kind of skill you’d learn, killer.”

“Please don’t call me that,” I said. I still was feeling a little queasy about killing Amir.

“Trust me,” Eric said, “In this place, you want having someone like me calling you ‘Killer.’ Trust me, Amir’s friends are not pleased with you.”

“I wouldn’t call them friends, so much as minions,” I said.

Eric laughed. “In some cases, I suppose you are right. I know that your government would like you to think of him as some kind of supervillain. Trust me, I know the real supervillains.” He smiled for a bit. “You know,” he said, “even the worst of them are not so scary when you realize people like us can hurt them.”

“Really?” I asked. “This I’ve gotta hear.”

“No you don’t, Killer,” he said. “This is a story I will not tell you until I can trust you. Even the most pathetic of men can get lucky, and my enemies are not pathetic in the least.”

“Eighteen’s a little young to have an arch-nemesis,” I said, a little jokingly.

“Then making him pay for my college education at sixteen and enrolling at seventeen must make me a prodigy,” he said, a mischevious glint in his eye, and a satisfied grin on his face.

“You’re seventeen?” I asked. He nodded. “Damn. You are a prodigy.”

“No,” he said, “I may be ahead of the curve here, but where I grew up, you had to learn fast.”

“Understandable.” I looked to where Michael slept. “Wonder how Mike’s doing.”

“Who?” Eric asked, head cocked, a look of confusion on his face.

I pointed at the bed where Michael slept. “Guy who slept there. Tried to quit.”

“I do not…” Eric began, then paused. A look of horror passed his face. “Did May tell you about any of the big names out there?”

“Did Michael perchance meet Ulfric Trollbjorn?” I asked, my voice cracking. I already knew the answer.

Eric nodded. “He did. They fought right after you did.” A haunted look appeared in his eyes. “He also was Ulfric’s first victim that night.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Eric leaned in close, and I wondered if the haunted look had been faked, or if storytelling was how he coped with things. “You see,” he said, his voice a hushed whisper, “Ulfric is a giant. Biggest person in the program, he is.”

I nodded, remembering seeing a really big guy around when we formed up for runs or parades. I never was near enough him to get a good look, though.

“The thing is,” Eric said, “is that Ulfric is also insane. If you look in his eyes… there is humanity in them. The only problem is that it’s the worst, the part that makes us hurt small animals for no reason other than to see them die.

“Our friend Michael, on the other hand,” he said sadly, “seemed broken and small, especially compared to Ulfric. I had worked my way up to the front to get a good view, and by that time I was close enough to hear what he said. He looks at Ulfric and he says ‘Do it.’”

“What happened next?” I asked. It was like wondering what had happened when you see a car crash. You don’t want to know, but you just have to wonder.

“I’m sorry,” Eric said, “I need a bit of a minute.” He obviously didn’t. When he had paused long enough for effect, he continued. “So, Ulfric hears our boy say this, then he giggles and…”

“He giggled?”

Eric rolled his eyes. “I thought you spoke English, man. Yes, he made this high pitched laughter like a little girl.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I think I’ve seen this guy, and I don’t think I’d say he looks like the kind of guy who giggles.

“Well he does,” Eric said, as if I had just attacked him ad hominem in a political debate. It was also somewhat staged.

“Sorry,” I said grudgingly.

“It is fine, it is fine,” Eric said. “Anyway, Ulfric walks over to Michael, grabs his shoulder with one hand, and his jaw with the other and pulls, then Mike’s bloody head comes completely off!”

“You’re kidding me,” I said, “you are fucking kidding me.”

“I swear on my mother’s grave,” he said, “I am not lying in this. That bastard is insanely strong. I think he might even be a parahuman.”

“Fuck me,” I said, “I hope no one else I know goes up against him.” Eric raised an eyebrow. “Ok,” I said, “Maybe I won’t be too fussed if some Al-Qaeda guys lose their heads, but I do have some friends here. Maybe not as good as yours, but still, I don’t want them dead. Besides, I don’t know any of those guys anymore.”

I sighed. “I’m tired,” I said. “I’m also still in a bit of pain from… from you know, the thing with Amir and Eliza. I’m going to go to bed before things start getting too crazy.”

People were starting to come back in at this point. So far, Eric seemed to be in the best shape. I made a mental note to not piss him off as I pulled on the covers and closed my eyes. “Good night,” I said sleepily as I willingly passed out.

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