Trick (World of Many Colors)

By

Stacey T. Hunt

 

 

Opening

 

Ashton Blake was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath his back.

 

Smoke. Flames. Blisters bursting across his skin. A sharp sting in the center of his left eye. He tried to crawl but was as useless as bicycle pedals on a wheelchair. He tried to drag his body from the fire, reaching his hands, but the flames stretched off endlessly.

 

Bodies surrounded him, writhing and burning against the coals, moaning for water, for freedom. He shrank away from the bodies, noticing each of them starting to glow blue, something stretching out of their backs. A spirit? A demon?

 

Ashton saw his father. Screaming. Accusing him. He had done this to him, he had brought the flames and destruction.

 

He began begging for forgiveness, but Ashton’s breath caught in his throat when his sight landed on his hand. It wasn’t a hand at all, but an insect-leg, and it was glowing blue, crackling with energy. Then he screamed, louder than he ever had before. He was becoming one of them. A monster.

 

A skyrunner.

 

A terrible creature spawned from the negative emotions of people like Ashton, people called Others. They were a race of subconscious beings come to life with a real-self on Earth. Whenever a real-self felt negative emotion, their Other would create a monster. And, in some cases, they’d become one.

 

It was terrifying.

 

When Ashton looked up again, his father was glowing blue and a skyrunner was stretching out of his back. Then another, and another.

 

The same process was happening to everyone else as they burned, making it all that much more painful not only to watch, but for the person to endure.

 

A deep voice reverberated around him. “Ready, now? Let’s begin the operation.”

 

The words echoed in his head like the footsteps of a night sentry. His body jolted, but he couldn’t move. His limbs were trapped, pinned down. The smell of smoke still seemed to linger, the heat dying away, leaving only a sore back as the sharp pain decreased from his left eye. His father faded away, the coals and flames sank into the ground.

 

Ashton’s eyes snapped open, but there was only darkness. His breaths came out as gasps, relieved that it was only a dream. It was all only a frighteningly vivid dream. One dream of many alike that he had often. He shut his eyes tightly, trying to calm his beating heart.

 

Sounds of wheels and the hum of energy rumbled around him, and the darkness warmed, a subtle crimson flashing beyond his eyelids. Ashton’s eyes squinted open, focusing in the harsh fluorescent.

 

“Ah, the patient is awake,” the same voice from before rebounded in the spacious room.

 

Ashton tried to lift a hand to cover his eyes, let them adjust, but his arm was locked in place, and he began feeling quite panicked. He forced his eyes open and craned his neck to the side, trying to see who had spoken.

 

The room was bright now, and the wall to his right appeared to be some very foggy glass. There were silhouettes racing around behind, each unidentifiable. Except one, who simply stood, his hands behind his back. Watching him.

 

“How are you feeling, Ashton?” the same voice asked.

 

Ashton was still looking around, trying to take in the gizmos all parked around him. There were surgical toys and needles, but there were even more mechanical arms hanging in the ceiling. Some with claws, others with saws and scissors, but only one had a needle with a thick silver liquid sloshing around inside. Ashton didn’t know if it was a trick of the light or his own imagination, but he could’ve sworn he saw sparks and flashes snapping off the liquid.

 

“Now, if you’ll just cooperate, we can make this quick and simple,” the voice said. “We are trained professionals and have undergone this process many times before. The test should be no different for you.”

 

Ashton scowled. “That’s hilarious. How many have you murdered already with your cure?”

 

A silence. Something beeping behind him. Dozens of eyes probably focused on him from behind the glass.

 

Now that the fog had cleared from his brain, he remembered what he was doing here.

 

Every Other aged sixteen or older were being randomly chosen to test what was being called a “cure”. The first step in the process was to insert a serum filled with fiendorphins, which were the cells that helped induce negative emotion in an Other. The Other would feel a horrible, unbearable negative feeling, and just before they released a skyrunner, a second serum would be injected; the cure. This cure, after injected into the subject, was supposed to prevent the subject from ever spawning another Skyrunner ever again.

 

It all sounded so wonderful, utterly unbelievable, except for one thing; not one test had passed. The Other would either become a skyrunner themself, or they’d result in death. So the scientists kept coming out with new serums, new samples, and kept testing them. And Ashton had been the next to be chosen.

 

Now, he would be the next one to die.

 

A chill ran up his spine when one of the mechanical arms holding the needle moved closer. Ashton thumped his head back on the padded exam table, tissue paper crinkling beneath him. “Keep your surgical tools away from me.”

 

I promise you, Ashton, this wont hurt a bit.”

 

“Liar.”

 

The voice chuckled. “Don’t fret now. You are doing your fellow citizens a great service by being here,” he then pushed a button, and the mechanical arm proceeded.

 

Ashton jerked away, twisting his neck in an effort to avoid the needle, but another arm came up behind him with cold prongs and gripped his scalp, forcing his head into the tissue paper. He thrashed his arms and legs, but it was useless.

 

Maybe if he put up enough of a fight, that would give them no other choice but to knock him out again. He wasn’t all too sure whether that would be better or worse, but when he remembered the flames, the skyrunners, and the burning bodies, his struggling halted.

 

Ashton’s heart doubled in speed. He tried to imagine himself anywhere but trapped inside this cold, sterile room. A large, mechanical arm would probably be the last thing he ever saw before death overcame him.

 

Ashton clenched his jaw and choked on the scream that tried to burst out of him. It was painless. Painless. But these chemicals, this horrible negativity, was being shot inside of him. An invasion. A violation. He tried to jerk away, but the mechanical arm held him firm.

 

The syringe was finally pulled out of his arm, leaving Ashton trembling against the exam table, his heart crushed against his rib cage.

 

“Thank you for your cooperation,” the voice said. “It will take just a minute before the fiendorphins take affect. Just before you glow blue, we’ll proceed with the cure. In the meantime, you may attempt to make yourself comfortable.”

 

Ashton ignored him, turning away from the fogged glass. He could still hear voices coming from beyond it, but their words consisted of muttered scientific-talk that he didn’t understand. The arm that had injected the first serum was bustling around behind him, readying the next syringe. Or, more accurately, the next tool of torture.

 

“The fiendorphins we’ve previously injected have been tagged, in case you didn’t already know,” came the voice again. “They’re going to show up on my screen, so I can monitor the progress of the fiendorphins in real time. They’ll then combine and you’ll try to release a Skyrunner. It is then that we’ll inject our most recent batch of antibodies, which, if we’ve succeeded, should permanently disable the fiendorphins. And tah-dah, you’re home in time for dinner. Now, how are you feeling?”

 

Ashton was taking deep, shaky breaths. “How many times has your so-called cure failed?”

 

“Nurse Carpathia?”

 

“Twenty-seven,” said a female’s voice.

 

“Twenty-seven,” repeated the foreign voice. “But the subject lasts a little longer each time.”

 

Ashton squeezed the tissue paper beneath his fingertips. He could imagine the headless voice on the other side of the glass, watching and probably laughing at his struggles. Ashton took deep breaths, feeling the weight of the negativity pressing down on him. Then he tried his best to hold still, to stay strong, not to think about what they were doing to him.

 

From behind the glass, before a large set of control panels, levers, and switches, Dr. Ivan traced the holographic image of the patient on the portable screen, turning it and watching the lights representing the dose of fiendorphins they had injected as they ran along his bloodstream, spreading slowly throughout his veins. But that always happened with each individual he tested his cure on. It was what would happen next that held his interest.

 

“Peculiar, isn’t he?” said Nurse Carpathia, standing beside him. She was a tall, curvy woman with a slight build, and she must have been in her late twenties. Her tanned skin glistened with a thin sheen of perspiration in the mildly stuffy room, and her curly brown hair was worn in a tight ponytail. “He’s still not glowing. It’s been five minutes and he isn’t doing so much as sweating.”

 

“Stress levels are different in all of us,” Dr. Ivan answered mildly, handing Carpathia the portable screen. “Perhaps he’s just a mellow individual. Give him another minute, the stress will get to him soon.”

 

They waited in silence, studying Ashton as he lied on the exam table, looking around at everything. The Doctor could see that the boy had two different colored eyes, but the right one was white and stayed completely still in its socket, a glass one, he could tell, while the other one swivelled around, taking in everything around him with a nervousness and humanity that was not reflected in his fake eye.

 

“One just disappeared,” Carpathia said urgently, pointing to a spot on the screen. “And there’s something going on with his head.”

 

The Doctor didn’t have a chance to stand and see for himself when the nurse rushed over and pointed to an empty place in the boy’s chest from the portable screen. “A fiendorphin. I was looking right at it, and now it just disappeared.” She moved her finger to point at his head, which was sparking a yellow light. “And look at this! What is that?”

 

As they watched, five more dots blinked out of sight, like burnt-out light bulbs. Then eight disappeared, then twelve, then sixteen, and faster and faster the fiendorphins vanished. It was as though they had already injected a successful cure, but they hadn’t. Only the fiendorphins.

 

Something was going on. The Doctor hurried to one of the other assistants in the room. “Draw a blood sample. Now. I need to see what’s going on. Fiendorphins don’t just disappear. Some way or another, a skyrunner is created. And these injected fiendorphins were extremely powerful.”

 

Carpathia joined him. “But, sir, we haven’t given him the antidote yet.”

 

The Doctor grabbed the portable screen from her, spinning the holographic image once again. “There’s no need to.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Look,” he handed her the screen. “He’s completely rid himself of the fiendorphins. The peculiar activity in his brain has gone away. And no skyrunner.”

 

Carpathia looked up again with mixes of confusion and wonder. She turned and peered through the glass, watching him try to struggle away from the arm as it took a blood sample. “But just look at him! It’s not like he’s completely calm in there. It doesn’t make sense!”

 

The Doctor could hardly contain his giddiness as he came closer to the window. “I need that blood sample.”

 

Carpathia set the portable screen on a nearby table and stood next to him, watching the patient as he struggled to be set free once again. The mechanical arm was returning to send the blood sample to them. “But, Doctor, what does this mean?”

 

Dr. Ivan didn’t answer and instead backed away, yet his eyes were still glued to the patient with a greedy look about him, as though Ashton were as valuable as a gold brick. “Have the patient taken to my office. Oh, and have him untied.”

 

“What?” Carpathia looked at him in disbelief. “Doctor, are you crazy?”

 

“I’m going to speak with him in private.” The Doctor grinned. “Carpathia, I think you know what this means. That boy could be the cure that we’ve been searching for.”

 

After a female voice echoed in the room giving orders for Ashton to be escorted into lab room twelve, a droid had taken up the job to wheel Ashton’s exam table out into a long brick hallway filled with corners and doors, and different doctors and nurses bustling about with other patients.

 

“What’s going on?” Ashton asked, looking around himself once again. He dug his fingernails into the tissue paper beneath him, wondering if lab room twelve was where they sent patients so they could be given the antidote. That, or they’d send him there to watch him die. Likely both.

 

The droid didn’t answer him, and instead kept wheeling him off to his destination, wherever that was.

 

It smelled like bleach, and the squeaking wheels were only making Ashton more and more nauseous. Numbered doors whizzed past them, and the only thing repeating itself in Ashton’s head was the knowing fact that he was going to die.

 

Ashton drummed his fingers on the exam table, the squeaking wheel beginning to give him a headache. The hallway was filled with voices and he was surprised there wasn’t any screaming. Finally one of the doors slid open and the droid wheeled Ashton inside.

 

A desk sat in the corner surrounded by cabinets and tools. Ashton was parked in the corner opposite the desk, and almost immediately after they stopped, his shackles released with a snap. Without hesitation, Ashton jerked his wrists and ankles out of the open metal rings and hopped off the exam table.

 

The droid had already disappeared before Ashton was released. He walked slowly to the center of the room, expecting hidden security cameras or perhaps an observation window, but nothing struck him as obvious.

 

The door opened from behind him.

 

“Greetings, Mr. Blake.”

 

Ashton whipped around, recognizing the foreign voice from before. He clenched his fists.

 

The man in the lab coat couldn’t have been older than thirty. He didn’t seem threatening at all, and instead he made his way to his desk, looking at something on a portable screen with such intensity, deepening the lines on his head of dark messy hair. Glasses sat on the bridge of his beaky nose.

 

He took a seat and motioned for Ashton to come closer. The greediness in his expression made Ashton nervous. “I am Dr. Ivan, the leading scientist of the Skyrunner Research Team, but you may call me Chris. Please, have a seat. We have much to discuss.”

 

“Oh, now you wanna talk,” he said, inching toward him. “I was under the impression you didn’t care too much about the opinions of your guinea pigs.”

 

“You are a bit different than our usual volunteers.”

 

Ashton eyed him, slowly coming to sit in the chair opposite him at his desk. “What’s going on? Why didn’t you give me the cure? And why are you so calm around me, when I could spawn a skyrunner?”

 

The doctor ignored his questions and took out his tablet. On it was a holograph of Ashton, and he was pointing to his elbow. “Here is where we injected the fiendorphins. They were tagged so that we could monitor their progress through your body.” He withdrew his finger and looked at Ashton suspiciously. “Do you know what is peculiar about this?”

 

“The fact that I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me?”

 

The Doctor sighed, rubbing his temples. “As you can see, the fiendorphins have disappeared. The microbes that are supposed to fuse together to create a skyrunner are gone.”

 

Ashton scratched his head, looking down at the tablet again. “Huh?”

 

“It seems as though you are completely cured.”

 

Ashton’s eyes widened in disbelief. “But… that’s ridiculous. You only inserted the fiendorphins, I never got your cure.”

 

“Exactly my point.”

 

Ashton was piecing it together. “So… I’m not gonna spawn a skyrunner?”

 

“That’s correct. You will not spawn a skyrunner.”

 

“And I’m not gonna die.”

 

“Yes, yes, yes. Wonderful feeling, isn’t it?”

 

Ashton leaned back against his chair. Relief filled him, but was quickly followed by suspicion. They had given him the fiendorphins, but no skyrunner spawned? With no cure? It felt too good to be true, like it was a trick. “Am I the first to have had this happen?”

 

The Doctor grinned deviously, greed flashing in his stark blue eyes. He left the tablet on the desk and took out two vials of his blood, from before and after the injection. “Indeed, you are the first. I am very excited to see what secrets are being contained within you. This could be the start of a revolution!”

 

Ashton quickly glanced at the door, wondering if he should just make a run for it. “Are you telling me what I think you’re telling me?”

 

“Ashton, you are very special and extremely unique. Not one volunteer as had your characteristics. It is possible that you were born with this miraculous ability. Something in your DNA is fighting off the fiendorphins. So, in a few words, Ashton, I believe you are incapable of spawning skyrunners.”

 

Ashton shrank back, uncomfortable under his eager stare.

 

“Do you recall anything from your childhood that could be connected to this?” he continued. “Any horrible sicknesses? Near brushes with death? Perhaps you survived a traumatic experience, making you less vulnerable to spawning skyrunners.”

 

“No. Well…” He hesitated, glancing around the room. “I guess, maybe. I had cancer in my right eye…”

 

“Cancer. Do you know anyone in your family who could’ve had it before you? Someone related to you who is also unable to spawn skyrunners?”

 

He shrugged. “I don’t know. My dad—my guardian, Dmitri, always suspected I had a relative who had cancer. From before he adopted me.”

 

The doctor’s hands trembled, as if his clutched fingers alone were keeping him from combusting. “You don’t live with any blood-related family, then.” Ashton shook his head, uncertainly. “Were there many sick people that you recall? Any notable occurrences in your home?”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t actually remember anything from before being adopted.”

 

Dr. Ivan reassembled his composure. “What do you mean when you say you don’t remember anything?”

 

Ashton blew a wisp of hair from his face. “Just that. Something about when they removed my eye, one of the drugs they used did some damage to my…you know, whatever. The part of the brain that remembers things.”

 

“The hippocampus.”

 

“I guess.”

 

“And how old were you?”

 

“Eleven.”

 

“Eleven.” He released his breath in a rush. His gaze darted haphazardly around the floor as if the reason for his immunity was written upon it. “Do you have any trouble retaining memories since then, or forming new ones?”

 

“Not that I know of.” He glared. “Is this relevant?”

 

“It’s fascinating,” Dr. Ivan said, dodging the question. He pulled out his tablet, making some notation. “Eleven years old,” he muttered again, then, “And you’ve never spawned a skyrunner before? Not in your lifetime that you can remember?”

 

Ashton twisted his lips. “Like I said, I don’t remember anything from before being adopted. But no, I’ve never spawned one. Dmitri told me it was because I could control it. I’ve never really considered I could be completely immune.”

 

The Doctor folded his hands with a pitying smile. “No one is completely immune to negative emotions, Ashton. And no one can entirely control it every second of their life. But being incapable of spawning skyrunners, now, this seems to be a completely new mystery. One that we can solve together.”

 

Instead of responding, Ashton cast his eyes to the door, then at the blood-filled vials. He was feeling uncomfortable under the Doctor’s eager stare, and he shrank back into his seat. “Uh… am I free to go now, then?”

 

The Doctor frowned as though Ashton had just insulted him. “Go? Ashton, I don’t think you realize how valuable you’ve become to this discovery.”

 

Ashton’s muscles tensed. “So I’m still a prisoner.”

 

The Doctor smiled, packing away the tablet and the blood samples into a small black suitcase. “This is much more important than you may realize. You have no idea of your worth.”

 

“Well, you weren’t exactly telling me I was that valuable an hour ago.”

 

“Things are much different than they were an hour ago, Ashton. With your help, we could save thousands of Others. We could put an end to the skyrunner race. If everyone experienced negativity like you did, then life would be paradise compared to the way things are now.”

 

Ashton crossed his arms, considering. Did he just say his life was a paradise? He knew that statement was arguable. “What would you have to do to me, to get what you need for the cure?”

 

The Doctor hesitated. “Well…what you have that’s fighting off the fiendorphins, I believe it’s coming from your brain. You would have to undergo a surgery so that we can remove and reverse-engineer a cure. The only problem with that is… well, you’d never awaken after the surgery.”

 

Ashton felt numb, feeling the weight of a great decision pressing down on his shoulders. Ashton rested his head in his hands. He was immune. He was important. He thought of all the trouble happening in the Otherworld, the constant battle against the skyrunners, how many were dying.

 

He couldn’t let those beasts make the race of Others extinct. It was either him… or the entire population.

 

“You really think I can help?”

 

“I do. In fact, I think every Other in the Otherworld could soon find themselves eternally grateful to you.”

 

Ashton sighed. “I just… ugh, I’m so confused. I need time to think about this.”

 

“Well, I encourage you to decide soon,” Chris continued. “If you don’t do this, Ashton, the skyrunners will have already won. Many will die, the rest become slaves. It is a sad fate but unavoidable, I suppose.”

 

“It just isn’t fair, though.”

 

“Nothing in this life is fair,” Chris folded his hands together. “When you decide to go through with this, if you decide to, then all I expect for you is to come find me in the Shadow District.”

 

Ashton stared at him, eyes huge, as his words gradually seeped into his brain.

 

Go to the Shadow District.

 

Extract his brain.

 

Save the world.

 

It seemed almost simple when he said it like that.

 

The Doctor must have seen something change in Ashton’s expression when he smiled and tapped the watch on his wrist. “I believe in you, Ashton. And whether or not the world knows it right now, the Others believe in you, too.”

 

One

 

The cloudy sky above New Jersey was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.

 

Mr. Newlyn, Trenton Central Academy’s tenth grade science teacher, opened a page of his science text book and showed it to the class, but no one really paid any attention. Eyes were glued to their phones as their fingers blurred over the buttons, as though they’d been texting all their life. “This planet is the closest one to the sun. Its rotational period is 58.64 days,” Mr. Newlyn said. “Can anyone tell me what it’s called?”

 

Maybe Mars, or Jupiter, perhaps. There were some murmurs, but no one put up their hands to answer. They didn’t want to be known as a nerd or a dork for knowing anything about this stuff, let alone even caring. Popularity and making yourself look first-class was priority in Trenton Central Academy, abbreviated to TCA.

 

Jesse Tynan, an unsocial sixteen year old with orange windswept hair and a sharp gaze of pale blue eyes, changed the R&B tune playing on his Samsung Galaxy S2, adjusted the headphones in his ears, and turned up the music. Jesse was an ardent fan of rap music, but far less enthusiastic about forging relationships with other people, so he mostly hung out by himself. He didn’t get people, and definitely didn’t mind that he wasn’t involved in any of this ridiculousness about always being judged by your peers and striving to be at the top.

 

Mr. Newlyn waved the book around, his hand still covering the name so no one could cheat. The students of Science 10 had studied this sort of thing before, and as ridiculous as it seemed, if you cared about school, you were a dork. Lucky for Jesse, he didn’t care about school either. But no one bothered him, no one expected anything of him. It was like a dream.

 

“Neptune, do you think?”

 

Some in the class mumbled answers in the negative. They didn’t want him to think his class was a bunch of idiots, but still no direct answers. This was no surprise for Mr. Newlyn, as his class often behaved this way during review periods, but he still wished things worked in other ways.

 

To everyone’s surprise, a boy named Braedy put up his hand.

 

He was the class clown. The guy who cheats on his test. The kid with an attitude. The one who didn’t hesitate to speak his mind or talk back to authority. Braedy had the largest record of lates, absences, and suspensions in the whole school. Not even the guys who normally sat around him in class as his buddies knew what he was up to, but knowing Braedy, it was going to be funny. He loved getting attention.

 

“Yes, Braedy? Do you know which planet this is?” Mr. Newlyn asked, surprised that the boy who had already failed grade ten science once before had spoken up.

 

“Is it Uranus, Mr. Newlyn?” Braedy smirked, pronouncing it your anus.

 

The class broke into hysterics and Braedy looked around with a proud grin on his face, while Mr. Newlyn lowered the text book and shook his head in disappointment. “No, Braedy. And according to scientists, it’s pronounced yur- uh- nuhs.” Mr. Newlyn told him firmly. “Does anyone know which planet this is? It’s going to be on your test and your final exam. You all have to know this stuff.”

 

Right on cue, Emberlee Whitmore’s dainty porcelain hand shot into the air.

 

Emberlee was like the girl next door. She had tons of friends and knew her stuff when it came to astronomy. She was respectful, fun-loving and selfless, and when no one wanted to be thought of as a nerd for knowing the answer to the teacher’s question, she saw it as a chance to shine her knowledge to the room and stand out, which was strange to the rest of the students, yet no one picked on her. And she wasn’t slender and skinny like the other girls, yet she wasn’t too chunky either. She was somewhere in the middle; sort of chubby, but cute. Everyone loved her for her bubbly and positive personality. In fact, many boys in the class admired her. Not many knew that she went to the student councillor, who was actually Jesse’s grandmother, many times a week.

 

“Yes, Emberlee, please tell the class the right answer.” Mr. Newlyn never had to second-guess his star-pupil. She always aced science class. “Now everyone, listen up. Like I said, you all need to know this. Please continue, Emberlee.”

 

Emberlee tugged her white-blonde bangs to the side of her face, and her navy-blue eyes glittered with the stars. “The planet you’re referring to is called Mercury. I can tell because Neptune, the planet you suggested before, is blue, and this one in the book is red. And besides, Neptune is the farthest from the sun. After the planet Mercury comes Venus, then Earth, then Mars, and so on.”

 

She had a sweet lulling voice, and because of this she was a very good singer. She came in second place in the school’s last annual TCA idol.

 

“Very good, Emberlee.” Mr. Newlyn glanced down at his watch, then up at the clock hanging up on the wall. He closed the text book and set it on the counter just below the white board. “All right, class. That’s enough for review. We’ll pick this up in two weeks, after you return from Spring Break.”

 

Chairs scraped across the floor and books slammed closed as the students prepared to dart out the doors and set off for Break. “Please push in your chairs and take your homework with you! No door parties! Sit in your seats until the bell!” Mr. Newlyn shouted over the chatter and sudden blasts of different songs from devices. “And have a great two-weeks off!”

 

Before leaving the class without waiting for the bell to ring, Braedy shouted to Mr. Newlyn, “Hey, Mr. Newlyn, I had a homework question!”

 

Mr. Newlyn sighed and rubbed his temples, knowing very well that Braedy never did his homework, but Mr. Newlyn answered anyways. “Yes, Braedy, what is it?”

 

“Why is Uranus blue?” Bready called across the class, again mispronouncing it. Many laughed, others shook their heads with a smile on their face. “And how big is it? It’s huge, right? It’s a big, blue—”

 

“That’s enough, Braedy.” Mr. Newlyn began pacing and mumbling to himself in a stressed tone, “Just five more years until retirement. Hang in there. Five years. That’s 60 more months. About 300 more weeks. And what, 1825 days? Ooh, that’s a lot of days…”

 

Leaning against his desk, Jesse’s gaze fell on Emberlee as he surveyed the room. The girl was staring at him. Someone had noticed him. To say that it merely annoyed him would be an understatement. She was approaching him—which sucked—and it was hard to miss when her smile dissolved from her face. Oh. Good. Maybe she’d lost interest.

 

Shutting his eyes, Jesse shoved his hands in his pockets and subtly attempted to turn up his music and pay attention to something else. He didn’t care if he was being rude; people confused him, and he’d rather not have contact with anyone if he could help it.

 

“Hey!” Emberlee said cheerfully to him, tugging shyly on her bangs. “I’m Emberlee Whitmore. I don’t know if you know me.”

 

Jesse hesitated and turned down his music before looking at her again. “I’ve known you since the seventh grade. No need for an intro.”

 

Emberlee smiled and nodded. It was quiet before the conversation continued. “So, you live around here?”

 

“Yup,” Jesse shrugged, avoiding her gaze.

 

“Really? I’ve never really noticed you before.” She said with genuine surprise. “Maybe you can give me your name, since I gave you mine.”

 

Jesse had already known her name, so he didn’t know why she’d say something like that. They’d had the same classes for three years, and here she was making it seem like he was the new kid. He ignored her questions and answered, “Why the sudden interest?”

 

Emberlee blinked in surprise at this reply. She broke into a smile again and answered, “Oh, I could hear your music all the way from the door. Eminem, right? Good stuff.”

 

This piqued his interest a bit. Not by much, but a bit. “You like rap?”

 

Emberlee nodded. “But I pretend to like pop and stuff to fit in, you know? It’s so popular here.”

 

Oh, no. Not that fitting-in junk again. Jesse shook his head and sighed, looking up at the clock and wondering why the bell was being so slow today.

 

“But I admire you for handling that sort of stuff so well. You’re just that kind of guy who stands out, you know? And I mean that in a good way.”

 

Jesse laughed, but more in a downbeat way. “I thought you said you never really noticed me before.”

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Emberlee’s face flush, and she looked away from him when he started laughing again, this time more humorously.

 

Just in time, the bell resounded through the school and students from every classroom piled outside, alive with chatter and plans for Spring Break. Before Jesse could get out of the classroom, Emberlee grabbed his hand and called for him to wait.

 

The pull on his hand stopped Jesse in his tracks. He grimaced before looking over his shoulder at Emberlee.

 

“Oh,” Emberlee let go of his hand and blushed again. “It’s just… I still don’t know your name.”

 

“…Jesse,” There was a brief pause before he continued. “I’m Jesse Tynan.”

 

“Jesse. Jesse… Got it!” Emberlee smiled widely, doing a bit of a hop as she did. “So, Jesse, do you know Kallinda?”

 

Of course Jesse knew Kallinda. She was tall, blonde, rich, and snotty with an I’m too good for you attitude; a typical TGFY. She had friends who normally only hung out with her because if you weren’t friends with her, you weren’t cool. She threw weekly parties at her house every Saturday night. People went for dances, swimming, food, and couple stuff, and if you didn’t go, you were nobody. It was always the greatest fun at Kallinda’s house, from what Jesse had heard. He hardly ever went, but it wasn’t very interesting to him whenever he bothered to show up. It was too crowded, too noisy, and just obnoxious. And yet somehow, everyone managed to get drunk before the clock struck midnight.

 

“Yeah, what about her?” Jesse began, heading out of the school with his black backpack slung over one shoulder. He really hoped Emberlee wasn’t trying to set him up on a date. He shuddered at the thought.

 

“Her party has been moved to tonight.” Emberlee explained, following him outside. “Apparently her wisdom teeth have grown in pretty tight and are altering the alignment of her entire mouth.”

 

“Yeah, so what?” Jesse shrugged.

 

So, Kallinda has to get braces tomorrow, plus a night retainer and headgear.” Emberlee explained, as though it was a really serious matter. “And to top it all off, you know why Kallinda’s eyes were all pink today? And how she went home at lunch?”

 

A few students were laughing at her during the lunch hour when it happened. She had just gotten new purple contact lenses for a sweet sixteen birthday gift, and to be honest, the new contacts made her eyes really pop. She adored the compliments and attention and refused to take them out later when they started to irritate her. When she finally took them out, however, her eyes had turned pink and she’d insisted that she left school immediately. Later, the students found out her eyes were irritated because she hadn’t been taking her eye-drops.

 

“Apparently her contacts were giving her an eye infection, so she’s getting glasses until it heals,” Emberlee went on. “She and her family are heading out to the city in a few days for a pretty expensive pair of specs. But until then, she has to wear her grandmother’s old bulky turquoise glasses.”

 

“And your point is?” Jesse raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s not a big deal. Why are you stalking me, anyways?”

 

“Not a big deal?” Emberlee scoffed, ignoring his question. “Popularity is everything in this school! You have to be social and look sexy. And for the most popular girl in school to be at the top of the social ladder and plummet straight to the bottom the next, believe me, Jesse. It’s a big deal. This is going to be Kallinda’s last party before she joins the geek squad and spends the rest of her Saturday nights at chess tournaments.”

 

“Listen, it’s really none of my business. Like I really care, anyways. Kallinda’s—” Jesse stopped himself before cursing to this petite girl who looked much too innocent to tolerate stuff like that. “She’s not worth the effort.”

 

“I know what you were gonna say. My parents talk that way all the time. Along with all my other friends,” Emberlee adjusted the strap of her purse over her shoulder and continued. “I was actually going to ask you if you wanted to go with me to Kallinda’s party tonight. It’s the last one, after all.”

 

Sometimes he couldn’t believe how serious people were about their social status. There was always gossip in TCA, with students thriving to be at the top. There were always groups and cliques who would do anything to crush the other to be the best. Most of the time, the gossip that went around the school was fake. Only on very rare occasions was it true.

 

Jesse hated getting mixed up in that sort of drama.

 

He looked over at Emberlee suspiciously. Before he could say anything, she said, “How long have you had a prosthetic leg?”

 

Jesse slowed, a glare forming on his face. He leaned over to briefly pat his knee, feeling the metal contraption beneath his baggy jeans. Just above his right knee was where his actual leg had been cut off. He hated it when people brought it up. He tried to hide it as often as he could. “How did you know about my… prosthetic?”

 

Emberlee shrugged uneasily. “You were standing awkwardly in the classroom, and your steps lilt just slightly to the right. I thought I saw a metal ankle as well, so I could only assume…”

 

Jesse was quiet, hoping the silence would drop the subject. Emberlee sighed and continued anyway, much to Jesse’s disappointment. “Hey, it’s fine if you don’t want to go. To the party, I mean. I completely understand if you’ve got better things to do. But,” she looked at up at him, eyes huge in her lovely heart-shaped face. “It would make me so happy to go with you. Please?”

 

As Jesse stared, her image wavered, like heat rising off train tracks. He stumbled back. His heartbeat quickened. A tingle filled his brain and raced down his nerves. What was going on?

 

But she was… beautiful.

 

No, divine.

 

No, perfect.

 

His pulse thumped, thoughts of worship and devotion swimming through his head. Thoughts of surrender. Thoughts of compliance.

 

“Please,” she said again, lacing her fingers together. Her tone was desperate as she slowed. “I want you to come with me to the party. And you will go with me, wont you?”

 

“All right.” Confusion reigned—girl-next-door, school-mate, goddess. “Of course. Anything you like.” Vision fogging, he stumbled forward as though he’d tripped, but caught himself just in time. He felt very strange, but thoughts of Emberlee danced in his head, an obsession to protect her.

 

Emberlee giggled, a sound of silver bells, sounding relieved and overjoyed.

 

“Really?”

 

“Just don’t invite all your friends to carpool, or something.”

 

“You have a car?” Emberlee’s eyes brightened.

 

“I’ll borrow my grandma’s car,” Jesse explained, completely unaware that he had begun to smile. “She won’t mind, and besides, I’ll bet the old lady won’t even notice. She’s eighty-seven, you know, but she moves and talks like she’s fifty years younger. And her car is way cooler than you may think.”

 

Emberlee nodded and giggled. “But do you have a license?”

 

“I’ve got a learners’ permit. I’m supposed to drive with an adult, though, but I guess no one has to know.” Jesse shrugged, giving her a careless grin.

 

“Okay, as long as you’re careful.” Emberlee laughed.

 

“Hey,” Jesse’s whole face grinned. He felt much more comfortable around her, wanted to be around her, something he hadn’t wanted with someone in years. “I haven’t crashed yet.”

 

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