I awake to a sharp ringing noise, right by my head. I sit up, fast, and almost strangle myself under the covers. Turning, I see the ringing noise is an alarm clock. Staring at the numbers I almost groan. Seven a.m.
I swing my hand over the snooze button, but when I press it, the alarm keeps ringing. Louder, even, than before. I try it again and hear the alarm rise in volume once more. What the heck? Apparently, I have to get up now.
I unplug the alarm clock and rub my head, looking around. Oh yeah. The Institute.
I stand and wobble over to my closet. Picking out my only other pair of skinny jeans and a black shirt, I throw them on and begin to brush out my hair. Why would I have to wake up at seven? Are they starting homeschooling today?
When I finish, I walk out into the cafeteria and smell pancakes. Mmmm. No one else is in the cafeteria but the chef, and again, I wonder where the volunteers are. Sleeping in, I guess. Man they’re lucky. But as I listen, I hear Maggie’s angry voice again. Yelling.
I stride over to their door, bending down to put my ear against it.
“They brought another one to…!” she stops suddenly, her angry breaths the only evidence of her outburst. The whole room is silent and I suddenly fear they’ve figured out I’m listening. But that’s impossible. Still, I stand and back away, taking short glances at their door.
Pancakes. I came out here for pancakes. Slowly, I make my way to the buffet and take a plate.
“How many?” Chef grumbles, not looking up at me. I’m shocked by his tone. It’s angry, again, like everyone else’s.
“J…just one,” I stutter, trying not to push the same anger back at him.
He puts the pancake on my plate, still not looking up. I can’t stand it enough to ask for syrup, so I just walk to the furthest table in the back and sit down to eat. Great. No fork. I sigh, looking down at my pancake. Where are Jane and Mark?
“Hey kiddo!” Jane says from behind me. I jump, then smile at her, laughing a little. I definitely don’t need to be afraid of her.
“Hey,” I say back.
“Ready to start your homeschooling?”
“Sure,” I say, trying to put in enthusiasm.
“Great. Well, I’ll be teaching you since Mark’s in the lab, and we’ll do it in your room, if you don’t mind,” Jane says, walking towards my door.
I look at my pancake longingly. Jane notices and stops.
“Unless you want to eat that?”
The way she says it… it’s like asking, unless you want to live with that? Like asking if I would choose the pancake over her. Well of course I wouldn’t, so I say, “No, I’m good,” and follow her.
The stuff Jane teaches me is easy. Even a few years lower than the stuff I was doing at my old school. But whatever, I’m sure she’ll raise it when she sees how good I’m doing.
We study for two hours, then take a lunch break, then study for another two hours. Then Jane tells me to read a chapter of my book and tell me what it was about when she comes back. Then she leaves. Only one problem. I don’t have a book.
I look around the room for a book, but come up empty. Sticking my head out the door I see that no one’s in the cafeteria; Jane seems to have disappeared. But wait…there’s that huge library upstairs. Mark wouldn’t care if I went in the library, would he? Jane showed me it on the tour so…
I open the door to the closed in staircase and turn on the lights. I lightly put one foot on the first stair, half expecting it to drop through the floor into a pit of lions. Wait, what? I can trust Jane and Mark. Why would they do anything like that? I quickly dash up the stairs, then open the door leading to the hallway. I hope neither of them are here. I know they showed me it on the tour, but I don’t think they intended me to actually come up here. Suddenly I remember the crazy-blue-eyes worker and his warning. He told me not to go looking around in their library. But…he’s crazy…right?
A book. All I need is a book.
I quickly crack open the library door, wincing at the squeak it makes. I take a look inside, and thankfully, the room is vacant. Taking a step into the room I look directly at the shelf in front of me. I’m looking for a big, thick chapter book about something boring like the civil war. That’s what teachers want you to read, right?
As I look closer, though, I realize the books aren’t that thick. They’re not even chapter books, most of them. I pick one up and read the title. The Science of Steroids. Whoa. Okay, that’s creepy. I put it back and pick up another one. Enhancement Injections. What the…? Is Mark taking steroids? I try again and find DNA Transfers Guide. Okay, a little less… weird. But what are DNA transfers? I decide this is as good as it’s going to get and turn for the door. As I’m walking towards it, I step on a piece of paper and hear it rip. Shit. Again, I’m ruining their stuff. I bend down to pick it up and stuff it inside the DNA book. Maybe I can tape it and return it with the book. They probably won’t notice.
I quickly shut the library door and walk back down the staircase, and out into the cafeteria. Thankfully, no one is eating, so I don’t have to endure more hateful stares and glances.
Once I’m back in my room I open the book up to the first page. After reading a few sentences, I realize it’s pretty boring. Whatever. I don’t have to actually read it, just pretend to. So, for the next half an hour, I think of what my “story” was about. I decide on a nice little book about a girl on a farm who milks cows and sews quilts for money. Simple enough.
When Jane comes back in I tell her about it, waving the DNA book around so she won’t see the title and realize I’m lying. Surprisingly, it works.
“Good job, see you at dinner.” With that, Jane turns and leaves. I stare down at the DNA book and then throw it behind my shoulder. It lands next to my pillow, making a soft thumping noise. Then everything is quiet. Not faded, or muffled quiet. Dead, not-a-soul-alive quiet. It’s a very scary noise. It starts to pound on my head, making me dizzy. Where is everyone? Shouldn’t the T.V be on next door? Shouldn’t Maggie be yelling about something?
I edge around to my door and crack it open, almost happy to hear the squeak it makes. At least I’m not deft.
The cafeteria is empty, and as I check the rec room, it see it’s vacant as well. I’m about to knock on the volunteers door when Mark comes out of a door on the left side of the cafeteria.
“Jordan! I’m going for a walk, want to come?” Mark asks, a smile plastered on his face. I stare at him, confused. Mark asks the weirdest questions. I mean, walking isn’t weird, but he asked it at the weirdest time.
“Uh… sure.” I follow Mark out the main entrance door and into the metal hallway. His shoes make a loud clanking noise as he marches along, and I realize he’s still wearing his lab coat. I want to ask him how he knew I was in the cafeteria just then, but I decide it would just be a bothering question. What I do ask, however, is why it was so quiet.
“Well it’s…” he checks his watch, “three thirty in the afternoon, so all the workers and volunteers are working. Sorry it’s lonely, but after dinner the volunteers are done, and some of the workers have their brakes. People will be around then for you to talk to.”
Dinner is at six… so I have about three hours completely to myself and that not-a-soul-alive quiet. Great.
“Can’t I volunteer, too?” I ask, gazing up at him. We reach the door so I wait until Mark opens it and then presses the glowing red button that opens the garage. And then he waits until the garage door is completely up before answering.
“Maybe sometime soon. How about Friday?” He says, smiling in a crooked way.
“Y…yeah. Sure.” I smile uneasily at him. He just keeps giving me the crooked smile and then stands up and walks out the garage. I take a quick glance at the white van I scratched up and see the damage is still there. Walking a little quicker, I follow Mark onto the old, worn driveway.
“Why not today, though?” I ask, stumbling a little on the gravel.
“Oh just because we’re wrapping up one of our experiments, and it’s just easier to start you once we’re done,” Mark says, giving me the same crooked smile. Maybe that’s just his normal face…
“What… exactly is it you’re working on?” I ask. Mark doesn’t answer. “I mean, if it’s top-secret or whatever, that’s fine. I was just wondering.”
“Well, you see, Jordan. It is top secret, but I promise, when you volunteer Friday, I’ll tell you everything.” Another crooked smile.
“Do all the volunteers, know, then?” I ask as we turn a sharp left.
“Yes, but, a thing about the volunteers: None of them are very social, if you noticed, because they all suffer from horrible trauma. See, this program they’re in? It’s for severely hurt and homeless kids. It’s to give them a chance in the world. To show them there’s still good out there,” Mark says, shaking his head. He puts his hands behind his back, walking a little slower. We take another left turn and then turn around, slowly making our way back up the driveway.
“The library upstairs?” I ask Mark. He spins his head over to look at me, his eyes piercing.
“Yes?” He asks, almost growls.
“It’s nice. But I haven’t been up there. I mean, when Jane showed me it, I thought it was nice, but I haven’t been actually in the library. Alone.”
“I’d appreciate it if you never did,” Mark says heavily, trying not to yell. Obviously he didn’t want me seeing his steroid books.
“Oh. Okay,” I say, looking at the ground.
“Sorry, it’s just that, most of the books up there are ancient. I wouldn’t want them to fall apart in your hands,” he says with a slight smile. It’s fake, I know, because he’s lying. None of those “books” are ancient. None of them are really even books at all. They’re journals.
“Yeah. I get it,” I say to the gravel. Why would Mark lie to me? What else is he hiding? I think back to the tour, when Jane didn’t show me their bedroom. It was just for privacy, though, right?
We keep walking for a while, silence filling our conversation. I try to edge in some more questions, but I’m too nervous. What if he just doesn’t answer? Or… what if he does? What if his answer is not what I wanted to hear? What if it makes me scared, or even more uneasy? I’m on my edge with him, like I am with everyone else in the institute. Everything he tells me, every glance he gives me… it’s all through a mask.
We reach The Institute. Mark opens the garage door and walks inside, still not noticing the giant scratch mark on his Van. I just follow him, ducking under his arm as he holds the back door open for me. He takes one last look outside, and then closes the garage door, sealing us in.
As we walk down the metal hallway in silence, I try not to make loud noises with my feet like Mark. There’s something scary about it… intimidating… that I don’t want to put on myself. When we reach the cafeteria door he stops and turns to me.
“I’d appreciate it if you stayed in your room until dinner,” he drones, putting absolutely no feeling into his words. It’s almost disturbing, like that crooked smile.
“Okay,” I mumble, trying not to feel the stare he’s giving me. He opens the door and lets me step out first, but the action is forced.
Once I’m sitting on my bed I realize he’s just like the others. But there is more than hatred in his eyes. Something bitter sweet is lurking in his crooked smile. Almost like he’s… like he… admires me. Like I’m some prized possession he just can’t wait to get his hands on.
I shiver at the thought, chasing Mark out of my mind. It’s much easier to think about Jane. Her innocent smile and teacher-like attitude. She feels like what a mom should be. And she’s my first pick out of everyone here. You’d think it would be Maggie or someone, but it’s not comfortable around her like it is around Jane.
Taking a look at my clock I see that it’s only four thirteen. Okay, so two more hours to myself… maybe I should take another shower or something. I look over at the DNA book on my bed and decide to read through it some more. Mark’s hiding something big, and I want to know what.
I roll over so I can reach it and bring it up to my face. Opening it to a random page, I see a piece of paper stick out. Picking it up I realize it’s the paper I ripped in the library. Well, I don’t have any tape, but it couldn’t hurt to read what’s on it.
The title of the page is printed in bold and underlined. It says DNA CODE 2. Underneath that is the date 1/12/2010. This was only three months ago. As I scan the page I see it’s entirely filled with numbers and letters in a random sequence. It must be a DNA code.
But what do they mean DNA code 2? Where is the first? I stare at the page, watching the numbers until my mind begins to ache. I groan, throwing the paper on the floor. This is useless; it tells me nothing.
I lay back on my bed, listening to the not-a-soul-alive quiet. It surrounds me, pushing me down, crushing my chest. I can hardly breathe, and it hurts to move. I’m sure it must all be in my head, but this quiet is murderous. It’s the loudest noise I’ve ever heard.
After a while, a dark feeling overwhelms me and sweeps me into its depths, where nightmares chase me like dogs after a cat. I toss and turn, crying and screaming out loud, grabbing for hands that aren’t there and falling off ledges that suddenly appear. I’m thrown the ground and surrounded in dirt, every bone of my body aching, begging for just one last breath of life. And then it happens. I drop through the ground and into the air, and begin to fly.
I wake with a start, glancing around me for any signs of the dream, but it’s gone. A feeling falls from my chest with the realization, but I’m not sure if it’s relief or disappointment.
I remember dinner and search the clock behind me. Five fourteen. I only have sixteen minutes to get ready for dinner. I quickly stand and look in the mirror, frowning at the image staring back at me. I quickly fix my makeup, smeared from crying in my sleep, and put on a jacket. I brush my hair and practice smiling in the mirror, then look back at the clock. Five twenty seven. Close enough.
I walk out my door, slowly, and scan the cafeteria. A few workers are already here, but there’s no sign of Mark or Jane. I sit at the table we sat at last night and pretend to play with my IPod. Since Jane and Mark aren’t here, the workers are more talkative. If I’m real quiet, I can hear what they’re saying.
“…and she doesn’t even know what they do.”
“…heard from Chef she went in their library…”
“Her birthday’s in three months…”
“What a horrible present.”
I look up and around at the table beside me, giving the workers a questioning and terrified glance. A few look over at me and quiet, but most of them just keep talking. Each word confuses me, jumbling around in my head and wanting to get out, but I just can’t let them. I have to hold on to each and every one, because they’re trying to tell me something that I’m just not getting.
Just then Jane and Mark bust through a door on the left side of the cafeteria, still in their lab coats. They walk calmly to the table, their eyes fixed on me. Jane smiles as she sits down, and gives me the innocent look I love. I can’t help but smile back and decide to deal with the crazy words later.
Mark calls over the Chef. He quickly grabs our plates and sets the dishes down, not looking at any of us, as if he doesn’t deserve to. Everything seems so… off balance here.
I quickly eat my dinner and answer their questions, all about the homeschooling and my favorite color and stuff like that. Nothing real. Like I want. I want something real, reliable. The truth. I want so badly to ask what it is they work on, why they can’t tell me now, but I hold Mark to his promise. Only three more days until Friday, anyway. I can hold out that long.
Back in my room I decide to just turn in early. I take another shower, just to calm my nerves and make me sleepy, and then go to bed. Thankfully, no dreams chase me tonight.
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