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The Institute / (by Stephen King, 2019) -

The Institute /  (by Stephen King, 2019) -

The Institute / (by Stephen King, 2019) -

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The Institute / (by Stephen King, 2019) -
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2019
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Stephen King
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Santino Fontana
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upper-intermediate
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18:59:50
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Institute / :

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: The Institute

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For my grandsons: Ethan, Aidan, and Ryan And Samson called unto the LORD, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines... And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life. Judges, Chapter 16 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones... it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew, Chapter 18 According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, roughly 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. Most are found. Thousands are not. THE NIGHT KNOCKER 1 Half an hour after Tim Jamiesons Delta flight was scheduled to leave Tampa for the bright lights and tall buildings of New York, it was still parked at the gate. When a Delta agent and a blond woman with a security badge hanging around her neck entered the cabin, there were unhappy, premonitory murmurings from the packed residents of economy class. May I have your attention, please! the Delta guy called. How longs the delay gonna be? someone asked. Dont sugarcoat it. The delay should be short, and the captain wants to assure you all that your flight will arrive approximately on time. We have a federal officer who needs to board, however, so well need someone to give up his or her seat. A collective groan went up, and Tim saw several people unlimber their cell phones in case of trouble. There had been trouble in these situations before. Delta Air Lines is authorized to offer a free ticket to New York on the next outbound flight, which will be tomorrow morning at 6:45 AM Another groan went up. Someone said, Just shoot me. The functionary continued, undeterred. Youll be given a hotel voucher for tonight, plus four hundred dollars. Its a good deal, folks. Who wants it? He had no takers. The security blond said nothing, only surveyed the crowded economy-class cabin with all-seeing but somehow lifeless eyes. Eight hundred, the Delta guy said. Plus the hotel voucher and the complimentary ticket. Guy sounds like a quiz show host, grunted a man in the row ahead of Tims. There were still no takers. Fourteen hundred? And still none. Tim found this interesting but not entirely surprising. It wasnt just because a six forty-five flight meant getting up before God, either. Most of his fellow economy-class passengers were family groups headed home after visiting various Florida attractions, couples sporting beachy-keen sunburns, and beefy, red-faced, pissed-off-looking guys who probably had business in the Big Apple worth considerably more than fourteen hundred bucks. Someone far in the back called, Throw in a Mustang convertible and a trip to Aruba for two, and you can have both our seats! This sally provoked laughter. It didnt sound terribly friendly. The gate agent looked at the blond with the badge, but if he hoped for help there, he got none. She just continued her survey, nothing moving but her eyes. He sighed and said, Sixteen hundred. Tim Jamieson suddenly decided he wanted to get the fuck off this plane and hitchhike north. Although such an idea had never so much as crossed his mind before this moment, he found he could imagine himself doing it, and with absolute clarity. There he was, standing on Highway 301 somewhere in the middle of Hernando County with his thumb out. It was hot, the lovebugs were swarming, there was a billboard advertising some slip-and-fall attorney, Take It on the Run was blaring from a boombox sitting on the concrete-block step of a nearby trailer where a shirtless man was washing his car, and eventually some Farmer John would come along and give him a ride in a pickup truck with stake sides, melons in the back, and a magnetic Jesus on the dashboard. The best part wouldnt even be the cash money in his pocket. The best part would be standing out there by himself, miles from this sardine can with its warring smells of perfume, sweat, and hair spray. The second-best part, however, would be squeezing the government tit for a few dollars more. He stood up to his perfectly normal height (five-ten and a fraction), pushed his glasses up on his nose, and raised his hand. Make it two thousand, sir, plus a cash refund of my ticket, and the seat is yours. 2 The voucher turned out to be for a cheesedog hotel located near the end of Tampa Internationals most heavily used runway. Tim fell asleep to the sound of airplanes, awoke to more of the same, and went down to ingest a hardboiled egg and two rubber pancakes from the complimentary breakfast buffet. Although far from a gourmet treat, Tim ate heartily, then went back to his room to wait for nine oclock, when the banks opened. He cashed his windfall with no trouble, because the bank knew he was coming and the check had been approved in advance; he had no intention of waiting around in the cheesedog hotel for it to clear. He took his two thousand in fifties and twenties, folded it into his left front pocket, reclaimed his duffel bag from the banks security guard, and called an Uber to take him to Ellenton. There he paid the driver, strolled to the nearest 301-N sign, and stuck out his thumb. Fifteen minutes later he was picked up by an old guy in a Case gimme cap. There were no melons in the back of his pickup, and no stake sides, but otherwise it pretty much conformed to his vision of the previous night. Where you headed, friend? the old guy asked. Well, Tim said, New York, eventually. I guess. The old guy spat a ribbon of tobacco juice out the window. Now why would any man in his right mind want to go there? He pronounced it raht mahnd. I dont know, Tim said, although he did; an old service buddy had told him there was plenty of private security work in the Big Apple, including some for companies that would give more weight to his experience than to the Rube Goldberg fuckup that had ended his career in Florida policing. Im just hoping to get to Georgia tonight. Maybe Ill like that better. Now youre talking, the old guy said. Georgia aint bad, specially if you like peaches. They gi me the backdoor trots. You dont mind some music, do you? Not at all. Got to warn you, I play it loud. Im a little on the deef side. Im just happy to be riding. It was Waylon Jennings instead of REO Speedwagon, but that was okay with Tim. Waylon was followed by Shooter Jennings and Marty Stuart. The two men in the mud-streaked Dodge Ram listened and watched the highway roll. Seventy miles up the line, the old guy pulled over, gave Tim a tip of his Case cap, and wished him a real fahn day. Tim didnt make Georgia that nighthe spent it in another cheesedog motel next to a roadside stand selling orange juicebut he got there the following day. In the town of Brunswick (where a certain kind of tasty stew had been invented), he took two weeks work in a recycling plant, doing it with no more forethought than he had put into deciding to give up his seat on the Delta flight out of Tampa. He didnt need the money, but it seemed to Tim that he needed the time. He was in transition, and that didnt happen overnight. Also, there was a bowling alley with a Dennys right next door. Hard to beat a combo like that. 3 With his pay from the recycling plant added to his airline windfall, Tim was standing on the Brunswick ramp of I-95 North and feeling pretty well-heeled for a rambling man. He stood there for over an hour in the sun, and was thinking of giving up and going back to Dennys for a cold glass of sweet tea when a Volvo station wagon pulled over. The back was filled with cartons. The elderly woman behind the wheel powered down the passenger side window and peered at him through thick glasses. Although not large, you look well-muscled, she said. You are not a rapist or a psychotic, are you? No, maam, Tim told her, thinking: But what else would I say? Of course you would say that, wouldnt you? Are you going as far as South Carolina? Your duffel bag suggests that you are. A car swept around her Volvo and sped up the ramp, horn blaring. She took no notice, only kept her serene gaze fixed on Tim. Yes, maam. All the way to New York. Ill take you to South Carolinanot far into that benighted state, but a little wayif youll help me out a bit in return. One hand washes the other, if you see what I mean. You scratch my back and I scratch yours, Tim said, grinning. There will be no scratching of any kind, but you may get in. Tim did so. Her name was Marjorie Kellerman, and she ran the Brunswick library. She also belonged to something called the Southeastern Library Association. Which, she said, had no money because Trump and his cronies took it all back. They understand culture no more than a donkey understands algebra. Sixty-five miles north, still in Georgia, she stopped at a pokey little library in the town of Pooler. Tim unloaded the cartons of books and dollied them inside. He dollied another dozen or so cartons out to the Volvo. These, Marjorie Kellerman told him, were bound to the Yemassee Public Library, about forty miles further north, across the South Carolina state line. But not long after passing Hardeeville, their progress came to a stop. Cars and trucks were stacked up in both lanes, and more quickly filled in behind them. Oh, I hate it when this happens, Marjorie said, and it always seems to in South Carolina, where theyre too cheap to widen the highway. Theres been a wreck somewhere up ahead, and with only two lanes, nobody can get by. Ill be here half the day. Mr. Jamieson, you may be excused from further duty. If I were you, I would exit my vehicle, walk back to the Hardeeville exit, and try your luck on Highway 17. What about all those cartons of books? Oh, Ill find another strong back to help me unload, she said, and smiled at him. To tell you the truth, I saw you standing there in the hot sun and just decided to live a little dangerously. Well, if youre sure. The traffic clog was making him feel claustrophobic. The way hed felt stuck halfway back in economy class of the Delta flight, in fact. If youre not, Ill hang in. Its not like Im racing a deadline or anything. Im sure, she said. Its been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Jamieson. Likewise, Ms. Kellerman. Do you need monetary assistance? I can spare ten dollars, if you do. He was touched and surprisednot for the first timeby the ordinary kindness and generosity of ordinary folks, especially those without much to spare. America was still a good place, no matter how much some (including himself, from time to time) might disagree. No, Im fine. Thank you for the offer. He shook her hand, got out, and walked back along the I-95 breakdown lane to the Hardeeville exit. When a ride was not immediately forthcoming on US 17, he strolled a couple of miles to where it joined State Road 92. Here a sign pointed toward the town of DuPray. By then it was late afternoon, and Tim decided he had better find a motel in which to spend the night. It would undoubtedly be another of the cheesedog variety, but the alternativessleeping outside and getting eaten alive by skeeters or in some farmers barnwere even less appealing. And so he set out for DuPray. Great events turn on small hinges. 4 An hour later he was sitting on a rock at the edge of the two-lane, waiting for a seemingly endless freight train to cross the road. It was headed in the direction of DuPray at a stately thirty miles an hour: boxcars, autoracks (most loaded with wrecks rather than new vehicles), tankers, flatcars, and gondolas loaded with God knew what evil substances that might, in the event of a derailment, catch the piney woods afire or afflict the DuPray populace with noxious or even fatal fumes. At last came an orange caboose where a man in bib overalls sat in a lawn chair, reading a paperback and smoking a cigarette. He looked up from his book and tipped Tim a wave. Tim tipped one right back. The town was two miles further on, built around the intersection of SR 92 (now called Main Street) and two other streets. DuPray seemed to have largely escaped the chain stores that had taken over the bigger towns; there was a Western Auto, but it was closed down, the windows soaped over. Tim noted a grocery store, a drug store, a mercantile that appeared to sell a little bit of everything, and a couple of beauty salons. There was also a movie theater with FOR SALE OR RENT on the marquee, an auto supply store that fancied itself the DuPray Speed Shop, and a restaurant called Bevs Eatery. There were three churches, one Methodist, two off-brand, all of the come-to-Jesus variety. There were no more than two dozen cars and farm trucks scattered along the slant-parking spaces that lined the business district. The sidewalks were nearly deserted. Three blocks up, after yet another church, he spied the DuPray Motel. Beyond it, where Main Street presumably reverted to SR 92, there was another rail crossing, a depot, and a row of metal roofs glittering in the sun. Beyond these structures, the piney woods closed in again. All in all, it looked to Tim like a town out of a country ballad, one of those nostalgia pieces sung by Alan Jackson or George Strait. The motel sign was old and rusty, suggesting the place might be as closed-down as the movie theater, but since the afternoon was now ebbing away and it appeared to be the only game in town when it came to shelter, Tim headed for it. Halfway there, after the DuPray Town Office, he came to a brick building with ladders of ivy climbing the sides. On the neatly mowed lawn was a sign proclaiming this the Fairlee County Sheriffs Department. Tim thought it must be a poor-ass county indeed, if this town was its seat. Two cruisers were parked in front, one of them a newish sedan, the other an elderly, mud-splashed 4Runner with a bubble light on the dash. Tim looked toward the entrancethe almost unconscious glance of a drifter with quite a lot of cash money in his pocketwalked on a few steps, then turned back for a closer look at the notice boards flanking the double doors. At one of the notices in particular. Thinking he must have read it wrong but wanting to make sure. Not in this day and age, he thought. Cant be. But it was. Next to a poster reading IF YOU THOUGHT MARIJUANA IS LEGAL IN SOUTH CAROLINA, THINK AGAIN, was one that read simply NIGHT KNOCKER WANTED. APPLY WITHIN. Wow, he thought. Talk about a blast from the past. He turned toward the rusty motel sign and paused again, thinking about that help-wanted sign. Just then one of the police station doors opened and a lanky cop came out, settling his cap on his red hair. The latening sun twinkled on his badge. He took in Tims workboots, dusty jeans, and blue chambray shirt. His eyes dwelled for a moment on the duffel bag slung over Tims shoulder before moving to his face. Can I help you, sir? The same impulse that had made him stand up on the plane swept over him now. Probably not, but who knows? 5 The redheaded cop was Deputy Taggart Faraday. He escorted Tim inside, where the familiar smells of bleach and ammonia cakes wafted into the office from the four-cell holding area in the back. After introducing Tim to Veronica Gibson, the middle-aged deputy working dispatch this afternoon, Faraday asked to see Tims drivers license and at least one other piece of identification. What Tim produced in addition to his DL was his Sarasota Police ID, making no attempt to hide the fact that it had expired nine months before. Nevertheless, the attitudes of the deputies changed slightly when they saw it. Youre not a resident of Fairlee County, Ronnie Gibson said. No, Tim agreed. Not at all. But I could be if I got the night knocker job. Doesnt pay much, Faraday said, and in any case its not up to me. Sheriff Ashworth hires and fires. Ronnie Gibson said, Our last night knocker retired and moved down to Georgia. Ed Whitlock. He got ALS, that Lou Gehrigs thing. Nice man. Tough break. But hes got people down there to take care of him. Its always the nice ones who get hit with the shit, Tag Faraday said. Give him a form, Ronnie. Then, to Tim: Were a small outfit here, Mr. Jamieson, crew of seven and two of them part-time. All the taxpayers can afford. Sheriff Johns currently out on patrol. If hes not in by five, five-thirty at the latest, hes gone home to supper and wont be in until tomorrow. Ill be here tonight in any case. Assuming the motels open, that is. Oh, I think Norberts got a few rooms, Ronnie Gibson said. She exchanged a glance with the redhead and they both laughed. Im guessing it might not be a four-star establishment. No comment on that, Gibson said, but Id check the sheets for those little red bugs before you lie down, if I was you. Whyd you leave Sarasota PD, Mr. Jamieson? Youre young to retire, Id say. Thats a matter Ill discuss with your chief, assuming he grants me an interview. The two officers exchanged another, longer look, then Tag Faraday said, Go on and give the man an application, Ronnie. Nice to meet you, sir. Welcome to DuPray. Act right and well get along fine. With that he departed, leaving the alternative to good behavior open to interpretation. Through the barred window, Tim saw the 4Runner back out of its spot and roll off down DuPrays short main street. The form was on a clipboard. Tim sat down in one of the three chairs against the lefthand wall, placed his duffel between his feet, and began filling it out. Night knocker, he thought. I will be goddamned. 6 Sheriff AshworthSheriff John to most of the townsfolk as well as to his deputies, Tim discoveredwas a big-bellied slow walker. He had basset hound jowls and a lot of white hair. There was a ketchup stain on his uniform shirt. He wore a Glock on his hip and a ruby ring on one pinkie. His accent was strong, his attitude was good-ole-boy friendly, but his eyes, deep in their fatty sockets, were smart and inquisitive. He could have been typecast in one of those southern-clich? movies like Walking Tall, if not for the fact that he was black. And something else: a framed certificate of graduation from the FBIs National Academy in Quantico hung on the wall next to the official portrait of President Trump. That was not the sort of thing you got by mailing in cereal boxtops. All right, then, Sheriff John said, rocking back in his office chair. I havent got long. Marcella hates it when Im late for dinner. Unless theres some sort of crisis, accourse. Understood. So lets get right to the good part. Whyd you leave Sarasota PD and what are you doing here? South Cahlina doesnt have too many beaten tracks, and DuPray idnt exactly on any of them. Ashworth probably wouldnt be on the phone to Sarasota tonight, but he would be in the morning, so there was no point in gilding the lily. Not that Tim wanted to. If he didnt get the night knocker job, he would spend the night in DuPray and move on in the morning, continuing his stop-and-start progress to New York, a journey he now understood to be a necessary hiatus between what had happened one day late last year at Sarasotas Westfield Mall and whatever might happen next. All that aside, honesty was the best policy, if only because liesespecially in an age when almost all information was available to anyone with a keyboard and a Wi-Fi connectionusually came back to haunt the liar. I was given a choice between resignation and dismissal. I chose resignation. No one was happy about it, least of all meI liked my job and I liked the Gulf Coastbut it was the best solution. This way I get a little money, nothing like a full pension, but better than nothing. I split it with my ex-wife. Cause? And make it simple so I can get to my dinner while its still hot. This wont take long. At the end of my shift one day last November, I swung into the Westfield Mall to buy a pair of shoes. Had to go to a wedding. I was still in uniform, okay? Okay. I was coming out of the Shoe Depot when a woman ran up and said a teenager was waving a gun around up by the movie theater. So I went up there, double-time. Did you draw your weapon? No sir, not then. The kid with the gun was maybe fourteen, and I ascertained that he was either drunk or high. He had another kid down and was kicking him. He was also pointing the gun at him. Sounds like that Cleveland deal. The cop who shot the black kid who was waving a pellet gun. That was in my mind when I approached, but the cop who shot Tamir Rice swore he thought the kid was waving a real gun around. I was pretty sure the one I saw wasnt real, but I couldnt be completely sure. Maybe you know why. Sheriff John Ashworth seemed to have forgotten about dinner. Because your subject was pointing it at the kid he had on the floor. No sense pointing a fake gun at someone. Unless, I spose, the kid on the ground didnt know that. The perp said later he was shaking it at the kid, not pointing it. Saying Its mine, motherfucker, you dont take whats mine. I didnt see that. To me he looked like he was pointing it. I yelled at him to drop the weapon and put his hands up. He either didnt hear me or didnt pay any attention. He just went on kicking and pointing. Or shaking, if thats what he was doing. In any case, I drew my sidearm. He paused. If it makes any difference, these kids were white. Not to me, it doesnt. Kids were fighting. One was down and getting hurt. The other had what might or might not have been a real gun. So did you shoot him? Tell me it didnt come to that. No one got shot. But... you know how people will gather around to watch a fistfight, but tend to scatter once a weapon comes out? Sure. If theyve got any sense, they run like hell. That happened, except for a few people who stayed even then. The ones filming it with their phones. Tim nodded. Four or five wannabe Spielbergs. Anyway, I pointed my gun at the ceiling and fired what was supposed to be a warning shot. It might have been a bad decision, but in that moment it seemed like the right one. The only one. There are hanging lights in that part of the mall. The bullet hit one of them and it came down dead-center on a lookie-loos head. The kid with the gun dropped it, and as soon as it hit the floor, I knew for sure it wasnt real because it bounced. Turned out to be a plastic squirt gun made to look like a .45 auto. The kid who was on the floor getting kicked had some bruises and a few cuts, nothing that looked like it would need stitches, but the bystander was unconscious and stayed that way for three hours. Concussion. According to his lawyer hes got amnesia and blinding headaches. Sued the department? Yes. Itll go on for awhile, but hell end up getting something. Sheriff John considered. If he hung around to film the altercation, he may not get all that much, no matter how bad his headaches are. I suppose the department landed you with reckless discharge of a weapon. They had, and it would be nice, Tim thought, if we could leave it at that. But they couldnt. Sheriff John might look like an African-American version of Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard, but he was no dummy. He was clearly sympathetic to Tims situationalmost any cop would bebut hed still check. Better he got the rest of the story from Tim himself. Before I went into the shoe store, I went into Beachcombers and had a couple of drinks. The responding officers who took the kid into custody smelled it on my breath and gave me the test. I blew oh-six, under the legal limit but not good considering I had just fired my sidearm and put a man in the hospital. You ordinarily a drinking man, Mr. Jamieson? Quite a lot in the six months or so after my divorce, but that was two years ago. Not now. Which is, of course, what I would say, he thought. Uh-huh, uh-huh, now lets see if I got this right. The sheriff stuck up a fat index finger. You were off duty, which means if youd been out of uniform, that woman never would have run up to you in the first place. Probably not, but I would have heard the commotion and gone to the scene anyway. A cop is never really off duty. As Im sure you know. Uh-huh, uh-huh, but would you have had your gun? No, it would have been locked in my car. Ashworth popped a second finger for that point, then added a third. The kid had what was probably a fake gun, but it could have been real. You couldnt be sure, one way or the other. Yes. Here came finger number four. Your warning shot struck a light, not only bringing it down but bringing it down on an innocent bystanders head. If, that is, you can call an asshole filming with a cell phone an innocent bystander. Tim nodded. Up popped the sheriffs thumb. And before this altercation occurred, you just happened to have ingested two alcoholic drinks. Yes. And while I was in uniform. Not a good decision, not a good... what do they call it... optic, but Id still have to say you had one insane run of bad luck. Sheriff John drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. The ruby pinkie ring punctuated each roll with a small click. I think your story is too outrageous not to be true, but I believe Ill call your previous place of employment and check it for myself. If for no other reason than to hear the story again and marvel anew. Tim smiled. I reported to Bernadette DiPino. Shes the Sarasota Chief of Police. And you better get home to dinner, or your wife is going to be mad. Uh-huh, uh-huh, you let me worry about Marcy. The sheriff leaned forward over his stomach. His eyes were brighter than ever. If I Breathalyzed you right now, Mr. Jamieson, what would you blow? Go ahead and find out. Dont believe I will. Dont believe I need to. He leaned back; his office chair uttered another longsuffering squall. Why would you want the job of night knocker in a pissant little burg like this? It only pays a hundred dollars a week, and while it doesnt amount to much in the way of trouble Sunday to Thursday, it can be an aggravation on Friday and Saturday nights. The strip club in Penley closed down last year, but there are several ginmills and juke joints in the immediate area. My grandfather was a night knocker in Hibbing, Minnesota. The town where Bob Dylan grew up? This was after he retired from the State Police. He was the reason I wanted to be a cop when I was growing up. I saw the sign, and just thought... Tim shrugged. What had he thought? Pretty much the same thing as when hed taken the job in the recycling plant. A whole lot of nothing much. It occurred to him that he might be, mentally speaking, at least, in sort of a hard place. Following in your grandpops footsteps, uh-huh. Sheriff John clasped his hands over his considerable belly and stared at Timthose bright, inquisitive eyes deep in their pockets of fat. Consider yourself retired, is that the deal? Just looking for something to while away the idle hours? A little young for that, wouldnt you say? Retired from the police, yes. Thats over. A friend said he could get me security work in New York, and I wanted a change of scene. Maybe I dont have to go to New York to get one. He guessed what he really wanted was a change of heart. The night knocker job might not accomplish that, but then again it might. Divorced, you say? Yes. Kids? No. She wanted them, I didnt. Didnt feel I was ready. Sheriff John looked down at Tims application. It says here youre forty-two. In most casesprobably not allif youre not ready by then... He trailed off, waiting in best cop fashion for Tim to fill the silence. Tim didnt. You may be headed to New York eventually, Mr. Jamieson, but right now youre just drifting. That fair to say? Tim thought it over and agreed it was fair. If I give you this job, how do I know you wont take a notion to just drift on out of here two weeks or a month from now? DuPray idnt the most interesting place on earth, or even in South Cahlina. What Im asking, sir, is how do I know youre dependable? Ill stick around. Always assuming you feel like Im doing the job, that is. If you decide Im not, youll can me. If I should decide to move on, Ill give you plenty of notice. Thats a promise. Jobs not enough to live on. Tim shrugged. Ill find something else if I need to. You want to tell me Id be the only guy around here working two jobs to make ends meet? And Ive got a little put by to get started on. Sheriff John sat where he was for a little while, thinking it over, then got to his feet. He did it with surprising agility for such a heavy man. You come around tomorrow morning and well see what were gonna do about this. Around ten would be about right. Which will give you plenty of time to talk to Sarasota PD, Tim thought, and see if my story checks out. Also to discover if there are other smudges on my record. He stood himself and stuck out his hand. Sheriff Johns grip was a good strong one. Where will you be staying tonight, Mr. Jamieson? That motel down the way, if theres a vacant room. Oh, Norbertll have plenty of vacant rooms, the sheriff said, and I doubt if hell try to sell you any of the herb. Youve still got a little of the cop look about you, seems to me. If you dont have a problem digesting fried food, Bevs down the street is open until seven. Im partial to the liver and onions, myself. Thanks. And thanks for talking to me. Not at all. Interesting conversation. And when you check in at the DuPray, tell Norbert Sheriff John said to give you one of the good rooms. Ill do that. But Id still take a look for bugs before you climb into the rack. Tim smiled. I already got that advice. 7 Dinner at Bevs Eatery was chicken-fried steak, green beans, and peach cobbler to follow. Not bad. The room he was assigned at the DuPray Motel was a different matter. It made the ones Tim had stayed in during his ramble north look like palaces. The air conditioner in the window rattled busily, but didnt cool things off much. The rusty shower head dripped, and there seemed to be no way to stop it. (He finally put a towel under it to muffle the clockwork sound.) The shade on the bedside lamp was burned in a couple of places. The rooms one picturean unsettling composition depicting a sailing ship crewed entirely by grinning and possibly homicidal black menhung crooked. Tim straightened it, but it immediately fell crooked again. There was a lawn chair outside. The seat sagged and the legs were as rusty as the defective shower head, but it held him. He sat there with his legs stretched out, slapping at bugs and watching the sun burn its orange furnace light through the trees. Looking at it made him feel happy and melancholy at the same time. Another nearly endless freight appeared around quarter past eight, rolling across the state road and past the warehouses on the outskirts of town. That damn Georgia Southerns always late. Tim looked around and beheld the proprietor and sole evening employee of this fine establishment. He was rail thin. A paisley vest hung off his top half. He wore his khakis high-water, the better to display his white socks and elderly Converse sneakers. His vaguely ratlike face was framed by a vintage Beatle haircut. Do tell, Tim said. Doesnt matter, Norbert said, shrugging. The even train always goes right through. The midnight train most always does unless its got diesel to unload or fresh fruit n vegimals for the grocery. Theres a junction down yonder. He crossed his index fingers to demonstrate. The one line goes to Atlanta, Birminam, Huntsville, places like at. Tother comes up from Jacksonville and goes on to Charleston, Wilmington, Newport News, places like at. Its the day freights that mostly stop. Yall thinkin about warehouse work? They usually a man or two short over there. Got to have a strong back, though. Not for me. Tim looked at him. Norbert shuffled his sneakers and gave a grin that exposed what Tim thought of as gone-country teeth. They were there, but looked as if they might be gone soon. Wheres your car? Tim just kept looking. Are you a cop? Just now Im a man watching the sun go down through the trees, Tim said, and I would as soon do it alone. Say nummore, say nummore, Norbert said, and beat a retreat, pausing only for a single narrow, assessing glance over his shoulder. The freight eventually passed. The red crossing lights quit. The barriers swung up. The two or three vehicles that had been waiting started their engines and got moving. Tim watched the sun go from orange to red as it sankred sky at night, sailors delight, his night knocker gramp would have said. He watched the shadows of the pines lengthen across SR 92 and join together. He was quite sure he wasnt going to get the night knocker job, and maybe that was for the best. DuPray felt far from everything, not just a sidetrack but a damn near no-track. If not for those four warehouses, the town probably wouldnt exist. And what was the point of their existence? To store TVs from some northern port like Wilmington or Norfolk, so they could eventually be shipped on to Atlanta or Marietta? To store boxes of computer supplies shipped from Atlanta so they could eventually be loaded up again and shipped to Wilmington or Norfolk or Jacksonville? To store fertilizer or dangerous chemicals, because in this part of the United States there was no law against it? Around and around it went, and what was round had no point, any fool knew that. He went inside, locked his door (stupid; the thing was so flimsy a single kick would stave it in), shucked down to his underwear, and lay on the bed, which was saggy but bugless (as far as he had been able to ascertain, at least). He put his hands behind his head and stared at the picture of the grinning black men manning the frigate or whatever the hell you called a ship like that. Where were they going? Were they pirates? They looked like pirates to him. Whatever they were, it would eventually come to loading and unloading at the next port of call. Maybe everything did. And everyone. Not long ago he had unloaded himself from a Delta flight bound for New York. After that he had loaded cans and bottles into a sorting machine. Today he had loaded books for a nice lady librarian at one place and unloaded them at another. He was only here because I-95 had loaded up with cars and trucks waiting for the wreckers to come and haul away some unfortunates crashed car. Probably after an ambulance had loaded up the driver and unloaded him at the nearest hospital. But a night knocker doesnt load or unload, Tim thought. He just walks and knocks. That is, Grandpa would have said, the beauty part. He fell asleep, waking only at midnight, when another freight went rumbling through. He used the bathroom and, before going back to bed, took down the crooked picture and leaned the crew of grinning black men facing the wall. Damn thing gave him the willies. 8 When the phone in his room rang the next morning, Tim was showered and sitting in the lawn chair again, watching the shadows that had covered the road at sunset melt back the other way. It was Sheriff John. He didnt waste time. Didnt think your Chief would be in this early, so I looked you up online, Mr. Jamieson. Seems like you failed to note a couple of things on your application. Didnt bring them up in our conversation, either. You got a lifesaving commendation in 2017, and nabbed Sarasota PDs Sworn Officer of the Year in 2018. Did you just forget? No, Tim said. I applied for the job on the spur of the moment. If Id had more time to think, Id have put those things down. Tell me about the alligator. I grew up on the edge of Little Pee Dee Swamp, and I love a good gator story. Its not a very good one, because it wasnt a very big gator. And I didnt save the kids life, but the story does have its funny side. Lets hear it. Call came in from the Highlands, which is a private golf course. I was the closest officer. The kid was up a tree near one of the water hazards. He was eleven, twelve, something like that, and yelling his head off. The gator was down below. Sounds like Little Black Sambo, Sheriff John said. Only as I recollect, there were tigers instead of a gator in that story, and if it was a private golf course, I bet the kid up that tree wadnt black. No, and the gator was more asleep than awake, Tim said. Just a five-footer. Six at most. I borrowed a five-iron from the kids fatherhe was the one who put me in for the commendationand whacked him a couple of times. Whacked the gator, Im thinking, not the dad. Tim laughed. Right. The gator went back to the water hazard, the kid climbed down, and that was it. He paused. Except I got on the evening news. Waving a golf club. The newscaster joked about how I drove it off. Golf humor, you know. Uh-huh, uh-huh, and the Officer of the Year thing? Well, Tim said, I always showed up on time, never called in sick, and they had to give it to somebody. There was silence for several moments on the other end of the line. Then Sheriff John said, I dont know if you call that becomin modesty or low self-esteem, but I dont much care for the sound of it either way. I know thats a lot to put out there on short acquaintance, but Im a man who speaks his mind. I shoot from the lip, some folks say. My wife, for one. Tim looked at the road, looked at the railroad tracks, looked at the retreating shadows. Spared a glance for the town water tower, looming like a robot invader in a science fiction movie. It was going to be another hot day, he judged. He judged something else, as well. He could have this job or lose it right here and now. It all depended on what he said next. The question was, did he really want it, or had it just been a whim born of a family story about Grandpa Tom? Mr. Jamieson? Are you still there? I earned that award. There were other cops it could have gone to, I worked with some fine officers, but yeah, I earned it. I didnt bring a whole lot with me when I left Sarasotameant to have the rest shipped if I caught on to something in New Yorkbut I brought the citation. Its in my duffel. Ill show you, if you want. I do, Sheriff John said, but not because I dont believe you. Id just like to see it. Youre ridiculously overqualified for the job of night knocker, but if you really want it, you start at eleven tonight. Eleven to six, thats the deal. I want it, Tim said. All right. Just like that? Im also a man who trusts his instincts, and Im hiring a night knocker, not a Brinks guard, so yeah, just like that. No need to come in at ten. You catch a little more sleep and drop by around noon. Officer Gullickson will give you the rundown. Wont take long. It aint rocket science, as they say, although youre apt to see some road rockets on Main Street Saturday nights after the bars close. All right. And thank you. Lets see how thankful you are after your first weekend. One more thing. You are not a sheriffs deputy, and you are not authorized to carry a firearm. You run into a situation you cant handle, or you consider dangerous, you radio back to the house. We good on that? Yes. We better be, Mr. Jamieson. If I find out youre packing a gun, youll be packing your bags. Understood. Then get some rest. Youre about to become a creature of the night. Like Count Dracula, Tim thought. He hung up, put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, drew the thin and dispirited curtain over the window, set his phone, and went back to sleep. 9 Deputy Wendy Gullickson, one of the Sheriffs Department part-timers, was ten years younger than Ronnie Gibson and a knockout, even with her blond hair pulled back in a bun so tight it seemed to scream. Tim made no attempt to charm her; it was clear her charm shield was up and fully powered. He wondered briefly if shed had someone else in mind for the night knocker job, maybe a brother or a boyfriend. She gave him a map of DuPrays not-much-to-it business district, a handheld belt radio, and a time clock that also went on his belt. There were no batteries, Deputy Gullickson explained; he wound it up at the start of each shift. I bet this was state of the art back in 1946, Tim said. Its actually sort of cool. Retro. She didnt smile. You punch your clock at Fromies Small Engine Sales and Service, and again at the rail depot at the west end of Main. Thats one-point-six miles each way. Ed Whitlock used to make four circuits each shift. Which came to almost thirteen miles. I wont need Weight Watchers, thats for sure. Still no smile. Ronnie Gibson and I will work out a schedule. Youll have two nights a week off, probably Mondays and Tuesdays. The towns pretty quiet after the weekend, but sometimes we may have to shift you. If you stick around, that is. Tim folded his hands in his lap and regarded her with a half-smile. Do you have a problem with me, Deputy Gullickson? If you do, speak up now or hold your peace. Her complexion was Nordic fair, and there was no hiding the flush when it rose in her cheeks. It only added to her good looks, but he supposed she hated it, just the same. I dont know if I do or not. Only time will tell. Were a good crew. Small but good. We all pull together. Youre just some guy who walked in off the street and landed a job. People in town joke about the night knocker, and Ed was a real good sport about all the ribbing, but its important, especially in a town with a policing force as small as ours. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Tim said. My grandpa used to say that. He was a night knocker, Officer Gullickson. Thats why I applied for the job. Maybe she thawed a little at that. As for the time clock, I agree that its archaic. All I can say is get used to it. Night knocker is an analog job in a digital age. At least in DuPray, it is. 10 Tim discovered what she meant soon enough. He was basically a beat cop circa 1954, only without a gun or even a nightstick. He had no power to arrest. A few of the larger town businesses were equipped with security devices, but most of the smaller shops had no such technology. At places like DuPray Mercantile and Obergs Drug, he checked to make sure the green security lights were burning and there was no sign of intruders. For the smaller ones, he shook doorknobs and doorhandles, peered through the glass, and gave the traditional triple knock. Occasionally this brought a responsea wave or a few wordsbut mostly it didnt, which was fine. He made a chalk mark and moved on. He followed the same procedure on his return trip, this time erasing the marks as he went. The process reminded him of an old Irish joke: If you get there first, Paddy, chalk a mark on the door. If I get there first, Ill rub it out. There seemed no practical reason for the marks; it was simply tradition, perhaps dating all the way back, through a long chain of night knockers, to reconstruction days. Thanks to one of the part-time deputies, Tim found a decent place to stay. George Burkett told him that his mother had a small furnished apartment over her garage and shed rent it to him cheap if he was interested. Only two rooms, but pretty nice. My brother lived there a couple of years before he moved down to Florida. Caught on at that Universal theme park in Orlando. Makes a decent wage. Good for him. Yeah, but the prices they charge for things in Florida... whoo, out of sight. Got to warn you, Tim, if you take the place, you cant play music loud late at night. Mom dont like music. She didnt even like Floyds banjo, which he could play like a house on fire. They used to argue about it something awful. George, Im rarely home at night. Officer Burkettmid-twenties, goodhearted and cheerful, not overburdened with native intelligencebrightened at this. Right, forgot about that. Anyway, theres a little Carrier up there, not much, but it keeps the place cool enough so you can sleepFloyd could, at least. You indrested? Tim was, and although the window-shaker unit really wasnt up to much, the bed was comfortable, the living room was cozy, and the shower didnt drip. The kitchen was nothing but a microwave and a hotplate, but he was taking most of his meals at Bevs Eatery anyway, so that was all right. And the rent couldnt be beat: seventy a week. George had described his mother as something of a dragon, but Mrs. Burkett turned out to be a good old soul with a southern drawl so thick he could only understand half of what she said. Sometimes she left a piece of cornbread or a slice of cake wrapped in waxed paper outside his door. It was like having a Dixie elf for a landlady. Norbert Hollister, the rat-faced motel owner, had been right about DuPray Storage & Warehousing; they were chronically short-staffed and always hiring. Tim guessed that in places where the work was manual labor recompensed by the smallest per-hour wage allowed by law (in South Carolina, that came to seven and a quarter an hour), high turnover was typical. He went to see the foreman, Val Jarrett, who was willing to put him on for three hours a day, starting at eight in the morning. That gave Tim time to get cleaned up and eat a meal after he finished his night knocker shift. And so, in addition to his nocturnal duties, he once more found himself loading and unloading. The way of the world, he told himself. The way of the world. And just for now. 11 As his time in the little southern town passed, Tim Jamieson fell into a soothing routine. He had no intention of staying in DuPray for the rest of his life, but he could see himself still hanging around at Christmas (perhaps putting up a tiny artificial tree in his tiny over-the-garage apartment), maybe even until next summer. It was no cultural oasis, and he understood why the kids were mostly wild to escape its monochrome boringness, but Tim luxuriated in it. He was sure that would change in time, but for now it was okay. Up at six in the evening; dinner at Bevs, sometimes alone, sometimes with one of the deputies; night knocker tours for the next seven hours; breakfast at Bevs; running a forklift at DuPray Storage & Warehousing until eleven; a sandwich and a Coke or sweet tea for lunch in the shade of the rail depot; back to Mrs. Burketts; sleep until six. On his days off, he sometimes slept for twelve hours at a stretch. He read legal thrillers by John Grisham and the entire Song of Ice and Fire series. He was a big fan of Tyrion Lannister. Tim knew there was a TV show based on the Martin books, but felt no need to watch it; his imagination provided all the dragons he needed. As a cop, he had become familiar with Sarasotas night side, as different from that vacation towns surf-and-sun days as Mr. Hyde was from Dr. Jekyll. The night side was often disgusting and sometimes dangerous, and although he had never sunk to using that odious cop slang for dead addicts and abused prostitutesNHI, no humans involvedten years on the force had made him cynical. Sometimes he brought those feelings home (try often, he told himself when he was willing to be honest), and they had become part of the acid that had eaten away at his marriage. Those feelings were also, he supposed, one of the reasons he had remained so closed off to the idea of having a kid. There was too much bad stuff out there. Too many things that could go wrong. An alligator on a golf course was the very least of it. When he took the night knocker job, he would not have believed that a township of fifty-four hundred (much of it in the outlying rural areas) could have a night side, but DuPray did, and Tim discovered he liked it. The people he met on the night side were actually the best part of the job. There was Mrs. Goolsby, with whom he exchanged waves and quiet hellos on most nights as he started his first tour. She sat out on her porch glider, moving gently back and forth, sipping from a cup that might have contained whiskey, soda pop, or chamomile tea. Sometimes she was still there on his second return swing. It was Frank Potter, one of the deputies with whom he sometimes ate dinner at Bevs, who told him that Mrs. G. had lost her husband the year before. Wendell Goolsbys big rig had slid off the side of a Wisconsin highway during a blizzard. She aint fifty yet, but Wen n Addie were married a long, long time, just the same, Frank said. Got hitched back when neither of em was old enough to vote or buy a legal drink. Like that Chuck Berry song, the one about the teenage wedding. That kind of hook-up usually doesnt last long, but theirs did. Tim also made the acquaintance of Orphan Annie, a homeless woman who many nights slept on an air mattress in the alley running between the sheriffs office and the DuPray Mercantile. She also had a little tent in a field behind the rail depot, and when it rained, she slept there. Annie Ledoux is her real name, Bill Wicklow said when Tim asked. Bill was the oldest of the DuPray deputies, a part-timer who seemed to know everyone in town. Shes been sleepin back in that alley for years. Prefers it to the tent. What does she do when the weather turns cold? Tim asked. Goes up to Yemassee. Ronnie Gibson takes her most times. Theyre related somehow, third cousins or something. Theres a homeless shelter there. Annie says she doesnt use it unless she has to, on account of its full of crazy people. I tell her look whos talkin, girlfriend. Tim checked her alley hideaway once a night, and visited her tent one day after his warehouse shift, mostly out of simple curiosity. Planted in the dirt out front were three flags on bamboo poles: a stars and stripes, a stars and bars, and one Tim didnt recognize. Thats the flag of Guiana, she said when he asked. Found it in the trash barrel behind the Zoneys. Pretty, ennit? She was sitting in an easy chair covered with clear plastic and knitting a scarf that looked long enough for one of George R. R. Martins giants. She was friendly enough, exhibiting no sign of what one of Tims fellow Sarasota officers had named homeless paranoid syndrome, but she was a fan of late-night talk radio on WMDK, and her conversation sometimes wandered off into strange byroads that had to do with flying saucers, walk-ins, and demonic possession. One night when he found her reclining on her air mattress in the alley, listening to her little radio, he asked her why she stayed there when she had a tent that looked to be in tip-top condition. Orphan Annieperhaps sixty, perhaps eightylooked at him as though he were mad. Back here Im close to the po-lice. You know whats behind the depot and them warehouses, Mr. J.? Woods, I guess. Woods and bog. Miles of slash and muck and deadfalls that go on all the way to Georgia. Theres critters out there, and some bad human beings, too. When its pissing down and I have to stay in my tent, I tell myself nothings likely to come out in a rainstorm, but I still dont sleep good. I got a knife and I keep it handy, but I dont think itd be much help against some swamp rat hopped up on crank. Annie was thin to the point of emaciation, and Tim took to bringing her small treats from Bevs before punching in for his short shift of loading and unloading at the warehouse complex. Sometimes it was a bag of boiled peanuts or Macs Cracklins, sometimes a moon pie or a cherry tart. Once it was a jar of Wickles that she grabbed and held between her scrawny breasts, laughing with pleasure. Wickies! I aint had a Wicky since Hector was a pup! Why are you so good to me, Mr. J.? I dont know, Tim said. I guess I just like you, Annie. Can I try one of those? She held out the jar. Sure. You got to open it, anyway, my hands too sore with the arthritis. She held them out, displaying fingers so badly twisted that they looked like pieces of driftwood. I can still knit n sew, but Lord knows how much longer thatll keep up. He opened the jar, winced a little at the strong smell of vinegar, and fished out one of the pickle chips. It was dripping with something that could have been formaldehyde, for all he knew. Gime back, gime back! He handed her the jar and ate the Wickle. Jesus, Annie, my mouth may never unpucker. She laughed, displaying her few remaining teeth. They best with bread n butter n a nice cold RC. Or a beer, but I dont drink that anymore. Whats that youre knitting? Is it a scarf? The Lord shall not come in His own raiment, Annie said. You go on now, Mr. J., and do your duty. Watch out for men in black cars. George Allman on the radio talks about them all the time. You know where they come from, dont you? She cocked a knowing glance at him. She might have been joking. Or not. With Orphan Annie it was hard to tell. Corbett Denton was another denizen of DuPrays night side. He was the town barber, and known locally as Drummer, for some teenage exploit no one seemed exactly clear on, only that it had resulted in a months suspension from the regional high school. He might have been wild in his salad days, but those were far behind him. Drummer was now in his late fifties or early sixties, overweight, balding, and afflicted with insomnia. When he couldnt sleep, he sat on the stoop of his shop and watched DuPrays empty main drag. Empty, that was, except for Tim. They exchanged the desultory conversational gambits of mere acquaintancesthe weather, baseball, the towns annual Summer Sidewalk Salebut one night Denton said something that put Tim on yellow alert. You know, Jamieson, this life we think were living isnt real. Its just a shadow play, and I for one will be glad when the lights go out on it. In the dark, all the shadows disappear. Tim sat down on the stoop under the barber pole, its endless spiral now stilled for the night. He took off his glasses, polished them on his shirt, put them back on. Permission to speak freely? Drummer Denton flicked his cigarette into the gutter, where it splashed brief sparks. Go right ahead. Between midnight and four, everyone should have permission to speak freely. Thats my opinion, at least. You sound like a man suffering from depression. Drummer laughed. Call you Sherlock Holmes. You ought to go see Doc Roper. There are pills that will brighten your attitude. My ex takes them. Although getting rid of me probably brightened her attitude more. He smiled to show this was a joke, but Drummer Denton didnt smile back, just got to his feet. I know about those pills, Jamieson. Theyre like booze and pot. Probably like the ecstasy the kids take nowadays when they go to their raves, or whatever they call them. Those things make you believe for awhile that all of this is real. That it matters. But its not and it doesnt. Come on, Tim said softly. Thats no way to be. In my opinion, its the only way to be, the barber said, and walked toward the stairs leading to his apartment above the barber shop. His gait was slow and lumbering. Tim looked after him, disquieted. He thought Drummer Denton was one of those fellows who might decide some rainy night to kill himself. Maybe take his dog with him, if he had one. Like some old Egyptian pharaoh. He considered talking to Sheriff John about it, then thought of Wendy Gullickson, who still hadnt unbent much. The last thing he wanted was for her or any of the other deputies to think he was getting above himself. He was no longer law enforcement, just the towns night knocker. Best to let it go. But Drummer Denton never quite left his mind. 12 On his rounds one night near the end of June, he spotted two boys walking west down Main Street with knapsacks on their backs and lunchboxes in their hands. They might have been headed off to school, had it not been two in the morning. These nocturnal promenaders turned out to be the Bilson twins. They were pissed at their parents, who had refused to take them to the Dunning Agricultural Fair because their report cards had been unacceptable. We got mostly Cs and dint fail nothing, Robert Bilson said, and we got promoted. Whats so bad about that? It aint right, Roland Bilson chimed in. Were going to be at the fair first thing in the morning and get jobs. We heard they always need roundabouts. Tim thought about telling the boy the correct word was roustabouts, then decided that was beside the point. Kids, I hate to pop your balloon, but youre what? Eleven? Twelve! they chorused. Okay, twelve. Keep your voices down, people are sleeping. No one is going to hire you on at that fair. What theyre going to do is slam you in the Dollar Jail on whatever excuse theyve got for a midway and keep you there until your parents show up. Until they do, folks are going to come by and gawk at you. Some may throw peanuts or pork rinds. The Bilson twins stared at him with dismay (and perhaps some relief?). Heres what you do, Tim said. You go on back home right now, and Ill walk behind you, just to make sure you dont change your collective mind. Whats a collective mind? Robert asked. A thing twins are reputed to have, at least according to folklore. Did you use the door or go out a window? Window, Roland said. Okay, thats how you go back in. If youre lucky, your folks will never know you were out. Robert: You wont tell them? Not unless I see you try it again, Tim said. Then Ill not only tell them what you did, Ill tell them about how you sassed me when I caught you. Roland, shocked: We didnt do no such thing! Ill lie, Tim said. Im good at it. He followed them, and watched as Robert Bilson made a step with his hands to help Roland into the open window. Tim then did Robert the same favor. He waited to see if a light would go on somewhere, signaling imminent discovery of the would-be runaways, and when none did, he resumed his rounds. 13 There were more people out and about on Friday and Saturday nights, at least until midnight or one in the morning. Courting couples, mostly. After that there might be an invasion of what Sheriff John called the road rockets, young men in souped-up cars or trucks who went blasting down DuPrays empty main street at sixty or seventy miles an hour, racing side by side and waking people up with the ornery blat of their glasspack mufflers. Sometimes a deputy or an SP trooper would run one of them down and write him up (or jail him if he blew .09), but even with four DuPray officers on duty during weekend nights, arrests were relatively rare. Mostly they got away with it. Tim went to see Orphan Annie. He found her sitting outside her tent, knitting slippers. Arthritis or not, her fingers moved like lightning. He asked if shed like to make twenty dollars. Annie said a little money always came in handy, but it would depend on what the job was. He told her, and she cackled. Happy to do it, Mr. J. If you throw in a couple of bottles of Wickles, that is. Annie, whose motto seemed to be go big or go home, made him a banner thirty feet long and seven feet wide. Tim attached it to a steel roller he made himself, welding together pieces of pipe in the shop of Fromies Small Engine Sales and Service. After explaining to Sheriff John what he wanted to do and receiving permission to give it a try, Tim and Tag Faraday hung the roller on a cable above Main Streets three-way intersection, anchoring the cable to the false fronts of Obergs Drug on one side and the defunct movie theater on the other. On Friday and Saturday nights, around the time the bars closed, Tim yanked a cord that unfurled the banner like a window shade. On either side, Annie had drawn an old-fashioned flash camera. The message beneath read SLOW DOWN, IDIOT! WE ARE PHOTOGRAPHING YOUR LICENSE PLATE! They were doing no such thing, of course (although Tim did note down tag numbers when he had time to make them out), but Annies banner actually seemed to work. It wasnt perfect, but what in life was? In early July, Sheriff John called Tim into his office. Tim asked if he was in trouble. Just the opposite, Sheriff John said. Youre doing a good job. That banner thing sounded crazy to me, but I have to admit that I was wrong and you were right. It was never the midnight drag races that bothered me, anyway, nor the folks complaining that we were too lazy to put a stop to it. The same people, mind you, who vote down a law enforcement payroll increase year after year. What bothers me are the messes we have to clean up when one of those stampeders hits a tree or a telephone pole. Dead is bad, but the ones who are never the same after one night of stupid hooraw... I sometimes think theyre worse. But June was okay this year. Better than okay. Maybe it was just an exception to the general rule, but I dont think so. I think its the banner. You tell Annie she might have saved some lives with that one, and she can sleep in one of the back cells any night she wants once its cold weather. Ill do that, Tim said. As long as you keep a stock of Wickles, shell be there plenty. Sheriff John leaned back. His chair groaned more despairingly than ever. When I said you were overqualified for the night knocker job, I didnt know the half of it. Were going to miss you when you move on to New York. Im in no hurry, Tim said. 14 The only business in town that stayed open twenty-four hours a day was the Zoneys Go-Mart out by the warehouse complex. In addition to beer, soda, and chips, Zoneys sold an off-brand gasoline called Zoney Juice. Two handsome Somali brothers, Absimil and Gutaale Dobira, alternated on the night shift from midnight to eight. On a dog-hot night in mid-July, as Tim was chalking and knocking his way up the west end of Main, he heard a bang from the vicinity of Zoneys. It wasnt especially loud, but Tim knew a gunshot when he heard one. It was followed by a yell of either pain or anger, and the sound of breaking glass. Tim broke into a run, time clock banging against his thigh, hand automatically feeling for the butt of a gun that was no longer there. He saw a car parked at the pumps, and as he approached the convenience store, two young men came charging out, one of them with a handful of something that was probably cash. Tim dropped to one knee, watching as they got into the car and roared away, tires sending up puffs of blue smoke from the oil- and grease-stained tarmac. He pulled his walkie from his belt. Station, this is Tim. Whos there, come on back to me. It was Wendy Gullickson, sounding sleepy and put-out. What do you want, Tim? Theres been a two-eleven at Zoneys. A shot was fired. That woke her up. Jesus, a robbery? Ill be right th No, just listen to me. Two perpetrators, male, white, teens or twenties. Compact car. Might have been a Chevy Cruze, no way to tell the color under those gas station fluorescents, but late model, North Carolina plate, starts WTB-9, couldnt make out the last three digits. Get it out there to whoevers on patrol and the State Police before you do anything else! What He clicked off, re-holstered the walkie, and sprinted for the Zoneys. The glass front of the counter was trashed and the register was open. One of the Dobira brothers lay on his side in a growing pool of blood. He was gasping for breath, each inhale ending in a whistle. Tim knelt beside him. Gotta turn you on your back, Mr. Dobira. Please dont... hurts... Tim was sure it did, but he needed to look at the damage. The bullet had gone in high on the right side of Dobiras blue Zoneys smock, which was now a muddy purple with blood. More was spilling from his mouth, soaking his goatee. When he coughed, he sprayed Tims face and glasses with fine droplets. Tim grabbed his walkie again, and was relieved that Gullickson hadnt left her post. Need an ambulance, Wendy. Fast as they can make it from Dunning. One of the Dobira brothers is down, looks like the bullet clipped his lung. She acknowledged, then started to ask a question. Tim cut her off again, dropped his walkie on the floor, and pulled off the tee-shirt he was wearing. He pressed it against the hole in Dobiras chest. Can you hold that for a few seconds, Mr. Dobira? Hard... to breathe. Im sure it is. Hold it. Itll help. Dobira pressed the wadded-up shirt to his chest. Tim didnt think hed be able to hold it for long, and he couldnt expect an ambulance for at least twenty minutes. Even that would be a miracle. Gas-n-go convenience stores were heavy on snacks but light on first aid supplies. There was Vaseline, however. Tim grabbed a jar, and from the next aisle a box of Huggies. He tore it open as he ran back to the man on the floor. He removed the tee-shirt, now sodden with blood, gently pulled up the equally sodden blue smock, and began to unbutton the shirt Dobira wore beneath. No, no, no, Dobira moaned. Hurts, you dont touch, please. Got to. Tim heard an engine approaching. Blue jackpot lights started to spark and dance in the shards of broken glass. He didnt look around. Hang on, Mr. Dobira. He hooked a glob of Vaseline out of the jar and packed it into the wound. Dobira cried out in pain, then looked at Tim with wide eyes. Can breathe... a little better. This is just a temporary patch, but if your breathings better, your lung probably didnt collapse. At least not entirely, Tim thought. Sheriff John came in and took a knee next to Tim. He was wearing a pajama top the size of a mainsail over his uniform pants, and his hair was every whichway. You got here quick, Tim said. I was up. Couldnt sleep, so I was making myself a sandwich when Wendy called. Sir, are you Gutaale or Absimil? Absimil, sir. He was still wheezing, but his voice was stronger. Tim took one of the disposable diapers, still folded up, and pressed it against the wound. Oh, that is painful. Was it a through-and-through, or is it still in there? Sheriff John asked. I dont know, and I dont want to turn him over again to find out. Hes relatively stable, so we gotta just wait for the ambulance. Tims walkie crackled. Sheriff John plucked it gingerly from the litter of broken glass. It was Wendy. Tim? Bill Wicklow spotted those guys out on Deep Meadow Road and lit them up. Its John, Wendy. Tell Bill to show caution. Theyre armed. Theyre down, is what they are. She might have been sleepy before, but Wendy was wide awake now, and sounding satisfied. They tried to run and ditched their car. Ones got a broken arm, the other ones cuffed to the bull bars on Bills ride. State Police are en route. Tell Tim he was right about it being a Cruze. Hows Dobira? Hell be fine, Sheriff John said. Tim wasnt entirely sure of that, but he understood that the sheriff had been talking to the wounded man as well as Deputy Gullickson. I gave them the money from the register, Dobira said. It is what we are told to do. He sounded ashamed, even so. Deeply ashamed. That was the right thing, Tim said. The one with the gun shot me, anyway. Then the other one broke in the counter. To take... More coughing. Hush, now, Sheriff John said. To take the lottery tickets, Absimil Dobira said. The ones you scratch off. We must have them back. Until bought, they are the property of... He coughed weakly. Of the state of South Carolina. Sheriff John said, Be quiet, Mr. Dobira. Stop worrying about those damn scratchers and save your strength. Mr. Dobira closed his eyes. 15 The next day, while Tim was eating his lunch on the porch of the rail depot, Sheriff John pulled up in his personal vehicle. He mounted the steps and looked at the sagging seat of the other available chair. Think thatll hold me? Only one way to find out, Tim said. Sheriff John sat down gingerly. Hospital says Dobiras going to be okay. His brothers with himGutaaleand he says hes seen those two dirtbags before. Couple of times. Dey wuz casin da joint, Tim said. No doubt. I sent Tag Faraday over to take both brothers statements. Tags the best Ive got, which I probably didnt need to tell you. Gibson and Burkett arent bad. Sheriff John sighed. No, but neither of them would have moved as fast or as decisively as you did last night. And poor Wendy probably just would have stood there gawking, if she didnt faint dead away. Shes good on dispatch, Tim said. Made for the job. Just my opinion, you know. Uh-huh, uh-huh, and a whiz at clericalreorganized all our files last year, plus got everything on flash drivesbut on the road, shes damn near useless. She loves being on the team, though. How would you like to be on the team, Tim? I didnt think you could afford another cops salary. Did you all at once get a payroll increase? Dont I wish. But Bill Wicklows turning in his badge at the end of the year. I was thinking maybe you and him could swap jobs. He walks and knocks, you put on a uniform and get to carry a gun again. I asked Bill. He says night knocking would suit him, at least for a while. Can I think about it? I dont know why not. Sheriff John stood up. End of the years still five months away. But wed be glad to have you. Does that include Deputy Gullickson? Sheriff John grinned. Wendys hard to win over, but you got a long way down that road last night. Really? And if I asked her out to dinner, what do you think shed say? I think shed say yes, as long as it wasnt Bevs you were thinking of taking her to. Good-looking girl like her is going to expect the Roundup in Dunning, at the very least. Maybe that Mexican joint down in Hardeeville. Thanks for the tip. Not a problem. You think about that job. I will. He did. And was still thinking of it when all hell broke loose on a hot night later that summer. THE SMART KID 1 On a fine Minneapolis morning in April of that yearTim Jamieson still months from his arrival in DuPrayHerbert and Eileen Ellis were being ushered into the office of Jim Greer, one of three guidance counselors at the Broderick School for Exceptional Children. Lukes not in trouble, is he? Eileen asked when they were seated. If he is, he hasnt said anything. Not at all, Greer said. He was in his thirties, with thinning brown hair and a studious face. He was wearing a sport shirt open at the collar and pressed jeans. Look, you know how things work here, right? How things have to work, given the mental capacity of our students. They are graded but not in grades. They cant be. We have ten-year-olds with mild autism who are doing high school math but still reading at a third-grade level. We have kids who are fluent in as many as four languages but have trouble multiplying fractions. We teach them in all subjects, and we board ninety per cent of themwe have to, they come from all parts of the United States and a dozen or so from abroadbut we center our attention on their special talents, whatever those happen to be. That makes the traditional system, where kids advance from kindergarten to twelfth grade, pretty useless to us. We understand that, Herb said, and we know Lukes a smart kid. Thats why hes here. What he didnt add (certainly Greer knew it) was that they never could have afforded the schools astronomical fees. Herb was the foreman in a plant that made boxes; Eileen was a grammar school teacher. Luke was one of the Brods few day students, and one of the schools very few scholarship students. Smart? Not exactly. Greer looked down at an open folder on his otherwise pristine desk, and Eileen had a sudden premonition: either they were going to be asked to withdraw their son, or his scholarship was going to be canceledwhich would make withdrawal a necessity. Yearly tuition fees at the Brod were forty thousand dollars a year, give or take, roughly the same as Harvard. Greer was going to tell them it had all been a mistake, that Luke wasnt as bright as they had all believed. He was just an ordinary kid who read far above his level and seemed to remember it all. Eileen knew from her own reading that eidetic memory was not exactly uncommon in young children; somewhere between ten and fifteen per cent of all normal kids possessed the ability to remember almost everything. The catch was that the talent usually disappeared when children became adolescents, and Luke was nearing that point. Greer smiled. Let me give it to you straight. We pride ourselves on teaching exceptional children, but weve never had a student at the Broderick quite like Luke. One of our emeritus teachersMr. Flint, now in his eightiestook it on himself to give Luke a tutorial on the history of the Balkans, a complicated subject, but one that casts great light on the current geopolitical situation. So Flint says, anyway. After the first week, he came to me and said that his experience with your son must have been like the experience of the Jewish elders, when Jesus not only taught them but rebuked them, saying it wasnt what went into their mouths that made them unclean, but what came out of them. Im lost, Herb said. So was Billy Flint. Thats my point. Greer leaned forward. Understand me now. Luke absorbed two semesters worth of extremely difficult postgraduate work in a single week, and drew many of the conclusions Flint had intended to make once the proper historical groundwork had been laid. On some of those conclusions Luke argued, and very convincingly, that they were received wisdom rather than original thought. Although, Flint added, he did so very politely. Almost apologetically. Im not sure how to respond to that, Herb said. Luke doesnt talk much about his school work, because he says we wouldnt understand. Which is pretty much true, Eileen said. I might have known something about the binomial theorem once, but that was a long time ago. Herb said, When Luke comes home, hes like any other kid. Once his homeworks done, and his chores, he boots up the Xbox or shoots hoops in the driveway with his friend Rolf. He still watches SpongeBob SquarePants. He considered, then added, Although usually with a book in his lap. Yes, Eileen thought. Just lately, Principles of Sociology. Before that, William James. Before that, the AA Big Book, and before that, the complete works of Cormac McCarthy. He read the way free-range cows graze, moving to wherever the grass is greenest. That was a thing her husband chose to ignore, because the strangeness of it frightened him. It frightened her as well, which was probably one reason why she knew nothing of Lukes tutorial on Balkan history. He hadnt told her because she hadnt asked. We have prodigies here, Greer said. In fact, Id rate well over fifty per cent of the Brods student body as prodigies. But they are limited. Luke is different, because Luke is global. It isnt one thing; its everything. I dont think hell ever play professional baseball or basketball If he takes after my side of the family, hell be too short for pro basketball. Herb was smiling. Unless hes the next Spud Webb, that is. Hush, Eileen said. But he plays with enthusiasm, Greer continued. He enjoys it, doesnt consider it wasted time. Hes no klutz on the athletic field. He gets along fine with his mates. Hes not introverted or emotionally dysfunctional in any way. Luke is your basic moderately cool American kid wearing rock band tees and his cap around backward. He might not be that cool in an ordinary schoolthe daily trudge might drive him crazybut I think even there hed be okay; hed just pursue his studies on his own. He added hastily: Not that youd want to road-test that. No, were happy with him here, Eileen said. Very. And we know hes a good kid. We love him like crazy. And he loves you. Ive had several conversations with Luke, and he makes that crystal clear. To find a child this brilliant is extremely rare. To find one whos also well-adjusted and well-groundedwho sees the outward world as well as the one inside his own headis even rarer. If nothings wrong, why are we here? Herb asked. Not that I mind hearing you sing my kids praises, dont get that idea. And by the way, I can still beat his ass at HORSE, although hes got a decent hook shot. Greer leaned back in his chair. The smile disappeared. Youre here because were reaching the end of what we can do for Luke, and he knows it. Hes expressed an interest in doing rather unique college work. He would like to major in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and in English at Emerson, across the river in Boston. What? Eileen asked. At the same time? Yes. What about the SATs? It was all Eileen could think of to say. Hell take them next month, in May. At North Community High. And hell knock the roof off those tests. Ill have to pack him a lunch, she thought. She had heard the cafeteria food at North Comm was awful. After a moment of stunned silence, Herb said, Mr. Greer, our boy is twelve. In fact, he just turned twelve last month. He may have the inside dope on Serbia, but he wont even be able to raise a mustache for another three years. You... this... I understand how you feel, and we wouldnt be having this conversation if my colleagues in guidance and the rest of the faculty didnt believe he was academically, socially, and emotionally capable of doing the work. And yes, at both campuses. Eileen said, Im not sending a twelve-year-old halfway across the country to live among college kids old enough to drink and go to the clubs. If he had relatives he could stay with, that might be different, but... Greer was nodding along with her. I understand, couldnt agree more, and Luke knows hes not ready to be on his own, even in a supervised environment. Hes very clear-headed about that. Yet hes becoming frustrated and unhappy with his current situation, because hes hungry to learn. Famished, in fact. I dont know what fabulous gadgetry is in his headnone of us do, probably old Flint came closest when he talked about Jesus teaching the eldersbut when I try to visualize it, I think of a huge, gleaming machine thats running at only two per cent of its capacity. Five per cent at the very most. But because this is a human machine, he feels... hungry. Frustrated and unhappy? Herb said. Huh. We dont see that side of him. I do, Eileen thought. Not all the time, but sometimes. Yes. Thats when the plates rattle or the doors shut by themselves. She thought of Greers huge, gleaming machine, something big enough to fill three or even four buildings the size of warehouses, and working at doing what, exactly? No more than making paper cups or stamping out aluminum fast food trays. They owed him more, but did they owe him this? What about the University of Minnesota? she asked. Or Concordia, in St. Paul? If he went to one of those places, he could live at home. Greer sighed. You might as well consider taking him out of the Brod and putting him in an ordinary high school. Were talking about a boy for whom the IQ scale is useless. He knows where he wants to go. He knows what he needs. I dont know what we can do about it, Eileen said. He might be able to get scholarships to those places, but we work here. And were far from rich. Well now, lets talk about that, Greer said. 2 When Herb and Eileen returned to the school that afternoon, Luke was jiving around in front of the pick-up lane with four other kids, two boys and two girls. They were laughing and talking animatedly. To Eileen they looked like kids anywhere, the girls in skirts and leggings, their bosoms just beginning to bloom, Luke and his friend Rolf in baggy cordsthis years fashion statement for young menand t-tops. Rolfs read BEER IS FOR BEGINNERS. He had his cello in its quilted case and appeared to be pole-dancing around it as he held forth on something that might have been the spring dance or the Pythagorean theorem. Luke saw his parents, paused long enough to dap Rolf, then grabbed his backpack and dove into the backseat of Eileens 4Runner. Both Ps, he said. Excellent. To what do I owe this extraordinary honor? Do you really want to go to school in Boston? Herb asked. Luke was not discomposed; he laughed and punched both fists in the air. Yes! Can I? Like asking if he can spend Friday night at Rolfs house, Eileen marveled. She thought of how Greer had expressed what their son had. Hed called it global, and that was the perfect word. Luke was a genius who had somehow not been distorted by his own outsized intellect; he had absolutely no compunctions about mounting his skateboard and riding his one-in-a-billion brain down a steep sidewalk, hellbent for election. Lets get some early supper and talk about it, she said. Rocket Pizza! Luke exclaimed. How about it? Assuming you took your Prilosec, Dad. Did you? Oh, believe me, after todays meeting, Im totally current on that. 3 They got a large pepperoni and Luke demolished half all by himself, along with three glasses of Coke from the jumbo pitcher, leaving his parents to marvel at the kids digestive tract and bladder as well as his mind. Luke explained that he had talked to Mr. Greer first because I didnt want to freak you guys out. It was your basic exploratory conversation. Putting it out to see if the cat would take it, Herb said. Right. Running it up the flagpole to see whod salute it. Sticking it on the five-fifteen to see if it gets off at Edina. Throwing it against the wall to see how much Enough. He explained how we might be able to come with you. You have to, Luke said earnestly. Im too young to be without my exalted and revered mater and pater. Also... He looked at them from across the ruins of the pizza. I couldnt work. Id miss you guys too much. Eileen instructed her eyes not to fill, but of course they did. Herb handed her a napkin. She said, Mr. Greer... um... laid out a scenario, I guess you might say... where we could possibly... well... Relo, Luke said. Who wants this last piece? All yours, Herb said. May you not die before you get a chance to do this crazy matriculation thing. M?nage ? college, Luke said, and laughed. He talked to you about rich alumni, didnt he? Eileen put down the napkin. Jesus, Lukey, you discussed your parents financial options with your guidance counselor? Who are the grownups in this conversation? Im starting to feel confused about that. Calm down, mamacita, it just stands to reason. Although my first thought was the endowment fund. The Brod has a huge one, they could pay for you to relocate out of that and never feel the pinch, but the trustees would never okay it, even though it makes logical sense. It does? Herb asked. Oh yeah. Luke chewed enthusiastically, swallowed, and slurped Coke. Im an investment. A stock with good growth potential. Invest the nickels and reap the dollars, right? Its how America works. The trustees could see that far, no prob, but they cant break out of the cognitive box theyre in. Cognitive box, his father said. Yeah, you know. A box built as a result of the ancestral dialectic. It might even be tribal, although its kind of hilarious to think of a tribe of trustees. They go, If we do this for him, we might have to do it for another kid. Thats the box. Its, like, handed down. Received wisdom, Eileen said. You nailed it, Mom. The trusteesll kick it to the wealthy alumni, the ones who made mucho megabucks thinking outside the box but still love the ol Broderick blue and white. Mr. Greer will be the point man. At least I hope he will. The deal is, they help me now and I help the school later on, when Im rich and famous. I dont actually care about being either of those things, Im middle-class to the bone, but I might get rich anyway, as a side effect. Always assuming I dont contract some gross disease or get killed in a terrorist attack or something. Dont say things that invite sorrow, Eileen said, and made the sign of the cross over the littered table. Superstition, Mom, Luke said indulgently. Humor me. And wipe your mouth. Pizza sauce. Looks like your gums are bleeding. Luke wiped his mouth. Herb said, According to Mr. Greer, certain interested parties might indeed fund a relocation move, and fund us for as long as sixteen months. Did he tell you that the same people whod front you might be able to help find you a new job? Lukes eyes were sparkling. A better one? Because one of the schools alumni is Douglas Finkel. He happens to own American Paper Products, and thats close to your sweet spot. Your hot zone. Where the rubber meets the r Finkels name actually came up, Herb said. Just in a speculative way. Also... Luke turned to his mother, eyes bright. Boston is a buyers market right now when it comes to teachers. Average starting salary for someone with your experience goes sixty-five thou. Son, how do you know these things? Herb asked. Luke shrugged. Wikipedia, to start with. Then I trace down the major sources cited in the Wikipedia articles. Its basically a question of keeping current with the environment. My environment is the Broderick School. I knew all of the trustees; the big money alumni I had to look up. Eileen reached across the table, took what remained of the last pizza slice out of her sons hand, and put it back on the tin tray with the bits of leftover crust. Lukey, even if this could happen, wouldnt you miss your friends? His eyes clouded. Yeah. Especially Rolf. Maya, too. Although we cant officially ask girls to the spring dance, unofficially shes my date. So yeah. But. They waited. Their son, always verbal and often verbose, now seemed to struggle. He started, stopped, started again, and stopped again. I dont know how to say it. I dont know if I can say it. Try, Herb said. Well have plenty of important discussions in the future, but this one is the most important to date. So try. At the front of the restaurant, Richie Rocket put in his hourly appearance and began dancing to Mambo Number 5. Eileen watched as the silver space-suited figure beckoned to the nearby tables with his gloved hands. Several little kids joined him, boogying to the music and laughing while their parents looked on, snapped pictures, and applauded. Not so long agofive short yearsLukey had been one of those kids. Now they were talking about impossible changes. She didnt know how such a child as Luke had come from a couple like them, ordinary people with ordinary aspirations and expectations, and sometimes she wished for different. Sometimes she actively hated the role into which they had been cast, but she had never hated Lukey, and never would. He was her baby, her one and only. Luke? Herb said. Speaking very quietly. Son? Its just what comes next, Luke said. He raised his head and looked directly at them, his eyes lighted with a brilliance his parents rarely saw. He hid that brilliance from them because he knew it frightened them in a way a few rattling plates never could. Dont you see? Its what comes next. I want to go there... and learn... and then move on. Those schools are like the Brod. Not the goal, only stepping stones to the goal. What goal, honey? Eileen asked. I dont know. Theres so much I want to learn, and figure out. Ive got this thing inside my head... it reaches... and sometimes its satisfied, but mostly it isnt. Sometimes I feel so small... so damn stupid... Honey, no. Stupids the last thing you are. She reached for his hand, but he drew away, shaking his head. The tin pizza pan shivered on the table. The pieces of crust jittered. Theres an abyss, okay? Sometimes I dream about it. It goes down forever, and its full of all the things I dont know. I dont know how an abyss can be fullits an oxymoronbut it is. It makes me feel small and stupid. But theres a bridge over it, and I want to walk on it. I want to stand in the middle of it, and raise my hands... They watched, fascinated and a little afraid, as Luke raised his hands to the sides of his narrow, intense face. The pizza pan was now not just shivering but rattling. Like the plates sometimes did in the cupboards. . . . and all those things in the darkness will come floating up. I know it. The pizza pan skated across the table and banged on the floor. Herb and Eileen barely noticed. Such things happened around Luke when he was upset. Not often, but sometimes. They were used to it. I understand, Herb said. Bullshit he does, Eileen said. Neither of us do. But you should go ahead and start the paperwork. Take the SATs. You can do those things and still change your mind. If you dont change it, if you stay committed... She looked at Herb, who nodded. Well try to make it happen. Luke grinned, then picked up the pizza pan. He looked at Richie Rocket. I used to dance with him like that when I was little. Yes, Eileen said. She needed to use the napkin again. You sure did. You know what they say about the abyss, dont you? Herb asked. Luke shook his head, either because it was the rare thing he didnt know, or because he didnt want to spoil his fathers punchline. When you stare into it, it stares back at you. You bet it does, Luke said. Hey, can we get dessert? 4 With the essay included, the SAT test lasted four hours, but there was a merciful break in the middle. Luke sat on a bench in the high schools lobby, munching the sandwiches his mother had packed for him and wishing for a book. He had brought Naked Lunch, but one of the proctors appropriated it (along with his phone and everyone elses), telling Luke it would be returned to him later. The guy also riffled through the pages, looking either for dirty pictures or a crib sheet or two. While he was eating his Snackimals, he became aware of several other test-takers standing around him. Big boys and girls, high school juniors and seniors. Kid, one of them asked, what the hell are you doing here? Taking the test, Luke said. Same as you. They considered this. One of the girls said, Are you a genius? Like in a movie? No, Luke said, smiling, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. They laughed, which was good. One of the boys held up his palm, and Luke slapped him five. Where are you going? What school? MIT, if I get in, Luke said. Which was disingenuous; he had already been granted provisional admission to both schools of his choice, contingent on doing well today. Which wasnt going to be much of a problem. So far, the test had been a breeze. It was the kids surrounding him that he found intimidating. In the fall, he would be in classes filled with kids like these, kids much older and about twice his size, and of course they would all be looking at him. He had discussed this with Mr. Greer, saying hed probably seem like a freak to them. Its what you feel like that matters, Mr. Greer said. Try to keep that in mind. And if you need counselingjust someone to talk to about your feelingsfor Gods sake, get it. And you can always text me. One of the girlsa pretty redheadasked him if hed gotten the hotel question in the math section. The one about Aaron? Luke asked. Yeah, pretty sure I did. What did you say was the right choice, can you remember? The question had been how to figure how much some dude named Aaron would have to pay for his motel room for x number of nights if the rate was $99.95 per night, plus 8% tax, plus an additional one-time charge of five bucks, and of course Luke remembered because it was a slightly nasty question. The answer wasnt a number, it was an equation. It was B. Look. He took out his pen and wrote on his lunch bag: 1.08(99.95x) + 5. Are you sure? she asked. I had A. She bent, took Lukes baghe caught a whiff of her perfume, lilac, deliciousand wrote: (99.95 + 0.08x) + 5. Excellent equation, Luke said, but thats how the people who make these tests screw you at the drive-thru. He tapped her equation. Yours only reflects a one-night stay. It also doesnt account for the room tax. She groaned. Its okay, Luke said. You probably got the rest of them. Maybe youre wrong and shes right, one of the boys said. It was the one whod slapped Luke five. She shook her head. The kids right. I forgot how to calculate the fucking tax. I suck. Luke watched her walk away, her head drooping. One of the boys went after her and put an arm around her waist. Luke envied him. One of the others, a tall drink of water wearing designer glasses, sat down next to Luke. Is it weird? he asked. Being you, I mean? Luke considered this. Sometimes, he said. Usually its just, you know, life. One of the proctors leaned out and rang a hand bell. Lets go, kids. Luke got up with some relief and tossed his lunch sack in a trash barrel by the door to the gym. He looked at the pretty redhead a final time, and as he went in, the barrel shimmied three inches to the left. 5 The second half of the test was as easy as the first, and he thought he did a passable job on the essay. Kept it short, anyway. When he left the school he saw the pretty redhead, sitting on a bench by herself and crying. Luke wondered if shed bricked the test, and if so, how badlyjust not-gonna-get-your-first-choice badly, or stuck-with-community-college badly. He wondered what it was like to have a brain that didnt seem to know all the answers. He wondered if he should go over there and try to comfort her. He wondered if shed accept comfort from a kid who was still your basic pipsqueak. Shed probably tell him to make like an amoeba and split. He even wondered about the way the trashcan had movedthat stuff was eerie. It came to him (and with the force of a revelation) that life was basically one long SAT test, and instead of four or five choices, you got dozens. Including shit like some of the time and maybe so, maybe not. His mom was waving. He waved back and ran to the car. When he was in and belted up, she asked him how he thought hed done. Aced it, Luke said. He gave her his sunniest grin, but he couldnt stop thinking about the redhead. The crying was bad, but the way her head drooped when he pointed out the mistake in her equationlike a flower in a dry spellhad somehow been worse. He told himself not to think about it, but of course you couldnt do that. Try not to think of a polar bear, Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, and you will see the cursed thing come to mind every minute. Mom? What? Do you think memory is a blessing or a curse? She didnt have to think about it; God only knew what she was remembering. Both, dear. 6 At 2 AM on a morning in June, while Tim Jamieson was night-knocking his way up DuPrays main street, a black SUV turned onto Wildersmoot Drive in one of the suburbs on the north side of Minneapolis. It was a crazy name for a street; Luke and his friend Rolf called it Wildersmooch Drive, partly because it made the name even crazier and partly because they both longed to smooch a girl, and wildly. Inside the SUV were a man and two women. He was Denny; they were Michelle and Robin. Denny was driving. Halfway along the curving, silent street, he shut off the lights, coasted to the curb, and killed the engine. Youre sure this one isnt TP, right? Because I didnt bring my tinfoil hat. Ha ha, Robin said, perfectly flat. She was sitting in the backseat. Hes just your average TK, Michelle said. Nothing to get your undies in a bunch about. Lets get this thing going. Denny opened the console between the two front seats and took out a cell phone that looked like a refugee from the nineties: blocky rectangular body and short stubby antenna. He handed it to Michelle. While she punched in a number, he opened the consoles false bottom and took out thin latex gloves, two Glock Model 37s, and an aerosol can which, according to the label, contained Glade air freshener. He handed back one of the guns to Robin, kept one for himself, and passed the aerosol can to Michelle. Here we go, big team, here we go, he chanted as he gloved up. Ruby Red, Ruby Red, thats what I said. Quit the high school shit, Michelle said. Then, into the phone, crooked against her shoulder so she could put on her own gloves: Symonds, do you copy? Copy, Symonds said. This is Ruby Red. Were here. Go on and kill the system. She waited, listening to Jerry Symonds on the other end of the call. In the Ellis home, where Luke and his parents slept, the DeWalt alarm consoles in the front hall and the kitchen went dark. Michelle got the go-ahead and gave her teammates a thumbs-up. Okay. All set. Robin slung the go-bag, which looked like a medium-sized ladies purse, over her shoulder. No interior lights went on when they exited the SUV, which had Minnesota State Patrol plates. They walked single file between the Ellis house and the Destin house next door (where Rolf was also sleeping, perchance to dream of smooching wildly) and entered through the kitchen, Robin first because she had the key. They paused by the stove. From the go-bag, Robin brought out two compact silencers and three sets of lightweight goggles on elastic straps. The goggles gave their faces an insectile look, but rendered the shadowy kitchen bright. Denny and Robin screwed on the silencers. Michelle led the way through the family room into the front hall, then to the stairs. They moved slowly but with a fair amount of confidence along the upstairs hall. There was a rug runner to muffle their steps. Denny and Robin stopped outside the first closed door. Michelle continued to the second. She looked back at her partners and tucked the aerosol under her arm so she could raise both hands with the fingers spread: give me ten seconds. Robin nodded and returned a thumbs-up. Michelle opened the door and entered Lukes bedroom. The hinges squeaked faintly. The shape in the bed (nothing showing but a tuft of hair) stirred a little, then settled. At two in the morning the kid should have been dead to the world, in the deepest part of his nights sleep, but he clearly wasnt. Maybe genius kids didnt sleep the same as regular ones, who knew? Certainly not Michelle Robertson. There were two posters on the walls, both daylight-visible viewed through the goggles. One was of a skateboarder in full flight, knees bent, arms outstretched, wrists cocked. The other was of the Ramones, a punk group Michelle had listened to way back in middle school. She thought they were all dead now, gone to that great Rockaway Beach in the sky. She crossed the room, keeping mental count as she did so: Four... five... On six, her hip struck the kids bureau. There was a trophy of some kind on it, and it fell over. The noise it made wasnt loud, but the kid rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. Mom? Sure, Michelle said. Whatever you want. She saw the beginnings of alarm in the boys eyes, saw him open his mouth to say something else. She held her breath and triggered the aerosol can two inches from his face. He went out like a light. They always did, and there was never a hangover when they woke up six or eight hours later. Better living through chemistry, Michelle thought, and counted seven... eight... nine. On ten, Denny and Robin entered Herb and Eileens room. The first thing they saw was a problem: the woman wasnt in bed. The door to the bathroom was open, casting a trapezoid of light on the floor. It was too bright for the goggles. They stripped them off and dropped them. The floor in here was polished hardwood, and the double clack was clearly audible in the silent room. Herb? Low, from the bathroom. Did you knock over your water glass? Robin advanced to the bed, taking her Glock from the waistband of her slacks at the small of her back while Denny walked to the bathroom door, making no attempt to muffle his footfalls. It was too late for that. He stood beside it, gun raised to the side of his face. The pillow on the womans side was still indented from the weight of her head. Robin put it over the mans face and fired into it. The Glock made a low coughing sound, no more than that, and discharged a little brown smut onto the pillow from its vents. Eileen came out of the bathroom, looking worried. Herb? Are you all r She saw Denny. He seized her by the throat, put the Glock to her temple, and pulled the trigger. There was another of those low coughing sounds. She slid to the floor. Meanwhile, Herb Elliss feet were kicking aimlessly, making the coverlet he and his late wife had been sleeping under puff and billow. Robin fired twice more into the pillow, the second shot a bark instead of a cough, the third one even louder. Denny took the pillow away. What, did you see The Godfather too many times? Jesus, Robin, his heads halfway gone. Whats an undertaker supposed to do with that? I got it done, thats what matters. The fact was, she didnt like to look at them when she shot them, the way the light went out of them. You need to man up, girl. That third one was loud. Come on. They picked up the goggles and went down to the boys room. Denny hoisted Luke into his armsno problem there, the kid didnt weigh more than ninety poundsand gave his chin a jerk for the women to go ahead of him. They left the way they had come, through the kitchen. There were no lights on in the adjacent house (even the third shot hadnt been that loud), and no soundtrack except for the crickets and a faraway siren, maybe all the way over in St. Paul. Michelle led the way between the two houses, checked the street, and motioned for the others to come ahead. This was the part Denny Williams hated. If some guy with insomnia looked out and saw three people on his neighbors lawn at two in the morning, that would be suspicious. If one of them was carrying what looked like a body, that would be very suspicious. But Wildersmoot Drivenamed after some long-gone Twin Cities bigwigwas fast asleep. Robin opened the SUVs curbside back door, got in, and held out her arms. Denny handed the boy in and she pulled Luke against her, his head lolling on her shoulder. She fumbled for her seatbelt. Uck, hes drooling, she said. Yes, unconscious people do that, Michelle said, and closed the rear door. She got in the shotgun seat and Denny slid back behind the wheel. Michelle stowed the guns and the aerosol as Denny cruised slowly away from the Ellis house. As they approached the first intersection, Denny put the headlights back on. Make the call, he said. Michelle punched in the same number. This is Ruby Red. We have the package, Jerry. Airport ETA in twenty-five minutes. Wake up the system. In the Ellis home, the alarms came back on. When the police finally arrived, they would find two dead, one gone, the kid the most logical suspect. He was said to be brilliant, after all, and those were the ones that tended to be a little wonky, werent they? A little unstable? Theyd ask him when they found him, and finding him was only a matter of time. Kids could run, but even the brilliant ones couldnt hide. Not for long. 7 Luke woke up remembering a dream hed hadnot exactly a nightmare, but definitely of the not-so-nice variety. Some strange woman in his room, leaning over his bed with her blond hair hanging around the sides of her face. Sure, whatever you want, shed said. Like a chick in one of the porno clips he and Rolf sometimes watched. He sat up, looked around, and at first thought this was another dream. It was his roomsame blue wallpaper, same posters, same bureau with his Little League trophy on itbut where was the window? His window looking out at Rolfs house was gone. He shut his eyes tight, then sprang them open. No change; the windowless room remained windowless. He considered pinching himself, but that was such a clich?. He popped his fingers against his cheek instead. Everything stayed the same. Luke got out of bed. His clothes were on the chair, where his mom had put them the night beforeunderwear, socks, and tee-shirt on the seat, jeans folded over the back. He put them on slowly, looking at where the window should have been, then sat down to put on his sneakers. His initials were on the sides, LE, and that was right, but the middle horizontal stroke of the E was too long, he was sure of it. He turned them over, looking for street grit, and saw none. Now he was completely sure. These were not his sneaks. The laces were wrong, too. They were too clean. Nevertheless, they fit perfectly. He went to the wall and laid his hands against it, pressing, feeling for the window underneath the wallpaper. It wasnt there. He asked himself if maybe hed gone crazy, just snapped, like a kid in a scary movie written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Werent kids with high-functioning minds supposed to be prone to breakdowns? But he wasnt crazy. He was as sane as hed been last night when he went to sleep. In a movie, the crazy kid would think he was sanethat would be the Shyamalan twistbut according to the psychology books Luke had read, most crazy people understood they were crazy. He wasnt. As a little kid (five as opposed to twelve), hed gone through a craze of collecting political buttons. His dad had been happy to help him build his collection, because most of the buttons were really cheap on eBay. Luke had been especially fascinated (for reasons he could not explain, even to himself) with the buttons of presidential candidates who had lost. The fever had eventually passed, and most of the buttons were probably stored in the attic crawlspace or in the cellar, but he had saved one as a kind of good-luck talisman. It had a blue plane on it, surrounded by the words WINGS FOR WILLKIE. Wendell Willkie ran for president against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 but lost badly, winning only ten states for a total of eighty-two electoral votes. Luke had put the button in the cup of his Little League trophy. He fished for it now and came up with nothing. Next, he went to the poster showing Tony Hawk on his Birdhouse deck. It looked right, but it wasnt. The small rip on the lefthand side was gone. Not his sneakers, not his poster, Willkie button gone. Not his room. Something began to flutter in his chest, and he took several deep breaths to try and quiet it. He went to the door and grasped the knob, sure he would find himself locked in. He wasnt, but the hallway beyond the door was nothing like the upstairs hallway in the house where he had lived his twelve-plus years. It was cinderblock instead of wood paneling, the blocks painted a pale industrial green. Opposite the door was a poster showing three kids about Lukes age, running through a meadow of high grass. One was frozen in mid-leap. They were either lunatics or deliriously happy. The message at the bottom seemed to suggest the latter. JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, it read. Luke stepped out. To his right, the corridor ended in institutional double doors, the kind with push-bars. To his left, about ten feet in front of another set of those institutional doors, a girl was sitting on the floor. She was wearing bellbottoms and a shirt with puffy sleeves. She was black. And although she looked to be Lukes own age, give or take, she seemed to be smoking a cigarette. 8 Mrs. Sigsby sat behind her desk, looking at her computer. She was wearing a tailored DVF business suit that did not disguise her beyond-lean build. Her gray hair was perfectly groomed. Dr. Hendricks stood at her shoulder. Good morning, Scarecrow, he thought, but would never say. Well, Mrs. Sigsby said, there he is. Our newest arrival. Lucas Ellis. Got a ride on a Gulfstream for the first and only time and doesnt even know it. By all accounts, hes quite the prodigy. He wont be for long, Dr. Hendricks said, and laughed his trademark laugh, first exhaled, then inhaled, a kind of hee-haw. Along with his protruding front teeth and extreme heighthe was six-sevenit accounted for the techs nickname for him: Donkey Kong. She turned and gave him a hard look. These are our charges. Cheap jokes are not appreciated, Dan. Sorry. He felt like adding, But who are you kidding, Siggers? To say such a thing would be impolitic, and really, the question was rhetorical at best. He knew she wasnt kidding anyone, least of all herself. Siggers was like that unknown Nazi buffoon who thought it would be a terrific idea to put Arbeit macht frei, work sets you free, over the entrance to Auschwitz. Mrs. Sigsby held up the new boys intake form. Hendricks had placed a circular pink sticky in the upper righthand corner. Are you learning anything from your pinks, Dan? Anything at all? You know we are. Youve seen the results. Yes, but anything of proven value? Before the good doctor could reply, Rosalind popped her head in. Ive got paperwork for you, Mrs. Sigsby. Weve got five more coming in. I know they were on your spreadsheet, but theyre ahead of schedule. Mrs. Sigsby looked pleased. All five today? I must be living correctly. Hendricks (aka Donkey Kong) thought, You couldnt bear to say living right, could you? You might split a seam somewhere. Only two today, Rosalind said. Tonight, actually. From Emerald team. Three tomorrow, from Opal. Four are TK. One is TP, and hes a catch. Ninety-three nanograms BDNF. Avery Dixon, correct? Mrs. Sigsby said. From Salt Lake City. Orem, Rosalind corrected. A Mormon from Orem, Dr. Hendricks said, and gave his hee-haw laugh. Hes a catch, all right, Mrs. Sigsby thought. There will be no pink sticker on Dixons form. Hes too valuable for that. Minimal injections, no risking seizures, no near-drowning experiences. Not with a BDNF over 90. Excellent news. Really excellent. Bring in the files and put them on my desk. You also emailed them? Of course. Rosalind smiled. Email was the way the world wagged, but they both knew Mrs. Sigsby preferred paper to pixels; she was old-school that way. Ill bring them ASAP. Coffee, please, and also ASAP. Mrs. Sigsby turned to Dr. Hendricks. All that height, and hes still carrying a front porch, she thought. As a doctor he should know how dangerous that is, especially for a man that tall, where the vascular system has to work harder to begin with. But no one is quite as good at ignoring the medical realities as a medical man. Neither Mrs. Sigsby nor Hendricks was TP, but at that moment they were sharing a single thought: how much easier all this would be if there was liking instead of mutual detestation. Once they had the room to themselves again, Mrs. Sigsby leaned back to look at the doctor looming over her. I agree that young Master Elliss intelligence doesnt matter to our work at the Institute. He could just as well have an IQ of 75. It is, however, why we took him a bit early. He had been accepted at not one but two class-A schoolsMIT and Emerson. Hendricks blinked. At twelve? Indeed. The murder of his parents and his subsequent disappearance is going to be news, but not big news outside the Twin Cities, although it may ripple the Internet for a week or so. It would have been much bigger news if hed made an academic splash in Boston before he dropped from sight. Kids like him have a way of getting on the TV news, usually the golly-gosh segments. And what do I always say, Doctor? That in our business, no news is good news. Right. In a perfect world, we would have let this one go. We still get our fair share of TKs. She tapped the pink circle on the intake form. As this indicates, his BDNF isnt even all that high. Only... She didnt have to finish. Certain commodities were getting rarer. Elephant tusks. Tiger pelts. Rhino horns. Rare metals. Even oil. Now you could add these special children, whose extraordinary qualities had nothing to do with their IQs. Five more coming in this week, including the Dixon boy. A very good haul, but two years ago they might have had thirty. Oh, look, Mrs. Sigsby said. On the screen of her computer, their new arrival was approaching the most senior resident of Front Half. Hes about to meet the too-smart-for-her-own-good Benson. Shell give him the scoop, or some version of it. Still in Front Half, Hendricks said. We ought to make her the goddam official greeter. Mrs. Sigsby offered her most glacial smile. Better her than you, Doc. Hendricks looked down and thought of saying, From this vantage point, I can see how fast your hair is thinning, Siggers. Its all part of your low-level but long-running anorexia. Your scalp is as pink as an albino rabbits eye. There were lots of things he thought of saying to her, the grammar-perfect no-tits chief administrator of the Institute, but he never did. It would have been unwise. 9 The cinderblock hallway was lined with doors and more posters. The girl was sitting under one showing a black boy and a white girl with their foreheads together, grinning like fools. The caption beneath said I CHOOSE TO BE HAPPY! You like that one? the black girl said. On closer inspection, the cigarette dangling from her mouth turned out to be of the candy variety. Id change it to I CHOOSE TO BE CRAPPY, but they might take away my pen. Sometimes they let shit slide, but sometimes they dont. The problem is that you can never tell which way things are going to tip. Where am I? Luke asked. What is this place? He felt like crying. He guessed it was mostly the disorientation. Welcome to the Institute, she said. Are we still in Minneapolis? She laughed. Not hardly. And not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Were in Maine. Way up in the williwags. At least according to Maureen, we are. In Maine? He shook his head, as if he had taken a blow to the temple. Are you sure? Yup. Youre looking mighty white, white boy. I think you should sit down before you fall down. He sat, bracing himself with one hand as he did so, because his legs didnt exactly flex. It was more like a collapse. I was home, he said. I was home, and then I woke up here. In a room that looks like my room, but isnt. I know, she said. Shock, innit? She wriggled her hand into the pocket of her pants and brought out a box. On it was a picture of a cowboy spinning a lariat. ROUND-UP CANDY CIGARETTES, it said. SMOKE JUST LIKE DADDY! Want one? A little sugar might help your state of mind. It always helps mine. Luke took the box and flipped up the lid. There were six cigarettes left inside, each one with a red tip that he guessed was supposed to be the coal. He took one, stuck it between his lips, then bit it in half. Sweetness flooded his mouth. Dont ever do that with a real cigarette, she said. You wouldnt like the taste half so well. I didnt know they still sold stuff like this, he said. They dont sell this kind, for sure, she said. Smoke just like Daddy? Are you kiddin me? Got to be an antique. But they got some weird shit in the canteen. Including real cigarettes, if you can believe that. All straights, Luckies and Chesterfields and Camels, like in those old flicks on Turner Classic Movies. Im tempted to try, but man, they take a lot of tokens. Real cigarettes? You dont mean for kids? Kids be the whole population here. Not that there are many in Front Half just now. Maureen says we may have more coming. I dont know where she gets her info, but its usually good. Cigarettes for kids? What is this? Pleasure Island? Not that he felt very pleasurable just now. That cracked her up. Like in Pinocchio! Good one! She held up her hand. Luke slapped her five and felt a little better. Hard telling why. Whats your name? I cant just keep calling you white boy. Its, like, racial profiling. Luke Ellis. Whats yours? Kalisha Benson. She raised a finger. Now pay attention, Luke. You can call me Kalisha, or you can call me Sha. Just dont call me Sport. Why not? Still trying to get his bearings, still not succeeding. Not even close. He ate the other half of his cigarette, the one with the fake ember on the tip. Cause thats what Hendricks and his fellow dipsticks say when they give you the shots or do their tests. Im gonna stick a needle in your arm and itll hurt, but be a good sport. Im gonna take a throat culture, which will make you gag like a fuckin maggot, but be a good sport. Were gonna dip you in the tank, but just hold your breath and be a good sport. Thats why you cant call me Sport. Luke hardly paid attention to the stuff about the tests, although he would consider it later. He was back on fuckin. He had heard it from plenty of boys (he and Rolf said it a lot when they were out), and he had heard it from the pretty redhead who might have bricked the SATs, but never from a girl his own age. He supposed that meant he had led a sheltered life. She put her hand on his knee, which gave him a bit of a tingle, and looked at him earnestly. But my advice is go on and be a good sport no matter how much it sucks, no matter what they stick down your throat or up your butt. The tank I dont really know about, I never had that one myself, only heard about it, but I know as long as theyre testing you, you stay in Front Half. I dont know what goes on in Back Half, and I dont want to know. All I do know is that Back Halfs like the Roach Motelkids check in, but they dont check out. Not back to here, anyway. He looked back the way he had come. There were lots of motivational posters, and there were also lots of doors, eight or so on either side. How many kids are here? Five, counting you and me. Front Halfs never jammed, but right now its like a ghost town. Kids come and go. Talking of Michelangelo, Luke muttered. Huh? Nothing. What One of the double doors at the near end of the corridor opened, and a woman in a brown dress appeared, her back to them. She was holding the door with her butt while she struggled with something. Kalisha was up in a flash. Hey, Maureen, hey, girl, hold on, let us help. Since it was us instead of me, Luke got up and went after Kalisha. When he got closer, he saw the brown dress was actually a kind of uniform, like a maid might wear in a swanky hotelmedium swanky, anyway, it wasnt gussied up with ruffles or anything. She was trying to drag a laundry basket over the metal strip between this hallway and the big room beyond, which looked like a loungethere were tables and chairs and windows letting in bright sunlight. There was also a TV that looked the size of a movie screen. Kalisha opened the other door to make more room. Luke took hold of the laundry basket (DANDUX printed on the side) and helped the woman pull it into what he was starting to think of as the dormitory corridor. There were sheets and towels inside. Thank you, son, she said. She was pretty old, with a fair amount of gray in her hair, and she looked tired. The tag over her sloping left breast said MAUREEN. She looked him over. Youre new. Luke, right? Luke Ellis. How did you know? Got it on my day sheet. She pulled a folded piece of paper halfway out of her skirt pocket, then pushed it back in. Luke offered his hand, as he had been taught. Pleased to meet you. Maureen shook it. She seemed nice enough, so he guessed he was pleased to meet her. But he wasnt pleased to be here; he was scared and worried about his parents as well as himself. Theyd have missed him by now. He didnt think theyd want to believe hed run away, but when they found his bedroom empty, what other conclusion could they draw? The police would be looking for him soon, if they werent already, but if Kalisha was right, theyd be looking a long way from here. Maureens palm was warm and dry. Im Maureen Alvorson. Housekeeping and all-around handy gal. Ill be keeping your room nice for you. And dont make a lot of extra work for her, Kalisha said, giving him a forbidding look. Maureen smiled. Youre a peach, Kalisha. This one dont look like hes gonna be messy, not like that Nicky. Hes like Pigpen in the Peanuts comics. Is he in his room now? I dont see him out in the playground with George and Iris. You know Nicky, Kalisha said. If hes up before one in the afternoon, he calls it an early day. Then Ill just do the others, but the docs want him at one. If hes not up, theyll get him up. Pleased to meet you, Luke. And she went on her way, now pushing her basket instead of tugging it. Come on, Kalisha said, taking Lukes hand. Worried about his parents or not, he got another of those tingles. She tugged him into the lounge area. He wanted to scope the place out, especially the vending machines (real cigarettes, was that possible?), but as soon as the door was closed behind them, Kalisha was up in his face. She looked serious, almost fierce. I dont know how long youll be heredont know how much longer I will be, for that matterbut while you are, be cool to Maureen, hear? This place is staffed with some mean-ass shitheads, but shes not one of them. Shes nice. And shes got problems. What kind of problems? He asked mostly to be polite. He was looking out the window, at what had to be the playground. There were two kids there, a boy and a girl, maybe his own age, maybe a little older. She thinks she might be sick for one, but she doesnt want to go to the doctor because she cant afford to be sick. She only makes about forty grand a year, and shes got, like, twice that much in bills. Maybe more. Her husband ran them up, then ran out. And it keeps piling up, okay? The interest. The vig, Luke said. Thats what my dad calls it. Short for vigorish. From the Ukrainian word for profits or winnings. Its a hoodlum term, and Dad says the credit card companies are basically hoods. Based on the compounding interest they charge, hes got a... Got what? A point? Yeah. He stopped looking at the kids outsideGeorge and Iris, presumablyand turned to Kalisha. She told you all that? To a kid? You must be an ace at intrapersonal relationships. Kalisha looked surprised, then laughed. It was a big one, which she delivered with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back. It made her look like a woman instead of a kid. Interpersonal relationships! You got some mouth on you, Lukey! Intra, not inter, he said. Unless youre, like, meeting with a whole group. Giving them credit counseling, or something. He paused. Thats, um, a joke. And a lame one at that. A nerd joke. She regarded him appraisingly, up and down and then up again, producing another of those not unpleasant tingles. Just how smart are you? He shrugged, a bit embarrassed. He ordinarily didnt show offit was the worst way in the world to win friends and influence peoplebut he was upset, confused, worried, and (might as well admit it) scared shitless. It was getting harder and harder not to label this experience with the word kidnapping. He was a kid, after all, he had been napping, and if Kalisha was telling the truth, he had awakened thousands of miles from his home. Would his parents have let him go without an argument, or an actual fight? Unlikely. Whatever had happened to him, he hoped they had stayed asleep while it was going on. Pretty goddam smart, would be my guess. Are you TP or TK? Im thinking TK. I dont know what youre talking about. Except maybe he did. He thought of the way the plates sometimes rattled in the cupboards, how his bedroom door would sometimes open or close on its own, and how the pan had jittered at Rocket Pizza. Also the way the trashcan had moved by itself the day of the SAT test. TP is telepathy. TK is Telekinesis. She smiled and pointed a finger at him. You really are a smart kid. Telekinesis, right. Youre either one or the other, supposedly no ones boththats what the techs say, at least. Im a TP. She said this last with some pride. You read minds, Luke said. Sure. Every day and twice on Sunday. How do you think I know about Maureen? Shed never tell anyone here about her probs, shes not that kind of person. And I dont know any of the details, just the general outline. She considered. Theres something about a baby, too. Which is weird. I asked her once if she had kids, and she said she didnt. Kalisha shrugged. Ive always been able to do itoff and on, not all the timebut it aint like being a superhero. If it was, Id bust out of here. Youre serious about this? Yes, and heres your first test. First of many. Im thinking of a number between one and fifty. Whats my number? No idea. True? Not faking? Absolutely not faking. He walked to the door on the far side of the room. Outside, the boy was shooting hoops and the girl was bouncing on a trampolinenothing fancy, just seat-drops and the occasional twist. Neither of them looked like they were having a good time; they looked like they were just passing time. Those kids are George and Iris? Yup. She joined him. George Iles and Iris Stanhope. Theyre both TKs. TPs are rarer. Hey, smart kid, is that a word, or do you say more rare? Either is okay, but Id go with more rare. Rarer sounds like youre trying to start an outboard motor. She thought this over for a few seconds, then laughed and pointed that finger at him again. Good one. Can we go out? Sure. Playground door is never locked. Not that youll want to stay long, the bugs are pretty fierce out here in the boondocks. Therell be Deet in your bathroom medicine cabinet. You should use it, and I mean really slather it on. Maureen says the bug situation will get better once the dragonflies hatch out, but I havent seen any yet. Are they nice kids? George and Iris? Sure, I guess so. I mean, its not like were besties, or anything. Ive only known George for a week. Iris got here... mmm... ten days ago, I think. About that, anyway. After me, Nicks been here the longest. Nick Wilholm. Dont look forward to meaningful relationships in Front Half, smart kid. Like I said, they come and go. And dont any of them talk of Michelangelo. How long have you been here, Kalisha? Almost a month. Im an old-timer. Then will you tell me whats going on? He nodded to the kids outside. Will they? Well tell you what we know, and what the orderlies and techs tell us, but I got an idea that most of its lies. George feels the same. Iris, now... Kalisha laughed. Shes like Agent Mulder on that X-Files show. She wants to believe. Believe what? The look she gave himboth wise and sadagain made her look more like a grownup than a kid. That this is just a little detour on the great highway of life, and everythings going to come out all right in the end, like on Scooby-Doo. Where are your folks? How did you get here? The adult look disappeared. Dont want to talk about that stuff now. Okay. Maybe he didnt want to, either. At least not quite yet. And when you meet Nicky, dont worry if he goes off on a rant. Its how he blows off steam, and some of his rants are... She considered. Entertaining. If you say so. Will you do me a favor? Sure, if I can. Stop calling me smart kid. My name is Luke. Use it, okay? I can do that. He reached for the door, but she put her hand on his wrist. One more thing before we go out. Turn around, Luke. He did. She was maybe an inch taller. He didnt know she was going to kiss him until she did it, a full-on lip-lock. She even put her tongue between his lips for a second or two, and that produced not just a tingle but a full-on jolt, like sticking a finger in a live socket. His first real kiss, and a wildersmooch for sure. Rolf, he thought (so far as he could think in the immediate aftermath), would be so jealous. She pulled away, looking satisfied. Its not true love or anything, dont get that idea. Im not sure its even a favor, but it might be. I was in quarantine the first week I was here. No shots for dots. She pointed to a poster on the wall next to the candy machine. It showed a boy in a chair, pointing joyously at a bunch of colored dots on a white wall. A smiling doctor (white coat, stethoscope around his neck) was standing with a hand on the boys shoulder. Above the picture it said SHOTS FOR DOTS! And below: THE QUICKER YOU SEE EM, THE QUICKER YOURE BACK HOME! What the hell does that mean? Never mind right now. My folks were full-on anti-vaxxers, and two days after I landed in Front Half, I came down with chicken pox. Cough, high fever, big ugly red spots, the whole nine yards. I guess Im over it, since Im out and about and theyre testing me again, but maybe Im still a little bit contagious. If youre lucky, youll get the pox and spend a couple of weeks drinking juice and watching TV instead of getting needles and MRIs. The girl spotted them and waved. Kalisha waved back, and before Luke could say anything else, she pushed open the door. Come on. Wipe that dopey look off your face and meet the Fockers. SHOTS FOR DOTS 1 Outside the door of the Institutes canteen and TV lounge area, Kalisha put an arm around Lukes shoulders and pulled him close to her. He thoughthoped, reallyshe meant to kiss him again, but she whispered in his ear instead. Her lips tickled his skin and gave him goosebumps. Talk about anything you want, only dont say anything about Maureen, okay? We think they only listen sometimes, but its better to be careful. I dont want to get her in trouble. Maureen, okay, the housekeeping lady, but who were they? Luke had never felt so lost, not even as a four-year-old, when he had gotten separated from his mother for fifteen endless minutes in the Mall of America. Meanwhile, just as Kalisha had predicted, the bugs found him. Little black ones that circled his head in clouds. Most of the playground was surfaced in fine gravel. The hoop area, where the kid named George continued to shoot baskets, was hot-topped, and the trampoline was surrounded with some kind of spongy stuff to cushion the fall if someone jumped wrong and went boinking off the side. There was a shuffleboard court, a badminton set-up, a ropes course, and a cluster of brightly colored cylinders that little kids could assemble into a tunnelnot that there were any kids here little enough to use it. There were also swings, teeter-totters, and a slide. A long green cabinet flanked by picnic tables was marked with signs reading GAMES AND EQUIPMENT and PLEASE RETURN WHAT YOU TOOK OUT. The playground was surrounded by a chainlink fence at least ten feet high, and Luke saw cameras peering down at two of the corners. They were dusty, as if they hadnt been cleaned in a while. Beyond the fence there was nothing but forest, mostly pines. Judging by their thickness, Luke put their age at eighty years, give or take. The formulagiven in Trees of North America, which he had read one Saturday afternoon when he was ten or sowas pretty simple. There was no need to read the rings. You just estimated the circumference of one of the trees, divided by pi to get the diameter, then multiplied by the average growth factor for North American pines, which was 4.5. Easy enough to figure, and so was the corollary deduction: these trees hadnt been logged for quite a long time, maybe a couple of generations. Whatever the Institute was, it was in the middle of an old-growth forest, which meant in the middle of nowhere. As for the playground itself, his first thought was that if there was ever a prison exercise yard for kids between the ages of six and sixteen, it would look exactly like this. The girlIrissaw them and waved. She double-bounced on the trampoline, her ponytail flying, then took a final leap off the side and landed on the springy stuff with her legs spread and her knees flexed. Sha! Who you got there? This is Luke Ellis, Kalisha said. New this morning. Hey, Luke. Iris walked over and offered her hand. She was a skinny girl, taller than Kalisha by a couple of inches. She had a pleasant, pretty face, her cheeks and forehead shiny with what Luke supposed was a mixture of sweat and bug-dope. Iris Stanhope. Luke shook with her, aware that the bugsminges were what they were called in Minnesota, he had no idea what they were called herehad begun to sample him. Not pleased to be here, but I guess pleased to meet you. Im from Abilene, Texas. What about you? Minneapolis. Thats in I know where it is, Iris said. Land of a billion lakes, or some shit like that. George! Kalisha shouted. Wheres your manners, young man? Come on over here! Sure, but wait. This is important. George toed the foul line at the edge of the blacktop, held the basketball to his chest, and began speaking in a low, tension-filled voice. Okay, folks, after seven hard-fought games, this is what it comes down to. Double overtime, Wizards trail the Celtics by one point, and George Iles, just in off the bench, has a chance to win this thing from the foul line. If he makes one, the Wizards tie it up yet again. If he makes both, hell go down in history, probably get his picture in the Basketball Hall of Fame, maybe win a Tesla convertible That would have to be a custom job, Luke said. Tesla doesnt make a convertible, at least not yet. George paid no attention. Nobody ever expected Iles to be in this position, least of all Iles. An eerie silence has fallen over the Capital One Arena... And then somebody farts! Iris shouted. She put her tongue between her lips and blew a long, bubbly honk. A real trumpet blast! Smelly, too! Iles takes a deep breath... he bounces the ball twice, which is his trademark... In addition to a motor mouth, George has a very active fantasy life, Iris told Luke. You get used to it. George glanced toward the three of them. Iles casts an angry look at a lone Celtics fan razzing him from center court... its a girl who looks stupid as well as amazingly ugly... Iris blew another raspberry. Now Iles faces the basket... Iles shoots... Air ball. Jesus, George, Kalisha said, that was horrible. Either tie the fucking game or lose it, so we can talk. This kid doesnt know what happened to him. Like we do, Iris said. George flexed his knees and shot. The ball rolled around the rim... thought it over... and fell away. Celtics win, Celtics win! Iris yelled. She did a cheerleader jump and shook invisible pompoms. Now come over here and say hello to the new kid. George came over, waving away bugs as he did so. He was short and stocky, and Luke thought his fantasies were the only place he would ever play pro basketball. His eyes were a pale blue that reminded Luke of the Paul Newman and Steve McQueen movies he and Rolf liked to watch on TCM. Thinking about that, the two of them sprawled in front of the TV and eating popcorn, made him feel sick. Yo, kid. Whats your name? Luke Ellis. Im George Iles, but you probably knew that from these girls. Im a god to them. Kalisha held her head. Iris flipped him the bird. A love god. But Adonis, not Cupid, Luke said, getting into it a little. Trying, anyway. Adonis is the god of desire and beauty. If you say so. How do you like the place so far? Sucks, doesnt it? What is it? Kalisha calls it the Institute, but what does that mean? Might as well call it Mrs. Sigsbys Home for Wayward Psychic Children, Iris said, and spit. This wasnt like coming in halfway through a movie; it was like coming in halfway through the third season of a TV show. One with a complicated plot. Whos Mrs. Sigsby? The queen bitch, George said. Youll meet her, and my advice is dont sass her. She does not like to be sassed. Are you TP or TK? Iris asked. TK, I suppose. Actually it was a lot more than a supposition. Sometimes things move around me, and since I dont believe in poltergeists, Im probably doing it. But that cant be enough to... He trailed off. Cant be enough to land me here was what he was thinking. But he was here. TK-positive? George asked. He headed for one of the picnic tables. Luke followed, trailed by the two girls. He could calculate the rough age of the forest that surrounded them, he knew the names of a hundred different bacteria, he could fill these kids in on Hemingway, Faulkner, or Voltaire, but he had still never felt more behind the curve. I have no idea what that means. Kalisha said, Pos is what they call kids like me and George. The techs and caretakers and doctors. Were not supposed to know it But we do, Iris finished. Its what you call an open secret. TK- and TP-positives can do it when they want to, at least some of the time. The rest of us cant. For me, things only move when Im pissed off, or really happy, or just startled. Then its involuntary, like sneezing. So Im just average. They call average TKs and TPs pinks. Why? Luke asked. Because if youre just regular, theres a little pink dot on the papers in your folder. Were not supposed to see whats in our folders, either, but I saw in mine one day. Sometimes theyre careless. You want to watch your step, or they are apt to get careless all over your ass, Kalisha said. Iris said, Pinks get more tests and more shots. I got the tank. It sucked, but not majorly. Whats the George gave Luke no chance to finish his question. Im TK-pos, no pink in my folder. Zero pink for this kid. Youve seen your folder? Luke asked. Dont need to. Im awesome. Watch this. There was no swami-like concentration, the kid just stood there, but an extraordinary thing happened. (It seemed extraordinary to Luke, at least, although neither of the girls seemed particularly impressed.) The cloud of minges circling Georges head blew backward, forming a kind of cometary tail, as if they had been struck by a gust of strong wind. Only there was no wind. See? he said. TK-pos in action. Only it doesnt last long. True enough. The minges were already back, circling him and only kept off by the bug-dope he was wearing. That second shot you took at the basket, Luke said. Could you have made it go in? George shook his head, looking regretful. I wish theyd bring in a really powerful TK-pos, Iris said. Her meet-the-new-kid excitement had collapsed. She looked tired and scared and older than her age, which Luke put at around fifteen. One who could teleport us the fuck out of here. She sat down on one of the picnic tables benches and put a hand over her eyes. Kalisha sat down and put an arm around her. No, come on, its going to be okay. No it isnt, Iris said. Look at this, Im a pincushion! She held out her arms. There were two Band-Aids on the left one, and three on the right. Then she gave her eyes a brisk rub and put on what Luke supposed was her game face. So, new kidcan you move things around on purpose? Luke had never talked about the mind-over-matter stuffalso known as psychokinesisexcept with his parents. His mom said it would freak people out if they knew. His dad said it was the least important thing about him. Luke agreed with both points, but these kids werent freaked, and in this place it was important. That was clear. No. I cant even wiggle my ears. They laughed, and Luke relaxed. The place was strange and scary, but at least these kids seemed okay. Once in a while things move around, thats all. Dishes, or silverware. Sometimes a door will shut by itself. Once or twice my study lamp turned on. Its never anything big. Hell, I wasnt completely sure I was doing it. I thought maybe drafts... or deep earth tremors... They were all looking at him with wise eyes. Okay, he said. I knew. My folks did, too. But it was never a big deal. Maybe it would have been, he thought, except for being freakishly smart, the kid accepted to not one but two colleges at the age of twelve. Suppose you had a seven-year-old who could play the piano like Van Cliburn. Would anyone care if that kid could also do a few simple card tricks? Or wiggle his ears? This was a thing he couldnt say to George, Iris, and Kalisha, though. It would sound like boasting. Youre right, its not a big deal! Kalisha said vehemently. Thats whats so fucked up about it! Were not the Justice League or the X-Men! Have we been kidnapped? Praying for them to laugh. Praying for one of them to say of course not. Well, duh, George said. Because you can make bugs go away for a second or two? Because... He thought of the pan falling off the table at Rocket Pizza. Because every now and then I walk into a room and the door closes behind me? Well, George said, if they were grabbing people for their good looks, Iris and Sha wouldnt be here. Dinkleballs, Kalisha said. George smiled. An extremely sophisticated return. Right up there with bite my wiener. Sometimes I cant wait for you to go to Back Half, Iris said. God will probably strike me dead for that, but Wait, Luke said. Just wait. Start from the beginning. This is the beginning, chum, said a voice from behind them. Unfortunately, its also probably the end. 2 Luke guessed the newcomers age as sixteen, but later found out he was two years high. Nicky Wilholm was tall and blue-eyed, with a head of unkempt hair that was blacker than black and cried out for a double dose of shampoo. He was wearing a wrinkled button-up shirt over a pair of wrinkled shorts, his white athletic socks were at half-mast, and his sneakers were dirty. Luke remembered Maureen saying he was like Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strips. The others were looking at him with wary respect, and Luke instantly got that. Kalisha, Iris, and George were no more happy to be here than Luke was himself, but they were trying to keep it positive; except for the moment when Iris had wavered, they gave off a slightly goofy making-the-best-of-it vibe. That wasnt the case with this guy. Nicky didnt look angry now, but it was clear he had been in the not-too-distant past. There was a healing cut on his swollen lower lip, the fading remains of a black eye, and a fresh bruise on one cheek. A brawler, then. Luke had seen a few in his time, there were even a couple at the Broderick School. He and Rolf steered clear of them, but if this place was the prison Luke was beginning to suspect it was, there would be no way to steer clear of Nicky Wilholm. But the other three didnt seem to be afraid of him, and that was a good sign. Nicky might be pissed off at whatever purpose lay behind that bland Institute name, but with his mates he just seemed intense. Focused. Still, those marks on his face suggested unpleasant possibilities, especially if he wasnt a brawler by nature. Suppose they had been put there by an adult? A schoolteacher doing something like that, not just at the Brod but almost anywhere, would get canned, probably sued, and maybe arrested. He thought of Kalisha saying Not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Im Luke Ellis. He held out his hand, not sure what to expect. Nicky ignored it and opened the green equipment cabinet. You play chess, Ellis? These other three suck at it. Donna Gibson could give me at least a half-assed game, but she went to Back Half three days ago. And we will see her no more, George said dolefully. I play, Luke said, but I dont feel like it now. I want to know where I am and what goes on here. Nick brought out a chess board and a box with the armies inside. He set the pieces up rapidly, peering through the hair that had fallen across his eyes rather than brushing it back. Youre in the Institute. Somewhere in the wilds of Maine. Not even a town, just map coordinates. TR-110. Sha picked that up from a bunch of people. So did Donna, and so did Pete Littlejohn. Hes another TP thats gone to Back Half. Seems like Peteys been gone forever, but it was only last week, Kalisha said wistfully. Remember all those zits? And how his glasses kept sliding down? Nicky paid no attention. The zookeepers dont try to hide it or deny it. Why would they, when they work on TP kids day in and day out? And they dont worry about the stuff they do want to keep secret, because not even Sha can go deep, and shes pretty good. I can score ninety per cent on the Rhine cards most days, Kalisha said. Not boasting, just matter-of-fact. And I could tell you your grandmothers name if you put it in the front of your mind, but the front is as far as I can go. My grandmothers name is Rebecca, Luke thought. Rebecca, Kalisha said, and when she saw Lukes expression of surprise, she burst into a fit of the giggles that made her look like the child she had been not so long ago. Youve got the white guys, Nicky said. I always play black. Nicks our honorary outlaw, George said. With the marks to prove it, Kalisha said. Does him no good, but he cant seem to help it. His room is a mess, another act of childish rebellion that just makes more work for Maureen. Nicky turned to the black girl, unsmiling. If Maureen was really the saint you think she is, shed get us out of here. Or blow the whistle to the nearest police. Kalisha shook her head. Get real. If you work here, youre a part of it. Good or bad. Nasty or nice, George added. He looked solemn. Besides, the nearest police force is probably a bunch of Deputy Dogs and Hiram Hoehandles miles from here, Iris said. Since you seem tove nominated yourself Head Explainer, Nick, why dont you really fill the kid in? Jeepers, dont you remember how weird it is to wake up here in what looks like your own room? Nick sat back and crossed his arms. Luke happened to see how Kalisha was looking at him, and thought that if she ever kissed Nicky, it wouldnt be just to pass on a case of the chicken pox. Okay, Ellis, Ill tell you what we know. Or what we think we know. It wont take long. Ladies, feel free to chime in. George, keep your mouth shut if you feel a bullshit attack coming on. Thanks a lot, George said. And after I let you drive my Porsche. Kalishas been here the longest, Nicky said. Because of the chicken pox. How many kids have you seen during that time, Sha? She considered. Probably twenty-five. Maybe a few more. Nicky nodded. Theywecome from everywhere. Shas from Ohio, Iris is from Texas, George is from Glory Hole, Montana Im from Billings, George said. A perfectly respectable town. First off, they tag us like we were migrating birds or goddam buffalo. Nicky brushed his hair back and folded his earlobe forward, showing a circlet of bright metal half the size of a dime. They examine us, they test us, they give us shots for dots, then they examine us again and do more tests. Pinks get more shots and more tests. I got the tank, Iris said again. Whoopee for you, Nick said. If were pos, they make us do stupid pet tricks. I myself happen to be TK-pos, but George the motormouth there is quite a bit better at it than I am. And there was one kid here, cant remember his name, who was even better than George. Bobby Washington, Kalisha said. Little black kid, maybe nine. He could push your plate right off the table. Been gone... what, Nicky? Two weeks? A little less, Nicky said. If it was two weeks, it would have been before I came. He was there one night at dinner, Kalisha said, and gone to Back Half the next day. Poof. Now you see him, now you dont. Ill probably be next. I think theyre about done with all their tests. Same here, Nicky said sourly. Theyll probably be glad to be rid of me. Strike the probably on that one, George said. They give us shots, Iris said. Some of them hurt, some of them dont, some of them do stuff to you, some dont. I spiked a fever after one of them, and had the most godawful headache. I was thinking maybe I caught Shas chicken pox, but it was gone after a day. They keep shooting you up until you see the dots and hear the hum. You got off easy, Kalisha told her. A couple of kids... there was that one named Morty... cant remember his last name... The nose-picker, Iris said. The one who used to hang with Bobby Washington. I cant remember Mortys last name, either. He went to Back Half like two days after I got here. Except maybe he didnt, Kalisha said. He wasnt here long at all, and he broke out in spots after one of those shots. He told me so in the canteen. He said his heart was still beating like crazy, too. I think maybe he got really sick. She paused. Maybe he even died. George was looking at her with big-eyed dismay. Cynicism and teenage angst is fine, but tell me you dont really believe that. Well, I sure dont want to, Kalisha said. Shut up, all of you, Nicky said. He leaned forward over the board, staring at Luke. They kidnap us, yes. Because we have psychic powers, yes. How do they find us? Dont know. But its got to be a big operation, because this place is big. Its a fucking compound. Theyve got doctors, technicians, ones who call themselves caretakers... its like a small hospital stuck out here in the woods. And security, Kalisha said. Yeah. The guy in charge of that is a big bald fuck. Stackhouse is his name. This is crazy, Luke said. In America? This isnt America, its the Kingdom of the Institute. When we go to the caff for lunch, Ellis, look out the windows. Youll see a lot more trees, but if you look hard, youll also see another building. Green cinderblock, just like this one. Blends in with the trees, I guess. Anyway, thats Back Half. Where the kids go when all the tests and shots are done. What happens there? It was Kalisha who answered. We dont know. It was on the tip of Lukes tongue to ask if Maureen knew, then remembered what Kalisha had whispered in his ear: They listen. We know what they tell us, Iris said. They say They say everything is going to be alllll RIGHT! Nicky shouted this so loudly and so suddenly that Luke recoiled and almost fell off the picnic bench. The black-haired boy got to his feet and stood looking up into the dusty lens of one of the cameras. Luke remembered something else Kalisha had said: When you meet Nicky, dont worry if he goes off on a rant. Its how he blows off steam. Theyre like missionaries selling Jesus to a bunch of Indians who are so... so... Na?ve? Luke ventured. Right! That! Nicky was still staring up at the camera. A bunch of Indians who are so na?ve theyll believe anything, that if they give up their land for a handful of beads and fucking flea-ridden blankets, theyll go to heaven and meet all their dead relatives and be happy forever! Thats us, a bunch of Indians na?ve enough to believe anything that sounds good, that sounds like a happy... fucking... ENDING! He whirled back to them, hair flying, eyes burning, hands clenched into fists. Luke saw healing cuts on his knuckles. He doubted if Nicky had given as good as hed gottenhe was only a kid, after allbut it seemed he had at least given somebody something. Do you think Bobby Washington had any doubts that his trials were over when they took him to Back Half? Or Pete Littlejohn? Jesus Christ, if brains were black powder, those two couldnt have blown their noses. He turned to the dirty overhead camera again. That he had nothing else upon which to vent his rage rendered it a touch ludicrous, but Luke admired him just the same. He had not accepted the situation. Listen up, you guys! You can beat the shit out of me, and you can take me to Back Half, but Ill fight you every step of the way! Nick Wilholm doesnt trade for beads and blankets! He sat down, breathing hard. Then he smiled, displaying dimples and white teeth and good-humored eyes. The sullen, brooding persona was gone as if it had never been there. Luke had no attraction to guys, but when he saw that smile, he could understand why Kalisha and Iris were looking at Nicky as if he were the lead singer in a boy band. I should probably be on their team instead of cooped up here like a chicken in a pen. I could sell this place better than Sigsby and Hendricks and the other docs. I have conviction. You certainly do, Luke said, but Im not entirely sure what you were getting at. Yeah, kinda went off on a sidetrack there, Nicky, George said. Nicky crossed his arms again. Before I whup your ass at chess, new kid, let me review the situation. They bring us here. They test us. They shoot us full of God knows what, and test us some more. Some kids get the tank, all kids get the weird eye test that makes you feel like youre going to pass out. We have rooms that look like our rooms at home, which is probably supposed to provide some kind of, I dont know, soothing for our tender emotions. Psychological acclimation, Luke said. I guess that makes sense. Theres good food in the caff. We actually order off a menu, limited though it may be. Room doors arent locked, so if you cant sleep, you can wander down there and pick up a midnight snack. They leave out cookies, nuts, apples, stuff like that. Or you can go to the canteen. The machines there take tokens, of which I have none, because only good little girls and boys get tokens, and I am not a good little boy. My idea of what to do with a Boy Scout is to drop him on his pointy little Come back, Kalisha said sharply. Stop the shit. Gotcha. Nick flashed her that killer smile, then returned his attention to Luke. Theres plenty of incentive to be good and get tokens. There are snacks and sodas in the canteen, an extremely wide variety. Cracker Jacks, George said dreamily. Ho Hos. There are also cigarettes, wine coolers, and the hard stuff. Iris: Theres a sign that says PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY. With kids as young as ten pushing the buttons for Boones Farm Blue Hawaiian and Mikes Hard Lemonade, how hilarious is that? Youve got to be kidding, Luke said, but Kalisha and George were nodding. You can get buzzed, but you cant get falling-down drunk, Nicky said. Nobody has enough tokens for that. True, Kalisha said, but we do have kids who stay buzzed as much as they can. Maintenance drinkers, you mean? Ten- and eleven-year-old maintenance drinkers? Luke still couldnt believe it. Youre not serious. I am. There are kids who do whatever theyre told just so they can use the booze dispenser every day. I havent been here long enough to, like, make a study of it, but you hear stories from kids who were here before you. Also, Iris said, we have plenty of kids who are working on a good tobacco habit. It was ludicrous, but Luke supposed it also made a crazy kind of sense. He thought of the Roman satirist, Juvenal, who had said that if you gave the people bread and circuses, theyd be happy and not cause any trouble. He guessed the same might be true of booze and cigarettes, especially if you offered them to scared and unhappy kids who were locked up. That stuff doesnt interfere with their tests? Since we dont know what the tests are, its hard to say, George told him. All they seem to want is for you to see the dots and hear the hum. What dots? What hum? Youll find out, George said. That parts not so bad. Its getting there thats the bitch. I hate getting shots. Nicky said, Three weeks, give or take. Thats how long most kids stay in Front Half. At least Sha thinks so, and shes been here the longest. Then we go to Back Half. After thatthis is the storywe get debriefed and our memories of this place are wiped somehow. He unfolded his arms and raised his hands to the sky, fingers spread. And after that, chilluns, we go to heaven! Washed clean, except maybe for a pack-a-day habit! Hallelujah! Back home to our parents is what he means, Iris said quietly. Where well be welcomed with open arms, Nicky said. No questions asked, just welcome home and lets all go out to Chuck E. Cheese to celebrate. Does that sound realistic to you, Ellis? It didnt. But our parents are alive, right? Luke didnt know how it sounded to the others, but to him his voice sounded very small. None of them answered, only looked at him. And really, that was answer enough. 3 There was a knock at Mrs. Sigsbys office door. She invited the visitor in without taking her eyes from her computer monitor. The man who entered was almost as tall as Dr. Hendricks, but ten years younger and in far better shapebroad-shouldered and muscled out. His skull was smooth, shaved, and gleaming. He wore jeans and a blue workshirt, the sleeves rolled up to display his admirable biceps. There was a holster on one hip with a short metal rod sticking up. The Ruby Red groups here, if you want to talk to them about the Ellis operation. Anything urgent or out of the ordinary on that, Trevor? No, maam, not really, and if Im intruding, I can come back later. Youre fine, just give me a minute. Our residents are giving the new boy a backgrounder. Come and watch. The mixture of myth and observation is rather amusing. Like something out of Lord of the Flies. Trevor Stackhouse came around the desk. He saw Wilholma troublesome little shit if ever there was oneon one side of a chessboard that was all set up and ready to go. The new intake was sitting on the other side. The girls were standing by, most of their attention fixed, as usual, on Wilholmhandsome, sullen, rebellious, a latter-day James Dean. He would be gone soon; Stackhouse couldnt wait for Hendricks to sign off on him. How many people work here in all, do you think? the new boy was asking. Iris and Kalisha (also known as the Chicken Pox Chick) looked at each other. It was Iris who answered. Fifty? I think at least that many. Theres the doctors... techs and caretakers... the cafeteria staff... um... Two or three janitors, Wilholm said, and the housekeepers. Just Maureen right now, because theres only the five of us, but when theres more kids, they add another couple of housekeepers. They might come over from Back Half, not sure about that. With that many people, how can they keep the place a secret? Ellis asked. For one thing, where do they even park their cars? Interesting, Stackhouse said. I dont think anyone ever asked that before. Mrs. Sigsby nodded. This ones very smart, and not just book-smart, it looks like. Now hush. I want to hear this. . . . must stay, Luke was saying. You see the logic? Like a tour of duty. Which would mean this is actually a government installation. Like one of those black sites, where they take terrorists to interrogate them. Plus the old bag-over-the-head water cure, Wilholm said. I never heard of them doing that to any of the kids here, but I wouldnt put it past them. Theyve got the tank, Iris said. Thats their water cure. They put a cap on you and duck you under and take notes. Its actually better than the shots. She paused. At least it was for me. They must swap out the employees in groups, Ellis said. Mrs. Sigsby thought he was talking more to himself than the others. I bet he does that a lot, she thought. Its the only way it would work. Stackhouse was nodding. Good deductions. Damn good. What is he, twelve? Read your report, Trevor. She pushed a button on her computer and the screen saver appeared: a picture of her twin daughters in their double stroller, taken years before they acquired breasts, smart mouths, and bad boyfriends. Also a bad drug habit, in Judys case. Ruby Reds been debriefed? By me personally. And when the cops check the kids computer, they are going to find hes been looking at some stories about kids who kill their parents. Not a lot, just two or three. Standard operating procedure, in other words. Yes, maam. If it aint broke, dont fix it. Stackhouse gave her a grin she thought almost as charming as Wilholms when he turned it on at full wattage. Not quite, though. Their Nicky was a true babe magnet. For now, at least. Do you want to see the team, or just the operation report? Denny Williams is writing it, so it should be fairly readable. If it all went smoothly, just the report. Ill have Rosalind get it to me. Fine. What about Alvorson? Any intel from her lately? Do you mean are Wilholm and Kalisha canoodling yet? Sigsby raised an eyebrow. Is that germane to your security mission, Trevor? I could give Shit One if those two are canoodling. In fact, Im rooting for them to go ahead and lose their virginity, assuming they still have it, while theyve got a chance. But from time to time Alvorson does pick up things that are germane to my mission. Like her conversation with the Washington boy. Maureen Alvorson, the housekeeper who actually seemed to like and sympathize with the Institutes young subjects, was in reality a stool pigeon. (Given the little bits of tittle-tattle she brought in, Mrs. Sigsby thought spy too grand a term.) Neither Kalisha nor any of the other TPs had tipped to this, because Maureen was extremely good at keeping her way of making a little extra money far below the surface. What made her especially valuable was the carefully planted idea that certain areas of the Institutethe south corner of the caff and a small area near the vending machines in the canteen, to name just a couplewere audio surveillance dead zones. Those were the places where Alvorson gleaned the kids secrets. Most were paltry things, but sometimes there was a nugget of gold in the dross. The Washington boy, for instance, who had confided to Maureen that he was thinking about committing suicide. Nothing lately, Sigsby said. Ill inform you if she passes on something I feel would be of interest to you, Trevor. Okay. I was just asking. Understood. Now please go. I have work to do. 4 Fuck this shit, Nicky said, sitting down at the bench again. He finally brushed the hair out of his eyes. The ding-dongs gonna go pretty soon, and I gotta get an eye test and look at the white wall after lunch. Lets see what you got, Ellis. Make a move. Luke had never felt less like playing chess. He had a thousand other questionsmostly about shots for dotsbut maybe this wasnt the time. There was such a thing as information overload, after all. He moved his kings pawn two squares. Nicky countered. Luke responded with his kings bishop, threatening Nickys kings bishops pawn. After a moments hesitation, Nicky moved his queen out four diagonal squares, and that pretty much sealed the deal. Luke moved his own queen, waited for Nicky to make some move that didnt matter one way or the other, then slid his queen down next to Nickys king, nice and cozy. Nicky frowned at the board. Checkmate? In four moves? Are you serious? Luke shrugged. Its called Scholars Mate, and it only works if youre playing white. Next time youll see it coming and counter. Best way is to move your queens pawn forward two or your kings pawn forward one. If I do that, can you still beat me? Maybe. The diplomatic answer. The real one was of course. Holy joe. Nicky was still studying the board. Thats fucking slick. Who taught you? I read some books. Nicky looked up, seeming to really see Luke for the first time, and asked Kalishas question. How smart are you, kid? Smart enough to beat you, Iris said, which saved Luke having to answer. At that moment, a soft two-note chime went off: the ding-dong. Lets go to lunch, Kalisha said. Im starving. Come on, Luke. Loser puts the game away. Nicky pointed a finger gun at her and mouthed bang bang, but he was smiling as he did it. Luke got up and followed the girls. At the door to the lounge area, George caught up with him and grabbed his arm. Luke knew from his sociology reading (as well as from personal experience) that kids in a group had a tendency to fall into certain easily recognizable pigeonholes. If Nicky Wilholm was this groups rebel, then George Iles was its class clown. Only now he looked as serious as a heart attack. He spoke low and fast. Nicks cool, I like him and the girls are crazy about him, probably youll like him, too, and thats okay, but dont make him a role model. He wont accept that were stuck here, but we are, so pick your battles. The dots, for instance. When you seem em, say so. When you dont, say that. Dont lie. They know. Nicky caught up with them. Whatcha talkin about, Georgie Boy? He wanted to know where babies come from, Luke said. I told him to ask you. Oh Jesus, another fucking comedian. Just what this place needs. Nicky grabbed Luke by the neck and pretended to strangle him, which Luke hoped was a sign of liking. Maybe even respect. Come on, lets eat. 5 What his new friends called the canteen was part of the lounge, across from the big TV. Luke wanted a close look at the vending machines, but the others were moving briskly and he still didnt get the chance. He did, however, note the sign Iris had mentioned: PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY. So maybe they hadnt been just yanking his chain about the booze. Not Kansas and not Pleasure Island, he thought. Its Wonderland. Someone came into my room in the middle of the night and pushed me down the rabbit hole. The caff wasnt as big as the one at the Broderick School, but almost. The fact that the five of them were the only diners made it seem even bigger. Most of the tables were fourtops, but there were a couple of larger ones in the middle. One of these had been set with five places. A woman in a pink smock top and matching pink trousers came over and filled their water glasses. Like Maureen, she was wearing a nametag. Hers said NORMA. How are you, my chickens? she asked. Oh, were plucking right along, George said brightly. How about you? Doing fine, Norma said. Dont have a Get Out of Jail Free card on you, by any chance? Norma gave him a cruise-control smile and went back through the swinging door that presumably led to the kitchen. Why do I bother? George said. My best lines are wasted in here. Wasted, I tell you. He reached for the stack of menus in the center of the table and handed them around. At the top was the days date. Below that was STARTERS (buffalo wings or tomato bisque), ENTREES (bison burger or American chop suey), and FINISHERS (apple pie ? la mode or something called Magic Custard Cake). Half a dozen soft drinks were listed. You can get milk, but they dont bother putting it on the menu, Kalisha said. Most kids dont want it unless they have cereal for breakfast. Is the food really good? Luke asked. The prosaic nature of the questionas if they were maybe at a Sandals resort where the meals were includedbrought back his sense of unreality and dislocation. Yes, Iris said. Sometimes they weigh us. Ive put on four pounds. Fattening us up for the kill, Nicky said. Like Hansel and Gretel. On Friday nights and Sunday noons there are buffets, Kalisha said. All you can eat. Like Hansel and fucking Gretel, Nicky repeated. He made a half-turn, looking up at a camera in the corner. Come on back, Norma. I think were ready. She returned at once, which only increased Lukes sense of unreality. But when his wings and chop suey came, he ate heartily. He was in a strange place, he was afraid for himself and terrified about what might have happened to his parents, but he was also twelve. A growing boy. 6 They must have been watching, whoever they were, because Luke had barely finished the last bite of his custard cake before a woman dressed in another of those pink quasi-uniforms appeared at his side. GLADYS, her name badge said. Luke? Come with me, please. He looked at the other four. Kalisha and Iris wouldnt meet his gaze. Nicky was looking at Gladys, arms once more folded across his chest and wearing a faint smile. Why dont you come back later, honey? Like around Christmas. Ill kick you under the mistletoe. She paid no attention. Luke? Please? George was the only one looking directly at him, and what Luke saw on his face made him think of what hed said before they came in from the playground: Pick your battles. He got up. See you guys later. I guess. Kalisha mouthed soundless words at him: Shots for dots. Gladys was small and pretty, but for all Luke knew, she was a black belt who could throw him over her shoulder if he gave her any trouble. Even if she wasnt, they were watching, and he had no doubt reinforcements would show up in a hurry. There was something else, as well, and it was powerful. He had been raised to be polite and obey his elders. Even in this situation, those were hard habits to break. Gladys led him past the bank of windows Nicky had mentioned. Luke looked out and yes, there was another building out there. He could barely see it through the screening trees, but it was there, all right. Back Half. He looked over his shoulder before leaving the caff, hoping for some reassurancea wave, or even a smile from Kalisha would do. There was no wave, and no one was smiling. They were looking at him the way they had in the playground, when he had asked if their parents were alive. Maybe they didnt know about that, not for sure, but they knew where he was going now. Whatever it was, they had already been through it. 7 Gosh, what a pretty day, huh? Gladys said as she led him along the cinderblock corridor and past his room. The corridor continued down another wingmore doors, more roomsbut they turned left, into an annex that appeared to be your basic elevator lobby. Luke, ordinarily quite good at make-nice conversation, said nothing. He was pretty sure it was what Nicky would do in this situation. The bugs, though... ooh! She waved away invisible insects, and laughed. Youll want to wear plenty of bug-dope, at least until July. When the dragonflies hatch out. Yes! Exactly! She trilled a laugh. Where are we going? Youll see. She waggled her eyebrows, as to say dont spoil the surprise. The elevator doors opened. Two men in blue shirts and pants got off. One was JOE, the other HADAD. They both carried iPads. Hi, guys, Gladys said brightly. Hey, girl, Hadad said. Hows it going? Fine, Gladys chirped. How about you, Luke? Joe asked. Adjusting okay? Luke said nothing. Silent treatment, huh? Hadad was grinning. Thats okay for now. Later, maybe not so much. Heres the thing, Luketreat us right and well treat you right. Go along to get along, Joe added. Words of wisdom. See you later, Gladys? You bet. You owe me a drink. If you say so. The men went on their way. Gladys escorted Luke into the elevator. There were no numbers and no buttons. She said, B, then produced a card from her pants pocket and waved it at a sensor. The doors shut. The car descended, but not far. B, crooned a soft female voice from overhead. This is B. Gladys waved her card again. The doors opened on a wide hall lit with translucent ceiling panels. Soft music played, what Luke thought of as supermarket music. A few people were moving about, some pushing trolleys with equipment on them, one carrying a wire basket that might have contained blood samples. The doors were marked with numbers, each prefixed with the letter B. A big operation, Nicky had said. A compound. That had to be right, because if there was an underground B-Level, it stood to reason there must be a C-Level. Maybe even a D and E. Youd say it almost had to be a government installation, Luke thought, but how could they keep an operation this big a secret? Not only is it illegal and unconstitutional, it involves kidnapping children. They passed an open door, and inside Luke saw what appeared to be a break room. There were tables and vending machines (no sign reading PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY, though). Three people were sitting at one of the tables, a man and two women. They were dressed in regular clothes, jeans and button-up shirts, and drinking coffee. One of the women, the blondish one, seemed familiar. At first he didnt know why, then he thought of a voice saying Sure, whatever you want. It was the last thing he remembered before waking up here. You, he said, and pointed at her. It was you. The woman said nothing, and her face said nothing. But she looked at him. She was still looking when Gladys closed the door. She was the one, Luke said. I know she was. Just a little further, Gladys said. It wont take long, then you can go back to your room. Youd probably like to rest. First days can be exhausting. Did you hear me? She was the one who came into my room. She sprayed something in my face. No answer, just the smile again. Luke found it a little creepier each time Gladys flashed it. They reached a door marked B-31. Behave and youll get five tokens, she said. She reached into her other pocket and brought out a handful of metal circles that looked like quarters, only with an embossed triangle on either side. See? Got them right here. She knocked a knuckle on the door. The blue-clad man who opened it was TONY. He was tall and blond, handsome except for one slightly squinted eye. Luke thought he looked like a villain in a James Bond movie, maybe the suave ski instructor who turned out to be an assassin. Hey, pretty lady. He kissed Gladys on the cheek. And youve got Luke. Hi, Luke. He stuck out his hand. Luke, channeling Nicky Wilholm, didnt shake it. Tony laughed as though this were a particularly good joke. Come in, come in. The invitation was just for him, it seemed. Gladys gave him a little push on the shoulder and closed the door. What Luke saw in the middle of the room was alarming. It looked like a dentists chair. Except hed never seen one that had straps on the arms. Sit down, champ, Tony said. Not sport, Luke thought, but close. Tony went to a counter, opened a drawer beneath, and rummaged in it. He was whistling. When he turned around, he had something that looked like a small soldering gun in one hand. He seemed surprised to see Luke still standing inside the door. Tony grinned. Sit down, I said. What are you going to do with that? Tattoo me? He thought of Jews getting numbers tattooed on their arms when they entered the camps at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. That should have been a totally ridiculous idea, but... Tony looked surprised, then laughed. Gosh, no. Im just going to chip your earlobe. Its like getting pierced for an earring. No big deal, and all our guests get em. Im no guest, Luke said, backing up. Im a prisoner. And youre not putting anything in my ear. I am, though, Tony said, still grinning. Still looking like the guy who would help little kids on the bunny slopes before trying to kill James Bond with a poison dart. Look, its no more than a pinch. So make it easy on both of us. Sit in the chair, itll be over in seven seconds. Gladys will give you a bunch of tokens when you leave. Make it hard and you still get the chip, but no tokens. What do you say? Im not sitting in that chair. Luke felt trembly all over, but his voice sounded strong enough. Tony sighed. He set the chip insertion gadget carefully on the counter, walked to where Luke stood, and put his hands on his hips. Now he looked solemn, almost sorrowful. Are you sure? Yes. His ears were ringing from the open-handed slap almost before he was aware Tonys right hand had left his hip. Luke staggered back a step and stared at the big man with wide, stunned eyes. His father had paddled him once (gently) for playing with matches when he was four or five, but he had never been slapped in the face before. His cheek was burning, and he still couldnt believe it had happened. That hurt a lot more than an earlobe pinch, Tony said. The grin was gone. Want another? Happy to oblige. You kids who think you own the world. Man oh man. For the first time, Luke noticed there was a small blue bruise on Tonys chin, and a small cut on his left jaw. He thought of the fresh bruise on Nicky Wilholms face. He wished he had the guts to do the same, but he didnt. The truth was, he didnt know how to fight. If he tried, Tony would probably slap him all over the room. You ready to get in the chair? Luke got in the chair. Are you going to behave, or do I need the straps? Ill behave. He did, and Tony was right. The earlobe pinch wasnt as bad as the slap, possibly because he was ready for it, possibly because it felt like a medical procedure rather than an assault. When it was done, Tony went to a sterilizer and produced a hypodermic needle. Round two, champ. Whats in that? Luke asked. None of your beeswax. If its going into me, it is my beeswax. Tony sighed. Straps or no straps? Your choice. He thought of George saying pick your battles. No straps. Good lad. Just a little sting and done. It was more than a little sting. Not agony, but a pretty big sting, just the same. Lukes arm went hot all the way down to his wrist, as if he had a fever in that one part of him, then it felt normal again. Tony put on a Band-Aid Clear Spot, then swiveled the chair so it faced a white wall. Now close your eyes. Luke closed them. Do you hear anything? Like what? Stop asking questions and answer mine. Do you hear anything? Be quiet and let me listen. Tony was quiet. Luke listened. Someone walked by out there in the hall. And someone laughed. I think it was Gladys. Nothing else? No. Okay, youre doing good. Now I want you to count to twenty, then open your eyes. Luke counted and opened. What do you see? The wall. Nothing else? Luke thought Tony almost had to be talking about the dots. When you see em, say so, George had told him. When you dont, say that. Dont lie. They know. Nothing else. Sure? Yes. Tony slapped him on the back, making Luke jump. Okay, champ, were done here. Ill give you some ice for that ear. You have yourself a great day. 8 Gladys was waiting for him when Tony showed him out of Room B-31. She was smiling her cheerful professional hostess smile. How did you do, Luke? Tony answered for him. He did fine. Good kid. Its what we specialize in, Gladys almost sang. Have a good day, Tony. You too, Glad. She led Luke back to the elevator, chattering away merrily. He had no idea what she was talking about. His arm only hurt a little, but he was holding the cold-pack to his ear, which throbbed. The slap had been worse than either. For all kinds of reasons. Gladys escorted him to his room along the industrial green corridor, past the poster Kalisha had been sitting under, past the one reading JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, and finally to the room that looked like his room but wasnt. Free time! she cried, as if conferring a prize of great worth. Right now the prospect of being alone did feel like sort of a prize. He gave you a shot, right? Yes. If your arm starts to hurt, or if you feel faint, tell me or one of the other caretakers, okay? Okay. He opened the door, but before he could go in, Gladys grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around. She was still smiling the hostess smile, but her fingers were steely, pressing into his flesh. Not quite hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to let him know they could hurt. No tokens, Im afraid, she said. I didnt need to discuss it with Tony. That mark on your cheek tells me all I need to know. Luke wanted to say I dont want any of your shitty tokens, but kept silent. It wasnt a slap he was afraid of; he was afraid that the sound of his own voiceweak, unsteady, bewildered, the voice of a six-year-oldwould cause him to break down in front of her. Let me give you some advice, she said. Not smiling now. You need to realize that you are here to serve, Luke. That means you have to grow up fast. It means being realistic. Things will happen to you here. Some of them will not be so nice. You can be a good sport about them and get tokens, or you can be a bad sport and get none. Those things will happen either way, so which should you choose? It shouldnt be hard to figure out. Luke made no reply. Her smile came back nevertheless, the hostess smile that said oh yes, sir, Ill show you to your table right away. Youll be back home before the summer is over, and it will be like none of this happened. If you remember it at all, it will be like a dream. But while its not a dream, why not make your stay a happy one? She relaxed her grip and gave him a gentle push. You should rest a bit, I think. Lie down. Did you see the dots? No. You will. She closed the door, very gently. Luke sleepwalked across the room to the bed that wasnt his bed. He lay down, put his head on the pillow that wasnt his pillow, and stared at the blank wall where there was no window. No dots, eitherwhatever they were. He thought: I want my mom. Oh God, I want my mom so bad. That broke him. He dropped the cold-pack, cupped his hands over his eyes, and began crying. Were they watching him? Or listening to his sobs? It didnt matter. He was past caring. He was still crying when he fell asleep. 9 He woke up feeling bettercleaned out, somehow. He saw two things had been added to his room while he was at lunch, and then meeting his wonderful new friends Gladys and Tony. There was a laptop on the desk. It was a Mac, like his, but an older model. The other addition was a small TV on a stand in the corner. He went to the computer first and powered it up, feeling another deep pang of homesickness at the familiar Macintosh chime. Instead of a password prompt, he got a blue screen with this message: SHOW CAMERA ONE TOKEN TO OPEN. Luke banged the return key a couple of times, knowing it would do no good. You fucking thing. Then, in spite of how horrible and surreal all this was, he had to laugh. It was harsh and brief, but genuine. Had he felt a certain sense of superioritymaybe even contemptat the idea of kids scrounging for tokens so they could buy wine coolers or cigarettes? Sure he had. Had he thought Id never do that? Sure he had. When Luke thought of kids who drank and smoked (which was rarely; he had more important things to consider), what came to mind were Goth losers who listened to Pantera and drew lopsided devil horns on their denim jackets, losers so dumb that they mistook wrapping themselves in the chains of addiction as an act of rebellion. He couldnt imagine doing either, but here he was, staring at a blank blue laptop screen and hitting the return key like a rat in a Skinner box banging the lever for a piece of kibble or a few grains of cocaine. He closed the laptop and grabbed the remote off the top of the television. He fully expected another blue screen and another message telling him he needed a token or tokens to operate it, but instead he got Steve Harvey interviewing David Hasselhoff about the Hoffs bucket list. The audience was laughing it up at the Hoffs funny answers. Pushing the guide button on the remote produced a DirecTV menu similar to the one at home, but as with the room and the laptop, not quite the same. Although there was a wide selection of movies and sports programs, there were no network or news channels. Luke turned the set off, replaced the remote on top, and looked around. Other than the one leading to the corridor, there were two doors. One opened on a closet. There were jeans, tee-shirts (no effort had been made to exactly copy the ones he had at home, which was sort of a relief?), a couple of button-up shirts, two pairs of sneakers, and one pair of slippers. There were no hard shoes. The other door opened on a small, spandy-clean bathroom. There were a couple of toothbrushes, still in their cases, on the washbasin, next to a fresh tube of Crest. In the well-stocked medicine cabinet he found mouthwash, a bottle of childrens Tylenol, with just four pills inside, deodorant, roll-on Deet bugspray, Band-Aids, and several other items, some more useful than others. The only thing that might be considered even remotely dangerous was a pair of nail clippers. He swung the medicine cabinet closed and looked at himself. His hair was crazied up, and there were dark circles (beat-off circles, Rolf would have called them) under his eyes. He looked both older and younger, which was weird. He peered at his tender right earlobe and saw one of those tiny metal circles embedded in the slightly reddened skin. He had no doubt that somewhere on B-Levelor C, or Dthere was a computer tech who could now track his every movement. Was perhaps tracking him now. Lucas David Ellis, who had been planning to matriculate at MIT and Emerson, had been reduced to a blinking dot on a computer screen. Luke returned to his room (the room, he told himself, its the room, not my room), looked around, and realized a dismaying thing. No books. Not a single one. That was as bad as no computer. Maybe worse. He went to the dresser and opened the drawers one by one, thinking he might at least find a Bible or a Book of Mormon, like they sometimes had in hotel rooms. He discovered only neat stacks of underwear and socks. What did that leave? Steve Harvey interviewing David Hasselhoff? Reruns of Americas Funniest Home Videos? No. No way. He left the room, thinking Kalisha or one of the other kids might be around. He found Maureen Alvorson instead, trundling her Dandux laundry basket slowly down the corridor. It was heaped with folded sheets and towels. She looked more tired than ever and sounded out of breath. Hello, Ms. Alvorson. Can I push that for you? That would be kind, she said with a smile. Weve got five newbies coming in, two tonight and three tomorrow, and Ive got to get the rooms ready. Theyre down thataway. She pointed in the opposite direction from the lounge and the playground. He pushed the basket slowly, because she was walking slowly. I dont suppose you know how I could earn a token, do you, Ms. Alvorson? I need one to unlock the computer in my room. Can you make a bed, if I stand by and give you instructions? Sure. I make my bed at home. With hospital corners? Well... no. Never mind, Ill show you. Make five beds for me, and Ill give you three tokes. Its all Ive got in my pocket. They keep me short. Three would be great. All right, but enough with the Miz Alvorson. You call me Maureen, or just Mo. Same as the other kids. I can do that, Luke said. They went past the elevator annex and into the hallway beyond. It was lined with more inspirational posters. There was also an ice machine, like in a motel hallway, and it didnt appear to take tokens. Just past it, Maureen put a hand on Lukes arm. He stopped pushing the basket and looked at her enquiringly. When she spoke, it was just above a whisper. You got chipped, I see, but you didnt get any tokens. Well... You can talk, as long as you keep your voice down. Theres half a dozen places in Front Half where their damn microphones dont reach, dead zones, and I know all of them. This is one, right by this ice machine. Okay... Who did your chip and put that mark on your face? Was it Tony? Lukes eyes began to burn, and he didnt quite trust himself to speak, whether it was safe or not. He just nodded. Hes one of the mean ones, Maureen said. Zeke is another. So is Gladys, even though she smiles a lot. There are plenty of people working here who like pushing kids around, but those are three of the worst. Tony slapped me, Luke whispered. Hard. She ruffled his hair. It was the kind of thing ladies did to babies and little kids, but Luke didnt mind. It was being touched with kindness, and right now that meant a lot. Right now that meant everything. Do what he says, Maureen said. Dont argue with him, thats my best advice. Theres people you can argue with here, you can even argue with Mrs. Sigsby, much good it will do you, but Tony and Zeke are two bad bumblebees. Gladys, too. They sting. She started down the corridor again, but Luke caught her by the sleeve of her brown uniform and tugged her back to the safe area. I think Nicky hit Tony, he whispered. He had a cut and a mousy eye. Maureen smiled, showing teeth that looked long overdue for dental work. Good for Nick, she said. Tony probably paid him back double, but still... good. Now come on. With you to help me, we can get these rooms ready in a jiff. The first one they visited had posters of Tommy Pickles and ZukoNickelodeon characterson the walls, and a platoon of G.I. Joe action figures on the bureau. Luke recognized several of them right off the bat, having gone through his own G.I. Joe phase not all that long ago. The wallpaper featured happy clowns with balloons. Holy crap, Luke said. This is a little kids room. She gave Luke an amused glance, as if to say Youre not exactly Methuselah. Thats right. His name is Avery Dixon, and cording to my sheet, hes just ten. Lets get to work. I bet I only have to show you how to do a hospital corner once. You look like a kid who catches on quick. 10 Back in his room, Luke held one of his tokens up to the laptops camera. He felt a little stupid doing it, but the computer opened at once, first showing a blue screen with a message on it reading WELCOME BACK DONNA! Luke frowned, then smiled a little. At some point before his arrival, this computer had belonged (or been on loan, anyway) to someone named Donna. The welcome screen hadnt been changed yet. Someone had slipped up. Just a tiny slip, but where there was one, there might be others. The welcome message disappeared and a standard desktop photo appeared: a deserted beach under a dawn sky. The info strip at the bottom of the screen was like the one on his computer at home, with one glaring (but at this point unsurprising) difference: no little email postage stamp. There were, however, icons for two Internet providers. This surprised him, but it was a nice surprise. He opened Firefox and typed AOL log-in. The blue screen came back, this time with a pulsing red circle in the middle. A soft computer voice said, Im sorry, Dave, Im afraid I cant do that. For a moment Luke thought it was another slip-upfirst Donna, then Davebefore realizing it was the voice of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a goof, just geek humor, and under the circumstances, as funny as a rubber crutch. He googled Herbert Ellis and got HAL again. Luke considered, then googled the Orpheum Theatre on Hennepin, not because he was planning to see a show there (or anywhere in the immediate future, it seemed), but because he wanted to know what information he could access. There had to be at least some stuff, or else why give him the connection at all? The Orf, as his parents called it, seemed to be one of the sites approved for guests of the Institute. He was informed that Hamilton was coming back (By Popular Demand!), and Patton Oswalt would be there next month (Your Sides Will Split!). He tried googling the Broderick School and got their website, no problem. He tried Mr. Greer, his guidance counselor, and got HAL. He was beginning to understand Dr. Dave Bowmans frustration in the movie. He started to close down, then reconsidered and typed Maine State Police into the search field. His finger hovered over the execute button, almost pressed it, then withdrew. Hed get HALs meaningless apology, but Luke doubted if things would end with that. Very likely an alarm would go off on one of the lower levels. Not likely, surely. They might forget to change a kids name on the computers welcome screen, but they wouldnt forget an alert program if an Institute kid tried to contact the authorities. There would be punishment. Probably worse than a slap to the face. The computer that used to belong to someone named Donna was useless. Luke sat back and crossed his arms on his narrow chest. He thought of Maureen, and the friendly way shed ruffled his hair. Only a small, absent-minded gesture of kindness, but that (and the tokens) had taken some of the curse off Tonys slap. Had Kalisha said the woman was forty thousand dollars in debt? No, more like twice that. Partly because of the friendly way Maureen had touched him and partly just to pass the time, Luke googled I am overwhelmed with debt please help. The computer immediately gave him access to all sorts of information on that subject, including a number of companies that declared clearing those pesky bills would be as easy as pie; all the back-to-the-wall debtor needed to do was make one phone call. Luke doubted it, but he supposed some folks wouldnt; it was how they got in over their heads in the first place. Maureen Alvorson wasnt one of those people, though, at least according to Kalisha. She said Maureens husband had run up the big bills before taking off. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasnt, but either way, there would be solutions to the problem. There always were; finding them was what learning was all about. Maybe the computer wasnt useless, after all. Luke went to the sources that looked the most reliable, and was soon deep in the subjects of debt and debt repayment. The old hunger to know came over him. To learn a new thing. To isolate and understand the central issues. As always, each piece of information led to three more (or six, or twelve), and eventually a coherent picture began to emerge. A kind of terrain map. The most interesting conceptthe linchpin to which all the others were attachedwas simple but staggering (to Luke, at least). Debt was a commodity. It was bought and sold, and at some point it had become the center of not just the American economy, but of the worlds. And yet it did not really exist. It wasnt a concrete thing like gas or gold or diamonds; it was only an idea. A promise to pay. When his computers IM chime rang, he shook his head like a boy emerging from a vivid dream. According to the computers clock, it was almost 5 PM. He clicked on the balloon icon at the bottom of the machine and read this: Mrs. Sigsby: Hello, Luke, I run this joint, and Id like to see you. He considered this, then typed. Luke: Do I have any choice? The reply came at once: Mrs. Sigsby: No. Take your smiley and stick it up your There was a knock at the door. He went to it, expecting Gladys, but this time it was Hadad, one of the guys from the elevator. Want to take a walk, big boy? Luke sighed. Give me a second. I have to put on my sneakers. No problem-o. Hadad led him to a door past the elevator and used a key card to unlock it. They walked the short distance to the administration building together, waving away the bugs. 11 Mrs. Sigsby reminded Luke of his fathers oldest sibling. Like Aunt Rhoda, this woman was skinny, with barely a hint of hips or breasts. Only there were smile lines around Aunt Rhodas mouth, and always warmth in her eyes. She was a hugger. Luke thought there would be no hugs from the woman standing beside her desk in a plum-colored suit and matching heels. There might be smiles, but they would be the facial equivalent of three-dollar bills. In Mrs. Sigsbys eyes he saw careful assessment and nothing else. Nothing at all. Thank you, Hadad, Ill take it from here. The orderlyLuke supposed that was what Hadad wasgave a respectful nod and left the office. Lets start with something obvious, she said. We are alone. I spend ten minutes or so alone with every new intake soon after their arrival. Some of them, disoriented and angry, have tried to attack me. I bear them no ill will for that. Why would I, for goodness sake? Our oldest intakes are sixteen, and the average age is eleven years and six months. Children, in other words, and children have poor impulse control at the best of times. I see such aggressive behavior as a teachable moment... and I teach them. Will I need to teach you, Luke? Not about that, Luke said. He wondered if Nicky was one of those who had tried to lay hands on this trim little woman. Maybe he would ask later. Good. Have a seat, please. Luke took the chair in front of her desk, leaning forward with his hands clasped tightly between his knees. Mrs. Sigsby sat opposite, her gaze that of a headmistress who would brook no nonsense. Who would treat nonsense harshly. Luke had never met a merciless adult, but he thought he might be facing one now. It was a frightening idea, and his first impulse was to reject it as ridiculous. He quashed it. Better to believe he had merely led a sheltered life. Bettersaferto believe she was what he thought she was, unless and until she proved different. This was a bad situation; that much was beyond doubt. Fooling himself might be the worst mistake he could make. You have made friends, Luke. Thats good, a good start. You will meet others during your time in Front Half. Two of them, a boy named Avery Dixon and a girl named Helen Simms, have just arrived. Theyre sleeping now, but youll make their acquaintance soon, Helen perhaps before lights-out at ten. Avery may sleep through the night. Hes quite young, and is sure to be in an emotional state when he does wake up. I hope you will take him under your wing, as Im sure Kalisha, Iris, and George will. Perhaps even Nick, although one never knows exactly how Nick will react. Including Nick himself, I should think. Helping Avery acclimate to his new situation will earn you tokens, which as you already know are the primary medium of exchange here at the Institute. That is entirely up to you, but we will be watching. I know you will, Luke thought. And listening. Except in the few places where you cant. Assuming Maureens right about that. Your friends have given you a certain amount of information, some of it accurate, some of it wildly inaccurate. What I tell you now is completely accurate, so listen carefully. She leaned forward, hands flat on her desk, her eyes locked on his. Are your ears open, Luke? Because I do not, as the saying goes, chew my cabbage twice. Yes. Yes what? Snapping it at him, although her face remained as calm as ever. Ears open. Mind attentive. Excellent. You will spend a certain amount of time in Front Half. It might be ten days; it might be two weeks; it might be as long as a month, although very few of our conscripts stay that long. Conscripts? Are you saying Ive been drafted? She gave a brisk nod. Im saying exactly that. Theres a war going on, and you have been called upon to serve your country. Why? Because every now and then I can move a glass or a book without touching it? Thats stu Shut your mouth! Almost as shocked by this as he had been by Tonys roundhouse slap, Luke did. When I talk, you listen. You dont interrupt. Are we clear? Not trusting his voice, Luke only nodded. This is not an arms race but a mind race, and if we lose, the consequences would be more than dire; they would be unimaginable. You may only be twelve, but you are a soldier in an undeclared war. The same is true of Kalisha and the others. Do you like it? Of course not. Draftees never do, and draftees sometimes need to be taught that there are consequences for not following orders. I believe youve already had one lesson in that regard. If youre as bright as your records say you are, perhaps you wont need another. If you do, however, youll get it. This is not your home. This is not your school. You will not simply be given an extra chore or sent to the principals office or given detention; you will be punished. Clear? Yes. Tokens for good boys and girls, face-slaps for those who were bad. Or worse. The concept was chilling but simple. You will be given a number of injections. You will be given a number of tests. Your physical and mental condition will be monitored. You will eventually graduate to what we call Back Half, and there you will be given certain services to perform. Your stay in Back Half may last as long as six months, although the average length of active service is only six weeks. Then your memories will be wiped, and you will be sent home to your parents. Theyre alive? My parents are alive? She laughed, the sound surprisingly merry. Of course theyre alive. Were not murderers, Luke. I want to talk to them, then. Let me talk to them and Ill do whatever you want. The words were out before he realized what a rash promise this was. No, Luke. We still dont have a clear understanding. She sat back. Hands once more flat on her desk. This is not a negotiation. You will do whatever we want, regardless. Believe me on that, and spare yourself a lot of pain. You will have no contact with the outside world during your time at the Institute, and that includes your parents. You will obey all orders. You will comply with all protocols. Yet you will not, with perhaps a few exceptions, find the orders arduous or the protocols onerous. Your time will pass quickly, and when you leave us, when you wake up in your own bedroom one fine morning, none of this will have happened. The sad partI think so, anywayis that you wont even know you had the great privilege of serving your country. I dont see how its possible, Luke said. Speaking more to himself than to her, which was his way when somethinga physics problem, a painting by Manet, the short- and long-term implications of debthad completely engaged his attention. So many people know me. The school... the people my folks work with... my friends... you cant wipe all their memories. She didnt laugh, but she smiled. I think you might be very surprised at what we can do. Were finished here. She stood, came around the desk, and held out her hand. Its been a pleasure to meet you. Luke also stood, but he didnt take her hand. Shake my hand, Luke. Part of him wanted to, old habits were hard to break, but he kept his hand at his side. Shake it, or youll wish you did. I wont tell you again. He saw she absolutely meant it, so he shook her hand. She held it. Although she didnt squeeze, he could tell her hand was very strong. Her eyes stared into his. I may see you, as another saying goes, around the campus, but hopefully this will be your only visit to my office. If you are called in here again, our conversation will be less pleasant. Do you understand? Yes. Good. I know this is a dark time for you, but if you do as youre told, youll come out into the sunshine. Trust me on that. Now go. He left, once more feeling like a boy in a dream, or Alice down the rabbit hole. Hadad was chatting with Mrs. Sigsbys secretary or assistant or whatever she was, and waiting for him. Ill take you back to your room. Close at my side, right? No running for the trees. They went out, started across to the residence building, and then Luke stopped as a wave of dizziness came over him. Wait, he said. Hold on. He bent down, grasping his knees. For a moment colored lights swarmed in front of his eyes. You going to pass out? Hadad asked. What do you think? No, Luke said, but give me a few more seconds. Sure. You got a shot, right? Yes. Hadad nodded. It hits some kids that way. Delayed reaction. Luke expected to be asked if he saw spots or dots, but Hadad just waited, whistling through his teeth and waving at the swarming noseeums. Luke thought about Mrs. Sigsbys cold gray eyes, and her flat refusal to tell him how a place like this could possibly exist without some form of... what would be the correct term? Extreme rendition, maybe. It was as if she were daring him to do the math. Do as youre told, youll come out into the sunshine. Trust me on that. He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth. Feeling better? Ready to go, my son? Yes. Luke straightened up. But Im not your son. Hadad grinned; a gold tooth flashed. For now you are. Youre a son of the Institute, Luke. Might as well relax and get used to it. 12 Once they were inside the residence building, Hadad called the elevator, said Seeya later, alligator, and stepped in. Luke started back to his room and saw Nicky Wilholm sitting on the floor opposite the ice machine, eating a peanut butter cup. Above him was a poster showing two cartoon chipmunks with comic-strip word balloons coming from their grinning mouths. The one on the left was saying, Live the life you love! The other was saying, Love the life you live! Luke stared at this, bemused. What do you call a poster like that in a place like this, smart kid? Nicky asked. Irony, sarcasm, or bullshit? All three, Luke said, and sat down beside him. Nicky held out the Reeses package. Want the other one? Luke did. He said thanks, stripped off the crinkly paper the candy sat in, and ate the peanut butter cup in three quick bites. Nicky watched him, amused. Had your first shot, didnt you? They make you crave sugar. You may not want much for supper, but youll eat dessert. Guaranteed. Seen any dots yet? No. Then he remembered bending over and grasping his knees while he waited for the dizziness to pass. Maybe. What are they? The techs call em the Stasi Lights. Theyre part of the prep. Ive only had a few shots and hardly any weird tests, because Im a TK-pos. Same as George, and Shas TP-pos. You get more if youre just ordinary. He considered. Well, none of us are ordinary or we wouldnt be here, but you know what I mean. Are they trying to up our ability? Nicky shrugged. What are they prepping us for? Whatever goes on in Back Half. Howd it go with the queen bitch? Did she give you the speech about serving your country? She said Id been conscripted. I feel more like I got press-ganged. Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see, when captains needed men to crew their ships I know what press gangs were, Lukey. I did go to school, you know. And youre not wrong. He got up. Come on, lets go out to the playground. You can give me another chess lesson. I think I just want to lie down, Luke said. You do look kinda pale. But the candy helped, right? Admit it. It did, Luke agreed. What did you do to get a token? Nothing. Maureen slipped me one before she went off-shift. Kalishas right about her. Nicky said this almost grudgingly. If theres one good person in this palace of shit, its her. They had arrived at Lukes door. Nicky held up a fist, and Luke bumped it with his own. See you when the ding-dong goes, smart kid. In the meantime, keep your pecker up.
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  • Pale Horse Coming /      (by Stephen Hunter, 2001) -   Pale Horse Coming /
  • Love Story /   (by Erich Segal, 1996) -    Love Story /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  • Collection The tales of Peter Rabbit /       (7 ) Collection The tales of Peter
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