Now that we all know each other, let’s get down to it
A single knock at the door jerks me from my coma-like state and forces me up from the puke-green sofa. I swore I’d destroy the atrocious couch my mentor left me, but the truth is, the thing’s too comfortable to part with. I’d never admit that to Willow, though, because if her head got any bigger, it’d explode like a firecracker.
When I check the door, the hallway is empty except for an abandoned roll of parchment at my feet, delivered, no doubt, by the magic of Progression. On my way to the kitchen, I untie and drop the leather cord on the hardwood floor, knowing it will disappear, compliments of, yes, the magic of Progression. The musty odor of the curled letter is quickly covered by the scent of coffee.
We are honored to welcome you to the Satellite team of Elites. Please go to the courtyard at break to begin your training. Also, please commence reading your assignment. You know we only ask because it is important.
I laugh out loud, recalling a similar note from S, when I missed a block on my first—and, so far only—assignment. Apparently, the life-planning Schedulers are fully aware that I haven’t started my reading yet. Imagine that.
In truth, I have been putting off getting acquainted with my next Tragedy because I’m nervous about what lies ahead. My time protecting Ryder wasn’t what I’d call easy, and that was a normal case. I can only imagine what an Elite assignment will entail.
I gulp down the extra strong coffee on my way back to the sofa, then trade the mug for my assignment on the dilapidated trunk used as a coffee table (another of Willow’s eclectic touches). The book is too heavy for its size, much heavier than Ryder’s book was. I try not to think too much about what this could mean.
My eyes move past my name and label Assignment Two on the dark purple cover, getting stuck on the third line: Elite. I reluctantly open the book and the binding creaks as if in defiance. I skim past the first page and am greeted with the familiar, neat handwriting.
It is with great appreciation that I welcome you to the Elite team of Satellites. You have proven to be a remarkable Satellite. Your qualities of integrity, empathy, and kindness will be pivotal in your upcoming assignments.
Being chosen as an Elite is the highest honor in this program. I have great hope that you will gain a respect and appreciation for your fellow Elites.
If you should need assistance at any time, please do not hesitate to contact me.
All My Best,
The Beginning graces the next page in bold text above the instructions for dummies. I flatten the spine and do as I’m directed, placing my hand, fingers splayed, on the page. The drawn outline of the hand suits mine precisely.
The tugging starts lightly, but it doesn’t take long before my arm feels almost dismembered. When I’m yanked into the book, my eyes clamp shut as I move through the constricting, black space. I know better than to try and breathe. Instead, I make an effort to focus on anything other than the invisible needles scouring my body.
When my feet finally hit the dirt in the circular room that resembles the inside of a well, the dank smell is calming. The blackness overhead, however, makes me uneasy. “Well, let’s go,” I say out loud, anxious to get out of this stone, claustrophobic prison of rusty doors.
GPS Jeanette, the automated voice of choice in Progression, chimes through the space, “Welcome, Grant Bradley. Please hold while I configure your assignment.”
A rumble prompts the circular wall to spin into a gray blur. I focus on my boots and the dirt ground, thankful that both remain stationary.
With a ding, the wall stops and leaves just one door. “Your assignment begins in the year 1976, with the introduction to your Tragedy, Meggie Ann Lotashey. Please proceed through the door ahead,” GPS Jeanette instructs.
I suck in the smell of earth. The door that remains includes 1976 in iron numbers. When I turn the handle, an electric current vibrates through my veins. The room on the other side welcomes me with nose-burning antiseptic and bright lights. My breath swims like smoke each time I exhale, even though the temperature is as comfortable as Progression.
Six gender-neutral doctors in blue scrubs and matching masks crowd around a small table. Taller than all of them, I lean between two shoulders to see what has their attention, but cringe away in shock.
“More suction,” a male voice says, followed by a dry sucking sound that turns to a gurgle.
Probably because I’m a guy and, therefore, fascinated by gore, I go back for another look. A heart the size of a walnut frantically pulses inside a tiny, open chest.
“Clamp,” the doctor says and somehow finagles a silver instrument into the area.
Putting space between myself and the group, I grip the stainless steel table and swallow. The gore is one thing; twisting implements into the infant’s body is entirely different. I could never be a doctor.
After barking more orders, a male voice finally says, “Happy Birthday, Meggie. I think you’re going to be quite a fighter.” He takes a step back and pulls his mask down. “Close her up. Good work.”
My feet come out from under me and I grab at the air as I’m yanked out of the room. My boots hit the hard earth and the metal door closes with an echo.
The stone wall cyclones around me again. When the familiar ding halts the movement, instead of saying, it’s now safe to move about the cabin, GPS Jeanette says, “Please proceed to 1980,” in her creepy-calm voice.
I push through the door, past the shock of the handle, and step into a yellow kitchen. Balloons and bodies fill the tiny area.
I push myself against the wall and exhale vapor, glancing through the doorway into an even smaller room that’s been taken over by a sea of pink bows, decorations, and wrapped boxes.
The crowd in the kitchen finishes belting out “Happy birthday, dear Meggie, happy birthday to you,” and the girl at the table shows her approval by baring all of her white Tic-Tac teeth.
“You belong in the zoo,” a boy beside her sings after Meggie half blows, half spits out the four candles. He’s double her size in both height and width, but has the same white-blond hair. If the boy on Meggie’s other side wasn’t wearing a red shirt instead of blue, I’d swear I was seeing double.
“Max and Ryan!” Twenty bucks says the woman is momma bear, as no one else in the room has hair as blond as the three kids.
Meggie sticks her tongue out at the twins.
I’m sucked away and the thunder of metal follows. When the cyclonic walls halt, GPS Jeanette tells me to move on to 1984. I step into the living room that had moments ago been filled with birthday gifts. A rancid odor hangs in the air. A piercing shriek makes me stumble and my back hits the drywall beside the couch.
“You’re a worthless excuse of a woman!” The voice belongs to a charmer who’s wearing the source of the smell on his shirt. The ugly stains match his weathered face. He rocks over momma bear while she hunches over little Meggie like a shield.
My instinct is to block him until I remember this is the past; blocking this scene would work about as well as trying to block the events of a movie.
Blood is matted in momma bear’s hair and her shoulders jerk in silent sobs. Little Meggie, however, wastes no energy trying to keep her shrieking quiet. My fingernails sting my palms when Mr. Drunk spits on the wall. He exits the room like a slow and swaying elephant.
Momma bear jumps when the door slams and rattles the walls. The pictures above the sofa go crooked. With her back to me, the blond woman unfolds her wary body. She motions silently for Meggie to stay and then tip-toes across the tiny room, holding her lower back with her left hand. She peers around the doorway before disappearing into the kitchen.
My stomach twists into a knot and I keep my eyes on little Meggie for almost a minute. I turn toward the doorway to see what has made her eyes so big.
My hand clamps over my mouth, but even muffled, my groan is loud. Every part of me wants to chase after the monster, to make him regret what he did to this woman.
“Momma?” little Meggie’s voice squeaks.
My feet are kicked out from under me and I hit the hard earth, doubled over. As I hurl onto the dirt, a cloud of dust lifts into the air and the remains of my meals disappear. The image of momma bear’s face, battered like she’d been bludgeoned with a meat tenderizer, is seared into my brain.
The room must have already completed its spin-cycle, because GPS Jeanette says, “Please proceed to 1989.” I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, not wanting to face another door. Taking a deep breath, I reluctantly turn the handle.
The sound of a beeping monitor raises goose bumps on my arms and knits my insides together. I so hate hospitals. Meggie’s asleep in the bed. Her mom, whose face features a sagging left eyelid and a deep scar along her cheekbone, is sitting on one side of Meggie’s bed. The twin boys are sprawled in chairs on the other side.
Meggie’s mom stands when a middle aged man, wearing a tie that is spotted in a Dalmatian pattern, comes into the room. He opens a folder and skims across a page inside. Thirty seconds later, he puts the folder under his arm and says, “I am very pleased with the results we’ve gotten back on Meggie’s heart. I know these outbursts are scary, especially with Meggie’s past heart surgery, but her heart is as healthy and strong as a normal thirteen-year- old girl. This is good news.” The doctor pulls a pen and small pad of paper from his pocket and scribbles something while he talks. “I’m prescribing a sleeping pill that should help.”
Meggie’s mom turns toward Meggie and barely nods. In a soft voice, she says, “It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her he’s not coming back, her nightmares won’t stop.”
My feet are clotheslined out from under me and I’m jerked back into the stone room. After the usual cycle, I reluctantly push myself into 1992, which is not a room at all.
My foggy breath fills the backseat of what would better be described as a go-kart than a car. My knees shove into my chest like a closed folding chair.
The guy in the passenger seat beside Meggie has a protruding Adam’s apple and a deeper than expected voice. “Now release the clutch and push the gas. Ea-si-ly.”
The car jumps and we jerk forward so hard my chin hits my knees.
Meggie’s thin, white eyebrows crease apologetically. “Better?”
He laughs. “Not yet, but you’ll get it…or my clutch will burn up. Either way, you owe me dinner.”
After the car jerks forward three times and then dies, the guy smiles. “How about you pretend not to be a rabbit.”
I’d laugh if there were actually room.
Meggie smacks the guy on the arm. “Brody, you’re not helping!”
I’m sucked out of the car and back into the musty room, relieved to stretch my legs. The drill is repeated and the door to 1994 appears.
A hoarder would look like minimalist in this room. Posters and photographs cover every inch of wall space. The stereo, playing at a low volume, is almost as big as the bedroom.
Brody, whose body has grown into his Adam’s apple, managed to find a piece of carpet amid the strewn clothing. Meggie sits on the bed behind him and rubs his shoulders. She’s taller and thinner, but not at all lanky. Her light hair is longer and sports a side ponytail.
“What’s the big deal? Just take the test again,” Meggie says.
“My score isn’t going to get any better,” Brody replies, seemingly to the carpet.
“Sure it will.”
“It won’t. I’m not like you!”
Meggie leaps back on her bed and shrinks into the corner. A second later, Brody’s up and towering over her, causing her to mimic my position in the backseat of the car a few minutes ago.
“Whoa.” Brody holds his palms out like he’s trying to calm a wild horse. “I’m sorry.”
There’s fear in her blue eyes when he inches closer. “I’m sorry,” he repeats and then lunges. She disappears under his embracing arms while he talks into her hair. “I’m not him. It’s OK, I’m not him. I would never hurt you.”
My heart sinks as my body is pulled back into the stone room. The door slams and the thunderous sound echoes off the curved walls.
“Thank you, Grant. This will end your first session. Please return after break,” GPS Jeanette’s voice says. I’m yanked up into the blackness before I can prepare myself. My lungs constrict under the pressure and I fight to catch my breath.
I land hard, but at least I’m on my feet when the book spits me out. The binding thuds to the hardwood floor and the cover flops closed. At the same time, my calimeter buzzes to signal break.
I scratch through my hair and wonder if that will ever become bearable, not sure if I’m referring to the traveling or to glimpsing into a Tragedy’s past like Meggie’s.
With coffee in tow, I take the elevator down to the sprawling marble lobby. GPS Jeanette, whom I’ve had enough of for one day, wishes me well when I step out of the golden box.
I glance at Benson on my way to the courtyard, wishing I could pop in and see the crew. I almost talk myself into it, but figure Jonathan won’t be happy if I’m tardy to my first day of training.
My heart rate quickens—from nerves, I guess—when I’m in the courtyard hall off the lobby. The giant doors welcome me to a tree-huggers’ paradise. The air smells like dandelions, even though there’s not a single weed along the manicured lawn.
Down the stone path and across the vast training field, a small group is hanging out. My nerves ramp up my heart rate even more when I realize I haven’t given much—OK, any—thought to training. Willow’s image flickers in my head, her lunatic voice demanding, Again, over and over when she trained me to block. I shudder on my way to the field, forcing my shoulders and back straight.
Jonathan is one of the five on the grass, dressed casually like always. I guess a group this size is too small for a formal bleacher meeting. He smiles and the severity of his jaw line lessens. “Welcome, Grant.”
I recognize the other four from Elite Force Seven, the video game of choice around here. I wonder if I’ll make an appearance in the game now. The thought is horrifying.
Jonathan points to a plain, but very pretty girl. Her thick, reddish-brown hair is haphazardly tied into a bun that’s the size of Texas. “I’d like you to meet Trina. She’s been with our team sixteen years.”
“As a Satellite or an Elite?” I ask to no one in particular while her hand, as delicate as her frame, gets lost in mine.
“As an Elite,” Jonathan answers. “And Reed. Thirty-three years.”
I overlook his sharp, spiky hair and multiple piercings to shake his hand, recalling our meeting a couple months ago and the helpful advice he offered Willow for my coding problem. Now that coding comes so easily, it’s somewhat embarrassing to think of the trouble it once gave me.
“Thanks for helping me out with that problem,” I say to make conversation.
Reed’s eyes dart briefly to Jonathan and when they are back on me his expression changes; he may as well be calling me the village idiot. Normally this might bother me, but coming from a guy who shares Willow’s fashion sense—God love her—I don’t put much stock into it.
Jonathan steps between us and pulls my attention to the other girl on the field. “And this is Evelynn. She’ll have been with us an impressive forty-two years next month.”
This girl isn’t dressed casually like the others; there’s not a shred of cotton on her body. Instead, she’s clad in some sort of painted-on, shiny material. Maybe training won’t be too strenuous after all. One can hope.
Evelynn’s tongue slides over her bleached teeth. Her eyes move up and down my body like she wants me for dessert. Her seven-inch heels make her exactly my height, so we are eye to eye when we shake. Our hands don’t break apart until Trina overdramatizes a sigh.
“And not to forget Jackson, who has proven himself exceptional over the past twenty-one years,” Jonathan continues.
Feeling embarrassed and unsure why, I turn back to Jackson. To say this guy has any sort of build would be a lie. He’s not only small, he’s awkward. Not in a subtle way, either. Like trouble-tying-his-own-shoes awkward.
Jackson looks from Evelynn to me and grins, nodding like a bobble-head. I consider digging a hole right here in the field and hiding inside it as two other guys approach, looking more like the type I’d expect to see here. If it weren’t for the stark contrast in their skin color, they could be twins, by size anyway.
“Last, but certainly not least, meet Lawson, thirty-nine years, and Billy, nine years,” Jonathan says when they reach us.
Everything but Lawson’s extended arm, heavily muscled and black as his T-shirt, remains frozen. His grip tightens and he nods once. When he releases my hand, I turn to the other guy.
With his bumpy nose in the air, Billy squints at me like I smell bad. He ignores my hand at first, then clutches it as I’m pulling away. I grit my teeth while the veins in his tree-trunk neck pop out. Billy finally releases his grip. Instead of splaying my fingers, I turn to Jonathan and bite the inside of my cheek until my hand stops tingling. Note to self: stay away from that guy.
Jonathan seems oblivious to the transaction between Billy and me. “Now that we all know each other, let’s get down to it. First, let’s get Grant acquainted with how things work.”
Evelynn has materialized beside me, so close her warm, bare arm brushes against mine. I’m surprised a star-bright glint doesn’t bounce off her teeth when she smiles.
“Grant, Elites convene for training every other day. This practice is instrumental in building your blocking tolerance and keeping that tolerance elevated.” Jonathan scans the others. “As you may have heard, Grant is, historically, our most inexperienced Elite.”
Billy muffles a laugh and his partner in crime, Lawson, fails at concealing a grin.
“It would be wise not to discount this,” Jonathan says in the direction of the Hulks. “Grant has proven himself quite impressive in his previous training. His mentor was not easy on him.”
Ha! Try unrelenting. Or insane…unstable…mental…
Jonathan reacts to Billy’s arrogant smirk with a warning look.
Billy’s laughing now. “Sorry, was that eye roll out loud?”
“Grow up,” Trina says to him.
Billy winks at her.
“Did I mention that Grant established a new record for the number of blocks on a first attempt?”
I didn’t know this—nor do I care much—and wish Jonathan would stop already. His cheerleading isn’t helping my fan base.
Billy is now chili pepper red, and it’s clearly not a result of embarrassment. His crimson cheeks are taut. “Yeah, we’ve all heard it. So he’s Boy Wonder. Big deal.” There’s not a trace of nice in Billy’s grin.
“Let’s be mindful that we are a team.” Jonathan pauses and then uses a stern tone. “Billy.”
Billy’s grin finally dissolves.
Jonathan turns back to me. “Building a tolerance is important. Training with Willow was just a glimpse into what an average day will consist of with your Tragedy.”
An average day? What the heck happens during a bad day?
Unaware of my worries, Jonathan continues. “Let us pair off for blocking drills.”
“I’ll partner with him.” Evelynn breathes the last word in my ear, sending chills down my arms.
“Actually, I would prefer that you partner with Lawson today.”
Whew. Thank you, Jonathan.
Evelynn isn’t pleased.
“Jackson, would you be so kind as to instruct Grant? Billy, Trina, why don’t you two pair off and work out some of that aggression,” he suggests happily, despite Billy’s and Trina’s blatant disapproval. “Reed, please be our Watcher today.”
When everyone breaks off into pairs, Jackson and I head to the far right side of the lawn. He skips along to match my pace and beams up at me. He’s so small I could step on him.
“Were you super-stoked when you found out?”
I refrain from laughing at his high voice and shrug my answer. After learning what an average day will be like, I’m even less keen on this whole Elite thing.
“Man, it was over twenty years ago that I was chosen, but it feels like yesterday. No one ever thought a guy like me would be an Elite. Not even me, if I’m being honest. Which I am, by the way. Being honest, that is.”
I raise my eyebrow.
“Sorry, am I rambling? I am. I ramble when I get nervous. At least that’s what people tell me. Not that I always believe what people say. You shouldn’t, you know? It doesn’t matter what people say. You should never—”
“Jackson,” I interrupt.
“Yeah?” he asks.
He takes two silent strides to my one until we reach the other side of the field, far from the other two groups.
Billy and Trina have already started working in the distance. When Billy charges towards her, the image of Meggie’s dad pops into my head. Billy isn’t sloppy, though, which worries me.
Trina looks bored, twirling a long curl that has escaped from her bun. A waterfall-like haze extends out from her and encloses them both. When the filter dissipates, Billy falls on all fours and shakes his head like a dog.
My laughter halts as soon as he stands. Even from here, the darkness in his eyes is dangerous. Trina’s stance, no bigger than a kid compared to his monstrous size, doesn’t help matters and my stomach does a nervous flip.
When Trina’s next concocted filter evaporates into bouncing water droplets around them, Billy falls on his butt. As Trina mockingly bows at the giant, it’s apparent he’d like to maul her.
“Um, you ready?” Jackson says.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah.”
“We’ll just be doing standard blocking drills. Should be pretty easy, right? You want to go first or should I? Because it doesn’t matter to me either way. Whichever you choose is fine. Personally, I—”
“I’ll block first,” I interrupt, remembering how unnerving it was when Willow got into my head.
“Cool,” is all he says and positions himself fifteen feet away. I hope that from this point on, Jackson will keep all his answers to one word.
His boyish face is all business. “We’ll keep it simple, I mean, if that’s all right with you? I’m going to come at you, so try to stop me, OK?”
If I could get past his height—or lack thereof—he’d be easy to take seriously, but I’m looking down at him wondering how someone so small could do any damage as I take my stance, certain that this is going to be easy.
Jackson’s short legs carry him faster than I expect. I collect my energy as I’ve done so many times now and tighten my visualized blue filter into a perfect ball. “Haze,” I say and a rippling waterfall rushes from my body, enclosing us and muffling all distant sounds.
Sit, sit, sit, sit, SIT, SIT…
While Jackson comes at me, the paralyzing electric jolt hits, sharp and strong. I try to think, to remember the word that will make the pain halt, but the current holds my brain hostage.
“Block!” I finally shout when Jackson’s shoulders are three inches from my chest.
He sits on the ground, stunned for about thirty seconds. “Not bad. Let’s test your stamina, if you’re cool with that. Or, we can take a few minutes to rest if you…”
He pushes himself up from the grass and returns to his previous position fifteen feet away. “Ready?”
After I nod, he begins his approach.
When the translucent, blue ball obstructs my vision, I shout, “Haze,” and the undulating barrier separates us from the rest of the world.
Turn back, turn back, TURN BACK…
A hot knife cuts through my muscles and my scream can’t break free from the electrifying pain. Think, Grant, THINK!
“Block,” I finally manage, breaking the connection and causing Jackson to turn.
I hunch over to relieve my rubbery muscles. I look up from my boots, panting, as Jackson stops and turns. He smiles, as if the fact that I got into his head doesn’t bother him.
“Can you go again? I understand if you can’t, two in a row can be tough…” he’s saying as I stretch my shaky arms.
“Just give me a minute, OK?”
Jackson stops talking and I welcome the silence. While my muscles recover, he jogs in place and watches the others work in the distance. This guy is a ball of energy. I have to wonder if it’s possible for him to sit still. After about five minutes of watching the others work, I feel rested enough to go again. “Let’s do it.”
We go three more rounds and my muscles scream in agony.
“Man, you’re really good. Really. That’s a lot of blocking for someone so new. Seriously, wow, I can’t believe—”
“I’ll try again,” I say, exhausted but curious to see how long I can last.
That’s it? One word? I nod. I’m already dead, what’s the worst that can happen, aside from losing all muscle control?
Jackson’s short legs pivot back into position. He doesn’t give me a heads up this time, just advances.
“Haze!” I shout when the blue filter comes, lighter than before.
The bubble forms around us and I watch Billy and Trina through the waterfall, distorted and now just a few yards away. Whatever Billy is saying is too muffled to comprehend.
You, idiot, you’re too late! I scold myself and react the only way I can, by digging my left foot behind me to brace for the impact.
Jackson groans when he hits me, but despite my flaming muscles I barely budge. When the haze that never carried a thought evaporates, the roaring sound of someone’s laughter increases.
I ignore the others approaching us. “Sorry, man.” I pull Jackson up and mentally ream myself for missing the block.
Jackson brushes himself off. “Totally cool, no sweat. You all right? I didn’t mean to hit you so hard. I totally thought you had it. If I had known, I would have gone easier on you. I mean—”
“I’m OK,” I interrupt, but because Billy won’t stop laughing at him, I mock a pain in my stomach. “That was a heck of a hit.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you. That was a head-on blow and—”
“I think I’ll be all right,” I say in my nicest voice.
“You’ve got some mad skills,” Trina says.
“Seriously, that was really something. You’re really something.” Evelynn adds.
I shift awkwardly while everyone gazes with approval; everyone but one, anyway. Billy, who has stopped laughing, is glaring like he wants to rip me in two. Or ten. When he retracts his venomous stare, he turns to Lawson. “You may as well ask him out, you pansy.”
“Watch it, Billy,” Lawson warns in a deep voice.
Jonathan clears his throat and steps between them. “We have many years ahead. I would advise that we all try to get along.” His smile doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. “That will wrap up our session today. Grant, the others will be returning to their assignments shortly. I suspect you have some work to complete in getting acquainted with your Tragedy.”
In response, I lock eyes with Billy.
“See you all in two days. Safe journeys everyone,” Jonathan says as his dismissal.
Billy breaks the staring contest first, but snickers before whispering something to Lawson.
On the way back inside, Evelynn glues herself to me. Her smooth arm keeps meeting mine no matter how much I veer away. “You really were something out there. That’s some great stamina, especially as a newbie.” Evelynn squeezes her hand around my bicep. “I’m interested to see what other tricks you have up your sleeve.”
I pull my arm away and step to the left, giving Trina what I hope is a ‘help me’ look.
Trina smiles like she gets it and moves to put herself between Evelynn and me. Evelynn is reluctant to take the hint, but eventually falls back, becoming the receiver of Jackson’s rambling.
“She’s a persistent thing. She’ll be all over you until she’s absolutely sure you’re not interested,” Trina says.
I scowl. “I guess I’d better let her know sooner than later.”
Trina undoes her hair and wild curls sprout in every direction. Something tugs inside me. Why is she so familiar? Maybe I’ve seen her around Benson and just don’t remember. That doesn’t feel right, though. Hair like that would be difficult to forget.
When we get through the doors, Billy’s shoulder rams into mine.
“Watch yourself,” he hisses in my ear when I straighten. “Don’t count on doing so well in training next time.” His lips pull over his pointy teeth like a wolf before he turns and stalks away.
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