Chapter 30: Help, I'm Alive - Metric
“This is preposterous. We cannot trust one child to ensure the safety of another.” Calvin was in Wilmer’s ear, pacing behind his desk.
“This is what the king wants.” Wilmer was seated, his hands clasped, welcoming me with a calm smile.
“Milo is a bother to the veteran guards. He is neither trained or certified to deal with him.” He pointed to me.
“He is not a bother; he is opinionated and spirited. Midshipman Lofaro is beyond his years. You have seen his record. It is immaculate.” Wilmer argued calmly.
“Thank you, Sir, but your associate may have a point. I may not be the best person to protect the crowned prince.” I bowed my head to show humility.
“You were selected for a reason. You are a recent graduate who excelled academically. You look your age, which is not always the case with academy cadets. And you are the middle child of seven children, which means you are equipped to handle a lot of personalities in a small space.”
I broke eye contact at the mention of my family.
I loved them more than anything. Times were always tough. My parents did not make much money and there were so many of us. I did all that was asked of me and never made a peep. Learning of my obedience, my parents spread themselves thin amongst my siblings, trying to rein them in and keep our family afloat. When my mother died, I did all that I could to care for my younger siblings. My dad sent me to military school. He feared I would be too busy taking care of others to secure my own future. He gave me the ability to find out I was good at something. I was still sorting out a way to repay him.
“It would be an honor to directly serve the royal family, but I was on the engineering track at the academy. I only passed my fitness courses.” I returned my eyes to him.
“I am well aware.“ Wilmer leaned back in his chair. “Milo does not work well when staff members hover over him. A near guard attending school with him is a precaution; you will not be actively protecting him. All the students have passed their background checks. Far guards will be watching for outside threats 24/7.”
“What would I be doing exactly?”
“Posing as a friend. You will be with him as often as his real friends are. If something were to arise, you would get him to safety and the far guards would neutralize the threat.”
“That is all?”
“No, as someone close to him, you will see threats the far ones cannot see. If a cleared student seems suspicious to you, submit their name to the far guards. The matter will be investigated by them.”
“Observe and protect?”
“Precisely. You will be compensated very handsomely if you complete this mission without the students of his school knowing your true occupation. However, you should be made aware of an important element of his life before accepting – his friends.”
Calvin walked to where I was seated with seven large covered booklets.
“You will be submitted to some rather unusual things if you choose to spend the year with them. Reading will allow you to grasp why the disclaimer is needed.”
I opened the top booklet. The name on the header was Morgan Mayu Cohen. A school photograph was stapled just beneath it. Her kind smile and plastic-framed glasses had me struggling to see her as troublesome
“Even from Morgan?” I looked up from the paper.
“She is one of the two mild-mannered ones. Nicholas is the other. I feel as though you will find yourself relating to them the most.”
I went to the next one, my curiosity growing. The name was Samillia Andromeda Elkins. A school photograph accompanied hers as well. Her fire engine red hair, backwards cap, nose piercing, and decision to wink at the camera told me she was trouble.
“I see you have discovered Samilla’s file.” Wilmer caught my attention.
I cleared my throat. “Yes. Please say she is harmless.”
“Sam is a volcano. She is not a treat to Milo or anyone she considers to be a friend, but everyone else is unsafe when she erupts. Her triggers are injustice, harm to a person she cares about, and personal attacks, especially ones concerning her sexual orientation.”
“You mustn’t forget about the other one.” Calvin reminded him.
“The other one?” I questioned.
“Skip the next two files. They belong to Nicholas Monroe and Ryan Stephens. You will stumble across the one belonging to Finnegan Watson.”
I shuffled through the booklets. The ones I had already looked at accidentally fell onto the floor. I cringed and looked at Wilmer.
“They are durable. Continue on.” He insisted, picking up his coffee mug.
I found the correct booklet and opened the cover. Finnegan Patrick Watson. His mound of brown curly hair was chaotic. His head was somewhat tilted downward and to the left and his eyebrow was raised as if he was silently asking “are you really making me do this?”.
“Is he volatile too?”
“Far from it. It is virtually impossible to get a rise out of him. Sami serves as his source of passion. He is her second in command. He makes her elaborate schemes a reality.”
“How?” I skimmed through his basic information.
“He has genius level aptitude. Technology is his specialty. He hacked into the palace’s firewall and gained access to the control system while he was drunk.”
“That is impossible.” I thought aloud.
“Well, he did it. Twice, actually. Once to control the ballroom’s sound system during Milo’s birthday celebration and again to turn on the south lawn sprinkler system to assist Samilla in creating an aquatic slide with a tarp they found in the utility shed.”
“Which was locked.” Calvin inserted an addendum.
“How did they get into it then?”
“Sami is a skilled locksmith. As a pair, they are difficult to contain. Underestimating them is a rookie mistake.”
“You trust Prince Milo around them?”
“We monitor their behavior. The vast majority of what they do is victimless. The only times it is not is when they are directly provoked and engage in revenge plots.”
I scratched my head. “Are the remaining four also extremists?”
“No. Nick is the most docile of the group, so he does not need an explanation, but I still need to explain the other two. Find Ryan’s.”
I went back to one of the files I had dropped. “Ryan Matthew Stephens.” I read aloud when I found it.
“Actually, pick up Eleanor’s too. They are two sides of the same coin.” He added on second thought.
I balanced them on my lap. Their photos differed the others.
There was no way they were outcasts. They had to be cool kids. Their pictures were too strong not to be. They exuded confidence, not the kind gained from growing to thrive in exclusion, like Sami and Finn. Theirs told the opposite story; everyone loved them.
I grew intimidated, mentally returning to my primary school days.
“They are at the center of Sella Moora’s social scene. They know everyone and everyone knows them, especially Elle. She knows more about the inner workings of that school than the entire student body combined. She is welcoming. He is enchanting. Use her as a consult and him as an investigator to remain under the radar.”
I made notes on their respective files.
“Lastly, fetch Isabella’s packet.”
I found it strange that hers was a different color than the others – a cautionary yellow, instead of royal blue.
“Hers is an active file. It is regularly updated because she is currently dating the prince. Everything you read about her is confidential, thus the stamp on the cover.” Wilmer answered my thought.
“I have been on the base since I graduated. Do you mind giving me telling me a bit about her?” I opened to the first page.
Her file was peculiar in another way. Her original last name was redacted. The elimination was date stamped, leaving the name Isabella Mia Zapata. The girl in the photograph beneath her name was not what I was expecting. Prince Milo was commonly photographed entertaining vapid model types. She had unique beauty. There was plenty going on behind her eyes. It was as though she was smiling at a daydream and someone snapped a picture.
“She is an aspiring ballerina. She grew up in New York City. Her familiar situation is very complicated. Her parents divorced when she was very young. Her mother lost custody of her when she was eight. Her father was given full custody. She applied for an emancipation this year. She succeeded. She currently resides with her sister.”
“You have left out the two most important elements of that story.” Calvin reminded him.
Wilmer rolled his eyes. “She is more than --.”
“She had severe eating disorder and a nude photograph of her circulated at her former preparatory school.” He butted in without consideration.
“She has made a full recovery. A former classmate, whom drugged and violated her, took the photograph. He distributed it to further humiliate her. He is currently serving time in prison for his actions. Do not think less of her.” Will pleaded with me.
“I do not.” I answered with honesty as I frowned in Calvin’s direction, disgusted by his eagerness to tear her down.
“She is not a culmination of her past circumstances. Milo truly loves her. If he is ever behaving out of the norm, she is the first person to check with. She understands him best. You have the opportunity see that all of them are more than what you read. All you have to do is take the job.”
“My curiosity has gotten the best of me. I accept your offer.” I stood up and shook his hand.
I rose at 4 in the morning. I ran the perimeter of campus twice for the opportunity to release the pent up nerves that kept me from sleeping well. I encountered Isabella, Eleanor, and Morgan on my way back to my dormitory.
Elle was at the front of the pack, running with perfect form. Izzie and Morgan were meters behind. Iz appeared to be serving as her personal trainer, sporadically giving her exercises to do as they jogged and made her laugh each time she appeared to be struggling.
“Adam?” Ellen noticed me first.
I tried to mask my intimidation as I approached her. “Hello. You are awake early.” I waved.
“5 AM everyday. I run rain or shine. I live by a tight schedule. I am sure you can relate.” She stretched her arms.
“Not willingly. It is to keep my job. I look forward to sleeping until a reasonable hour this year. I am awake this morning due to a combination of jet-lag and nervousness.”
“Oh? What are you nervous about?”
“It is my first day around students. I did not attend a normal upper secondary school, let alone one like this. Self-expression and militarization do not go hand and hand.”
“Goooood morning!” Iz bounced up to us.
“She had caffeine and gummy bears. It was the only way to get her out of bed.” Elle explain, keeping her eyes on mine.
She nodded. “Is Milo awake?”
“No. He set his alarm for 9.”
“Hi. How are you?” Morgan arrived last.
“Well and yourself?”
“Goo – well.” She quickly corrected her grammar. “It’s early. I am not an early morning person. Wow. That was very repetitive. Elle mentioned running last night. I am painfully out of shape and I could afford to slim down. That’s embarrassing. I’m going to go over there and stretch, maybe die while I’m at it.” She spoke rapidly as she meddled with her glasses. She walked away the moment she stopped speaking.
I followed her with my eyes, trying to sort out what was going through her mind.
“If that’s why you commissioned my help, we’re going back right now!” Isabella marched over to her.
“We drop in and out of conversations a lot. You’ll get used to it eventually.” Elle regained my attention.
“You have nothing to worry about. You will only encounter first years and a few seniors who are coming back to help with their orientation. You must remember what you were like before your training.”
“I was always an outsider. Hand-me-down clothes and an affinity for science fiction do not bode well for an abundance of friends in primary school.” I admitted shamefacedly.
“I guess you’re in luck. We’re in uniforms. Most of us add thrift store finds to them to make them our own. Every November, Sami, Finn, Nick, and Morgan get all dressed up and go to Farmingham for a comic book convention. You will be fine. You’re one of us now. We don’t leave one of our own behind.” She touched her hand to my shoulder.
“Then I’m sure you grasp it.” She glanced down at her watch. “I need to finish my run, but if you need anything, just text me. Ask any of the guys for my number.”
“I will. Thank you.”
“Shape up, Sailor. It’s senior year.” She saluted, jogging past me.
Morgan and Isabella were lying in the grass, staring at the sky. I walked over to see what they were doing.
“Is there something going on?” I looked up from a standing position to see if I could find anything.
“Have you ever just laid down and watched the sky? It’s so beautiful this time of day, so many colors.” Izzie kept looking up.
“Never.” I sat down beside her.
“You have to lie on your back for the full effect.” She inculcated.
I did as she asked. I started to feel somewhat restless in an idle state.
“Take a deep breath and let your mind wander.” She soothed.
It was more of a struggle than running, but it was exhilarating when I was finally able to void my mind. I lost track of time.
Stamping feet came to a stop. “What in the world are you doing?”
The three of us looked in Elle’s direction.
“ We gave up on working out. Running is the worst. Sure, it’s good for your heart, but at what cost?” Izzie spoke on behalf of all of us.
“You’re a dancer. You’re constantly training!”
“I’m all about core and leg stuff. That’s what I do daily. I gave up running long ago, my friend. I’m exclusively an elliptical and exercise bike gal when I must tend to the cardio portion of my regimen. Better for the knees and ankles.” She flexed her toes.
“You’ll be running to the main building without showering if you don’t leave now.”
I scrambled to get to my feet. “It was nice running into you. I will see you soon.”
It was a mad dash to get to get to the main building showered, clothed, and fed. I was stationed at the art department table alongside Finn, Morgan, and other SMA artists. The dance table was in perfect view. I sat down in my chair and looked around, getting familiar to the campus.
“I don’t know if you brought anything to do. I remember you said you like comic books. Finn is borrowing all of mine to serve as research for his senior project, but I brought manga. It’s just a suggestion.“ Morgan lifted a hand-sewn bag off the floor and offered it to me.
“This was very thoughtful. Thank you.” I accepted it.
“Death Note is my favorite series. If you don’t know where to start, that’s one to check out. The first book is in there.”
“That will be the one I look at first.” I started pulling out books, searching for the one she recommended.
I read as Morgan answered students’ questions. I was quickly immersed in the storyline. I was thrown off by an older voice and looked up.
“Can I go on the department tour with my son Bobby? He is shy. He will be more comfortable with me there.” A mother kept her arm around her son’s shoulders.
He looked way, clearly embarrassed by her presence.
Morgan opened her mouth to reply.
“No.” Finn butted into their conversation, looking up from his sketchbook to stare at her with a bored expression.
“Students only beyond this point. Feel free to apply.” He restored with sarcasm.
“I am his mother! He –.”
“It’s about time you cut the cord and let him breathe. Let’s hope you didn’t kill any brain cells.” He crossed his fingers.
“What is your name? I am going to report you to the administration.”
“Name tag.” He tapped his chest instead of answering. “They put me on parent detail for a reason. You’re about to give me a five-star review.”
“Sweetheart, get your information packet. I will be in the office if you need me.” She glared at Finn as she walked away.
He waved at her.
“Thank you.” Bobby leaned in and whispered.
“It’s what I do, Kid. Go make friends or something.” He nodded over to the group of first year artists standing at the other end of the table.
“You could’ve been nicer to her.” Morgan told Finn as soon as Bobby was gone.
“Mom, you are here to answer questions and I am here to make sure parents don’t run all over you. She was a steamroller disguised as a soccer mom. Her own kid wanted her to go away and was too scared to say it.” He resumed drawing in his sketchbook.
Finn perked up at the sound of Sami’s voice. She was at the music table with a plate of finger foods. She pointed the refreshment table and made a series of hand gestures.
“I’ll be back.” He left.
“Do they do that a lot?”
“All the time. Would you like the full run down?”
“What?” I looked over at her.
“A full explanation of their habits. They call me Mom. I am aware of everything they do.”
“That would be great.”
“Okay, so Finn and Sami have created their own variation of sign language for their schemes. They are partners in crime. They are also together in the romantic sense, but you’ll never be able to tell. They are not openly emotional and don’t believe in PDA. They simply like being in the same space.”
“Why does the guy sitting beside Sami at the music table look afraid of her?”
“She broke into his suite, made his face up like a cat’s, and punched him in the groin in the lunch room when he confronted her about it.”
My eyes went wide. “For what?”
“He kept pressuring me to…um…yeah he broke up with me when I said no.” Her cheeks tinted pink.
“She sounds very protective of you. Rightfully so in that case.”
“That’s one way to describe it. She’s the smallest, but serves as our muscle. It baffles everyone.”
She paused our conversation to answer another question.
“Moving on. Nick probably won’t talk to you much right away. It’s not because he doesn’t like you. It takes him longer to warm up to new people.” She picked up once she was done.
“That’s a relief. I thought he hated me. He hasn’t said anything other than hello to me this entire time.”
“He likes you. I promise. He mentioned that he thinks you have the same taste in sci-fi/fantasy films and shows. He’s nervous to bombard you with questions. Bring it up and you’ll have a new best friend.”
“I will. What about Elle and Ryan? They can be …”
“Intimidating?” She offered.
“They are popular and pretty, but they have faults too. Ryan has to mask helpful advice and his true feelings as light-hearted jabs and jokes to feel comfortable. It makes it hard to get to know him as a person. Elle is a perfectionist who strives for control of every situation. It makes her a bit of a prima donna at times. Both need to be talked back down to reality on a daily basis.”
“They are a little less scary now.”
“That’s what I like to hear. We’ve made our way to Iz and Miles.”
We both looked at the dance table. “Iz is lost in her own little world most of the time. She invited us in this morning. –“
“That was my first time engaging in sky watching.”
“It was fun, right? That’s what she’s known for. She invites Milo into Izzie land so often that he basically lives there. Look at him.”
She appeared to be telling him an elaborate story during a lull at their table. When he wasn’t laughing, he was grinning from ear to ear.
“They have too many inside jokes to keep up with, so maintain your sanity and don’t even try to make sense of what they say. He used to be ‘cooler’ before she arrived. He was at Ryan’s side as his wingman. He was dating Elle’s equally popular rival, Anna. His exoticism and mid-school year transfer had mystic, so plenty of other girls wanted him. He tossed it out the window last year, seemingly out of nowhere, and he looks so much happier.”
“And what about you?” I shifted in my seat to get a better look at her.
She was delightful as her picture, maybe even more so. I was happy that Wilmer was right. I was able to relate to someone with ease.
“What about me?” She tucked her thick black hair behind her ear.
“What do you do?”
“There has to be more than that. How did you become interested in comic books and manga?”
“I found a box of my dad’s old comics in my bubbe’s attic when I was seven –“
“I’m Jewish. That’s what I call my grandmother on my dad’s side. So, um, I really loved reading them. I took them to Japan to visit my great-grandparents. My second cousins introduced me to manga.”
“Do you like anime too?”
“It’s pretty hard not to like anime if you’re into manga. I have to watch it subtitled. I hate dubs. It ruins everything. Watching it helped me get better at Japanese. My mom doesn’t speak it all that much at home. Japanese is her first language, but she grew up in the states. My dad’s not that great at it and she doesn’t want him to feel excluded.”
“What does Mayu mean?”
“How do you know my middle –? Right. True gentleness. “
“What are you doing for your senior project?”
“Japanese watercolor paintings of Boston and Sella Moora, but I am writing on them in Hebrew instead of Japanese. I want to explore my identity. “
“That sounds incredible. I look forward to seeing it. Why did you walk away earlier?” I recalled what happened.
Her cheeks tinted pink. “You’ve got your life together and you’re really cool.”
“Ha. No, did you hear what I said last night?”
“That’s what I mean. You’re a real live adult that knows what he is doing.”
“No, I follow orders. My parents sent me to military school to give me a future. What I am now is a product of that. All I did before was take care of Zoe, Febe, and Flora and wish I was Boris, Andreas, or Elias.”
“Who are they?”
“My siblings. I have three older brothers and three younger sisters.”
“Sounds like a full house.”
“Most definitely. Being heard was not an option. I helped my parents any way I could. They thanked me by relieving me from my duty early.”
“So you know what it’s like to feel like your only role is the caretaker.”
“It is what I have been for most of my life. I’d like to think I am more than that. That’s how I know you are too.”
“I am getting there.”
“How do you stay together, you and your friends? You seem to be very different people on varying social levels.”
“We’re a family. You don’t spend every waking moment with your family, but you always feel connected to them. We do our own things – sometimes together, often times apart, but we always go home at the end. Our home is with each other.”
I was envious. I had never felt that connected to peers. I was supposed to feel that way towards my shipmates, but we did not have a bond that progressed past needing each other to do our jobs correctly. There was no war or battle to be won. We were simply maintaining the fortress that had already been built by those before us. They had one – to survive their separate lives in one piece. They were essentially an action task force, all serving a different purpose. All I could do was hope they would include me eventually.
“That sounds nice.”
“It is. I think you will like it here.”
“Me too.” I smiled at her.