Despite my subconscious anxiety about my birth-parents’ lives, the next day at school actually went by pretty fast. I attributed that to Allison and our having gotten back together. We played our usual game of trying to grope each other throughout the day without anyone noticing – or at least I was always trying to grope her, she always denied it.
Late in the day, as Mrs. Weinbach finished up analyzing a passage from Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Clayton’s voice crackled over the intercom, effectively ending the day’s tortuous routine. I half-listened while daydreaming about saving Allison in heroic fashion from some unknown bad guys hell bent on causing trouble.
Anyway, as the onlookers to my heroic feat cheered and patted me on the back, I suddenly heard my name and realized it was coming from Mr. Clayton. I snapped out of it and focused on the intercom, but the moment had passed and he ended with his usual message: “Study hard and stay out of trouble.”
“Man, I’m glad he didn’t call my name,” Jim Blake, the serial negativist, said. I was taken aback and felt like I’d missed the most important message of my life. The bell rang and everyone began filing out of class, but that didn’t prevent the majority from throwing curious glances my way. I approached the teacher’s desk and noticed she too was intrigued.
“Mrs. Weinbach,” I began humbly, “I don’t think I heard Mr. Clayton clearly. Can you tell me what he said?”
“Oh, don’t let everyone scare you, Trenton. I’m sure it’s nothing. He simply asked you to report to his office before you leave for the day.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “You’re right, he’s always calling students to his office for one thing or another.”
It was true enough. Most people simply had to take care of something administrative. Unfortunately, it was beaten into our brains since the first grade that anyone reporting to the principal’s office was somehow involved in the biggest crime of the century. I’m not sure where or why this seed was planted in our mushy minds, but it certainly provided fodder for the gawker in all of us. And I must admit, I was no different than the rest because I too wondered what type of bad news was about to befall the latest Clayton victim. Unfortunately, this time I was going to find out firsthand.
As I approached Mr. Clayton’s office, I noticed him escorting Matt down the hall. Funny, I thought, I don’t remember hearing Matt’s name over the intercom. Now why would he need to speak to Matt? Had he finally gotten his revenge on Malton?
Then it hit me and I suddenly pictured flashing sirens, a judge banging a gavel, Allison and my father asking why, and last but not least, the cell door slamming shut on my future.
My stomach twisted and turned more than a gymnast on dismount as I stepped into the principal’s office. Why in the hell did I ask Matt to do that, I kept wondering. I guess the old adage was true, crime doesn’t pay.
“Mr. Locke,” the secretary said with an accusatorial tone, “Mr. Clayton will be right with you. Just wait here.”
“Okay, but what’s this about?”
“He’ll be right with you, young man.”
I rolled my eyes, but quickly looked away as she gave me a sharp look. When they say ‘young man’, you know it can’t be good.
A minute later, Mr. Clayton stepped through the door, eyeing me suspiciously. I had the feeling he enjoyed having the upper hand and received a sick sort of pleasure in knowing what others didn’t.
“Mr. Locke,” he said with the authoritative voice and demeanor we’d all grown to fear, “Come with me, young man.” And there it was again.
“Okay, but do I at least get a phone call,” I said under my breath, feeling my oats. What was happening? This bravado I’d been experiencing worried me, but at the same time, I liked it … I liked it a lot.
“What was that?” he asked, stopping and staring down at me. Despite my having grown a couple of inches in the last year, Mr. Clayton still hovered a good half-foot above me. He was a tall guy and I couldn’t help think that helped him in dealing with miscreants like yours truly.
“Nothing, sir. I was just wondering what this is about.”
He threw the skeptical eye that said ‘don’t give me that crap. You know exactly why you’re here.’
“You’ll find out in a minute.”
I followed him down the hall in the same direction he’d taken Matt, except he didn’t stop at the same room. I peered in as we passed and caught a glimpse of someone in a suit pacing in front of Matt, who actually had a grin on his face. What the hell, was he actually enjoying this?
“Have a seat in here, Mr. Locke,” Mr. Clayton ordered and held open the door of another classroom. I walked in and examined the room that had been my biology lab sophomore year. This time, however, it seemed foreign, as if the skeleton in the corner signaled my upcoming path in life.
The door clicked shut and Mr. Clayton disappeared. I sat down and waited impatiently. My stomach was now making the final turn of the last lap of its own Indy 500 and the fun had only just begun. I decided I needed a plan, but my brain was frazzled and I couldn’t string two coherent thoughts together for the life of me. I glanced at the skeleton and for some reason laughed – I did, not the skeleton.
Just then the door opened and my confusion grew. I recognized the woman but from where? Then it suddenly hit me, she was the lady I had talked to at the college fair – Ms. Petrovich. What in the world was going on? How badly did she want me to attend her university?
“Mr. Locke,” she began, “it looks like you’ve been up to no good.”
I was speechless and the look on my face showed it.
“Do you remember me? We met last week at the college fair. In fact, I seem to remember that you had a bit of trouble with your aptitude test score. Isn’t that correct?”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, finally finding my vocal chords, “aren’t you a college recruit?”
“No ... never said I was.”
“So who are you?”
“A government official who wants to know why you and your friend hacked into one of our databases last night.”
The pins and needles started to rumble below and I felt a blackout coming. I needed to suppress it as this wasn’t the best place to have a chunk of my memory turn up missing, especially since I never discovered what happened during those times. I certainly didn’t want the government catching interest in my condition. That could spell the end of all ends.
“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about,” I said, shakily.
She grinned with that type of grin a cat does that’s holding a fish in its mouth.
“You know, Mr. Locke, as I said before, a person with your test scores could have a bright future…” she paused and leaned forward, staring deep into my eyes, “…if he decides to cooperate.”
The tingling had spread to all four extremities now, but the tunnel vision hadn’t yet emerged.
“But I’m not a hacker. I don’t have the know-how to do whatever it is you’re suggesting.”
“Do you know why I was at that college fair last week?”
“No, it doesn’t make sense.”
“We recruit talent in very much the same way the private side does.” I suddenly thought of Number Nine and wondered if they knew each other. “In fact, after that little episode involving your test score mix-up, I did some research and found something extremely interesting.”
“It seems you did receive a letter showing a different score.”
“I know, that’s what I told you.”
“Yes, but the interesting part is that it wasn’t done by mistake.”
“You mean someone actually did it on purpose? But why and who?”
“I don’t know. After last night’s performance, I figured you had engaged in a little self-sabotage.”
“Is it? I mean, is it too much of a stretch to think that a guy who doesn’t want to open his letter and find out who he was in his past lives is running from something ... something like success?”
“Why would anyone want to run from success? That’s nuts.”
“You’d be surprised by the things I see. So it wouldn’t surprise me that a guy who doesn’t want to succeed, would also make sure he didn’t have the chance.”
“By altering his test score letter, right?”
“But I told you, I wouldn’t know how to do that even if I wanted to.”
“Who would then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who would have the ability to do something like that ... to hack into our system and change things?”
I hung my head because I knew where she was going.
“A guy like Matt,” I replied, lifting my eyes.
“Yes, a guy like Matthew would have the skills to do that, wouldn’t he?”
She was enjoying her triumph and I had to admit she was good. This is what my pre-law teacher called leading the witness and I fell right in line like a lemming walking off the cliff. But it didn’t make sense. Why in the hell would Matt change the score on my letter?
“I don’t believe he would do something like that,” I said, trying to defend my friend while pushing back the seed of doubt she had planted.
“The real question is why would a guy who doesn’t want to know anything about his past, suddenly want to know about his biological parents?”
“You’re acting as though I’ve admitted to doing all of this when I haven’t and won’t.”
“No, you haven’t, have you?” she replied.
“Don’t I get a lawyer or something?”
She laughed. “If someone keeps hacking into the system and screwing with your data, the only thing you’ll need is a past lives lawyer to iron it all out.”
“So am I free to go?”
“Of course, but remember, the most dangerous enemies come from within.” My session with the psychologist came to mind. “You’ll be issued another aptitude test score letter – this time an official one. Remember to consider your options fully. This little incident won’t hamper your chances, just don’t do it again because we’re always watching, Mr. Locke ... we’re the government.”
Matt was already gone by the time Ms. Petrovich finished. I wasn’t sure if I should check back in at the principal’s office and made a command decision to avoid Mr. Clayton and his secretary’s gloomy outlook on life.
As I walked out the front door, a sense of accomplishment came to light despite the circumstances – I hadn’t blacked out and thank god for that. Now all I had to do was figure out why Matt would want to mess with my aptitude score – it just didn’t make sense.