Tess received a note the next morning that she would be participating in a meet and greet with the other contestants. Dr. Tucker would be coming to get her at noon. She made her breakfast, took a shower, and then quickly got dressed.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when Dr. Tucker opened her door. She made sure not to ask any questions as he led her down the hallway. As much as she wanted to know where she was going and who would be there, she kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want to give Dr. Tucker any more ammunition.
When she glanced up at the hallway clock, she realized it was already 12:15. Her heart started beating faster. Was Dr. Tucker trying to give her a disadvantage? Was he trying to bait her into asking more questions? She tried to keep it together when he stopped her in front of the doors to the cafeteria.
“The meet and greet ends at 1 p.m. I’ll be getting you precisely at that time,” Dr. Tucker said. When he didn’t say anything else, Tess turned to face the doors. Clearly, this would be something she’d have to do alone.
Tess opened the door and stepped inside without letting her eyes focus on anything in particular. After what felt like a long moment of only seeing blurs, she focused on the scoreboard to the left of her. It now had all their names displayed on it. She saw Nate’s. Nathan Saunders. Her name, Tess Galvin, was a few rows down.
A few kids were staring at her as she walked in. Some were sitting awkwardly at tables and the rest were engaged in conversation with each other. Tess chose to be the one sitting at a table alone. She knew it probably wasn’t a good strategy, but hopefully she could figure her competitors out just by watching them.
Her eyes found Nate. He was in the middle of a conversation with a boy who had his back to her. Nate laughed at something the other boy said. Tess made sure to look away before his eyes scanned the room.
There was a girl sitting a few tables down typing away on her small computer. She was much bigger than Tess, with a curvy figure and teased brown hair. Tess recognized her immediately, but couldn’t remember where from.
The girl eventually looked up at her and raised an eyebrow.
“You might as well come over,” the girl called. “We don’t want to both be sitting alone.”
Tess felt embarrassed for moment, but no one was really paying attention to them. They were all engaged in their own conversations or simply keeping to themselves. Tess stood up and slowly joined the girl.
The girl closed her laptop and looked at Tess. She sighed.
“Such old technology,” she said, with a bitter edge to her voice.
“We can use computers?”
“Only me.” The girl grinned. “They’ll letting me keep up with my blog because it will probably bring the show more exposure. Not sure why they need me to. Never World is going to be huge.”
“I know who you are,” Tess finally said. The girl nodded. “Sonya…”
“Bingham. Sonya Bingham,” she extended her hand. Tess could only give her left hand, so it made for an awkward shake. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Tess replied. “My friend Cameron used to read your website all the time. She liked reading about all the celebrities.”
Sonya forced a smile.
“So, I know why you’re in this game,” Sonya said. “What’d you do to get here?”
“I owe some money.”
“Don’t we all,” Sonya said, with a laugh.
“And why are you here?”
“Apparently everyone is interested in my weight loss journey,” Sonya replied with fake enthusiasm. When Tess didn’t smile, Sonya shrugged. “I have the money and I know I can have the surgery, but screw them.”
Tess laughed, finding Sonya's confidence refreshing. Sonya gave her a strange smile, almost like she was trying to figure out if Tess was teasing her. Her expression softened after a few moments.
“Why’d you come here then?” Tess asked.
“I was approached. They thought my voice would be good for the show," Sonya said. "They needed at least one famous person."
Tess felt a hand on her shoulder and then a voice in her ear.
She swung around to see Nate standing behind her.
“Excuse me?” Tess asked.
“Tess Galvin. I think I’ll call you Gal,” he said.
Tess opened her mouth to reply, but Nate was already heading back to the other side of the room. She watched as he rejoined the other boy.
Sonya cleared her throat and crossed her arms over her chest.
“You thought you’d make friends here?” Sonya asked. “We all just want to win something.”
“What do you want?”
“My freedom,” Sonya said simply.
Sonya went back to her computer, so Tess glanced around feeling out of place. She ended up sitting back down at her original table. Maybe it would be better just to take things in.
When her eyes found Nate again, he was sitting next to the other boy at a table. This time they both were facing her, so she could get a good look at Nate’s new friend.
The first thing she noticed was the eye patch over his right eye. He also had dark features, like a boy from the beach she once knew as a kid, with dark hair and bronzed skin. She realized immediately that he was the boy that had been dragged down the hallway.
He glanced at her briefly, but didn’t completely focus on her. He smiled brightly when Nate elbowed him and pointed at the score board. They both laughed.
Even though she knew it didn’t matter, Tess was immediately jealous of Nate’s ability to make friends. It suddenly made her moment with him outside the jail feel less special. Not that it was special to begin with, it just felt like they had made a connection. The more she thought about it, the more she realized he was one of the reasons she was there. She suddenly felt stupid.
The boy Nate was talking to bit his lip and took another look around the room. She looked down as his eyes finally connected with hers. She didn’t want him to know she was staring.
Tess noticed a boy and girl, both with very similar features, standing close to each other as they spoke with the host of the show, Bethany Armbrandt. When they struggled to sit down across from her, Tess noticed that they were attached at the hip.
She honestly didn’t think they even existed anymore—and if they did they were usually separated fairly quickly. She marveled at their movements and how in sync they were with each other.
“Oh, what a wonderful story!” Bethany shrieked. Tess felt embarrassed by how loud she was talking. It was clear she liked the attention, which is probably why she’d make a good host. “I hope you win, so you can get the surgery you need.”
Tess glanced down at her missing hand, which was covered by her sleeve, and began to feel guilty. She didn’t need to win as much as they did. She couldn’t imagine being connected to someone at all times, especially if there was a way to undo it all.
Then she thought of her father. She thought of all the money she owed. She’d be in a jail for a very long time if she couldn’t pay it off and she wouldn’t be there for him. It was all for him.
She tried to push aside her guilt.
Dr. Young appeared briefly in the doorway as he propped the metal doors open. He didn’t take any time to look around the room and disappeared back into the hallway. When he came back in he was aiding someone in a wheelchair inside. The boy, with blonde hair and pale skin, kept his head down as Dr. Young brought him to a table. After Dr. Young whispered something in his ear, he left the room without looking back.
Tess thought about approaching him because he looked so lonely, but she decided against it. He eventually wheeled himself around so that his back was turned toward everyone else.
“Isn’t that nice!” She heard Bethany shout as she walked past a couple more competitors. Tess watched as she stopped where Nate was standing and placed a hand on his arm. “And how are you doing?”
Nate said something she couldn’t hear.
“Oh, that’s great. I wish you the best,” Bethany said. “I really do.”
He smiled at her and nudged the other boy. They whispered something as Bethany walked away. Her eyes were scanning the room looking for her next victim.
Just as she set her sights on Tess, another girl stepped in to talk to her. The tall girl with long brown hair was wearing a red dress and black high heels. Bethany looked over her shoulder at Tess, but thankfully it was too late. Tess moved to the food cart to grab an apple and sat back down near a less inhabited area.
After the 45 minutes was up, Dr. Tucker arrived back at the cafeteria and waited for her by the door. She searched for Nate to possibly say goodbye, but he was already gone. The boy he was with was still hanging out near Sonya.
Tess hurried to follow Dr. Tucker back down the hallway and was brought to her room. She didn’t get a chance to see which competitors’ rooms were near her before Dr. Tucker rushed her inside. He blocked the hallway.
“What’s tomorrow?” Tess asked, suppressing a yawn. It hadn’t been a particularly long day, but she felt exhausted by her nervousness. “Another fun day?”
“Tomorrow will be your last free day,” Dr. Tucker said. He stepped inside and let the door close behind him. “You’ll be seeing your interviews live on television for the first time. The world will be getting ready to meet you, Tess.”
Her chest suddenly felt heavy.
He motioned for her to sit on her couch, which was currently pulled out to form her bed. The pillows had been fluffed and the sheets had been changed. She let herself sink into the down feathers.
Dr. Tucker stood in front of her with his hands clasped behind his back.
“It’s important that you tell me anything you might know now before Never World goes live. It will be much harder to cover up a secret once it’s revealed to millions of people.”
Tess raised an eyebrow.
“What are you talking about?”
“I am not as convinced as The Creator is that you told us everything,” he said. “This is your last chance to let us know the truth. This is a safe place. If it comes out any other way…”
Tess thought about her conversation with The Creator regarding The Dark Hand. She knew immediately what Dr. Tucker was referring to, but she thought it was best to pretend like she didn’t have a clue.
Maybe she should tell him. Maybe she should just get it out. She didn’t really understand how the secret would come out during the game, so what was the big deal? Why was her conversation with The Dark Hand so important to them? Why couldn’t they let it go?
“I’ve told The Creator everything I know. I’m sorry it’s not more, but that’s the truth,” Tess replied.
Dr. Tucker dug into his pocket and pulled out some keys. There were five in total. He smiled as he analyzed each one of them separately.
“We will see you tomorrow, then,” Dr. Tucker said. “You’ll have free time for the rest of the day. I would get a really good night’s sleep if I were you.”
“I will,” Tess reassured him.
He gave her a hard glance before shoving his keys back into his pocket and heading toward the door. There was some noise coming from the hallway, but she didn’t try to see what it was. She felt shaky and weird.
He turned to her before leaving and said, “I’m sure you’ll do well enough.”
Tess didn’t respond.
When he left her alone, she walked over to her pod and knelt down next to it. It was such a confining space, but she found herself excited about seeing what it had to offer her. Right now the world felt so grim and dark, but maybe Never World would be the escape she needed. Maybe it would be her ticket out.
She wasn’t sure if she could win the competition, but she knew she had a shot at it. The more time that passed, the more important it seemed. There was a lingering and increasing urgency to win, besides everything it would mean to her and her father. There was something more to it.
Tess decided to forget about Nate for now. He got her into the competition, but she didn’t have to be friends with him to win it. She could win it without him.
When she went to sleep that night, she had endless dreams about what it would be like once she was in Never World. She was sure they were all wrong, but it was nice to feel as free as she did during her first experiences with the game.
She wanted to be free, just like Sonya had said.