By Jennifer Rush
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Rush
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316197083
FOR MOST OF THE LAST FOUR YEARS, I wasn’t allowed in the lab. But that didn’t stop me from sneaking down there. And while I no longer needed to wake at midnight in order to visit the boys, my internal clock was still fully tuned to the schedule.
I sat on the edge of my bed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, bare feet rooted to the hardwood floor. Moonlight crept through the window, the shadows from the maple trees sliding this way and that.
Dad had asked for my help in the lab eight months earlier, so I could go downstairs anytime I wanted now. But seeing the boys with permission wasn’t the same—wasn’t as thrilling—as sneaking down there in the dark.
I’d long ago mapped the creaky floorboards in the hallway, and I skipped over them now, pushing through the living room and the kitchen, taking the stairs down to the basement two at a time.
The stairs ended in a small annex, where a keypad had been installed in the wall, the buttons glowing in the dark. For someone who worked for a clandestine company, Dad had never been cautious with his codes. Four years ago, when I first broke into the lab, it took me only a week to figure out the right combination. It hadn’t been changed since.
I punched in the required six digits, the buttons beeping in response. The door hissed as it slid open, and I was greeted by the stale scent of filtered air. My breath quickened. Every nerve in my body buzzed with anticipation.
I went down the short hallway and the lab opened before me. The space felt small and cozy, but the lab was actually much bigger than the footprint of the house. Dad told me the lab had been built first, and then the farmhouse was built on top of it. The Branch had gone to great lengths to make the program, and the boys, disappear in the middle of New York’s farmland.
To the right sat Dad’s desk, and next to it, mine. To the left was the refrigerator, followed by a tower of filing cabinets, and a hutch stuffed with supplies. Directly across from the mouth of the hallway were the boys’ rooms: four of them lined up in a row, each separated by a brick wall and exposed by a sheet of thick Plexiglas in the front.
Trev’s, Cas’s, and Nick’s rooms were dark, but a faint light spilled from Sam’s, the second room from the right. He rose from his desk chair as soon as he saw me. My eyes traced the etched lines of his bare stomach, the arch of his hips. He wore the gray cotton pajama pants all the boys had, but that was it.
“Hey,” he said, his voice reduced to the sound the tiny vent holes allowed through the glass.
Heat crept from my neck to my cheeks and I tried to look calm—normal—as I approached. The whole time I’d known the boys, they had suffered from amnesia, an unplanned side effect of the alterations. Despite that, I felt like the others had shown me parts of who they were, deep down. All of them but Sam. Sam gave only what he thought was necessary. The things that truly defined him were still a secret.
“Hi,” I whispered. I didn’t want to wake the others if they were asleep, so I kept my steps light. I was suddenly more aware of the sharp edges of my elbows, the knobs that were my knees, the loud thumping of my feet. Sam had been genetically altered, made into something more than human, and it showed in every efficient curve of muscle in his body. It was hard to compete with that.
Even his scars were perfect. A small one marred the left side of his chest, the skin puckered white, the jagged lines of the scar branching off in a shape that seemed more deliberate than accidental. I’d always thought it looked like an R.
“It’s after midnight,” he said. “Something tells me you didn’t come down here to watch infomercials with me.”
My laugh sounded nervous even to me. “No. I don’t really need a Chop-O-Matic.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do.” He shifted, pressing his arm against the glass above his head so he could hunch closer. Closer to me. “What are you doing down here?”
I tried out a dozen possible answers in my mind. I wanted to say something clever, something witty, something interesting. If it had been Trev, I would have had to say only, “Entertain me?” and he would have shared a handful of memorized quotes from his favorite historical figures. Or, if it had been Cas, I’d have split a set of markers and we’d have drawn ridiculous pictures on the glass. And Nick… well, he rarely acknowledged my existence, so I would never have come down here for him in the first place.
But this was Sam, so I just shrugged and suggested the same thing I always suggested: “I couldn’t sleep, and I wondered if you wanted to play a game of chess.”
I clasped my hands awkwardly in front of me as I waited for him to answer.
“Get the board,” he finally said, and I smiled as I turned away.
I grabbed what we needed and pulled my desk chair over. He did the same on his side. I set up the small folding table and the board, putting the black pieces on Sam’s side, the white on mine.
“Ready?” I asked and he nodded. I moved my knight to F3.
He examined the board, elbows on his knees. “Rook. D-five.” I moved his piece to the correct square. We ran through a few more plays, focused only on the game, until Sam asked, “What was the weather like today?”
“Cold. Biting.” I moved my next piece. When he didn’t immediately counter, I looked up and met his eyes.
An unremarkable green, like river water, his eyes were nothing to look at, but they were something else to be watched with. Sam’s gaze, at quiet moments like this, made my insides shudder.
“What?” I said.
“The sky—what color would you use to draw it?”
“Azure. The kind of blue you can almost taste.”
For some reason, everything I said and did around Sam felt weightier. As if merely his presence could shake my soul, make me feel. He savored every detail I gave him, as if I was his last link to the outside word. I guess in some ways I was.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder what the sun used to feel like.”
“You’ll feel it again. Someday.”
I wanted to say, You will, I promise you will, even if I have to break you out myself. I tried to imagine what it would be like to punch in the codes and let them all go. I could do it. Maybe even get away with it. There were no cameras down here, no recording devices.
“Anna?” Sam said.
I blinked, stared at the chessboard in front of me. Had he told me his next play? “Sorry, I was—”
“It’s late. Let’s finish tomorrow?”
I started to protest, but a yawn snuck up on me before I could hide it. “All right. It will give me more time to work on my strategy.”
He made a sound that fell somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “You do that.”
I moved the table to the far corner and took a step toward the hallway. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The light shining from his bathroom caught his dark, close-cropped hair, turning it silver for a second before he drew back. “Good night, Anna.”
“G’night.” I waved as the lab door slid shut behind me and that empty feeling settled back in.
I didn’t belong in the boys’ world. Not that I belonged in the real world, either. I was too afraid that if I let someone in, they’d figure out my secrets about the lab and the boys. I didn’t want to be the reason the Branch moved the program. Mostly, I didn’t want to risk losing Sam. Because even though our relationship was based solely on testing and the lab and my sketches and midnight chess games, I couldn’t picture my life without him.
EVERY WEDNESDAY MORNING, MY DAD made a pitcher of lemonade—fresh-squeezed, lots of sugar—and I made cookies. It was our tradition, and we had always been short on traditions.
The ice clinked against the glass as Dad handed it to me. “Thanks,” I said, taking a sip. “Perfect.”
He slid the pitcher into the refrigerator. “Good. Good.”
I shifted at the kitchen table, looking out the window to the forest beyond the backyard, struggling to think of something else to say. Something to keep Dad here just a minute longer. Dad and I weren’t good with small talk. Lately, the only thing that seemed to connect us was the lab.
“Did you see the paper this morning?” I asked, even though I knew he had. “Mr. Hirsch bought the drugstore.”
“Yeah, I saw that.” Dad set the measuring cup in the sink before running a hand over the back of his head, smoothing his quickly graying hair. He did that a lot when he was worried.
I sat forward. “What is it?”
The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he put his hands on the edge of the farmhouse sink. I thought he might reveal whatever it was that was bothering him, but he just shook his head and said, “Nothing. I have a lot of stuff to get through today, so I think I’ll go downstairs. You’ll come down later? Nick’s blood sample should be drawn.”
Dad wasn’t the type to talk about how bad his day was, so even though I wanted to push him, I didn’t. “Sure. I’ll be down in a little bit.”
“All right.” He nodded before disappearing from the kitchen, his footsteps audible on the basement stairs. And just like that, my time was up. Dad was endlessly consumed by his work, and I’d accepted that a long time ago. I’d never get used to it, though.
I grabbed my mother’s journal from the counter, where I’d left it earlier that morning. In it she had written her most beloved recipes, along with her thoughts and anything she found inspiring. There was a special section in the back devoted to cookie recipes. It was the only possession of hers I owned, and I treasured it more than anything else.
A few months earlier I’d started adding my own notes and sketches to the blank pages in the back. I’d always been afraid of ruining the book, as if my additions would somehow dilute what was already there. But I had aspirations and ideas, too, and I didn’t think there was any other place I’d rather record them.
I ran my fingers over the old food stains on the pages, reading and rereading her tiny cursive handwriting.
I decided on Cas’s favorite cookie, pumpkin chocolate chip, since he had aced the previous day’s mental evaluation—and because they were my favorite, too.
After gathering the ingredients, I got to work. I pretty much knew the recipe by heart, but I still followed Mom’s instructions, and the notes she’d made in the margins.
Do not use imitation vanilla.
Stock up on pumpkin puree close to holidays—stores tend not to stock it in spring and summer.
It can’t hurt to add extra chocolate—ever.
Dad said Mom ate chocolate like some people eat bread.
She died when I was one, so I didn’t really know her. Dad didn’t talk about her a lot, either, but every now and then a story would shake free from his memory and I would listen intently, not making a sound, worried that any noise on my part would break the spell.
I poured the bag of chocolate chips into the mixing bowl, the little bits plopping into the layer of rolled oats. Outside, the bleak sky hid the sun, and the wind had picked up since I’d crawled out of bed. Winter was on its way. If this wasn’t a day for cookies, I didn’t know what was.
Once the dough was mixed, I filled two cookie sheets and slid them into the oven, setting the timer so they’d finish somewhere between baked and doughy. Cas liked them that way.
With the timer ticking in the background, I sat at the table, my science book open in front of me. I had reached the end of the chapter on fault lines and was supposed to write an essay about it. I’d been homeschooled my whole life, and my dad was my teacher. Recently, though, he’d left me on my own. He probably wouldn’t even have noticed if I’d skipped the assignment, but I couldn’t stand the thought of giving up so easily.
By the time the cookies were done, I’d made zero progress and my back was stiff. I’d pulled a muscle during Saturday night’s combat lesson—Dad’s idea of an extracurricular activity—and I was still paying for it.
Leaving the cookies to cool, I headed upstairs to my room. At my dresser, I pushed aside a pile of old sketches and travel magazines, spying my bottle of ibuprofen tucked behind them.
After swallowing two pills down with a gulp of water, I tossed my hair up in a messy ponytail, leaving a few wispy blond strands hanging in my face. I peered at myself in the mirror and curled my upper lip. Making things beautiful on paper with a pencil in my hand was easy for me. Making things beautiful in real life wasn’t.
It was just past noon when I loaded the cooled cookies onto a plate. On my way down to the lab, I grabbed the new tube of tennis balls I’d bought for Cas. I swore that boy had ADD, though his unwavering attention when food was present indicated he had some focus skills.
When I entered, my gaze went to Sam’s room first. He sat at his desk, the full bow of his mouth pressed tightly in a line of concentration. He didn’t even bother to look up from the book in front of him. Sometimes, the Sam I spent time with at night was completely different from the careful and serious Sam I saw when other people were present. Did I act differently depending on who was around? I doubted Sam would even care if I did.
Dad was at his computer, typing away. He gave a half wave without taking his eyes off the screen. Cas, his blond hair sticking up in messy tufts, moved to the front of his room when I approached. He pressed his face against the glass and puffed out his cheeks like a blowfish. When he pulled back and smirked, his cheeks dimpled in that innocent-but-mischievous way that only five-year-olds can pull off. Well, five-year-olds and Cas.
Despite their altered rate of aging, caused by the treatments, Cas looked the youngest. With his dimples and round cheeks, he had a classic baby face. And he knew exactly how to use it to his advantage.
“Pumpkin?” He nodded at the cookies.
“Anna Banana, I love you.”
I laughed and unlocked the hatch—a small opening in the brick wall between his room and Trev’s—and slid in four cookies, along with the tennis balls. I hit the button so he could open the hatch on his side.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” he said, then inhaled an entire cookie.
“You are the black hole of food.”
“I need my protein.” He patted his hard stomach. The gesture made a solid thwack, thwack sound. Despite all the food he crammed down his throat, he never gained an ounce.
“I don’t think two eggs in a batch of cookies counts as protein.”
He flicked the lid off the tube of tennis balls, unfazed. “It totally counts.”
“Did you finish that model car I brought you last week?” I looked past him to his desk, which I could hardly make out beneath the pile of half-finished projects and junk. I spied one lone wheel on top of a sports magazine. “Should I take that mess as a no?”
He screwed up his face and made a pfffffttt sound. “I have plenty of time.”
I went to Trev’s room next. He’d been doing yoga when I first came in, but now stood at the wall, waiting for me. My gaze met his eyes and I smiled. His were a unique shade of brown, like firelight, warm and liquid and inviting. When I drew him, I used colors I rarely used on anyone else. Which was maybe why I drew him the most. While I felt like I knew Trev the best, his heritage was the hardest to pinpoint. Through the sheen of yoga-induced sweat, his earthy olive complexion hinted at a background different from those of the others. I’d been unable to find anything concrete in his files, but I thought he might be Native American, and maybe Italian, too.
“You want some?” I asked, showing him the plate.
He slicked back his dark hair with a quick swipe of his hand. “You know I live for Wednesdays.”
I gave him four cookies, and in return he slipped something into the hatch for me. When I reached inside I felt the soft spine of a paperback. Letters from the Earth, by Mark Twain. It was a library book I’d checked out the week before. My membership was used more for Trev’s reading habits than it was for mine. I bought him his own copies when I could, all of which were lined up on the shelves above his desk. Alphabetized, of course.
Inside the front cover, I found a note.
Did you come down last night? What did you say to Sam?
I looked behind me to see if Dad had noticed. He hadn’t. I’d divulged a lot of secrets to Trev. If I had a best friend here, he was it. He was the only one who knew how I felt about Sam.
I quickly grabbed a pen from my desk and scribbled a response.
Yes. Why? Did he say something?
I pressed the note to the glass and Trev read. He wrote down an answer and held it up for me.
He’s been acting strange. He snapped at Nick early this morning, after Nick said something about you and cookies. And he’s been sleeping less and less lately. Something’s going on with him.
My next note read,
I don’t know. I’ll keep an eye on him.
“I’m sure you will,” Trev said with a knowing smile.
Smirking, I crumpled the paper and ignored the comment. “Any requests for the next book?”
“Something on Abraham Lincoln?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
I started for Sam’s room. He tended to eat pretty well, so cookies were never his thing, but I slowed my pace just the same. He still sat at his desk, back hunched, reading his book. Technology in the Twenty-First Century. I’d ordered that one special for him.
There were a few books on the shelves above him, mostly reference manuals. Sam’s room was neat, tidy, and bare.
He looked up as I passed. “Hey,” he said.
I smiled. “Hey.”
And that was it.
Nick’s room was last. He and I had never gotten along. As a matter of fact, he once told me he couldn’t stand the sight of my face. As far as I knew, I hadn’t done anything to offend him, and if I had, Nick wasn’t the kind of person to hold back.
I slid a couple of cookies into the hatch. “Do you have any requests? I’ll probably go to the store later this week. A new Car & Driver? How are you on shampoo?” He liked this special stuff that was made from avocados and shea butter. I had to order it from a website that sold only organic goods, using my own money. Not that he cared.
When he didn’t answer, I muttered, “Maybe a stone to sharpen your horns?”
He called out as I headed back to my desk. “How about a fifth of vodka?”
Ignoring him, I dropped into the desk chair, munching on a cookie with a high chocolate content. Like my mother, I wouldn’t turn down extra sweets. At least that’s one thing I had in common with her. That, and our hazel eyes, according to Dad. With my free hand, I held the previous day’s physical chart in front of me and snuck glances at the boys. Cookies in hand, Nick kicked back in his bed, watching a TV show about wolves. Sam was still reading. Trev stood at the front of his room, chatting with Cas about the difference between regular chocolate and white chocolate, their conversation not at all hindered by the wall between them.
Dad wouldn’t tell me what the program tested for, despite my repeated questioning. When I’d first found the lab, it was all I could think about. What were four boys doing in our basement? Where were their parents? How long had they been down there? Dad knew exactly how much information to give to feed my curiosity and keep me quiet. I knew about the Branch, of course. But even though I knew who ran the program, I still didn’t know why.
Dad said I should trust him, that he knew what he was doing, and so did the Branch. It was for the greater good.
It was our job to observe, record data, and make necessary changes to the treatments. Dad may have been a little neglectful in the parenting department, but he was a good man, and if he trusted the Branch and our role in the program, then so did I.
I thought the Branch was most likely funded by the government. Dad was obsessed with wars and foreign conflicts, so it made sense. My latest theory was that the boys were being made into supersoldiers. The world could use more heroes.
As Nick finished his cookies, I prepared my tray for the blood draw. I double-checked each supply. Three vials. One new needle. Rubber strap. Band-Aids. Alcohol swabs. Everything was there.
I only had to go into Nick’s room every other Wednesday, but each time it left me rattled. I’d rather draw blood from a mountain lion. If Nick was being made into a hero, the program had taken a wrong turn with him.
I tried to shake the feeling off as I went to his room. “You ready?”
“Does it matter if I am or not?”
I was tempted to say something equally snotty in response, but I held back. I just wanted to get this over with.
Dad had three rules about the lab that were to be followed without question. Rule number one: Do not go into the boys’ rooms when they are awake. Rule number two: Turn on the sleeping gas only once the subject is safely lying down. Rule number three: Wait four minutes for the gas to kick in.
The boys knew the rules, too.
But Nick hated rules.
“Will you lie down, please?” I asked. He sneered at me. “Lie down, Nick.” The sneer turned into a snarl, but he finally did as I asked.
Behind me, Dad’s cell phone rang. “I need to take this. You’ll be okay if I head upstairs?”
I refused to tell Dad I was scared of Nick; I didn’t want him to think I couldn’t hack it in the lab. So I nodded and said, “Sure.”
Phone at his ear, Dad hurried out.
With Nick finally in place on his bed, I scooped up my supply tray. “Here it comes,” I warned, right before I hit the Cell #4 button on the control panel. The twin vents in Nick’s ceiling scraped open and white smoke hissed out.
He managed to say “This shit gives me a headache” before the gas hit him and his eyes slipped closed. The ever-present tension in his long, sinewy body eased away.
I looked at the stopwatch hanging from a lanyard around my neck. Four minutes was too long for most people to hold their breath. Dad said he was ninety percent sure the boys were stable at this point, and that they probably wouldn’t pose any sort of danger to me, but ten percent was too much of a risk for him.
When four minutes had passed, I hit the button to reverse the vents, and the gas was sucked back out. I punched in the entrance code to Nick’s room and half of the wall pushed forward and slid aside. The acrid scent of the gas still lingered as I placed my tray on the floor and took a seat next to Nick on the bed.
It was odd seeing him so relaxed. It almost made him look vulnerable. The dark scowl was gone, softening the sharp angles of his face. His black hair curled around his ears. If he hadn’t been so infuriating when he was awake, I might have even thought he was handsome.
It didn’t take me long to fill the required three vials once I’d located a good vein in the crook of his elbow. I was about to leave when something caught my eye below the hem of his shirt, where a sliver of bare skin was exposed.
I checked my stopwatch. One minute, thirty seconds remained before the effects of the gas would start to wear off. I set the tray back down and lifted the corner of his shirt.
A scar discolored his skin, the wound old and white now. But the shape of it made me pause. It almost looked like an E. I thought of Sam’s scar, the R on his chest. How could I not have noticed Nick’s?
Because you weren’t ever looking at him.
“You’re running out of time,” Trev called from two cells over.
Nick’s eyes fluttered. His fingers flexed at his sides.
My heart lurched. I snatched up the tray and started for the door as Nick reached for me. His fingers grazed my forearm, but he was still sluggish from the gas and missed. I slammed the control button and the wall slid back into place as he rushed forward. His blue eyes met mine and the scowl returned. I tried to act unafraid, even though I was anything but. Nick had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, the color of the sky where night meets day. A blue that made him seem more mature, more dangerous, more everything.
“Next time,” he said, “just do your job and don’t fucking touch me unless you have to.”
“Nicholas, stop,” Sam barked. I locked eyes with Sam as he pressed his hands against the glass, like he meant to pound his way through if it came to that. “Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry,” I managed to choke out, still breathless. “I just…” I wanted to mention the scar, wanted to know if it was connected to Sam’s, but the strained look on Sam’s face said now was not the time.
“I’m sorry,” I said again before turning away and carrying my tray over to the counter so I could bury my head in my work.
Dad shuffled back into the lab a good hour after he’d disappeared to answer the phone.
“Nick’s sample is ready,” I said.
A half-chewed straw hung between Dad’s index and middle fingers. He’d quit smoking three years earlier, and the straws had taken the place of cigarettes.
“Did it go okay?” He popped the straw in his mouth and sat down in front of his computer.
“Fine,” I lied. I spun around in my desk chair so that I faced the boys. Cas was bouncing a tennis ball off the ceiling of his cell. Trev had disappeared into his bathroom. Nick was still watching TV.
Sam, though… Sam just lay on his back, eyes closed.
“How was your phone call?” I asked Dad. “Was it Connor?”
“It was. And it was fine.”
Connor called from the Branch to check in a lot, but he only showed up every couple of months to look the boys over, and to ask Dad if he thought “the units” were ready. Dad said no every time. And when I asked him what the boys had to be ready for, he gave me his default answer: That’s classified.
Sam shifted to a sitting position, the muscle in his forearm dancing. Every day, at exactly two PM, he worked out. Watching him was like watching a tightly choreographed routine—every move counted.
I glanced at the digital clock hanging on the wall: 1:55 PM.
Sam tore off his white T-shirt and turned around, giving me a view of the tattoo on his back. Four birch trees covered the majority of his skin, the branches twining across his shoulders and partway down his arms.
Bending over, legs straight, he started a series of stretches before dropping into push-up position. I’d counted his push-ups once while pretending to read some charts. He did a hundred in a matter of minutes and never slowed. Dad said strength was a trait he and his team had manipulated, and Sam was proof that the genetic alterations had worked.
After the push-ups, Sam moved to sit-ups, the muscles in his stomach bunching on the rise. Two cells over, Cas was doing his own version of the workout, which was half karate moves collected from TV, half hip-hop dance.
At 2:51, Sam slowed to cooldown mode and ran through more stretches. When he finished, he grabbed a towel from his desk, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and looked over at me.
I blushed and turned away, pretending to find something extremely interesting in the control panel as he disappeared into his bathroom. He came out a second later and tapped on the glass.
I raised my eyes.
“Can I have some ice water?”
“And a beer for me, please!” Cas said, then added, “But water would be fine, too.”
If I had been alone, I would have gotten up, filled two glasses, and handed them over without question. But with Dad there, I deferred to him, because he was the boss, even if I was his daughter.
“That’s fine,” Dad muttered, squinting through the lenses of his glasses as he read over a file.
“A straw, too?” Sam called, gesturing toward the canister on the counter.
“Sure,” Dad said, barely glancing up.
I gave Cas his water first, then went to Sam’s room. He pulled his cup out of the hatch a second later. “Thanks.” He was still shirtless, and I couldn’t help but examine the scar on his chest. I thought of Nick.
Were there other scars? And if so, why? Did Trev or Cas have scars?
When I dragged my eyes up a second later, I found Sam still staring down at me with an intensity that warmed my skin. “Anything else?” I asked.
“All right then,” I said. “I should get back to work. Lots of data to input. Files to… file.”
I wheeled around to find my dad looking at me strangely. Did he know how I felt? Could he tell? But he just picked up his straw and returned to his work. I inhaled, trying to shake off the uneasiness. Sam had the ability to reduce me to the thirteen-year-old girl I was when we first met.
I spent the next hour pretending to organize test charts.
WHEN I FIRST DISCOVERED THE BOYS in the lab, Nick immediately scared the crap out of me. Thirteen-year-old me had stared at his hands, tightened at his sides, tracing the swell of veins threading up and around his arms. It was like he’d known he hated me right from the start.
I might never have gone back down there if it hadn’t been for Sam.
The sight of him there, the inquisitive tilt of his head, as if he were reading me from the inside out, was enough to ensnare me even then. I’d never felt so interesting, so special, as I did at that moment.
“What’s your name?” he’d asked, ignoring Nick.
“Anna. Anna Mason.”
“Anna, I’m Sam.”
In the next room over, Nick growled. I could sense the others on my periphery. Trev paced in his cell. Cas leaned into the glass, the pads of his fingers turning white.
And then Nick slammed a fist into the wall and I flinched.
“Nicholas,” Sam said, his voice razor-edged.
I didn’t see how that would help any, but within seconds Nick retreated. He disappeared into the bathroom at the back of his room, slamming the door shut behind him.
The boys didn’t look much older than sixteen. I didn’t find out until later that their alterations slowed the rate at which they aged. They were closer to eighteen at the time, and over the course of the following years, they would age very little.
I wanted to know what they were doing down there, how long they’d been in those rooms. I wanted to know who they were, and if they were okay, because they weren’t acting okay. But those thoughts tangled in my head, and not one rational question made it past my lips.
“You should go, Anna,” Sam said. “Nick isn’t well.”
“Cookies make me feel better when I’m sick.”
It was such a stupid thing to say, but it was the only thing I managed to get out.
The cookies would give me an excuse, later, to return. Not even Nick could have kept me from Sam, the boy who looked at me as more than just a little girl. And he’d tried. Nick had been the one to tell Dad I’d broken into the lab that first time, the whole reason I’d been grounded after, the whole reason it took me a few months to sneak back in without getting caught.
Nick never told on me again, though, and part of me had wondered if Sam had been the one to keep him quiet. And if he had, did that mean Sam wanted me to visit?
Every morning—and almost every night—it was that hope that propelled me from my bed and pushed me down the stairs.
The next morning, while Dad took care of some phone calls upstairs, I started on my to-do list. Lots of filing. Some paper-shredding. Running Sam through his mental tests. I decided to do the latter first; everything else could wait.
“So what is it this week?” Sam asked as I grabbed his folder from my desk.
I looked over at him. I always fought for his attention, but when I got it, I found it hard to concentrate beneath his gaze.
I opened the folder. “Foreign language.”
Sam pulled his desk chair up to the front of his room, and I did the same. I set the folder on my lap and opened it to a fresh chart. Next to the Branch’s logo—two interlocking circles with a double helix inside—I wrote Sam’s name. Then: October 11, 11:26 AM.
This week’s packet was a series of flash cards with Italian phrases on one side, the English translations on the other. Since the boys suffered from amnesia, the Branch wanted to know what they were capable of, and what skills from their old lives they still possessed.
Apparently, Sam had been a languages genius before entering the program. When it came to skills, I was only good at sketching and solving sudoku puzzles.
I held up the first card and Sam’s eyes moved over the words. “I am searching for the train station.”
I held up the next card.
“What time is it?”
We went over fifty cards total. I marked Sam’s responses on the log. He scored a hundred percent, as usual.
Casually, after sliding my materials into the folder, I said, “Do you remember anything about that scar? The one on your chest?”
He didn’t allow a second’s worth of hesitation before answering. “No. But then, I have a lot of scars.”
“None of them look as purposeful as the one on your chest.”
He went still. I’d caught him in a secret; I could see it on his face. The scars meant something. “Does Cas have a scar like that?”
“Anna.” My name came out a warning, but it served as fuel.
“What do they mean?”
He turned away from me. His back was hunched, the blades of his shoulders rising beneath his shirt. I could see the sharp points of the tattooed tree branches peeking out from his sleeves.
Tell me, Sam.
I sensed the boys shifting, moving toward us.
“Not now,” Sam muttered.
The others slunk away, and the edginess I’d felt slipped away with them.
“I think we’re done, Anna,” Sam said.
I put his folder away with a petty slam of the filing cabinet drawer, because he’d dismissed me and I didn’t want to leave.
At the lab door, I punched in the code with short jabs, making a promise to myself that I wouldn’t sneak into the lab later. That I would hold out for as long as I could, let him see how boring the lab could be without our chess games, without our nightly conversations about the outside world.
But it was more of a punishment for me than for him. And I knew I wouldn’t stick with it.
THAT NIGHT AT DINNER, I PICKED AT my bowl of chili, running the spoon through it in a figure-eight pattern. Dad sat across from me at the dining room table, his spoon clinking against the side of his bowl. Behind us, a football game played on TV. Every now and then, Dad looked up and checked the score. He never got overly excited about the games, though—not like guys on TV. A good play and they’d leap from their chairs, their arms held victoriously above their heads.
I couldn’t see Dad ever doing something like that—not for football, or for science, or even if he won the lottery. Dad was even-keeled, subdued about everything. I thought his lack of emotion stemmed from losing my mother.
Mom had liked sports. At least that’s what Dad said. So maybe he watched for her.
“Hmm?” He dipped a cracker in the chili.
“Were the boys ever branded?”
He sniffed. “Of course not.”
“Have you noticed Nick’s and Sam’s scars? The ones that look like letters?”
“They have a lot of scars.” An announcer on the TV said something about the second down, but I missed what came next. Dad set the spoon in his bowl and looked up at me. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you…. Let’s hold back on the number of things we give Cas, all right? Why not bring him a book, like you do for the others? He never finishes any of his projects, and his room is a mess….”
“Cas isn’t really a book kind of person.”
“Well…” Dad ran his hand over the back of his head and sighed. “Just try to give him something he’ll actually stick with.” The burst of wrinkles around his eyes furrowed.
“Is this really about Cas, or is there something else?”
The TV crowd cheered behind us.
“No. It’s nothing.”
“Is Connor coming for a visit?” I asked. He wrestled with the sleeve of crackers, avoiding looking at me. “Dad?”
“Yes. Tomorrow. Him and Riley.”
Connor was head of the Branch, and Riley was his second-in-command. Together they oversaw Dad and the program.
“They want to inspect the group,” Dad went on. “See how they’re progressing.”
“Are they taking the boys this time?”
Though I wanted the boys to be released, the lab, the logs, and the tests had all become my life as much as theirs. Now I didn’t know how I felt about them leaving.
Dad shrugged. “I won’t be privy to that until it’s time.”
“Where would they go?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
I couldn’t picture Sam in the real world, buying a doughnut at a coffee shop, reading a newspaper on a park bench. The others, maybe. Cas was like any other party boy trolling for girls. Nick was the epitome of an asshole jock, with the cockiness and pretty face to match. And Trev once told me that if he ever got out, he’d want to go to school to study English literature.
“Will they ever be released?”
Dad removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know, Anna. Really. I don’t know.”
I sensed the demise of the conversation and shut up. We finished eating. I did the dishes and wiped down the table, while Dad passed out in the living room. I threw some laundry in the washer.
By that time, it was after eight and dark outside. Upstairs in my room, I flipped through the TV channels and found nothing worth watching. I didn’t have any new books to read. Since most of the chores were done, I decided to sketch something new in my mother’s journal.
I lay on my stomach on the bed and opened to the last sketch I’d done. It was of a girl in the woods, boughs of maple trees hanging heavy with snow. Her silhouette was blurry, fading, curling, like ribbons of smoke. Like she was disappearing with each new gust of wind. Being lost or broken had been a running theme in my sketches for about a year, ever since I’d taken a weekend art class at the community college.
But it wasn’t the class that opened up the new vein of inspiration. It was the conversation I’d had with Trev afterward.
My final review from the instructor said that I possessed raw talent, but that I hadn’t yet tapped into my full potential, that my art was lacking inspiration. I’d gone down to the lab to vent, and Trev, as always, had talked me off the ledge.
“I don’t get it,” I’d said to him, leaning against the brick wall between his room and Cas’s. “Lacking inspiration?” I sighed. “What does that even mean?”
Trev came to the glass and mirrored my slouch so that we stood side by side. “It means you’re only drawing what you see, not what you feel.”
I folded my arms over my chest as I looked at him. “The sketches of my mother have lots of emotion.”
His amber eyes softened. “But you don’t know your mother. You only know what you’ve heard, and that you miss her. What about what you want? Your hopes? Your dreams? What are you passionate about?” He swiveled to face me full-on. “Your instructor was telling you to dig deeper.”
The look on his face transitioned from open understanding to something guarded, as if he was silently prodding me. As if he was holding back what he wanted to say because a frank answer would make it too easy.
I rested my head against the wall and stared at the ceiling, at the pockmarks in the tiles. Trev liked wrapping his advice in complex philosophies. Nothing was ever simple with him.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted out of my life. What was I passionate about? The boys. The lab. Dad. Baking. But sketching a pumpkin pie sounded pretty darn boring.
Maybe Trev read the confusion on my face, because he added, “Start with your frustrations. How about that? It’s easier to tap into anger or annoyance.”
When I returned to my room that night, I’d opened my sketchbook and stared at the blank page. What frustrated me? My mother being dead, yes, but I needed something fresh.
And then it came to me: Nick. Nick frustrated me.
Soon, my pencil began to slide across the paper at an alarming pace. As I sketched, I felt it: a fire in my arm, a tingling sensation in my fingertips, like I was bleeding that passion onto the page.
When I was finished, I had one of the best drawings I’d ever done. In it, Nick stood in the middle of a deserted street, bottles broken around him, liquid spilling everywhere while he peered out from the page, a prickly expression on his face. I was so proud of the sketch that I almost considered showing him, but then I realized that he’d probably take offense, or automatically hate it.
I did show Trev, though, the next night. He looked from the sketch to me and nodded his approval. “There you go,” he said in a hushed tone so the others wouldn’t hear, so we could keep the sketch between us. “Continue to draw like that and you’ll turn into the next Vanessa Bell.”
I scoffed, but inside I was beaming. Vanessa Bell was a brilliant painter, one of my favorite artists. She was also the older sister of Virginia Woolf, Trev’s favorite writer. That was the best compliment he could give me.
My sketches changed after that. For the better.
Now I turned to a fresh page and stared and stared and stared. Sometimes it was easy to begin drawing; other times I needed a jump start. I couldn’t always count on Trev to spur me. I grabbed an issue of Traveler magazine from my dresser and flipped through the glossy pages. I stopped on a spread of a quiet Italian village.
I started sketching the buildings, the blush of light from the old street lamps. I added a traditional Italian café with tiny two-seater tables, window boxes dripping with flowers, bikes with baskets, and scalloped awnings.
Before I knew it, I’d sketched myself walking the cobblestone street, Sam next to me. I ran my finger over the lines and the graphite smeared.
I often found myself sketching fantasies like this one, where Sam was no longer locked in the lab and I was no longer tethered to it because of him. With my pencil, I could set us both free.
But I couldn’t help wondering what Sam would want if he could choose his own life. Had he chosen this? Had he wanted to be some kind of perfect soldier, to serve his country?
What did he want now that he couldn’t remember his reasons for being here?
I grabbed the magazine and went downstairs. I tiptoed through the living room and down to the basement so I wouldn’t wake Dad. The lab door slid open when I punched in the code.
It was nearly ten, and the lights in the boys’ rooms were off. I hesitated just past the opening of the hallway. The magazine suddenly felt cumbersome in my hand. I started to turn away.
A light flicked on behind me. I stopped, turned back.
Sam stood at the glass wall, barefoot, shirtless, in his usual loose gray pants. “Hey, Anna,” he said, but the words came out unsure, heavy. His shoulders hung crooked. When I took a step closer, he scratched his jaw, and looked down.
Was Sam… uneasy?
“Listen. I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
I folded my arms and the magazine crinkled. “It’s no big deal.”
He nodded, then gestured at the magazine. “What is that?”
I held it out, suddenly unsure of my reasons for coming down here. “It’s just… You don’t have any pictures on your wall.”
A frown pulled at the center of his brow. “You came down here to ask about my bare walls?”
“Yes.” I ran my teeth over my bottom lip, glancing at the other rooms, waiting for the boys to stir, at the same time hoping they wouldn’t. “Why haven’t you hung anything?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t seem like there was any point.”
I inched forward. “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?”
His eyes moved from the magazine in my hand up to my face. “What’s this about?”
“Just answer the question.”
I wanted to know everything about Sam. I wanted him to trust me with his secrets. And since he couldn’t remember most of his life before the lab, asking him this was as close as I would get. Continues...
Excerpted from Altered by Jennifer Rush Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Rush. Excerpted by permission.
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