I’d never been on a quieter school bus. Kids were whispering to each other, looking scared as hell as the bus clipped stray branches from the endless forest pressing in on both sides of us.
“This isn’t even a two-way road,” I murmured to Flora, the girl sitting beside me. She was chubby and had braces.
“I know. Where is this school? My parents said this would be the greatest thing ever for my college applications, but I don’t know about this.”
My mom had said the same thing. College applications. We were in seventh grade, for Christ sake.
The road was a jet-black ribbon of blacktop that looked like it had been poured yesterday. The bus we were riding in, on the other hand, was old. My seat had a hole in the vinyl with foam bulging out of it.
“What do your parents do?” I asked. At this moment I really didn’t care what Flora’s parents did, but talking took the edge off my nerves.
“My mom works for the State Department. What about yours?”
“Mom works for the FDA. Dad is an FBI agent.” And they’d had an argument two days ago that I’d overheard from my room. Dad hadn’t wanted me to go. Mom had asked how they could refuse, given the stakes?
It was middle school. What stakes could there possibly be in middle school? Was she talking about my college applications six years from now? Is that what she considered high stakes?
The bus broke out of the trees so suddenly it startled me. We were in a wide, flat, open field with a couple dozen buildings in the center. Two-story red brick buildings were situated to create a town square feel. In the center was a one-story brown brick deal with evenly spaced windows all along the front that screamed Middle School. The whole place was surrounded by a high fence. Beyond the fence was nothing but forest.
“I’ve never been away from home without my parents.” Flora had that deer in the headlights look. I probably had it, too. I wiped my clammy palms on my pants.
“Except for, like, sleepovers with your friends, you mean?”
Flora gave me a solemn shake of her head and whispered, “I mean never.”
No sleepovers, ever? She didn’t seem like one of those kids who was too weird to make friends. Maybe her parents were religious fanatics or something.
“Look at that.” A kid was pointing over the rooftop of a three-story building to our left, where a cherry-red track snaked through the air. There was no mistaking what it was: a roller coaster. Not a big job like you’d find at Busch Gardens, more like something at a travelling carnival. Still, this place had a roller coaster? That, I hadn’t expected.
The bus squealed to a stop. The driver, a guy in his forties with a perfect haircut who looked nothing like a school bus driver, pointed. “Straight in those blue doors.”
A woman in a gray suit stood just outside the doors, which led into a building that looked like a town hall or something, with white pillars and concrete steps. We were herded into a room filled with rows of seats like in a movie theater. There was a packet on each seat.
A bright-eyed yet simultaneously exhausted-looking woman stood at a podium up front.
“Welcome to Sagan Middle School. My name is Ms. Spain.” She took a sip from a bottle of water. Her hair was tied back so tightly it tugged the skin on her cheeks and the corners of her eyes. “You’ve been chosen from thousands of students to take part in this unique program. What you learn here will change your lives, and the lives of countless others.”
I exchanged a look with Flora. Countless others? Yes, I’m sure we were going to change countless lives with our tireless pursuit of algebra.
“Why don’t we start with some of the basic rules?” Ms. Spain said. “Some of the rules will seem strange, but you must follow them if you want to complete this program successfully.”
The rules didn’t “seem strange”—they were flat-out bizarre. Mostly they had to do with the earbuds in our packets.
“From this moment on, you are to keep the earpiece in your left ear at all times—even when you’re sleeping.” Ms. Spain held up an earpiece so we could find ours in our packets. They were pea-sized and clear, and when you put them in your ear, they stuck down where you couldn’t see them. “Whenever a prompter says something to you through your earpiece, you are to immediately repeat it aloud.” She held up a finger. “Unless the first word is Direction or Do not repeat. A Direction is something you are to do, not say. If your prompter begins with Do not repeat, he or she has something to say to you. If it’s a question, answer out loud. Does everyone understand?”
Everyone nodded. No one was sticking the earpiece in their nose, or talking, or fidgeting in their seat. This was nothing like my school at home, which I already missed. I also missed my phone; I kept reaching for it. I wasn’t sure I could go three months without my phone without having a complete mental breakdown.
Ms. Spain told us we’d been handpicked because we were smart, mature students. Then she told us about a special classmate who wasn’t in the room, who we’d meet tomorrow.
“She looks different than you, or anyone you’ve ever met. She—” Ms. Spain trailed off, trying to find the right words. “I’ll be honest: You might find her frightening to look at. But it’s important you don’t stare. Treat her just like any other student. That’s what the earbuds are for. Your prompters will guide you.”
There was more, about schedules and mealtimes, when we’d get to call home, and all of the fun we were going to have, but it was hard to concentrate because the same words kept echoing in my head. You might find her frightening to look at.
What the hell did that mean? Was she a burn victim? Did she have that elephant man disease where parts of her were horribly swollen? And why was she so important that most of the rules were about her? I didn’t like this. From the looks on their faces, my new classmates didn’t, either.
• • • •
Breakfast was awesome. The cafeteria was like a restaurant, with waiters, and they had everything—pancakes, eggs any way you wanted them, French toast, Cocoa Puffs, frozen yogurt, anything you could think of.
Kids started to loosen up a little. The room hummed with conversations as we got to know each other, and the occasional laugh helped me relax. I sat with Flora and a guy named Glen Mitchell, a freckle-faced kid with long black hair.
“Have you heard anything through your earbud yet?” Glen asked as I spread butter on my stack of chocolate chip pancakes.
“Not a peep from mine,” Flora said. “This is weird. I don’t understand what they’re going to use them for. We’re in school, but adults are going to tell us what to say?”
“Maybe they can feed us answers on our tests,” Glen said.
A bell rang. We filed out toward the school across the center courtyard.
“What do you think is the deal with this special student?” I asked. “Her appearance might scare us? What does that mean?”
“Direction,” a man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Change the topic. Talk about something pleasant, how good breakfast was, or a movie you’ve seen.”
I could tell from Flora’s and Glen’s expressions that they’d just gotten their first earbud direction as well.
“Okay then,” Glen said, his tone leaking sarcasm. “How about those Packers?”
“Read any good books lately?” I said, grinning as we headed into the classroom. I slowed as I stepped through the doorway.
It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe.
The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire.
“Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”
Panting, shaking, I looked at the name cards tented on the desks, looking for my name, and when I found it my insides felt like they were turning to water.
My seat was right next to the thing.
“Take a deep breath and sit down,” the earpiece voice said. “She won’t hurt you.”
Pressing my hands on passing desk tops to stay on my feet, I slid into my seat and leaned as far away from the thing as I could, the muscles in my neck so tight I heard a creak when I turned to look at the board.
A few kids gasped as they filed into the room, but I didn’t look—I kept my eyes on the board as I’d been instructed. That voice knew what was going on, and I didn’t, so I was going to do exactly what it said.
The teacher, a dark-haired woman, breezed into the room with a big smile on her face. She acted like there was nothing strange going on, welcomed us to the school, introduced herself as Ms. Bazzini, and started taking attendance. When she called my name, I said, “Here” in a tight squeak that barely made it out of my throat.
Then she called “Eve” and looked to my left, at the beast. Ms. Bazzini raised her eyebrows, encouraging “Eve.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the thing tentatively raise a fingerless hand. Ms. Bazzini beamed and nodded. Then she called the next name.
What was going on? What was this thing? I wanted so badly to bolt from my seat and run out past that fence and keep running until I was safe in my room, under my Boba Fett blanket. I made eye contact with Flora, who was leaning off the edge of her seat to be as far away from it as she could, even though she was on the other side of the room.
“Eyes front,” Earbud Guy said. I turned to face front and looked around for the camera this guy was using to see my every move. I couldn’t find it.
There was no math, no science. A ton of recent history, a little English, and then . . . Etiquette. Etiquette. There was no such class in school as Etiquette. We learned how to make polite conversation—how to keep the tone positive and constructive, how to find something to compliment about the other person. Ms. Bazzini went on and on about the proper way to greet someone you’re meeting for the first time.
“Now I want you all to pair up and practice this,” Ms. Bazzini said.
My heart hammering, I turned and tapped the kid sitting to my left on the shoulder. “Want to be partners?” But Ms. Bazzini was going down the rows, pointing with forked fingers, calling out pairs of names, and as she came down my row I could see who those forked fingers were going to pair me with.
“Ben and Eve . . .”
My lips went numb. My fingertips, too. There was no way I could use them to shake this monster’s hand.
“Do not repeat,” Earbud Guy said. “Here we go, Ben. This may be hard to believe, but she’s as nervous as you are. Stand up and face her.”
I didn’t want to—I so, so didn’t want to—but I did what the voice said, because that’s what you do, you do what adults tell you, especially in school.
The creature went on staring straight ahead.
“Hi, my name is Ben,” Earbud Guy said.
It took me a moment to remember I was supposed to repeat that. I opened my crater-dry mouth and said, “Hi, my name is Ben.”
The creature turned her head ever so slightly.
“This is a stupid exercise, isn’t it?” the voice prompted.
I repeated it.
The creature ignored me.
“It’s good to meet you anyway, Eve” the voice said. “Do not repeat. Now extend your hand and offer to shake.”
There was no way I was going to do that. I’d seen the way barbs could come stabbing out of this thing. The words I could say, though.
“It’s good to meet you anyway, Eve.”
I turned to sit.
“Now offer her your hand,” the voice nearly shouted. “Don’t let me down here, Ben. You’re sitting next to her for a reason. We’re counting on you.”
I hesitated. The voice was like an invisible hand, pushing me, turning me. I didn’t want to do this, I so didn’t want to, but I stuck out my trembling hand.
Eve looked at it, then away.
I went to drop my hand, but Earbud Guy jumped in. “Keep it there.”
So I stood there with my hand in the air, shaking and wobbling. I could see the other kids in the room watching while trying not to make it too obvious, probably getting directions from their earbud voices telling them not to stare.
Eve raised her hand, or hoof, or whatever the hell it was, without looking at me.
“Do not repeat. Yes. Good,” Earbud Guy shouted. “Her fingers are about four inches up her arm. See them?”
“Don’t nod. Grasp two of the fingers, very gently, and shake them once.”
I was breathing like I’d just run a mile as I grasped what looked like two black worms, shook the jiggly things for a split second, then brought my hand back and lunged into my seat.
“Do not repeat. Nice work, Ben. Nice, nice work.”
My heart slowed as relief washed over me. I’d survived.
But what did he mean, I was sitting next to her for a reason? What reason?
• • • •
The thing slept in our room.
We were all in bed when Ms. Spain led it to the empty bed halfway down the long dormitory room.
“Here you go, Eve. Is there anything you need?”
I kept my eyes shut, pretending to be asleep. I was sure I was never going to sleep again, because if I did, I might dream of Eve’s fingers.
What the hell was going on? After school they’d taken us to the little amusement park, everything brand shining new. Then after dinner (with a menu, and waiters) there had been a party in a big, open hall, with music, make-your-own-sundaes, and freaking door prizes. Some kid named Marco won a two thousand dollar bike. Everybody got something decent. I won an Xbox, although my folks would confiscate it the moment I stepped in the door. No video games for me—they rotted your brain, didn’t build character or add to your résumé.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Flora whispered.
“Go,” I said.
Flora didn’t move. I couldn’t blame her—she’d have to walk past Eve. When I was a kid, I always felt like a hand or something might dart out from under the bed and grab my ankle when I got up to go to the bathroom in the dark. Here, the monster wasn’t under the bed—the monster was in the bed. Still, she couldn’t hold it all night.
“I shook her hand. Don’t worry.”
Flora swung back the blankets and sat up. She sat there for a long time before finally standing and padding toward the door.
As she approached Eve’s bed, Eve hissed. Even in the semi-darkness I could see her harden, the barbs popping up on her skin like weaponized goose bumps.
Flora squealed and raced back to her bed, yanking the blankets over her head.
How could we possibly sleep with a monster right there in the room with us? How could we even close our eyes? I lay staring at the stucco ceiling, wishing I was home in my own comfy bed.
“This is a test of some sort,” Glen whispered from the bed to my left.
“What do you mean?” I whispered back.
“It’s faked somehow. To test how we respond.”
“I promise you, she’s not fake.” I’d touched her. I would know.
“Been to the movies lately? You can create incredibly lifelike effects if you have the money.”
Could she be fake? The alternative was that she wasn’t, and that was just as unbelievable. I glanced at Eve, her huge body filling the whole bed. Was Glen thinking that was a guy inside a costume, the spines remote control?
• • • •
Glen fell into step beside me in the hallway. “So what does your prompter sound like?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. A man.” I was so tired. I’d finally dozed off at maybe four a.m., and had a nightmare and was awake by six.
“Not that I can tell.”
“Mine’s old—” Glen stopped talking just as my earbud guy started.
“That’s enough, Ben. Talk like you’re in school at home.”
For two weeks, they’d been cutting in to stop us from talking about what was going on, and it was getting old. And you couldn’t sneak off and talk in the bathroom, because wherever you were, they could hear you.
Glen and I exchanged a look. One of the good things about this place—besides the food and entertainment—was that I liked most of the other kids. They were all smart, gifted-program types, but it was more than that. Even in gifted programs there are mean kids, and lazy kids who cut corners and don’t finish their homework and still get by because they’re smart. None of those kids were here.
Unless you counted me. Sometimes I cut corners if I was sure I could do it and still get an A and keep my perfect grade point average. Last fall I had a 96 average in Biology going into the final, and when I went upstairs to study the night before, I calculated that I only needed a 71 to keep an A average. I could take the test in my sleep and get a 71, so I watched Pacific Rim instead. I got an 82 on the final and got my A.
I took my seat beside Eve. I was still afraid of her—we all were—but I wasn’t terrified any more.
“How you doing?” Earbud Guy said.
I turned to Eve. “How you doing?”
Every day my prompter made me try to strike up conversations with Eve, and every day she ignored me.
“You coming to the movie tonight?” he prompted. I repeated the words. Of course Eve would come to the movie. Eve always came to the movie, and sat by herself and hissed at anyone who wandered too close. Eve loved movies, and ice cream, and rides, and I was beginning to suspect that’s why those things were here. Everything revolved around Eve. I knew we were here because of her, but I had no idea why.
We started with freaking etiquette. Today it was how to negotiate politely yet firmly. I appreciate you increasing your offer to ten dollars, but, gee, I really have to get fifteen. This would come in handy never.
“Come on, Eve, practice this one with me?” Ms. Bazzini stepped down the row in her sensible black shoes. “I’ll be the seller, you be the buyer. All right?” She squatted by Eve’s desk. “I know you can talk. Can’t—”
Ms. Bazzini let out a tight, muffled shriek and backed away from Eve holding her cheek. Droplets of blood squeezed between her fingers and rolled down her hand, down her forearm, forming a trickling stream. Eve was still hardened, barbed, and hissing. I hadn’t seen what she’d done—it had been too quick.
When Eve opened her mouth, I almost fell out of my seat. “I can talk. Don’t tell me when.” Her voice was wet and hissing. It made me want to piss my pants.
Ms. Spain stepped into the room, looking in charge, and even more exhausted than the last time I’d seen her. A nurse in a white uniform was on her heels to whisk Ms. Bazzini away.
I was expecting Ms. Spain to say something about what had just happened—I think everyone was—but she just picked up where Ms. Bazzini had left off. Except she didn’t even look in Eve’s direction.
I didn’t look in Eve’s direction, either. Instead, I exchanged a look with Glen, then Flora. Enough was enough—I wanted to go home. If my parents knew what was happening here, if they knew that one of my classmates was a dangerous, psychotic monster, they’d be pounding on that gate.
At least, I thought they would. They’d had that fight before I left. Had they been arguing because they knew this school was dangerous?
Either way, I needed to get out of here. This was insane. Why weren’t we all running for the door to get as far away from Eve as we could before she went completely psychotic and started tearing everyone apart? After seeing what she’d done to Ms. Bazzini, how fast she’d done it, I had no doubt she could kill us all if she decided to.
We sat obediently as Ms. Spain taught us the polite way to negotiate a deal. I wasn’t paying attention, though; I was planning my escape.
• • • •
Flora handed me a slip of paper as we rattled around a sharp curve on The Tornado.
Stow away in the back of the food truck?
I shook my head, jotted: They watch us every minute.
Glen nodded as he read what I’d written.
We couldn’t climb over that huge fence in the middle of the night, or stow away in the back of the truck that delivered fresh food every day. This wasn’t Mission: Impossible. We needed something realistic.
The train of coaster cars began its slow climb to the corkscrew plunge that gave The Tornado its name. We figured if there was one place they didn’t have cameras watching us, it was here. We were moving too fast.
Glen passed us a slip of paper. Pretend we’re sick?
Stomach pain, like we all had food poisoning or a virus? Only you almost always threw up when you had something contagious like that. It wasn’t like we’d all come down with appendicitis at the same time. For all we knew, they had their own hospital, and we’d all find ourselves undergoing invasive tests right here in Sagantown.
When I shook my head, Glen nodded immediately, like he’d already come to the same conclusion.
We reached the top of the hill. I felt that weightless butterfly feeling in my stomach as we plunged almost straight down, then hit the corkscrew and spun. I gripped the metal safety bar with both hands. Some of the kids in front of us had their hands in the air. Ooh, what brave warriors. What free spirits. Only, we all knew what we were: we were good kids, strivers, planners already thinking about our college applications . . .
“Wait—” The word got whipped away by the wind, drowned out by the roar of the roller coaster. I waited, jaw clenched, for the tornado to flatten out.
The train of cars slowed, jerked to a stop as we pulled into the station. We hopped out.
“Once more.” I raised my eyebrows to signal to Flora and Glen that we needed a little more private time. It would be our sixth consecutive ride on The Tornado, and my stomach was already queasy, but I also had an idea.
As we pulled out of the station and headed toward the first hill, I wrote frantically.
The only way to get out of here is to stop being the sort of kids that made them choose us in the first place. I underlined “first,” then handed what I’d written to Glen. He read it and passed it to Flora. They gave me blank, questioning looks.
Be bad. Stop obeying.
Flora’s eyes went wide, like I’d suggested we kill someone, or take drugs.
When we get to class tomorrow, follow my lead. My palm was sweaty, the pencil slippery as I wrote.
• • • •
“Do not repeat. Are you all right? Scratch your nose if you are, scratch your wrist if you’re not,” The prompter said in my ear.
I did nothing.
“Do not repeat. Ben, I know you’re scared, but believe me, we know what we’re doing. Now, turn toward Eve.”
Had Ms. Bazzini not known what she was doing? I guess no one bothered to give her an earbud so she could have an all-knowing infallible voice tell her not to piss off the monster in the room.
“Direction. Turn toward Eve,” the all-knowing infallible voice repeated. “Ask her if she wants to ride The Tornado with you, Glen, and Flora tonight.”
I did nothing.
“Do not repeat. Ben, please, don’t let me down. Don’t let us down. This is more important than you know.”
“No.” The kids all looked my way; Ms. Spain stopped talking. “I’m not saying it.” I was so nervous I thought I might vomit. I’d never, ever talked that way to an adult before.
“Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.” Earbud Guy sounded angry. “Say it, then get up and get your ass out of that room.”
My heart hammering, I took the earbud out of my ear and dropped it on the floor.
Everyone gaped at me like I’d just dropped my pants and took a big old stinky dump on my desk. Except Ms. Spain, who actually looked scared.
Then I realized why she looked scared. Eve was looking at me.
I glanced at her, then away.
“I like you,” Eve said.
Somehow that scared me more than if she’d said she hated me. I had to answer, though. If I ignored her she might get mad.
“Thanks.” I so wanted to run. “I like you, too.”
With that, Ms. Spain went on with her lesson, her voice shaking.
• • • •
“Benjamin.” Ms. Spain and a white-haired man dressed like a corporate CEO were waiting outside the classroom. I followed them out a side-door, across the soccer field we hadn’t set foot on yet, and into a white building I hadn’t really noticed before. They led me down a hallway that was so new you could still smell fresh paint and sawdust, into a nice office with wood trim, where a man with pocked skin and an army crewcut sat behind a desk.
Mr. Crewcut said his name was Colonel Winn. The old guy was Mr. Pierre.
“You mind telling us what’s going on?” Colonel Winn asked.
I cleared my throat. “I was gonna ask you the same thing.” I was truly surprised that I found the guts to say it, even if my voice shook. Damn, my mouth was dry.
He slapped a sheet of paper onto the desk. “Your parents agreed to very specific terms, and they are your legal guardians. Are those their signatures?” He pushed the paper closer. “Take a good look. Are they?”
I looked at the paper. “It looks like it. But they don’t know what’s going on here.”
“Yes, they do, Benjamin.” Ms. Spain’s tone was calmer and softer than Colonel Winn. I wondered if she was supposed to be playing the good cop.
“Did you see what happened to Ms. Bazzini?” I asked.
“Ms. Bazzini is fine,” Ms. Spain said.
“What about the next person who gets that thing angry? How do you know they’ll be okay? She likes me now.” I folded my arms across my chest.
“Eve is under control,” Colonel Winn said.
“What is she?”
No one answered.
Ms. Spain turned in her seat. “Benjamin, we can’t tell you much, but believe me when I say, it’s very important that you help us. You made an important breakthrough in there just now, even if it wasn’t according to plan. If you keep it up, everyone up to the President of the United States is going to want to shake your hand.” She reached over and squeezed my knee. “Please. Be the boy we know you are.”
“We’re not asking you to wear the earbud,” Colonel Winn said. “Eve likes you because you tossed it away, so we’ll run with that, maybe have some of your classmates pull them as well. Use your own words to try to get Eve to talk. Encourage her to get to know your friends. Show her what it’s like to be a twelve-year-old.”
I considered. “Why can’t you tell me what she is?”
“We can’t tell you that,” the colonel replied.
“You can’t tell me why you can’t tell me?”
He nodded. “That’s right.”
I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to shake the President’s hand, or more likely have him at my funeral. I wanted to go home and binge-watch Annoying Orange.
Except my parents wanted me here, and if Ms. Spain was telling the truth, they knew exactly what that meant.
• • • •
The movie that night was Star Wars, Episode IX: Battle of the Jedi, which wasn’t going to be released in theaters for another month. These people had pull, that was for sure. I took my usual seat in the back row of the small theater with Flora and Glen.
Eve appeared from out of the breezeway. Instead of heading to her usual spot in the front, she paused.
She began climbing the steps.
“Oh, God. Oh, no,” Flora moaned through clenched teeth.
Eve took the two seats beside me, and, munching popcorn from a plastic tub, looked me over.
Why had I tossed my earbud away? Suddenly I wanted an adult telling me what to say, because I had no idea.
I swallowed. This was getting weird, with Eve staring at me, everyone else watching while trying to pretend they weren’t, the entire theater deadly quiet.
“Have you seen any of the other Star Wars movies?” I asked, my voice an octave higher than usual.
“No.” Her voice was hissing and watery.
“They’re good. Really good.” My mouth was so dry my upper lip was sticking to my front teeth as I spoke.
“They think I’m stupid.”
A jolt of electric panic ran right down to my toes. I wanted to stick to small talk, watch the movie, then sprint to my bed and hide under the blankets for a week.
“The people talking to us in our earbuds, you mean?”
“All of them.”
I nodded. I didn’t know where to go from there. I gave Flora and Glen a look—Help me out here. Glen looked down. Flora just went on staring. The deer in the headlights was back. Why weren’t their prompters feeding them lines? I was dying, here. One wrong word and Eve would turn hard and spiny and slash me.
“Do you know why I’m here?” Eve asked.
“No. You don’t know either?”
“Where were you before this?” Glen asked.
“Another school. Alone with the teachers. Before that, the lab. Machines. Blood tests. No windows. There were five of us.”
“What about before that?” I didn’t want to come right out and ask, What are you?
“That’s all. The lab.”
In the cracks of time we’d had to speculate before our prompters shut down the conversation, we’d pretty much agreed Eve was an alien who’d crashed in a UFO and was taken to Area 51. It seemed like if she’d crashed in a UFO, she’d have remembered that, so evidently we were wrong.
The movie started. We stopped talking and watched. I was nervous, sitting next to Eve, but, I have to admit, also a little excited. She went through her popcorn in five minutes, raised the empty tub. A guy in a red theater uniform ran to get her more.
• • • •
After the movie, we went for ice cream. Flora slowly rediscovered that she could speak as the four of us sat in the ice cream shop working on ridiculously huge sundaes. The kids at the other tables snuck glances our way. My palms and armpits were sweating like mad, but suddenly we were friends with a monster, and that was weirdly cool.
“What happened to the other four . . . people in the lab?” Glen asked.
Eve studied Glen. I still couldn’t figure out if the two holes in her face with swirls of skin around them were eyes or ears. They looked more like ears. “Did they tell you to ask that?” There was a not so subtle threat in her hissing, warbling voice.
“No. I was just wondering.”
“Ditch your earbud,” I said. It felt good, to be the bad boy of the class. I’d never been the bad boy before. “What are they going to do? Nothing happened to me.”
Glen took the earbud out and went to put it in his pocket.
I grabbed his hand. “No. Chuck it.”
Glen hesitated for a moment, then chucked the earbud. It bounced off the storefront window. “What about Flora?”
I nudged Flora’s elbow with mine. “You, too.”
Glen let out a nervous laugh as Flora dropped hers on the floor.
Eve seemed satisfied. “One of the others disappeared a few years ago. Two were bad. Mean. They were kept separate from us.”
They were mean? If Eve was the nice one, I didn’t want to meet the mean ones. Were they genetic experiments? Why would they be putting on this whole middle school thing for a genetic experiment?
Eve leaned in toward the center of the table and lowered her voice. “Do you know what I am?” She sounded angry. Just about everything she said came out sounding angry.
“We don’t know. They must know, though. When they pulled me into the office, they wouldn’t tell me.”
At the table next to ours, Marshall Jones and Grace Krivitzky took out their earbuds and set them on the table. All of the kids were taking them out.
“What’s going on?” I asked Grace.
She shrugged. “The prompters told us to take them out.”
“Fine. Now they can’t tell us what we can and can’t talk about,” I said.
“They’re still listening,” Glen said. “You know they are.”
“So let them listen.”
So we talked. Only, Eve was right there, and most of the kids were scared to talk directly to her, or even talk about her, and Eve didn’t speak at all, so it was a halting, roundabout conversation.
“We’re being treated like we’re in prison. There are fences all around us,” I said after a while. “We have a right to know what’s going on. So does Eve.”
“So go tell them that,” Grace Krivitzky said.
“Maybe I will.”
Grace rolled her eyes at me. “You’re twelve. You don’t get to decide that. None of us do. They must have a good reason for not telling us what’s going on, or they’d tell us.”
Before Ms. Bazzini got hurt, I believed that. Now I wasn’t so sure. Dad, with his tattoos hidden under white button-down shirts and his death metal CDs, hadn’t wanted me to come here. Straight-laced Mom with her Blind Melon albums had.
“I mean, what are you going to do?” Grace went on.
“There are soldiers with automatic rifles patrolling the woods,” Marshall Jones said. He had a spot of chocolate ice cream on one side of his mouth. “I saw them. This is serious government stuff. They know what they’re doing. We shouldn’t mess things up.”
“Things are already messed up.” Eve’s body got just a little sharper, a little harder.
Marshall swallowed, hard, and shrank into his chair.
“I don’t want to go back to the lab. They won’t tell me what happened to my friend Adam. I think they killed him.”
You could almost hear the ice cream melting, it was so quiet.
“We should do something,” I said.
“But what?” Flora didn’t say it, but it was in the tone in her voice: We’re only twelve. What can we do?
We could continue with the original plan. We could be bad. They’d handpicked a bunch of kids who would obey their rules. We could stop being those kids.
“What if we stage a protest?” I asked.
“You mean, like, carry signs in front of that town hall building?” Flora gave me a sour look.
“No.” Spines popped out all over Eve as she stood. She grabbed her dish, towering over the rest of us, and dumped her sundae onto the floor. “Like this.”
My heart racing, I swept my sundae from the table; the bowl clattered across the black and white linoleum floor, spewing melted ice cream and fudge sauce.
I looked at the ice cream server, watching from behind his counter. He wasn’t lifting a finger to stop us.
Grace Krivitzky and most of the other kids headed for the door. Either they didn’t want to get in trouble, or they were afraid Eve was going to hurt them. Or both. But Flora, Glen, and two other brave souls stayed. When all of our ice cream was on the floor, I vaulted the counter, where tubs in thirty flavors waited. The server watched, arms crossed, as I dug out a snowball-sized dollop of peanut butter fudge ripple with my bare hand and threw it at Glen. I nailed him in the back.
Eve followed me behind the counter. She pulled out the entire tub of black raspberry and hurled it at the wall, shrieking in rage. The cardboard tub split, squirting purple ice cream in all directions.
Flora retrieved a double-handful of black raspberry from the floor and dumped it over another girl’s head. The girl squealed with laughter and went to get some to retaliate with.
Show her what it’s like to be a twelve-year-old kid, the colonel had told me. This was what it was like. What it should be like, anyway. Being crazy, making a mess, laughing till your stomach hurt. Only, until now, we hadn’t really know what it was like, because we were the good kids, working our asses off with an eye toward college.
Eve jettisoned tub after tub. She was fully barbed, her skin reflecting the light like polished stone, and she wasn’t laughing, she was in a rage. Maybe she couldn’t laugh, or didn’t know how. When she was finished with the tubs, she went after the machinery, smashing it flat with hard fists, then swept glasses, steel milkshake shakers, boxes of napkins off the shelves. It was like she had an on/off switch, and it had been switched to on. I had a feeling if someone accidentally got in her way right now, they might get hurt. Bad.
We followed Eve to our classroom and wrecked that, too. Part of me was nervous as hell, sure I was going to end up in jail for this, or that Eve was suddenly going to turn on us when there was nothing left to smash, but it also felt good.
There wasn’t an adult in sight, and if there really were soldiers in the woods, they stayed there while Eve threw desks through windows.
• • • •
First thing in the morning, they led me back to the office.
“Tone it down.” Colonel Winn had missed a spot shaving. “We don’t want her angry.”
“How are we supposed to know that? You won’t tell us what’s going on.”
“You’re supposed to be wearing an earbud, so a qualified adult who does know what’s going on can guide you, but that cat’s out of the bag.”
Looking at this guy who’d missed a huge spot shaving—not a couple of whiskers, but a huge patch on his jaw—it suddenly hit me: These people didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Earbuds? All that had done was piss Eve off, and they hadn’t anticipated that because they had no idea what they were doing. We got Eve better than they did. We got that Eve had a finely tuned bullshit detector, and when you set it off, she got pissed. Pissed enough to rip a hole in your face.
“So how was that earbud thing working for you?” I asked.
Mr. Pierre, who hadn’t said one word the last time they brought me into this glorified principal’s office, cleared his throat. “He’s right. It just antagonized her.”
“Well, what were we supposed to do, just cut a bunch of kids loose and hope for the best?” Colonel Winn snapped. It was hard to miss the tension in the room; these people were panicked.
“If you told us what was going on, maybe we could help.”
No one answered. Colonel Winn glared down at the carpet.
Finally, Ms. Spain said, “He’s our best chance. He’s the only one she trusts. Maybe if he trusted us, we’d get somewhere.”
“It’s two to one,” Mr. Pierre said to the colonel. “Three to one.” He gestured at me.
“This isn’t a democracy.” Colonel Winn’s cheeks were crimson.
Ms. Spain leaned forward in her chair. “Colonel, unless you have an idea we haven’t heard yet, we’re just about out of ideas, and we are most definitely out of time.” She gestured at me. “This definitely isn’t the boy we thought we were recruiting, but he’s what we’ve got. If you don’t tell him, I will, and if we survive this mess, you can court-martial me.”
Colonel Winn looked up at me. He didn’t look happy. “You are not to tell your friends, you are not to tell Eve. Eve isn’t ready to know the truth yet.”
“Do you know what SETI is?”
“Sure, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Big satellites listening for radio transmissions from aliens. Eve is an alien. That’s what we all suspected.”
“Except she’s not. She was born on Earth.” The colonel’s nose was wrinkled, as if telling me this was leaving a bad taste in his mouth. “Sixteen years ago, SETI recovered a message. A very, very long message. It turned out to be a genome.”
I waited for him to ask if I knew what a genome was. I did. It was kind of a map of the genes that made living things what they were. And now I also knew what Eve was. They’d built her by following the genome, like a cookbook.
“We sent a human genome in reply. That seemed to be what they wanted. Then we created Eve and four others, to learn about the aliens.”
It was hard to think about, because not only was it terrifying, but my mind kept slipping off it, thinking of it like it was a movie, or a dream, because it just couldn’t be real. It was too big to be real.
“What happened to Adam?”
The colonel’s scowl deepened. “That’s not important right now.”
“It sure is to Eve.”
“Just shut up and listen. We are in a very dangerous situation.” He waited a beat, eyes burning into me, before continuing. “There was a second layer of the aliens’ transmission that we thought was just background noise. Except it wasn’t. It was further instructions. The aliens who sent out the genome—the Alioth is what we call them—are coming. They’re sending an emissary.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “You’re a smart kid. Do you want to guess what the emissary looks like?”
“What?” What it looks like? I didn’t get what he was asking.
Aliens. Deep down I guess I’d believed this was a put-on of some kind, like Glen had suggested.
“He looks like us,” Colonel Winn said.
I still wasn’t following. Why would the emissary look like us? Suddenly I didn’t like how scared these people looked. Underneath their grown-up, in-charge air, they were wet-your-pants terrified.
Mr. Pierre scooted his chair closer to mine. “Benjamin, they’re waiting for our emissary, and they’re getting angry.” He reached over and squeezed my shoulder. “They’re waiting for Eve. Eve has to be our emissary, and if she doesn’t come, or they realize we didn’t treat her well, they’re going to come back with an army.”
“You mean, an invasion?”
Nobody answered, but their faces told me everything I needed to know, and scared the crap out of me.
“We were supposed to raise Eve as one of our own.” Ms. Spain let out a long, angry sigh. “That’s how the Alioth do this—each emissary looks like the beings they’re greeting. It’s a sign of respect, that you would accept this other species and raise one of their kind as your own. Only we treated them like lab rats. And now we have to try to undo all of the damage done to Eve, and we don’t have time.”
I threw my hands in the air. “Then why the hell is she with us?” Were these people crazy? Everything depended on Eve, and they had her watching Star Wars and eating ice cream with a bunch of twelve-year-olds? Yes, fine, smart twelve-year-olds, but we were still just kids.
“We’ve tried everything else,” Ms. McNulty said. “Eve won’t cooperate with us. She’s angry about Adam—”
“Where is Adam?” I interrupted.
“Adam was dissected.” The colonel said it like he was describing what he’d had for breakfast. “As for why she’s with you, that was Pierre’s idea.” From his tone it was clear he didn’t think much of the idea. He gestured at Pierre. “Go ahead. Tell him.”
Pierre nodded. “I know you’re a smart kid, Benjamin. Do you know much about psychology?”
I shrugged. “I never had a class in it or anything.”
“Have you ever heard of Harry Harlow’s monkeys?”
It sounded like a rock group. I shook my head.
“Harry Harlow was a psychologist who separated a group of monkeys from their mothers as soon as they were born. He put them in a cage with two figures: One was made from wire and gave milk, the other was made of soft cloth and didn’t. He wanted to see which figure the monkeys bonded with—the one that fed them, or the one that was warm and comforting.” He waved his hand. “It turned out they stayed with the cloth mother, but that wasn’t the important finding. Growing up isolated and emotionally abused damaged those monkeys terribly. When they grew up, they killed their own babies as soon as they were born, and attacked any monkey that approached them.” Pierre wrapped his arms around his head and looked at the floor. “They cowered all day long, trying to block out the world. And nothing the psychologists tried could undo the damage.” He let his arms drop and raised a finger. “Until they hit on a solution. If they put these broken adult monkeys in with adolescent monkeys, somehow the adolescents were able to help them. Their best guess was the adolescent monkeys were just discovering who they were, and learning how to relate to other monkeys. They could lead the broken monkeys on this journey with them, and teach them how to act like monkeys.”
I had no idea what to say. Monkeys? It worked with monkeys, so they figured it would work with an alien?
And yet, it made a weird kind of sense. Eve was never going to feel better sitting around with these people, and she was still a kid. As weird and alien as she was, it was still obvious she was a kid.
“We handpicked adolescents who are bright, reliable, and emotionally stable,” Mr. Pierre said.
“And then you gave us earbuds and told us what to say.”
“We needed to steer things in the right direction, and make sure you didn’t say or do anything to make matters worse.” Mr. Pierre closed his mouth, then, like he’d just remembered something, added, “Or get you hurt.”
Oh, right. That, too. How could my parents volunteer me to be a guinea pig in an experiment with a psychotic alien? I couldn’t believe it. I would never forgive them. I got it, there was a lot at stake, but I was twelve.
The colonel leaned back, clasped his hands across his stomach. “So now you know everything. Stop making us out to be the bad guys. We need Eve to help us, and she’s not going to if she hates us. Win her over, get her in tight with the other students, then convince her we’re all the good guys.”
“And Benjamin, she can’t know what’s going on yet,” Ms. Spain said. “If she thinks the only reason we’re treating her well is because we need her help, she’ll shut right down. We need to win her over, then ask for her help. Not the other way around.”
The colonel stood, pressed his knuckles to the desk. “Can we count on you, Ben?”
I hated being called Ben, and I couldn’t take my eyes off that big spot he’d missed shaving. And the fate of Earth was suddenly resting on my shoulders.
“I’ll do what I can.”
Colonel Winn nodded. “The earbuds are out, obviously, now that Eve is aware of us, but people will check in with you as often as possible to advise you.”
• • • •
When I got back to the dorm, Eve was waiting for me.
“What did they say to you?” she whispered.
“Just . . . to cut the crap. For us to stop wrecking the town.” The lie felt like a brick lodged in my stomach.
Eve looked at me, or listened to me, or whatever she did with those things on her face. She stayed perfectly still.
Then she pulled her feet into her bed and lay down.
Could she tell I was lying? This felt like a mistake. We should tell her the truth. If you needed someone’s help, you asked them, you didn’t manipulate them into helping you. I couldn’t understand how these people didn’t see that.
Maybe that why my parents agreed to send me.
I wanted to help them—to help us—but maybe the only way to help them was to do the exact opposite of what they’d just told me to do.
“Eve?” My heart was pounding like a jackhammer. I was going to have a heart attack. At twelve years old, I was going to drop dead of a coronary.
Eve sat up.
“They need you to save the world, but they’re afraid if they ask, you won’t do it, because they treated you like crap.”
Her barbs came out. It occurred to me that her barbs were like my racing heart. “Did they tell you what I am?”
The door burst open. Two soldiers rushed in. The one in front just kept coming, just bowled me right over and landed on top of me, her elbow in my gut.
I was gasping, wheezing, bolts of pain shooting through my stomach as the soldiers yanked me to my feet. Eve launched herself at the soldier who’d tackled me. The other soldier had a Taser in his hand. Sparks spit from it as Eve shuddered, then collapsed.
The soldiers grabbed me by the armpits and carried me out.
• • • •
I flicked my finger at one of the steel bars. They were square, not round like the bars I’d seen in a million movies, but they did the job just as well.
It was stupid, but more than anything I was worried my parents would be disappointed in me. They hadn’t sent me here because they didn’t love me. I could see that, now that I had time to think. If the aliens invaded, I was going to die anyway, so they hadn’t been risking my life by sending me. They’d let me go because they’d believed in me; they believed if any twelve-year-old could fix this mess, it was me.
And I’d blown it. They’d tased Eve because of me, and that was probably the last straw, even though I had no idea what was happening, because I’d been in the Sagan Middle School jail (they’d thought of everything!) for the past two days, and no one would tell me anything.
The outer door creaked open. I figured it was my lunch being delivered, until I caught a glimpse of Colonel Winn’s buzz-cut head.
He took a seat on the stool outside the cell, propped one foot on the bottom rungs. “You may have forced us into a war we can’t win. But, like you said, what the hell were we doing relying on a bunch of twelve-year-olds in the first place?”
I didn’t have an answer for him. I felt sick. I should have kept on doing what I’d always done: follow the rules.
The colonel unlocked my cell. “Eve won’t talk to anyone. She gave one of the teachers a nasty wound when he tried to get her to eat.”
“Are you sending me home?”
Colonel Winn folded his arms. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Screw everything up, then run home and hide under your bed and play with your Star Wars figures.” Winn swung the cell door open. “You’re the one person she might talk to. You opened your big mouth, now it’s all on your shoulders. Convince her we’re not the evil empire, that we had her best interests in mind, even in the lab.”
“Colonel Winn? In case you haven’t noticed, she can see through your crap. If I talk to her, I have to be straight with her.”
Colonel Winn gripped my shoulder and squeezed, hard. “If you cross me once more, I won’t send you home, I’ll send you to prison—real, grown-up prison—for the rest of your life. I can make that happen. And that’s just for appetizers. How would you like your picture on every TV, as the kid who betrayed the world?”
I stayed right where I was—just inside the open cell door. “If I’m not straight with her, she’ll shut me out. Or kill me.”
“Then figure out a way to be straight with her and still get her on our side,” he shouted. He was huffing through his nose like a winded horse. “The Alioth are here. They’re waiting. If she doesn’t greet them in the morning, we’re in trouble.” He swung the cell door open the last few inches. “Why am I threatening to put you in prison? We’ll all be dead by the end of the week.”
• • • •
Eve was in the dorm room, sitting propped in bed, her weird toeless feet bare. When she saw me, she straightened. “What happened?”
“Did you know we have our own little prison here?”
Her barbs appeared, but stayed just at the surface of her skin. “If I ever see another soldier, I’ll shred him. I could, you know.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
We had a moment of awkward silence. Awkward to me, anyway. I had no idea what Eve was feeling.
“Tell me what I am.”
I told her everything they’d told me.
When I finished, Eve didn’t say anything, she just stared down at her blankets.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” I said.
“We never got to go outside. We never got to have any fun.” She looked up at me. “Did they tell you what happened to Adam?”
I’d been dreading that question. I was tempted to lie and say they didn’t tell me.
“You were right. They killed him.”
Eve got very still. Instead of her barbs coming out, they must have turned inward, because suddenly she was covered in little holes. “Then I won’t help them.”
“Eve, they’ll kill us all if you don’t. Not just them, everyone. Me.”
Without moving a muscle besides the ones that worked her mouth, Eve said, “Leave me alone.”
“I can’t. There’s no more time.” When she didn’t answer, I clasped my hands together like I was going to pray. Or beg. “Look, we’re not all assholes.” I pointed in the direction of the offices. “They’re assholes, but my mom and dad aren’t. My grandpa has long hair and dances to heavy metal music. You can meet him. You could stay with us if you want.”
“You’re saying that because you need me.”
“Hell yes, I need you. But I’m not saying it because I need you. You’re a friend. You’re becoming a friend, anyway, and when someone’s your friend you—“
“I loved him.”
I didn’t even see her move. The side of my face felt like it was on fire. Blood was pouring down my neck and onto my shirt, so she must have moved, but I hadn’t even seen it.
“I loved him, and they killed him. I wouldn’t help them for anything. Not for anything.” She glanced at me, seemed surprised that I was still there. “Leave me alone, or I’ll do much worse.”
I ran out of the room, my hand clutching my cut face. I wasn’t sure how bad it was. I didn’t want to know.
Ms. Spain and the colonel met me outside the room and walked me to the medical center. The doctor gave me a shot to numb my cheek, then gave me stitches. I couldn’t feel it, but I could hear the thread sliding through my skin.
“You did your best.” Ms. Spain patted my shoulder. “I’m not sure anyone could have done better, under the circumstances.”
“Who are they going to send in Eve’s place?” I asked.
“A diplomat. She’s been training just in case, since this started.”
The door burst open; Mr. Pierre stormed in. “We need Benjamin, right now. Eve wants him.”
The words gave me a jolt. I didn’t want to see her. Right now I didn’t want to be in the same state as Eve.
“I’m not finished stitching this wound,” the doctor said.
“Now. She wants to see him now.” Mr. Pierre wasn’t even trying to hide his panic. He was losing his grip in a hurry. I guess I couldn’t blame him.
“Tie it off. You can finish it later,” Colonel Winn told the doctor. She snatched a pair of scissors and cut the thread.
Mr. Pierre led me outside. Eve was on the sidewalk facing the door. Waiting for me.
I approached her cautiously, the side of my face still numb.
I shrugged. “I can’t blame you.”
“I hurt you for nothing. Just like they did to Adam.”
“I’m sorry about Adam.”
Eve moved a step closer; I took a half-step back.
“Would you still invite me to your house, after what I did?” she asked. Underneath the hissing, the weirdness of her voice, there was a pleading in her tone.
“If you promised you’d never do it again. Even if I say something stupid, or accidentally step on your foot.”
“I promise. Never again.”
I turned and looked behind me. Colonel Winn, Ms. Spain, and Mr. Pierre were all watching from the windows.
“I’ll do it for you. For Flora and Glen.”
It took me a second to grasp what Eve was saying. When I did, I let out a shriek of joy. “You will?”
“For you. Not for the assholes, just for you.”
I nodded wildly. “Thank you. Thank you so much, Eve.” Saying thank you didn’t seem like enough, though. “Can I hug you?”
“All right.” She sounded pleased. Excited, almost.
“Those spikes won’t pop out if I do, will they?”
I took a step toward her. “Okay, then.” I wrapped my arms around her wide middle. She felt sort of mushy, and smelled like mud. The pucker spots appeared, like her spikes were turning inward. She pressed her strange arms to my back.
“I want you to be there when I do it. I don’t want to go alone, and I don’t want an asshole with me.”
“Deal. Then you can meet my mom and dad, and we can gorge on pizza and play games on my Xbox.” Because I was keeping the Xbox. I’d forgive them for sticking me in a school with a potentially homicidal alien, but I was keeping the Xbox. And Eve was coming home with me. Once we were finished saving each and everyone’s butts, I figured I’d be in a pretty sweet negotiating position.
Spread the word!