ANOTHER NEW IDENTITY, ANOTHER NEW SCHOOL. I've lost track of how many there have been over the years. Fifteen? Twenty? Always a small town, a small school, always the same routine. New students draw attention. Sometimes I question our strategy of sticking to the small towns because it's hard, almost impossible, to go unnoticed. But I know Henri's rationale: it is impossible for them to go unnoticed as well.
The school is three miles away from our house. Henri drives me in the morning. It's smaller than most of the others I've attended and is unimpressive looking, one story, long and low-slung. A mural of a pirate with a knife between his teeth covers the outside wall beside the front door.
"So you're a Pirate now?" Henri says beside me.
"It looks like it," I reply.
"You know the drill," he says.
"This ain't my first rodeo."
"Don't show your intelligence. It'll make them resent you."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
"Don't stand out or draw too much attention."
"Just a fly on the wall."
"And don't hurt anybody. You're far stronger than they are."
"Most importantly, always be ready. Ready to leave at a moment's notice. What's in your backpack?"
"Five days' worth of dried fruit and nuts. Spare socks and thermal underwear. Rain jacket. A handheld GPS. A knife disguised as a pen."
"On you at all times." He takes a deep breath. "And keep an eye out for signs. Your Legacies are going to appear any day now. Hide them at all costs and call me immediately."
"I know, Henri."
"Any day, John," he reiterates. "If your fingers start to disappear, or if you start to float, or shake violently, if you lose muscular control or begin to hear voices even when nobody is talking. Anything at all, you call."
I pat my bag. "Got my phone right here."
"I'll be waiting here after school. Good luck in there, kiddo," he says.
I smile at him. He is fifty years old, which means he was forty when we arrived. Being his age made for a harder transition. He still speaks with a strong Loric accent that is often mistaken for French. It was a good alibi in the beginning, so he named himself Henri, and he has stuck with it ever since, just changing his last name to match mine.
"Off I go to rule the school," I say.
I walk towards the building. As is the case with most high schools, there are crowds of kids hanging around outside. They're divided into their cliques, the jocks and the cheerleaders, the band kids carrying instruments, the brains in their glasses with their textbooks and BlackBerries, the stoners off to one side, oblivious to everyone else. One kid, gangly with thick glasses, stands alone. He's wearing a black NASA T-shirt and jeans, and can't weigh more than a hundred pounds. He has a handheld telescope and is scanning the sky, which is mostly obscured by clouds. I notice a girl taking pictures, moving easily from one group to the next. She's shockingly beautiful with straight blond hair past her shoulders, ivory skin, high cheekbones, and soft blue eyes. Everyone seems to know her and says hello to her, and no one objects to her taking their picture.
She sees me, smiles and waves. I wonder why and turn to see if someone is behind me. There are, two kids discussing math homework, but no one else. I turn back around. The girl walks towards me, smiling. I've never seen a girl so good-looking, much less spoken to one, and I've definitely never had one wave and smile as if we're friends. I'm immediately nervous, and start blushing. But I'm also suspicious, as I've been trained to be. As she nears me, she lifts the camera and starts snapping pictures. I raise my hands to block my face. She lowers the camera and smiles.
"Don't be shy."
"I'm not. Just trying to protect your lens. My face might break it."
She laughs. "With that scowl it might. Try smiling."
I smile, slightly. I'm so nervous I feel like I'm going to explode. I can feel my neck burning, my hands getting warm.
"That's not a real smile," she says, teasingly. "A smile involves showing your teeth."
I smile broadly and she takes pictures. I usually don't allow anyone to take my picture. If it ended up on the internet, or in a newspaper, it would make finding me much easier. The two times it happened, Henri was furious, got hold of the pictures, and destroyed them. If he knew I was doing this now, I'd be in huge trouble. I can't help it, though--this girl is so pretty and so charming. As she's taking my picture, a dog comes running up to me. It's a beagle with tan floppy ears, white legs and chest, a slender black body. He's thin and dirty as if he's been living on his own. He rubs against my leg, whines, tries to get my attention. The girl thinks it's cute and has me kneel down so she can take a picture of me with the dog. As soon as she starts snapping shots, he backs away. Whenever she tries again, he moves farther away. She finally gives up and shoots a few more of me. The dog sits about thirty feet away watching us.
"Do you know that dog?" she asks.
"Never seen him before."
"He sure likes you. You're John, right?"
She holds out her hand.
"Yeah." I say. "How'd you know?"
"I'm Sarah Hart. My mother is your real-estate agent. She told me you'd probably be starting school today, and I should look out for you. You're the only new kid to show up today."
I laugh. "Yeah, I met your mom. She was nice."
"You gonna shake my hand?"
She's still holding her hand out. I smile and take it, and it is literally one of the best feelings I've ever had.
"Wow," she says.
"Your hand feels hot. Really hot, like you have a fever or something."
"I don't think so."
She lets go.
"Maybe you're just warm-blooded."
A bell rings in the distance and Sarah tells me that it's the warning bell. We have five minutes to get to class. We say good-bye and I watch her walk away. A moment later, something hits the back of my elbow. I turn and a group of football players, all wearing letterman jackets, sweep by me. One of them is glaring at me and I realize that he hit me with his backpack as he walked past. I doubt it was an accident and I start to follow them. I know I'm not going to do anything, even though I could. I just don't like bullies. As I do, the kid in the NASA shirt walks next to me.
"I know you're new, so I'll fill you in," he says.
"On what?" I ask.
"That's Mark James. He's a big deal around here. His dad is the town sheriff and he's the star of the football team. He used to date Sarah, when she was a cheerleader, but she quit cheerleading and dumped him. He hasn't gotten over it. I wouldn't get involved if I were you."
The kid hurries away. I make my way to the principal's office so I can register for classes and get started. I turn and look back to see if the dog is still around. He is, sitting in the same spot, watching me.
The principal's name is Mr. Harris. He's fat and mostly bald, except for a few long hairs at the back and sides of his head. His belly reaches over his belt. His eyes are small and beady, set too close together. He grins at me from across the desk, and his smile seems to swallow his eyes.
"So you're a sophomore from Santa Fe?" he asks. I nod, say yes even though we've never been to Santa Fe, or New Mexico, for that matter. A simple lie to keep from being traced.
"That explains the tan. What brings you to Ohio?"
"My dad's job."
Henri isn't my father, but I always say he is to allay suspicion. In truth he is my Keeper, or what would be better understood on Earth as my guardian. On Lorien there were two types of citizens, those who develop Legacies, or powers, which can be extremely varied, anything from invisibility to the ability to read minds, from being able to fly to using natural forces like fire, wind or lightning. Those with the Legacies are called the Garde, and those without are called Cepan, or Keepers. I am a member of the Garde. Henri is a Cepan. Every Garde is assigned a Cepan at an early age. Cepans help us understand our planet's history and develop our powers. The Cepan and the Garde--one group to run the planet, the other group to defend it.
Mr. Harris nods. "And what does he do?"
"He's a writer. He wanted to live in a small, quiet town to finish what he's working on," I say, which is our standard cover story.
Mr. Harris nods and squints his eyes. "You look like a strong young man. Are you planning on playing sports here?"
"I wish I could. I have asthma, sir," I say, my usual excuse to avoid any situation that might betray my strength and speed.
"I'm sorry to hear that. We're always looking for able athletes for the football team," he says, and casts his eyes to the shelf on the wall, on top of which a football trophy sits engraved with last year's date. "We won the Pioneer Conference," he says, and beams with pride.
He reaches over and pulls two sheets of paper from a file cabinet beside his desk and hands them to me. The first is my student schedule with a few open slots. The second is a list of the available electives. I choose classes and fill them in, then hand everything back. He gives me a sort of orientation, talking for what seems like hours, going over every page of the student manual with painstaking detail. One bell rings, then another. When he finally finishes he asks if I have any questions. I say no.
"Excellent. There is a half hour left of second period, and you've chosen astronomy with Mrs. Burton. She's a great teacher, one of our very best. She won an award from the state once, signed by the governor himself."
"That's great," I say.
After Mr. Harris struggles to free himself from his chair, we leave his office and walk down the hall. His shoes click upon the newly waxed floor. The air smells of fresh paint and cleaner. Lockers line the walls. Many are covered with banners supporting the football team. There can't be more than twenty classrooms in the whole building. I count them as we pass.
"Here we are," Mr. Harris says. He extends his hand. I shake it. "We're happy to have you. I like to think of us as a close-knit family. I'm glad to welcome you to it."
"Thank you," I say.
Mr. Harris opens the door and sticks his head in the classroom. Only then do I realize that I'm a little nervous, that a somewhat dizzy feeling is creeping in. My right leg is shaking; there are butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I don't understand why. Surely it's not the prospect of walking into my first class. I've done it far too many times to still feel the effect of nerves. I take a deep breath and try to shake them away.
"Mrs. Burton, sorry to interrupt. Your new student is here."
"Oh, great! Send him in," she says in a high-pitched voice of enthusiasm.
Mr. Harris holds open the door and I walk through. The classroom is perfectly square, filled with twenty-five people, give or take, sitting at rectangular desks about the size of kitchen tables, three students to each. All eyes are on me. I look back at them before looking at Mrs. Burton. She is somewhere around sixty, wearing a pink wool sweater and red plastic glasses attached to a chain around her neck. She smiles widely, her hair graying and curly. My palms are sweaty and my face feels flushed. I hope it isn't red. Mr. Harris closes the door.
"And what is your name?" she asks.
In my unsettled mood I almost say "Daniel Jones" but catch myself. I take a deep breath and say, "John Smith."
"Great! And where are you from?"
"Fl--," I begin, but then catch myself again before the word fully forms. "Santa Fe."
"Class, let's give him a warm welcome."
Everybody claps. Mrs. Burton motions for me to sit in the open seat in the middle of the room between two other students. I am relieved she doesn't ask any more questions. She turns around to go to her desk and I begin walking down the aisle, straight towards Mark James, who is sitting at a table with Sarah Hart. As I pass, he sticks his foot out and trips me. I lose my balance but stay upright. Snickers filter throughout the room. Mrs. Burton whips around.
"What happened?" she asks.
I don't answer her, and instead glare at Mark. Every school has one, a tough guy, a bully, whatever you want to call him, but never has one materialized this quickly. His hair is black, full of hair gel, carefully styled so it goes in all directions. He has meticulously trimmed sideburns, stubble on his face. Bushy eyebrows over a set of dark eyes. From his letterman jacket I see that he is a senior, and his name is written in gold cursive stitching above the year. Our eyes stay locked, and the class emits a taunting groan.
I look to my seat three desks away, then I look back at Mark. I could literally break him in half if I wanted to. I could throw him into the next county. If he tried to run away, and got into a car, I could outrun his car and put it in the top of a tree. But aside from that being an extreme overreaction, Henri's words echo in my mind: "Don't stand out or draw too much attention." I know that I should follow his advice and ignore what has just happened, as I always have in the past. That is what we're good at, blending into the environment and living within its shadows. But I feel slightly off, uneasy, and before I have a chance to think twice, the question is already asked.
"Did you want something?"
Mark looks away and glances around the rest of the room, scoots his weight up the chair, then looks back at me.
"What are you talking about?" he asks.
"You stuck your foot out when I passed. And you bumped into me outside. I thought you might have wanted something." "What's going on?" Mrs. Burton asks behind me. I look over my shoulder at her.
"Nothing," I say. I turn back to Mark. "Well?"
His hands tighten around the desk but he remains silent. Our eyes stay locked until he sighs and looks away.
"That's what I thought," I say down at him, and continue walking. The other students aren't sure how to respond and most of them are still staring when I take my seat between a redheaded girl with freckles and an overweight guy who looks at me with his mouth agape.
Mrs. Burton stands at the head of the class. She seems a little flustered, but then shrugs it off and describes why there are rings around Saturn, and how they're made mostly of ice particles and dust. After a while I tune her out and look at the other students. A whole new group of people that I'll yet again try to keep at a distance. It's always a fine line, having just enough interaction with them to remain mysterious without becoming strange and thus sticking out. I've already done a horrible job of that today.
I take a deep breath and slowly exhale. I still have butterflies in my stomach, still the nagging shake in my leg. My hands feel warmer. Mark James sits three tables in front of me. He turns once and looks at me, then whispers something into Sarah's ear. She turns around. She seems cool, but the fact that she used to date him and is sitting with him makes me wonder. She gives me a warm smile. I want to smile back but I'm frozen. Mark again tries to whisper to her but she shakes her head and pushes him away. My hearing is much better than human hearing if I focus it, but I'm so flustered by her smile that I don't. I wish I could have heard what was said.
I open and close my hands. My palms are sweaty and beginning to burn. Another deep breath. My vision is blurring. Five minutes pass, then ten.
Mrs. Burton is still talking but I don't hear what she is saying. I squeeze my fists shut, then reopen them. When I do my breath catches in my throat. A slight glow is coming from my right palm. I look down at it, dumbfounded, amazed. After a few seconds the glow begins to brighten.
I close my fists. My initial fear is that something else has happened to one of the others. But what could happen? We can't be killed out of order.
That is the way the charm works. But does that mean that some other harm can't befall them? Has somebody's right hand been cut off? I have no way of knowing. But if something had happened, I would have felt it in the scars on my ankles. And only then does it dawn on me. My first Legacy must be forming.I pull my phone out of my bag, and send Henri a text that says CMEE, though I meant to type COME. I'm too dizzy to send anything else. I close my fists and place them in my lap. They're burning and shaking. I open my hands. My left palm is bright red, my right is still glowing. I glance at the clock on the wall and see that class is almost over. If I can get out of here I can find an empty room and call Henri and ask him what's going on. I start counting the seconds: sixty, fifty-nine, fifty-eight. It feels like something is going to explode in my hands. I focus on the counting. Forty, thirty-nine. They're tingling now, as though little needles are being stuck into my palms. Twenty-eight, twenty-seven. I open my eyes and stare ahead, focusing on Sarah with the hope that looking at her will distract me. Fifteen, fourteen. Seeing her makes it worse. The needles feel like nails now. Nails that have been put in a furnace and heated until they're glowing. Eight, seven.
The bell rings and in an instant I'm up and out of the room, rushing past the other students. I'm feeling dizzy, unsteady on my feet. I continue down the hall and have no idea where to go. I can feel someone following me. I pull my schedule from my back pocket and check my locker number. As luck would have it, my locker is just to my right. I stop at it and lean my head against the metal door. I shake my head, realizing that in my rush to get out of the classroom I left behind my bag with my phone inside of it. And then someone pushes me.
"What's up, tough guy?"
I stumble a few steps, look back. Mark is standing there, smiling at me.
"Something wrong?" he asks.
"No," I reply.
My head is spinning. I feel like I'm going to pass out. And my hands are on fire. Whatever is happening couldn't be happening at a worse time. He pushes me again.
"Not so tough without any teachers around, are you?"
I'm too unbalanced to stay standing, and I trip over my own feet and fall to the ground. Sarah steps in front of Mark.
"Leave him alone," she says.
"This has nothing to do with you," he says.
"Right. You see a new kid talking to me and you try immediately to start a fight with him. This is just one example of why we aren't together anymore."
I start to stand up. Sarah reaches down to help me, and as soon as she touches me, the pain in my hands flares up and it feels like lightning strikes through my head. I turn around and start rushing away, in the opposite direction from the astronomy class. I know that everyone will think I'm a coward for running, but I feel like I'm about to pass out. I'll thank Sarah, and deal with Mark, later. Right now I just need to find a room with a lock on the door.
I get to the end of the hall, which intersects with the school's main entrance. I think back to Mr. Harris's orientation, which included where the various rooms were located in the school. If I remember correctly, the auditorium, band rooms, and art rooms are at the end of this hall. I run towards them as fast as I can in my current state. Behind me I can hear Mark yelling to me, and Sarah yelling at him. I open the first door I find, and shut it behind me. Thankfully there is a lock, which I click into place.
I'm in a dark room. Strips of negatives hang on drying lines. I collapse onto the floor. My head spins and my hands are burning. Since first seeing the light, I have kept my hands clenched into fists. I look down at them now and see my right hand is still glowing, pulsating. I start to panic.
I sit on the floor, sweat stinging my eyes. Both hands are in terrible pain. I knew to expect my Legacies, but I had no idea it would include this. I open my hands and my right palm is shining brightly, the light beginning to concentrate. My left is dimly flickering, the burning sensation almost unbearable. I wish Henri was here. I hope he's on his way.
I close my eyes and fold my arms across my body. I rock back and forth on the floor, everything inside of me in pain. I don't know how much time is passing. One minute? Ten minutes? The bell rings, signaling the start of the next period. I can hear people talking outside the door. The door shakes a couple times, but it's locked and nobody will be able to get in. I just keep rocking, eyes closed tightly. More knocks begin to fall on the door. Muffled voices that I can't understand. I open my eyes and can see that the glow from my hands has lit up the entire room. I squeeze my hands into fists to try and stop the light but it streams out between my fingers. Then the door really starts shaking. What will they think of the light in my hands? There is no hiding it. How will I explain it?
"John? Open the door--it's me," a voice says.
Relief floods through me. Henri's voice, the only voice in the whole world that I want to hear.