Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 6, please keep reading...
The mouse lay on its side, struggling to breathe. On its lips, a small pink froth of blood bubbled, and its claws twitched in random spasms. The human nose growing out of its back, covered in the mouse’s own skin and white fur, quivered.
Devlin Bledsoe scanned the clipboard next to the animal’s cage. According to the lab technicians’ notes, this mouse stopped eating yesterday afternoon, less than two days after the blue flush of its skin had faded into a sickly gray. At this morning’s 5:30 AM check, it was no longer walking. If it followed the pattern, it would be dead in the next hour, less than three days after QV injection.
One more little body given up for a bigger cause.
He supposed these experiments amounted to torture in their own way. So be it. His family was no stranger to torture. There would always be someone inside the cage and someone on the outside. Bledsoe knew which side he preferred.
He set the clipboard down and rubbed his eyes. The room’s “daylight-temperature” fluorescent lighting tended to make everything look flat and unreal. Among the endless ranks of steel shelves, nickel-plated cages, and white tiles, Bledsoe could only smell his facial mask’s chemical staleness. The thick hiss of pressurized air, hour after hour, lulled his senses. Bledsoe forced his knuckles into his temples and took a deep breath.
There were nineteen more cages in the row, each with a human nose protruding from its back like an oversized dorsal fin. Twenty clones, each identical to the others, and they would probably all be dead before the day was out — another month of work gone.
Even in Area X, they’d found that QV agents only interacted with higher primates. Obviously, the microscopic organisms required a certain genetic profile in their hosts. Just as viruses that affect pigs or cats usually don’t infect people, the QVs that could live symbiotically in humans wouldn’t survive in lower mammals, even if those mammals had been surgically implanted with tissue scaffolds in their backs that were seeded with human cartilage cells.
Bledsoe understood why his bosses wanted these experiments run. It was important to chase down all of the QV’s implementation possibilities. This had always seemed like a long shot, though, and it wasn’t even central to their main research.
The quasi-virus fell from the skies into a New Mexico rancher’s field in 1947. Billions of those tiny alien life forms had lived within another alien life form. Shackled with 1940s technology, Area X teams hadn’t been able to probe the QV’s inner workings. But before the end, they’d discovered the microbe’s ability to turn humans into something slightly different. Better. Superior. Which was why Bledsoe had stolen it for himself.
Every QV in this lab descended from that first group originally harvested from Bledsoe’s own blood. He’d been living with QVs in his body for seventy-five years — give or take a few decades — but on the outside he appeared just like any other man in his late thirties.
He reached for his earpiece. The thing made his ear itch almost constantly, but it was hard to scratch through so many layers of clean room gloves, hair net, cap, and body suit. He twisted and jiggled the thing looped to his ear, then settled it back into place and tapped its activation button.
“Dictation mode,” he said, feeling the cloth mask crinkle over his mouth and cheeks. “QV modification sequence bravo-six seems ineffective. All twenty subjects are exhibiting signs of rejection distress. Death appears likely. We still have several other possible modifications to genetic target strand fourteen that could yield a more positive outcome, but…”
He paused. This recording would be synchronized from his local server up to the army’s classified network for possible review by Management. They never liked bad news. Nobody did. And if he wanted to keep his funding, he’d better find a positive spin to put on these experiments and not say what was really on his mind.
“…success on strand fifteen seems less likely. We should assemble a round of mono-variant tests for strand fourteen and aim for an eight-week completion. Also, more exploration into mid-level primates, such as lemurs. End dictation.”
Management was terrified of primate testing, always saying it was an option for later, but “improved monkeys” were too much of a risk for now. Apparently, they’d watched Planet of the Apes too many times. Or maybe the idea of a human-like monkey hit a little too close to home among the officers and politicians.
Bledsoe unconsciously drew a puffy sleeve across his clean suit-covered forehead. When he got frustrated at the lack of progress in his labs, Bledsoe always became more aware of the oppressive heat. On the mainland, clean rooms were often kept at a constant 69 degrees, but here on Rota, stuck over a thousand miles off the coast of anywhere in the middle of the stifling Pacific, the native staff found 69 to be downright Arctic. So the facilities were kept at 74, and Bledsoe, despite being born and raised a Texan, never stopped sweating. He always wondered if the QVs made him more sensitive to temperature.
He’d been slaving away in this complex for the last six years and had little to show for it. If he had his own way, there would be a small army of infected fishermen and farm girls in his laboratory cells, but Management wanted none of that. Experimenting on humans was too risky, they said. Too expensive. Too this, too that.
But it would get the job done. On that point, Bledsoe had no doubt.
Patience, he thought. Plan for the World Series, but play the next pitch.
Three other people in clean suits moved about the cage room, feeding, watering, and recording. All of them had been on the crew for at least two years, and none of them had any notion of the lab’s true purpose. They believed they were testing experimental drug therapies for big pharmaceutical companies.
Only two other people actually understood the QVs and worked with Bledsoe to tweak the alien organism’s DNA. Both were U.S. military pulled in from different research and development divisions. But this wasn’t the old days. The three of them didn’t hang out after-hours as close friends. They did their jobs, reviewed each other’s notes, and went back to their apartments. They were barely on first-name terms.
Remembering 1948, that suited Bledsoe just fine.
His earpiece chimed twice, signaling a new message from Management. He groaned. What now? Had they already listened to his note on the mice and were calling to complain? Without Management’s funding, he wouldn’t have this facility or any way to conduct his research, but that didn’t make their endless ranting any easier to swallow.
He tapped the button. “Play message.”
A computer-simulated woman’s voice piped into his ear. “Message received eleven twenty-four AM local. Priority beta. Message reads as follows: Significant movement reported on Majestic Three. Possible identity on Majestics One or Four. A plane will retrieve you at nineteen-hundred hours. Confirm with Management ASAP. End message. Do you wish to replay?”
“No,” Bledsoe murmured, almost too stunned to speak.
Majestic Three. The Chase boy. How old would he be now? Twelve?
No, Bledsoe realized. Winston would be fourteen.
And Majestic One or Four? Was it possible that after all these years of looking, they had finally found Claude or Theo? Part of Bledsoe believed that his former friends were gone forever. These days, it was nearly impossible to stay off the grid and defy the resources of the National Security Agency, Homeland Security, and every other U.S. intelligence group. These two men had evaded them all, though. Somehow.
Bledsoe gazed across his laboratory, viewing it with a suddenly fresh perspective. Five minutes ago, his head had been filled with plans and frustrations all focused around QV development. But that wasn’t the real endgame. QVs would get him to the playoffs, but he’d never win the Series with that alone.
In Management’s eyes, Bledsoe was just another easily replaced researcher, even with the QVs in his veins. They now knew pretty much everything he knew, or so they thought. Sometimes, Bledsoe wondered if Management would rather kill him off quietly here in the middle of the ocean rather than risk him defecting to the Russians or Chinese. If they knew even half of what Bledsoe was actually thinking…
Bledsoe chuckled. No, the way forward was through Majestic One. Claude. His old buddy, old pal. The one who had betrayed him deep under the New Mexico desert and stolen away the last thing that had ever mattered to him.
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 5, please keep reading...
Vice Principal Sengupta waited patiently behind his desk, hands folded before him, frameless glasses seeming to float before his deeply shadowed eyes. His dark but thin hair lay pasted in neat, sideways strands over his brown scalp. Two precisely aligned stacks of papers rested on his desk, both small, one on the left and one on the right, both equidistant from the closed notebook in the center. Unlike his colleagues, the vice principal had no decorations.
Sengupta was an Indian immigrant, and everyone knew that he took a dim view of lenient American discipline. Any kid who visited his office inevitably received the same lecture. “We never fought in school,” Sengupta would say in his thick Bengali accent. “We never ignored teachers. We always did our work. Why?” At this point, he would show his scar-laced knuckles and give a humorless but proud smile. “And do you know what? The rod worked. It made us respectful and responsible.”
And maybe a little crazy, Winston mused.
He sat in one of the two high-backed chairs before Sengupta’s desk, waiting. After everything else that had happened today, Winston couldn’t imagine what the vice principal might throw at him that could possibly be worse than what he’d already endured. Detention? A letter to his mom? He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“I’m suspending you,” intoned Sengupta.
Winston’s jaw went slack. After a moment, he forced himself to take a shaky breath.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said between clenched jaws.
“You struck another boy and made him nearly bite off a piece of his tongue.”
“Have you heard the things he says with that tongue?”
It was out before Winston had even consciously formed the thought, and hearing his own words took him aback. It sounded a lot like sass, as his mom would say, and one did not simply sass the vice principal.
Sengupta’s unreadable expression never changed. He only continued to stare at Winston, unflinching, the almost black skin around his eyes seeming to magnify the depth of his scrutiny.
“Your attempt at humor is ill-timed and inappropriate,” said the vice principal.
“Look. Whether your blow was intentional or accidental is irrelevant. You injured a schoolmate whose mother happens to have been a school board member for the last four years and is one of our main volunteer fundraisers. Do you follow me?”
“You are a smart lad,” said Sengupta. “Sometimes too smart for your own good. That will change.” He unfolded his hands and balled them into fists, making the scars on the knuckles stand out clear and pale. “I am aware of your situation, Winston. You do not deserve expulsion. Suspension will suffice. That…and I am banning you from the fall robotics competition.”
“What?!” Winston nearly leapt from his chair. He gripped the edge of Sengupta’s desk. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh, I most certainly can.”
This time, words completely failed Winston, which was probably a good thing.
“Mr. Chase,” said the vice principal, “have you ever stopped to wonder why these fights and social unpleasantries keep happening to you?”
“Because most people suck?”
“Perhaps,” said Sengupta.
Winston leaned back slightly. He hadn’t expected any agreement.
“However,” continued the vice principal, “the fact is that everybody, as you say, sucks in some ways. And in many ways, they do not. However, you—” He pointed a finger at Winston. “—are so completely focused on your hobby that you are not learning this. You don’t even interact with your robotics group teammates.” He sighed. “You can view your suspension time either as a punishment or an opportunity for introspection and life. I suggest the latter. Shade is a good friend, but you will not find yourself either in his shadow or in the mechanics of a machine.”
Winston had no reply. His face flushed with indignation. He wanted to say something to defend himself, anything that might push back against the unfairness and get Sengupta to change his mind. Nothing usable surfaced from his anger, though, and he felt his opportunity vanish into despair. He should have just taken the beating.
“It was a dozen on one in the gym,” he finally said.
“And it always will be,” said Sengupta. “Until you choose otherwise.” He took a deep breath and nodded once. “Mrs. Tagaloa is on her way to give you and her son a ride home. Please be waiting outside in the turn-around.”
“Wait. You’re suspending Shade, too?”
“Was he not also involved?”
Without another word, the vice principal dismissed Winston. He left the office clutching the straps on his backpack to hide his shaking hands. Standing at his locker, forehead resting on the cool metal, his fingers dialed in the lock combination automatically while his mind continued to churn.
Sengupta was totally wrong. Winston did things on his own because he didn’t fit anywhere else. No one else ever wanted him. And it was fine not to fit in. Being alone was how his family did things.
The competition! Winston thought as he slammed the padlock open.
How could he possibly not do the competition? While his classmates had blown their time at the beach or the mall or wherever, he’d spent the entire summer working to complete the Stadlerator 7000. Weeks and weeks at his workbench, sweating away without any air conditioning. Programming. Tweaking. Working his butt off.
And then this morning happened. Was it better that he wouldn’t have the chance to demonstrate his ability now? Or should he publicize it anyway, without the competition?
Above the hubbub of people filing into the halls and stashing their books in advance of lunch, Winston heard the nasal wail of June Martinez. He thumped his forehead once against the locker. This day just kept getting better and better.
Winston turned his head and saw June and Alyssa angling across the hall, seeming to pass effortlessly through the crowd. June led, of course. With her superhero-class, highlight-streaked hair dancing about her like heat radiation, June always looked as if she’d just walked off of a modeling session.
Behind her, Alyssa Bauman followed. Alyssa wore jeans and a black T-shirt reading, “I Am Really Enjoying This Conversation.” The more Winston tried to make eye contact with her, the more she seemed to look everywhere except at him.
“Wiiin-stonnn!” June hollered again as she came within too-close-to-ignore range. She was waving something at him — an old iPod. “Winston, could you do me a favor?”
Winston’s hand kept a grip on his locker door as he faced her.
She put the device in his other hand. Her breath smelled minty. “It’s dead,” she pouted. “I was listening to it this morning, then it died on the bus, even though the battery said full. I know it’s ancient, but…”
Two years of helping June with her math homework had not helped sway her best friend’s affections. Admiring the sarcasm on Alyssa’s shirt, the thought struck Winston that perhaps she remained so cold toward him specifically because he helped June so much. Maybe she wanted someone who wasn’t so accommodating of Rosa. She couldn’t possibly think that he liked Rosa…could she?
“I should say no,” Winston muttered even as his fingers closed around the device. June started to ask why, apparently decided it was safer not to know the answer, and merely smiled at him, all white teeth and amazing dimples.
Winston took one more look over Rosa’s shoulder at Alyssa, who sighed while studying the blank wall above the lockers.
He felt the fingertips of his right hand begin to tingle. They did that sometimes, seemingly in anticipation. He ran his fingers over the device, not really seeing it. He tilted it from side to side, rocked it forward and back, closed his eyes and shook it, tapped it in various places, at first gently and then more firmly. Finally, Winston picked it up by the bottom edge and, with no warning, rapped the bottom of the iPod against his locker door.
Winston turned the player over in his hands one more time, then handed it back to Rosa. “Loose connection.”
She snatched up the device and pressed its power button. The screen glowed to life and her face registered immense pleasure. In a single motion, she turned and pranced away. Three seconds later, she was invisible in the crowd, and Winston barely heard her call back the word “thanks!” He realized that Alyssa was still standing in front of him, studying his hands and his face quizzically. He was so shocked that he almost didn’t register the words when she said, “You have a big head.”
He could feel his face glow with sudden warmth.
“I’m not sure what I think about the stripes,” she added. “Did you do that, or are they natural?”
“I…” His mouth suddenly forgot how to talk. “They…”
“It’s natural,” said Shade, appearing behind her. His brow wrinkled with concern, but Winston had expected worse.
“I told him he should dye it,” Shade mumbled.
Alyssa studied the white bands that started above his temples then swooped up and back until they met at the base of his skull. She seemed undecided. “They’re different. Maybe kind of cool.”
Winston thought he might have a coronary right there in front of his locker.
“How’d you fix Rosa’s iPod?” she asked.
“Mag—,” he started, prepared to make a joke of calling it magic. However, something in his half-paralyzed brain knew better than to start his first conversation with Alyssa Bauman with a lie. “I dunno. Just did.”
“I’ve seen you do that before.”
“You have?” The note of amazement in his voice was obvious even to him. He tried for a more confident tone. “I can feel how to do it.”
“Feel it? What does that mean?”
He realized he’d said too much. “I have a knack for electronics. Like a sixth sense. iPods are pretty simple, and I could sort of feel that the drive connection was loose.”
Alyssa seemed to weigh his words. “Uh huh. OK.” She started for the cafeteria and began melting into the crowd. “So tonight for math homework?” she asked.
Winston was sure he must have misheard her. “Huh?”
“At 8:00 on Skype,” she called, now invisible. “Don’t be late!”
# # #
The two sat on the curb under the flagpole. Before them, a ghostly shadow of stars and stripes waved on the pavement, stirred by a faint breeze that cooled their faces. The school bell chimed, signaling the start of first lunch. At odd moments, they could smell baked bread and its mystery meat.
“Sorry,” Winston said. “I know you love wiener wraps.”
Shade shrugged and nudged Winston’s shoulder with his own. “It’s no big. I think we have frozen ones at home.”
Mrs. Tagaloa’s convertible white Lexus appeared at the crest of the hill, top down, as she turned into Shifford’s parking area.
“I don’t know why you’re not freaking out about getting suspended,” said Winston.
“Oh, I am,” said Shade. “But I’m trying to be supportive and not show it.”
Winston frowned and lowered his head.
“I’m kidding!” said Shade with another nudge. “OK, not really, but look. I’m only going to miss two football practices and one game, which is no worse than being sick. I’m way ahead on my homework, so it’s not the end of the world. And maybe it’ll help my popularity.”
“Doubtful,” said Winston. “At least as long as you hang out with me.”
He made the comment as a fact, not out of self-pity.
“Probably true,” said Shade as he rocked forward and stood up. “Oh, well.”
Winston stood beside him, both shouldering their bags as Mrs. Tagaloa pulled up, trunk thumping softly with dance music. She was a tiny woman, lucky to scratch five feet in sneakers, with chestnut hair that flowed to her waist. She wore large sunglasses, a bright blue tank top, matching blue cap, and a dazzling smile.
“Hi, boys! Climb in.”
They got into the back seat. Winston buckled himself and ran a hand over the buttery soft tan leather interior. Compared to their old Civic, the Lexus was like riding in a cloud.
Mrs. Tagaloa pulled away from the curb to head home.
“Are either of you hurt?” She sounded like she was asking whether they wanted cream with their tea.
“No, we’re fine, Mrs. Tagaloa,” said Winston.
“What about the other boy?”
“Steinhoff,” said Shade. “He bit part of his tongue off when Winston hit him.”
“Accidentally,” added Winston. “And he didn’t actually bite all the way through.”
“Well, I don’t approve of violence,” said Mrs. Tagaloa, “but I’m sure he had it coming. I had a pleasant chat with your vice principal.”
Both boys grimaced. Shade took a deep breath.
“OK, Mom. How bad is it?”
Mrs. Tagaloa shrugged as she stopped for the intersection light. “I’m thinking about taking you clothes shopping with me.”
Shade couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom, this is serious. We’re suspended.”
“Oh, honey. This isn’t serious. Childbirth is serious.”
“Well, it is.” The light changed, and she turned onto Denney Road. “You did the right things for the right reasons, and now the school has to do what the school has to do. Who’s hungry?”
Shade changed mental gears in a heartbeat. “Starving,” he replied.
“Me, too,” his mom said. “I vote Burgerville. Yoga class makes me want onion rings.”
Mrs. Tagaloa was the most cheerful person Winston had ever met. How she could live with a grump like Mr. Tagaloa was anyone’s guess. No matter what, though, Winston knew where the discipline came from in that house, and Shade would be counting the minutes until the real enforcer came home. Mr. Tagaloa only had one boy to carry on his legacy, and the idea of that legacy getting suspended would not sit well, no matter what the circumstances.
Winston kept a $20 bill in his wallet for emergencies. He offered to pay for himself, but Mrs. Tagaloa waved his money aside.
“Honey, I got this. You’ve had a rough day.”
“Thanks,” said Winston. “Would you mind if I got a shake for Mr. Allen, too?”
She looked at Winston in the rear view mirror and smiled. “That’s fine. You still see him, huh?”
The truth was that he visited every two or three days. But Winston knew it was odd for a teenager to show such interest in a bed-ridden senior, so he made no other explanation.
Winston got a pepper bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a Northwest Cherry Chocolate shake plus a small boysenberry shake on the side. Mrs. Tagaloa drove him the half-mile back to Progress Oaks and dropped him off at the front entrance.
“Don’t forget your 8:00,” said Shade.
“What’s at 8:00?” his mom asked.
“Nothing,” said Winston.
Shade grinned. “Winston has a date with Alyssa Bauman.”
Mrs. Tagaloa clapped with excitement. “That’s great! Congratulations!”
Winston shook his head. “It’s just on Skype. Helping with her homework.”
“She talked to you!” Shade gave him a duh! face. “This is huge!”
“Well, good luck, Winston,” said Mrs. Tagaloa. “You deserve a little romance.”
“OK, not awkward at all.” Winston started for the doors and waved toward the Lexus. “Thanks again!”
The Tagaloas drove off, and Winston walked into the cool dimness of the retirement home. No one sat behind the front desk. Winston signed in on the clipboard perched atop the desk counter and trudged up the stairs to the second floor, carefully balancing the bag in the crook of his arm so he could keep a shake in each hand.
When he announced himself at Mr. A’s door, the old man tried to sound elated but had to fight his way through a throat full of phlegm. He was still under the bedsheets and still in his wrinkled T-shirt, apparently having not moved all day. Winston held out the boysenberry shake. Mr. A gratefully accepted it, although his hand shook and his expression seemed a bit confused.
“My knight in shining armor,” said Mr. A. He took several determined sips on the straw. Winston set out his own food on the tiny table. The aroma of beef and bacon filled the room, and Winston took a long draw on his own shake. The fruity chocolate ice cream drove away some of the day’s stress. They both sighed contentedly and laughed.
“Thank you, Winston. This really hits the spot.”
The old man’s head lolled back against his pillow. He blinked several times, trying to clear whatever fogginess obscured his mind.
“You’re welcome,” said Winston.
“But this isn’t where you eat lunch. Explain.” He motioned for Winston to come closer.
Winston moved his chair next to the hospital bed and used the space next to Mr. A as his table. The old man nibbled at one fry but clearly wasn’t too interested in it. As Winston arranged his food so as not to make a mess, Bill lumbered into the room. He gave Winston a dark glance, then turned his back on the boy as he busied himself with pills over the corner sink.
“I got suspended for fighting in gym class,” said Winston.
Mr. A’s unruly white eyebrows arched upward, and the hint of a smile played through his wrinkles. “Really? ‘Bout time.”
Bill looked at Winston over his shoulder. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”
Winston threw up his hands. “Geeze! Why am I in trouble if all the grown-ups don’t care?”
“A lot of things aren’t fair,” said Mr. A.
Bill approached the bed carrying a paper Dixie cup containing several pills. He made sure that Mr. A took the pills and showed every sign of waiting until his patient swallowed them. With a grimace, Mr. A did so.
“Bill, you should take my blood pressure,” said Mr. A. “I feel strange.”
The nurse glanced quickly at the IV line but then pointed at the Dixie cup. “That’s why you need your meds.”
Mr. A sighed. When the last pill was gone, he said, “At least it tastes better with the shake.” He and Winston bumped drink containers.
Bill closed the medicine cabinet and left to continue his rounds. Winston watched the big man’s back disappear out of sight, then said in a hushed voice, “Something else happened, too. In the locker room.”
Mr. A nodded. “The bully came back for more?”
“Kind of. When I had my back turned, he snapped me on the butt with a towel.”
Mr. A shook his head, then stopped, blinking more. He must be feeling dizzy. “Did he wet the tip? That hurts like the dickens.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But when he did, afterward…” Winston took a breath, both afraid to say it and relieved to tell someone. “The area around where he got me turned blue.”
Mr. A went completely still in mid-sip. The straw slid from his pale lips, leaving a glistening spot of purple. “Blue,” he said.
“Blue. And it glowed.”
“Just like Bernie,” he muttered absently.
Then the shock and fear from this morning crept back into Mr. A’s face. His right hand with its long IV tail started toward his mouth, as if to cover it.
“I mean…” Mr. A started, but he had no idea what to say next. His fingers fluttered over his mouth, uncertain and scared.
The two looked at each other in silence. A chill went down Winston’s back. The old man believed him. He knew exactly what Winston was talking about. He had even known someone named Bernie with the same condition.
A loud crack sounded in the room’s entryway, startling them both. They heard the clatter of several small plastic pieces, and two little black bits rebounded into the bedroom. A low voice cursed, and a moment later Bill appeared, picking up the shattered remains of his walkie-talkie.
“Were you just standing there?” Winston asked.
Bill looked up at him, red-faced, but said nothing. The nurse retrieved the last of his radio, settled the bits into his pocket, and left. This time, Winston followed him out and made sure he disappeared from sight.
Winston returned to his chair, but he now sat on the seat’s edge.
“Mr. A, what is going on? What—”
The old man put his finger over Winston’s mouth and shook his head in a warning. Again with the glance around the ceiling.
Mr. A moved his hand to Winston’s cheek, cupping his jaw in a dry, wrinkly palm. Winston’s first instinct was to pull away. He didn’t like people touching him, but he forced himself to stay still as the hand patted him gently and Mr. A stared into his face. The man’s eyes were moist again, the lines around his eyes looking darker and deeper than ever.
“Winston…” he whispered. Mr. A’s hand slid back through Winston’s hair and pulled lightly on the back of his neck, urging Winston to come closer. Winston obliged, and Mr. A wrapped his fragile, sagging arm around him in the closest thing he could manage to a hug.
Mr. A held him there for a long moment, then finally drew a long, shaky breath.
“My boy,” he whispered right into Winston’s ear. “I’m so, so sorry. But now you have to run.”
“What do you mean?” he whispered back. “I’m not in that much trouble.”
“Yes, you are. I’ve really made a mess of it.” He paused. “They were only watching me because of the time you spend here. They didn’t know who I was. But now… Bill will be calling them, repeating our discussion. They will come for me, too, I’m sure.”
“What are you talking about? Who is ‘they’? Mom was talking nonsense like this, too.”
He felt Mr. A nod against his cheek.
“You’re changing,” breathed the old man. “They probably figured you weren’t a risk so long as you seemed normal. But now you’re not. And when they take me, they’ll want to know…what I know.”
Winston pulled back when he felt a warm drop on his cheek. He reflexively wiped at it, then noticed the tears spilling from Mr. A’s eyes.
“Please,” said Winston. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I think they’ve been watching you all your life, waiting for me to turn up. They didn’t expect me to be…like this.” He glanced down at his body, frowned, and swallowed thickly. “I should have died sooner,” he whispered to himself. “I should have just destroyed it all.”
“Stop,” said Winston. “You’re scaring me.” He tried to pull away, but Mr. A’s arm kept him locked in place.
“They probably have people watching everywhere you go, including your friends. You must find it before they do, understand?”
“No, I don’t! Find what?”
“Go. And when you’re away from here, tell your mom…tell her that finches fly in the fall.”
“Finches fly in the fall? What’s that mean?”
“She’ll know what to do.”
This time, Winston ducked his head and did pull away. “Wait. You know my mom?”
Mr. A winced. The old man reached for Winston’s face again, but he was now too far away.
“You do,” said Winston.
“Hush!” hissed Mr. A. “Call your mom.”
Winston backed away from the bed, unable to process what he was hearing. His calf brushed against part of the paper garden he’d made last year, and he saw that he would rip off a tulip head if he moved any farther. Part of him wanted to, and he didn’t understand why. A squat, black waste basket rested on the entryway floor. Winston dropped what was left of his milkshake into it. He’d lost his appetite.
Winston took one last look at Mr. A. The IV dripped slowly into the bag that plugged into his arm. Winston wondered at the strange look on the old man’s face and wished he could interpret it.
“You’d better go,” Mr. A said faintly. “Call.”
Winston’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head as he walked out.
He left Progress Oaks in a daze. Rosie greeted him brightly as he walked by, and he merely waved in reply. As he glanced at her, he saw that the manager’s door was closed, and he was fairly sure that he heard the low rumble of Bill’s voice coming from inside.
He walked a little faster.
Outside, Winston looked up at Mr. A’s window. There were no decorations there, only closed curtains. Part of him wondered if the old guy had lost his marbles, gotten Alzheimer’s or something. But if he had, then his mother had gotten it, too, and that didn’t add up.
Winston walked around the building, cutting across the resident garden area, weaving among the beds of tomatoes, cucumbers, and roses.
He pulled out his phone and dialed his mom’s workplace. Normally, the owner, Sam McCollough, answered the line in his office after three or four rings. This time, his mom answered after only one.
“Sam’s Diner on Ninth Street,” she said so quickly that the words almost blurred together. “Open ‘til midnight seven days a week, how can I serve you?”
“Winston?” She sounded instantly alarmed. He could hear the clatter of plates and glasses in the background. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“The school called me. Mrs. Tagaloa was supposed to pick you up.”
“She did. It’s fine, Mom. It’s…”
Winston heard someone faintly holler, “Can I get some more coffee?” There was a pause, and Winston imagined his mom gesturing to the customer or beckoning at one of the other waitresses to help.
“Yes, Winston? What’s wrong?”
He opened his mouth and almost said, “Nothing.” He wondered if the whole thing was some huge misunderstanding. Maybe he should just go home, Google his way to some plausible explanation about the blue-glowing skin, and give his mom and Mr. A a chance to make sense of all this madness. Patience always paid off. He needed to apply Occam’s Razor: When in doubt, the simplest explanation is almost always right.
He would try this one last thing — spit it out, and then all of the insanity would blow over.
“Mr. A said to tell you…” He reached the fence and walked along it, letting his fingertips bounce across the wire diamonds. “Finches fly in the fall.”
His mom made no reply.
Still nothing, and now Winston felt the chill return to his back. He stopped walking.
“Mom, are you there?”
Plates clinked. He heard the sizzle of something being flipped over on the grill.
“I’m coming,” she said far too quietly. “Go to the back yard of the empty house where you jump over the fence. You know the one?”
How did she know about that house? Had she been following him?
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Don’t move, OK?”
“Mom, what are you—”
“Thirty minutes,” she said with a decisive tone of command Winston couldn’t recall ever hearing before. The line went dead.
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Winston reached school with four minutes to spare. He rounded the wire fence separating Progress Oaks from Shifford Middle School and jogged down the hill adjacent to the school’s parking lot. The main entrance hunched behind a covered concrete entryway, more shady and ominous than inviting. Outside, students waved and shouted, huddled and gossiped, each trying to squeeze in the last few moments of conversation before class started. Parents jockeyed their minivans and SUVs for unloading spots in the turn-around.
Winston’s mind kept churning through the morning’s revelations as he walked through the gradually disbanding crowd. When he gazed absently to his left across the space outside the cafeteria, the caveman part of his brain that automatically stayed wary for wild predators flashed an alert and startled Winston from his thoughts. Sure enough, there was Brian Steinhoff leaning against a wall, surrounded by his mouth-breathing minions. He locked gazes with Winston over the scores of mulling heads, and Winston detected Steinhoff’s smirk.
At six feet tall, the boy stood only an inch or so shorter than Winston. Also like Winston, he was dark-haired and fair-skinned, but he had a thicker build, freckles, and bright green eyes that grew even brighter when lit by the jet fuel of temporary insanity. With his button-collared shirts and leather loafers, Steinhoff dressed like an entitled jock, but he had the attitude of a blackshirt, the crowd that dressed in tattered death metal T-shirts and and mostly spoke in monosyllabic profanity. Steinhoff had turned from being an annoying clown to an outright bully in the fifth grade. Last year, in front of half a dozen of his cronies, Brian had teased Winston over his hair starting to turn white. Then, for no reason at all, it escalated to Winston receiving his first punch in the gut. About once each month since then, whenever he needed a popularity boost, Steinhoff would sense the right time and place to come back for more.
Winston quickly looked away and hurried through the crowd to his locker. He opened it and tossed his backpack on top of the stack of books already inside. No time for neatness. Locker doors banged shut all up and down the hallway as people sprinted for class.
Winston grabbed his textbook for Family and Consumer Science. He’d been too focused on the Stadlerator 7000 yesterday to even think of bothering with the homework, but that would be fine until Monday when their money journals and a two-page paper on budgeting were due. Winston’s journal would take about ten seconds. Income: two computer repairs. Expenses: $150 to Mom for bills and four Burgerville fresh boysenberry milkshakes for himself and Mr. A. It was Winston’s one extravagance, and his mom never objected. She didn’t mind him showing kindness to those in need, but she endlessly lectured about not wasting money on things without real value. It was an idea, she said, whose time had all but vanished.
As Winston slid the textbook out from under his bag, his eye fell on a photograph taped to the inside of his locker door. It and the slip of paper taped above it were the only decorations in his locker. He’d had a teacher help him laminate the picture several years ago to protect it against time and wear. It showed a somewhat younger, smiling version of his mother crouching on the floor behind a ten-month-old Winston. Emerging from the left edge of the photo, a hairy forearm ended in an upturned palm. Winston the toddler had grasped one of the fingers for balance. The moment captured some of his first steps, and his little face radiated delight. It was the only photograph they owned that showed even a trace of Winston’s father, and he ran a fingertip slowly down its edge.
Above the picture, Winston had taped one of Einstein’s quotations: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Winston took one more look at the photo and shook his head. “Answers wouldn’t hurt, either,” he sighed.
The school bell’s shrill clang signaled the start of class. He was late.
~ ~ ~
Family and Consumer Science turned into U.S. History, another exercise in boredom and inhumane torture. Thankfully, this fed into third period Trigonometry. He shared this online class with Shade, four other students, and their supervisor, Ms. Ortiz, who excelled at asking, “Now, what could you google to answer your question?” Shade normally sailed through his classes, often doing his homework within hours of being assigned, but in Trigonometry he needed Winston’s help just to pull “B” quiz scores. It was the only less than perfect mark on Shade’s report card.
The friends shared fourth period PE before lunch. Today was Friday, and that meant a 1.5-mile neighborhood run. Winston found running almost effortless, but it was even easier for Mr. Gillford, who usually spent running time on the phone in his office, leaving one sick or injured student to operate the stopwatch. Because half of the students walked the route and chatted, Winston’s ability to run the trek in under ten minutes — nine if he tried, eight if he was really working at it — left a lot of spare time until class resumed. Only two other boys in Shifford could come close to his speed, and both competed at the state level. The track coach, Mr. Adams, had watched Winston during gym class, and he would always leave disappointed when Winston refused to join the track team. The idea of prancing around in baggy shorts and a tank top at the expense of his robotics studies made him want to break his ankle. He loved the feel of running, loved having the wind on his face as he pushed his body into that strange, rhythmic flow that made the world slip by in a blur beneath him, but he had no desire to compete. If he was going to compete for something, it would be winning the robotics tournament.
Brian Steinhoff could run a 1.5 in eleven minutes. That gave Winston just enough time to catch his breath before the larger boy entered the gym, panting hard, sweating, and saw Winston across the hardwood looking as if he’d just gotten out of bed, like running a mile and a half was nothing at all. Winston saw the boy’s features harden and his nostrils flare. He put his hands on his knees, chest still heaving, and studied Winston.
One by one, more runners stumbled into the gym while perpetually sprained Susan Crossman called off their finishing times. Winston tried to look occupied with reading the gym message board filled with sports announcements. In the other corner, near the bleachers, Steinhoff was back to breathing almost normally and chatting with his friends. Every so often, one of them glanced in Winston’s direction. Not good.
Winston tried to monitor Steinhoff from the corner of his eye, but one new notice grabbed his attention: the lineup for the school football team. Practice had started in late August, but final positions were only now being announced. Shade had landed his familiar spot as middle linebacker, a position he’d held since the third grade, often going head-to-head against kids a foot taller and fifty or seventy pounds heavier. Shade was absolutely fearless on the field.
Winston’s eyes flicked back and found that Steinhoff had left his former location. Winston groaned.
“Cha-a-ase.” Steinhoff drew out the name, turning it into a taunt. The boy, dressed in designer from his hair spray to his air-spring soles, led a group of ten or twelve across the gym. Winston was too slow. He should have been in the corner so they couldn’t surround him. As it was, they formed a half-circle, forcing him to stay against the wall.
Steinhoff approached Winston, who still stood facing the football announcement, reading it over and over.
“Deaf much?” Steinhoff asked, grabbing Winston’s collar and spinning him around.
Winston’s heart hammered as fast as when he’d been running. Maybe faster. He hated confrontation. The pain of getting hit wasn’t that bad. The idea of getting hit, of being mocked so violently, made Winston’s breath come in short, erratic bursts and his mind go blank. Unfortunately, his mouth seemed to take orders from a different area of his brain that felt more anger than fear.
“Sorry,” said Winston. “I was just waiting for you to say something interesting. For once.”
The terrified side of Winston’s brain blurted, Why on earth did you say that? Are you trying to get us killed?
The angry side had no answer. It saw everything in slow motion, waiting. It always waited. His mother had instilled in him a terrible dread of giving into anger and making a scene. Keep your head down, she always advised. This too will pass, and you’ll be standing. Just stay calm and keep your head down.
Of course, at over six feet tall, keeping his head down often proved difficult.
After a moment, comprehension dawned on Steinhoff’s face. He wasn’t stupid. That was part of the problem. But he did have trouble believing that anyone could talk back to him in such a way. When it fully registered, Steinhoff reached out and grabbed two fistfuls of Winston’s T-shirt. He began backing up, taking Winston with him, allowing the other boys to form a more isolating circle around him. They were pack animals hunting as animals had hunted weak prey for millions of years.
“So we’re dancing now?” The words emerged unwanted from Winston’s mouth.
Steinhoff took the insult to his masculinity and thrust Winston away from him. Someone behind him caught Winston’s weight and shoved him back toward Steinhoff in the middle of the ring.
In that instant, Winston thought of his mom and her fear from this morning. He flashed on Mr. A’s reaction to his little mental trick with the walkie-talkie. Everywhere he went today, no matter what he did, fear followed. The thought deepened his despair, but within that swirling blackness blossomed something small and hot.
Winston would never be sure if the stumble of one foot over his heel was the result of natural clumsiness or if some bubble of rage clinging to the floor of of his brain had finally heated enough to break free and float to the surface. Whatever the cause, Winston lurched forward two steps shy of Steinhoff. His hands came up, scrabbling for balance. As he stumbled, the heel of his right hand flapped up into the air, seemingly at random, and collided with Steinhoff’s jaw.
The sound of teeth snapping together was loud enough to echo around the otherwise silent gym. The boy’s head rocked back, and his hands flew to his face. When he opened his mouth, dark blood flowed between the boy’s teeth.
Winston regained his balance and stared at what he’d done. He had never struck anyone in his life.
Oh, God, he thought. I’m dead.
Strangely, Steinhoff did not bellow. Like a true pack leader, he did not lose control. His hands balled into fists. His lips curled back in a bloody grimace. What should have been a scream of pain turned into a long, low growl that seemed to elevate the lust for violence among the other boys. They stepped forward to tighten the circle. Winston felt sure that in five seconds he would be on the floor, arms covering his head, two dozen feet pounding into his body. Things had never gotten this bad before.
But Steinhoff wasn’t done taunting his prey yet. He took another step forward and slammed an open hand into the center of Winston’s chest, knocking him backward again.
Winston lurched, arms pinwheeling. More hands struck him, this time to the side. He never got the chance to catch his balance or think of how to escape, if that was even possible. The group pushed him randomly from one to another like a rubber ball.
Boys smiling, eyes wide. Cruel laughing. Faces spinning by as the overhead gym lights turned into white streaks in his vision.
Winston couldn’t tell how long this lasted. It might have been five seconds, but it felt like half an hour. Finally, a hand caught him by the shirt and held him still.
Winston blinked and found himself looking into Steinhoff’s smiling face. A rivulet of blood snaked down from the corner of his mouth and spattered the front of his shirt. Holding him still with his left hand, Steinhoff drew back his right. The knuckles on his fist stood out white.
Winston was no longer breathing. He was paralyzed. There wouldn’t even be time to try and cover his face. There was only a half-second to see Steinhoff finish taking in the rest of his deep breath and notice that his pupils had closed to near pinpricks in those two circular fields of brilliant green.
Then Steinhoff was gone. In a rush of sound and motion, his hand vanished from Winston’s shirt. The boy’s body hinged at the waist, collapsing, and flew away from Winston.
Shade bellowed. His high voice rang through the gym with a frantic “aaagghhh!” as he sliced between the backs of two ring members. He put his right shoulder into Steinhoff’s abdomen and lifted the larger boy clean off the floor. Legs pumping in a blur of brown, arms wrapped around Steinhoff’s middle, Shade forced his burden through the circle and knocked two other boys sprawling. He kept on pushing for another few steps then stopped. Steinhoff’s body flew off of him, hit the gym floor, and slid squeaking for a dozen feet.
Shade walked up to Steinhoff, who remained in a fetal position, arms curled around his midsection. Face slick with sweat, Shade wavered unevenly on his feet. His chest heaved wildly, and Winston knew that he must have just come in from running his mile and a half. Shade could sprint fifty yards with no problem, but distance running didn’t suit his body. Somehow, though, he’d come into the gym, seen the situation, and found the energy for one last, amazing play: a perfect quarterback sack. His coach would have grinned with pride.
Shade pointed an index finger at Steinhoff’s head and made sure the bully saw him. “And…stay down!” he panted.
He turned his back on Steinhoff and gave Winston a wobbly thumbs-up. Still dazed, Winston barely managed to lift his hand and offer one in return.
Of course, that was the moment Mr. Gillford picked to return from his phone chat, take in the scene, and blow three eardrum-straining blasts on his whistle.
~ ~ ~
True to his old school roots, Mr. Gillford didn’t send anyone to the principal or vice principal right away. These were boys. The reason boys fought, so he said several times each year, was because they had too much energy making them crazy, which in turn was a result of too much video gaming. Of course, that didn’t explain why boys fought in the days before video games, but Winston wasn’t going to be the one to point that out.
After isolating Winston, Shade, and Steinhoff as the main perpetrators in the class’s shenanigans, Mr. Gillford sent Steinhoff to the school nurse to ice his tongue. Winston and Shade struggled through sit-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks in the corner for 15 minutes while the rest of the class finished reviewing the core concepts of leaping over hurdles.
By the time class was over, Winston wanted to collapse. He could do jumping jacks and any other aerobic exercise for days, but repetitive strength maneuvers, such as sit-ups and push-ups, left him trembling. Shade was the opposite. He could do sit-ups for hours and failed to understand why other people couldn’t even do a few dozen.
At last, Mr. Gillford blew his whistle and sent everyone to the locker rooms.
Shade was already half-undressed by the time he reached his basket. He had no reservations about being naked or who might see it, and Winston admired him for not caring what people thought. Meanwhile, Winston was incredibly self-conscious. He knew his ribs stuck out, and he didn’t have the muscle definition to make it work. He had thighs like pencils and a chest like a cardboard paper towel tube.
Despite his lifelong discomfort around water — his mom called it a phobia — Winston was usually one of the first into the shower and almost always the first one out. Today was no exception. He felt under even heavier scrutiny than normal because of the fight. On a day when all of Steinhoff’s friends would be studying him closely, as if looking for little bull’s eyes, the last thing he wanted to be was naked among them. Of course, the sooner he finished, the sooner he would have to visit Vice Principal Sengupta.
Winston didn’t know if anyone was really watching him. Maybe he was just paranoid. No one talked to him except Shade, who hummed along merrily while soaping himself. Winston only hoped there was some protective aura cast by Shade that would last throughout the day. As for tomorrow…he didn’t want to think about that.
Winston always left his towel hanging on the waist-high tiled wall separating the showers from the rest of the locker room. That way, it was within easy reach to throw around his waist as soon as he rinsed off. Not today, though. No sooner had Winston dried his face than he saw his towel had vanished.
He looked around. The showers were dimly lit with recessed, yellow bulbs, and steam offered only a bit of obscurity. No one glanced at him, but no towel was visible anywhere. Shade still had soap all over his face.
Trying for a tired sigh, Winston walked carefully around the tile partition, resisting the urge to hunch over and wrap his arms around himself. He searched the towel racks for a spare. There were none. Either he could air dry or walk all the way across the locker room to the used towel bin by the exit.
There was a third choice. He ducked into the locker aisle where he and Shade had adjacent bins. Quickly, he started to dial in the combination on Shade’s padlock. Shade was funny about his towels and always preferred to use his own. Pale gray and practically big as a door, it featured the blue star of the Dallas Cowboys. Shade probably wouldn’t mind just this once.
Winston’s fingers fumbled on the last number, and he had to spin the dial around and around to reset it. He leaned over more, getting closer to the lock, and started again.
A noise like a firecracker going off ripped through the cement room, and Winston felt as if he’d been shot in the right buttock. He reeled forward. His chest bashed with a loud clatter into the locker bins, and he cried out in pain. One hand flew to his butt, feeling for injury. He half expected it to come away wet with blood, but there was none.
Laughter erupted. Winston looked up to see Brian Steinhoff, still wearing his gym clothes, walking past the aisle, one twirled white towel still dangling from his hand. There was a large “oops!” expression on his face. Rory Davis, one of Steinhoff’s favorite cronies, followed close behind.
Then Rory stopped, and the laughter died on his lips. He stared at Winston’s rear.
Shade appeared from behind Rory and shoved him none too gently aside.
“Beat it, jerks!” Shade called after them.
Shade turned back to look at Winston. “Please tell me you’re not going to use my…”
Then his words failed, too, and he gawked at Winston’s butt. His lips parted, but nothing came out except “uhhh.”
Winston looked down. In the spot where Steinhoff’s towel whip had snapped Winston, the blue was so intense that it was nearly white. From this center, it radiated outward in a fading pattern. The roughly circular glow was perhaps two or three inches in diameter and still growing.
Too shocked to think about the sting or his embarrassment, Winston tried to cover the area with his hand. The sapphire glow showed plainly around his palm and between his fingers. This was not like any injury he’d experienced before. Whatever caused his regular bruising had suddenly jumped to a terrifying new level.
“Winston,” breathed Shade, still dripping and buck naked. “Your butt is blue.”
The murmur of other boys climbed from whispers into audible amazement.
“I know!” exclaimed Winston. “I don’t—! It’s never—!”
Looking past Shade, he saw that Rory had returned with a cell phone and was fumbling with it, likely trying to turn on the camera app. Steinhoff elbowed Rory in the side, urging him to go faster.
“Can we talk about this later?” hissed Winston. “I could use your towel — and less attention!”
Half-coming out of his daze, Shade turned and saw the others watching. “Back off!” he said, waving his arms and stomping at them. In eighth grade, no boy argues with an angry-looking, sopping wet, buck naked linebacker. The crowd, including Rory and Steinhoff, quickly dispersed.
Winston had the combination right this time. He pulled the lock away and wrenched the bin open. Reaching inside, he yanked the towel out and threw it around his waist, sending a T-shirt and socks flying.
“Do not get your junk on the star,” said Shade.
Winston bit his lip and looked about, searching for anyone still trying to spy on him. He chanced another peek at his injury. The skin glowed brightly enough to cast a soft glow through the towel.
“What is that?” asked Shade.
“I don’t know!” whispered Winston. “Sometimes I get a little blue tinge around cuts or whatever, but nothing like this! I always thought it was bruising or something!”
“That’s not blood, Winston. That’s…”
Shade looked from Winston’s butt up to his face. His eyes grew wider. “Oh, wow.”
Shade absently grasped the hair above his ear. “Oh. Wow.”
Gradually, a grin spread across Shade’s features. He took another step closer to Winston, again looking from his friend’s posterior back up to his face. “It’s true. I knew it.”
“For the—” Winston wanted to scream at him. “You knew what?”
Shade pointed at the gray star, which happened to be covering the glowing miracle underneath. “Winston.” His voice dropped so low that Winston could barely hear him. “I always wondered, but this confirms it. That feeling thing you do with gadgets. Your math brain.”
“You’re in the same class,” Winston interrupted.
“Because of you — and you never study!” He ticked more points off on his fingers. “Your running speed. You never get sick.”
“Mom makes me take vitamins.”
“The way street lights turn off sometimes when you go under them.”
“No, that’s your—” Winston groped for the phrase and found it. “—subjective bias. That happens to everyone.”
“And those stripes in your hair. Dude. You’re not human. You’re like…an X-Men mutant.”
“I am not a mutant!”
“You are. Or if not, then…” His eyes widened with reverence. “Then my best friend is an alien. That is so…” He exhaled the word with ultimate pride. “…awesome!”
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 3, please keep reading...
Winston left Shade’s neighborhood dejected. For someone who considered himself a solitary type, it always gnawed at his mind when he couldn’t share whatever was bothering him. He needed to talk with a friend and figure out what to do. Normally, that friend was Shade, but maybe he had one other option.
Avoiding the bustle and noise of Denny Road, Winston instead zig-zagged through the neighborhood toward Shifford Middle School. The neighborhood ended at a fence. Between the fence and school stood Progress Oaks Retirement Village, a squat, brown, two-story complex. On this side of the fence sat a house that had been vacant for over a year. Winston went around the place, through its back yard, and climbed up one of the apple trees there in order to drop onto the Progress Oaks side.
He walked around the building toward its front, trying not to peer inside rooms on the ground floor. Most of the shades were drawn, leaving only a sparse parade of plants and the backs of picture frames to observe. One old lady stood in her window watering a tiny bonsai tree. She wore a black bathrobe with pink spots, and she waved at Winston as he went by. He waved back and smiled.
Winston recognized plenty of the people in Progress Oaks on sight. At the start of each school year, seventh graders went on a field trip to the rest home. They were required to get to know enough about at least one resident to write a report. Once the school had started this annual practice, Halloween egging and toilet papering of the retirement home had dropped considerably.
Winston remembered his own first trip to Progress Oaks well. The residents willing to meet kids knew to leave their room doors open, and Winston had wandered through the halls until coming to room 219. Many rooms had decorative signs showcasing their residents’ names, sometimes colorful and laminated, and some even adorned with artificial flower bouquets. Number 219’s sign hadn’t been changed from the day the resident moved in. It was a typewritten strip reading DONALD ALLEN in small print. Through the door waited a tiny room with little more than a bed and a table. At the table sat an ancient man holding a deck of cards in one hand while the gnarled fingers of his other hand drummed softly on a cribbage board. When he saw Winston looking at him, the man’s face lit up in a huge smile.
Winston never knew if it was the smile or the cribbage board that had lured him in. Cribbage was the only game he ever played with his mom, and he’d gotten good enough to beat most online versions. Shade never wanted to take time away from his RPG and shooter games to bother with something as “legacy” as cribbage, so he and “Mr. A,” as Winston soon called him, became fast friends. At first, this took Winston by surprise. Because new relationships made him nervous, Winston rarely got close to people. He felt no need or desire for the frivolous time sink of a social circle, and people sensed this. Shade was his only real friend, and the two had been inseparable since second grade, almost half of his life now.
Strangely, Mr. A hadn’t made him nervous at all. Maybe it was because he was so old. Even weirder, Winston didn’t feel that the time spent with Mr. A was a waste. During their cribbage games and long talks, Winston’s mind shut down its usual treadmill of worries: school work, PC repairs, robots, Alyssa, Brian Steinhoff, and on and on. The only thing Winston had to fear from Mr. A was that he might keel over dead.
The Progress Oaks entryway featured two sets of sliding glass doors that formed an airlock to keep cold drafts from blowing over the residents inside. Winston liked to think of it as the airlock leading to an underground missile silo. Outside, everything was normal — all chirping birds and landscaping. Inside lay a carefully controlled environment with meals more like military field rations than real food. Lighting and sound ran on tightly regulated schedules. The air remained a constant 74 degrees and smelled like a stale combination of bleach, restrooms, old paint, and turkey gravy.
Winston passed through the airlock and couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. The smell wasn’t offensive, only strange and unsettling — a whiff of the ghost of Christmas future.
Every wall surface was painted in shades of tan and brown. Mr. A claimed this was a psychological trick to make everyone calm, although if Mr. A got any calmer, he’d lapse into a coma. In the cafeteria beyond the lobby, Winston heard the low murmur of residents clinking and conversing their slow way through a breakfast of — Winston sniffed again — waffles, fake eggs, and low-sodium bacon. At what age did a menu like that finally become worth living for? Two hundred? Two-fifty?
Behind the reception desk, Rosie Fernandez peered over her row of three monitors and broke into a dazzling white grin.
“¡Holá, señor Chase!” she sang. “You’re in early today. ¿Estás bien?”
Rosie knew that Winston was in the opening weeks of Spanish II. She loved to look over his homework and quiz him. Her perfect Mexican pronunciation, while much appreciated, was a constant reminder of how much he sucked at the language.
“Holá, Rosie,” he said, approaching the desk. Rosie rolled her chair forward a bit. She was on the heavy side and prone to being self-conscious about her looks. Winston totally got that. “Is Mr. A in the cafeteria?”
She frowned. “No. He says he didn’t sleep and is not feeling well this morning. Pobrecito.”
Poor thing. Winston grinned. Rosie really cared about the residents, unlike steel-haired and sour-faced manager who sat in the office behind Rosie and always regarded Winston with squints and suspicion.
“Maybe I can bring him something?”
Rosie shrugged. “He already has a plate. But maybe you can poke his appetite, no?”
Winston started for the elevator, but Rosie called him back, holding out a clipboard and pen. Winston groaned at the annoying formality, but he signed his name and the time.
“I’m not a terrorist, you know,” he said, handing it back.
“That is what all the terrorists say,” she chuckled.
Winston took the elevator upstairs. If not for the little window in the door, he might not have known the car was moving. It was that slow.
The elevator opened onto an open space dominated by a nurse’s station, in which were a series of locked cabinets containing the residents’ daily medications. Two chairs at the station stood empty. Room 219 was seven doors down on the left. Winston knocked lightly.
“Come in,” called the old man, sounding weak and muffled, as though he’d just dozed off.
Winston turned the handle and pushed through. The room’s entryway was a short, narrow hall with a bathroom on the right. Beyond this, the room opened into a space just large enough for Mr. A’s motorized hospital bed, an IV stand, a low sink in the corner, a squat table, and two stackable plastic chairs.
The colored paper “garden” that Winston had made Mr. A as an art project last fall still ran along the bottom of one wall. Above this hung a framed print of some old actress named Joan Leslie. The black and white image showed a woman with dark, tousled hair sitting on large cushions. The 1940s actress looked over her shoulder at the camera with an expression that said, as Mr. A liked to put it, “Come here and do that again.” In the two years he’d been asking, Winston had yet to learn what “that” was, only that Mr. A liked the print because it reminded him of his long-deceased wife.
“Leave it open, please,” called Mr. A.
Winston kicked down the door’s rubber-tipped stopper and walked into the room.
“Morning, Mr. A. The breakfast police sent me up to force feed you.”
The man smiled around yellowed teeth. His white, wispy hair hung on his scalp, exposing countless constellations of age spots. His skin dangled in loose folds from his skull, and his shoulders jutted sharply under his white T-shirt. Mr. A really did look like he’d been up all night. He pulled the single bed sheet higher up over his belly, shifting the intravenous tube feeding into the back of his right hand.
“Another late night up partying, I see,” said Winston.
“Just booted the ladies out a few minutes ago,” said Mr. A. “Really takes it out of a guy. You’ll see.”
Winston dropped his backpack to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed next to the old man’s legs. “I sort of doubt that.”
“I don’t. I see a real firecracker of a girl waiting in your future. Don’t be in such a rush, boy. You’ve got—”
“Don’t say it!” said Winston, holding up a hand.
“—the rest of your life in front of you. Well, you do.”
Winston cringed. “I came here to make you feel better, not me feel worse.”
“Worse?” Mr. A patted the back of Winston’s forearm. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh…” Winston sighed, then mentally kicked himself for being melodramatic. “Just stuff. Mom’s being weird. She doesn’t want me to talk about it.”
Mr. A frowned. His blue eyes sparkled from under fleshy lids narrowed to slits. His body might be going, but there was nothing wrong with the oldster’s mind.
Winston considered playing dumb, but decided against it. If he couldn’t trust this kindly old man, stuck alone in a rest home and all but forgotten by the world, then he really was in trouble. He drew out the slip of paper from his pocket and held it up between them.
Mr. A brought Winston’s hand closer to his face and read the slip. Then his features did something very strange. The corners of his eyes turned down and his lips parted, as if remembering something distant and painful. Winston saw him slowly read over the words twice, three times, as if he were studying the letters themselves more than what they said. Then he gently took Winston’s hand and covered it with his own, folding the note inside.
He managed a small smile. “Always best to do what your mom says.”
Winston peered harder at Mr. A. Did he know something? The smile seemed warm enough, but there was a hard glint in his eyes Winston couldn’t remember seeing before.
Winston wanted to press for details, but heavy footsteps intruded. A man came into the room dressed in light blue scrubs that stretched across his tall, muscular body. His shaved, bald head made his thirty years or so seem even older and more daunting. He filled the little entryway and glowered at Winston as he came in.
“Good morning, Mr. Allen,” he rumbled. “How’s that breakfast coming?”
“Biff!” said Winston with exaggerated cheer. “Good to see ya!”
The mountainous man paused next to the bed and stared down into Winston’s face. “It’s Bill. You know that.”
Winston pulled a face. “Bill! I’m terrible with names. Sorry.”
Bill scrunched up his lips and exhaled impatiently through his nose. He took one look at Mr. A’s untouched breakfast plate still perched on the wheeled table hovering over Mr. A’s lap, then walked over to the corner. He tugged open the mirror cabinet over the sink and grabbed a paper cup from one of the shelves. He filled this with water and set it on Mr. A’s bed table with another paper cup containing several pills.
Mr. A gave Winston’s hand a little nudge. Remembering, he slipped the note discreetly back into his pocket.
Bill stepped to the bedside. “You need to eat at least a few bites of breakfast, then take your medicine,” he mumbled.
Mr. A made a non-committal grunt. Bill stared at him disapprovingly and made a similar grunt in return. Then he glanced at Winston.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” asked the nurse.
“Maybe,” said Winston. “It’s still up for debate.”
Bill took a deep breath, scowled, and shook his head. He turned and started around the bed to leave. Winston didn’t know why, but he wanted to mess with the man a little more. Bill was big and strong and good-looking — pretty much everything Winston would never be. And while it wasn’t in Winston’s nature to provoke someone like Bill, he couldn’t help but feel a grudging jealousy.
Winston noticed the small knobs and antenna of Bill’s walkie-talkie peeking out from one of his pockets. All of the medical and management staff carried them. Winston stared hard at the little radio as it went by, thinking of his trick with the Stadlerator 7000. He felt like Yoda using the Force to reach out to a rock. He pictured the radio controller in the device, the speaker, the circuit board, and he imagined speaking one word through them.
The walkie-talkie gave a faint crackle of static. Underneath the static formed a noise, a metallic whisper faint enough almost to be radio hiss. Yet it was clear enough. The walkie-talkie spoke the word “Biff.”
Bill almost stumbled into the door as he looked down and put a meaty hand over the radio. From where he stood, Bill could no longer see Mr. A. He glanced searchingly into the hallway, then down at the radio. He tapped it twice with his fingers, as if seeing if he could knock any more words loose. Then he looked back at Winston, who became suddenly, acutely aware that his mouth was open and his eyes were large with the shock and realization that his improbable impulse had actually worked. He might as well be wearing a sign that read, “Hey, I just did that!”
Bill took a step back toward him. “Did you…” he began, drawing the walkie-talkie from his pocket.
“No way,” said Winston as inspiration struck him. “Who else here calls you Biff?”
The big man stopped, looking once again from the walkie-talkie to Winston, his suspicion wavering.
Winston pushed him a little harder. “Is it Rosie? I can totally see you two…”
That was enough for Bill. The man’s sneakers squeaked on the tiling as he pivoted and left with a low growl.
Winston felt the rush of accomplishment flood back into him. He had telepathically spoken through the walkie-talkie! So it wasn’t just his robot. It was electronics. What did that mean? Why could he do it…and what else could he do?
Aglow with excitement, he turned to Mr. A but faltered when he noticed the old man’s complexion had grown even paler. His expression was worried — no. He looked afraid. He looked…
Mr. A looked just like his mom had earlier this morning.
“You know,” he whispered. “You and mom. What—”
Mr. A quickly shook his head. He raised his hand and set two fingers over his lips as his gaze flicked around the room’s ceiling, as if looking for hidden microphones. That searching was unmistakable and sent a cold spike of déjà vu racing down Winston’s spine.
“Bill’s right,” said Mr. A unevenly. “You should be getting along to school.” He glanced pointedly down at Winston’s pocket, the one holding the crumpled note. “Remember what your mom told you. You don’t want to be late.”
Slowly, wondering if he must be the victim of some terrible prank, Winston stood. He wanted to search around as well, but his instinct warned him to try and act normal. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Something was going on, something insane and elaborate. To the best of his knowledge, Mr. A and his mom had never met. Her work schedule or a headache or some other excuse always left Winston visiting his friend by himself. So, unless she was calling Mr. A behind Winston’s back…but why would she do that?
Winston could think of no sensible explanation. He gripped the bed rail, glad to have something cold and firm to hang onto, because he felt a bit dizzy.
“I appreciate you dropping by,” Mr. A said, again setting a hand over Winston’s. “It means a lot to me.”
Winston’s forced himself to swallow through a dry mouth. “No problem.”
“I wish we could talk more.”
The look in Mr. A’s eyes expressed more earnestness than his words let on.
“Me, too,” said Winston. “Maybe I’ll stop by later?”
The old man smiled. “I would like that.” Then his gaze softened and he patted Winston’s hand. “I cherish every minute.”
Winston had no reply. He slid his hand away and reached for his backpack, which now seemed much heavier than he remembered. “OK. I’ll try.” He managed a small smile and backed away.
“Have a good day,” Mr. A called hoarsely after him.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.