To survive, you must escape.
Emerson Wesler and Gabriel Marconne lead a fairly normal life, given the circumstances… Until their city’s cell towers shut down unexpectedly two months before their high school graduation. Then the next morning, there’s an explosion at their home and Gabe’s parents are believed to have been inside.
But before social services can arrive to take them away, a mysterious agency shows up at their school, claims terrorists are attacking the nation, and forcibly recruits them along with thirteen other students.
Now they must train to fight for their country…
Only it isn’t long before they discover things aren’t what they seem. And their best chance of survival is escaping the one facility no one seems to know how to exit… All before they complete the training and advance to field agent. Because if that happens, everything’s lost.
Blackout, the third book in The Hexon Code series, is a chilling young adult dystopian thriller/drama. Look for the next books in the series including Outcast and No Way Out.
***** Read a preview of Blackout below. *****
IF YOU WANT to blow something up, it’s really easy. At least that’s what Gabe always told me. He’d said any materials you could possibly need could be found easily. The only trick was making sure the government didn’t find out about your activities and add you to some watch list.
So far, so good, as far as I knew.
But knowing how the government operated these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were arrested and charged as an accomplice to some ridiculous, made-up crime.
“Are you sure this is safe?” I asked.
“Of course it is.” Gabe glanced over his shoulder at me and winked before turning back to his work. After a brief moment, he stood up and walked over to me. “Do you honestly think I’d drag you all the way out here to blow you to smithereens?”
I cringed. I couldn’t help but think he’d have the perfect opportunity if that was his plan. No one else around for miles. The sound would echo across the valley down below, but it would be impossible to pinpoint the origin. “Actually, I was just worried about the outcome if things go south.”
“You know Dad taught me everything I know, right? Can’t be too careful.”
He had a point. I sighed and gripped the handle on the fire extinguisher from my fire watch station thirty feet away.
“Besides, if anyone’s going to get hurt, it’s going to be me.”
That’s what I was most afraid of, but to say that out loud felt like crossing an invisible line. So, I closed my eyes and sucked in a breath instead. What if he got hurt? What if he miscalculated and the explosion was bigger than it was supposed to be? What if it blew his legs or arms off? And right before his parents were taking off on a work trip.
“Relax, will you?”
I let out the breath and opened my eyes.
“It’s going to be okay, Emme. I promise.”
And of course he was right. Just like he had been the last five times he had brought me with him on his chemical experiments. When the bomb exploded, the aluminum can flew ten feet straight up in the air and then fell back down to the ground.
Gabe whooped and hollered while I closed my eyes and shook my head.
Boys. What was with their love for blowing stuff up?
I hosed the area down with the fire extinguisher and then helped him gather up his supplies. “You know, there’s no way you could twist my arm into coming along if you didn’t review recipes with your dad first.”
Gabe’s smile faded. He curled his fingers gently around my arm, his fingertips sending shivers up my flesh and down my spine.
I held my breath and waited for him to say something. Or was it that I wanted him to do something?
But then he spoke.
“Why won’t you call him ‘Dad’?” His voice was soft and low.
I held his gaze for a brief moment longer and then looked away before tears welled up in my eyes and my throat tightened again. “You know why,” I replied, my voice hoarse.
My heart was threatening to burst out of my chest and the tears won. I broke free from his grasp, then quickly shoved the rest of the supplies into the duffel bag and hauled it to the trunk of the car.
Gabe sighed. I heard his footsteps behind me crunching on the gravel driveway. “I’m sorry.” He leaned his hip against the rear of the car and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s just that you’re as much a part of the family as I am.”
I stared down at the trunk, feeling helpless against the swimming tears that spilled out onto my hands. I tried to wipe them away with the back of my hand but my face was still wet.
In our silence, as the tears kept spilling out and I kept trying to wipe them away, I imagined him watching me with that worried look on his face. The worried look he always got whenever my heart was breaking. But I couldn’t bring myself to look up and meet his gaze. Not this time.
I heard him sigh again and then he draped his jacket over my shoulders, his hands lingering for a moment, before heading up the porch steps.
Through the blur of tears, I watched him disappear into the cabin. I pulled his jacket tighter around me and stared out over the hillside. Barely visible and far off into the horizon was Washington, D.C., what was once the nation’s capital.
After a few minutes, the screen door creaked open.
“We should go.”
I nodded, still staring toward the east.
“I lost cell service.”
I sighed then, pulling my gaze away from the darkening horizon, and turned to Gabe. He was looking up at his phone as he held it high over his head.
“Time for a new phone,” I said weakly.
“No way. I just got this thing a year ago.”
I turned back to the horizon. I thought about what it was like behind the walls. Was the government right? Did the criminals really kill each other off when left to fend for themselves in an abandoned area? Left with dwindling food supplies and forced to raid former residences and commercial buildings? Was my parents’ killer there?
Gabe touched my arm. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“You think they’ll ever catch the guy who did it? After all this time?” I watched his face for a second and then turned back to stare out toward the east. “The reporter didn’t seem too confident.”
“What does that reporter know anyway? Just a sorry loser, if you ask me.”
Gabe always had a way of putting things in perspective for me.
“But he talked to the police chief.”
He grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to face him. His face was close to mine. “That guy knows next to nothing about the case. He’s just trying to entertain the masses.”
“But he has a point. They were murdered twelve years ago,” I replied. “How could the police possibly come up with new evidence to convict a killer after all this time?”
Gabe shook his head and sighed. “Maybe the detectives know more than they’re telling us.”
“It’s not fair. The guy is probably roaming free while my parents are dead.”
“Who’s to say he isn’t already there?” Gabe asked, pointing toward the east. “He’s probably done other horrible things. Maybe he got caught. Or who knows, maybe he’s dead.”
“Maybe he’s been dead for years.”
That was supposed to help me feel better, but I still felt numb. If only the reporter didn’t come on the air every year to discuss the anniversary of my parents’ murder, maybe I’d be able to recover.
It wasn’t like the police were making any progress. And if they were, they weren’t telling me about it. Or maybe they were telling Gabe’s parents, my legal guardians, since I was still under age. Maybe they didn’t want me to worry.
“Come on,” Gabe said. “It’s getting late.”“What time is it anyway?” I asked, glancing down at my wristwatch before remembering it still read four in the morning.
He raised his eyebrows and smirked. “Time for you to get a battery.”
THE NEXT MORNING as I was getting ready for school, a knock came at the bathroom door and I jerked my head toward the sound.
“Would you hurry it up?” Gabe said, sounding annoyed. “We’re going to be late again.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
He groaned. “I’ll be outside.”
Running late. Again. Imagine that.
A quick glance at the time on my phone made me quicken my pace. Only ten minutes before the school bell would ring. If we were late, Gabe was going to have a fit.
I made a final pass with my mascara wand, rechecked my makeup in the mirror one last time, being careful to avoid looking at the puffiness under my eyes—if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, right?—and then rushed back to my bedroom as I typed a quick text to Gabe to let him know I was on my way. I grabbed my bag off the floor, ran down the stairs, and pushed through the front door.
“Bye! I’ll see you guys after your trip,” I called out.
Before the screen door slammed shut, I caught a glimpse of Gabe’s dad sitting at the kitchen table. He held a coffee mug in one hand and it looked like he was staring across the room at what seemed like nothing in particular.
Shrugging, I ran down the porch steps. The warmth of the sun washed over me, fending off the cool breeze of the mid-March air. Birds that were perched in the trees in the front yard greeted me with their usual springtime chatter.
“Good luck on your exams, Emme,” Corinne called out.
I stopped and looked back at the house. Gabe’s mom was leaning out their open bedroom window upstairs and waving. Her long blonde hair swayed with the breeze. I smiled and waved back, then ran to catch up with Gabe.
“We’re going to be late,” he said, turning on his heel, his pace fast, making me take quicker steps to catch up. “I was about ready to leave you behind until I saw you come out the door.”
“You know we always make it to class in time,” I replied, out of breath, already winded from the rush out the door and the jog across the street. “Didn’t you get my text a few minutes ago?”
Gabe looked at me like I had grown two heads, then rolled his eyes. “No, I didn’t get your text. Weren’t you listening to the news last night?”
“No. I must have zoned it out. What’d I miss?”
“The city’s cell towers are down.”
He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and then showed me the message on the screen that said the phone was searching for a cell signal. “Happened sometime yesterday after eight o’clock. Remember my phone wasn’t getting a signal?”
“Sorry. Preoccupied yet again. I can’t help it.”
Gabe gave me a worried look before shaking his head. “Anyway, the reporter wouldn’t say how it happened or when they expect the towers to be back online. Communications can’t nail down one specific cause, but evidently it happened all up and down the east coast. Said something about a possible degradation of the fiber optic cables.”
“That’s weird. Degradation across an entire region doesn’t seem likely. Maybe it has something to do with the towers’ control system.”
“Some kind of interference, maybe. But from where?”
I shrugged. We walked in silence for a couple minutes and then I said, “Walking without me just wouldn’t be the same, you know.”
“I know. I’d actually be on time,” he replied, glancing over at me with an exasperated look on his face and then back down at his watch. He grunted and quickened his pace. My short legs had to take extra strides to keep up.
“I don’t know how you’d handle walking by yourself. It would be so boring, just you and your weird thoughts,” I said between breaths.
He glared at me but I knew it was only for show. I tried to hide my smile. I knew he’d never leave me behind. He never had.
“What goes on inside that head of yours anyway?”
“Very little,” he replied. “What goes on inside yours?”
“It’s top secret.”
“We tell each other everything.”
“Yeah, right.” I shoved him gently with the heel of my hand. “I can’t tell you everything. I’d have to kill you if I did.”
“Whatever,” Gabe said, shaking his head. We continued walking again. “You don’t have anything exciting happening in your life that I can’t know about.”
“How do you know?” I asked, glancing over at him. “I could be a double agent working for the CIA and you’d have no idea.”
He laughed. “Yeah, right. We live together, remember? Besides, you can’t keep secrets. Remember that time at summer camp, you were sworn to secrecy about my crush on that girl from Valley United and you spilled the beans? Remember that? You ruined my chances of her ever talking to me. She thought I was creepy.”
“Are you still blaming me for that? Okay, okay, you got me,” I said, raising my hands in surrender. I stuffed my hands back into my coat pockets. “I can’t keep a secret to save my life. I was just trying to help and I blew it.”
“It’s nice to hear you finally taking responsibility.”
I rolled my eyes. We waited for a black SUV to drive by so we could walk across the street. My eyes drifted down the street and followed after the vehicle until it disappeared around the corner.
The school bell rang as we ran across Second Street. We had two minutes to get to our first class. We agreed to see each other at lunch and then parted ways. “I’ve got my eyes on you, Miss CIA,” Gabe had called out, pointing his finger at me.
I breezed through the exam for my first class, Senior English, and caught Gabe’s eye in the hall as we passed each other on our way through the crowds to our next class. I waved and called, “How was chemistry?”
“Earth-shattering,” he called back.
I grinned and rolled my eyes. He was a genius when it came to chemistry. I didn’t have the patience for it, but Gabe, he picked it up so quickly. He dreamed about becoming a scientist and making explosives.
I thought he was crazy. I was just glad he didn’t drag me along to every one of his experiments. His parents still owned a hundred acres and a cabin in the mountains about an hour’s drive away, so he had plenty of room and free reign to blow stuff up.
The biggest explosion he had created so far had only sent an aluminum can in the air. That was the condition his parents had had about him experimenting in the woods on their property. He couldn’t build anything that would cause a huge explosion.
And he needed a fire watch.
How he and his dad knew how to build one that was small enough, I didn’t know. I never asked him because I knew he could spend hours giving me every detail. I was doing myself a favor. Call me selfish.
I walked to my next class and stepped into the room just as an announcement came over the intercom. Mary Ellen, the school’s secretary, was telling Gabe and me to go to the front office.
I sighed and caught my teacher’s eye. She nodded and gave me a wave, so I hurried to the front office. Gabe was already there, holding the door open for me. We walked past two younger kids sitting in the waiting room, probably waiting for a parent to pick them up.
“Gabe, Emme,” Ms. Kelly said, walking across the room toward us. She put an arm loosely around my shoulders and led us toward her office down the hall.
Once inside, I stopped. A man and a woman, both dressed in dark pant suits, were sitting in chairs against a side wall.
“Please, have a seat,” Ms. Kelly said as she closed the door quietly behind her.
We sat down in the two remaining chairs while our principal propped a hip against the edge of her desk.
“What’s going on?” Gabe asked, shifting his gaze to the man and woman and then back to Ms. Kelly.
My heart pounded and my stomach felt a little queasy. I clasped my hands together so no one would notice that they were trembling.
The woman leaned forward in her chair, her hands folded on her lap. “My name is Detective Anne Miller and this is my partner, Detective Stephen Hendersen.” She unclasped her hands as she looked over at her partner for a brief second and then turned back to us. “I’m afraid we have bad news about your parents.”
I STARED AT the detective, too afraid to ask what had happened. I couldn’t speak. I fought hard to keep my thoughts from all of the possible scenarios that had popped into my head.
Had they been in a car accident on the way to their convention? Were they lying in a ditch somewhere? Were they in the hospital? Had a burglar broken in and killed them?
I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the detectives. They were exchanging a guarded look.
“What do you mean? What’s going on?” Gabe asked again.
“There was a fire at your house,” Detective Miller said quietly. “Your parents are believed to have been inside the house when an explosion occurred.”
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. Tears started to flow down my face and fall onto my folded hands. Not again. Not now. I felt like my whole world was crashing down on me. I reached out my hand to Gabe. He took it and held on tight like it was his last ditch effort at survival.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this,” Detective Miller said.
“How’d it happen?” Gabe asked. His voice was strained.
“We don’t know yet. Our forensics team is trying to piece everything together. But I need to ask: did your parents have any enemies? Were they having any problems?”
Gabe shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
I sat still in my chair and stared down at my lap.
Ms. Kelly cleared her throat and stood up from the desk. “Why don’t we give them some time? I’ll walk you out.”
Detective Miller held out a hand. “Just one more question before we go.”
Ms. Kelly nodded her consent as she sat back down.
“Gabe, we need to know if your parents were planning a trip,” she said softly. “Were they going anywhere?”
Gabe lifted his head. “They were driving to South Carolina for a business meeting.”
“Did they say anything at all that might have suggested something was going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you get a vibe that anything was off about them? Any strange behavior? Anything you remember could help our investigation.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
“That’s enough for now,” Ms. Kelly said, rising to her feet again.
“We’d like to talk to you more when you feel up to it,” Detective Miller said as she stood up and handed me a business card. “If you two think of anything that might help us find out why this happened, please don’t hesitate to call me. My cell number is on the back of the card.”
Once the cell towers are back up and running, I added in my head as I turned the card over. Sloppy handwriting was scribbled on the card, but the numbers were legible.
“Again, we’re sorry for your loss,” Miller said. She glanced at her partner and nodded toward the exit. Ms. Kelly walked them to the door. I could hear them talking softly but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Not that I was paying attention.
When I leaned my head against Gabe’s shoulder, he wrapped his arms around me. What were we going to do now? Without Gabe’s parents, who was going to take care of us? See us graduate from high school, send us off to college, walk me down the aisle at my wedding?
I heard the sound of shoes whispering against the carpeted floor. Ms. Kelly sat down in one of the chairs the detectives had just vacated.
“I’ve checked your files and talked with the detectives. Do you two have any other family in the area?”
“Not that we know of,” Gabe replied, shaking his head.
“Okay,” she said. “The state will be sending someone to pick you two up and take you to a group home until a judge can determine which of your relatives should get legal guardianship.”
“No,” I exclaimed, staring up at her. My eyes widened as I shook my head frantically. More tears threatened to fall. “A group home? No way.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t for me to decide.”
“We don’t have any living relatives,” Gabe said. “It’s just us now.”
“Unfortunately, there isn’t anything I can do. My hands are tied. If I—”
An urgent knock came from the other side of the closed door. Ms. Kelly sighed and walked to the door.
“Yes, Mary Ellen, what is it?” she asked as she peeked out into the hall.
Mary Ellen hunched in close. She glanced our way for a brief moment and then turned back to the principal. Her voice was low, but still loud enough for me to hear. “There is a gentleman here to see you. He’s from a place called Faction 73.”
Faction 73? What was that? I looked over at Gabe to see if he had heard it, too. He gave me a quick sidelong look and then turned his gaze back to the door.
“I’m with students right now.”
“Yes, I understand. But he said it was urgent. He wants to discuss the students you had mentioned last week. He’s ready for them now.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “What should I tell him?”
Ms. Kelly suddenly leaned against the doorframe and brought a hand up to her forehead. She looked down at the floor like she was having a dizzy spell.
“Principal Kelly?” Mary Ellen reached out for her but was shooed away.
After a moment, Ms. Kelly took a deep breath, straightened herself and her suit jacket, and then said, “Take him to the conference room. I’ll be right there.”
She was about to close the door when she suddenly opened it again and called out, “Oh, Mary Ellen? Could you bring me some aspirin? Just bring the whole bottle. To my office.”
MARY ELLEN USHERED US to the counselor’s office to wait for someone from the Department of Social Services to arrive. “I’m so sorry to hear about your family,” she said, clutching us both with her bony, shaky hands.
My head was starting to spin. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us. I didn’t know of any living relatives. Surely I had one or two. But no one had come forward after my parents died twelve years ago. Gabe’s parents had taken me in. And his family I had no idea about. I thought they had family in Maine or somewhere out north but I had never met them.
“Why don’t you two take a seat in here,” Mary Ellen said, gesturing for us to go inside. “Mrs. Sherman doesn’t come in for another hour, so you’ll have the place to yourselves.”
As soon as we stepped inside the room, she turned around and walked back down the hall.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I stared down at the floor. “How can this be? How did this happen?”
Gabe shook his head. “We’re not going to find out sitting here. I’m going back to class.”
I looked at him closely, my eyes squinting against the bright overhead lights. His avoidance of eye contact, clenched jaw, and closed fists were all signs that he was fighting hard to regain normalcy. He paused at the door, his hand tight around the doorknob.
He turned his head and finally made eye contact for a brief second before turning back to the door. “We can’t make them come back, Emme. We can find out who did this, but then we have to move on.” He gave the knob a twist and hurried out the door.
Just like that? Didn’t he need time for mourning before moving on? No, he would never forget; he wasn’t going to sit at home without doing anything. And pity the person responsible. If he ever found out who killed his parents, he’d make them pay.
All I wanted to do was put the past behind us. Forget it ever happened. Forget that my parents had been murdered. Forget that Gabe’s parents had just died. Forget that our lives were messed up because of other people, killers who made sport of removing upstanding citizens from their families for no good reason.
I leaned against the desk in the room, crossing my arms over my chest and staring up at the clock. It was almost time for my third class of the day.
As much as I hated to admit it, Gabe was right. We weren’t going to learn anything by sitting around doing nothing. I wasn’t much of a waiter anyway.
When I walked to my next class and took my usual seat on the far side in the first row, Mrs. Clarke looked up at me from her desk at the front of the class, her eyebrows raised slightly in concern.
I tried to smile back but felt I was failing miserably so I looked away and watched the other kids come in.
Our teacher sat quietly with her folded hands resting over a book cover. Finally, after all of my classmates came in and took their seats, she rose from her chair and cleared her throat. “Good morning, everyone,” she said. “I’m afraid we won’t be having class today. There has been a change in the schedule.”
MRS. CLARKE SCANNED the room as my classmates and I exchanged puzzled looks. Some of the kids had cheered. Who didn’t like a little interruption during class time? Any time out of the classroom was enough to get a room full of teenagers excited. Especially when the class was on American literature.
“All of the teachers have been asked to escort their students to the gymnasium for a special announcement. But don’t get up from your seats yet,” our teacher said, holding her hand up, palm outward, as kids started gathering their things and shoving them back into their backpacks. “We will wait until they call us.”
“What’s going on?” Tony asked. The literature whiz and my only rival from our graduating class. He shifted in his desk next to mine. While everyone else displayed excitement about getting out of class, he scrunched up his nose in disgust.
“Does this have anything to do with the cell towers?” Burke asked from the back of the room.
I turned my head in his direction and watched him sweep a strand of long hair away from his face before catching and holding my gaze for a brief moment and then looking away.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Mrs. Clarke replied, walking around to the front of her desk. She leaned back against it and folded her arms over her chest. “The message I received was simply a request to escort all of you to the gym, and that classes would be cancelled for the rest of the day. The principal didn’t provide any further explanation.”
“What is going on anyway? I heard the government shut down the cell towers,” a red-haired girl named Sarah said. She zipped up her backpack and then sat down on the top of her desk, her legs dangling over the edge.
The room erupted in loud bursts of noise as my classmates chimed in, expressing their opinions on the government interfering with everyone’s ability to communicate with their friends.
“Quiet down, class,” our teacher said, hitting the bell on her desk. “At this time, no one knows what is going on, so it’s best not to speculate or make assumptions. We will all find out soon enough.”
A red light above the classroom door started to flash.
“That’s us,” Mrs. Clarke said, heading for the door. “Grab your things and let’s head on over.”
Our class was the only one in the hallway but a quick peek into other classrooms showed me our class wasn’t the last to be called.
I hung back toward the end of the line as we walked toward Gabe’s classroom. I could see him sitting at his desk at the front of the room. His gaze met mine through the small narrow window of the door and I waved before he was out of sight. With any luck, his class would get called next so we could sit together.
As we filed into the gymnasium, teachers whose classes had already arrived directed us to the top of the bleachers at the far end of the room. Across the court, students were squeezed into bleachers that spanned the entire length of the gym.
It was going to be packed. Just like it always was whenever we gathered for assemblies or special announcements. Talk about a violation of my personal space, especially with this class since I wasn’t close friends with anyone. Tony was the only other student who enjoyed literature, but we were rivals, so naturally, we didn’t get along.
“Squeeze in, everyone,” Mrs. Clarke hollered over the noise.
I cringed as Sarah sat down beside me and crowded me in.
“I hope this announcement doesn’t last long,” she said, cocking her head to one side and rolling her eyes. “I can think of so many more important things to be doing with my time.”
“I know,” I replied as I kept an eye on the gym door.
Another class started piling into the room and heading my way.
With a sigh, I rested my elbows on my knees. By the time I saw Gabe come through the door, the bleachers had filled up almost to the other end of the room. I would have to wait and catch up with him after the announcement.
Once everyone was seated, Ms. Kelly walked into the room, leading five individuals who were wearing black uniforms and black military-style combat boots. She stood at a podium that one of the teachers had just brought in and picked up a microphone.
“Good morning, students,” Ms. Kelly said, her voice loud as it crackled over the gym’s speakers that were mounted on the ceiling. “As I’m sure all of you have heard by now, we have an announcement to make. After this, all of the day’s remaining classes will be cancelled. Classes will resume tomorrow morning.”
Cheers erupted throughout the gym.
Ms. Kelly waited a few moments and then told everyone to settle down. She paused another moment and glanced over her shoulder at the people who had walked in with her.
“At this time, I will hand the microphone over to Special Agent Tobert.”
One of the men stepped forward and took the microphone. His expression was stoic, his posture straight.
“Good morning, students,” he said, scanning the room. “As Principal Kelly said, my name is Special Agent Tobert and we called you all here to inform you of important news. Last night, our country underwent an attack on the entire nation’s cell towers.
“Many had believed the issue was a local one, affecting only the towers in this area, but we have been informed that the towers in the rest of the country were hit as well. We believe this to be a foreign attack and we anticipate more attacks in the coming days. As a result, we are preparing to take action.”
He paused for a moment.
I wondered what he meant as I glanced around the gym. I guessed everyone else was wondering the same thing, judging from their puzzled expressions.
“The United States Government has enlisted my organization to assist in this action. What that means is that we will be recruiting some of you to join forces with us to send these attackers back to where they belong.”
The crowd cheered. But then the excitement was followed by silence.
“Your school is one of the highest ranked schools on the east coast. Your principal here and your teachers have kindly provided us with recommendations for top students in a variety of specialties. We need expertise in a number of areas if we hope to make a serious impact, and we are calling on select students to help us accomplish our mission.”
I cast Sarah a sidelong look and found her staring wide-eyed toward the podium.
“After a thorough review, taking into consideration each of your talents and abilities, we have narrowed down the list from one hundred to fifteen. Those of you whose names are called will be joining us to take action against the terrorists. It is an honor and a privilege to have you join us.”
He brought a small cup to his lips before continuing his speech. “For those of you whose names are not called, your role is equally important. We did not choose all of your school’s top students and we did that for one very important reason. You will need to work together as a team and protect each other in the event that the attacks turn to civilian areas and residential communities. We do not know what the future holds, but we need to be prepared for whatever may come. And we need all of you on board to help make our mission a success.”
I felt a pit in my stomach as I glanced over at Sarah again. She had lost a few shades of color, her face was so pale. I looked toward the other end of the bleachers to try to catch sight of Gabe, but I couldn’t see him.
Special Agent Tobert slid his hand inside his coat and pulled out an envelope. He removed a slip of paper and held it out in front of him.
“In a moment, I will be calling out the names of the students we have chosen to join our forces. It is of utmost importance that we agree to work together as a team, and I ask that you do not take this matter lightly. If we are to succeed, we will need your full cooperation and support. We understand that we are asking a great deal from those students we have chosen, but it is an opportunity to shine for your country. Again, it is an honor and a privilege to work with you, and we hope you will agree.”
I hugged my arms to my chest and stared at the uniformed individuals standing on the gym floor. A glance around the room told me my fellow schoolmates were experiencing mixed emotions as well. As I clasped my hands together in an effort to keep them from shaking, so many questions ran through my mind. Had any of my teachers nominated me? Was my name going to be called? Would I be joining forces with them or would I be left to tend to things here?
“If I call your name, please come down and go through these doors,” he said, pointing to the double doors my class had entered. “An agent will be there to check you in. All other students, please wait here for further instructions.”
“Who do you think they’re going to pick?” Sarah whispered, nudging my arm with her elbow. I glanced over at her, trying my hardest not to reveal my disgust at having been elbowed. It was bad enough we were crammed on the bleachers so tight we couldn’t move without touching the person sitting beside us. Her face had regained some of its color.
“I don’t know. I can’t imagine they’re going to pick me,” I whispered back. “What about you?”
“Same here,” she said. “I’m not exactly at the top of any of my classes.”
I wasn’t either, except in English and literature. And I certainly wasn’t athletically inclined. That didn’t sound like a desirable skillset. Would they really want someone with two left feet? And what would they do if they discovered the students they chose weren’t able to perform?
The first name was called. Robert Clansig.
A hush fell over the crowd as everyone looked around the room searching for Robert.
I spotted him across the gym floor. He had risen from his seat halfway up the bleachers and was squeezing through the crowd. No one said a word as we all watched him exit through the double doors.
Over a period of about twenty minutes, a few more names were called.
All six students, including Robert, were athletes. A couple of them were even the best players on their team.
Despite the chaos of the morning, I found myself tuning everything out and wondering how the teams would do now that their top players were going off to fight for their country.
Would they be back in time to take their teams to the playoffs? Our school was big into sports.
I flinched when I felt another nudge on my arm and I turned in the direction of the assault to stare at Sarah once again.
She leaned in close to me and whispered, “He called your name.”
“WHAT?” I ASKED, my voice a little too loud. I felt my eyes bulging outward in shock. My heart was racing and I was hoping Sarah hadn’t really said what I thought she said.
I looked around at the other students. Everyone nearby had turned in their seats and was staring at me. Some seemed shocked, too, and others looked scared.
“Again, Emerson Wesler,” the agent said, repeating my name, drawing it out longer than normal as if to make sure the student caught his name. He looked around the room, no doubt waiting for me to stand up. “Please come down and join the other students whose names have been called.”
Sarah nudged me again.
I swallowed hard and pushed myself up from the bleachers. Everyone made room for me to get through as I weaved my way toward the gym floor. My knees felt weak and I worried that they would give out on my way down the bleachers. I took a deep breath when my feet hit the floor and then I glanced back at everyone for a brief moment before I took a step forward.
Why did the agent call my name? What could they possibly want me for? Didn’t they know I was a klutz? Not fit for participating in an attack against terrorists?
Slowly, I made my way down the long distance across the room. The double doors lay just fifteen yards ahead. I felt eyes boring into my back as I walked. This must have been how the other students had felt when their names were called.
Only the reason they picked me did not seem so obvious like it had for the rest.
I could hear hushed whispers as I walked by. Maybe the agents had made a mistake. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding.
As I approached the double doors, I looked up at the bleachers. It only took a brief moment to spot Gabe. He was standing up at the top row against the back wall. It looked like he was trying to get down but the students were crammed tight together and no one was letting him through.
I gave him a weak smile as I focused on keeping one foot in front of the other until I pushed through the doors.
A young woman dressed in a black uniform was waiting for me in the hallway.
“Yes,” I said quietly. The doors slammed shut behind me, making me flinch. I took a deep breath. “I think there’s been some mistake.”
She leaned forward slightly and smiled. “Our organization doesn’t make mistakes. Especially when it comes to students with promising potential. I’m sure you will find that we are right once you get started.”
“How long will we be gone? What about everyone’s families?” My eyes caught a name stitched over the left breast pocket. Fiona Winston. For some reason, that name sounded familiar but I had no idea where I would have heard it.
“I’m afraid a timeframe is unknown,” Fiona said. “Students whose names were called must return by three o’clock this afternoon. Once the announcement is over and you are logged into our system, you are free to go home and make any necessary arrangements.”
She directed me to a classroom down the hall telling me to wait inside until we were dismissed.
When I stepped inside, the students whose names had been called before mine turned to look at me. They were all seated at desks. And the white screen at the front of the room had been pulled down and a projector was broadcasting the announcement in the gymnasium.
I sat down at one of the desks on the edge of the room a couple rows from the front and clasped my hands together while I stared at the screen.
Another name came through the speakers in the classroom. Cameron Evans. The camera was positioned somewhere at the far side of the gym, at the end where I had been sitting. Its angle shifted as it searched for the next student and then followed him to the doors.
After a moment, as Agent Tobert called another name, Cameron walked into the classroom. And then shortly afterward two more names were called and those students joined us.
I watched as Agent Tobert lifted his cup from the podium and took a sip. He cleared his throat and then looked down at the list again.
I lifted my hand to cover my mouth and stifle a gasp as I stared at the screen. My stomach tightened into knots.
The camera found Gabe right away. He was making his way down the bleachers. And this time the students were letting him through.
I watched as he pushed through the doors. Another minute later, he walked into the classroom, his brows furrowed and his fists clenched at his sides. As soon as he saw me, his expression softened and he slid into the desk behind mine. I turned in the seat and grabbed his hand, holding it tight.
We sat there in that classroom for another thirty minutes as the new names were called. Finally, Agent Tobert called out the last name. Burke.
When Burke entered the room, Fiona, the woman who had directed me in the hallway, followed, carrying a small cardboard box. She set it on the teacher’s desk at the front of the room.
“In a moment, Agent Tobert and the others will be coming in to give you instructions on where to meet,” she said. “As I mentioned to some of you, you may leave as soon as we’re done here. However, you must be back in this school by three o’clock this afternoon.”
“What happens if we don’t make it here by that time?” Burke asked.
“You won’t want to find out.”
AS FIONA SPOKE the words firmly, her tone serious, her gaze swept over the room. “I trust you will heed my advice.”
After a moment, seeming satisfied with our stunned expressions, she began to open the box and remove its contents. As she did so, the other agents walked into the room.
“Good morning again, students,” Agent Tobert said, stopping in front of the screen. “I’m sure some of you are wondering about the selection process. But I can assure you we are never wrong about an individual. We see the potential that others may not. We believe we can train all of you to be the best you can possibly be and we won’t let you down.
“What we need from you is dedication and a willingness to learn,” he continued, leaning back against the front of the teacher’s desk. “We know you would like to run home and tell your families about your new assignment, so you may do so as soon as Fiona gets you logged into our system with proper identification. Don’t worry about packing. Everything you need will be provided, and anything you bring will be withheld upon arrival at our training facility. It’s very important that you remember you must return here by three o’clock today. If you are late, we will send out a search party. Believe me when I say you do not want us to do that.”
Fiona walked around the desk holding a device that looked like a large syringe.
I stared in horror as she instructed Victor to hold out his arm and said, “This might sting a little.”
Victor looked away and winced as she jabbed him in the arm with the syringe-like device. She set a small packet on his desk. “You may want to eat this.”
Victor held his fist to his mouth. It looked like he was struggling to either calm his nerves or calm his stomach. I wasn’t sure which one.
“You need to eat what I gave you,” Fiona said again. “It will help calm your stomach.”
She walked back to the teacher’s desk and swapped out the needle for a fresh one in a sealed package and then loaded a small speck of something into the syringe. Probably a tracking chip. Then she walked to the student behind Victor.
“How long will we be in training?” Robert asked.
“That will depend on your progress,” Agent Tobert said. “However, we do expect everyone to reach an adequate level within two months. We won’t know until we get there, but the more recruits we can have trained and ready to go, the better chance we will have of making a powerful impression on our foreign and domestic threats.”
Was there no way out of this assignment? How could they make us do this against our will? I doubted there was anything that would get me out of the assignment. I couldn’t just run away. With the tracking device, they would find me.
And digging the little chip out of my arm was not an option. Certainly not by myself. I would get lightheaded and pass out as soon as the blood started seeping out of the wound.
It was hopeless. I was stuck.
“What happens after we win the war?” Gabe’s voice broke the silence. He squeezed my hand when I looked back at him. “Will we be able to return home after we win? Or will we be required to participate in the cleanup and restoration?”
“The country will be restored to a healthy condition,” the agent replied as he glanced at his wristwatch. “Once training starts, we will be addressing all of your questions in more detail. We’ll let Fiona finish up here.”
When he and the other agents left the room, I turned back to Gabe.
“Are you doing okay?” he asked quietly over the desk.
What was I going to say? I was terrified. Afraid of what was to come. Furious that they chose me. Shocked, really. Anxious about our future. Confused. On the verge of tears. It took all I had to keep the tears from spilling out all over my face which had flushed with heat.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. When Gabe squeezed my hand again, the tears gave a good fight and won again.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said quietly. “At least we were chosen together.”
I wiped at my face. As I tried to dry my hand on my pant leg, I glanced up and saw Fiona walking down our aisle. She stopped at my desk and asked me to hold out my arm.
Swallowing hard, I let go of Gabe’s hand and held my arm out. I turned away, waiting for the sting. It came in full force, flooding through my arm and up to my shoulder. My stomach turned and I felt lightheaded.
“Here,” she said, setting a small packet on my desk. “This will help you feel better.”
I stared at the packet as I tried to take a deep breath. My fingers fumbled with the packaging for a moment and finally made a tear down one side.
Inside the package was a wafer the size of a gold coin. I removed the wrapper and stuck the wafer in my mouth, trying not to heave from the smell of it. It only had a light scent but the thought of eating anything or smelling any food made me want to hurl.
After a minute, I started to feel better. My stomach calmed a bit and I was able to chew and swallow it.
I finally braved a glance at my arm. There was a bead of blood where the needle had gone in and my arm was already bruising with a faint black and blue tint.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to remind myself that this assignment was only temporary. Eventually, this would all be a bad dream and we would be back home telling our friends and families about what it was like to fight for our country.
Fiona came back and stopped at Gabe’s desk. I looked away as she inserted the tracking chip into his arm. Just thinking about the needle sliding into his skin made my stomach twist into tighter knots.
She instructed us all to line up by the desk and wait to be scanned into the computer. This was turning into a long process.
I glanced up at the clock at the front of the room. It was already lunch time. If we needed to be back at the school by three that afternoon, we wouldn’t have much time to spend with our families.
Not that it mattered for us. We had no one left to see.
Everyone else in the room was as quiet and morose as Gabe and I were. Most likely scared to death and not at all thrilled to be selected.
Silently, we waited in line and watched as each student held out a right arm to be scanned. Fiona asked for name confirmation which she typed into a computer on the desk and then told the student he was free to go.
I was up next. My heart was racing knowing someone would know my whereabouts every second of the day.
After a few minutes, I was dismissed. I walked out into the hallway and waited for Gabe. All of the chosen students appeared to be heading for their lockers to grab their belongings.
I peered through the glass of the gymnasium’s double doors. All of the other students, the lucky ones, had left.
I felt Gabe come up beside me and grab my hand. My fingers closed over his. We walked down the hall to our lockers and emptied our backpacks of all the things we wouldn’t be needing over the next few months or for however long we were going to be gone.
We were both seniors, set to graduate in two months. We had already been accepted into our college of choice in South Carolina, near the nation’s capital. I was going for literature and he was going for chemistry.
We had talked about what we’d be doing on the weekends and in our spare time, how we’d be spending time together experiencing life on campus and taking advantage of all the off-campus food.
Those plans had all been dashed.
As we stepped outside into the bright sunlight, piercing slivers of pain shot through my eyes. I fumbled in my bag for my sunglasses.
“Here. Take mine.”
I reached out blindly and closed my hand around Gabe’s glasses and slipped them on. After a moment, the pain subsided and I slowly opened my eyes again.
“They have to provide proper medical care, right?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows.
“I mean, they’re not going to deny us access to doctors and specialists. I had an appointment with the eye doctor next week.”
“Where do you think they’re taking us?”
“Why did they pick us? It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, you’re a whiz at chemistry and making bombs, but why me?”
He sighed. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. I don’t understand their selection process. I’ve been asking myself that ever since your name was called.”
We walked in silence the rest of the way to our house. Well, what was left of it.
When we rounded the corner onto our street, Gabe stopped abruptly.
I glanced over at him and then looked down the street toward our house. My jaw dropped and my heart sank. As I covered my mouth with a hand to stifle a cry, I stared at the charred remains of the house we had lived in together since we were five.
I couldn’t move.
The smell of our smoldering belongings filled my nostrils and the smoke burned my eyes as we walked the rest of the way down the sidewalk.
The roof had burned and collapsed onto the floor of the second story. The fire department had already come and gone; the house, at least what remained, was glistening with moisture and the grass in the front yard was soaked. Yellow caution tape affixed to the porch railings flapped gently in the breeze.
As we stood there staring up at the house, it occurred to me that this was yet another event in my life that would never go away. I wouldn’t be able to forget it because the reporter who hauled the dusty old case file out every year would add this new event to his reports.
Just wait until he found out his two star-crossed lovers—which, for the record, was not true. We were not ‘star-crossed’ anything—who grew up as brother and sister were joining forces with the government to fight terrorism and restore the peace. Bound to spike his ratings, for sure. I’d like to show him my idea of restoring the peace.
I ran up the walkway and onto the porch step. But before I could reach the second step, I felt Gabe’s strong hands grab hold of my arms. I fought against them, trying to break free.
“We can’t go in there,” Gabe said, pulling me back down the steps and to the sidewalk. “The ceiling could fall down on top of us.”
I sighed and looked away. The street was quiet and only a handful of vehicles were parked in the driveways or at the curbs, which made sense since it was the middle of the day and most everyone in the neighborhood worked a full-time job.
Who knew when we’d ever see this place or any of the people we had grown up with again? Mrs. Parsons a few doors down had three grandchildren our age, two boys and a girl, and whenever they were in town for the summer, Gabe and I would play with them.
Lilly and I would put up a lemonade stand on the hottest days and sit out at the sidewalk and laugh and tell jokes all day. And after they left, Gabe and I would sit with Mrs. Parsons and keep her company.
The breezy cold air seeped through my jacket, making me shiver. I folded my arms over my chest and cupped my elbows with my hands.
Gabe stood still, staring up at our house. His hands curled into fists at his sides as a tear slid down his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, even though I knew it wouldn’t help.
He brushed the back of his hand over his face, then said, “Wait here,” before stepping off the sidewalk and jogging across the front yard.
“What? Where are you going?” I followed after him. “Are you crazy? You just said we can’t go in there.”
He ignored me and kept jogging alongside the house. It looked like the back of the house had fared better than the front. But it was hard to tell how sturdy the structure was now.
I followed Gabe around the back corner of the house and found him kneeling on the ground at the basement door. He was shoving a small key into the padlock.
“Did you hear me? You can’t go in there.”
Without looking at me, he said, “It’ll only be for a few minutes. I just need to grab something.” He removed the lock and pulled the door open, resting it against the ground. Then he removed his leather jacket and long-sleeved shirt.
He turned his head and looked at me then. “I’m well aware of the risk. But it’ll just be a few minutes. In and out. I can’t get carbon monoxide poisoning from just a few minutes when there’s adequate air circulation. Especially when I have this.” He held up his shirt. “Remember? We went over this.”
Sighing, I looked away and took his jacket when he handed it to me.
“I’m just going to the safe. You can stand here and watch.”
I shook my head and fought back more tears. Those damn things kept wanting to make an appearance.
“Fine,” I snapped. “Go.”
He raised an eyebrow and watched me for a second. Then he turned around and walked down the steps.
I followed him and waited at the landing, watching him weave around the rubble of miscellaneous household items that had evidently been displaced by the explosion. The wall and part of the ceiling at the far side of the room was torn up, and splintered wood was scattered heavily across the basement floor. I couldn’t tell if the wood was still smoldering or if the area was just covered in dust and ash.
Finally, Gabe reached the safe. While he turned the dial of the safe’s lock, I tapped my foot on the concrete floor and peeked at my watch before remembering it had stopped working a few weeks earlier. Groaning, I started to count off the seconds in my head.
Just a couple minutes. That’s all it would take.
He disappeared behind the steel door.
I leaned against the concrete wall and asked, “What’s taking so long?”
I sighed and kept counting. More than two minutes had passed since he went inside.
“Got it,” Gabe said, closing and locking the safe door. Then he jogged back across the room and hurried up the steps. His fingers brushed across my hand as he stepped onto the landing.
I felt goose bumps pop up on my arms underneath my jacket. Clearing my throat and trying to dash away the butterflies that were wreaking havoc on my stomach, I asked, “Any ideas how the explosion happened?”
“No clue.” He slipped back into his long-sleeved shirt and then his jacket. “But it looked like it might have started in the kitchen, judging from the damage to the basement ceiling.”
He stood on the landing a mere two feet from me and met my gaze. He was breathing heavily like he was fighting to calm a rage burning deep inside him or he had just run a 30-yard dash. Stepping closer and reaching out but not quite far enough to touch my arm, he said quietly, “We’re going to find out who did this. I promise you.”
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