Let’s start with the basics; you are a tulpa; a cognitive device to facilitate faster, more rational thought, recall and decision-making.
Yes, I’m aware that the westernized name for the concept is based on a mistranslation. Essentially, you’re here to serve as an undetectable diary, one that can’t be read or stolen, and hopefully, through practice, help me to keep a clear head. However, in order to do that, you need to know my objectives, and to understand them, you need more context.
I’ve been heavily medicated for as long as I can remember, but the morning I just told you about is the first time I made the decision to stop taking that medication.
I wasn’t smart about it. Halfway through the “party” my parents pulled me aside, and asked me why they found my pills buried in their potted plant. The conversation didn’t go well.
This was the point when I started to suspect them; there was no crying or shouting; they cycled through their arguments until I told them that the medicine made me feel worse, not better, and they shut themselves in their room.
I could hear them whispering to each other. Steadily, cautiously.
Their absence was more than enough to kill the mood; most of the guests were parents, part of a school and local community for people with special needs children. They came out of obligation, and left without other adults to complain to.
At the time, I was still gullible. They called my “uncle”.
His name is Jonathan Cooper, he’s tall, always straight backed, and almost always smells slightly of cheap, store brand mint chewing gum, although I’ve never seen him chew any.
He’s my social worker. I’ve known him for as long as I can remember, and he’s the whole reason you’re here.
My life is not exciting. That’s not to say that it’s uneventful, but events tend to follow a predictable sequence of illness, apathy, school trouble. I’m sure you can see the reciprocal relationship between the three, not that you’ve ever been ill, but Jonathan, every time he got the chance, could break that cycle.
We never did anything special together; we would just talk. He’s one of the few; no, the only person I know capable of listening. Not that I’m known for my talkativeness. He must be quite patient, too.
I think this is already the most I’ve ever said to anyone at once, so let me get to the point; I’m older now, and smarter. I’ve never wanted to be a part of someone’s deception, and I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that I’m living my life in a cage.
Two years ago, to the day, was the last time I saw social worker Jonathan Cooper. He handed me a photograph of us with some of his co-workers, on the day I was adopted. I asked him when our next meeting would be, and he wouldn’t tell me.
He said, “Things are changing, Hildegard. Maybe not for the better.” He’s the only person who ever used my full name.
I stayed in touch with him. Usually by text or email. It wasn’t perfect, but I could always reach him if I needed someone to talk to, and even if he was busy he’d always get back to me.
Except it’s been two months since I heard from him.
After that, I worked up the courage to stop taking the pills.
It didn’t happen all at once, it took a while to find the best hiding places and disposal methods. It didn’t help that the pills came from unmarked bottles from my adoption agency, either. A few weeks ago I took them to a pharmacist, and they couldn’t tell me what they were.
That was when I knew this was more than paranoia.
I nearly ended up in the back of a police car, and I sat in front of the principal more than once. None of that matters now, because it was worth it.
I’m thinking clearly. No part of me hurts. I can stay awake through the afternoon.
A few weeks after that, I started getting out of the house. I went to visit my old orphanage. It’s not far. They had records, lots of records, but no one recognized Cooper in the photo. They didn’t know any of the other men in it, either.
“Things are changing. Maybe not for the better.”
I can’t be sure what he meant on our last meeting, two years ago. Did he want me to stay safe and forget him, or be smart and find him?
I think, or at least, I hope, that he knew me well enough to know which one I’ll choose.
So I’m going to run away from home.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not the sort of person who has pictures of Paris on their wall, and I have no intention of hitchhiking anywhere. I’m not interested in “romantic” or “exotic” journeys, and I don’t need to find myself, whatever that means.
That’s why you’re here. If we’re going to find Cooper, and why my life has been the way it’s been, we have to be careful. So you and I, we’re going to take things slowly. We’re going to get all the information we need, and most importantly, we’re going to do whatever else it takes.
Right now, that entails projecting the illusion of normalcy. Not very liberating, but absolutely necessary.
My foster parents only use my full name as part of their intimidation attempts. The layout of the house makes it necessary to shout for them to be heard up here in the attic.
Don’t get the wrong idea; it’s spacious, warm and sanitary. They don’t have the imagination to abuse me.
They’re shouting to remind me of an appointment they made for me. I don’t need reminding, and now they’ll think that I’m leaving because of them.
I lift myself out of my chair, the one I’ve been sitting in since I created you. It isn’t comfortable, and it never has been. It helps me think. Maybe one day I’ll point it out the window instead of at the wall.
I hate the way the stairs creak. I’m not heavy, but it just feels wrong to let someone know that I’m coming.
“Do you want to be late?” One of them looks up at me, arms fastened around the lowest bannister. “Got everything you need?”
“Yes.” I’m not going to tell you their names, since they’re not important. One is very tall, has little hair, and is usually staring into a book. The other is short, nosy, and usually smells like flour.
“Want me to drive you?”
“I prefer to walk.” I’ve already eaten. I’m hydrated. I have running shoes, ID, and some money, all in a small bag on the table where I’d left them.
“Sure?” She asks, crumbs falling to the breakfast table. “I’m going that way later.” A glance at the other. “I could pick you up when you’re done.” I look at my watch. It’s a stout plastic box with a digital face. I mention it because it’s a lot like you, and it should give you a good idea of my priorities. The other reason I mention the watch is that it’s almost time to leave; my appointment is with the family doctor at the local hospital. About half an hour’s walk.
“Well, okay.” She looks at me like I just stepped on her toe as I check the contents of my duffel. “If you change your mind-” she holds up a hand to her ear in a gesture that might be an imitation of a phone “-give me a call.” Everything’s accounted for.
“When you get back, Hildegard.” He looks up from his book. “We’ll have another discussion about your educational future.”
“There’s nothing to discuss,” I tell him, and he goes back to his book. The fact that I already know my future won’t stop him from bringing it up later.
My hand’s on the doorknob, and I can feel the dry summer air through the keyhole.
“H, I know you hate the idea of a military academy.” She’s still sitting at the table, looking down into her empty plate. Her hand is resting on her husband’s. “But it’s a full scholarship, Truman is so much better than anything we could afford for you, and it’s so accommodating for people like you and registration ends tomorrow, so-”
The door creaks open, and the smell of baking concrete outside slithers under my nose. I’m not in the mood to argue, so I close the door behind me before they can get up.
My head clears once I leave the house. Probably because I spent so long tranquilized there.
The neighborhood isn’t much better, but there are places I can go if I’m not ready for home, or if school’s too much. I haven’t used them much since I stopped taking the pills, but I’ll never forget them. The trees near the senior center, the hollow sculpture in the park, even the row of spotless pastel dumpsters outside the school gym.
I’m not going to tell you the name of the neighborhood, since it’s not important to our mission or in general.
The hospital itself is more what you would expect from something called a clinic. From the outside, most of what you see is glass, chrome, and those long banners and square signs that read like redundant advertisements. There isn’t much call for the messier part of medical care here, since accident and crime rates are almost non-existent.
They know me here. I’ve visited enough times, and I can tell by the way that the woman at the desk runs off that she was expecting my guardians to come with me.
They like to sit in on the diagnoses and gently nod their heads.
She talks into her phone, glances down at her appointments, sees I made one under my own name, and gives me the usual platitudes and broad estimates.
There are benches here, flanked by the sort of potted plants you’d find in airports or funeral homes, but I don’t feel like sitting, firstly, out of principle, but secondly, and more importantly, because I have questions.
I’ve always been taken to the same doctor, so is he in on it? Does he meet with my foster parents before and after my checkups? Probably won’t get the chance to find out what he knows, and luckily it doesn’t matter that much: Going undetected is our priority.
So I try to avoid my usual glare, and I stand by reception until the woman behind the desk tells me where I need to be.
Dr. Caulder’s office, just below the single rooms and above the children’s ward.
The path there’s flanked by the usual suspects, rubbing their hands and scanning pamphlets. I think I might be the only person with a legitimate medical issue to ever visit.
It does feel strange, coming here without an escort, like any moment someone will walk up to me and shout that I’m not allowed to be here. They might be right; I’m not technically sick anymore. As far as I know, anyway.
Caulder gives me his practiced smile the moment after I enter. He doesn’t do a very good job. I think he remembers me.
“Ah, back again, Ms.-” He runs his hands through a stack of papers.
“All right, then, Hildegard-” He slides over on his desk chair “-please have a seat.” I take a seat as Caulder opens one drawer after another, and in moments his hands are full of diagnostic tools. “So.” He turns back to me, “This is the first time we’ve talked about things without your parents-”
“All right, guardians.” He’s always been one of those doctors impressed by their own bedside manner. “Now, which of your-” he pauses to look down at what’s probably a very long list. “-symptoms in particular would you like to discuss? Your medication should be taking care of most of them, if you’d like a prescription for something specific, I’ll see what I can do, but-” He looks up at me, maybe in the eye. I look down at the floor. His voice sounds honest, but in some of the scenarios I’m imagining, Dr. Caulder plays an important role.
“Yes?” he asks.
“It didn’t come from you, did it?” Obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure.
“No, no,” he looks down at his papers again. “Did your guardians really not discuss things with you?”
“No,” I say. “Tell me where it came from.”
“Well, as I have it here-” he scans the page “-it was a series of government prescriptions; your adoption agency-” he flinches a little at “adoption”, everyone does “-recommended them to your guardians; I have to assume they were accurate.”
“So you never knew what they were?”
“No, Hildegard.” He looks up from his papers. “I did ask them, many times to tell me, but all I could do for you was to prescribe as conservatively as possible to avoid your treatments interacting, so-” He turns in his chair, and puts his papers away. “-you’ve had some sort of medical event, I assume.” On the way here, I put some thought into the phrasing that might have the most impact on a health care professional.
“I’m cured,” I tell him. He looks me up and down for a moment.
“You can’t be cured; your symptoms were chronic, most without any obvious cause, so-”
“Read them out,” I tell him. He doesn’t argue, he just pulls more papers, ancient, coffee-stained printouts, from under his desk.
“Well, most of them were related, but the chronic pain, the fatigue, they’re all-”
“And the slowed metabolism, low body temperature.” He spins around to his discarded pile of diagnostic instruments. “I have to check this.” He jabs a thermometer at me.
“You don’t need to take my temperature. The fact that I walked here, from my house, should be enough.”
“Well, all right.” He leans back in his chair, the list of symptoms still in his hands. “Everything physical. What about your prosopagnosia?”
“Yes.” He places the charts back into his desk. “I suppose you’d be seeing the world quite differently without it, but that’s not what I want to focus on.” I think he eyes the door for a second. “You stopped taking whatever your guardians were giving you.”
From what I can tell, Dr. Caulder is not a part of this, whatever “this” turns out to be. I think he may also be a good person, but even if he isn’t, he’s still a responsible doctor. There are some things he has to tell my “guardians.”
“No. My symptoms stopped while I was still taking them.”
He knows that doesn’t add up. I’ll give him credit for not being gullible.
“Well-” He’s not going to argue. Good. “-I’d still like to run some tests, if that’s okay, nothing invasive, you remember what we discussed last time?”
“Whole Genome Sequencing.”
“Yes, yes, now, it might seem scary-” he’s back in child-comforting mode. “-but it doesn’t mean a thing about who you are, and it can help us figure out where some of your problems-” He realizes there’s a problem with his script, “-where, uh, some of them might have gone, it takes some time, but-”
My phone rings. Only three people have my number; my guidance counselor, who has never used it, my guardians, and Cooper.
“Go ahead, Hildegard. I don’t have another appointment for a few hours.”
Each one of them has a different ringtone; a series of beeps with just enough variation in pitch, tone and speed for me to tell them apart. I edited them myself.
“Hello.” I’ve never understood why people answer the phone like someone’s knocked on their door, but people expect something, and you have to make some noise so that people know you’ve picked up the phone.
“Where are you? Your father and I-” the rest is platitudes. I wait for an appropriate moment to insert myself.
“I’m in my appointment with Dr. Caulder.”
“Oh, all right.” Concision is not in her nature. “Well, I just thought you’d like to know, some people from Truman Academy called, they-”
“Remind me, what’s that?” I know what Truman is, but obviously she needs reminding on how much I care.
“The school. The one you got the scholarship for? Registration’s nearly over.”
“So?” I ask, as Caulder taps out something on his computer.
“Well, they just called to ask about you, and I told them you weren’t home; they ended up asking a lot of questions about how you were, where you were; I think they just wanted to know if you were coming.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“Well.” She sighs over the phone. “I don’t know what your plan is, so I couldn’t tell them.”
The house won’t be fun tonight, not that it usually is. I put the phone to my chest.
“You said the sequencing takes a long time?” I ask the doctor.
“Uh, yes, but, I mean, comparatively speaking, our new facilities and networking with other clinics, running the results through government records-”
“How long?” I ask again. He glances down at his watch.
“I could have the results by morning if you were to stay overnight-” I put the phone back to my ear.
“Dr. Caulder says he wants to keep me overnight for observation. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Oh, all right, I’ll tell your father-” I hang up, and put the phone back in my pocket.
“I’ll have everything prepared in around a half-hour.” He stands up from his chair, still typing.
The door wings open, and he guides me out into the corridor. “We’ll just take a cheek swab, and that’ll be it for today. We should have a room open if you’d rather stay here until the results?”
“That’s fine.” I tell him. I’ll sleep through this academy registration period in one of the hospital’s single rooms, and be rested enough to decide on tomorrow’s first step. The doctor is almost certainly innocent, but he never seemed in on it. The only thing I’ve learned about him is how malleable he seems.
* * *
Coop says I have to write more in my diary.
Went to the doctor today. He said I am pretty sick, but we already knew.
New mom and dad talked to him for a long time, and I wasn’t allowed to see, so I waited with Coop out in the hall. We played strangers. It was fun.
Later they said I had to keep all my pills and maybe get new different ones.
* * *
The room is comfortable. It’s always been like that. Not sure how long I slept.
Probably hours. Looking under the blinds, it’s dark.
Have I spent more time here than the attic at home? I thought the plastic plants and beige curtains might somehow give me a panic attack, or just be reminders of something I’d rather forget. Maybe all the time I spent here wasn’t so bad.
The digital clock at my bedside reads four hours, thirty two minutes, ante meridian. I slept quite easily, but something at the back of my mind eased me awake three minutes ago.
It reminds of a photograph I took once.
The clock, I mean. One of high school’s first efforts to “motivate me to include myself.” It was angled as if I were lying in bed, with my digital clock and open window in the same shot. I thought it was good.
It probably wasn’t, I didn’t know anything about photography at the time, and I still don’t. There was some discussion among the judges, apparently.
Eventually I got the “special prize” which existed in a void unrelated to first, second or third. I didn’t win, no one involved had any illusions about that, but they asked me to stagger up on stage anyway, so that everyone could see how special I was, and how generous the faculty were.
What is it about lying awake in bed that brings back bad memories?
It’s not gone. The feeling on the back of my neck. Like I know I left my window open on a cold day. I did something wrong, made some sort of important mistake.
My legs twitch, so I get out of bed, swallow the warm remains of my water bottle, and try to calm down. It’s nerves, it has to be. Once the sequencing is over, and Dr. Caulder confirms I’m fine, I’m going to leave everything I’ve ever known.
It’s not, though. I’ve been dealing with that for weeks.
There’s more to life than this. More than most people would ever know. And if there isn’t, you and I will have to make it for ourselves.
Light sweeps under the curtains. Through the building, I hear the vibrations of a heavy engine, coming slowly to a stop. There’s another beam of light, and then a third, rolling under the curtains, around my room, and then rumbling still.
I try, as subtly as I can, to open a gap between the curtain and the edge of the window.
Jeeps. Hummers. I don’t know what they’re called, but a pack of heavy, squat, black vehicles sit crowded around the back entrance. The angle’s too steep to tell much about them, but there are men crowded around the door. One of them talks to a doctor, while the rest pour silently in.
It looks like they have guns.
I snatch up my phone from the bedside table. No bars.
Can I use something In this room? Don’t think so. I can’t call for help, and I definitely can’t fight them. I have to escape.
There’s no reason for them to be here for me, or for them to hurt me, but as the thought crosses my mind, I hear a shout, and, running back over to the window, I can see the doctor, his hands in plastic cuffs.
They drag him away, kicking and shouting, a black bag over his head.
I know the hospital’s layout pretty well, at least on this floor.
I can find my way back to the doctor’s office or down to the lobby easily. There are plenty of stairwells and elevators, as well as hiding places like toilets, closets and offices that are probably empty.
The door to my room is new, well-oiled, so it slides open without a sound. Still no sign of the men, whoever they are, in the corridor outside. I can hear something, though. Shouting, maybe, from a long way away; someone’s definitely upset about something.
Standing in the middle of the overnight wards is probably a bad idea. There aren’t very many emergencies near here, but this is still a hospital, and this is probably the most open floor.
I make for the closest stairwell, 3B, and try to step as quietly as I can. Things might be easier on some of these patients with gowns; my shoes are bound to make more noise. I might have to get rid of them unless I can find something to wrap them in.
There’s a crash, and the sound of breaking glass. Couldn’t be more than two floors down. They’re coming from the ground floor, up.
That should have been obvious. I must be panicking. Is this what it’s like? Not enjoying it so far.
I could go back, see if I could find somewhere to hide in the overnight wards, but there are only two floors above that, and I wouldn’t have enough time to escape before they started to come down again, I have to go ahead, and I have to do it before they come to me.
The stairwell’s bright and clean, like always, and through the glass of the outside wall I can see the silhouettes of more heavy black vehicles, growling in the lot.
Halfway down, I stop. There’s a cart here full of cleaning supplies, with no janitor to be found.
Mops, water, some chemical sprays. Probably useless. There’s a pair of heavy duty cleaning gloves under the biggest mop, so I take them and put them on as fast as I can.
I know this spot, there are a few corridors we always used to take from Caulder’s office to where I would spent the night, and as I round the corner I see what I’m looking for.
A dirty brown door, hanging slightly open. Inside, apart from shelves stocked with heavy duty cleaning supplies, is a boring gray oblong. A fuse box.
I test the gloves for a moment, wringing my hands, making a fist.
Realistically, there’s no way for me to know if they’ll protect me, but if I’m committed to being realistic then I would’ve given up already.
I reach into the box, and start pulling out as many wires as I can see. There are sparks for a second, then a far off crash, and darkness. It might not be the advantage I need, but at least I tried.
I ditch the gloves among the piles of soap, and step back out into the darkened hospital. Obviously, I can’t see in the dark; at least, not as well as I could normally, but neither can they. Unless they all have night vision goggles, which I wouldn’t rule out. In either case, what I really need now is a flashlight.
I can still see where I’m going, mostly. It’s bright outside, almost a full moon, and as I take another step forward, beams of light jump onto the wall to my right, and for a second I see silent shadows with raised, gesturing hands.
The next stairwell is too far. I need somewhere to hide.
The closest room is the children’s ward, so I step as quietly as I can through the opening. There are still a few patients here; most have just woken up from the power cut. There are more shadows on the wall, and light streams in from both sides of the ward. I can hear the rush of heavy footsteps in time.
I flatten against the wall by the door, and slide, as quietly as I can, under the bed.
All I can see are flashlight beams, dancing around the room, illuminating different scenes for moments at a time. Most kids get a second or two of crying before they’re cuffed, gagged, and on the floor.
I think a girl sees me, crawling along the ground. For just a second, our eyes meet, but a gloved hand catches her by the ankle, and drags her away, her eyes closed as tight as she can make them.
Two men kneel by her body, turning her face back and forth under a flashlight as they secure the plastic cuffs around her shaking wrists.
Another beam of light plays across them. Their uniforms are black, and heavy with pouches. Their faces are hidden behind plastic respirators, and tubes coil around their shoulders like snakes. There’s a patch on their shoulders, a two-masted ship in profile, sitting perfectly straight on a calm sea.
The lights roll away as the men heave the girl and the other children upright. One of them gives more hand signals and they stalk, single file, out the door.
This is not a bunch of criminals. This is some kind of professional operation. They might even work for the government. I should feel scared, but I don’t anymore.
In the empty children’s ward, I have time to think. I always knew something was happening behind the scenes, but ultimately, I’m still rational. The possibility had occurred to me that I was just a paranoid schizophrenic.
I’m certain it’s never been more reassuring to be hunted by anonymous kidnap squads.
Now that particular epiphany’s been dealt with, it’s time to focus more on my current situation. The flashlights have faded, along with the rustle of equipment and weapons. If I’m going to move, it has to be now. There are a few ways down to ground level, but only one has a good view, so I pick myself up from under the bed, and go on my way as quietly as I can.
The corridors, dark and deserted, are surprisingly recognizable, and the window by the stairwell lets in just enough moonlight for me to skirt the edge.
The situation out front is pretty similar to all the other angles I’d seen, crowds of big, brick shaped cars, with one key difference.
Further back, near the road, are police cruisers, just sitting there, lights flashing. I think I can even make out a few officers leaning on the hoods of their cars, trying to get a better view of what’s going on in here.
There’s a creak behind me, and the beam of a flashlight sweeps over my back.
They’ll be here in seconds, the stairwell and corridors to my left and right are empty; my hand runs over the window’s catch, and it slides open. I stand outside, in the cold, balancing on a gutter, and try to close the window as quietly as I can.
Pressing my back to the outside of the hospital’s walls, I can just hear the men go by. I’m not high up enough to be seriously injured, but falling now would probably really hurt. I don’t know if it’s my balance or the wind, but something nudges me, and my hand shoots out, grabbing a drain pipe, and I’m steady again.
My breath starts to come back. Slowly. I used to get nausea looking out windows higher than my bedroom.
I can see flashlight beams, lots of them. Now that my eyes are adjusted to the dark, there are slivers of light shining from every window on every floor. I have nowhere to go, but for the moment, I’m in comparatively little danger, so I just watch, to confirm my suspicions.
Some lights are linear; they move up to the top, and then down. Some seem to do circuits of the same floor, while others go up and down between floor two and floor four. There are a few irregularities; lights around the clinic entrance, probably leading the people they’ve “arrested” into custody. The police don’t seem to be involved, except as spectators.
This pattern is an intelligent one, I’m pretty certain of that. Finding a flaw should just be a question of working out what the pattern is for, shouldn’t it?
They probably told the local police otherwise, but they’re almost certainly here to capture someone, hopefully not me. If I was in charge of this, I’d just call in a bomb threat, probably of a really specific kind, and be there to offer the police help when they realize they don’t have the people or equipment to deal with it.
It wouldn’t be hard; around here the police don’t deal with much other than parking tickets and speeders.
I’m not sure how that can help me, but there is something else; the ambulance bay. I can just see the tip of the ramp from here, and since it leads out into the road, there are exactly zero vehicles around it, police or otherwise. If I can get there, I won’t even have to involve the police; I could walk home.
They can’t be that stupid. Whoever’s directing the search pattern is smart, but would they really leave the ambulance bay under guarded as a trap?
I don’t know, but I can’t stop now after coming this far.
Stepping back through the window into the hospital’s cold corridor, I can see the route I need to take.
The soldiers, if that’s what they are, have gone up, and from the pattern I saw outside, there should be no one between me and freedom.
Ahead’s the next stairwell, completely dark, and around the final corner, I can see the door to the garage. I’ve never been in there. Actually, I probably have a few times, I just wasn’t conscious.
It should be easy to choose to open this door, but my hand, an inch from the handle, is hesitating. It’s the same feeling from before, a cold breath on my neck, but there’s nowhere else to go.
I wrap my hand around the handle, and ease the door open as quietly as I can.
Kneeling against the ajar door, I can hear voices, but not clearly enough to tell what they’re saying.
The garage is crowded, though; too many footsteps.
From here, I can see about half the room. The ramp leading down to the ambulance, the open gate, and some piles of stretchers and medical supplies. It’s completely dark, apart from the distant rays of street lights filtering in past the ambulance. Somewhere on the wall I can’t see is a light source, and since I hear but don’t see people, I’m going to assume that’s where they’re standing.
I test the floor; it changes from plastic tile to concrete at the threshold. Not really ideal. I lay flat on the ground, and try to crawl, as slowly as possible, on elbows and knees. The railings on the ramp to the ambulance, combined with the darkness, should keep me hidden, as long as the people in here keep talking, I might even be able to listen in.
It feels as if my heart should be beating out of my chest, whatever that means, but to be honest, I think I’d prefer that. What it actually feels like, as the ambulance inches closer, is freezing to death in a blizzard. Each time my heart beats, there’s a second of suspense as I wait for the next one.
I can’t stand up. It’s too low, they’ll see me. I’ll have to crawl all the way.
“All teams, reporting in for the fifth sweep.”
I want to turn on my side, watch them, but I can see enough in my peripheral vision. Five men, standing in a group, one holds a small light, strapped to the forest of pouches and armor on his chest. The others peer into a variety of equipment, propped up on black plastic legs or resting on piles of bags and boxes.
The ambulance’s tire is by my hand. The back of my neck hasn’t stopped itching.
It’s getting worse, in fact.
“It may be time to consider the possibility we were misinformed. Should’ve brought dogs.”
I’m under the ambulance now. Five feet to go. I turn on my side, to watch them.
“She’s not here. How is she not here?”
Leaning against the far rail is a man with the proportions of a spider monkey, equipment hanging off him like autumn leaves on a tree. He’s looking right at me.
The door I’d left ajar creaks, and the stairwell behind me groans. Above me, I can feel the ambulance humming. I have no room to look back, but I can hear something heavy step into the room.
“Anything?” He doesn’t take his eyes off me as he asks the question. I don’t hear a response. He shakes his head, and speaks into something at the collar of his armor. “All teams, this is Giant 1, we’re aborting. Blue and green escort Giant 2 back to base. Red are with me, we’ll be appeasing the locals, over.”
I can hear a chorus of assents through the radio, and as all their backs are turned, I crawl as fast as I can through the distance that separates the ambulance from the road.
I can see the empty street, just beyond.
They were looking for me.
I know, because I recognize the man, his wild hair and monkey proportions. He’s standing right next to Cooper in the photograph he gave me.
Tonight is the one night I’m grateful they always leave the door unlocked.
It’s a matter of principle, apparently.
There’s only a few hours until dawn. No reason for them to be awake, or for me to be quiet, but I will anyway.
My heart’s starting to go back to normal, and my body’s warming up. I might be fine, or I might start to suffer from fatigue or trauma.
Anyone else would, so I need to make my next move fast. Standing in the empty kitchen, watching the single neglected light, still on by the coffee-maker, things start to come into focus. This is my last night in this house. Maybe ever. Hopefully ever.
I’ve been keeping my things in bags for months, ready to go any time, so that won’t be an issue, but there are some loose ends I need to tie up if I don’t want this to turn into a missing person case and give the authorities an excuse to come after me.
Not that it seems like they need one.
She shuffles into the sudden pool of light behind me. “The hospital was on the news. I called.” She’s wearing a robe, and holding an empty mug in her hand.
If she’s lying, she’s made it look convincing. But then, if she is lying to me, she has lots of experience.
“What did the news say?” I ask her.
“It doesn’t matter, something about a bomb.” She puts her mug down and starts to walk towards me “You okay?”
“Did you just get back? You said on the phone that you’d be there all night.”
She’s close now, and between me and the attic.
“The doctor said the results would be late, because of-” I have no way of knowing how local news is reporting things, and it’s probably safer not to guess. “-what happened, so I thought I should just come home.”
“Well I’m glad you did, young lady.” She puts her hands on her hips, as if pretending to be serious makes her more personable. “We really didn’t finish our last conversation, did we?” The stairs are clear, but she’ll follow me up.
“No.” Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not scared of saying goodbye, but my foster mother’s always done her best to accommodate me. Not always easy, I don’t want to upset her.
I think I owe her an explanation.
“Well, I for one am glad we got this chance to talk things out while your father’s still snoring away,” she says. My arms and legs are a little sore, not surprising. My elbows and knees ache more. Again, not surprising. “I know that Truman Academy sounds scary, I mean, it’s a long way away, and you have a hard enough time making friends as it is.”
I can’t help but take inventory of everything I need. It’s almost frustrating to know that it’s all prepared upstairs, ready to go. I nod along to her pitch. If she stayed up all night, she can only talk for so long. “But the fact is that it’s just so much better than what we can afford for you, and they have all sorts of facilities for things like your condition, and you’ve been on the waiting list for so long that-”
“Your father didn’t tell you?” She sighs.“Well, I’m not surprised. We both agreed we wouldn’t, in case you didn’t get in.”
“How long was I on this list?” I ask her, mentally counting the steps. Not that I don’t already know the number.
“Well, I’m not sure.” She stumbles back out into the living room, turning down the volume on the news. I could just go. “It must be years now.” It sounds like she chuckles to herself a little. “It was maybe two years ago, yes, I remember,” she says. “The agency recommended it to us, called us up, in fact. They were worried about your options for higher education because of the-” She waves her hand back and forth in front of her face. “-you know. I can never say it right.”
“Go on.” I tell her. She wouldn’t tell me this if she were part of it; at least, that’s my instinct, but I have no idea what its goals are or what scale it is. Either way, this is useful information.
“There’s not much more to it,” she sighs. “It’s supposed to be an elite private school, for people with disabilities like yours, so-”
I don’t have all the information, but it seems like this happened around the same time Cooper left. I can’t take the risk that this is all a coincidence.
Even when we still talked, Cooper never said where he was. Once, when I pressed him, he said he wasn’t allowed to. I know for a fact he complained about the cold, and he mentioned working by an airstrip more than once after I asked about some engines I heard.
“You said it was in Alaska, right?” I ask her, “can you be more specific?”
“I think so. I could look it up. Why?”
“I-” How much can I tell her? “-I was just looking at the map, wondering where it was.”
“An island, I think. Down the side of Canada,” she says. “Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind? I think it’s too late, the deadline for registration was up yesterday.”
Have I? It’s starting to sound like I should. It’s also starting to sound like someone very badly wants me to go there, to the point of dispatching a team of professionals to retrieve me.
I know, I’m jumping to conclusions. They’re all I’ve got.
“Can you call them? Truman.”
“Oh, I think so.” She sifts through a pile of papers by the phone. “Why?”
“You’re right. You convinced me, I should go.” She runs a hand down the seam of her robe. She likes to touch things when she doesn’t know what to say.
“Well, it might be too late now, it’s been-”
“Alaska, right?” I think she’s staring, but her hand is near the phone.
“It’s supposed to be very private, they didn’t say. You’re just supposed to get there from an airport on the coast and then-”
I don’t like not knowing. You’ve probably learned that about me already. It’s also not in my nature to do what other people tell me to. You probably figured that out as well. I would rather do almost anything rather than not know something, or do what someone else tells me without knowing why.
So that’s why I’m going. I didn’t like the idea of hitchhiking anyway.
I take her hand, and put it on the phone.
“I thought I was on a list. You want me to go, right?”
“Of course. You’ll have to get there-”
“Tomorrow. No time to stop to sleep or eat. I’ll be fine.”
“But your father-”
“No time to argue, either. I’ll get my things.” I step up the stairs before she can interrupt. If word about what happened at the hospital gets out she might overreact. They’ll probably try to keep it quiet, but I can’t take the risk. I need to be gone before then.
I’ve been planning this for so long, it feels like an anticlimax. Everything I need fits in one gym bag. I pull it out of the closet, swap out some clothes and head back downstairs. I hear the click of the phone landing back in its cradle.
“They were surprised,” she says, “but there’s a cab on its way. It should be okay as long as you take this.” She hands me the scholarship letter. “Should I wake up your father or-”
“No. ” I head for the door. I won’t have time to eat on the way, so I’ll probably be exhausted once I arrive.
“Hildy.” Her hand’s on my shoulder. “Please don’t shut me out. I know-” she chokes. “I know we don’t really understand each other, but-”
I know that something needs to be said to comfort her. This is exactly what I wanted to avoid.
“I-” My hand pats my pocket. “I have my phone.” She looks down at it. “You can call me. Even on the way.” I think it works. She touches me on the wrist and her breathing slows.
“Promise you won’t turn it off.”
“And promise you’ll call when you get there.”
“Absolutely.” The door opens under my hand. I can hear the hum of an approaching engine.
“All right.” She hugs me, pulls back, and faces me. “I’d tell you to stay safe, but you’re so much stronger lately. I know you’ll be fine.”
“Thank you,” I say to her. She laughs at me.
“I know you’re not great with words, Hildy. Go on, go.” The taxi’s horn blares.
There are things I want to tell her. I’m grateful for her. I’m sorry I can’t trust her.
I’m sure Cooper would think of something to say.
As is, I have to sit and watch her as we pull away. I’m going to force this to be worth it.