August 30, 2014

Adventures in Genre-Hopping: The Chapter that Didn't Make It

Chapter 1

My braids flopped against my back, collecting the snow that fell thick around me. The icy air moved in gusts, chilling my cheeks and the inside of my nose as I breathed. Montana winters were brutal, and I missed Florida.

I thought about turning around and calling for a ride home, but I was pretty sure I was already past the halfway point. The long dirt road stretched ahead of me, lost in the blanket of white. The grassy fields to my right had already been swallowed by the storm. I couldn’t even see the barbed wire fence that ran alongside the road. Things were getting bad.

To my left, the outlines of pine trees, bending in the wind, slapped against each other. I pulled my winter coat tighter around me, imagining that the sunny-colored outer layer would somehow summon the Florida heat. No luck. I picked up the pace. Jogging home would keep me warm and get me there faster, even if the snow clung to my jeans like sand from the beach. Cold, numbing sand.

I sniffed twice, between breaths. My nose ached from the cold and wouldn’t stop running. Meg had offered me a ride, and I hadn’t taken it. Why? Because I’m an idiot. “No thanks,” I’d said. “I’ll be fine.”

I’m stubborn, and admitting that I needed a ride would have made me look silly, because I’d left my car at home. And why hadn’t I driven myself to school? Because apparently, I like to stretch my legs, even when blizzards blot out the sun like it’s Armageddon.

I reached into my coat pockets to pull out the thick, yellow and white mittens my grandma had made for me. “Because, come winter, you’ll want them.”

I’d liked the colors. I’d liked how soft they were. But in my mind, the only time you wore mittens was when you were seven years old, building snowmen in your backyard. But as my red, numb fingers dug around in the gaping pockets, I only found one. One mitten. The other must have fallen out of my pocket in the last twenty minutes. I stared at the left mitten and sighed. No sense in searching for a white and yellow mitten when I couldn’t even see five yards in front of me. I shoved my left hand into the mitten and tucked my right hand under my left armpit. Both my hands were still cold. The wind howled in my ears, laughing at me because I was lost.

Was it time for a do-over?

When I lifted my gaze, I had to squint against the hard pellets that stung my face. I couldn’t see a thing. Everything in front of me was just an empty, white void. I pushed forward, but I didn’t even know if I was still on the road anymore.

The storm blinded me, wrapping me in that wool fleece and pulling it tighter and tighter. The wind sucked the breath from my lungs. The edge of panic pressed against me and I inhaled, filling my lungs, to remind myself that I could. Several hard pellets of ice flew into my mouth, making me choke. I coughed and sputtered, wetting my chapped lips with spit that evaporated quickly.

My coat wasn’t warm anymore. The fluffy white lining didn’t stand a chance as another blast of wind pushed through, chilling my skin. I reached out with one cold hand in the mitten, the other numb and bare. The swirling white threatened to devour the tips of my fingers.

Yeah, I needed a do-over. I’d have to be careful not to go too far back, so I didn’t just suddenly disappear from campus. But I’d been alone on this road for a while. And sure, I’d still be halfway between school and my house, but at least the storm wouldn’t be as bad. I could get home before the blizzard blotted everything out.

Out of habit, I turned around, searching the blankness around me for anyone who might be watching. Not that they would remember seeing me after the do-over. It’s just that, when you’re about to do something that’s supposed to be a secret, you want to feel like you’re not being watched.

But that’s when I saw them. Up ahead, two cirlcles of bluish light appeared. Still hazy in the thick air, they grew larger and floated farther apart from each other. Realizing they were headlights, I stumbled toward them, my pant legs dragging through more fresh snow. My toes, nose, and the tips of my ears throbbed with cold. I sniffed once and kept moving. The lights were closer now.

Do-overs were to be used sparingly. Maybe I wouldn’t have to use one after all.

A fuzzy gray rectangle materialized around the balls of light—a slow-moving, black sedan. As I got closer, the car stopped, the engine barely rumbling over the whining storm. Somehow, the driver had seen me.

I ran to the passenger’s side of the sleek, luxury sedan and tapped on the window with my bare knuckle. It hurt more than I’d expected. As the window lowered, I shook the pain out of my hand. Inside the car, a woman with neat, blond hair and red lipstick smiled at me. “Need a lift?”

I nodded eagerly and tugged on the door handle. As I climbed in, the window hummed back up, shutting out the flurries behind me. I closed the door and hoped the woman wouldn’t ask why I’d been outside during a blizzard.

The leather seat was already warm and the snow that clung to my clothes immediately started to melt. A huge clump of soggy snow dripped onto the car’s expensive-looking interior. I wiped at it with my sleeve and hoped the woman hadn’t noticed. She wore a navy blue women’s business suit, with a white, pressed collar jutting out at a sharp angle. Her nails were perfectly manicured and she drove easily through the storm. Even her smile looked expensive.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said, not sure if I should say something else.

“Not a problem,” said a voice from the back seat. I turned and saw another woman, also in fashionable business attire, smiling at me. Her eyes were chocolatey brown and her black hair hung around her shoulders in perfect waves. I touched my own hair and felt a frizzy puffball of curls that had escaped from my braids.

“I’m Agent Walsh,” said the blond. She pointed a long finger toward the back seat. “That’s Agent Tamarin.”

The car hummed along. I had no idea how Agent Walsh was able to drive when she couldn’t see. A solid sheet of white blotted out the view from the windshield, even with the wipers going full-speed. Judging from the gadgets on the dash, though, it looked like the car could pretty much drive itself.

“You’re agents?” I asked. This part of town didn’t seem big enough for more than a few cops. The university was where the rowdy crowd went on weekends. But the rural homes kept pretty quiet.

Agent Walsh laughed in a few, short bursts. “No, Kassidy. We work for a government agency. The DOST.”

I was about to ask what DOST stood for, but I realized something she’d said was off. Another clump of melting snow slid off the bottom of my jeans and plopped in the puddle I was making. But I’d stopped caring about the car. “I’m sure there’s a good explanation for how you know my name.”

Agent Walsh’s eyes flicked up to the rear-view mirror and she gave a slight nod. Behind me, Agent Tamarin leaned forward and smiled. She wore very little makeup and had a pretty face. Her eyes wrinkled at the corners when she smiled, but she couldn’t have been more than thirty-five years old. “We didn’t meet by accident, Kassidy. Actually, we were hoping to meet you soon.”

I tried to think about all the things I’d done wrong in the last few years—making laxative brownies for an insane Spanish teacher, painting my German Shepherd pink for Halloween, sneaking into the culinary arts classroom with Meg to make afternoon snacks after detention (that we’d gotten for the brownies). None of it seemed like enough to send two agents after me.

The screen below the car’s satellite radio showed a pulsing red dot, typical for GPS. But in the center of that red pulse, an even smaller, green dot blinked in time with my racing heart. Was that me?

I tore my eyes from the screen, trying to remember to make eye contact. I didn’t want to look guilty or anything. “Am I in trouble?”

Maybe I would need that do-over after all.

Agent Walsh tilted her chin and gave me a sideways glance. “How would like to get out of going to high school?”

I frowned and tried to let my genuine confusion show. “School’s already out. I don’t have to be back until Monday.”

Agent Tamarin’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “No, Kassidy. What if you never went back?”

Agent Walsh pressed her ruby red lips together, then smiled at me like a well-fed cat. “We could get you all the paperwork that you need to be able to say that you’re a high school student. We’ve set up a sort of ‘private school’ that doesn’t exist. If anyone asks, you got a scholarship and you’re having a great time attending a school on the opposite end of town.”

She winked at me, like this was everyday mischief for girls my age.

“You mean, I don’t have to go to a real school, you would just tell people I was going to your fake school?”

Agent Walsh nodded as she clicked the heat dial up another notch. The warmth was just beginning to get through my boots, brushing against my toes.

It was every kid’s dream to ditch school with no consequences. But I was a good student. Sure, I was bad at math, but I really liked my history class. “What would I do instead? And why would you want to do that for me?”

The wind whooshed outside, rocking the car slightly in the wind as the engine barely vibrated. The rubbery squeak of the wipers kept their rhythm, but I still couldn’t see anything through the windows. Agent Walsh opened her mouth, as if to say something, but stopped herself. Agent Tamarin spoke instead.

“We’d like to train you to work in our department, Kassidy, starting as soon as you’re ready. You would work for us, but you wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what you were really doing. You’d have to lie, Kassidy. Are you alright with that?”

I stared at the one mitten I still had, the chevron stripes pointing both at me and the front windshield. “Why me?” I asked. “I mean, you said you’ve been looking for me. Why? There are hundreds of kids at my school.”

Agent Tamarin nodded. “We thought you might ask that. We’ve been gathering data on a lot of teens in the area. The agency wants younger recruits, so we’ve been looking for youth that have an affinity for history and books. And someone who does have some interests outside of school. We understand that you’ve been taking karate classes on weekends.”

I nodded and tried not to be bothered by the amount of information they knew about me. “So you want me to be a secret agent?”

Agent Walsh turned her head, nodding eagerly at me. “Exactly! That’s exactly what you’d be doing. Working for the United States government, but pretending to be a high school student.”

Her blue eyes sparkled under high-arching eyebrows. She seemed really passionate about her work. But she kept watching me, and I could feel her measuring my reaction.

I cleared my throat and pointed out at the swirling flurries ahead. “Shouldn’t you be watching the road?”

The blond woman blinked twice, then shook her head like she was explaining something obvious. “We’re already at your house, Kassidy.”

Agent Tamarin leaned in, touching my arm lightly. “You should think it over, but you need to understand something before you go inside.”

Her eyes flicked to Agent Walsh before she continued. “You mustn’t speak to your dad about this conversation. He can’t know you’ve met us.”

“Wait. What?” I shook my head. “Are you joking?”

That meant I couldn’t tell Meg anything, either. Lying to strangers on the street was one thing. Making up a phony story to my other friends and then meeting up with them after school would be tough, but I might be able to pull it off. But between Dad and Meg, I didn’t have any secrets. I told Dad almost everything, and Meg knew the rest. Dad and I had moved here to be close to my grandma, but I’d left a life behind in Florida. Not a perfect life, but I’d gone to elementary school and middle school, and then my first year of high school with the same people. The only person I took with me to Montana was Dad. Meg had been that instant friend, where everything clicked. She was the kind of friend who read my mind, who knew what I was thinking without me saying it. We did everything together. We were practically sisters, even though we’d only met a few months ago.

Agent Tamarin handed a business card to me. I took it without reading the words, still trying to work my mind through a scenario where I could do this. How could I lie to both Dad and Meg every day about what I was doing? Was it even worth it?

“Give it some thought, and call us when you’re ready.” Agent Tamarin smiled again, pushing silky black hair behind her ear. “We could really use a young, bright mind like yours, working for the good guys.”

I shoved the business card into my coat pocket. Not wanting to be impolite, I nodded, then hoped they wouldn’t take that as me agreeing to call them. “Thanks for the ride.”

Then I looked at Agent Walsh. She was smiling, reminding me of the mom I couldn’t quite remember. She’d been blond, too. “Take care, Kassidy.”

I opened the car door and stepped out into the chaos that pelted my cheeks with sharp wind. I pulled my coat closer around me and looked fibmmjor the front step of our house. I closed the car door behind me, saying a wistful goodbye to the heated seats and lovely climate control. I marched toward the house-like shape ahead of me, wondering how on earth Agent Walsh had been able to drive me so close to my front door, when I could barely see it from here.

No comments:

.i2Style{ font:bold 24px Tahoma, Geneva, sans-serif; font-style:normal; color:#ffffff; background:#67b310; border:0px none #ffffff; text-shadow:0px -1px 1px #222222; box-shadow:2px 2px 5px #000000; -moz-box-shadow:2px 2px 5px #000000; -webkit-box-shadow:2px 2px 5px #000000; border-radius:90px 10px 90px 10px; -moz-border-radius:90px 10px 90px 10px; -webkit-border-radius:90px 10px 90px 10px; width:96px; padding:20px 43px; cursor:pointer; margin:0 auto; } .i2Style:active{ cursor:pointer; position:relative; top:2px; }