My eyes fly open, and I sit up in bed, my heart pounding furiously. I am in a plain white room, with a white desk and a white chair. My mind is unclear for a moment, and then I remember.
I’m a cheater. I go to a secret school at a society where the students learn how to cheat and lie to gain advantage of the things that come in their way. Every morning, we are split up to go to different schools, and bring out our skills. When school ends, we go back to the society, and report our progress. Then, by the next morning, our skills are polished, and we go back to school.
We spend time at home over the weekends. Our parents have absolutely no idea what is going on. I wish I could tell mine, but the society instructs us against that, and I get the feeling that something bad could happen to them if I did tell them. The society has a mild sedative for everyone’s parents over the weekdays, to dull their senses so they won’t figure out what we’re really doing.
The society is called Hemlock.
I can’t seem to place that voice. It keeps ringing in my mind. I try to hum an annoying tune, but the voice saying that one word keeps coming back, like a song stuck in my head.
I should probably get ready. It’s 5:30, and I will leave for school at 7:45. I have plenty of time to take a shower, eat breakfast, mingle with the other students, then gather my things to go to school.
School. I go to school at West High School, along with three other students here at Hemlock: Katherine, Lucas, and Jaden. I spend more time with them than with anybody else. Jaden and I are mostly in the same classes, as are Lucas and Katherine. We don’t spend much time together at school, so we usually do here.
I fall out of bed, and go to the room across the hall to take a shower. Afterwards, my senses heightened, I go to the cafeteria to have a smoothie.
The cafeteria is managed almost entirely by the students. I meet Lucas and Jaden there, then we plop down at a table in the corner, soon joined by Katherine, who has a slice of toast with raspberry jam.
“Ready for school?” says Jaden, with false enthusiasm. “I bet we’ll learn a lot today.”
The four of us seem to take the cheating process as a joke, but we cooperate as instructed. We all oppose the cause, not seeing the point, but it’s still fun to hang around the society.
When we’re all done talking around the breakfast table, we all go to Katherine’s room to have coffee and play card games. The great thing about being here is that everything is provided; we don’t have to pay for anything. Drinking coffee in the morning is just to help us be alert when we’re at school. If we ever get caught cheating in school, then we are permanently disqualified from the society. Naturally, we don’t want to be disqualified. There’s the dissatisfaction, and there’s the fact that when somebody is disqualified, they don’t leave. They are kept at Hemlock for the rest of their lives. The luckiest ones are free to leave, but are tracked at all times. Some people can become employees. Most are kept prisoner.
“Are these rooms monitored?” asks Lucas.
Katherine shrugs. “Probably. But even if they are, I bet nobody ever watches us. Why?”
Lucas takes a deep breath, taking a quick glance around the corners of the room. “I think it’s time to leave.” We all look at him. “You know you’ve been thinking the same thing. Since we can’t leave from here, we’re going to have to leave from school. We have the busiest, most crowded school of them all, so if any footsteps are detected by the hemlock underground, they could be anybody’s. I bet the people that work here won’t notice a thing.”
“Alright,” says Jaden, uncertainly, “but we’re going to have to have a plan.”
“You or Fern are going to have to send some message to Katherine and me. Just show up at our classroom. Then we’ll know it’s time to leave.”
“We’ll need a place to meet up,” says Katherine.
“The library just north of the school,” I say. “Marmalade. If any of us get caught, we can make an excuse, like we were going to go check out a book or something. Just look like you belong there, and you’re doing nothing out of the ordinary.”
When it’s time to go to school, the four of us casually stroll out of the Hemlock building, which is disguised as a coffee shop that’s out of business. Most of the building is actually underground, where the actual hemlock lurks. The area around the building and all of the different schools has hemlock underneath it, to spring out at any unusual behavior going on.
We reach the school pretty early, but there are already many students there. Actual students. The four of us from Hemlock are dressed to blend in with the crowd. We bid each other goodbye, then drift off to our first classes.
The tension is unbearable.
I spend the first few hours at school burning with anticipation. I know I have to be patient, but I am terrible at that. Finally, I find myself in a class with Jaden, and I know that right now, Katherine and Lucas are also in the same class.
“It’s time to go,” I signal to Jaden, when the teacher’s back it turned. He nods, then raises his hand.
“Yes?” asks the teacher, Dr. Stradley.
“May I use the restroom?” asks Jaden, in his best voice.
“I don’t see why not,” replies Dr. Stradley, turning back to face the board.
Jaden nods and hurries from the room. Nobody seems to notice the book tucked under one arm. He’s going to use it to pretend that it belongs to Lucas. That will be the signal to leave. After that, Jaden will walk to the library, and pretend like he’s browsing for books in the Young Adults section. Next will be Katherine. She will make an excuse to leave, then go the the library, and meet up with Jaden.
Dr. Stradley turns to face the class. He’s talking about the Periodic Table of Elements.
“Fern,” he calls, and beckons me to the front of the classroom.
My head whips up. “Yeah?” I stumble out of my desk, and walk up to him. He holds out a hat. It is filled with small, white strips of paper.
“Pick an element.”
I uncertainly reach down into the hat and select a piece of paper. “Copper.”
“State everything you know about that element,” says Dr. Stradley.
“Okay, um…” I’m about to say something, but then Katherine comes to the classroom and knocks on the door.
“Hi,” she says. “I think this book belongs to Fern.” she holds out the book.
“Oh, thanks,” I reply, then take the book. Katherine winks at me, then leaves the room.
I return to the front of the room. “Copper,” I repeat, then desperately search my thoughts for what I know. I am surprised to learn that I know more than I think. “Number twenty-nine in the Periodic Table, atomic mass 63.55, Cu, the Statue of Liberty, and pennies.”
Dr. Stradley looks at me. “I’ll accept that. You may be seated.”
“May I use the restroom?”
Dr. Stradley shrugs. “Wait until Jaden gets back.”
“Okay,” I manage, and sit back down at my seat.
What am I going to do? I guess I’ll have to pretend that I really need to go, and just sneak out while Dr. Stradley’s back is turned. If Jaden is gone too long, then the teacher will get suspicious and go looking for him. If Lucas and I don’t show up at the library soon, then they might get suspicious and start looking for us. Lucas might have already gone by now. So I guess I’ll just sneak out of the classroom when Dr. Stradley isn’t looking.
The opportunity comes soon. I can tell that the teacher is about to write something long on the board, so I scoot out my chair, and prepare to depart. I’m in a seat in the back of the classroom, so not many people notice when I casually walk out of my chair and head toward the door. Nobody really notices anyway.
I’m about to walk out of the classroom, when Dr. Stradley turns around. “Fern, where are you going?”
My confidence wanes. “The bathroom.”
“Why didn’t you ask before attempting to leave?”
“And I said no. Get back to your seat and stay there until Jaden gets back.” Dr. Stradley keeps his eyes on me until I slowly make my way toward my seat. I didn’t think the teachers even noticed their students that much, with all of the different classes that they get. I sigh in defeat. How am I ever going to get through this?
Suddenly, Lucas appears at the doorway, but he somehow doesn’t look like a student. He casually walks into the classroom. “Dr. Stradley?” he asks. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Dr. Stradley, flustered, steps back. “Okay,” he says. “Everyone just sit still.”
Lucas walks over to a position in the classroom so that whey Dr. Stradley is looking at him, he can’t see me at all. I wait a few seconds, just to make sure that Lucas is handling him properly, then I quietly get up and leave the classroom. I walk as quickly as possible, and I don’t run into any trouble. Soon, I am out of the building, and head over to the library, trying to look as much like a diligent student as possible. When I reach the library, I take my time, browsing over the different sections before reaching the Young Adults section. As promised, Katherine is there, along with Jaden. They sigh in relief when they see me. “We thought you would never come,” says Katherine.
“So did I,” I said, “until Lucas came to my classroom and saved the day.”
“Was Dr. Stradley giving you trouble?” asks Jaden. I nod.
“Lucas should be here any minute. I left him talking to Dr. Stradley, and pretending to be an employee or something.”
We wait for about five minutes, then Lucas comes strolling in and quickly makes his way to us. He looks like himself again. “Hi,” he says. “We’d better leave. Dr. Stradley is getting very suspicious by now.”
“How did you do that?” I ask. “Make yourself look older.”
“I went to the bathroom, and rearranged my hair a little. Everything else was just about the way I held myself, and how I talked.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I thought I was dead.”
As a group, we make our way to the back entrance of the library. “So,” says Jaden, “where are we going to go?”
“I’m a long way from home,” says Katherine. “We couldn’t possibly walk.”
“Well,” says Lucas, “let’s just start walking, and see where we get.” So we start walking, away from the school, away from Hemlock.
Suddenly, I stumble over a root. “You okay?” asks Katherine. Then she also stumbles. Jaden drops to the ground, tugging at something around his foot.
“It’s the hemlock underground,” he says. “They found us.” Now Lucas is also on the ground. I hear a car pull up behind us.
I look down at my feet, and see thin green vines encircling them. I crouch, and try to snap them off, but they are too strong. The vines suddenly go slack. “Get up,” says a low voice behind me. I slowly stand up and turn around, stepping out of the vines. Lucas, Jaden, and Katherine are doing the same. There are three people standing in front of us. I recognize the man who spoke. His name is Jacob. He works for Hemlock.
They lead us into a silver car, and we are driven back to the coffee shop which houses Hemlock. We all step inside, and Jacob and the others lead us back to a room with many comfortable chairs. Lucas, Jaden, Katherine, and I all squeeze together on a large couch. The three people who caught us sit down in separate chairs across from the couch. “Well?” asks Jacob, in a smooth voice.
Jaden speaks up. “We just went to the library for a break, and were walking back to the school.”
“Keep in mind,” says Jacob, “we’re the ones who taught you how to lie so well. Even so, it was rather obvious that you were walking away from the school. We had been watching you for some time. It’s in you're shoes.”
“What’s in our shoes?” asks Katherine.
“The tracker,” says Jacob, as if surprised that she didn’t know. I put my head in my hands. We’ve been tracked all this time? Of course, knowing Hemlock, I shouldn’t be surprised.
“It was my idea,” says Lucas. “Just saying, so that if you want to punish us, then you should at least know that Jaden, Katherine, and Fern were just doing what I suggested.”
“Punish you?” says Jacob, as if that was a whole new idea. “No, Lucas, we would not punish you. In fact, you did an excellent job. You really are a wonderful actor. Almost had Dr. Stradley fooled.”
“Dr. Stradley?” I ask. “What about him?”
“My dear, Dr. Stradley is part of Hemlock. You had to be assigned to classes with Hemlock employees, otherwise we would never know if there was anything funny going on.”
“Why can’t you just let us go?” I ask. “We’re of no use to you, anyway.”
“No use?” says Jacob. “Of all the students, you four are by far the most promising. You could be of incredible use.”
“What’s the point, anyway?” asks Lucas. “What are you accomplishing with this? I can’t think of any good reason that Hemlock exists.”
The woman in one of the other chairs speaks up. “We had a rival. An anti-cheating society. There was somebody who opposed that society entirely, so she founded Hemlock. She was the one who built the program, infested the grounds with hemlock, and recruited the first students.”
“That’s kind of a dumb reason,” says Jaden. Katherine snickers. “I mean, seriously,” he continues, “this lady didn’t like someone, so she made something in opposition of what they liked.”
Jacob sighs. “I didn’t expect you to understand.” I hate it when people say that.
“So, what are we going to do?” I ask. “Just stay here? We can’t, after what we just did. Don’t you see that we’d rather be home, with our parents, living an honest life?”
“We can’t let anybody leave,” says Jacob. “Nobody knows about Hemlock, and if anybody did, they would want to stop it. So you’re going to stay here, and cooperate.” The three of them leave the room.
“What are we going to do?” asks Katherine, once we’re alone.
Jaden answers. “We’re going to stay here, just like they said.”
“We’ll have another opportunity to leave. When it comes, we’ll take it,” says Lucas.
Somehow, I don’t want to leave Hemlock. I hate this society, but learning these skills could be useful. I feel powerful, with the things I have learned here. Looking at Lucas, Katherine, and Jaden, I feel like they are true of heart, filled with honesty and integrity. I feel detached from the group. I feel like I’m the only one
“Well,” I say, “at least we know how to cheat.”