Author's note: This a camp NaNoWriMo novel.
1I was sitting at the counter eating dinner, alone, when the door opened. It was Wednesday, which typically meant that my father went out to play poker with his friends and my mother taught a class for geniuses. Both of my younger siblings, Jack and Molly, stayed late at the complex on Wednesdays for additional sessions.
The person walked through our home like they belonged, their footsteps echoing through the hallway that led to the dining room. More than anything, I wanted to slip beyond the other side of the counter and hide. But I resisted the urge as the footsteps loomed closer and closer to the kitchen doorway.
When they stopped, I knew that whomever they belonged to had seen me. How embarrassing, that I was sitting at the counter and eating dinner in my giant house all alone, and didn’t even have the guts to greet them. But no matter what I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to look up at the newcomer.
A teapot that I had placed on the stovetop before began to squeal, but the person still didn’t move. I desperately wanted just to stop the screaming gadget, but in order to do that I would have to look up. When I did, he moved gingerly and switched off the burner. I recognized him immediately and felt even more foolish, especially that he was standing in my kitchen and I was being an idiot.
“Max Neekan?” I could almost hear the hostility in my own voice as the words poured out. “What the hell are you doing in this house?”
“I didn’t realize you worked out here too, Harley. Don’t be mad, I just came to drop off an application. This is the Vincent home, right?” He flashed me a standard smile and placed a stack of papers onto the countertop. Then, Max set the pot of hot water onto the granite and waited for me to take it.
But nothing from him was anything I was wanted to take, so I ignored the steamy accent of the air in front of me. “Yeah, you’re in the right place. I actually spend most of my time here.”
Max eased his elbows onto the flat surface and looked at me through his round, blue eyes. “I’m hoping it’ll be like that for me, too.”
“Oh god no.”
“Because I actually enjoy it here sometimes.”
He leaned back, rolled his eyes, and then straightened up. I thought for a moment that I had successfully offended him, but then I realized he was just leaving. Words I shot at him didn’t harm him at all. I returned to my dinner as his footsteps receded, twirling the spaghetti I had made.
“Bye Harley!” Max’s voice echoed from the foyer, and I ignored him again. He was one of the more intolerable people at the complex. Like a stereotypical godsend, he was a physical talent that was top ranked and wasn’t even born into a talent family. ‘Scraped from ashes, that boy,’ was something that I’d actually once heard someone say about him.
It wasn’t actually his personality that bothered me much, since he was nice enough. I only spent half of the day with the physicals, but by what I saw he was kind to most people. Instead, it was the other boys, the ones he had as friends, that really made me hate him. They were arrogant, like they knew they were the best and wouldn’t let anyone forget it. And to top it off, they always made fun of my best friend, Didra.
By the time I had finished dinner and cleared Max Neekan from my mind, the water was cold. I cursed silently at myself and threw the pot into the sink. It was getting late, and on Thursdays I had to be in the complex a half hour earlier than normal. I didn’t have time to reheat it for tea, or whatever I had wanted originally. If I wasn’t in bed by the time that my parents got home, I could kiss my own ass goodbye.
The stairs up to my sister’s room and my own branch from the right of the entrance hall. It’s a long, winding staircase that empties into a giant hallway. Molly’s room is to the right, but mine is to the left and up another set of small stairs. Yes, my room is in the attic.
With a house as big as ours, I never understood this until last year. My parents are entirely embarrassed by the fact that I am neither a physical talent nor an intellectual talent. And why wouldn’t they be, since at my age they were both on the top of the complex. So they shut me away in the attic, which really isn’t that bad, so that they don’t have to think about my failures.
My walls are peeling pieces of old wallpaper, but I tack so many papers onto them that you can’t tell anyway. From essays to photographs to satellite imagery, the walls are plastered with my life. At heart, I’m a true nerd. On the broad wall across from my bed, there’s a giant corkboard and a whiteboard. They always display the products of my latest projects.
Two round windows filter light in. The only other light source is a lamp that sits on my desk. A comfy chair sits between my desk and a bookshelf, which holds everything from “Modern Hacking” to three-hundred year old copies of classic literature.
In other words, I really love my room, despite its sour reputation and underlying meaning. That night, I sank into bed readily, and fell asleep soon after my head hit the pillow.
Mornings were usually the same for me, other than Sundays. Monday through Saturday were training days, which meant ‘school.’ For most kids, school was walking into a building at eight in the morning for four classes a day like English, Science, Math, and Social Lives. They had a choice of electives that they could take after school, and a normal life. Friends, enemies, and people you don’t know. Grades and attendance markings, along with a social hiatus. Or so I’ve been told.
For me, I walked into a gym at six-thirty in the morning for physical sessions, and joined the intellectuals at ten-thirty. At three-forty, I went home. The trainers could throw anything at you in the gym on any day they wanted, be it climbing or combat or archery. Our professors typically followed a schedule, but they always started the afternoons with difficult random questions that took thirty minutes for the smartest kids to answer. And we didn’t have grades. No, we were ranked among our peers, given a percentage, labeled by how strong we were or how smart. And then the social hiatus was factored in.
So when I walked into the gym on Thursday morning, it was like any other day. I had left my bags in the locker room, and the mystery of today’s workout was spinning in my mind. The various machines and utilities that were splayed about for training were already spinning as kids warmed up. For the top three percent, they usually came in an hour earlier to do extra work. Maintaining a rank that high was important.
Max Neekan was kicking a trainer’s ass on a punching bag. Miley Atkins, the top ranked girl, was scurrying up a wall at half the speed of light. It was intimidating what they could do, but my job was to ignore them. This was not my place, but it was theirs.
Instead, I went over to the mats and taped my hands. The gauze that I slipped under the tape would protect my knuckles from shattering. (That had actually happened to multiple kids before.) After my hands were taped, I slid off my jacket and left it by the tape station. A trainer had seen me prepping and they were already at my side, waiting to make me perform.
I wasn’t popular enough for people to watch when I did my stunts. Not like Miley or Max. If they were doing something, half the trainers in the gym would be watching them. But my trainer looked me in the eyes and then down at a paper.
“Yeah, that’s me.” I put one of my hands bby my face so that nobody would look at me. It was so embarrassing to be stared at whenever people heard my last name.
The trainer looked slightly offended that I had cut them off so abruptly, but they continued. “You should wrap your ankles too, we’re going to do some stunts with kicks, dodges, and punches.”
When I returned, ankles wrapped and with boots on, they were ready. It’s hard to describe these kinds of workouts, they happen too fast. Everything is about how quickly you can link your subconcoius to the rest of your body.
One second I was on standing on my feet, and then I was rolling on the mat, trying to bring the trainer down. I was throwing punches, aiming kicks, and dodging twice as many as I gave. But when I was done, the trainer gave me a monotone ‘nicely done’ and then shooed me on.
“Where should I go?”
“The climbing wall is next on your itinerary. But you could use the actual rock wall or the tree today.”
“Why not just the wall?”
“The boys are on it now.”
I looked over, away from the trainer and their clipboard, to see figures scurrying up the wall. They were the top five percent, and I watched how quickly they could scale the fake rocks. It seemed like they were doing time trials today, but I didn’t wonder why.
The tree was a tall, once-real hardwood that had grown in an area known as North Carolina before The Society’s time. It had an abundance of natural and fortified branches and knots that became more scarce as you reached the top. Not only was it one of the greatest fears of most young climbers, but it also was something that I (very secretly) enjoyed.
It was standard to wear a harness when climbing, and I slipped into one easily. A bilayer was waiting for any of us kids to come along and hooked me in. Before I began, they made it clear that they were only there to make it less dangerous when I fell. They would not tighten or loosen the rope upon my request, move to a different location, and so forth. Also, it was a standard rule that if you reached the top then you were required to ring the bell.
The first ten feet were easy. I had spent so much time climbing things in my house as a young child that it didn’t pose the slightest problem. But then the footholds began to disperse. At that point, your upper body strength becomes much more important. As I continued to climb, I could feel my biceps and triceps tightening. They complained while I reached smoothly for branches ahead of me. A routine fell into place with my hands and feet and they searched blindly for a place to rest. It had taken all of two painful minutes, and I was within two feet of the bell.
It was my predicament of the day. Not many people ever made it to the bell on the tree, since it was more difficult climbing than usual. Maybe it would make my father proud of me, but…it was so loud. If I rang the bell, everyone in the gym would hear it. They would all turn and stare curiously, picking me apart. And that was something I couldn’t take.
Giving up was never an option in this gym. You had to try and try hard. So when I let my foot slip in the same motion with my hand, I had to make it seem like I was trying. The bark of the tree slipped away from my feet and my hands ran down it for a moment. They burned softly, and I leaned back like you were supposed to.
The mats were nonexistent under the tree, and I hit the floor hard. It hurt, but I was graciously reminded of my incompetence. As I unclipped from the rope, the bilayer gave me a blatant smile and waved for the next person.
Throughout the gym, kids were grunting in effort and screaming in determination. Some were even crying in pain. It wasn’t unusual, but it made me feel even more frustrated about myself.
“Why’d you give up on there?”
I had just taken my harness off when Max Neekan’s voice drifted over to me. He took the climbing gear from my hands and started to put it on, all the while looking for an answer.
“I slipped, idiot. Why would you think that I gave up?”
He finished putting on the equipment and leaned next to my ear. “Your face is red, Harley. Besides,” Max stepped back and started to walk away, “I know an accident when I see one.”
So yes, Max Neekan is extremely attractive, but he is also a real pain in my butt.