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The Secret System
I hope that this piece shows people the ways in which we can come together. In todays society, it is easy to get wrapped up in the aspects of life that divide us. However, I believe that the characters in my story demonstate that we can cross the boundaries of difference with an open mind and a sense of adventure.
The Secret System
The boy with the blue hair was short. His classmates towered above him, making him feel like an ant. His sunken eyes and pointy nose added to his unique appearance. He never seemed to fit in.
The girl who loved spaghetti sat at the popular table at school. Her long, blonde hair was tied up high on her head and she always had the fanciest clothes.
The boy who sprinted the fastest was agile and muscular. He could run for miles, letting his feet absorb the continuous stream of words in his mind. He wore Red Sox sweatshirts and drank a protein shake every day.
The boy they all loved had curly, light brown locks, and bright blue eyes. He was the President of their middle school SGA and had teeth as white as the clouds.
The day that these four crossed paths, rain drops were pummeling from the sky onto their boots. The boy with the blue hair was pushed out of the way as children filed into school, the girl who loved spaghetti eyed the boy with the blue hair but kept walking, the boy who could sprint the fastest wasn’t very wet, the boy they all loved was given two umbrellas.
At Bertown Middle School, there was a system, just like every other educational institute. You entered as a sixth grader and you left as an eighth grader. There were no exceptions, except maybe one. This exception, coveted and secret, would hold the power to bring the three boys and the girl together.
When the day started, each teen opened their locker to find a note. It was written on crisp, lined, yellow paper.
Mike (The boy with blue hair)
Mike began his day the same as always. His alarm clock rang at exactly six-eighteen and he slowly opened his eyes, rubbing each with a clenched hand. He sat up and stared down the bed, hoping that his feet were closer to the end. Then, he got dressed, poured himself a bowl of Cheerios, and left for school.
The clouds were covering the sky on this particular day and as he walked, the fat rain drops were falling more rapidly. He pulled the top of his old rain jacket over his head, picking up his pace as the school came into sight.
“Just breathe,” he thought to himself.
School was, well, not always the best for young Mike. It was something he had to navigate on his own and he wasn’t always the best at deciphering social cues. When Mike was in kindergarten, his routine was the same. He awakened himself, made breakfast, and walked to school. All the other young boys and girls held their parent’s hands as they braved the new building on the first day, but Mike walked alone. He didn’t have someone to help him with his homework, to help him make friends, he had himself, and well, that had to be enough.
Mike went through Lower and Middle School with a book and his head hung low. Then one day, he was walking home from school and he saw this girl. She was the coolest looking girl he had ever seen. Her hair was streaked with a bold blue and it was tied back into braids, the color adding a pattern to her unique style. At that moment, Mike turned around and headed back towards Tucker’s Pharmacy. He ran so fast the wind blew on his face and his legs felt like they were moving more quickly than the rest of his body. He grabbed the blue-hair dye from the shelf, knowing he should spend his money more wisely. He dyed blue streaks in his hair and the next morning, he approached the school yard with an uneasy feeling. How would kids react? He worried, but somehow his newly colored locks made him feel more confident. It was as if the bright blue shielded him from their scowls and blank stares. So no, school was not easy for him.
Shaking his head to dislodge that memory, Mike paused, letting one last breath enter his lips and then exit again. His old raincoat had become insufficient and the drops began cascading from his hair, down his side burns, onto his cheeks. He walked forward again into the mass of kids. He was bumped from one side of the pack to the other, trampled by the taller children; they didn’t even seem to notice him.
Finally, Mike reached his locker. His safe place. Here, he could stick his head in if anyone came by, he could admire his books, and he could make a run for the bathroom across the hall. He spun the dial- 6, 33, 28- and opened the locker easily with a click. Something wasn’t right with his coveted, safe place. He looked more closely and then he saw it. Neatly folded between his copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Pearl was a crisp, lined piece of yellow paper.
Nellie (The girl who loved spaghetti)
Nellie glanced from side-to-side, discreetly trying to find the author of the note. She delicately plucked it from her locker and unfolded it to see the message inside.
Dear Ms. Franklin,
Please meet me in my office at 10:00 on the dot. Tell your teacher that you are heading to the nurse and I will inform her later. Do not disclose information about this meeting to anyone.
Nellie’s hands began to shake as she stared down at the scripted note. Had she done something wrong? She had never been in trouble before. Nellie was a perfectionist. She did everything she could to achieve straight A’s, anything to capture the attention of her parents. Sweat developed on her forehead and she tried to calm herself, pacing back and forth in front of her locker. She watched as the crowd of kids started moving towards their classrooms and she shoved the letter into her bag.
Nellie’s first class could not have been any slower. She stared at the equations on the board, but that was all she could manage. The math couldn’t enter her mind. There were too many thoughts, too many fears, too many questions. Her brain couldn’t fit anything else. She unzipped her backpack and reached her hand toward the bottom. She allowed her fingers to rub back and forth over the yellow parchment and somehow this calmed her.
She liked structure and order. She like her daily plans, the calendars scattered across her bedroom's walls. She loved when her father came into her room. He never commented, but the glitter in his eye said enough. She lived off these bread crumbs of affection. With two workaholic parents, she often felt like she was alone. But in those moments, when her father actually came home before ten at night, she had his attention, if only for a few minutes. She imagined that he was thinking how proud he was of her, proud of her organization, her school success, and her obsessive ways. He was quite uptight too. Maybe, just maybe, if she showed how similar they were, he would begin to notice her.
But what would he think now? Her father would never look at her again. “Did you hear about Jaimie Franklin’s daughter?” “Oh yeah, the one that got expelled and was sent away?” “Crazy, can’t imagine having a daughter ruin my family’s reputation like that.”
Nellie’s fingers moved across the paper at rapid speed now. She was starting to rub off the first layer of her skin but she couldn’t stop. The letter was controlling her mind.
Sam (The boy who could run the fastest)
It was 9:58. Two minutes before his meeting with Principal Bennett. There were three other kids also waiting outside his office and Sam avoided making eye contact with them as he rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet. He hoped they would leave so they wouldn’t see him going into the office.
The boy with the blue hair sat with a large book in his lap. The girl, Nellie, one of the most beautiful and popular kids at school, stared at one of her fingers. It appeared to be cut and she examined the wound incessantly. And then there was, Brody, one of the other popular kids at school. He wore a polo shirt and his curls sat perfectly on his head. Sam raised his hand and ran his fingers through his own hair. It was a dark brown. Not a light blondish-brown like the girls seemed to like. It was thin and cowlicked in the back.
He pressed his shoulders to the lockers and slid down to the ground. He stared at his tattered shoes and his muscular calves. Day after day of running had worn the soles down and the rubber pieces were beginning to peel off at the bottom.
Mr. Bennett appeared in the door frame. He was usually friendly and positive, but today he looked serious. His usual sweat stains were tattooed on his wrinkled dress shirt and his brown leather belt looked tighter than usual.
Sam was surprised to see that the three other kids jumped to their feet as Mr. Bennett appeared. Was he not the only one invited today?
“Come into the office quickly,” Mr. Bennett instructed. They shuffled in, somewhat reluctantly.They all sat down on the old, slippery leather couch being careful not to sit too close together.
Principal Bennett began, “Now, you are probably wondering why I gathered you all here today. But before we begin, let’s set some rules. Whether you decide to take the opportunity or not, everything that happens during this meeting stays in the room. Is that clear?”
Brody (The boy they all loved)
Brody turned to see all the other kids nodding their heads in agreement.
“Alright, now that is settled. You are probably wondering why you received my note. Every ten years, I am given the opportunity to recruit kids for the National Program. In all of my years recruiting, I have only been allowed to select one child. However, this year, I was assigned to create a team. I have chosen the four of you. Each of you brings unique talents to the group.
Brody felt himself drifting away from the conversation. Mr. Bennett’s words swirled in the air. He didn’t want to be chosen. He didn’t want to be noticed. He just wanted to be left alone. When he was in lower school, Brody considered himself a dweeb. He had unruly, curly hair that covered his large black glasses and he almost always had a cold. The other kids at school called him “booger boy” and he hated it. So, after fourth grade, he cut down his hair, got contact lenses and started lifting weights. This quickly catapulted him from the loser boy to the loved boy. But it was all fake. He didn’t want it anymore. He couldn’t stand that the spotlight always followed him around. The worst part of all was his “friends.” They would beat up other kids and toss them around like they didn’t matter. Brody used to be one of those kids. He knew how miserable it was. Whenever they would bully someone, Brody would look into their eyes and try to send them mental messages.
“I’m really sorry man, he would say empathetically.
“Make them stop, please stop them,” wailed the victim.
But Brody would turn his head and try to ignore the sound of their head slamming into the wall. Brody wasn’t like the other boys, he knew it was wrong. He hated himself for being weak and he hated the school for creating that type of environment. He just needed out, out of this town, out of his thoughts.
“Brody, pay attention,” demanded Principal Bennett.
“I am sir.”
“Good try. Do you need me to repeat what I just said?”
Body nodded his head and tried to refocus.
Mike (The boy with blue hair)
“This must be a joke. There is no way this could be real,” Mike thought. The raindrops hadn’t stopped yet and they continued to run down the windows. He was mesmerized by their movement, the way that they dropped forever. When the rain drops touched, they would merge together as a stronger drop and then continued their descent. On and on.
Principal Bennett took a long sip of his coffee and then explained, “The National Program has three sectors: Infant, Teen and Adult. Thornburg Island is where recruited pregnant women live until they give birth to the NP babies. These babies enter the program at birth. They are seen as the best and the most talented of all because they are raised in the program and have the most experience. I don’t know much more than that. As a recruiter, I am at the bottom of the totem pole. I know that the work you will do will be for the country but I don’t know much more. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. Now, does anyone have any questions?”
Silence and disbelief hung heavy in the room. Brody’s eyes were now locked on Mr. Bennett. His eyes were so focused that it somehow stopped the worry in his head. The principal was a tall, stocky man. He sat up straight in his chair while he stroked his greying beard with one hand and the other hand rested limply upon his plump stomach. The wrinkles on his face were like a map of his past. They stretched across his forehead, circled around his eyes and his cheeks seemed to sag. Brody pictured the terrible things middle-school kids had done to cause those wrinkles. But maybe, the wrinkles weren’t from kids at all.
Then Nellie broke the ice as she asked, “So we’re not in trouble?
“Not in the slightest,” replied Mr. Bennett with a gentle smile.
For the first time that day, she removed her hand from her bag and her fingers slowly stopped their rhythmic dance.
Sam joined in as well, drilling Mr. Bennett with more questions like: How do we know this is real? Where do we go? What does it mean to be in the program? How long do we have to decide?
“To answer your first question, Sam, you will just have to trust me” cautioned Principal Bennett, as a serious look returned to his face. “You have two hours to decide if you want to participate. You are in no way required to agree.
He took shallow breaths, his belly rolling in and out as he spoke in a strange sort of whisper. “If you choose to enter the program, I will contact your parents and tell them that you earned a free scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. You will immediately enter training and live full-time at the program” His voice slowed a bit and then he continued. “You will never be able to tell anyone from the outside world about your work. If you join, you are committed to be in the program for a year. After one year, you may decide to drop out or, if you are not a good fit, the program will send you home”.
He paused, then added “That is all the information I can give you. The choice is yours.” He sat back in his chair again, looking partly relieved. “It is 10:14 now. I will give you some time to think about this. You are dismissed from your morning classes. Be back here at 12:30 sharp with your decision.”
Nellie (The girl who loved spaghetti)
Nellie felt excited and overwhelmed as she followed the boys out of Mr. Bennett’s cramped office. She wanted to think in solitude but also thought she should consult the boys.
“Let’s meet at Lilly’s Diner in 45 minutes,” she instructed.
Nellie grabbed her bike from the rack outside and raced home. Her tires slipped down the rainy roads but nothing could slow her down. She burst into the house and ran up the long staircase to her treasured place, her bedroom. She threw herself down on her neatly made bed and watched the overhead fan spin. This made her even more dizzy than she was before. But then it came to her. What was she best at? Organization. She reached over into her bedside table and grabbed a pad. She drew a line down the middle with “Pro” on one side and “Con” on the other.
Pro: New adventure, parents would be proud, get out of this stupid town
Con: Scary, not sure what I would do, leaving home, scary (Nellie felt this needed to be repeated twice)
Nellie didn’t consider herself to be a wimpy girl. She was bold and adventurous. But maybe, just maybe, this was too big for her.
She headed downstairs and boiled water for pasta. It had been her favorite food ever since she was little. She couldn’t always depend on her parents, but she could rely on pasta. It always tasted the same, always had the same consistency, and always looked the same. She bought the same brand every time she went to the store and this satisfied her. Nellie stared down at her pad as she ate her lunch. But the words were just that, words. They were not helping her to solve her dilemma. She knew she was running out of time. She took one last bite, savoring the texture of the noodle before heading for Lilly’s Dinner, leaving her unfinished pasta behind.
Nellie sped on her bike once again, tearing down the slick roads as the puddles splashed up on her the bike’s chain and her boots. She felt nostalgic thinking that she might leave this familiar town. She hated it and loved it all at the same time.
When Nellie arrived at the diner, she leaned her bike up against a tree outside and headed in. She saw the boys already sitting together at a booth in the back. She paused for a moment feeling guilty. She was just offered an adventure with these boys and she only knew one of them by name. Nellie had never paid much attention to the boy with the blue hair or the runner. Why would she? But Brody, of course, she knew Brody. He was one of the most popular boys and she had spent lots of time with him. People at school encouraged them to be a couple, but she never saw him as more than just a friend.
Sam (the boy who could run the fastest)
When Nellie entered the diner, all heads turned towards her. Sam didn’t even think that Nellie realized she attracted that much attention. It wasn’t her fault, she was just the type of person that everyone wanted to look at. Even with her messy wet hair and the mud stains on her dress, she was incredibly beautiful. You couldn’t help but watch her.
“Focus. No thinking about girls. This is serious,” Sam thought.
Sam eye’s followed Nellie as she came towards the booth and sat across from him. No one uttered a word. They sat still, eying each other.
“First, everyone needs to say their name,” she instructed. They cautiously gave their introductions and then, once again, silence descended on their table. It wasn’t awkward, just quiet,” thought Sam .
“I’m doing it” Mike said softly. “My parents won’t notice that I’m gone anyway”. Other than saying his name, it was the first time any of them had heard him speak.
“I’m in too,” Brody added in agreement. He didn’t feel the need to say why.
Nellie rubbed her fingers together and then asked, “what if it’s a trap?”
Sam thought for a moment. He pictured the days and nights on the track. The aching in his legs and the look on his father’s face when he ran two seconds slower than normal. All of that, all the pressure would be gone. “Count me in, he said”
Nellie bit her bottom lip and continued to rub her fingers together, she asked, “How can you know for sure?”
Mike replied, “How can you keep living not knowing what you missed out on?
Sam, Nellie, Mike and Brody walked into Mr. Bennett’s office together. They seemed to move in synchrony, not disjointed and uneven as before. The principal sat at his desk with his glasses perched high on his nose. He looked them intently.
Mike glanced around the room, taking it all in. He looked one last time at Brody and then exclaimed, “We’re all in Mr. Bennett. Bring it on.”