Ten Years Earlier
For the third night in a row, the boy woke to the sound of screaming. He leaped up, tangled in the sweat-soaked sheets, heart pounding so hard he gasped for breath. As he hovered between nightmare and waking, he thought he could hear the others, their grunts and growls and soft snarls as they slept.
More like puppies than little boys, the night nurse would say. She always smiled when she said it, but the boy saw only her bared teeth, and the snap in her voice said she didn’t find it funny at all. She found it strange, unnatural, wrong. Like when she got angry and called them brats and savages and, her favorite insult, hissed in their ears . . .
As the nightmare slid away, so did the sounds of the others. The boy looked over, squinting in the dark, windowless room, only a sliver of light coming from under the door.
He turned toward the other three beds and knew what he’d see. Empty, as they’d been for four nights now, the covers pulled tight, the boys gone, never to return, leaving him behind, alone.
He didn’t mind that so much. Being alone meant there was no one to corner him in the play-yard, snap at him, claw him, bite him.
The doctors and nurses never interfered. They only watched, whispering among themselves, saying words like outcastand omega, packand hierarchy, words he didn’t understand, words they jotted furiously into their notebooks.
So he wasn’t sad to see the others gone. What bothered him was how they left.
The Incident, the doctors and nurses called it. Another word he didn’t understand, but he shivered each time he heard it.
It had started with a new nurse. A pretty, young nurse who’d gotten mad when the older one called them little beasts, who’d snuck them candies and chocolate bars and soda pop. He’d liked her. To the others, though, her kindness smelled like weakness, and they’d used it, always smiling and sitting with her and asking for more treats.
When the other nurse found out, she’d put a stop to the gifts. The other boys hadn’t liked that. They’d wheedled and begged, but the young nurse said no, she wasn’t allowed to bring them anything.
Then, one night, she snuck in to see them. Just to see them—tuck them in, kiss them goodnight. Only the other boys thought she’d brought them treats, and when they found out she hadn’t—
The boy squeezed his eyes shut, but he still remembered it. He still saw them backing her into the corner, then pouncing. He still heard her screams. Still smelled the blood that had flecked the walls.
He might be the biggest, but he was no match for all three of them. So he’d run to the door and banged and shouted, making more noise than he ever had in his life.
The guards had rescued the nurse. Then they’d put him in the schoolroom, given him milk and cookies, and told him he’d done the right thing and they were proud of him.
But they hadn’t sounded proud. They’d sounded scared.
It had been nearly morning when the old nurse had taken him back to the bedroom, where he could still smell blood under the stink of disinfectant. The other boys had been gone. And they never came back.
He never thought to ask what had happened to them. Nothing in his young life led him to believe that question—or any other—would be answered.
He’d been born here, with the other three. Lived here all his five years. He’d never been outside the front doors. He didn’t even know where they were. He only went out the back ones and only into the play yard.
As for what was beyond the garden walls, he wasn’t really sure. He had books, and he was a good reader, but the world depicted within those pages might have well been the moon for all the resemblance it bore to his life.
He read about things like mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, but he didn’t really understand the concepts. There was another child who came here sometimes. Simon lived outside the building with a man he called Dad, but the boy didn’t really understand what that meant.
Simon was almost always smiling, always happy. The boy didn’t understand that either. He just knew that he felt happier himself when Simon was around.
The other three boys hadn’t liked Simon. They’d tripped him and pushed him and said he wasn’t one of them, and got mad when the boy played with him. But he had anyway. They played board games, and even when Simon lost, he never flew into a rage or snarled and snapped like the others, but only grinned and said he’d win the next time.
As the boy tried to fall back asleep, he thought about Simon and not about the others. Not where they’d gone. Not how things had changed since they’d left.
Now when the boy was in the playroom, he heard voices coming through the vent, where the doctors watched him through the camera. He knew about the camera, but he ignored it, and built his cars and bridges and skyscrapers and all the other things he saw in his books. He built and he listened.
He didn’t hear everything they said—just a few words that made him shiver like he did when they said “The Incident.” Words like problemand mistakeand miscalculation. And the worst word of all, the one they said over and over as they whispered among themselves. Dangerous.
He knew they were talking about him. But he wasn’t dangerous. He’d never done more than shove the other boys and only when they came after him or Simon. He’d never gotten in trouble for that, no matter how much the other boys fake-cried and pretended to be hurt. And he’d never hurt any of the grown-ups. Never even yelled or snarled or growled at them. He was a good boy—everyone said so.
But now, every time they glanced his way, he saw fear in their faces. He heard it in their voices. He saw it when they skittered out of the room. They thought he was dangerous. He knew too, that whatever they’d done with the other boys, they were now thinking of doing the same to him, just to be sure. Just to be safe.
The next morning, the boy was in the schoolroom, doing his math. He liked math. He liked that there were always answers if you knew how to find them.
He was alone in the schoolroom. Ever since the incident, the teacher would come in with one of the guards, give him his work, then leave. So when the door opened, he looked up, worried, but it was only Simon’s dad.He liked Simon’s dad, who always seemed to be smiling, always had something nice to say. He worked here sometimes, but he wasn’t one of the nurses or doctors or guards, so the boy didn’t see him very much.When he did come, though, he usually brought a present, something better than a candy bar or soda pop. But the boy was careful not to let anyone think he expected anything, even hoped for anything. That was how the trouble with the young nurse had started.Even when he did notice the bag, he kept his gaze blank. He was good at that. But when Simon’s dad put the bag on the boy’s desk, he couldn’t wait any longer and opened it.Inside was a box almost as big as his desktop. It said Meccano Construction Set and promised over two hundred and fifty pieces that would build twenty models. The boy stared at all the nuts and bolts, his mind already racing, imagining what he could make.“They’ll run, too,” Simon’s dad said. “I have batteries for them.”For another minute, the boy could only stare. Then he said, “Thank you.” He had to say it twice. Since the incident, he’d barely dared speak a word, so the first time he tried, nothing came out.Simon’s dad pulled over another chair. “I have something to ask you.”The boy nodded, waiting.“I know things here aren’t . . .” He paused, then started again. “I know you aren’t happy here, Derek.” He leaned forward, meeting the boy’s eyes. “How would you like to come home with me?”“Home?”“Where I live. Away from here. With Simon. Now that the other boys are gone . . .” He paused, rubbed his neck as if the words were sticking. Then he cleared his throat. “Dr. Banks has agreed to let you come live with us. Would you like that?”The boy nodded, closed his notebook, took the box and stood, ready to leave.OneThe smell of freedom slipped through the open window, the breeze tugging at my . . . hair?I growled under my breath and tried again.The smell of freedom slipped through the open window, the breeze tugging at my skin.Yeah, like that made sense.The smell of freedom slipped through the open window, the breeze creeping across my skin.Nah, that lost the metaphor. Or simile. Or whatever the hell it was called.It was no use. I sucked at English. Simon would have to write my assignment again. I was sure he’d have math homework I could do for him.“Are you listening to me, Derek?” Mr. Murrell said.“Yes, sir.”His lips tightened at the “ sir”. Figures. Try to be polite and they think I’m being sarcastic. Dad would say it’s my tone. And my look. And maybe a bit of actual sarcasm.Murrell droned on, and I tried to pay attention, but he was so damned boring, and all I could think about was that breeze coming through the window, smelling of trees and grass and, yeah, freedom.I liked school well enough. I just hated spending the day locked in hot, stuffy rooms that stank of moldy books and dirty sneakers.“. . . and I see you’ve completed a project on Gray’s Theorem . . .”“Green’s,” I said.His lips pursed again at the interruption. “What?”“It’s Green’s Theorem.”Even as I said it, I imagined Dad sighing beside me. Don’t correct the teacher, Derek. You look like a show-off. At least start with a qualifier, like “I think you might mean . . .”But I didn’t thinkMurrell was wrong, I knew it, and if I was the one making stupid mistakes like that, I’d want someone to tell me.“Do you have a problem with authority, Derek?” Murrell asked.I thought about it. I could tell by his eyes, getting narrower by the nanosecond, that he didn’t think I should need to think about it.I replied carefully. “I don’t have a problem with the conceptof authority.”