“I think they’re going to stage a coup.”

Not exactly what you want to hear first thing in the morning. But I’ll go with it.

“It’s nice to see you, too, Evan,” I say, grabbing a banana from the basket as we breeze by everyone waiting in the serving line.

Some glance at me nervously while some don’t look at all. I’m not sure why I inspire so much fear. I make eye contact with a Ten who’s trying desperately to pretend to be anywhere but here. When our eyes meet, I try to smile, but even as I do it, I can feel that it’s more of a grimace. She turns away quickly.

So fear it is, then.

“I’m serious, Mia,” Evan says. No matter how fast I try to walk, he’s always at my heels, and I have a brief, ridiculous urge to start running through the dining hall just to see if he would try to keep up.

“Who is they?” I ask, indulging him. Really, I just want to get to my seat and eat my banana in peace, free from problems, and coups and mutinies. Yeah, right. A personal visit from the Mainland Chief would be more likely than that.

Evan looks around, then in a lower voice says, “Jonathan, mostly. But also maybe Adalia.”

“Is this one coup?” I ask, trying to keep a straight face. “Or is a combined coup between the two of them? Considering Adalia’s personality, I bet there would be a coup within that coup. It would never last.”

He starts off taking me seriously, but I can’t contain a smile. “Mia, this isn’t a joke,” he insists. He puts a hand on my shoulder to get me to slow my pace, but I easily shrug him off. Although he’s a good foot taller than me, he’s probably the least aggressive person I know.

“I really don’t think there’s much to worry about,” I say. “Even if there was some kind of power struggle, the Mainland Chief wouldn’t let anything happen.”

He doesn’t look so sure. “But can you imagine if Jonathan was commander?”

That’s a thought I would prefer to have sometime that isn’t first thing in the morning.

“Okay, I get it. He’s a psycho. Pretty much everyone knows that. So are like half the people here. That doesn’t mean he’s staging a coup.”

We’re approaching the head table, so he drops his voice even lower. “We’ll talk about this later.”

I hope not. I barely have enough time to deal with everyone else’s insanity, much less Evan’s farfetched conspiracy theories.

I’m a little later than usual, so most of the others are already seated. This means I have to walk by everyone in order to get to my chair, which, considering the circumstances, is way too big and way too fancy. I never know how to act.

I get a few nods from some of the heads as I shuffle into position. I return some, smile at others. The amount of politics involved in trying to please people and project a certain personality should be a job in and of itself.

As soon as I’m seated, the questions start coming in.

“What happened with Helena?”

“Are the others at risk?”

“Do we need to be preparing for more like her?”

Heavy questions for so early. I take time to think, using peeling my banana as an excuse. I know no answer I give right now will satisfy them, so I go with the safe answer.

“I’m calling a council meeting for tonight to address all your concerns.”

Reactions are a mixed bag. Some look happy just be able to continue to eat their breakfasts unencumbered, while others–mostly just Jonathan–are staring me down with a mixture of distrust and scorn.

I wonder for the first time if there’s any weight to Evan’s theory, before I shake it off. Jonathan is a textbook example of a good chunk of the kids here. I secretly read his file. Technically I have the authority to authorize myself to do that, but it still felt like an invasion of privacy, no matter how annoying he is. His dad has a sheet of assault charges going back before most of the kids here were even born, which explains a lot. Besides, Jonathan doesn’t seem like the plan and wait type. He’s more of a storm the castle kind of guy.

Good thing there’s no castle here.

I eat my banana in silence and stare out over the room. Everything is so orderly. White floors, white walls, white fluorescent light. Long, straight lines of tables full of kids talking quietly amongst themselves. Everything is moderated, everything is toned down. Even the Fives, most of them brand new to this place have caught on quickly.

I watch for a minute before my gaze inevitably turns to the Upper table. I was there just a little over a year ago. I still feel like I could be one of them. Laughing quietly at some whispered joke, hoping the Commander or the Upper Head didn’t see.

Now I guess that’s me.

One of my former friends feels me staring and looks up. When she sees it’s me, she quickly stares down at her plate, like she’s studying the rubbery bacon and eggs. I look at my banana and we go on, existing in coexisting worlds that won’t ever touch again. Evan, sitting to my right, is talking to me about some policy–something unimportant and I try to nod in the right places. I’m really getting into ‘feeling sorry for myself’ mode before I take a stand and snap myself out of it.

This is life. This is what I deserve.

After breakfast, the counselors get their respective kids, and the executive heads disperse. Evan goes off to do whatever he was telling me about during breakfast and then I am alone.

Relatively speaking.

I have a lot of paperwork to fill out due to Helena’s release, and when I get to my office, there’s nothing there. I have a computer that’s old but solid, which is how I mostly communicate with the Mainland. It takes a while to send files back and forth, but it’s worked so far. Until now. I wonder if it’s broken because there’s almost always something in my e-mail box.

I’m more than a little concerned, because every time someone does snap, it’s always a really big deal. I’ve had eight—nine, counting Helena—since I’ve been commander. I have to fill out a ton of forms detailing what happened, who, when, where. Then I usually end up talking to whoever the particular case worker is. Sometimes, I have to be included in a video conference call with the Mainland Chief and the caseworker. That’s a real pain because it means I have to hook up the web camera to the computer, but it’s only necessary if I’m not detailed enough in my initial description so it doesn’t happen often.

It’s been the same procedure for every time. But now, nothing.

I have an uneasy feeling in my stomach about it. Something about Helena was…different. Usually when kids lose it here, they attack someone else. But she was clawing at her own face. Unsettling, to say the least. But I’m sure the people at the Mainland have it under control. There’s probably a reason I don’t have the forms yet.

So when the phone rings a little while later and the Mainland Chief is on the other end, I’m not the least bit surprised. I knew he would have it under control.

“Amelia,” he says in what would qualify as a warm tone for him. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I say. “And you?” My words are wooden; I’m acting out an unspoken script.

“Very well, thank you,” he says. He’s been cast in the same play. “I’m calling to speak with you about the…incident last night.”

Helena’s gone from girl to incident in a mere 8 hours. “Yes, sir,” I say, my mouth full of formalities. “I was wondering why the paperwork wasn’t in my inbox.”

“Don’t worry about it Amelia, we’ve taken care of this one.”

Wasn’t expecting that. “Oh,” I say. “Well, um. I guess I just wanted to make sure there was nothing I needed to do.”

“Actually, you’ll be receiving a new tenant–male– tomorrow so I’ll need you to arrange for preparations accordingly.”

That’s moderately exciting. We used to get new kids all the time–sometimes 5 or 6 a month. But lately it’s plateaued out. Mainland Chief says it means their mission is working, which I suppose is a good thing.

No. Of course it’s a good thing.

“A Five?” I ask. That’s the most common age we get because it’s the youngest most judges will allow.

“No,” he says. I can hear pursed lips and a furrowed brow, even through the slightly static-y phone. “Seventeen.”

“What? Are you serious?” I say before I can stop myself. “I mean–how is that possible?” I’ve never even heard of someone being sent away at seventeen. Usually, they figure out who the troublemakers will be before then. The oldest newbie we’ve ever had was a Nine and even that was a big deal at the time.

“We’ve been after him for a long time,” he says simply. “I’ll send over his file immediately. That will be all.”

“Thank you,” I say, but I’m not really sure why. What am I thanking him for? Then I hate myself for thinking that. It’s a stupid question. I should just be grateful and move on.

After I’ve hung up and stared at the wall for a minute, I go to find Evan. He’s in his office working on the order forms for the next month, and I almost don’t want to interrupt him.

When I tell him about the new Seventeen that’ s coming, he reacts with neuroticism, as I expected. I think he says the words ‘what,’ ‘seventeen,’ ‘how,’ ‘why’ in various combinations at least thirty times.

“I haven’t got his file yet,” I say everytime he asks me a different variation of the same question. He finally stops stammering long enough to let me get a word in. “I need you to go let Diana know.”

Diana is the Seventeen Head, which is as awkward as it sounds. We have to have a Seventeen as a head for each age, even the Seventeens. She doesn’t do as much supervising as say, the Six Head, but she’s still in charge of getting ready for a new arrival. Even if no one ever thought she would have to. Really, all she has to do is get a new bed in the Seventeen house ready.

“Help her out,” I add as he goes to find her, purpose in his stride.

As soon as I got back to my office, I immediately check to see if I’ve gotten this new boy’s file yet. There it is in my inbox, subject: confidential. I settle into my squeaky wooden chair that pinches my legs if sit wrong and click.

He is Luke Watkins, age seventeen, and his parents are hardcore. Trespassing, assault, stealing, resistance, arson, and that’s just his mom. His dad has all that plus kidnapping, impersonation of a police officer, and fraud.

I have to lean back from the computer a moment. There are charges on his parents that go all the way back before he was born. How did they manage to hold onto him for so long?

Why is he just now being caught at seventeen?

You would think he would be able to evade capture for at least one more year. All he had to do was make it until 18, and then they’d have no grounds to send him off.

So why get caught now, just a few months from freedom?

At the bottom of his file, it says in big letters:

ARRIVAL DATE: November 20th.


I wonder…

“Stop it,” I say out loud to myself. I finally sound like a real commander, at least. But it’s not my job to ask questions. And I really don’t care. I know everything I need to know about this guy. His mom is a criminal, his dad is a criminal. He’s a criminal.

That’s all I need to know.


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FLUX- chapter one, draft one

On the morning of my 17th birthday, Helena went crazy.

Everyone knew it was going to happen—or I knew, at least. Ever since she got transferred here. Ever since they gave me her file. Ever since I read that one line in her sparse folder that told me everything I needed to know about her.

MOTHER: history of mental illness. Patient 2356 at the CHCI—life sentence.

That was how I knew she was going to go crazy.

We are our parents, after all. They define us.

Any day now I expect I’ll snap and stab three people to death with the nail file part out of a Swiss Army knife.

But since that day hasn’t come, I still have to drag myself out of my bed when Anna, one of the girls in charge of the Eights shakes me awake.

She looks pretty panicked and for a second I am too. Then she tells me it’s Helena and I am calm. This is expected. Normal. I still act concerned, mostly because I am, but it’s not a life or death situation. The sun rises, sun sets, people lose it. Everything’s fine.

It’s so early in the morning and I still feel like I’m halfway in a dream, so I forget it’s my birthday until we’re halfway to the Eight building.

I can’t help but try and muster up some sort of excitement. Birthdays are big here; usually I’d be looking forward to moving to the next age building. Of course, that point is kind of moot now that I’m in charge of things, but still. It’s the only occasion I have to celebrate.

Happy Birthday to me, I think to myself as I run along with Anna to rescue Helena from madness. Happy Birthday, dear Mia. Happy Birthday to me.

I don’t bother to add the “and many more” part that my mom used to sing with me.

As we approach the uniform gray cinderblock building, Helena’s wails are piercing the air. Anna grimaces, but pushes open the door anyway. They get louder and louder as we get closer to her room until I feel like my ears are going to fall off and bury themselves in the quarry. After a few minutes, the screams stop sounding human. They are primal. They are an ancient cavewoman clubbing another to death. They are a gladiator right as the lion closes his jaws. They are terror, anger, confusion all rolled into a sloppily wrapped package with recycled Scotch tape.

We are blazing a hasty trail down the hallway towards the ungodly sounds. Other Eights are peeking their heads out of their doors that line the hall, and a few of the braver ones even venture to take a few steps out. They look so small wrapped in their standard issue flannels that for a minute, I feel sorry for them that they have to hear this. Then I remember this is just one of the many unfortunate facts of life.

The door is the last one on the right. When we get there, Anna steps back and nods at me. I push it open, but I’m not prepared for the sight inside. Helena is clawing at her face while a couple of Eight boys who are bulky enough to be Tens, at least, try to grab at her arms. She doesn’t even look up as I enter, Anna at my heels. Her screams rise and fall with her heaving chest as she fights off the boys, but her eyes stay fixed to a spot in the upper corner of the wall. Her four roommates are huddled together one one mattress, gripping each other so tight I can see their hands shaking from the force.

“Go,” I say to them.

They look between me, the open doorway and Helena. The problem is clear. They’ll have to pass her to get out.

I can’t deal with the screaming girl, but I can deal with this. One by one, I carry the girls out, holding them close and making myself a barrier between them and her. Once they’re out in the hallway, I have to face the reality that I have no idea how to deal with this problem. Even Anna seems dumbstruck which is rare. The boys have successfully gotten her hands off her face, but she’s left deep scratch marks all along her cheeks. They’ve pinned her down and are sitting on her arms while she uses her legs to flail and propel herself off the floor. Her gaze hasn’t moved from the spot in the corner and she hasn’t run out of steam in her lungs yet.

“Go to my Central Hall,” I yell to Anna over the shrieks. “Wake up Derrick, tell him to bring one of those blue tabs.”

“He’s never going to giv–”

“Tell him I sent you,” I say crossing my arms. “Now hurry.”

When she’s gone, I clasp my hands over my ears and try to think. She’s stopped fighting the boys, but somehow, seeing her lay there passively and scream is more unsettling than before.

There’s really nothing I can do until Derrick gets here with the tab.

I crouch down next to her face, still with that blank stare to nowhere and the Eights sitting on her arms look at me like I’m the crazy one.

“Helena?” I say. No answer of course. Just a staccato burst of noise that breaks the long monotony of the single wail.

“Helena, can you hear me?” No answer.

I pretend she said yes. “Helena,” I say. “I know you’re scared. Really, I do. I get it. We’re going to help you, okay?”

My answer to this comes in the form of a half dressed Derrick, one sock, old coveralls half done, out of breath, followed by a flushed Anna.

“I have,” he says with a gulp of breath, “the tab.”

“Then why are we still talking about this?” I ask, raising my open palm to him.

He drops the little blue oval in it, and I wait until Helena has her mouth nice and wide for a good moan before I pop it in. Before she can process what’s happening, I cover her mouth with one hand and pinch her nose with the other, forcing her to swallow.

“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” I whisper to counteract her gurgles. After a few minutes the screams taper off into whimpers and her limbs seem to go limp. The Eight boys scramble off her like crazy could be contagious. Her eyes are drifting, and she’s going, going, gone.

When she’s good and knocked out, I stand up and take a deep breath. That just happened. Anna is staring at the now peaceful Helena, horrified, but Derrick’s focused on me.

“How long do we have before she’s up?” I ask him, not avoiding his questioning eye contact.

“I’d say about an hour, maybe two if you’re lucky,” he says.

I give him a sharp nod, collect my thoughts for approximately 2.3 seconds, then I’m ready to lead again.

“You two get back to bed,” I say to the two Eight boys. “And thank you for your help.”

They don’t even answer as they back out of the room and I wonder how long they’ll be scarred by this.

“I want all the Eights back in bed,” I say to Anna. “Tell them everything is fine, tell them it was a nightmare, whatever you have to say.”

“Sure thing,” she says, smoothing her nightgown.

“I’m going to call the Mainland,” I say to Derrick, not because I feel like explaining all my plans to him, but only because he’s the only one around. It’s more of a thinking out loud thing. “You stay with her, and if she wakes up—” I trail off. I’m not sure what he should do if she wakes up. “–well, just…make sure she doesn’t wake up.”

It only takes me 2 minutes to get to Central Hall and 3 minutes before I’m on the phone with a very sleepy Mainland Chief.

“This better be something important,” he gripes through a yawn. “You know my line is for serious situations only.”

“I’d call this a serious situation,” I say, and suddenly he’s listening.

I explain all about Helena and the screams and the thousand yard stare. When I’m done, he’s not half-asleep anymore.

“I’ll have a helicopter out there to collect her in half an hour,” he says in a crisp voice that sound like a fresh pleat in a pair of dress pants. “You hold her, got that? She’ll be with her mother soon enough.”

I want to argue. Want to say, ‘but she isn’t criminally insane!’ She’s just a scared little girl, alone in a world that doesn’t really want her. It’s not her fault you dumped her here. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.

But of course, I don’t say anything like that. I just say, “Yes, sir,” and hang up the phone. Maybe when I’m alone in my room later, I’ll be able to convince myself that I agree with him.

She is a danger. She is a criminal. She is a bad seed.

She is her mother’s daughter.


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