Cozen Academy


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The Masked Man...Or So I Thought

Silence... It's strange, isn't it?

For some people it instills fear.  For others it provides peace.  For my sister and me, that night in the alley, silence was a cover.  If we didn't remain perfectly still, everything I was fighting for would come to an end.  She would be taken away from me, and I wasn't about to let that happen.

"Reid," Sky's trembling voice whispered from behind me.  "What's going on?  Why are they after us this time?"

I pondered whether or not I should tell her the truth.  Yes, what I had done was...debateably...wrong, but I'd had no choice.  I lowered, flattening my back against the brick wall of the building behind us, and pretended I hadn't heard her.

Sky knelt down next to me, her eyes fixed on the street light at the end of the alley.  "You stole again, didn't you?"

I winced.  For a twelve-year-old, she sure was quick. 

She whacked my arm, my coat absorbing most of the blow.  "You promised me you weren't going to steal anymore!  What did you take this time?"

"Skylar, keep it down!  Are you trying to get us killed?  It wasn't that bad!"

She huffed, whispering just as loudly as before.  "Well, it definitely must not have been good!  They don't send four cop cars after someone for taking an apple from the grocery store!"

"I know, I know!"  I turned and looked into her eyes, her clearly infuriated eyes.  "Skylar, can we please discuss this later?  I really don't feel like getting arrested today."

She glowered at me for half-a-minute, and then sighed.  "Fine."  

She was still staring at me with a heated gaze when I turned back around, but at least silence had been regained. 

I turned my focus to the road at the end of the alley.  Flashes of red and blue light glared off the glass doors and windows that lined the street, flooding our hiding place with the glow of a crime scene drama.  The police officers wouldn't be far behind. 

I held my breath as armed silhouettes entered the alleyway.  In a matter of seconds they would reach the shadowed corner where we sat, hearts racing.  I needed a plan.  Should I attack the first officer to reach us and hope to take him by surprise?  I didn't want to hurt anyone unless I absolutely had to.

Sky sidled up to me and put her mouth to my ear, her voice barely audible.  "What are we going to do?"

I answered her just as quietly.  "Stay right here."

"Where are you-?"

"I'll meet you back at the rendezvous in ten minutes.  Fifteen at most.  Just don't move from this spot until you're sure they can't see you."

Quiet footsteps could be heard just a few feet away from us.  I waited a moment, and then darted out into the open without even a glance behind me.  Then, I ran.  I could hear the sound of handcuffs jingling on belt loops behind me.  Police badges bumped against coat buttons, creating a consistent chink chink sound that taunted me with the very real possibility that the night could end with me in a holding cell. 

No, that wasn't going to happen.  It could't happen, I wouldn't let it.  I needed to protect Skylar, and that's all I cared about.  I could hear policemen shouting to each other; they were getting closer.  I picked up speed and navigated the back alleys of the city as well as any other fugitive would.  I could see a map in my head of where each one began and ended.  No way these guys could do that.  Sure, they were trained to catch and arrest people like me, but I had the home advantage. 

Corner after corner raced by until I was almost positive I had lost them.  I kept running anyway until I reached one particularly long alley where I could stop to breathe for a minute.  Over the years I had gotten pretty fast, but the faster I ran, the shorter the distance I could go before having to take a break.  Even now my lungs felt as though they were about to explode.  I wheezed and coughed for a second, my breath making clouds in the cold, evening air. 

A doorway was embedded in the building behind me, so I backed up a few steps and leaned up against it, trying not to fall over from exhaustion.  Out of nowhere the door swung inward, someone grabbed me, and I was jerked inside the building and tossed onto the floor.  I groaned and tried to sit up, but strong, gloved hands pushed me down and covered my mouth.  I heard a steady "Shhh", and the dark figure that had pulled me in clamped my mouth even tighter.  He was dressed completely in black, and his head was covered, all except for his green eyes.  Gradually removing his hands, he stepped over to the door and closed it quickly without a sound. 

His deep voice whispered through the mask.  "You're coming with me.  And don't try to argue.  I'm carrying more ways to hurt you right now than any police officer."

I sat up slowly.  "I'm not afraid of pain.  I've experienced quite a bit of it in my seventeen years."

A short laugh echoed through the building.  "You want me to test that?" 

Before I got the chance to answer him, the door shook.  Someone was trying to get in, and I bet my life that whoever it was didn't have my best interest in mind.  My strange captor took three silent steps toward the front of the building, and signaled for me to follow.  I figured facing one guy, as opposed to a whole police force, would be the better option.  So, I followed.

The whole place had a very haunted feel, with spider webs and dust at every corner.  He lead me through what looked to be an old hotel lobby.  On the opposite side of the lobby was a hallway with doors lining both sides.  Each door had gold, swirly numbers mounted at about eye level.  We walked until we reached door 122. 

The guy knocked on the door and, to my surprise, the door clicked in response.  A red light shone from the peep hole and seemed to scan his eye.  Then it unlocked.  He turned the knob as though it was the most normal thing in the world, waiting for me to step inside, and then locking it again behind me. 

I had no idea what to make of my surroundings.  The first thing to strike my attention was the general Victorian style frilliness of the room.  The faded pink curtains, the floral wallpaper, the ruffled lamp in the corner, was almost enough to make a grandma cringe.  "Dude, you should really beef up your bachelor pad.  This is just painful." 

In that moment, as I turned around, I saw that I was terribly mistaken.  This "guy" was definitely not a guy. 

"Call me dude again, and I'll chuck you out that window.  I'm sure the police would just love to have you in their grasp, Mr. Reid Parker."

I nearly choked.  Before me, in the same black clothes, was a girl about my age.  Short, chestnut hair framed sharp, angular facial features.  Her eyes were like lasers, scanning me, daring me to offer a comeback to her retort.  Only one thing came to mind.  "You sure have a low voice for a chick."

She reached two fingers into her mouth and pulled out a small microchip.  "There, better?"  This time her voice sounded like...well...a girl. 

"I don't know what you want, but I don't have time for this."  I reached for the door handle, but what she said stopped me in my tracks. 

"Reid Parker.  Age 17, blond hair, green eyes, pale complexion.  Related to Sky Parker, age 12, blue eyes, ash blonde hair, also fair skinned." 

I turned around to see that she was reading all of this off of a small handheld tablet.  Had "Little Miss Dude" really been keeping tabs on me?

"Mother died when he was ten, Father is a heavy alcoholic and hasn't made contact with his children in over three years.  After Mr. Parker was named an unfit parent by social services, Reid and Sky were sent into the foster care system."

"Where the heck did you hear all of this?"

She held a finger in the air like a mother quieting an impatient child.  "Hold on, I'm not done yet."  She cleared her throat and looked back at the tablet.  "After escaping from each of eight foster homes, the children went missing in 2010, and haven't been seen or heard from since."

"I'm only going to ask one more time..."  I walked toward her with pure anger coursing through me, wanting so badly to just smack that satisfied smile off her face.  "Where did you get your information?!" 

She giggled, clearly amused.  "Why on earth would I tell you?"

I wound up and sent a fist headed right toward her upward turned lips.  She raised her hand and stopped it just inches before my curled fingers had found their target.  I couldn't believe it.  Had my punch really just been stopped by a girl?  For a moment, she just held me there.  My fist mid-punch in her palm, and her eyes boring into mine. 

"You seem to think that I'm here because I need your help.  You're mistaken, Mr. Parker.  Actually, I'm here because I think I can help you."

I answered with the same irritated and forceful tone she was using.  "What could you possibly do for me?  I don't even know who you are!"

She pushed my fist hard, and I stumbled backward, catching my balance just before I slammed into the door.  "Your sister has been living on the streets since she was only seven years old.  I know why you're being chased by the cops.  You don't steal because you're selfish and lazy, you steal because you want a better life for her.  We can give you and your sister that chance."

"Who is we?"

"Bring your sister to room 328 tonight at eight o'clock and you'll find out.  Bring as many weapons as you like, but if you want them to stay yours, I would suggest leaving them behind."  She walked slowly toward the door and opened it.  "Goodbye, Mr. Parker." 

She left and closed the door behind her without a sound, leaving me behind to wonder what on earth had just happened. 

I reached the rendezvous spot with no conflict whatsoever.  It was as though everyone in the city had decided to stay inside.  The police force that had previously been hot on my trail was nowhere to be seen. 

The rendezvous was an old warehouse on the outskirts of the city.  The building was huge, and took up several city blocks.  But there was only one room that I was interested in.  The room that held my sister; our rendezvous point.  It was located in the very center of the facility.  We chose that room specifically because anyone would need to navigate a long maze of hallways in order to get to it.  Sky and I could find it with no problem.  Police officers on the other hand, not so much.

When I reached the room, I took in a deep breath.  It was good to be back at our little makeshift home.  Even though the floor was mainly cement, we had searched through the building and found some carpet scraps, rugs, and pillows to make it more comfortable.  To be honest, it was the best home we'd ever had.  It wasn't the most convenient or comfortable, but at least I didn't have any money-hungry adults trying to "take care of us". 

I saw Skylar in the midst of a pile of pillows, the only thing visible was her face.  She did this whenever she was waiting for me to come back home.  I never understood why, maybe it made her feel safe.  I walked over to her pillow-covered legs and flopped down on top of her.  “Help, Skylar, I think I’m about to pass out!”  I complained dramatically.

“No, you’re not, you big lump.  Get off of me!”  The slightest hint of a giggle escaped from her as she emerged from the mound.  “Gosh, you weigh a ton!”

“I can’t move!”  My rouse continued.  “Limbs…growing…heavy…”

She laughed.  "Good grief, you’re making my feet fall asleep!"  Then she smacked my head with a pillow.

"Ouch!  What was in there?  A rock?"

"Oh, oops.  That's the pillow I keep my book in.  Sorry." 

She giggled all the way through her apology, and I laughed along with her.  Though my head ached from making contact with the children’s hard cover edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, it was good to see my little sister smile.  "Did my head do any damage to the book?"

"No, it's alright."  She flipped open the book to the first page, revealing a note we had read a million times and our mother's name written in flowing cursive.  "Is it strange that I miss her even though I barely knew her?"

I tried my hardest not to let her innocent eyes pierce my heart, but a lump welled behind my teeth just the same.  I swallowed it back and cleared my throat, sliding up next to her amidst the pillows.  "No, I don't think that's strange."  She leaned into my shoulder, my arm finding its natural place around her side.  "Not strange at all."

A silence fell over the room as I thought of how I could change the subject.  Sky beat me to it.

"Reid, why can't you tell me what you stole?"

"Who said I can't tell you?"

"No one.  But if you were planning on telling me, you would have done so right when you entered the room."  She cracked a smile.  "You're not exactly known for hiding your victories." 

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it sooner.  It was just too good an opportunity to pass up."  I reached into the pocket of my black sweatshirt and pulled out a small white envelope that I had received just that morning. 

She gave me a questioning look when it landed in her lap. 

"Look inside.”  I prodded.  “I know you’re mad, but you have to understand, they paid me really well.  Now we can get our own food instead of relying on the Soup Kitchen to provide." 

Sky's eyes widened as she viewed the fifty- and hundred-dollar bills that filled the envelope.  But instead of joyful, or even just relieved, all she looked was upset. 

"What's wrong?  Aren't you excited?"  I asked.

Sky looked up, and a tear traced down her cheek.  "Everything is wrong, Reid!  You promised me that you would find another way to make things better for us.  It's only been a week and you already went back on your word!  Where did you get this?"

"A man approached me two days ago with a job.  Someone had taken something from him, and he wanted it back.  He made an offer that I couldn't help but accept, and that was that.  I got the item back to its original owner, and he paid on the spot.  End of story."

Her expression eased, and she looked up at me hopefully.  " didn't steal it?  You just returned it?  What did the man ask you to get back?"

I changed my voice to sound like a bad impression of an action movie secret agent.  "I'm sorry ma'am, but that information is strictly confidential."  I laughed at myself, trying to lighten the mood and desperately hoping that Sky would join in. 

She didn't.  

Instead she just stared at me like I was the Grinch who had stolen her Christmas.  "Reid, this is serious.  I don't want you to end up in prison."

"And that won't happen, I promise you.  I know what I'm doing."

She wasn't buying it.  I could tell she was itching to argue this some more, but instead she just laid her head on my chest and snuggled up close to my side.  "Alright.  I'll play along.  Just don't expect me to be enthusiastic about your money making techniques.  They still make me feel uncomfortable." 

I smiled.  Good old Sky always knew how to place an effective argument without actually arguing.  It was a talent that she had bested me at since we were very little.  "I know you don't like it.  But as long as you and I are together, everything will be a-ok."

A yawn escaped her lips, and I could see her eyelashes beginning to fall toward her cheeks.  "I sure hope you're right.  I love you, Reid."

"I love you too, Sky.  Goodnight."

Her only reply was the sound of light snoring.  It had been a long day, and a little sleep sounded pretty good.  After allowing every muscle to relax, I closed my eyes and finally willed sleep to take me away as well.  

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Australians, Pickpockets, and Bad Decisions (Not Necessarily In That Order)

I woke to Sky shaking me harshly.  "Reid, someone’s coming.  Reid!" 

I mumbled back to her with closed eyes, my mind still groggy with exhaustion.  "Sky, what is so important?  I ran like eight miles today, and got us the most money we've had since Dad quit his job.  The least you could do is let me sleep."

Then I heard footsteps, followed by the subtle shink of a blade popping open, and I saw the reason for her panic.  The girl that I had talked to earlier that day in room 122 was standing in the doorway, twirling a knife back and forth between her fingers like a baton.

"Hello, Mr. Reid Parker.  Sorry to disturb your nap, but I was worried about you.  When you didn't show up for our little meeting, I decided it would do just as well to come over here and escort you to room 328 myself." 

All of this was said with a very believable air of innocence.  Too bad for her, I didn't believe it.  "I didn't show up because I didn't want to.  You proved that you know a lot about me, but I don't know enough about you to trust you.  I don't even know your name."

She laughed.  "You seemed to trust my boss just fine.  Why?  Did the hefty sum of money he offered make him seem more trustworthy to you?” 

“What are you talking about?”

“You did exactly what he wanted.  You stole the crest, no questions asked, just because he was going to pay you."

My breath caught in my throat.  "Wait... No... It wasn't his to start with?  It really did belong to that man?"  I couldn't stand to hear anymore.  "I'm so stupid!"

"No, not exactly stupid.  Just desperate.  But don’t worry, we like desperate people."

I stepped up to her and stood nose to nose, glaring as hard as possible.  She smelled really good, like spicy sweet ginger and honey.  I almost said something about it, but on second thought I figured “I like how you smell” wasn’t the most threatening phrase in the world.  Now was not the time. 

"Who are you?”  I growled through my teeth.  “Who do you work for?  Why do you keep using the word 'we'?  Give me answers or I’ll find a way to break that pretty little smirk of yours!" 

Intimidation never once crossed her face.  In fact, she seemed almost amused, as if the only thing she had heard was me calling her smirk “pretty”.  Again, probably not the best choice of words on my part.

"Don't worry, Mr. Parker, all answers will become clear in due time.  But for now, we are  going to have to do something about that temper of yours."  She stepped forward, and in one swift motion I was on the floor, trying to figure out what had just happened.  "I don't have permission to tell you anything, but if you come with me my instructor will give you the information you seek."

I stood back up again and croaked out my answer, coughing from my recent meeting with the floor.  "What if I don't come?"

"Then you’ll never find the truth, and you’ll miss a grand opportunity."

"That's it?  No threats, no torture?"

"None whatsoever.  But if you decide to come check it out, there's no turning back.  We can't risk having an outsider know about us."

I stole a glance at Skylar and found that she looked just as uneasy and confused as I felt.  "What do we get out of this?"

"If you come with me and play by our rules you're guaranteed food, consistent income, and a place to stay.  Our accommodations don't allow for a boy and a girl to stay in the same room, but I'm sure I could pull some strings since you two are brother and sister.  Any other questions?"

"Yeah.  Why me?  You could have picked anyone.  Why did you decide to pick me?"

"Because you're smart, you're ambitious, and you need our help.  Those are the three qualities we always look for."

I thought for a minute, and then I looked over at Skylar again.  She just stared at me for a moment and then broke eye contact, averting her gaze.  I knew what she was saying without even hearing a word.  She wanted me to say no, but she was giving me the freedom to choose.  What could I do?  This old warehouse wouldn't work for a good shelter once the cold set in.  Sure, it kept out the snow, but the heat didn't work.  We would either freeze or starve to death within just a few days of the winter chill starting up. 

"Alright," I said, "I'll do it."

 The three of us arrived at the hotel in around ten minutes, which was pretty fast considering how dark it was, and how many alleys we had to navigate in order to get there.  Of course, the elevator had broken down from rust and decay years ago, so we took the stairs up to the third floor.  Upon reaching door 328, she (gosh, I still didn't know her name!) stepped forward and performed the same routine of unlocking the door as she had back at 122.  The door unlocked, and she told us to wait outside for a moment. 

When she returned, she had a kind smile on her face.  I was used to seeing a serious scowl, so the smile kind of creeped me out. 

"Mr. Parker, you can go in now.  And don't worry, I'll stay out here and keep Sky company."  She walked over to Sky and placed gentle hands on her shoulders.

I watched Sky's expression, and she looked up at me as though she could read my mind.  "I'll be fine."  She said, putting on a smile.  "Just do what you have to do."

I figured there was no arguing with either of them, so without another word I stepped up to the door, sucked in a deep breath, and pushed it open.

The air grew suddenly warmer as I entered the room, and a glowing fireplace glimmered fiercely in the dark.  A solitary desk sat in front of a large window near the back wall, and the flickering firelight revealed a man sitting in a rather dramatic desk chair behind it.  It was the same man that had hired me to steal the crest.  His hair was combed back in a way that reminded me strangely of Superman, and he was wearing a gray suit, along with a genuine smile.  A little too genuine for my taste.  He seemed to me like the type of man who would offer a kid candy with that same smile, and then take it away just before the first bite, simply to make himself feel powerful. 

"Hello, Reid.  Please take a seat."  He gestured to a simple chair placed directly in front of the desk. 

Not wanting to appear too trusting, I remained standing.  "What's with the dark room.  Did you blow a fuse?"

The man grinned and pulled a remote control out of one of the desk drawers.  He pushed a button and the two lamps that were sitting on the fireplace mantel flashed to life.  "Is that better?"

"Yeah, much."  I said, still staring at this continuously interesting man.  "Why am I here?  Do you need me to do another job for you?"

"You already did.  You returned the crest."

"You mean stole the crest.  It's not yours, remember?"

"Oh.  Rebecca told you, huh?"

"Rebecca?  Oh, yeah, Rebecca.”  So thats tough girls name.

"Yes, she tends to be very secretive.  Even I had to snoop in order to find her story.  It's a lengthy tale, but that's not the reason you're here."

"You’re right.”  I noticed my courage beginning to diminish the longer I talked to this guy, but I was determined not to let on.  To save face, I picked up a random little trinket from the mantle and began fiddling with it absentmindedly.  What had I just signed up for?  “Why am I here?"

The man paused for a moment in thought, staring at the fireplace as though he wanted to eat it.  "Riddle me this... Why were you so willing to steal the crest when I asked you to?"

"Easy.”  I tossed the trinket, which I now realized was a small orb of some kind, and caught it in my palm.  “I needed the money to provide for my sister." 

"That money will only last so long.  And it's certainly not enough to provide a home for the two of you."

I paused, waiting for him to finish.  He just stared at me, waiting for me to speak.  "I don't understand.  What are you offering?"

"Money, food, and a home in exchange for your skills.  You help me, I help you and your sister.  Fair and square."

"How do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't.  But I don't know if I can trust you either, so the playing field is even."  He stuck out his hand for me to shake.  "What do you say?"

He had a good point.  How could he trust me from only a few minutes?  I had no idea what he had in mind for me to do, but what choice did I have?  It was either this, or starve to death.  Every grocery store in town knew to look out for me, so even if my intentions were to pay for the food, that was out of the question.  This man was my only option.  I grasped his hand, which he shook firmly, a wide grin appearing on his face.  Goosebumps spread with a chill across my torso, like my insides had just been transformed into a block of ice.

"Good choice."  He got up out of his chair and walked swiftly to the door.  He swung it open and spoke happily out into the hallway.  "Miss Drake, please escort the young Parker residents to their new home.  I'll be there shortly." 

Rebecca lead us back to the stairwell as we started our journey back to the main floor.  "We'll stop back at the warehouse so you can pick up anything you want to take along.  We have a relatively long night ahead, but don't worry," she looked back at us with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes, "I'm a pro." 

The rest of the night was an absolute blur.  We stopped back at the warehouse, just like she said, and picked up the very few things that we had.  Skylar retrieved her book, a pillow, and a notebook and pencil that she had used to ease her boredom since she was little.  As for me, all I got was my trusted backpack, already packed with everything I needed.  I had packed it that way just in case Sky and I would need to leave at a moment’s notice.  I guess it came in handy after all.

We left the warehouse and followed closely behind Rebecca, who was once again back to her cold, urgent, antisocial self.  At least, I assumed that's how she acted normally.  I hadn't seen any evidence that might have proven otherwise.  She definitely wasn't like most girls I had met.  She was straight forward, insistent, convinced that she was always right, and annoyingly strong for her size.  Ok, so maybe the first three weren't so strange for a girl, but that didn’t make her any less hard to work with. 

We didn't stop our hurried pace for about ten minutes, and then we came to a long highway bridge.  On the corner of the bridge entrance sat a teenage boy in dirty, ragged clothing (not unlike our own).  Rebecca told us to wait where we were—about twenty feet from the bridge—until she came back.  We did as she asked, and she walked up to the kid at the bridge.  The poor guy looked like he had been through a lot of rough situations, but I suppose anyone looking at Sky and me would think the same thing.  Suddenly I felt extremely self-conscious.  Is that really how people saw me?  That poor guy on the street with no home, no guardians, hardly any food, nothing to his name, that was me.  I turned around and averted my focus.  The passing cars were much more interesting anyway, right? 

"Reid, are you alright?"  Sky slipped a gentle hand into mine.

It took me a moment, but I eventually got my brain functioning well enough to get the words out.  "Ye-uh-yeah.  Everything...everything is going to be just fine."

"I'm not so sure, but I trust you."  She looked up at me with hopeful eyes. 

It was my turn to say something.  The perfect words that would be encouraging and realistic at the same time.  I was clueless.  What on earth could those perfect words be?  Only one thing came to mind.  I needed to make her laugh.  "Well, I'm not so sure trusting me is a good idea."  I looked down at her and cracked a smile.  "I'm pretty sure my brain suffered some damage from getting hit with your book this afternoon."

The desired effect occurred just like I hoped it would.  She laughed and smiled up at me like I was the one and only jester who had made the princess' day.  It made me feel great.  But the moment was short, because just then Rebecca returned.  She walked by and spoke quickly, hurriedly stuffing something into her back pocket.

"Alright, let's move.  We don't want to be out here when the temperature drops for the night."

So, without another word, we followed.  After another fifteen minutes, we arrived at the train station.  I was surprised.  First of all, she had taken the absolute worst route to get there.  And second, how were any of us going to afford a ticket?  I was just about to confront her with both of these arguments, when she turned around and pulled some folded paper out of her back pocket.  This paper turned out to be three tickets for this very train, which was headed to... "Seattle, Washington?  Why on earth are we go-"

Rebecca shoved me into a dark corner of the station and held her fingers in a tight grip over my mouth.  "Golly!  Are you trying to get us killed?  Keep your voice down and don't speak at all unless I ask you a question.  Got it?  Great.  Now let's move, our train is going to leave in only three minutes."

Rebecca turned and marched off in a huff.  What was all that about?  I had no idea why, but for some reason I found her strength....attractive?  No, not the right word.  Amusing?  Yes...but still not quite right.  Intimidating?  Yeah, I guess that was as close to the right word as I was going to get. 

With the tickets, though I have no clue how she got them, we got onto the train as easily as a paid passenger.  The tickets were even for a first class car, which was nicer than any of the homes I had ever had.  The strange thing was that we weren't the only poor people in the first class car.  In fact, every passenger on that car was a teenager, and they all looked broke, like us.  "Who are all of these people?"

"They're all misfits, just like you two."  Rebecca replied.  "They might be homeless, abandoned, orphans, maybe even just struggling with a hard home life.  But they all have very specific skill sets."

"What would that be?"

"Think about it.  You're smart.  Why are you here?  Think about why we brought you here, and how we tested you."

It only took me a moment to understand what she was getting at.  "They're all thieves, am I right?"

"Not exactly.  But you'll find out soon enough."

At this point I was extremely confused, but I quickly brushed the feeling aside.  I agreed to be a part of this no matter what, so I figured I would find all the answers to my questions eventually.  "So, what would you like me to do until we reach Seattle?"

Rebecca gave me the biggest 'seriously dude?' face I had ever seen in my life.  "Hang out.  Talk to people.  Be a teenager.  You definitely know how to ask questions, now just practice that talent on someone other than me."

Rebecca began to walk away, but I caught her arm.  Why?  I had no idea.  "Rebecca, I'm sorry about all the questions.  But you have to understand, I'm not very good at...talking to people.  I'm probably the most socially awkward person you'll ever meet."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because now if I ever say something stupid, you'll just know that I'm doing the best I can."

"Mr. Parker, I can guarantee you that everyone here is just as socially challenged as you are.  I have other more important things to worry about right now."

"Wait, just one more thing.  Please stop calling me 'Mr. Parker'."

"Well then what should I call you?"

"Reid.  Just call me Reid."

She sighed.  "Very well, Reid.  I'll see you later for orientation."

And then she left.  Her last words just left me with even more confusion.  What orientation?  What was I getting into here?  Who is she, and why does she act like she's so superior to everyone else?  Again, I was forced to push the questions aside.  Rebecca said that everything would make sense eventually, but I was getting more curious and impatient by the minute.  I just stuffed my train ticket in my back pocket, and moved on.

I found Sky at a booth in the corner of the car, sitting across from two boys that looked to be twins.  They both had brown hair, and typical nice-guy grins that were identical.  Sky introduced them when I walked up.

"Hey, Reid, this is Tim and Riley Griffin."

"G'day."  The twins said in unison.  Judging by their accents, they weren’t from around here.

I returned the greeting and sat down next to Sky, still addressing the twins.  "So, do you two know what this is, or why we're here?"

"Not a clue."  Said the one on the right.  Tim, I believe.

"They never told us anything."  Said Riley.

"But supposedly they're going to give us some sort of run down when we reach our destination."  Tim finished. 

"Yeah," I said, "that's what I heard too." 

Tim shot me a sly grin.  "The down trodden look on your face tells me you met Rebecca.  Am I right, mate?"

I let out a short laugh.  "Yep, exactly right."

Riley chuckled.  "Crikey, she's one complex specimen, isn't she?"

"Complex!"  I said.  "Perfect word!  That's just the word that describes her!"

Tim, Riley, and Sky all stared at me with expressions of curiosity.

"Sorry, I'd been having a hard time coming up with that word earlier.  You just helped remind me."    

"Glad I could help you out.  It's maddening when words are hard to come by."

We talked and laughed with the Griffin brothers for another hour before we all agreed that we were too tired to keep up the conversation.  We learned that they were from Australia, and had been recruited in much of the same way that I had.  We discussed their home, and what it was like, and they asked us about how we had ended up here.  Then we discovered what time it was and decided to get some rest.  According to a clock on the far wall, it was almost 4am. 

Sky and I found out that the car we were in was just the dining car, so we went into the next car over and found a door with a number that matched the one on our tickets.  Inside was a bunk bed with two mattresses that were clean and ready to be slept in.  I didn't hesitate for a single moment, and neither did Sky.  She claimed the top bunk, and I gladly obliged.  Heights weren't exactly my strong point, but she didn't give them a second thought.

Sky fell asleep instantly, but I was having a hard time.  With everything inside me, I longed for sleep to come.  But as exhausted as my body was, my mind was still wide awake.  There were too many thoughts, too many images, too many words running through my head.

After an hour or so of tossing and turning while Sky slept soundly, I finally decided to get up and see who was occupying the dining car.  Almost everyone had gone to bed, but there were a few stragglers still wide awake, talking and laughing.  At first I tried to spot Tim and Riley, but then I remembered that they had gone to bed at the same time we had.   Rebecca didn't seem to be around either, which kind of gave me a sense of relief. 

I noticed a girl with red curls sitting in a booth to the right with her back toward me.  She was by herself, and her head was bobbing pitifully as though she was wrestling with sleep, and losing.  Suddenly, I noticed her start to slowly tip toward the edge of the booth.  If she went any further to the side, she would fall straight over into the table and chairs just a couple feet away.  I rushed over and caught her just before her head began to fall. 

She woke with a start and hugged onto me.  "Oh, merci!  Je vous remercie beaucoup!" 

I had no clue what she had just said.  "Uh, I don't speak French."

She backed away and put a hand bashfully to her lips.  "Oh, my apologies, Monsieur.  Thank you so very much for rescuing me, that was very kind."

"'re welcome."  I sat down in the seat across from her and folded my hands on the table. 

"So," she said excitedly, "what is your name?"

For a moment, I forgot.  Her accent was so beautifully smooth, almost enticing.  What had she asked again?  She asked for your name, stupid!  Snap out of it!  "Uh-um... It's... it's Reid."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Reid.  My name is Autumn."

Autumn.  What a lovely name.  I wonder if her name is Autumn because of all the guys who fall for her...  "So, what's your special skill?"

"What do you mean?  How do you know I even have one?"

"Rebecca said that everyone here has a very specific skill set.  What's yours?"

Her lips turned upward to reveal a sneaky smile, and she pulled a piece of paper out of her left sleeve and waved it in the air in front of my eyes.  It looked like a train ticket.  "Honestly, I'm quite surprised you have not figured it out." 

A subtle realization crept into my mind, and I checked my pockets.  That wasn't just any old ticket, that was my ticket.  "Pickpocket huh?  Very impressive, but can I please have it back?"

She let her wrist fall toward me, pointing the ticket in my direction.

I plucked it from her slender fingers, and this time decided on my inner coat pocket as the safest place to keep it. 

She laughed softly and spoke under her breath.  "Such petty actions.  A coat pocket is just as simple to pick as any other."

Suddenly, my good opinion of her took a steep nosedive.  "Whelp, it was a pleasure to meet you, Autumn.  I think I'm going to go check on my sister." 

"Goodnight, Reid." 

I got up from the booth and booked it toward the dining car's exit.  Just before I reached the door, an arm shot out in front of me.  I looked to the left and found myself nose to nose with a guy who was rocking the perky, preppy-boy haircut. 

"You checking out my girl Autumn?"  He asked sternly.

"N-no, not at all."

"Good.  Don't even think about it."

"No worries man, she's all yours."

The guy seemed confused about how easily I had given that one up, but thankfully, he didn't keep me for an interrogation.

I got back to the room, and Sky was in the exact same position I had left her in.  This was the best night's sleep she had gotten in years, and probably the most comfortable too.  Whether or not this deal turned out well for me, I didn't care anymore.  Seeing her sleep without a worry or care was more than I could have ever asked for. 

With these thoughts to keep me company, I peeked out the window and watched the scenery pass me by.  After a few minutes, I could barely keep my eyes open.  Next thing I knew, I was lying on the soft mattress of the lower bunk, my head deep in a pillow that probably costed more than all of my belongings put together, and my eye lids so heavy I couldn't have opened them even if I wanted to. 

I let my thoughts wander from the situation at hand, and the maddening curiosity it brought on.  Every muscle seemed to relax as my senses tuned in to my surroundings.  The sound of wheels chugging over the train tracks, along with the lull of the vibrating train car, helped to calm my thoughts.  Sandman, I won't need any help from you tonight. 

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Right This Way, Mr. Bartlett

"Attention, all passengers in the Rebecca Drake party, please meet in the dining car in ten minutes.  Thank you." 

The announcement came from the overhead speakers in our cabin, and it was what woke me up from my deep sleep the next morning.  I groaned and stretched out on my mattress, wishing that I could just go back to sleep.  Five more minutes, just five more. 

"Reid, did you hear that?"  Sky peeped from her perch on the top bunk.  "We should go to make sure we don't miss anything."  After a minute or so of me not responding, she climbed down and stared at me.  "Are you even awake?" 

I scrunched up my nose and let out a big snore.

She laughed, and then I felt something soft smash against the side of my face.  When I opened my eyes, Sky was standing over me with a pillow in her hands, ready to strike again at a moment’s notice.  Her stance seemed tense, but her expression was playful.  In one swift motion I grabbed my pillow and chucked it at her head. 

She flung her pillow up as a shield and then let out a victorious "Ha ha!" when my pillow failed to reach its target. 

Pillows flew through the air and arms flailed at random.  The battle wasn't a very serious one though.  Neither one of us could get a very good shot at the other because we were both giggling.  It didn’t help that there was only about three feet of space between our bunk and the wall either.  Then, with one fowl swoop, we both took a big swing at the other and missed by a mile.  The momentum quickly took us down, and soon both of us were sprawling on the ground.  I knew I probably had a couple bruises from the landing, but right at that moment the only pain I was paying any attention to was in my gut from laughing so hard. 

"All passengers in the Rebecca Drake party, please meet in the dining car in five minutes.  Thank you."

Sky sat up and looked over at me, heaving a happy sigh and trying hard not to burst into laughter again.  "We should really go.  We don't want make Rebecca angry with us on our first day."

First day of what?  We had no idea.  Nothing could have prepared us for the strange adventure we were about to get ourselves into. 

When we reached the dining car, the only people who were there were the few people that had been there the night before when I couldn't sleep.  Autumn must have stayed up all night, she was still in the same booth I had seen her in when she had stolen my train ticket.  Her overly protective boyfriend was sitting across from her, glaring at me while he chugged a Mt. Dew.  He seems like a great guy.  They must be very happy together. 

I almost laughed.

Sky and I walked over to the nearest empty table and sat down.  I noticed Autumn's boyfriend shoot a warning glance in my direction the moment I pulled up my chair.  Wow, if a look could kill I would have been a very dead man.  I turned around and faced Sky, acting like I hadn't seen him.  Apparently it didn't matter, because even with my back turned I could feel his eyes boring into the back of my head. 

At that moment, Tim and Riley walked in and joined our table. 

Riley plopped down next to me.  "Hey, Reid, how you going?"

It took me a moment to realize what he was asking, but then I figured it out.  "I'm alright.  I feel more rested than I have in a long time."  

Tim jumped into the conversation.  "Same here.  I don't know what those mattresses were made out of, but I slept like a baby."

Riley turned to his brother with a counter.  "I have never understood that reference.  Baby's don't sleep well at all, what with them crying all the time.  Whoever came up with that metaphor was sorely confused."

"True enough."  Tim responded.  "Maybe I slept like a sloth then, they sleep all the time." 

The twins' comical conversation helped me to lighten up a little bit.  I could tell that I was going to get along with those two just fine.  "So, what are your special skills?"  I asked this without any expectation as to how they would respond, but their reaction surprised me regardless. 

Riley glanced over at Tim with a devious smile, and then back at me.  "Have you ever seen those cartoons where there is a hallway lined with doors, and the characters run in and out through them?"

"Yeah, what about it?"

Tim grinned proudly.  "Well, whenever we're being chased, whether it's from a gang, or the cops, one of us hides and the other one runs.  As soon as the one running is out of sight, the other pops out and takes a turn."

"It's genius, you see, because this way we never run out of energy."  Riley cut in.  "The people chasing us think they're only running after one person."

"Eventually they run out of breath, and we get away easy."  Tim finished.

I tried not to laugh, but the images running through my head of the two brothers' mischievous talent were just too hilarious.  "What do you two get chased after for in the first place?"

"That depends on the employer."  Tim said.

"Different people hire us for all sorts of jobs."  Riley filled in.

Then Sky spoke up for the first time since we had entered the dining car.  "Have you ever been caught?" 

"Yeah," said Tim, "but we got away."

"How did you do that?" 

The brothers looked at each other as if seeking permission.  Was that guilt I saw in their eyes? 

"We would prefer not to talk about it." 

I was about to ask why, but then Rebecca walked through the door, and I suddenly realized just how full the room had gotten. 

Rebecca closed the door to the dining car and locked it behind her.  Then, staring out over the sea of faces, she waited until everyone grew quiet.  "Hello, people.  I hope everyone slept well.  If you didn't, not my problem.  Anyways, by now you're all very suspicious of who we are, and why you're here.  As for the answers... I'm still not going to tell you." 

A series of sporadic groans and sighs sounded from around the room.  I, on the other hand, wasn't surprised.  The only way I would have been surprised is if she had actually told us what was going on. 

What did surprise me was when Autumn's boyfriend walked over to Rebecca and said "Thanks, I'll take it from here".  He stepped up on top of a chair and looked over the crowd.  His attitude and expression was completely changed from when he had been threatening me the night before.  He actually looked kind of...friendly.  "Hello everyone, my name is Jake Howell, and I'm the security technician here.  I know you must have a lot of questions, and that's perfectly fine.  I did too when I first got here.  I promise you that coming along with us is going to be the best decision you ever made.  Please, just bear with us until we reach our destination, and I promise you that it will be worth your while."

I took careful note of the differences in leadership between Jake and Rebecca. Rebecca was pushy, rude, and insensitive.  Jake, on the other hand, used words like 'us' and 'we' to pull everyone together.  He was considerate in his words, and tried to relate.  All I could think about was Man!  How did Jake end up with a girl like Autumn? 

As I was pondering this, Jake stepped off the chair and walked over to me.

"Hey, I'm sorry about getting so defensive last night.”  He said.  “I hope you didn't take it too personally."

"Don't worry about it, it was no big deal.  I would have done the same thing."

He smiled kindly.  "We haven't been properly introduced."  He stuck out his hand for me to shake.  "I'm Jake, what's your name?"

I shook his hand.  "Reid.  Reid Parker."

Jake raised an eyebrow and leaned in toward me.  "Oh, so you're the one Rebecca has been telling me about.  I’ve already heard a lot about you."

I raised an eyebrow as well, but for me it was out of curiosity.  "Good a lot, or bad a lot?"

He thought for a moment.  "Well, I guess that depends on your perspective.  From her view it's very bad, punishable even.  But everyone else would probably see these stories as things to be admired."

I glanced across the room to where Rebecca was standing.  She was glaring at me when my eyes met hers, but then she averted her gaze as soon as she realized that I was looking at her.  "What did you hear?"

"You stood up to her, really shook her up.  I don't know if you noticed, but she's very used to being in charge."

"Yep, that's kind of a hard mark to miss."

Jake laughed.  "Yeah, I guess it is.  Well, when someone else pulls out their take charge attitude against her, she gets confused.  She doesn't know how to handle it.  It really frustrates her.  I'm afraid you've developed quite a large enemy, Reid, and it's only your first day."

"Eh, she doesn't scare me.  I've faced much worse than a teenage girl with dominance problems."

Jake snorted while trying to hold in a laugh.  "Listen, man, don't underestimate her.  Rebecca is a whole lot cleverer than you seem to think.  That's why I broke up with her."

Now it was my turn to laugh.  "No way.  You and her?  I'm struggling to see how that even happened in the first place."

"Well, what's done is done.  Eventually both of us came to the same conclusion that you just did, but she took longer to realize it.  Parting ways with her was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and it resulted it the biggest argument I've ever been involved in.  I know how she ticks, and you're just the type of person that sets her off.  Just...tread carefully..."

"Alright, will do.  Thanks for the warning."

"Anytime, Reid.  Take care."

And with that, Jake left.  He went over to Autumn and sat down at their special little booth they had occupied for the past day or so. 

I looked around for Sky, and found her over by the entrance to the dining car talking to Tim and Riley.  The twins were being very animated in their actions, and every time one of them stopped talking Sky would burst into laughter.  I wanted so badly to join them, to laugh at Tim and Riley's stories, but I couldn't.  I was far too nervous about what lay ahead to even think about cracking a smile.  I wasn't going to pull Sky away though.  If she was enjoying herself, I wasn't about to rob her of that.  She deserved to have a little fun.

Some days I really wished I was as good at making friends as Sky was.  Socialization had always made me nervous, while charisma and friendliness seemed to flow from Sky like a waterfall of joy.  Then again, she hadn’t seen or experienced all that I had.  Betrayal seemed to follow me around like a disease, or like the odor of an old pair of unwashed socks.  Over the years I had learned that the only person I could really trust was myself. 

Who needed friends anyway?  I was perfectly fine on my own.  I had provided for Sky, as well as myself, for...well, it seemed like I had been doing it forever.  It was second nature to me.  I lived life one day at a time, and focused my energy on making sure she was ok.  She was the only companion I needed.

"We are now only five minutes from arriving in Washington DC.  For those of our passengers getting off, please gather your belongings and prepare to exit at the station.  Thank you for riding with us!"

Sky waved as the twins walked away and then came to join me, smiling.  She wrapped her arms around my waist and I put my arms around her shoulders.  "I like it here, Reid.  I hope this job turns out to be a good one."

I hoped it would too.  Something about the way everyone talked about this 'grand opportunity' made me feel like I was a bunny being lead into a trap.  My stomach had been flipping gymnast style ever since I had walked into room 328 back at the hotel.  Had that really only been last night?  Wow.  Anyway, right then I was pretty sure my gut was practicing its routine on the uneven bars.  Revolving and spinning over and over until it made me want to hurl.  

"Are you alright?"  Sky said.

Suddenly I noticed that she was staring up at me, concern beginning to seep into her expression.  I shook my head and struggled to form words.  They seemed to stick to my tongue like glue, giving me a bad taste in my mouth.  After a moment or two of staring at her and blinking like a bumbling idiot, I got my vocal chords to work again.  "I'll be ok.  I think I'm just a little tired, that's all.  I didn't sleep very well last night."

She didn't say a single word in response.  Instead, she just gave me one of her many readable expressions.  This one said I don't think thats it, but I'll go along with it just to humor you.  Then she laid her head on my chest and I felt her arms tighten around my midsection.  "You don't have to stay strong all the time you know," She whispered.

I gently combed my fingers through her hair.  "I really wish that were true." 

Since we didn’t have any belongings to gather, Sky and I went over to a booth and watched out the window until the train pulled into DC.  Upon leaving the train, Rebecca gave each person in the 'Rebecca Drake party' a lanyard with a bus pass hanging from it.  I looked at my pass and it's boring, block lettering.  "Who's Jerry Bartlett?" I asked.  I noticed that Tim, Riley, Sky, Jake, and Autumn all had bus passes with the incorrect name printed on it, but none of them seemed to care, so I just decided to forget about it. 

Sky and I got a pair of seats toward the back of the bus, wanting to make sure we didn't end up next to Rebecca, who was sitting in the front row right behind the driver.  The ride wasn't eventful in the slightest.  Now that I think about it, I don't remember most of it, because soon after we pulled away from the train station I fell asleep.  Sky let me sleep until we arrived at our destination, and then she woke me up with a gentle "We're here, Sleepyhead". 

I woke suddenly and turned to look at her, but in my sleepy nature I misjudged where she was and my head conked right into hers.  We both groaned at first, but then laughed at each other's ridiculous expressions as we walked off the bus. 

I had no clue where we were.  For all I could tell we were outside of some giant building in the middle of nowhere.  It was like Sky and my previous warehouse home, except a whole lot bigger.  It looked abandoned, but as soon as I walked through the front door I realized that wasn't anywhere near the truth.  

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Home Sweet...Wow

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Don't Trust Me, I'm A Professional

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A Day In The Life Of A Cozen Student

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I Almost Slept Through Everything

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Trust Is Hard To Come By

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The Best Worst Day Ever

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The Truth Is Overrated

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I Face The Music, And It's Less Than Horrible

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As If There Wasn't Enough Shock Going Around Already

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Food, Sleep, Angst, More Food

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My Sincere Apologies To Andy's Shoes

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Don't Steal From Philanthropists

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Phones Bring Groans. Moles Leave Holes.

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