My name is Alex. I am 17 years old and the only girl in my training. I was chosen from the womb to be a spy. My mother had no choice; I was supposed to be a boy. I was raised among the boys, treated like a boy, and made to look like a boy.
I am strong. I am trained. I am lethal.
I am a spy.
Alex walked into the same café she had been having lunch in for the past two weeks. The best thing to do was establish a routine. People had to get familiar with her. That way, they would stop paying attention to her until she was nothing more than a beige painting on the wall.
“Lettuce and cheese sandwich on wheat with a glass of water?” the lady behind the counter asked.
Alex put down the money and was handed the day’s newspaper. The café was busier this Saturday than it generally was on the weekends, but her table by the window was still open. She liked sitting by the window. It gave her a way to keep watch on the happenings around her.
She got to the sports section by the time her sandwich arrived.
“Anything good in there?” a young man asked.
“Never is,” she said as the busboy refilled her water.
“Then why do you read it every day?”
She looked up at him out of the corner of her eye. “I’m waiting for something.”
“If you’re waiting for wars to end, it won’t happen any time soon.”
“It’s not that. It’s something small.” She was really only interested in the obituaries, but she read the whole newspaper anyway.
“What is it then?” the busboy asked.
Alex folded the paper and turned to look at him for the first time. “Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Ben.” He held out his hand. He was about 17 and tall for his age. His short, light brown hair stood straight up. His green eyes twinkled as he smiled.
“I am perfectly capable of reading your nametag.” She opened the newspaper again.
“What’s your name?”
She sighed. She really wanted him to go away. “Grace,” she lied.
“Nice to meet you.” He offered his hand again for her to shake.
“I have to go,” Alex said as she neatly folded the paper. She placed it on the table and stood.
“But you hardly ate your sandwich,” Ben pointed out.
“Well then you can eat it if it’s such a big deal.” She walked to the door.
“See you tomorrow then!” Ben shouted after her.
Alex quickly left. Time to find a new café.
When she got back to the institution, she went straight to the weights room to work off her annoyance at the busboy. The institution was what the spy group she was a part of was called. It was a secret organization that trained male spies. Alex was the exception. The building it was in looked just like an abandoned office building from the outside. On the inside however, everything was black. There were long hallways with rooms that jetted off. Unless someone knew the way around, they would get lost very easily. All the hallways looked the same but they all led to very different things. Some went to the dormitories, large rooms with rows of simple metal beds, others to weapons rooms, and others yet to large empty rooms for trainings.
The institution operated outside of any other organization in America. Not even the president knew it existed. There were about 300 spies and 40 teachers. They were chosen from birth. The institution had spies that would go undercover as medical trainees and pick the best newborn boys based on family history. Then right after birth the baby would be taken and the family would be told it was dead. The child would grow up completely surrounded by everything spy and would know nothing else. At age four, they would be split into groups by age called trainings. From there, they would be taught everything from fist combat to various weapons to going undercover to basic first aid.
Alex was a special case. The undercover spy that had picked her was told by the doctor and by her mother that she was going to be a boy. When it turned out she wasn’t, the spy took her anyway and brought her back to be an experiment. She was always just one of the boys, though. Her blond hair was always cut short to give her a more boyish appearance. Growing up, the standards she was held to were no less than her fellow training members. Most of the time she felt like they were greater because she had to prove herself, unlike any of them. At any point while she was growing up, if the institution didn’t feel like she was worth having around, they could’ve killed her and been done with her. Then she grew up to be one of the best spies the institution had ever had and now she served a different purpose.
While Alex was at the bench press working out her frustration, a boy with dark brown hair and dark eyes came and sat on the edge of her bench.
Alex put the weights down and sat up. “What do you want, James?”
“I heard they’re talking about making us a team.”
“Is your source reliable?”
He examined his fingernails. “It could be.”
She crossed her arms. “And why would they do that?”
“We’re the best of the best, you and I. Imagine how good we could be if we were together.”
“I work solo.” Alex went to stand, but James put a hand on her leg. He tapped the tattoo on her hand.
“You might want to practice working with me. You never know what situations you’ll be in.”
As soon as he touched her hand, she had a gun to his head. “Oh yeah? And what kind of situations might those be?”
“You have a gun with you when you work out?”
“I always have a gun. Don’t you?”
“Not around here.”
Alex smiled. “See, James, there’s where we differ. You will never be able to pass me in ranking because you have grown lazy. You trust too many people. One day that could get you killed.” She stood and left, once again concealing her gun.
Her room was separate from the boys’ dorm. It was a janitor closet before, but they cleared it out and put a cot in it for her. It wasn’t much, but she had tried her best to make it a bedroom.
She sat down on her bed and looked at the tattoo on her hand. Everything about it and what it stood for made her angry. She chucked a book at the wall.
Then her moment of rage was gone. She slowly picked up the book and placed it back on the floor by her bed. She wasn’t important enough to get a bedside table, but she was important enough to get branded like a cow about to be sent off to slaughter.
The bell sounded through the overhead speaker system to signal time for dinner. Alex left her room and joined the crowd headed for the cafeteria. No one even looked in her direction. She got her tray of food then sat at her usual table by herself. She kept her head down while she silently ate. Conversation was going on all around her.
Alex sat there observing her fellow spies. They had all grown comfortable with the people they were around and had relaxed. They probably didn’t even have their weapons on them. She had her gun tucked away and her spare knives. That was how she was able to get so much better than them. She never relaxed. No one was ever completely safe to be around.
She left the cafeteria with everyone else, blending right into the crowd as best she could. She never truly went unnoticed; something like that was hard to do in a place of all men. Most of the younger trainings were instructed to not even look at her. There were those that didn’t appreciate how she was the best, how she could pick out everything anyone did wrong.
But there were those that secretly wanted her to succeed. There were those that knew she could help them and she could train the younger boys to be just as good. They hardly ever showed it, though, and those people were few and far between. There were 30 people in her training and she knew not a single one liked her.
Alex went back to the weights room to work out a little more before she went to bed.
The next morning, she was stopped by one of her teachers as she was leaving breakfast.
“I have a new mission for you, Alex,” he said, handing her folded a piece of paper. “It has been suggested you work with James on this one.”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea, sir,” she protested.
“And why is that?”
“I work best on my own.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You are aware that in the near future you will have to work with him.”
“Then I shall deal with that when the time comes.”
“Think this over carefully, Alex,” he warned. “This will not be pleasing news.”
“I know, but I am also aware that it will not be like this forever. Soon I will no longer get a say.”
He nodded. “That is correct. Remember to burn that once you have read it,” he said, referring to the paper.
“Yes, sir,” Alex said, then she left.
As she was throwing the paper into the small fire they always had lit solely for the purpose of destroying things, James walked up and crouched next to her. “Is that the mission you refuse to work on with me?”
“Does it matter?” she replied coolly.
“We will make a great team, you know. The two best there ever were working together. That’s hard to come by.”
“I’m sure it has happened before.”
“Think about it,” James said. “We will be unstoppable. There will be no mission we cannot do. With your skills and my strength no one will be able to stand up to us.”
“No one stands up to me now,” Alex pointed out.
“That is because you are intimidating on your own, but no one also stands up to me. Imagine us together. People will be frightened whenever we simply walk into a room.”
She stood and looked down at him. “I have always stood up to you. We will never be a team.”
“You just wait, Alex,” he called after her as she left. “Whether you like it or not, we will work together. You will come over to my side.”
Alex pressed herself into the shadows of the house next door to the one she was scouting. She had to find any entrance into the house. She walked to the front of the house and pretended to be interested in the shrubbery leaves while she studied the front door. It was a lighter wood with a cheap lock. She would easily be able to kick that door in.
She looked down at the shrub and felt a leaf.
“Grace?” the voice said again.
She looked around. A boy was standing a few feet away with his bicycle next to him.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Alex asked, feeling for her gun with her free hand.
“Ben. From the café.”
It was the busboy again. If he wouldn’t leave her alone at his work, how could she get him to go away now? “Oh. Right.” She started to turn away.
“What were you doing?” Ben asked.
“Just admiring the shrub.”
“Do you live around here? Not many people come into this neighborhood.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I live right there,” he said, pointing to the house she had just been hiding against.
Alex nodded. “I better get going.” She stepped away from the bush.
“Hey, Grace, I know this may sound crazy, but would you like to get lunch sometime? I know a great place for lettuce and cheese sandwiches-”
“That really wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“I don’t really eat with other people.” It was true. There wasn’t a single meal she could recall where she sat with someone.
“How do you not eat with other people? Aren’t you in school? You have to sit with friends at lunch,” Ben persisted.
“I do schooling on my own.” At the institution, they only taught them actual book learning until they were ten. Anything beyond that was on their own. She knew enough to blend in with a normal group her age, but it was nothing outstanding. Most of what she knew came from observing other people.
“No one teaches you? That’s odd. That can’t be a very good system.”
“It works just fine. Now I really should be going.” She stepped away.
Ben took a large step towards her, shortening the distance between them. “Wait. You don’t have to leave. You can come to my house for a while, watch some TV or something.”
“No, really. I need to go.”
He grabbed her arm. It took all her power not to pull her gun. “I won’t let you leave until you agree to lunch,” he said with a smile.
Alex stared at him. There was something in his eyes; she didn’t quite trust them. Finally, she sighed. “Fine. Lunch. Three days from today.” She pulled her arm free and started walking away.
“Noon at the deli on the corner of J and Pike! Promise you’ll be there!” Ben shouted after her.
She picked up her pace.
Back at the institution, she was pulled in to help with a training fight. They often did that so the younger trainings wouldn’t get used to only fighting other boys. Not everything out there in the spy world was male dominated.
This time it was to help the training three years below her. These boys were about 14 and had never talked to a girl before. Now they had to fight one.
She stood on the mat across from the first boy. He was short but lanky. He took one swing at her, but she grabbed his arm and forced him down onto the mat. She held his arm behind his back until the teacher called time.
The next boy pulled the same stunt. He tried to fake her with a half arm swing and went to kick her instead. She blocked his kick with her leg and flipped him back so he landed on his back on the mat. Then she sat on his stomach and held his hands above his head. He didn’t even try to resist.
“Lesson number one,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to hurt a girl.” Then she let him go. Embarrassed, he hurried back to the rest of his training.
The teacher had her fight all the boys and she defeated each one with relative ease. After she knocked the last boy down, the teacher blew his whistle. “I hope you all learned something from this today. You will be facing greater opponents than each other. You cannot be afraid to strike and strike hard, no matter who you are fighting. Girls are just as big of enemies as guys. Never underestimate them. Thank you, Alex. You may leave.”
She nodded and crossed the gym. James was standing in the doorway. He clapped as she got near but she walked right past him.
“Come on,” he said, walking after her. “Those were some good fights. You’re helping them. I know fighting you helped prepare me.”
“But like them, you were never able to beat me,” she said without turning around.
He grabbed her hand, pulled her back, and put her against the wall. He leaned in, one hand on the wall by her head, the other by her waist. “Maybe I let you win.”
“You just can’t admit you lost to a girl.”
He reached under the back of his jacket, but he couldn’t find what he was looking for.
Alex held up his little revolver. “Missing this? I snatched it when you pulled me back. You have to be quicker and more observant if you’re planning on surviving.” She ducked under his arm and gave him his gun back.
He instantly held it up and aimed at her head.
“That won’t do you any good,” she said.
“Why not?” James asked, clearly angry.
“Two reasons. A, I took the bullets out, and B, if you shoot me, we will never be a team and that’s what you want, isn’t it? The best there ever were working together? Without me it will just be you, forever by yourself.” She pocketed the bullets and walked away.
Three days later, at exactly noon, Alex walked into the deli. She almost didn’t go because she knew anything she did with this boy would put both of them in danger. He had no importance to the mission she was on; he was simply in the way.
Ben saw her and waved from the table he was at. She made her way to him through the lunchtime crowd.
“You look nice,” he said as she sat down. The only difference between how she looked today and the last time he saw her was the color of her shirt. She didn’t even bother to brush her hair.
“Thanks,” she muttered.
He handed her a menu. “Cheese and lettuce sandwich? What do you even like about those?”
“They’re good for you. Vegetable, dairy, and grain. What more do you need?”
A waitress walked over to them. “What can I get you folks today?”
Ben looked at Alex with a smile. “Two cheese and lettuce sandwiches on wheat,” he said.
She wrote that down and walked away.
“I thought I’d give it a try,” he told her.
“So tell me about yourself,” Alex said quickly before he could ask her that.
“I’m a junior in high school. Most nights after school and on the weekends, I’m the busboy at the Creamer Café, like you know. Speaking of which, I haven’t seen you there the past couple days. Why did you stop coming?”
“I don’t like the same routine forever. Every now and then I have to change things.”
“Where do you eat lunch now? Maybe I could get a job there so I can still see you every day.” He had a slight hopeful twinkle in his eyes.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Costs too much,” she said simply. “What do you do besides work? You must have other hobbies.”
“I’m generally doing homework if I’m not at work. That pretty much takes up all my time.”
“There must be something else you like doing.”
“I do like to read a lot,” Ben admitted, “but I never seem to have much time for that anymore. What about you? Tell me about yourself now.”
“There’s really nothing you need to know.”
“I don’t care. You have to do something besides walking around looking at shrubbery.”
The waitress walked up with their sandwiches.
“May I have a copy of today’s paper?” Alex asked.
“Sure thing,” she replied. “Anything else I can get you two?”
“We’re fine, thanks.”
She brought Alex the paper before attending to another table.
“Do you not get the daily paper?” Ben asked.
“How can you read that? It’s so full of sad news.”
“I like to keep updated with current events. I like to know what’s happening,” she said as she opened the paper, blocking her face from Ben.
He took a bite of his sandwich. “Doesn’t it ever make you sad?”
“I don’t let it get to me. They’re just people I don’t know. Things happen all the time,” she said, still hiding behind the paper.
“But there’s always a possibility you passed them on the streets or you bussed their table and you’ll never see them again. They never have a chance to impact your life. What if they were the one person that was going to change your life forever?”
Alex shrugged, even though the paper blocked her from him. “It’s a big city. Things happen. There’s nothing you can do to stop them. Most of the time it’s people we don’t even know, but sometimes it’s our neighbors. We just have to move on.” She skimmed over the obituaries section and put the paper down.
Ben was staring at her with his sandwich in his hands. “Have you ever had someone close to you die?”
“Death is a part of life. It happens.”
“But have you ever truly seen death? Have you ever looked it in the face and spat at it?”
“What are you saying?” she asked.
He took a moment to put his thoughts together. “Sometimes I just want to do something stupid that could end badly just for the thrill of doing it, but I never do. I’m just too cautious of a person.”
“They’re not always as exhilarating as people make them out to be. You get used to it after a while.”
“But I might end up loving it,” Ben said enthusiastically.
Just then, two men walked in to the deli. Alex watched them walk up to the counter and look at the menu. Then one man put his hand on the counter. Just for a moment she thought she saw a flash of blue on one of his nails.
Alex stood. “We should go.”
“But we’ve barely eaten,” Ben protested. “Don’t you ever finish a sandwich?”
“We need to leave,” she said without taking her eyes off the two men.
Ben put money on the table, confused, and followed her towards the door.
One of the men stepped in front of them. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“G-Grace?” Ben stammered behind her.
Alex drove her elbow into the man’s stomach and dove under his arm, but the other man was ready. He hit her across the face, splitting her lip and knocking her out.