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Chapter 01

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    Maria Catalina Higuera

“Greetings Asher.” Said the person sitting on a metal table opposite me, his legs crossed casually as he tapped a pen against the table. “What!? Where am I? Who are you? What happened?” I asked all at once, panic rising in my throat. This was wrong - awfully wrong. The last thing I remember was falling asleep the morning before my birthday, excited for whatever the day might hold, and now here I was, handcuffed to a chair in what appeared to be an interrogation room with a strange man looking at me.

I tightened my fist waiting for him to give me an answer, but he remained silent. Worst of all, I had no idea what kind of expression he was wearing, since his face was completely covered. I suddenly realized why I could never remember these people’s faces - they had always worn the same shiny smooth black masks that hid their features.

He observed me for some more time, or at least that’s what I think he was doing; for all I knew he could have fallen asleep on the table. Finally, he sighed, seeming to come to a decision, and approached me, his footsteps making a tremendous amount of noise in the otherwise absolutely quiet room.

I tried to recoil from him but it was impossible as I was very much tied to a chair. But this itself was strange - why couldn’t I break the cuffs? Normally this would be no problem for me. He seemed to read my thoughts because he got right up in my face, his shiny mask reflecting my terrified face, my own grey eyes staring back at me. “This is not the real world, boy.” He said from behind the mask; “This is a dream created by me - my world, my rules. Here, you are helpless.”

He dialed back his tone, switching back to something that could be remotely considered friendly. “So Asher, how are your markings doing?” I looked at him in bewilderment. How did he know about my markings Oh. Yes. He probably saw them when I was still small. The real question was what made him think I would answer any of his questions?

I was beginning to suspect that he could actually read my mind because he sighed again. “We have an attitude I see.” He said, adjusting his suit sleeves; “Your father has taught you well; unfortunately, that’s not a good thing to try with me boy, I’m a handler after all”.

I tried to wipe the scared expression from my face. “I don’t know what that is and I’m not telling you anything.” He crossed his arms, again regarding me with whatever expression he had underneath that mask. “I figured as much.” He finally said. “Unfortunately for you, and fortunately for me, I control everything in here.” He extended his arm toward me and in seconds I was no longer wearing clothes, stripped down to my underwear.

I made a strangled sound, a mixture of both surprise and sudden embarrassment at being half-naked in front of a stranger. “What the… What’s your problem, you pervert?” I shouted, pulling at my cuffs in angry frustration.

He tilted his head slightly, almost like he found my reaction amusing. “Relax kid - I mean you no harm.” He said getting closer putting on black leather gloves, “All I need to do is examine your markings.” I pulled so hard at my bonds the chair rattled. “Get away from me!” I shouted at him.

He, of course, ignored me, gently touching the beginning of one of my marks. I growled at him in anger before doing the only thing I could tied up: I bit him.

He jumped backward, cursing and shaking his injured hand, anger clearly visible on his frame, “You little… So that’s how you want it? Fine. I tried to be nice, to do it the gentle way…” He waved his hand and a muzzle appear around my mouth, several of the straps pushing my head back at an uncomfortable angle, leaving my neck, and the markings on it, fully exposed. “Let’s continue, shall we Asher? And no more horsing around or next time I will paralyze you and I can guarantee you that that will not be… pleasant.”

Reluctantly I let him get near me again. Not that I had much of a choice, but this time he didn’t touch me, not directly at least; instead he brought out his metal pen that I realized was not a simple pen at all as it had initially appeared. He clicked something and one end began to sparkle with blue electricity. “Now I would tell you not to move…” He said, leaning over me, “But you won’t be going anywhere anyway.”

The moment the pen touched my markings I screamed in pain as pure agony rolled down my spine like greek fire, spreading down through my body to the very tip of my fingers. “Hmmm… interesting reaction.” He commented, stopping for a few seconds as I tried to catch my breath, my mouth opened in a silent scream, saliva dribbling down my face as I tried to remember how to breathe normally.

He wrote something on a notepad that appeared out of nowhere. “Seems you are doing remarkably good Asher - you’re way ahead of the others, which means…” He leaned in close to me again, his tone taking on a dangerous note; “I can push you a little bit more.” The next time his pen touched my skin, the pain was so bad I blacked out in between screaming sessions, my body slipping in and out of consciousness for what seemed to me like hours, but which was probably less than a minute. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it any longer he was gone as quickly as he came.

I felt relief beyond measure as I, through my blurred vision, looked around the room trying to figure out what happened. It wasn’t long until I spotted him slumped against a wall that had fractured with the force of the blow, dark tendrils of matter filtering in between the cracks. For a second I dared to hope that he was dead - hope that was very short-lived as he came to and got up shakily, rubbing the back of his head. “It seems that your father thinks we have carried it too far, a pity really”. Furtively, I tried to struggle out of my bonds as he placed a hand on my forehead, his thumb in between my eyes. “Time to go back.” He said… and everything went dark again.

I woke up drenched in sweat, my long black hair sticking to my forehead like a wet mop. I sat up, looking around in alarm and half expecting to see his dark frame beside my bed, to see his mask reflecting my pale face as he got his pen ready; but there was nothing out of the ordinary, my room looked like it usually did - dark blue walls with some posters here and there, white curtains pulled shut, only partially blocking out the early morning sun.

A plastic chair stood in another corner with some clothes thrown haphazardly over the backrest; close by stood my small desk that barely had enough space for my laptop, a lamp, and a few notebooks. In another corner, some boxes still remain unpacked, an ever-present reminder that it wouldn’t be long until we got our bags and headed towards the next city, the next house. Stability was a word foreign to both my mental and verbal vocabulary.

I put my feet on the soft carpet and rubbed the markings on my neck. Everything seemed so tranquil, so familiar and peaceful, and yet I could not get rid of the feeling of dread that pervaded my entire being as the remembrance of the dream played itself in my mind over and over again. “More like a nightmare.” I muttered to myself as I slowly got up, wondering whether it had just been that. It had seemed so real - so gut-wrenchingly real.

My markings seemed to ache in agreement as I opened the bathroom door, my bare feet feeling the cold of the bright white tiles as I opened the faucet. I washed my face vigorously, trying to clear my head, while above me the defective light bulb flickered occasionally as I took my shirt off to examine the markings that spread all across my body.

They might have looked like normal birthmarks if it weren't for their unique shape - similar to the scales of a snake, but bigger. The edges of my markings in particular were more spiked - like rows of shark's teeth. From these markings on my neck, other markings extended out over my body. These looked vastly different - some shaped like ferns, or as some medical students may call them, "Lichtenberg scars" - not that I had ever gotten struck by lightning… so far as I knew. (note to self: go ask dad - maybe getting struck by lightning would explain a lot of things). I was simply born like this.

I slipped out of my underwear and stepped into the shower, where I continued to closely inspect the markings that extended to my arms. All the markings began in the back of my neck, curled around my torso, and branched out into my limbs, coiling around my arms and legs. Each branch had its own ending in the back of my hands and feet. Even in the dim light of my defective light bulb, I could tell they had darkened overnight - something that they had been doing over the past years, but that had been especially noticeable these past few weeks.

I was born without them, or so my father tells me. They started to emerge before I reached my first birthday, and at the time they were barely visible - just a little pinkish streak on the back of my neck. Over the years they have gotten more and more noticeable; On my fifteenth birthday, they were a distinct reddish-brown color that was impossible to miss. I didn’t know what they were or what they meant; I didn't even know why I had them - dad had never cared to give me a real explanation.

My father just brushed me off whenever I asked about my markings, but I had formed what I thought to be a pretty good theory. I figured that they were probably the same reason we moved around so much, why my father is so distrustful of everybody, why I could hardly ever leave the house. He went to great lengths to make sure of this, even opting to homeschool me from the moment I was old enough to begin kindergarten.

I turned off the hot water and dried myself, quickly opening the door back into my room and rummaging through my still half-packed clothes. I usually ended up picking whatever looked comfortable - it wasn't like I was gonna leave the house anyway. I considered putting some effort into taming my hair into something remotely resembling neatness, but I gave up on that after three failed attempts.

While I descended the wooden stairs that squeaked softly under my weight, the pleasant smell of breakfast wafted up to me along with my father’s usual scent, and something unfamiliar… I stopped dead in my tracks. There was someone else down there - a person I didn’t know.

My father seemed to have heard my indecision because he called out, “It's okay Asher, you can come down”. Reluctantly, I obeyed, feeling exposed with my marking so clearly visible.

It took me only a second to recognize the person sitting at our kitchen table, and it took even less time for the fear to settle in. I jumped back instinctively as the man from my dream turned to look at me - or at least so I could gather since I couldn't see his eyes. “Well well well, aren't we jumpy today?” he said, addressing me with a coolness that was absolutely aggravating - as if he hadn’t just tortured me in a dream. Or had he really? Had it all been a dream? Reality? A vision? Things were getting real confusing, real quick.

He must have read my confused expression because he chuckled under his mask. “Confused aren't we, Asher?” he said as the pen from my dream suddenly appeared in his hand, its gleaming metal making me recoil even more. “Well I can assure you, dear boy, that it was all true - I was in your dream. Unfortunately, your father here stopped me.” He shook his head, his frame slumped as his posture clearly conveyed the sorrow his face couldn’t.

“Dad?” My alarmed voice quavered embarrassingly. He looked up from where he was serving two cups of steaming coffee, light brown hair falling messily over his eyes much like my own hair often did. He looked at me like I was being overly dramatic; “It’s okay Asher, if he was a treat I wouldn’t be hanging out with him in our kitchen.” As usual, dad came out sounding perfectly reasonable and logical, a quality of his that I didn't appreciate at the moment.

“But he hurt me.” I said, sounding an awful lot like a little kid pouting over the fact that Johnny from across the street whacked him across the head with a Jenga block.

Dad's expression softened a little; “It wasn’t intentional Asher, it was just a side effect of him testing your abilities - it had to be done.” He placed the cups down on the table, “Believe me I didn’t enjoy it either; I could hear you screaming from here, and I stopped him when I couldn't take it any longer.” “A true pity,” the man said, accepting the cup of coffee and moving his mask slightly to the side, exposing his mouth, “On that same topic, quite a remarkable boy you have here Dion - we always knew your genes would amount to something.”

If dad cared for the compliment, he didn’t show it as he began to load his dish with food. I followed suit, all the while eyeing the stranger suspiciously, fear still lingering in my chest.

Breakfast was often a silent business with dad. He had this rule about not eating over your food, quite old school I know, but I had picked it up from him; no conversation arose from anybody.

The man unlike us didn’t take any of the food and contented himself with sipping his coffee. Not that I had any complaints, since sharing food with him was somewhere near the bottom of my priority list. It also didn't help that even as I finished my food, I was still awfully hungry and that my stomach was making painful somersaults inside of me. Dad, as always, noticed and ignoring my protests gave me the rest of his practically untouched food, almost like he had somehow been expecting this.

“I’m making you pay for our groceries next time, Lionel.'' He said to the man as I devoured what was probably three kilos of food a little too quickly. Lionel only shrugged; “What can I say? Those abilities of his can really build up an appetite.”

Dad sighed, no doubt still hungry after giving me his food. “Anyway Asher, hurry up and change into your going out clothes - you don't want to be late for school.” I choked and spat out the rest of my coffee, coughing vigorously in an attempt to dislodge the piece of bacon that had evidently flown down the wrong side of my throat and gotten stuck somewhere in the vicinity of my vocal cords - if that’s even possible. “The what now?” I wasn't sure I had heard him correctly.

Dad rubbed his upper left arm, the place where he had the same markings as me - his familiar nervous gesture. “I guess I forgot to tell you kiddo, but we have decided it would be a good idea to send you to school. We have detected some… rather unsavory individuals who may be on our trail, and we figured the best way to hide your scent is among a couple hundred teenagers.”

“Are you kidding me!” I exploded, slamming my hand into the table and smashing it in half in the process. “You forgot to tell me I’m going to school for the first time in my life when I have zero social skills and have exchanged exactly three words with somebody my own age? And you expect me to just get up on my birthday and be cool with this?” My father looked taken aback by my sudden outburst. He looked so shaken that he wasn’t even mad at the ruined table. “Um… Yes?” he said uncertainly, evidently at a loss for words.

Lionel laughed from behind his mask. Clearly, the entire situation was amusing to him. “Ah… the teenage hormones acting up I see.” I came this close to launching myself at him, but my father stopped me with one stern look. “Look Asher, I'm sorry things turned out like this, but there is just no way around it.” I considered pleading with him, promising to behave and do all my chores and not complain about math homework, but I could tell by the look in his eyes that I had lost the war before it had even started.

“Fine.” I did nothing to conceal the anger in my voice as I stormed up the stairs and slammed my bedroom door, cracking the wall and ruining the handle in the process.

I threw my clothes this way and that as I got dressed again, purposely making a royal mess to piss my dad off. Maybe if I made him mad enough he would ground me, or whatever it was that parents did in the movies I had seen of high school students and their interactions with their parents. To be honest, the grounding thing had never been applied to me because, well, I hardly left the house anyway. Hard to ground a kid who never leaves the house, is it?

I looked at myself in the mirror to make sure none of my markings were visible under the layers of clothing I wore. I had picked a black turtleneck sweater that took care of most of my arms and neck. My hands were a little more tricky; fortunately, it was late fall, and nobody would see it as unusual if I wore fingerless gloves outside, explaining why I wore them indoors would be more complicated. Maybe I could pass it off as the latest fashion? That seemed a bit of a stretch since I had no idea what the last fashion actually was, but yeah. Could you have come up with a better excuse in my place?

I look at my pale face in the mirror, suddenly terrified of what I was about to be forced into. I had no idea how I would manage to do this; all my life I had been kept hidden, had not even been allowed to play with kids my age, or of any age for that matter. Dad seldomly let me go out and if he did, it was more often than not when we moved houses and he never allowed me to get more than three feet away from him on those occasions.

I tried to think of all the movies I had seen about high school. Each genre depicted it differently. Some depicted it as all fun and games, with parties all week long and apparently not having a care in the world. Others described it as the worst place imaginable, where all your doubts, fears, and insecurities are exposed for the whole world to see.

Unfortunately, there had been one consistency - bullies. Their existence was the one all films and shows agreed on, and so I was guessing that that was the only thing I could count on, apart from the fact that I was at a complete loss on how to talk, how to act, or even how to get from class to class. Heck, how did you put your password in a locker? I felt so lost, so scared… so lonely.

My markings began tingling, as they often did when I got too stressed. Dad appeared in my doorway, his arms crossed, a sympathetic look on his face. “I know this is a lot to take in Asher, but…” his voice trailed off for a bit before he resumed with forced composure. “... but I need to keep you safe, more than anything. If something happens to you…” his voice caught, unusually heavy with emotion, “I don’t think I could go on living.”

His sudden loss of composure surprised me; for the first time, I began to consider what he was probably feeling right now. All my life I had known there was something strange about me; this feeling was only strengthened by the fact that from my earliest memories my father had always looked worried like there was something behind every corner ready to snatch me. I believe he took comfort in the fact that at least he was close to protect me at a moment's notice, but now, due to circumstances that were beyond my comprehension, he had to let me go, if only for a few hours. I could tell that it was killing him.

“It’s okay dad.” All my anger dissipated as I looked into his face, lined with years and years of worry and care. “I'm sure it won’t be that bad.” He smiled half-heartedly at me.

“I really hope so Asher... I really do”.


I unclenched my jaw, only for it to lock itself painfully, again, for what seemed to be the hundredth time this morning. My markings began to tingle more than they had ever done before, to the point where it was beginning to be uncomfortable.

The school secretary eyed me from behind red-rimmed glasses as she typed something into the computer, her typing coming along way too fast for my liking. I was really hoping she would take all day to type in my info, really hoping I could just stay here and not have to face the scary world outside. The feeling of dread that had begun to build in my stomach the moment dad dropped me off in front of the red brick high school building had not subsided; if anything it was getting worse to the point of making me nauseous with anxiety.

“You’re all good, Mr. Hexun.” she said in a squeaky but kind voice, extending some papers towards me. I clenched my hands to stop them from shaking as I took the papers and got up from the chair, looking at her stupidly for a moment too long before I slowly turned around and exited the small room, making a conscious effort not to break the door handle.

The school hallway was completely empty, which was something I was thankful for until I realized that classes had started a while back and I was about to walk into an already filled-up classroom, interrupting the teacher. “Hell no!” I thought; I’d rather brave whatever was coming for me than do that.

I was about to throw in the towel and call my dad and beg him to take me home when a short girl approached me in the hallway. She was dressed in baggy ripped jeans and an oversized black t-shirt that could probably fit five of her, the front engraved with the symbol of a band whose name I couldn’t remember. Her hair was cut short, black, and with a streak of bleach white in the front. She was whistling a song I didn’t recognize as she walked by, her hands in her pockets.

I considered talking to her and then immediately chickened out as she got closer, her white worn-down converses making soft squeaks on the pale yellowish floor. Maybe I could pretend to ignore her, but that would be hard to accomplish in a completely empty hallway.

My worst fear came true as she locked eyes with me, her dark brown irises seeming to peer straight into my soul; then her face suddenly twisted into a smile. “Well hello! You must be new!” I looked at her perplexedly, then said something like “Um… Yeah. Something like that.” Thankfully, she saved me from the pain of mumbling on incoherently and instead made a gesture for me to hand over my papers. I did so, and then she scanned my file; “Hmmmm, let me see… Hey! You have this class with me, want to come along so you don't get lost?”

I wanted to tell her I would rather go and hide in the bathroom stalls, but the words didn’t come out. “Um… sure I guess… I mean if you want to.” If she thought I sounded like an idiot, she didn’t let on. “All right then, let's go.” She was already walking ahead; I awkwardly followed her, shouldering my backpack.

“So… What's your name?” I swallowed twice before speaking, hoping not to stutter this time. “I'm Asher... Asher Hexun.” I replied. “Nice to meet you, Asher.” She said pleasantly. “Hexun huh? Interesting last name, never heard it before.” I rubbed my arm nervously, just like dad did when he was nervous. “Yeah… It's Scandinavian.” She nodded, looking genuinely interested. “By the way, my name is Daenerys.”

“Nice to meet you Daenerys.” I willed my entire being not to forget her name, and I was also hoping she’d stop asking questions, but she seemed to be intrigued by me. “So Asher, where are you from? You have a peculiar accent - are you from outside The States?”

I racked my brain trying to answer her question. Until today I hadn't realized I had an accent, probably because I only spoke to my dad, and I had no idea where he had picked it up from. “My dad grew up outside of the U.S,” I answered truthfully; “But he moved all over Europe during his childhood, so I'm not sure where he got it from, and I guess I just picked it up from him.” This seemed to spike her interest even more, but luckily for me, we were in front of the classroom door before she could continue her interrogation. I paused, my anxiety washing over me so strongly that my marking actually began to burn. I tried to breathe deeply, attempting to calm myself down and brace myself for the inevitable, but Daenerys didn’t even give me the chance. She threw the door open without a second thought, making the teacher stop mid-sentence.

She waltzed into the room with a very careless air, earning an exasperated sigh from the teacher. “You could learn to knock, Daenerys,” he said, putting his book down, “Especially considering you are quite late for class.” She shrugged, taking one of the back seats, her attitude clearly showing that she genuinely didn’t care. The teacher looked defeated and turned back to the board, and that's when he caught sight of me, standing in the open door like a deer in the headlights.

“Good morning.” The teacher said pleasantly, “I heard we had a new student - I gather that you’re him?” It took about five seconds for my brain to process what he said before I nodded slowly; at this point the entire class was leaning forward in their chairs, trying to get a glimpse of the new kid. My markings flared so badly I winced, my left hand automatically going to my neck, where the pain was the worst.

It took me a while to figure out that the teacher was waiting for me to step inside. I gritted my teeth so hard, I was sure they would shatter as I slowly walked into the classroom, not making eye contact with anybody but painfully aware of all their stares on me.

The teacher cleared his throat, “Okay class, this is your new classmate, and I ask all of you to make him feel welcome.” He turned towards me; “My name is Mr. Aven, and I will be your homeroom as well as your history teacher for the rest of the year. Now how about some ice breakers? Can you tell the class your name?”.

The back of my neck burned so badly I tasted blood as I bit the inside of my cheek, the light above us flickering slightly. “Um... “ I began, and that was just about as far I could manage; it was like my windpipes closed themselves as I stood frozen in front of the entire class, who were beginning to give me pitiful looks. Mr. Aven was about to interject when a voice from the back of the class saved me.

“His name is Asher Hexun, the last name is Scandinavian”. Daenerys called from the back, suddenly jumping to her feet, “And he has such a cute accent! Seriously, you should have heard him speak earlier!” She smiled as the attention of the entire class turned towards her. “But how about I tell one of my jokes? I've been working on a comedy sketch.. ” she lapsed into a funny anecdote, the entire class forgetting all about me. I took the opportunity to quietly slip into a chair, putting my head down to avoid any eye contact. I really needed to thank Daenerys later; she had saved me from possibly the most embarrassing situation of my entire life.

Even Mr. Avon seemed to be relieved and allowed her to go on for a while, before calling the class's attention back to himself. “That was a good show Daenerys, but may I continue my class now? Save the comedy for the talent show.” She grinned and bowed dramatically to the class before sitting back down.

“So, where was I? Mr. Avon said, picking his book back up. “Ah yes on the matter of the discovery of The Americas - Columbus was far from being the first to set foot on it; it is in fact very likely that the Vikings were the first non-natives to explore the North American Continent.”

Soon my mind wandered far away from the lecture, all of which I already knew anyway, and focused on more pressing issues - like the fact my markings were killing me. Looking around to make sure nobody was watching me, I moved one of my gloves slightly so I could take a peek; from what I was feeling I expected the skin to be red, but instead, they looked normal, just a bit shiny like a coat of translucent varnish had been painted on them, but otherwise normal.

“You are just stressed out of your mind,” I told myself as I took a sip from my water bottle, my foot tapping as I fidgeted, the class seeming to go on endlessly. Finally, the bell rang, and I got up, thankful to get out of there. In seconds Daenerys was beside me; “Your next class is not with me,” she informed me as she walked me to the door, “but I'll take you there so you don't get lost.”

“Thank you” I whispered softly as we entered the now crowded hallway. I swallowed nervously as she led me through the multitude, and I tried to hide behind her, something that proved to be quite fruitless as I was like a whole foot taller than her.

The agglomeration of people also brought forth something I had never considered would be a problem when in a crowd - probably because I had never been in one before. The constant chattering, the locker doors slamming, the heartbeats, and the never-ending sound of footsteps against the tile floor… It was totally overwhelming as my superhuman hearing picked up every single sound, however slight, and amplified them inside my head. It felt like being assaulted by a hailstorm of sound-wave bullets hitting my cranium at the speed of, well, sound!

I was so dazed by the chaos around me I didn’t realize Daneris had stopped until I bumped into her, my reflexes kicking in at the last second as I caught her with one arm just as she was about to hit the floor. She looked up at me for a second, clearly confused because of how fast it had happened. The incident also caught the attention of some of the kids around us who turned to look. “Um... I'm really sorry about that!” I said, pulling her to her feet; “Are you okay? I'm really sorry…” She seemed to have analyzed the situation and nodded at me, smiling; “Don’t worry about it Asher, I'm fine - but my goodness you are strong! I felt like I got hit by a train”.

I rubbed my shoulder awkwardly, very aware of some curious lingering stares. “I'm sorry.” I whispered again. She pointed toward the classrooms we were standing in front of; “You don't need to apologize again Asher - I'm okay really, and here's you next class: Biology.” I looked at the classroom and nodded; “Okay… Thank you.” She waved at me, already walking away, “Anytime.” I took a few deep breaths. “Okay, this next class couldn't be as bad as the first one.” I said to myself. At least I didn’t have to walk into an already full classroom this time.

My standing at the door must have caught the teacher's attention because she appeared from the back of the room. “Hello!” she called out politely, “Can I help you? Are you our new student?” Oh great - social interaction again. I nodded in the affirmative. “Okay then,” she said, grabbing a clipboard, “Can you give me your name please?” “Um…” - did I really have to start every sentence with that, seriously? “I’m Asher Hexun.” I looked at her face as she wrote the name down. It was clear she had no idea how to spell it and I prayed to whatever God was out there that she wouldn't ask me how to do so.

She looked at me again after a while, “Okay, I got you written down, you may take a seat.” I passed her, taking one of the seats in the back. There were few students in the classroom, but their eyes followed me curiously as I sat down, placing my bag on the floor against the desk. Slowly, people began pouring in. An athletic-looking kid took the seat beside me at the shared lab table, glancing at me but not saying anything, for which I was grateful. A few moments later, the teacher got up and closed the door before addressing us.

“Good morning class!” She said, adjusting her silver-framed glasses. “I hope all of you did the reading I assigned yesterday… and in the unfortunate case that you didn’t, I will ask you to pay close attention to today's lecture unless you want to fall behind.” She grabbed a thick volume from the desk, “If that is understood, let's begin today's lesson on The permeation of the cellular membrane, as you may remember from last class the membranes of cells are selective, which allows…”

Once again my brain drifted off, the monotonous sound of the lecture only serving as background noise for my thoughts. Now that the shock of being forced to go to school was beginning to wear off, my mind was focusing on other matters - like what exactly could be after us? Now that I seriously thought about it, I was beginning to get really terrified of whatever could make my father let go of me. My mind went wild, coming up with all sorts of crazy scenarios, each one worse than the last. I was beginning to fear for my father - what if whatever was coming for me, hurt him instead? What if he had to fight all alone to protect me while I was here, listening to a biology lecture, pretending to be normal?

I was abruptly snapped out of my train of thought by the person in front of me handing me a paper. “Pop quiz.” the girl explained, seeing my confused face before she turned back around to her own paper like it was no big deal. Great! I hadn’t been paying attention in class, on my first day, and I was probably now clueless about the topic - what if I failed? Words yet, what if I failed the class? Would I get expelled? No - I didn’t think that that's how it worked, but then I wasn’t sure how anything in here worked in general.

My hearing picked up my table mate swearing under his breath as he read the questions on the paper, his expression becoming more and more hopeless as his eyes moved down the paper. His little display of panic certainly didn’t help me; I brought out a pen, confident I was going to fail spectacularly. I put my name and date on the top of the page - good thing today was my birthday today, for otherwise I wouldn't have had any idea what day it was.

Taking a deep breath, I read the first few questions, and raised an eyebrow in surprise - I re-read the questions several times, incredulous that I actually knew the answers. Thinking it was pure luck, I read the whole list of questions, only to find that I was not only familiar with the whole topic, but found all the questions very easy to answer. I silently thanked my dad for doing an excellent job educating me as I quickly began to circle the correct answers, finishing in little more than a minute. I wasn’t quite sure of what I was supposed to do now that I was finished, and looking around, I couldn't see anybody who was done yet either.

“Hey…” a voice whispered to my right, making me turn to look at the boy sitting beside me. “Hey mate.” He said in an accent I didn’t recognize, “Help me out here… Please?” I immediately understood his meaning as he looked down at his own paper - he had only answered four of the ten questions, and I could see that two were wrong. “Please man...” he said, clearly noticing the doubt in my face; “My old man will kill me if my biology grades get any lower.”

Looking at him, I saw sincere anguish in his hazel eyes, and whatever little resolve I had left about avoiding academic dishonesty crumbled. It was just some dumb test answers - if I was in his shoes, I would have probably paid for somebody to help me out as well.

“Um… fine.” I whispered back, tilting my own paper slightly so he could read it without it being super obvious. It certainly helped that we were at the last table of our row. His eyes darted with practiced precision from my paper to his, circling the answers, giving me the impression that this wasn’t really the first time he had done this. “Thanks, dude... Seriously.” He whispered as soon as he was done. “I owe you one.” It felt oddly good to be thanked by somebody, even if what I had just done was dishonest. Well, it wasn’t like getting expelled would be the worst thing in the world; heck, even detention sounded good - you didn’t have to speak to anyone in there, right?.

“Don’t worry about it.” I whispered back, not sure of how to respond to his gratitude.“You’re a real one mate.” He said, putting his own quiz face down on the table, which finally clarified what i was supposed to do with mine. Around us, more and more people began to place their own sheets face down. Some looked smug, some looked like they weren’t quite sure of how it had gone, but most looked like they had just seen their dog get hit by a semi-truck.

I wondered if this class was really hard, or if it had just been this test in particular? I rummaged through my backpack before pulling out a copy of my schedule; the first hour had been calculus - glad I missed that one - next came history, the one I had taken with Daenarys. After that was biology, then lunch break, P.E, one free period, and then chemistry.

I noticed that all of my classes, except for P.E, had A.P in front of them. I wasn’t sure of what that meant; I thought of asking the kid next to me, but I couldn't quite muster the courage. He seemed to have been staring at my schedule as well because he made a hissing sound, like air passing through his teeth. He gave me a sympathetic look, but didn’t elaborate on what exactly he had found so surprising - and it wasn’t like I was about to inquire.

Deciding it would be better to just ask my dad about it later, I put the schedule away, taking another sip of my water bottle as the teacher walked around, picking up the quizzes from the tables. “I hope all of you did well.” the teacher said, her heels making a clicking sound as she walked among the students; “We have gone over this material several times - if you failed this quiz, the reason is plain and simple: you haven’t been studying and keeping up with the material. If that is the case, I want all of you to think about whether you belong in this class.”

Her eyes lingered on several students as she said this; one of them, I realized, was my table mate who seemed to shrink under her gaze, his head hanging down in defeat. I mused about that for a while; he certainly wasn't well versed in the material, or in this topic in particular at least, but the part about not belonging in the class? That bit seemed strange, but again, I wasn’t willing to ask him about it, especially not when he looked so down.

The teacher walked back to the front of the room, placing the pile of paper on her desk like a judge giving a final verdict. “Very well class,” she said; “I hope this was a wake-up call for most of you. Now, we still have some time left - if all of you would be so kind open your books to page 345…” Around me, all the other kids began shuffling around, bringing out the thick volumes from their backpacks and setting them down on the table, an action that made me realize I didn’t have a book. Even my table partner had one, and he seemed to notice my panicked face because he leaned forward and asked if I forgot my book.

I nodded - I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to get my books from, and I hadn't even asked the lady at the front desk, or even Daenerys. Looking back, I really wished I had.

“Um,” I began, eyeing our teacher, “Do um, you think she will, maybe, you know… Let it slide because it's my first day?” He shook his head; “Unlikely… She lives in a perpetual state of bitterness, probably because she can't land a man...” I grimaced. I was screwed - I may have survived the pop quiz, but it looked like this class was out to get me.

The kid beside me looked down at his book for a few seconds, just as the teacher began walking down the rows again, appearing to be checking if everybody had their book. “Here,” he whispered, appearing to have come to a decision as he slid the book over to my side of the table, “You can have mine, just tell her it's yours.” “What?” I hissed back, grabbing the book with the intention of giving it back to him “No, you are going to get in trouble.” He refused to take the book, and gave me a tumps up with a stupid smile on his face. “Don’t worry mate, I owed you one anyway.” He whispered before raising his hand. “Teacher,” he said, his hand still in the air, “I forgot my book, sorry.”

The woman's gaze turned toward us, her dark brown eyes looking him up and down from behind her lenses. “Mr. Walker,” she said, looking down at her clipboard, “This is the fifth time this year you forgot your book.” Walker only shrugged; “I’m sorry Miss,'” he said, “I was running kind of late.” She glared at him for a few seconds before sighing, “Just share the book with Mr. Hesus.” she said, completely butchering my last name. “But mark my words, this is your last chance, next time I'll send you outside understood?” He nodded, still giving her his stupid smile, “Yes mam.” She scoffed, walking back to the front of the classroom while shaking her head in disappointment. Some kids snickered at the interaction, a sound that was quickly hushed with a single glare from the teacher.

“Told you it would be fine.” Walker said, leaning towards me, flipping through the book that I had set in the middle of the table, as the teacher began her lecture again. I couldn't really say things had turned out okay, in my opinion they were far from okay, but Walker seemed to be satisfied with the result. “Sorry for causing you trouble.” I whispered as the teacher began writing something down on the board. He waved it away; “Seriously, dont worry about it.”

Of course I was worried about it; if he had only told me he was already in trouble with the teacher, I would have taken her scolding, after all this would only be my first time, against his fifth. Walker, however, didn’t seem even remotely bothered by her promise to kick him out of the class the next time he messed up as he whistled softly, writing down in his notebook what was written on the board. Occasionally, he would glance at our shared textbook and annotate something from there as well.

With a nervous sigh I decided I better follow suit; this time at least I would try to pay attention, even if it was only to get my mind off the mountain of worries that just seemed to get worse by the hour.

Never In my life had I thought an hour could stretch as long as that class did. In spite of my best efforts, I kept zoning out and my nervousness was just making me more fidgety than usual.

About halfway through the class, my stomach began protesting my change in meal scheduling. At home, I would have already snacked several times through the morning, but today I hadn’t gotten the chance and my body didn’t appreciate it. Despite my effort to ignore the hunger pangs, thinking maybe they would go away, the pain only intensified, and by the time the bell rang I felt like somebody was practicing boy scout knots with my insides, very tight knots, at least my markings were no longer burning, but I had only traded one source of discomfort for another.

Shakily I got to my feet, even from here I could smell the cafeteria and the food, my hunger sharpening my sense of smell. All shyness forgotten, I walked towards the classroom exit, bumping into some of the other students who were also in a rush to get out.

“Hey Asher”, a voice called from behind me. Surprised, I turned to look at Walker, had he read my name off the quiz? seemed like the only explanation since I couldn't remember giving him my name. “Um...yes?”, I asked, impatiently changing my weight from one foot to the other.

“Hey man wait up, you took off running for the door”, he said with a grin, “I just realize I never got the chance to introduce myself, I'm Jake Walker, sorry if I freaked you out by calling you by your name, I just read it from your quiz. By the way, that's an interesting-sounding name! Where did-”, he stopped himself. “Look at me getting off-topic”, he said, shaking his head and giving me an apologetic smile. “What I was trying to say was… want to eat lunch together? I'm sure you will get along with my friends”. The thought of who I would sit with during lunch hadn't even crossed my mind, I was so hungry I hadn’t even had time to worry about it, but I could hardly refuse his invitation, not after he had helped out and got in trouble for me.

“Okay… Sure”. I said. “Um, lead the way… I'm not sure where the cafeteria is”. That of course was a lie but it would seem weird if I just magically walked there. He smiled, “Great! Let's go!” He said, walking out into the crowded hallway and I realized that even if I hadn't known where the cafeteria was, or rather if I hadn’t smelled it, I could have still gotten there without asking for help as the entire flow of students was moving towards that direction like a giant school of fish.

Again the sound of the hallways assaulted me, I shook my head in an effort to stay focused, just walking with the flow and following Jake, trying to not bump into anybody. Among the chaos of noise I didn’t register the heartbeat approaching that I had already committed to memory, and that’s why I jumped in surprise when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Wow there”, Daenerys said, standing behind me, “Didn’t mean to spook you”. I looked at her, guiltily rubbing my neck, I had been in such a hurry to get to the food it hadn't even occurred to me to wait for her as she had promised to help me all through the day. “Hey Dan”, Jake called from ahead of me, fist-bumping the small girl; “You know this guy?” I asked.

Daenerys’ smile widened, “Sure do”, she said, “Met him this morning in the hall, were you going to the cafeteria?”. “That's great!” Jake said like it was truly the best thing to come out of this century, “So you already met one of my friends Asher, I'm telling you man you are going to fit right in with us…”. He turned back to look at Daenerys, ignoring the dirty looks some people were throwing at us for standing in the middle of the hallway like human roadblocks.

“Oh and Dan we are obviously heading toward the cafeteria, thought I was about to pass our lunch break in the library?”. “Of course you wouldn't…”, she said, rolling her eyes at him and, thank the gods, beginning to walk again, “Libraries are for people who can read”. He scoffed at that, walking after her, glancing at me to make sure I was following them, “Please… remind me, out of the two of us who is in the scientific A.P. courses at the moment?”.

She rolled her eyes at him again, throwing her bangs out her eyes with a quick motion of her head, “Oh please you are barely clinging to life in those… at least I do good in my classes including the a.p ones”. Their bickering went back and forth and I stared in fascination at the both of them, faintly wondering if this is what having friends was like. It looked fun, more fun than I was willing to admit because it meant realizing just how much I had been missing out on.

The crowds only thickened the closer we got to the cafeteria, and the noise became so bad that I clamped my hands over my ears in a futile attempt to get rid of the noise. “Are you okay Asher?” Daenarys asked, turning to look back at me with concern, her voice was barely audible above the myriad of sounds that assaulted me at the moment, but I still tried to play it cool, “Yea, fine. I'm fine”. Her frown deepened, “You sure?”. “Yea… all good”, I said in a tight voice as the lights above us flickered, making some people look up at the long LED light bulbs that served to illuminate the place.

Daenerys still didn’t look convinced, so I lowered my hands from my ears slowly, trying to act like that hadn’t been a big deal, “It was nothing, really”, I said, trying to sound normal this time as I made an effort to get used to the noise. “Okay…”, she began, “If you say so…”. It was clear she didn’t believe me but had decided to drop it; Jake had just stared in silence at me, one eyebrow raised slightly, but unlike Daenerys, he didn’t say anything, for which I was grateful. I wasn’t sure I could have, at the moment, dealt with two people asking me if I was okay at the same time.

Jake and Daenerys lead me to a table that was set more in one of the corners of the place where a single defective light bulb did the trick of making it darker than the rest of the room, the table was already almost full with kids, and a rather peculiar looking group of them. There was a chubby girl with puffy dyed purple hair, big cat-eyed glasses, and wearing heavy makeup, her clothes were as bright and colorful as her hair, all in vibrant shades that she somehow had managed to match. Beside her was an olive-skinned girl with pretty green eyes, dressed in shades of pink, her hair in pigtails, giving her a young girl aura; she was currently laughing at something the boy sitting beside her had said. He had dark skin and compared to the other two; he was dressed relatively normal with a t-shirt that spelled Broadway in bold black letters - a theatre fan, I deduced.

There were five more kids at the table, plus those three that had first caught my eye. There was a small Asian girl with dyed red hair and a pretty face that made her look like a K-pop star, a tall lanky boy with big fluffy hair that looked even more disorganized than mine, an emo looking girl with a pale face, heavy eyeliner, and black lipstick, a boy dressed like it was still 1995, and finally, a buff looking girl with very short blond hair and greenish-blue eyes who was dressed in loose jeans, a t-shirt, and a red flannel shirt.

The entire table turned to look at us as we approached and all of a sudden, with so many eyes staring at me, my shyness came back with full force, making me barely contain the urge to turn around and walk away out of sight.

“Hello everybody”, Daenerys said, sliding into the chair beside the Asian girl. “This is Asher”, she said, waving towards me; “He’s new here”.

“Um… Hi.” I said, feeling like I had to say something but finding myself unable to come up with anything more eloquent. My greeting was echoed by a few at the table, who were giving me friendly smiles. “Asher”, Daenerys continued, pointing to everybody, in turn, starting from her right; “This is Yuki”, she said, pointing to the Asian girl who gave me a little wave, “We have Brandon”, she continued, pointing to the lanky boy, “Misses dark and gritty is named Margarita”, she said, earning herself an eye roll from the emo girl and a few snickers from around the table.

She pointed to the boy dressed in vintage style but he stopped her before she could speak. “I can introduce myself thank you”, he said with mock offense, “My name is Jona”, he said, extending his hand so I could shake it, “Pleasure to meet you, Asher”. “I… uh… pleasure is mine”, I said, trying to hide my impatience. Right now all I could think of was my lunch, I didn’t even care what dad had packed, at the moment I would eat the table if it promised to provide some nutrients.

“I'm Emma”, the girl with the colored hair piped in, “And this is Amelia”, she added, waving towards the pigtail girl who was clearly more similar to me in the fact that she had gone shy the moment I stepped close to the table. “I'm Liam”, the Broadway shirt boy said, taking a bite from an already half-eaten apple, “Good to meet you”. “Dude just sit down”, the girl with the flannel shirt said before I could answer Liam, the only person who hadn't introduced herself, “You look weird just standing there”. “Theo that's not a very nice thing to say”, Jona scolded her, making her scoff. “Um no…”, I began, taking the seat beside Jake, “It's alright”. In truth I was just thankful I could finally eat and couldn't have cared less if the girl had straight-up screamed at me. “See?” she said, making Jona roll his eyes.

She looked at me up and down, the only one at the table who didn't offer me at least a friendly expression, “I would tell you my name but I prefer to go by Theo, that alright with you?”. It didn’t sound like she was asking, more like she was demanding. I shrugged; “Sure...no problem”, I said, barely bothering to look at her as I brought out my lunch box, my mouth watering as the smell of lasagna wafted out from it. Dad had packed me a big portion, or at least as big as he could manage, and still look normal; still, it didn’t look like it was nearly enough, not with the throbbing pain in my insides. I would probably be forced to buy cafeteria food, which didn’t look too promising taste-wise.

I took a big bite of the lasagna, feeling like crying at how good it tasted, well anything would have tasted good to me at the moment, but my dad’s homemade cooking was the best thing in the world.... according to me at least. Around me, the other kids were still studying me, not openly, but I could still feel their glances and side-eyes. Slowly the conversations around the table re-started, a lot of it focused on me. “Where are you from?”, I wasn’t sure, dad had never told me where exactly I had been born, so I lied and said New York, it was the first state that came to mind. Again the topic of my accent came up, and I gave them the same explanation I had given to Daenerys, information that only made them even more curious.

“What did my parents do for a living?” “Would I be staying here in this school for the rest of the year?” “Why change from homeschooling all of a sudden?” “Did I have friends in other countries?” “Could I speak other languages?”. I did my best to answer all of their questions while I ate, but in all honesty, it was exhausting, soon enough I felt like this was a police interrogation that had gone on for hours. Daenerys seemed to notice my tiredness because slowly she drew the conversation away from me and to other topics, an ability I was beginning to realize, she was quite good at. Through hearing them talk amongst each other, I began finding more about them, first, and more obviously, they were all part of the Theater Club, which did in part explain why they all seemed to have an inclination for the dramatic, it was noticeable even in the way they spoke and interacted with each other.

Secondly, and despite her not being the eldest, Danerys appeared to be viewed as the leader of the group, her naturally friendly and outgoing personality was probably one of the key factors in uniting this oddball group of people, and lastly, from what I could gather, they were currently working on a big theater production but the school had cut them short of funds so they were brainstorming ways to collect the money they needed.

“It must be nice”, I thought to myself, wondering how much different my life would be if my biggest source of worry was collecting money for a play. Looking around at all of them I began to realize just how crazy my life had been, just how alienated from the normal childhood experience I had been. Could things have been done differently? Could I have been normal? I mean like them, talking and laughing among friends, working together toward something they loved? I looked down at my now almost empty plate, the gloves I whore reminding me that although I could pass as normal, I was still hiding part of me, the part that made me different.

It was not only my markings, my senses were also a lot sharper than a normal human, my skin tough to pierce, and I could snap steel bars like they were twigs. None of that was normal, I had always known that, but sitting there, in the middle of a loud cafeteria surrounded by hundreds of teens, the magnitude of my own peculiarity hit me head-on and with it, the realization that I wanted to belong, to have friends, to go out and watch movies and laugh at stupid jokes.

Was that too much to ask for? considering how my life had gone so far, probably. I was sure this illusion or normality of going to school and hanging out with other people my age would break soon enough, but for as long as it lasted I found deep within me that I wanted to enjoy it...maybe going to school wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

As the minutes ticked on and on, one after the other, I could feel my stomach dropping lower and lower. School had finished more than an hour ago, the last bell bringing on a fury of activity as everybody tried to get to their cars or the buses as fast as possible. Considering how nervous my father had looked this morning, despite his best efforts to hide it, I was sure he would be there to pick me up on time. I had walked out of school fully expecting to see our black pickup truck waiting for me. Never had I expected to find myself in my current predicament. Dad was late to pick me up, incredibly late, leaving me to sit in one of the school's very uncomfortable concrete benches, practically drowning myself in worry.

Calling him proved fruitless, his phone only rang on and on and he didn’t pick up, something he never did, especially if it was a call from me. The added factor of his tardiness, plus the silence from his end of the line led me to an obvious conclusion, something had happened to him. As the minutes had piled on my markings began to burn more and more, the reaction triggered by my worry and fear, it got to a point where I barely dared to move, the pain was too sharp.

A few meters away from me the bulb from a street lamp exploded sending a shower of broken glass and plastic to the floor, but I hardly paid it any mind, too preoccupied with thoughts of my father, and all the awful things that could have happened to him.

“What if he had died?”The thought was so distressing it made my markings erupt into a fresh wave of pain, like somebody had set my skin on fire, I felt nauseous from worry and fear, my hand closing on around the edge of the concrete bench and shattering it. Another street lamp exploded and I vaguely wondered if I was doing that, but I quickly discarded the thought, I had never done anything of the sort, no reason why I would start doing it now all of a sudden.

Nervously I wondered if I should just go look for Daenerys and ask her for help, before we had parted ways at the end of the day she had told me she, and most of the kids from the acting club, would be staying a few more hours after school to practice.

Only one hour had passed from the end of classes, so she, and probably Jake, were still there, I wasn’t sure what they could do to help me, but in this situation probably more than me, if anything, they could at least advise me on what I should do. Before today, in my phone, there had only been two contacts, my father’s number, and another mysterious one he had registered there the moment he gave me the phone, he hadn’t told me who it was, and the only thing I could figure out from looking at it was that it was from somewhere out of the U.S since it had the code +299 at the beginning.

He had very firmly told me that I should only call that number in emergencies and that I should obey whatever the person who picked up told me, I had tried to ask him more about it but he had refused to elaborate. Well… if there ever was an emergency this sure as hell felt like it but... I hesitated, my finger hovering over the strange number, there was the very real possibility that I was blowing this way out of proportion, I'm sure this was a normal experience for most kids, their parents taking more than the usual time to pick them up because there was traffic or because they got held up at work.

Except I had never seen my father work, he was always at home with me, the most he did was go to the grocery store and in most cases, he ordered our groceries online so they would be delivered right to our doorstep, which allowed him to keep his eyes on me at all times.

Now that I thought about it, where did my father even get all our money? How could we afford to move around so much buying houses in every city? How did he pay for our expenses? The cars that he constantly kept changing making sure he always had the last model? The more I sat there, the more things about my life just didn’t make sense, and I began questioning everything. Why did I have these abilities? Was I some sort of freak science experiment? The product of a mutation? Was I even human?

There were just so many questions and I had no answers. Until now I had lived in my happy little bubble, in a world that only included my father, who was just like me, so I never questioned it, for me it was normal, but now? Now I realize just how little I knew, just how little I had questioned my entire life.

A third and then a fourth street lamp exploded in rapid succession as I felt more panic rise in my chest, my fingers tremble over the list of numbers in my phone that now included Danerys, Jake’s, and the contacts of all the other kids I had sat with today at lunch, they had insisted on putting their number on my phone, and saving saved mine.

I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood as I anxiously looked at my screen, unsure of what to do, call one of my new friends, or call the mysterious number? If I had been in this situation even a day ago I would have called the number in a heartbeat, but today...I was now so full of doubts, questioning everything. The other numbers in my phone had names, and above anything a face, a real person I could associate them to. I knew who would pick up when I called; but that number, that mysterious person, I had no idea who they were.

I took several deep breaths trying to calm myself, otherwise I would end up crushing the phone despite its thick black cover...I need to think straight, to make a decision… Again my thoughts wandered towards my father, the person I loved and trusted the most in this world, the only family I had...the thought that something horrible may have happened to him weighed down on my chest, and with it the responsibility of obeying him. He had kept me safe all this time, even if he wasn’t here right now he was still trying to protect me, that number was his way to ensure that I would always be safe...even if we were apart. I still had doubts, questions swimming around my mind, but I had made my decision.

With new found urgency I clicked the mysterious contact and was about to make the call when I heard it, the familiar sound of our car engine quickly coming towards me. The sound brought such a wave of relief over me I almost fainted; I never thought hearing that trucks’ diesel engine could make me so happy, but more than the soft purr of the motor was what came with it. My dad’s heartbeat, his scent, it all came along with the car that came to a stop in front of me a few minutes later, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Despite the lingering pain on my skin I felt like I was floating as I walked towards the black pick up truck, dizzy with relief.

“Dad”, I whispered, as soon as I opened the car door, practically throwing myself at him, trying to give him a hug. Before I could touch him however, I stopped short, as another scent hit me, it was faint, covered my bleach and other strong cleaning products, but I could still detect it. Blood, dad 's blood, there had been lots of it spill everywhere, its scent having seeped into the fabric of the seats, specially the drivers one. “Dad!”, I said, turning to examine him alarmed, my worry coming back stronger than ever, “You are hurt!”.

He only sighed, tirely rubbing his forehead, “I told Lionel didn't I? This won’t be enough to mask the scent; but did he pay me any mind? No of course not.”. He muttered under his breath, hardly acknowledging my worry, or that I was even there, I had never heard him talk to himself and never had he so openly ignored me. “Dad what are you going on about?”, I asked confused and worried, “Why… why does the car reek of your blood?”.

He didn’t even look at me, just sat almost perfectly still, holding on to the wheel with tightened fists, his eyes seeming disoriented. “Dad!”, I said, alarmed, shaking his arm, trying to get his attention. Finally his face turned towards me, he looked pale, tired, but still, as he saw me, a flash of recognition passed through his grey eyes. “Asher”, he said like he had just realized I was there as he grabbed my shoulders, his eyes anxiously examining me, “Are you okay?”, he asked, his usual collected tone urgent, “Did anything happen at school?...Did you see any suspicious looking person, anybody strange?”. His tone, and the flood of questions surprised me, “What? No… No I'm fine”, I assure him, “I did meet some people...but...they were all normal kids”.

Well, as normal as you can get hanging out with the theater kids but I didn’t mention that part. Now that he was closer I could smell fresh blood on him, it was faint, a lot more concealed than the one that had been spilled on the car, but it was there. “Your arm is hurt”, I said, sniffing a few times, “The left one”. His eyes widened slightly, “You could detect that?”he asked, sounding genuinely surprised, but mostly concerned. “Um...yeah?”I asked more than responded, not sure why that would be surprising, or news to him, he also had a good sense of smell. He passes a hand through his hair, his eyes wandering past me and towards the bench where I had been sitting, and all the broken street lamps.

“Was that like that when you got there?”, he asked, looking from the lamps, to the bench to me. I frowned, “No...it happened while I was waiting for you....probably some electrical malfunction”. He cursed under his breath, something he seldomly did as he let me go and grabbed the wheel again. “Your arm?” I persistently asked, as he seemed to come to a decision and pressed the accelerator, pushing the car forward and toward the exit from the now almost empty school parking lot. He shook his head, “It's nothing Asher, I'm fine”, he said, his tone and mannerisms back to normal. “It doesn’t smell fine”, I counter, which didn’t get even a reaction out of him.

“What happened dad?” I asked, practically pleading for him to give me some answers, “Please… I was so worried”. My words seem to soften his expression a little, “Asher… it's better if you don't know. I promise one day, probably very soon, I'll explain everything, but for now, all you should know is that our plan worked, you went undetected, for at least the time being, you should be safe and that is all that matters”. His answers only brought more questions forward, but his tone and expression made it clear that no matter how much I pestered him, he wouldn't be providing a complete or even partial explanation.

“Can I at least see your arm?”, I asked, by the smell of it I could tell it had been a deep wound, and that worried me, I wanted to make sure he was okay. At first it looked like he was ignoring my request but after a while he sighed, “Fine, I'll show it to you as soon as we get the chance”. It was a small victory but it was better than nothing, and I finally began to relax, loosening all the muscle I hadn't realized had been knotted together with anxiety.

Looking out the window and at the other vehicle I realized we weren’t taking the usual route home, I had memorized it on our way to school that morning, instead we were going in the opposite direction, out of the suburbs and into the heart of the city. “Um...dad?”, I asked, “Where are we going?”. He looked at me, steering with his right hand, “Well it's your birthday”, he began, “I hadn’t forgotten Asher, I just thought this year we should do something different, go out to eat...with all the people in this city masking our trail we should be safe…”.

I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing, my dad willingly taking me outside? like to eat at a restaurant? it was insane, maybe he had lost a little too much blood… Usually on my birthday he would cook my favorite food for me plus get me a cake, he never sang happy birthday to me, and honestly it would have been awkward considering he was the only person there...but I never cared, he was enough for me. Apart from the food there was also always a gift, a big one, somehow he always managed to know exactly what I wanted.

Today had been so chaotic I had forgotten all about my birthday, but he hadn't, a reminder of just how much he cared for me. “I… really?” I asked, not believing this could be happening. A smile tugged at his lips, “Hmmm? Yeap”. Questions and doubts still bounced around in my mind, but slowly they were becoming less and less oppressive, my head getting occupied with other thoughts, happier ones, I was safe, dad looked mostly unharmed, and he had promised me I wasn’t in danger. This had probably been the craziest birthday ever, I had gone through the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life, felt so much fear and anguish, but as we drove towards the city, I still hoped we could, at least, end it on a positive note.