Variant, p.46
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       Variant, p.46

         Part #1 of Variant series by Robison Wells
Page 46


  One thing I hadn’t figured out was where I’d go when I finally broke out. Of course, I’d go to the police first, and if they didn’t help I’d go to the newspapers. But after that, I didn’t know. I guess, up to now, I’d kind of assumed that escaping would be the happy ending—it’d be so much better than inside Maxfield Academy that it didn’t really matter.

  But it hadn’t been that long since I’d left my foster family, and I hated it there. I didn’t want to get shipped back. I didn’t want to return to Pittsburgh at all—I wanted something better. I wished that I actually was in a private school, like the scholarship had advertised. Real teachers, real learning—real people. A real life.

  I left the room and walked to the broad windows that overlooked the grounds in front of the school. I’d stood at these windows and waited for Jane the night of the dance.

  I cupped my hands around my eyes and leaned against the glass, trying to see past the glare of the hall lights and into the darkness. There was fog or mist that hung over the trees in the distance. Could it be smoke from a guard camp? There didn’t seem to be enough moisture here for fog.

  I heard soft footsteps padding up behind me.

  “Hey, Bense. ” Becky.

  “Hey. ” I kept my eyes on the forest.

  “What are you looking at?”

  She leaned beside me and peered outside.

  “Just the woods. Do you ever see the campfire smoke out there?”

  She pulled back from the window and so did I. She was wearing thick green flannel pajamas and flip-flops, but her makeup and hair were still flawless.

  “Yeah,” she said. “Not very often. It’s not far. ”

  I looked into her eyes for a minute. Was she real? And if she was, was she one of the Society members who doled out punishments? Had she been lying to me?

  I turned back to the window.

  “What do you think it is?”

  “I like to think that it’s a town,” she said. “But it’s probably too close. Some people say it’s guards. ”

  The stars were almost entirely blotted out by clouds, but there was one dark patch of sky where a few bright lights twinkled through. I wished I could get out of the school and see them.

  “You said you don’t do security, right?”

  “Right. ”

  “But you have the contract, so your necklace can open doors, right?”

  “Sure. ”

  I turned to look at her—stared. I gazed into her eyes, studying the iris and the color and the eyelashes. Up close her eyes were bluer than they looked from far away, and right around the iris they were tinged with reddish brown. Everything about them—the delicate blood vessels, the streaks of color, the pink of her tear duct—seemed so real. So human.

  Becky smiled awkwardly. “What?”

  “Come with me,” I said, and started toward the stairs.

  She didn’t move, so I turned back and grabbed her hand. “Come on. ”

  We hurried down the empty stairs and made our way to the first floor and the big open foyer. I led her to the front doors.

  “Can we go outside and look at the sky?” I asked.

  A flash of concern crossed her face, but she hid it quickly. “Why?”

  “I like being outside at night,” I said. “I promise—we won’t leave the front steps. ”

  She looked at me, her lips pursed in thought.

  “Listen,” I said. “When I was back home, I was always outside at night. That’s where I’d go to think. And I can’t do it here. ”

  Becky took a deep breath. Her eyes were suddenly somber and intense. “You promise? Don’t lie to me. ”

  “I promise,” I said. “All I want to do is stand out there—we’ll be right next to the door. ”

  She moved toward the door. It buzzed and clicked, and she pushed it open.

  We stepped out and stood side by side, looking at the forest.

  It was colder than it appeared from the window. Becky folded her arms tightly, her shoulders raised as she tried to fend off the chill.

  It smelled good out here. Completely different from inside the school, but also unlike the cold nights back home. Fresh and earthy. For a moment I thought I got a whiff of wood smoke, but couldn’t be sure.

  Freedom. I felt free.

  “I need to ask you a question,” I said.

  Her arm touched mine as she stood beside me. “Okay. ”

  “Who decides the punishments?”

  There was a pause. She seemed like she’d been expecting something else.

  “The school,” she finally said, as if it was obvious.

  “Does Isaiah have anything to do with it?”

  From the corner of my eye I saw her shake her head. “No. We get the list of punishments every morning, and then the teachers read them in class. ”

  “They come on your computers?”

  “Well, no. They come on Isaiah’s computer,” she said. “So, I was wrong. He distributes the list to the teachers to make the announcements. At least, that’s what would happen with Laura, back when . . . ”

  Her voice trailed off.

  I wanted to believe her. But she’d never believe me.

  “What if—” I stopped myself. What was I going to say?

  Becky turned to me. She was shivering now, but didn’t move back toward the door.

  “What if,” I continued, “things here aren’t what we think they are?”

  She smiled, but it seemed sad. “What are they?”

  “I don’t know. ”

  I looked down at her, her face pale in the dim light. I wanted to put my arm around her.

  “We can go back inside,” I finally said.

  But Becky just stared at me, the smile gone from her face. Her eyes flashed out to the forest and then back to me.

  “What time is it?” she finally asked.

  I checked my watch. “Seven thirty. ”

  “It feels later,” she said, staring out at the cold, dark forest.

  “We can go in. Your feet have to be freezing. ”

  She nodded absently and exhaled long and slow, her breath a puff of gray in the cold air.

  “I want to show you something,” she said, and motioned for me to follow her. Before I could say anything she was down the steps and heading across the lawn. I jogged after her to catch up.

  “Where are we going?”

  “I want to show you something,” Becky repeated. We were going around the front of the school, walking past the deep window wells. The last time I’d been outside in the dark, I’d been right here, with a girl. I could see it all, replaying over and over.

  I tried to push it away, to focus on something else. The distant hum of a four-wheeler engine. The crunch of the frosted grass under my shoes. The swirling clouds of frozen breath that escaped Becky’s lips.

  She led me to the corner of the school. Directly above us was the boys’ dorm, but no one could have seen us. We were too close to the building.

  She stepped into the garden and crouched down. I didn’t see anything. Just the foundation—bricks and cement and dirt. It was too dark to make out any details.

  “I had the groundskeeping contract once,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “A long time ago, before the gangs. A bunch of the girls bid on it together—me and Laura and Carrie and . . . some others you never met. ”

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