Beta opened his swollen eyes. Craning his neck sideways, he took a good look at his surroundings. Pain throbbed through his skull and down his spine. Everything blurred, but the outline of the shelves confirmed he was still in the storeroom. His mouth omitted a soft groan. The screech of a heavy wooden chair sliding across the tile floor resonated in his ears, and Beta winced. The slight flex of his facial muscles shot needles of pain through the bruises on his face.
A blurry figure appeared above him. “How are you feeling?”
He waited a moment for his vision to clear and ignored the burning itch of his skin as his cells started the process of regeneration.
Lacey hovered over him, brow furrowed and lips pursed as she examined him. When he didn’t respond, she rested a hand on his shoulder and gave it a little shake.
The light touch of her palm sent a wave of energy through him. He jolted upright. “Ouch!”
Pain so severe that he felt like the walls of his head would collapse in on themselves riveted through his body.
She winced. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Please don’t move if it hurts.”
Beta scooted to the top of the bed and leaned his back against the brass headboard.
“You didn’t startle me. I just…” His voice trailed off. He couldn’t think of a way of saying what he meant without sounding weak.
“Never mind.” She gingerly touched the edge of his swollen eye with the tips of her fingers. “Are you in pain?”
He stiffened like the reflex of a beaten animal the first time it knows the touch of a gentle hand. Why should she care? “It’s fine. We heal quickly.”
Her gaze slid across his face. She probed every bruised nook and cranny. There was a hunger in her eyes as if she was the question and he the answer. He felt something else too; an emotion or feeling that he couldn’t put a name to. Something he'd never, in his short life, experienced. Beta stared past her, his eyes focused on the faint brush strokes of the wall’s dried white paint. If he could just ignore the strange new animal that had awakened inside him, he’d rally again and escape.
He cleared his throat.
“Sorry.” Lacey pulled back. “You must be hungry.”
She disappeared from the room and returned with a tray of food in her hands. Then she unfolded two short legs from the bottom of the tray and laid it across his lap. A loose strand of her ebony hair brushed against his cheek. Beta’s fingers twitched, knocking his wrists against the handcuffs. He wanted to tangle his hands in that silky-looking hair, just to know what it felt like.
She dipped a spoon into a bowl full of watery soup and pressed a mouthful to his lips.
Beta slurped down soft noodles with bits of chicken. Warmth spread from his belly to the rest of his body. He glanced up at Lacey’s face, inches away from his. Large red marks ran along the side of her jaw and neck. His throat tightened, remembering he had been responsible for those bruises. The little air he could suck in with bruised ribs tasted stale and stagnant. Another new sensation breached the impenetrable hold of his heart, this one unbearable. Beta swallowed hard. He had never regretted hurting someone before.
BETA23 stood straight, with his arms at his side, waiting for the man sitting behind the desk to acknowledge him. The room contained the same gray walls and minimal design as the rest of the complex, only larger than the other offices. Dr. Carol tapped the glass panel that doubled as a touch screen on top of his desk, illuminating the surface.
“23,” he said without looking up.
BETA23 straightened his shoulders and inhaled sharply. “Yes, sir.” He strained his eyes to read the graph displayed upside down on the table.
Dr. Carol rubbed his chin. “Your comprehensive results are very good. Second in your batch―only 0.02% behind 17.”
BETA23 flinched; he’d been chasing that 0.02% his whole life. Never mind that he’d beaten thousands of others.
Dr. Carol glanced up at BETA23. “The company has a mission for you.” He paused, emphasizing his next words. “Your future, and that of everyone here, depends upon it.”
BETA23 returned Dr. Carol’s gaze with a steel-hard look of his own. “Yes, sir.” His voice remained cool and collected, masking the true excitement he felt over his first assignment.
Dr. Carol tapped the top of his desk and the orientation of his computer screen rotated, displaying a picture of an adolescent.
BETA23’s eyes widened as he took in the image, and the text typed at the bottom, Alexander Mitchell. It was an Original name, not a number.
Thirds at dinner less than an hour ago should have quelled Xan’s hunger, but the smell of movie-theater popcorn set his stomach growling. He held his breath and frowned, trying to ignore the gnawing in his abdomen. It was unreal how much his appetite had grown over the course of a year and no matter how much food he ate, he could barely maintain his wiry frame.
Miles’ extra-wide build blocked his view of the menu board. Xan rocked on the balls of his feet and craned his neck for a glimpse of it.
Miles placed his order and then turned to Xan. “Spot me twenty.”
“Serious? You still owe me thirty from last week.” Xan bit back some of the outrage in his voice. He knew Miles’ mother struggled to keep a roof over their heads, but it wasn’t like Xan’s family was made of money.
“Duke beat Virginia Tech,” Miles countered.
Xan grunted. “So?”
Miles avoided meeting his eyes. “We have a long-standing bet, remember? You owe me twenty every time Duke wins.”
Xan grimaced. “That was from junior high.” He didn’t add that he hadn’t collected for a Virginia Tech win in over two years.
Miles folded his arms across his chest and his gaze met Xan's. The firm set to his jaw, visible in spite of the baby fat that still clung to his face, indicated Miles wasn’t backing down.
Xan glared at Miles, whispers from the annoyed movie patrons behind them buzzing in his ears. The showdown wasn’t worth making a scene, not when their dates were saving seats for them in the theater. Still, Xan was more than a little peeved. If he paid for Miles’ food, he wouldn’t have enough to get himself more than a drink. Defeated, he relaxed his shoulders and stepped up to the counter. It took a second for him to recall what Malinda had said she wanted, before she and Miles’ date had headed into the theater to save their seats.
“Add a large Coke and a small Sprite to the order.” He slipped his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Without bothering to look at the cashier, he laid it on the counter. He didn’t know why he still hung out with Miles when the guy was such a mooch. He supposed friendships formed in kindergarten deserved more tolerance.
The cash drawer popped out with a ring. Xan held his hand out to collect the change and glanced up at the uniformed worker. The guy’s hard gaze, an exact parallel in height to Xan's, felt like a fist hovering inches from his face. Xan’s breath cut short and he backed up a half step, feeling too much like he’d caught the eye of a rabid dog.
The cashier dropped the change into his hand and disappeared behind the soda fountain. A clank followed the sudden wheesh of liquid.
There was something strange about the worker; a smug confidence Xan didn’t like. He nudged Miles in the ribs. “Hey, do you know that guy?”
“Huh?” Miles tore his gaze from two skimpily-dressed girls hanging out near the bathrooms. The end of his cornrow braids flicked across his face with the sudden turn of his head. He blinked. “What did you say?”
Xan nodded at the cashier and lowered his voice. “Does he go to our school?”
Miles shot the worker a sideways glance. “I think I would remember someone with a full beard.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Xan still wasn’t certain, though. The guy gave him a bad vibe. He grabbed his drinks from the counter, leaving the rest for Miles to handle.
Miles snatched his food. He set his date’s drink on top of the popcorn and shoved the tub into Xan's already-full arms. “Toss me one―I’m going long.”
Miles released his grip on the bucket, darting past Xan down the corridor. Xan juggled his drinks into one hand and stopped the popcorn with his knee before it tumbled to the ground. The extra drink sloshed, brown liquid pooling on the plastic lid.
“Miles,” he groaned. But Miles was already ten feet away, waving his hands back and forth, like a wide receiver looking for the Hail Mary play. Xan freed his throwing arm by stashing the two drinks next to the other atop the bucket. “Ready?” He grabbed a piece of popcorn and chucked it.
The popcorn flew in a graceful arc. Miles scrambled into position beneath it, his mouth opened wide. He ducked at the last second, over-adjusting, and his knee caught the edge of a large trash can. Miles shook off the knock to his leg and checked that none of his drink had spilled. A giant grin spread across his face. “One more time.”
Xan shook his head and chuckled. Miles was always good for a laugh. “The girls are waiting.”
“Come on―give me your best shot.”
Xan shot him a “you must be crazy” look and threw the next piece of popcorn as hard as he could. It sailed past a movie poster, framed by dancing lights, and lost its momentum.
Miles dove, his opened mouth lined up to snatch the popcorn out of the air. A split second before the food missile reached its target, he crashed into an unsuspecting girl exiting a nearby theater. They landed on the ground in a tangled heap.
Lacey let out a startled yelp. Ice-cold soda drenched her face and shoulders and dripped down her square jaw, spotting the thin pink cami she wore under an open lab coat. Splotches spread like the aftermath of miniature explosions until her shirt changed from pink to a solid brown. She jerked her head upward, flashing her dark, slanted eyes filled with resentment.
“Watch it, Smarty-pants.” The tone in his voice transformed from surprised, to menacing. Lacey was one of the few people Miles couldn’t resist torturing. He called it “payback” for something that happened in the second grade. “What are you doing here? Your daddy rent the whole theater? I thought people like you stayed at home or hid in the library on Saturday nights.”
Lacey shoved Miles off her. “I just saw The Blue Planet documentary, not that it’s any of your business.” She glanced down at her shirt. The wet fabric clung to the contours of her bra, leaving little to the imagination. Her pale face flushed red. She gripped the front of her lab coat, trying to wrap it around the see-through fabric.
Xan tugged on the collar of his T-shirt, uncomfortable in the situation. “Miles, just leave her alone.”
The words soared past Miles, who didn’t bother to acknowledge them. He rose to his feet, his indignant gaze fixed on Lacey. The line in the middle of his forehead creased as he scowled. “You owe me another soda.”
Xan yanked Miles away from Lacey so hard that he nearly dislocated his shoulder. “Just go.”
Miles cranked his head toward Xan, finally acknowledging Xan’s attempts to intervene.
“Didn’t you see how she got in my way?” He spun around and pointed an accusing finger at Lacey. “She thinks she can walk all over people just because her dad’s some hotshot CEO. But that’s not how it works in the real world. People have to pay for…”
“Here, take my soda.” Xan pressed his drink against Miles' chest. “I haven’t touched it yet.”
Miles wrinkled his nose and waved the paper cup away with the back of his hand. “I don’t want your soda. You know I only drink diet.”
Xan stood there unwavering, his feet planted on the ground, facing off against Miles. Xan wasn’t going to let him bully her, not when the incident was their fault.
“This,” he said, nodding toward Lacey, “was our bad.”
Miles pursed his lips and glanced at their theater, then turned his hard gaze back toward Xan. “I can’t believe you’re taking her side.” Betrayal flashed across his face and then he jutted the ball of his shoulder into Xan's chest as he crossed the hall.
Popcorn spilled over the bucket’s lip. Xan staggered back, absorbing the blow, and fought his impulse to wince as he watched Miles disappear. Once the double doors closed behind Miles, Xan set down his food and turned back around to help Lacey.
She still sat on the floor, squeezing drops of soda from the nerdy coat she wore to pay homage to pharmacists and evil scientists. Xan offered her his hand. She shrank away from it, as though he couldn’t be trusted, eyes narrowed and full of suspicion. He swallowed, forcing himself to hold still and be studied like a science project. Her observing look unnerved him as he imagined her taking in the sight his light-brown hair, greenish eyes, and tanned skin. She was clearly not checking him out. That sort of appreciative glance wouldn’t have felt so strange. He considered her scrutiny a penance for his part in inadvertently knocking over an innocent bystander.
After a few tense seconds, she relaxed. Lacey reached out and slipped her hand into Xan’s, and he pulled her to her feet. She wobbled and he gripped her elbow with his other hand, holding her until she steadied. Her eyes met his, and Xan frowned. She was tall for a girl, but not as tall as he. Xan glanced down, noticing her high-heeled boots and smirked. Cheater shoes.
Her lab coat hung open, and she quickly readjusted it to conceal her wet shirt.
He glanced away and slipped his arms out of the green windbreaker he wore. “Here, take it.”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “But won’t you need it? It’s cold outside.”
Xan shook his head. “I don’t mind the cold.”
Lacey looked him over―he was the subject of close observation once again. Then her forehead smoothed and she nodded, removing her wet coat.
He held the windbreaker open while she slipped her arms in. Once the jacket was zipped, she spun back around, a slight smile playing on her lips. “Thanks.”
He watched her timid expression grow to a genuine smile. He didn’t know if he’d ever seen her smile―at least, not at people. Before Xan could stop himself, he grinned dumbly in return, surprised by how pretty she looked. Even in the baggy windbreaker, with nothing to hint at her feminine form, there was a carefree light in her eyes that made her appealing.
Lacey’s smile melted away, replaced by the no-nonsense expression he saw every day in school. “Don’t forget about the lab on Monday.”
Xan nodded. The air between them seemed to shift, feeling tight and rigid again. The carefree Lacey was gone, replaced by his AP biology T.A. He ran a hand through his thick brown hair. “Yeah, thanks for the reminder.”
“Well, I gotta go.” She pivoted on the heels of her boots and strode past him for the exit. A whoosh of air whipped through the corridor as she opened the door.
“Enjoy your movie,” she called over her shoulder.
Xan raised his hand, stopping mid-wave because he suddenly remembered where he was supposed to be―the movie, Miles, Malinda! He cursed under his breath.
Grabbing the concession food, he darted into their theater. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, but soon he could see well enough, with the reflection from the screen and the sharp incline of stadium seating, to spot them near the back.
Xan plopped down in the open seat next to Malinda and glanced over at Miles and his date, who were busy making out. The armrest between them was up, and they huddled together in one mass with Miles’ hand rubbing up and down her back. Xan grunted at their lack of restraint, set the popcorn tub down by his feet, and took a long sip of soda. If Miles was too busy to eat the popcorn, Xan wasn’t about to let it go to waste―not after he had paid for it.
A woman sobbed on screen, but he had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t like he could hear the audio through Miles’ and Tina’s urgent smacking.
Malinda’s delicate fingers interlaced with his, and Xan leaned closer. She draped his arm over her shoulder, and snuggled into the crook of it. His chin rested on the top of her honey-blonde hair and the scent of her strawberry shampoo filled his nostrils. He smiled, realizing how perfectly she fit next to him.
He took another sip of soda and his stomach lurched. He doubled over, clutching his sides. The movie theater spun around him. He rested his head between his knees. The pain subsided, but returned, sharper, moments later.
“Are you okay?” Malinda’s eyes were wide with concern.
Xan could barely comprehend Malinda’s words through the potent throbbing inside his head. Her mouth moved again, but he had no idea what she said.
He scrambled out of his seat, bumping into the back of the chair in front of him. An older woman glanced over her shoulder and shushed him, but he didn’t stop. He had to get out of there, had to get to a bathroom before he hurled on someone. His foot kicked Miles’ stupid popcorn, unleashing a cloud of artificial butter flavor that assaulted his senses. He clamped a hand over his mouth and stumbled down the steps two at a time.
Muffled footfalls treaded behind him and Xan thought he recognized Miles’ voice calling after him. He didn’t look back, knowing that if he stopped, he wouldn’t make it. His legs turned to jelly. He rammed the bathroom door open with his shoulder and darted into the nearest stall.
A wave of nausea slammed into him. He staggered backward, knocking the stall door closed behind him. The checkered pattern of the floor blurred to gray.
He puked up the contents of his stomach into the toilet, bits of vomit soiling his T-shirt. Xan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. For a moment he thought the worst had passed, but then darkness closed in. His arms flailed against the laminate walls of the partition. He slumped to the tile floor, his forehead ricocheting off the edge of the toilet seat. His head pounded as if someone had taken a hammer to it. He half-opened his eyes. Tears blurred his vision and then everything went black.