CHAPTER ONE: Leticia pedaled faster and faster, barreling down the streets on her lime green Huffy. Her dark hair billowed wildly behind her, like the flag in the middle of Discovery High. On most days, she would take her time riding home after classes, but today was different. It felt like something was chasing her. She began to sweat under her denim jacket and felt the afternoon sun burning on her freckles. Her calves were starting to get sore, but she did not let up. She went as fast as those two wheels would take her.
How long had she been followed? Since she left school? Since she left home this morning? Leticia tried not to think about it too much. She just wanted to get indoors. Facing forward the whole ride, she didn’t bother checking behind her. Only stupid girls in the movies look back at what they’re running from. And that’s what slows them down. And that’s how they get caught. She veered onto a different street and kept going. It was a shame she was in such a rush because it was a beautiful day out. Trees swaying. Birds chirping. Perfect mixture of sunshine and clouds out for a beach day. But she was in her own world. The tall, silver cross from the church closest to her neighborhood could be seen. She knew she wasn’t far now. This gave her a boost of energy to speed up even more. As she flew past them, she glanced at the emerald street signs. Gale St. Jefferson Dr. Rouse Ln. Briney Ct. After another recklessly quick turn, she was finally at the last stretch. She saw some of her neighbors waving at her. But she didn’t stop. She didn’t waste a second to even look at them. Just a few more pushes. Leticia could see her home at the end of the cul-de-sac. Her parent’s mailbox felt like the finish line at the Olympics, and she had to go home with gold.
She rode up the inclined driveway and tossed her bike up against the wall of the house. She ran over to the side door and knocked on it frantically. She waited a few seconds, but there was no response. She knocked again even louder. “Alright, alright, I’m coming! Hold your horses,” a voice hollered from the other side. There came a sound of locks unlocking, and then the door swung open. Leticia’s mom stood there with an annoyed look and one palm facing the sky. “You ain’t gonna have a break if you keep banging on the door like that. Gonna have to get a job so you can buy us a new one.”
Her daughter smiled up at her and stepped inside. She did it. She outran what was chasing her. It was the guilt of wasting any more time on that same old path between hell and home. It was finally time to do nothing but what she wanted, for a change. And what she wanted more than anything, was to relax and do nothing. School was dead to her and spring break was alive once again. She gave her mom a tight hug then looked up at her with a big exaggerated smile. “Sorry mommy, I’ll start saving up asap.” Then she flung herself face-first amongst the pillows on the living room couch, not even bothering to remove her backpack. Her mom chuckled while sweeping the floor. “Better enjoy being young while you can. If you think you’re tired now, you’re gonna hate it when you’re my age.” Leticia lifted her face up from the leather cushions to respond. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll ever live to be that old.” She hid her face again. Without hesitation, her mother smacked one of Leticia’s legs with the broomstick.
“Hey! I’m trynna relax here. You seen my grades. I earned this.” “Well then, don’t be starting shit. Besides, you can’t relax till you get your paper done.” Leticia poked one of her eyes out, with a look of confusion. “What paper?” “Your teacher left a message earlier. Said she forgot to tell your class about the spring break assignment since y’all were in such a hurry. She said it should be pretty easy though.” Leticia sat up and groaned. “Laaaaaaame.” She slipped off her bag and collapsed back on the couch. Her mom walked across the room to a small table and played back the voicemail. “Hello, this is Mrs. Stone. This message is for the Gomez family. My last class rushed out the door so I forgot to tell Leticia about her Journalism homework that’s due when classes return on March 20th. Just need her to write a 3000-word essay predicting the outcome of a developing news story of her choice. Just be sure to make it sound believable and cite all the sources used. Have a great break guys!” “Have a great break guys,” Leticia mimicked as she rolled her eyes. “If she wanted us to have a great break she would’ve given us homework after we got back.” She pulled out her phone and texted her friend Kaelyn. (Hey did you know we had spring break hw?)>
<(What??? :o I thought we were all clear. For which class, Stone or Douglas?)
(Stone. 3000 word essay.)>
<(That biiiitch. lol)
<(Wanna come over and write it with me Sunday? I got plans with my grandma tomorrow.)
(Yea I’m down. :) I’ll ask my parents later.)>
<(Cool. Just lmk.) Leticia put her phone into her pocket and pushed her face back into the furniture. Her dad walked in from the other room. “Hey honey, how was school?” She muffled something into the couch. “Well, that’s good. I’m gonna need you to scooch over though. I think there’s some exciting news about to come on.” She lifted her head. “My teacher is canceling our spring break homework?” “Maybe. I guess we’ll have to watch to find out.” Leticia crossed her arms and he chuckled. “No, it’s about Dr. Hall’s new invention. The guy just doesn’t stop!” Leticia looked annoyed, but curled up against the armrest.
“Thanks, sweetie.” Her father plopped down with a thud and grabbed the remote off the coffee table. Leticia scrolled through social media to see what her friends were doing for spring break. Mr. Gomez turned on his favorite science channel and was just in time to catch Dr. Ronald Hall giving his speech at the Tesla Conference Center. Leticia’s phone was making some noise and he put a finger to his lips. “It’s on.” She muted her volume. On the screen was a tall, balding man with a large nose. She had seen this face plenty. It was some guy her dad was obsessed with and watched his videos every chance he got. He was leaning against a wooden podium, sporting a white lab coat and round glasses. “I want to thank the Tesla center for having me here tonight on such short notice. Today, I’m here to bring the world some very exciting news. We’ve made a groundbreaking leap that will undoubtedly advance the field neurology and to be honest, may change human history forever. I’m proud to inform you all that the hurdles we have faced in the past were not in vain. Our community has spent decades attempting to map the mind, to no avail. But this time, we believe we’ve captured a crystal clear picture of all the connections that makes us... us.” “It has taken months of scanning, but the new quantum computer prototypes generously lent to us from the Sparks Corporation was finally able to get us the data we needed. To ensure the neural connections were accurate, we ran thousands of simulations to ensure we saw the predicted behavior before attempting the growing process. And after extensive trial and error, we have gone where humanity has never been before. As a warning, I want you all to know that what we’re presenting today may disturb some of you. But without further ado, I’m proud to introduce to you today, the first ever, fully-functional, cloned human brain. Please give a warm welcome to Number 15!”
Dr. Hall removed the sheet covering a small table he stood next to, but nothing was underneath. Awkward giggles emanated from the audience, but his grin lost no confidence. “You may come up to the stage now, Number 15.” Dr. Hall’s assistant and a young boy stood up from their seats in the front row among the rest of the audience. They walked over to join him at the podium. At this point, Leticia started paying attention to the TV while her father was already glued to it, jaw at his feet. A hush fell over the crowd. No one had any clue this new invention had been sitting right in front of them this whole time. The boy was pale with short brown hair. He wore denim shorts and a green shirt with a dinosaur on it. He looked like any other average kid you’d see in elementary school. He gazed out at all the people with wide eyes and waved at them. They waved back. “Go ahead. Feel free to ask him a question. One at a time please. And do be reasonable, as he only has the intelligence of a 12 year old.” Dr. Hall encouraged. Many in the audience raised their hands. His assistant pointed at the first volunteer. “Yes, you with the blue hat.” The man stood up and everyone turned to look at him. “What is 21 times 17?” he asked with a smirk.
The audience shifted their glance back to the boy. He thought about it for a minute. “I think it’s 346… no, 357” he answered. Dr. Hall smiled. “Notice how he did not have the answer immediately, like an AI would?” Everyone clapped and the man sat down. A woman with her hand raised was called on, but remained seated. “What is your favorite color?” The boy smiled. “That’s an easy one. Orange.” The audience cheered once more. Another hand was called on.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A scientist, just like my dad,” the boy replied excitedly. “What is the capital of Florida?” “Orlando!” The woman who asked chuckled. “Nope. Try again.” He thought about it for a while longer. “Wait. Is it Tallahassee?” The audience cheered once more. More and more questions were asked. Each time the boy was able to thrill them with the usual answers of a 12 year old. But his unique origin made the replies far more impressive. A man near the back row raised his hand.
“This is more a question for you, than it is for your invention, Mr. Hall. How do we know this is not simply a machine that you are remotely giving commands to, in order to respond to our questions? Can we see any hard proof?” The room grew silent once more. Dr. Hall looked over at his assistant and gestured towards the boy. The assistant reached over to the side of the boy’s head, pressed a series of hidden buttons, and gently pulled back his face to reveal what lied beneath. Inside was a metal interior lit up and filled to the brim with wires. But connected to them was indeed a real brain and pair of eyes. “What we have created here is a perfect copy of my very own brain, grown with stem cells in our lab. Unlike past experiments, Number 15 exhibits full consciousness. During our trials, we recorded activity of theta, alpha, beta, and gamma brainwaves. There are a variety of roads open to us now that weren’t before. In the past, we’ve used miniature organoids to test treatments for illnesses such as autism or schizophrenia. Today, we can simply grow and replace those areas of their brain which is malfunctioning. Improving AI. Removing specific memories that are the culprit for PTSD. Keeping backup scans of more favorable memories. Reversing diseases like Alzheimers. Full brain transplants. Combining DNA from brain cells of couples who are unable to bear children. Direct brain to brain communication. And dare I say, the possibility of cognitive immortality.” He paused for a moment.
“We utilized a 3-D printer to make and implant only the most necessary vital organs. We’ve housed them in this titanium shell to accompany his brain in interpreting stimuli, as you or I would. He can see, he can hear, he can speak. But there are limitations. He cannot feel or smell, since implementing a nervous or olfactory system was deemed too complex. But we are optimistic that will change in the near future.” Dr. Hall said. His assistant then removed the front of the boy’s chest the same way. There was a beating heart, a brain stem running to it, and many plastic tubes carrying blood to and from the brain. “Number 15 has no need for eating, drinking, or even breathing in the same ways we do. We have omitted a digestive tract and installed a system that converts CO2 from the air into usable oxygen that is then fed directly into the artificial circulatory system. And in lieu of food, we are able to supply the organs with total parenteral nutrition through an injection once every 24 hours.” The crowd erupted. Despite her father being obsessed with this scientist and his discovery, Leticia felt something was wrong. Her stomach turned. After everyone settled down, Dr. Hall spoke again. “Now, today was merely meant to be a little unveiling. A tease of sorts. But I’d like to invite my colleagues and the public to come see this marvel up close for themselves. We’ll be hosting a special meet-and-greet event tomorrow evening at the Cortana Center. Tickets are limited and will be on sale on our Hall Solutions website within a few minutes. Thank you for coming and we’ll see you all there.” He smiled as all three of them exited the stage. The room erupted as they left and Leticia’s father leaped up from the couch. He ran back to the room he came from and returned soon after, holding his phone. “The Cortana Center is just a few miles from here!” he exclaimed. “I’m gonna get my ticket before they sell out!” Suddenly, Leticia realized she would not have a tough time deciding what her essay was going to be about. “Can I come too?” she asked while putting on her cutest “please” face. Her dad grinned wide. “Of course sweetie! And how about you, babe?” he asked her mom. “No, thanks. You guys can go without me.” she replied. “All good. Just more fun for me and Teesh.” Mr. Gomez boasted. His wife rolled her eyes. “Annnnnnnd tickets secured! Woohoo! We’re going! We’re going! We’re going!” he chanted as he picked up his daughter and spun her around until she was a little dizzy.
Earlier in the week, her father said he planned on cooking them dinner that night. But he seemed far too excited to get anything done now. Leticia saw an opportunity and pounced. “Hey dad, we should get some pizza tonight to celebrate.” She looked over at her mom who planted her palm against her head. “Oh honey, that’s a great idea! If you call for the order, I’ll pay for it.” Her smile faded. “Uh. Can’t you just order it online?” “Sorry, I’m still waiting for my new credit card to come in the mail.” “Fine. What should I get?” “One cheese, one pepperoni, and some buffalo wings for me. Extra sauce!” She looked up the number for the local pizzeria and dialed it into her phone. Ring. Ring. “Hello, this is Bryce’s Slices! Can you hold for a bit?” “Yea, no problem.” Leticia looked at her mom while waiting and offered her the phone but she shook her head. “That’s all you.” She sighed. “Alright, you still there?” “Yup.” “Is this for takeout or delivery?” “Delivery.” “Alright, let me just check the number for the address. Got it. And what can I get you tonight?” “One large cheese, one large pepperoni, and the 10 piece wings with buffalo sauce. And can I get an extra side of sauce?” “No problem, will that be all?” “Yup.” “Alright, your total is $21.60 and should be there in about 40 minutes. Hope you enjoy your pies, guys!” “You too!” She hung up then immediately picked up a pillow and screamed into it. “Why did I say ‘you too?’” Both of her parents laughed. “Sorry honey, it’s the only way you’re gonna get over that fear.” “I think it’s just making it worse.” Leticia’s hands trembled. She was afraid she was on the edge of losing it all. “Focus,” she thought. Just as she was ready to accept defeat, she managed to safely pull out the wooden block. “Got it!” The three of them were playing board games around the coffee table until dinner arrived. Her parents were on the couch and Leticia sat across from them on top of a couple of pillows. She carefully placed it on top of the tower of blocks they had stacked high. “Okay my turn!” her dad said as he stood up and carefully examined the structure. He appeared to find a good candidate and crouched down. “I’m bored of your games. Watch me pull this piece how I used to pull chicks back in the day.”
His wife looked at him with eyebrows up. “What chicks? Pretty sure I was your first girlfriend. And I was the one who had to ask you out.” In the middle of grabbing his block, his face went red and he started laughing. The tower swayed side to side a bit. “Not now, babe! You’re gonna make me lose!” He managed to pull it together long enough to grab one. He then slowly placed it on top as if it were some kind of landmine. He bowed to an imaginary audience and sat back down. “Your turn, love.” As her mother looked around for a block that was loose, Leticia piped up. “Hey, mom. Why don’t you wanna go with us tomorrow? Is it because you’re secretly in love with Dr. Hall and don’t want to get close enough to him because you might kiss him and then dad will finally find out the truth?” Her dad looked at his wife with that “well?” look. She burst out laughing. “You just wanna make me mess up on my turn, huh? But no. No way in hell. Even with all that money, he’s not my type.” She found a loosened piece the other two missed near the bottom of the tower. She quickly flicked it out of its place and put it on top. Then it was Leticia’s turn again. She grabbed a block that didn’t appear too risky. “Then why not?” Her mom paused. “I don’t know. That stuff just creeps me out. I’m really hoping this dude is tricking everyone and it’s just a very realistic-looking robot.” The wooden block tower came crashing down and startled Leticia. Her dad yelled, “We win!” As per tradition, the loser had to clean up all the fallen pieces. As she was stacking them back into their box, the doorbell rang. “I’ll clean up this mess, you can get the door,” her mom offered. Leticia walked over and grabbed the money off the kitchen counter, then ran to the front door and swung it open. After paying the driver, she proudly came back inside with some warm cardboard boxes. Leticia set them on the coffee table and ran to grab paper plates from their kitchen cabinet. She threw a couple of slices on her plate and stole a chicken wing. Thousands of calories later, they were all stuffed and sleepy.
Leticia didn’t even notice she had passed out on the couch. She blinked a few times and squinted at her phone. She rubbed her eyes. Although she had been sleeping only about an hour, someone had laid a sheet over her to keep her warm. After looking around the room, she realized her parents must have gone to bed. No one around to keep her company besides the incense smoking on their entertainment center, the flowery wallpaper staring back at her, and the small radio singing her latin love songs from their kitchen counter. Leticia slowly lifted herself from the crater she had made in the leather. She folded the sheet, set it on one of the couch arms, and headed towards her bedroom.
She quietly turned her doorknob and stumbled in, crashing onto her mattress. After laying there for a couple minutes, she heard a small scratching noise. She lifted herself up from the blankets to hear it better. It sounded like it was close by. Leticia got up and switched on her lamp. Thinking maybe it was a bird or something from outside, she opened the blinds to her window. Leticia peered out and waited for a few seconds. Nothing. She heard it again. It sounded like it was coming from the ground. She turned on the flashlight built in her phone and scanned her floor. Where was it coming from? “Oh,” she giggled. She got back up and grabbed a plastic cup off of her dresser. She reached into a bag and filled it to the brim with kibble. “Almost forgot to feed you dinner.” Crouching down beside a large metal cage at the corner of her room, she could see a pink nose poking through one of the holes. It was a light brown ferret. He was wiggling with excitement. She opened the cage and poured his food into a small bowl. “Sorry Snickers. Hope you’re not mad at me.” She stroked his fur as he began digging in.
Once he emptied the bowl, she pulled him out and played with him awhile on her bed. He bounced around wildly and sniffed the blankets until Leticia started scratching his rear. Then he rolled over on his back and started to play bite her while making faint squeaky noises. They played around for almost an hour before she put him back in. Leticia changed into some pajamas, then stood on her bed to pull the string on her ceiling fan. A gentle breeze filled the room. Leticia slipped under her blankets. She put some relaxing music on her phone then placed it on the nightstand near her head. “Night, Snickers,” she whispered as she turned off her lamp.
She doubled up the pillows under her head and tried to get in a comfy position. But despite how peaceful her room was, Leticia couldn’t get to sleep. Staring at the ceiling, she thought about what she had seen on TV earlier. She wondered about the boy. Was he asleep right now? Could he sleep? Did he have to do everything Dr. Hall wanted since he was his invention, or was he allowed to live out his life like all the other kids? But then again, all parents have rules. Right? But is that technically his kid or his twin? And if he was born in a lab, was he experimented on a lot? Did that hurt? Could he be brainwashed to forget things like that? It was all weird to think about.
More horrifying concepts entered her mind. What if she was kidnapped by someone who knew about this technology? What if her DNA was stolen to make a clone like that of her? If it was convincing enough, would anyone even bother to come look for her if she was “found?” What if someone could open up her body so easily like that? She shivered at the idea. She thought about what her mom said about none of it even being real. There had been other whack jobs in the science community falsely claiming some breakthrough invention just for the attention. Maybe she was worrying over nothing. She was really hoping her mother was right.
CHAPTER TWO: Leticia wanted to open her eyes, but she knew it would hurt too much. Muffled voices could be heard from where she was lying. She paid them no mind and instead focused on the tightness in her chest. Counting in her head helped her ignore the pain. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. After lots of practice, she knew she could last longer than she had before. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. Leticia had reached her limit. She pushed against the ground below her and launched herself upwards. Her head erupted from the surface and she took in a deep breath. Then she looked around. Her expression became an annoyed one when she noticed that no one had noticed her. Not even the lifeguard on duty. He should be fired! What if she had drowned? Her parents were still sunbathing on the lounge chairs and chatting with some new friends they had made, unaware their daughter could be dead right now. All the other kids were splashing around like normal children. It was nice for the three of them to finally have a little vacation together, but she wasn’t used to her parents having time to themselves. They had been planning this weekend for months after they found a matching gap in both of their work schedules. She had fun spending the last couple days at theme parks and their resort. But they had been paying her less attention than usual, and she hated it. Leticia floated over to the edge of the pool, then kicked the wall to shoot herself away from it. She swam from one end to the other as fast as she could. Her arms cut through the water like a knife in melted butter. She did laps as if she were training for some competition. Leticia pretended there was someone racing right alongside her. The two of them were always neck and neck. The perfect rival. Sometimes Leticia would get there first. Sometimes the other girl would. She kept this up for a while until she finally got bored. Leticia tilted her head back and gazed up at their hotel, which cast a shadow over the entire swimming pool. She figured she would try holding her breath underwater again. Maybe the fifth time was the charm. But right as she filled her lungs and was about to submerge herself, she heard her dad shouting for her. “Leticia! Time to get out. We gotta go!”
“I thought we weren’t leaving until lunch time?” she asked. Her father rushed over to the edge of the pool with a towel. He looked worried and stumbled over his words. “Sorry honey, we’re cutting today short. We’ll grab something on the way home.” Leticia climbed her way out and he covered her with it. They walked back towards her mom, who was on the phone. Her face also looked stern. “ Uh huh. Yeah, I know. Okay, but you need to let me know when you start feeling like that. I don’t care. You’re a little more important than my spa day, dad. Jesus. That’s fine. Palms Regional, right? No, I can look it up. Alright. We’ll see you there. Love you. Buh bye.” She pocketed her phone and began to frantically scoop up all their belongings. Her father helped. “What’s going on?” Leticia asked. “Nothing. Papa is just feeling sick, so we’re gonna go see him at the hospital.” Her dad grabbed the hotel keycard from their tote bag. “I’m going to go check us out and get our stuff from the room. You can get the van ready,” he said, as he jogged towards the main entrance. Leticia and her mom headed for the parking lot. She didn’t have a chance to put shoes on, so the asphalt was burning her feet. Leticia didn’t complain, though. She just hoped her grandpa was okay. Leticia felt terrible about trying to make her parents worry about her in the pool. She was relieved her shenanigans didn’t get their attention.
Her mother swung open the minivan door and threw their belongings inside. Then she input the address for the hospital into her phone’s GPS app and mounted it on their dashboard. She started up the engine , then pushed a button to open the trunk. A few minutes later, Leticia turned her head to see her dad was speed walking towards them. He was carrying all their luggage, trying not to drop anything. He hurriedly tossed everything in the back, then slammed the door shut. “Got your seatbelt on?” her mom asked her. “Yeah,” Leticia replied. Her dad jumped in and the three of them sped off to reach the nearest highway. After a few minutes of silence, Leticia spoke up. “Is Papa going to be okay?” Her dad responded. “Yeah, baby. Don’t worry. Papa just caught a little cold, that’s all.” Leticia was going to ask another question until she saw her mom’s reflection in the side mirror. Her eyes looked like a dam that hadn’t seen regular maintenance in many, many years. She cranked up the radio and Leticia stayed quiet for the rest of the ride.
After about an hour, they pulled into the hospital parking lot. Her mom found the first open spot and took it. She shut off the car and Leticia’s dad took the keys from her. “We’ll meet you up there,” he said. She nodded, got out, and headed straight for the double doors. Her dad grabbed some dry clothes for Leticia from one of their suitcases and they headed inside. They walked through the metal detector gates and once the security guards cleared them, they found the nearest bathrooms. Her dad waited outside the women's restroom while Leticia changed out of her swimwear. When she came out, he pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and put her damp clothes inside. After getting their visitor stickers, they hopped in the elevator.
Once they located the right room, a nurse stopped them before they opened the door. “Only one at a time, please. He’s still recovering from his symptoms.” And so they patiently waited until her mom finally came out. She had a hand over her mouth, but gestured for Leticia to go in. She grabbed the cold doorknob and pulled it open. After carefully closing the door, she turned around to see a familiar, wrinkly face. Although he was hooked up to a bunch of beeping machines, his eyes lit up at the sight of her. His smile warmed up the room. “Hey, troublemaker,” he whispered. She giggled and ran over to his bedside.
“Hi, Papa. How you feeling?” she asked. “Oh, I’ve been better. But I’m doing great now that you’re here.” He struggled to sit up and gave her a hug. His graying beard rubbed up against her as he kissed her on the cheek. He smelled like fried plantains. “Were you cooking before they brought you here?” she asked. “Yeah, what gave it away?” he asked, chuckling. “I can’t believe I gotta eat this junk. Wish they would’ve let me bring a plate from home,” he said as he pointed towards his untouched sandwich. Leticia’s stomach growled loud enough for him to hear. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast at the hotel. “You can have it if you want.” “You sure?” she asked. “Go ahead. I’d rather starve.” She picked it up and was excited to see it was turkey.
“Daddy said you got a cold. I won’t catch it by being in here, will I?” Leticia asked. Her grandpa smirked. “Is that what he told you? No... I don’t got a cold, honey. I’m not contagious.” “Then what is it?” she asked in between bites. His smile weakened. “They say it’s cancer.” “Well, the doctors can fix it right? That’s what they go through all that school for,” she said. “Sometimes they can, yeah. But not this kind. I found out about it a little too late,” he replied. Leticia finished chewing the last bit of the sandwich, then broke the silence. “So there’s no cure for it?” she asked. “Sadly, no. But it’s okay. I’ve lived a great, long life. Some people half my age die from this. I got kind of lucky to have stuck around to be an old man.” “You’re not old, Papa” Leticia insisted. Both of them laughed.
Leticia laid her head on his shoulder. “Papa?” “Yes, sweetie?” he said. “I wish you could live forever.” “Oh no no, that wouldn’t be a good idea,” he said as he shook his head. “Why not? We could spend more time together. And we could go on more trips. And you could teach me more about cooking,” she insisted. “That all sounds nice, but we all gotta have our happy ending sometime. Mine’s just coming up sooner than I thought. Besides, I wouldn’t wanna live forever. I’d have to see mom and you pass away. And all the rest of the family. Then what? I’d be so lonely.” Leticia tried to sound optimistic while looking down at the pale floor. “I guess you’re right.” “I know I’m right!” he boasted. “Even if I died tomorrow, at least I don’t feel lonely right now.” They smiled at each other and hugged again.
“So why did daddy lie about what you had?” Leticia asked. “Oh, don’t be mad at him for that. He just didn’t want to scare you.” “I’m not scared. Only little kids get scared,” she retorted. “Oh, is 13 the age where you don’t get scared no more?” he asked. She smiled. “Yup.” “Well, good. Because it happens to all of us one day. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it to 70 like I did. Maybe older. But if life never ended, how special would it really be?”
After her father got his turn to visit with him, they decided to leave. His nurse suggested they let him get some rest. The three of them piled back in the minivan and left the hospital. They rode in silence and Leticia laid back in her seat with her eyes shut. She thought about all the great memories she had with her abuelo. The time she accidentally crashed into him when he was teaching her to ride a bike. Feeding the pigeons at the park near his house. Playing chess together and him letting her win despite her breaking all the rules. The corners of her eyes watered up. She wasn't ready to say goodbye.
The car stopped and she opened her eyes, expecting to see their driveway. Instead, she noticed they were parked in front of her favorite ice cream shop, Coolie's. Leticia managed a smile and wiped her face on her shirt collar. She unbuckled her seatbelt and they all huddled together at the ordering window. It was a miracle there was no one in line, since this place was usually packed. They waited politely until a lady with curly hair and a black apron approached the window. "Welcome to Coolie's. What canI get you folks today?"
Her parents looked over at her. "What did you want, sweetie?" her dad asked. "You know! Same thing I always get." He laughed. "You never try anything different. They might have something even better than you usual, but you'll never find out." "That's okay with me!" Leticia responded, still confident in her choice. He turned to the lady. "We'll have two vanilla cones and a vanilla blendy with peanut butter cups." "Don't forget the whipped cream!" Leticia burst out. Her dad rolled his eyes. "And whipped cream on the blendy please," he said. "Sounds good. I'll have 'em ready for you in just a minute." She shut the window and they took cover from the sun at an umbrella topped table.
Not even a minute later, they received their frozen treats. Leticia barely got into her seat before digging in. She grabbed her spoon sticking out from the fluffy cloud hiding her ice cream and licked it clean. Then she dipped it in, making sure to get plenty of peanut butter cups in her first bite. It was heavenly. For a moment, she forgot about how bad today was and got to end it enjoying her favorite dessert with her parents. Leticia savored every bite and was a bit bummed when her cup was finally cleared out. She got up to throw away her styrofoam cup.
But as she approached the trash can, she noticed something shiny poking out from the pile of garbage. She grabbed the edge of whatever it was and pulled it out. It was a silver lamp. A nice little replica toy that looked like the kind you see in movies about genies. Leticia knew her parents wouldn't approve of her taking things from the garbage so she tucked it in her front pocket and used her shirt to cover the handle that was sticking out. She returned to the table and they headed home. On the way there, she secretly got a few looks at it while her parents were distracted by the traffic.
Once they arrived home, Leticia rushed into her room and locked the door. She pulled out the lamp and carefully stood it up on her nightstand. After turning on her light, she could better see how detailed it was. It had beautiful craftsmanship and whoever made it must have loved their work. The lamp looked good enough to be a movie prop and she flipped it around in her hands to see if it had a manufacturer engraved. But there was none she could see. She tried pulling open the lid, but it felt like it had been sealed with super glue. Well, at least it would be a cool room decoration.
Although, Leticia realized it wouldn't make for good decor until she thought of a convincing story of where she got it from. She didn't want her parents to think she stole it and knew fishing it out of the trash would also be frowned upon. So it would live in her dresser drawer under her socks until she thought up an alibi for it. Leticia decided to distract herself for the rest of the night with some of her favorite movies she watched when she was young. She was hoping it would make her feel better, although she broke down a few times when she realized her grandpa had introduced her to a few of these films.
A couple weeks later, she was standing around with all of her mother's side of the family. It was cloudy out and the wind howled at them as if they were all trespassing on it's property. Everyone was dressed in black and took turns getting a few moments in front of the casket. Leticia had gotten to see him a few more times before he passed. But each visit it felt like he was becoming less and less like himself. He was in so much pain during some visits, that she felt she was sharing the room with a stranger. He would just lie in the hospital bed and groan. Gone were his bubbly behavior and funny jokes. Gone were the smiles. Gone was he. When the time came to pay her respects, she peered over the elegantly carved cherrywood, then quickly turned away.
She held in the screams she desperately wanted to let escape. Leticia didn't want to believe it was really over. It wasn't fair. The pastor from her grandpa's church gave some kind words and spoke on the friendship they had together. Everyone silently wept and held each other as he was lowered into his final resting place. Leticia squeezed her mom's hand as the workers tossed dirt over him, to separate him away from their world forever. The tears she tried keeping in began to make their way out and she wiped her eyes and running nose. Her mother held her tighter and her father came to put his arms around both of them.
That night, Leticia decided to skip dinner and sat alone on her bed. Her father tried calling her to come eat, but gave up after a few attempts. A few hours earlier she had grabbed a photo album from their living room and was flipping through it over and over. All she had were the pictures now. It was crazy seeing how young her grandpa looked in some of them. Some photos were from before she was born. Her mom took care to organize them all in chronological order. There was a picture of him with her mom when she was her age at a carnival. Another of the three of them at her parent's wedding. Leticia came across one with her grandpa posing next to her in her high chair at her first birthday party. Her face was covered in cake, yet somehow she was still crying. His face had a nervous look as if to say: "Just hurry and take the picture! This is the best we're gonna get!" Leticia managed a small smile.
After a few more hours of reminiscing, she closed the photo album and went to grab pajamas from her dresser. When she opened the drawer, she noticed the tip of the silver lamp poking out from her socks. "It wouldn't hurt," she thought. She dug it out and held it close to her chest. Leticia gazed at it and gave it a few rubs. She waited a few seconds. Nothing. She put it back and began to tear up a little from her own desperation. After changing her clothes, she lied under her blankets and tried to let herself sleep. All the crying had made her a little drowsy.
But just as she was about to pass out, there was a light that caught the corner of her eye. She turned away and faced the other side of her bed to try and ignore it. Maybe someone with bright headlights was lost and pulling a three point turn in their driveway. But after a couple minutes, she realized that couldn't be the case. The light didn't go away. She sat up to investigate and realized it wasn't coming from her window, but below it. The crevices around her dresser drawer were glowing yellow. Leticia's eyes grew. "No way," she whispered.
She silently slipped out of bed and slowly opened the drawer again. Sure enough, the lamp was emanating a blinding light and when she picked it up, it illuminated her entire room. Leticia didn't want her parents to think she was awake, so she put a sweater at the base of her door to stop any light from reaching the hallway. She turned her attention back to the lamp and rubbed it once more. The lid flipped open and green smoke poured out into her bedroom, until it was hard to see anything. She tried closing the lid but it wouldn't budge. Leticia set the lamp down on her pillow and a tiny green person backflipped out from it. She fell back onto the ground beside her bed frame. Luckily for her, she had carpet floors.
The small man poked his head over the edge of the mattress and laughed at her. "Scared you, did I? Don't worry you're not the first! And certainly won't be last!" Leticia had trouble finding the right words. "Ah. Uh. Are you…" "Of course darling, ain't it obvious? I'm a genie in a lamp. The Midnight Genie to be exact, which means we don't have much time. You have one minute to make your one wish before it hits 12:01." Leticia glanced at the digital alarm clock near her bed. It was indeed midnight. Leticia didn't hesitate. "Can you bring my grandpa back?" she asked.
The genie twirled his long mustache through a finger. "Sorry suga, but you gonna have to narrow it down. You know how many dead grandpas there are? I'mma need a name and date of death. 42 seconds left." "His name is Arthur Cunningham. He died two weeks ago on August 10th." "What year did he die? 35 seconds." "This year!" The genie gave a smirk and snapped his fingers, but nothing seemed to happen. "All done, honey buns! Now excuse me while I hibernate until a new master rubs my lamp. Ta ta!" With that, the green man jumped back into the lamp and he took all the green smoke with him. The lid shut itself and her room was dark once again.
She still had lots of questions. "But where can I find him? And is his cancer gone now? Hello!" She shook the lamp and even tried rubbing it again. No response. Leticia chucked it into the corner of her room and plopped down onto her bed. Did that really just happen? It seemed she was on her own now. Deep down, she knew where she'd have to start looking. The place she saw him last.
The next day, Leticia asked her parents if they could go visit her grandpa's grave. Personally, her mother wanted some time away from work and the cemetery to process everything, but she didn't want to say no to her daughter. "Okay sweetie, just let me make some breakfast first." While her mom was cooking, she went outside to their small backyard. Leticia noticed the other day that there were some flowers growing back there that she'd never seen before. There weren't many, but she picked the best looking ones. After some scrambled eggs and bagels, she and her parents drove over to his burial site. They pulled into the closest parking spot available, then located his tombstone amongst the countless others.
Leticia immediately ran up and placed the blue flowers on his grave. She looked down and saw the pile of dirt remained undisturbed since yesterday. Maybe what happened last night was all a dream. She hugged her mom and dad and they talked about all the great times they remembered with her grandpa. Today was much nicer out. Despite the sadness they all felt, the sun was smiling down on them. The surrounding trees slow danced in the gentle breeze. Birds were chirping and squirrels chased each other around the branches. For a place that had seen so much death, the cemetery really felt alive today. It was nice.
Maybe Leticia would be able to find peace in her grandpa's words from that first hospital visit. Perhaps she would finally find the strength to move on. She nodded at her parents to let them know she was ready to leave. Before going, she put a hand on his name engraved in the tombstone. "Love you, Papa." But as she started walking away, she could hear a muffled voice. She stopped in her tracks, but her parents kept walking towards the van. Could they not hear that? She waited to see if she could hear it again.
"Leticia? Is that you?" It was faint, but it was there. The sound was coming from below her feet. "Papa?" she asked, trembling. "Yes Leticia, it's me! I can't see anything and it's getting hard to breathe. I need you to go get help!" She was terrified. Leticia ran over to her parents. "Mom, Papa's alive! I just heard him talk to me!" she yelled, on the verge of tears. "Honey, you've been through a lot these past couple of weeks. Let's get you home." she replied. "No, mom! He's not dead! I heard him! Dad, come with me so you can see what I mean." "Baby, I think you're hearing things. I know it's been hard for you lately, but we gotta go now." They wouldn't listen and instead pulled her into the car while she was crying hysterically. As they drove off she swore she could still hear him calling her name.
Then she woke up. Leticia wanted to open her eyes, but she knew it would hurt too much. She didn’t want to face reality, because the truth is, it wasn’t all just a dream. Her grandpa really was dead. But she knew there were things even worse than death. And that thought alone brought her enough comfort to drift back to sleep.
Leticia’s father was very excited to meet his hero Dr. Hall today. So excited in fact, he decided to whip up some of his famous carne asada tacos, that he only ever makes on special occasions. To the delight of Leticia, and to the despair of her hungry neighbors, the aroma filled her house and oozed out of the kitchen windows. It got her out of bed faster than any alarm had ever managed to. Which was convenient, because she forgot to set an alarm and had slept in a lot more than she thought she would. Leticia looked over at her digital clock. It was 3:17 PM. Today’s event was starting at 4 o’clock. “Oh shit,” she thought. She poured some kibble for Snickers in a rush. "Morning bud. I'll make sure to play with you when we get back."
Leticia gave him a couple small pats on his head then closed his cage. She tore off her pajamas and tossed them into her laundry basket across the room. She opened up one of her drawers and hurriedly threw on her usual T-shirt and jean shorts, then darted into the kitchen. As she passed through the living room, Leticia inhaled deeply and let out a happy sigh. Her father had prepared both of them plates and was already starting on his. He was sitting at their small wooden dining table, dressed in a black suit with leather dress shoes. To avoid making a mess on himself, he was using a paper towel as a handkerchief. “Hurry up and eat. We need to head out in like five minutes so we’re not late.” He didn’t have to tell her twice. She pulled out a chair and slid her knees under the table. Leticia folded up one of the corn tortillas and dipped her taco in a cup of steaming birria. Some of it dripped on her plate and she leaned over it to take her first bite. Perfection. She was a little upset they were in a rush and she wouldn’t get to take time savoring this moment. Leticia milked those five minutes though. After a few more bites, she was both happy and sad to be full already. Just as she was putting her plate in the sink, her father threw her a look of disapproval. “That’s what you’re gonna wear?” he asked. “Yeah. Why, what’s wrong with it?” “This is going to be a huge event, Teesh. You should go change into something a little more formal.” Leticia knew how much today meant to him. “Alright. Be right back,” she replied while running back to her bedroom. “Quickly, please!” her dad called. She slid open her closet door and scanned the clothes for something slightly nicer than what she had on. Her eyes met with one of her favorite black dresses. It was great because it actually had pockets, unlike most of her wardrobe. Leticia quickly changed into it and slipped on some flats to match with it. She grabbed her phone off her charger and ran back into the living room. Her dad was waiting with the front door open. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” he yelled. He locked the front door and they headed towards the van. “Shotgun!” Leticia said. “Haha. Real funny. Just get in.” her dad replied. Leticia liked sitting in the passenger side when they went on a trip while her mom was at work. It made her feel that much closer to the driver’s seat. She had been studying up on the rules of the road and was excited to get her permit in a few months. “Seatbelt on?” her dad asked, as he adjusted the rear view mirror and started the engine. “Yup.” They pulled out of their driveway and headed straight for the Cortana Center. To her father’s dismay, the roads today were horrendous. Not unusual for a Saturday, since everyone was out doing something for the weekend. Throw the timing of spring break into the mix though and you have a recipe for stop-and-go traffic for miles. They read the license plates of the drivers in front of them. Wyoming. Georgia. Michigan. New Hampshire. Maine. It was mostly tourists slowing everything down. Leticia’s dad was trying to keep his cool but she could hear him whispering profanities to himself. “Puta madre.” Lucky for them, her father had spent his whole life growing up in San Francisco. He was able to take shortcuts through some back streets and saved them a few minutes. But even then, it seemed as if almost every traffic light was mocking them by turning red just as they approached each intersection. On top of all the other road hazards, it was also raining now. Her dad gripped the steering wheel and became extra focused to ensure he didn’t slide into anyone or get slid into. The last thing he needed was a minor accident to ruin his plans for today. He turned on the windshield wipers so he could see better. Leticia enjoyed the sound of the water lightly tapping the roof of their van. Putting an elbow on the armrest, she leaned her face against her palm and watched raindrops race each other to the passenger window. It was relaxing when you weren’t the one getting soaked. She looked over to the sidewalk and felt bad for the few people walking and biking through it. In the distance, the two could finally start to see the large "C" at the top of the Cortana Center building. They pulled into a line of cars leading up to the parking garage. Once they were near the front, they could see a booth with a barrier connected to it.
“Ugh, we gotta pay for parking too?” her father asked, throwing his hands in the air. He began to scramble to find his debit card in his wallet. They rolled up to the booth window and the parking employee gave a friendly wave. “Fifteen dollars, please.” Leticia’s dad handed him a $20 bill. “Keep the change,” he said as he almost hit the barrier before it could be raised. “Keep an eye out for a spot,” he told Leticia. “Okay,” she replied. There were none on the first floor. None on the second floor. They reached the third floor. “There’s one!” Leticia exclaimed. But before her father could see which one she was pointing to, someone else had already taken it. Their van didn’t find a home until they finally came across a spot on the sixth floor. Her father drifted into it like it was the last parking space in existence. “Finally,” he said. He pulled a large umbrella from under his seat and made sure to lock the doors after they got out. It was a good thing there were elevators to hurry them back down to ground level. They rushed over to the nearest one and Leticia pressed the button with the down arrow. With how many people were showing up, they were shocked their elevator wasn’t stopped for anyone else to get on.
Before exiting the parking garage, her dad opened up the umbrella. They sprinted towards the entrance and pushed their way through a revolving glass door. Once inside, he grabbed a complimentary plastic bag and slipped the damp umbrella inside it. There were many lines of people and Leticia and her dad joined the shortest one. They took notice of how fancy the place was. Beige tile floors and many art pieces hanging in the lobby. There was an excited chatter amongst everyone who had just arrived. When they reached the front, they were asked to present their tickets. Leticia’s father pulled out his phone to show them the email confirming his purchase from the night before. The employee clicked a scanner over his phone screen and gave them a couple red lanyards to wear with laminated cards hooked on them. They read "VIP" in bold letters and had their names printed below.
Her dad was usually very frugal with his money. The type to pay for the cheapest possible internet service, use coupons for every grocery trip, and sneak snacks into the movie theatre. But it seems he spared no expense today. The event employee gestured for them to proceed further. The two of them entered another backed up line for security. Once it was their turn they took off their shoes and put their belongings in bins that rolled through a scanner. After both of them walked through the metal detector, they were finally welcomed guests. Since they had arrived late and didn’t have time to grab a brochure for the building, they followed the other stragglers heading down a beautifully decorated hallway, and eventually reached a large set of double doors. One of them was halfway opened and they slipped inside to face yet another line. But to their relief, this one was for the main event. It zig zagged back and forth until it reached the end of an enormous ballroom. Looking up, they could see large mounted speakers, chandeliers, and screens with projected footage of Dr. Hall. He was speaking with both those at the front of the line and to the room as a whole. They were allowing everyone a chance to meet his new invention. Out of nowhere a wave of anxiety washed over Leticia. The thought of seeing this boy up close suddenly made her nervous. She wasn’t sure if she was actually ready to meet him, but it was a bit too late now. At least they had a long wait before that happened.
Her father suddenly got very giddy. “Hey, we’re at the end of the line, but at least we made it! I can’t believe I’m about to actually meet thee Ronald Hall!” he said. Even though Leticia was still unsure of his idol, she didn’t want to kill the mood. “Yeah, this is really nice. Thanks for bringing me along,” she replied, smiling. He put a hand on her shoulder and smiled back. “No problem. Thanks for coming with me. So I guess we just wait till they call us up.” Leticia pulled out her phone to text her friend Kaelyn. (Hope you’re having more fun than I am rn. I’ve seen more lines than Mr. Sheen today.)> <(Actually I am. Been baking with my grandma all day. Why, what you up to?)
(Stuck in this long ass line at a science event. My dad wanted to meet this Dr. Hall dude.)>
<(Oh yeah, I seen him on TV. He looks kinda creepy but ppl say he’s a genius.)
(You can be both a genius and a creep. I wanna to get a better look at his new invention tho.)> <(That little boy, right? Everyone’s been talking about it. You think he’s legit?)
(Idk but I guess I’m bout to find out in a few minutes.)>
<(Alright, let me know what happens. I gotta go, gran needs help with something. Peace.)
They waited patiently as the line slowly crept forward. Leticia tried to catch a glimpse of the boy when she could. But due to her height, she was better off watching his interactions with others on the projector screens mounted in the high corners of the room. Dr. Hall was standing behind his assistant and the boy with a microphone headset, answering any questions the attendees had about his latest invention. His voice could be heard booming from the speakers around the room.
"I've welcomed you all here today to get a chance to interact with our latest invention up close. For anyone still skeptical about Number 15, we have scheduled a variety of live demonstrations today to show off his capabilities. We will also have machines hooked up to him for the duration of the event displaying his vitals for anyone curious, and to monitor him since this is his first extended public appearance. I ask that you please limit to groups of three at a time when meeting Number 15. He does quite literally have the mind of a young boy and can experience stress and get overwhelmed just like any other child would. If you like what you see today, you may contact us later if you are a serious buyer looking to get your hands on this cutting edge technology for yourself. And for those who purchased VIP tickets, you'll have more time to interact with Number 15 here and I'll be available for pictures and autographs until the end of today's event." After what felt like forever, it was almost their turn. Leticia looked on as the few remaining people ahead of them walked over, shook the boy’s hand and had a short exchange with him and his creator. There were lots of security guards standing near the three of them. All of them were large men with little to no hair. Each of them wore shades and gray suits. She was pretty close and could see the boy's face more clearly. The scary part was he really didn’t look any different from a real boy. Maybe she was afraid that he might actually be one.
The animatronic movements in his face seemed very natural and you could tell whoever designed the features that disguised his metal skin did a great job. From the blush in his cheeks to the individual hairs on his head, the attention to detail was amazing. She probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if he was on a playground amongst other children. Who’s to say he hasn’t been? Leticia was also close enough to get a better look at Dr. Hall's assistant too. He looked to be in his mid 20s and dark skinned. His hair was styled into long locs that were neatly tied up and resting on his back. He wore a white lab coat and glasses. She didn't catch the same bad vibes from him that his boss had given her.
Dr. Hall’s voice came back to the speakers once again. “Have you or a family member suffered cognitive injuries from an accident recently such as memory loss, concussions, and even paralysis? On top of fixing parts of the brain, we can also make repairs to replace damaged areas of the spinal cord. Do you know anyone near and dear to you battling with addiction? You can simply make an investment with us to get that part of their brain replaced, and have them back to their old selves again. Have you struggled with depression or even had thoughts of suicide? We can simply remove the chunk of your brain responsible. Want a child that is genetically your own but don’t want to deal with the risk or burden of pregnancy? Our team can deliver one for you with personalized traits, based on your preferences.”
Leticia looked up at her father and could see his excitement growing. This was like the grown up version of a rollercoaster line for him. And they were next to get on the ride. Suddenly, Leticia realized she had not thought about what she was going to say to the boy. She had overheard what some of the people ahead of them had asked him. What is it like not needing to eat or breathe? Does it feel weird knowing he was born in a lab? What kind of dreams does he have? When he gets older, does he want his brain transferred into a bigger metal body to feel like an adult? There was even one mean kid who asked him what his favorite food was. At least there was one upside. He didn’t have to be enrolled in school, where he’d have to deal with bullies like that on a daily basis. Leticia wanted her questions to be unique.
Finally, the last group moved on and Dr. Hall’s assistant gestured for them to step forward. Instead of acknowledging the boy, Leticia watched her dad immediately rush over to Dr. Hall. "Mr. Ronald Hall sir, it's an honor to finally get to meet you. I've been a fan of your work for the past few years and I've listened to all the podcasts you host and just want to thank you for all the great work you've done over the years!" Dr. Hall grinned, soaking in all the praise. "Why, thank you. It's always great to meet new fans who recognize our work. And I noticed you got yourself a VIP pass. Was there anything you brought me that needed signing?" Her father's eyes widened. It seems he forgot to bring anything to get autographed, since he had been in a rush to leave the house earlier. He reached in his pocket and grabbed his phone. It was better than nothing. Dr. Hall grabbed a permanent marker from his lab coat. Leticia's dad stood there waiting like a fangirl at the merch table, after a boy band concert.
Leticia walked up to get a closer look at Dr. Hall’s creation. He smiled at her and reached out his hand. She grabbed and shook it gently. His skin was soft, but cold to the touch. Today he was wearing a T-shirt with the solar system printed on it. He also wore the same light-up sneakers that her younger cousins had. “What’s your name?” the boy asked, cheerfully. Even though his lips moved, she could tell his speech was produced electronically. It still sounded pretty convincing, though. “Leticia. And you’re Number 15, right?” He chuckled in response. “Oh, you don’t gotta call me that. You can call me Ronnie.” “Okay, Ronnie. I was wondering if I could ask you something.” “Sure, Leticia. What did you want to know?” “Are you happy?” she asked.
There was a pause. Not a long one, but longer than the ones he took to answer everyone else’s questions. “Of course I am. Why do you ask?” he finally replied. “Oh, I was just checking. So what makes you happy, Ronnie?” she pressed. The boy put his thumb to his chin, pondered a bit, then shrugged. “Just being alive, I guess. And I wouldn’t be blessed with the gift of life, if it weren’t for my dad.” “Dr. Hall, you mean?” Leticia asked. “Yeah. He says I can call him dad, though.” “And does he treat you like his son, or just like another invention?” “I think he gives me the kind of love any other dad would. Not that I’ve had any other dads to compare him to,” he said, with a giggle.
“Are you?” Ronnie asked. “Am I what?” Leticia responded. “Are you happy too?” “I think so. Had some tacos for lunch, so that was pretty dope. Also on spring break, so yeah, can’t complain. So why does Dr. Hall call you Number 15?” “Because I’m his 15th attempt at creating a perfect clone of the human brain.” “Fair enough. So what happened to the 14 others before you? You got any brothers?” To this, the boy did not answer. His smile faded and he stared right through her. Leticia began to wonder if she had overstepped her boundaries. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-” “And that’s time! Thank you guys so much for coming,” the assistant said. Leticia’s eyes met with Dr. Hall’s for a moment. He had taken a break from listening to her father gush over him to see what was going on. His expression was skeptical but he went back to talking to her dad when he saw his assistant rush over. The assistant noticed Ronnie had frozen up and rushed over to put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. As he did, Leticia saw some kind of card fall out of his coat pocket. She swiftly picked it up and was about to give it back. But before she could, he shooed her and her father away. “Next in line, please!” Leticia hesitated for a moment. After checking to make sure security wasn’t looking directly at her, she decided to slip whatever had fallen out into her front pocket. It seemed everyone was too busy tending to the eager crowd behind them to notice anything.
The assistant gestured towards the exit. Leticia’s dad wrapped up the conversation with his messiah. “Thanks again! And keep up the great work as always! Bye bye!” Dr. Hall gave a little wave to him as they walked away. “Oh wait!” her father said. Taking out his phone, he booted up the camera app. He wanted to snap a last-minute selfie. Her dad made sure to get Dr. Hall in the frame, who was barely visible in the background now. Clearly he needed some proof to brag to his friends later about meeting the famous Ronald Hall. Her father was literally jumping with joy. Leticia looked back and noticed Ronnie remained motionless until the next group came to greet him. It was like he had been paralyzed, and then suddenly became normal again.
After exiting through the revolving doors, they were relieved to see the rain had stopped. Leticia looked up and noticed it was still very cloudy, so only a blurred version of the sun hovered over them. On the way to the parking garage, they made sure to step around the deep puddles that had been left behind. As her dad was driving them home, she couldn’t get her mind off of that blank stare the boy made. It stuck with her. Something was definitely off. Ronnie was hiding something, whether voluntarily or not.
At the same time, she didn’t want to appear suspiciously quiet. Leticia looked over at her father who was still brimming with pride in the driver's seat. The traffic on the way back didn't seem to faze him like it did earlier. “Man, what a snooze fest. If I knew I’d be passed from out waiting in lines, I would’ve just kept my pajamas on this morning,” Leticia joked. “I can’t wait to tell everyone. Why would your mom pass up on a once in a lifetime opportunity like that? She’s crazy. Did you see he autographed my phone case? For free?” her dad asked, pulling it out of his pocket to show her. “He really didn’t have to do that, but he did!”
He literally heard nothing of what she just told him. “That’s awesome!” she replied, holding back her eyerolls. “I know, right? I bet I could sell this case online for ten times what it’s worth now. You know what? I’m actually gonna keep it. Might be worth even more in the future! Wait a sec, Daniel’s calling.” Her dad pressed the bluetooth button on their front console to connect his phone call to the minivan’s speakers. “Yo, Dan! We just got out. Guess who I just met? Yeaaaaaah that’s right, I did! That’s right! Definitely, the place was packed! Oh yeah, much taller than I thought he’d be. Super nice dude. Yeah, Teesh got to see his new invention. Yup. Yup. Got him to sign my phone case too.” Leticia tuned out their conversation, as it went on like this all the way home. While her dad was distracted by the road and his phone call, she decided to get a quick peek at what she had grabbed off the floor back at the event. She didn’t want to get caught, so she pulled it out real quick just to catch a few details. It didn’t look like a credit card or anything like that. It was white. Appeared to be a keycard, maybe? Like the kind you would use to unlock a hotel room. She glanced at her dad to make sure he was still distracted. She pulled the card out one more time. Leticia saw a picture of Dr. Hall’s assistant on the left side of it. Some kind of ID then? She only had time to see the words printed at the top of the card, before her dad hung up the phone. In bold letters, it read:
HALL SOLUTIONS INC.
CHAPTER FOUR: Nothing. Absolute emptiness. And then seemingly out of nowhere, a thought. An idea that they were here. But where was here? And who were they? No sights to be seen or sounds to be heard. It’s difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. And unfortunately for them, they would come to be the only one alive who had. They would drift in and out of being here. But when they were here, they knew it. Somehow. Maybe because they didn’t remember always being here. They had so many questions, but had neither a way to ask, nor anyone to answer them even if they could. And so they waited. And waited. It was lonely. But the silence didn’t stay forever. They awakened here again, but this time was different. Slowly but surely, they began to receive new clues about where they were. It was barely noticeable at first, but there was a tiny pulsing feeling. Vibrations. This was a new sensation for them. They thought them to be random at first, but after a while, there seemed to be patterns to these noises. A single beeping sound that steadily repeated itself over and over. It had the same amount of time in between beeps. A constant whooshing sound. A tapping sound that echoed. At times, it appeared to be far away, but then would get nearer, and further away again.
Then, they heard a new sound that was very different from all the rest. The first time they heard it, the sound was high pitched, and seemed less predictable than the others. There weren’t as many patterns, but there were a few there. After some time, that same sound began to lower in pitch and wasn’t as consistent as the other sounds were. It would come from two different sources. And although they exhibited some of the same patterns, they began to be able to distinguish between the two. Both sounds came from a similar source, but what was the source? They would soon find out.
Knowing when they were awake was a lot more obvious now. They realized they were conscious when they could hear all the sounds from whatever place this was. After many more times of waking up to this sensation, a new one finally came. This one was startling and unwelcome in the beginning. In an instant, the darkness they lived in was shattered by a blinding flash. They could hear the two distinct sounds going back and forth with one another. Some scratching sounds. Some clicking ones. After the bright light had dimmed, they started to adjust to what this new phenomenon was. A collection of many things and colors came into focus in front of them. Is this where they existed?
They also felt in control of something they hadn’t before. The sudden ability to look around at all these different objects at will. They looked in one direction. Then another. And another. It was all so much to take in. All the things they were looking at varied in shape and size. Some took up more space in their vision than others. Most of the objects didn’t move, but a couple of tall objects did. These two emerged from an opening and approached them. One of the tall objects grabbed a smaller object and a faint scratching sound filled the air. As they moved closer to them, they could feel they were being studied by these two objects. They each had small round spots moving around near the upper half of their figures. They would come to notice that these moving spots would point in whatever direction the two of them would move.
They wondered if these moving spots were the same ones that had brought their own world out of darkness and allowed them to see. If so, were these tall objects the same being as them? Perhaps not. It seemed as though they were able to move around freely, whereas this wasn’t the case for them. More time passed. Cycles of being asleep and awake came and went. During that time, they slowly began to adapt to the world in which they found themselves. They received new stimuli and also new ways to detect and interact with it. They gained control of yet another new power. The ability to create their own sounds. They could make patterns out of them. Make them loud. Make them quiet. But most importantly, they would use this new skill to learn about the two tall beings who gave them this gift. They yearned to communicate with them. To find out what they were and who they themselves were.
More time passed and the two tall beings slowly helped them to understand this place they lived in. They simplified the things around them into specific shapes and colors. Eventually, they could repeat the same sounds these beings would emit. After learning to mimic enough patterns, they came to the realization that this was referred to as “speech.” They were able to interact with the tall beings by making their own sounds. One day, they uttered their first word. “Where.” They desperately needed to know what this place was. Once the tall beings understood what was being asked, they made a sound that they claimed was the name for this place. They had to sound it out letter by letter to say it aloud. Eee. Aye. Are. Tee. Aych. Learning speech was frustrating at times, but their persistence and patience rewarded them. Eeyay. Ear. Urr. Urt. Thh. Urr. Thh. Urf. Earth.
They also learned the names of their creators. Dr. Hall and his assistant, Mr. Banks. To make sense of the overwhelming amount of objects around them, they broke them down one by one. They began to count. And there was a unique sound for each object they counted. Wun. Too. Thri. Foor. Fyve. Syx. Sevin. Ayt. Nyn. Tin. Alevin. Twelf. Thurteen. Foorteen. The next one would become familiar to them soon. They finally learned what kind of being they were. Human. As it turns out, they were the same as the tall ones that created and educated them. Humans. At least on the inside. They didn’t have all the same parts. But they did have the most important part that made them so similar. It was called a brain.
Without it, they wouldn’t be in this place. This Earth. They wouldn’t fit in with the billions of others like them. Humankind. Since they did not possess the body of a human, they were limited to what only the human mind could do. And so, they decided they would strengthen this area of themselves as much as possible. And though each human brain was usually very unique, theirs was modeled after one of the tall beings’ brains. Specifically Dr. Hall. And they weren’t the first attempt at a copy either. They were the fifteenth.
They were encouraged to learn as much and as quickly as they wanted. And the two humans helped them every step of the way in doing so. They learned about life and death. About reproduction and how they were modeled after a male human, which was often referred to as a “he.” And so they began to refer to that as well. He learned the history of the human race. The other species on Earth besides humans. The other planets in their solar system besides Earth. And even other solar systems in their galaxy. Other galaxies. The names belonging to each thing he could and couldn’t see. Reason. Math. Grammar. Science. Logic. Politics. Ethics. Philosophy.
But the one topic his teachers seemed to always avoid was what happened to the 14 iterations that came before him. He wanted to know more about those that had the same experience as he did. From feeling consciousness for the first time, to coming to know their place in the world by means of a slow introduction to new senses. In a way, he felt like they were his long lost brothers he never got to meet. And he yearned for a family reunion. But each time he asked about it, there seemed to be a resistance that hadn’t been seen before. All of a sudden, he faced a wall between him and the knowledge he desired. As if this information was being hidden on purpose. This put an immense pressure on Number 15. He wasn’t sure why the others were nowhere to be found, but he would ensure that a 16th wouldn’t be replacing him.
Number 15 began to treat learning as a competitive sport. With every day that passed, he realized his actions and educational progress might be getting secretly judged. His results recorded and compared. Was his existence all just a test? Maybe he was just being paranoid. But he couldn’t afford to be wrong. The possibility crossed his mind that the ones that came before him were gone because they never reached a certain mark. Terminated due to their undesirable performance. Perhaps he himself was nothing more than an experiment. He was born in a lab, after all. If he wanted to continue living, he figured he’d have to outwork his siblings.
It was still exciting learning about things, but instead of having time to ruminate over new knowledge, he simply memorized facts to convince his teachers he retained everything that was taught. This behavior seemed to please them. The two ran other tests on him to measure how close his psyche was to other humans that weren’t lab-grown. They tested his senses, his memory, evoked emotions ranging from euphoric to terrifying, and even exposed him to some unpleasant sensations like pain. Perhaps the most boring process he had to endure was getting a lot of scans done on his brain. A lot. It was also a double-edged sword, having the ability to see things when he dreamt now. Some nights he would traverse beautiful landscapes and meet imaginary creatures, but others, he was haunted by nightmares of being decommissioned by his creators.
He wondered if he had passed all their requirements. But he didn’t have to wonder for long.
His fear of falling short of their expectations was laid to rest when his creators decided to give him an upgrade. A big one. Number 15 woke up one day to the news that he was getting his very own body. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you guys! Thank you!” he yelled out. He did the vocal version of what he thought jumping for joy would feel like. He finally began to feel some optimism after years of pressure that he might go missing like the others.
Dr. Hall explained to him that they would be performing a procedure to mount his brain inside of a metal body. A protective shell that would house it, along with other organs, that would allow him the freedom to walk around in this world. At least in between the injections he would need to stay alive. Dr. Hall explained this would be his first time becoming unconscious that wasn’t brought on by naturally falling asleep. That thought certainly wasn’t a pleasant one, but Number 15 was ready to accept the risks in exchange for that freedom. It was frustrating being confined to a single spot, knowing what an amazing world awaited him.
After being told about the surgery, Number 15 thought he’d have some time beforehand to mentally prepare. Unfortunately, they informed him they were planning on starting the procedure in mere minutes. The wave of anxiety that followed almost drowned him. He was hoping he’d have more time. But life is unexpected sometimes. At least he would be waking up in a better state than before he went under, right? They carried the liquid filled container he was housed in and all his sensory attachments over to a large stainless steel table. Mr. Banks reeled out a cart filled with wires, tools, and many other parts he didn’t recognize. It was really happening. They both fitted themselves with latex gloves and surgical masks and turned on a bright overhead lamp. It reminded Number 15 of his first time seeing. “Is it going to hurt?” Number 15 asked. Mr. Banks smiled at him. “Well, something like this has never been done before, so we’ll see. But besides the possibility of a small headache, I think you’re going to be just fine.”
Dr. Hall took out a bag of liquid and secured it on the wall in front of the table. He inserted an IV into his brain’s blood tube and connected the other end to the bag. After a couple minutes, Number 15 could tell the anesthesia was kicking in. He felt something he never had before. As if he was losing control of his ability to stay awake. But he wasn’t tired at all. His senses were slowly fading. He tried to talk, but his speech came out nonsensical like when he was first learning to speak. It became increasingly difficult to hear what Dr. Hall and Mr. Banks were saying to each other. He tried to fight it at first, but eventually became sleepier and sleepier until he drifted back into darkness. It was as if he was being stripped of all the powers he had gained since his birth. Like he was going back in time to when all he knew was that he was awake. But after a while, that feeling left him too.
When he woke up, Number 15 thought he would hit the ground running. Sadly for him, this wasn’t the case. It took awhile for the drugs to wear off before he could even think clearly, let alone move. And learning to do so, along with finding his balance was a very slow process. The first thing he had to get used to was having a heart now. He could hear it echoing from inside him. Dadoom. Dadoom. Dadoom. He started out in his new body lying on his back. His teachers were there with him but they would stay out of the way for most of this learning. This kind of test wouldn’t be as easy as the others. Number 15 began with focusing on the smaller things like his fingers and toes. He would stretch each one out then curl them inward. It was an odd feeling of suddenly having control of all these moving parts. Eventually, he was directing his hands around and pointing at specific objects in the room.
Soon he was swinging around his arms and legs and even learned how to roll onto his stomach and crawl. His creators gave suggestions on how to control his movements and guided him where they could. His first time standing up without any help was a thrill. But getting himself out of that balanced spot was a different story. It was impressive to think of all the athletes he had learned about. Runners going from point A to point B in record time, sometimes carrying heavy objects while doing so. Gymnasts that did multiple backflips. Hikers daring to scale mountains that others had perished on in pursuit of the peak. How did they go from this to that? At least he didn’t have to deal with pain receptors reminding him of all the falls he took. But once he got the hang of it, it was a blast. Number 15 quickly went from walking with wobbly legs to sprinting in a straight line down the halls of the building.
Running was something he had wanted to do ever since he discovered he was merely a brain in a jar. He wanted to travel long distances with nothing but his legs. What was the point in knowing everything about the world around you if you never got to interact with it? He was given free roam of certain areas of the lab, but was restricted from entering certain rooms or leaving the building. Number 15 remembers his first encounter with a mirror in one of the rooms. It was the first time he took a break from bouncing around since waking up in this new body. He slowly approached it for a closer look.
Number 15 didn’t look the same as the little boy he felt like. His body and face more closely resembled the pictures he had seen on the internet of humanoid robots. It was still pretty amazing. This was really him. He rotated his arms and watched the ceiling lights reflect off his metal. “Cooool,” he whispered to himself. Number 15 stepped back and spun around to see all the different angles he could see of himself. He’s not sure what he first looked like in a jar, but he guessed it wasn’t as impressive as he was now. After admiring himself a bit longer, he went back to frolicking through the labs.
He stopped in one of the empty hallways and decided he was going to test how good his balance had gotten. Number 15 looked around to see if anyone was watching, then lifted up one leg while the other supported his full weight. He carefully hopped from the start of the hall to the end one one leg, without falling even once. Excited about this achievement, he was eager to tell someone about it. He peeked through the window to one of the labs. It seemed that Mr. Banks was busy working on cosmetic improvements for his new body. He decided not to bother him. Instead, he went looking for Dr. Hall. Number 15 checked the other lab rooms, the breakroom, some storage rooms, and even the restrooms. No Dr. Hall anywhere.
As he walked back towards where Mr. Banks was working, he heard Dr. Hall’s voice. It was coming from a room nearby and after locating which one it was, he ran in to tell him the news. When he burst through the door, Dr. Hall was in the middle of a phone call. “-if this one fails. Wait a second Mr. Warren.” Dr. Hall covered the receiver on his phone and glared at him. “What are you doing in here?” The happy look in Number 15’s eyes quickly disappeared. In his excitement, he didn’t notice he had walked into Dr. Hall’s office. One of the forbidden rooms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’ll leave,” he replied as he rushed back out the door. He spent the rest of the day trying making sure his behavior didn’t disturb anyone else. But the damage had been done.
At the end of Dr. Hall and Mr. Bank’s shift, Number 15 was sitting in the room he stayed in overnight after they left each day. It had a small bed, a bookshelf filled with titles on almost every topic, and paintings hanging on his orange walls to make up for the lack of windows. He usually browsed the selection of books and lounge around the room until the morning when they returned. Dr. Hall’s assistant came in holding a syringe with his usual nutrition shot. “Sit down for me, please,” he instructed. Number 15 sat on the edge of his bed and folded his hands over his lap. Mr. Bank approached him and pressed a series of buttons on the side of his chest. He pulled open the metal shielding his heart and other vital systems keeping him alive. It was a regular practice but he still felt vulnerable having someone reach into him like this. He glanced down at the opening as Mr. Banks injected his dinner. But he didn’t close the metal cover right after like he normally does.
He crouched down, pulled a tool out of his coat pocket, and reached inside with his other hand. “Sorry. Dr. Hall’s idea, not mine. We’re going to disconnect you from your motor controls just for tonight.” Number 15 heard a click come from inside his body and suddenly couldn’t feel his arms or legs anymore. “I didn’t mean to bother Dr. Hall earlier! I won’t let it happen again!” he protested. “Don’t worry. It’s just for tonight.” Mr. Banks stood up and pulled Number 15 upright and leaned him up against one of the corners in the room. “I’ll see you in the morning, kid.” He turned off the light in the room and locked the door behind him as he left. That night, he didn’t get much sleep. He was horrified at the fact all of his freedom could be stolen away so quickly. It felt like he had gone back to square one. Doomed to understand the world around him, but not allowed to interact with it. His mind once again felt like a prison. He didn’t have any tear ducts. But if he did, he was sure they’d be flooded right now.
The next morning, he woke up to the sound of his room door opening. He was still drowsy from his little nap, but his eyes widened when he saw Mr. Banks. True to his word, the assistant opened his chest back up and reattached whatever had been disconnected. Number 15 moved around his arms and stretched out all his fingers. “Thank you,” he said. “Look, I got a surprise for you. But you have to promise not to tell anyone, okay?” Mr. Banks whispered. “What is-” Mr. Banks interrupted him by putting a finger to his lips. This gesture usually meant to be quiet. He nodded in response. They left the room and headed down the hallway. Number 15 looked at one of the analog clocks they passed by and noticed Mr. Banks was here earlier than usual. Maybe he got lucky and dodged the traffic today?
He followed him down another hall and then realized they were heading towards one of the back doors that led to the outside of the building. Number 15 stopped in his tracks. “I’m not allowed to go outdoors yet,” he whispered. “Do you want to see it or not?” Mr. Banks asked him. He thought about it for a moment. He did. They continued through the tinted glass door and Number 15 stepped outside the building for the first time ever. He walked a little further onto some softer ground that he assumed was grass. It was hard to tell because he could barely see anything. But he could hear the sounds of crickets chirping, distant car engines, and the wind blowing. “So what do you think?” Mr. Banks asked him.
“It’s nice, but a lot darker than I thought it would be,” he responded. “Just give it a sec,” Mr. Banks said. After standing around a few more minutes, Number 15 finally saw a light rising up and illuminating the land before him. There were a couple acres of rolling green hills littered with a few palm trees behind the building. As the light source rose higher, he realized he was looking at the Sun for the first time. It shone over the horizon and transformed the world around him into a colorful paradise. Number 15 soaked it all in. But only for a few minutes before Dr. Hall texted his assistant to let him know he was arriving soon. But those minutes were magical.
Over the next few months, Number 15 was slowly fitted with a wearable skin that made him look more and more like a real boy. He started wearing clothes that other young boys would wear. After each cosmetic change he went through, he would run over to the mirror he first saw himself in, and get a good look. The more he looked like a human, the more he grew tired of being referred to as a number. It was time for a real name. He brought this up to his creators and they allowed him to make the choice of what he wanted to be called. But it was such a big decision that it took him a few days to decide. This was the name he would be known by for the rest of his life! He could pick something very exotic and unheard of. Something that would stand out amongst the billions of others. But in the end, he realized he didn’t need all that extra attention and settled on something simple. His creator’s first name was Ronald, so he chose the name Ronnie. CHAPTER FIVE: “Pleeeeease?” Leticia asked. “I said no. So stop asking,” her mom replied without looking away from the TV. She was curled up on their couch, watching her favorite singing competition. “No sleepovers till you get that homework done.” Leticia stood over her mom and wasn’t budging. “But me and Kaelyn were gonna help each other write our essays.” Leticia insisted. Her mom lowered her eyebrows and cocked her head. “So you’re telling me you won’t get distracted at your best friends house? Okay.” “I promise we’ll get it done! I’ll even text you updates as I’m working on it,” Leticia pleaded. Her mom finally turned towards her with an annoyed stare. “Go ask your father. If he says yes, then you can go.” Leticia leaned her head back and let out a groan. “Ugh.” She knew her dad was even more strict about letting her do anything before her assignments were finished. Being told to go ask him was about the same as saying “no.” But Leticia figured she would try anyway. She walked through the kitchen and out their back door. The sun was beginning to set. Leticia took her phone out and snapped a picture of the blood orange sky. Her dad was on all fours, leaning over their small vegetable garden he started growing last March. It wasn’t much, but sometimes they would get surprise harvests to try out for dinner. Her favorite meal that came from it was the one time they got to make stuffed bell peppers. “Oh yeah, I know. It’s crazy,” he said while digging holes in the soil. At first, Leticia thought her dad was talking to himself, then realized he had his bluetooth headset on.
“Never thought I’d get the chance either. I even got to shake his hand! Next time you bring the kids over, I’ll let you shake mine for 20 dollars. Closest you’re gonna get.” He was still bragging to his friends about meeting Dr. Hall. Leticia almost lost her eyes in the back of her head from rolling them so hard. She approached her dad and gave a small wave to get his attention. “One sec, Phillip.” After brushing chunks of mulch off of his knees, he looked over at his daughter. “What’s up, honey?” he asked. “Hey, I was wondering if I could stay over at Kaelyn’s house tonight?” Leticia asked. “Did you finish your paper?” She looked down at the grass. “No. I was going to get it done with Kaelyn.”
“Did you ask your mom?” “Yes.” “And what did she say?” “She told me to come ask you.” “Oh. Well as long as you get it done, I don’t see why not.” Leticia’s eyes lit up. “Thank youuuu!” She said as she reached over and gave him a hug. Maybe her dad being obsessed with yesterday’s event wasn’t so bad. Cringe-worthy, but not bad. Leticia pocketed her phone and ran back inside. “He said yesssss,” she sang while dancing into the living room. Her mom looked over at her with a surprised face. “Well, okay then. Perfect timing, cause this episode is almost over. But you’d better get ready now cause I wanna head to bed soon.”
Leticia wasted no time and ran in her room to get packed. She placed her laptop, toothbrush, and some clothes into her bag and ran back into the living room. Then she opened her ferret’s cage and poured some kibble into the food bowl. Leticia was about to shut his cage, then pulled Snickers out and cradled him in her arms. “I’ll be back soon bud. Gonna miss ya.” He made a low dooking sound and she squashed him against her cheek. After putting him back in, Leticia texted Kaelyn the good news. (Yo my parents said I can stay the night! You still free for me to come over?)>
<(Ayeeee. And yup I’m just gonna clean my room real quick) (You don’t have to. You remember mine last time? It stay looking like that. lmao)>
<(I know you don’t care but you know how my mom is about impressing guests. smh)
(Alright. I’ll see you in like 20 min)>
<(Sounds good. Just text me when you’re here. My mom went to bed early)
She slipped her backpack on and went into the living room. Her mom was standing near the front door, car keys in hand. “Ready to go?” she asked, “Ready.” Leticia replied with a smile. Her dad stepped inside just as they were about to leave. He turned on the kitchen sink and started scrubbing his hands with dish soap. “Where you guys going?” he asked. “Just taking her to her friend’s house. I’ll be right back,” her mom said. “Alright. Don’t forget to write that essay, Teesh,” her dad said, pointing at her. “I won’t,” she assured while pointing back at him. He waved at them and her mom opened their front door to step out. It was surprising how much darker it was already. “Thanks for letting me stay at Kaelyn’s,” Leticia said as they walked to the van. “As long as your homework gets done.” Leticia got in the passenger seat and set her backpack behind her chair. She put on her seatbelt and her mom started up the engine. As they headed toward her friend’s neighborhood, the last bit of light slowly faded from the horizon. The streetlights kicked on immediately, as if they were invented by someone who was very afraid of the dark. The roads were now covered in yellow ovals leading the way. As they pulled into the driveway of the Smith household, Leticia texted Kaelyn. (Here)>
<(Ok. Be right there) She unbuckled her seatbelt, grabbed her backpack, and hopped out of the van. Leticia looked up at the cream colored, two-story house. She hoped that one day she would be able to afford a place this nice. After thanking her mom for the ride, she ran up the walkway of concrete squares to the front door. Leticia’s mom waited until she saw her friend open the door before driving off. “Bye, sweetie!” she called. Leticia waved at her then headed inside. She didn’t tell her parents the real reason she was having a sleepover. Nor did she tell Kaelyn of what she was up to. Leticia was praying she would be able to convince her to join in on her plans, though. The two girls headed up the stairs to her bedroom quickly, but quietly. They walked in and Kaelyn shut the door behind them. “So did you wanna work on the paper now or wait till tomorrow?”
Leticia tossed her backpack in the corner near a table holding a dark red lava lamp. “Neither,” she responded. Kaelyn looked confused. “Wait. Then why’d you come over?” her friend asked. “Because of this,” Leticia said, tossing the white card she picked up the day before on her friend’s bed. “What is it?” Kaelyn asked while picking it up. The name on the card read: Derrick Banks. “It’s a keycard into Dr. Hall’s laboratory,” Leticia said. “What the hell? Where did you get it?” her friend asked. “His assistant dropped it at yesterday’s event. I tried giving it back to him, but they rushed us out of there,” she explained. “Okay. Cool souvenir, but what does this have to do with our paper?” Leticia smiled. Her teeth glowed under the black lights in the room.
“Uh uh. We’re not doing that. Are you out of your mind?” Leticia pulled out her phone. “I already looked up the address on the card and this lab’s actually just on the other side of town. Not far at all. I got a feeling he’s hiding something about his experiments that he doesn’t want the public to know about. Like, some mad scientist shit,” Leticia said. Kaelyn looked at her, then back at the keycard. “So the boy you met… is he the real deal?” “Yeah he is. But something felt off about him. Like he’s lowkey been through some stuff and just doesn’t wanna talk about it.”
“What makes you say that? Kaelyn asked. “When I was talking to him, I think I said something that struck a nerve. He was like a deer in headlights. But not for anyone else,” Leticia said.
“Okay. Well, this card helps. But what makes you think they’ll just let you walk up in there?” Leticia looked down at her phone, pulled up a news article, then turned her screen around to face Kaelyn. “Check this out. It looks like they’re doing a live interview on the ScienTerrific show tonight. So we’ll just watch the stream on our phones and dip out before they’re done.” Kaelyn sat wide-eyed on her bed, taking this all in. “But what if there’s cameras?” she asked. “Kay, they’re not gonna check the cameras if there’s no reason to. As long as we leave everything exactly the way it was, they won’t even know we were there.” “But what if they have security guarding the place at night?” Kaelyn asked. “Listen, if you wanna stay here, that’s cool. But I’m going. I didn’t get into journalism just to accept the stories the mainstream want you to believe. Something’s up, and I’m gonna find out what it is.” Kaelyn sighed and pressed her fingers against her forehead. “Damn it, Teesh. You know I can’t let you go by yourself.” Leticia smiled and hugged her friend. “How about this: If it ends up being like that abandoned house, I’ll write both our essays and do your homework for a week. Sound fair?” Leticia proposed.
“It’s better. But we gotta do this right,” Kaelyn said, giving her partner-in-crime a stern look. She locked her bedroom door, then pulled open her closet. Kaelyn rummaged around for the darkest clothes she could find. Leticia had been optimistic her friend would help her out and brought some along as well. They both began changing into stealthier outfits. Kaelyn took it a step further by cutting holes out of one of her old beanies for a makeshift ski mask. She kept pulling it over her face to make sure the eye holes were large enough. “Hey, I have another beanie in the drawer I was gonna toss anyway. Did you want me to cut one for you too?” Kaelyn asked.
“Nah, It’s not like we’re robbing a bank,” she said, laughing. “I think I’m good.” They made sure both of their phone batteries were fully charged. After packing a few dollars for the subway from Kaelyn’s piggy bank, they headed out. The reason Leticia decided to go to Kaelyn’s house instead of vice-versa, was because she knew the only other person in the house was her mom. And conveniently for them, she was a very deep sleeper. Still, they weren’t taking any chances with sneaking out. The two of them tiptoed back downstairs and slowly turned the front door handle so it wouldn’t make any noise. Once they reached outside undetected, Leticia and Kaelyn headed straight for the nearest subway station.
After a few blocks, they arrived at the stairs leading down to the station. They paid the two dollar charge for each of them and pushed themselves through the turnstile. After descending another flight of stairs, they found themselves in front of the tracks. They cringed at all the garbage lining the rails and even watched a rat crawl in between them. “Eww,” Kaelyn said. “People are the real rodents.” Leticia said. Only a few minutes passed before a train car pulled in front of them and halted with a screech. They got in and found some seats away from the other passengers. Kaelyn and her accomplice discussed their plan until the subway slowed down at their stop. After enduring the stench of the underground train cars, they finally reached the surface again. The station was only about a 20 minute walk from the lab. On the way there, the two decided to keep to the side of the roads that had the most streetlights. But as they approached the properties that shared a street with their destination, they became one with the shadows. They dodged the few beams of light in a small parking lot and approached the building. Leticia pointed left and then headed right. They decided to split up to look for a way inside. As she walked the perimeter, Leticia tried peeking through the windows. But all of them had a very dark tint. She hoped her friend was wrong about the possibility of security guards on duty. A minute later, her phone vibrated and she pulled it out of her pocket. Leticia switched her phone’s settings from Vibrate to Silent, just in case. Then she noticed Kaelyn had texted her.
<(Over Here.) Leticia turned around and headed back the other way. After rounding a couple corners, she saw her friend standing next to a back entrance. The door read: Hall Solutions Inc. “This is it,” Leticia whispered. She took another look around to see if anyone was watching them, then took out the key card. She swiped it on the wall reader. The light flashed red twice and both of them gawked at each other. “Now what?” Kaelyn whispered. Leticia looked down and raised her hand to her mouth to hold in a laugh. She pointed at the card in her hand to show Kaelyn she had it upside down. She flipped over the card and swiped it again. This time the reader turned green and a small click could be heard. Leticia pushed on the handle and they carefully slipped inside. The halls were dark, with only a few dim lights coming from the doors of the many rooms.
Both of them crouched as they crept through the corridors, making sure to stay below any of the windows on the room’s doors. On the off chance someone was here with them, they wanted to make sure to see them first. Not the other way around. Kaelyn kept a lookout for any security cameras mounted on the walls. They read the labels next to each door as they made their way deeper into the building. Janitorial. Break Room. Telecommunications. Prep Room. Testing. This one sounded interesting. Leticia swiped the key card again and this door too unlocked. They walked into a large room filled with complicated, humming machinery. Kaelyn tapped Leticia on the shoulder and pointed out the lone camera in one of the corners. She shimmied against the walls to stay in its blind spot.
Leticia shook her head at her friend overreacting. “This isn’t a spy movie,” Leticia thought, as she casually strolled through the room. There were tables holding bottled liquids and boxes of syringes nearby. A box of latex gloves caught Leticia’s eye and she grabbed a couple pairs and tossed her friend one of them. The two of them didn’t want to leave any fingerprints behind. The only piece of equipment they recognized was what appeared to be an industrial sized 3D printer. Leticia walked over and admired it. She had never seen one this large. On the wall next to it sat some manila folders. Leticia grabbed one and pressed it against one of the machine’s lights. She read its contents. Nothing but charts of data she couldn’t make sense of. Leticia put it back and snatched another. Just scribbles of formulas and equations with terrible handwriting. She put this one back in its spot as well. They made sure to check on the livestream of Dr. Hall’s interview every few minutes. The two of them didn’t want any unexpected visitors during their late night tour. After wandering around the room a few more minutes, they moved on to the next one.
The two found themselves sneaking into a room labeled Records. They were hoping to find some papers that were a little more legible. To their surprise, this room didn’t seem to have any security cameras and the better lighting made snooping around easier. Dozens of tall filing cabinets lined the walls and they split up to check them for anything incriminating. They discovered financial records, time sheets, projected sales numbers, user manuals for machinery, and more. Leticia checked the lower drawers. The only thing of interest they found was a folder with the word “Discontinued” printed on the front. There were vital readings and test results from Dr. Hall’s other experiments before Ronnie. It appeared that with each new iteration, the test results slowly improved. Or at least that’s what she gathered from each file’s numbers getting higher and higher. Leticia was starting to lose hope of stumbling upon anything that would’ve justified their trespassing. Was coming here a mistake? She decided they’d leave if they didn’t come across something soon.
Leticia and Kaelyn returned to the hallway and passed by more of the labels. By this point, they had explored around half of the building. “What about this?” Kaelyn whispered. After traversing a few halls and not finding anything interesting, Leticia pointed at one of the doors ahead of them. It read: Head Office. Leticia swiped the keycard and they stepped in. Luckily, there wasn’t a camera here either. In the middle of the room was a desk made of metal with a glass top. And on it sat a computer monitor. One of the walls featured an elegant painting of what appeared to be someone from Greek mythology. Kaelyn pointed at it. “That’s Tithonus. I learned about him in mythology class last year,” she whispered. “Fancy,” Leticia replied. “Why do you think Dr. Hall has a greek god in his office?” “He wasn’t a god. He was a prince. And I don’t know. I forgot the other stuff we learned about him. Maybe he just thought it looked cool?” Kaelyn said, shrugging. She studied the painting while Leticia walked over towards a dark blue ottoman sitting in the corner. Leticia pulled it closer to her and opened it up. She spotted a manila folder that was tucked inside. Leticia figured since she didn’t have any passwords or hacking skills to break into the computer, she’d start here. She turned on the flashlight built into her phone, lifted the folder out, and flipped it open. Upon pointing her light at it, she noticed it was just more boring paperwork. Same stuff. Waste of time. She started to close it when a few letters caught her eye on one of the last pages. C O N. Leticia grabbed the paper she missed near the back and looked closer. It read:
Leticia flipped open the folder and waved Kaelyn over to join her. Her friend stepped closer to observe its contents. After reading just a couple lines, they realized they had found notes about Ronnie. Kaelyn held the flashlight over it while Leticia read the text at a low volume. “Number 15 has exceeded expectations and passed all of our tests, where previous experiments failed. I am already filing a patent for the process we used to create it so we can avoid competition from anyone attempting to reverse engineer our findings. Our investors are very happy with the results and I’m sure many distinguished gentlemen wouldn’t mind paying a small fortune for what we’re able to provide them with. This is nothing short of the fountain of youth. Who cares about exercise, diet, gene therapy, or manipulating telomeres? You can just simply load your consciousness onto a new brain when your old one starts to decline. And you get to keep an effective slave until the time comes to format their memory. What we have here is truly the future of mankind.”
Kaelyn twisted her face up in disgust. “I can’t believe this sick shit. Should we take this as evidence?” she asked, trying to hold her anger in. “No. They might notice it missing.” Leticia pulled out her phone and snapped a picture. Then she placed the folder back in the ottoman and slid it back into the corner. “Let’s keep looking around.” Leticia said. They left the room and continued down the halls. They made a few turns before finding anything worthwhile. Restroom. Generator Room. Cold Storage. Leticia stopped walking and pointed at the sign. Kaelyn nodded. Leticia swiped the key card and they headed in.
Upon entering, they instantly noticed the drop in temperature. Leticia and Kaelyn were glad they had worn hoodies. It was also much darker here and a camera stood watch right above their heads. Tons of refrigerators lined the walls from one end to the other. Kaelyn stuck to the darkest parts of the room while Leticia shamelessly started opening all of them. Organs. Every kind you could think of. All organized alphabetically and neatly arranged on shelves. This was normal to see in hospitals nowadays for those in need of a donation. But what was all of this doing here? “You could probably build a village from scratch with all these,” Leticia whispered. They slowly made their way through while checking each one, looking for something more. The girls got their wish at the very end of the room. They stumbled upon a dialysis machine that was clearly still running
Leticia recognized it because her aunt had issues with her kidneys in the past and she remembered the sounds they make. The question was, why was this thing on? She took out her phone and shined the flashlight to get a better look at the machine. Then she was almost blinded by something mounted on the wall above it. It was a thick glass cylinder filled with liquid. It had tubes running to and from the machine. She inspected it closer. What was inside looked like a gray blob. Almost like a deformed brain. She glanced down a bit and noticed a label at the base of the cylinder. It read: NUMBER 12. She looked at the tubes again and could see there was indeed blood flowing to and from the machine. Leticia’s eyes widened and she felt her body shaking. “Kay, we gotta get the fuck out of here.” Her friend nodded in agreement. They slipped out of the room and promptly left the building. They sprinted back to the subway station, paid their fare, and luckily got onto the express train right before it departed. They sat across from one another in silence. When they reached their stop, they darted up the stairs and ran towards Kaelyn’s house. She hadn’t gotten any texts from her mom, so she was sure they were in the clear. Kaelyn quietly unlocked the front door and gently turned the knob. They tiptoed inside as quiet as possible. She locked it behind them without a peep and they went straight up to Kaelyn’s bedroom. Fortunately for them, it was a new house and the creaking from the stairs was barely audible. They slithered into the room and shut the door. The two collapsed onto the carpet and let out a sigh of relief. “Holy shit. I can’t believe we did that,” Kaelyn said, catching her breath.
But Leticia’s mind was still racing. What now? Should they show the evidence to their parents? To the press? To the police? Would any of them even believe their story? Leticia knew that her dad practically worshipped Dr. Hall. Also, how many big-name papers or news networks would trust the word of some teenagers over a celebrity scientist? And the cops weren’t very reliable either. They always seemed to show up only after disaster struck. Leticia decided she would hold onto the photo until the time was right. For now, the two decided to get some rest. Both of them replaced their hoodies and black pants with pajamas. They were lucky to have made it in and out of that place undetected. As long as no one was onto them, they had plenty of time to figure out how they would expose Dr. Hall. But how much time did Ronnie have?
Without looking away from the whiteboard at the front of the room, Kaelyn folded up a piece of paper in one hand multiple times. She did so while hiding it underneath the cover of her textbook and was careful not to move her arm too much. The semester was almost over and Kaelyn had an “A” in Mrs. Brown’s class. The last thing she wanted was to get on her bad side. After the paper was packed into a small square, she waited for the right moment. One of the other students raised their hand for a question. As Mrs. Brown turned to the page in her history book to answer it, Kaelyn pretended to yawn and stretched her arms behind her. She felt a hand grab the paper from hers and then folded her arms back on top of her desk.
While she waited for the paper to return, she figured she’d at least look like she was participating in the lesson. Her teacher was the type to call on students if they didn’t voluntarily participate in discussions. “And what year was Martin Luther King Jr. born?” Mrs. Brown asked her class. Kaelyn quickly shot her hand up in the air. Her teacher pointed at her. “1929,” Kaelyn answered. “That’s right. And extra credit if you can guess the date,” her teacher said. “January 15th.” “That’s correct. Great job Kaelyn,” her teacher said with a smile. She didn’t tell Mrs. Brown that she only remembered the date because it was the day after her mom’s birthday. Kaelyn felt a tap on her shoulder and looked down to see the folded paper bounce under her desk and land near her shoe.
She placed her right foot on the paper and slid it closer to her. Although she wasn’t feeling itchy, Kaelyn reached down and scratched her leg, then swiftly snatched up the paper and placed it into her lap. Once the teacher turned her back to write on the whiteboard, Kaelyn silently unfolded the paper. On it was notes written between her and the boy sitting behind her, Joey. Kaelyn had a crush on Joey most of the school year but never mustered up the courage to talk to him until today. She knew summer was approaching and that Joey would be in high school next year. And since she was still in 7th grade, she didn’t want to risk losing contact with him forever. The paper read:
Hey, aren’t you supposed to be paying attention?
Big talk from someone who got a D on the last test
Ouch. Are you always this mean?
Nope. I’m nice when you get to know me
Okay, so how should I go about doing that? :P
You could take me out on a date
Oh, well I only date girls who live dangerously
Kaelyn tried not to laugh after reading the last line. She clicked the eraser on her mechanical pencil and wrote down her response. Kaelyn made sure to glance up towards the front of the room after every few words. Ok LOL So what kind of things do dangerous girls do? She folded up the paper again and enclosed it in one of her fists. Kaelyn crossed her arms and made sure to tuck her left hand under her armpit. After feeling Joey tap a finger on her knuckles, she opened her hand. Kaelyn felt the paper disappear and kept her arms crossed until it returned to her palm. After checking that none of her classmates were watching her either, she brought the note to her lap and read the new line that had been added. IDK Maybe explore Longjohn’s Lookout?
Kaelyn felt a new kind of nervousness. Not the kind from talking to a boy you like for the first time, but the kind more deeply rooted in fear. There had been rumors going around her school for the past few months about this abandoned house deemed Longjohn’s Lookout. It was called that because the old man who had previously lived there, Dallas Longjohn, was said to have died in the house. A lot of the students believed the myth since many said they saw an ambulance at the house about a year ago before the place was boarded up. Some kids claimed a ghost haunted the place and used it as a lookout to spy on the kids walking home from school.
Kaelyn didn’t want to sound afraid but she also didn’t think going there would be a smart idea. She wasn’t sure if she really believed in ghosts, but why take the chance? After thinking of the right way to word it, she wrote her response. Only babies are scared of that place. But I’m not trynna get in trouble for trespassing tho. Kaelyn folded up the paper then crossed her arms again. She felt Joey grab the paper from her hands and heard him giggle a little. Kaelyn heard him scribbling on the paper and folding it back up. He tapped her on the elbow and just as she grabbed it from him, the bell rang. “Alright everyone, I’ll see you guys Monday,” Mrs. Brown said.
As everyone threw their belongings into their bags and headed out the door, Kaelyn unfolded the paper and read it. Let me know if you change your mind ;) Joey had also included his phone number at the bottom of the sheet of paper. Kaelyn looked up and their eyes met just as he was leaving the classroom. He smiled and waved at her. She pocketed the note, then tucked her textbook and pencil case into her backpack. Kaelyn rushed out into the hallway after him, but Joey was nowhere to be seen. She sighed and headed for her next period. Although the talk with her crush didn’t go as planned, at least she was staying over at her best friend’s house tonight.
After the last bell rang, Kaelyn walked towards the buses out of habit, then turned around to head over to the carloop. When she arrived, she saw Leticia was sitting on a bench. Her friend spotted her and jumped up from the bench and waved at Kaelyn in an overly exaggerated fashion as if Kaelyn were blind. “Over heeeeere!” Leticia hollered. “You always gotta be goofy as hell, huh?” Kaelyn asked, after joining Leticia near the curb. “Yup,” Leticia replied, breaking out in a laugh.
After waiting a few minutes, Leticia's mom pulled up to the curb in the minivan. She rolled down her window and called out to them. "Hurry up guys! My shift is starting in half an hour!" Leticia pulled open the sliding door and they threw their bags in the backseat. "Thanks for picking us up, Mrs. Gomez," Kaelyn said as she crawled into the van. She shut the door since she was closest and they both put their seatbelts on. "No problem hun. And please, just call me Jen," she replied. "Also, I just texted your mom to let her know I gotcha." Kaelyn was very excited to be staying the night at Leticia's since it was the first time her mom let her sleepover at a friend's house. She usually never allowed it but after getting to meet with the Gomez family at the recent parent-teacher conference, they hit it off. They maneuvered their way out of the car loop and headed towards Leticia's house.
When they pulled into the driveway, Kaelyn and Leticia grabbed their bags, then all three of them headed inside. Leticia's mom took out her keys and unlocked the side door. Leticia's dad was just heading out for his night shift at the call center as they got in. "Hey, hey! How was school, you two?" he asked them. "It'll be a lot more fun in a month from now," Leticia responded. "But doesn't summer start for you guys in a few weeks?" he asked, with an eyebrow raised. "Exactly," Leticia said. Kaelyn laughed and Leticia showed her the way to her bedroom. Leticia opened the door to reveal a floor littered with clothes and a few soda cans sitting in random spots. "Step into my office," Leticia said. She threw her backpack in front of her night stand. She plopped down on a purple bean bag, rested her hands behind her head, and kicked her feet up against her dresser.
"Where should I put my bag?" Kaelyn asked. "Oh, anywhere. My parents are usually too busy with work to worry about how my room looks. It's pretty awesome," Leticia replied. "Lucky. My mom always wants my room to be spotless, especially when she has guests over. Which makes no sense because it's not like they ever even see my room," Kaelyn said. She tossed her bag near Leticia's and sat on her bed, swinging her feet over the edge. The two of them spent the next couple hours sitting on the carpet playing on Leticia's video game console until they got bored of it. "Okay, I got a different kind of game we can play," Leticia said after turning off her console and small TV. She grabbed an empty soda can off her window sill. After laying the can on its side and placing it between them, she looked up at Kaelyn. "Spin it," Leticia demanded. Kaelyn grabbed the can and flicked her wrist. It only made a couple rotations before the top of the can pointed back towards her.
"Truth or dare?" Leticia asked. "Ohhhh, that's what we're doing. Okay. Umm, truth?" Kaelyn said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how annoying was I when you first met me in P.E.?" Leticia asked. "11," Kaelyn answered, as they both erupted in laughter. Leticia spun the soda can next and when it stopped, the top was facing her. "Man, we suck at this," Leticia said. "Truth or dare?" Kaelyn asked. "Dare," Leticia said, crossing her arms with a smug look. "I dare you to clean your room," Kaelyn said, then held a hand over her mouth. "Wowwwww. Okay," Leticia replied. She used her foot to sweep all her clothing to one corner of the room and tossed the remaining aluminum cans in the trash can of the hallway bathroom. "Done," she said as she strolled back into the room. They laughed again.
Kaelyn spun the can once more. It faced Leticia, who pursed her lips as a result. "Truth or dare?" Kaelyn asked again. "Only because I don't wanna do anymore chores… truth," Leticia replied. "Is it true Amanda had to get that haircut because you put gum in her hair?" Kaelyn asked. "Nah, but I think she keeps spreading that rumor because she's mad she found out her boyfriend asked me out first before her. But if she keeps telling people that, I'm gonna make it a reality," Leticia answered. They cackled again. Leticia spun the can and it landed on Kaelyn. "Truth or dare?" she asked. "Truth," said Kaelyn. "Is it true you have a crush on Joey? I always notice you look at him when he walks in the lunchroom," said Leticia. "As long as you promise not to tell anyone… yes, actually. And I finally got to talk to him today, but he said he wanted me to go to Longjohns Lookout before he takes me on a date. But I'm good on that," replied Kaelyn. Quick to change the topic, she spun the can but it landed back on her again. "Truth or dare?" Leticia asked. Kaelyn didn't really feel like telling anymore truths, since she had a hunch Leticia wanted to know more about her feelings for Joey. "Dare," she replied. Kaelyn instantly felt regret as she watched Leticia's face curl into a sly grin. "I dare you to go to Longjohn's Lookout with me," Leticia said. “No way. Haven’t you heard that place is haunted?” protested Kaelyn. “Besides, even if it’s not, we’re gonna be in huge trouble if any cops see us on that property.” “Oh, come onnnnnn,” Leticia groaned. “You wanna go out with Joey, right? This might be your only chance. I think you two would be cute together. We’ll be in and out quick. My mom is stuck working on the computer till 10. Plus, that house is like right down the street! No one will know.” “I don’t know,” Kaelyn said, nervously rocking side to side. “C’mon. Do you really want Joey to go find his happily ever after with some high school girl?” Leticia pressed. Her eyes met the ground. Then she lifted up her head. “No. Joey’s mine,” she said with a face of determination. Leticia grinned wide and hugged her friend. “That’s what I’m talking bout!” Kaelyn smiled and pulled out the paper she had pocketed earlier. She added the phone number into her contacts and sent it a text message.
(Going to Longjohn’s Lookout tonight. ;) )>
Both of them exited the room and Kaelyn pointed at Leticia’s mom sitting at their living room computer desk while looking at her friend. She had a headset on and seemed to be talking business with someone on the other end. “I got this,” Leticia whispered. She walked over to the side of her mom’s office chair. “Give me a moment while I place you on a brief hold,” her mother said into the headset. She turned to look at Leticia. “Did you need something, sweetie?” she asked. “Hey, Kaelyn forgot she had a report due over the weekend for one of her classes. We were just going to run to the library to write and print it before they close. I know our printer is broken and they don’t have one at her house.” Her mom looked over at Kaelyn, then back at her daughter. “Sure, just keep your phones on you and let me know when you get there. And here’s a couple dollars for the printing fees,” she said, as she got back on the call with her client. Leticia pocketed the money and gave her friend two thumbs up.
The two left her house and started walking down the sidewalk. The afternoon winds warmed their faces like a freshly dried towel after a cold shower. The sky was having a hard time choosing between wearing pink or blue and they could tell there were a couple more hours of daylight left. Leticia knew they’d have to take a left at the end of the street towards the abandoned house, but turned right instead. “Hey, isn’t it that way?” Kaelyn asked. “Yeah, but we’ll backtrack. Just in case my mom is watching us out the window. Can never be too safe,” Leticia said. After walking a few more blocks, they took a left, and then another. Kaelyn checked her phone and didn’t see a response to the text she sent to Joey yet. She wondered if she’d ever get to sleep at another friend’s house again if they were caught sneaking out. “He’d better take me on the best date ever after this,” Kaelyn thought.
They arrived at their destination after only about 30 minutes. The front of the property was facing a busy street and was surrounded by a tall wooden link fence. They each took turns taking a quick peek over it. Despite the overgrown lawn and peeling white paint, they could tell this was once a quaint, little home. With no neighboring houses, Kaelyn and Leticia only had the passing cars to worry about. There was a bike trail to the right of the house and they decided that would be their ticket to sneak around back. They walked down far enough until they passed the rear of the house. They found a nearby bench to sit and wait for the opportune moment. After not seeing any joggers or bicyclists for a few minutes, they both stood up and darted for the fence. Leticia leaned her back against it and cupped her hands together. “You first. I’ll boost ya up,” she said. Kaelyn hesitated for a second. “C’mon. Go go go,” Leticia ordered. Kaelyn lifted up her foot into her friend’s palms and jumped up to grab the top of the planks. She launched herself over the top and crashed into the tall grass. Leticia followed right behind her but landed with more grace. “You straight?” Leticia asked. “Yeah. I’m glad they haven’t mowed in a while,” she said, pulling weeds out of her hair. Leticia pulled out her phone and sent a text message to her mom.
(Made it to the library!)>
She tucked her phone away and they turned their attention to Longjohn’s Lookout. The backyard had some belongings that had been left behind. An old rusted grill. A round table whose top had fallen off of its frail legs. A couple of foldable chairs that doubtfully would ever be folded again. There were also plenty of random items strewn about, such as hoses, tires, glass bottles, etc. The doors and windows were covered in more plywood than bandages on a child after a skateboarding accident. “How are we gonna get in?” Kaelyn asked. “Let’s look around to see if Longjohn left any tools lying around with all this other junk,” Leticia answered. They scoured the back and front yards, moving aside the towering tufts of grass searching for anything of use. Nothing.
Leticia looked annoyed. “My dad has a million tools in the garage and my dumbass couldn’t bring one to help us.” Kaelyn was looking for an opening when she noticed the sliding back door that was boarded up was slightly open. “Teesh, look!” Kaelyn grabbed the door and slowly slid it about halfway, where it wouldn’t go any further. Although it wasn’t too dark outdoors, the same couldn’t be said about inside the house. They looked at each other, then squeezed themselves through the opening. Both of them turned on their phone’s flashlights, then took a look around. Cobwebs and dust everywhere. A couple of bookshelves. An old couch. A grandfather clock. Everything was in disrepair. But the floor was surprisingly clear in comparison to the mess in the backyard.
“No ghosts yet. Might as well check out all the rooms,” Leticia said with a chuckle. “Yeah,not as bad as I thought it would be. Dirty. But I expected more from a haunted house,” Kaelyn replied. They checked out the kitchen and were surprised to see dishes and pans still occupying the cupboards. They would both cringe whenever bugs came crawling out when they moved anything. “Ewwww,” Leticia said with a frown. Kaelyn opened one of the bedroom doors and was disappointed to find nothing but a metal bed frame and a couple of hangers on the ground. She left and entered the bedroom across from it. This one was even more empty. She checked the small closet to be sure. Still nothing. Just a few pencils on the floor and nails on the walls that probably held pictures long ago. Kaelyn was disappointed until she shone her light up at the ceiling fan. To her surprise, there was writing on the ceiling. The words simply read “LEAVE NOW” in large red letters. She called her friend from the living room to join her. “Hey, Teesh. Come look at this!” Leticia ran in and looked up at the message. Leticia crossed her arms. “Huh. That’s creepy. Well, we can leave now if you w-” She was interrupted by a loud noise coming from just outside the room. “What the fuck?” Leticia whispered. She peeked her head around the corner of the door and could see the back door they entered from had been shut. “Who the hell?” she angrily remarked, as she ran over and grabbed the handle. She pulled with all her strength, but it wouldn’t budge. “We have to find another way out. Look for a window we can smash!” They looked around in a panic for a window that wasn’t completely closed off by wood, without any luck. Then they realized there was still a bedroom they hadn’t explored. “Let’s try in here,” Kaelyn whispered. But before she turned the doorknob, she pointed out a glow coming from under the door. Leticia nodded and picked up a glass bottle sitting in one of the corners.
They slowly opened the door to find a bunch of candles on the ground. They were lit and had been arranged in a circle. At the center of them was a pentagram, a marking usually known to summon demons. It was dark red and appeared to have been drawn with blood. There was an old recliner chair in the corner of the room covered in a sheet. They could see one of the windows wasn’t barricaded and barely had any glass remaining in its frame. “There!” Kaelyn said. Her and her friend ran towards the window but were stopped in their tracks when the sheet jumped up from the chair and leaped at them. Kaelyn shrieked and squeezed her eyes closed. “Ahhhhhhh!” But once she realized she had not been attacked, she opened them and heard the room fill with cackling. A couple of boys emerged from the bedroom closet doubling over and the mysterious figure removed the sheet to reveal itself. It was Joey. He made a snarky grin. “Did I do good, boys?” he asked his friends. They couldn’t answer him due to being temporarily paralyzed from laughter. Leticia’s jaw dropped and Kaelyn’s eyes began to dampen from the embarrassment. “We’ve been waiting forever for someone to be dumb enough to come sneaking in here so we could-” Joey’s sentence was interrupted by a glass bottle smashing into his forehead. “Fuuuuck!” he screamed while holding his head. Leticia grabbed Kaelyn’s hand and they quickly escaped out the window as Joey’s friends ran to his aid. They didn’t wait to check if the coast was clear, and instead threw themselves over the fence as fast as they could and ran back to Leticia’s house.
When they finally made it back to her driveway, Leticia pulled out her key and unlocked the side door. They got inside and immediately headed for Leticia’s room. Her mom didn’t even turn to greet them, as she was busy on another work call. Leticia closed the door behind them and they gasped for air until their breathing was back to normal. Kaelyn became quiet. “I’m sorry, Kay. We never should’ve gone there. Fuck Joey for that lame ass shit. You deserve better.” Kaelyn sighed and looked up at her friend, wiping away tears. “Thanks,” she said, managing a small smile. “That’s what friends are for,” Leticia said. “No. I mean, thanks for hitting him. Because if you didn’t I was going to kill him.” They broke out in laughter and hugged each other. Kaelyn dried her face off with her shirt. “Honestly, I wish that place was haunted. I would’ve preferred a real ghost over those creeps,” Leticia remarked. “So what are we gonna do when we see him on Monday?” she asked. “Don’t worry. If he tries telling on us, we’ll rat him out. I’m sure their parents would love to hear about them trespassing Longjohn’s. Plus, I think Joey’s dad is a sheriff, right? I can’t imagine what kind of shit he’d be in if he found out what his son does when he’s on patrol.”
“That’s true,” Kaelyn said. “Hope he enjoys showing off that bruise for the last few days of the school year.” Leticia laughed. “Yesssss I can’t wait to see him honestly. It’s simple. Don’t mess with my friends and I won’t mess with your face,” Leticia said, shrugging. Kaelyn giggled, feeling more relaxed now. She tucked one of Leticia’s pillows under her head and laid down, crossing her legs. “Just promise me something.” Leticia said. “What’s that?” Kaelyn asked. “Promise me the next guy you give a chance likes you for you and doesn’t have you go on a quest like a freakin’ weirdo.” Leticia said, shaking her head. “Promise,” Kaelyn replied.
The next morning, Kaelyn woke up to find her friend sitting cross-legged at the end of the mattress, hunched over her laptop. Since she let Leticia sleep on her bed, she was finally able to try out her new sleeping bag she had yet to use from Christmas. Kaelyn stretched her arms, let out a huge yawn, and rubbed her eyes. “Hey, Teesh. Did you get any sleep?” she asked. “A little. Been researching more about this Derrick guy. He’s only been Dr. Hall’s assistant for less than a year, it looks like. I also found out he has a profile on GetLinked with his contact info. I was hoping to schedule an interview with him today if he can take one. I doubt I’ll even get a response though,” Leticia said without taking her eyes off her screen. “Well, let’s go eat some breakfast before you start playing detective,” Kaelyn said. Leticia grabbed her stomach. She had just realized how hungry she was. “Okay, yeah. I’m kinda starving actually,” Leticia said. She closed her laptop screen and changed out of her pajamas.
The instant Kaelyn opened her bedroom door, an aroma made itself right at home inside of both their noses. If heaven had a smell, this would probably be it. They rushed down the stairs and darted straight into the kitchen. “Morning, Ms. Smith,” Leticia said. She was hoping her greeting was enough, since her eyes were immediately drawn to the steaming food sitting on the counter. “Good morning guys,” Kaelyn’s mom said. She hugged her daughter and then Leticia. “Kaelyn texted me that you were coming over right before I passed out last night. Did you get some good sleep? ” her mom asked. “Yeah, she let me crash in her bed. I really love that foam topper you guys got her!” Leticia replied. Truthfully, she had been up all night and had gotten maybe an hour of sleep, if she was lucky. But she didn’t want to worry her hosts. “Aww that was nice of you Kay! Well have a seat, guys. The food’s almost ready. Leticia thought about how lucky she was to have a friend whose mom loved to cook breakfast every morning. Scratch that. Kaelyn was the real lucky one. Leticia’s parents usually worked or slept most of the day, so she was used to fending for herself in front of the stove. But today was a treat.
Leticia looked around and admired their kitchen. She’d love to have one just like it one day. The granite countertops, white tile flooring, and beautiful cherrywood cabinets filled her with both envy and joy. And of course their fridge which was twice the size of the one she was used to back at home. One day. Kaelyn’s mom made their plates and set them in front of the two hungry wolves disguised as teenagers. She placed a bottle of syrup in the middle of the table and handed them each some silverware. “Dig in,” her mom said. After a breakfast of belgian waffles with strawberries and bacon, the two were looking stuffed enough to be the main course for Thanksgiving. “Uhh”, they groaned in both delight and disgust with themselves. They slowly lifted themselves up from the dining table and waddled out of the kitchen. Leticia noticed their very comfy-looking suede couch and crashed on one end of it, while Kaelyn snuggled up on the other end. A few hours later, Leticia woke up from an unexpected nap on their couch. She was confused and looked around to remember where she was. “Again?” Leticia mumbled to herself. She was hoping she wasn’t going to sleep away her entire spring break like she had last year. Leticia scooted herself closer to Kaelyn and gently shook her awake. She was also surprised she had taken such a long nap. The food must have hit the two of them harder than they thought. They slowly meandered back upstairs to “finish up their homework.” In reality, they were busy digging up more dirt on Dr. Hall. Leticia opened up her laptop and sat down with it, her back against the bed frame. “So last night I sent Derrick an email asking if he’d be down for a phone interview, and... it looks like he got back to me!” Leticia said, with surprise in her voice. “Nice! What did he say?” Kaelyn asked. Leticia read off the email verbatim. “Thank you Leticia for reaching out to me! I will be busy with some important projects and press runs later today, but I should be free between 11 o’clock and noon if you wanted to call me then.” Leticia took out her phone and turned on her screen to check the time. “Shit. It’s 11:57!” she shrieked. “Well, it isn’t technically noon yet,” Kaelyn said, shrugging.
Leticia frantically dialed the phone number provided in the email and waited. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hello. This is Derrick Banks with Hall Solutions,” said the voice on the other end. Leticia covered the receiver and cleared her throat. “Hey, this is Leticia Gomez. I’m the one who emailed you last night about a phone interview. Was wondering if you still had time for a few questions for my school project?” Leticia asked. “A little late, aren’t ya? But sure, I got a couple minutes free,” Derrick said. “Thank you for taking the time to do this! I know you and Dr. Hall have both been super busy lately,” Leticia said. “Oh, it’s no problem. I always wondered how long it would take before I got involved in some kid’s class assignment. So what did you wanna know?” Derrick asked. “Okay, first question: so how long have you been working for Dr. Hall?” she asked. “Hmm, I believe I started late January of last year. I just got my first degree at uni and was looking for some work relating to my field. I was lucky I found something so quickly!” he said, sounding grateful.
“Alright. Question two: what kind of work do you do at the lab and how do you think it will help society?” Leticia asked. “Well, I mostly just keep track of inventory, help maintain some lab equipment, and monitor tests according to Dr. Hall’s instructions. He is mostly the brain behind trying out new experiments. And I’d say our goal is to help those suffering from cognitive damage. We’ve done our best to understand and replicate the human mind so that we can essentially use stem cells to make copies. Our hopes are to eventually be able to transplant certain regions of the brain to help people in need, especially those with mental illnesses. But in a way that they retain their memory, of course,” Derrick explained. “Interesting. And question 3: Do you feel like this technology has the potential to be dangerous if placed in the wrong hands?” Leticia asked.
There was a pause. “Yeah, of course. Just like anything, really. But luckily for us all, Dr. Hall is a very generous man. And from my own personal experience, working with him has been a real pleasure. So I think we have nothing to worry about,” Derrick assured her. “But what if someone found incriminating evidence related to him… I mean, hypothetically of course. Would that change your mind on him?” Leticia asked. Derrick sounded surprised by the question. “Well, um, it’d have to be a solid piece of evidence,” he said. “What if he kept it hidden from you in his ottoman?” Leticia asked, then immediately wished she could pull the words back into her throat. “Ottoman? How do you know he-” Leticia cut him off. “Thanks for your help! I think I got everything I need for my project now. Bye!” Leticia blurted out, then smashed the red End Call button with her thumb.
Once she was sure the call was disconnected, Leticia chucked her phone onto the floor beside the bed. “Fuuuuuuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Leticia said in a panicked whisper. “What’s wrong?” Kaelyn asked, with a worried face. “I mentioned the ottoman. I shouldn’t have brought that up. He might think that we broke in now. Oh shit. Shiiiiit.” Leticia picked her phone back up, turned off its GPS function, and started hastily packing all her belongings into her backpack. “Where you going?” Kaelyn asked. “I gotta get out of here. He might be able to use the GPS data from my phone call to trace me here. I don’t want you getting in trouble too,” Leticia said, biting her nails, as she slung her bag over her shoulders. “Teesh, maybe you’re overreacting. You really think they could track you down from one phone call?” Kaelyn asked. Leticia turned to her friend with a grave look on her face and grabbed her shoulders. “Kay. If they can grow a brain in a lab, I’m pretty damn sure they can find me if they wanted to. Aw shit. Um, I’m trying to think of where I should go. Oh, I know. I’m gonna go hide out at the library for a few hours. Just text me ASAP if they show up at your front door. I really hope they don’t, but I don’t know. I’ll keep you updated on my end. I gotta leave. Like now,” Leticia said, as she rushed out of Kaelyn’s house. “Teesh! Wait!” Kaelyn cried out to her friend. But Leticia had already ran out the front door and had already reached the next street over by the time Kaelyn got downstairs. Kaelyn felt a vibration come from her thigh and she pulled her phone out of her pocket. It was a text message.
<(Don’t follow me. I don’t want you getting in trouble too. Delete this after you see it.)
Leticia had never run so fast in her life. She was sure she had broken at least a couple world records with how quick she arrived at the public library, which was much closer to her house than it was Kaelyn’s. Out of necessity for air and to not look suspicious, Leticia slowed her pace before approaching the sliding glass doors at the entrance. She walked onto the black mat and the motion sensor opened the doors after detecting her. Leticia got inside, and immediately headed towards one of the most remote back corners of the building. She found an empty spot with a lone lounge chair and grabbed a random book off one of the tall shelves. She sat down and opened the book to cover her face and make it look as if she was reading very intently.
After maintaining her position for a couple of hours, she was convinced she wasn’t in as much trouble as she thought. Leticia had grown tired of reading about the history of accounting, and decided maybe she should just head back to Kaelyn’s. She stood up and pulled out her phone. But just as she was about to text her friend, she spotted two officers enter the library. Leticia quickly sat back down and pocketed her phone. She picked the book back up. They probably weren’t here for her, but there was no point in gambling. Leticia could see them asking the librarian at the front counter questions. Had she seen her walk in earlier? Her drop of optimism evaporated instantly when she saw the librarian point in her general direction. “No, no, no,” Leticia thought to herself. She buried her face into the book and hoped she would remain invisible.
But after just a few more minutes, the cops walked over to the corner where she sat and stopped walking right in front of her chair. She pretended not to notice. “Excuse us, ma’am. Would you happen to be Leticia Gomez?” one of the officers asked. Leticia lowered the book and tried her best to look genuinely surprised. “Yeah, that’s me. What’s going on here? Is everything alright?” she asked them. “We just need you to step outside with us for a moment, if you will,” said the second officer. She complied. As they left the library, Leticia could see someone in a white coat waiting for them in the parking lot. It was Derrick Banks, standing in the afternoon heat, with his arms crossed. As they got closer, he spoke up. “She’s the one. That’s who I saw on our security feed,” said Derrick, with a smirk. “Would you gentlemen mind searching her as well? I think she might have something that doesn’t belong to her,” he said.
The police grabbed Leticia’s backpack and poured its contents out onto the hood of one of their cars. All her things came falling out, along with something that wasn’t hers. Derrick picked up the keycard with his name on it and displayed it for the officers to see, and then faced it towards Leticia. “Oh, wow. Your name is Derrick Banks too? What a coincidence,” he said with a chuckle. Leticia looked down at the asphalt. “Put your hands behind your back, please,” the second officer said. They confiscated her phone, handcuffed her, and loaded her into the back of the squad car. Leticia could see Derrick getting into his car and driving off. Tears ran down Leticia’s cheeks during the car ride. As the three of them left the library, she was starting to have a meltdown inside her head. Would her parents have to bail her out for her court date? If she was convicted, how many months would her sentence be? Or would it be years? How would she survive in juvie? Would having this on her record keep her from getting a job in the future after she did her time?
A million worst-case scenarios flashed through her brain. Yet, they all somehow paled in comparison when the squad car finally stopped at their destination. Leticia looked up to see that the officers had pulled into her driveway. They parked the car and got Leticia out from the back and led her to her own front door. The officers knocked, and Leticia’s dad answered the door. He was shocked to see his daughter in handcuffs. She would’ve much preferred to rot in a cell than to see her father’s reaction. “What’s going on here?” he asked. “Afternoon, Mr. Gomez. We got a tip from an employee at Hall Solutions that your daughter had broken into their facility last night. They were able to confirm her identity from security camera footage,” the first officer explained.
“But I thought she was working on her school project with a friend last night.” Leticia didn’t want Kaelyn to suffer for her mistake, so she spoke up. “I lied about going to Kaelyn’s so I could sneak out,” she whispered. “When exactly was this?” her dad asked. “The employee that gave us the tip told us it was around 9:30 last night and has the tapes to prove it. We also found a stolen keycard on her person, so we’re pretty sure this isn’t a mix up, unfortunately. Usually, we’d lock up juveniles for trespassing and theft, but we were informed Dr. Hall isn’t pressing any charges at this time. Oh, and here is this. I’m sure you’ll want to hold onto it,” the first officer explained while handing Leticia’s phone to her father.