“Hey, Mom. I’m home. You in the kitchen?” Linden let the door slam shut behind him and cringed. She’d probably chew him out about that. He dropped his backpack on the floor and followed his nose to the kitchen. “Something smells good. Oatmeal raisin cookies? How did you know I was wanting those? It’s been just about forever.”
Carrie Thomas smiled at her gangling son and uncovered the heaping plate of cookies. “Yes, it has. It’s the first time in a while the store has had raisins, and there were only a few boxes. The price has gone up again, so I just got one box. They have to last, so try not to make a pig of yourself. Okay?”
“Okay.” Linden poured himself a glass of milk from the fridge, sat down, and grabbed a handful of cookies. “What’s all that stuff?” He nodded toward the papers spread out in front of his mother, and stuffed half a cookie in his mouth.
“A college offer. Sort of a scholarship.”
Linden washed the cookie down with a swallow of milk and peered at his mother, a line of worry between his eyes. He wasn’t sure what to ask first. Her expression was… strange. He didn’t like the smile she had on now, as if there was something she didn’t want to say.
“What’s a sort of scholarship? I haven’t applied to any colleges.”
Instead of answering, Carrie went to the sink and started washing the dishes.
Linden glared at her back, annoyed. “Mom. We agreed that we wouldn’t get into the college thing yet. I still don’t know if I even want to go. You didn’t send in an application, did you? Without telling me?” He thought about it, frowning. “No. You couldn’t have. I’d have to fill in all kinds of stuff for myself. That’s what Jen told me. They want to know what your ambitions are in life, the important stuff you did in school, like be the president of some silly club, all that junk.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you anyway, Linden.” Carrie didn’t turn away from the sink. “It just came… I mean it was delivered. By a man. In some kind of uniform.”
“ Like NUPS? A brown uniform?”
“More like a military uniform. Maybe army. I don’t know.”
“Army? Mom, turn off the water and come sit down. I hate talking to your back.”
She moved the few steps from the sink to the table, dabbing at her hands with a towel, then bunching it up as if she didn’t know what to do with it. Her expression scared him. The fake smile was gone, but now she looked almost the way she’d looked at his dad’s funeral. Whatever was in those papers, it couldn’t be as bad as her face said it was. He had to straighten this out.
“Are you sure the guy had the right house?” As soon as he said it, he knew it was a stupid question. She wouldn’t have opened the envelope if it hadn’t been the right house.
“He asked for you by name. And he knew my name. I tried to ask him what it was about, but he just handed me the envelope and walked away. I watched to see if he was going to stop anywhere else, but he got into a car parked down at the end of the block and it just drove off.”
“It still has to be some kind of mistake, Mom. It wasn’t for me. They just got the name wrong. Anyway, if I did win a college scholarship, even if I don’t want it, you ought to be at least a little happy about it. Scholarships are good things, aren’t they?”
Carrie fluttered her hands over the papers without saying anything, then gathered them together and pushed them across the table toward him.
“Mom? You’re scaring me.”
“I just don’t understand it, sweetheart. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe you can see something I’m missing, but I don’t like what I read. It says you have to leave in three days.”
Linden put down the cookie that was halfway to his mouth. “I have to leave? In three days? That’s crazy! It’s the middle of the school year. Colleges don’t do that. I’ve never heard of such a thing, and I bet nobody at school has, either. Nobody can make me leave if I don’t want to.”
Carrie bit her lip. “I hope I read it wrong, but it does seem like you can’t refuse to go. It’s a government program, so I guess they can do whatever they want.” She stood up and hovered, looking down at the papers, and then at her son. Loss and hopelessness were written in her posture, just as they’d been that horrible time before.
Linden couldn’t bear to see her like that. He forced a laugh, but even to his own ears, it sounded false. “You must have read it wrong. They probably have some squirrely language in there. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out and then we can throw all that stuff away and forget about it.”
“I’ll leave it to you then. I’m going to start supper. Is fish all right?”
Linden’s nose wrinkled. “Is it real fish or that fake stuff?”
“It’s almost the end of the month, dear. We can’t afford real fish right now. I’m not even sure I want to buy the real stuff any more. We had to throw out the last that I bought because it tasted so awful. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, yeah. It almost made me barf. Fix whatever you want. I promise not to complain. I can always fill up with cookies.” He gave her a big smile, but when Carrie turned back to the sink without returning it, it slipped away.
Linden looked for the envelope the papers had come in. If it was hand delivered, there probably wouldn’t be a postmark, but at least it was a place to start. But there was no return address, and his name and address were machine printed. Disappointed, he laid it aside and picked up a letter with an official-looking letterhead. It was short and to the point, and he thought it was probably like what he’d see if he did apply to some colleges. He snorted as he skimmed over the formal language. Congratulations. Chosen for an intensive two-year program at Merriman College, which he’d never heard of. An elite government program. Did the government run colleges? He’d never heard of anything like that. Very strict selection, blah, blah, blah, looking forward to having you join us. Sincerely, above an illegible signature.
He hesitated between the brightly colored brochure and the sheet with ‘Instructions’ written at the top. Whatever the instructions were, they weren’t for him. So the brochure first. He’d seen a lot just like it in his counselor’s office. Too many times, as far as he was concerned. Mrs. Kinney kept calling him into her office because she seemed to think he needed pep talks. Even though he was almost at the top of his class, she kept pushing him to work harder. It was important for him to do his very best so he’d be ready for college. It didn’t matter how many times he told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, she just kept at him. And he was only half-way through his junior year. Why was she in such a rush, anyway?
And what was the point? There was no money to pay for college, and his grades weren’t quite good enough to get him a full scholarship. Without that, he wasn’t going anywhere, and he didn’t really care. His dad’s pension, and the amount his mom had been awarded because of the company’s negligence, kept them comfortable enough if they were careful. There was usually a little left over for a few small luxuries once in a while, but college? That was just a dream—his mother’s dream. He could pull his grades if he worked a little harder, but Mrs. Kinney’s nagging just made him want to push back and let them drop instead.
His chest ached every time he thought about why they were so poor. Even if the settlement could have paid for two college degrees, it would never make up for losing his dad. He’d never said anything to his mother, and certainly not to Mrs. Kinney, but half the reason he really didn’t care about going to college was that his mom needed him.
He rubbed his finger over the brochure’s glossy pictures of smiling students in front of classical buildings. There were lots of shade trees and endless swathes of green grass. Was there any place that still looked like that? But he guessed the government could figure out how to keep the grass nice and green, no matter how bad the weather was. There was lots of stuff—with pictures—about the comfortable dorms, the library and the gym. It all looked unreal. He kept glancing over at the page of instructions. That had to be the one that was upsetting his mom. There was nothing in the brochure about having to accept the scholarship or leaving in three days.
He wanted to take everything—the envelope, the brochure, the welcome letter and instructions—tear them into little pieces and throw them in the trash. With a sense of dread, he finally picked up the page of instructions. Why had it been hand-delivered? Frantically, he he looked for an address, a state or a part of the country, realizing now that even the letterhead lacked an address. Where was this college, anyway? The instruction sheet was mostly a list, and a quick scan told him what he was already sure of. No address.
“Mom? Did you see an address anywhere? Like the name of a town where the college is?”
Carrie had gone back to washing the dishes. She put down the dish in her hand, but she didn’t turn around. “No. I didn’t even think about it. It must be there, somewhere.”
She turned then, and looked at him with that strange expression. “I suppose the people who are going to pick you up will tell you.”
“Pick me up?”
“Yes, didn’t you read that part? It’s near the bottom of the instructions, I think.”
She made an attempt to smile.
“I’m just about to read it.” The weird shivery feeling that had been growing while he hunted through the papers was starting to become a queasy roiling in his stomach.His mom was acting just like when they found out his dad was dead. That fake smile, and her voice without any expression in it.
The instructions didn’t even take up the whole sheet. It was impossible to misinterpret anything. He couldn’t refuse the scholarship. He had three days to settle his affairs at home. He wasn’t allowed to take anything with him. Everything he needed would be provided by the college. He would be picked up early on the morning of the fourth day and would be escorted during the entire trip.
He grabbed the brochure again and tore through it, looking for something that he couldn’t possibly have overlooked if it had been there. There was nothing about vacations, about visits home. Not even summer vacation. He sat back and stared in front of him without seeing anything. His mind had been processing all the little details and the missing pieces, and now it all came together in a terrifying way.
He’d been recommended by an unknown person, for a scholarship to a college in an unknown location. He wouldn’t be allowed to refuse, and he would be taken away from his home and his mother in three days. He almost laughed, but it choked before it turned into sound. He was going to be kidnapped. No matter how he turned it around, trying to see it from every possible angle, that’s what it really was. Don’t be a dope. Nobody gives you advance warning that you’re going to be kidnapped. You’re just dramatizing again. That’s what Mom would say. But he couldn’t convince himself. If someone could just come and take you away, that was kidnapping.
He knew, when he looked up at her, that his expression must be as bleak as her own. She’d been waiting for him to find the way out, and he hadn’t. He stood up, wanting to go to her, but he couldn’t get his legs to move.
“I don’t want to leave you, Mom. I can’t.” It was true, but not what he wanted to say, if only he could get it out in the open where he could see it. Then, all of a sudden, he did see it. “How do we even know this is real?”
“What do you mean? Of course it’s real. Look at it. I don’t want it to be real, and neither do you, but if it isn’t real, what is it?”
“A hoax, maybe? A really nasty practical joke? If it was real, why would they hide where this college is? And why would they do it this time of year and only give me three days?”
“But why would anyone play a joke like that? You don’t have any enemies at school, do you?” Linden shook his head. “How could anyone hate you—or me—enough to do something so awful? Maybe it’s a top-secret program and they can’t tell you more until you’re in it.” She smiled hopefully, just long enough to see that Linden wasn’t convinced. “I guess that does sound silly, doesn’t it? Like one of those ridiculous espionage movies.”
“It feels like…” Linden shut his mouth. He didn’t want to say the word. His mother would panic if she really thought he was going to be kidnapped. And it was such a wild idea, anyway. He couldn’t really believe it, himself. But there had to be some explanation. “Never mind. Forget it. I had an idea and then I realized how crazy it was.”
“Are you sure? Sometimes those weird ideas you get turn out to be right. Tell me, Sweetheart.”
Carrie looked so hopeful again that Linden forced himself to smile. “It really wasn’t anything worth thinking about any more. Do you want some help with supper? I wouldn’t mind having mashed potatoes, and I’ll even peel the potatoes.”
Carrie gave him a look that said she wasn’t satisfied. But she wouldn’t argue with him. Not until supper was over, at least. Maybe by then he could think of something to make this all go away.
“Okay. You’re on potato duty.”