“Linden. Honey? You’re going to be late for school if you don’t get up now.”
Linden rolled over and looked at the clock. He’d been awake since before daylight was beginning to show, thinking about what had happened yesterday, how it just wasn’t possible for someone to change his whole life without even asking him. Like a giant hand reaching down out of the sky and just picking him up and carrying him away. Like aliens.
They’d stopped talking about it yesterday when neither of them could find anything more to say. But Linden refused to accept it. He wasn’t going to let himself be carted off by strangers to some college, who knew where. Not that he even cared where it was. Frustration and anger washed over him again, and then he gasped. Why hadn’t he thought of it yesterday?
He scrambled out of bed, threw on the same clothes he’d worn yesterday, and with only a stop to empty his bladder, tore down the stairs to the kitchen. “Mom, you have to call the school right now and make an appointment with Mrs. Kinney. We have to talk to her today. Don’t let anybody put you off because this is really, really important.”
“Your counselor?” Carrie flipped a pancake and put down the spatula. She looked Linden over with a disapproving eye. “You didn’t change your clothes and you haven’t brushed your hair. Did you even bother to wash up? You can’t go to school that way.”
“Mom!” What was wrong with her? She was acting like this was just a normal day. “What’s the point of going to school if I only have three more days? Look, maybe Mrs. Kinney knows what this is all about. She has to know something. Wouldn’t they have talked to her? She can tell us how I can get out of it, tell them I don’t want it. Call, please. Right now!”
Carrie’s expression lightened as she took in what Linden was saying. “Do you really think she could help?”
“I don’t know, but if there’s anybody that can, it has to be her. We have to try. Call her, Mom.”
* * *
Linden was hot and sweaty by the time they got to the school. His eyes were dry and itchy and his throat was sore. He bet that nobody was going to be going outside for phys ed today. There must have been an air alert, but neither of them had thought to turn on the news. It felt strange to be walking down this hallway with its familiar smells and sounds, knowing that it could be the very last time. It was just as strange to be here with his mom because that hadn’t happened since Mr. Charles had finally lost his temper and insisted on a parent-teacher conference.
The strangeness grew when Gus, the security guard, had made them wait outside until he got the okay from the office. He’d scanned Linden’s ID three times before shaking his head. Apologizing to Carrie for the delay, he said, “I can’t let anybody in without proper ID, Mrs. Thomas, even if I know them. You don’t have one, and Linden’s isn’t coming up. Must be some kind of glitch. Just the rules, you understand. Nothing to do with you, personally.”
Carrie had winced when Gus scanned Linden’s ID card and then the chip in his neck, and Linden wondered why it bothered her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, when Gus finally let them in and they were out of earshot.
“Nothing. It’s just the chip. I’m not used to that kind of thing. I always forget you have one, and I don’t like to be reminded.”
“Why does it still bother you so much?”
“You know why. You’re not a lost pet. The chips made it easier for them to be identified so their owners could be notified. It isn’t right for it to be used on people. Why do you even ask, Linden? We’ve been around and around about it.”
Except for the initial pain when the chip had been injected, it had never bothered him. It had been there since he was in the fourth grade. He hadn’t understood why his mother made such a big stink when the school board voted for them, and it didn’t make any sense for her to still be upset about it. Practically everybody was chipped. The only reason she never had been was because she didn’t have a regular job. She babysat for the neighbors once in a while, but that wasn’t something that required you to be chipped. He shrugged and knocked at the side of the counselor’s open door.
Mrs. Kinney looked up and smiled. “Come in Mrs. Thomas, Linden. Have a seat.”
Carrie hadn’t given a reason when she called for the appointment, but Mrs. Kinney knew why they were there; he was sure of it. He’d catalogued all her smiles, most of them phony, but this one was the worst, and she flicked her eyes away from him too fast. She was nervous, the way she always was when he said something that he knew would throw her off-balance.
“You said that Linden has a serious problem, Mrs. Thomas. I hope it’s something I can help him with.”
Carrie didn’t return Mrs. Kinney’s smile. She laid the envelope on the desk and pushed it toward the woman. “We both have a problem. Would you look at these papers, please, and tell us what you know about this scholarship?”
Mrs. Kinney’s lips thinned. Carrie’s attitude offended her, and Linden was glad. Carrie had a way of doing that to people if she got angry enough. He saw the slight hesitation as Mrs. Kinney reached for the envelope. She shook the papers out and barely looked at them before raising her eyes to Carrie.
“I don’t understand why this is a problem, Mrs. Thomas. Linden is to be congratulated on being accepted to Merriman. The school is highly selective, and he’s only the second of our students to make the grade since the program began.”
Linden’s heart sank.
“Where is this Merriman College located, Mrs. Kinney? We can’t find an address anywhere in these papers. Not even in the letterhead. How do we know it’s real? And why would these people, whoever they are, just snatch Linden out of his school and away from his home? It says he can’t refuse to go. How is that possible? Isn’t this a free country anymore?” Carrie’s voice got louder with each question, and her face was flushed.
Linden reached over and put his hand on her arm. “Mom. Give her a chance.”
“Mrs. Thomas, please.” Mrs Kinney patted the air as if that would have a calming effect. “One thing at a time. I’ll try to address your concerns, but I have to tell you that I don’t know everything about the program, and there are things I’m simply not allowed to tell you. What I can tell you, which may alleviate some of your anxiety, is that the scholarship is quite legitimate. It’s a government program, after all.”
“I know it’s a government program. At least that’s what I read, but I couldn’t believe it. How can you even approve of something like that? My own government wants to take my son away from me! He’s just a youngster. They can’t possibly have any interest in him.”
Mrs Kinney smiled. “That’s where you’re wrong. They’re very interested in him. In fact, they’ve been following his academic progress for several years.”
“The government’s been spying on me?” Linden burst out. “What right do they have?” He clutched the arms of his chair as if he’d like to tear them off.
“Linden, it wasn’t spying. And they do have the right to track students. Especially since they’re the reason you and your classmates have been taking all those extra tests for the last three years. The government needs good minds, and it isn’t willing to depend on luck to find them. Our country’s problems are too serious. That’s how it was explained to me. The testing program is used in schools all over the country. I don’t know where Merriman College is, and probably wouldn’t be allowed to tell you if I did know, but the program is legitimate. Merriman is a real college with a real program for elite students.”
“How is that supposed to make me feel better?” Linden was close to tears. The trap was closing and he knew that none of his arguments would force it open. He knew that now. But he couldn’t just give in. “So they think there’s something special about me. So what? Does that mean I don’t have any rights any more? I still have a year and a half of school. I don’t even know if I want to go to college. I told you that a dozen times.”
He stopped dead, glaring at the woman. “That’s why you’ve been nagging at me to get my grades up.” He didn’t even notice that she stiffened with disapproval at his words. “Is it a prestige thing for the school? You were afraid they wouldn’t take me?” He stood up, his fists clenched, ignoring Carrie’s gentle tug at his hand. “Well, you can just find a way to get me out of this. Tell them I won’t go. I won’t cooperate if they take me. Tell them I’ll kill myself first. I don’t care what you tell them.”
“Calm down, Linden. I’m not going to tell them anything. I haven’t been given any details, but I do know that the program is a matter of national security. Instead of making a big fuss about it, you should be proud you’ve been chosen. Where is your sense of patriotism?”
Linden snorted. “I guess I lost it when I got that stuff.” He looked at the envelope still lying on her desk and then at the clock on the side wall. “I’ve already missed two classes because of this. I’m going to my psych class. It’ll be okay, Mom. She got me into this and she’s going to get me out. All she has to do is tell them that I won’t cooperate—ever. Go home and stop worrying.”
“Linden.” He was halfway to the door when Mrs. Kinney’s voice stopped him.
“Whether you cooperate or not, and I doubt that you’ll be allowed any of your usual rebellious attitude, you’re still going. I hope that you’ll eventually understand how important this is.” She gathered the papers together, put them back in the envelope and held it out to Carrie. “Go home with your mother. You’ve already been withdrawn from school. You’re no longer a student here.” She held out her hand. “I need your ID. Now, Linden.”
He stared at her in disbelief, then down at the piece of plastic hanging from the lanyard around his neck. Now he understood why Gus’s scans hadn’t worked. Very slowly, he lifted the lanyard over his head. He laid it in Mrs. Kinney’s hand, suppressing the urge to throw it at her, and watched her open a drawer, drop his identity in and shut it away.
“I’m sorry this is making you so unhappy, Linden. I wish I could change things for you, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do. You have to start thinking about the good side. It’s an honor, and you’re going to get the very best possible education. I know you wouldn’t have been able to go to college without a scholarship. Well, here it is. I’m very glad for you, and I wish you all the best.”
Linden turned away from the desk, willing himself not to have heard any of that. He shook his head. “No.” He was running out of air. There was a strange buzzing in his ears and he was starting to feel dizzy.
“Linden!” Suddenly his mother was holding him in her arms, protecting him from something, but he wasn’t sure what. “Linden, honey. Look at me.”
He looked up into her face and everything came rushing back, and with it a pain that was unlike anything he’d ever felt. It was sharp and it stabbed him right down to his bones. He was afraid he was going to start crying, right there in his counselor’s office.
“Take me home, Mom, please.”