The sensation of falling.
Then a sharp smack as my face struck the desktop.
My head rocketed back up. Snickers erupted all around me, but thankfully Mr. Anderson hadn’t noticed. Cheeks flushing scarlet, I lowered my head and made myself busy.
My fourth murder, two years ago. As unpleasant a memory as I possessed. I squirmed in my seat, trying to shake the horror of the heavy rock that ended things.
The fallout at school had been devastating. Never popular, I’d been completely frozen out after missing the bowling party. The girls even spread nasty rumors about my “runaways” as a kid.
I was a freak. A head case. A drama queen.
I didn’t put up a fight.
The bell rang. Students began gathering their things.
I didn’t move. Not even when Tack tugged on my arm.
“Min?” He dropped into a crouch, bringing his bruised face level with mine. “You okay?”
I rounded on him. “You up for a mission tonight? Something dangerous and stupid that will probably get us both in trouble?”
He flared an eyebrow, dropping his voice to a dramatic whisper. “Are we kidnapping someone? Is it Mr. Anderson? Do I need to burn off my fingerprints?”
I pushed his head aside, rising. “This is serious, Tack. I need to check on something, and I can only do it by breaking and entering. Tonight. Late.”
Tack’s other brow lifted. He crossed his arms, eyeing me with a new level of curiosity. “Okay, my bad. What’s the target? What are we looking for?”
Now that we’d come to it, I hesitated.
Tack must’ve sensed my reluctance. “Uh-uh.” He tapped the desktop with his finger. “Too late for second thoughts, Melinda. Whatever you’re planning, I’m in. I’ll sleep outside your trailer tonight if I have to. Done it before.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Fine. Dork.” I headed for the door, forcing him to scamper after me. “First, let’s just get through the rest of the day.”
“Wait!” he whined with impatience. “What’s the mission? Where are we invading?”
I stepped into the hall. Principal Myers was laboring down the corridor, his cane tapping a steady beat on the linoleum. He glanced at me, then looked away. Struck immobile, I followed his progress as he grunted toward whatever task he’d set for himself.
Not yet, Mr. Lifetime Principal. But you’re on my list.
Tack chucked my shoulder with his like we did as kids. “Hello? Come on, don’t leave me in suspense! Whose privacy are we violating?”
• • •
Needles gouged my back, but I ignored them. Couldn’t make a sound.
Tack and I were hiding in a clump of bushes overlooking Lowell’s office. If discovered, there was no way to play this off. It was late. We were quite clearly spying.
“What’s he doing in there?” Tack grumbled, his scrawny legs pressed against mine. He shifted, raking more prickers across my spine. I punched his shoulder in retribution, then shook my head. I was as perplexed as he was.
My watch read 2:00 a.m., yet a light still burned. I couldn’t think of a single reason for him to be working so late—I knew he didn’t have more than a dozen or so patients. Frankly, I sometimes wondered how he stayed in business.
Tack squirmed again. He hated tight spaces, but this was the only vantage point from which we could stake out the exit. “Man, if that jackass left his lights on and went home early, I’m gonna—”
“Shh.” My fingers dug into his forearm. The glow in Lowell’s window had vanished.
We waited, literally on pins and needles, as the door swung open and Lowell emerged carrying his briefcase. He locked up behind him, then strode to his BMW and climbed inside. Headlights blazed and he was gone, cruising toward his home in Lakeshore Estates.
“Did he activate an alarm?” Tack whispered.
“Nope. Come on.”
I swallowed, thankful Tack couldn’t sense my nerves in the dark. Moving as silently as possible, we crept across the parking lot. I was about to try the door when Tack shook his head. “Trust me,” he whispered.
I followed him along the wall until we reached the windows. Barely breathing, I scanned the block for any movement. Saw none. I doubted another soul was up and about on High Street at this time of night.
Tack reached into his pocket and pulled out his student ID. Working carefully, he wedged the card into the gap where the upper and lower windows met, next to the latch, then jerked it sideways. There was a soft click. Tack grinned, flattened his palms against the glass, and pushed upward. The lower pane rose.
We scrambled through and hastily shut the window behind us. I pulled the curtains for good measure. Then I located Lowell’s desk and turned on the floor lamp beside it. Enough light to see by, but the drapes would mask our presence.
Looking pleased with himself, Tack dropped onto the fainting couch. “Old windows. Nothing to the lock—that kind slides right open unless you add a latch stopper. I helped my dad install a few when he was still working at Buford’s.”
Yet another job his father held briefly before getting fired. I remembered that summer well. Tack had done more than just “help”—he’d done most of his father’s work for a solid week, trying to keep his old man’s latest bender under wraps. I’d never been angrier at Wendell Russo, except for Tack’s bruises. But I was grateful for my friend’s experience at the moment. I couldn’t believe how easily we’d gotten inside.
Tack sat up, perhaps having cycled through the same unpleasant memories. “So. You ready to explain why we’re here?”
I stood in the center of the room, chewing my lip. Having completed the break-in, I wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. “I’m looking for information,” I said slowly. “Anything that involves my treatment. I need to know what Lowell’s been writing about me.”
Tack ruffled his hair, a nervous habit. “What are you worried about?”
I hedged. “In my last session, Lowell was super-weird. He kept asking questions that didn’t make sense.” I looked away, pretending to survey an office I knew intimately. “I want to know what he was after.”
Tack seemed mollified. Even amused. “Well, you’ve certainly upped your risk tolerance. Breaking in just to look at his notes? That’s nuts, girlfriend. I can’t believe we’re doing it.”
“Then help me search, so we can leave.” I rapped my knuckles on Lowell’s mahogany desk. Tack nodded, rising and joining me. We tried all four drawers, but they wouldn’t budge. “Do your talents extend to locks as well?” I asked hopefully. Tack had ordered a set of picks a few years back, informing me of his intention to become a gentleman spy. I’d never heard another word about it.
He shook his head with a wince. “Never got that far. My dad intercepted the tools in the mail and tossed them. Tanned my hide, too.” He plastered on a smile. “I’m pretty skilled at smashing things with a hammer, though. We could bust these suckers open. Make it look like a robbery?”
Tempting, but I had another thought. I swiveled, located a porcelain dish on the shelf behind Lowell’s chair. Found a small brass key ring inside. “How about we use these?”
Tack gave me a slow clap. “Oh, well done!”
“Lowell’s always fiddling with that dish. Had to be keys or candy.”
“Still, this quack is making it easy.” Tack frowned, as if he didn’t trust anything that came without a fight. “Not exactly Homeland Security, is he?”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” I knelt before the right-hand drawers and started trying keys. There were three on the ring—two similar, the last of vastly different make.
“Why not?” Tack asked abruptly.
“Huh?” The first key didn’t fit, and the second failed to turn.
“Why can’t I look at its mouth?” Tack was squinting down at me. “Do people hide things in the jaws of free horses? Like a Trojan horse? Because I don’t get it. Before hearing that phrase, I can’t think of a single reason why I’d have checked my sweet new horse’s mouth, but now I definitely would. Like, first thing.”
I paused. “It’s about the teeth. They might be bad. I think.”
He stared back blankly.
I rolled my eyes, slotting the last key. “The point is that the horse you’re getting is free, so it doesn’t matter if its teeth are bad because you didn’t pay anything. So you should just take your bonus horse and be happy. Don’t be a jerk and look for flaws.”
Tack nodded sharply. “These keys are like bad horse teeth. We shouldn’t look at them.”
“No, that’s not at all what—”
I broke off. The lock had turned, and the top drawer slid open.
Tack pressed close behind me as I rifled its contents. Pens. Post-its. A stapler. A ruler. With a huff, I closed the drawer and tugged the larger one underneath. It opened smoothly, apparently connected to the same locking system. It was nearly empty, just a few hanging folders pushed to one side. I began thumbing through them as Tack moved to the opposite end of the desk. Those drawers were locked as well, so I tossed him the ring. The second key worked, and he began rooting inside.
“Anything?” he asked, not looking up.
I shook my head. “Nothing of interest.”
The folders had printed tabs, and were the definition of boring. Journal articles. Tax returns. Restaurant takeout menus. I was about to move on when the last file caught my eye.
Two letters were scrawled on its tab: P.N.
I removed the folder. Thin and light, it held no more than a dozen pages. I scanned the top sheet inside. My blood ran cold.
I was holding a detailed list of expenses. Pencils. Paper. Toner. Data storage. Innocuous professional items, their tally running half the page. The form appeared to have been compiled by Dr. Lowell and submitted to something called “DoD-DARPA. Advance Research Group P.N.” Someone named “LTG William P. Garfield” had signed the bottom and stamped APPROVED in bold black letters.
Bland as bland could be. Two days ago, I wouldn’t have given this unexceptional bit of paperwork a second glance. Had no interest in how Dr. Lowell underwrote his highlighter costs.
But my eyes were riveted to the top of the form.
The expenses had been submitted under a specific heading.
The folder almost slipped from my fingers.
“Min?” Tack had paused his search on the other side of the desk. “You okay?”
I didn’t answer. Setting aside the first sheet, I examined the next. Identical, except dated a month later. I pawed through the stack. Eight expense forms altogether, one for each month of the current year. Their contents barely varied. All were labeled Project Nemesis and approved by the same William Garfield. All were rated top secret.
Tack reached over and took one from the folder, his eyes rounding in surprise. “Why are these marked classified? And what’s Project Nemesis?”
I ran a hand across my slick forehead. “I don’t know.”
“You know something.” He was studying me, and it wasn’t a question.
I looked at Tack. Could tell he wasn’t going to let the matter drop. “The name,” I said carefully, placing the documents on the desktop. “Project Nemesis. I’ve seen it before.”
Tack nodded. “From Dr. Lowell?”
I shook my head. “On some paperwork I saw years ago, at school. The day we got those shots because of the chemical leak.”
“Oh.” Tack relaxed. “So Lowell’s still charging the military expenses for a decade-old cleanup? Slick. I wouldn’t have given him that much credit.”
“No. That’s not—” I paused, gathering my thoughts. Deciding how much I’d reveal. “I heard that name again this morning, in the hall outside Principal Myers’s office. He mentioned Project Nemesis to someone on the phone.”
Tack bumped a fist against his chin, considering. “That’s weird. After all these years, the pesticide spill is still a thing? And why call an inoculation program Project Nemesis? That seems a bit, I don’t know . . . dark.”
I wasn’t going to reply, but then something he’d said jumped out at me. “Why’d you say Lowell is dealing with the military?”
He tapped the top of the form. “DARPA. That stands for ‘Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.’ It’s responsible for developing new technology for the Department of Defense. Conspiracy nuts are always going on about it. That’s who this Garfield guy must work for. ‘LTG’ means ‘Lieutenant General,’ FYI, so he’s no slouch. That’s three stars. Seems weird for an environmental disaster, but that must be why the project is classified. Everything they do is.”
I barely heard his last words. My mind was racing.
A general. The Department of Defense.
Project Nemesis was a secret government program.
Principal Myers had been involved in Nemesis for years, as far back as the shots when we were six. Had Dr. Lowell been with the project that long as well?
Glancing down at the folder, I finally noticed the last two pages inside it. They’d been stapled directly to the back of the file.
“What are those?” Tack asked.
“Consent forms, it looks like. They don’t have the same header as the expenses, but—”
I gasped. A hand flew to my mouth.
“Min? What’s the matter?” Tack waited a beat, then snatched the folder and read silently. He shot me a startled glance. “Your mother? She signed this, Min! Right here, at the bottom. It’s dated ten years ago!”
As if I hadn’t seen.
Ten years. A decade. I was six.
“What’s it for?” Tack flipped the page up. The back was blank—as documents went, this one was short and boring. He started reading the form stapled behind mine, but I held out a hand.
When he hesitated, I snapped my fingers impatiently. Tack flinched, then handed me the file. Heart hammering, I examined the document my mother had signed, line by line.
The language was largely boilerplate. I was listed as the patient. Dr. Lowell as my treating physician. My mother was agreeing to “various procedures, as discussed during the inperson consultation.” The middle three sections were blacked out. Legal mumbo-jumbo made up the last paragraph, but nothing that seemed particularly sinister. If a stranger found this on the street, it wouldn’t provoke the slightest interest.
But to me, it was a series of land mines.
What “consultation” had my mother had with Dr. Lowell when I was six? What “procedures” had they discussed? Why was this form stapled into a Project Nemesis folder?
Then the date beside my mother’s signature registered.
September 18, 2007. The day after my sixth birthday.
The day of the inoculations. The day I was taken somewhere by Dr. Harris, and can’t remember what happened next.
She’d consented, that afternoon, to some sort of relationship with Dr. Lowell. It must’ve happened after she stormed out to confront Myers and left me alone.
But what had she agreed to about me?
Therapy? Medication? I didn’t know. Then I experienced another electric shock.
Lowell didn’t start treating me when I was six.
We met on my tenth birthday, the night of my second murder. Yet I was holding proof that Mom and Lowell had decided something four years before I was ever introduced to him.
And they never told me. Neither one. Not ever.
The room spun. I sat heavily in Lowell’s chair, unable to breathe.
“Min?” Tack’s hand found my shoulder. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Lowell. Myers. The Department of Defense.
What had Mom given these people permission to do?
My vision blurred. Suddenly, I was back in our trailer, lying on my floor, blood gushing from a burning hole in my chest. The black-suited man stood over me. For a terrifying moment, he wore Dr. Lowell’s face. Then Principal Myers’s. Then my mother’s.
It was all I could do not to scream.
I considered the word.
The inescapable agent of someone’s downfall.
A long-standing rival; an archenemy.
I thought of the murders I’d endured. Deaths that made me question my sanity, even the fabric of reality itself.
Yet here, on this familiar desk, in this comfortable office, at the heart of the sleepy little town I’d called home every day of my life, was a decade-old contract linking my mother and my psychiatrist in some sort of secret agreement about me.
And I’ve had a nemesis ever since.
“Min?” Tack repeated, but I still didn’t respond. I was paralyzed.
With an irritated grunt, Tack spun Lowell’s chair so that I faced him, worry lines creasing his forehead. “Yo, Melinda J. What’s up?”
I looked away. Couldn’t explain. Not without telling him everything.
“It’s nothing.” My voice shook. I covered it with a cough, grateful for the dim lighting. “Let’s see what else we can find.”
Tack’s gaze lingered, blue eyes glinting in the lamplight. Then he pointed to his side of Lowell’s desk. “I only checked the top drawer so far. Nothing worth discussing.” He yanked the bottom one open. A single object rested inside.
“Bingo.” Tack removed a MacBook and placed it on the desk. “Think we should steal it?” He drummed the laptop with his thumbs. “We could visit a tech-geek message board, maybe find a friendly hacker. Isn’t that what Anonymous does?”
“No need. I know the password.”
Despite everything, I grinned. “Dr. Lowell mumbles when he types. I pay attention.”
I fired up the laptop and a pop-up box appeared. I typed out eight simple letters. I even knew what the keystrokes sounded like. “Stanford. He went to school there.”
“That’s his password?” Tack snorted. “I’m pretty sure your shrink failed Data Encryption 101. Nice job, Stanford.”
I tucked my hair behind my ears as the system loaded. “He obviously doesn’t stress about security.”
“Then we’re teaching him a valuable lesson.” Tack leaned in so he could read over my shoulder. I felt his breath on my cheek as a satellite photo of Earth filled the monitor, followed by an assortment of icons. Tack pointed to a folder in the corner. “Case files. That looks promising. Click there.”
Inside were subfolders sorted by name. A few surprised me. “Mr. Fumo? I wonder what he sees Lowell about.”
“Napoleon complex,” Tack said confidently. “He’s as short as I am. Or maybe he thinks he’s a Viking god trapped in a math teacher’s body. Let’s find out. Open sesame.”
“I will not.” Indignant. And slightly ashamed for sharing the impulse. “We didn’t come here to violate people’s privacy. I only want to see my file.”
Tack rolled his eyes. “Bo-ring. Fine. But your name isn’t listed here.”
I double-checked, and he was right. Then a different name popped into my head—my terrified partner on that ride with Dr. Harris ten years ago. I rescanned the list, but Noah wasn’t there either.
I closed out and examined the rest of Lowell’s home screen. Everything else seemed innocuous. Program links. A folder labeled “Personal” that was largely empty. Some journal articles. A PowerPoint labeled “Northern Idaho Psychiatric Retreat—Presentation, 2016.” My doctor’s hard drive was as dull as his office.
I sat back, stymied. Experienced a moment of doubt. What did I really expect to find? A cache of top-secret military documents? Orders from the Joint Chiefs, in PDF format?
Tack stretched his arms over his head. “Well? We done here?”
I glanced at a nearby shelf. Lowell stared back at me, hoisting a smallmouth bass with a wry smile on his face. Is that fish me, Doc? Did I take the bait?
“No.” Sitting forward, I selected “All My Files.” Over the next five minutes I scrutinized the complete list, but my name didn’t appear anywhere.
“Welp.” Tack was chewing a thumbnail, plainly ready to give up but trying to hide it. “Maybe you’re just really, really boring. Like, his dullest, least interesting case. A total snooze.”
“Let’s try running searches.”
Melinda Wilder. Min. My birth date. My Social Security number. My mother’s name.
Nothing. On this laptop, I didn’t exist.
Tack straightened and stepped away, yawning into his fist. “Guess your file is somewhere else. Maybe because you’re a minor?”
I was about to agree. Froze instead.
Without responding, I searched the one thing I hadn’t tried.
The screen blanked. Planet Earth disappeared as the laptop hummed with renewed purpose. A new home screen sprang up, backed by a high-res satellite image of the sun. A single, unlabeled folder sat in one corner.
“Oh, snap!” Tack’s eyes widened in delight. “A second desktop. Here we go!”
Taking a deep breath, I clicked the folder. A short list of files appeared. Tack swore.
Melinda Juilliard Wilder.
My name was the very first one.
“What does this mean?” Tack pointed to the metadata beside my file. “The subheading for your document is Beta Run—Test Patient A. Not gonna lie—I don’t like the sound of that.”
Abruptly, I wished I were alone. If Tack read Lowell’s notes about me—even just the highlights—he’d learn my darkest secret. I wasn’t ready for that, but banishing him now would be unfair. He’d shared the risk of getting me in here. I owed him.
I selected my file. A new password box opened. I entered “Stanford,” but was denied. Frustrated, I typed the word again, more slowly. Same result.
“Well, fart.” Tack had a way with words.
“Come on come on come on.” I thought for a moment, then tried “Nemesis.”
The box disappeared with a beep.
“Nice!” Tack crowed, but then a red stop sign flashed onscreen.
“Shit! I’m locked out. Too many incorrect entries.”
Tack shifted uncomfortably. “Will Lowell see that?”
I shrugged helplessly, then minimized the warning and checked the folder. A red key icon had appeared next to my file name.
My stomach twisted in knots. “Damn it. I think Lowell has to reset his password or something. He’ll know someone tried to access my file.”
Tack narrowed his eyes at the monitor, thinking hard. Finally, “Lock out all the files, one by one. We can’t do anything about yours, but if we jam the entire folder, at least he won’t know which document was the original target.”
“Brilliant!” I squeezed his hand, then clicked the next file before its name penetrated my brain. “Oh God. Tack, look.”
Noah Charles Livingston.
“That jackass?” Tack sniffed. “I wonder what his problem is. Affluenza? Trust fund guilt?” He tapped the screen. “Check out the metadata.”
I held his hand before the shots. He was so scared.
My mind was galloping in circles. They’d taken us both to that facility.
Melinda Julliard Wilder. Noah Charles Livingston.
Test Patient A. Test Patient B.
Were his sessions like mine? I thought of Lowell’s droning. The blue pills. I tried to imagine Noah freaking Livingston in my place on that stupid couch, evading Lowell’s questions, doubting himself, a ball of frustration and suspicion like me.
I couldn’t get there. But then the real question hit me, and I nearly threw up.
The black-suited man.
Is it happening to Noah, too?
The idea that another person might be sharing my wretched experiences had never occurred to me. I didn’t want it—wouldn’t wish that on anyone—even as the notion gave me a wild surge of . . . relief.
“Weird,” Tack muttered, focused on the laptop. “There aren’t any other patient-named files here. The rest aren’t even words—just letters and numbers.” He blew out his cheeks. “Only you and Noah. I didn’t even know that douche was in therapy.”
Neither did I.
But suddenly, everything had changed.
Maybe I wasn’t alone. Maybe Noah was just like me.
My energy level surged, despite the hour. I thumped out wrong passwords for each file, proceeding down the list as fast as I could. Angry red keys appeared in a row. I was halfway done when Tack popped up and plucked the Nemesis folder off the desk. He flipped over my consent form to examine the one beneath it. Then, clicking his tongue, he thrust the document in front of me. The second patient consented for was Noah C. Livingston.
“His mother signed.” Tack tilted his head. “Didn’t she die when we were little?”
“First grade.” I traced her signature with my eyes. “I remember because we turned seven that year, but his mom didn’t come to the class party like usual, and I got shushed for asking about it. Then a few months later another woman was dropping him off at school.”
Turning back, I clicked the last document. Did a double take. “Yo, Tack!”
He dropped the stapled forms. “What?”
“This file is actually a folder, and check out the title.” My finger jabbed the monitor. “VHG Federal Land Reserve. That’s the name of the government property on Old Fort Run!”
“Where the convoy disappeared last night.” Tack actually clapped. “Open it!”
At first the contents were disappointing: a few hundred files with indecipherable names, each consisting of three letters followed by six numbers. I could tell they were password-protected like the others. Another dead end.
But then something jumped out at me. The three-letter codes seemed to repeat every dozen files or so, while the last two numbers stayed the same for long intervals. But the middle four digits always changed.
The answer came in a flash. “These numbers are dates. Look at the bottom section. They all end in seventeen. Those must be from this year.”
Tack nodded. “But what are the letters?”
One sequence was demanding my attention. VGW.
I knew those letters.
A tear spilled onto my cheek. I tried to hold it back, but couldn’t.
“Initials,” I said in an unsteady voice. “I think these are reports of some kind.”
I moused over the last VGW file. Metadata appeared.
09.18.17. The day after my birthday. Yesterday.
Tack was silent a moment, then squinted over at me. “What’s going on, Min? Seriously. No more holding back. You persuade me to break into your shrink’s office in the middle of the night, and we discover you’re part of some classified military project.” He exhaled in disbelief. “Noah too, of all people. There are files calling you a ‘beta run,’ and now we’ve got the out-of-bounds woods popping up only hours after we see an armored caravan drive into them, for the first time in, like . . . I don’t know . . . forever.” He hesitated, then said the words aloud and made it real. “Are those really your mom’s initials?”
I cleared my throat, stalling, and not very well. I wanted to crawl away and hide.
“We need to talk to Noah,” I said finally.
Tack’s jaw tightened. “How’s he gonna help? By asking his daddy to handle it?”
Noah was involved with Project Nemesis. He might know things I didn’t.
“I need you to trust me on this.”
Tack seemed about to argue, then shrugged instead. “Whatever.” He forced a lightness into his voice I knew he didn’t feel. “If you want that dope slowing us down, it’s your call. I’ll get him a bike helmet to wear for safety.”
He glanced at his watch. “Two thirty.”
I nodded, closing everything. Hopefully Lowell would think the password issue was some kind of software glitch, and ignore it. He seemed the type. I shut down the laptop and put everything back how we found it, then relocked the desk.
I wouldn’t think about my mother and field reports. Not yet.
I was returning the keys to their dish when the third one caught my eye. Burnished brass. Longer and thinner than the other two. Plainly designed for some other type of lock.
I turned around. Eyeballed the antique cabinet across the room.
Its lower doors were closed. There was a keyhole.
“What?” Tack swiveled to follow my line of sight. “Ah. Sure, why not?”
I crossed the shadowy office and knelt before the wooden panels. Inserted the key. It turned easily, and the carved doors swung open. Inside were two plastic document boxes filled with manila folders.
I dragged a box from the cabinet. Selected a folder at random.
“‘Tobias G. Albertsson—4/5/2002.’ Hey, that’s Toby!” Startled, I pulled another file. “‘Sally D. Hillman—6/24/2001.’ She was in our grade too, remember? But her family moved to Lewiston four years ago.” Then I noticed a red line slicing through her name on the tab.
Tack grabbed the other box and dug in with both hands. It held similar files, each labeled by name and date. All were former or current classmates. Tack counted thirty-three folders in his container. “I bet everyone in our grade is in these.”
“But why? Lowell obviously doesn’t treat the whole class.”
“Alphabetical.” Tack riffled through his box, a strange excitement in his voice. “This set starts with L. And . . . boom. Here’s me! Thomas ‘The Dark Knight’ Russo. This one’s gonna be tasty, folks. FYI, those are birth dates on the labels, although I imagine you guessed that already.”
He read silently. Then his back stiffened, eyes rounding as he pawed through the stack of pages inside. Finally, he slapped the folder shut and flung it across the room, staring after it like the contents might bite him.
“How in the—” Tack cut off, his mouth hanging open. Then he looked at me fixedly, with no humor in his eyes. “What the hell is going on, Min? Why does your wacko shrink have a Nemesis file on me? One that includes everything I’ve ever done!”
“A Nemesis file? How do you know that?”
Tack shook his head, uncharacteristically silent. Alarmed, I pulled another folder from the box in front of me. Jessica L. Cale—1/14/2002. Not my favorite person. The first page was a basic worksheet. Name. Address. Age. The usual particulars, typical of any intake form or official registration. Typical, until you noticed TOP SECRET stamped at the top and General Garfield’s signature scrawled across the bottom.
The breadth of information was staggering, as was the level of detail. Medical files. Report cards. Newspaper clippings from when Jessica won the Junior Miss Idaho pageant at twelve. There were printouts of her Facebook and Pinterest pages, her Instagrams, even Snapchats. Xeroxed school pictures. An analysis of her Twitter feed. At the back I found a Google Earth image of her house, clipped to a spreadsheet documenting her parents’ work histories and criminal records. There was even a roster of household pets.
I dropped Jessica’s file—having learned more about her in the last two minutes than during a lifetime of going to school together—and pulled another. Harrison S. Finch—a freckly boy I vaguely remembered from middle school. He’d broken his arm once, goofing around on the jungle gym before first bell. Then his family had up and moved, to where, I’d never learned. Inside his folder were the same types of documents, but the data collection ended in 2013, the same year he’d left town (for Billings, I now saw). Nothing in his file was more current.
I rechecked the tab. Noticed a red line through his name.
I grabbed more files. Casey F. Beam. Gregory Kozowitz. Lauren J. Decker.
All classmates. All with identical workups.
“These are like FBI dossiers!” Tack sputtered, his usual cool completely blown. “But get this—only sophomores. I checked my entire box. No juniors. No seniors. No freshmen. Just our grade. Do you know how creepy that is? Why would Lowell have this stuff? Who gave it to him? Why only our class?”
“This can’t be legal.” I waved a file to make my point. “Here are twenty pages of Cash Eaton’s medical records, about his irregular heartbeat. That kind of information is protected by law. You can’t just Google it and make copies.”
“Where’s your file?” Tack asked suddenly, eyeing the pile of folders spreading across the carpet. “The Ws should be in my box, but I didn’t see your name.”
“My group is A through K.” I thumbed through them anyway to be sure. “I’m not in here.”
Tack quickly searched the other container. “Noah’s missing, too.”
“There were thirty-eight files in this box. That makes seventy-one altogether.”
“One for everyone!” Tack swept a hand like a bitter game-show host. “We’re being spied on and charted like terrorists, by a shady head doctor neck-deep in a government conspiracy. Which is code-named Nemesis, by the way. Nothing terrifying about that! Good times. Super. I’m excited to be a part of this.”
I felt a twinge in my scar. Gunshots echoed in my head.
You don’t know the half of it.
Beta Run. Test Patient A. Test Patient B.
Yet this was bigger than just Noah and me. No denying it now.
“Did you notice some of the names are scratched out?” Tack said.
I nodded. “Six in my box. All kids who used to go to school with us, but don’t anymore.”
“Five in mine.” Tack dug up a red-lined file. His voice dropped. “This one’s for Peter Merchant. And I saw another earlier on Mary Roke.”
I got a chill. Petey Merchant had drowned when we were ten. His canoe capsized during a summer squall, way out on the lake, and he’d never been a strong swimmer. His family moved away soon afterward.
Mary Roke died when we were thirteen. Bee stings. No one knew she was allergic.
I did a quick calculation. “That leaves sixty with names that aren’t marked through.”
“Close to the exact number of kids in our class. We’ve been sixty-four strong for two years now, and these boxes don’t include you and Noah.”
“And two others. I wonder who else?”
I surveyed the files fanning out across Lowell’s carpet. To figure out who was missing, we’d have to make a list. “Let’s take pictures of everything.” I dug into my pocket for my cell. “Then we’ll have proof. I’ll email them to myself to be safe.” But my iPhone quit the moment I pressed the home button, a victim of our late-night stakeout. I glanced at Tack, but he shook his head. “Mine died before we left the bushes.”
“Damn it.” My eyes traveled the room, hunting for another option.
I noticed a splash of yellow buried in the mass of folders. Pulled it from the pile. A single sheet. The document wasn’t part of anyone’s personal workup—it must’ve been wedged inside a box between the files.
From the Desk of General W. P. Garfield.
“What’s that?” Tack asked.
“A memo to Project Nemesis.” I scanned as I spoke. “The general is thanking everyone for their service and dedication. He’s proud of everyone for ‘seeing things through to the bitter end,’ whatever that means.” Then my heart sped up. “Listen to this: ‘Final preparations are in place. Over the next ten days, we must remain steadfast and complete our objective. Godspeed.’”
Tack spread his hands. “What the hell does that mean?”
“No idea. This is dated two days ago. Lowell was supposed to destroy the message—it says so right here on the page. I wonder why he didn’t?”
When I looked up, I found Tack watching me intently. The bruises on his face gave him a ghoulish affect in the murky half-light. The wall clock ticked on, uncaring, as we sat on the floor, each a momentary prisoner of our own thoughts.
“What’s going on, Min?” Tack asked again, in a small voice. “What is Project Nemesis?”
I had no answer.
Not that we had time for one.
Outside, tires screeched in the parking lot, followed by slamming doors.
My heart stops beating.
I freeze, trash bag in hand, the only illumination a streetlamp half a block away.
It’s my fault, really.
I lie down. Close my eyes. Only for a second, but that’s all it takes.
Someone is here. In the shadows at the foot of the driveway.
Such a mundane thing to dream about. Taking out the garbage? Boring, honestly, except for what’s about to happen next.
Steady footfalls as the man climbs the hill. The trash bag slips from my fingers.
I close my eyes.
Pretending it was a normal day didn’t work. Nothing ever works, not on the even years. This was always going to happen, so I might as well accept it. Get it over with. I don’t remember falling asleep, but then, I never do.
I open my eyes.
A spark of red, quickly extinguished. Cell phone? Lighter? Does my darkest nightmare now smoke cigarettes?
I can’t move. Can’t breathe.
Two years since our last meeting, but again.
He walks slowly. Deliberately. He thinks I’ll run, but I won’t.
I can’t escape. It doesn’t work. This is all in my head. How can I run from myself?
I close my eyes.
“You aren’t real.”
My voice shakes, but I repeat the words. Louder this time.
“You aren’t real!”
He reaches my side. I feel him watching me. My heart pounds so loud, he must hear it.
I open my eyes.
Stone-carved face. Black suit. Boots. Silver sunglasses, despite the darkness.
Identical, in every detail. Except he is smoking. He’s never done that before. He’s never done anything before. Except what comes next.
The man drops the cigarette. Grinds it with his heel. He’s acting strangely. Less robotic. I could swear he’s tired, though I don’t know how I can tell.
Of course I can tell. He’s part of me. Somehow.
The black-suited man reaches into his jacket. Withdraws a serrated knife.
“This is the last time.”
My head jerks back. He’s never said anything before.
It’s hard, but I smile, heaving a sob of relief. “Thank you. Oh God, thank you so much.” The tears spill out and run down my cheeks. “I just want this to be over.”
His face twitches. “Never thank me.”
I nod anxiously. I have more to say—more to ask myself—but I don’t dare. If by some miracle my lifelong nightmare is truly ending, I can’t risk anything that might jeopardize that.
I close my eyes.
“Do it, then.”
A beat. A long breath.
The knife slams into my chest.
A spike of agony. This might not be real, but it hurts just the same.
Faint words, whispered close to my ear. “I’m sorry.”
He withdraws the knife. I fall.
Blood pumps onto the pavement. Slides down the hill.
It’s finally over.
My head snapped up.
I jerked awake, an instant from sliding to the floor. Adrenaline hit me like a kick in the balls. So much for staying alert.
It took a moment to get my bearings. Dr. Lowell’s depressing lobby. The world’s least comfortable chair.
I rubbed my eyes. Turned, spat in the wastebasket. My brain shifted from reliving the nightmare to full-on panicking about it. God, what was taking him so long? Lowell was the only person I could be real with.
A twenty-minute wait. I’d drifted off. Hadn’t slept well in days.
Not without my medication. My prescription always ran out on my birthday. Lowell was the only place to get more. And I needed those pills. Needed to sleep again, without fear.
I glanced at the clock: 6:10 a.m. Come on!
He cancels my appointment, can’t see me for two excruciating days, and now he’s late.
I rose, began pacing. Man, I didn’t need this. Changing the routine, right when he knew I needed him most. It’s not like I was looking forward to it.
My birthday session, on a bad year.
Time to admit I’m still crazy. Hooray. Shit.
Finally I couldn’t take it any longer. I strode to his office door and yanked it open, knocking only as I stepped inside.
“Dr. Lowell? It’s Noah Livingston. We have an appointment right now, and I really—”
I halted midstep. Lowell was on his hands and knees before his old wooden cabinet. He twisted around in surprise, a stack of folders clutched in his arms.
“Stop right there!” he shouted, glaring. “What are you doing, just barging in?” Lowell hastily shoved the files into the cabinet and slammed its door. Locked it. Then he lurched to his feet, anger clouding his pale features.
I stepped back, stunned. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never once raised his voice. I didn’t even know he was capable of it.
Dr. Lowell took a deep breath. When he spoke next, he’d recovered his normal soothing tenor. “What are you doing here, Noah?”
I gave him a troubled look. “We were supposed to meet. You canceled my special visit on Monday, and weren’t able to see me yesterday.”
Lowell closed his eyes. “Of course. I’m so sorry, Noah. This week has been . . . chaotic. Please sit down. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
I took my usual seat in a recliner and waited anxiously. This was almost too much. I’d been living with crushing anxiety for two days, had gone off my meds, and now my psychiatrist was acting like a totally different person.
“You got my calls? I tried to reach you from the cave, but there was no reception. Then when you canceled our appointment, I . . . I didn’t know what . . .” My voice choked off. Dr. Lowell had never postponed a visit before.
“It’s been a trying week. That’s no excuse—I know you rely on me, and I’ve let you down.” Lowell reached into his jacket and removed a medicine bottle. “Have you run out of your prescription?”
I nearly snatched the bottle from his fingers. Nodding tightly, I waited for him to hand over the pills, then swallowed one dry before he was able to continue.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“In the dream, or the cave?”
“Let’s start with the dream.”
I told him about my nightmare. Every nauseating detail. Stabbed in the heart this time—I couldn’t wait to hear the explanation for that one. What the knife “symbolized,” or whatever. What Black Suit actually speaking to me might mean.
But Lowell merely nodded, so I kept going. Admitted the rest.
The cycle was always the same: a sleepwalking dream I couldn’t distinguish from reality, followed by waking up in the cave. It wasn’t even a cool cave, just a random crack in the western canyon wall, bordering a pond. It’s a miracle I’d never stumbled into the water and drowned, or fallen into the gorge.
This was the fifth time I’d blacked out. Always on my birthdays, even years only.
It was terrifying. Humiliating. Getting worse.
The entire awful story spilled out, including the aftermath. Opening my eyes in the gloom. My hands flying to my chest, where no wound existed. Shame setting in. Crying, huddled on the stone floor, unable to make myself move. A tough guy, that’s me.
Tears stung my eyes, but I forced them back. “I’m just so tired of this. I’d been doing well these last two years. I accepted the truth of my problem, and I mask my feelings every day, like you taught me. I . . . I work as hard as I can to be normal.”
Lowell nodded. “How is the anxiety?”
“I try to compartmentalize. I can make it through most days without a problem if I stay detached. But without my pills I can’t sleep.”
He frowned. “That’s odd. You’ve been off them for how many days now?”
“Only two. I tried to come in yesterday, but—”
“I know. It couldn’t be helped. Just be sure not to miss another dose this week.”
“But why didn’t it work?” I could hear the tension in my own voice. “What’s wrong with me?”
“You experienced a regression,” Lowell said calmly. “A minor setback, nothing more. I don’t want you to worry, Noah. We’ll get to the bottom of it together, I promise.”
I shook my head. “It’s not fair. I’ve been taking my pills. Every damn day!”
“That’s only part of the work, Noah. A big part, of course, but our time speaking together is just as vital.”
“But why did the dream come back? Why can’t I ever remember falling asleep?” In a fit of pique, I jerked up my sleeve and thrust my shoulder forward. “Why does this stupid scar burn every time?”
I was panting, had risen halfway from my seat. The last two days had been the worst of my life. I felt broken and alone. I’d kept my head down at school, avoiding people, wishing everything and everyone would just go away. But nothing I did made me feel better, and now my shrink couldn’t help either.
“Let’s go through the rest of that morning. Step by step. Tell me exactly what happened.” Lifting his notebook, he looked at me expectantly, pen in hand.
I dropped back into my chair, embarrassed. Took a breath. Ordered my thoughts like he’d trained me. “I woke up in the same place, then snuck home like always. No one saw me slip back into the house—Rosalita was still in her quarters, and the cook never shows up before eleven. Our property takes up most of the block, so I know the neighbors didn’t see.”
Not that they’d have said anything. Winding Oaks is the most exclusive address in Fire Lake—tucked in the southwestern corner of the valley, its steep streets rising in tiers that provide spectacular views of the lake. Our place sits practically alone at the top. Dad likes looking down on people. No one bothers him if they can avoid it.
His name alone had gotten me out of a few jams growing up. Which is good, since I hate conflict and try desperately to avoid it.
If they only knew how little my father cared about me.
“So you’re sure no one noticed you’d been missing overnight?” Lowell seemed strangely intent on the question. “Not even your father?”
I snorted. “Dad ghosted four days ago for a wine-tasting holiday with Mandy. One last trip to Italy, in case the worst was about to happen. He left me a birthday check on the coffee table.”
“I went to school that morning, just in time for the Announcement hysteria. People were fighting, and our teachers acted like we were all going to die. Did you know someone blew up Ethan Fletcher’s Jeep in the parking lot?”
“I heard.” Lowell glanced at his watch. I blinked. He never did that. “It must’ve been a huge relief when they announced the miss.”
“Well, yeah, obviously. But then I got dragged around to a bunch of parties. People were acting like lunatics, while I was barely holding it together.” I swallowed. “It happened again, Dr. Lowell. I . . . I need it to stop.”
“I understand, Noah. Believe me, I do. Tell me about your friends.”
I hesitated. “Same as always. Sometimes I’m not even sure they like me.”
“That’s not true, Noah. You’re highly regarded by your peers. The problem you’re having—the problem you’ve always had—is that you don’t like you. We must continue to work on that.”
But he wouldn’t drop it. “The accumulated stress of your sleepwalking experiences has manifested in an acute insecurity. We need to delve into those feelings. Unpack them individually, and shove them into the light of day. Because they aren’t accurate, Noah. You’re a special, talented young man.”
“I’m a coward.”
Lowell tsked. “You have a generalized anxiety disorder. A medical condition doesn’t make you a coward.”
“Tell that to my father.” My fingers made air quotes. “He says ‘mental illness’ is a crutch for the weak-minded. That psychiatry is a scam to separate suckers from their money.”
Lowell’s voice hardened. “Then he’s a fool.”
“No argument here.”
But in some ways, my father was right. Lowell might give fancy names to my problems, but the facts remained the same. I was weak. I was afraid of my own damn shadow. I ran to my shrink every week and prayed he could fix me.
Lowell glanced at his watch again. I felt sick. He wanted rid of me.
Suddenly, the room began to vibrate. Lowell’s green eyes rounded in surprise.
He shot to his desk. I gripped my armrests as the shaking increased, watched a dolphin figurine shimmy across a shelf before dropping to the carpet.
Lowell had spun his laptop to face us and was opening his web browser.
The tremors ceased.
“—at Yellowstone National Park just minutes ago. Officials estimate the initial quake was somewhere in the low sevens on the Richter scale, causing damage throughout—”
I lost the thread. Was watching my psychiatrist wheeze, red-faced, his hands locked onto the sides of his computer. Lowell’s forehead was damp with sweat.
“Doctor? You okay? Sounds like a minor earthqu—”
“Go.” Lowell pointed to the door without looking up. “Now please, Noah. We’ll, uh, resume where we left off tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. I’ll be in touch.”
“Okay. No problem.” Unnerved. This whole visit had been a disaster.
Trudging toward the exit, I stopped to gather a few books that had fallen.
“Leave them!” Lowell ordered. “Thank you, Noah, but I’ll clean up. Off you go now.”
I retreated into the lobby, shaking my head. Earthquakes are scary, no doubt, but that one had barely rattled a teacup.
What was he so afraid of?