The day afterwards, Roman and the Haldriges went to see Exploding Cows: The Next Generation. Mrs. Haldrige had insisted that Roman come with them. As Caleb would be going with his family, Roman had nothing better to do.
The sun was at its highest point when they pulled up into the movie theater parking lot. The Cinemark loomed over them. It was made from plain, beige bricks with a stripe of maroon stretching around the building. Movie posters were lined up in two neat rows on each side of the ticket booths. There were three posters of Exploding Cows: The Next Generation. They each had a brown, animated cow looking seriously off into the sky while a huge explosion took place behind him. They walked up to one of the ticket booths, their frozen breath billowing out before them.
“Can I help you?” asked the teenage attendant running the booth. He wore the black Cinemark uniform, and had ruffled back hair that reminded Roman uncomfortably of the older boy that had walked in front of their path. Roman shook his head to clear his mind.
“Two adults’ and two kids’ tickets, please.” Roman crossed his arms indignantly as Caleb smiled smugly. Caleb’s birthday had been a few days ago, and he had been rubbing the fact that he was now technically a year older than Roman in at every given opportunity.
As they walked through the doors, the ticket taker greeted them with a forced smile. It was relatively crowded, though it was only noon. The Icee machine noisily turned rainbow flavors, and the popcorn makers let off an irresistible aroma. There were two pillars that were most likely just for decoration between them and the concession stands. There were two hallways, one left and one right, which led off to the theaters. The new car that was to be won in a drawing sat in the center of the theater and was being touched by envying fans, mostly toddlers, the same going for the cardboard cutouts of movie characters. The arcade was alive with kids playing the basketball-shooting, pinball, and crane machines, Caleb’s favorite games at the theater.
As they reached the front of the line for their food, Kayla started begging Mrs. Haldrige for four different types of candy on display at the counter. Roman stopped Caleb from walking over to the arcade.
“What?” Mrs. Haldrige complained, “The last time we came here you had free refills on the large popcorns! I want to speak to the manager!”
“I’m sorry ma’am,” apologized the woman running the counter. “But our manager isn’t here right now. He’s on leave in—”
“I’m not leaving until I see a manager!” Mrs. Haldrige crossed her arms.
“Ma’am, you’re holding up the line…”
“I said that I’m not leaving until I get my free refills!”
Poor employee, Roman thought.
“‘NO! Not Pokey! Every cow for himself! Retreat!’”
In the movie, there was a battle between two villages of cows, and Roman couldn’t think of it as anything above an anticlimax. The theater, not surprisingly, held only them and a family made up of three kindergarten triplets and the two parents. They were sitting in the highest row of seats in the theater, and the other family was at the very lowest, right up in front of the screen. Mrs. Haldrige had been threatened banishment from the theater by the security guard, so she had warned the kids that they weren’t buying any more popcorn once it was gone.
Roman had his head resting in one hand. He had finished his portion of pizza, his Icee, his hotdog, and was sick of popcorn. Roman was waiting long enough to say that he was going to look for Caleb. Caleb had “gone to the bathroom” and had never come back. His mother had tears in her eyes from the loss of Pokey the cow. She had her arm around Kayla, keeping her from leaving the forlorn theater. Kayla’s eyes were wide and she was desperately trying to remove her mother’s arm without being violent. Roman kept rocking his feet back and forth in his velvet chair.
Okay, it’s been long enough, he decided.
“I’m going to go look for Caleb,” he announced silently, as not to disturb the family far below them.
“Yeah,” Kayla agreed. “I think that I’ll go with you.” She tried to stand up, but her mother pulled her back down. Mrs. Haldrige turned to Roman, “Go ahead Roman. Kayla was just trying to help her big brother, and for that she gets to see this movie again next weekend. What a treat, huh, Kayla?”
Kayla gave Roman a desperate look. Roman waved goodbye, beaming tauntingly. He didn’t know how Kayla would get her revenge on him, but he believed that this moment of fun might be worth it, since the movie was such bad entertainment. When he was outside of the theater, he went to the main hall where they had ordered their snacks. It wasn’t as crowded as before, since most of the other movies had already started. He found Caleb in less than a minute at the arcade, looking underneath a car ride.
“I thought I might find you here,” Roman mused.
Caleb jumped and hit his head on the machine.
“Ouch!” he complained. “Oh, it’s you, Roman. You won’t believe this! There’s no loose change! How inconsiderate is that?”
“Oh, you poor thing.”
“Hey, cut me some slack; I’m used to having money.”
“No, you’re used to spending money. But, seeing that we have none, I’m going outside,” Roman told Caleb.
“But what if my mom gets worried?”
“Sure, now you worry about other peoples’ feelings. If we go back into that theater, she’ll keep us in there. So are you coming? I’m not going to wait around for Kayla to get her revenge for not taking her with me.”
“I’ll just stay here. According to my mom, you can do no wrong. And I’m already in enough trouble.”
Roman shook his head and smiled. He left casually, making sure that he had his ticket stub in his pocket. Roman loved the feel of the cool winter wind when he still had the sun, high and burning at its prime, to warm his skin. It was beautiful outside, even though he was in the middle of a concrete parking lot. He started jumping from parking bump to parking bump, practicing his balance, which was relatively good. At first, he kept looking over his shoulder to see if Caleb had followed him out or not, but Caleb never showed.
One kid that was limping slightly caught his eye. Roman was halfway across the parking lot from the little boy, but he could still tell that he was limping. It happened again; Roman knew that the boy had a sprain. He didn’t know how he knew, because the boy was dressed in long pants and a jacket like every other sensible person. Roman guessed that if anyone else was ten feet away from the boy, then they wouldn’t even notice the limp, it was so slight. But Roman could see it very clearly. Further away, a girl, not old enough to talk, and just barely old enough to walk, fell on the pavement. Roman knew where she was cut, and that she wasn’t bleeding. He knew the specific number of layers of skin broken through by pure instinct. Roman didn’t know how many layers of skin a person had, but he knew how many that girl had broken.
Roman tried to ignore the odd feeling that always followed those kinds of incidents, but it was, as usual, very difficult. He tried to think of something else. He had never been behind the Cinemark before, so he decided to go around and check it out. Then, if there was nobody else back there, he could do whatever he wanted. And if Caleb was hiding from him in an attempt to scare him, he would hear him from a mile away. Roman glanced around when he was at the very corner, listening to see if anyone was talking. Then he peered around. He still couldn’t get the two boys out of his mind, and was being cautious so as not to find a gang of smokers.
He could see no one. There were three overflowing dumpsters, and trash day was half a week away. There were puddles of melted snow here and there, along with plastic bags and other trash. There was a back door with rusty hinges, and some of the bricks had either half-finished or half-removed graffiti. He started to wonder what he would do back here. He could watch the passing cars without anyone else watching him, but that was all. He started walking towards the field that separated the parking lot from the highway. A trench filled with melted snow-water cut straight through the field. A metal rail was built around the edges, continuing underneath the street. It had some litter in it, and one duck floating contently. Roman watched the duck, at the same time looking around for a rock to throw at it.
“Cute little things, aren’t they?” said a voice.
Roman spun around in the blink of an eye. He saw a girl, his height, with fluffy, curled red hair, beaming green eyes, and glasses with the sun reflecting off of them, grinning at him enthusiastically. She had long blue jeans and a black jacket. Roman thought that he’d seen her somewhere before, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She kept smiling at him, and came to stand beside him.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” she said nonchalantly.
“Erm, no. Not really.”
“I go to your school.” With these words, Roman immediately knew who this girl was. He felt even more uncomfortable, remembering what Hal had talked to him about. He tried to look calm, but he was honestly scared by this girl. He had the odd feeling that she could read his mind. Normally, with fear, he would use logic to make things seem less intimidating than they really were. In this case, even his logic had the impression that she could understand his every thought.
“You’re one of those foster kids,” Roman said, not knowing what else to say.
“I wouldn’t say “foster”. It’s more like adoption, but we get to keep our last names. But you don’t know my name?”
Roman shook his head. She laughed a little.
“Sarah Veihne. Your name’s Roman, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” he answered stupidly. His discomfort was not going away. “Um, I should—” He was interrupted by an ear-shattering sound. The duck flew out of the stream and started waddling across the field in a rush. Roman’s eyes immediately caught sight of smoke rising from the Cinemark. This explosion had sounded nothing like any on television. Roman thought that he had felt the vibrations from all of the way across the field. It wasn’t much of an explosion, since the whole building was still intact and he couldn’t see any flames. But his discomfort vanished and fear took its place. Caleb, Kayla, Mrs. Haldrige, and a hundred other people were still in that theater. He heard screaming, but it was faint. If he ran, he might make it there in slightly less than a minute. He momentarily felt panicked, not knowing what to do, until he noticed Sarah shaking her head, eyes closed. She looked more annoyed than panicked, and Roman felt his apprehension beginning to rise again.
“Didn’t you hear that?” he demanded heatedly. “Don’t you see the smoke?”
“Yeah, but that’s smoke, not fire. Ugh, he is such an idiot! It looks like I’m going to have to make this much less subtle. Follow me.” She straightened up from where she was leaning against the rail.
“Come on. Just trust me.”
“I hardly know your name! An explosion just went off and you’re not even surprised! Did—did you know that was going to happen?”
“Well, I told Danny to make a distraction, but apparently he’s too stupid to figure out that he’s going to be in big trouble for that. And relax, it’s not an explosion. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Or smoke and vibrations in this case. So, are you coming?”
“Wait, what? You mean everyone’s all right?” Roman inquired, confused.
“Of course. And it’s good to know you’ve got some thoughts towards others. Come with me, and I promise you, everything will be fine.”
Roman stared at her. She looked completely serious. She was speaking to him like a scared puppy. “My friend and his family will be worried about me,” he said blandly.
“I told you, it’ll be fine. As long as you’re all right, they’ll stop worrying once they see you. Coming?”
Roman swallowed. She seemed to know much more than he did. If these new kids were determined to follow him for three days, and he went to the same school as them, then he’d have to face them eventually. He nodded and followed Sarah across the field, his fear once again being replaced by nervousness. Sarah was marching across the part of the field that led behind the Cinemark. Roman looked back. The smoke was steadily curling off of the roof. No sooner did he look than something fell off the roof and landed noiselessly on top of the farthest dumpster. Roman jumped back when it started towards them, but Sarah crossed her arms and glared at whatever had fallen. It turned out to be none other than one of the boys from Roman’s school. Roman didn’t recall seeing him in any classes, but remembered him being at the lunch table in front of the one that Cole sat at. He looked older than the other sixth graders, but he was definitely in Roman’s grade. He was relatively thin, with slightly-tan skin, smooth brown hair that reached past his ears and covered one eye, and deep brown eyes. Catlike, without any noise, he reached them.
“Oh, he was outside?” Danny asked, noticing Roman. His voice was also deeper than most other sixth-graders.
“When I said ‘distraction’, a fake explosion was not what I had in mind! This is the first real mission we’ve ever been on and you’ve ruined it! Do you choose to be such a dunder-head?”
Roman had no idea what they were talking about, but figured that he was whatever mission that they had been sent on.
“Well, sorry. If you didn’t want an explosion then you should’ve just said so. Anyways, Jace won’t mind. The odds are slim to nothing that Mr. Kyle’ll ever find out.”
“Not when you’re on the mission. The odds are slim to nothing of Mr. Kyle not strapping a baby-monitor to your pants. Let’s just get going,” she sighed.
“Lead the way, princess.” Danny waved his arm out for her. Sarah shook her head and indicated for Roman to follow her past the edge of the building. As they went by, before Danny came into step behind Roman, Sarah whispered to him. Roman didn’t think that he was meant to hear, but hear it he did.
“At least try to control your power when you’re not the one leading. It’ll do you a big favor in life. If you don’t learn to get along with people, then you’ll be going to the Island alone.”
“Got it, sweetie,” Danny said more loudly. “I’ll try to remember that during my next social hour meeting.” He rolled his eyes and started walking behind Roman, with Sarah in the lead.
I just heard the words power, Island, and mission. I really should get back to Caleb… Then Roman thought that, if these two meant trouble, then it was too little, too late. Danny was behind him, and judging that he and Sarah could sneak up on him, be silent when jumping from a building, and be utterly soundless when walking in the first place, that if he tried to run, he wouldn’t get very far. He’d had the odd impression that Sarah could read his mind back when they were leaning against the rail above the stream. If she could, then he wouldn’t get anywhere at all.
They walked past the road on the other side of the field and over a bridge that spanned the wide sewage river that the other stream branched off into. It was all slow-going, since they were just walking. Roman looked back, and could barely see the smoke anymore. Roman wondered where they were going, along with how Caleb’s family would be reacting. Roman felt idiotic. He had immediately trusted a total stranger and left behind whom he was safe with. He had been raised in Houston, which was much tougher-going than Katy. He had broken rule number one of the safety policies that every toddler knew.
Roman could hear police sirens in the distance. They were coming to inspect the cause of the vibrations and smoke. He couldn’t see the flashing lights, though. All screaming had stopped.
Roman tried to see over the small hill ahead of them, but the blue sky appeared alone at the hill’s crest. The grass had turned pale, giving the hill a sort of dead feeling. The cars on the highway, which wasn’t far away from this spot, couldn’t be heard. Even the police sirens passed out of hearing range. The wind, whistling through Roman’s hair and banging against his eardrums, was the only sound as they silently marched. There were now a few clouds in the bright blue sky, occasionally casting deep shadows over them. The rest of the time, the sun blazed against the hill, making it glow. The sun was behind them now, since it was past noon. At least it wasn’t in Roman’s eyes, and he was thankful for being able to keep an eye on Danny’s shadow at the same time as watching Sarah’s back.
Roman expected more of the bayou on the other side of the hill. It seemed appropriate that they might take him into the forest. This thought, once again, reminded Roman of the two boys that had stepped in front of his and Caleb’s path the previous day. He had a hunch that these two knew of those two. But over the crest of the hill, the first thing that met Roman’s eyes was something huge and black, with the sun burning brightly off of the polished metal, temporarily blinding him.
A helicopter, black with a green stripe across the middle, sat dormant and gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Its runners were planted on the yellow grass, with its propeller blades turned off. The sides were designed much like a car’s; it had black windows across one section, which also appeared to have a handle to open sideways. Roman couldn’t see through the windows. Its tail was pure black, even where Roman would expect an insignia to be. He also guessed that this was not one of the helicopters from the nearby military training center. The helicopter even appeared to have headlights, though they were switched off. Roman stared at it, open-mouthed, for a moment. He had never seen a helicopter up close before, and never one that looked as polished as this on television.
“It’s not going to do any tricks, no matter how long you stare at it,” Sarah told Roman after a few seconds of his fixed gazing.
Roman shook his head to clear it. He was less focused on how he was at their total mercy, at least. Sarah and Danny walked right up to the copter, and once they were a few feet away from it, the door slowly slid open by itself. Roman was expecting to see someone behind it, someone that had opened it, but no one appeared. It had slid at an exact pace, like most automatic doors at supermarkets. Roman didn’t think that this was very abnormal, since the particular helicopter already reminded him of a flying car.
Sarah and Danny seemed to want him to follow them in, but Roman stayed put. He didn’t seem to be able to move his legs, even if he had wanted to. Sarah, sensing this, turned around. She might have seen his reflection in the helicopter metal, but Roman was almost convinced now that she could read his mind.
“He doesn’t want to come,” she said to Danny as he was clambering inside.
“Oh. Maybe we should explain before going. After all, he might get a little uncomfortable.”
“A little uncomfortable? Don’t you remember how Ellenore reacted? Hey, Jace! Mind comin’ out here for a minute?”
“Or twenty,” Danny corrected.
“I would,” came a gruff voice from inside the helicopter. Roman, being a good dozen feet from it, could barely make it out. He wouldn’t have if the helicopter hadn’t been blocking the wind. “But I’m guessing you’ll make me come anyway.”
“Correct,” Sarah chimed.
A moment later, a man climbed out of the helicopter. He had buzz-cut, black hair and gray whiskers on a tan chin. The man wore sunglasses with red lenses, a camouflage vest with a lime green layering-tee underneath, black leather pants, and a silver neck chain with a tar-colored shark’s tooth on the end. Roman had more trouble believing that it wasn’t a military helicopter once Jace had shown himself. He dropped to the grass as silently as Sarah and Danny had, straightened up, and crossed his arms.
Jace seemed to watch Roman for a minute, Danny and Sarah waiting for his thoughts. After a moment, Jace sighed.
“This’ll take a while,” he said in a mumbled tone.
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