We are all the walking wounded. Some scars are just more visible than others. Mine are the inside kind: unhealed, pink, festering. Outwardly, I’m still a perfect specimen. That’s why I was chosen for Missions.
“Cadet Davenport . . . it’s time.” The voice came from the generically pretty assistant, standing in the doorway to my future. The clichéd metaphor that sprang to mind was subpar, unworthy of a cadet. Something a civilian girl would write in her ACT essay and think herself clever. Maybe something she would write. I glanced at the photo peeking at me from the folder—my mark. I let out a sigh. Six-freakin’-teen. I clung to the knowledge she had a birthday coming up.e are all the walking wounded. Some scars are just more visible than others. Mine are the inside kind: unhealed, pink, festering. Outwardly, I’m still a perfect specimen. That’s why I was chosen for Missions.
Seventeen is the age of consent in New Mexico . . . not that I had to worry about staying within the confines of civilian laws.
She must be subpar because The Academy wasn’t looking at her, just her brother, the Potentially Gifted Civilian. He was the ripe old age of eight. The same age as—I mentally snapped a rubber band. I couldn’t even look at his picture without a twisted gut. I was the wrong guy for the job. That’s likely why I was here—dismissed so Ranger could take over. Take-over. That should be his motto: Taking over the world, one mission at a time.
The assistant said something to get me moving. She spoke using the clipped tone I’d been accustomed to my whole life. The softest nuance of accent marked her for what she was—a former cadet. If sympathy was what I was looking for today, I wouldn’t find it here.
The reflexive, knee-jerk reaction I’d been fighting for weeks hit me—fight or flight. Neither option was possible. I ran a finger along the nape of my neck, feeling the small, precise scar that was a permanent reminder of what I was . . . what I would always be.
Unfolding myself as slowly as a six-foot, one-inch frame would allow, I finally stood. The assistant narrowed her eyes at me—no one kept the General waiting. I was sure she had preconceived notions about me. Oh Well. Like the uniform at the end of a scheduled day, I shrugged it off then flicked back my hair, grown out indulgently in the interim. I was surer than sure General Weston wouldn’t be a fan (not that he was anyway). I could claim it was for her, the civilian girl. My eyes wandered to her picture again: dark hair, forlorn eyes, a little unkempt around the edges. The only thing missing from the wholesome face was dimples.
She didn’t look so tough . . . I could break her.
May as well get on with it. Trudging forward, I caught the assistant looking from her doorway and shot her one of my “special” smiles. It did its job—a little color brought the puppet’s face to life.
“Right this way,” she said, her professional tone giving nothing away. Textbook manners, inbred.
A lot of inbreeding went on here.
I followed her neat bun and long legs through the unmarked door, where my throat immediately closed with the same metal resonance as the door behind us. Deep breath in, I put one foot in front of the other down a long, gray corridor that seemed to wrap around us like a tunnel. Our footsteps automatically fell into the marching rhythm of our youth. I concentrated on the clacking sound of her heels against granite, anything to take my mind off where I was headed.
Like a prisoner walking toward my execution.
I snorted at the second bad metaphor. She slid me a disapproving glance that had me slowing to a swagger in order to needle Little Miss Efficient. And thumb my nose at The Establishment.
Secret, defiant games were a go-to defense mechanism I’d used to keep my sanity over the years.
But she didn’t really appear bothered, peeking coyly over her shoulder at notorious Peter Davenport. I rewarded her with a grin and checked out the nametag pinned to her chest.
“So . . . Blair. What say you lace that third cup of coffee Weston’s gonna have with a relaxer we both know he’s in dire need of?” I dropped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s a beautiful day for sailing with a beautiful girl.”
Flirting: my next go-to defense mechanism.
“The Commander limits his coffee to two cups a day,” she said as though the answer were just as programmed in. And just when I thought she was a lost cause, she let out a girlish giggle but fought it like an unwanted advance.
“What’d ya say?” I waggled my eyebrows at her.
“I would never!” She tried for outraged, but I knew she’d only set the record straight for the benefit of the cameras, eyeing us discreetly from the corner.
“Never’s a long time,” I said, giving her the eyes. She pressed her lips together but couldn’t hide her smile.
My own smile died. We had arrived at our destination, and the plaque said it all: Commander General Richard Weston—Commander Dick. I paused to belly sigh, but literally could not put this off another minute. The powers-that-be had decided today was the day to put all that training to good use, so I guess it was.
She did the discreet throat-clearing thing. “Aren’t you going to go in? It’s two minutes after.” A tragedy worth being written up for here.
“Why don’t you wait two minutes then pull the fire alarm?” I countered. “Then we’ll make our getaway.” I guess this was said too close to the mouth of the lion’s den, because she sucked in her breath like I’d said Wait two minutes then throw the pipe bomb. Did I really have to state the obvious? I raked back some hair. “That’s what one refers to as a joke.”
“Well, not very mature behavior for an elite cadet.” She took the jab poorly, spinning on her heel to continue going about her duties diligently—another cog in the ruthless machine known as The Academy.
“Future elite cadet. I don’t graduate till next week!” I called after her departing back. “And, apparently, I’m only seventeen anyway . . . so I have a ways to go.” I thwacked the paperwork against my jeans. Should’ve worn my blues. This oversight would likely cost me. I just hated to dress like a reproduced soldier boy on my brief furlough. Sucking down a last lungful of freedom, I rapped on the door.
“Come in.” Even muted behind solid oak, dude sounded like a douche.
I stepped in, as reverently as one would, when meeting the figure of authority that could put your balls in a sling and fling ‘em to the canines. “Cadet Davenport reporting for duty, sir.” My fingertips tapped my forehead a beat too late to be believable.
Not rising for the occasion of my arrival, Weston stared me down (an intimidation technique used liberally around here). His eyes tightened when he took in the sight before him: floppy hair, black T-shirt fading to gray, torn jeans, scuffed sneakers. A smirk, that didn’t go unnoticed by Weston, snuck to my mouth for a nanosecond. He took his silver pen, and a moment of his valuable time, to tap out some Morse code on top of a closed folder. With my name on it. I took the same moment to take in his man-cave.
The ebony desk he was presiding over came equipped with an embedded touch screen and was located dead center of the room. Flanked across from him were two tanned-hide chairs, the likes of which once belonged to animals you might see on a safari. The floor was the polished naked of a woman’s skin, adorned by a single black rug, sliding beneath the sideboard like a discarded robe. A nod to the arts, our corner of the world was renowned for, broke up the wall of windows—gray squiggles framed in black. The kind that was light on the art and heavy on the prestige.
Rows of gold-star awards ate up all other wall space. And all other frames were taken over by staged photographs: Weston and a couple of ex-presidents, Weston with the governor of California, Weston with the mayor of Tiburon, cutting some bullshit charity ribbon. I looked at Mr. Glad-Hander, commanding from his leather chair and masked my derision. A lot of training went into that.
“At ease,” Weston finally growled, and I relaxed my stance. “Peter Anthony Davenport the Third . . .” Just the way he said it sounded like an insult.
While that lingered in the air, Weston deliberated over a selection of identical cigars, wedged together in a glossy humidor; their bands of gold flashed like rings. A worthy candidate was brought up to inspect with a critical eye before being run along the tip of his nose. It passed inspection, but I suspected I wouldn’t get off so easily.
“I’ve spent—wasted,” he clarified, “my morning reading the saga that is your file.” He snipped the end of the cigar while eyeing me like it was a euphemism for something else.
I kept my well-trained face smooth.
Weston abruptly stood—iron hard and pushing sixty—to stalk over and open a window. The vista beyond the seawall revealed sailboats, bobbing like bright bathtub toys, in the San Francisco Bay. Back at command post, he ignited his stogie with an ornate lighter before dropping it into a bowl. A loud ping! infiltrated the silence. Then he scooped up the slick navy folder emblazoned with the Academy logo—a lion in mid-roar—and fixed his steel-blue eyes on me.
“I don’t recall,” Weston began again, puffing around to face me squarely, “in all my years, ever seeing a cadet get through The Elite Program while being such a screw-up.”
I had nothing to say and couldn’t speak out-of-turn anyway.
“Or be so goddamn stubborn. Or stupid depending on which way you want to look at it. Attempts to mitigate such behavior . . . have only been moderately successful.”
A chimney’s worth of smoke blew my way. This almost brought back my delinquent smirk because smoking, or tobacco use of any kind, was strictly banned for cadets. Junk food, too. Hell, sometimes, I even thought fun was banned here. Weston regarded me through the smoke, one eye at half-mast like he could figure me out better that way.
“You trying to get kicked out, Davenport?”
“No, sir.” Who did he think he was fooling? There was no escape (that didn’t require embalming or a lobotomy).
Weston poked his tongue around his mouth, deliberating. “Good to hear it. But in my experience, actions speak louder than words. Doesn’t appear like your heart’s in the program, son . . . worries me.” His eyes bored into mine while I tried not to look bored. “However, your training profile indicates that you are, indeed, a match for Missions. Despite your shenanigans, you seem to pass everything with flying colors. No easy feat.” A grudging admission.
“So you up for your first solo one?”
“Yes, sir.” I was on autopilot.
He nodded thoughtfully, surveying me as though he were sizing me up for a new suit, he wasn’t sure I would fit. I stared at his mustache, noting it was groomed with an artist’s precision, and that it was the exact grizzled color and bristled texture of his crew cut.
“You’ve been handpicked for this job, Davenport,” Weston reminded me. “Tailor made for you, if you will. Should be a cake walk, but I don’t want you sleep-walking your way through.”
“Because I’m not taking any chances with this particular PGC—I have high hopes for him.” Weston picked up the photo of golden-boy, and my stomach seized, yet you’d never know it by looking at me. My face remained impassive as the Queen’s Guard. Next up for inspection: the photo of the girl. After assessing it for a long, drawn-out moment, he set it aside and rearranged some phlegm. “Should be a fun, quick one.”
I could’ve taken that a couple of different ways.
“But no screwing up. Whatsoever. Period. The end.” A fat, finger-wrapped cigar punch punctuated each sentence.
I breathed in through my nose, nodded my compliance. Didn’t think I could force out another yes sir.
The General must’ve taken this for subtle insubordination because he said, “You may not give a deviled dog about furthering your own career, but I’d hate to see Cadet Caruthers be painted with the same yellow paint brush when she doesn’t deserve it. She’s been hard at work on this mission for the last couple of months while you’ve been growing out your hair at the beach.”
“I was just recently called to duty, sir,” I reminded him while telltale heat crept up my neck. Bastard. That wasn’t even a veiled threat.
Yellow paint referred to a dishonorable discharge—very few and very conspicuous. The unchosen were plucked-out, their navy lockers painted over in yellow, a black DD slashed across the front for all to see. The reminders remained up till December 31, when sledgehammers were passed—baton like—into cadets’ hands to take turns beating down their lockers. Locker-bashing to ring in the New Year . . . funny how that good ole Academy tradition never made it into the brochure.
Weston considered me another moment. He’d already found a soft spot with Reese, now he was probing for more. “You should thank your lucky stars for your parents’ longstanding dedication to this organization or you’d have been out on your ass in Civilian Land a long time ago . . . after a brief pit stop through Siberia!”
I waited for the chill that was supposed to follow this threat.
“Need I remind you of the long arms and far-reaching powers The Academy has in this country?” Weston prompted. “In the world?
“No, sir.” He didn’t. I was all too aware.
“Then we understand each other?”
“Yes, sir.” Not a lot was needed here: some boot licking, a pair of ears, a dash of contrition.
“Because if you fail, I’ll personally bash in your locker and stamp your file with double D myself.”
“I won’t let you down, sir,” I capitulated, as we both knew I would. The Academy will always win . . . no matter who gets hurt in the process. The innocent civilian girl and her brother flashed in my mind. Bitter bile clogged my throat. I wanted to hock it out like a loogie—he gave me an impatient hand gesture—right on his boots. I relinquished the mission file to Weston, and he added it to the briefcase holding my first orders.
“Cadet Davenport, you are to report directly to the Ops Building at o-nine-hundred hours where Ranger will finish briefing you, give you your civilian ID, and any additional accoutrements needed for the success of this mission,” Weston finalized, clicking shut the briefcase and handing it over. “I highly suggest you finally live up to the potential bred and nurtured in you these past two decades.” He patted my shoulder. “I do hate wasting the valuable resources of the institution I’ve dedicated my life to.”
I wanted to shrug his filthy hand off but held myself tightly in check.
Weston was good at reading minds. And mind games. He leaned in to hiss in my ear: “However, if you do not succeed in bringing this PGC into our ranks forthwith, I will see to it that you are worse than ousted. You will be deplored . . . elsewhere, your parents will be demoted, and this blight will haunt you for the rest of your short life.”
The chill I was waiting for came, and it penetrated my whole being like an iceberg up my ass. I’d heard enough rumors to know what “deplored elsewhere” was code for; it would make Siberia look like a day at the beach.
Weston smiled benevolently at me. “Please give my regards to both Doctors Davenport. I understand your mother isn’t doing so well these days. Do be careful, Cadet Davenport . . . another loss, like your brother’s, would be catastrophic to your mother’s well-being.”
With one final warning pat, Weston strode from the room and closed the door with a resounding thud.
Ah. Home sweet home, I thought as I scraped off the remaining traces of mac-and-cheese into the plastic bucket under the sink. I was getting ready to wash the dishes, me being the only dishwasher our house had. And by “house,” I mean the trailer kind, without it even having the excuse of being a doublewide. It could be worse though—we didn’t live in an actual trailer park. Although living in a trailer park certainly had its advantages: they generally had community pools and were within a stone’s throw of civilization.
Nope. We lived an official eleven point five miles out of town limits, on almost two hundred acres of dry pasture, located on the wrong side of New Mexico—the one without enchantment. This barren land, in the plains of Eastern New Mexico, was what my father was bound and determined to cultivate (without the benefit of an irrigation system, I might add). I mentally rolled my eyes at the number of hair-brained schemes our father endeavored to make his living at since leaving the military, ranching being the latest and greatest, and the one that seemed to have stuck, unfortunately. I thought ruefully of all the chores involved and shuddered.
Things didn’t used to be quite so awful. When Mama was alive. She would’ve given us breaks from the monotonous chores we set our clocks by, taken us to an afternoon movie in a cool theatre, put some clothes on layaway before school started.
My throat started to feel tight. I will not cry, I will not cry, I repeated this mantra over and over, willing the tears away.
“Katie-girl!” my father bellowed from the living room. “Time for bible readin’!”
I pictured his sunburnt face in my mind, the exact way he would be kicked back in his king’s recliner with a popcorn bowl balanced on his belly, and a sweating sody-pop, set carefully on a coaster next to him.
“Aw, come on!” Andrew protested. “Let’s finish till the end tonight—it’s still summer-time.”
Andrew was the only Connelly kid who could get away with “back talking” Daddy. But just a little. Sprawled across the sunken-in couch, he was dividing his time between perusing his library book for more information on his growing bug collection and listening to sound bites of World War II.
Last (and least) would be Mikey, lying on the linoleum floor. He was tossing puffs of sweet cereal into his mouth while inspecting their latest acquisition: a buzzing cicada. It was trapped in a jelly jar with punched-in holes in the lid—tonight’s honored guest.
Daddy started to lecture about “yearnin’ for learnin’ more than pearls.” And nobody could conjure, nor butcher, a bible lesson like my father, so I intervened before he really got going.
“Daddy,” I called from the sink, up to my elbows in dirty dishwater. “I ain’t done with the dishes yet.”
“You can finish afterwards. The boys gotta get on to bed . . . Mornin’ comes early.”
“Yes, sir,” I auto-answered. “But there’s a little bit of that strawberry ice cream leftover . . .” I knew his sweet tooth would be our best bet at getting our way.
During the pause that Daddy habitually used to make us sweat it out, I dried my hands, Mikey grumbled that strawberry was the worst flavor in the world, and Andrew began asserting his opinion that Rocky Road was the best.
“It’ll give me time to finish dishes and take out the trash while y’all finish your program and eat your ice cream,” I said, plunking frozen chunks of pink into bowls.
“Well, alrighty then, Katie-girl. Just this once . . . Bring it on out to us.”
I was on my best behavior since returning from summer camp. I wanted to reward Daddy for rewarding me with that unprecedented slice of freedom. A smile curled my lips at the thought of my first real kiss. Right in the piney woods. Right after campfire. It was a doozy. Well, at least a doozy of a guy, I amended. Abercrombie and Fitch material all the way. If my old friends could’ve seen him, they would’ve swallowed their tongues.
A crisp whack from a rolled-up Farmers’ Almanac, followed by an outraged protest from Daddy’s usual scapegoat, Mikey, interrupted my thoughts.
“You can’t sit on the couch and eat at the same time.” My father had a strict no-drip policy where it came to food and furniture. Even though our couch cost less than most girls’ handbags.
“Yes, I can!” Mikey insisted.
“Whatdi’jasay?” My father released the lever that dropped his boots to the floor.
“You have the ability, but not the permission.” Andrew cleared up the confusion.