Authors: Kirsten Miller
Tags: #General Fiction
The scene fades and Mandel reappears at another desk in a room lit only by a computer screen. A young man sits beside him, tapping away at a keyboard.
The Mandel Academy’s newest and broadest major is technology. Whether your focus ends up being computer hacking, voting machine fraud, or simple identity theft, you’ll quickly discover that your skills are of tremendous value to your fellow alumni. Technology is an excellent major for students who prefer to work in solitude—or those who find small talk and personal hygiene to be onerous chores. These days, it’s quite possible to get filthy rich without ever setting foot in a shower.
The camera zooms in on a video that’s playing on the computer screen. Mandel is aboard a yacht at sea. A dozen beautiful girls in string bikinis lounge in the background while a pair of glassy-eyed playboys split a mound of cocaine.
Another wide-ranging major is leisure studies. It’s a sad fact that many of the best things in life are currently illegal. Some of you will provide the goods and services that make existence more agreeable for our country’s ruling class. Others will work with the bottom rungs of society. Wherever your career happens to take you, you’ll find yourself in a position of great influence. Your customers will crave your wares to such a degree that they’ll willingly part with their cash—and their secrets—to obtain them.
Mandel steps off the yacht and magically appears on the narrow New York street just outside the academy.
All those secrets will be of great use to our human resources majors. If you’ve been chosen to pursue this particular path, you will have the most important job of all. The academy’s human resources department ensures that the Mandel family business always runs smoothly. Should one of the alumni need assistance, you’ll know which of her colleagues is best able to provide it. If a graduate comes to you with a problem, you will instantly know how to solve it.
Mandel pauses outside the academy’s front doors. His expression is stoic as he addresses the camera.
And on those rare but unavoidable occasions when our family squabbles or faces a serious threat from the outside, enforcement majors serve a vital role. You will be trained in martial arts, weaponry, and forensic science. You are the academy’s defenders and guardians, and you’ll make sure that the Mandel family is able to prosper for the next one hundred years—and beyond.
Mandel opens the academy’s front doors, revealing an interior awash with light. We follow him as he strolls across the ground floor. Then he stops, his feet planted on one of the glittering spheres in the center of the atrium, and turns to face camera. The sun has gilded Mandel’s beige linen suit, and even his skin seems to glow like gold. The smile on his face couldn’t feel warmer or more radiant.
So! Now that you’ve had a glimpse of your future, it’s time to experience it. Congratulations! Your new lives begin today!
The video fades to black. When the lights come on, the employee leading our orientation reappears with a stack of glossy blue folders. I focus my attention on the other four students. Their faces are blank now. I wish I could have seen the expressions they were just wearing in the dark.
“These are your schedules. Each of you has been assigned a major based on the results of your psychological assessments and the skills you’ve displayed during the Incubation Stage. Your classes have been chosen for you this semester. Next semester you will be allowed to pick your own.”
Finally—a real moment of truth. The man places a folder in front of Ella. “Your major will be finance.” She seems perfectly relaxed as she pages through the materials. She’s had time to read a few course descriptions, but I see no trace of surprise on her face. For a moment I’m disgusted. You’d think Ella was heading off on a Caribbean cruise instead of embarking on a life of crime. Then I realize that she doesn’t have a choice. None of them do. That’s why they’re here. I’m this semester’s only volunteer.
I’m “business.” I don’t need to examine my class schedule. I already know what I’ll find. Ivan’s major is “enforcement.” That should help him get into Harvard. Aubrey and Felix’s folders are both labeled leisure studies. Aubrey just gazes at the documents in front of her, but Felix opens his folder eagerly. I watch his expression shift from excitement to confusion to horror.
“There’s got to be a mistake,” he croaks.
The man walks back to Felix’s chair and peers over the kid’s shoulder. “No mistake,” he announces.
“But Mr. Mandel just said we’d be rich and powerful. These classes teach people how to be pimps!” He spits it out like it’s the nastiest word he knows. It probably is.
“Yes, well, given your talents, personality, and life experience, we feel you should pursue a career in the sex trade.” The man sounds blasé, as if explaining such things is the most tedious part of his job. “You’ll be on the business side from now on, of course. And I think you’ll find that it can be a very lucrative and influential line of work.”
“But . . . Mr. Mandel said the academy was about new beginnings,” Felix argues. His tan, pretty face is contorted with agony, but he’s still holding back his tears. “I came here to escape from my old life. Now you want me to major in it?”
The man remains unmoved. “You came here because you were arrested for prostitution. And I’m afraid our assessment showed that you aren’t well suited for an unrelated career. If you’re not interested in learning what we’d like to teach you, you may leave the academy as soon as the Immunity Phase is over.”
“What if I want to go now?” Felix asks.
“I’m afraid that will not be possible,” the man says.
Felix begins to sob, and the man goes about his business. Ivan studies his class schedule, and I can see he’s struggling to understand some of the words. Aubrey continues to stare at the table. Ella is the only one watching the weeping boy. I have no idea what she’s thinking.
• • •
It’s eight thirty in the evening, and we’ve all been herded onto an elevator. Someone must have had a little chat with Felix after orientation. His eyes are a bit puffy, but the tears have finally stopped. I glance at the elevator’s control panel. A single light is lit. All of our new dorm rooms appear to be on the eighth floor.
The gate is pulled shut, and the elevator begins to rise. We pass another underground floor, and then we emerge into open air. I know that we’re climbing the side of the atrium—the giant opening cut through the center of the building—but the lights are out on the lower levels. With darkness all around us, it feels like we’re suspended in midair. Once we pass the classroom floors, our surroundings finally begin to take shape. A few lights are on in the dorms. I look up and see that our schoolmates are waiting outside our rooms to greet us. They’re leaning over the balcony that circles the atrium, eager for their first look. They’re quiet. Serious, but not solemn. They’re sizing us up. The elevator stops.
I think back to the sunny morning when I first visited the academy. The school is a very different place at night. With the dorm room doors standing open, the eighth floor is bright enough to navigate. But the balcony itself is dimly lit, and the atrium in the center is a bottomless abyss. Right now the place looks less like a school than a prison.
“Line up behind me,” orders the employee. “Single file.”
We follow him like five little ducklings. All rooms open off the balcony, which is roughly the size and shape of a running track. I suspect we’re taking the long route to our lodgings so the other students have enough time to examine us. They step to the side, giving us just enough room to pass. There must be around fifty of them, and some are crowded so close that I feel their breath on my skin. It’s not the friendliest welcome I’ve ever received. I don’t think it’s meant to be. I can’t see my fellow newbies’ faces, but I bet at least two of them are on the verge of pissing their pants. I spot the girl named Gwendolyn, and she smiles straight at me. She’s stunning. Porcelain skin, pale blond hair that shimmers in the weak artificial light, and huge round eyes the color of chicory flowers. There’s something serene about her. She doesn’t seem as hungry as the rest of them.
Once the other newbies and I are all ensconced in our rooms, there’s a commotion outside. I return to the doorway. Half of the academy’s students are mashed together on the opposite end of the eighth floor. They’re waving little strips of paper in the air. Someone in the center is gathering them. I know exactly what’s happening. They’re gambling on our chances.
“How did you enjoy the Beauty Pageant?” A kid emerges from a dark patch of balcony between two dim lights. He points at the room to the left of mine. “I’m Lucas. I live next door.”
“Flick. So is that what they call it? The Beauty Pageant? Does that mean there’s a swimsuit round? Should I unpack my Speedo and give myself a bikini wax?”
Lucas isn’t laughing. Apparently this is serious business.
“I guess they’re betting on who gets to take home the crown,” I say, just to keep the conversation going.
Lucas moves a bit closer and lowers his voice. He’s a few inches taller than me, and his skin doesn’t look like it’s seen sunlight in years. His expression is somber and his clothing unusually bland. With his crisp white shirt, black tie, and glasses, he could pass for the corpse of a young Atticus Finch. “I don’t think there’s much debate about who will rise to the top this semester. They’re probably placing wagers on who’ll be the first to go.”
“And you’re not a gambling man?”
Lucas shakes his head. “Stakes are too high for my taste.”
“Well, do you suppose they’ll let me in on the action?” I joke. “Or do I know too much? They might say it’s not sporting.”
“I don’t think fairness matters much to anyone here,” Lucas says. “You’ve seen our school logo, haven’t you? The flaming brass balls? Place a bet on the Beauty Pageant, and they’ll probably think you have a set of your own.”
It’s dark at the bottom of the atrium, but I spot a faint glimmer of gold. “Then it’s too bad I don’t have any money to bet with.”
“Yes, you do,” the guy informs me. “Check your top desk drawer. There’s a black pouch inside. They fill it at the beginning of every semester. So go ahead—bet every last dime. Just make sure you’re back in your room by nine. You do not want to miss curfew here.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I say.
“Don’t mention it,” Lucas responds. Before I set off, he grabs my arm. “Seriously. Don’t.”
I have no idea who will be the first newbie to go—Felix or Aubrey. But there’s no sport in betting against either of them. Still, I can tell first impressions are important here, and I’m planning to make one that won’t be forgotten. Always strive to be the best, Mandel told us. And the game starts now. So while the rest of the pageant contestants are settling into their rooms, I take a casual stroll around the eighth floor. I don’t see anyone who looks younger than fifteen or older than nineteen. And the dorms are co-ed. At any other school, those two factors would be a recipe for chaos. Here at the Mandel Academy, order reigns supreme. It looks like most of the bets have been placed, and only a handful of students are still milling about on the balcony across the atrium from my room. I’m making my way toward them. They know I’m coming, but they’re purposely ignoring me. I peer into the open dorms I pass. The semester hasn’t even begun, and there are already kids hunched over their computers—or scouring books as if the word of God was hidden somewhere on the pages. One student is lying on his stomach in bed, with his face pressed into a goose-down comforter.
I’m a few feet away from the group, and one of them turns around. He’s my age, but there’s a world-weary languor about him. He leans his long, lanky body against the balcony railing, and his eyelids seem to droop with boredom. It’s as though he’s seen too much to be shocked by anything. I can imagine him dressed in a tuxedo, standing on the deck of a sinking ship and drinking one last martini before the waves reach up to wash him away.
“Hullo.” He smiles, and his face instantly morphs. He’s no longer a jaded aristocrat. He’s the friendliest kid at camp.
His greeting appears to be the others’ cue. They’re all grinning at me now. Mandel is certainly an equal-opportunity exploiter. The kids here can trace their ancestry to every part of the globe. And whatever condition they arrived in, they’ve all been polished into perfect gems. There isn’t a bad haircut or a zit in sight.
“So who’s going to give me my tiara and roses?” I demand.
“I’m sorry. Mandel Academy pageant winners have to settle for a scholarship,” says my new best friend. “I’m Caleb. That’s Leila, Austin, and Julian.” There are at least ten other students that Caleb doesn’t bother to introduce. I’m guessing they aren’t part of the in-crowd.
It takes me an instant to assess the three other individuals with names. Austin is the only one who could possibly pose a physical threat. He’s like a Ken doll on steroids. Mandel must have kidnapped some Texas high school’s star quarterback. Julian, on the other hand, is what the Japanese call kawaii. If he ever he makes it to Tokyo, the girls will be squealing before he steps off the plane. Leila is tiny, delicate, and filled with a rage that she doesn’t bother to hide. If I were worried, she’d be the one who would worry me most.
“Flick,” I say.
“We know,” Caleb responds. “Gwendolyn told us all about you. I almost wish she hadn’t. It made our little pageant much less exciting. Quite a few students didn’t even bother to bet on the winner.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No need to apologize. The competition for bottom place was fierce this semester. Any insider information you’d care to share?”
The no-name kids have started to creep away. Caleb keeps his attention on me. I think I’m supposed to be flattered.
“I don’t know much about the other new students,” I say. “I’ve been in solitary confinement for the last three weeks.”
Caleb’s eyes widen. “Really? What did you do? Were you fighting?! Are you the one who destroyed that Ivan guy’s face?” He steps away from the remaining members of his group and gestures for me to join him. He wants me to feel like he’s taking me under his wing and into his confidence. But I see his three friends hurrying to hop on an elevator, and I watch it deliver them to the ninth-floor dorms. I haven’t laid eyes on a clock, but I have a hunch that curfew is a few seconds away. My new best friend wants me to miss it. “Tell me everything,” he insists. “I’ve never heard of a student being sentenced to solitary confinement! Now I know why Gwendolyn’s so impressed! I can’t believe you were fighting in the Incubation Suites!”