I was helpless. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had tried, and I had failed. “Fine!” I yelled at last, opening my mouth wide and screwing my eyes tightly shut.
“Yes!” Paige giggled and placed half her chocolate bar in my mouth. I opened my eyes and grinned, biting into the bar. Paige’s face was a sight – she seemed to have dunked her whole lower jaw into a bath of chocolate rather than had a few squares. But it was mid-July and the stuff was melting in our fingers as we held it, sprawled on the grass in the public park.
I had vowed to stop eating junk-food at the beginning of the summer, but I had broken the resolve more than I cared to admit. It was almost always with Paige. She had such a motherly instinct, always wanting to feed her dolls. When they got boring, because they couldn’t actually eat, she tried to feed me. She would stretch out her pudgy little hand with such an air of generosity and real happiness in the act of sharing that I couldn’t turn her down.
“Fi, Fi, let’s go swing! Swing swing swing swing!” She was already off, shoving her last square of chocolate in her mouth as she ran, the repetition of the word echoing behind her as she ran to fulfill her immediate desire. I got up from the little blanket I’d spread out for us and followed her to the run-down little playground.
It was a beautiful day. I was happier than ever that I’d been offered the job of babysitting Paige. When I look back at that day, it seems like a dream, too good to be true. If I’d known that three months later I would be trudging through the ghostly streets of a ruined town with Paige clutching my hand and a rumbling belly, I wouldn’t have fought so hard against eating the chocolate.
Once upon a time, there were train tracks. Along the tracks, somewhere midway between their beginning and end, was a town. It was small and rustic and old, the kind of town where you married the boy you played with when you were four and grew up to be just like your grandparents, grumpily proclaiming that things were different in your day, even though they really weren’t. It was the kind of town that few people left, and if they did leave, you knew they weren’t going to come back. It was the kind of town that could fulfill your dreams; your dreams were small and simple because you didn’t really believe there was a whole world outside of the town, a world where you could do something different than what your parents did before you. It was the kind of town that killed any aspirations you had above your station and strangled your imagination because it interfered with what you were supposed to do to make your family proud.
Nobody in the town knew what the train tracks were. The train that had once run along the edge of town had been diverted to a different route so long ago that nobody in living memory even knew what exactly a train looked like. The children in the town knew that if they ever worked up the courage to leave, they would follow the tracks. On long summer days, they dared each other to go farther and farther down the tracks, always turning away with frightened giggles when they reached Old Gabby’s farm a little outside town. Everyone knew that Old Gabby was crazy and that his dogs were vicious, and whenever the children heard the barks, they would lose their nerve.
They never went the other way down the tracks. That way, North, lay something more frightening than dogs and crazy old men, something that parents didn’t even need to warn their children about; the kids learned quickly enough that when they tried to go North, their skin began to prickle, their hair stood up on their arms, and the world seemed to darken. Nobody every talked about it. It was the kind of town that didn’t like to voice certain things.
That became a problem when one day in late autumn, a woman ran into town from the North and fell, panting and red-faced, onto the mayor’s porch. She managed to scratch a word in the snow before she passed out: “Help.”
Osmond sat in the back of the classroom and doodled on his notebook. The page was full of similar circles, spirals and crosshatching, and his eyes zoomed around, looking for a blank spot. The teacher at the front of the class was speaking, but to Osmond her voice was like white noise. He didn’t take heed of it even when it called his name sharply. He didn’t notice the ominous looks his fellow students were flashing him as they all turned in their seats. He didn’t even notice the teacher standing over him until he realized that his notebook was in a shadow that hadn’t been there before.
“Miss?” he raised his eyes, innocent as a lamb’s.
“Show me your notebook,” she demanded. Osmond turned to the page behind the doodles and handed the notebook to the teacher. She scanned it from top to bottom, and her eyes widened. Her mouth hung open a little and Osmond had to bite his lip in order to keep from smiling. Finally, after an eternity of students holding their breaths, the teacher slammed the notebook down on the desk without a word and began to talk briskly again, as if she’d never interrupted her lecture to yell at Osmond.
Making sure her back was to him, Osmond allowed himself a smile. He went back to his doodles. Every few minutes, in a flurry, he’d turn to the previous page and scribble furiously everything important that teacher had said. He’d then turn back to continue drawing. Nobody ever understood how he took in anything the teacher said when he was so clearly not listening, but somehow his notebook was one of the neater, better arranged ones in the classroom. When his friends asked him about it, he always waved it away, claiming he simply had a gift.
Little did he know that his gift, his strange concentration skills, would lead him to be recruited, at the age of thirty-five, to the most top-secret of the world’s intelligence corps.