Monday, November 19, 2018

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Luken Rev 2

Name: Ellie Luken
Title: Last Lights of the Lost
Genre: YA Fantasy


Sarana was raised by a group of mercenary women who travel the world hunting monsters. To officially become one of them, she must kill her first monster, a giant sandworm.

She fails.

A huntress is never supposed to fail, so they banish her. But they offer one way for her to redeem herself and return: she must kill a type of monster no one has killed before. When she meets Ani, a girl from a town in the shadow of a haunted mountain, she finds her chance. Ani's town has been forced to provide people to free the mountain tunnels from the monster who lives there, and Ani's sister, Ashwia, is one of the latest recruits.

Sarana and Ani team up to enter the mountain--Sarana to kill the monster, Ani to save her sister. But as they make their way deeper into the tunnels, the monster sinks controlling claws into their minds, warping reality and making them see things that aren’t there. They can't trust their senses, but they must figure out how to see through the mind games it plays before their sanity crumbles and they're trapped forever among ghosts.


I face my family’s row of weapons. The metal of the blades glints in the sliver of early morning light that slips through the side of our tent. For the first time, I feel a pinch of nerves. Today is the most important day in my life. Today is the day every other moment of my life has been leading up to.

Because today, after I complete my first hunt and kill a sandworm, I’ll become a huntress.

A shiver threatens, so I draw my new wool cloak closer around me. My fingers skim the raised threads of embroidery, symbols of strength, health, and victory. A few of the threads are crooked. My younger brother isn't precise. Any other time, I would've teased him about the flaws in his work. But last night, I accepted it as formally as he gave it. This gift is his show of support, even if he won’t wake to see me off. Right now, he still snores in a pile of furs, his brown feet just poking out.

Mother is awake, sharpening a knife. Behind her, nearly double her size, is the scale of a sea serpent. It’s the strongest monster she’s slain, so it travels with us. Anyone who enters our tent can know her strength.
Although it’s not officially part of the test, selecting my weapons is a critical step for success. I can pick anything I want—but if I pick wrong, I’ll have lost my fight against the sandworm before it’s even begun.

Sandworms are Beast Class monsters, large and heavily armored, with poison on their scales. The only way to kill one is to hit a vulnerable area through the back of its mouth. My gaze skims over the line of close combat weapons, the spears, the curved arms, the swords, all different metals for different monsters. If I end up close enough to the sandworm to use one of these, I’ll probably be dead already. For a sandworm, I need something to fire from a distance.

I glance at the matchlock rifle. Maybe. But guns are artless weapons. It’s hard to aim with any kind of accuracy.
A bow will be most precise, and if I am capable, faster to reload and fire than the rifle. My throat goes dry, and I lick my lips. If I’m not strong enough--

I shouldn’t doubt myself. More importantly, I shouldn’t doubt my training. Doubting my training is doubting all of my honorary aunts and uncles who worked with me.

I grab a bow and a quiver of arrows, and I take a matchlock rifle as a backup. It won’t be accurate until I’m quite close to the sandworm, but if something goes wrong, I might need it. Last, I grab a slab of dried meat to feed my steed. When I turn to leave, Mother stands behind me.

She claps a hard hand on my shoulder. "See you shortly." She doesn't wish me luck because that would predict my failure.

I don't need luck, because I have skill.

"Of course," I say.

I step outside and jog towards the edge of the huntress camp to fetch my steed. Ahead, the desert sand glows red in the sunrise, like it bleeds. The back of my neck prickles, and the beginning of the day’s warmth in the air says I don’t have much time before I need to leave.

"Sarana." A soft, sweet voice calls from behind me. It belongs to Darius, one of the scouts, and newest member of the huntress team. He might have information for me, so I slow and let him catch me.

He flashes me half a smile and then ducks his head. His pale cheeks shine pink, and his light curls glow. “I—made you a small token for strength. Sorry it took me so long to finish."

Usually only loved ones offers up tokens before a first hunt, and now I find my own face warming. "Oh." He's new to the team, originally from far north, one of the rare travelers who begs to join. Maybe he doesn't understand the significance of the tokens.

"Do you—accept it?" He holds out a wooden carving, hanging on a piece of string like a very crude piece of jewelry. The intertwining circles mean strength, but not a lone person's strength. Strength in unity, in family, in friends. The huntresses, scouts and trainees are a team. We're not all related by blood, but we are family.

"Of course." I swipe it quickly from his hand and turn to keep walking.

"I really hope you succeed," he says.

I should let it go, but it feels like a bad omen to leave on those words. He shouldn’t hope I’ll succeed. He should know I will.

I stop and turn back. "Of course I will. I’ve been training my whole life for this." I’ve given everything I have for this. Half of the trainees who attempt this test die trying to pass it, but I won’t end up like them. My mother was a huntress, and her mother before her. I was made to follow in their footsteps.

I've never considered I might not succeed, because how can I consider that all of me isn’t enough to make me the one thing I’ve always wanted?

“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

I step back. Every word he says is more and more awkward, and it sounds like he doesn’t believe in me. “It’s fine. Once I return, you won’t doubt me again.”

Once I return, no one will doubt me again. They’ll all see how valuable I am.

Behind me, someone clears her throat. I jump back from Darius and spin toward the noise. My nerves are wound too tight—I shouldn't have been so startled by that. Steps in the sand are soundless.

Rasa, my training partner, soon to be my hunting partner, stands with a hand on her hip, grinning wickedly. "It’s time to go." In her other hand, she holds the reins to her steed. To underscore her point, the steed dances in place. Flecks of meat stick in its sharp teeth, as its lips peels back at the sight of me. It blasts me with breath like rot. Its thin tail flicks back and forth, the hard knob at the end swinging.

Rasa swings herself onto its back. I look up at her, and she raises her eyebrows in response. She's tried for years to be able to lift only one, but she still can't. The reminder that she's got her own strange flaws makes me smile.

"It's time we're huntresses already!" She pumps a fist into the air. Her bravado rings false, and it hangs between us. She should stop talking. If she weren't nervous, she'd be quiet.

"’ll be back," I tell Darius, although he’s slumped like a crumpled rug, and hurry away. Rasa follows on her steed.

At the edge of the campsite, the rest of the steeds wait, most dozing. I approach my family's, marked by the red and white ribbon around his neck, although even without that, I'd recognize the spots on his back. I think he recognizes me, too. I toss him the meat and climb onto his back.

Ahead, the rolling red dunes stretch.

"Let's go kill that worm." I say.

We ride out.

We don't pretend there's any path other than success.

There isn't.

Victory or death is all a huntress knows.

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Krumwiede Rev 2

Name: Lana Krumwiede
Genre: Middle-grade Fantasy 


Ten-year-old science-crazy Beatrice is learning about beekeeping from her elderly neighbor.  When the neighbor’s only relative whisks him off to a senior care facility, Beatrice begins hearing things. Mosquitos recite poetry, moths whisper advice, and cicadas chant warnings. Beatrice has inherited her neighbor’s secret ability to communicate with insects. She’s the new Insect Diluvian. 

Beatrice is now privy to an entire world she never knew existed in her own backyard. She discovers how insects work together, squabble, and struggle to survive in a hostile world. Her new ability traces back to the original Diluvian who could speak with all animals, a legendary person known by many cultures and by many names—Noah, Gilgamesh, and Manu, among others.  Beatrice also has a run-in with the Diluvians’ enemy, a secret organization with a twisted scheme to recreate the Great Flood. Without any training, Beatrice must learn how to use her new ability quickly, get the feuding species of insects to set aside their differences, and enlist their help in averting a global disaster.

First Five Pages:

The first time Beatrice communicated with an insect was the day Mom finally agreed to let her have a beekeeping lesson. 

It was the perfect day for it—a white-hot July afternoon. Beatrice wore a zip-up suit with long sleeves and long pants, thick gloves, some serious boots, and a wide-brimmed hat with a veil that hung down to her chest. Kid-sized, of course. 

Mr. Andelin, her eighty-one-year-old neighbor, wore the same protective gear. Adult-sized, of course. He opened the lid of the white box on top. 

Not a box, Beatrice reminded herself, a super. That was the correct name for it. When it came to science, correct vocabulary was important.

A low, constant hum came from the hive. Quite a few bees were zipping around. When one flew by, a soft buzz would get louder and then fade away, like a tiny jet zooming past. One landed in front of her face on the other side of the mesh that hung down from her hat. She had to almost cross her eyes to look at it. “Hey there, little guy.”

Mr. Andelin looked up, bees circling his head like electrons around a nucleus. “Girl, you mean.” 

That’s right, worker bees were girls. In the insect world, females were fiercer than males. They were the workers, the queens, the warriors, the hunters. They were the ones with stingers. While Beatrice liked the idea of fierce females, she didn’t want to get stung by one. 

Gently, Mr. Andelin lifted one of the wooden frames from the super. 

Beatrice leaned in for a good look. Rows of tiny golden hexagons bulged with honey, and only a few bees were crawling around. She counted a total of seven. Oh, now eight. Most of them would be deeper in the hive. “Is the buzzing getting louder? Or is that my imagination?” 

“The veils are making them uneasy,” Mr. Andelin said. “They’ve never seen me wear one before. We need to move slow and quiet to keep them calm.”

Could insects really notice things like that? In the videos she’d watched, beekeepers always wore veils and used smoke to calm the bees. All the times Beatrice had seen Mr. Andelin working at his hive, he didn’t use either. 

The only reason he wore the suit and hat today was because Mom had insisted. It had taken a lot of convincing to get Mom to agree to this, and full protective gear for both of them was one of her conditions. 

“Why don’t you like wearing a veil?” Beatrice asked.

Mr. Andelin gave a tiny shrug and answered quietly. “The bees and I have an understanding. I make sure they have what they need, and they share their honey. It’s all very friendly.”

Hmm. That sounded very non-scientific. It was true that bees were intelligent. Scientists had even trained them to search out land mines in military zones. But they couldn’t have friendly feelings toward people, could they? “What do you mean, an understanding?”

“I trust them, and they trust me—that’s what friends do. How would you feel if every time I came to visit you, I wore a bullet-proof vest and a helmet?” 

“I don’t think that’s the same thing.” Trust sounded fine, but it didn’t seem like the best idea with bees. 

Pulling a popsicle stick from his pocket, Mr. Andelin ran it along the honeycomb and offered it to Beatrice. "Would you like a taste?" 
Beatrice took the popsicle stick, but there was a slight problem. The veil was in the way. "Um, how do I . . ." 
"Raise it just a smidge." 

When she hesitated, he nodded and said, “Go ahead,” then turned his attention back to the hive.            

Lifting the veil only as much as she had to, Beatrice eased the popsicle stick under it. Before she knew what happened, the bee was inside the mesh, buzzing around her face. Startled, she dropped the popsicle stick, which stuck to her pants. 

Part of her wanted to fling off the hat and run. But another part of her didn't think that was very smart.

“Beautiful work, ladies,” Mr. Andelin said. 
 Beatrice opened one eye just enough to see that he still wasn’t looking at her. "Uh, there's a bee in my face." 

 Mr. Andelin finally looked up. "Jasmine! Where are your manners? Humans need their air space. Now, Beatrice is going to lift the veil so you can see your way out.”

Gingerly, Beatrice placed one hand at the bottom of the veil, but she didn't lift it yet. "What if more bees get inside?"

"They won't," said Mr. Andelin. "Jasmine's just curious. And a bit too outgoing for her own good.”

Strange how Mr. Andelin thought of his bees like people, giving them names and personalities. And even stranger that he could tell them apart. Beatrice lifted the mesh a little, then a little more.

"That's it," Mr. Andelin said. "Out you go. No hard feelings, right Jasmine?""

The bee flew away, and Beatrice let go of a big breath. She told herself to relax, but she wasn’t listening. Even after the dozens of videos she’d watched. Even after the stacks of library books she’d read. Even after the four and a half essays she’d written on the benefits of beekeeping for a ten-year-old, which was mainly to convince Mom. Even after all that, Beatrice now had a twisty-gut anxious feeling about the bees.

Mom was the one who was queasy about bugs, not Beatrice. Whenever a bug showed up in the house, Mom refused to get near it, dead or alive. Beatrice would scoop the bug into a cup, cover it with a card, and release it outside. The bug was probably just lost, and nobody deserved to be executed for being lost. 

But this was different. A colony this size had about fifty-thousand bees, and if they got aggressive, they would defend the hive with their lives. 

Twisty-gut feeling and all, Beatrice was dying to get a good look inside the hive, especially the brood nest, the innermost part where the queen and the larvae lived. At least, the scientist part of her wanted to.  The scaredy-cat part of her wanted to go home and read about it. The scientist won out. 

Mr. Andelin was removing the wooden honeycomb frames one by one to inspect them. He moved slowly and didn’t talk.

Beatrice did the same. This was one of the things she liked about him. She could ask him dozens of questions, or spout as many science facts as she liked, and it didn’t annoy him. He seemed to enjoy it. Sometimes when she helped him water his flower garden or refill the butterfly feeders, they didn’t talk at all, which was perfectly comfortable. 

Mr. Andelin lifted another frame and looked it over. He spoke softly, but loud enough for Beatrice to hear. “Look, Hazel. Rosa has a mite on her back. Right there. Can you get it off?” 

Oh, gosh. Now he was talking to them. Did other beekeepers do that? People talked to dogs. And she’d seen a movie once where a boy talked to a cow while he milked it. 

Maybe he talked to his bees because he was lonely. Mr. Andelin lived by himself and didn’t have family nearby. Beatrice could understand lonely. She had Mom, every other weekend with Dad, and a few friends at school. But when it came to someone to talk to about ordinary stuff, not so much.

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Robertson Rev 2

Name: Kate Robertson
Title: The Thief of Buttercup Lane
Genre: Upper Middle Grade, Magical Realism
Most twelve-year-olds dream about having magical powers and a secret portal to another world in their basement, but not Betta Vulgaris. If it were up to her, she’d close that portal forever and throw away the key.

Maybe then, her Uncle Larry would stop sneaking through it to gamble with Big Lou and the seedy characters of the otherworld. He could never again threaten to send Betta back, even if she refused to steal jewels from the houses in the nice part of town, to pay off his debts.

She’d finally get to do normal kid things, like getting Andrew P. Jordan to notice her and focus on a respectable career, like becoming an Olympic gymnast.

When the Thief of Buttercup Lane asks Betta to train a team of wannabe thieves, to steal a wish-granting hammer from the museum, Betta sees an opportunity to use her magical powers for good. But when Uncle Larry wants the hammer for his own, Betta must choose between her new friends, her guardian Uncle and the middle-school life she always wanted.

The Thief of Buttercup Lane is a Middle Grade fiction book, in the magical realism genre, complete at 30,000 words.


Everything is going according to plan.
6:23 - Mr. Verhoeven arrives home from work. Yells at neighbor’s Chihuahua for pooping on his lawn. Face is alarmingly red.
6:45 - Red sports car drops off Mrs.Verhoeven. She is dressed, head-to-toe, in yoga wear but looks neither sweaty nor Zen.
7:04 - Delivery driver arrives. Indian food.
9:00 - They retire to their separate bedrooms. Possibly due to the Indian food.
9:15 -They are fast asleep.
I sit in the old oak tree in front of the Verhoeven’s house and wait my standard two hours and fifteen minutes before I even think of making a move. Two hours, to make sure the Verhoevens are asleep. Fifteen minutes, because I’m extra cautious. I take this thieving business very seriously.
When it’s time, I creep across the grass to the far corner of the house. There is a drain pipe I can use to get up to the second floor. Mrs. Verhoeven keeps her jewels in the guestroom, laying in a box on an armoire. No safe. No locks. They’re practically begging to be stolen.
It takes a few deep breaths before I can access my powers. I hold the air in my lungs and imagine myself as light as a feather. The magic starts in my toes, then ripples up my body. It feels like that tingling sensation you get after you sneeze.
Now that I’m practically floating, scooting up that drain pipe is a cinch.
I scout out the narrow ledge that runs from the drainpipe to the guestroom window. It’s going to take excellent balance and guts to make it across. Luckily, I have both, not to mention a little magic. Inch-by-inch I move along the ledge, until I reach the window. I take another deep breath. This time, when I exhale, I think about making the air in my lungs as cold as ice. The window freezes.
A quick trick with my dagger and I’ve etched a hole, just big enough for my skinny butt to shimmy through. One tug and the glass is free, but it’s double paned and way heavier than I expected. I try to set it down on the ledge beside me, but I can’t move a single inch. I’m stuck, really stuck.
Looking down, my problem is obvious. I’ve snagged the zipper on the pocket of my jeans on one of the window hinges. Betta Vulgaris, thief extraordinaire, gets brought down by a zipper.
I figure I have two options: drop the window to the ground below and pray that no one wakes from the crash or tug my leg free and risk ruining my jeans. Now before you judge me, these are really nice jeans: black, skinny, distressed the perfect amount. Plus, it took three months and commission from four other jobs to buy them.
Obviously, I throw the window. Now, my hands are free to unhook that darn zipper. The good news is, the Verhoevens don’t make a peep. The bad news is, their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Weston, newly divorced, lots of time on her hands, starts shouting at the street below, “who made that noise? Daryl is that you?” for the next eight minutes rendering me unable to move without being seen. That’s what gets me: eight freaking minutes.
Eight minutes is all it takes for the other thief to get in and out with the necklace. I can do it in six but eight as still pretty impressive. It’s been happening lately more than I care to admit. This mystery thief, showing up and stealing my jobs, making off with my hard earned loot. I’m sure he broke-in through the back door. I swore I heard him while I was on the ledge. The only silver lining in this whole story and the only thing that could possibly save me from getting yelled at by my Uncle Larry when I get home tonight, is that I saw my mystery thief’s face this time and now I can find him.
He did a stupid thing. If they wrote a manual on how to be a successful thief, the very first bullet point would read, “never ever under any circumstances remove your mask.” It’s a rookie mistake, but really what can you expect from someone who takes eight full minutes to get in and out?
He peeled off his black mask to scratch his head, of all things. I got a good look at him through the window: jet black hair that waves to just below his ears, papery pale skin and green eyes. Now all I have to do is find him, then it's payback for all the other jobs he messed up for me: the Eastons, The Van Burens and now the Verhoevens.
There is no point in hanging around the Verhoevens any longer. That other thief has the jewels and I’m not a fan of Indian leftovers. It’s dark, and the street is quiet now. I figure it’s safe to use my powers again. No one will see me and my poor jeans have suffered enough. I step from the ledge and float slowly to the ground, landing lightly on my feet. Unfortunately, I also land in a pile of Chihuahua poop. I now understand Mr. Verhoeven’s rage.
I figure the odds of Uncle Larry yelling at me all night are pretty good, even with the new information I have on our competition, so I decide to make a little pit-stop before I head home. Something to keep me distracted while Uncle L tells me what a worthless, good-for-nothing thief I am and if I keep screwing up like this, he’ll send me back to Aaronvale to be a beet farmer like my cousin Dole.
The distraction’s name is Andrew P. Jordan. The P stands for Positively Perfect, either that or Paul. He is also twelve and goes to Fairfield Heights Middle School. We’re completely, undeniably, totally in love, he just hasn’t realized it yet. His house isn’t far, he also lives in the good neighborhood, like the Eastons and the Verhoevens and every other house Uncle Larry plots to hit. The Jordans have a large maple in front of their house. There’s a branch with an excellent view and a little dip that fits my butt perfectly. I love to sit on that branch and watch him. His face is perfect. I think he likes admiring it as much as I do but I am cool with that. If I were that good-looking, I’d spend hours gazing in the mirror too.
I really want to see him so I have to scoot. His light turns off at twelve sharp and after that, the show is over, at least the show I can see from my spot in the maple tree.
I am about to float up into my tree, when I spot the other thief, waking down the sidewalk. There is no doubt in my mind it’s him. Same jet black hair. Same green eyes. Plus the dingbat didn’t have the brains to ditch his mask, he carries it in his hand as if it were his paper-bag lunch. Amateur. Rookie. Idiot.
I bid a silent farewell to Andrew P Jordan and his perfect cheekbones before I follow the thief down the street. He cuts through memorial park, turns down the main street and follows it all the way to the end before ducking down a small side street with a sign that says “Buttercup Lane”.

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Monson Rev 2

YA Speculative Fantasy
The Promethean Effect


Sixteen-year-old Kade Maddox lives a privileged yet secluded lifestyle in the Appalachian Mountains thanks to his parents’ employer, AIB Laboratories. Though he isn’t allowed to touch anybody, Kade is skilled at hand-to-hand combat, weapons training, and foreign languages. However, none of these proficiencies prevents his mother’s murder at the hands of the Collective, a rogue government organization that has remained in the shadows until now.

Despite the fact Kade knows little of the outside world, he understands the only way to protect his two younger siblings is to leave home. Injured and heartbroken, the teen reaches out to his estranged older brother for help. Together, they hitchhike to a rural town in southeast Georgia.

At first, Wisteria seems like the perfect place to hide. However, social strain at Kade’s new school brings unwanted attention. The experimental serum his mother injected him with before she died isn’t helping either. Using the skills provided by AIB, Kade works to control his flourishing power while trying to figure out who he can trust, including his own family. If he can manage these feats, he may stand a chance against the Collective. If not, Kade and his siblings will become the agency’s latest victims.


Steel gears grind overhead along thin aluminum girders. The weighted anodized-pistol rests cradled between my palms. As I wait for the targets to line up, two questions rotate on heavy cycle: Why did my brother have to die? And, will Ms. Reddington remember I prefer chocolate over spice cake this year?

Ten computerized birds drop from the ceiling. The sensors on their tails flash red, blue, and green. Chromatic lights reflect off of the bullet-proof glass to my left and the painted-gray cinder block wall to my right.  It doesn’t matter how quick the fake birds move or in which direction, blue is always first. I adjust my stance and squeeze the trigger. One by one, the stiff automated fowl return to the rafters. According to my father, the electronic target system is the latest in gaming technology. I wouldn’t know. My siblings and I aren’t allowed to leave the compound.

The panel embedded into the wall beeps before Mother’s voice crackles through the intercom speaker. “Kade, come upstairs. Your father and I wish to speak with you.”

My gaze flicks to the red START button. Two-tenths of a second and I’ll have beaten the high score. Perhaps I can squeeze in one more–


I return the pistol to the charging dock. Game over.

After tucking in my shirt and fastening the buttons on my suit jacket, I sprint across the expansive atrium to the staircase leading to the main floor of the house. Spotless, translucent gray glass surrounds me from all sides. As I skid past the other training rooms and lap pools, the soles of my dress shoes squeal along glossy anti-static tiles. Like the sophisticated-gaming console, the three-story, fully-staffed house in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains is supposedly hi-tech. Again, I wouldn’t know. My brother’s unexpected death changed a lot of rules.

At the top of the stairs, the aroma of overly-peppered roast beef from the kitchen collides with the astringent, recycled air from the basement below. However, it isn’t the clash of smells that almost knocks me off my feet. It’s the ferocity in Mother’s voice as she yells at Father. After I compose myself, I lean closer to the door and listen.

“You promised this time would be different,” she exclaims.

“He has been here two years longer than–”

“Don’t say his name.”

Father sighs. “Dang it, Grace. You knew this day was coming.”

“Of course, I knew, August. I’ve always known.” Her tone softens. “But I want Kade to join us when he is ready. Not when they say he’s ready.”

I steal a peek around the corner before taking the last final step onto the main floor. Under the three-tier chandelier, in the foyer, both of my parents face off. Mother, dressed in her usual travel attire of black slacks and sweater, stands with her hands on her hips, her golden hair tied in a loose bun on the back of her head. A dazzling display of rainbows reflects off the crystals above them onto the white walls and marble floor. Father rolls his shirt sleeves to his elbows, his work pants wrinkled. He watches her as she moves to the other side of the round, mahogany-red table. When she closes the gap between them, he shifts his favorite brown journal and electronic pad behind his back.  

“Be their father for once,” she snaps.

Father’s face reddens. “I am not doing this now.”

He smacks his hand down on the table. Skinny orange petals rain down from the bouquet of chrysanthemums onto the polished surface. Mother sweeps the petals in her hand and deposits them in a small crystal bowl. Like me, the table and flowers don’t seem to belong in this icy world of crystal and snow-white furniture.

With a long, deep breath, I step into the foyer. The basement door closes behind me with a soft metallic click. “Sorry to make you wait but I had to go back down and grab my jacket.” Honestly, I despise liars but sometimes telling my parents the truth can be dangerous.

Mother reaches out to touch me, then stops. She drops her hand back to her side. “You’ve wrinkled your dinner suit.”

I run my hands over the thick black wool of my dinner jacket. Static cracks under my fingertips. Above our heads, the bulbs flicker. “I wanted to get a few more rounds in before dinner.”

Father places his free hand on Mother’s shoulder. The twins say I look like him but I don’t see it. We have the same brown hair and eyes, but while his complexion is dull and pallid from sitting under fluorescents all day, I have a ‘kissed by the skin glow’ from running outdoors every morning. “How many hours have you clocked in this week?” he asks.

“Sixteen.” The same as the age I turned today.

“Outstanding,” he says with a smile. However, his posture doesn’t match the expression. His shoulders are too rigid, his back too stiff.  “We just wanted to let you know that we cannot stay for dinner.”

“It’s important,” Mother adds, “or we wouldn’t leave.”

I bite the inside of my cheek. But, what about my birthday?

On the other side of the foyer, Father’s office door opens. Sofiya Snyderman, my parents’ forty-something colleague at AIB– the Advanced Institute of Biotechnology– steps out. The tap-tap-tap of her stiletto heels sends a chill up my back. I glance up at the top of the staircase. Thankfully, no one is there.

“Sofiya,” Father chokes out. “I thought you were in D.C.”

“Not tonight,” she purrs. “I came to oversee…Kade, my little soldat.” Soldier. Her German, Russian, and possibly Ukrainian accents blend together in a sticky dialect-pudding. Sofiya adjusts her short, asymmetrical wig. A patch of black lace peeks from under her lab coat as she treads towards us. Every week, the doctor changes the design of her pretend hair, but the color is always the same: jet-black. I take a tentative step back.

Father clears his throat. “There is an issue at the lab which needs to be rectified immediately. Would you care to join us?”

Sofiya purses her thin lips. “Of course,” she purrs once again. After my father nods, the psychiatrist shifts her concern to the person closest to me. “Grace. Where is Bishop?”

Movement at the top of the main staircase catches my interest. I shake my head in warning for my two younger siblings to stay upstairs. Behind Snyderman’s red cat glasses, her eyelids narrow. Even though I know this is going to earn me an hour-long session with the doctor tomorrow, I mumble, “Then why did I even bother getting dressed for dinner, if neither of you are going to stay for it?”

Like Snyderman, Father’s glare constricts behind rimless eyewear. “Kade Maddox. Recite the three rules.”

“Rule number one,” I say to the tiny white scuff on the tip of my left dress shoe, “obey authority. Rule two, never ask questions. Rule three…”

“We should go.” Mother’s eyes flick from Father to the chandelier. Though no one is near the light switch, the brightness has doubled. She steps away from me. “Kade, Ms. Reddington made your favorite dinner and there is cake in the sitting room. Leave everything, she will clean up in the morning. Come, August. Everyone is waiting for us.”