Beth was almost so pretty it hurt to look at her. She had the face of some sort of divine creature, with absolutely no imperfections. She was that girl that every other girl wanted to be, and every guy wanted to be with. With her thin waist, smooth curves and long thick hair, she was a perfect melding of high-luck genetics and high-priced technology.
"What's the point anyways, its not like you'll actually participate," I said, rolling my eyes as Beth continued to debate an outfit. I polished off another of the chocolate-covered cookie dough pastries she had made several dozen of earlier.
"It isn't about participating, its about looking good," Beth tried to explain to me. For her, fashion was something obvious, intrinsically gifted to every female at birth. And maybe for her, it had been.
A lot of Beth's greatest assets had been given to her at birth, because she, unlike me, was genetically engineered.
The thought that her ability to create delicious food might be something innate didn't bother me one bit though, as I picked up another chocolate ball.
"Look, I'll be the one out there actually getting wet and cold, why not just wear something warm and try to enjoy the show instead of looking perfect, for once?"
"Because!" She had the decency to look pleased at the compliment, at least. Vanity was her biggest sin. She busied herself with braiding her thick golden hair in the mirror, still chewing her lip over the thought of what to wear.
Sometimes she was almost sickeningly girly.
As her rooomate, I spent enough time with her to know that nothing short of drastic measures would coerce her to rush choosing an outfit. As her best friend, I tried to keep from using my last resorts too often, in case she took notice and they became ineffectual, or worse, she took offense. She had the intelligence and perception to notice, if she ever decided to pay attention to anything outside of her own world.
Beth's world revolved around popularity, manipulation, and charisma. Mine revolved around too much time wasted on introspection and eating baked goods. I scraped a bit of chocolate off the edge of my mouth, wiping sticky hands onto my jeans.
"How can you do that?" she was staring at me, eyebrows raised, with a look that clearly said I was half-beast.
"Don't ask stupid questions," I made a show of wiping more chocolate stains onto the sides of my pants with a fiendish smile.
She shook her head, turning back to the closet, hiding her own smile. It was the kind of smile that said she thought I was ridiculous, but amusing. Belittling, but Beth was one of the nicest and most popular students in the school and I had so few friends to begin with, I would keep letting her get away with these small things just to avoid social isolation. Plus, I had to live with her. With the one-day prom queen as your rooomate and best friend, you tend to get treated a little better than without. In all honesty, I wasn't exactly sweet to her either.
I slipped a few chocolate pastries into a ziplock bag, stuffing them into my jean pockets. I might get hungry later, and it never hurt to pack a snack. This was twice as true when Beth was the one who had cooked the snack.
Another glance out the window confirmed that we were already late, a few stars were visible in the sky. "I'm leaving," I announced, standing up and heading for the door. "Don't blame me if you show up late and everyone has already left." I pulled on my boots and gloves, wrapping my unruly hair up in a rubber band with some difficulty because of the gloves. I didn't want it getting in my face later.
She gave me a dirty look, but turned back to her closet. "Its not that late yet-oh no, please don't." She'd caught sight of me in the full-sized mirror hooked onto the inside door of the closet. She reached out and undid the hair tie, grabbing a comb off her night stand and brushing my hair for me. I grumped about it, sitting down while she fussed with my hair, but inside I was grateful. It was thick hair and in a constant state of disarray, and I never could quite get it to look half-decent like she could. She clipped a pearled barette into the back of it, fistailing the lower half and then tying off the bottom.
"Not horrible," she said, examining her work.
"Great. Now I'm leaving." I stood up and headed towards the other side of the room to make my daring escape.
You'd think with all the money being poured into chemically preconcieving their children, everyone's parents would have put more of an effort into programming them not to have such renegade personalities. But it turns out, personality traits are hard to pinpoint from genetic sequences, and trying dangerous novel things is a linked gene to genius level intellect. So some of the most priveledged students at the school were also some of the most unpredictable and irresponsible, all because their families wanted a blood-related genius for their name and prestige.
I of course, was just brave. Or at least, in my head I was. My mother only called me foolish, and she didn't even know we snuck out almost every week. It was punishable by expulsion, and it was always dangerous outside the campus because of the Natural Humanity nutjobs, and your garden variety psychos who seemed to gravitate towards anywhere with large concentrations of young people. But when you've got a bunch of attractive, young, athetlic, smart people crammed into one place 24/7 and forced to do menail tasks like homework and homeroom, no price is too great for some fun.
Leaving through the front door wasn't an option, there were cameras in every hallway to monitor student activity. Even if you could concoct a good enough excuse to go beyond the restrooms at the end of the hall out into the courtyard beyond, there was no excuse good enough to keep you out of trouble once they had video footage of you sneaking through the halls to get there.
That left the window.
It wasn't a particularly large escape route, but both Beth and I were slim and athletic, and one thing the academy had not accounted for was our teenaged rebellious nature. To be confined into dormitories of a private school with quiet hours and tight rules went against every feeling our hormones pumped through us. We were more than willing to squeeze through a window if it meant freedom.
I lifted up the latch, scooting the window open an inch at a time. There were still cameras outside near the main paths, but their motion sensitivity wasn't as acute as the cameras in the hall. As long as you moved slowly, they wouldn't pick up anything. I slipped a leg out, hooking it onto the air vent pipe outside. It was bitterly cold, and it took me an extra few seconds to adjust before I wanted to go any further. My grip on the windowsill was white when I stuck the other leg out, but it always was when I was dangling from three stories high with thick gloves on.
I shimmied out the window, inching my way towards the corner of the building, still clinging to the windowsill. Beth and I were lucky enough to be the second to last room from the edge, some of the other students had to sneak out from the complete middle. That seemed like too much unecessary risk, the air vent wasn't meant to hold that much weight for that long.
I swung my arm out, grabbing the windowsill of the corner bedrooom, and pulling myself towards it. It was difficult to get a secure grip with the angle and the gloves on, but I had to move slowly anyways for the camera so I took my time. Using my death grip, I stretched myself out as far as I could before releasing my other arm and grabbing wildly for the windowsill. Grasping on here was harder than it had been with my own dorm window just because this window was only open a fraction. A quick glance inside showed that it was too dark to see anyone, perfect if they had snuck out too, which they probably alreay had.
Beth was going to be so late.
I shivered from the cold, reaching around the corner of the building for the rain water drain. The gutter pipe was grimey and not as strong as the air vent, but I wasn't as tall as Beth and most of the other students at the academy. I didn't have their model thin perfect figures, so I had to make do with the only way down and out of the building I had.
They could easily drop down from the airvent and hook their feet into the window of the next floor as soon as they reached any empty office or classroom. I of course, would be taking the longer route.
I felt around on the pipe for the fasteners holding it in place, they were actually stronger than the drain metal was since they were cemeted into the building. I hooked three fingers into them on either side and began my slow crawl down, trying not to rub too much of the filth from the pipe onto my clothes as I did.
By the second floor, I was already breathing easier. Sure it was freezing cold and I wouldn't be able to feel my fingers if I kept doing this for another ten minutes, but I would be on the ground in five.
Even if something horrible happened and I crashlanded, the ground was three feet deep in snow to cushion any fall. Something like that, the cameras would definitely see though. Dropping down was not really an alternative to the slow crawl.
I glanced sideways and saw movement around the side of the building above me. Beth was probably just now starting down.
I slid down the last flight slowly, more cautious here than ever before. The danger was much less, but the chance of getting caught was much higher. Someone could easily walk by, or glance out a window, anything really, and see a student out of their room and send someone out to force them back in.
One look above me showed that Beth was already almost all the way down. She'd scaled the three stories in half the time as me, considering her much more straightforward route down. She'd chosen a thick embroidered scarf and peacoat-styled dress tonight, complete with fuzzy ugg boots. I had to admit it did look nice, and warm at the same time. Her scarf was precarious for climbing down the building, it could easily snag on something and become a noose if she fell, but she was wearing it over her shoulder right now to prevent such a possibility.
Her artificially boosted intellect had no doubt alerted her to the possibility even while she selected her outfit.
She looked like an olypian althete while she made her way down the final flight, her movements all confident. She would always be more physically adept than I was, even when I was more athletic than she was. But just to show that mother nature loves a mess, Beth had been born completely uninterested in sports of any kind. Despite being genetically prewritten as a star athlete. Her parents had sued their geneticist over it, but they had lost because technically, Beth still had all the capability and natural talent to become a world-renowned sportswoman, she just didn't have the desire to pursue it.
Playing against her in gym class was still something no natural born human would volunteer for, and I had a few bruises to prove that.
"So how did you hide a book into this getup," I whispered as she covered her last inch downward.
She smiled, extending her arm to show me that she had crammed a book into the sleeve of her peacoat. Because it was tailored to fit her frame, the book made an awkward crease line in the fabric. She was a notorious bookworm, and rarely went anywhere without a novel hidden somewhere on her in case the opportunity arose. In most schools it probably would have injured her image as the popular girl, but this was a school for the nerdiest of the nerds. If the propoganda was even close to true, the one-day nobel prize winners and business world leaders went to school here.
"It'll be too dark to read," I pointed out.
She gave an elegant shrug. "Maybe," she whispered.
We started towards the outer gates, hugging the corners of the buildings as we went to avoid direct light, me on the right side and she on the left. On the ground floor, a huge courtyard spanned between the front of the school and its massive gates. A few sports fields separated the back end of the academy from its back gates, which were alarmed. The only real option was to use the front gates, which weren't alarmed but were security-monitored.
The guard was an older gentlemen, someone who probably worked as a bouncer or a bodybuard once. He had the hulking frame of someone who used to be threatening as security, but the beer gut of someone who hadn't been at it for a long time. Most nights he just sat at his station drinking energy drinks, but some nights we kept him busy.
As we reached the edge of the gate on either side, we stared at one another. We both kenw the drill, but it still made your heart speed up every time. I ducked around the backside of the building and pounded my arm against the gate to make a loud metallic noise. I knew the gaurd would immediately get up to go investigate and so I shuffled around the other corner of the building. The snow made it easy to stay silent. Always had to keep those motion-detecting night vision cameras in the back of your mind too, but there was only one on the backside of any building, and it was on the main administrative offices, not this one, which held the history classrooms.
Beth was slipping past the gaurd's kiosk while his back was towards this end. I heard another loud clang from the opposite direction, a signal that she had gotten past the gate and was safely on the other side, and now giving me my opportunity to slip past too.
I peeked around the edge of the buildling, waiting with my pulse in my numb ears as the guard moved away from me and towards the diversion she'd created. My anxiety was alive in my throat, making every heart beat feel like an internal drum. This was my one chance though and it wouldn't last forever, but all he had to do was turn around and he would spot me in an instant. All that I'd worked towards, every barely passing grade and late night tutoring session, and I knew that once again, I was going to risk it all because I was adventurous. If I got caught breaking a rule like this, I would be expelled for sure, whereas someone like Beth would probably get a slap on the wrist.
I took an icy gulp of air, psyching myself up before shuffling back to the other end of the building and rolling past the kiosk and the gate.
My nerves were still humming but Beth was already there to greet me at the height of the roll, pulling me up from the snow while we ran in the opposite direction from where the gate was still vibrating from her kick. The night security was still ambling towards the area a few yards away from us, flashlight out.
We ran out of hearing distance and ducked behind some shrubbery before breaking into laughter. The gaurd was so predicable, and it never got old to sneak past him. I gave her a high five as we began our trek towards the meeting spot.
There were lots of meeting spots, but it was usually the same students who showed up to them. Namely, all the most popular students, with the exception of myself and two others. Tonight we were meeting at the lake, a large resevoir that had been abandoned a decade prior. Because it was winter, it would be frozen over, and serve as our own private icy paradise for the night.
Beth sniffled as her sinuses began to work in the cold.
"Think Joshua will be there tonight?" I asked. Joshua was one of the most popular guys at the academy, and also one of the most attractive. At least, to me he was. I knew he was too popular to even really see me, but a girl can dream.
"I know Lynn and Darrel will be there, they asked me if I was coming earlier today." Of course they had asked her, and not me. I was just the tag-along, afterall.
"Teresa and Amber won't be there, they told me they had plans tonight already."
Beth let out a bark of laughter. "If by plans you mean, having sex with their boyfriends, then yes they had plans."
I laughed with her. "You're right, they're totally sneaking into the boy's dormitories tonight instead."
It was getting denser with trees and vegetation as we got closer to the water. The branches blocked out the moonlight and made it harder to see, but this wasn't the first time we'd travelled down the path. We did slow down though, to avoid walking into a tree trunk because we were blind in the dark.
"Why can't summer come back," she griped.
"Because we wouldn't be here if it were summer, we'd be at home partying."
"Well then why couldn't Perith have been built somewhere with a warmer winter?"
"I like snow," I said.
"It wouldn't have killed them to make the school in one of the southern states, somewhere where it doesn't get blisteringly cold like this."
"Don't be a baby."
She reached up to loop her scarf around her neck, and paused. I stopped walking when she stopped, wondering what the hold up was.
"I forgot my gloves," she said.
"Take mine then, I don't get cold as fast as you do," I held out my hands for her to take the gloves. I was already cold and could barely feel my fingers, but it was true that she did keep the room thermostat several degrees higher than I would prefer it all the time. If she was colder than I was, she'd need them more. Plus, I knew once she broke out her book, which she inevitably would, she'd be returning them so she could turn pages. Beth would only participate this evening for half the time we'd be out, then get bored and start reading again while everyone else continued to enjoy themselves, even if it was too dark to make any progress in her book.
"Those clash with my outfit." she said.
"Please tell me you are fucking kidding right now?" I asked, already dreading the answer.
"Don't ask stupid questions," she glared at me. I could already tell where this was headed.
"Well then what do you want to do?"
"We can go back to the room and I'll get my gloves. I left them right on the bedside stand by the window when I started climbing down."
"I'm so not doing this again," I shook my head. She could risk her own tail if she wanted to, but there was no way I was going back in and out again with her just to get her a matching pair of gloves.
"Well if you hadn't rushed me I wouldn't have forgotten them!" she huffed and stamped her foot.
"You're on your own if you go back." I said.
"And you're on your own if I go back without you!" she pointed out. Our tactics for getting into and off the campus only worked with two or more people, and we always made sure the other got back in since we were roommates. The reliable buddy system was a popular unwritten rule for roommates at the academy.
"I'd rather try to get back in on my own than try to get back in, and out again, and then back in again, all in the same night! The night security may not be the brightest but he's not stupid, he won't fall for it that many times over and over!"
"Then we'll think of another way out," she said.
It was an idea with potential, but I was already cold, and if we were much later, we really would miss out on all the fun. "No," I said. "I'm going to the lake. You can come with me and take my gloves if you're cold, but if you go back now I am not going with you."
She crossed her arms, chewing her lip as she weighed her decision. "I'll be fashionably late," she gave me a smile that had some hidden secret I couldn't quite read. I didn't like it.
"Fine, then go already."
I turned back towards our original direction, walking towards the lake. I didn't wait to see her go, I really didn't like being alone in these woods at night.
It was very dark and getting colder by the minute, but there was only a mile or so left before I got there. I could see the edges of the frozen water around the trees. It seemed impossible for anything bad to happen to me in that short a stretch of distance.
But within a dozen yards, I got my first unpleasant surprise of the night.
A man was leaning against a tree ahead of me, too old to be a student or a parent. I tried to see his face in the dark to make sure he wasn't a teacher and I didn't need to hide, but before I could get a real look he stepped away from the tree towards me.
When he moved, I realized he was holding a genetitest, because it was glowing with electronic lights in the dark. Genetitests were used to identify genetic signatures that several geneologists and geneticists tended to leave on their handiwork, usually somewhere in the junk DNA of the genetically engineered human they helped design. They only had a range of a few feet because they were a microwave-based device, but he'd hidden it behind his body until he was close enough to be within that range. There was only one kind of person who carried a genetitest with them in the middle of the night.
"I haven't got any problem with the Natural Humanity Church," I bluffed, hoping he wouldn't come any closer. The truth was, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with their sect of fanfaticism.
The Natural Humanity Church believed that all genetically engineered people were less than human, lacking souls. They thought that because the genetics of the fetuses were altered, it was the same as subverting God's will, a direct attempt for humans to play god. That part I wouldn't argue, genetic engineering was a morally questionable practice, and I didn't know how much I supported it yet. I doubted I'd ever consider engineering my own children so they could look like supermodels and think like supersoldiers or geniuses. But I wasn't completely against it either, it helped countless families with children who were predisposed to diseases like cancer, or genetic disorders.
I was a natural born human, the very kind they thought was so much holier than everyone else. His genetitest would show that, and I wondered if that would be enough for him not to harass me.
He took a step closer.
"I'm here to save your soul, child," he said. His voice was rough from too many summers without a roof. He was no doubt one of the born again NHC representatives, a homeless person taken in by their church and brainwashed to advocate their principles. The church preyed on the vulnerable, usually children and the homeless, for indoctrination into their organization.
"My soul is fine. Last time I looked, there was nothing in your rhetoric against students at our academy who weren't modified." I could see that he had an unkempt beard and weathered skin now. His ill-fitted suit was an ugly burnt orange, but it probably wasn't his suit to begin with.
"That school is a cesspin for sinners!" he hissed, he had probably meant cesspool. He took another step forward and this time, I took one back. He was rank with the stench of sweat and other things I didn't want to identify. "Even those with souls lose their place in heaven by being around such demons!"
I swallowed down the voice that rose up to defend Beth, and my handful of other genetically gifted friends. To me it was obvious that just because you were genetically engineered didn't mean you lacked a soul. Everyone I'd met still felt love and pain and struggled like the other students to stay afloat at our cuthroat academy.
The Natural Humanity religious group was one step above a cult, and their believers were extremeists in the worst way. Their church members had vandalized our science hall and library, and were legally now restricted from getting anywhere within a mile of the academy. Unfortunately, tonight I was more than a mile away from the school, so I couldn't pretend that he was breaking any laws by being here. I'd seen enough news casts about their supposed teachings to know that it would only be a matter of time before one of their more deluded members turned words into reality and 'burned a soulless abomination.' I was not going to be that soulless abomination tonight.
"Leave the filth! Join us and we can deliver your soul unto the lord! Forgive yourself for your mistakes and see the light!"
The way he said deliver your soul unto the lord left me with a bad feeling at the pit of my gut. I didn't have to respond, because at that very moment, a dark shape moved up from behind him. My mouth went dry with fear before I realized it was Collin.
Collin was a linebacker in the academy's football team, and he towered about a foot over the other man. His genetics were tweaked so he would be the absolute ideal candidate for a bodybuiler, with naturally thick muscles that he trained every day and a broad frame to fit them. His dad was the quarterback for some famous team and wanted his son to become one also, but unfortunately for him, at this school, he wasn't the only pre-emptively planned quarterback for our football team. It was almost a sure thing, that all the quarterbacks for the most famous teams in the next ten years would come from the cream of the crop selection we had at Perith.
"Step off," Collin said, moving between me and the genetitest. It flashed an angry red, and I heard the zealot draw in a rushed breath.
"You're a monster!" he held out his arms as if to ward Collin off, even though the larger teen made no move towards him. "You'll burn in hell for your unclean ways!"
"I'm a Protestant," he said, folding his meaty arms over his chest. "God aint got no problem with me. But my friends down there," he made a vague gesture towards the lake, "they'll have a problem with you up here harassing our friend and me."
"You'll burn for your sins," he repeated, glaring at both of us. He tucked the genetitest into his pocket and for a moment I thought he would say something more, but he turned back to skulk into the trees.
"What a whacko," Collin said, not really caring that he was still with earshot.
"Yeah," I breathed, still feeling a bit shakey. Being alone with a Natural Humanity member was enough to make me reconsider these late night outings. I wondered how he'd known that our meet-up would be here tonight.
"C'mon, we've got smores going and Travis is already there." My skin flashed hot at the thought.
Nothing distracts you quite like anger.
Travis was my younger brother, younger by a year and then some. He attended Perith as well, but unlike me, he was in good academic standing.
To be at the school at all, you had to be smart. Everyone who went to the academy was either engineered to have superb intelligence or naturally gifted in academia. I was neither. I studied a lot, constantly sometimes, and still barely managed to pass because of the difficulty of the curriculum demanded by everyone who attended. I only got into to the school because of a few good entrance exam scores and my knack for athletics, but Travis was truly gifted. He had good grades, not perfect or the best because he was competing in an unfair competition, but very good considering he was as naturally born as I was.
If I got expelled, I wouldn't be that far from where I was right now, I could easily get into another school and do just fine. If Travis got expelled, there wasn't another school in the country that offered the same kind of program or opportunity as Perith to challenge him. He would be stuck as a big fish in a little pond somewhere, and he could kiss his chances at a good scholarship or college goodbye.
For someone so much smarter than me, he sure was a bloody moron sometimes.
"I'm going to kill him," I said.
"He said you might say that," Collin smiled, looking around. "Where's Elizabeth?"
It was no big secret that Collin had a crush on Beth. "She went back to get gloves to match her dress." I rolled my eyes. "Because of course, without those...why even come."
"How is she going to sneak back out?"
"I have no clue. If I waited up to go back in with her though, by the time we got here, everyone would be gone. So I told her if she went back she'd have to do it solo."
"That's true, a lot of the girls are already whining that they want to leave because its too cold." he admitted.
"Marissa?" I guessed.
"Nah, she's okay. Alice is though. But she's using William as a human-heater, so she'll probably stay later than Marissa will."
I laughed, picturing Alice using Will as a human-heater. William was shy, and Alice could be a very handsy girl.
We came around the last bit of trees to the lake and started down the snowy shore towards the small bonfire ahead. Everyone was circled around the warmth of the fire, some with sticks and marshmellows and others with their hands out towards it. Collin waved as we came over, and I saw at least two people visibly relax, but we were too far away to see faces. This was of course, intentional, so that if an adult happened to find one of our meeting spots, by the time they reached us, we could have already disbanded and made a break for it. Collin's large frame was distinct though, and even at a distance they would recognize him by height and shape alone.
As we got closer, I could see Travis on the side of the circle, nursing a smore. I reached down and scooped up a bit of snow and sand, smashing it down into a ball and then tossing it at Travis. He was mid-bite, and didn't see the snow until it hit his shoulder. He looked up, angry until he saw who it was. Then his eyes widened and he quickly looked away.
Well good, he knew I was pissed at him.
I gave Travis my shoulder, doing my best to ignore him as I hugged myself for warmth. We'd have words later, without the audience.
Alice was in fact, half on top of William, who could not look more uncomfortable if he tried. Alice was like a tall vine wrapped around him, her hip length curls covering whatever areas of him her limbs didn't. William was lanky himself, but not as tall as Alice, who at full height had to be at least six feet, but William had only started gaining height in the last few months. I was willing to bet his parents had planned him to be taller than six feet at full height, and chances were that if he continued growing as he had been, he would be. Beside them sat Joshua, Marissa, and to my surprise, Amber.
She sat huddled with her arms crossed in a faux-fur parka, hood up. Her lip ring looked like it might have collected a bit of frost from the cold. The fire gave orange hues to her bottle-blonde hair, giving her the appearance of her namesake. Amber hated her parents, so she went out of her way to do everything in her power to make herself as far from their perfect design as she could. She had a thick tattoo running up the side of her neck, a stylized picture of a tiger. Last month she'd had blue hair, before the school had added a policy about unnatural hair colors. It was comical, a school almost exclusively for the unnatural, setting policies against unnatural hair colors.
"I thought you weren't coming?" I narrowed my eyes at her. I didn't like liars.
"I changed my mind," she said. I knew better, she had probably intentionally told me she wouldn't be coming so she could use the same lie on Teresa, and ditch her unsuspecting roommate. Or maybe she had lied to try and trick me into not coming either. Amber and I weren't close, but I didn't really consider her an adversary until now. But maybe I was reading too far into it, and she really had just changed her mind. Then I remembered this was the same Amber who had stolen my favorite sweater when I loaned it to her on my first day at Perith and then lost it at a party. She was selfish, and I wasn't going to give her the benefit of a doubt. She would lie to me without regert, and probably had before, too.
Johsua was at least half a foot taller than me, with movie-star good looks. He kept his brown hair long so it hung into his dark green eyes. It was probably for the best, it was hard enough to focus around him without having to look into his impossibly-beautiful eyes. He practically radiated heat, his entire presence the definition of masculine. He was busy reloading another graham cracker as I watched him.
My breath caught when he looked up and caught me staring.
I looked away, but I couldn't help the warmth that rushed to my face. I could only hope that the flush from the cold would hide it.
Marissa was beside him, holding a cigarette in one hand with the other in her jacket pockets as if she was bored. Her dark hair fell straight around her well-made up face, unstyled. Marissa and I were friends, but it was the kind of friendship that two soldiers might forge during combat. We were friends because we were both born the old-fashioned way, two of the rare few in the school made up almost entirely of the genetically edited. Marissa was a bit too crude for my taste, she could be blunt to the point of hurtful or disgusting. Unlike me, she had the bad luck of frequent acne, hence the heavy powder and unkempt hair she constantly kept on to hide her face.
Despite my issues with her attitude, Marissa was the only one here, besides Travis, who I actually trusted more than an ounce. And I was still giving him the silent treatment. So I sat down beside her, ignoring the stench of smoke as she breathed in and blew out her cigarette.
"Pass me the box," I motioned for the graham crackers, plucking a marshmellow and slab of chocolate from the foil in the middle. Even right next to the fire, the chocolate wasn't melting because of the snow beneath it and chill from the temperature.
Joshua handed me the box and I couldn't help sneaking another glance up at him. It should have been illegal to look so good.
Collin settled down beside Travis, stretching his long arms out towards the fire.
"So what is the plan tonight anyways?" I didn't have a stick to put the marshmellow on, so I held it out towards the fire with my gloved fingers. What difference would it make if I got a little bit of mush onto my gloves, I'd wash them tomorrow.
"I want to ice skate!" Alice was always full of useless ideas like this. She had some of the best grades in the school, but lacked even the most basic common sense. None of us had ice skates, and beyond that, it was too early in the year to trust the ice to hold our weight. The odds were one of us would fall through into the icy water if we ventured anywhere off the shoreline.
"Ghost stories?" Travis proposed.
The smore fell apart in my mouth, the marshmellow thick like cheese. It helped warm me up a little, and biting into something kept me from saying something rude to him in front of everyone.
"Its obvious," Joshua said. We all looked at him, curious what he wanted to do tonight. Because he was by far the most popular person here, whatever he suggested would likely be what we ended up doing. "Claire had the right idea, its a snowball fight kind of night."
"Pst." Alice rolled her eyes. "Its cold enough without having snow in the face."
"I'm game," I said. I shot a challenging look at Travis. He was doing everything he could to avoid eye contact and try to blend into the snow.
"Sounds fun to me," Collin agreed. William nodded.
Marissa spoke up, "It isn't that cold." A few of us gave her disbelieving looks.
Amber stayed silent, just watching it unfold. Travis was equally quiet, but mostly to avoid drawing my wrath. He knew me too well.
"Its settled then. Teams?"
Nobody loves a chance to play the popularity game like high school students.
"Team Leader!" Alice yelled. We all stared at her as she got up off William. I guess now that we had a distraction, she wasn't so cold or clingy anymore.
"I'll be a team leader too," Will's voice was so soft it was hard to hear. He would never volunteer for a highly visible position like this if it weren't for a strong reason. Then I realized that if he was on the opposite team, Alice couldn't get her hooks back into him. And William was too much of a doormat to ever try to refuse her when she did. This was his way of saying he wanted away from her.
"I'll go first," Alice pointed at Joshua. "You're on my team." Surprise, surprise. Josh didn't seem to mind, and stood up to go stand closer to her.
William pointed at Collin, and he dutifully walked over.
"Amber, girl get over here." Alice said. Amber gave a cheshire smile and went over to her new team.
"Uh...Claire I guess," Will said. I gave him a dirty look. Claire, I guess? What was I, chopped meat?
The genetically unmodified were always the last to be chosen, it was just fact. I knew who would be at the bottom before it happened, but it still left a twinge of sadness in me when it did happen.
"Travis," the way she said it, made it sound like she had a bad taste in her mouth. Travis slowly went to their team. Travis was one of the last chosen because he was still a freshman, everyone else here was at least a sophmore. That put him at the lowest rung of the food chain, but not at the very bottom.
"That leaves me, like usual." Marissa wasn't frowning, but her poker mask wasn't that good. I could tell it hurt her every time she got chosen last for a sport, or a game, which she always did. She didn't have genes to fall back on, afterall, and she didn't have a natural affinity for athletics like me. As for popularity, she was definitely one of the least attractive people at the school, and that put her just barely above the freaks and losers, below even the freshmen. She went to stand beside me and I tried to show her with my eyes that I understood, but she wasn't looking at me, but steadfastly ahead at nothing.
"Alright, go!" Before anyone could protest, Alice had already scooped up a ball and hurled it at Marissa.
She ducked in time, but not without a tightening around her eyes and getting some snow in her hair. While close to the ground, she grabbed a hunk of snow and without bothering to compress it, threw it at Alice. Her aim was bad though, and it wound up falling towards Amber.
Alice squealed like a pig and dodged, and started running in the opposite direction to get away. Amber just stepped sideays to avoid the miscalculated shot, backing up without turning around as she bent to get her own weapon ready to fire.
I launched my own attack at Travis, hitting him in the leg as he tried to duck away. When he moved to retaliate, I was already running in the opposite direction.
Collin was already hard at work building a small mound of snow to hide behind. Joshua was following the same plan, making two rudimentary forts on either end of the shore.
I huddled behind our team's mound, helping Collin by making a pile of snowballs for him to use if anyone from the other team showed up. Will ran up, Alice was in pursuit, but when she saw the fortress we had built, retreated.
I used the darkness and my dark clothing to my advantage, and headed back towards the center of the fray. My breath made tiny clouds of air as I ran.
Marissa was in the middle of a snowball throwing contest with Travis. I ignored them since they were ignoring me, and looked for the rest of the other team.
Joshua had gotten a decent fort built which Alice was hiding behind. I lobbed a few shots at her, not really caring if they hit her or not as I searched for her other two teammates. I caught movement at the treeline, heading towards our fort.
"Watch out!" I called to them.
Will turned in time to see Amber sneaking up behind them. She lunged into the fort they'd built, laughing as it crumbled apart.
Marissa gave a war cry when she saw what had happened and charged Amber, pelting her with snowballs. Collin had the same though, and Amber squealed and stumbled away as she was bombarded with the projectiles.
I threw more her as well as she ran. Will was already rebuilding our destroyed snow wall.
Heading a bit more to the side, I got hit in the face with a snowball. I grimaced as the ice slid down my chin, turning to see Travis looking not even a little guilty.
Chasing after him, we started our own snowball vengeance match. But Travis was losing badly, and he ran back to his fort where he knew I wouldn't follow him.
Snow crunched behind me and I knew that someone had snuck up from my blind spot to pour snow down the neck of my shirt.
I whirled around, but not fast enough. A facefull of snow stole my wind and I realized too late that when I'd turned, I had tipped my attacker off balance, and now their weight was forcing me to fall into the snow with them. They'd missed my neckline, and hit my face instead, which to me was a definite victory.
I spat snow out of my mouth, laughing and trying to wipe it out of my eyes before opening them. When I did, I felt like time had stopped.
Joshua was on top of me, his body pressed almost completely against mine.
The heat from earlier rushed through my blood, and just like that I wasn't cold anymore. I stared up at him, fighting to keep my breathing even and face unreadable. I could tell I was doing a terrible job at it, because he was giving me a knowing smile. I settled on scowling up at him when I saw that he was reading my face a bit too well.
He pushed his arms up on either side of me, a devious light in his eyes. I kept scowling, although all I felt like doing was swooning. It dawned on me a second too late what was about to happen.
He leaned in to kiss me.
I paniced. I grabbed a fistfull of snow and slammed it into his face, none too gently.
He sputtered, jerking back. I took my opportunity and pulled myself free from under him. I tried to hide my shock with another glare, but I didn't feel very brave in that moment. In fact, I felt like the world's biggest coward.
He was rubbing the corner of his right eye, where I'd no doubt poked him quite hard with the point blank shove.
I couldn't let him kiss me though, he would have just laughed in my face afterwards. Wouldn't he? I had a moment of premonition, that the question of whether or not he actually intended to kiss me because he wanted to, would haunt me for months to come while I lay awake in bed.
When I looked around to see where everyone else was, the first thing I noticed was that Alice looked pissed.
"Well," she said. "I'm tired of freezing out here. I'm heading back. C'mon Amber."
Amber didn't move immediately, but brushed herself off when Alice started heading back towards the direction of Perith. Afterall, she had no way of getting back through the gates without her roommate.
"Does that mean the snowball fight is over?" Travis asked, hopefully.
"Why because now your team is outnumbered?" I threw two more at him. He hid behind the snow mound Joshua had built.
"Its over," Will said.
Gathering back at the bonfire they'd built, we discussed how best to sneak back into Perith.
I couldn't lie to myself, it had been a fantastic night, one I'd never forget, even with all of the confusion and fear. I'd probably regret not kissing Joshua for the rest of my life, but I couldn't control my reaction or take back what I'd done. It was almost instinctual to do anything possible to avoid letting him kiss me, and for better or worse, I always went with my gut.
As I got closer to the entrance gate, I saw tracks leading off to the side in the snow. No doubt they were Beth's, and so I followed them.
Around the corner of the building, I saw how Beth had snuck back in. What was probably once a small tree lay in the snow just outside the gate. It was decayed and leafless for winter, but still with enough vitality left to it that it would definitely hold up the weight of a person. Whether she had propped it up to climb over the gate and made a run for it or used it like a pole vault to fling herself over the edge, I didn't know. Either way, she had the smarts to do it on the backside of the buildings where there weren't as many cameras, but before the absolute backend of the gate around the sports fields where it was pressure sensitive and armed with alarms.
Neither method particulary appealed to me, but I knew that without a second person to use as a distraction, I'd have to get back in somehow. Digging my way in wasn't really an option.
Propping the dead tree up on the side of the gate, I tried balancing my way on it to climb over but fell down halfway. The tree was slippery from the melted snow and ice that coated it, very difficult to find friction on. Rather than risk falling off from higher up and making enough noise to attract security, or worse, seriously injuring myself, I decided vaulting over would probably be the safest opiton. Especially since I'd be landing on three feet of snow. The downside to this was that if it failed, it would almost certainly make a huge amount of noise and I would be immediately caught.
Backing up, I tested the weight of the tree. It probably wouldn't bend very much, so I'd have to use momentum to carry me over. It probably wasn't that great for support either, so I'd have to make sure that when I did jump I planted it firmly in the ground. I approximated the distance I'd need to run, making sure there was no vegetation in my way.
Taking a breath to center myself, I started to run. It was harder with the snow, but I trusted my skills. Pushing the tree down as hard as I could, I leapt upwards, twisting myself sideways clear the fence. As I flew, I watched the gate approach and saw that I would not quite make it. I closed my eyes and clamped my mouth shut, this was going to hurt. As I passed over the edge, I could feel the metal of the gate digging into my skin, shredding the back of my jacket and shirt. It hurt like claws but if I screamed it would draw attention. A little dried blood at the top of a black metal fence wouldn't though.
It was all over before my mind caught up to my body. I hit the ground hard, forgetting to roll. The snow cushioned the impact, but with the open wounds on my backside the botched landing didn't help. I sucked in another gulp of air, hissing it out from the pain I was trying to surpress. Standing up, I reached behind myself to trace the gouges.
Pulling my hand away, I saw only thin lines of blood. I had been lucky, the layers of winter clothing I was wearing had taken the worst of it. Most of it was soaking into the fabric, so I wouldn't have to worry about leaving a dripping trail behind me. I wondered if Beth had used the same method and gotten hurt as well.
I felt a shiver go down my spine.
Later I would look back on that moment and know that it was a rare flash of foresight.
I climbed my way back up to my room, arduously slow so I wouldn't aggravate my back futher. I would have had to climb slowly anyways to avoid the motion sensors, but it felt like I was crawling my way up tonight.
Reaching our window, I double checked my grip and forced the window to open wider with my other arm. It eased open, and I wrapped my arm around the inside of the window, hooking it onto the frame and carefully maneuvering a leg through. When I had one foot safely on the ground, I slipped my head through, blinking to adjust to the lower lighting. I got all the way into the room with minimal pain, and turned and shut the window behind me with a sigh.
I started towards my bed and tripped on the pile of something Beth had left laying in the middle of the floor. It was heavier than cloth, and when I looked down to see what it was, I realized it was Beth.
She was laying on the floor, turned on her side and still wearing her peacoat dress. I reached down and shook her shoulders. "Beth, wake up, you rolled out of bed." She didn't move.
The first icy finger of fear slid through me. I shook her harder, "Beth, BETH, wake up already!"
Some part of my mind already knew the truth but I didn't accept it. I don't remember the next few minutes, but I know I hyperventhilated because my already lousy night-vision was hazed with black for a bit. I put a finger to Beth's wrist, checking for a pulse. When I couldn't find one, I went to her neck, but she was already cold.
"Beth," I whispered, trying to steady myself so I wouldn't fall over. Everything was spinning, and I couldn't quite feel my limbs. They were as numb as my mind.
I stumbled to the trashcan, kneeling down as a I retched.
I crawled back towards Beth, taking her hand in mine. Something in the back of my head knew I couldn't fall apart yet. But my body wasn't giving me much of a choice, I could already feel tears forcing there way to the surface.
I fumbled around the nightstand for a phone and grabbed it. I dailed 911.