Home > Altered (Altered #1)

Altered (Altered #1)
Jennifer Rush

1

FOR MOST OF THE LAST FOUR YEARS, I wasn’t allowed in the lab. But that didn’t stop me from sneaking down there. And while I no longer needed to wake at midnight in order to visit the boys, my internal clock was still fully tuned to the schedule.

I sat on the edge of my bed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, bare feet rooted to the hardwood floor. Moonlight crept through the window, the shadows from the maple trees sliding this way and that.

Dad had asked for my help in the lab eight months earlier, so I could go downstairs anytime I wanted now. But seeing the boys with permission wasn’t the same—wasn’t as thrilling—as sneaking down there in the dark.

I’d long ago mapped the creaky floorboards in the hallway, and I skipped over them now, pushing through the living room and the kitchen, taking the stairs down to the basement two at a time.

The stairs ended in a small annex, where a keypad had been installed in the wall, the buttons glowing in the dark. For someone who worked for a clandestine company, Dad had never been cautious with his codes. Four years ago, when I first broke into the lab, it took me only a week to figure out the right combination. It hadn’t been changed since.

I punched in the required six digits, the buttons beeping in response. The door hissed as it slid open, and I was greeted by the stale scent of filtered air. My breath quickened. Every nerve in my body buzzed with anticipation.

I went down the short hallway and the lab opened before me. The space felt small and cozy, but the lab was actually much bigger than the footprint of the house. Dad told me the lab had been built first, and then the farmhouse was built on top of it. The Branch had gone to great lengths to make the program, and the boys, disappear in the middle of New York’s farmland.

To the right sat Dad’s desk, and next to it, mine. To the left was the refrigerator, followed by a tower of filing cabinets, and a hutch stuffed with supplies. Directly across from the mouth of the hallway were the boys’ rooms: four of them lined up in a row, each separated by a brick wall and exposed by a sheet of thick Plexiglas in the front.

Trev’s, Cas’s, and Nick’s rooms were dark, but a faint light spilled from Sam’s, the second room from the right. He rose from his desk chair as soon as he saw me. My eyes traced the etched lines of his bare stomach, the arch of his hips. He wore the gray cotton pajama pants all the boys had, but that was it.

“Hey,” he said, his voice reduced to the sound the tiny vent holes allowed through the glass.

Heat crept from my neck to my cheeks and I tried to look calm—normal—as I approached. The whole time I’d known the boys, they had suffered from amnesia, an unplanned side effect of the alterations. Despite that, I felt like the others had shown me parts of who they were, deep down. All of them but Sam. Sam gave only what he thought was necessary. The things that truly defined him were still a secret.

“Hi,” I whispered. I didn’t want to wake the others if they were asleep, so I kept my steps light. I was suddenly more aware of the sharp edges of my elbows, the knobs that were my knees, the loud thumping of my feet. Sam had been genetically altered, made into something more than human, and it showed in every efficient curve of muscle in his body. It was hard to compete with that.

Even his scars were perfect. A small one marred the left side of his chest, the skin puckered white, the jagged lines of the scar branching off in a shape that seemed more deliberate than accidental. I’d always thought it looked like an R.

“It’s after midnight,” he said. “Something tells me you didn’t come down here to watch infomercials with me.”

My laugh sounded nervous even to me. “No. I don’t really need a Chop-O-Matic.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do.” He shifted, pressing his arm against the glass above his head so he could hunch closer. Closer to me. “What are you doing down here?”

I tried out a dozen possible answers in my mind. I wanted to say something clever, something witty, something interesting. If it had been Trev, I would have had to say only, “Entertain me?” and he would have shared a handful of memorized quotes from his favorite historical figures. Or, if it had been Cas, I’d have split a set of markers and we’d have drawn ridiculous pictures on the glass. And Nick… well, he rarely acknowledged my existence, so I would never have come down here for him in the first place.

But this was Sam, so I just shrugged and suggested the same thing I always suggested: “I couldn’t sleep, and I wondered if you wanted to play a game of chess.”

I clasped my hands awkwardly in front of me as I waited for him to answer.

“Get the board,” he finally said, and I smiled as I turned away.

I grabbed what we needed and pulled my desk chair over. He did the same on his side. I set up the small folding table and the board, putting the black pieces on Sam’s side, the white on mine.

“Ready?” I asked and he nodded. I moved my knight to F3.

He examined the board, elbows on his knees. “Rook. D-five.” I moved his piece to the correct square. We ran through a few more plays, focused only on the game, until Sam asked, “What was the weather like today?”

“Cold. Biting.” I moved my next piece. When he didn’t immediately counter, I looked up and met his eyes.

An unremarkable green, like river water, his eyes were nothing to look at, but they were something else to be watched with. Sam’s gaze, at quiet moments like this, made my insides shudder.

“What?” I said.

“The sky—what color would you use to draw it?”

“Azure. The kind of blue you can almost taste.”

For some reason, everything I said and did around Sam felt weightier. As if merely his presence could shake my soul, make me feel. He savored every detail I gave him, as if I was his last link to the outside word. I guess in some ways I was.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder what the sun used to feel like.”

“You’ll feel it again. Someday.”

“Maybe.”

I wanted to say, You will, I promise you will, even if I have to break you out myself. I tried to imagine what it would be like to punch in the codes and let them all go. I could do it. Maybe even get away with it. There were no cameras down here, no recording devices.

“Anna?” Sam said.

I blinked, stared at the chessboard in front of me. Had he told me his next play? “Sorry, I was—”

“Somewhere else.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s late. Let’s finish tomorrow?”

I started to protest, but a yawn snuck up on me before I could hide it. “All right. It will give me more time to work on my strategy.”

He made a sound that fell somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “You do that.”

I moved the table to the far corner and took a step toward the hallway. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

The light shining from his bathroom caught his dark, close-cropped hair, turning it silver for a second before he drew back. “Good night, Anna.”

“G’night.” I waved as the lab door slid shut behind me and that empty feeling settled back in.

I didn’t belong in the boys’ world. Not that I belonged in the real world, either. I was too afraid that if I let someone in, they’d figure out my secrets about the lab and the boys. I didn’t want to be the reason the Branch moved the program. Mostly, I didn’t want to risk losing Sam. Because even though our relationship was based solely on testing and the lab and my sketches and midnight chess games, I couldn’t picture my life without him.

2

EVERY WEDNESDAY MORNING, MY DAD made a pitcher of lemonade—fresh-squeezed, lots of sugar—and I made cookies. It was our tradition, and we had always been short on traditions.

The ice clinked against the glass as Dad handed it to me. “Thanks,” I said, taking a sip. “Perfect.”

He slid the pitcher into the refrigerator. “Good. Good.”

I shifted at the kitchen table, looking out the window to the forest beyond the backyard, struggling to think of something else to say. Something to keep Dad here just a minute longer. Dad and I weren’t good with small talk. Lately, the only thing that seemed to connect us was the lab.

“Did you see the paper this morning?” I asked, even though I knew he had. “Mr. Hirsch bought the drugstore.”

“Yeah, I saw that.” Dad set the measuring cup in the sink before running a hand over the back of his head, smoothing his quickly graying hair. He did that a lot when he was worried.

I sat forward. “What is it?”

The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he put his hands on the edge of the farmhouse sink. I thought he might reveal whatever it was that was bothering him, but he just shook his head and said, “Nothing. I have a lot of stuff to get through today, so I think I’ll go downstairs. You’ll come down later? Nick’s blood sample should be drawn.”

Dad wasn’t the type to talk about how bad his day was, so even though I wanted to push him, I didn’t. “Sure. I’ll be down in a little bit.”

“All right.” He nodded before disappearing from the kitchen, his footsteps audible on the basement stairs. And just like that, my time was up. Dad was endlessly consumed by his work, and I’d accepted that a long time ago. I’d never get used to it, though.

I grabbed my mother’s journal from the counter, where I’d left it earlier that morning. In it she had written her most beloved recipes, along with her thoughts and anything she found inspiring. There was a special section in the back devoted to cookie recipes. It was the only possession of hers I owned, and I treasured it more than anything else.

A few months earlier I’d started adding my own notes and sketches to the blank pages in the back. I’d always been afraid of ruining the book, as if my additions would somehow dilute what was already there. But I had aspirations and ideas, too, and I didn’t think there was any other place I’d rather record them.

I ran my fingers over the old food stains on the pages, reading and rereading her tiny cursive handwriting.

I decided on Cas’s favorite cookie, pumpkin chocolate chip, since he had aced the previous day’s mental evaluation—and because they were my favorite, too.

After gathering the ingredients, I got to work. I pretty much knew the recipe by heart, but I still followed Mom’s instructions, and the notes she’d made in the margins.

Do not use imitation vanilla.

Stock up on pumpkin puree close to holidays—

stores tend not to stock it in spring and summer.

It can’t hurt to add extra chocolate—ever.

Dad said Mom ate chocolate like some people eat bread.

She died when I was one, so I didn’t really know her. Dad didn’t talk about her a lot, either, but every now and then a story would shake free from his memory and I would listen intently, not making a sound, worried that any noise on my part would break the spell.

I poured the bag of chocolate chips into the mixing bowl, the little bits plopping into the layer of rolled oats. Outside, the bleak sky hid the sun, and the wind had picked up since I’d crawled out of bed. Winter was on its way. If this wasn’t a day for cookies, I didn’t know what was.

Once the dough was mixed, I filled two cookie sheets and slid them into the oven, setting the timer so they’d finish somewhere between baked and doughy. Cas liked them that way.

With the timer ticking in the background, I sat at the table, my science book open in front of me. I had reached the end of the chapter on fault lines and was supposed to write an essay about it. I’d been homeschooled my whole life, and my dad was my teacher. Recently, though, he’d left me on my own. He probably wouldn’t even have noticed if I’d skipped the assignment, but I couldn’t stand the thought of giving up so easily.

By the time the cookies were done, I’d made zero progress and my back was stiff. I’d pulled a muscle during Saturday night’s combat lesson—Dad’s idea of an extracurricular activity—and I was still paying for it.

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