About Six Months Ago
“Yo, yo, gimme some up top. C’mon, Dev-the-man, right up here. You know you want to. Slap it hard.”
Deveron Adams eyed his enthusiastic teammate ruefully. Norbit Drish looked about as close to a scrawny geek as you could get after a year at Crossroads Academy, and his name just fed into that. Which might explain why he displayed a personality that utterly clashed with both. Either way, Deveron liked him. Norbit (though he preferred to be called either Nizzle or his last name, and Deveron would chop off his own hand before he used the former) was loyal, funny, and an excellent fighter. He was a great guy to have in your corner. Even if he was weird. Really, unbelievably weird.
“Hey, Drish,” Deveron gave him the expected high five while shaking his head in amusement. “You got plans for the summer, man?” The two of them were one of many groups standing around waiting to be taken through portals back into the mundane world, to spend the summer months with their families.
“Yo, man,” the skinny, gap-toothed boy replied with a head bob that was clearly meant to showcase a non-existent rhythm. “I gots tons of babes and bros to hang with, chu know? I ain’t sure how we gonna fit it all in, cuz like, pshhh, all my homeys want a piece o’ this up here, you know what I’m saying?”
Deveron chuckled in spite of himself. You got used to Drish eventually. “Yeah, man, I know what you’re saying.” Giving the wiry boy a fist bump, he turned toward the nearby instructor. “Professor Tangle, how much longer until we can go? Pretty sure my dad’s firing up the barbecue as we speak.”
The teacher he was addressing was a black woman who appeared to be in her mid-forties, though Deveron knew for a fact that she was a lot older than that. Still, she was in decent shape for her age (either her apparent one or her real one), even though she hadn’t been an active duty Heretic for quite some time. Old habits died hard. Now, she was eyeing him over the top of her sunglasses. “A barbecue, Mr. Adams? And you fail to invite your favorite teacher? I knew I should’ve given you that F, ingrate.”
Grinning back at her, Deveron snapped his fingers. “You know, shit, you’re right. That was rude of me. After all the effort my favorite teacher put in this year?” Letting that hang for couple of seconds, he abruptly spun on his heel, raising his hand. “Hey, Professor Dare! You wanna come to a barbecue?”
Beside him, Drish guffawed while Tangle made an affronted noise. The woman scoffed a couple times, clearly playing up her offense. “Fine then, let’s get you home so we don’t eat into your precious recreation time, shall we? Maybe next year, you can get all your extra studying with Dare instead.”
Things continued that way for a few more minutes while the last preparations for departure were made. As they started to leave, Deveron gave the island one last fond look. He was going to miss this place over the summer. It had taken a lot to get used to, but now he found the idea of living a normal life, even for a few months, to be almost repulsive. There was something about the thought of being away from this place, even being back with his parents, that filled the boy with a weird sense of unease.
But he shoved that aside. After all, it was just travel jitters, a fear of change. He’d be fine as soon as he was home and saw his folks again. And in a few months, he’d be back here, ready for second year.
As good as his first year had been, as great as he’d been at every trial the school had given him, Deveron knew the second would be equally amazing. He was ready for it, he was up to the challenge.
Bring it on.
Before long, Deveron was whistling as he strolled down the sidewalk of his family’s street. The Adams lived in a moderately sized suburb just a little ways outside of Chicago. Their street was a cul-de-sac with the Adams residence being the house at the very top of the circle. The house, a two-story brick building with a roof that should really be replaced soon, was surrounded by an aging wooden fence.
At the gate, Deveron paused, head tilting slightly as his whistling quieted. Damn it, what was the name of that song? It had been stuck in his head for the past several hours, and he couldn’t stop whistling the tune. Yet every time he mentally grasped for the name of it or even where he’d heard the tune before, it slipped away. The name was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn’t quite get it. It was frustrating.
After a few more seconds of failed mental grasping, he finally shook his head and tugged the gate open before stepping through. His foot nudged a discarded basketball, and he stooped to pick it up before closing the gate behind him. Bouncing the ball between both hands, Deveron headed across the yard.
“Hey!” he called while mounting the steps onto the porch. The nearby swing still hadn’t been painted, a year after his father promised to do so. Which probably meant that Deveron himself would end up doing it over the summer. “Hey, I’m home, guys!” Tucking the ball under one arm, he pulled the front door open. It came easily, and the boy stepped into the house. “Guys? Mom, Dad, where is everybod–”
Empty. The living room, which should have been full of furniture, toys, games, a television, and a desk in the corner where the computer sat, was completely empty. Nothing was there except the gray carpet.
“What—huh?” Deveron blinked at the baffling sight, frowning before letting the ball drop from his hands. As it rolled across the floor, he started through the weirdly empty room to the kitchen, calling, “Mom? Dad? Hey, are you guys getting the carpets cleaned or something? Where the hell is everyth–”
His voice failed him again as he stepped into the kitchen. Empty. Just like the living room. The kitchen table was gone. The counter that should have been full of cereal boxes and a microwave was completely bare. The cupboards stood open and bare, their contents as mysteriously vanished as everything else. A layer of dust lay on the otherwise bare counter and the kitchen island, as if no one had been around to disturb the place in months. Which was… impossible. Absurd. His parents wouldn’t just vanish without a trace, without even telling him they were moving. No, something was wrong.
Instinctively, he reached for the camera bag attached to his belt. After almost a year of training at Crossroads, it was instinct to unzip the bag, tug his pistol into one hand, and hold it close to his side. Whatever was going on here, it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t ordinary. And that probably meant it had something to do with Strangers. Maybe one had found out that his family was connected to a Crossroads student or something? But why would he personally be targeted? Sure, he’d done well that year, but that shouldn’t be enough to justify making his family vanish. No, he was missing something.
Holding the gun at his side, Deveron took a breath and focused. His senses, enhanced from several different dead Strangers over the course of the past year, reached out through the house. He listened and sniffed for any sense of another person anywhere inside the house. Nothing. No one was here. At least, no one that he could sense. There were, of course, Strangers that were invisible to such detection.
To that end, he began to work his way methodically through every room. There were several powers he could have used to speed up the process, but he chose to take his time and search everywhere gradually to avoid missing any potential clue. Through the laundry room, the pantry, the den, and his parents’ bedroom downstairs, he searched. Each was as empty as all of the others, each equally dust-filled.
Eventually, the search took him up the stairs to the second floor. Quietly, he nudged the nearest door open into what should have been his mother’s sewing and craft’s room. Empty. Next, he took a quick glance through the next door into the bathroom. Empty. Stepping across the hall, he checked his father’s study, the so-called ‘man-cave’ where the guns and all his dad’s trophies were kept. Nothing. Empty.
Turning his head, Deveron looked toward the next closed door, the one that led into his own bedroom. Slowly approaching it with the gun raised just in case he’d missed something, he stopped just outside the door. One breath followed another. This was the last room, the last possible place to find any clues.
The door creaked open slowly, revealing a room that was… not empty. Unlike the rest of the rooms in the house, the place that had been Deveron’s bedroom held two pieces of furniture: a table with a television with an attached DVD player sitting on top of it. They were positioned in the exact middle of the room, facing the door. On the table in front of the television there was a DVD, and when Deveron took a cautious step closer, he found words written on the front of it. They read simply, ‘Play me now.’
First, he looked around the otherwise bare room. Taking a step to the closet, the boy tugged the door open, glancing in to find it as empty as everything else. Save for the table, television, and single DVD, the entire house was utterly devoid of any objects or furniture whatsoever. There was nothing else.
Left with nothing else to examine, Deveron stepped back over to the table and picked up the disc. Turning it over in his hands, he found nothing remarkable about the thing. It was just an ordinary DVD.
With a shrug, he carefully turned on the television before slipping the disc into the player. Finding the play button with his thumb, he pressed it before stepping back to fold his arms loosely over his chest. The gun was still held in one hand, but he was already pretty sure he wouldn’t need it. Whatever was going on here, whatever had actually happened to his parents, there was no immediate threat to shoot.
On the screen, he saw a view of this same exact room. The image was steady enough that it was obviously taken with a tripod, and he could hear a person muttering on the other side of it as the view zoomed in and out for a few seconds with a slight blurry image before focusing. A hand waved in front of the camera to test it before someone moved around in front of the lens, too close to make out details.
Gradually, they moved back and settled into frame, leaving Deveron staring at the view he had expected the least out of anything else that he could possibly have seen. The person in front of the camera was himself. Except not. It was clearly him, only several years older than he was right now.
“What,” he blurted out loud while straightening as his eyes went wide with surprise, “the fuck?”
“Ahh, hey there,” the man on the screen, Deveron himself, spoke up with a quick wave. “Hey, me. Yeah, I know.” A wry grin, utterly familiar and yet totally foreign seeing it from this angle, crossed the man’s face on the screen. “This is pretty damn weird, isn’t it? Okay, listen, before you shut this thing off and call for help from those Crossroads people, pay attention for a minute. First, you’re not dreaming, I’m not a shapeshifter, and this isn’t a trap. Well, it’s not a trap for you… me… us anyway. I’m pretty sure, knowing me the way I do, that you’re about to get up and walk out that door right now. Before you do that, do me one favor. Pause this video and walk to the window. Pull down the shades and find the present I’m leaving you. Do that, take a look at it, then you can decide to keep watching or leave.”
With a shaking hand, Deveron slowly reached out to hit the pause button on the machine. He stood there, frozen for a moment before looking toward the nearby window. For a few seconds, he did nothing. The thought of doing exactly what his older self (or whoever was on the tape) had said he should not do and just leaving the room to call Crossroads to let them sort this whole situation out was tempting.
In the end, he sighed and stepped to the window instead. Tugging down on the string, he pulled the shades down, squinting at the object that was taped onto the exact middle of them: a photograph.
It was an old black and white picture of a bunch of people all lined up, like a class portrait. In the middle, a couple of the students were holding up a plaque that read, ‘Graduating Class of 1922.’
Nineteen twenty-two. His eyes scanned the picture briefly before settling once more on a disturbingly familiar sight: himself again. He was there, plain as day amidst what was obviously other Crossroads students. The uniforms looked a bit different, clearly older in style. Yet it was very clearly Crossroads.
And standing next to him, there was a girl whose image made Deveron stop. A beautiful young woman, blonde hair cut short in a pixie cut, her slightly impish smile promising intelligence and mischief.
He knew her. He knew that face, those eyes, that smile. He… he knew her as much or better than he knew himself. Like the song that he’d been whistling on his way in, the name was on the tip of his tongue. Yet his failure to actually remember and put voice to that name was infinitely more saddening.
There were tears in his eyes. Tears that he couldn’t understand, for a name that he couldn’t remember.
For over a minute, Deveron stood there. He held the picture in one hand, staring down at it while a rush of overwhelming emotions that he had no chance of explaining or understanding rushed through him. Finally, after giving a heavy, visible shudder, he stepped back over to the table. Gently laying the picture in front of the television before brushing a finger over it, he then reached out to hit play again.
The first words out of the mouth of his older doppleganger were, “Her name is Joselyn. Joselyn Atherby. And she was… is… one of the most important people in the world to you. You were in school together, on a team together, partners together. You and Joselyn have been partners in every way. The—there’s only two people who matter as much to you—to us—as she does. Your children. The twins. A boy and a girl. They were—they are… they’re beautiful, and amazing and… and you were happy. You and Joselyn and the twins. It wasn’t a perfect life, there was a… a lot of work to do, a lot of fighting to hold on to what we had, to what you had. But as hard as it was, as much effort and blood as it took, you and Joselyn knew it was worth it. Because you—we were working to change the world, to make it better. I know a lot of this isn’t going to make sense yet, but I promise it will. You’ll understand, I just… I’m rambling a little. I have to… when I think about what happened, about what they did, about…”
His older self went quiet for a minute, saying nothing. His eyes were squeezed shut and Deveron could see the strain on his face before his eyes opened and he continued speaking. “One step at a time. The first thing you need to know is that you cannot trust anyone at Crossroads. No one. You know how you feel when you look at that picture? You know those emotions you have for the girl there, for Joselyn? The man behind Crossroads, the former Headmaster, Gabriel Ruthers, he stole her. He stole Joselyn and your kids, our kids. He took them away, erased them because… well, it’s a long story, and you’ll remember soon enough as it is.
“Right now, what you need to know is that he’s the enemy. And he’s got lots of allies, lot of spies all over that school, student and teacher alike. The headmistress, Gaia, she’s probably safe. Probably. Joselyn liked her anyway, and she’s helped out with certain things. But she wasn’t really part of our… our group. And I don’t know… our kids were taken. Our wife was taken, Deveron. Someone betrayed us, betrayed me, and… and I don’t feel like making the mistake of letting that happen again. Maybe trusting Gaia would be fine, but… but then again, someone else close to her might find out. It’s better to just… to just keep it to ourselves.”
The older Deveron on screen made a tight fist, his knuckles turning white before he managed to speak again. “Ruthers stole your kids and erased Joselyn from everyone’s memory. Even mine, yours, whatever. He tried to erase everything. He made her an ordinary person, took away her powers and abandoned her in the mundane world. And, well, a monster took her. A monster has our wife, and our children are… god knows where.
“I wouldn’t even know about it, except… Jos… she planned for something like this. She made allies, friends that could fix that kind of memory wipe. It took them awhile, but they found me. They made me remember the truth, all of it. They gave me back the memories that Ruthers and his people stole.
“I spent years searching, looking for Jos or the twins, trying to find any sign of them, anything at all. But Ruthers, he just… there was no way. Until… I got a message. A message from Joselyn. Somehow, I… I still don’t know how, she got a message to me. It wasn’t much, just an address and three words. Three little words. Please protect her.”
The other him rubbed a hand over his face, the emotion in his eyes so clear that Deveron could almost feel it himself, could almost remember feeling it. His voice was strained. “I went to the address. I found… she… she had a daughter. She has a daughter. God. God, she called her Felicity. Felicity. She’s… she’s beautiful. Smart, snarky, fun. She umm, she wants to be a reporter like her umm, like her dad. Her dad, he’s… he’s good. He’s great. I umm, I’m glad. I’m glad Joselyn had a good husband, another husband, and a kid, a daughter. She umm, she wanted to name our first daughter Felicity, but umm… but we named her after my mother instead. Your mother. Your real mother, not the false memory that was implanted of this place. You’ll remember her soon.
“And now I’m rambling again. Heh. Sorry, it’s just… Felicity. She’s… she’s already being watched by Crossroads. They’re gonna take her in as soon as she’s old enough. As of this recording, that’s next year. One year and she’ll be there.
“Fossor has Joselyn. He’s a necromancer, and he’s… he’s powerful. I… have to save her. I have to get her away from him. Somehow…just… she’s alive. She sent me that message, she wants me to protect her other daughter, and I will. I will make sure nothing happens to Felicity. But to do that, to protect her and to find our other children, the twins that Ruthers stole, I needed a little help.”
The older Deveron was silent for a few seconds, fist pressed against his forehead as he took in several deep breaths before starting again. “Find our twins, protect Felicity from Ruthers, Fossor, and anyone else that comes after her, and get enough power to find and save Joselyn. There’s only one real way of accomplishing all of that. I had to become a student at Crossroads again. Being there gives me free access to most of the grounds, in a year when Felicity shows up I’ll be a second year student, and the teachers will help me gain enough power to save my wife, to save Joselyn.
“So I went to Jos’s allies, the friends she made that returned my memories before. It took some convincing, but they agreed to erase me, to take me out of everyone’s memory, even my own. They’ll even make me look younger, apparently. So uhh, younger me, congratulations on that.”
He coughed, shaking his head before sighing. “The point is, no one, not even me, will know who I really am, or what I want. That’s the only way to make sure the Edge is fooled, and that Ruthers doesn’t find out anything. For the first year, I need to be an ordinary student. Well, if I know me, an extremely gifted ordinary student. But either way, just a student. One year of being the best student I can be. That way, next year, they’ll want me to stick around when I start fucking up.”
Hearing that, the younger Deveron frowned. Fucking up? What was he (literally himself) talking about?
“Yeah, fucking up,” his older doppleganger confirmed. “See, next year, you need to be one of the worst students possible. Be lazy, refuse to work, turn in assignments late, piss people off. I know. I know how it sounds, but do it. You were so good this year, so perfect at everything they put in front of you, that if you start fucking up now, they won’t kick you out. They can’t afford to. See, that’s the point. Crossroads needs you. You’re too good to throw away. As long as you’re not doing anything expulsion worthy, anything too bad, they’ll try to fix the problem. And that means they will take you… us… into the Runners HQ to try to figure out if something happened to you over the summer. When they do that, when they get you inside that building, you find a way into the file archives. That’s where you’ll find the records of our twins, our children. If anyone, anywhere has a record of where they were sent, of where Ruthers hid them, it’ll be the Runner Archives.
“It’s not gonna be easy. You might have to go in and out a few times before they trust you enough to leave you alone long enough to search the place. But it’ll happen. Show a little improvement, let them think that there might be something wrong that they haven’t figured out yet. Tease them a little. Get them to bring you back in until you get the chance to get into those archives. Find our children, Dev. Find our twins. Protect Felicity. Get enough power to save Joselyn. And while you’re at it, don’t… trust… anyone. Now, you can either walk away now, tell Crossroads everything, and just… not believe what I’m saying. Or you can keep listening, so we can go over a few more details of our…. my… your plan.”
Reaching out, Deveron hit pause on the DVD. For a few long moments, he stared into the image of himself, his older self. His mouth felt dry, the hand that grasped his pistol was so tight it was painful.
Then, slowly, his hand reached out once more. He pressed a finger against the machine once more, head bowed as a million thoughts ran through his mind at once. One breath, two breaths, three. The whole while, he stared at the picture on the table. The picture of himself… and Joselyn. His eyes found the girl’s, and he felt… entirely too much for this to be a lie. He felt the truth, and knew what he had to do, no matter how hard it felt.
He hit play.
“Still with me? Good. Now then, let’s get started…”