We were considered strange until we got to high school. Both with our idiosyncratic behaviors, nervous ticks, emotional barriers, and inability to find common ground with our fellow classmates. We were inseparable. We seemed to communicate without speaking, I just knew what he was thinking.

We arrived at school at the same time, even though we came from different parts of the city. I would wait for him, or he for me when my train was late. We would walk the last mile to school, counting the leaves on the ground, or the cars that passed overhead. We were always right and in sync. After a few days, even our walking pace became synchronized. I think even our hearts began to beat in time as our interest in sports increased, and our bodies began to fill out.

School was tolerable, our professors only mildly annoying and since half of our program was automated, we were able to do the bulk of our studies unsupervised. The worst part of the day was lunch. It was unavoidable. We were forced to attend the cafeteria with its horrible-smelling, nausea-inducing food, barely washed jocks, over-perfumed cheerleaders, and unfortunate geeks who sat unloved except by their own kind, sharing hidden jokes behind notebooks that were filled with their perfects notes which matched their perfect grades. We sat together, our own little culture.

Kenneth was a golden god, skin like a dusky bronze, and despite his adolescence suffered none of the imperfections common to our non-sporting brethren. His hair likened to a tan wool that he kept short and perfectly combed. I was a dark brown color, a deep rich loam, Kenneth used to call it, and my eyes were my most distinctive feature, a honey-color, relatively unique amongst our classmates. My hair was kept braided across my scalp in a crosshatched pattern my mother found easy to maintain and thought looked good on me. My classmates teased me for a few weeks but eventually got over it. What made lunch unbearable was the Carrier. We did not know what it was, but when students were allowed to bring their portable signal devices, we could hear the Carrier. It grated on our nerves, like nails on a chalkboard. It was clear that no one else could hear it. So we would get whatever food we could stomach, usually some mashed flavorless legume and head for the far courtyard away from the other students.

We ate our lunch all year, watching the seasons, laid on our backs and marveled about the City which loomed high above our school in the outskirts, and wondered what jobs we would be coded for in the future. Our disability was noted by the school's professionals but did not hinder our educational development. In fact, because of the rote memorization of schoolwork, we were able to outperform almost anyone at our school except for the naturals, who seemed to possess incredible scholastic ability, seemingly without effort. Kenneth and I watched them with great interest, because we thought they were like us, gifted and perhaps we could talk about the Carrier with them.

And this was our mistake. We met Cameroon Valheric one afternoon during our battle-ball tourney. He was on the opposing team and managed to take down most of our team with his amazing speed and agility. Kenneth and I were the last of our team and he and his two team-mates wore us down and eventually took us down with well aimed throws, whose velocity was not to be believed. And in that we grew suspicious. We befriended Cameroon and invited him out to meet with us. We had our own portable with us and when we played it, he did not hear the Carrier. We assumed he was not like us, but we liked him and he was willing to be our friend, so we added one to our group.

By the end of the school year, our little triad was making the school media feed, due to our scholastic skills and our battle-ball triumphs. This would have been a high point of our up to now unpleasant educational process until a newspaper reporter came to the school and accused Cameroon with being illegally genetically modified. Genetic modification had been done to the inhabitants of Kenopolis because we were not completely compatible with planetary life, so we were familiar with it. But further modifications were not recommended because there was a chance of lethal genetic interaction.

The press swarmed our group and questions began to be asked about our autism and how it affected our work and our school lives. Innocently, Kenneth mentioned there was nothing different about us, we were just autistic. He showed how he could recite pi for fifty digits flawlessly. He could do it for five hundred digits. He talked about how I could count any number of objects thrown to the floor, as long as I could see them, I could count them in a split second. And then he mentioned how he could hear the Carrier. The news reporter asked him what he meant and when he explained, the reporter gathered her paperwork and cameraman and they thanked us and left the campus.

We waited to hear the news story in the next vid feed but nothing was ever done. A few days later, a film crew had been reported being killed in an accident when the gravity stabilizer was believed to have failed in their vehicle. We thought nothing of it. We were young, we thought we would live forever.

One morning, that spring, I was sick and running late. I knew I wouldn't go to school on time and told Kenny and Cam to go on without me. By the time I go to school, the building was on fire. Kenny and Cam would be in that part of the building. I ran into the crowd, pushing past everyone trying to run out. I ran past the teachers, the security, up the stairs, into the choking cloud of smoke. I remembered every step in my head, I could not get lost and though I could not see, I knew were I was. I dropped down on my hands and knees and kept crawling. Small fires had already begun spreading everywhere, and I could see the doors to the science wing and the smoke billowing from all around me. The fire alarms had gone off but there was no sprinklers activation. 

And then I saw him. A man in a black suit and a face-covering mask. He turned in my direction, but did not seem to see me. Then he vanished into the smoke. A second later, a muffled boom sounded and the door to the lab blew off the hinges. Fire rushed out of the room, flew across the ceiling, and I could feel the superheated air, leaping free of the room with the fervor of a living beast. I ran down the stairs, barely ahead of the flames, tears running down my face, screaming and running, as the fire chased me smoking into the street. I was burning, but could not remember anything other than Kenny and Cam banging on the window before the explosion.

'The Carrier' © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved

The End

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