CHAPTER ONE: COMPATIBLE
The end of the line stared him down, approaching too quickly for comfort.
Patrick wasn’t in a hurry to get back to class, where reviewing grammar rules for the umpteenth time made him want to tear his face off. But the present moment posed an unfriendly alternative, as medical personnel called student after student back into the locker room to undergo an exam whose purpose no one really understood.
“I think they’re looking for some kind of virus,” a classmate whispered to his friend in front of Patrick. “I wonder how contagious it is.”
Another boy exited the locker room ahead, where the line of students waited to be screened. The girls were queued at the other locker room across the gym.
“Hey,” the student behind Patrick caught the arm of the newcomer. “Did it hurt? Did you have it?”
The latter shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but a teacher overseeing the line interrupted him with a curt, “Back to class, please.”
The student jumped to comply. Patrick glanced after him. The general murmur continued, and Patrick shifted forward as another kid disappeared into the room beyond.
“Negative or positive?” his classmate asked as yet another emerged from the locker room. Patrick took a breath as surreptitiously as possible, trying to stay calm, though his chest was tight.
“Negative,” was the relieved response.
Now, Patrick stood at the front of the line. He jumped at the dispirited, “Next!” that burst from the room before the door swung closed. He crept forward.
Portable white curtains divided the locker room into three sections, where attendants in scrubs sat students into plastic chairs and pricked their fingers with an electronic device shaped like a temperature gun.
“Sit down,” the attendant said, reloading a clear cartridge onto the end of the handheld device. Patrick complied.
“Give me your hand.”
Patrick obeyed nervously. The attendant fitted the device onto his index finger. Patrick winced as, with a modest release of air, the device bit into his skin.
The attendant waited for the device to give the verdict.
It began to beep repeatedly, like the fretful chirping of a bird. The man’s bored expression hardened in disbelief. Patrick’s stomach sank.
“What does that mean?” Patrick ventured timidly.
“Hold on,” the attendant said, pulling off the cartridge and clicking in a new one. “Let’s try this again.”
Patrick obeyed. The device discharged, and they waited. The same chirping bubbled up from the device. The attendant loaded another cartridge.
“Next!” he called.
Patrick stood up slowly.
“Stay in here for a minute,” the man said. “Wait over there.”
Patrick stepped off to the side and waited anxiously for something to make sense.
The man waved the next student over, and ran through the same process with him. Luckily, it wasn’t the kid that had been asking everyone if they “had it,” but he was on the other side of the room, his own test coming out negative. He exchanged a glance with Patrick on his way out of the locker room and Patrick looked at the floor, mortified.
The device beeped flatly and flashed a simple red light for the boy called to sit in Patrick’s place.
“Negative. Thank you. You can go.” The attendant reloaded the tester yet again, and gestured for Patrick to step up and offer his hand again.
The device chirped as urgently as before, and Patrick watched the green light, burning loudly and confidently just to the side of where the red light had appeared.
“Huh…” the attendant said, incredulously considering the device. He looked at Patrick, as if seeing him for the first time. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Patrick Everhart,” Patrick stammered.
“Well, Patrick,” the man said, as he reached for a clipboard with an empty form, writing the name at the top. He spelled Patrick’s last name wrong. “You’re Compatible.”
“What does that mean?” The last thing Patrick’s parents could handle on top of Adri and Ximena’s college loans were medical bills.
“Go ahead and return to class,” the man said, discharging the cartridge with its counterparts into a separate plastic bag. He labeled it with a permanent marker. “Come back after your last class and I’ll explain more. For now, we have to get through the rest of the student body to see if there are any more like you.”
Before Patrick had even left the locker room, the gaze of every one of his peers trained on him.
He returned to class and quietly found his seat. His heart thudded hard in his chest, and he couldn’t concentrate on the lecture. As the teacher droned about punctuation, Patrick considered the three bandaged fingers of his left hand.
They had taken great pains to make sure it was true.
Several hours later, the last bell rang, and amid the rustle of students gathering their books and papers, the teacher called him up to her desk.
When Patrick apprehensively crept up, she handed him a slip of paper, her expression careful. “Take this back down to the gym for your followup,” she said. “It’s very important.”
Patrick nodded. He slung his backpack over his shoulder, keeping his head down and avoiding gazes as he left the room. Word was spreading fast. He had been tested in the morning, and by then, even kids whose names he didn’t know were staring, whispering. He’d always been invisible before. Before last period, he’d found a messy drawing on notebook paper taped to his locker, of him with X’s over his eyes and people in hazmat suits.
He made his way toward the gym, his stomach in knots.
“Nice knowing ya, Neverheard!” One of the school bullies, an arrogant, upper class control freak jeered across the crowded hallway after him. He was probably the artist responsible for the drawing on Patrick’s locker.
Patrick stole down the stairs and out to the gym. He found the attendants packing up their impromptu testing site in the locker room.
“Welcome back,” the man who had tested him said without looking up.
No other students were around.
“Are we waiting on anyone else?” Patrick asked, hopelessly.
“Please, sit down,” the man said, gesturing to one of the short, plastic chairs.
As Patrick complied, the man continued, “You’re Compatible: We’re screening students for a rare set of genes, which have the potential to give rise to superhuman abilities. And, according to this device—” He held up one of the apparatuses before packing it away with its counterparts— “You have it.”
A knot twisted Patrick’s insides. “What?” he said slowly. “Superhuman…?”
“I know, it sounds a little Out There,” the man said. “But believe me, it’s a big deal. So congrats.”
Patrick blinked. “What kind of abilities?”
“Depends on your genes.”
“Were they going to show up sometime later?” Patrick had no innate abilities. Nothing came naturally to him.
“Not on their own, no. But they can be activated artificially.”
“…Why?” Patrick said, lightheaded.
“The government needs people like you, for a special project.”
“Yes. Look, you’ll get used to the idea as things get going.” The attendant impatiently sealed the lid of an insulated plastic tub. “Expect a call very soon. That’s it for now.” He pushed the tub aside and brandished a big biohazard bag full of discarded screening cartridges. “Don’t tell anyone but your parents. Government secrets and all.”
Patrick nodded, numbly.
“Go catch your bus, kid.”
Patrick turned and left, emotion high in his throat.
“Oh no…” he kept muttering under his breath. The school hallways felt dark and empty and close. He winced in the sunlight as he opened the door to join the crowd of kids headed home. “Oh no…”