I’m running as fast as I can through the thick trees. I can’t remember what just happened, but I know Cody is running with me. She trips on a root, but then catches herself and keeps running. I can’t find my brother anywhere. He’s not behind us anymore.
I can hear Apollo’s voice calling out to me. He was right behind us, but now he’s gone.
Cody and I keep running until we reach a clearing of tall grass. We stand with our arms over our heads, struggling to catch our breath and pacing back and forth in exhaustion. I think we’re safe for a moment.
I look over at her and notice her sleek, white-blond hair is almost to her waist – even in a ponytail. She used to have shoulder length hair that complimented her thin face. Cody has piercing blue eyes and pale, small body. She’s always been shorter than me and my brother and is more fairylike than any person I’ve seen.
She stops pacing and looks at me, then looks around in a panic. “Pol!” Her ghostly skin glows under the moonlight as she asks, “Artie, where’s Apollo?”
I try to think of something to say to comfort her, but only come up with, “He’ll be alright.”
“No, he’s going to die out there and we can’t go back into the woods until daylight. What the hell are we supposed to tell the Headmistress? We’ll never have a full Square; not at this rate.”
Squares are teams; those in the team are bonded by mind, body, and soul. There are four people on a team and each with an ability. We aren’t demigods. We are distantly related to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece; gods like Zeus and Hephaestus or goddesses like Hera or Aphrodite. This relation to these gods allows for our abilities and we heal faster than average humans. Cody has the ability to lure and control people and animals, Apollo is telepathic, and I am telekinetic. We haven’t found a fourth person to match our power compatibility, so our Square is incomplete.
There were 12 Squares when we started at Branches Institute two years ago, which Headmistress Joy runs, but now three remain of our class. If a Square fails the challenges, the four Square members are sent back to where they came from and certain, specific information – like the Institute’s hidden location – will be erased from their memory. We can’t face the challenges yet because we don’t have a full Square.
I start, saying, “We’ll figure this out. Come on we have to –“
Just then, Apollo comes stumbling out of the woods. He’s covering his right forearm and I can tell he’s lost a lot of blood. We run to him and prop him up with both his arms around our shoulders, catching him as he falls unconscious.
“Shit! Put him down on the ground. Ready? 1…2…3,” I say as we lay him in the tall grass.
I walk about 2 feet away from him, concentrating. As I slowly lift one of my hands, Apollo rises from the ground and becomes suspended in midair, still unconscious. Cody walks past me, breathing hard. I turn her direction and start to follow, Apollo floating through the air behind us as we walk. We come to the gate surrounding the cottage we call home.
We live on the edge of Umatilla Forest, on the outskirts of Umatilla, Oregon. The cottage’s stony, old exterior blends with the forest’s huge trees because the entire cottage is covered in vines except for the red front door. The vegetation in the front yard between a low stone wall and the house consists of wild flowers and weeds. The inside of the cottage is spacious enough for us. There’s a living room with a couch and two chairs, a TV, and a DVD player to the left of the front door. If we walk straight ahead from the front door, there’s a long hallway that has 4 bedrooms coming off of it (Apollo and Cody have their own rooms, but generally stay together most of the time). To the left of the head of the hallway and behind the living room, there’s a colorful kitchen with navy blue cabinets, a bright red table, and yellow chairs. To the right of the front door, there’s a small dining room with a wooden table and chairs – we never use this room.
We were assigned this house by Headmistress Joy. Students move out of the Institute once they turn 18, then they are assigned a place to live and given a living stipend each month for groceries, personal effects, and things to do – like going to the movies, bowling, or even getting a cellphone (if that appeals to us – which it doesn’t). We’ve been in this cottage for 2 years almost, waiting for the Headmistress to give us our final Square member.
“Lay him on the table,” Cody chokes out as we stagger through the door. “I’ll get the kit.”
Keeping my right hand raised, I lift my left hand to move a blanket off the floor to cover the table. I gently place Apollo down and his eyes shoot open. He starts writhing and his breathing is heavy. Adrenaline is surging through me. He looks at me, frightened and reaches out to me with his good arm. I scramble to him and grab his hand; his grip is strong, but then weakens. He passes out again.
My voice cracks, as I yell to Cody, “Get that kit over here! He woke up!”
Rushing around the corner, she replies, “He was awake? What happened? Why is he out again?”
“I think it was the shock of the pain,” I say.
She runs over and slams the kit down on the table in the space between his legs, tears in her eyes. She whips it open and then opens a bottle of water she has in her hand. She begins to pour it over the cut on his arm and then covers it with a towel. I move around the table to the kit and get out the needle and thread to stitch. I lay them down next to Pol’s injured arm, remove the towel, and I move the items to stitch his arm.
When I move things, I can see their atoms and how they vibrate. I can control the thing by creating my own vibrations within the item to move it. I can see the needle moving and the silk string wrapping itself around the end of the needle. I can see the needle moving itself around the wound, closing it, then tying itself off and lying the items back on the table. Cody wraps the wound and stitches in cloth and breathes a heavy sigh. I can see the tears fall from her pale blue eyes as she notices Apollo’s blood on her hands. She leaves to go wash them off.
I stand and raise my hand again. Apollo begins to hover as I walk into the living room and place him on the old brown leather couch, then cover him with his favorite blanket: a black microfiber blanket with a large image of Darth Vader on it. I lift his legs and sit on the couch, resting his long legs across mine. My heart begins to go back to its normal pace as I take his hand.
“Cody, you good?” I yell across the house.
“Yeah, I’m going to hop in the shower and change,” she replies from another room with a shaky voice.
I can tell Cody is upset. The last time Apollo was injured she didn’t sleep for 3 days. I understand this, though. They’ve been dating for 4 years. They met after our father, Wolf, saved her from the streets of Chicago when we were 16. She had been living in alley ways and was in the process of getting arrested for stealing a watch when dad came up and told the officer he gave her the watch as a gift for helping him. She was released and dad offered her sanctuary in our home.
I sit with Pol’s hand in mine. Examining my twin as he lay still. He has caramel skin and a dark brown mess of curly hair, just like mine except much shorter – his edged jaw and pointed chin parallel to his wide collar bones. I can’t lose my brother. He’s always stronger than me in all aspects of life. I am lucky to share a life with such a person. I can’t lose my twin. I have these thoughts every time he gets injured, even though I know he’ll be healed soon. I’m just frightened that one day, he will be gone.
Minutes later, Cody comes around the corner and declares, “I’ll make spaghetti tonight.”
“That sounds amazing. Thanks, Cody,” I say as she walks into the kitchen. She cooks in any mood. I move Apollo’s legs, then get up to follow her.
“Artie, do you know how long he’ll be like that?”
Seeing the concerned look on her face, I wrap my arms around her small body and answer, “My guess is a day or so. Then, we can head back to Branches and let the Headmistress know that we’ve failed this one.”
“We’ll do better next time. I just hope they won’t take away our off campus living privileges. I like the freedom,” she sighs.
“Me, too. There’s no way they’ll take it away for getting chased out of the woods by a minotaur. I mean, Apollo nearly died,” I scoff.
Cody nods and I release her, then I head back into the living room. I notice Apollo’s gray eyes – which are the same shade as mine – looking at me. I hear his voice in my head.
“Artie,” he thinks to me with a growing smile, “are you guys, OK?”
“Better now that you’re awake. You don’t always have to be the hero,” I think with an underlying sass. “Get some rest please. I can take care of Cody. I’ll tell her you say ‘hello’.”
Apollo closes his eyes and turns his head away as he drifts back into sleep. Tired, I walk to my room down the hall and lift my hand to shut the door. I look toward the full-length mirror in the corner of my room. My wild, dark chocolate, curly hair looks as it always does – unmoved. I slide my worn, brown leather jacket off and examine my body. I’ve always had a long body with a fitness to it. I’ve tried gaining and losing weight, but I guess I’m just meant to be like this. Don’t get me wrong – I love having a pretty okay body, but it’d be nice to find clothes that fit in all the right places.
I head into my bathroom and climb, dazed, into the shower. After half an hour of standing under the water, feeling the heat against my skin, I get out. I throw on an old Beatles shirt, holey, gray sweat pants, and as I slip on my black, fuzzy socks, I smell the spaghetti.
On my way to the kitchen, I notice Apollo’s bedroom door is open. He never leaves his door open. As I reach to shut it, I spot a blue envelope sticking out from under a blanket on his unmade bed. I look down the hall to see if anyone is coming, sneak in, and grab the envelope. I stare at it for a moment, knowing that I shouldn’t snoop, but at the same time we do share the same genes, so that should count as an excuse. The return address on the envelope is one from Baltimore, Maryland belonging to a woman named “Kelsa Grey”. Taking the letter out of this envelope, I notice a fifty-dollar bill inside as well. I replace the bill and open the letter. It reads:
I was a young woman and it was dangerous times for everyone in our world. You must understand that even if Cody wanted to meet me, she would most likely hate me. I left a little girl in front of a fire station 20 years ago for her protection and didn’t plan on looking back. I understand the effort it took you to reach out, but I’ve enclosed fifty dollars to get you to, quite honestly, leave me alone. I do not desire to ruin this girl’s life any further. I can only imagine the struggle Cody has already been through and it is good to hear she has a permanent home with the Institute. Please do not reply and burn this letter once it is read.
My sincerest apologies,
I can’t wrap my head around what I just read. Has Apollo been searching for Cody’s parents behind her back? Why has he kept this a secret? Why didn’t he burn the letter?
I put the letter back the way I found it, go to the kitchen and sit at the table with Cody. She looks up and gives me a halfhearted smile. I return the smile, feeling awkward with what I’ve just discovered heavy on my mind.
The next morning, I walk into the kitchen and see Cody preparing breakfast. I slide past her and into the living room to check on Apollo, but he’s not on our couch anymore.
“Um, Cody? Where the hell is –“
“I’m right here, Artie. Chill,” says Pol with his deep, raspy voice. “We’re going to Branches to report today, right? When do you want to leave?”
“Excuse me. You’re supposed to be resting,” I reply.
He sticks his tongue out as to mock me, then says, “Well, I’m up. So, when are we leaving?”
I shake my head in disapproval and sit at the table. “Around nine,” replies Cody with a glowing smile.
After we eat, I go to my room to get dressed and as I lace up my dirty, old, black Chuck Taylor Converse, I can’t help but think about that letter. Should I ask Apollo about it? If I think about it too much I know he’ll sense it. Should I tell Cody and see what happens? What if it’s not what I think it is?
As I’m thinking about these things, I find myself already drifting down the hall to Apollo’s room. I walk in and plop down on his bed. He’s putting on his boots when I blurt out, “What’s that letter?”
He looks at me with a stunned look. I don’t know if he’ll get angry or answer the question with composure. He shoots up from the bed – angry – and closes the door, then turns to me and says, “Cody is out for a jog, but I want to make this very clear. You cannot tell her anything. Knowing you, I know you read the letter. You saw how bad it was.”
“But Cody told us she already tried to find her mom years ago. What if –“
“No. And since I already know you’re thinking it, I hid the letter, so you can’t get her to find it. I’m begging you. Let me do this when the time is right, Artie. You don’t know the whole story.”
“Then tell me,” I say, feeling my large gray eyes working their magic on him.
He pauses and stares at me for a second contemplating his next move. I can tell it’s serious. Then he sits next to me and says, “Cody’s mom is a siren. One of the last ones alive. If she ever found out the truth –“
“We have to tell her. That means Cody could be one, too. She needs to learn to control it. What if she accidentally kills someone? What if she’s hunted?”
“I know. That’s why I haven’t told her.”
With that we decide it’s best to end the conversation, then we head outside together just as Cody is walking up.
“Hey guys, I found this cat wandering about so I got it to follow me. I think it might genuinely like me, though. Do you think we could keep a cat?” she asks, batting her eyelashes.
We both look at her with questioning faces, then Apollo sighs, “Let him be wild.” Cody looks disappointed, then leans down and whispers to the cat. The cat then runs off with enthusiasm, most likely in search of a new home. After it’s gone, Cody goes inside.
I look at Pol, “You want to keep a secret like this from her, that’s your choice. She’s your girlfriend for Gaia’s sake, but remember, she’s my best friend, too. Let’s go.”
Minutes later, when Cody returns, we walk into the forest, pull out a necklace chain with a purple stone that allows the Headmistress to teleport the user, then close our eyes and say “Branches Institute”. I feel an adrenaline rush inside my body like I’m on a rollercoaster and then open my eyes to reveal a wide field. At the other end of the field, there’s an old mansion with a tall gate.
Branches Institute doesn’t have a set location. It moves from time to time. Right now, it happens to be an uninhabited area of the Oklahoma fields.
We run though the tall grass to the gate and approach it in trepidation, seeing the large, silver “B” at its center. The “B” melts away fast and the metal runs around the gate poles, like slithering serpents, into the hole in the lock on the left side. The gate opens with a rush of wind and a path is revealed through the tall weeds in front of us, leading to the front doors of the Institute.
We approach the doors and they swing open. We enter to see a familiar, castle-like staircase in an echo capable room and entrances to many different hallways. There are students walking everywhere.
Suddenly we hear a familiar, mellifluous voice over a doorway speaker say, “Welcome home, Square 5. Please come to my office.”
We walk up the stairs and to the left. We enter the first door on the right and go up another set of stairs, into the mansion tower. Upon entering the next room, we walk in to find Headmistress Joy sitting at her desk, casually typing away on a pink laptop. The Headmistress’s black hair is in its usual half-up-half-down hairdo. She has a sharp face and wears her traditional pant suit that’s a severe shade of Bordeaux. Although, I think she has the same pant suit in every color known to mankind.
Without hesitation, Apollo tries to smooth talk her by saying, “Headmistress, you look amazing since the last –“
“I know you failed, Mr. Abreu and I want you to know it’s okay. Flattery is not necessary, although thank you. I have been doing palates,” she says with a slight smile. She raises her head to look at us and continues, “That was a filler mission and I understand you were attacked by minotaurs.”
I step forward. “Yes, but why would –“
She stands and lifts a hand as to silence me, then leans forward and whispers, “I have found your fourth.”
We stand shocked and quiet as she walks around the desk to come nearer to us. I can feel Cody slide her hand into mine and no doubt she is holding Pol’s as well. This is what we’ve waited for.
“His name is Jonah. He’s in your old dorm room, Apollo. I intend to move him to your cottage with you to allow you all to get used to each other over a 10 day period, and then you all will begin training for the remaining 20 days of your training period,” she says to comfort us as we probably look uneasy. “Follow me please.”
We walk to the right side of the house and up another set of identical stairs, except when we open this door it leads to a long maze of hallways. Behind each door lies a dorm room. We walk to the end of a hall and I can feel the butterflies in my stomach. After we meet Jonah, we will all become bonded. Headmistress Joy opens door 14A to reveal a young man standing next to the small fireplace in the room.
“Hello, Jonah. Meet your new Square,” the Headmistress says in an introductory tone.
Jonah turns around and I lock eyes with him. I feel the butterflies worsen. He must be taller than 6 feet, has brown eyes, is that fit, but muscular type, and has wavy, brown hair that looks like he just ran his hand through. He’s wearing a gray t-shirt, dark jeans, and red Converse. All of a sudden, I can’t breathe.
As I’m unable to speak, I hear Pol’s voice in my head joking, “I know he’s hot, Artie, but get your crap together.” He then walks toward Jonah and offers his fist for a fist bump. “Hey, bro. Welcome to the family,” Apollo says in his smooth manner.
Jonah accepts his fist bump and replies in a low, velvet voice, “Thanks, man.”
Cody rushes forward and gives Jonah a hug, then releases and says, “Finally someone besides the twins!” Then she turns to us and whispers, “No offense.”
I approach Jonah and offer my hand for a hand shake and say, “Welcome. It’s cool to finally have a fourth.”
He nods his head as if to say, “thank you” without breaking eye contact, then we turn to face Headmistress Joy.
She walks toward the door and opens it, offering an exit, then we walk downstairs. We stand by the front door as she gives us instructions, saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your lives at the Institute. I will come to collect you all in 30 days to begin the challenges. Jonah, all your belongings have been moved to Umatilla cottage. Make the best of this time because you now have to prepare to face the challenges. Best of luck.” Then, she turns from us and, without warning, disappears.
Breaking the silence after Headmistress Joy’s exit, Cody tells us, “I’ve always hated when she leaves like that. I mean it’s cool when she teleports us, but -” She looks around at us, then finishes, “I’ll shut up now. Let’s go home!”
We look at her and smile, then turn to leave through the door. We walk into the forest and pull out the stones once more, transporting home.
When we come up to the cottage, Apollo puts his arm around Jonah’s shoulders and exclaims, “Home sweet home!”
We go inside and I volunteer to take Jonah to his room. The two of us walk to the end of the hall in silence, then, as we arrive at his door, I say, “I’m glad someone is finally moving into this room. It creeps me out at night,” then I laugh, feeling awkward, to break the tension.
All I see in his room is a trunk and one suitcase. Almost stoic, he turns to me and says, “I travel light. I don’t really own a lot.” He then plops down on the bed and sits up to look at me.
“Dinner will be soon, so expect to hear Cody yelling for us and if you have any questions, I’m probably the one to ask because my brother can get weird,” I suggest.
“Thanks, Artemis,” he says with the corners of his mouth tugging into a smile.
“Oh, you can call me Artie. Everyone else does.” I try to hold back a smile.
I walk into my room and take my shoes off. I lift my hand to close my door and then I feel a grin spread across my face. I lay there for about 10 minutes just thinking, when I hear a light knock.
I sit up fast and say, “Come on in,” trying to seem confident.
I see Jonah poke his head around the door and he says, “Can I talk to you for a second? I have a few questions.”
“Yeah, of course.”
He comes in and sits next to me, then asks, “Why are your names Artemis and Apollo? It’s different and cool.”
“Well, our mom liked it. She was the daughter of a demigod from Apollo and we just happened to be twins.”
He pauses for a moment, then asks, “So, Greek gods and stuff are real? I mean, the Headmistress told me about the history behind the Institute and how Athena created it a long time ago, but I really thought they were myth.”
“They’re real. They just don’t have as much jurisdiction here in the United States anymore. They stick to Greece these days. Demons, centaurs, and other mythological creatures are real, too. I actually have a book of them I’ll lend to you,” I offer. My heart speeds up. I get up and walk to the wall, plucking the oldest, raggedy brown book from my bookshelf. “This is our history. Just a light read.”
“This is awesome. Thanks. I guess I’ll see you at dinner,” he says with a gentle side smile. He takes the book, walks out and closes the door behind him.
I rush to the bathroom to apply more deodorant. I could feel myself starting to sweat the longer he was here. Why do I feel like an errant child when he looks at me? I need to get this under control. It’s a stupid girl crush. We have real business.