Ren Sharpe was abducted at fourteen and chosen by the mysterious F.A.T.E. Center to become a Shadow: the fearless and unstoppable guardian of a future leader. Everything she held dear—her family, her home, her former life—is gone forever.
Ren survives four years of training, torture, and misery, in large part thanks to Junie, a fellow F.A.T.E. abductee who started out as lost and confused as she did. She wouldn’t admit it was possible to find love in a prison beyond imagining, but what she feels for Junie may just be the closest thing to it.
At eighteen they part ways when Ren receives her assignment: find and protect college science student Gareth Young, or die trying. Life following a college nerd is uneventful, until an attack on Gareth forces Ren to track down the only person she can trust. When she and Junie discover that the F.A.T.E. itself might be behind the attacks, even certain knowledge of the future may not be enough to save their kidnappers from the killing machines they created.
What if I told you that we already know who the President of the United States will be in 50 years? (William Stinson, if you’re wondering). Or that the world’s first trillionaire is currently only three years old, lives in Manchester, England, and has a pet turtle named Labooboo? You can doubt me all you want, but it won’t stop us from knowing these things.
How we know is not relevant to this story, at least not at this point. Who these future bigwigs are and how we protect them is. I say this because I will soon be one of the protectors. Today, after four long years of training, exhaustion, and pain I will officially become a Shadow. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For any of this to make sense we can’t start now. I mean, we could, but you’d be confused, and I’d be annoyed by your interruptions for explanations. So beep, beep, beep goes the truck as we back this sucker up.
For everything that’s about to happen to me to make any sense we’ll have to go back four years to when I was just fourteen years old. It was then that I lost what was left of my childhood. Scratch that. Lost is a poor choice of words. It implies I had something to do with it, like it was my fault.
Stolen. Yeah, that’s the word I’m looking for; it was then that my childhood was stolen. It’s no five-dollar word, but it’ll do. That’s where this whole thing really begins. Four years ago almost to the day.
So from here on out, everything is in the past. I’ll let you know when we’re back to the present. In fact, let’s have a safe-word cue so there’s no confusion. Our finished-with- the-past-back-to-present-safe-word-cue will be—wait for it—“Milkshake.”
A LIFE QUITE ORDINARY
The Pap smear was easily the most embarrassing moment of my life. Nobody should want to do that for a living. You always hear the saying, “Do what makes you happy.” Well if doing that makes you happy, you’ve got issues, major ones. Plus, who came up with the name? Pap smear? There was no smearing. Should have called it a Pap probe.
So after I was Pap probed, the doctor told me the last step in our little meeting was a blood test. Not quite sure what that had to do with anything, but who argues with a doctor?
He left me alone for a moment to get dressed, but quickly returned through a side door holding a needle. I hate needles. He said, “This won’t hurt a bit.” I call BS on that because it did. It stung, and then it hurt. Whenever something leaves a bruise, that means pain. I had to look away because the sight made me light-headed.
I was sure he’d taken a little more than necessary to add to his Dexter-like blood collection of “trophies,” only he wasn’t nearly as good-looking as Michael C. Hall and didn’t have a clever inner monologue full of witty puns and sarcasm.
After that I was free to pick up what was left of my dignity and leave. Trust me, there wasn’t much after all of that. Being a gangly, pasty white teenager with low self-esteem is tough enough. Now this had happened? Way to pile it on, society.
I was too disgusted with the whole process to respond to my mother’s question about how it went. She knew exactly how it went. I could see her and my father having a good laugh about it later. And for some reason I saw that my ten-year-old brother joined in there, too. Ridicule should be shared by the whole family. Makes you stronger.
The ride home was long and awkward. Mom kept asking me stupid questions about the appointment.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“It’s all part of being an adult,” she said off-handedly as she changed the radio station.
Like she would know. My name is Rennes Sharpe. She and Dad named me after the town where I was conceived. (Another truly disgusting moment in my life when I found that one out.) Thank you, “adults.” I guess it could have been worse. I could have been named Fort Stockton or Baltimore. But as if having a bizarre name weren’t enough, they nicknamed me Ren. Bizarre real name; nickname sounds like a boy. Yes, this is what “adults” do. At age one hour, my life was already going to be an uphill battle.
“I’m not an adult,” I said. “I’m only fourteen.”
It was an argument I’d been making for quite some time. I rolled my window down and let the booming of the wind act as my shield against further questioning. She got the not so subtle hint and left me alone to my thoughts. You see, I know it may come as a shock to you, but I was actually happy being a child. This girl was in no hurry to grow up. Being a grown-up was something I wanted no part of, and today’s Pap smear had only strengthened that belief. Being an adult seemed way too complicated. I knew high school started in a week. With it I was sure I’d change, but not yet. I still had time.
The road we were on was my favorite. I knew it like a beloved old book. The trees, the houses, the smells. It was home. If we drove right, we’d hit Main Street in our small town, starting down the path that would take us to our house. I closed my eyes and let the wind and sun do their jobs as I zoned out. Zoning out is something I could do really well. Easily a top five skill. You know what? Scratch that, it’s number one by a mile. I’m really good at zoning out. It’s something one picks up from a father who is an engineer and loves talking about his work.
I counted the turns in my head and opened my eyes just as we pulled into the garage. The wind had blown my black hair into rat’s nest, and one look in the mirror told me that the battle to fix it would have to take place in the house, not in the car. I was feeling better but I couldn’t let my mom know that, so I trudged out of the car with an “I’m still not happy about earlier” mug.
Before I could open the door and go inside, she grabbed me and wrapped me up in a full-on mom hug, complete with the feeling of total comfort and safety. Teenage Kryptonite.
“I’m proud of you, sweetie,” she said as I melted. Man, why had she waited until now? Where had this been before we drove home?
“It sucked,” I blurted out in her shoulder.
She gave a snort and added, “I know. Come on. Let’s go figure out dinner. Can you help me out with it?”
Dinner was uneventful. I think my mother had forbidden my father from bringing up the afternoon’s probing, and my brother was as oblivious to my life as I was to his. What did I have in common with a ten-year-old boy? Nada mucho.
I spent the night barricaded in my room, hoping my parents wouldn’t stop by to see how I was doing. At about nine there was a knock on my door.
“Hey, honey. Can I come in?” came my father’s deep voice. Sorry, Dad, not gonna happen. I mean, I guess he could be coming in just to say goodnight, but I wasn’t going to risk it. No way.
“I’m on the phone,” I lied. Well, not a total lie. Texting is on the phone, right?
He left me alone to continue my marathon texting tear with my best friend, Beth. She had heard that there was a party, and “everyone” was going to be there. I wasn’t a part of “everyone,” but she was, and she constantly tried to include me in this group. They tolerated me because of her. But I didn’t mind being dragged along because Trey, a boy I’d had a crush on for most of my life, was part of “everyone.” He was ridiculously good-looking and probably going to be the first ever freshman starting quarterback at our high school. Oh, I know how cliché it all is. Suck it, I was fourteen. He was beyond out of my league, I knew this, but a heart wants what a heart wants.
By the time Beth and I had hashed out our plans, I was sure we had broken our record of 500 texts in one hour. A quick check of the time log confirmed it. 502, hey yo!
I spent the rest of the night quietly practicing my cello (have I mentioned yet how truly uncool I am?) before calling it quits and going to bed.
So if you’re counting, that’s zoning out, texting, and playing the cello that I’m really good at. Okay, soul-baring time since I doubt it will change your opinion of me. The other two things things on my top five list of “things I do well” are, drum roll please: being annoying and loving horror movies. Is that really a skill? Watching horror movies? Fine, we’ll put an asterisk by that for reconsideration. I mean, it’s not like I keep an official list of these things in a well-worn, green journal I hide under my bed. And it’s not like I edit said list periodically ensuring that it’s up to date and accurately reflects the most current me. That would be crazy. (Insert awkward laughter here.)
I awoke on Saturday as I always did, sleepy. I would sleep all day if they’d let me. I love sleep. But Saturday is chore day in these parts, and a good daughter must oblige, especially one that wants to go to a party that night.
I stumbled downstairs in my pj’s to the predictable da-na-nah, da-na-nah of ESPN SportsCenter. If my father could have bought stock in that show, we’d be part owners.
I sat down at the table next to my brother. He was eating cereal and playing a video game. Next to him was a fresh bowl filled to the brim with Golden Grahams. I don’t know why he did it, but every Saturday morning there it was, a fresh bowl waiting for me. Maybe it was to make up for being such a little turd the rest of the week. Who knows? All I know is I love me some G-Grahams, and with a quick pour of milk I was in cereal heaven.
Our chores were easy enough even though I would never admit to it. Complaining the whole time was a strategic plan. I had to make them think I hated it. But really, taking out the trash? Easy. Vacuuming? Secretly loved it! Weeding the garden? Oddly satisfying. Easy money.
I’d used chore time to fashion the plan of attack to get my parents to let me go to the party. It was simple. I chose to believe honesty would be the best path.
I’m lame. I don’t drink. Nothing is going to happen to me, I’d tell them. It was true—pathetically so.
I took a shower and found them sitting on the backyard porch talking. They looked up at me as I walked toward them.
“Hey,” I said nonchalantly.
“Hey, honey,” my dad said. He motioned for me to sit in a chair by them, but I stood instead. I never chose to hang out with them so they knew something was up. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I decided to just go for it.
“So, there’s a party tonight,” I started smoothly but then began to ramble, “and Beth and I were thinking about going and you know I would never do anything stupid and we’re only fourteen so there won’t be any liquor there just soda, not that I drink anyway, plus, you’re always telling to me to expand my horizons and meet new people which this party would be and it’s me getting out of the house to hang out with more people my age which I know you guys want me to do more often.” I took a deep breath when I finished, realizing I had probably just rattled off the longest run-on sentence of my life.
My parents sat in silence, either thinking about it or maybe just trying to process all that had just spewed out of my mouth. I had prepared up to six different responses for what I predicted they would say.
My dad looked at my mom, then turned to me and said, “Have fun.”
“Be home by ten,” my mother added with a smile. She took a sip of her tea and leaned back to relax.
Confused, I wandered back inside. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of push back, or an argument or something? That was just too easy. And then I realized it. They knew. They knew I was lame, that I didn’t drink, and that nothing would happen to me. How sad is that?
I went upstairs to text Beth the good news and that I’d head over to her house after I got dressed. I never knew what to wear to these things so I just put on a pair of shorts, a tank top, and my ratty old USC hoodie. I slipped on my flip flops, hopped on my bike, and fifteen minutes later I was at Beth’s door.
She met me outside and yelled, “Bye, Mom.” Her parents were the coolest people in the world. They had invented some restaurant software that a theme park chain had bought a while back, which meant they pretty much got to sit around and do whatever they wanted all day. Also, they could go to said theme parks for free, forever. So jealous.
I was glad to see that Beth was wearing similar garb. Sometimes I would be overly dressed or extremely under-dressed in anticipation of hanging out with “everyone.” At least I’d fit in dress-wise tonight. The party wasn’t very far away but was still too far to walk, so we rode our bikes.
Now, contrary to popular belief, high school parties are not three hundred people strong with loud rap music. If you’re looking to get busted, that’s the recipe. No, most parties are more just glorified hang-out sessions of twenty to thirty people. I only sound so knowledgeable because last year, when I went to my first “party,” I was sorely disappointed it wasn’t like in the movies.
Beth immediately ran over to some kids sitting by the small koi pond. Then I was alone. I’d been expecting this, but the sudden reality didn’t make it easier. Beth became a whole different person around “everyone.” She spoke like an idiot, cared about garbage TV shows, and was basically the annoying popular girl we had hated when we were younger. I never told her this because I was sure she knew and wasn’t proud of it. Why rub it in, right?
I scanned the yard. Across from the pond there was a fire pit. There. My eyes zeroed in on Trey, who was surrounded by girls and even a few guys, playing the guitar. Did I also mention he was an amazing musician? He finished his song to raucous clapping. I almost clapped myself but resisted. He laughed off the over-enthusiasm with a wave, and then gently put the guitar down. He was standing and stretching when his eyes found me. He gave me a nod and a smile.
I did what any other sensible girl in my position would do. I turned beet red, wondered if I smiled or just gaped, and then sprint-walked toward Beth. I pretended to be hanging with her group while I snuck peeks at Trey, walking over to the coolers to fish for a drink. Bad idea to choose this spot. I had to get away from their stupid conversation before I grabbed my bike and ran home. But by this time there was no one by the fire pit anymore.
The wood had burned down to coals by now, so I headed over and tossed on a few logs. The flames climbed in a shower of sparks, and within a few minutes the fire was roaring again.
Fires are relaxing. I don’t care who you are. It’s primal: the warmth and watching the flames. It transcends “everyone.” It didn’t take long for me to lose myself in it, forgetting where I was for a bit. Then there was the sound of someone sitting down on the other side. I glanced up. It was Trey. He was smiling as he sat there drinking a beer.
“How’re you doing?” he asked me.
I’d spoken to him before in classes, so if you were hoping for a speechless moment, sorry to disappoint. But damn, those eyes. Big and blue. What my mom called Bette Davis eyes, only on a dude.
“Okay,” I answered, trying to be cool.
“How was your summer?” he asked genuinely. “Fun. Slept a lot. You?”
“I wakeboarded all summer. It was amazing. Only one more week left though,” he said, sighing.
“One more week,” I echoed like an idiot, and hated myself for it.
Behind me I could hear loud talking. Strangely, I heard my name a couple times, too. I turned around to see what was going on.
Loudly, and overly animated, Beth said, “Oh, she drinks! Watch.” She made eye contact with me, smiled, and said, “Think fast.”
I saw her arm do a tossing motion, which usually meant something was being thrown at me. But Beth knew I had the reflexes of a no-armed blind person so she knew better then to do that. Didn’t she? I only had enough time to realize she’d tossed a beer can at me before it slammed square into my nose. .
The pain was instantaneous. I gasped and stumbled backward, then pulled my hands away from my nose and looked down at my hands. Blood. A lot of it. At this point in my life, I was normally okay with the sight of my own blood. I was clumsy and accidents happen, but this was more then I’d seen in a long time. I got light-headed and stumbled, but a thick bush seemed to rear up and catch me, holding me up in some strange levitated state. My vision went fuzzy.
I was vaguely conscious of Beth, suddenly at my side. “Oh, God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” There was laughter coming from all over. And I guess it could have been funny if you weren’t the one who’d been hit. But it had been me, so I rolled out of the bush, away from everyone.
When I stood up I was facing Trey again. Through watery eyes I saw that he was laughing too, but when he saw I was bleeding he made a sickened face and turned away. Embarrassed and covered in blood, I pushed Beth away and ran out of the backyard.
I ran out to the street, sat down on the curb, pinched my nose, and put my head back. I’d seen it in a movie once. Not long after, someone put a hand towel on my nose and held it there. An arm wrapped around me in a tight squeeze.
“You okay?” Beth asked.
“No,” I growled, muffled through the towel. I reached up and took her hand and the towel away. “How bad is it?” She looked at me and said, “Bloody, but,” and she looked closer, “doesn’t look broken. So that’s good, right?”
I made a sarcastic cheer with my arms.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Her eyes were wide. She not only sounded sincere, she sounded frightened.
“It’s okay,” I said. She desperately wanted her other friends to like me and vice versa. It was important to her. I loved that. I offered, “Maybe if I ran track or something, that would help.” A few of her friends were runners.
“Huh?” Beth said.
“You know, so your other friends don’t see me as total loser. I’d do it if you think that would help with merging the groups?”
“Can you run?” she asked, even though she knew the answer.
“No. Well, I ran from a dog once and I felt really fast while I was doing it.”
“Oh, right, the big dog incident of third grade. I totally forgot about that. But wasn’t the dog really, really old?” she said with a smile.
He’d also been mostly blind too, but I wasn’t going to remind her of that since the running feat was already dangerously unimpressive. We sat in silence for a few seconds before I tossed out, “Cheerleader?”
All she had to do was look at me, and I laughed. We both did. But then it hurt. After a minute of solid, semi-painful giggling, I took the towel off my face again. The bleeding had basically stopped, but I knew it was still all over my face and clothes. “Do I look badass?”
“Totally,” she said as she helped me up. “Come on. Let’s get you home and cleaned up.”
Joe Shine grew up in Austin, TX (the greatest city ever) and is a graduate of Texas A&M University. He has a MFA from the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California, and after brief stints in Los Angeles and Washington DC Joe returned home to Austin (repeat: the greatest city ever). Joe has a normal human job like most everyone else but hopes to become a full time writer one day, and this is where you, the reader, must do him a really big solid and love
I BECOME SHADOW, his debut novel.