IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE NINE OF US. We left when we were young, almost too young to remember.
I am told the ground shook, that the skies were full of light and explosions. We were in that two-week period of the year when both moons hang on opposite sides of the horizon. It was a time of celebration, and the explosions were at first mistaken for fireworks. They were not. It was warm, a soft wind blew in from off the water. I am always told the weather: it was warm. There was a soft wind. I’ve never understood why that matters.
What I remember most vividly is the way my grandmother looked that day. She was frantic, and sad. There were tears in her eyes. My grandfather stood just over her shoulder. I remember the way his glasses gathered the light from the sky. There were hugs. There were words said by each of them. I don’t remember what they were. Nothing haunts me more.
It took a year to get here. I was five when we arrived. We were to assimilate ourselves into the culture before returning to Lorien when it could again sustain life. The nine of us had to scatter, and go our own ways. For how long, nobody knew. We still don’t. None of them know where I am, and I don’t know where they are, or what they look like now. That is how we protect ourselves because of the charm that was placed upon us when we left, a charm guaranteeing that we can only be killed in the order of our numbers, so long as we stay apart. If we come together, then the charm is broken.
When one of us is found and killed, a circular scar wraps around the right ankle of those still alive. And residing on our left ankle, formed when the Loric charm was first cast, is a small scar identical to the amulet each of us wears. The circular scars are another part of the charm. A warning system so that we know where we stand with each other, and so that we know when they’ll be coming for us next. The first scar came when I was nine years old. It woke me from my sleep, burning itself into my flesh. We were living in Arizona, in a small border town near Mexico. I woke screaming in the middle of the night, in agony, terrified as the scar seared itself into my flesh. It was the first sign that the Mogadorians had finally found us on Earth, and the first sign that we were in danger. Until the scar showed up, I had almost convinced myself that my memories were wrong, that what Henri told me was wrong. I wanted to be a normal kid living a normal life, but I knew then, beyond any doubt or discussion, that I wasn’t. We moved to Minnesota the next day.
The second scar came when I was twelve. I was in school, in Colorado, participating in a spelling bee. As soon as the pain started I knew what was happening, what had happened to Number Two. The pain was excruciating, but bearable this time. I would have stayed on the stage, but the heat lit my sock on fire. The teacher who was conducting the bee sprayed me with a fire extinguisher and rushed me to the hospital. The doctor in the ER found the first scar and called the police. When Henri showed, they threatened to arrest him for child abuse. But because he hadn’t been anywhere near me when the second scar came, they had to let him go. We got in the car and drove away, this time to Maine. We left everything we had except for the Loric Chest that Henri brought along on every move. All twenty-one of them to date.
The third scar appeared an hour ago. I was sitting on a pontoon boat. The boat belonged to the parents of the most popular kid at my school, and unbeknownst to them, he was having a party on it. I had never been invited to any of the parties at my school before. I had always, because I knew we might leave at any minute, kept to myself. But it had been quiet for two years. Henri hadn’t seen anything in the news that might lead the Mogadorians to one of us, or might alert us to them. So I made a couple friends. And one of them introduced me to the kid who was having the party. Everyone met at a dock. There were three coolers, some music, girls I had admired from afar but never spoken to, even though I wanted to. We pulled out from the dock and went half a mile into the Gulf of Mexico. I was sitting on the edge of the pontoon with my feet in the water, talking to a cute, dark-haired, blue-eyed girl named Tara, when I felt it coming. The water around my leg started boiling, and my lower leg started glowing where the scar was imbedding itself. The third of the Lorien symbols, the third warning. Tara started screaming and people started crowding around me. I knew there was no way to explain it. And I knew we would have to leave immediately.
The stakes were higher now. They had found Number Three, wherever he or she was, and Number Three was dead. So I calmed Tara down and kissed her on the cheek and told her it was nice to meet her and that I hoped she had a long beautiful life. I dove off the side of the boat and started swimming, underwater the entire time, except for one breath about halfway there, as fast as I could until I reached the shore. I ran along the side of the highway, just inside of the tree line, moving at speeds as fast as any of the cars. When I got home, Henri was at the bank of scanners and monitors that he used to research news around the world, and police activity in our area. He knew without me saying a word, though he did lift my soaking pants to see the scars.
In the beginning we were a group of nine.
Three are gone, dead.
They are hunting us, and they won’t stop until they’ve killed us all.
I am Number Four.
I know that I am next.
I STAND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DRIVE AND STARE up at the house. It is light pink, almost like cake frosting, sitting ten feet above the ground on wooden stilts. A palm tree sways in the front. In the back of the house a pier extends twenty yards into the Gulf of Mexico. If the house were a mile to the south, the pier would be in the Atlantic Ocean.
Henri walks out of the house carrying the last of the boxes, some of which were never unpacked from our last move. He locks the door, then leaves the keys in the mail slot beside it. It is two o’clock in the morning. He is wearing khaki shorts and a black polo. He is very tan, with an unshaven face that seems downcast. He is also sad to be leaving. He tosses the final boxes into the back of the truck with the rest of our things.
“That’s it,” he says.
I nod. We stand and stare up at the house and listen to the wind come through the palm fronds. I am holding a bag of celery in my hand.
“I’ll miss this place,” I say. “Even more than the others. ”
“Me too. ”
“Time for the burn?”
“Yes. You want to do it, or you want me to?”
“I’ll do it. ”
Henri pulls out his wallet and drops it on the ground. I pull out mine and do the same. He walks to our truck and comes back with passports, birth certificates, social security cards, checkbooks, credit cards and bank cards, and drops them on the ground. All of the documents and materials related to our identities here, all of them forged and manufactured. I grab from the truck a small gas can we keep for emergencies. I pour the gas over the small pile. My current name is Daniel Jones. My story is that I grew up in California and moved here because of my dad’s job as a computer programmer. Daniel Jones is about to disappear. I light a match and drop it, and the pile ignites. Another one of my lives, gone. As we always do, Henri and I stand and watch the fire. Bye, Daniel, I think, it was nice knowing you. When the fire burns down, Henri looks over at me.
“We gotta go. ”
“I know. ”
“These islands were never safe. They’re too hard to leave quickly, too hard to escape from. It was foolish of us to come here. ”
I nod. He is right, and I know it. But I’m still reluctant to leave. We came here because I wanted to, and for the first time, Henri let me choose where we were going. We’ve been here nine months, and it’s the longest we have stayed in any one place since leaving Lorien. I’ll
miss the sun and the warmth. I’ll miss the gecko that watched from the wall each morning as I ate breakfast. Though there are literally millions of geckos in south Florida, I swear this one follows me to school and seems to be everywhere I am. I’ll miss the thunderstorms that seem to come from out of nowhere, the way everything is still and quiet in the early-morning hours before the terns arrive. I’ll miss the dolphins that sometimes feed when the sun sets. I’ll even miss the smell of sulfur from the rotting seaweed at the base of the shore, the way that it fills the house and penetrates our dreams while we sleep.
“Get rid of the celery and I’ll wait in the truck,” Henri says. “Then it’s time. ”
I enter a thicket of trees off to the right of the truck. There are three Key deer already waiting. I dump the bag of celery out at their feet and crouch down and pet each of them in turn. They allow me to, having long gotten over their skittishness. One of them raises his head and looks at me. Dark, blank eyes staring back. It almost feels as though he passes something to me. A shudder runs up my spine. He drops his head and continues eating.
“Good luck, little friends,” I say, and walk to the truck and climb into the passenger seat.
We watch the house grow smaller in the side mirrors until Henri pulls onto the main road and the house disappears. It’s a Saturday. I wonder what’s happening at the party without me. What they’re saying about the way that I left and what they’ll say on Monday when I’m not at school. I wish I could have said good-bye. I’ll never see anyone I knew here ever again. I’ll never speak to any of them. And they’ll never know what I am or why I left. After a few months, or maybe a few weeks, none of them will probably ever think of me again.
Before we get on the highway, Henri pulls over to gas up the truck. As he works the pump, I start looking through an atlas he keeps on the middle of the seat. We’ve had the atlas since we arrived on this planet. It has lines drawn to and from every place we’ve ever lived. At this point, there are lines crisscrossing all of the United States. We know we should get rid of it, but it’s really the only piece of our life together that we have. Normal people have photos and videos and journals; we have the atlas. Picking it up and looking through it, I can see Henri has drawn a new line from Florida to Ohio. When I think of Ohio, I think of cows and corn and nice people. I know the license plate says THE HEART OF IT ALL. What “All” is, I don’t know, but I guess I’ll find out.
Henri gets back into the truck. He has bought a couple of sodas and a bag of chips. He pulls away and starts heading toward U. S. 1, which will take us north. He reaches for the atlas.
“Do you think there are people in Ohio?” I joke.
He chuckles. “I would imagine there are a few. And we might even get lucky and find cars and TV there, too. ”
I nod. Maybe it won’t be as bad as I think.
“What do you think of the name ‘John Smith’?” I ask.
“Is that what you’ve settled on?”
“I think so,” I say. I’ve never been a John before, or a Smith.
“It doesn’t get any more common than that. I would say it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Smith. ”
I smile. “Yeah, I think I like ‘John Smith. ’”
“I’ll create your forms when we stop. ”
A mile later we are off the island and cruising across the bridge. The waters pass below us. They are calm and the moonlight is shimmering on the small waves, creating dapples of white in the crests. On the right is the ocean, on the left is the gulf; it is, in essence, the same water, but with two different names. I have the urge to cry, but I don’t. It’s not that I’m necessarily sad to leave Florida, but I’m tired of running. I’m tired of dreaming up a new name every six months. Tired of new houses, new schools. I wonder if it’ll ever be possible for us to stop.