Before my eyelids crack open I know I’ve traveled again.
The oppressive, terrifying certainty that I no longer exist is a dead giveaway. The familiarity of the sensation does nothing to dull the roaring panic as sweat rolls off me and a scream begs to erupt from my heaving chest.
Breathe, Althea. You still exist.
My heart rate slows as it responds to the calming voice of reason in my head. It sounds like me, only prettier and definitely calmer. At least part of my brain possesses some clarity.
It’s early morning. It always is. The sound of movement on the floor below forces my fists to unclench, releasing the garish orange comforter wrinkled inside them. Last night I fell asleep at the Hammonds’ house, where the bedding is green and spring is creeping toward an end. I never get used to starting over like this, but as my travels grow more frequent, a kind of numbness settles in as my feet find their way out from under the heavy down and settle into the slippers beside the bed.
As if I never left.
I shuffle across the thick brown carpet and kneel on the padded window seat to peer outside. The trees are bright splotches against the vivid blue sky—some crimson, others a sunny yellow—with a few fiery oranges scattered about. Their bold colors verify my suspicions.
It’s autumn now.
My breath fogs up the glass, obscuring the view. Despite my best efforts, water wells up in my eyes. This is still Earth, I remind myself. The only world I’ve ever known. It just looks different than it did yesterday.
Spring was short for me this time, a mere three or four weeks. I haven’t been yanked out of a season that fast in years. Even without control over my season hops, part of me never gives up hope that someday it will stop. That I will stay in one place, find a way to fit in.
It’s no use, though. The years have taught me that hope is a worthless dream.
I gnaw on my fingertips and assemble the facts of this life in my mind. Autumn means Connecticut and that means the Morgans.
Althea Morgan. That’s the autumn me.
The name rolls around in my head a few times in an attempt to make it stick. It usually takes a few days before it does.
“Thea, darling! Come and get some breakfast! Opening block starts in less than an hour!”
A sigh begins deep inside and burbles up until it spills out in a heavy whoosh. Mr. Morgan doesn’t need to inform me what time I’m required to be settled at my desk, ready to listen to fruitless lectures. It hasn’t changed in ten years.
Not ready to face the breakfast scene, I head for the shower instead, still chanting my name under my breath. The cleansing room contains a frilly robe, some makeup I’ll hardly wear, a toothbrush, and some fluffy orange towels. All items that belong to me but aren’t mine. Without needing to check, I know similar provisions hang in the closet and are stuffed in the dark oak furniture. In my worst moments I want to rip everything to shreds. On traveling days it’s hard to summon the energy.
Under the stream of hot water, the scent of jasmine fills my nose. All my showers, in all my houses, are stocked with the same homemade shampoo. I asked my winter mother why she made it for me one time and earned a strange look but no answer. The fragrance clings to me whether I wash my hair or not, and is one of the most constant things in my life, though I’ve never smelled the flower itself.
It only blooms in the summer. The one season I’ve never seen.
I press my forehead against the cold white tile and try to stop shivering. The struggle to shake off the traveling knocks me to my knees on the slippery floor. Nagging fear that the shower is imagined, that the orange comforter and the autumn leaves are part of a dream, chokes off my air supply. I’m sure I’m truly gone this time, hidden forever in the black emptiness between seasons. The pain from the scalding water against my face, the sight of blood where the pink razor nicks my skin, both offer a trembling belief that my body exists here—now—at the Morgans’.
Going to sleep one place, with a certain family, and waking up in another life often tips me sideways for the first couple of hours. I don’t recall the traveling, but rather the endless dark void of the process. As though my body dissolves into a million pieces, and no matter how many times it happens, my brain frets I won’t get put back together.
The familiarity of my morning ritual helps as I stand in front of the mirror and conquer the tangles in my sopping red hair. Next, I cover my damp body with jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, dry my hair and then brush my teeth. Ready to face the day, I leave the cleansing room, cross to the bedroom door, and push it closed.
My locket works loose from beneath the shirt collar, dropping into my palm as I flop down onto the mussed bed. This necklace alone joins me on my strange travels.
A jeweled, four-pointed star, no bigger than my thumbnail, dangles off the end of a gold chain so delicate it could snap with almost no effort at all. Gold flecks litter the surface of the reflective black jewel. I pry it open with practiced care and pull out the tiny folded square of paper lodged inside. Rereading it on travel days has become a ritual.
You feel different because you are Something Else, a Dissident. But you are not the only one. There are more, and you will find each other when it is necessary. In the meantime, trust no one.
Who Ko is and why he scrunched this note inside my necklace are vexing mysteries. The word Dissident doesn’t exist on Earth, at least not in any of the textbooks presented to me during my preparatory phase, though it clearly means I’m not like everyone else. If the note weren’t addressed to me, I would assume it’s a mistake.
But my name is on it, and I am different.
My fingers refold the paper as it had been before, the only way it will settle back inside the small locket. Reading the note helps me feel less alone, even though that’s what I am. It reminds me to bury the differences hiding inside me. After all these years, concealing them is second nature. It used to be hard when I was small, when I still believed people would hear me if I shouted loud enough—before I accepted I am like a shadow, something people see but acknowledge as a mere trick of the eye. Whatever hides the real me from the world helps safeguard my secrets. It also ensures my solitude.
“Thea! Ten-minute warning!”
Irritation skips through me at the nickname. All my parents insist on using one version or another. I broke the Hammonds of the habit when I spent three consecutive years with them in Portland, Oregon—minus summers, of course. They’ve gone back to calling me Allie now.
The cold kitchen waits at the bottom of the stairs, on the left through a doorway. I slide into my seat across the round table from Mr. Morgan and force a smile in response to his. There’s nothing remarkable about him, nothing that would cause someone to remember his face. His hair and eyes are exactly the same shade of sandy brown as the bushy mustache that sits on his upper lip.
“Good morning. Have some pancakes. You’ll need to be out the door in eight minutes.”
Neither of them notices I’ve been away. It’s a mystery, what they believe about my absences. I can’t remember how much time has passed since I last lived under their roof. I stare down at my plate. It feels like it’s been a while.
Mr. Morgan turns his attention back to his breakfast, finishing off a stack of cranberry pancakes doused in honey. The cranberry pancakes are one of the better things about the Morgans. It’s one of their markers, the little nuances separating one family from the next, like the frilly clothes and the tendency to decorate in shades of orange and brown. It could be worse. The Clarks, my winter family, love to cook with chickpeas.
The thought of spring and the Hammonds’ gooey, homemade cinnamon rolls jams a lump into my throat. I push the memory away and scarf three pancakes and two pieces of turkey bacon, then down a glass of orange juice before standing up and carrying the plate to the sink. I eat out of habit, and because it’s expected.
Mrs. Morgan washes the dishes by hand, a white, lace-edged apron protecting her calf-length dress. I slide an arm around her slender waist and kiss her cheek as a stray piece of graying hair tickles my neck. My lips smile as my stomach heaves and the cranberry pancakes threaten to take a curtain call. I plant a matching kiss on Mr. Morgan before heading out of the kitchen toward the front door.
Two shelves and a table full of family photos flank the path through the living room. The pictures featuring my face are all set against autumn backdrops. The Morgans never mention it or act like it’s weird. I don’t think they know I leave.
A backpack waits on a hook next to the front door, worn and smelling vaguely of stale sweat. The canvas bag weighs nearly nothing; it contains only identification and extra pencils. Everything else will be waiting in opening block. I might have left the backpack on its hook last night, after Cell.
If I’d been here last night.
The clock on the wall clicks to eight-fifteen and I step out onto the porch, where crisp, cool autumn air infiltrates my lungs. The sun is out, its rays lukewarm instead of hot, the way they were yesterday in the Portland springtime. The temperature hovers around sixty degrees. Pleasant, some might say. It’s a bit chilly for me, and I think for a split second about going back inside to grab a sweater.
Up and down the street, doors open and children step outside the exact same time. A boy who looks to be my age two doors down, a little girl farther up the block. Our feet hit the sidewalk together. Mine lead toward Upper Cell, where I’ll begin the last year of my preparatory phase. Not that it makes a difference. I have no one to miss when we Ascend to adulthood, no friends at Danbury Preparatory Cell.
I haven’t got friends anywhere.
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