J. J. Hanna © 2020
I should have known it wouldn’t go the way I’d hoped it would when I saw her across the room. She looked like trouble in the best kind of way. Her hair was short and spiked with a splash of bright pink right in the front, and her studded leather jacket said for sure she didn’t care what the rest of the world thought.
She moved with the kind of confidence I wished I could have—the kind of confidence grown out of living a dangerous life, the kind of confidence that screams “Screw you!” at the world as a whole. She could have been the drummer in a punk rock band. Instead, here she was, settling into her desk, laughing with her neighbors even though it was the first day of classes and there was no reason she should have known them. College was like that, though. Even though she seemed to exist on the fringe, people seemed drawn to her.
I certainly was.
It wasn’t until her bright blue eyes—lined with thick black eyeliner and dark smokey eyeshadow—met mine that I realized I was staring.
She smiled at me and I quickly looked away, trying not to sink into my seat out of embarrassment.
After class, I tried to exit quickly, trying to leave her magnetic field as effortlessly as possible. But the thing about two opposite forces is that they’re attracted to each other, and even though I hadn’t noticed she’d slipped out of class before me, she noticed me when I tried to slip past her.
In an instant I’d lost my balance and had my back against a wall, her hand with her black fingernails on my shirt collar.
She smelled of mint and lemongrass, and I had to swallow a few times as I tried not to let my flustered reality seep through to her observation.
“Hey sailor,” she said, and I couldn’t help realizing I was close enough to hear her black lip ring click against her teeth when she spoke. Her lips curled into a siren smile.
I laughed, and I hated how nervous she made me. “Heh . . . Hi.”
“What’s your name?” She dropped her hand by her side again and I straightened up. The post-class rush had left the hallway, and we were surprisingly alone.
“Alex,” I replied, stuttering halfway through and having to start over.
“Nice to meet you, Alex. You decided a major yet?” That siren smile was still on her face, and she seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and enjoying it.
“Uh, no. But I’m thinking maybe Comp Sci.”
“Nice! You should do it. Most of my friends are Comp Scis,” she said. “You have time to get lunch?”
Half of me remembered I was supposed to be in a different class. But the other half of me couldn’t resist that siren smile, and that half seemed to control the rest of me while I nodded. She turned and led the way down the stairs and out into the quiet of campus. “So what makes you interested in Comp Sci?”
I shrugged. “I’m intrigued by it. All of it. How all the tech talks to each other to make things happen.”
She laughed, and it was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. “Are those the technical terms?”
I felt myself flush bright red as we walked into the student center. “I mean, no, but—”
“Teasing, Alex.” She lightly punched my shoulder, but even with the lightness of her touch I stumbled. “Lighten up! What do you want for lunch? It’s on me.”
“No, I insist.” She flashed me that siren smile again and I nodded.
“Perfect,” she said, pulling out her phone and typing something quickly before heading toward the pizza shop.
Over the next few months, Betty and I became fast friends, maybe more, though it was never clear and I didn’t have the guts to ask her. She introduced me to her Comp Sci friends and that sealed the deal.
Looking back, I can see that’s when it started. Now that I know how it works, I can see where I went wrong. Or right. I can’t tell anymore, if I’m honest.
That Thanksgiving break my parents got in a fatal car accident. In December, when I had signed up for the Spring semester, my scholarships no longer applied. No matter how many times I called the financial aid office, I got the same answer: no more money for you.
I still remember the panic I’d felt as I dialed her phone number, and the calm in her voice when she asked me what happened.
“Take a deep breath, A. Let me ask around. We’ll get you back to school, okay?”
“How? How could you possibly—”
“Just trust me.” She hung up, and a few hours later when my phone rang it was one of her friends (one of my friends?) from the Comp Sci department.
“Hey Alex! It’s Lexton. Betty just called me. I think I have something that can help. There’s a club—we meet three days a week after classes end at 9pm. Join the club and we can probably swing it so you get a free ride.”
I blinked, everything in me wishing I could call my dad and ask his opinion. But I couldn’t. I was alone, and all I had was this miracle being handed to me on a silver plate.
“Yeah. Okay. Um, what do I need to do?”
That was the end of it.
Some deals really are too good to be true.
Lexton sent me the sign up information, and the next morning I received a call from the financial aid office informing me that my tuition had been paid by the Pembrook Association Grant.
Do you have any idea the kind of relief and fear that settles into you when you were staring down a $50,000 bill and it suddenly goes away, just like that? First, you cry. Then you stare at the document again, unsure if you can believe it. And then you start wondering what the catch is.
At first the club seemed normal. We worked on some coding, some electrical engineering, some basic problem solving and cognitive exploration. Guests came in and taught us about neuroscience and the nervous system, and it was interesting. Incredibly interesting.
It wasn’t until the end of the semester that I realized what I was really involved with, when one of the recurring guests started assigning topics for research, as if it were another class. Except doing poorly in this meant I might lose my full ride, and my place at the school. Without this, I had nowhere to go.
Over the next three years, I watched as Betty brought more and more people into the club. It didn’t take long for Lexton to return as a guest, showing up each time with a new ring or a new watch—not the cheap kind, either.
By the time I walked across the stage and received my diploma, the Pembrook Association had me $200,000 in debt to them. Not in a way that could be tracked, but in moral obligation. Betty brought me a job offer two days after graduation.
I had nowhere else to go.
No one else to turn to.
My whole community was there, and I owed them everything.
Thirty years later, I can now say with certainty they killed my parents and sabotaged my records. How can I say that?
Because every year I do it for someone else. But Pembrook gave me everything. It’s a blessing and a curse in the truest sense of the words. Why shouldn’t I share my fortune with others? Why should I share the destruction?
In the end, I can see exactly how Betty picked me from the class, how she manipulated me into exactly the position Pembrook needed me in.
And as mad as I should be at Betty for helping them wreak that havoc on my life, she still smiles at me with her irresistible charm, and my anger melts.
I was dragged under by Pembrook’s siren, and I don’t know if I’ll ever really return to the surface. I can’t even say, after all this time, that I want to.
Because when I leave the office for the night, and Betty looks up at me from her chair in our living room, her hair still just as pink as the day I met her, I feel like the luckiest man alive.
This story, segments of this story, and ideas from this story are not to be duplicated or replicated in anyway. This content belongs to J. J. Hanna alone.
Please note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real life events is unintended by the author.
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J. J. Hanna is a writer and reader from Colorado. She loves suspense stories above all else, and is currently working on a debut novel of her own. When she's not writing, you can find her cuddling with a cat, drinking a caffeinated beverage, and watching one of her favorite shows. Go find her on social media @authorjjhanna to keep track of her most recent reads, current adventures, and to get the most up to date news on all things publishing.