I WAS IN THE PROGRAM.
The knowledge is horrifying, devastating, crushing. I gulp in a breath and lower my eyes to the paper on my desk. Moments ago, my best friend told me something that upended my world. Nathan said I’d been in The Program last summer, only . . . it never happened. It’s not true.
But at the same time, the weight of it is there—a phantom pain in my chest.
The monitor, Dr. Wyatt, continues her slow pace around the classroom, arms folded over her chest, while she waits for us to fill out our weekly assessments—a relic from The Program hysteria. One the school has reinstituted on a voluntary basis. Voluntary for now, at least.
I read the first question on my paper.
Are you feeling sad or overwhelmed?
That would be an understatement.
“You think she’d take the hint,” Nathan murmurs from behind me, sliding his blank assessment across his desk. “We’re not going to be part of her experiment.” He pauses. “Right, Tatum? We’re done being experiments?”
He wants me to make a joke to show just how fine I am. I can’t let on that I don’t remember being in The Program; Nathan thinks I do. He might not have mentioned it otherwise.
But The Program never made its patients forget they were there. No—they wanted everyone to come out believing The Program had saved their lives. Patients were only supposed to forget the bad stuff.
I remember the bad stuff, or at least most of it. So, if I’d actually been a patient, why would the hurt still be here? Nathan claimed my grandfather got to me “early.” How early?
As I try to work it all out, there’s a shuffle of feet—Nathan waiting for my reply. I force myself to be normal, or some passing version—otherwise, he’ll know there’s a problem. He’ll want answers.
I look at Nathan and flash him a half smile. “Considering I’ve spent the better part of a year being the caged bunny rabbit in this scenario,” I tell him, “yeah—I’m done with unethical experiments.”
Nathan nods his agreement and leans back in his chair. His hazel eyes glide over me, and I quickly turn around, afraid he’ll see through my act. He should be able to. Then again, Nathan’s
been lying to me since last summer. To which I’m sure he’d say, Keeping a secret isn’t the same as being a liar, Tatum. But in this case, it is. He is.
I was in The Program, and that means everyone I love is a liar.
My entire body shakes as I soak in my shock. I look up and find Weston Ambrose still watching me from his seat in the front of the room, concern creasing his forehead. He doesn’t know me anymore. He shouldn’t remember—
A sharp pain strikes behind my eyes, blooming so quickly and fiercely that it’s an explosion. I press my fingers against my temples, lowering my head as I grit my teeth. But I can’t seem to stop the pain—it spreads across my vision until everything goes black.
And I fall into a memory.
• • •
I was standing at the bottom of the stairs in the front entryway of my house, screaming for my grandparents, who were already in bed. Men in white coats, handlers, stood on either side of me, gripping my forearms, trying to pull me out the door. Blood began to seep again from the wounds on my knuckles, and it dripped in an arc around my feet as I fought.
They’d attempted to catch me on the moonlit porch first, but when I saw them coming, saw the lights of their van, I tried to race inside. I wasn’t fast enough. They nearly tackled me as I pushed open the door.
“Don’t fight, Miss Masterson,” the gray-haired handler said. “We just want to talk.”
Yeah, right. I knew there was no such thing with them. My
head ached; my heart was broken. My hand bled. I fucking hated this life—I did. But it didn’t mean I was going to give it away to The Program. I wouldn’t let them erase me. I wouldn’t let them destroy me. This life was mine, and I wouldn’t let them decide how I’d live it.
“Stop!” I growled, kicking when I couldn’t free my arms. The handler with the scar on his cheek took the brunt of my sneaker, winced, and then slammed me hard against the wall, knocking the air out of my lungs. I gasped, but with my arm now free, I swung at him.
He caught me by the wrist and twisted my arm across my chest and spun me around, locking me against him. I screamed, my voice cracking. Tears streamed down my face. “Stop!” I cried out.
The bedroom door opened upstairs, and my heart soared. “Pop!” I screamed. “Pop, help me!”
There was a flash of movement, and the handler tightened his grip on my wrists. The older handler stepped forward, blocking my view as my grandparents stomped down the stairs.
“Remain calm,” the handler said soothingly to them. But it must not have gone over well, because I heard a scuffle, the sound of breaking glass, and saw shards of our entryway lamp spill across the floor.
My grandfather rushed past the handler, and I sobbed when I saw his face—alarmed, yet sleepy, his glasses left upstairs.
“Help me,” I cried, getting one arm free to reach out to him, still entangled in the handler’s grip. “Don’t let them—”
The handler smothered my mouth with his palm, muffling my words, and began to back me toward the door. The helplessness was horrific, suffocating. I fought harder; I fought for my life.
And then my grandfather was there, grabbing my arm as he tried to physically pull me away from the handler, causing a tearing pain in my shoulder. My grandmother came running into the foyer, holding a wooden broom, and poked at the handlers like they were wild animals. She was wearing her housecoat, her hair in rollers.
“Leave her alone!” she screamed in a shaky voice, swatting them again.
But then the gray-haired handler grabbed her violently by the sleeve of her housecoat, startling her so badly that she dropped the broom with a loud clatter. My grandfather let go of my arm and raced over to his wife, untangling her clothing from the handler’s fist. He put his arm protectively around her shoulders.
The handler who was holding me took his hand from over my mouth. “Be smart,” he growled near my ear. “You’re making this worse.” But I wouldn’t listen to him.
“Pop, please!” I begged, outstretching my hand to my grandfather again.
And when he looked at me, his blue eyes were so sorrowful that it made my legs weaken. The handler steadied me.
Pop knew I was lost; he couldn’t help me. That was what his eyes told me. My grandmother cried quietly next to him, and she turned into the collar of his pajama top to hide her face.
The handler began moving me toward the door again, and although I still fought, my strength had left me. I would die. The Program would end me.
And no one—not even my grandparents—could save me.
• • •
Reality floods back, and I look up, my eyes wide and terrified. The classroom is a blur as I take it in. My entire body is shaking, but my headache fades quickly. I just had a crashback of memory.
Oh, God. It’s all true.
Fresh tears spring to my eyes, and my nose begins to run. I swipe under it, but when I look down, I see it’s a streak of blood. I quickly use the back of my hand to clear it away, relieved when the bleeding stops almost immediately. The shock of seeing my own blood pushes the memory off—letting me focus. I can’t fall apart here. Not in front of the monitor. I ache for my grandparents, horrified by how scared they were. How helpless they were in their misery.
The monitor’s in the back of the class, and I figure she must not have seen my bloody nose. It might be a giveaway that I’m a returner, and I’m not ready to face what happened to me. What will happen to me if she finds out. But as I look forward again, I find Weston still watching me, his expression disturbed. He witnessed my memory crashback. Did he realize what was happening to me? Does he care? Does he care the way he used to?
Weston Ambrose is the love of my life. I loved him before he was taken into The Program, and I loved him again when
he returned and was changed. But he has no idea who I am anymore.
And maybe that’s why I can trust him more than anyone else in my life.
I press my mouth into a smile, letting him know I’m okay—even though I’m so clearly not. He watches me for a moment longer, doubtful, and then his lips part like he might call out to me.
Instead, Wes raises his hand and spins around in his seat. Everyone looks at him, and I have a spike of panic, worry that he’s going to report me. That’s the sort of thing people did to each other when they feared The Program—anything to save themselves.
The teacher stares at Wes, seeming unsure. The routine is being changed. Normally, we all sit here in active silence, refusing this assessment. The change clearly surprises Miss Soto, as well.
“Yes?” she asks tentatively. Wes waves her off and points to the monitor, who has rounded the room. Almost amused, Dr. Wyatt smiles at Wes and tilts her head.
“How can I help you, Mr. Ambrose?” she asks.
“Hi,” Wes says, and holds up one finger as if he’s about to ask an important question. “I’m sorry if this was already covered while I was gone, but I was just wondering”—he grabs the assessment—“what the fuck is this, and what does it have to do with anything?”
Garcia Bobadilla bursts out laughing and quickly covers his
mouth. Lynn Mosiac snorts. Behind me, Nathan shifts in his seat, and his desk presses against the back of my chair.
I quickly look at Dr. Wyatt, wondering how she’ll respond. Wondering what she’s thinking. Does she know about the Adjustment or that Wes had it done? Does she know he’s been erased again? She doesn’t give anything away, though, as she motions to the classroom door.
“In my office, Mr. Ambrose,” she says curtly, and starts in that direction.
Wes stands, gathering his notebook. “Is it because I said ‘fuck’?” he asks loudly, making more people laugh. I smile—mostly in shock—as he follows Dr. Wyatt. At the door, he glances back over his shoulder at me before walking out.
It’s a jolt to my heart—the familiar way he looked at me. Is it possible he did that to save me from her scrutiny? Could he . . . remember me?
The Adjustment—a procedure where I donated memories of our relationship to help trigger a controlled crashback—was supposed to help Wes remember everything The Program had erased. But the memories I donated were corrupted, and because of it, Wes became unwell.
He fell apart, and the only cure was to erase him completely and start over. I’d say I’ve lost him twice, but it’s hard to know what’s true anymore. All I do know is that Weston Ambrose and I weren’t everything to each other like I’d thought. We were just a couple, and he fell out of love with me. We continued in an unhealthy way while he began dating someone else. Of
course, none of us were right at the time. The threat of The Program had us all terrified and irrational.
But when Wes broke down after the Adjustment, I blamed myself. I had somehow blocked out the end of our relationship and, as a result, gave him false memories during his procedure. His mind rejected them, even though he refused to reject me. He loved me. Again.
And that’s the most tragic part of all.
Now that Nathan told me I’d been in The Program, that scenario has changed. It means I was erased too. So how—why—do I seem to remember Wes, even if those memories are slightly off? None of it makes any sense.
My teacher closes the classroom door, her cheeks flush, her heart probably racing. “Well,” she says. “That was . . . How about we hand in our assessments now?”
I turn and grab Nathan’s paper off his desk, and he scrunches his nose. “You’re not going to say anything?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Uh . . . Wes just got himself thrown out of class. You don’t think that’s peculiar?”
“No,” I lie. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Nathan narrows his eyes and sits forward in his chair. “That’s the thing, Tatum—it would be the first time. Dr. McKee said he wouldn’t remember anything. Hell, he didn’t even know his parents. Would he really—”
“Sure,” I interrupt. “But Wes wouldn’t remember to be scared, either.”
Nathan purses his lips, thinking over my answer. He rests back and folds his hands on his desk. “This should be interesting, then,” he murmurs.
I turn around and pass my and Nathan’s papers forward. My fingers tremble, dried blood around my knuckle. I’m suddenly riotous, ready to burst. I want to run out of here and find Wes, but I’ll have to wait.
It’s nearly forty minutes later when the bell mercifully rings. Wes never came back to the room. My headache has faded completely; I’m almost clearheaded again. The crashback forced me into a memory, and maybe that helped my brain to function properly. Or maybe part of me always knew about my time in The Program, and I just needed the confirmation. Regardless of the reason, this is the clearest I’ve felt in a long time.
I’m the first person out of my seat, and I quickly loop my backpack strap over my shoulder and grab my books. I have to find Wes. He may not remember me, but whoever he is now—at least he didn’t betray me.
“You good?” Nathan asks. “You’ve been weird ever since . . .” He stumbles over the words and shakes his head as he collects his things from the top of his desk. “Since I mentioned The Program,” he finishes in a hushed voice.
“Shh . . . ,” I say purposely to make him feel uncomfortable. I want him to stop talking. I need time to think—without him. This is such a stark contrast in our relationship, but it will make processing this easier. I need to think without his influence.
“I’ll see you later,” I tell him, rushing ahead. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Thanks for oversharing.”
I wave a quick good-bye and hurry out, intent on finding Wes. I try not to focus on the fact that I’m a stranger to him. And it’s now that I realize I’m a stranger to myself, too.