Before you start reading this, follow this link to read the prologue and first chapter of I Am Number Four. 🙂
Read it? Then let’s carry on, shall we?
The events in this book are real.
Names and places have been changed to protect the lorien six, who remain in hiding.
Take this as your first warning.
Other civilizations do exist.
Some of them seek to destroy you.
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.”
“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 manu-factured. 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 fi re burns down, Henri looks over at me.
“We gotta go.”
“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 fi rst 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 some-times 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 fi nd 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.
We pull off for food and gas and new phones. We go to a truck stop, where we eat meat loaf and macaroni and cheese, which is one of the few things Henri acknowledges as being superior to anything we had on Lorien. As we eat, he creates new documents on his
laptop, using our new names. He’ll print them when we arrive, and as far as anyone will know, we’ll be who we say we are.
“You’re sure about John Smith?” he says.
“You were born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.”
I laugh. “How did you come up with that?”
He smiles and motions towards two women sitting a few booths away. Both of them are extremely hot. One of them is wearing a T-shirt that reads WE DO IT BETTER IN TUSCALOOSA.
“And that’s where we’re going next,” he says.
“As weird as it may sound, I hope we stay in Ohio for a long time.”
“Really. You like the idea of Ohio?”
“I like the idea of making some friends, of going to the same school for more than a few months, of maybe actually having a life. I started to do it in Florida. It was sort of great, and for the first time since we’ve been on Earth, I felt almost normal. I want to find somewhere and stay somewhere.”
Henri looks thoughtful. “Have you looked at your scars today?”
“Because this isn’t about you. This is about the survival of our race, which was almost entirely obliterated, and about keeping you alive. Every time one of us dies—every time one of you, the Garde, dies—our chances diminish. You’re Number Four; you’re next in line. You have an entire race of vicious murderers hunting you. We’re leaving at the first sign of trouble, and I’m not going to debate it with you.”
Henri drives the entire time. Between breaks and the creation of the new documents, it takes about thirty hours. I spend most of the time napping or playing video games. Because of my reflexes, I can master most of the games quickly. The longest it has taken me to beat any of them is about a day. I like the alien war and space games the best. I pretend I’m back on Lorien, fighting Mogadorians, cutting them down, turning them to ash. Henri thinks it’s weird and tries to discourage me from doing it. He says we need to live in the real world, where war and death are a reality, not pretend. As I finish my latest game, I look up. I’m tired of sitting in the truck. The clock on the dash reads 7:58. I yawn, wipe my eyes.
“How much farther?”
“We’re almost there,” Henri says.
It is dark out, but there is a pale glow to the west. We pass by farms with horses and cattle, then barren fields, and beyond those, it’s trees as far as the eye can see. This is exactly what Henri wanted, a quiet place to go unnoticed. Once a week he scours the internet for six, seven, eight hours at a time to update a list of available homes around the country that fit his criteria: isolated, rural, immediate availability. He told me it took four tries—one call to South Dakota, one to New Mexico, one to Arkansas—until he had the rental where we’re going to live now.
A few minutes later we see scattered lights that announce the town. We pass a sign that reads:
WELCOME TO PARADISE, OHIO,
“Wow,” I say. “This place is even smaller than where we stayed in Montana.”
Henri is smiling. “Who do you think it’s paradise for?”
“Cows, maybe? Scarecrows?”
We pass by an old gas station, a car wash, a cemetery. Then the houses begin, clapboard houses spaced thirty or so feet apart. Halloween decorations hang in the windows of most of them. A sidewalk cuts through small yards leading to the front doors. A traffic circle sits in the center of town, and in the middle of it is a statue of a man on horseback holding a sword. Henri stops. We both look at it and laugh, though we’re laughing because we hope no one else with swords ever shows up here. He continues around the circle and once we’re through it, the dashboard GPS system tells us to make a turn. We begin heading west, out of town.
We drive for four miles before turning left onto a gravel road, then pass open cut fields that are probably full of corn in the summer, then through a dense forest for about a mile. And then we fi nd it, tucked away in overgrown vegetation, a rusted silver mailbox with black lettering painted on the side of it that reads 17 OLD MILL RD.
“The closest house is two miles away,” he says, turning in. Weeds grow throughout the gravel drive, which is littered with potholes fi lled with tawny water. He comes to a stop and turns the truck off.
“Whose car is that?” I ask, nodding to the black SUV Henri has just parked behind.
“I’m assuming the real-estate agent’s.”
The house stands silhouetted by trees. In the dark there is an eerie look to it, like whoever last lived in it was scared away, or was driven away, or ran away. I get out of the truck. The engine ticks and I can feel the heat coming off of it. I grab my bag from the bed and stand there holding it.
“What do you think?” Henri asks.
The house is one story. Wooden clapboard. Most of the white paint has been chipped away. One of the front windows is broken. The roof is covered with black shingles
that look warped and brittle. Three wooden stairs lead to a small porch covered with rickety chairs. The yard itself is long and shaggy. It’s been a very long time since the grass was last mowed.
“It looks like Paradise,” I say.
We walk up together. As we do, a well-dressed blond woman around Henri’s age comes out of the doorway. She’s wearing a business suit and is holding a clipboard and folder; a BlackBerry is clipped to the waist of her skirt. She smiles.
“Yes,” says Henri.
“I’m Annie Hart, the agent from Paradise Realty. We spoke on the phone. I tried calling you earlier but your phone seemed to be turned off.”
“Yes, of course. The battery unfortunately died on the way here.”
“Ah, I just hate when that happens,” she says, and walks towards us and shakes Henri’s hand. She asks me my name and I tell her, though I am tempted, as I always am, to just say “Four.” As Henri signs the lease she asks me how old I am and tells me she has a daughter at the local high school about my age. She’s very warm, friendly, and clearly loves to chat. Henri hands the lease back and the three of us walk into the house.
Inside most of the furniture is covered with white sheets. Those that aren’t covered are coated with a thick layer of dust and dead insects. The screens in the windows look brittle to the touch, and the walls are covered with cheap plywood paneling. There are two bedrooms, a modest-sized kitchen with lime green linoleum, one bathroom. The living room is large and rectangular, situated at the front of the house. There’s a fireplace in the far corner. I walk through and toss my bag on the bed of the smaller room. There is a huge faded poster of a football player wearing a bright orange uniform. He’s in the middle of throwing a pass, and it looks like he’s about to get crushed by a massive man in
a black and gold uniform. It says BERNIE KOSAR, QUARTERBACK, CLEVELAND BROWNS.
“Come say good-bye to Mrs. Hart,” Henri yells from the living room.
Mrs. Hart is standing at the door with Henri. She tells me I should look for her daughter at school, that maybe we could be friends. I smile and say yes, that would be nice. After she leaves we immediately start unpacking the truck. Depending on how quickly we leave a place, we either travel very lightly—meaning the clothes on our back, Henri’s laptop and the intricately carved Loric Chest that goes everywhere with us—or we bring a few things—usually Henri’s extra computers and equipment, which he uses to set up a security perimeter and search the web for news and events that might be related to us. This time we have the Chest, the two high-powered computers, four TV monitors, and
four cameras. We also have some clothes, though not many of the clothes we wore in Florida are appropriate for life in Ohio. Henri carries the Chest to his room, and we lug all of the equipment into the basement, where he’ll set it up so no visitors will see it. Once everything is inside, he starts placing the cameras and turning on the monitors.
“We won’t have the internet here until the morning. But if you want to go to school tomorrow, I can print all of your new documents for you.”
“If I stay will I have to help you clean this place and finish the setup?”
“I’ll go to school,” I say.
“Then you better get a good night’s sleep.”
Check back tomorrow for Chapter Four and Chapter Five. 🙂 Until then,