Variant (Variant #1)


by Robison Wells

Chapter One

This isn’t one of those scare-you-straight schools, is it?” I asked Ms. Vaughn, as we passed through the heavy chain-link gate. The fence was probably twelve feet tall, topped with a spool of razor wire, like the kind on repo lots and prisons. A security camera, mounted on the end of a pole, was the only sign of people—someone, somewhere, was watching us.

Ms. Vaughn laughed dismissively. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy here, Mr. Fisher.”

I leaned my head on the window and stared outside. The forest wasn’t like any I’d seen. Back in Pennsylvania, parks were green. Lush trees, bushes, and vines sprung up anywhere there was dirt. But these woods were dry and brown, and it looked like a single match could torch the whole place.

“Is there cactus here?” I asked, still gazing out at the trees. As much as I didn’t like this version of a forest, I had to admit it was better than what I’d expected. When I’d read on the website that Maxfield was in New Mexico, I’d pictured barren sand dunes, sweltering heat, and poisonous snakes.

“I don’t think so,” Ms. Vaughn said, not even bothering to look outside. “I believe you’d find cactus more in the southern part of the state.”

I didn’t reply, and after a moment Ms. Vaughn continued, “You don’t seem very excited about this. I assure you that this is a wonderful opportunity. Maxfield is the pinnacle of educational research. . . .”

She kept talking, but I ignored her. She’d been going on like that for close to three hours now, ever since she met me at the Albuquerque airport. She kept using words like pedagogy and epistemology, and I didn’t care much. But I didn’t need her to tell me what a great opportunity this was—I knew it. This was a private school, after all. It had to have good teachers. Maybe it even had enough textbooks for all the kids, and a furnace that worked in the winter.

I’d applied for this scholarship on my own. School counselors had tried to talk me into similar programs before, but I’d always resisted. At every school I’d attended—and there had been dozens—I’d try to convince myself that this one was going to be good. This was going to be the school where I’d stay for a while, and maybe play on the football team or run for office or even get a girlfriend. But then I’d transfer a few months later and have to start all over.

Foster care was like that, I guess. I’d racked up thirty-three foster families all around the city since I’d entered the program as a five-year-old. The longest had been a family in Elliott where I’d stayed for four and a half months. The shortest had been seven hours: The same day I showed up, the dad got laid off; they called Social Services and told them they couldn’t afford me.

The most recent family was the Coles. Mr. Cole owned a gas station, and I was put to work behind the counter on my first day. At first it was just in the late afternoons, but soon I was there on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes even before school. I missed football tryouts; I missed the homecoming dance. I never had a chance to go to any party, not that I’d been invited to one. When I asked to be paid for my work, Mr. Cole told me that I was part of the family, and I shouldn’t expect payment for helping out. “We don’t expect a reward for helping you,” he’d said.

So, I applied for the scholarship. It was part of some outreach thing, for foster kids. I answered some questions about school—I exaggerated a little bit about my grades—and I filled out a questionnaire about my family situation. I got the call the next afternoon.

I didn’t even show up at the gas station that night for my shift. I just stayed out late, walking the streets I’d grown up on, standing at the side of the Birmingham Bridge and staring at the city that I’d hopefully never see again. I didn’t always hate Pittsburgh, but I never loved it.

Ms. Vaughn slowed, and a moment later a massive brick wall appeared. It was at least as tall as the chain-link fence, but while that had looked relatively new, this wall was old and weathered. The way it spread out in both directions, following the contours of the hills and almost matching the color of the sandy dirt, it seemed like a natural part of the forest.

The gate in the wall wasn’t natural, though. It looked like thick, solid steel, and as it swung open, it glided only an inch above the asphalt. I felt like I was entering a bank vault.

But on the other side, the dehydrated forest kept on going.

“How big is this place?”

“Quite large,” she said with a proud smile. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s very extensive. And, you’ll be pleased to know, that gives us a lot of room for outdoor activities.”

Within a few minutes, the trees began to change. Instead of pines, cottonwoods now lined the sides of the road, and between their wide trunks I caught my first glimpse of Maxfield Academy.

The building was four stories tall and probably a hundred years old, surrounded by a neatly mowed lawn, pruned trees, and planted flowers. It looked like the schools I’d seen on TV, where rich kids go and they all have their own BMWs and Mercedes. All this place was missing was ivy on the stone walls, but that was probably hard to grow in a desert.

I wasn’t rich so I wasn’t going to be like them. But I’d spent the plane ride making up a good story. I was planning on fitting in here, not being the poor foster kid they all made fun of.

Ms. Vaughn turned the car toward the building and slowed to a stop in front of the massive stone steps that led to the front doors.

She popped the automatic locks, but didn’t take off her seat belt.

“You’re not coming in?” I asked. Not that I really wanted to talk with her anymore, but I had kind of expected her to introduce me to someone.

“I’m afraid not,” she said with another warm smile. “I have many more things to do today. If I go inside, then we’ll all get to talking, and I’ll never get out of there.” She picked up an envelope from the seat and handed it to me. My name, Benson Fisher, was typed on the front in tiny letters. “Give this to whoever does your orientation. It’s usually Becky, I believe.”

I took the envelope and stepped out of the car. My legs were sore from the long drive and I stretched. It was cold, and I was glad I was wearing my Steelers sweatshirt, even though I knew it was too casual for this school.

“Your bag,” she said.

I looked back to see Ms. Vaughn pulling my backpack from the foot well.

“Thanks.”

“Have fun,” she said. “I think you’ll do very well at Maxfield.”

I thanked her again and closed the car door. She pulled away immediately, and I watched her go. As usual, I would be going into a new school all by myself.

I breathed in my new surroundings. The air smelled different here—I don’t know whether it was the desert air or the dry trees or just that I was far away from the stink of the city, but I liked it. The building in front of me stood majestic and promising. My new life was behind those walls. It almost made me laugh to look at the carved hardwood front doors when I thought back to the public school I’d left. The front doors there had to be repainted every week to cover up the graffiti, and their small windows had been permanently replaced with plywood after having been broken countless times. These were large and gleaming, and—