MICHAEL CASSATA
MICHAEL CASSATA

TRACER

CHAPTER 1

 

Washington D.C.

Last Day of Junior Year

In a Few Hundred Years

 

I wanted to be free from identity ... well, not in the way you might think. I wanted to be free from the identity of my past lives, not have to live up to the expectations a former life's success would bring. It was my life and I wanted to live it the way I chose. I wanted to carry forward on my own path based on my own decisions, not one that some old guy in a suit says is best for me, especially in light of today's big event.

 

I arrived at school late, but wasn't the only one with premature senioritis and joined a gaggle of students wading through the auditorium door, much to the principal's dismay. Unable to spot any of my friends, I settled in with the rest of the class as Mr. Clayton returned his attention to the government worker standing stiff as a board in his dull grey suit.

 

"As you're all aware," the government guy explained, "just as fingerprints can track and identify a person in this life, palm prints serve as our identifying feature throughout our many lives. And not to worry, after you're printed, all of your data will be securely stored in the Past Lives Identity Database deep in a bunker that not even the President can access."

 

Was that a joke, I wondered, or an honest attempt to put us at ease. Regardless, no one was laughing and I noticed my palms had already started to sweat.

 

"And I assure you," he continued, apparently reading my mind, "the rumors are not true that a sweaty palm once caused a misread leading to a murder conviction for a cold case some 150 years old."

 

More than a few people laughed this time, but could we really believe this anonymous mystery man? After all, he did work for the government and I heard that a misread is an immediate red flag instantaneously zapped to an underground lab where the FBI or CIA or some other spook agency is alerted to make room for one more dissident.

 

Having supposedly erased all doubts, the government guy nodded to his underling, but before he could transition to the next step, someone in the crowd – I don't know who – spoke up and asked what was on all of our minds.

 

"What if our palm prints change after today? I mean, what if we're not fully developed?"

 

A murmur complemented the group's anxious nods. I found reassurance in the guy next to me, whose head bobbed much more than mine. No one wanted to have waited all this time to finally get printed only to discover when we got old and were ready to transfer our gazillions that there was a glitch in the system. Better yet, I didn't want to come back in my next life and be informed that my prints didn't match anything in the database and my fortune was somewhere in limbo. Or even worse, that someone else was spending my cash. Then again, I didn't want to know who I was, so maybe it didn't really matter.

 

"I assure you that even though you might still grow another six inches," the man in the dull suit said, stepping forward with an equally dull smile, "your palm prints reached full maturity by the time you turned sixteen."

 

"Are you sure," someone shouted, "because I heard-"

 

"Whatever you heard was completely false. This is a tried and true process that's been occurring for over 300 years."

 

That seemed to satisfy the remaining skeptics and he swiftly moved on to the real action – taking our palm prints. This was the first step in the process, which would conclude next year with the delivery of our Past Lives Letter.

 

The government guy had set up some twenty or so booths and we all scurried to form our lines. Each booth was cordoned off for privacy and reminded me of a makeshift hospital from an old war movie or one of those biological end-of-days flicks where the zombies take over. The fact that they thought we needed privacy amused me. After all, they were taking our prints, which led to that database he referred to that contained pretty much all of our private information. The only things kept private in this life were the things you told no one about ... and we all had our dirty little secrets, right?

 

Daydreaming about who I could've been – a pirate, a CEO, an astronaut or a halfpipe snowboarding champion – I felt a sudden poke in my ribs and knew it had to be Allison.

 

"I thought when you didn't show up with the rest of us, you were serious about not wanting to find out who you were," she said.

 

"I'm sorry, do I know you?" I grinned coyly.

 

"Only in this life, sugar," she replied.

 

"Sugar? Since when am I sugar?"

 

"I don't know ... it's the best I could come up with on the fly."

 

"That's sweet, but you're in the wrong line," I joked. "The M's are over there."

 

"Gee, thanks. I don't know what I'd do without you."

 

"Watch out, though, I heard that machine is on the fritz and everyone coming out was a nun in all their previous lives."

 

"Very funny, Trenton, but we don't find out until next year."

 

"Then you've got three months to live it up before taking your vows."

 

"You wish," she said with a wink. "Come find me when you're done, okay?"

 

I nodded and shuffled closer to the entrance. When my turn came, I stepped into the booth where a gorgeous scientist with long red hair and the biggest lips I'd ever seen took my fingerprints. She confirmed my identity, or at least I think that's what she did because I was too mesmerized to focus on anything else. I was then instructed to stick my hands into a machine that looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie. It was boxy, clunky and painted the same dull color as the government guy's suit. The lady with the red hair and matching lips winked encouragingly and I couldn't resist.

 

Once my hands were completely inside, a sudden compression wrapped them like a warm glove. I glanced at the lady, who smiled, checked her monitor and thanked me.

 

"That's it?" I asked, unsure it had worked.

 

"That's it. Pretty simple process once the machine gets ahold of your hands."

 

"Yeah, but are you sure? I mean, this is pretty important."

 

"Absolutely," she replied with a warm smile. "In fact, I asked the same question when I had it done and everything turned out just fine."

 

"Really?" I was still on the fence. That seemed too easy and even though I didn't want to know who I was, I still didn't want a screwed up set of prints in the system. After all, what about that guy who was accused of murder two lifetimes later?

 

"Thank you," she said a bit impatiently. "We have a lot of people to get through now."

 

I was about to ask another question when an angry voice boomed from across the auditorium. The voice sounded startlingly familiar and I stepped out of the makeshift room to get a better look.

 

"I told you I didn't want this!" the voice roared. "And I'm not doing it again!"

 

I knew for sure I'd recognized that angry tone and my suspicions were confirmed when Matt burst out of his scanning tent and rushed toward the auditorium doors.

 

"Stop right there, young man," the principal stated in the stern voice we all loved to mock. Matt ignored Mr. Clayton's order and burst through the doors. It took a moment for Mr. Clayton to digest the fact that one of his students had just completely ignored him and he seemed momentarily flustered by the unprecedented rebuke. The auditorium was suddenly silent as all eyes waited for his next move. However, just before Mr. Clayton started to chase the delinquent, the assistant principal, Mrs. Chigusa, whispered something in his ear that caused his chin to drop.

 

The entire room waited breathlessly, wondering what could have prevented the school's top cop from chasing down Matt and making an example of him. What had happened during Matt's scan that caused the outburst? Did it reveal something terrible or even sinister about him? But more than anything, I think most people just wanted to know if this was somehow going to screw up their scan and possibly mess up their identity in the database.

 

I needed to get to Matt before Mr. Clayton and made a b-line toward the door. Maybe I could talk some sense into him or even help explain things to Mr. Clayton. After all, they had to have known this was going to occur with Matt. People in charge of schools and the government were supposed to know these things and take precautionary measures to handle them in the best way possible. Someone had obviously dropped the ball, though, and poor Matt, the one guy without any palm prints, was the humiliated victim. I felt for him knowing his worst fear had just come true.

 

I tried to avoid eye contact with Mr. Clayton and Mrs. Chigusa as I picked up the pace. They knew Matt and I were best friends and I didn't want to get cornered before talking to him.

"Mr. Locke," Mr. Clayton's authoritarian voice crackled.

 

The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention and I cringed. Should I pretend I didn't hear him, I wondered. I mean, the rest of the auditorium was almost back to its earlier buzz and sometimes people just didn't hear their name being called, especially in light of the day's momentous event.

 

Who was I kidding, though, as each of us had an antenna specifically honed to Mr. Clayton's frequency. None of it made much difference anyway because before I had to decide, a softer voice called my name.

 

"Trenton ... Trenton, dear," Mrs. Chigusa whispered with an almost sad intonation. I don't know why, but her tone stopped me in my tracks. I had always liked Mrs. Chigusa – everybody liked her. She was the good cop to Mr. Clayton's bad cop. But she was more than that, she actually seemed interested in what we had to say and genuinely cared about what happened to us. In simple terms, she was a good person down to the core. Most people seemed to have shades of good and bad that manifested themselves in certain situations. We were all driven by selfish wants, but not Mrs. Chigusa – she was a special breed and it was my guess that she had a lifeline as long as anyone on the planet; that is, she had an old soul.

 

I stopped and turned wondering what kind of trap Mr. Clayton was planning and how Mrs. Chigusa was going to prevent him from springing it.

 

"I suppose you want to talk about Matt," I said reluctantly, eyes averted.

 

They exchanged anxious glances before Mr. Clayton cleared his throat.

 

"No, Mr. Locke, I will deal with your friend momentarily," he said and shifted unsteadily in Mrs. Chigusa's direction. "Perhaps this would be better coming from you, Patricia."

 

Mrs. Chigusa nodded sympathetically, which made me curious. What in the world did they want with me then?

 

"Does it have to do with my prints?" I asked. I mean, had the government goons locked in that sinister basement beneath the National Monument already released the all-points bulletin to bring me in for questioning? That sure was fast and a bolt of fear zipped through me.

 

"No, Trenton," she began, a fragile smile searching for sunlight. "It's nothing to do with your prints."

 

"Am I in trouble then?"

 

"No ... it's about your mother, dear."

 

My mother, I thought. What on Earth could be so important that they would drag my mother into this whole brewing fiasco? I couldn't connect the dots quick enough. I mean, Matt's outburst, my reluctance in finding out who I was, and my mom ... the three were completely unrelated. However, my face must have betrayed my inability to herd those cats and that's when Mrs. Chigusa calmly told me that the woman who had adopted and raised me had unexpectedly passed away.

 

And that's how my junior year ended.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

First Day of Senior Year

 

I stepped back from the door as the train slowed to a stop. Anybody who knew anything about riding the train, didn't stand in front of the door unless they wanted that gust of wind to blast through their hair and ruin the look they spent twenty minutes getting just right. I grinned mischievously at the suit standing in the firing zone as the doors slid open and did a number on his head. What a chump. You'd think old people would know better, right?

 

After the guy with the windblown hair and some others stepped off, Janik and Steve jumped on, gave me a nod and grabbed hold of the overhead steadying bar.

 

"Dude, what are you feeding that thing?" I said, referring to the cold sore on Steve's lip. It had gotten bigger since yesterday.

 

"Screw you," Steve snapped, trying to catch a glimpse in the window's reflection.

 

"It'll connect with his sideburns by lunch," Janik joked.

 

"Where's Matt?" I asked.

 

"He said he'd be late," Steve replied as the dinging sound indicated the doors were about to close and the train would speed off to the next destination.

 

"He's full of it," I exclaimed and stuck out my hand forcing it to reopen.

 

"Where are you going?" Janik asked.

 

"We'll meet you guys there," I replied and jumped off the train.

 

Moving up the escalator, I positioned myself behind a group of suits who acted as a nice barrier from the rampaging elements swirling down. The slight breeze worked nicely with my hair until a girl's voice called my name.

 

"Wrong way, Trenton."

 

I reluctantly turned. Sophie Carter and Jessica Barrera, two girls I'd known since first grade but hadn't really talked to since they became part of the cool clique, rode the escalator down. I was about to give a witty reply – no really, it was going to be witty – but a gust of wind rustled against my part and flopped a bushel full of hair all over my face. I must've looked like a wild animal by their sudden laughter. I quickly brushed it back, but the moment had passed and they were already out of earshot.

 

Walking to Matt's house, I was a bit worried he would try his old shenanigans and skip school. After all, it was the second big day of three. Today we would find out one of the names on our past lives list, while the rest would be revealed on Friday. Unfortunately, Matt's printless predicament eliminated his ability to discover whether he had once been rich and famous.

Halfway to his house, my thoughts were redirected. Even though I had told myself I wouldn't, a force deep inside that seemed to have instantaneous control, sent my eyes searching the adjacent cemetery and I quickly zeroed in on my mother's grave.

 

Although it had only been three months, part of me was still in shock. The doctors had said she died of sudden heart failure. My father, a pharmacist, pressed for more answers, but apparently, there weren't any. He explained that these things happened and no matter how advanced science was, the human body – an amalgamation of many biological parts working in unison – gave out sometimes and that was just part of the natural cycle.

 

I understood that, of course, but it provided none of the emotional comfort I needed. She was my mother and not some mass of tissues and muscles that I loved. She was so much more. She was the woman who never let me down and always pushed me forward.

 

Part of me had always felt a bit out of place by having been adopted and not knowing where I came from. But my mom – my dad too – had done a great job of keeping that alienation in a distant compartment, well below the surface. They made me feel accepted and part of a regular family.

 

Steering in the direction of her tombstone, the lump at the top of my chest started to make its way up my throat and I quickly walked away. If I let the emotions swell any further, the tears would start welling and it would take far too long for me to suppress them than I had time for if we were going to make it to class on time.

 

*

 

I turned the corner onto Matt's street and as expected, noticed his mother's car was gone. She was a lawyer for some coffee bean company and always left really early for work. I rang the doorbell and glanced at Matt's room in the garden basement. They lived in a three-flat townhome and he had the entire bottom floor to himself. With his mom gone most of the day and his dad living somewhere in Idaho – or maybe it was Utah – he had free reign of the house.

 

I never actually met his father, only heard about him in abstract ways as if he were some distant entity with a tenuous hold on Matt. I could see that connection getting weaker by the day as we neared the last lap of high school. Truth be told, I think Matt desperately wanted a better relationship with his old man and resented him for not making it happen. In return, Matt milked him for everything he was worth and didn't feel the least bit guilty. Matt had more high-tech gizmos in his secret lab than the military, all thanks to some guy he saw every couple of years or so.

 

The light below flickered twice, which was our secret signal indicating the coast was clear. One flicker would have meant his mom was home and I should wait for someone to answer the door. Three flickers meant she was gone, but he was working on one of his secret projects and would let me in after locking her down. If this was how spies around the world felt day in and day out, then sign me up. I smirked and opened the front door.

 

A loud series of explosions erupted from inside Matt's room. I swung open the bedroom door and found him ensconced in his throne zapping aliens from atop one of New York City's dilapidated skyscrapers.

 

"Dude, new version came out yesterday and I already mastered it," Matt announced, fully pleased with himself.

 

"Cool," I responded casually, "then it won't matter if we scram now."

 

He looked at me with a cocked eyebrow that suggested I was out of my mind.

 

"Yeah right, like that's gonna happen."

 

"Come on, who am I going to eat lunch with if you're here killing zombies and aliens?"

 

"Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you," he said hesitantly as an alien caught him off guard and a few of his friends landed softly on the rooftop, "but we don't have lunch together anymore."

 

"What?"

 

"They switched my schedule."

 

"Serious?"

 

"Yep."

 

"That totally blows."

 

"I know," he replied. "Hold on, why don't you ditch with me? I mean, it's not like you're going to open your letter anyway. I thought you didn't want to know who you were."

 

"I don't, but I still have to pick it up," I explained and noticed something new hanging on his wall. "Where'd you get that sword?"

 

"Sweet, isn't it?"

 

I stepped closer to examine the gleaming object. The curved blade looked perfectly balanced against a nicely crafted wooden handle.

 

"Is that a scimitar?"

 

"You bet it is." I reached to pick it up, but Matt interrupted. "Don't touch it ... that thing will cut your hand clean off."

 

His quick reproach startled me and I put my arm down. "What in the world did that cost your old man?" Matt grinned cunningly. "You're going to bankrupt him, you know that, right?"

 

Matt held a peculiar stare as if deciding whether to let me in on a secret. A moment later, an alien crunched on his outnumbered hero and proceeded to share him with the rest of the gang, but Matt didn't seem to care any longer. He slid his chair over a couple of feet and punched in a few keystrokes. I eyed him curiously as his hacker portal appeared on the wall-screen and he motioned me to join his scandalous party.

 

"I can get you one too," he claimed.

 

"That's your dad's cash. I don't want one."

 

"Who said my dad paid for it?"

 

A cautionary jolt shot up my spine as I had a good idea where this was going. Matt's special gift was hacking. I'm pretty sure he was born with the talent as was evidenced by his innate ability to absorb computer languages and dismantle security firewalls. I had watched him do it and even learned a few trade secrets over the years, but I didn't have the knack or the desire to spend countless hours trying to one-up some other punk halfway across the globe. Matt loved it, though. In fact, one had to wonder if the trail of bread crumbs from this special talent might lead back to some previous life's pursuit. But Matt would never find out. His barren hands made sure of that.

 

"Let's just say, I know a guy who knows a guy who got a hold of some personal numbers."

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked. "Are you talking about credit cards?"

 

"Maybe," he said mischievously.

 

"That's insane. What did you do?"

 

"A little homework – got ahold of someone's info who travels on business and had the sword sent to his house when he was out of town."

 

"You figured out he was out of town, huh," I replied rhetorically. "But that still doesn't explain how you got the darned thing."

 

"It was delivered without the need for a signature."

 

"So you took it off his doorstep?"

 

"See, now you're getting the hang of it," Matt replied gleefully.

 

"Dude, you're going to jail!"

 

"Take it easy. It was the only time, besides-"

 

"You just wanted to see if you could do it, right?"

 

"Right."

 

No surprise there. Matt was a pretty smart guy – above average, actually, if you considered the aptitude test as a measure of one's intelligence. His marks put him in the 80th percentile or slightly above that, which was the key to virtually guaranteeing yourself a nice future full of cool jobs and money. The government and private industry saw to it that anyone scoring in the 80th percentile or above was offered a scholarship at a top-tier school; however, as with everything that seemed too good to be true, there was a catch. The caveat was that in order to secure this generous benefit, you had to major in a subject you were an expert in during one of your past lives. For example, a past life chemist would have to choose to be a chemist in this life.

 

I know what you're thinking, though. What if I wasn't an expert in anything in one of my past lives? What if I was a blue collar worker, like an electrician, or had a profession that society considered low value, like a screenwriter?

 

The simple answer was that you were out of luck. I mean, special consideration might be given if you were an Oscar winner or something of that order, but the chances were slim. Besides, if you were that successful in your past life and didn't squander all of your money, your self-inheritance in this life would easily pay for college.

 

I, on the other hand, was torn between disappointment and relief when I learned that I had only scored in the 70th percentile. I actually thought I'd done better on the test, but then again, I was never a very strong test-taker. I know, everyone who does poorly says that, but in my case it's true – really. My relief, as you can imagine, was in the reduced pressure to open my Past Lives Letter and find out who I was. If getting a scholarship was off the table, then what was the point in opening the letter?

 

"That's not cool, man," I said.

 

"Settle down, do-gooder. It's some rich guy anyway. He probably won't even notice and if he does, it's just a drop in the bucket. You never know, he might actually like the idea of having a sword and buy another one. Sure you don't want one?"

 

"You're an idiot," I said and stepped toward the door. "Come on, last chance to join the real world and get out of this bunker."

 

"No thanks," Matt cried. "Oh, by the way, Mr. high-and-mighty, can you call in sick for me? I'd rather my mom not find out I skipped today."

 

"No way."

 

"Why not?"

 

"Because I'm the one who got busted last time, remember?"

 

It was true. Last year we decided there were better things to do on the Friday before Spring Break and ditched. I was elected to make the phone call since I had the deeper voice and felt real proud I had pulled it off. Fortunately for Matt, it worked. Unfortunately for me, when I got home that evening, my dad was waiting with an unforgiving eye. You know that look they give when you've done something you probably shouldn't have and they know it – and they know you know it? Well, that's the one I faced that day. My father simply said I'd better not do it again and that I should tell the guy who faked his voice that he'd better not quit his day job.

 

Not wanting to repeat the episode, I left Matt to his faltering ways.

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© Michael Cassata