Chapter OneAll I smell is leather. Seth’s arms are around my back, his hands tangled in my long brown hair. My lips devour his, hungry for contact. Beyond us a seagull cries and soars above the waves of Santa Cruz beach.
If I kiss Seth hard enough, my scars fade way into oblivion. Barbelo Nemo and his mind control tricks. My childhood spent in seclusion at Tabula Rasa, hidden from the Internet. I slide my fingers underneath Seth’s jacket against the stickiness of his shirt. I begin to undo a button.
“Whoa, Blanca.” Seth pulls my hands away. “We’re not the only people in the parking lot.”
I scan to the left and right of the rest stop. Strangers are everywhere. “Since when did you care about what other people think?”
“Since I started dating a Vestal.”
I pull back and look out at the cliffs. “I’m not a Vestal anymore. You know that.” I feel the antique chip-watch on my wrist. Seth’s dad, Cal, gave it to me as a present after my platinum cuff was removed. Once a Vestal is de-cuffed, they are expelled from the Brethren.
“So those tourists snapping our picture don’t bother you?” Seth motions to a small crowd a few cars over.
I look to where he points, and the flash of thumb-cameras blinds me. Vestals must never have their pictures taken by random people. That privilege belongs to the companies that purchase them and market a Vestal’s privacy one advertisement at a time. I reach my arms out by instinct, to protect my face from the public. “I’m fine with it,” I lie, pulling my hands down. “But we better leave now or we’ll be late to the restaurant.”
“My dad can wait a few minutes.” Seth scoops me in his arms.
“Blanca!” one of the spectators calls. “And Veritas Rex! Is that really you?”
Seth holds up his hand and wiggles his finger-chips. “The one and only!” Then he dips me back for a kiss.
I stiffen like cardboard. “Stop it,” I mumble, trying not to squirm. All I can think about is the cameras, my face flashed worldwide and weirdoes slobbering over my private moment with Seth. “We’ve got to go or we’ll be late.”
Seth kisses my nose. “I didn’t know you were so punctual.”
“Yes.” I pull myself out of his grasp. “Cal’s waiting.” The sooner I put my helmet on and get back on my motorcycle, the better.
“Blanca,” a man calls as we ride away. “I love you! I’ve watched you all year!”
Underneath my jacket, I shiver. The fame that surrounds me is chilling.
A few miles of pavement put me in a better mood. The day is radiant, perfect for riding our bikes from Silicon Valley over to the coast and back. It’s our favorite weekend ritual. Seth cruises next to me on his motorcycle with the lion-headed cobra painted on the side, and I zoom along beside him in head-to-toe white.
The speed rushing over me tastes of freedom. When we shift into high gear I can forget—for a moment—that three months ago I was a captive at the Plemora compound in Nevada. The memory of my mother’s face exploding gets sucked away.
But not for long.
The restaurant Cal picked is smothered in shadows. Candles in glass jars at each table are the only source of a hazy glow. As I walk by, other patrons stare up at me.
Their whispers don’t surprise me. Seeing a Vestal in public is unheard of, and I’m the most famous Vestal in history, with the exception of Barbelo, my birth father.
But father isn’t a word I use to describe my tormentor. I don’t think of Ms. Lydia as my mother either, not usually. The closest thing I have to a real parent is Cal McNeal, who paid thirty-two million dollars to purchase me from Tabula Rasa, the school Barbelo founded fifty-one years ago, in 2012, with the ostensible purpose of shielding students from the Internet. Barbelo’s real objective was to create a network of Vestals in key positions. Spies all over the world who were devoted to him.
Cal waits for us at the table, a smile on his tanned face. His hair is long around the ears. I need to remind him to trim it. Cal wears his usual tweed jacket with soft brown patches on the elbows. He stands up when we reach the table and hugs us both. “Enjoy your ride, you two?”
“From the mountains to the beach.” Seth slides into the booth. He pulls off his jacket and exposes forearms covered with ink. Seth also has tattoos on his face, the most noticeable of which is the lion-headed cobra. That snake was the first thing about Seth I noticed. A year ago he snuck into Tabula Rasa, took my picture days before graduation, and posted it on Veritas Rex. Seth is a viral blogger who does anything to break a story even if involves breaking the law.
My own skin is pure white. I’ve been a consummate rule follower my entire life, with a few notable exceptions. Remaining unmarred by ink or technology tops the Vestal code. It’s a hard habit to break.
Cal passes me the bread basket. “So Blanca, I heard from my friend at Stanford today, and I’ve got good news.”
“Yes?” I take a deep whiff of the yeasty aroma and push the basket over to Seth without taking a piece.
Cal butters his slice with a thick slab of butter. “I told the dean about your special circumstance. That you’ve been out of school for a year, but graduated top of your class.”
Seth chokes on his water. “Top of her class? You mean she was auctioned off to the highest bidder at the Vestal Harvest.”
“Exactly,” Cal says. “Blanca, you’re Tabula Rasa’s version of a valedictorian. I told the dean that you had a classical education from a different era and that you were being tutored in science and technology so that you’d catch up in STEM by matriculation.”
Eagerness glides over me. Six months ago when Cal suggested college I thought he was joking. I dismissed the idea without consideration. But since I returned from Nevada I’ve made attending college one of my primary goals.
It’s not that I don’t love being the face of McNeal Solar. Every time I see an advertisement featuring me on a billboard, I get tingles. But representing McNeal Solar and actually understanding how solar power works are two different things. I don’t want to be a token bobble head. I want to be a real engineer who designs power systems and imagines new inventions.
Cal wants to help me achieve that dream. Seth is so committed to Veritas Rex that there’s no way he’ll work for his dad’s company. But maybe someday I’ll join the McNeal Solar board of directors and people will respect my opinion. It’ll be another way I can be Cal’s daughter. I’ll become his intellectual heir.
“What did the dean say?” My knees shake with excitement until I tense my muscles.
Cal puts down his butter knife. “He knows who you are, of course. He watched the news story unfold along with the rest of the world when you were kidnapped.”
“And?” I toy with my napkin.
Cal smiles. “Given the special circumstances, he agreed to let you take a private entrance exam with a panel of professors ten weeks from now.”
“Yay!” I lean across the booth and hug Cal tight, my face brushing the scratchy fabric of his blazer.
“Awesome, Dad,” says Seth. “How the hell did you pull that off? I’ve never heard of Stanford admitting a student like that before.”
“Well that’s because they’ve never had a Vestal apply. Plus, it helps that a dorm is named after your mother, Seth. Being a large donor has its perks.”
Cal’s wife, Sophia, was an anthropology professor at Stanford until she died of the Brain Cancer Epidemic when Seth was seventeen. It was decades before the world realized cell phones caused cancer. Sophia was one of many victims. Before she died her life work had been researching Barbelo Nemo and the Vestal order he created.
“Mom would have been thrilled to have you as a student,” Seth tells me. “She’d probably follow you around and take notes on your well-being.”
“To your mother, then!” I lift up my water glass.
“To Mom,” Seth answers.
Cal holds up his glass of wine. “To Sophia, a three-way toast.”
“Smile, McNeals.” A guy with greasy black hair and an ugly smirk holds up finger-chips in our faces. “What a touching moment.” The flash pops.
I drop my glass and water drowns the tablecloth.
“Veritas Rex and his Vestal girlfriend. Gotcha!” Another loser creeps up too. The fact that they’re both frantically typing their fingers into the air makes me assume they’re viral paparazzi, uploading us straight to the net.
“Get out of here,” Seth growls, chucking bread at their faces.
A rounded man with a balding head rushes over. “Is there a problem?” He turns to the paparazzi. “I am the maître d’ of this establishment and I will notify the police unless you leave this instant.”
Seth pelts them with more bread. The one with greasy hair catches a piece and crams some in his mouth. “Thanks, Rex,” he mumbles through crumbs, “see you around.”
Several waiters rush over to pick up bread and clear off our wet tablecloth. “I sincerely apologize, Ms. Blanca. I don’t know how those Viruses got in.” The maître d’ uses the derogatory term for viral bloggers, the one that Headmaster Russell taught me at Tabula Rasa.
“It’s not your fault. Viruses are hard to shake.” I slide my foot underneath the table and brush my leg against Seth’s.
“They must have seen your white outfit.” The maître d’ tugs his collar.
“It’s okay.” I nod. “I’m used to it.” I wave off his offer of a meal on the house, but he insists.
Later, over cheeseburgers, Cal brings up my wardrobe again. “You know, Blanca. You don’t need to wear white anymore, unless you enjoy the attention.”
“Of course I don’t want the attention!”
“Then why not change things up a bit?” Cal says. “Shop for new clothes. Try to blend in.”
I look at Seth for support, but he nods in agreement with his father.
“Fatima wears colors now,” Seth adds, “and she’s still a Vestal.”
I picture my best friend Fatima. The last time I saw her she wore a silky green dress from her fashion house and looked like a snake that had swallowed a watermelon. Six months pregnant, her figure still says “Babe alert!” Tomorrow night is Fatima’s engagement party with Beau.
I, on the other hand, am the proverbial girl-next-door. Brown hair, green eyes, and clear skin. Back at Tabula Rasa they said I had a face that could sell soap.
“I don’t want to be a Vestal. I’m a McNeal now. But wearing color seems wrong.”
“It’s not just the clothes.” Seth’s finger-chips buzz and he flicks them off. “The only time you leave the house is with me or Dad.”
“That’s not true!” I insist. “I went to the soundstage last week to shoot a McNeal Solar add.”
“True,” Cal admits. “But it’s what a Vestal would do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Don’t you want me as the face of McNeal Solar?” My stomach feels bubbly, like I ate too many French fries.
“Of course I do, sweetheart. I love your campaign for my company.” Cal reaches out and pats my hand. “We’re concerned about you though. We want you to get out there and make new friends.”
I turn and glare at Seth. “This is about the other night, isn’t it? You’re still mad because I wouldn’t go to that club with you, so you got your dad to take your side.”
Seth stares at me hard. “It’s not just the other night. It’s all the time. Your world is so tiny that it’s unhealthy.”
“College is a big step,” Cal says, “in terms of academics, forming new friendships, and learning to mingle.”
“I meet lots of people! I’ve made a ton of friends online. Every time I write a new post for The Lighthouse I get thousands of comments.”
Seth looks at me with piercing brown eyes. “Blanca, you’re new at this, but online friends are easier than people you meet face to face. It’s a different type of interaction.”
At that moment a flash makes me jump. But it’s not a Virus snatching my picture this time. It’s a family in the corner taking a photograph of their kid. “Face to face can be scary,” I say.
“Sometimes,” Cal nods, “but not normally.”
“Normal for me is different.”
“Exactly our point,” says Seth.
Cal leans forward in his seat. “We think it would be helpful if you could chat with someone, to help you process all you’ve been through.”
“You mean like a psychiatrist? You think I’m crazy?” I twist my chip-watch around and around my wrist where the cuff used to be.
Seth scoots closer and lowers his voice. “We don’t think you’re crazy. But some really shitty things have happened to you.”
“You lost your mother,” says Cal.
“Ms. Lydia wasn’t my mother! I mean, she gave birth to me. That’s it. What do I care what happened to her?”
“You must feel something,” Cal says.
“I feel nothing.”
“Then why are you talking so loud?” Seth asks.
I take a quick glance of the room and notice stares.
Our waiter rushes over. “Are you ready for dessert now?” he asks.
“Yes,” Cal answers. “Please bring the menu.”
“No, thank you.” I squeeze my fists together, stress coursing through my body like lightening.
When the waiter leaves, Seth touches my elbow. “We’ve made an appointment for you.”
“With Dr. Meredith,” Cal says. “A therapist.”
“You want me to tell my private secrets to a total stranger?” I speak with a steadied calm while a storm builds up inside me.
“She’s not a stranger, Blanca. Seth and I started seeing Dr. Meredith when you were kidnapped.”
My heartbeat is ragged. “You told her about me? You shared my private life with an outsider?”
“Of course not.” Seth’s dark hair sticks up in wild tuffs on his head. “Dad and I had our own stuff to work out. You know I spent five years mistakenly thinking Dad cheated on my mom.”
Cal flinches. “And you have your issues too, Blanca.”
I swallow hard. I reach over and stroke my white leather jacket. Maybe I should get up and go. Ride back to McNeal Manor on my motorcycle. But that would mean going someplace by myself. The last time I rode off into the night, my good friend Ethan was killed and Ms. Lydia kidnapped me.
“Sometimes being an adult means doing things you don’t want to do,” says Cal.
“I’ll drive you to your appointment next week, if that helps,” Seth offers.
“No way,” I say. “I don’t need that type of care.”
I can do this if I try hard enough.
I stand up and pick up my jacket. “Thank you for dinner,” I snarl.
But as I turn to go I walk smack into dark suits. The man is six foot three, every inch of him as sharp as his buzz-cut hair. The woman is my height, about five foot five, with silver stud earrings.
“Blanca Nemo?” The woman has a steady voice. Both of them hold up their palms to flash electronic badges. “Agents Carter and Marlow with the FBI. We need to bring you in for questioning.”
“What the hell?” Seth leaps to his feet.
“Blanca?” Cal springs up. “What’s this about?”
“I don’t know.” I shoot him a frightened look the agents can’t see.
“Don’t say anything without a lawyer. Okay, sweetheart?” Cal types at his chip-watch. “Hold tight until Nancy gets there.”
“Come on, Ms. Nemo.” The male agent grabs my arm, “Our car is outside.”
“Ouch! Not so tight!”
“Her name’s not ‘Nemo’,” Seth shouts. “It’s Blanca McNeal.” He and Cal hurry after us out of the restaurant into the night where a black sedan is waiting.
I turn to look at the McNeals one more time. Seth towers over Cal whose face is twisted with worry.
I smile wanly as the agents shove me into the backseat of the car.
The irony kills. I’m going someplace without them after all.