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Recruitment by Sue Barton

 

I split with Marcus two weeks before my A levels exams began. It wasn’t all down to his hideous pale blue T-shirt, but that did go part way towards my snap decision to reclaim my life.

 

We’d been going out for six months and during that time we had become what people call inseparable. What a grim word! I was too young for inseparable. But it must have seemed to people as if we were joined at the hip because Marcus was always around. He didn’t like me to see my friends or go places without him. He’d been clever enough never to say so outright but his manner, his sulking, always implied it. I’d been complicit in allowing him to manipulate my life into loneliness without him. Friends soon melt away without contact, without sharing their lives and I’d slowly come to realize that I was becoming isolated.

 

The day of the break I was planning to get my head down and study. There wasn’t much time left and I wanted to give myself the best chance possible of getting my grades. No surprise, Marcus phoned early and said he was coming round. I asked him not to and gave my reason. He took no notice of my objections assuming, as usual, that I wanted what he wanted. Not having any desire to waste my energy on confrontation, my instinct was flight. I reckoned that if I were out when he came round he’d have to go away. So here’s what happened.

 

I grabbed my mother’s car keys and was reversing her shiny new blue Fiesta out of the gate when I heard the sickening crunch of the back wing connecting with the brick gatepost. In my anxiety to get away before Marcus arrived I’d rushed the manoeuvre. I got out to examine the damage. There was a fist-sized dent deep in the rear wing. I carefully drove the car back into the driveway feeling a knot of anxiety tighten in my stomach making me feel sick.

 

I was still looking at the damage when Marcus rolled up wearing that loathsome blue shirt of his saying things I didn’t want to hear, giving his patronising and superfluous opinion about the damage and how I could have avoided it. I saw him for the idiot he was. I shouted at him to go away, telling him I didn’t want him around anymore.

 

‘Of course you do’, he said trying to put an arm around my shoulder.

 

‘Piss off Marcus and don’t come back, ever. You’re not adding anything to my life.’ I hurled the cruel words at him just as my younger sister Emily was coming out of the house to go to school. Marcus looked stricken.

 

I dashed inside leaving Emily and Marcus staring at each other wondering if they’d heard properly. I hadn’t wanted to hurt Marcus, I’d just wanted him to keep away for a bit. Emily stood outside with him for quite a while making herself really late for school. Finally, from the window I saw Marcus walk slowly away. Even though it was what I wanted, I cried for ages.

 

Once I’d got a grip on things I settled down to work and when my mother got back mid-afternoon from work I showed her the damage I’d caused to her car. She didn’t make a big deal out of it but disappointment hung heavy in the air.

 

Later I tried to apologize to Emily for my episode with Marcus making her late for school but she just kept on at me about dumping him, giving me the “What’s he done to deserve it? And just before the exams too! You’re such a cow Martha. Really you are,” routine. We ended up have quite an ugly row. My relationships were all on melt down.

 

My response was to get my head down and concentrate on the future. I had an offer from Bristol to read engineering and I wanted the grades to do that more than I wanted anything else. More than having Marcus around, more than having to keep my younger sibling sweet, having a close circle of friends or pleasing my parents. I told myself I didn’t need anyone.

 

My family pretty much left me alone to get on with it. My parents made sure there was food in the fridge and asked from time to time if I was ok. I worked late and got up early, only stopping to get something to eat and go for an early run with the dog. I got a buzz from being so focused. Self-obsessed my sister called it. Mum and Dad, on the rare occasions I saw them, looked worried. I told them I was fine. Exam leave and my strict timetable made it easy for me to avoid Marcus who sometimes loitered outside the house. I kept my phone switched off and my music switched on.

 

From time to time I sensed there was someone with me in my bedroom. It should have been creepy but I found it an oddly comforting. Some days when the sun slanted across the room the light seemed brighter than normal there was often a slight movement in the air even though I kept the windows shut to cut the traffic noise. This strange draught stirred the moats of dust that showed up in the light, bits of skin: pieces of me floating around.

 

On the morning of the first maths paper I went to College confident, I understood my subject. I had nothing to fear. I was, therefore, totally freaked when the invigilator told us to turn our papers over and I went completely blank. Staring at the questions they all seemed quite meaningless. The more I tried to make sense of it all, the more I panicked. I’d seen it happen to other people in exams, this sudden hideous onset of brain freeze, but had never imagined it could affect me. I was sweating to the extent that my pen kept slipping through my fingers.

 

I don’t know how long this went on, but precious minutes were being wasted as the panic intensified. Then I became aware of a presence a bit like the one I’d felt in my bedroom while studying only stronger.

 

At first I thought the invigilator had noticed my plight and had come to say something to me. But it wasn’t her. It wasn’t anybody. Then I began to make out the

 

golden outline of a person. Male? Female? Neither. The manifestation, vision, whatever, spoke in a voice that sounded like mine but was as smooth as warm honey.

 

‘Martha this is simple stuff for you. Look at it. Just read the first question again.’

 

As it spoke, it’s arm extended across mine and pointed to the paper with one gold lined finger shape. I looked around me to see how many people had noticed this intrusion in the exam room. But it seemed no one had. Everyone was intent on their own papers including Marcus. I glanced at the invigilator who was walking with steady quiet footsteps towards my desk. She simply passed by having delivered a sweeping glance to both left and right, oblivious to what was happening.

 

‘Read it Martha,’ the outline was still there.

 

Although the tone was still soothing the voice now carried a quiet imperative, an authority sufficient to instil purpose allowing me to gather my scattered thoughts and start reading again. To my profound relief, I found the questions no longer threatening but well within my scope.

 

‘I’m ok. I’m ok’. I told myself, knowing better than to speak out loud. I wiped my pen on a tissue and started to work. There was nothing by my side anymore the weird thing was gone. I felt no fear at what had just happened but I didn’t tell intend to tell anyone about it, too crazy. I was merely grateful that the panic had passed and if it, whatever it was, had helped then that was fine by me.

 

I got through the rest of the exams without incident and while walking home after the very last paper I began to consider the long summer ahead without the plans Marcus had made for us. I wondered whether I should phone him and apologize; perhaps try to rekindle our relationship. I thought too about getting together with the friends I’d neglected. I was acutely aware of how empty my life was going to be, no more exams to work for and no plans of my own for the months ahead.

 

Dawdling along I batted these thoughts around trying to find a solution, a way forward that would interest and occupy me until I went to Bristol. It wasn’t long before I knew there was someone or something just behind me, keeping an even pace with my slow steps. When I turned round there it was, the same gold outline I’d seen in the exam room, featureless but incredibly alive, somehow pulsating with energy.

 

‘So, that’s all done with now!’ It said. You’ll have time on your hands until the next stage of your life. ‘That’s if you want to carry on with your life as it is.’

 

‘Who are you? What are you?’ I asked.

 

‘We are part of a network.’

 

‘What do you mean we? There is only one of you here, and what do you mean by Network?

 

‘We are not individual. What you see is just a presentation you can feel comfortable with. We are a network of brain cells, the result of an evolution far advanced from yours. We are infinitely adaptable. Distributed from a universe way

 

beyond yours we spread like seeds on the wind. Components of our network can be embedded anywhere at any time. You can see us, if you are able, in a beam of light, a shower of summer rain, the flash of a jewel or a reflection on a pond. We can be in all things at all times. Only the best brains sense our presence, see our manifestations and not afraid. You are one of those. We only try to attract to prime candidates.’

 

‘Candidates for what?’ I wanted to know

 

‘Cell donation! We are collecting new brain cells to feed our system and aid our purpose. That’s all we need for survival. And, as I told you, we only want the best.

 

I didn’t know what to say. I must surely have hit the crazy button. How could I be strolling along a perfectly normal road with cars passing, people cycling and walking past and not a single one of them taking the slightest bit of notice of the gold outline of a human chatting away to me like it was quite ok for this to be happening.

 

The voice went on. The fact that you are aware of us puts you in a good position to be accepted into our entity. Have you told anyone about any of this?’

 

‘No, but…’

 

‘Good. Now look, you have the opportunity to join us and give the future a helping hand. You can be the future, feel the power of being part of something bigger and stronger than you can ever be. We are going to harvest all we need from your people and use our increased power to change your world for the better before we move on. We have great plans. But it has to be your decision. We don’t use force. We require willing participation.

 

While my paranormal companion had been talking I hadn’t noticed that we’d already turned the corner into Western Lane. A few steps more and we were in my driveway beside the still un-repaired Fiesta. I winced, as I did every time I saw it. I closed my eyes and when I opened them the damaged wing looked as good as new.

 

‘What’s going on here? The car’s just fixed itself? How did that happen?’

 

‘We saw it distressed you so we removed the source of your discomfort. No big thing.’

 

‘Wow!’

 

‘So are you up for joining us or what?’

 

Here I was on the threshold of having the essential part of me subsumed into a supernatural network and somehow it all seemed perfectly logical. Instead of being scared or revolted, I felt honoured to have been chosen.

 

All thoughts of getting back with Marcus or re-connecting with my group of friends seemed such dull options now. Even the prospect of going to Bristol seemed banal.

 

I felt a calm purposefulness driving me forward as my new spectacular, magical friend followed me into the house, up the stairs into my bedroom.