If you read a copy of My Familiar Stranger in the past three weeks, you may have this excerpt at the end of your book.
She could see from records that Storm had been in trouble at school from the first day of first grade. Like a lot of the knights, he was too smart to be suited for the public school curriculum and the system isn’t set up to cater to individuals. Also, most adults have a really hard time liking children who are smarter than they are.
He seemed to have been born knowing things, like math for instance. His mind would grab on to a concept on first presentation and then, while his classmates struggled, he would be looking around for something to do. That something usually ended up being disruption.
Storm was loved by his parents, but school faculty was another story. He had a reputation with the teachers for instigating pandemonium in the classroom. He was the triple threat: smart, bored, and a natural leader. It wasn’t that he was a class clown, nothing so obvious or exaggerated. He just quietly went about doing whatever the hell he pleased and ignoring objections. In short, no one in his life to that point had given him adequate reason to believe that anarchy was not the best policy.
Peers wanted to be like him. If that wasn’t possible, they would settle for doing whatever he was doing. So Storm’s experience of the public school system was time spent in the hallway, the principal’s office, or in trouble at home with his parents agonizing over what to do.
At one point they thought sports might be the answer. He had an extra helping of athletic talent and one of those bodies that would have said yes to any physical demand. Unfortunately he never saw the point. To him sports represented an endless, mindless, repetition with some arbitrarily established goal that made no sense when he broke it down and it turned out to be… well, boring. Put it all together and he was a public school educator’s nightmare. He was also a textbook ideal candidate for Black Swan.
One day he was sent to the Vice Principal’s office under protest claiming that, for once, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He sat down in his usual chair to wait for the usual carpet ride, but, instead, the door opened to reveal too many people crowded into a smallish room. That included the V.P., Storm’s parents and a tall, serious-looking guy with a piercing gaze and an unmistakable air of authority. Storm sat up straight and had only one thought. Uh oh.
The stranger wore slacks, highly polished loafers, and a sports coat. He guessed the man was old, thirty-five maybe, but he looked hard all over like one of those athletes who can’t repeat enough Iron Man triathlons to please themselves.
Engel Storm’s father worked for the Randolph Moldavni vineyards as head winemaker. The work was personally fulfilling and he wasn’t chained to a desk in a cubicle, but it didn’t cut a path to either greatness or riches. His mother worked part time as library receptionist at the local branch of the University of California. Between the two they made enough to take care of three kids in solid middle class fashion. They could eat steak, but not every day. They had good health insurance with the vineyard. They could take a summer vacation if they drove and stayed in motels. It was an upbringing no child should complain about, but most do anyhow.
Storm’s background hadn’t afforded an education on the finer points of better men’s’ clothing, but even to an untrained eye there was a vague sense that the stranger’s style was expensive.
“Have a seat, son.” Vice Principal Rodgers motioned to an ugly metal chair with green leatherette seat and back. Storm noticed that there was a small tear in the seat that showed a little white stuffing. His mind was racing, partially occupied with the fact that Rodgers had called him “son”. He decided that meant he was in even bigger trouble than he thought, but, on the other hand, his parents looked serious, but not mad. The tall guy leaned against an old book case and looked really, really out of place against the backdrop of venetian blinds that were partly bent and a room that needed repainting.
Mr. Rodgers, better known to the student body as “Tums” as it was said his tummy entered a room five minutes before the rest of him, sat down with a plop that forced air out of the vinyl cushion seat. Another boy his age might have had to suppress a snicker, but Storm sometimes seemed more like an adult than a kid.
When the wheezing subsided, Tums said, “Engel, this is Mr. Nemamiah.” Storm looked up into flinty blue eyes that didn’t blink or apologize for staring. After a couple of seconds he wanted to look away, but pride wouldn’t let him. So he raised his chin just a hair and determined he wouldn’t give in first. Mr. Nemamiah’s expression didn’t change at all, but Storm thought he saw a little light flicker in those steely eyes. Nemamiah let him off the hook and looked away first.
Tums continued. “It seems he’s taken an interest in you and your education.”
Storm was starting to panic. Not military school. Please. Please. Please don’t let it be military school. It was then he started calculating how long it would take him to be up, out the door, and hitchhiking on I80.
“It’s been noticed that your test scores are extraordinary. To say the least.”
Wow. That wasn’t what Storm had expected to hear next.
“Mr. Nemamiah is in a position to arrange a scholarship to a private school that develops talent such as yours for possible future work with a quasigovernmental agency. He asked that I make this introduction so that you would know that he and his organization are legitimate.”
“Develops talent? What does that mean?” Storm demanded. He directed the question to Tums, but Nememiah interjected answering in a gravelly voice.
“It means specialized training. Highly specialized.”
Storm stared at Nememiah for a couple of breaths and then barked out a laugh intended to imply rebellion, irreverence, and a healthy dose of cynicism. “Spy school? You want me for spy school?” He laughed with his whole body as only boys can – for a few seconds. Then, in the time it took to draw another breath, Storm raked a gaze up and down the older man sizing him up, reasoned through the bizarre nature of the offer and decided that first, it would not be boring and, second, it might be cool. “Okay. Sign me up.”
Mr. Nemamiah almost gave in to the temptation to smile. While such behavior might be seen as rash, impulsive, or even schizophrenic in the mundane world, the ability to quickly sort through an equation and make hard decisions on the fly was one of the traits his organization prized. Neither parent was particularly surprised. With Storm they knew the one thing they could count on was unpredictability.
Nemamiah talked directly to Storm as if to say from now on this is between you and me. “Clean out your locker and say your goodbyes to your friends. Let them think you are going to military school. I’ll be by your house tomorrow morning at 10:00 o’clock. You and your parents will have an opportunity to ask questions. You may consider it an interview if you wish. If, at that time, you are satisfied with my answers, we will leave together. You may pack some personal things into two duffel bags, but that is optional. Everything you need will be provided for you from now on. You’re going to receive a first-class education, the kind money cannot buy, from people who will be honored to teach you.”
Storm blinked and his brows came together to form perfectionist lines that would be permanently etched into his face by the time he was twenty five. People who would be honored to teach him?
Mr. Rodgers cleared his throat. “Well,” he stood and held out his hand to Storm’s father to shake. “Thank you for coming.” He nodded to Mrs. Storm. “Give us a call tomorrow and let us know what you decide.”
Everyone in the room knew Tums would feel like he’d won the lottery if the troublemaker kid was on the way to being somebody else’s problem.
Storm’s parents waited in the car while he cleaned out his locker. In the few minutes that took, he had already made a list of questions. He couldn’t keep himself from peeking into the classroom where he would normally be looking for something to occupy his restless mind and body. When the other kids looked up and saw him at the door, he gave them a goofy smile and a wave, just so they’d know he hadn’t been led away crying or something disgraceful like that. He wanted to leave with his reputation intact.
Prune Face Blackmon followed the eyes of her students to the classroom door which stood open to the hallway. “Mr. Storm. Do you have someplace you need to be?”
He didn’t want to give her the finger. He really, really, really didn’t want to give her the finger. But he gave her the finger and trotted away grinning at the uproar of laughter from the poor douches who were going to be stuck in that hell hole the rest of the hour. “Not a bad exit,” he thought to himself. “Points shaved for lack of planning, but…”
He didn’t know where he was going or what he was going to do. But he would have felt really good about the whole thing if he had known that Sol Nemamiah would have laughed, on the inside, had he witnessed the teacher receiving a prime example of bird as a parting shot. What you want at your back if you’re heading into a nest of unknown fuck all is not a man who was afraid of a little authority as a kid. That guy will just as likely freeze and shit his pants or vice versa.
Sol’s philosophy, had he ever been asked, would have been something like, “Give me a kid with a proud third finger and I’ll give you back a vampire slayer.”
The Storm family stopped at McDonalds drive-through on the way home, then settled down at the Formica top kitchen table with a yellow, legal pad and the goal of making a comprehensive list of ask-now-or-hold-your-peace questions.
What was the scope of this “first class education that money cannot buy”?
Did it include geometry, foreign language, literature, biology?
Would he be receiving a diploma?
Would it be accepted by desirable institutions of higher learning?
Where would he be going?
Could he leave if he didn’t like it?
Would he be able to call home whenever he wanted?
Could he visit them?
Could they visit him?
Would he have a room of his own?
Would he get spending money?
Would he have an opportunity to spend spending money?
Would he be signing up to get an education or pledging himself to pay off the investment in service to a job that wasn’t his choice?
Would he have an opportunity to interact socially with others his own age?
And, did they know it wasn’t all mind-blowing test scores and high I.Q.; that he had been in trouble at school pretty much nonstop since first grade?
By the time his two siblings got home from school, Storm and his parents were agreed on which questions were deal breakers.
He and his dad pulled down two duffels they kept in the attic for camping. After packing everything he wanted to take, he hadn’t even completely filled one. That realization gave him pause, but not as much as the fact that he didn’t have any friends worth lying to about where he was going.
He didn’t sleep that night. At all. He didn’t know whether he should be excited or apprehensive. So far the information he had was cryptic at best. What he did know is that it was an adventure come knocking at his door and that this kind of thing didn’t happen every day. In fact, he’d never heard of it happening to anybody. Ever. The idea of a school that wanted him was so outrageous it made him smile to himself in the dark.
The next morning Storm said goodbye to his older brother and younger sister when they left for school, then sat down at the kitchen table with his parents to wait. His duffel was by the front door just in case. At precisely ten o’clock the doorbell rang.
Nemamiah was invited in. He graciously accepted coffee and the four of them sat down in the modest living room for a question and answer discussion about the future of a very special boy. After all their questions had been answered, to everyone’s satisfaction, Mr. Nemamiah clicked open an old-fashioned, battered, brown, leather briefcase and withdrew a contract.
Storm’s dad put on his reading glasses. Every one of the questions they had asked was covered in the contract already. It spelled out what they would do for Engel Storm. It spelled out that the initial choice of facility would be theirs, but that he might be transferred at any time at the discretion of Saint Black’s which was the parents’ code name for the organization. Storm and his parents agreed not to say anything other than that he was awarded a scholarship to a private school. When Mr. Storm was finished reading, he handed the contract to his wife and asked Mr. Nemamiah to excuse him and his son. He took Storm into the back room, closed the door, and gestured for him to sit on the bed.
“Your mother and I want to do the right thing, the best thing, for you. If you decide to accept this offer, we want to be sure that you’re doing it for you and not for… any other reason. We love you enough to let you go if you’re inclined to think this is the best thing, but we want you to stay if it’s not. Do you understand?” Storm nodded and tried to swallow back the lump in his throat. That was the longest speech his father had ever made, that he knew of, and he heard the love in it loud and clear. “Alright. You know what you want to do?” Storm nodded again.
So Storm and his parents signed the contract. He gave his mother a big hug and tried not to notice how hard she was working to keep the moisture in her eyes from spilling over. He was already two inches taller and could look down on her when she wasn’t wearing heels. He was more trouble than the other two put together… more trouble to the third power. Even so, although she would never admit it even to herself, he was her favorite.
He stowed the half filled duffel in the trunk of Nemamiah’s understated black sedan and waved to his parents who were standing in the front yard watching him drive away. He had just turned fourteen.
They drove south toward San Francisco. Nemamiah wasn’t big on small talk, but he told Storm he was welcome to listen to whatever radio station he liked. He then rolled the driver’s side window part way down and lit a little, thin, black cigar.
They kept driving until they reached the naval base at Treasure Island. They were headed for the compound in the middle surrounded by a twenty foot wall. They passed three checkpoints where guards recognized Nemamiah and waved him through. As they passed a gorgeous old, graceful mansion with lawns and tennis courts, Nemamiah said it had once been an Admiral’s home, but that it was being used for the school now, that Storm would eat and enjoy leisure time there.
They parked next to a brick building, opened the door with a key card, and entered a long dormitory-style hallway. Each door had a name plate. When they stopped mid way to the end, Storm looked at the door. The name plate said Engel Storm.
He reached up to run his fingers over the lettering. “Wow. You must have been pretty sure I’d come.”
Nemamiah didn’t smile, but his eyes did soften just a touch. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, Mr. Storm. We know what we’re looking for.” He turned the knob and swung the door open. “And you’re it.”