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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 1
AKA Keep Calm and Take a Quiz
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Read the previous chapter (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 2 - AKA Wakey Wakey, Scared and Shakey)
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“This entire life-altering sequence of events started when I was Face-Timing my best friend, Nicole. She’s a Physician’s Assistant at GERIATRIC GENERAL in FL, graduated two years early from college due to her insane accumulation of honors credits. And here I thought being top of my class was something to brag about. She was telling me all about her day in the ER, but I couldn’t handle the gory details…”
* * *
“Eew, Nicole, please!” I drop the phone, my vision crowding with dark spots. Her melodic laugh rings through the tiny speakers.
“Okay, sorry.” She takes a giant bite of her Publix Sub. “I can’t believe you still get queasy with this stuff,” she says through a full mouth.
I blink until the spots go away, taking short, quick breaths. “It’s not something I can particularly control, remember? Aren’t you supposed to be the medical expert?”
“Vasovagal Syncope is just a fancy way to say ‘prone to fainting.’” She takes another bite of PubSub and waits for me to pick the phone up again, her beautiful caramel eyes waiting expectantly.
Nicole is wearing her signature look—hospital scrubs with a creative updo and no makeup. She doesn’t need it, the way her flawless dark skin glows. “Well, the whole point is I’m finally getting to work in the ER with the handsome Dr. Reeves. It will be glorious, but unfortunately, I’ll be working the entire time you’re here.”
I almost drop the phone again. “For real?” I stifle a childish whine.
“They always give crappy shifts to newcomers.” She shrugs, then shoves another large bite into her mouth.
This means I’ll be spending the whole week of Spring Break with my retired parents, mainly my worry-wart mother. Not exactly what I’d planned on, but at least I’ll be back home in Beechmont, Florida, with no school assignments to worry about.
I physically wave the thought out of my mind and continue packing with Nicole in one hand and a box of Lactaid tablets in the other. I’ve opened every cabinet and drawer in my spotless apartment bedroom to make sure I can see all my options for packing. Everything is organized first by season, then by color, then by style. I’ve already emptied my undergarment drawers and the cabinet full of hand-me-down fanny packs, having stashed them neatly in my carryon. You can never overpack on the essentials, especially when pockets are involved. Plus, who doesn’t love a good fanny pack?
The Mickey Mouse clock on my recently dusted mirrored dresser tells me I’ve been at this for the last two hours, but seeing as I’ve only had to re-pack a total of four times, I’d call this a successful packing session. Well, four and a half. (I’d thought about including my hand-pump antibacterial soap, but it wouldn’t fit with all my travel-sized hand sanitizers and backup toothbrushes, so I settled on just three hand sanitizers and no hand soap. I’ve got two at home anyhow. Best not to overdo it!)
“It’s all good, really. I’m happy for you and Dr. Handsome.” I continue counting Lactaid tablets as I place them neatly in my carry-on suitcase, solving the Tetris packing puzzle as I go. “I mean, you’re living the dream, really. Think about it.” I grab my toiletries bag, full of every mini-sized item found in the travel aisle at Target. “You’re doing what you love and getting paid for it, working alongside your future husband, and saving people’s lives.” She smiles at the future husband part, cheeks full.
“And what will the great Julie Richardson be doing after graduation?”
I stop folding my shorts, close my eyes, and imagine my future. My great future, the one that I’ve been working toward for the past twenty-two years. Sacrificing free time and any kind of social life for the endless study sessions, extra credit assignments, and mandatory volunteer hours that would deliver me a future of success.
Success in what, though? I still haven’t decided what to do with my generic business degree. It’s always been the same plan: work hard in school to ace your classes so you can get into the next set of classes and so on and so forth. Until now.
Oh my God.
“Julie?” Nicole’s voice turns serious. I can’t respond.
Suddenly, I see myself sitting on my parent’s couch with a graduation cap and gown. I’m waiting for my only friend to get off work from her incredibly important and useful job in the real world with absolutely nothing on my own agenda (now that homework’s not a thing anymore) while my mother updates me on all the morbid news stories going around on Facebook.
I shiver. And start hyperventilating.
“Julie! What’s wrong?” Nicole’s distant, high-pitched voice weakly makes its way to my brain, and I realize I’m now sitting on my bed, having dropped the phone on the floor. I quickly pick it up, slightly lightheaded.
“Sorry. I just…” I just realized my entire life of GPA-driven ambition has totally ill-prepared me for whatever comes after shaking the dean’s hand at graduation—other than a good dose of hand sanitizer.
“Julie, please tell me you’re not still thinking about our suturing discussion earlier.” Nicole stares at me with a face that says she’s disappointed in my theatrics.
I shake my head, still unable to form words. How could I have come this far in life without a plan? I always have a plan! Maybe I’ve just forgotten the plan. What was the plan again?
“Julie, speak!” Nicole shakes the phone, probably pretending it’s my shoulders.
“I’m sorry. I think I’m just having an existential crisis.” My voice is monotone and barely there. “I’m fine.”
“What are you talking about? Julie, you kick ass at everything you put your mind to.”
“Oh my God, you sound like my mother.” Who I’ll be roomies with all too soon.
“Seriously, where did this come from?”
“I don’t have any idea what I’ll do after graduation!” Nicole furrows her brow, narrowing her eyes at me. “How could I not have seen this coming?” I continue, mostly to myself.
“Obviously, I’m going to graduate, and at the top of my class, most likely. But then what? Have I really been so blind?” Nicole purses her lips, and I can tell she doesn’t have a rebuttal. Because I’m right! “I’ve forced myself to forgo any kind of life outside of school in exchange for being top of my class, but now that just means I’m an inexperienced, naive goody-two-shoes entering a world where grades don’t matter and GPA doesn’t count!”
I’m shaking, my hands trembling so badly that Nicole’s image on the phone is jittering like my grandma’s TV stuck between channels.
“Julie, take a deep breath and try to calm down. It’s okay, it’s all going to be okay.”
I drop to the floor and hug my knees to my chest, fighting back tears. “Easy for you to say,” I mutter.
“Excuse me, but we’re talking about you here,” Nicole chides. “You’re a badass.” I scoff. No one has ever described me that way before. “I’m not the one who decided to go to college across the country,” she says with a half-smirk before I even get the chance to argue.
“I’m not a badass. And you would have, too, if you wanted to get away from your overbearing mother.”
“You keep telling yourself that, but we both know you could have stayed and gone to UF or FSU or UCF or USF like everybody else we know.”
I purse my lips. “I suppose you’re right,” I say, not entirely convinced it was a “gutsy” move. Regardless, my blood pressure begins receding to its usual pace.
Nicole scoops up the remaining innards of her PubSub and licks them from her fingers. “Especially if you’re right about not having a plan for life after college. That’s pretty brave, girl. Going across the country just to take a bunch of hard-core classes for the hell of it.”
Just when it seemed she was being helpful.
“Hang on,” Nicole says. Her screen pauses for a second. I suck in a shaky breath. She’s back in a moment, and she has bright eyes.
“Dr. Reeves is calling me! I can’t not answer,” she says, bubbling over with excitement. She stops bouncing at the sight of my ashen face and turns to me, serious. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes,” I say, though my head is shaking, “no.”
She doesn’t seem convinced. “I’ll call you right after.” I nod, but it’s unrecognizable amongst all the involuntary shaking. Nicole hangs up.
Okay. Nicole’s right, it’s fine. I mean, I’m Julie freakin’ Richardson! The Master of Plans. The Acer of Tests. The twenty-two-year-old who’s never been on a real date or done anything just for the hell of it.
This is ridiculous. I need a plan.
In my small apartment kitchen, I grab a glass of ice-cold water and plant myself at my desk. My ancient laptop hums to life. It’s as old as the scratched silverware in my drawers and the chipped china in my cabinets. And the stained placemats on my table. All gifts from Mom, who wanted to make sure I felt her motherly touch in my one-bedroom apartment across the country. At least, that’s what she told me. But I know it’s because my parents are cheap as hell. Who would want a new mattress that isn’t stained from childhood bed-wetting, anyway? At least it was an opportunity to put my triple backups of baking soda and dish soap to use. Maybe when I’m forty and can pay for it myself with my grown-up real-world job.
But that’s assuming I make it past graduation.
The hunk of technology screeches at me, letting me know it’s finally awake. Hello to you, too. As soon as the Internet connection is established, I immediately begin searching online for career quizzes.
Don’t judge me.
Oh! Here’s one that doesn’t look like a thirteen-year-old made it.
As I fill out the questions page by page, the faint, familiar sense of purpose comes back to me. I read the questions aloud.
“You spend most of your free time socializing, at parties, shopping, etc.” HA. Unless burying myself in textbooks at the school library counts as socializing, that’s a NO. Click.
“You take pleasure in executing tasks when a clear and detailed plan is in place.” You’re speaking my language, quiz. Click.
“You quickly get involved in the social life of a new workplace.” Hmm. I’ve never really had a job, what with all the studying and such, but judging by my general lack of social skills, I’m going to go with NO. Click.
“You think and reflect first before taking action.” I take a look around the room in thought. Oh, ha! Guess that answers the question. Yes, as should everyone. Click.
“You are capable of making decisions based solely on logic rather than feelings.” You’re preaching to the quire, buddy. Click.
I sit back in my seat, relax my shoulders a bit, and take a newfound comfort in the fact that this quiz appears to have been made for me. Perhaps I’m not as much of a lost cause as I’d thought. Maybe there is a job out there for me. I continue reading through the questions with fresh optimism.
“You enjoy working alone or with a small team of others.” Either way, I’m always the one who ends up doing everyone’s workload. But, honestly, if you want something done right... YES. Click.
“You can think quickly and adapt to situations creatively.” Hells yes. Nancy Drew PC games will teach a person a thing or two about creative problem-solving. Click.
“You’d be willing to travel the world as part of your job requirements.” I stop to think about this one for a minute. The traveling-to-new-places-and-learning-about-other-cultures part sounds glorious, but the germ-riddled-means-of-transportation-and-recycled-air-farts part does not seem like a great time. I decide the quiz is referring to a perfect world, void of air farts. And who knows, with no air farts I might even be able to picture myself working at a job involving a private jet. In which case the answer is YES. Click.
“You are multilingual.” I did rack up five years of AP Spanish and French studies, but I haven’t ever used that knowledge in a single legitimate conversation. Meh, I suppose all those conjugations collecting dust in my brain have to count for something. YES. Click.
The next question actually makes me snort with laughter. “Prolonged time away from family or loved ones is not a deterrent in your career decisions.” In all seriousness, I barely ever see my parents or Nicole, save for time off school anyway. YES. Click.
“You are capable of packing light and moving fast.” I glance over at my suitcase, overflowing with so much underwear you’d think I was planning to poop my pants every day. Definitely a NO. Click.
“You are experienced in the arts of Krav Maga and general self-defense.” An oddly specific question. I don’t think the yellow Tai-Kwan-Doe belt in my childhood memory box counts. Plus, I’ve never thrown a punch. NO. Click.
“You are not bothered by a slight invasion of privacy.” Umm… Yes? Or no? Which one’s the double negative? They should just use true or false. Click.
“You are comfortable working with ambiguous or incomplete information/data and guessing its meaning.” Nancy Drew PC games for the win, again! YES. Click.
The next question sends a prickly feeling to the nape of my neck. I sit upright and make sure my oversized Stitch plushie isn’t looking before reading it to myself. You can keep a secret. To this day, no one knows I had a little help from my textbook on that take-home Biochemistry quiz… I mentally berate myself for that, once again, and quickly click YES, suddenly eager to get this quiz over with.
The screen loads for a moment, calculating my future. I take a deep breath, my fate resting in the hands of whichever twenty-something created this time-waster. It’s still loading.
Oh crap, it looks like the screen is frozen. Darn spam sites. I should have guessed this quiz would give my computer a virus. I press the escape key, but nothing happens. A sudden thought pops into my head—the entirety of my senior year projects lives on this hard drive.
My heart rate soars through the roof. “NO!” I shout at the computer, furiously pressing ‘escape.’ “Please don’t die,” I whisper.
As if on cue, the screen turns black. A small white square blinks in the middle of the screen. I stare at it through my fingers, unwilling to watch the terrible fate unfold, yet not able to look away. After a few moments of frozen terror, the blinking stops. I sit, glued in place.
At least now I know what I’ll be working on over Spring Break.
Like a sudden jolt of electricity to the brain, a wave of images zaps into my head. Fiery explosions, silhouetted figures, and lethal, handheld weapons of all kinds flicker behind my eyelids. Hundreds of lines of green computer code and random words written in mismatched fonts and sizes flash across my vision like a movie on fast forward. Clips of gruesome violence play in my head as if they’re my own memories, knocking me to the floor in a heave of uncontrollable spasms and twitches.
My Vasovagal Syncope kicks in.
I pass out.
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