Will I turn into someone different when I put on the hooded robe of a Collector?
I shivered under my blanket, tired of staying awake, tired of my mind running in endless circles like a water wheel, tired of being cold.
The hall clock bonged six times. Finally. I dropped the blanket. My fingertips were dead-blue despite covering them with the thin wool all night. I reached for my shoes, and just like everything else at this hour, their broken-in leather was frozen. A minute under my arm-pits softened them while the ice in my brain cracked, too. Of course I wouldn’t turn into any-body different. No Collector in history had changed one iota, I was sure. Ihs saw to that.
I opened my bedroom door just wide enough to squeeze through. The bottom hinge liked to screech on cold mornings and I couldn’t get caught—not today. The rowdiest apprentices in ten years had a reputation to maintain. Besides, every Collector from Big Water to Kirkwood was packed into Refuge for Homecoming. Ihs had enough voices fortifying Him this morning. He’d make it through this year’s Redemption without power from three apprentices.
I tiptoed to the next narrow door along the hallway and tapped once. Joel slid out with-out a sound.
“I’m impressed,” I whispered.
“Think I’d sleep in today?” Joel grinned, his flawless white teeth barely visible in the dim hall. “It’s the perfect day to break a rule.”
We crept to the end of the hall. Low voices trickled out every door we passed. At last I saw Clare’s blonde head poke around the corner.
“They’re all chanting on our side,” she whispered.
She melted into that goofy smile. “Good morning.” Her deep, sweet voice washed over me.
I knew my own smile was just as silly. “Good morning.” I kissed her. That first kiss of the day was like water after a penance fast.
Joel sighed. “Rein it in, you two. Let’s go.”
I led them downstairs, a model head apprentice. “These stones are so cold my feet ache.”
“My left sock has a hole in it,” Joel said.
“Because you’re too lazy to keep ’em mended,” Clare said.
“Just because you fix Amos’s for him…”
“Shh.” I stopped them at the third floor as a babel of voices hit us from another long hallway of closed bedroom doors. “Everyone’s chanting here too. Perfect.”
When we passed the door to the second-floor arena gallery, Clare reached for the door.. “I want to peek.”
Wham. The noise reverberated in the complete silence. We all jumped. Clare leapt backwards into my arms.
“What was that?” No footsteps came toward the door from the gallery. Maybe we were still safe.
“I don’t know.” Clare squeezed my hands and stood up.
We ran on tiptoes down the rest of the hall and into the stairwell. When I put my ear against the main arena doors on the first floor, I heard footsteps and another thump. “Let’s go.”
We careened around the corner onto the basement stairs and took them two at a time. Nobody followed. No more thumps.
“I’ll get the lights,” Joel said from the black, windowless basement. A scritch and a whiff of sulfur, and one lamp beside the doorway glowed, then another. A third, and the desk, bookshelves, floor, and stone ceiling appeared.
I plopped into a chair and wiped sweat from my forehead. “Your fearless leader expects thanks for getting us down here. Unless you’d rather sneak back to your rooms and lose your mind in chants with the rest of them.”
“Amos, we bow before you.” Joel tossed the matches onto the desk. “You are our private Matthew. You, not that old, freaky-eyed blond, are the greatest Collector since the Last War.” He went down on one knee at my feet.
“Shh,” Clare said. “Close the door, idiot.” She did it herself, pushed Joel aside, and sprang onto my lap. “We’re free! No more beautiful summer days wasted down here learning pre-War history.”
“No more lectures from boring old Collectors on the reasons for the fixed monetary sys-tem,” I said.
“No more slaving over long division.” Joel attempted a backflip and landed flat on his back. “Ow.”
I nudged Clare off my lap and jumped up. We danced around the classroom between the rows of tables. “Real life begins today!” I twirled her in the center aisle.
The door opened. Joel leapt to his feet. We stopped in mid-twirl.
“Uh…Good morning, Patrick.”
Our teacher set a pile of folded brown robes on the desk. “You seem to have finished your chants in record time.”
“We… got up extra early.” I watched the color of Patrick’s mostly bald head. If it turned red, I’d have to do some fast talking.
“I see. Since you’re so eager to start today’s instruction, solve this problem: All three of you are sixteen at last and it’s Tuesday, November twenty-eighth. What does that mean?”
Patrick’s scalp stayed pale and I breathed again. “It means you truly are a wise teacher, Patrick, because you remembered it’s initiation day.” I bowed so low my hair swept the stone floor.
Our tableau thawed. Joel whooped and drummed his feet on the large flagstone in front of the door. Clare fanned herself with a sheet of paper.
“Obnoxious brats,” Patrick said. “It means I’m free of you. If this weren’t Homecoming, I’d pitch all your homework into the breakfast fires and run through the halls cheering.”
He tossed the box of matches at Joel and sat on the edge of the desk. “Joel, make your-self useful and light the rest of the lamps, please. It doesn’t require deep thought.”
“C’mon, Patrick,” I said. “We may not have been the best at math or history or neat handwriting—”
Patrick groaned and buried his head in his hands.
“But you haven’t had a boring day since we turned thirteen,” Joel said.
“Boring,” Patrick said. He placed one hand over his heart and raised his eyes to the ceil-ing. “May lightning strike me if I ever complain about quiet, studious, obedient apprentices again.”
“I’m going to paint you like that, Patrick,” Clare said. “It’ll be an—” she snickered— “in-spiration to your next group.”
“They might be innocent enough to believe it,” I said, “until we tell them about the morn-ing we dumped snow in your bed and you squealed like a girl hitting a high G.”
We collapsed into chairs, laughing, even though the joke wasn’t that funny. Initiation jit-ters, maybe. Patrick shook his head and circled the room, aligning textbooks on the built-in shelves and straightening stray pieces of blank paper.
I grabbed the moment to kiss Clare again. Joel moaned.
“It will be a relief to all of us when you two get married,” Patrick said.
Clare blushed to the roots of her hair and I stopped laughing to watch her. I loved it when her ears turned pink and their curves peeked through her golden waves. “Only six more months to Carnival and our wedding.”
“Enough time for you to plant a garden for me,” Clare said.
“It’ll be your present.”
“You’re my sweetie.”
Joel rolled his eyes. “Will you please keep the sappy stuff for when you’re alone?”
“Yes,” Patrick said. “Cut the comedy and the romance, you three, and get up. It’s time for your last lesson.”
I rubbed the tip of my nose—stupid nervous habit. Clare caught my eye and wrinkled her own nose at me.
We moved to our usual places in front of the lecture stand. I expected Patrick to open The Collection of Matthew like every other morning. Instead, he stood in front of us and smoothed his brown robe, pulled the hood over his head, and tucked his hands in his sleeves.
For a second I could’ve sworn the lamps dimmed, but that was stupid. Get a grip, dummy. It was stupid of me, but sometimes when a Collector wore the robe the proper way, I got the creeps. Maybe it was because the hood concealed their faces, or the way their walk changed: They became strangers. If I admitted it to myself, those were the only times I didn’t think being a Collector was the greatest way of life ever, hands-down.
Will I still be me when I put on that innocent-looking folded robe?
After a long minute, Patrick said, “Who am I?”
“Uh… you’re Patrick.” Joel said.
Clare gasped as his mellow voice lashed at us. Joel hung his head, but I knew what Pat-rick meant. I ignored the shiver in my spine.
“You are a Collector.” Right, I was just being stupid. There was nothing sinister about Collectors. I’d wanted it more than anything ever since I turned twelve and we got a hint of what Collectors did for the world. I’d spent night after night pacing my room, pounding the stone walls and begging Ihs to make time go faster. I’d lost count of how many nights I spent like that. But no more. After today, all the mysteries would be open to me—to us.
“Yes,” Patrick said. “What have I done?”
“You saved the world.” Joel raised his head and sat straighter.
“After the Last War, um…” Clare closed her eyes. “I know this…2196 minus 2022…one hundred seventy-four years ago. Matthew and the other Collectors left their refuge in the Rocky Mountains and found the ruins of Colorado Springs.”
“What did they do?”
“They gathered the survivors,” I said. “People back then didn’t know how to plant or harvest, or how to rebuild either, because they had things called machines to provide everything. The Collectors taught them, and they begged the Collectors to rule them.”
“Correct. We have guided them since that day and there is peace and plenty in every town. The people honor us every year on that date with Carnival.” His voice smiled. “Which is the perfect day for your wedding.” The smile vanished. He stepped forward and faced his hood toward each of us in turn.
Goosebumps prickled my neck. I wished I could see Patrick’s familiar, washed-out blue eyes. Why was he staring at us like that?
“Now you will learn the rest.” Patrick walked to the back of the room and opened the double doors. His footsteps echoed through the next two rooms.
Clare whispered, “Any idea what he’s talking about?”
“Not a clue.”
“Shh. Here he comes,” Joel said.
Patrick laid a tall, thin book on the lecture stand.
“He’s got Matthew’s Book.” Joel’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his shaggy bangs.
“Come here,” Patrick said.
We looked at each other.
“We’re not allowed.” Clare’s voice was breathless.
“Come here, all of you. Now.”
We stood on either side of Patrick and gaped. Clare reached out to touch the gold letter-ing on the cover, but snatched her hand away.
“Let us see it, Patrick.” My voice trembled, but I didn’t care. “Please.”
Patrick’s familiar, wide fingers opened the book and the room seemed brighter. That was still our favorite teacher inside the dark hood, no matter how strange he looked or acted.
“Listen,” Patrick said. “Matthew dictated to his first followers: ‘I was alone in a cave high on the mountain when the war started. I saw a vision of Ihs just as a bomb exploded. The light enveloped Ihs, even Ihs, the god who created all, and impenetrable night covered the world.’”
None of us moved.
“‘My companions did not find me for two days. I feared all were dead from the war. In that interval, I heard the voice of Ihs cry out to me. Ihs, the creator of all things, cried out to me, his servant, for redemption.’” Patrick turned the fragile page, keeping his fingers away from the crumbling edges. “‘When at last the others came to my cave, Ihs had entrusted me with the secret and only way to Collect him from the darkness.’”
“How?” I leaned forward, careful not to breathe on the ancient paper.
“‘I sent them into the city at the foot of the mountain. They braved fire and madness for the sake of Ihs, returning with three of the many evil people responsible for the war.’” Patrick looked up, with his ‘answer my question’ expression.
“Military,” Joel said.
“Show off,” Clare whispered.
Patrick nodded. “‘I instructed my companions to build three spoked wheels, ten times the size of the ones on a wheelbarrow. If we did not Collect Ihs before three days passed, Ihs would be imprisoned in darkness forever.’”
Clare said, “I don’t believe it.”
Patrick gave her a small smile. “So we all said the first time we heard this story.”
Clare shook her head. “It’s impossible. We’re talking about Ihs here. Matthew can’t have meant that.”
Patrick continued to read: “‘At sunrise on the third day, we bound the three evil ones to the wheels and performed all Ihs required of us. When Redemption was complete, as Ihs had promised me, the darkness lifted and the sun shone upon us again.’”
He closed the book, making the Sign of Ihs over it.
“Now, you three who think you are the cleverest apprentices in ten years, explain that.”
I glanced at Clare. Joel glanced at me. Clare stared at her feet, the most perfect blush on her cheeks. Patrick laughed and put a hand on Joel’s and my shoulder, then on Clare’s.
“Don’t look so embarrassed. Every single one of us had the same reaction. This is why we wait till now to open the truth to you. When you are assigned a town to inhabit, one of your du-ties will be to search out the world-destroyers.”
“Now?” Clare’s voice squeaked. “They can’t be alive now.”
Joel poked her. “He means anybody who still thinks like that. Right?”
“Yes. Matthew Collected Ihs, and through Ihs, the world. But evil is stronger than stone and more tenacious than weeds. Those who think like the world-destroyers still exist even after one hundred seventy-four years of Matthew’s Peace. You will find them.” He picked up the folded robes from his desk. “Kneel.”
This time I didn’t notice the temperature of the floor.
“Amos, Clare, Joel, this is more than your initiation day. You have learned the truth and grown in wisdom and power. You have earned the privilege of being called one of Matthew’s descendants—Collectors. Hold out your hands.”
Patrick stood in front of me first. “Ihs brought light from darkness.”
I continued the ritual. “Yet darkness consumed Ihs.”
Patrick placed the robe in my arms and I bowed my head. “Today you Collect Ihs from eternal darkness.”
I ran my hands over the wool. It was softer than any of my other clothes and its deep brown was warm and welcoming in the lamplight. I shook it out, slipped my arms into the sleeves, and wiggled it over my trousers. Next to me, Clare finished reciting and unfolded her robe. Her hair glowed against it. On her other side, Joel—for the first time I could remember—looked humble.
Patrick traced the Sign with his thumb on my forehead, lips, and heart. “You are sealed with the mark of Ihs.”
When he had done the same to Clare and Joel, we all put the hoods over our heads. For a second my heart froze like the iced-over window in my room. Was I still me? Had I changed? But nothing felt any different. In fact, I felt just like I was in bed under the covers, protected against the cold.
Patrick said, “You’re used to Homecoming as a family reunion because that’s the only part you’ve been allowed to join. Today you enter into its true purpose.”
“In the arena,” Clare said.
“Yes. Ihs instructed Matthew to reenact the Redemption every year on that day.” He picked up Matthew’s Book. “This year I’ll watch with you from the second-floor gallery. That way if you have questions afterward, we won’t disturb anyone. I’ll be right back.”
Patrick returned the Book to the far room and I touched my hood to Clare’s. “You’re beautiful.”
Patrick returned too soon for me because I wanted to see her familiar face inside that hood. When he extended his hands over our heads we all knelt again.
“Ihs has done great things for me,” Patrick began and we joined in. “His power extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
My gut flip-flopped. Fear? No. I was being stupid again. It was just a reverent way of talking.
“And now my head shall be raised above the evil ones who surround me.” Good. My voice didn’t shake. I finished: “And I shall Collect Ihs and his people with joy.”
Patrick pushed his own hood back just enough for us to see the huge grin on his face. “Welcome to the family, my obnoxious brats.”