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That night I dream about being seven or eight years old again. It’s a warm spring day and our parents have taken George and me to the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California. Little Gordie and Gracie are with a babysitter, while we get to spend the day walking through amazing gardens and staring at paintings in the gallery.

As dream logic goes, I wander and somehow end up alone in the gallery room that houses the two most famous paintings at the Huntington. “Pinkie” painted by Thomas Lawrence hangs in a great hall directly facing, on the opposite wall, “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough. The two Thomases painted their unrelated subjects years apart, and yet they seem to have a magical emotional connection, and fit together like a mated pair. . . .

I know, I am just a kid. . . . But that’s the kind of kid I was—staring at art was fun, and I remember being in awe at the fact that I was in the same room with them, like being in the presence of two classical celebrities.

And now, in this dream, I look up, and Pinkie, whose real name is Sarah Barrett Moulton, looks down at me from the distance of the eighteenth century. Only, her face changes and now she is a different Sarah . . . she is Sarah Thornwald and her open eyes are stilled in death and accusation. . . . And when I turn around in sudden terror, feeling a ghostly prickling on my back, there’s The Blue Boy—only now he’s the Blue girl whom I killed, and the Blue girl is watching me, looking at me with an absence of life, of sight, an empty vacuum that is somehow more terrifying than intensity. . . .

The morning claxon alarms peal and I am torn away from the terror—I wake up, and it is 7:00 AM, the first day of training here at the NQC, and I am lying in a cot and somewhere out there an asteroid is blazing through space on its way to end the world.

The horrible dream is gone, only its ugly sickening residue remains.

And the grim reality.

* * *

The Candidates assigned to Section Fourteen—both from the girls and boys dormitory floors—are called to gather on the first floor in a lounge area that’s similar to the Pennsylvania RQC-3. Except this so-called common lounge is just one small part of the miles-long “airport terminal” portion of the huge Yellow Quadrant Dorm structure.

Our Section Leaders stand ready to explain our final four-week training here at the NQC. I recognize only some of them as Dorm Leaders from the other Yellow Dorms, but feel relief to see two out of three of our own Yellow Dorm Eight DLs, Gina Curtis and Mark Foster. However, the third DL, John Nicolard, is not here, because apparently he did not make it through the Semi-Finals. . . . The sobering news hits home again the precariousness of all our positions here.

Section Leader Carlos Villa blows the whistle to call us to order—and at the same time we hear numerous other such whistles going off all though the endless lounge terminals, as other Sections get ready to be briefed.

“Attention, Section Fourteen!” Carlos says in a loud strong voice. He is a large muscular guy with dark hair and prominent biceps. We crowd around him and the other Section Fourteen Leaders, at the same time as we throw nervous glances at each other, to see who else of us is here, who made it, whom do we recognize. . . .

Who, from Pennsylvania RQC-3, is still left in the running.

I stand next to Dawn, Hasmik, Laronda, and the guys—Tremaine, Mateo, Jai. Looking around, I see several other familiar faces of Yellows. Yes, there’s Claudia, and unfortunately I see the familiar tattooed thick neck belonging to creepy Derek Sunder, before he turns around and notices me and gives me a cynical stare. So, Derek, the A-list a-hole, made it. And so did Wade Ruthers apparently, and a few others of the alpha bullies.

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