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 As soon as we’re on the road, I pull out my tiny pocket phone and call Mom, holding my hand over my mouth to speak as quietly as possible and not disturb the others on the bus or provoke the ferocious gadget-confiscating wrath of the driver.

“Good news! We all Preliminary-Qualified! All four of us!” I say, the moment I hear her voice. It’s important I say it first and up-front, because I know Mom’s been going insane all these daylight hours that we were taking the tests. And Dad too, though he’s off at the University today, so at least he didn’t have to think about us non-stop, only between his lectures.

“Oh, honey! Oh, thank God! Oh, what a blessing!” Mom’s warm exhale of relief is a joy to hear. Her voice is exultant but weak, and she is speaking with effort, so I know she’s had a pain episode today—not surprising, considering she forced herself to get out of bed for us, to cook our so-called “last breakfast” at home.

“We’re all on the bus now, headed to the Regional Qualification Center. In Pennsylvania,” I add.

Gracie pulls the phone away from me. “Mom, we made it! Yes, love you too! Nope, no lunch, so we’re starving, but it’s okay! Here, will let you speak to George and Gordie too—”

The phone gets passed around the Lark siblings. We whisper and chortle, tell Mom about the hoverboard test, the “eeee” nonsense, the interesting stuff of the day.  Then it’s Dad’s turn.

I notice we’re not alone in this. Everyone on the bus is calling family and friends. The first hour is full of good news being passed on to loved ones at a time when there is so little good news left.

And then we start spacing out. Some people fall sleep. A few turn on their tablet computers, or enable their smart jewelry. A few water bottles get passed around.

It’s a dark and boring drive to Pennsylvania.

* * *

I doze through the endless bus ride, coming alive during the bathroom breaks. We don’t have much money on us, but enough to buy a few bags of chips and candy bars, and some bottled water and juice, which we consume hungrily in the dark.

We’ve left Vermont a while ago. It’s late, and the buses and occasional delivery trucks and semis are the only things on the road. At some point it starts to rain lightly, a cold mixture of sleet and drizzle. The road is poorly lit and the countryside is all unrelieved darkness on both sides as we move south through Upstate New York, passing through occasional urban centers.

Gracie has fallen asleep against the window. As I stare past Gracie through the glass, I notice that there are more buses now, merging onto the highway from other roads all along the route, so I know it’s not just from our school district. In fact, we appear to be a many-mile-long bus cavalcade, a “snake” made of bus segments, that just keeps growing.

All of us, going to this Regional Qualification Center in PA. Or maybe some are going to some other RQC. Who knows?  I try to remember and I cannot seem to recall how many RQCs there are in total, all across the country. Did they even tell us when they were building them? And even if they did mention it at some point, with all the eerie horrible things happening, who really paid attention?

It’s after 2:00 AM when our bus crosses the New York state line into Pennsylvania. Then it turns east, heading lord knows where in the dark.

And then, another forty minutes later, we arrive at the gates of some kind of impossibly huge gated compound that resembles a military base. It is lit up like a holiday tree, even from a mile away, and we can see the guard towers and the barbed wire fence, and lots of concrete walls. Somewhere in the distance are the looming black shadows of the Appalachian Mountains.

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