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"What to get, what to get," Stephen mumbles as he reads over the electronic menu. He slides his finger across the table, flipping a page of the options embedded in the table.

I glance up at Stephen from my own menu. Even with sticky sweat covering his face, he still looks handsome. Shaking my head at myself, I tell myself to focus. After all, we're still in the Project. A simple lunch doesn't mean anything.

"The NutriShakes are good," I suggest. "I used to get them a lot."

I tap my choices and reach across the table, selecting Stephen's for him. I press ORDER on both of our screens.

The menus fade into a normal tabletop. "Thanks," Stephen says.

"No problem."

We sit silently, staring over each other's shoulders. The packed restaurant echoes with the conversations of co-workers and students.

"You sure the Shakes are good?" Stephen asks.

"Positive," I say, "I used to come here a lot with my parents."

"No siblings?"

"No," I say. "You?"

"A brother." Stephen doesn't volunteer any more information.

"What's his name?"

"Michael."

"That's cool," I say. "I always wanted a sis--"

A woman with light hair and a gray business suit enters the restaurant from afar, heading right for the TO-GO counter. She patiently waits in line behind two black-shirted janitors. I could recognize her factory outfit with my eyes closed. My jaw slackens in response.

Stephen soon registers my shock with furrowed eyebrows. He spins around in his chair. "What are you staring at?"

"T-That's my mom," I gasp.

"What?" Stephen says. He takes a moment to scan the restaurant. "Are you lower-class?"

"No, middle-class."

"In the gray suit?" he asks.

"Y-Yeah, that's her," I say. Two drinks are carefully set on our table, and I neglect them, keeping my eyes trained on my mother.

"I have to go talk to her," I announce, standing up.

Stephen yanks my arm, pulling me down. "Holland, you can't."

"What?" I say, "I have to. She's right there!"

"To say what? And risk our safety in the process?"

"Stephen," I lie. I know he's right, but I can't help it. "If that was your mom, I'd let you go talk to her."

I turn towards the pick-up counter across the shop. My mom walks towards the door, oblivious to her daughter. I'm alive and well, just yards away from her.

"Holland, they're testing you. Don't let them win."

Stephen's grip tightens around my wrist, and I know he's right. Without thinking, I rip my arm out of his clutches, grab my Screener helmet from beneath the table, and hurry across the store. My love for my mom is too great to be ignored.

Five steps, then four, then three. The doors of the restaurant open automatically, letting my mom step outside. I follow on her heels.

"Mom!" I call, grabbing her shoulder.

She spins around, visibly jumping. Gasping with shaky hands she says, "Holland?"

I laugh, eyes watering. "Yeah, Mom, it's me."

My mother grabs my hand, running us to the nearest alley. In the shadows, she hugs me tightly, stroking my hair with her hands. "Oh, sweetie," she repeats over and over again.

Tears form in my eyes. "I missed you, too, Mom."

My mother pulls me away so she can get a good look at me. Her eyes are watering, too, and she hugs me again.

"Holland, how are you here?"

"Mom, you're not going to believe what happened to me. These people imprisoned me in this experiment called the Enhancement Pro--"

My vision suddenly blacks out, and I tighten my grip on her hand. "Mom, I can't see a--"

My voice cuts off, and so does my hearing. My arms release my mom and mechanically place my helmet back on my head.

"Mom! Mom! Help me!" I scream louder and louder, but my voice doesn't make a sound. My pleas stay trapped within me.

I feel my feet turn and walk out of the alley, taking a straight shot into the unknown. Stephen was right; I should have listened to him. As a result of my recklessness, I walk block after block towards the next phase of hell. My feet halt harshly after an eternity of silent pleading and screaming inside my head. A few zaps flicker around to keep me preoccupied.

Like a statue, I wait. Eventually I receive a sharp prick in my forehead as a punishment. I flinch, my body in my control for a millisecond. Then an eerie voice beats into my ears, drowning out my mental protests.

You have failed the obedience test of the Enhancement Project's second part. Prepare for relocation in three, two, one...

Unconsciousness pulls me under once more.

-- -- -- -- --

"reunion" was the winner. i wanted that one to win specifically so i could write this chapter!

fingers crossed for the upcoming chapters. major events will be coming.

Question: Name a city in the United States.

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