Project Ordine – Chapter 1: Burnt Burgers

Chapter 1

Rotso Inahka was a man in his forties with black, side swept hair, a tan complexion, and a reasonably muscular build. Among the Junior class, Mr. Inahka was the English teacher of nightmares, and at 6-foot tall, he towered over the class. The nightmares were not to be found in his figure, however, but in the torture chamber assortment of grammar, spelling, and poetry–of which free verse was the only form that felt remotely freeing. If only blank verse was truly blank.

“Remember, your haikus, blank verse poems, and visual projects are due the Monday after spring break. That gives you plenty of time, especially with the time we’ve had in class. If you have any questions, I’m here after school today, and you have the contact form to email me on the MyClassActivities dashboard,” Mr. Inahka announced. “Have a great weekend… and don’t procrastinate! This project makes up a fourth of your grade.”

The school bell rang. English class was at an end and Jake’s favorite class, biology, was next!

Jake had already put away his notebook and he quickly stuffed his pencils tip side up in his pocket. He wouldn’t stab his leg, but hopefully he’d remember that reaching in for them again. He watched Michelle Lombardi gather her things together. “You have a good weekend too, Mr. Inahka,” she said with a smile. It was genuine. Michelle was an oddity in that she actually liked English. Jake was in an oddity in that he liked Michelle. She had her redeeming qualities, however. She was the sweetest girl around, and by far the prettiest, with her flowing auburn hair, striking blue eyes, and adorable smile. She and Jake had been friends since grade school, but he’d always felt something more.

Jake waited at his desk as Michelle passed by and looked in his direction. “Ready, Jake?” she asked, and then added in a whisper, “I’m not looking forward to biology today. I spent all of my time studying English last night.”

Remember the redeeming qualities, Jake! He reminded himself.

He swung his backpack over his shoulder and was about to reply when Mr. Inahka called to him, “Jake! I must speak with you. I’ll write you a pass if necessary.”

Jake looked to Michelle with the longing gaze of a trapped animal. “See you in biology,” he whimpered.

Michelle quietly chuckled, “It’ll be okay, Jake.” As she passed by, he could smell her pomegranate shampoo and he grinned. He gave her that for her birthday, along with a collection of fountain pens that she’d been talking about since she saw them on the CorkBoard social media site.

“Over here,” Rotso said, motioning towards his desk. He walked over to the computer and pulled up the grade book.

Jake walked over and looked to the screen for his grade. He saw Michelle’s first: 110% overall. Rotso stepped in front of the computer before Jake could find his.

“You’ve done quite well on the tests,” Rotso observed. “However, your essays have been bringing down your grade. Have you reviewed the notes I’ve written?”

“Yes, Mr. Rotso,” Jake replied. “And I’m trying to use more formal speech and more vocabulary, but English isn’t my strong suit.”

Rotso shook his head. “I wouldn’t say that. Rose tells me that your science essays are excellent. You incorporate the terms, you follow the scientific method, and you stay on track with your thesis. You’re demonstrating that you can follow the concepts. Why not in English?”

“It’s… I don’t know,” I shift my feet and take a deep breath. “I try to do the same kind of work. Maybe it’s because I’m not as interested in English.”

Rotso smiled. “I get it, Jake. I wasn’t always an English teacher. I was a student just like yourself, and I liked science too. English is a necessary evil to some people. I sure thought so. Until I realized the power of the written word. What document freed a certain thirteen English colonies from the British empire?”

“The Declaration of Independence?”

“Right,” Rotso minimized the grade book from the computer screen and walked over to the world map. “Do you like history, Jake?”

“Yes, Mr. Rotso,” Jake wondered when he’d be free to leave.

“History demonstrates that writers hold great power. Writing conveys knowledge, culture, ambition, and heart. Writing is virtually boundless. Essays aren’t always fun. They’re preparation for greater things. Practicing a violin isn’t fun early on either. It can be loud and obnoxious. Nothing like what you’d hear in an orchestra. In time, however, there is beauty to be found in it. I want you to write your essays with that expectation, Jake. The expectation of great things.”

Great Expectations. Jake shuddered. He could handle Rotso’s soliloquy. But that book again? And the reading packet that came with it? No, sir. “I understand, Mr. Rotso.”

Rotso winked. It was an awkward gesture coming from the Mr. Darcy clone. “And I know you weren’t crazy about Great Expectations. But this is different. Each one of us has a destiny, Jake, and writing often helps to get us there.” He returned to his desk and selected a pen from the drawer. It was a fountain pen, much like the ones Jake had gifted Michelle. Maybe Rotso was a CorkBoarder too. Jake snickered.

Rotso raised an eyebrow but didn’t otherwise acknowledge Jake’s amused expression. With a few fanciful strokes of his pen, as one might expect of John Hancock, Rotso wrote the pass for Jake. “I want to see those essays improve.”

“Yes, Mr. Rotso,” Jake repeated, and he left the classroom with haste.

“Go on then, Jake,” Rotso murmured as the door shut. “That destiny of yours will come along soon enough.”

• • •

This wasn’t the first time that Mr. Inahka had detained Jake after class. There had been other times involving clichéd stories, improper irony, faulty sonnets, and understandably, lackluster blank verse poems. Jake had decided to pursue the literal route. Mr. Inahka didn’t appreciate the poetic gesture.

Science teacher Leanna Brown, of fair skin, short stature, and ginger, curly hair, was the antithesis to Mr. Inahka in every way–physical appearance, personality, and demeanor. She had a great passion for science, was encouraging to all, not prone to soliloquy, and well aware of Jake’s English class situation.

When Jake entered the classroom, he crumpled and threw away his pass. Miss Brown smiled as he took his seat between Michelle, and his blond, freckled, and messy hairstyled friend, Garrett.

Everyone was looking to the front of the class at the overhead projector which was whirring faithfully. There had been talk of buying an HD projector, tablets, or even virtual reality headsets, but much of the budget was being spent by expanding the gym facilities. That, and Rotso thought such things to be frivolous, and it was said that he was very vocal in teachers’ meetings. What’s that old saying? The angry bird gets the pig… er, worm?

Science class often began with a writing prompt. However, unlike those in English, Jake found the biology topics be engaging. Today’s prompt was about carrying capacity. With the increase in deer populations, should more hunting be allowed? Or will nature balance itself without human intervention? Explain.

Thoughts of the textbook concepts and weekly science articles passed through Jake’s mind, and he finished writing his answer as Miss Brown switched off the projector and faced the class. “Who’d like to share their answer?” she asked.

Jake’s hand was the first up, and Miss Brown nodded in his direction. “Go ahead, Jake.”

Jake glanced down at his paper, “The deer population has outpaced that of the coyotes, wolves, and other predators in many regions. The deer population also isn’t showing any signs of decrease due to disease. Nature’s corrective measures are nowhere to be seen. Although excessive human intervention has led to the destruction of habitats, and extinction of species, and nature does bring correction eventually, I believe more hunting will permitted, and I’d agree with such a measure.” In science class, Jake became an authority. The words came together so much easier, and felt free from poetic structures and essay conventions.

Michelle looked over at Jake, and when she’d caught his attention she mouthed the words, know it all.

“Excellent!” Miss Brown said. “Is there anyone with another perspective?” Not a peep came from the class. Garrett fiddled with his thumbs and feigned intense concentration on his science book. Michelle offered a smile. Miss Brown nodded, “Very well. I know you’ve all been studying for the chapter test today, but I’ll give you ten minutes to refresh your minds and review your study guides.”

“Good,” Garrett murmured. “Because I didn’t study.”

Michelle shook her head, and flipped through the pages of her completed packet. “You’ll regret it come college time,” she whispered. “If you do well in high school and on the assessments, you can skip classes in college. Otherwise, you end up taking classes like biology again.”

“Really?” Garrett blurted out. Miss Brown looked in his direction and he slapped his hands over his mouth. “Really?” he repeated in a whisper. “In that case…” Garrett dug through his backpack and pulled out his science folder with all of the past worksheets. “I guess I’ll start reviewing.”

Jake hadn’t completed the packet entirely, but he’d finished all of the required assignments and felt confident. He rarely looked forward to tests, but science was a unique exception. He saw them as a test to prove his passion.

When the tests were handed out, Jake took his time on the essay portions. Garrett was one of the first students to hand in his test, and he flipped through a surfing sports magazine the rest of the time. Michelle and Jake finished at the same time and met each other’s gaze as they handed in their tests.

“How do you think you did?” Jake asked, as they sat back down.

Michelle shrugged, “I’ve been spending most of my time working on English. But I felt prepared, so I’d say I did well. I was hesitant with the wording of a few questions, but the extra credit questions will help. I always like seeing those.” She watched Miss Brown as she began grading the papers. “And we already know how you did,” she said with a playful nudge.

Jake smirked. “And we already know you’re done with the English project already.”

Michelle brushed her hair back, “And I can help with yours when we get together this weekend.

Together. Jake blushed.

Michelle averted her eyes, and Jake thought that he saw a blush upon her cheeks as well.

Garrett slipped out his Nanoid smartphone. It was one of the latest, and he bought it because it was waterproof up to twenty feet and the camera was great for recording an especially nice surf. “It’s almost break, guys. 2 minutes…”

Most of the class had finished their tests and had started glancing to the clock every couple of minutes. At two minutes, everybody was counting down in their heads. At one minute, everyone began counting aloud, but Miss Rose hushed everyone, because there was one student finishing his test; it was Elbert, the French foreign exchange student who sat beside Garrett. He finished his test with ten seconds to spare and the class erupted in a final countdown.

Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… at this point, even Miss Brown joined in… two… one… zero! The school bell rang. Spring break had begun.

When the class had emptied out in the hall, there were already many students preparing to leave. The majority of seniors had an early release, however, and the halls weren’t as congested as through the day. Jake’s locker was immediately next to the seniors’, so he was able to quickly put his science book away, and swap out for his English book and poster board. He wasn’t looking forward to the project, but so long as Michelle was with him, he wouldn’t mind writing a dozen sonnets or ten essays. She brightened every moment.

If it weren’t for the caveat of Michelle’s favorite class, Jake would venture to say she was perfect. Although he wasn’t so sure of her father, Lucido Lombardi. He was a recondite man, who ever seemed to be traveling some place for some business. Someone could learn more from an absolute stranger in five minutes than with Lucido in five weeks. On the other hand, her mother, Susan, was warm and open. She had been born and raised in London, until her mother’s death when she was sixteen. Her father was emotionally wrecked, and all but broken. He couldn’t work, refused to eat, and looking at his daughter was a painful remembrance of his loss. For this reason, he sent her off to the States, to live with relatives who had always adored her. Lucido and Susan met in high school, and she saw something in Lucido that he didn’t even see in himself–she saw a kind, courageous heart and a determination to fulfill all that he set out to do. They fell in love, married in college, and had Michelle.

Michelle took after her mother, in her temperance and open heart. She had the determination of her father, but little else. Jake did not observe any warmth in the heart of Lucido. Not towards him, anyway. Any encounter he had with Lucido was cold and curt.

Michelle approached Jake as he shut his locker, with her biology and English textbooks in hand. Jake watched her blue eyes as they settled upon him.

“You’re studying bio over the weekend?” Jake asked.

“Yep!” Michelle answered. “I figure after I’ve helped you with English, you can give me some pointers in biology.”

“Sure! I’d love to,” Jake perked.

“Great, it’s a study date then.” Michelle smiled softly. “And we’ll have to get out and enjoy the break too. I’m sure Garrett already has plans in mind.”

“Knowing him, he’ll be looking for the best surf.”

“True,” Michelle said. “So we’ll probably have to come up with our own plans. Got anything in mind?”

Jake frowned in contemplation. “Not really. I’m just glad to be on break. The further from Mr. Inahka and English, the better.”

“Aww,” Michelle said, with her lips in a pout. “He’s not that bad, Jake. He cares about you and wants you to succeed. That’s why he lectures you.”

“Why doesn’t he care about anyone else?” Jake said. “It’s always just me.”

“Maybe you remind him of someone. Maybe you remind him of himself. He often says how he used to hate English until his literary epiphany. He wants to see that passion in you.”

The halls had all but emptied, with exception for the track and football teams, and Michelle took Jake’s hand. “Let’s go and forget about Mr. Inahka and school for now. We’ve got a break ahead with endless possibilities.” She looked into Jake’s eyes and smiled.

Jake almost melted.

Outside, the sky was deep blue and nearly cloudless. A slight, refreshing breeze swept through the grass and flower beds that lay along the front of the school. Roses were the choice flower this year. There was talk that the gardner had fallen in love. As Jake walked with Michelle, he imagined plucking a flower and asking her out right then and there. But she wouldn’t approve of him disrupting the arrangements.

At the edge of the school grounds, there were many kids yet gathered as as they were socializing while waiting for their rides. Jake eyed the bicycle rack and saw his blue mountain bike chained up as he’d left it. Michelle spotted her mom’s car, a luxurious red coupe, and released Jake’s hand. “I’ll see you again soon, Jake!”

“You definitely will. See you!” Jake replied.

Jake walked over, unchained his bike, and set off down Oak Street. On bicycle, the ride home was fifteen minutes, and lately the journey had been an unexpected one. The past few weeks, everything seemed different. It was as though he could feel the wind stronger than ever before. It felt good, but also strange. Was it something to do with puberty? Was he experiencing a greater rush of dopamine? Something disrupting his brain? He mentally sifted through a list of the disorders that they were learning about in psychology, but nothing like that came to mind. If it it was just the thrill, Jake wouldn’t be so worried. But there were other changes.

As he passed two blocks, Jake could smell burning burgers. He’d lived in the area all his life and there were no restaurants or places to grill until Washington Road, which was closer to home. The park, just a block ahead, saw its share of campers and grills, but the premises were shut down until further notice, due to the state of litter and general abuse of the provided facilities.

Jake passed another block, and this time he could smell the runoff sewage. It smelled of mildew, oil, and something he couldn’t quite place… a dirty baby diaper, maybe? Not a great mix. Before the changes, he’d never smelled anything so bad, except for the boys’ bathroom. Now, every time he headed home, and especially after the rain, it was overpowering. He’d do anything for the burnt burgers again.

These things were to say nothing of what happened at night. During the day, these super senses of his were partially active, while at night they were the strongest when he began wandering. It had only happened a couple of times, but mother had caught him a few times. The first time, three months ago, was at the dock. He awoke during the night and left the house. His mother heard the garage and came after him. When she found him at the dock, he was muttering about a lost ship in the Atlantic. When Jake got up the next morning, he didn’t remember any of it.

The next time, three weeks ago, he again headed for the dock, but this time both his mother and father came after him. That time, Jake was also fully conscious, but unable to stop sleepwalking. As his parents followed after him, he set off for a run. At the dock, he jumped in the water and began to swim. His dad jumped in after him and when he’d caught him, Jake stared into his eyes and said, “They’re coming, dad. I can sense them. The awakening is soon.”

It was all very freaky. Jake’s parents had contacted a therapist and scheduled a session. The therapist asked many questions, especially about school, romantic interests, and Jake’s home life. He concluded that Jake was trying to escape–from English class and lectures, from frustrations of the friend zone with Michelle. The awakening was when Jake would finally overcome those frustrations and realize his identity.

“It’ll be soon!” The therapist, Mr. Ronalds exclaimed to Jake’s parents. “Your boy is just growing up. This is a phase. In the meantime, however, I’d advise keeping a careful eye on him during the night.”

Jake wasn’t so certain. How could an unrealized identity take such a hold of him? How could it explain the sense of purpose and heightened senses? Although, he hadn’t mentioned the latter to the therapist. His sense of smell and touch had only gradually increased at that point. It was in the past two weeks that they had become stronger.

Jake’s thoughts carried him for the rest of the journey home and into the house for a dinner of stewed beef with potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic. As he greeted his parents and sat at the table, the day’s events carried into the regular family banter. Since Mr. Ronalds, however, Jake was hesitant to speak of his experiences.

“How was school, rugbug?” Jake’s dad, Ian Laskaris (checkered shirt?), always had an odd nickname for him.

“It was pretty good,” Jake said, forking a potato. “The usual from Rotso.”

“You know that’s only because he wants you to succeed,” Ian said, echoing Michelle’s sentiment from earlier.

“And the ride home?” Jake’s mom, Felecia Laskaris, asked. She knew that Rotso was a touchy subject.

Jake looked between his parents. “It was good. I was careful in traffic and didn’t go too fast.”

“In traffic?” Felecia asked. “You rode onto the street?”

Since the incidents, his parents seemed far more anxious than usual. He had to watch his every word. “No,” Jake sighed. “I meant with the busy traffic. I was on the usual path. I didn’t go into the street until the neighborhood.”

“Good, I was about to say…”

“Anything unusual?” Ian asked.

He had to ask. “Not really,” Jake said, casually.

“We can tell something is wrong,” Felicia insisted.

“I smelled burnt burgers. And sewage. That’s it,” Jake said. “It just seemed strange.”

Ian let out a breath and visibly relaxed. “Burnt burgers? That’s not too surprising.”

Jake forked a carrot and swirled it around in the stew. “It’s while I was near the park.” Why was he confiding in them? They’d just call Mr. Ronalds again.

Chuck’s Burgers and Pork restaurant is a distance, and we smell that in the backyard sometimes.” Ian said. “Smells travel. But the sewage… that is strange. I suppose that confirms our fears.” He looked to Felecia. She frowned and looked to Jake.

“I always thought…” Ian continued. “That something was different about you. Right from your birth. I thought that maybe there was a reason that you had to stay at the hospital for so long. Now I understand.”

“What?” Felicia asked. “What are you talking about?”

Ian had an ornery look on his face, with an almost imperceptible grin. “He must be a super secret agent from the CIA! They’ve been grooming him from birth, for a project that no one could know about! That explains the sleepwalking. And these smells… he must have super senses!”

“Oh, honey,” Felicia chided. “Enough of the nonsense.” She looked back to her son. First the sleepwalking. Now he thought smells were strange. What was going on with her baby? “Should we call Mr. Ronalds again, Jake?”

“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, dear,” Ian jumped in. “Right, Jake?”

Jake nodded.

“It’s been a tough school week, I’m sure,” Ian continued. “We’re all due for some rest.”

“Oh alright,” Felicia relented. “But you tell me, Jake, if there’s anything bothering you.”

“I will,” Jake murmured. He hoped that there would be nothing more to tell.

• • •

After Jake had gotten home from school, a car engine rumbled to life on the opposite street, and inside was CIA agent Rotso Inahka. He had been following Jake home for a year, day after day, including weekends. However, this was not for official CIA business… or for English class. This was yet unknown to the agency.

Rotso’s phone buzzed from within its holster, but he didn’t need to check it. It was a reminder for the meetings tomorrow in New York City. One was with the counterterrorism department of the CIA and the other with his true employer–L’Ordine, as it was known in Italy. It was an international organization, and Jake was of particular interest to them. Rotso’s job as a high level operative within the CIA allowed him to gather intelligence about unusual incidents. With Jake’s family history, Rotso suspected that he may have inherited certain abilities. After the recent incident, he was sure of it.

With the NYC meetings, Rotso had flown in a substitute to continue monitoring Jake. The agent, Aedus Butler, was related to one of Jake’s friends. This provided his cover as a family visit. He was well qualified, with his own set of abilities, and Rotso had worked extensively with him before. There was one concern, however. The man’s personality. Rotso hoped that their enemy would not take this chance to act.