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A talented 16-year-old painter is given a chance to “merge minds” with a dying master. Should he take it?

Jim and Stephanie Kroepfl's young-adult tale of a plan to accelerate human development makes the opportunity sound enticing. But what are the ultimate costs?

Jim and Stephanie Kroepfl are a husband-and-wife team who write Young Adult novels and stories of mystery and adventure from their cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Their stories and articles have been published in literary journals in the U.S. and England. Jim and Stephanie are world travelers who seek out crop circles, obscure historical sites and mysterious ruins. When not writing, Jim is a musician and Stephanie is an artist. You can find them at www.jimandstephbooks.com

The following is an excerpt from “Merged.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Young Adult Literature

Chapter Ten

Orfyn

“I’ll visit soon,” I tell Sister Mo as I’m escorted out of St. Catherine’s by the man in gray-blue. “I promise.” 

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, you.” I almost don’t survive her hug. She has the strength of God. She shuts the door, but not before I catch her wiping her eyes.

Unease ripples through me. I remind myself why I’m doing this, pull back my shoulders, and follow him to his car. If I don’t like it there, I can always bolt.

He drives in silence, rhythmically tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to some song in his head. What kind of music sticks in the mind of a person like him? I decide on “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles, which cracks me up.

“I don’t know your name,” I say, turning in my seat to face him. 

“It’s unpronounceable.”

“Then I’ll call you Mr. Blue.” 

He almost smirks. “Sure, why not?”

I’d never been out of the City before. The tallest buildings in sight are silos. We pass endless rows of all shades of green and fields dotted with huge, black cows—real cows! Then woods with more trees than I’ve ever seen. There’s no concrete anywhere. Even the sky is the wrong color. Robin’s egg blue instead of grime gray. 

Authors Stephanie & Jim Kroepfl. (Provided by John Williams Photography)

After a few hours, we turn onto an unmarked road. We drive for a mile or two past freshly mowed grass and pull up to a massive, three-story, brick building that’s being devoured by a tangle of ivy. 

This can’t be my new home.

“We’re here,” Mr. Blue says.

It looks a hundred years old, and it’s surrounded by rolling hills and gardens. I’ve been to Central Park—every chance I get—but my new home feels like I’m in an English landscape. I can’t wait to lie on the Kelly-green grass and breathe it in.

I get out of the car and can’t stop gawking. It’s got to be ten times bigger than St. Catherine’s. Etched over the door is The Flemming Academy in fancy script so weathered, only the first few letters stand out. I don’t know what I did to deserve this, but my guardian angel must’ve been working overtime. 

I hear a familiar sound and turn to see a tall guy shooting hoops by himself while a buff man in a black uniform watches. This is getting better and better. I thought I’d be the only one here my age. 

“Welcome to your new home, The Flem,” Mr. Blue says. 

“That’s the name of this place?”

Mr. Blue’s lips twitch. “It’s what the kids call it.”

There are more of us?

When we enter my new, super amazing home—The Flem—I’m greeted by wood-paneled walls, a black-and-white checkered marble floor, and a crystal chandelier overhead. There’s a real suit of armor standing guard in the corner!

No such thing as a free lunch, you, I hear in my head in a Jamaican accent.

It’s not free. I had to leave everyone and everything I know to be here. A ripple of unease rolls through me, which I shrug off. Sometimes good things do happen to good people. And I am a good person. When you’re raised by Sister Mo, there is no alternative. 

“Kevin, I’ll bring you to your temporary room.” Mr. Blue heads toward the wooden doors on the far wall. 

What’s on the other side, an indoor pool with a water slide? 

“Merged” by Jim and Stephanie Kroepfl.

He pulls out a clear keycard from his inside jacket pocket and swipes it in front of a small, black panel. The door slides into the wall.

I pass through the opening filled with anticipation, then my feet freeze in place. I’m faced with a long, white hallway lined with closed, white doors under a brightly-lit, white ceiling. It even smells like a hospital. Sweat pours from my pits, and my tongue suddenly gets stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Mr. Blue heads to an elevator leading to who-knows-where. He turns. “You need to come with me, Kevin.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I know this may be a little overwhelming, but it will all be explained soon.”

I look back at the front doors, picturing the hours of nature we drove past. I could run, but to where?

“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Mr. Blue says, as if reading my mind. “Come with me. There’s nothing to fear.”

My pounding heart disagrees. I hear Sister Mo’s voice in my head, reciting, Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I shall fear no evil, for the power of My Lord will eviscerate any demon, duppy, or dirtbag in this beautiful world.

I reluctantly follow Mr. Blue into the elevator. He pushes the button with -1 on it. The floor drops beneath my feet. We’re going down. Down. My stomach plunges faster than the elevator.

“The laboratories and Candidates’ quarters are on the lower level,” he explains, as if it were all perfectly normal. 

Laboratories? I study Mr. Blue out of the corner of my eye, suddenly wondering if he actually represents an underground organ-harvesting operation. 

“Kevin, I know this may not be what you were expecting, but we only have your best interest in mind. We’re giving you the opportunity to enhance your life.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“We’re the good guys.”

The elevator doors open, and we enter another long, white hallway. After we take a right and a left, Mr. Blue halts to unlock a door with the wave of his keycard. 

“This is your room. For now.”

The white room contains a single bed covered with a white blanket, black side table, black desk, and a matching black chair. Through a doorway, there’s a white, tiled bathroom. I don’t even know what it feels like not to share a toilet with eight other guys.

Mr. Blue eyes me. “It’s been a long day. Get some rest. I’ll come back in the morning.” He points to a phone on the desk. “If you want anything, someone will take care of it. Anything at all.” As he’s shutting the door, he stops and turns. “You’re going to like what I have to offer. Trust me.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

When the door clicks shut, I try the handle and find it locked. No one knows where I am. I have two choices: I can freak myself out by imagining all the horrible things that might happen to me, or I can chill until morning. 

Morning feels like a long way away.

I get bored within minutes. I pick up the phone and test what Mr. Blue told me about “anything at all.” I ask for a dozen tubes of oil paint and different sized brushes. The guy tells me he’s on it, even though there can’t be an art supply store within fifty miles. So maybe Mr. Blue was being truthful about my getting mentored. My nerves rev down a notch, and my stomach grumbles. I call back and add a hamburger, fries, two Cokes, and a package of Oreos. It arrives fast. Even the Oreos. I take it as a good sign.

After wolfing down the food and way too many cookies—because I don’t have to share—I grab my brushes and get to work. I paint cherubs on the wall over my bed, just in case the guy who said “Trust me” can’t be trusted. Then I dive into a seriously intimidating portrait of Saint Moses the Black, the saint Sister Mo named herself after. Stern and not-to-be-messed-with. He strides out of the painting, seething with attitude. Mr. Cool of the Fourth Century. And in the background, I paint the same stormy-blue sky and Kelly-green landscape that lies a floor above me.

After four or six hours—I have no sense of time when I’m painting—I lay on the bed, absorbing the colors and motion and story. It should take away the breath of everyone who enters, but the somber eyes of Saint Moses the Black make me miss Sister Mo. I picture her saying a prayer for me tonight—because I have no doubt she will—and then I say one of my own. It takes forever before I fall asleep.

The next morning, within minutes of finishing the stack of blueberry pancakes and bacon I’d ordered, Mr. Blue knocks and enters my room. He’s wearing the same suit from yesterday, or one that looks exactly like it. Does he have one for every day of the week? 

Mr. Blue lowers himself into the chair and places a thick, manila folder on his lap. I wait for him to comment on my evening’s work, but he gives no indication of noticing the life-size black dude on the wall across from him. 

I don’t trust people who aren’t moved by art.

“We have something unprecedented to propose to you.”

“Okay,” I say, wondering for the hundredth time how I got myself into this position.

“You’re an exceptional painter, and you may even become a groundbreaking artist in ten or twenty years. But we can begin to make that happen in a week’s time.”

“How?”

“If you agree to our terms, you will transcend decades of study and practice.” Mr. Blue hands me a stack of papers half-an-inch thick. “Take as much time as you need.”

I flip through it and try to make sense of the legalese. I give up and set it aside. “Can you give me the highlights?”

“Certainly. We are an organization created to advance human accomplishment in a most dramatic way.” His eyes catch the light, and they remind me of ice. “We have the ability to merge the consciousness of an exceptional Mentor with that of a very special sixteen-year-old.”

“You mean, in here?” I point to my head. 

He nods with the seriousness of a judge.

“I’m already using my brain,” I say.

“Although we’ve debunked the myth that humans only use ten percent of their cerebral capacity, you’ve got the bandwidth. Trust me.” He leans forward as if about to tell a secret. “What if I revealed that computer technology is advancing far faster than humans are evolving? Art will soon be produced by artificially intelligent machines—AI. They’re already learning to mass reproduce art, music, and literature that is pleasing to humans based on trends in music downloads, social media postings, and online purchases. You’re our chance to create a revolutionary artist who can maintain the humanity in our art.”

 “A computer doesn’t have emotions. When I paint, I try to make people feel something.”

 Mr. Blue smirks. “But the problem is, nothing you paint lasts, Kevin. Or should I call you Orfyn?

My skin crawls. How long have they been watching me? 

 “The Mentor we chose for you has one of the greatest creative minds of this generation.”

“What’s his name?” I ask.

“He’s known as Bat.”

It’s a cool street name, though I doubt he ever needed to hide out in alleys to paint.

Mr. Blue points to the document. “Sign this and change your life. Or don’t. It’s up to you.”

“What happens if I say no?”

“The Darwin Corporation will remain your legal guardian, but you’ll lose the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become one of humanity’s greatest hopes.” 

So basically, he’s saying I’m stuck here either way. “Will I always be locked up?”

“That depends on your choices.”

I wait for him to crack a smile. He doesn’t. 

I break eye contact and flip to the last page. There’s one short paragraph stating that I’ve read the forty-one-page document (which I haven’t), I understand the risks (which I don’t), and I buy into the idea that two minds are better than one (or something like that). At the bottom, there’s a line with my name printed below it. 

“Is it dangerous?” I ask, really wishing my voice hadn’t cracked.

Mr. Blue hesitates, and for a moment he almost appears human. “Every medical procedure has its risks, but the end result could change the world. And you’ll be one of the few who have the ability to change it.”

What if I could become the next Michelangelo? I’ve been given the chance to create art that makes a difference. For now, and even hundreds of years to come. “What else can you tell me about Bat?” 

“He’s very successful,” Mr. Blue says, taking a pen from his suit pocket. “And he’s dying.”

“Can you give me a little more than that?”

“He specifically chose you.”

Nobody has ever chosen me

I grab Mr. Blue’s pen and sign the document using the name I’m adopting. If I’m going to share my brain with someone and become a ground-breaking artist, I’m doing it as Orfyn.

Mr. Blue glances at my painting as he gets up. “Fourth century. The thief who changed the world.” Then he looks back at me. “We’ll begin the first phase in the morning.” He smiles. Real and sincere. “You won’t regret this. I promise.”

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