The Willow Society

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Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Taylor had only a minute or two himself before he would be late for third, but something caught his eye. Looking down the hall he saw Tate and Agent Alexander walking towards the Crypto classroom. Tate didn't have a third hour, it was his off period. Something about the way the two adults had their heads leaned toward each other made Taylor insatiably curious. Combined with what Winston had just told him, with what he knew of Tate's activities, Taylor couldn't help himself. He walked quickly to the Crypto classroom, peaked in and saw it was empty, the door to Tate's little office barely cracked open. Easing his way into the classroom Taylor knelt behind Tate's terminal and desk, out of view of the classroom door and bent his head towards the door to Tate's Office. He could just make out the slightly raised voices inside.

They were having an argument, heated but being forcibly civil.

“ can't possibly think that Alex.“ Tate said,the strain in his voice warring with certainty.

“It's almost out of my hands Tate. Jones and Crosby are sniffing around hard.“ Taylor thought those were the names of the other agents who had accompanied Alexander previously. “They know the attacks are coming from Willow Prep IPs. They are convinced it's one of your students. How many other schools have the former encryption czar of the NSA as their teacher? It's only because the Director and myself personally vouch for you they haven't orange tagged your file and brought you in for questioning.“ Alexander paused here and Taylor edged closer.

What the hell is an encryption czar?

“That's not the worst of it either, Tate. Someone has hacked us. They've managed to steal the CCOM interface panel, the only copy - the development copy, Tate!“

Tate gasped. It sounded faked.

Taylor knew what a development copy was: a version of a program that wasn't ready for release yet. If the NSA had a development copy of whatever this CCOM panel was, it was top-secret stuff. The kind of thing they couldn't readily admit to having lost. “If whomever has the panel can get the right SatSig codes, they can launch nuclear missiles, Tate. I told the Director it was a mistake to even create the damn thing.“ She sounded very pissed off. “Anyway. I don't know why I'm telling you all of this. The Director will lock me up in a very small box if he knew. He's wavering Tate. He thinks you're involved.“

Tate swore.

“And some of the kids in your class... that Fillmore kid especially, he looks at me like he knows something, like he's hiding something.“

“He's a teenage boy Alex. You are beautiful, even if you are a scary agent-lady.“

“I suppose, “ Alexander said, sounding annoyed. “Be that as it may, something serious is going on and it leads back here. You need to figure it out before they detain you. I can't help you then.“

That begged a question to Taylor: why is she trying to help him now? He didn't think it was chumminess. It sounded like something more.

“I'm just a teacher now, Alex. Whether the Director and his goons believe it or not doesn't change what I am. What I was... that's over. I left that part behind.“ He sounded very sad about that. “For good. That's how I need it to stay. I haven't done anything and until Jones and Crosby come chasing me I'm not going to start investigating my students. But I am the sysadmin for the school, I will check the logs and see if I can turn up anything.“

He paused. When he spoke again his voice had changed, had become tender, beseeching. “I have to get ready for my next class, Alex. I appreciate the warnings, I do. I'll let you know what I find, but until then, leave my kids alone, OK? And you can tell the Director I said that.“

“Be careful, Tate.“ Alexander said, her voice thicker as well.

“Busy tonight? What about grabbing some dinner.... for old times sake?“ Tate asked, his voice slick.

“No.“ Alex struggled to say. “I can't. You left the life behind Tate, but I didn't. I can't mix those worlds and you know it. It would not work. It didn't work.“ She sounded hurt, but Taylor hardly processed it he was so shocked. Tate and Alexander and been together? It hardly seemed possible.

“As if I could forget.“

“No, Mike. I need to go. You have class to prepare for. I'll be in touch.“ Taylor saw the door move and realized he was stuck. There was nowhere to go. His body reacted faster than his mind. He jerked up and knocked on the door lightly as it was opening. He said, hesitantly, like a student trying not to interrupt, “Um, Mr. Tate?“

Taylor moved aside as Alexander came out and said, “He's inside.“ But the way she looked at Taylor had suspicion written all over it. She said nothing though, just marched past Taylor and out of the room without a second glance.

“Come in.“ Tate said.

Taylor went inside and realized he had no idea what to ask, his thoughts hadn't gone that far. He swallowed hard, tried to come up with something , anything, but his mind kept dashing back to all of the things he wasn't supposed to know, things he was most definitely not supposed to share. Finally, after Tate's eyes narrowed and he coughed politely, something stuck in Taylor's mind.

"Um... I was wondering, Mr. Tate, if, um, there was some way I could get root access to my terminal, so I could, um, you know work from home.“

Tate sighed. “Nope, sorry Taylor, no can do. You'll have to use sneakernet or upload your work to the download server. Is that all? I'm a bit busy right now...“ Taylor took the hint gladly and shook his head, smiled and fled. Taylor's head was full to bursting almost unable to handle all the information he was attempting to process. He knew with time the dots would connect, it was just how his mind worked. But right now it raced and he could barely concentrate. He rushed to his third hour class and when the teacher, Mr. Toups, confronted him angrily for being late Taylor's frustration made him snap at the teacher, which got him sent to see the Headmaster.

That lecture lasted for the rest of third and half of fourth. By the time the Headmaster was done “impressing” upon Taylor the need to be punctual and civil to his teachers Taylor felt wrung out and irritable. All he wanted to do was go home, lose himself in front of his computer, searching and working to figure out what the hell was going on.

The bell for lunch rang.

Taylor made his way to the cafeteria and sat down. He wasn't at all hungry. Usually he would have eaten heartily, with his mother working at the school. But she wouldn't be reinstated until the next week. Instead he munched on a candy bar which had been in his backpack for ages and stared glumly at nothing. Winston usually joined Taylor for lunch, but Taylor saw no sign of the other boy. Rather suddenly the small dark girl he had met the other night at Chatham House, Myth, sat down next to him, smiling amiably.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I'm good, just, trying to take it all in.“ Taylor said, unsure what to say.

“It's Taylor, right?“ Myth said, trying to sound as if she had just forgotten Taylor's name and stumbled upon it, a ruse Taylor found ringing false. From the corner of his eyes he caught Phaedra Behrstable and several other older girls glance in his direction. Something about Myth's manner, her way of speaking made it clear that she was not at all forgetful, that she was beyond such mistakes. It seemed almost like she was trying to willfully obscure that part of herself, like she had precisely identified the character trait and created a. methodical process to counter it. Maybe a way of trying not to seem as overwhelmingly smart as she truly was. Taylor nodded at her.

“So, how are, like... things?“ It was even worse when she tried to sound hip. Taylor snickered and regardless of whatever Myth was playing at he still found her interesting.

Things are good. "Taylor said, eventually. “Have you seen Winston?“

“No.“ Myth said. “Did Agent Alexander try to snoop on your class this morning?“

“Yeah. Winston practically fell over himself around her. He has a crush, I think.“

The sound of metal hitting plastic rang. Myth had dropped her fork.

“What makes you think that?“ her voice had changed, all pretense gone.

“I... dunno? He was being sort of an idiot, you know?“ Taylor said, but looking at Myth and the way she was acting he wasn't so sure she could know. She was awfully young.

“OK. Cool. Totally.“ She said, clearly trying to recover the false voice back. Just then a group of girls loomed behind her headed by a tall, very slim and elegant dark girl, as beautiful as Izzy, enough that Taylor's breath caught. Phaedra Behrstable was in the group. Myth smiled until she realized Taylor was looking past her. She turned around to see what he was looking at. Myth gasped. The beautiful girl's hair was in a bun on the back of her head, she had high cheekbones, an oval shaped face, and pouty, glossy lips. She wore a tight gray sweater under her Willow Prep blazer. As she stared down at Myth her beauty became something else, something almost feral. Myth cringed. Cruel delight washed over the tall dark girls features.

The coterie of girls behind her looked much the same, like teenage ballerinas, even Phaedra. Is she a dancer? They looked down at Myth, then at Taylor, none of them anything but snide and condescending.

“Is this your boyfriend, Celie?“ the lead girl asked. Her voice was tinkling and tight. Myth sank down in her chair, as if she could make herself smaller, like a runt of the pack, hoping only to be left alone.

“Wait. What am I saying?“ the girl crowed at Myth, “You're probably a lesbian. Always hanging around that horrid Rodriguez trash. Honestly, what does she see in you? If I were a lesbian, I would at least date a pretty girl, not some shrimpy, flat-chested little uberfreak who watches the Disney Channel for tips on coolness. Right, Celie?“

Taylor was confused. Who is Celie?

This was why Myth had been talking so strange. She had been trying to be something other than herself, something which might possibly not draw the scorn of people like this girl. Maybe Myth had hoped if she imitated and faked it enough it might change others impression of her. It was something Taylor understood. He had tried to be someone else before as well. But no one believed him either. Taylor also saw it would never work with this girl. He had met people like her before, she would always find fault with people like Myth, with people like himself. Something about them scared the willowy girl, though she might not be aware of it and likely would never admit it to anyone if she was.

“He looks like white trash to me.“ one of the other girls said. The other girls snickered.

“Yeah Tania. It figures Celie would be hanging out with one of those. He's probably another scholarship welfare case.“

Phaedra said. “He's a Pleb.“

That struck something in Taylor. He had been called that before, by Parker and Lil J. He knew what a Pleb was, but was too proud to ask anyone what they meant by it. He assumed it meant he was poor. They could at least be creative. Pleb is two thousand years old.

Myth's head shook, like she was saying “no” to herself. Taylor could barely make out what she said. She was clearly near to tears.

Taylor boiled with anger. All the frustration of what was roiling around in his head was too much. Now this? He knew that he was about to upset the social order of the school, a grievous sin, but he no longer cared. He was tired of bullies, tired of being looked down on and he had too much other stuff, important stuff, to worry about. I don't have time for this high school bullshit.

“For your info, you anorexic pseudo Patrician hosebeast,” Taylor said, voice tight with strain and loud enough to carry across half the cafeteria, “even if we are dating it's none of your fucking business. Nor is her sexuality. Just because you have secret tendencies and can't bear the thought of any of your little pack of bitches finding out doesn't mean everyone else does. Perhaps you're just upset Rodriguez hasn't asked you out. So sad for you. Why don't you shoo off to the bathroom and eat your two-fingered dessert like the cliche little Mean Girl you are before your presence makes me so violently ill I vomit all over your pretentious sweater and everyone will see you're too stupid to aim properly for the toilet before you upchuck your lunch.“

With each word Myth perked up until at the end of Taylor's rant she was sitting up straight and openly grinning at him. Her grin slipped a little when Tania, the tall elegant Mean Girl looked at her but Myth quickly put it back. For her part Tania simply looked aghast, like Taylor had just slapped her across the face. From the looks of some of the girls behind her she probably did throw up her lunch daily. For a moment Taylor felt like adding to his rant, maybe humiliate her further, but before he could she snorted, and turned away and walked off.

The other girls followed with imperious glances or cold stares for Taylor and Myth.

“That was awesome!“ Myth said, beaming.

“Well. She deserved it.“ Taylor said, his mind calming down from the rush of insulting a bully. But everything else weighing his mind down came rushing back. Myth saw Taylor's face drop.

“What is it, Taylor?“ she asked.

“Um.“ Taylor said, blinking at her. “Sorry. What?“

“Are you OK? You look really upset.“

“No. I'm fine. Sorry. Just have a lot of work to do.“

Myth nodded, but didn't look convinced.

“Well, thanks for that. I know I shouldn't feel....I mean I shouldn't let her make me feel so small and ugly .... and irrelevant, but it's hard.“ Myth looked angrily at the table.

“You are worth a thousand of her, and I think maybe deep down you know it.“

Myth looked up and slowly started to smile wide at Taylor. She really was quite pretty. “That's the kind of thing Lou would say.“ Myth's tone implied how much she respected Lou, valued the girl's advice.

“Lou hates Tania, but Tania would never say anything to Lou's face. Izzy doesn't like her either but I don't think Tania knows that. Even if she did she'd never cross Izzy. No one crossed Izzy. That's social suicide. No one wants to risk being blacked out on Izzy's List.“

“What's Izzy's List?“ Taylor asked, eager to talk about Izzy and yet still stinging from the conversation with her earlier.

“Well, Izzy is always hip to the coolest stuff, the hottest parties, the hardest to get tickets for the best shows. If you're on her list you get the invites for everything she plans. She has hundred of thousands of followers on Twitter. It's a bit crazy.“ Myth said, “I mean, not that I go to any of the events, it's not my thing.“ She sounded like she wanted it to be her thing. “She has thousands and thousands of Facebook friends too, but Izzy's List never has more than a hundred people on it, most of them Willow Prep students, but some are famous celebrities, political figures too, I think.“ She shrugged and began to eat her lunch.

Taylor drank in all Myth had to say about Izzy and still wanted more. Despite Izzy warning him off he was sure if he was just persistent and charming enough she would change her mind. Maybe he could learn to write poetry or something. He didn't want to ask Myth questions about Izzy directly, not and have it get back to her, so he asked about the Willow Society instead.

“We're not really supposed to talk about that... you know... where people can hear. That's why I acted like I didn't know you when I sat down.” Boy, did I get that wrong. “But I can say we really need you. We've been relying on Winston for the computer stuff, I used to do it, but it was too much for me, and now it's too much for him, even when he bothers to be around.“ Myth's tone changed when she talked about Winston, and she got an dreamy expression on her face, even criticizing Winston. “And since the attacks started he's been less reliable than usual. We really need someone who can trace who is doing this stuff before Isabel and Sue-Ann lose it!“ Myth got a funny look on her face as if she had said too much.

She nudged Taylor.

“Taylor please don't say anything about that. I'm not supposed to know they are fighting with each other.“ Taylor nodded, adding the information to everything else he had learned.

“I won't Myth. Promise.“

Winston came sauntering in a looked of dazed happiness on his face. Myth rolled her eyes but smiled brightly at him. Winston all but ignored her. “Well I guess that's my cue...“ Myth said snidely.

Winston blinked confused, looked at her and said, “No. It's cool Mythie. I'm so happy right now nothing can bother me! Nothing!“ Winston plopped down into the seat next to Taylor, facing Myth. He was beaming, even more than usual.

“What's going on?“ Taylor asked.

Myth started chewing at her fingernails and staring at Winston, her eyes glowing.

“I've found the one, T. That's what.“ Winston declared, “I'm in love, old boy“

Taylor sighed and shook his head a bit. But Myth looked like Tania had just before, her face was a sour and drawn,as if Winston had slapped her. She quit biting her fingernails and instead chewed on her bottom lip.

She barely managed to get the words, “with whom?“

But Winston heard her. His smile took on a bemused cast, the rest of his expression bewildered. “Agent Alexander. Shanice.“ His voice was dreamy. Myth shrank back in to her chair and tilted her head down, stared at the table again. “Oh.“ was all she said.

Taylor didn't know what to do or say to make her feel better so he tried to change the subject. “You didn't... I mean... did you run into her or something?“ He almost said “You didn't follow her did you?“ But he didn't know how much Myth knew about what Winston got up to.

Winston came back from his reverie and shook his head in the negative. “Yeah, she was coming out of Ballard's office and she stopped to ask me some questions. Man she is so brilliant!“

Taylor's face fell. What had Winston told Alexander? “You didn't reveal anything to her, I mean, like by accident or anything right?“ Winston's eyes narrowed and he cut them at Taylor for a second. “Of course not, old man. I played crazy-stupid about the hacking stuff, you know. I let her know that I could have done it, I'm that good, I could tell she was impressed, but I told her I would never do anything like that for real, even though I could.“

Taylor wanted to slam his head into the table. Myth gasped. Winston caught their mood and his ever present smile slid off his face.

“Oh crap.“ was all he said.

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