Snatches of New York City whizzed by between the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge framing the skyscrapers - their little windows like some kind of exotic new high-tech fabric patterned in cross-hatches. Traffic slowed until about halfway across the bridge the. car stopped. Taylor Zachary sighed and leaned his head on his right hand, pressed his forehead against the glass of the back window of his family's 1995 Toyota Camry. The air inside the car smelled of chemical pine tree and the fruit-flavored Tums Taylor's little brother William happily popped into his mouth every few minutes, like candy. William didn't have any stomach problems, he just liked the taste of the chalky discs, especially when there wasn't any real candy to be had.
Taylor's father, Dan Zachary, turned around from the driver's seat, looked directly at Taylor, pursed his lips for a moment and asked, rather pointedly, “How long are you going to pout back there, Taylor? It's New York City! Everyone wants to live here!“ The smile which spread across Dan's face was supposed to be infectious , but Taylor was having none of it. He pushed his forehead harder against the glass, flattened his nose in a manner which must have made him look ridiculous to anyone looking in from the outside. June Zachary, Taylor's ever-buoyant mother, turned around and said cheerily, “Come on, Taz.“
Taylor suppressed a shudder. He hated that nickname, but that never seemed to stop his family from using it.
“Try to enjoy yourself,“ June continued, “There's nothing else to do about it, kiddo, you might as well find the happiness wherever you can. After all this is all for your good!“
Taylor couldn't really argue with his mother's advice, it made sense, but something inside him was royally pissed off, dismissive of anything which invaded his right to feel upset. His parents never understood, might even be incapable of understanding what they were doing to him with this move. Taylor hadn't tried to explain, they should have known, intrinsically, intuitively. But whatever, if they didn't get it, he wasn't going to try and spell it out for them.
Of course they had tried to sell him several times already,but none of it really made much of difference. Taylor knew the score. New York City was a place for rich people, not smart poor kids with Southern accents, hand-me down clothes, and a preternatural ability with computers. Before his parents had informed him of the upcoming move Taylor had been as entranced with New York City as any other normal American teenager, not that he ever thought of himself as normal. He knew he wasn't. Based on what he saw on television, in the movies, and online, New York seemed an amazing place - if you had money or fame. Taylor loved that New York City. The cultural fantasy. Yet the moment he had been told he was moving there the place had seemed dismal and cold.
After some thought Taylor knew why he felt this way. It was one thing to be the son of lower middle class parents who, sometimes had to live paycheck to paycheck, in a place like Channelview, TX - but to be the same kid, in New York City was going to be miserable and Taylor knew it. That he had been given a scholarship to one of the nation's most prestigious and selective prep schools only made Taylor's imagined prospects worse. I've seen THAT movie. When he had said something vague to his mother about it she had laughed and rubbed her index finger together with her thumb before saying, "Do you know what this is?“ as she held her hand up before Taylor's face.
Taylor, instead of supplying the answer, had just growled and stomped off. “Watch out for the violin, son!“ His mother had yelled at his back, laughing.
Taylor huffed at the memory and looked over at William. “Stop eating those Tums, William. Dad needs those.“ He had purposefully kept his voice low, not wanting to alert June to what William was up to. But William was never so cautious.
“You're not my boss, Taz! I like them!“ William shouted.
Hearing this June turned around, took in the backseat, barked at William to put the Turns away and leave Taylor be. She looked at Taylor, eyes narrowing with concern, and her lip went into her mouth as she chewed something over. The car hadn't moved in a minute or so. June looked at Dan, a question across her face. Dan looked at the backseat, at his kids, nodded slowly at June.
“I was going to wait to tell you this, Taz,“ June began. Taylor didn't respond or move, he continued to stare out the window. “But I got a job! I'm going to be the Assistant Food Services Director. At your school. At Willow Prep!“
Taylor was stunned with disbelief. Were they actively trying to ruin his life? Had they never seen any movies or TV shows about high school? Being the child of the lunch lady was NEVER cool. But his mother had such a happy, expectant look on her face Taylor wouldn't bring himself to crush her spirits with such truth. He managed a half-smile before he said, “That's great, Mom. Really. I'm happy for you.“
June's smile slowly slid off her face. She tightened her lips and looked pointedly at Dan before she turned back to Taylor and snorted loudly. “Well if that's the best you've got then maybe you can just spend this weekend helping your father and I paint the apartment.“ It was a weak threat and Taylor knew it. June was no disciplinarian. Still, Taylor didn't precisely want to hurt her feelings, so he smiled widely at her and said, “Mom, really, I'm happy for you, seriously,“
June considered Taylor for a doubt-laden second until she smiled brightly, adding, “And the Principal told me the school has a top notch computer lab, and some very advanced courses...“
Taylor nodded at June and cut her off, “Sounds GREAT, Mom. I'm super excited.“
“This is really an amazing opportunity for you son, I hope you know that.“ Dan said, “For all of us, really., but it's because of you we've moved here, because this school is the best in the country and we want you both to have that. “
Taylor nodded in his dad's direction before he leaned his forehead against the window again. He wanted to sigh, but didn't want to risk any more of his parent's attention.
“I wanna go!“ William blurted out. At seven years old he was precocious and eager to do everything his older brother did. Though Taylor liked his little brother he had given up trying to teach him any computer skills. The kid was hopeless.
“Maybe you'll get a scholarship too, Willie.“ Dan said encouragingly. “We're here!“ June said, excitedly pointing as the opening in the bridge ahead.
Taylor lifted his head from the window, his forehead made a squelching sound like someone imitating a person farting. William laughed loudly. Taylor ignored him and looked in the direction his mother stared excitedly. The car had began moving again and they had just exited the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.
“Manhattan!“ June said.
“This traffic is horrible!“ Dan said.
“Oh Dan, it's no worse than the 610 in Houston! But it's Manhattan, Dan! I feel like Carrie and the girls now!“ June said.
Taylor couldn't help himself, he sighed, but it was followed by a chortle. He still wasn't happy about the move, but he couldn't help himself. Whether his mother's excitement was infectious, or maybe it was just the spell of the looming buildings - the rushing throngs of people and the very sense of immensity of Manhattan itself overcoming his angst, he could not have said.
But right then it didn't matter. He stared at the buildings as they slowly drove past, stared at the people, at the shops, at the taxis and felt a sudden rush of excitement. Whatever the future brought, right then couldn't help himself: he was in Manhattan, his new home, and it kinda felt good.
Taylor and his family settled in. The first two days were a blurry of unpacking, during which Taylor hardly had much time to think, and when he did it was to be annoyed with slight despair at being told by his parents they would not have Internet access for upwards of two weeks while they waited for Time Warner to install their cable service. When Sunday came the family spent an afternoon wandering around Manhattan, ostensibly with the purpose of locating his and William's respective schools. Making sure both boys knew the routes there and back, which subway lines and stops to take and what buses if necessary. But that had only taken a few hours and by one in the afternoon the family had moved into sightseeing, starting with Rockefeller Center.
“It doesn't look much like it does on TV.“ Dan said frowning.
“Well, you're just picturing the way it must look around Christmas time, dear.“ June said consolingly as she squeezed William's hand and pointed down to the square below, “That's where the ice skating rink is going to be in a few months, sweetie! And over there... that's gonna be the biggest Christmas tree you've ever seen!“ William looked skeptical, then bored and began tugging his mother towards one of the massive buildings, “I wanna be on TV!“ William shouted.
“I don't think we can just wander in there, honey.“ June said, doubtful, “and besides, I'd rather see more of the city than the inside of a TV studio.“ William looked ready to pout and argue. Taylor stared at the seemingly endless stream of people whisking by. It was a bit amazing to Taylor that the people were so diverse, that he could see a woman in workout clothes and sneakers next to a group of people wearing what looked like full-body suits made of leather. And there were groups of kids, of teenagers - some of whom seemed about Taylor's age - wearing everything from t-shirts and jeans to expensive looking dress clothes, with, hairstyles ranging from clean cut and preppy to one girl with a vivid yellow Mohawk which had to be at least two feet tall. It was hard for Taylor not to goggle.
“What do you think, Taz?" June asked.
Taylor blinked and stared open-mouthed at his mother for a few seconds. “Um , what? About what?“ he said.
“Do you want to go see the Empire State Building or Times Square?“ June asked.. Dan was several yards away peering into the windows of a bookstore. William was jumping on the balls of his feet, “Empire! Empire!“ the little boy sang shrilly. But the last thing Taylor really wanted to do was putter around the inside of an office building, however famous.
“Times Square.“ he said.
“Dan? Dan! Come over here!“ June barked. Fifteen minutes later the family was on the 7 train, crowded together with tens of other passengers in the bright subway carriage.
“Mom! Look!“ William said, pointing at a very dark man with piercings covering a great deal of his face, with two of the piercings sticking up like silver horns from the top of his bald head.
“Don't stare, honey. It's not polite.“ June said and Taylor could tell she was trying to appear unruffled, as if she weren't afraid or worried, but her eyes kept darting back to the pierced man, then over to the trio of very dirty looking young people, all skinny white kids, with dreadlocks and ripped clothing, then back to the strange man sitting next to Dan. The 7 train rumbled along, unconcerned. The man appeared normal at first, it was only when Taylor stared at him for some time that he realized the man didn't move. He sat, rigidly upright, unblinking, lips drawn into a tight line and his eyes fixated on the wall directly across from him. Taylor noticed no one else on the train found this odd, at least they weren't staring at; the man. Something occurred to Taylor. Maybe they all know better than to make eye contact with him.
Precisely at that moment the man moved, his head turning towards Taylor and his eyes drilled holes into Taylor's face.
“Mom! Look!“ William said, pointing at the man. Gulping, June patted William on the arm and said, “Honey, don't be rude, you're not supposed to stare...“ but she noticed the man staring fiercely at Taylor and her mouth snapped closed. Her other hand squeezed Dan, who had been looking around, at everything and everyone with the expression of simple pleasure which comes from seeing something new, wondrous.
“What?“ Dan said distractedly.
The rigid man still looked across Dan and June towards Taylor when he spoke.
“New in town?“ the man said, his voice deep and hard, like concrete being broken. Strangely his mouth hardly seemed to move at all. Dan blinked, clearly unsure if the man was addressing him, but he smiled big and extended his hand towards the rigid man. “Dan Zachary, nice to meet you, Mr...“
The man didn't move, continued to stare at Taylor as if he had spoken. Dan began to look nervous and his hand shook. Almost a full minute passed, the conductor's voice came over an intercom and mumbled something unintelligible which sounded vaguely like “42nd Beat Rhymes There.“ The lights flickered off for a few seconds, and back on. Taylor went cold with unreasonable fear.
When the lights came back up the rigid man had taken Dan's hand and shaken it lightly once, then quickly released it. The man's expression hadn't changed and his eyes were still boring holes in Taylor's face.
“Ed. Ed D'antoni.“ the man growled.
When it was obvious nothing else was forthcoming Dan said, cheerfully, “We're new in town, yes. This is my wife June and my sons Taylor and William.“
The rigid man nodded at each name,. but never took his eyes off Taylor. Dan had noticed this now and looked distinctly nervous. But the doors of the subway car opened, the train had reached its destination and had stopped, passengers were disgorging themselves onto the platform.
“Well this is us!“ June said, her voice rising a bit.
“Come on boys!“ Dan said, “Good day there, Mr. D'antoni. It was nice to meetcha!“ The rigid man said nothing, and the Zacharys piled out of the subway car at the end of the press of people, Taylor the very last. Just before he exited he turned around and caught one last glimpse of the rigid man and as he did so the man's mouth opened into a smile, but it wasn't a pleasant smile, it didn't touch his eyes and showed too much teeth, like a snarl posing as a smile. Taylor rushed onto the platform and didn't look back until he was walking up the stairs towards the upper levels of the station. The subway compartment had emptied, except for the rigid man who was still sitting there: unsmiling, unmoved, rigid and seemingly oblivious. Overhead a voice droned “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
“Boy was that weird or what?“ June said amiably, visibly relieved.
“You boys be careful around that sort, you hear me?“ Dan said as they trudged up the stairwell.
The family emerged from the station into Times Square. It didn't have the punch Taylor expected; it was late midday and part of what he expected when he though of Times Square was a huge array of bright neon lights, but now it was just a morass of people moving in every direction, of signs everywhere, street vendors and shops. Still it was more impressive than anything Channelview had to offer.
After the family had wandered around for an hour, seeing the Broadway TKTS booth, the Naked Cowboy, the second floor of MTV studios(through the glass windows, of course), the giant ESPN store and wax figures of Britney Spears and George W. Bush outside Madame Tussaud's, the family ended up across the street from a huge movie theater, the AMC 42nd Street. Across 42nd Street was of a place called EasyEverything.
Taylor stared at EasyEverything, instantly knowing exactly what it was. A huge Internet Cafe, minus the cafe. Rows and rows of computers, and even better for Taylor, a huge sign that read: “Get Access for just $1!“
An itch he hadn't even known to scratch came rising up. The sudden realization, lost in the pouting which accompanied the family's move, all the packing and unpacking, that he hadn't been online in almost six days – that the family's Internet access would be weeks in the coming was almost unbearable.
“Mom. Dad. I need to go in there.“ Taylor said, still staring inside EasyEverything.
“But son, we don't want sit in front of a computer, and besides we're about to head over to the Empire State Building...“ Dan said.
June was looking appraisingly at Taylor. “Dan he's been away from his computer and the Internet for almost a week now. And who knows how long it's really going to take Time Warner to hook up our cable?“ Dan gave June an arched-eyebrow look, then almost mirrored the appraising look she had given Taylor. Eventually he nodded to June.
“Taylor, if you'd like you can go spend some time in there while your brother and Mom and I go see the 'Empire State Building. But you are not to go anywhere else, you have to wait here for your Mother and I to come get you, OK?”
Taylor could hardly believe his ears. They are going to let me stay here? Alone? A wave of excitement rushed over him. “Thanks Dad. I promise, I'll stay here.“ His hand was already digging into his pocket fishing around for the twenty dollar bill he'd been holding on to for some time.
“Here son, take my cell,“ June said, offering Taylor her clunky flip-phone, “if anything happens you. call Dad's phone, OK?” Taylor nodded and less than ten minutes later was sitting down at a PC, alone, surfing the Web.
The first thing he did was check his Gmail, responded to some emails from Net friends, He logged into Facebook. Surfed some tech blogs. One of the tech blogs mentioned his new school, Willow Prep, in an article about its ultra-new high tech computer lab and the former NSA employee who had been hired to run it. There was a link to Willow Prep's site. Taylor had already looked around the site briefly, back in Channelview, but now he did so again. As he scrolled through the pages one picture in particular caught his eye. Four teenagers standing close together, three smiling. The one not smiling was easily the toughest looking girl Taylor had ever seen. She wore a tank top and her arms were ropes of muscle, her skin a light brown. Her head was shaved to a short flattop and her angular features implied strength, but despite all of that she was quite pretty, if in a hard way. -Next to her was a short dark girl with multicolored hair and a beaming smile. She looked younger than the tough girl, even younger than Taylor's fourteen. But despite her youth, something in her face spoke of-intelligence. Next to her was a blond girl, and as Taylor looked he was sure she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. Her face was heart-shaped and her green eyes were brilliant, even in the photo; she was tall and slender and her hair was the color of straw.
After some time Taylor moved on and looked at the last person in the photo: a boy who looked at most to be a year older than Taylor, a very handsome boy, the kind of handsome even other boys would notice and envy. He had a glint in his eyes that was decidedly mischievous, a twinkle even a photograph couldn't miss. He was smiled as happily as the other two, with one arm draped loosely over the beautiful blond girl.
Taylor read the caption under the photo: “Winston Fillmore, Isadore Chatham, Myra Smith and Lourdes Rodriguez.”
“Isadore Chatham.“ Taylor said the name, liking the way it sounded. He wondered what the four teens had in common. The picture gave no hints and nothing else on the page offered any clues. Taylor wondered idly if the mischievous boy and the blond girl, Winston and Isadore, were a couple. They seemed like just the type of super-rich New York teens to be dating. He made a mental note to look out for either of them on his first day of school the next day.
The rest of his time passed in a flash interrupted only once by an insistent buzzing in his pocket. It took him a bit to remember he had June's cell phone and answer it.
Dan's voice came through, “Son? Where are you? We're outside EasyEverything .“ Dan sounded a bit worried or impatient, as if he were trying hard to not sound worried.
“Oh! Sorry Dad. I'm inside. I'll be out in a sec!“ Taylor said. He logged off and gathered himself up to join his family outside.
Two hours later, laying back on his bed with his arms behind his head, Taylor thought of only two things: Isadore Chatham and a class he had seen mentioned in the article about Willow Prep: A.P. Digital Structures, an advanced computer programming course.
On the floor of their shared room, William tinkered with an old building set of Taylor's, all plastic beams and eight-sided knobs. Looking at William brought Taylor out of reverie. He looked up at the bed above his own. A bunk bed. Taylor sighed. William had always had his own room, as had Taylor, but the family simply couldn't afford an apartment in Manhattan large enough for everyone to have their own room. Even worse, the apartment only had one bathroom for the whole family to share. About the only good thing Taylor could think of the apartment was the neighborhood, a place called the East Village. It had seemed a sort of dirty place, but the people he saw were quite simply the coolest he had seen yet in NYC. Punks, street musicians, Rastafarians, drag queens, goths, and tons more. The bevy of strange but interesting people even made up for the abundance of cockroaches and rats Taylor saw on the streets.
Choosing to push aside his annoyance at having to share a room with William, Taylor made his way over to the little desk, built into the wall with a row of shelves above, like something out of a dorm room. He turned on his computer and monitor. A little icon flashed in the lower right hand corner of the screen and Taylor smiled despite himself.
“Open WiFi? Morons.“ Taylor mumbled. In Channelview the odds of finding an open WiFi connection from inside his bedroom had been exactly zero, but now, he realized, in such a dense place, there must be dozens of people stupid enough to have an unsecured WiFi transmitter near. Sure enough he scrolled through at least fifteen of them in range.
“What's wafa?" William asked.
“WiFi" Taylor said, “It's a computer thing kid. Leave me alone, play with your toys.“
“You're being mean. I wanna see!“ William jumped up and came to stare over Taylor's shoulder. Taylor turned around and glared at William.
“Listen, kid. If we're gonna share a room without me killing you, you're gonna have to learn to give me some space.“
Taylor softly shoved William away. Ignoring the hurt expression on William's face Taylor turned back to the computer and pulled up a TOR browser window.
“Fine. I'm telling Mom!“ William said, and ran off.
But Taylor wasn't paying William attention any longer. He was already absorbed in reading, posts on one of his favorite haunts, Undermine.net. It was hacker forum, but you had to be in the know in order to access it, otherwise it simply appeared as a temporary landing page for a website which had yet to be built. Taylor didn't like to think of himself as a hacker, preferring the term “cryptologist.“ To Taylor and most of the others on Undermine.net, Hackers was a cheesy 90's movie. Only silly twelve-year-olds called themselves “hackers.“ Not that Taylor didn't engage in hacking, it was hands-down his favorite activity, and he had a preternatural, almost supernatural, gift for it. He couldn't really explain it. Somehow, Taylor just got it. He tons of late nights tinkering around online, surfing the “dark web”; yet despite all the time spent Taylor knew things came easier to him than most, even-most of the other “l33t” or “elite” hackers he knew online.
As he read posts on Undermine.net steady yawns crept up on Taylor. William came back in the room, tinkered around with his building set for half an hour and rushed out to pester their mother about dinner. Taylor was completely absorbed in surfing when his mother called him to come eat. Less than fifteen minutes later he was back, having wolfed down his mother's “famous” lasagna. He read a few of his favorite news aggregators.
One headline in particular caught his eye, he had heard the story in passing, or bits of it anyway, days earlier in the car, as his family drove into New York State. “Submarine drifts into North Korean waters, explodes. No survivors.“
Clicking on the link Taylor read the article and felt something twinge in the back of his mind. Like pieces falling into place he remembered a thread on Undermine, from a guy calling himself Stat3Y3Cracker. The thread was almost two weeks old and had mentioned playing around with some high-level US Military module, and also about diverting submarines. Taylor had laughed it off, not bothering to flame the guy as so many others had, merely reading the posts and moving on. But now it seemed pressing and Taylor had to look again. Was it really possible this fellow hacker had crashed a US Navy submarine?
But when Taylor flicked back over to Undermine the thread was gone. He thought for a moment maybe he was just looking in the wrong forum, but even several deep searches produced nothing. After nearly a hour of looking Taylor gave up yawning into his hand. He glanced over at the clock and realized it was nearly nine PM, and he had school in the morning.
William came running in, already in his pajamas, arguing with June from across the apartment about not ever brushing his teeth again, not matter what she said.
“No!“ William screamed. “I'm gonna be the President one day and then I'm gonna ban brushing teeth!“
Taylor sighed. With William this wound up it might take some time before the kid ratcheted down enough for sleep. It didn't take long for June to come stomping in and see Taylor sitting in front of his computer, she frowned.
“Listen boys, it's time for bed and I don't want to argue anymore! William get down from that bed this instant and brush your damn teeth! Taylor you turn that thing off now! The next one of you who argues with me gets a pop, understood?“
“C'mon William, I bet you can't outlast me at brushing.“ Taylor taunted.
William's eyes narrowed and he said, “Can so!“
“No. Way.“ Taylor said moving towards the bathroom, making brief eye contact with his now relieved mother. Dan had left earlier in the evening for his new job leaving June alone with the kids. Never the disciplinarian, Taylor knew June needed all the help she could get in corralling William, but more than that, if Taylor wanted any peace for himself he had to make the effort at keeping William under control.
William climbed down the ladder and rushed out ahead, pushed past June and Taylor, screaming, “I am the brushMASTER!“
After another ten minutes of effort Taylor and June managed to get William into bed, teeth brushed, yawning. Taylor fell back on his bed, stared up at the wooden planks over his head unable to get two things out of his head: the face of Isadore Chatham and the missing thread on Undermine.net.
Hours later Taylor slept soundly when a loud buzzing snatched him out of a dream. It was a strange dream; he had been aboard a flying submarine, acting as the navigation officer under a stern female Captain: Isadore Chatham. He couldn't remember much, except he crashed the submarine and consequently Isadore had refused to kiss him. The insistent buzzing wouldn't go away. Taylor's eyes snapped open and he tried to sit up. Morning slats of Sun lazed in through the window.
“What the...“ Taylor mumbled groggily, reached towards his nightstand to turn the clock off, hit snooze or something but he had forgotten about the bunk above his head. His forehead smacked hard into the wood and he swore.
“Ooooh!“ William's voice came from above Taylor, “I'm telling Mommy! You're not supposed to say that!“ Taylor rubbed his head and swore again before saying to William, “And. I'll break your face, kid.“ Taylor loved his little brother, but right then he fervently wished someone would kidnap the little monster.
“Time for school boys!“ June said from the kitchen. Taylor stretched and helped William out of bed. Thirty minutes later both boys sat in the eat-in-kitchen chewing warm brown sugar PopTarts. June made her second cup of coffee, glanced back and forth from the boys to a large clock on the wall, clearly anxious to see the boys off and for Dan to return home from work.
“Where is he?“ she twittered.
“Don't fret too much, Mom.“ Taylor consoled, “William. Let's go.“ Taylor endured five minutes more of June fretting, about their clothes, their thrift-store backpacks, their knowledge of the routes to school, and ten other things Taylor assured her he knew the way.
On the subway Taylor found that he was a little freaked out by the closeness of all the people. It hadn't been so packed the few times he had been on it before. The press of people was almost overwhelming, it was difficult to keep a hold of William's hand. Strangely, Taylor drew comfort from the softness of his brother's hand and the hardness of William's grip. The boy was as nervous as Taylor, yet William seemed to be enjoying it, and Taylor had to to admit to himself it had the air of an adventure about it, the excitement of doing something new and doing it without adult supervision. It was exciting.
When the boys got off the train at 92nd Street Taylor couldn't help himself, he joined Wil1iam in watching the spectacle of a dark man dressed as a nun break-dancing between two, tiled pillars. William made excited sounds every time the man spun and twirled, his robes flew up and opened to reveal hot pink tights beneath. After one final spin on his back, the man-lay on his side, one arm under his head. William clapped and shouted along with everyone else watching. Several of the people threw coins into a bucket near the man. Taylor had to pull William back from trying to put his lunch money into the bucket.
“That was awesome“ William beamed as they climbed the stairs to exit the station.
“Yeah.“ Taylor mumbled, distracted as he tried to get his bearings and made sure he knew where he was going. Elementary boys walked in small groups the few blocks from the stations to William's school. Taylor made sure his little brother was safe in the school office before he wandered back to the subway station to get to his own school, Willow Prep.
By the time he made it to:the gates of the Willow Prep School, standing under the only willow tree Taylor had yet seen in NYC, he was surrounded by a stream of teenagers, all wearing slacks and blazers, like his own, but in considerably better repair. The shirts underneath, though varied, were more fashionable than the old dress shirt of Dan's Taylor wore underneath. Those teens flowed into the school grounds through the gates. Beyond the gates rose a huge building, six stories tall, tan and gray brick, with extensive decorative stonework along the street-facing facade. Taylor took a deep breath and looked around. Across the street from the school was a very modern-looking building which contrasted with staid appearance of the Willow Prep School, it looked more like a schmancy museum.
The school's main building was near a full block in length, surrounded by a chest-high fence of cast iron. A small hillock rose behind the building which Taylor could see through the main vestibule, some kind of grounds loomed. Trying not to feel daunted Taylor walked past the gates behind a group of chittering girls and through the vestibule. The school looked like thievery definition of "old money" to Taylor. But looking around at his fellow students he saw many with iPods and cell phones and laptops. He felt comforted but at the same time he felt out of place because he had none of those things.
“You're the new scholarship kid.“ A deep, tight voice said behind Taylor. Whipping around, Taylor saw a Willow Prep student; his blazer and slacks immaculate, hair perfectly gelled and face completely blemish free. The guy was at least five inches taller than Taylor. Taylor didn't know how to respond, he started to stutter out a reply, but the taller boy's expression grew quickly bored and he sighed at Taylor. Taylor's face grew hot with embarrassment.
“Headmaster Ballard sent me to make sure you found your way.“ The boy sounded very unhappy about this. Taylor waited for the boy to offer his name or something, but he didn't, he just tilted his head in a direction and began walking, oblivious to whether or not Taylor actually followed. After a few minutes of winding their way, through student -filled halls, Taylor's face alternating between red embarrassment and goggling, Taylor felt certain everyone was staring at him, sizing him up.
They reached a nondescript door. A rectangle of space on the door was discolored, as if a placard had been recently removed from it after a long, long time. More students streamed past and Taylor tried to shrink into himself, hoping no one noticed his clothes or his ratty backpack.
Taylor nodded at the boy after he said, "The office is in there.“ But the boy had already turned to walk away. Taylor took a deep breath and opened the door. He was nervous and kept his head down, his gaze on the floor as he entered the office and the first thing he noticed was the floor looked strange for an office; it was tiled with small squarish tiles like a bathroom. Confused, Taylor looked up. There was an older woman, one of her bra-bound breasts hung out of her blouse as she adjusted the straps, her shirt open and loose. Taylor stared at her for a long moment before he noticed the bathroom stalls to her left.
When the woman noticed Taylor gawked at her she screeched and yelled at him to get out. But Taylor remained frozen, confused for seconds longer while his brain sluggishly processed her yells. He made a squeak-like sound, turned around and shut the door, mortified and scared at the same time. Outside the bathroom a group of kids had gathered, including the deep-voiced boy who had led Taylor into the school as well as two snooty looking, pinched-faced girls, twins and blond, all laughing and pointing at Taylor. Most of the faces blurred together as Taylor's face heated again, and he looked for some way to get away. As he looked he saw a face, lips pursed, looking just as he had seen it in the picture the day before: Isadore Chatham. Unlike everyone else around, she did not laugh. Despite the rising tide of embarrassment, Taylor thought, “Wow. She's even prettier in person.“
The door behind Taylor busted open and. like magic the crowd of kids dispersed as smoke on the wind. Before Taylor could move an inch the woman had gripped his upper arm, her wrinkled hand had a vise-like grip and her nails pinched even through his blazer. She leaned forward and Taylor could see her lipstick was smudged and when she spoke her breath smelled like spearmint covering up rotting coffee grounds.
“What is your name?“ she asked.
“Um. Taylor. Taylor Zachary.“ Taylor croaked. He heard a laugh and looked past the woman just in time to see Isadore Chatham, who frowned at him. As if things weren't bad enough, the boy who had led Taylor to the “office” put his arm around Isadore and gave her shoulders a squeeze before he kissed her lightly on the cheek, all the while keeping his eyes glued to Taylor's, taunting. With one last scoffing, contemptuous look he pulled Isadore around and they sauntered off. Taylor sighed, dejected.
“Don't you sigh at me, Mr. Zachary.“ the blowsy woman growled. She squeezed harder on Taylor's upper arm and started marching him off in the opposite direction of the boy and Isadore. Taylor's head turned and he watched Isadore disappear down the hallway, tried to make himself believe she hadn't been frowning at him.
“So, is this some kind of farce? First day malarkey?“ Headmaster Ballard asked pointedly. The Headmaster of Willow Prep was everything Taylor might have imagined had he tried: Somewhere between sixty-five and one hundred, grey beard trimmed close, grey-eyed and silver haired. His voice was calm, erudite, reeked of sophistication, its only hint of grizzle a smidgen of always-rightness. It seemed inevitable Headmaster Ballard knew more than you.
Taylor was a bit stunned by the first question Ballard ask him. His first thought was to reply, "Yes, it was..um..malarkey.“ But he knew this wasn't the answer Ballard was seeking. Finally he settled on simple and straight-forward, honest.
“No.“ Taylor mumbled, his head slightly bowed, hoping Ballard took contrition.
Ballard gave a long-suffering, possibly stylized, practiced sigh. It was clearly not his first time in such a situation.
“Well then, Mr. Zachary. I will take for granted that you are merely suffering from a poorly chosen little prank. You would certainly not be the first. Nor likely the last. I do feel it quite necessary to warn you, however: you are entering an environment unlike any other academic situation you've likely encountered. Unlike any other environment available in the United States. You must learn to... what is the current vulgarism? Fit in, I believe it is. Have I made myself clear?“
Ballard waited quietly for some kind of response, eyes were wide and mouth silently open.
“I will do my best, sir.“ Taylor said.
“See that you do, Mr. Zachary, see that you do. And from now on, try not to gate-crash anymore staff restrooms, it does set a dangerous precedent. I would very much dislike that.“ Ballard's tone had turned suddenly playful, compared to the seriousness it had held before.
“OK, sir. Thanks.“ Taylor said
“You are dismissed, Mr. Zachary.” Ballard said.
Taylor ducked out of the Headmaster's Office, passed the woman he had busted in on sitting at her desk. The name plate on her desk read “Mrs. J Lewandowski - Chief Operating Officer.“ But everything about her screamed Secretary to Taylor and he was certain that was her primary role. As he passed her he noticed she typed away at a program displaying student's grades. She watched him pass and looked like she wanted to lecture him but he moved away fast.
Outside the office, Taylor looked down at the schedule Ballard had given him after their little talk. His first class, which he was now late for was A.P. Digital Structures - Cryptology. A little map was printed on the other side of the schedule which Taylor used to navigate his way there. To his dismay, after he entered the classroom indicated on the map Taylor found himself face to face with the tall, muscular boy who had pranked him before. The two laughing blond twin girls were there, and a boy who looked very familiar, though Taylor couldn't really place why. Ten or so other students were scattered around the room at computer terminals - every one of them looking at and seeming to measure Taylor. But it was the boy from the prank and another handsome, preppy, large boy next to him who were the worst. They were openly pointing, laughing; gently, but snidely at Taylor. All the terminals, were grouped in pairs, side by side, and all were taken, except one. Unwilling to stand around to be gawked at, Taylor rushed towards the only open terminal situated next to the vaguely familiar boy.
He kept his head down, refused to make eye contact with either of the laughing boys.
“Don't worry about them. They're ass-faces.“ the familiar boy said. He looked like a smaller, thinner version of the boy who had pranked Taylor. Only the familiar's boy face lacked the inherent condescension, rather he seemed open and affable. But like the other boy he too was blemish free, slightly tanned, blue-eyed and well coiffed.
“I'm Winston.“ the boy said, his hand extended. “Winston Fillmore.“ Taylor took his hand tried to keep his own from shaking. “Taylor. Taylor Zachary.“
“Just move here?“ Winston asked, smiling.
“That obvious?“ Taylor said wincing.
Winston snickered jovially. Taylor glanced over at the two boys who had laughed at him, to see if they still looked, but they were whispered to themselves, oblivious. “What else you taking?“ Winston asked. Taylor handed the boy his schedule as an answer.
“Dude. You're loaded down. AP Crypto. Geopolitics. Latin. Enlightenment Novels. AP Calculus. Internet Architecture. and the perennial team sports class.“ Winston laughed, “Well, I suggest you ditch that last. It's miserable. There are lots of other better choices: Marksmanship. Swimming. Hip-hop Dancing. Gymnastics. Parkour. I suggest Marksmanship or Parkour, if you're feeling adventurous.“
Taylor returned the smile and nodded. “Are those guys always alike that?“ He tossed his head in the direction of the two laughing boys.
"Who? Parker and Lil J?“ Winston said, supplying their names. “Yeah. It comes from being rich, smart, too good-looking, and amazingly aware of it all.“ It seemed like Winston wanted to say something else, but instead he stopped, smiled then shrugged.
Taylor had never been the kind of kid to fight, not physically, at least. That seemed so 1990's. Instead he had used his knowledge of computers to mock people who had teased him. Over time this gave Taylor an odd set of personality traits: he was passive to a point, but a deep and aggressive need to assert himself took over, became almost blinding. He wanted more than anything to use his same playbook on this Parker and Lil J. But judging by the fact Parker was in the AP Crytpo class, he was not going to be the easy mark Taylor was used to back in Channelview. This made Taylor frown.
“Don't let them get to you, T. Seriously.“ Winston said, gave Taylor a familiar, playful tap on the shoulder. Like a lock turning it suddenly occurred to Taylor why Winston was so oddly familiar.
He was the handsome boy in the picture with the three girls, one of whom was Isadore Chatham. The question popped out before .Taylor could think it through.
“You're friends with Isadore Chatham?“ Taylor asked.
“Izzy? Um.“ Winston didn't smile now, he looked cornered a bit and apprehensive. “Yeah, I guess I am. Why?“
“I saw a picture of you guys when I was looking at the school's webpage, I just remembered I recognized that it was you is all.“ Taylor said.
Winston's smile crept back. “Ah!” he said, all-knowing, with a smirk. “I see, old boy. She's a pretty one, Izzy. But she's with Parker. God only knows why. The guy's a Grade-A cretin.“ Winston shrugged as if to say: Girls! Who know why they do what they do?
Taylor nodded and smiled.
“Where's the teacher?“ Taylor asked a minute or two later.
“Oh he's out today.“ Winston said, looking at his monitor.
“Where's the sub?“ Taylor asked.
Winston blinked, looked confused and said, “They don't really do that here. Ballard or Lewandowski might come check in, but they expect us to handle our own work.“ The way Winston said it made it sound like it should have been apparent, like it was. normal. It only reinforced to Taylor how different Willow Prep was from his experience of school in Channelview.
A bell rang.
“Alright T , well I'll see you?“ Winston said and was off out the door calling amiably to someone whose name Taylor couldn't catch over the murmuring of voices.
The rest of Taylor's day passed quickly, during which time he caught several glances of Isadore Chatham, but was also stuck in class with an increasingly annoyed Parker two more times besides Crypto. The blond, twin girls were also in two of his classes besides Crypto, though not the same ones as Parker. Taylor was sure the twins were talking about him, even laughing at him, but every time he tried to catch them at it they seemed to be expecting his look and all he got were facetious smiles.
He had learned their names though: Philomena and Phaedra Behrstable.
No one else made effort to befriend Taylor after Winston. By the time he wandered out of the school-after the bell releasing seventh hour he felt vaguely hunted and paranoid. He all but ran to the subway station, almost took the wrong train before remembering he needed to retrieve William first.
“How was your first day?“ June ask excitedly when Taylor and William came in. William gushed with pleasure, his day had been fantastic. He had already made several friends, had even been invited to a boys-only sleep over at some kid's penthouse uptown for the weekend. Taylor told his mother what she wanted to hear, talked a bit about Winston as though the two of them had become fast friends, which he hoped they had, but had no indication such was the case.
“Well, I'll be starting up there tomorrow.“ June said, “Maybe we can have lunch together.“
Taylor sighed. “Maybe.“
Lying in bed that night, trying to fall asleep Taylor pictured Isadore Chatham, Izzy, frowning at him.
Taylor strolled past the gates of Willow Prep the next morning trying his best to feel anonymous, to be invisible. He kept his head down, raised it only when he heard a loud whisper from a girl nearby saying "That's him!“ Already feeling paranoid and abashed about it, Taylor couldn't resist - he looked up just to make sure they weren't talking about him. Had he been able to see his own face he would have seen the color drain out of it.
They were talking about him. All around him were Willow Prep-blazered students, looking at cellphones, laptops, and tablets, and back at him. Some laughed and tried not to be seen by Taylor as they pointed him out to someone else. Others were blatant and clearly hoped he would see, likely wanted to enjoy his embarrassment.
Taylor struggled to make his feet move slowly and not run outright towards the Crypto classroom. He was the second student to arrive, the classroom empty otherwise. Taylor took his seat next to Winston, who stared, concentrating hard, at something on the monitor of his terminal. Taylor didn't saying anything just hunched down in his seat and tooled around the terminal, not sure he wanted to bother with staying. Right then, it just didn't seem worth it.
“Wow, T.“ Winston said after a minute or so, still looking at his monitor. “I assume you haven't seen this?“ Winston nodded at the screen.
Taylor swallowed, curious but at the same time not. Afraid.
He edged over towards Winston, who still stared hard at the screen.
“I know we just met, old boy,“ Winston began, looking Taylor directly in the eyes, "but I have to tell you, this is more personal than I wanted...“
Taylor just blinked at him. What is he talking about? What is going on? It was only his second day after all, could he really have done something so awful so fast? Getting nothing out of Taylor, Winston sighed.
“What I mean to say, T, is that I don't want to be the person to have to show you this, I mean I think we could be friends and you might hate me for it.“
That sounded strange to Taylor how could he hate the one person who seemed to want to be his friend?
“I won't,“ Taylor said.
“OK then.“ Winston clicked something on the screen and turned the monitor towards Taylor. It was a YouTube video, which Taylor instantly saw had over a thousand views. A little black rectangle in the middle of the page began to dissolve as a video started. Taylor watched, enraptured and engaged. Winston sighed at certain parts of the video.
When it was over Taylor said, “I've only been here two days. Why would they do this?“
“Probably because you're a freshman. And you're in Crypto. They think this class is their 'thing', you know. Reality is they're not the best kids in the class. Not even close. Just the loudest. The Behrstable twins are the best. Then me. And judging by the fact you're a freshman and in this class, you're probably the shit too.“ Winston smiled. He seemed to do that a lot.
Taylor tried to summon a smile in response but nothing came, just a sour grunt. Other students filed into the classroom, giggling and occasionally darted glances over at him.
“Don't sweat it, T. Really. It'll pass.“ Winston said as he scooched away. Not that he could really scooch far, less than two feet. Finally the whole class had entered, a triumphant Parker and Lil J made up the last two, coming in just behind the Behrstable twins. They were some of the worst, actually pointing and laughing at him before they sat down. Taylor sighed and stared at the floor. He was completely absorbed in his own misery when a loud, unfamiliar voice boomed across the room.
But another, softer voice pulled him out of himself. Winston, “Pay attention T.!“
Taylor looked up and saw one of the most scraggly and unkempt men he had yet seen in New York City, at least inside a building. The booming voice had paused and the man looked dead at him.
“Gentlemen in the back,“ the voice grew closer as the wild looking man approached, until he loomed over Winston and Taylor's combined workstation. He was easily six feet six inches tall, fat, and had a short, bushy beard which covered what might have been a triple chin. A bit of food was stuck in his beard, worse, he had some kind of skin condition: flakes of dried, desiccated skin clung precariously to the man's ears and the sides of his balding head. What hair remained was salt and peppery, sad little spikes jutting out. He resembled a decaying monk. His nose was bulbous and covered in broken capillaries which made a web of red across its tip. But none of this came through in the man's voice, which was full of confidence, strong, dominating, cocky even.
“As I was saying, welcome to our new student, Mr. Zachary. Since you've come to us late, I will give you my first day speech. It's quite good, so listen sharp...” The man coughed lightly. “Welcome to AP Cryptology. For those of you,“ the man actually winked roguishly at Taylor, “who are unaware, I am your guide for this journey into the heart of encrypted darkness, Michael Tate. You may call me Mike. While we are in class, that is. Outside this little sanctuary I insist upon the perfunctory, Mr. Tate.“ He smiled and Taylor was shocked to see what looked like decades-worth of plaque built up on the man's teeth, and bits of food the beard apparently missed. Taylor wondered if he had ever met a more instantly repulsive, yet strangely compelling man. Second thoughts about the class evaporated as Taylor listened further.
“On this journey you will learn many strange, exciting things, but above all else you will learn to speak the language of reality, because whether anyone outside this room, any of the uninformed Luddites in your life understand this central fact or not, all reality is nothing more than l's and 0's. Yes and no. Off and on. Good and Evil. Etc, etc. Pure duality. But surely you are all aware. You wouldn't be here if you weren't. If you can master the language of the computer, of binary code, you will have obtained the key to all the magic and might the digital age can summon. No mere firewall will be able to stop you, no dinky little security software will give you pause, you will not be the ghosts-in-the-machine, my friends! You will be the Masters of the Multiverse! Now. I am required by state law to say the following: nothing you learn in the course is to be used in any unlawful or destructive manner; nor in the pursuit of any criminal activity.“
Tate paused here, let the class enjoy the moment. Taylor floored by Tate. Awed. None of his teachers had ever been so bold, so visionary. When he began again Tate had lowered his voice in a conspiratorial manner and smoothed it over somehow, such that if you had never seen him, you might think him dashing, daring, and handsome.
“But if you succeed in this course, you will not be worrying much about that, will you? They can't catch you if they never know you were there.“ Tate chortled.
Taylor was even more blown away. He couldn't believe this was a real class, in a real school, and he was a part of it; couldn't help but feel there must be some kind of prohibition against it. Someone should have complained by now: a concerned parent, a foolish student, a nosy Administrator, someone.
Winston smiled at Taylor and said, “Epic, right?“ as Tate walked away towards the front of the class and began teaching.
After the class was over Taylor leaned close to Winston and asked a question which had been burning his mind. “Why aren't you, you know, laughing at me, like everyone else?“
Winston laughed. “What makes you think I'm not laughing?“
But seeing Taylor's face drop, Winston waved the laugh off. “Seriously, T. It's a funny video, but I'm not exactly well-liked here myself. And I can't say why exactly, but you seem different than the other kids here. I like that.“
Taylor didn't know how to feel about this. Was Winston flirting with him? He was about to say something to that effect when something made Winston gasp. Holding up his iPhone as they left the class room he said, “Have you seen this? A nuclear sub exploded in North Korean waters. One of ours. There's talk about retaliation. You think it'll be war?“
Taylor took the iPhone and read the brief article, though he had already been well-versed in the news. Taylor liked to think of himself as apolitical, not in the sense of national rivalries, he espoused a more anti-establishment ideal. But he could see the potential in such an event for something drastic.
“I hope not. The last thing we need is another war, another excuse for some bureaucrat to decide we need more government snoops putting their noses into things which have nothing to do with them.“ Winston beamed and nodded. He clapped Taylor on the back.
“Well said, old boy.“ Winston said, “I'm off to second period, see ya tomorrow, T. Try not to star in anymore embarrassing videos.“
Taylor managed a weak smile and Winston was off. Teenagers streamed around him, a few still pointed, but most seemingly had moved on to something new, or at least were done teasing him.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Taylor didn't make anymore friends but he was only laughed at a few more times, openly at least. By the end of the day some of his new student jitters had faded, though he still felt anxious. Most of his classes had gone well, he was pleased to find he was not terribly far behind the other freshmen and he was never corrected by any of his teachers. But he was behind and he would have to work hard to do well in his classes, except for Crypto. That had been a very enjoyable breeze.
As he exited the school's grounds he stopped when noticed Isadore Chatham walking, with Parker's arm draped over her, towards the large modernist mansion across the street from Willow Prep. Taylor stood there, stared and wondered: which one of them lives there?; neither possibility was very assuring. A rich Parker, super-rich judging by the size of the place, only made the guy more sinister and a super-rich Isadore only made her more distant. Once the teenage couple had disappeared inside Taylor walked again, wanting very much to get William from school and put the day behind him.
Outside William's school Taylor found his brother playing around with four other boys - all wearing the same uniform as William, though in much better shape. But that didn't seem to matter to the gaggle of seven-year-olds. Spotting Taylor, William said something to the other boys who hooted and waved goodbye before running over to join Taylor. The other boys waved jovially back at William and ran towards the school.
“Had a good day William?“ Taylor asked.
“Totally Taz! It's so cool! We got to do DNA testing today on some bacteria! I didn't even know what it was! This place is so much cooler than Channelview!“ William piped.
“I see you've made some friends,” Taylor said.
“Yeah. They're in my class. They want me to play for their soccer team! And they all have WoW characters, they said I could join their guild. You know what a guild is Taz” Taylor nodded at his brother, and he wanted to say something crushing to the ebullient kid, but couldn't. He wanted to let him know their parents couldn't afford WoW, it cost more money a month than William got in a year for allowance. But Taylor just couldn't bring himself to be that mean when William was so obviously elated. Taylor could hack an account for William, but it would like result in Taylor's parents finding out. “Mom and Dad will prolly let you play soccer, but WoW is too violent for a kid your age. But yes, I know what a guild is.“ Taylor couldn't keep all the bitterness out of his voice. He wanted to play WoW himself but had never been able to afford it, and his hacked accounts never lasted long.
William seemed about to complain, but he stopped dead at the stairwell leading them down to the subway. Taylor stopped as well, “What is it?“ he asked William.
William tugged at Taylor's blazer and pointed. “They've got blazers... just like yours.“ Great Taylor thought. Just what he needed more Willow Prep kids to laugh at him.
When he looked at where William pointed he found himself staring at Isadore Chatham and the muscular girl he had seen in the picture with her and Winston. Neither of the girls had seen him, they walked past the subway station talking quietly to one another. Taylor really wanted to haul ass before they saw him. He didn't think he could take Isadore laughing at him right then, and though she hadn't seemed to approve of Parker's bathroom joke, Taylor didn't want to risk she had had something to do with the awful YouTube video. Grabbing William's hand and diving forward Taylor dashed down the steps into the subway station.