I’m pretty sure Ivory James saved my life.
I remember the day she dropped into it much more clearly than a lot of things from around that time. Looking back now, it’s a point of light in one of the otherwise dark parts of my life.
It was my third day of school in south Louisiana, after Christmas of my seventh grade year. I was twelve, one of the youngest and shortest in the class, and new. Not exactly the best recipe for a good new year.
“Do you like eating by yourself?” she asked me.
Those were the first words she said to me, standing across the gray lunch table with her hands on her hips. I was the only one at a table in a corner and I liked it that way.
I glanced up at her over my book. Because reading real books was quickly becoming less and less common, I knew it made me seem strange and I didn’t care. I gladly used my books as a shield. “What?”
“I said, do you like eating by yourself?”
“Sort of. It’s kind of a habit now.”
She shrugged, sat down opposite me, and started pulling her lunch out of an insulated bag. “It’s okay; we’ll fix that.”
I put my plastic fork and the book down. “Did I say you could sit there?”
“It’s a free country.”
I stared at her. “That is the oldest saying in the—” I stopped when I realized where that was going and scowled at the book by my tray.
The redhead took a bite of her sandwich and nodded seriously, leaning over the table. “And you would know, wouldn’t you?” She didn’t bother to swallow before talking.
She didn’t respond to that. Instead she looked up at someone calling a name across the lunchroom.
“Over here!” she shouted.
A tall, thin boy with dark blond hair that was just long enough to flop in the front turned around several rows of tables over, spotted us, and headed over with his tray.
“We have a table,” he told the redhead.
“And now we have a new table.” She remembered I existed once the guy sat down beside her. “Anyway, so yeah, I’m Ivory James. This is Matthew Pine. Who are you?”
I picked up my fork again and went back to eating my school-issued meatloaf.
“Sorry about her,” Matthew said. “She’s just...her.”
“And he’s mine,” Ivory added, raising a finger from her sandwich to indicate her male counterpart once more. “Just so we’re clear. I only share on the basis that that’s understood.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but if he was going to say anything I didn’t hear it. I laughed once, just because they seemed so ridiculous to me. I doubt it was a very nice sound. “Okay,” I said. Then I shoveled the last few bites of meatloaf and mashed potatoes into my mouth and gathered my things.
It would have ended there if Ivory wasn’t so persistent. They came back the next day, and the next. They ate, and goofed off, and tried to talk to me sometimes, and I ignored them for more than a week. I read my books. I could have found somewhere else to sit, but I didn’t, and I didn’t know why.
The second Monday after they’d taken over my table I was trying to do homework, reading an assignment in our science text. I’d activated one of the projection screens installed in the tables, and the holographic display created a barrier between me and the intruders. Even though the screen was much bigger than my tablet I couldn’t concentrate. Ivory was going on and on about the newest comm model—the implants; they were still experimental then—and her voice grew louder the more passionate she became.
“Why would you NOT want a computer in your head?” Ivory was saying. “No more tablets or holographic bands! The implants can do everything any of those can, all in a comm unit so small they can install it with a needle. You can pull up any display you need and no one else can see it.”
“Ok, how does that work?” Matthew asked. “I know we’ve come pretty far in brain research and all, but really?”
“Well you’re seeing the displays on contacts. You have to wear them if you want to use the implant for anything other than the comm function.”
“But how do you even control the comm if it’s in your head?”
“Voice commands, just like you can with the comms now. Obv.”
Matthew shook his head and held up his wrist at her, with his holo band firmly in place there. “I still don’t see the point. I can have a computer on my wrist and a comm out of the way behind my ear; why do I need them both in my head? Seems dangerous.”
I was smiling a little. Why was I smiling? I wanted them to shut up. Just because I thought the same thing was no reason to smile.
“Well I’m getting one,” Ivory insisted. “As soon as they work out the kinks and release them to the public and I can save enough money, anyway…”
“You don’t even have a job.”
“I will get a job!”
I’d read the same sentence seven times. My middle finger was tapping the table, but that didn’t help me focus. Normally I could tune them out, but the history of Temporal Communications and the Anomaly was not something I really wanted to read anyway.
“You can’t get one, Iv,” Matthew insisted.
“You don’t get a say.”
“Your best friend since birth, and I don’t get a say?”
I saw Ivory cross her arms through the semi-transparent holo screen. “No. Because we’re not dating yet. You’d only get a say if we were.”
Matthew threw up his hands. “Oh, so you claim me, but we’re not dating?”
“We’re not dating until high school. At least. We talked about this; there’s a plan.”
“We’ll be dating by the time you can get an implant then.”
Ivory squirmed. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Matthew looked like he was about to retort and start the whole thing over again.
I let out a breath and smacked the button under the edge of the table to turn the holo screen off. It snapped away, and though they’d twisted to face each other by now both of them blinked and looked at me.
“Aurora Chandler,” I said.
“What?” Ivory asked.
“My name. Since I’m not going to get anything done right now anyway. That’s my name. Since you were asking. Before.”
“She speaks! Matt, she speaks,” she said, elbowing him.
Matthew had already turned back to his food and resumed putting his tacos together. “We knew that.”
Ivory sent another elbow into his ribs, but he had nothing else to say just yet. “Oh, you’re no fun.” She twisted back to me, and Matthew gave me a small smile when she wasn’t looking. “So, Rora, you’re seventh grade, right?”
“I heard you. Seventh grade, right?”
I let out a breath. “Yes.”
“Cool. We’re eighth, but—”
I did know, I realized with a start. Just because I hadn’t answered them didn’t mean I hadn’t listened, even if I hadn’t known I was.
I don’t know how Ivory knew—or if she even knew she knew—that I needed her. That I needed both of them. She didn’t know about my grandmother then. She didn’t know about my parents yet, or St. Louis. She didn’t know anything about me.
Sometimes I think people can sense things, and I think no matter how brash she is or pretends to be, Ivory is better at that than a lot of people. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t just walk away. I tried to cut her off and found her tied to me already.
See, I think we’re all tied to some people more tightly than others. We all have family, and friends. They’re all tied to us, but some of those strings are more taut than others. Some of them carry more weight, because even if we care about everyone there are always those people who matter more. To us. They’re the ones who anchor us to life. Sometimes we choose who they are, but I think more often we don’t. Sometimes we don’t know the threads are there until they’re pulled.
I don’t know where my parents would have fallen in that spectrum, or how that might have changed as I grew up. I don’t know what sort of strings tied me to the friends I had then. I wasn’t old enough to know. I was eight, and suddenly all of them were gone, and I fell and I found out Grandma Jean was the only thread still supporting me. Then three years later she got sick.
I was hanging by a thread that was about to break. Ivory didn’t know it then, but that first day in the lunchroom—when she refused to leave—she became my safety line.
It just took me a long time to figure that out.