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Chapter 8

I didn’t really “get” Ivory and Matthew until one night in eighth grade.

The two of them had moved a couple of miles away to the high school for their freshman year, and we had to spend time together outside of school. Sometimes we went to the high school football games on Fridays—more to run around being stupid than to watch the game.

It’s hard to remember now what we actually did, other than the fact that my feet were always tired by the end of night. Ivory never stopped moving, and usually I just followed. That night I followed her under the bleachers in the last quarter. The game wasn’t going well for us and people were leaving. Above us the home bleachers were all but empty and the few loyal who’d stayed were down by the fence marking the edge of the field.

I think maybe Ivory had snagged some cigarettes from somewhere that she wanted to try. I know I followed her under there ready to give her a talking to about something, but that part isn’t clear anymore.

What’s clear is the moment we stopped arguing long enough to realize we were surrounded by older guys.

I was thirteen, but I was old enough to know how much of a problem that was. Ivory backed into me, grabbed my arm and tried to pull me back the other way, but the key word was surrounded. I thought I knew who these guys were, too. It was a small town. Everyone knew who the troublemakers were, from a distance. The fake leather jackets they wore and the way they scowled at everyone and yelled at teachers. They might have been sort some sort of gang; I didn’t want to know.

Those seconds they just looked at us I couldn’t breathe. I could hear every heartbeat in my ears and I was wondering if I remembered how to make a fist correctly and if my shoes would give me enough traction for a few good kicks. I remember suddenly wishing I were old enough to drive just so I could have keys on me right then.

I also wondered if it was my fault they were after us—my fault for wearing a dress to a football game. Later I only ever admitted that to Ivory, and only after she called me out on it after I wore pants for weeks after.

“Stupid guys are stupid. Nothing was your fault. You be you, you idiot,” she told me. She only had to tell me once.

That night, though, I didn’t know. I was telling myself not to start crying when someone came running from the other direction.

“Hey!”

We all looked back just in the time to see Matthew punch the guy he ran up behind in the face. It was probably the best punch he threw, because he’d had the element of surprise. It wasn’t like the movies; he wasn’t particularly good at anything he tried to do that night. But he tried.

Also unlike the movies, the other guys weren’t the greatest fighters either. I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt. The confusion allowed Ivory and me the chance to jump into the fray ourselves, and Ivory punched one or two. I successfully kicked one guy at least close enough to the nether regions he wasn’t happy about it. I’m still kind of proud of that.

It didn’t last long. One of the assistant coaches showed up and the guys ran off.

“We didn’t start—“ Matthew started.

“You’re fine,” the coach said quickly. “I know.” Then he took off after the other boys.

I ran out from under the bleachers first, Ivory and Matthew close behind me. Matthew asked about five dozen times if we were all right.

“Shut up!” Ivory said once we were on the grass. Then she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Ok,” she said after that. “We can date now.”

When I told her later that I got it, finally, she smiled. “He may not always look like much, but he makes me feel safe, you know?”

It was something of a revelation—that reckless Ivory needed to feel safe at all. Then again, we’re all human. Don’t we all need that?

Matthew made her feel safe. I came to the conclusion that the same was true of Ivory, for me, and the thread made a little more sense after that.

***


Ivory thinks I only went with Matthew to get my car from the center. She doesn’t know I took one her holo-band from her desk, or that I’ve already found Adam.

He doesn’t know I’ve found him yet either, granted, but that’s six one way half a dozen the other.

“You’re sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Matthew asked when he dropped me off.

There had been a path cleared out of what was left of the center parking lot in the nearly twenty-four hours since the incident. Holo-tape still cordoned off the building and the rubble, and people hovered at the edge of the barrier as the cleanup continued. There were far too many of them for it to be only people here for their vehicles. Why did they want to be there? I didn’t.

“I think I should be alone. He’s met me; he’s less likely to slam the door in my face.”

“Why would he slam the door in anyone’s face?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Ivory’s the one who said he isn’t always so much with the people. I suppose I’ll find out.”

I’m south of campus now, with Ivory’s holo-band on my wrist activated and giving me voice directions. I used it last night while she was asleep, to find Adam in the student directory and get his address. The address itself wasn’t in the directory, which was the reason for the holo-band. Anything of Ivory’s has resources none of my computers have. She doesn’t own a device that isn’t hacked.

I was able to remember enough from watching her in the past to use one of the programs on it she wrote herself to find the address. It probably would have taken Ivory about two minutes, but it took me half an hour. Still, I have to admit I’m more than a little proud of myself for figuring it out at all.

The voice from the computer on my wrist leads me to a small house on a narrow road. The properties are unevenly spaced and houses have more land than in town. The house in question is set back from the road with a gravel drive, sided in tan painted wood with window frames and shutters that might once have been green. A wide porch stretches across the front, and to the left of the door a porch swing hangs from rusted chains. It may have been the same green as the shutters.

I park at the edge of the gravel lot that spreads from the porch to the beginning of the drive and crunch through fallen leaves to the steps, my bag swinging against my hip. I don’t see a car, but there’s a garage that’s closed. Surely if Adam is here he heard me pull up, but the door doesn’t open until I’ve knocked on it for a while. I hear him coming before it does, his quick footfalls making the floorboards creak inside.

He flings the door open and stops, standing there in his jeans and a t-shirt and socks staring at me for a good few seconds before he says anything. “You.”

“Eloquent,” I retort.

“How did you…?” He looks over my shoulder and around me, taking in my car and the quiet street as if they’ll give him an answer. “I keep this address out of public records for a reason, you know.”

“If you’re really serious about that you might want to double-check your security. I’m no computer genius.”

“Why are you here?”

“It’s not just to thank you for saving my life if that’s what you’re wondering.”

He shifts uncomfortably, still standing in the gap of the open door. “I didn’t really...”

“You did. If you hadn’t been there I would have been in that lobby. I’d be dead.” I don’t bother to go into the rest. I can see hints of the scratches along the back of the arm holding open the door, and I wonder why he didn’t stay to let someone fix them.

Adam looks up from studying the boards in the porch. “If that’s the case then I owe you just as much. You got me out of there.”

I let out a breath, and I can feel myself literally deflate a little as the tension goes out of our standoff. “Even, then?” I ask. His head dips to the side, half a nod. “Good. Then I don’t already owe you asking for your help now.”

“Help?”

I cross my arms. “Yes. Help. I wouldn’t have gone digging through the school’s private files if I didn’t have a good reason.” I can’t help looking over my shoulder as I say that. “Look, sorry, but can we…?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He takes my arm and guides me inside before I’ve even finished my anxious scan of the street, and closes the door behind me. “What kind of help?” he asks.

I smooth my hair down from the mussing it took by the breeze outside. It gives me a moment to collect my thoughts. It gives me a chance to realize how crazy I’m going to sound. Then again, he sounded just as crazy back at the center. Hopefully he’ll understand.

I take a deep breath and dive in all at once. “Ivory made it into a booth before the explosions. She had a tell to warn her if she was in danger, and she triggered it. We need to know what she heard and supposedly she hacked her implant to record. It should have a recording of the call, but she doesn’t have the equipment to decode it right now. Filtering out the, uh, other tones, or whatever it is. So we’ll remember listening to the recording. Can you do that? I didn’t know who else to ask and Ivory’s being stubborn about it. Obviously you know how to do something. You knew what you knew about what was going on at the center, so…”

His mouth had opened farther and farther as I went on, and now he seems to realize it’s open and snaps it shut and nods.

“Well?” I ask.

“Right. Yes. That’s easy enough with the right software, actually. Well...and protocols the average citizen isn’t supposed to have but still, basically, simple.”

“Great. So can you do it? Will you?”

Adam lets out a long breath and makes a face. “Are you sure you want me to? There’s a reason we shouldn’t know too much about the future.”

He looks distant. I want to ask why, but I don’t know him. “I’m not disagreeing with that,” I say instead, “but she had that tell so she’d know if her life was in danger. This is not up for debate.”

“I didn’t think so.”

With that he turns and starts toward the back of the house. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be following him so I do, slowly. He doesn’t object. We pass from the living room, through a short hallway and into a back room, probably a bedroom except that it isn’t now. It’s full of computers.

Some of the screens are old enough to be real, flat screens mounted to the wall. Others project from mounts on the desks that ring the room. Some of the equipment I recognize because Ivory has similar pieces, but some of it I don’t understand at all.

“What…? I don’t get it. Why do you computer people keep going into physics?”

Adam smirks back at me briefly and swings into the rolling chair at the center of the room, in front of a large holo screen in the corner that goes halfway to the ceiling. “I assume you’re talking about Ivory.”

“Both of you. I mean really, why?” That seems like a safer question than asking where his mind went a moment ago.

Anything left of the smile fades. “It’s just something I need to do,” he says.

I feel myself drifting toward him when he says that, like he has some sort of gravity. I suspect there’s something going on here. Something deeper. The reason he’s watching TempCo, or whatever he’s doing. I tell myself that’s the only reason for the pull I feel. It’s a problem, a mystery, and I want to solve it.

It takes effort to step back into the doorway, motioning over my shoulder.

“Sorry. I should...come back later. I’ve got to figure out how to convince Ivory to come out here anyway, if you’re going to help us. And thank you.”

He shrugs and turns back to the computers. “I don’t need her here to pull the file.”

I wince and lean into the doorframe. “Even from a personal implant?”

“Unfortunately, yes. They’re not very secure. Hers will probably be more secure, but I can do it. Everything’s still connected.”

I make a sound in my throat, half understanding and half disgust.

“I know what you mean,” he says.

That makes me laugh. He laughs with me, a little, but I’m not sure why I’m still here.

I realize I missed something. Adam asked me a question. “What?”

“St. Louis. You...said you were from there?”

He’s looking at me when I focus on him. “Yeah,” I say. I look back, weighing the personal risk of saying more. Another breath, to be sure I’m ready when I decide to.

“I lost everyone but an aunt and the grandmother I was staying with at the time. Well...it’s just my aunt now.”

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He looks away. “My mother was in St. Louis when it happened.” He makes it clear it isn’t sympathy he wants by all but attacking the keypad in front of him. I don’t want any either, and I think we understand each other. “Anyway, at least let me find the file and make sure it’s something I can do, before you go looking for your friend.” he says.

I step back into the room. “Makes sense, I guess.” There’s another chair by the wall and I pull it out some and sit down.

“So where you from?” I ask after a moment of fidgeting. It’s the first thing to pop into my head.”

Adam glances at me with a raised eyebrow. “The accent doesn’t make that obvious?”

“No. I mean, yes. I meant more specifically.”

“Oh, specifically? All over.”

This time me it’s me to give him the bland Really? look.

“What? People from other countries can’t say that? From what I understand Americans only need about three states to be entitled to that response.”

“No, really,” I laugh.

“London.”

“Right, because I’m supposed to believe you’d leave London for north Louisiana.”

He smirks. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I lean forward in my chair. “Well from what I understand, saying you’re from London is like saying you’re from New York City—there’s so much of it it’s almost like telling me nothing.”

“You’ll just have to get over it then.”

I’m giggling, and this time I stop myself abruptly when the reason I’m here stabs at my stomach.

“What’s wrong?” Adam asks.

I make a face. “I feel guilty for laughing right now.”

“Ah...right. Sorry.”

So we don’t laugh.

But we don’t stop talking, either.
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