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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Paranormal  ➡  Supernatural

XGeneration, Books 1-3: You Don't Know Me, The Watchers, and Silent Generation

 
p=. Description

XGeneration is a teen paranormal thriller series inspired by classic superhero comics and the 1980s. This box set contains the first three books: You Don’t Know Me, The Watchers, and Silent Generation.

  • * *

ABOUT YOU DON’T KNOW ME

In the fall of 1984, Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow are close to breaking.

But in sleepy Gainesville, Florida, fourteen-year-old Janis Graystone is mainly worried about starting high school, earning a spot on the varsity soccer team, and keeping her older sister from running her life.

And then there are her paranormal experiences. Experiences where she awakens in her backyard — out of her body — with the disturbing sense that someone is watching her.

For Scott Spruel, the start of high school means the chance to start over. And he’s willing to ditch everything — computer hacking, Dungeons & Dragons marathons, even his comic book collection (well, except for his X-Men) — if it means getting closer to Janis, the secret love of his life.

But what about the eavesdropper on his telephone line, a presence he senses through powers he is only beginning to understand?

As clocks tick down, Janis and Scott will need the other’s help. But first they’ll have to find one another, and that means traversing Thirteenth Street High’s caste system — a system that can be as brutal as it is unforgiving.

XGeneration 1 – 3

Box Set

Brad Magnarella

© 2015

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover by Damonza.com

For the Brywood Gang

XGeneration 1

You Don’t Know Me

Brad Magnarella

© 2013

1

Gainesville, Florida

Sunday, August 26, 1984

8:05 a.m.

Scott Spruel leaned nearer the window and parted his bedroom blinds a little more, not wanting to lose her. She had already set a canvas bag in her sister Margaret’s car and disappeared down her driveway, to the garage side of her house — the side he couldn’t see.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he whispered.

He stole a look back to the car, where Margaret was sorting through the trunk. A red cooler came out then went back in along with a tasseled blanket and a second canvas bag, this one with sandals poking out.

Scott resumed his vigil over the distant driveway, the blinds trembling above his ink-stained fingers. He hoped to see her again — had to see her again — if only for a moment. Of course he told himself that every time, didn’t he? If only for a moment. But what did he ever do with those moments? He could never make his legs move toward her, could not even premeditate the words he would say or how he would say them. He’d once spent half a day in front of his mirror trying to practice his greeting: “Hi, Janis,” followed by an easygoing smile. He gave up when all he could manage was a Jokeresque parody of a grin.

A hopeless sigh steamed the glass. It had been a long summer.

Something flickered beyond the blur — a flame. Heart pounding, Scott wiped the window clean, wiped her into view.

Janis Graystone.

Her fiery-red ponytail swished over the straps of her white tank top as she jogged into view on lean, athletic legs. She bounced a soccer ball along the asphalt driveway, an act as natural for her as chewing gum. The sound reached Scott’s ears a split second after each impact. It was the distance, that impossible distance between his house and hers — one hundred fifty yards, give or take.

He began to sigh again but clamped his breath off.

Janis stopped where the driveway met the cul-de-sac and, before Margaret could prevent it, punted the ball. The ball disappeared into the car’s trunk. Margaret said something Scott couldn’t hear though it was apparent from the stern thrust of her body she was peeved. Janis ignored her, raising her arms at her feat.

Silent laughter parted Scott’s lips from his braces. For a moment, it felt as though he and Janis were connected again, time and space snapping away. But then she was climbing into the passenger’s seat and closing the door. Margaret slammed the trunk closed and joined her on the driver’s side. To Scott’s ears, the faint start and rev of the engine signaled another opportunity slipping away.

The Honda Prelude rounded the cul-de-sac and came straight toward Scott, whose house faced the short street on which the Graystones lived. He drew back into the darkness before stopping himself.

“Who are you kidding?” he mumbled. “She’s not going to notice you.”

After all, she hadn’t noticed him since the end of fifth grade, more than three years earlier. Why would she start now? He pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose and parted the plastic blinds once more.

When the dark blue car arrived at the top of the street, morning light illuminated Janis’s face. A clean glow shone over the pull of her hair, her perfect brow, cheeks Scott could only imagine himself caressing, her full lower lip. The light caught the depth and pensiveness of her chestnut eyes as well, even as they squinted. It was the most clearly he had seen her in years.

Then the car turned, and the square of sunlight slid from Janis, and only the street remained.

Scott let the blinds snap closed. It took several seconds for the green glow of his computer to reclaim his bedroom, to redefine the heaps of clutter around him. He swiveled back to the blinking cursor on his TRS-80. With burning, sleep-deprived eyes, he scanned the lines of commands and responses that had delivered him to his present point, the same lines he had been staring at since late the night before. The modem clicked and hummed.

“If you want true power,” Scott whispered to himself, “you have to finish this. You have to go back inside.”

He hesitated before closing his eyes. Behind his sealed lids, he was startled to find an afterimage of Janis’s face, no less stunning for being a negative. But by then, his consciousness was already squeezing through the computer modem, being shot along the network. And though Scott struggled to hold on to her image, it was soon lost to a cold and bewildering storm of data and electrical current.

2

Crescent Beach, Florida

Later that day

“Do you ever think we’re being watched?” Janis asked.

She lifted her head from her soccer ball and squinted past her toes, still slick with sunblock, to where the beach crowd thinned near the crash and rumble of the ocean. For the first time, she and Margaret had the beach blanket to themselves, and she knew it wouldn’t last. Beyond her feet and off to the right, her sister’s three friends squealed and pranced from the water’s edge in new bikinis. The bright pastel colors made them hard to miss. They would probably be running back this way any minute.

“Well, we are at the beach,” Margaret said.

Janis turned onto her elbow. In contrast to her airhead friends, her older sister lay in quiet repose, brunette hair tucked into a neat bun that cushioned her head and opened her lithe neck to the sun. Black Wayfarers hid her eyes. When the breeze stirred, the strings of her apple-red bikini fluttered against her hip.

“Not here, I mean,” Janis said. “In the neighborhood. At home. I keep having this feeling that we’re—”

“Being watched? Like the song?”

Janis groaned. She had walked right into that one. “Somebody’s Watching Me” had played on the boom box a half hour before, the deejay at I-100 FM using a creepy ghoul’s voice when he recapped the song and artist.

“Not funny,” she said.

“Sorry, couldn’t resist. Go on.”

“All right, but no more jokes. This is serious.”

The corner of Margaret’s glossy lips tipped into a half-smile. She sat up and checked her stomach before dripping tanning oil into her hand and spreading it around her golden belly.

Janis became aware of her own stomach starting to burn and reached for the sunblock. “There are just these… dreams I keep having,” she said, rubbing a dollop above then below her lime-green bottoms. She tested the fading bruise on the side of her thigh — softball casualty. “But they’re not dreams. Not exactly. They’re more like out-of-body experiences.”

“Out-of-what?”

“I think that’s what they’re called.”

“If you say so.”

Janis capped the sunblock and searched her sister’s face. She was wading into the paranormal, which wasn’t exactly her thing and was much less her sister’s. Margaret had given Twilight Zone: The Movie a thumbs-down last year, not because some parts were wet-your-pants scary but because it was “too implausible.” Ditto with Poltergeist the year before. But with the experiences happening almost nightly now, Janis needed to confide in someone, even if that someone was Margaret.

“Anyways, in these dreams, these experiences, I’m suddenly awake, and I’m standing in the backyard. And there’s this strange energy all around me: whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Like the wind’s blowing but deeper and… rougher, I guess.”

Janis waved her hands around her head in demonstration, but Margaret was on her back again, the sun shining along her slender legs and glinting off toenails painted red to match her bikini.

“How can you be awake if you’re asleep?”

“That’s just it. When it happens, I’m as awake as I am now. But my body’s still in bed. I mean, I can’t feel my body, but I know I’m not actually standing out in the backyard.”

“Maybe you’re sleepwalking. Mom says I used to sleepwalk.”

“Wouldn’t I wake up in the morning with crud on my feet if—”

“People do strange things when they sleepwalk. I read about this guy from California who mowed his entire lawn, front and back. And he didn’t remember a thing when he woke up.”

“What does that have to do with—”

“Only found out because his neighbors called the police. You know, the noise of the mower.”

“Margaret!”

“Oh,” she cut in again, “and he was buck naked.”

Janis snort-laughed. Margaret joined her, her own laughter illuminating the backward tilt of her face. Disney couldn’t have animated a more perfect laugh. The only things missing were the little woodland creatures. But Janis only half begrudged Margaret her laugh, especially since her sister didn’t seem to let it out often enough.

“All right.” Margaret cleared her throat and retucked her bun beneath her head. “I’ll give you that you’re somehow awake in the backyard while asleep in bed. But what does that have to do with being watched?”

“I…” Janis began, then pressed a loose strand of hair to her nose. That’s where things got tricky.

She didn’t always remember the out-of-body experiences — not in detail, anyway. A dream would often intrude then another and another, such that by morning, she could only dimly remember the experience. All that remained were whatever impressions still lingered in her memory, faint and ghostly. And that’s what Janis felt at that moment, what she had been feeling all day: a spine-needling impression that someone had been watching.

And hadn’t there been a smell? Cigarette smoke?

Or maybe she was confusing last night’s experience with the present. The approaching surfer took a final pull on his cigarette stub, then flicked it away, not looking where it landed. A blue tattoo stained his upper arm: a dagger piercing a heart. The surfer behind him was sharp faced and darkly freckled, his nose coated in silver zinc. Janis peeked toward Margaret and began drawing her legs in.

The surfers swaggered toward the blanket as though meaning to trample over it. They stopped at the last moment, propping their boards on end. Tattoo glanced along Janis’s legs then turned his gaze back on Margaret. He tossed his slick, sandy hair to the side, his stubbly cheeks swelling around a pair of hard dimples.

Margaret raised her Wayfarers a half inch, then lowered them.

“Move along, boys,” she said.

The surfers’ smiles faltered. It was the way she had said it: no nonsense, her tone sounding older than her seventeen years. Freckles whispered something near Tattoo’s ear, drawing a stupid leer.

Janis suddenly felt naked in her two-piece and turned onto her side, pulling her knees in even more. The xylophonic beats of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” popped from the boom box, but there was no fun in them. Janis peered toward the ocean, wishing Margaret’s friends were crowding the blanket again, giggles and all. It figured. Now that they were needed, they were nowhere to be found.

“Whoa, babe,” Tattoo said. His ragged wetsuit was peeled below his navel, and the neoprene arms flopped around his thighs as he gave his hair another toss. “What’s that all about? Can’t a dude admire the scenery?”

His friend sniggered, and the two of them edged closer. Tattoo could have been cute, Janis thought, but there was a crudeness in his manner, in the way they were both standing, hips thrust forward. She imagined it would only take a few beers for them to become dangerous. The tip of Tattoo’s board dripped water near Margaret’s feet as he staggered a step nearer.

They’d probably already had a few.

“Admire it somewhere else,” Margaret said, still on her back. Then added, “Dude.”

“Or what? Gonna choke us with those fine legs?”

Their laughter landed like blades in Janis’s stomach. Margaret rose onto her elbows. She raised her sunglasses again, propping them over her teased bangs. Her sea-green eyes studied the surfers like a school principal weighing the appropriate punishment.

“Oooh,” Tattoo said, waggling his fingers in feigned fear. “A man-eater.”

Freckles sniggered, the oily silver glistening along the blade of his nose.

Margaret’s eyes didn’t flinch.

“Oh, c’mon, baby. Don’t be like that.” Tattoo pushed his board toward Freckles and planted a sand-caked foot on the blanket. “I’m just trying to make some conversation.” It came out convershashum.

When Janis looked up, Freckles was grinning down at her. The tip of his tongue emerged, worm-like, and ran across his mottled lips. Janis edged toward her sister. But now Tattoo was planting his hand like he meant to lower himself between them, the muscles bunching across his upper back. Margaret didn’t shrink from him. Neither did her gaze waver from his face.

“I said move along.”

Janis imagined herself lifting the red Igloo cooler behind them, using her knee to help boost it higher, the dozen-odd cans of Tab slish-sloshing in the melting ice. She imagined dropping — no, slamming — it on the side of Tattoo’s head.

But as Janis tensed to move, the muscles across Tattoo’s back softened.

“…the hell?” he muttered.

Like a movie reel being played in reverse, he rose from his three-point stance to his knees, to his feet, and shuffled backward until he was beside Freckles again. His jaw hung to one side, as though he was uncertain of what he was doing.

Freckles’s tongue crawled back into his mouth.

Janis followed their squinting gazes toward Margaret. Her no-nonsense expression hadn’t changed… except for her eyes. A deeper shade of green grew inside them, seeming to hold Tattoo. Freckles, too.

Ten seconds passed. Twenty. A dry click sounded from Tattoo’s throat. Freckles shivered. The two of them had diminished, their boards no longer penetrating the space above the blanket, their hard arms deflated. Or maybe it only seemed that way because Janis could sense how badly they wanted to leave. They were just waiting for the excuse, waiting for Margaret to release them.

Freckles glanced down at Janis, his expression the plea of a lost child.

Janis looked around, the shouts from a volleyball game, the crash of the surf — Bananarama, even — sounding hard to her, raw. She hadn’t even wanted to come to the beach that day. She’d originally planned to spend the morning in goalie gloves and a practice jersey, beaming a soccer ball off the garage door. (“So bring your ball,” Margaret had told her. “Problem solved.”) Now, trapped between Margaret and the surfers, her stomach twisting into knots, Janis tried to imagine herself seventy miles inland, the driveway at her feet, the woods at her back, slinging the soccer ball toward the garage door, gathering the rebound…

Margaret gave a small sigh and lowered her shades.

“My sister and I were talking.” She pronounced every syllable as though explaining the concept to a pair of slow children. “You know, having a con-ver-sa-tion. And you interrupted us. May we finish now?”

“Uh, yeah… whatever,” Tattoo said hoarsely, already turning. His board collided into Freckles’s as the two of them wheeled in opposite directions.

A small part of Janis wanted to laugh. She cringed and curled her toes instead.

The surfers straightened themselves out and made for the boardwalk, Freckles stammering an apology over his shoulder. Margaret adjusted her top and lay back down, frowning as though the whole episode had been nothing more than a minor irritation.

“How do you do that?” Janis asked.

“Do what?”

“That. Getting people to do whatever you want?”

Margaret shrugged. “I just tell them.”

Janis watched the surfers disappear beyond the dunes separating the beach from the public restrooms. It was true. Margaret always told people what she wanted, and nine times out of ten, she seemed to get it: an A in the few cases where she’d earned a B+, a speeding warning instead of a hefty fine and points, another curfew extension from Dad. And her job. Even though she was the youngest salesperson at the JC Penney in the mall, she earned the fattest commissions by far, more than double anyone else’s. She’d already been promised a management position after graduation, a position she declined, thanks but no thanks. Pre-law called.

But what just happened? What was that?

“Don’t worry about them,” Margaret said. Janis caught herself staring at the place where the surfers had disappeared. “They were jerks. Worse than jerks. Pigs. And they did interrupt us. You were telling me about a dream?”

Janis felt herself nod, but before she could reassemble her thoughts, Margaret’s friends burst onto the blanket: “Did you, like, see that girl’s hair?” “What a total disaster.” “It’s like she set it with a waffle maker!”

Margaret rose and brushed her legs off, scolding the girls for tracking sand onto the blanket. At five foot ten, she stood a full head taller than her friends, completing her role as mother hen to them in stature as well as manner. When she got them settled, she drew several quarters from her canvas bag and announced she was going up to the pay phones to call her boyfriend, Kevin. She set off through the patchwork maze of beach towels and glistening sunbathers while Janis tried to come up with an excuse to tag along.

Before that could happen, Heather swiveled toward her. “Feather Heather,” Janis still thought of her, because of her blonde Farrah Fawcett ’do. She’d trimmed it shorter over the years, but the neat center part, highlights, and flipped out sides had never quite gone away.

Heather plucked up the book at Janis’s hip and held it at arm’s length. “Eww,” she said, making a face. “Summer reading?”

Janis started to shake her head, then stopped. She had been assigned summer reading, but this wasn’t 1984. It was The Outsiders, a book she’d already read twice but grabbed off her bookshelf anyway. There was something in the urban edginess that captivated her, something in the idea of kids her age — Ponyboy and Johnny — having to go it alone in that kind of world while somehow managing to “stay golden.” It wasn’t Sweet Valley High, that was for sure.

It also wasn’t something Heather would ever understand.

“Yeah,” Janis said. “Summer reading.”

“Who’s your freshman English teacher?”

“It’s not Mr. Adams, is it?” Tina asked hopefully. She had pulled a Flashdance-style workout shirt over her blue bikini and begun fumigating her dark, voluminous hair with Aqua Net. Janis squinted and held her breath as the mist blew past, the chemical tang finding the back of her mouth anyway.

“Tina had, like, the biggest crush on Mr. Adams,” Heather explained.

“You thought he was hot, too!”

Janis cleared her throat. “Fern,” she said. “Mrs. Fern.”

“She’s totally weird,” Tina said.

“Weird?” Janis asked. “How so?”

“Like, forget the teachers.” Heather waved her hand. “They’re all weird.”

“For sure,” Tina said. “The important question is…”

Janis’s face began to burn. She knew what was coming.

“…do you have a boyfriend yet?”

Kelly’s crimped hair shook as she giggled.

“Well, no… I mean…” Janis hoped her cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “I play a lot of sports, so I don’t really have time…”

The girls pressed nearer. Janis winced, trying her best to endure their close company. They were Margaret’s friends, after all, and high school seniors. But the truth was, she would have traded them for her fellow summer-league outfielders in an instant. At least she could communicate with them, especially Samantha, her best friend. Samantha would be starting Thirteenth Street High tomorrow too, but bummer of bummers, wasn’t going to be in any of her classes.

“So, like, listen,” Heather said, turning a serious face on her. “If you’re going to start out on the right foot, there are a few groups of guys you totally need to know about. First, avoid the losers.”

“Losers?”

“Yeah,” Tina said. “The ones in black. Heavy metal shirts. Commando pants. Gross, stringy hair.”

“Pizza-faced burnouts,” Kelly added with a giggle.

“They park on Titan Terrace behind the school and smoke cloves,” Heather said, “among other things. Get mixed up with that crew, and you can, like, kiss your reputation goodbye.”

“Forever,” Tina added gravely.

Janis looked around for Margaret.

“So right, forget about them,” Heather said, taking Janis’s arm. “The group you totally want to start with are the preps. They’re clean, well-dressed, have money, so you’re, like, guaranteed a good date. Not some cheap park-and-grope.”

“Janis said she’s into sports.” Tina pronounced it as though it was a foreign word. “She’d probably have better luck with the jocks.”

Janis tuned the girls out as they went back and forth on whether she was better suited for a prep, a jock, or some hybrid of the two. She looked past them to the surf, where the heads of swimmers bobbed like buoys and waves frothed toward shore, some carrying surfers. Farther out, the water had turned the color of gunmetal. Black clouds churned against the horizon. From deep inside one mass, lightening flashed. Janis squinted, trying to gauge whether or not the clouds were moving inland.

“Whatever!” Heather relented with a loud sigh and took Janis’s arm again. “The point is, preps are for sure where you want to start. And there are preps among the jocks.” She shot a narrow look at Tina. “Nice ones, too.”

“Anyway, after preps and jocks, the pickings are pretty slim,” Tina said. “Though it doesn’t hurt to flirt with the nerds now and again.”

“Why would you do that?” Janis asked.

“To get help with your math.”

The others nodded wisely. It took Janis a second to realize they were serious and another to decide that the last five minutes had been a complete waste of her life. She found herself wishing again that she’d stayed home.

“What kind of nonsense are you filling my sister’s head with?”

The girls spun from her so abruptly that Janis felt like she was being dropped. It was a relief, though. She had been getting that prickly, pressed-in feeling she sometimes got around large crowds. She squinted up at Margaret, who stood over them looking toward the ocean.

Margaret clapped her hands briskly. “We’ve got about ten minutes to pack it in, girls. A storm’s coming.”

  • * *

Janis slept most of the ride home, her sluggish rest textured by the grit of salt and dreams of black thunderheads. She awakened when Feather Heather, their last drop-off, hugged Margaret through the window and jogged up her parents’ walkway.

“See you tomorrow,” Heather called over her shoulder.

Janis yawned and looked over her ruddy arms, which stung when she stretched them. SPF 20 or no, the sun had done a number on them.

“Did you have a good time?” Margaret asked as she swung back onto Sixteenth Avenue from Heather’s neighborhood. They had beaten the storm inland, and now the setting sun filtered through the canopy of oak trees, flashing the car with golden light. Margaret smiled and squeezed Janis’s knee, not waiting for her answer. “My little sister. I can’t believe you’re going to be a Thirteenth Street Titan tomorrow.”

Janis winced, watching the blanched spots on her knee turn red again. Her legs had fared little better than her arms. “Yeah, me neither.”

“Don’t worry about whatever Heather and the others told you.” Margaret sighed and shook her head. “They’re boy crazy, so I can only guess. Take care of yourself first, and the boy thing will take care of itself. Just look at me and Kevin…” Her voice trailed off.

When Janis peered over, she found her sister’s gaze lingering on the rearview mirror.

“So it was him,” Margaret said.

“Who? Kevin?” Janis asked, turning.

“No, no, I saw his car in the parking lot when I went to call Kevin. It was parked a little down from ours. He’s been behind us most of the way home.” Margaret returned her gaze to the road. “Never struck me as the beach type.”

Who?

“Mr. Leonard.”

“Leonard?” Janis echoed.

“Yeah, from the neighborhood.”

And now Janis could see the bug-eyed Datsun some three or four cars back. A cold queasiness besieged her and she faced forward again, slumping down. Sweat broke around her throat.

“Is something the matter?” Margaret asked.

“Nuh-uh,” Janis answered quickly.

Then why are you losing it? She pressed her hand to her chest as if that could suppress the escalating thuds. Her body was reacting to his name, to the fact that he was behind them. But why? It wasn’t like her to freak out. If she were alone, she might have slapped herself.

The Prelude slowed toward the landscaped island and wooden sign that announced their neighborhood: OAKWOOD. Janis peeked into the passenger-side mirror in time to see the signal light on the green hatchback flashing. She imagined Mr. Leonard’s long, pale brow looming over the wheel, his yellow-tinted glasses tracking the turn into Oakwood. Tracking them, maybe.

Then, for no apparent reason, Janis imagined his lips holding a cigarette.

Only there was a reason.

Janis sat upright as if she had slapped herself, her thoughts sharpening to points. The experience last night. The dream-that-wasn’t-a-dream. In it, the red-orange tip of a cigarette had illuminated a pair of glasses. Yes, yes, she remembered that now. Someone had been watching. From the house behind theirs, the one on Oakwood’s main street, up ahead on the left.

The house where Mr. Leonard lived.

Janis peered beyond Margaret as they drew nearer the dark brown house. It stood two stories tall, its windows seeming to possess a disturbing sense of sight now, a disturbing knowing. The windows were bracketed by false shutters the color of old yellow teeth, the same color as the front door. Looking on them, Janis felt an acute ache inside her own jaw — and in her right side, for some reason. She jerked when the garage door gave a lurch. It ratcheted upward like a gaping mouth.

“Janis?”

Janis turned from her sister’s concerned face to peer into the passenger-side mirror again. She watched the Datsun slow, then angle sharply into the driveway and disappear from sight.

3

Scott Spruel’s glasses clicked against something. His eyes opened to a green-pixelated blur and his lungs to a broth of computer fumes tinged with B.O. He pushed himself from the computer screen — vertebrae popping in a line — until he met the chair’s felt backrest. Gasping, he swiveled toward the window.

All of the cars in his subdivision had a distinctive sound, a signature, and Scott had come to recognize the Prelude’s, to anticipate its return. He parted two of the blinds, as he had done that morning, but now peered onto a street cast in tea-colored light and steep shadows.

Cripes, how long have I been gone?

Before Scott could twist his watch right-side up, the Prelude was passing in front of his house, turning down the short street. It circled the cul-de-sac, tires swishing against the blacktop, and eased to a stop in front of the Graystones’. Seconds later, Janis stepped from the car, her hair still up in a ponytail, but her face now ruddy with sun. Scott imagined the warmth of the beach across her shoulders.

He sat up straighter, his lips beginning to move: Hi, Janis.

Janis disappeared behind the car’s open trunk door and reappeared seconds later, canvas bag slung over her shoulder, soccer ball tucked inside her elbow. She backed toward the driveway and cocked a hip beneath the ball as she waited for Margaret to close up the car.

Enjoying your last day of freedom? he asked.[_ Yeah, me too. Are you nervous about high school? Don’t be. They say it’s just like middle school… only astronomically harder. ]Scott gritted his teeth. [_(“Astronomically,” you dipshit? “Astronomically?”) And look on the bright side. We can count our remaining years of incarceration on one hand. Or, more precisely, on one of E.T.’s hands. With his… um… four fingers.]

“God, you’re hopeless,” Scott muttered.

He drove his imaginary self away from Janis with a twelve-pronged flog.

Janis started up the semi-circular driveway, Margaret joining her. A cabbage palm centerpieced their front lawn, and Scott had to crane his neck to keep Janis in view. When she arrived on the front porch, she paused, her ponytail swishing as she looked around. Then she disappeared inside the house after Margaret.

Scott released the blinds. Another opportunity gone.

He sagged back toward his computer, picking at the handwritten notes piled in small drifts around the equipment on his desk. He fought to concentrate, his mind reeling from Janis’s entrance into his world, from her just as sudden removal. He selected a random scrap of graph paper and held it up to his glasses: ARPANet command lines he’d copped from a hacking board, nothing that was going to help him here. He tossed the paper aside. No, he was deeper in than that.

He blinked and read to the bottom of the screen:

…..

…..

– Open

WELCOME TO STLA-TACARMY INFORMATION SYSTEMS COMMAND – ST. LOUIS

***FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY***

***TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED***

– Login?

>sys2428

– Password?

>ggt925

 

Only one digit remained in the password, one decisive digit.

Scott swallowed the bitter bite of adrenaline. He had taken special care to mask his modem call through a series of innocuous 1-800 numbers. But this caller wasn’t acting innocuously, far from it. He was dialing into no-no land.

Once more, Scott closed his eyes and concentrated on the modem. A part of his mind — his consciousness, he supposed — began twining in on itself like copper filaments inside a tapering cable. The twists came sharper, tighter, his world constricting toward a suffocating darkness.

Hold on for a few more seconds.

His head felt like it was being crushed inside a compactor.

A few more seconds to… true… power…

At last he was forced through what felt like a pinpoint. He burst into a chaotic beyond.

Scott could still sense himself sitting at his desk, his fingers resting on the blocks of keys, but his immediate experience, his reality, was that of speed, of supercharged distances. He shot along the telecommunication lines, frames, and mechanical switches, becoming the connection: Gainesville to Jacksonville, then along a major trunk line to Atlanta. Within milliseconds, he was in the St. Louis area, cascading down local loops to the Army Information Systems Command, his latest and — if he succeeded — greatest hack.

The perfect job for Stiletto.

Of all his Dungeons & Dragons characters, Stiletto remained Scott’s guilty favorite. An 18th-level thief, Stiletto had a bad habit of getting into places he wasn’t supposed to get into and accessing things he wasn’t supposed to access. In one campaign, which had nearly come to blows with the other players, he’d hidden away their magical items and then ransomed them back for leadership. Craig and Chun refused to role-play with him for months after, but Scott didn’t see what the big deal was. He hadn’t kept their items, hadn’t pawned them for gold or platinum pieces. No, he’d only wanted to see whether he [could _]do it — and with a pair of killer rolls on a twenty-sided die, he _had.

Just like now. Scott only wanted to see whether he could, whether he could slip past Uncle Sam’s sentry, snoop around a little to prove he’d been there, and then leave for good. The campaign secure under his belt, nothing stolen or damaged, no one the wiser.

And that would be enough.

Scott concentrated, grounding himself in the data current. He imagined himself as Stiletto, crouched before a forbidden gate, peering into an elaborate locking mechanism. Scott owned a real lock-picking kit, something he’d sent away for the year before and then put into practice on every pin- and disc-tumbler system he could get his hands on. He imagined himself drawing the tools from his belt, inserting his favorite pick, listening, feeling…

Far away, Scott’s finger punched a key. He trained his thoughts on the modem, on “beaming out,” and in a shot, his consciousness returned to his body. The screen swam into focus.

And there it was:

 

-Password?

>ggt9251

 

His index finger hovered over the RETURN key, but Scott already knew. He didn’t need to press the key to find out. He was on the brink of breaking inside the information system for the United States Army.

The power!

“Scott?”

He started and banged his knees against the bottom of the desk. “Cripes!” he cried, rubbing his thighs and twisting toward the door. Inside the growing shaft of light loomed his mother’s barrel-sized silhouette. J.R., their toy poodle, stood beside her in a knitted dog sweater, rattling with nervous energy. Scott threw his hand to his brow as his mother flipped on the light switch, his heart still racing.

“Don’t you knock?” he muttered.

“What was that, mister?”

Scott’s throat constricted as he swallowed his words. She stared at him another moment, her eyes like black tacks, then nodded. That’s what I thought, said the nod. She shot her gaze around the room.

“Have you been in here all day?”

“No.” Scott walked his legs further under the desk where she wouldn’t see his pajama bottoms.

“Do you think Lee Iacocca got to where he is by shutting himself in a sty and playing games all day?”

Scott shrugged. He had no idea who Lee Iacocca was.

His mother shuffled sideways into the room, just far enough to hold out the cordless phone. Sweat glistened over her wrinkled nose. She had come from Jazzercise, he saw: powder-blue leotard, pink knitted legwarmers, matching headband. The previous summer, it had been Weight Watchers and The Jane Fonda Workout. The summer before that, Richard Simmons and The Beverly Hills Diet. His mother didn’t embrace the latest health fads, Scott thought, she grappled them into submission.

“Wayne’s on the phone.” Her frown supplied the again. “And your father’s late bringing home dinner, but he’s on his way.” Again.

Scott took the phone. “Could you, um — would you please cut the light on the way out?”

His mother’s chest swelled as though she were going to say something more, maybe insist he clean his room — she’d been on him about it all summer — but she only huffed and turned. J.R. used the opportunity to squirt through the closing door without her seeing. He wasn’t allowed in the bedrooms and stood trembling, watching Scott with liquid eyes. “I won’t tell if you won’t,” Scott said, which set J.R.’s cotton-ball tail into a frenzy of beating.

When Scott lifted the phone to his ear, he felt his exhaustion. “Hey, Wayne.”

“Oh man, you missed a killer one.” Wayne’s first words always exploded from the receiver as if he couldn’t get them out quickly enough. “I dungeon-mastered the entire Dragonlance manual, and Craig and Chun gained a ton of experience points. They’re way beyond any of your characters, Scott-o. And I mean way beyond. Light years. It’s going to take four or five campaigns to even catch them, assuming they’re just sitting around on their asses.” He laughed his annoying, chopped laugh. “I guess you won’t be leading any more parties anytime soon. And you can forget about trying to steal their charmed boots again because—”

“I hacked Army Information.”

A low, buzzing silence grew on the line. Scott imagined Wayne’s fingers pausing over his threadbare mustache, mid-stroke.

“When?”

“This weekend. Just now. It’s why I skipped out on D&D.”

“Yeah, right.”

But Scott could hear the strain in Wayne’s voice, the deflating sense of his superiority.

“I’m looking at it, Wayne-o. Want a print-out?”

“How?”

Scott opened his mouth to answer, then paused.

Scott had met Wayne in the seventh grade while wandering through the gymnasium at the school’s annual science fair. He’d stopped in front of a tri-paneled display crookedly stenciled “Blue Boxing: The Future of Telephony.” Beneath the display sat a jerry-rigged circuit board and beside the circuit board, the smirking owner.

“Can that thing really make free calls anywhere in the world?” Scott asked. He had read about blue boxes in a science and technology magazine.

The smirker stroked the peach fuzz across his pursed upper lip like a prepubescent James Bond villain. “Meet me at the pay phones after school,” he replied, “and you’ll find out.”

Two things happened for Scott that day. He found a kindred spirit in Wayne, and the national phone network — “Ma Bell” before the January breakup — became an obsession, the sweating-in-your-sleep kind. Over the next several months, Scott memorized the network’s hierarchy, from the small local exchanges all the way to the Class 1s in cool-sounding places like White Plains, New York and San Bernardino, California. From phone phreaking, Wayne introduced him to the wonderful world of ARPANet and computer hacking.

Sometime in the eighth grade, Scott’s knowledge surpassed Wayne’s. Wayne, who had anointed himself high priest of the Creekside Middle School brainiacs (or nerd heap, depending on who you talked to), went ballistic, demanding Scott scrap every bit of info he’d ever supplied him. But by then, Scott knew most of the dial-up numbers and logins by heart. Some he had gotten from Wayne, others from party lines and hacker boards. The rest…

Well, the rest he had just started feeling.

“The boards,” Scott heard himself telling Wayne. J.R., fresh from rummaging through the closet, clambered onto Scott’s lap, and he cradled the dog against his bare stomach. “I got the login and password from a board, one of Goblin’s posts.”

“No one’s dumb enough to post that kind of intel, not after the FBI crackdown. So let’s agree that you’re getting it off a message board is total crapola. What does that leave us?” Wayne began humming the Jeopardy theme song. “Oh, wait, wait, I know! You [_felt _]it.”

Scott pressed his lips together and said nothing.

“Oh, just spit it out, half-wit.”

Scott sighed. “We’ve been over this. I enter the network. I listen. I feel. That’s all I can tell you. I don’t know how it happens, I don’t know why it works. It just does. If you can’t accept it, that’s your problem.”

Another long, buzzing silence.

“Share everything.”

“What?”

“That was the promise, the Hacker’s Pact. Share everything.” Wayne’s voice trembled over the line. “I-I’m the one who got you into phreaking. I’m the one who turned you onto ARPANet. And you keep pulling this… this crap! I’m going to ask you one more time. How did you get in?”

“I just told you.”

“Ass-wad.”

The line clicked. Scott set the phone aside to help J.R. squirm out of his stupid dog sweater. Freed from his knitted bondage, J.R. leaped into a pile of clothes and proceeded to dig out a bed.

Scott pushed himself from his desk. When his knees cracked, he realized it was the first time he’d stood since the night before, some twenty hours earlier. He staggered through a scatter of empty RC Cola cans, edged past his clothes-draped dresser, between teetering boxes of comic books (the one thing for which he actually had a semi-coherent system of organization) and found his bed. He stretched to his full length, his heels reaching beyond the end of a mattress he had outgrown, featuring a faded Buck Rogers fitted sheet with Twiki the robot. Overhead, model spaceships swung on threads from the AC vent.

With a gangly leg, Scott pushed aside a couple of Bell South technical manuals, and with the other, a copy of 1984, which he had yet to even crack. Crap. School tomorrow. Which meant the summer’s hacking marathons were over.

He dropped his glasses on his chest and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, making stars explode across his vision. He tried telling himself he’d still have nights and weekends, but the notion only depressed him. The thought of sitting through seven classes, computerless, modemless, in a new school, surrounded by a new class of cretins bent on making his life hell…

But Janis will be there.

Her sunlit face from that morning glimmered in his mind’s eye. Scott laced his fingers behind his stiff hair, reveling and suffering in the image. It seemed impossible that a younger version of the same girl used to speak to him, smirk at his jokes, sock him in the shoulder, hold his hand.

Forgetting his hack and his fight with Wayne, Scott drew his softest pillow around and nuzzled against it. Still holding the image of Janis’s face, he tried to imagine the feel of his fingers running through her hair, holding her cheek. He closed his eyes. Slowly, he began pressing his lips to the pillow.

A hard rap sounded on the door. “Dinner!”

Scott thrashed to a sitting position, terrified his mother had opened the door — relieved to find she had not this time. He waited for her sharp footfalls to retreat down the carpeted hallway before kicking out of his pajama bottoms and pulling on a pair of shorts and a mismatched collared shirt. He went to his computer and stared down on it. Once more, his finger hovered over the RETURN key.

This time, he punched it.

  • ….*

  • ….*

[* WELCOME *]

Sunday, 24-AUG-84 5:13pm-PDT

>

 

The fatigue left Scott’s body at once. He started to laugh. He had done it. Barely fourteen years old, and he was privy to the stuff of Matthew Broderick movies and hacker dreams.

He typed in “HELP” to be sure, watching as all of the possible commands marched down his screen in two columns. And because he was an administrator (so far as the system knew) an extra column scrolled out, listing his root privileges. Scott thumped his sternum with his fist, cringing a little at the force of the blow. But there it was: the power to create or delete accounts, change passwords, destroy files — hell, shut down the entire system if he wanted to.

Instead, Scott reached across to power up his printer. This one would go into the box at the back of his closet along with the others. Proof. Sweet, indisputable proof. But when his elbow knocked over the cordless phone, the consequences of bragging to Wayne about the hack gut-punched the rush right out of him.

Dumb. Really frigging dumb.

Because to lose Wayne as a best friend wasn’t just to lose Wayne. Wayne would turn Craig and Chun against him as well. He had done it before. And how was that for starting high school, which was going to suck as it was? Computerless, modemless, and now friendless.

Scott eyed the phone, hesitated, then hit the speed dial for Wayne. He listened to the tones pulse out and waited for the ring.

But before the phone [_could _]ring, he mashed the phone off. Scott stood frozen. The receiver droned in his hand. The monitor in front of him, with its incriminating command lines, flashed with each hard swish of blood inside his ears. Scott exited Army Information, logged out of ARPANet, and, in a fury of typing, deleted the backdoor account he and Wayne had created at the university.

He turned everything off, even his modem. Especially his modem.

The room went black. Behind his desk, Scott squirmed inside the snake’s nest of cords, yanking every plug from the power strip, already begging his parents’ forgiveness in his mind. His breath came in strangled gasps. He kept hearing — no, feeling — that interval between the final pulses for Wayne’s number and the ring. A matter of milliseconds, probably, but it didn’t matter. It had been milliseconds too long.

When he stood, the room wavered around him. The corner street light came on, illuminating his blinds. When something damp touched his calf, Scott nearly screamed. J.R. nosed him again and then gave a tentative lick. Scott collapsed to his haunches, the life gone from his legs. He rubbed the stiff curls around J.R.’s vanity collar.

“This is bad, buddy,” Scott mumbled. “Really bad.”

Because those milliseconds too long meant one thing to Scott, and one thing only. His phone line, his calls, his hacks — it was all being monitored.

4

“How well do you know Mr. Leonard?” Janis asked.

Her mother’s face appeared over the top of the mustard-colored refrigerator door. Even from across the kitchen table, Janis could see lines forming between her brows. “Mr. Leonard?”

“Yeah,” Janis said. “The neighbor behind us.”

Her mother disappeared inside the refrigerator again. Janis edged her gaze to her father, who had paused mid-chew to listen to the evening news on the TV. Margaret appeared equally absorbed in the anchor, who spoke gravely over their dinner: “NATO is proceeding with plans to deploy six hundred new American missiles in Europe. The comments came following the Soviet Union’s announcement Saturday that it had conducted successful tests of its ground-launched cruise missiles.”

Their father grunted and resumed eating.

“Well, they both seem nice enough,” her mother said, closing the refrigerator door and returning with a fresh bowl of grated orange cheddar. She was wearing tan slacks and a print blouse — modern housewife attire, she called it. “Tend to keep to themselves. Why do you ask?”

Because I think Mr. Leonard has been watching us.

“Just curious,” Janis said, gesturing impatiently for her mother to sit and eat. Everyone else was almost done with their first taco while her mother had yet to even start dressing hers.

“Did he say something to you?”

Janis shook her head and pretended to become interested in the news. Her mother, who made it a habit to stress over everything, remained staring at her, worry lines growing around her pale blue eyes.

Should never have opened my mouth, Janis thought as she crunched into her taco.

The news segment ended, and the ubiquitous commercial for Viper Industries came on: “In these challenging times, the security of the United States and its citizens cannot be underfunded. Call your congressperson and ask them to hasten approval of the V4 missile system, the next generation of—”

Her father muted the television. “What was that about Mr. Leonard?”

Oh, for the love of…

“He was at the beach today,” Margaret answered for her — a not uncommon occurrence, especially when her sister had no idea what was being discussed. “I just hope he covered that chrome dome of his.”

Their father began spooning ground beef into the bottom of his second taco. He was staid-faced, with stiff gray hair receding blade-like above his tanned temples. Their mother was younger, with Dee Wallace blond hair, but paler than their father, more careworn. They had met in college as many couples did — only he had been her political science professor, more than ten years her senior.

“When does soccer start?” he asked.

“Tryouts in four weeks,” she replied, grateful for the change of topic.

“Are you ready?”

“I will be. Gonna put in an hour of garage practice after dinner and a half-hour of dive and rolls in the side yard. Samantha’s coming over this weekend so we can practice up in the Grove.”

“Atta girl.” he said, winking. He had lettered in three sports in college, and though he never said so, Janis could tell he was pleased one of his daughters had inherited his passion for athletics. And that, in turn, pleased Janis.

The news came back on, and her father unmuted the television.

“…on a campaign stop in Ohio, President Reagan answered questions about a proposed summit with the Soviet Union.”

“Our governments have had serious differences,” Reagan said from an outdoor lectern, the wind tossing graying strands of hair from his steep side part. “But I stand by what I have said repeatedly: If their government wants peace, there will be peace.” As he gripped the sides of the lectern, his grandfatherly voice began to shake. “Russians, hear this: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to ensure they will never be used.”

“So far,” the anchor concluded, “the Soviet leadership has expressed no willingness to meet.”

“And they’re not going to,” Janis’s father said. “Secretary Chernenko is as rooted in moldy Soviet-think as his predecessor.”

“Oh, we don’t know that,” her mother whispered, the lines around her eyes seeming to grow taut. She looked from her husband to Janis, trying to smile, then down to her plate.

  • * *

That night, Janis had the dream again, the experience.

But another dream preceded it, and in this one, she was back on the beach blanket, the soccer ball beneath her head. People were everywhere, the beach even more crowded than it had been that day. Margaret’s friends were talking too close, debating about the hottest member of Duran Duran. “Rio” blared from the boom box, but it sounded warped — one moment chipmunk speed, the next slow and nauseating. Janis got up and pushed her way past Margaret’s friends toward the sound of the surf. Underfoot, the sand firmed and dampened, making a sucking sound each time her foot flexed.

Soon, she found herself alone before the ocean. But the ocean looked larger, more daunting, and she squinted to see the faint line of the horizon. Across all of that water was no change, no point of reference, just endless gunmetal gray — like the sky. Janis hugged her shoulders and began to shiver. The season was no longer summer but pale winter.

She turned, seeking warmth, seeking people. Most of all, she sought Margaret. But Margaret was nowhere; the beach stood empty. Miles of sand rose, coarse and untrammeled, into dunes of wild sea grass.

Something flashed and rumbled. Janis spun back around. Far off over the ocean gathered the same black clouds that had threatened earlier, but these clouds were rising into… an hourglass? Yes, a giant hourglass blooming at the top. But no, not blooming, Janis saw in dawning terror.

Mushrooming.

A low line of clouds blasted inland. A blistering wind dashed through her hair. The mushroom grew taller, its cap more corpulent, rivaling the very ocean for size.

“Margaret!” she cried, but it came out a murmur.

The air stung Janis’s nostrils as if something toxic were burning. She fled from the water, knowing only that she needed to get away, needed to escape inland. A fireball smashed into the beach ten feet to her right. Globules of melted sand splashed up. Another fireball landed to her left, and Janis screamed because she knew the next one was going to be the one to strike her. And moments later, as her legs swam against the inexorable pull of the sand, it did.

The sound — a walloping roar inside both ears — jolted Janis awake.

But she was not in her bed.

She stood in her backyard, beside the island of oak trees and azalea bushes where her mother had recently planted a row of caladiums. English ivy crept ink-like from the house, curling into tendrils near her toes. Vibrations coursed the length of her body and thrummed inside her head: WHOOSH-WHOOSH-WHOOSH. It was the same feeling she’d had in similar dreams that summer.

Similar out-of-body experiences.

Keep it together, she told herself. Just keep it together.

The backyard was dark, the household asleep. Janis guessed it was after midnight because no light shone from her father’s study or bathroom. It dawned on her that she would also be inside, sleeping. And yet here she was, out in the yard, shimmering shapes playing across her vision.

When she first began to experience this state, she couldn’t move or see. The shimmering shapes were as chaotic as the energies that ravaged her senses. Am I dead? she had asked herself the first time. Is this hell? Janis had prayed with everything she had that she be delivered from her wraithlike state and be restored to life. She started to panic when she remained paralyzed, but soon the vibrations faded, and cool, familiar sheets had enfolded her legs.

Now, with a little concentration, Janis made herself light. She had learned not to concentrate too hard because doing so would disturb the experience and return her to her body, to her bed. The vibrations came more quickly. Janis giggled as her feet lifted from the grass. Free from gravity — or whatever passed for gravity here — Janis hovered above the lawn and began to drift its length, weaving around one plant island and then another.

Janis loved flying dreams, but she wasn’t dreaming. She knew this because of the plastic egg. She had discovered it in the nest of ferns one night, near the clothesline. A purple egg, faded and spotted with dirt, half buried — one she and Margaret must have missed during a childhood Easter egg hunt.

A week had gone by before Janis remembered the experience with the plastic egg, sparked by a trip to a McDonald’s during one of her softball camps. A couple of her teammates had gone into the play area and waded into the pit of colored balls. Colored plastic balls. That’s all it had taken. For the rest of the camp, whenever Janis could remember, she repeated to herself, “Plastic egg, clothesline, ferns.” Her friends must have thought she was sun stroking, but it worked.

Back home, Janis didn’t even change out of her cleats. She ran through the house and out the back patio door, straight to where the ferns sprang into their wildest clumps near the clothesline. The egg was not in the exact spot, no. And it was yellow instead of purple. But what did that matter? It was there: half-buried, spotted with dirt — like in the experience. She twisted it open and found two quarters (her dad’s substitute for jelly beans). Now and again, she would retrieve the egg from the top drawer of her dresser and give it a little shake, the rattle of coins erasing her daytime doubts.

But she wasn’t doubting now.

Janis neared the tall bushes that formed the boundary between their yard and the neighbor’s and floated to a stop. In all of her experiences, the bushes were as far as she had gone — as far as she could go, it seemed, as though a force field blocked her way. She extended an arm into the dark leaves and felt it being repulsed: a charge rebuffing another like charge. The harder Janis pushed, the harder the field shoved back on her.

All right, she conceded. I’m not going to win this one.

She drifted backward and lifted her face to where oak branches dipped and Spanish moss hung like beards. An urge came over her to perch on one of the branches and watch the night hum and crackle around her. The experiences never lasted very long, and on this final night of her summer break she wanted to savor it, even though the out-of-body state still frightened her a little.

Janis rotated as she rose, streams of energy seeming to trail out beneath her. When her gaze reached above the rear line of bushes, she froze.

The back of the Leonards’ house appeared like a dark, dreadful creature emerging from the earth. But it was not the house that chilled her. It was the shadow of a human figure on the high deck and the point of light that smoldered red. The same light she had seen the night before and in the same place — at the height of the figure’s head.

The light dimmed and fell. She pictured the threads of smoke snaking over the dark sloping yard, fording the cement culvert between their properties, filtering through the leaves. She did not know if she possessed smell in this state, but she imagined the low scent of the cigarette anyway.

When the point of light rose and smoldered again, it glinted against a pair of glasses.

The previous night, the same sight had driven Janis back to her body, back to her bed. But now she remained hovering. He couldn’t see her after all. She was insubstantial, incorporeal. She drew courage from that vocabulary word — incorporeal. Drifting nearer the shrubbery, she peered past the leafy tops. The red spot of light rose and burned again. The lenses they illuminated were perfectly round.

Forward-facing.

And she could feel it too, somehow, the concentration coming from his shadow, the intent. This was not a person on a casual smoke break. Mr. Leonard was watching just as he had likely been watching at the beach that day, the throngs of beach-goers his shield, as the darkness was now.

But why was he watching?

Janis sifted through what little she knew of him. He had lived in the house as long as she had been aware of him. He had a wife, a pale woman with dust-colored hair, who mostly stayed inside. No kids that Janis knew of. Sometimes he substitute taught. She’d seen him in the halls of her middle school as recently as last year, his dress shirt crumpled, his thinning wreath of hair in mild disarray, as if he were always filling in on short notice. He’d even subbed her history class once, his lecture voice thin and quavering. He never quite looked anyone in the eye, either, always down and to one side. So why was he watching now?

Margaret.

Her sister’s name sprang into Janis’s mind. Had he noticed her at school just as the surfers had noticed her on the beach that day? Had he become interested in her? Infatuated? Mr. Leonard had to be at least twenty years older than Margaret, but Janis’s father had warned them about “sickos” during one of his serious talks. Was Mr. Leonard a sicko?

The tip of the cigarette inflamed the lenses again.

Janis started to withdraw, then stopped. Incorporeal, she repeated. I am incorporeal. As if to underline the affirmation, the energies that coursed throughout her intensified. Janis dove down and felt her way along the bushes, palpating with ethereal hands, probing for an opening. It felt crucial that she discover what he was up to, before something happened.

The barrier rebuffed her again and again and—

Her arm plunged through a place in the leaves that appeared just as thick as any other spot but did not feel like-charged. She withdrew her arm and felt the soft pull of a force that seemed reluctant to release her. An opposite charge. Even as Janis leaned away, she found herself reaching forward again, anticipating the fascinating tug on her fingertips.

And if I go through, what then? Will I be able to return?

Or would she become trapped on the outside, barred from her yard, her home, the bedroom where she slept… her own body? Beyond the leaves, the tip of the cigarette smoldered red again. Janis hesitated then let herself be pulled through in a cold and silent whoosh.

5

Spruel household

Monday, August 27, 1984

6:36 a.m.

“What in the world were you doing in the garage last night?”

Scott jolted awake. He found himself at the kitchen table, one hand pushing his jaw askew, his other hand barely clinging to the end of a spoon. The spoon teetered over the rim of a bowl of soggy Golden Grahams. Dribbles of honey-colored milk spotted the plastic place mat.

He blinked up at his mom. “Huh?”

“You heard me, mister.”

She clopped across their all-white kitchen to the freezer, pulled out an oat bran muffin, set it on a plate, clopped to the microwave, and jabbed the panel with her thumb. The microwave roared like a vacuum cleaner.

She leaned against the counter, facing Scott in her orange skirt suit. Arms crossed, she raised her freshly stenciled eyebrows. It was her Don’t Mess with Me look. Scott cleared his throat and tried to sit straighter. His vision swam with sleep or, rather, the severe lack of it — four hours, maybe.

“My computer,” he mumbled.

“What about your computer? And enunciate when you speak.”

“It’s not working.” His cereal dissolved to mush when he stirred it. “Something with the motherboard, I think.”

“Well, no wonder. With you on that thing all the time, it probably overheated.”

“I brought it to the storeroom to fix.”

“What storeroom?”

Yeah, what storeroom, genius? Wasn’t that the whole point of bringing it back there? To hide it?

“In the garage,” he replied, too spent to lie.

His mother gave a sharp laugh. She clopped to the chair at the kitchen table where her white leather briefcase hung and began flicking through the files of houses she’d be showing that day. She yanked a folder halfway out and then slid it, knife-like, back into place.

“I’m surprised you could even get back there. Your father with his… junk piled floor to ceiling. I’ve given him a deadline. Thanksgiving. Everything has to be out of that garage by Thanksgiving, or so help me God, I’ll have it hauled to the fill.” She knifed another folder home. “And don’t think I won’t.”

Scott’s impulse was to defend his father, but he remained silent — as usual. Anyway, what she said was true. For all intents and purposes, his father was a hopeless, and pointless, junk collector. Lampshades, lawn chairs, lawn darts, rolls of linoleum, it didn’t matter. If it was a deal, his father bought it. And then promptly stored it in the garage.

“I can’t even remember the last time I parked in there.” She found the folder she was hunting and flicked through its papers, repeatedly wetting the edge of her thumb. “Imagine that. The luxury of parking a car in the one place for which it was actually intended.”

Scott grunted and slurped his cereal.

He was awake now, but it was a temple-boring wakefulness. After mining a tunnel through the garage last night and carrying his incriminating computer equipment, printouts, floppy disks, and Bell manuals to the rear storeroom, it was after two o’clock in the morning. He wasn’t even able to manage one last check of his bedroom to see if he had missed anything. Fully dressed, he collapsed into sleep, only to dream his door was being kicked in. The FBI always raided in the wee hours, went the rumor. So you couldn’t warn your hacker friends.

The microwave beep-beep-beeped at the same moment his mother patted the files down and snapped her briefcase closed. “All right,” she said, slinging the briefcase over her shoulder. “I put three dollars on the mantelpiece for your lunch. If there’s any change, I want it. Mr. Shine might come this afternoon to weed. Tell him I’ll have his check this weekend.”

She wrapped the steaming muffin in aluminum foil, took a bite from the end, and patted her short, dark hair.

“And wake your father before you leave.”

For the first time that morning, Scott became aware of the choked snores from the living room. After pizza last night, his father had fallen asleep on the couch, trying to watch his three rentals from Video World, action-comedies from the sounds of them. His volcanic laughter had erupted on and off until about a quarter to one, then ended abruptly.

“Yeah, all right,” Scott said to his mother.

But she’d already seized her thermos of Ultra Slim-Fast and was halfway to the front door.

  • * *

The early morning, though dim, felt raw against Scott’s eyes. The front yard was empty, the street still. No swarm of black Crown Victorias parked helter-skelter over his lawn, which Scott had dreamed as well. He staggered down the street, wearing an oversized backpack into which he’d dropped some mechanical pencils, a scientific calculator, two sheaves of paper, a green Trapper Keeper, and his unread copy of 1984. The backpack, one of his father’s finds, had sagged to the backs of Scott’s knees the year before; now it barely touched the hemlines of his shorts. His summer growth spurt had been more vigorous than he realized.

He approached Oakwood’s main intersection — no cars coming — and scuttled across. But he didn’t stand beside the stop sign as the letter sent by the school had instructed. Instead, he studied the Pattersons’ driveway, where a pair of tall bushes flanked the garage door. The nearer bush looked fuller. A moment later, he was crouched behind it, peering through the leaves at the intersection.

He shrugged off his backpack and held up his calculator-wristwatch. 7:02 a.m. He was probably safe unless the FBI decided to come for him at school or bide their time until the weekend, when they would have a better chance of catching him asleep.

That’s how the FBI had nailed hackers all summer long. The thing of it was, the hackers Scott knew from the boards were harmless, not out to bring the system to its knees or start thermonuclear warfare (as if they could). To them, hacking was a challenge. It was learning how systems worked and then becoming master of those systems. It was sports for nerds. Scott had never scored a goal or a touchdown or swatted a home run — and probably never would. But he couldn’t imagine any of those matching the rush of a successful hack.

Or the terror.

Scott watched cars pause at the stop signs, then cruise down the hill toward Sixteenth Avenue, their taillights as red and bleary as his eyes felt. Most of the cars he recognized, many of them just by the hum of their engines, the cut of their tires: Volkswagen Rabbit, Chevy Chevette, turd-brown Toyota Tercel. Most recognizable were those cars that came from the Meadows, the subdivision where Scott lived. Less familiar were the ones puttering up from the Downs or coasting down from the Grove, where the biggest houses were. The Grove also featured a field with a community playground, where Scott used to venture — until Jesse Hoag snapped his arm.

Scott’s hand went to the place above his wrist where the bone had healed into a lump. It still swelled when he slept on it wrong, and it ached a little this morning. But his mind was preoccupied with his phone call to Wayne from the night before, those extra milliseconds between the final pulse and the ring.

How long had the FBI been monitoring him? Who had tipped them off? How much did the feds know? How much did they need to know to put him away?

That Scott was too young for prison offered little consolation. He could still end up in juvie, and juvie would mean the worst abuses he had suffered during his ten years of public schooling added together and squared. He thought about all of the playground fights, the humiliating wedgies, the two times he’d had his head crammed in a bathroom toilet and flushed on.

His ears burned. No, he wouldn’t do well in juvie.

And what about Wayne? With his Napoleonic size and temperament, his D&D-themed insults, where he’d throw his face forward, lips pursed (“You’re not a Night Hag,” he’d once informed Scott during a spat. “You’re a Night Fag.”), Wayne wouldn’t last a day. And if the feds had a tap on the Spruels’ line, they were likely to have one on Wayne’s as well. Scott needed to warn him. The problem was, Wayne would want to know how he knew about the tap, and then they’d be right back to what caused their fall out in the first place.

Ass-wad, he heard Wayne saying.

Scott unzipped the small pocket on his backpack, took out his Thirteenth Street High class schedule, unfolded it, and ran his finger down the first column. Advanced computer programming. Third period.

He would have to figure out some way to warn him then without—

Scott whipped his head around. The thundering belch, still echoing from the Downs, fell into a guttural chop-chop-chop-chop. Scott crammed his schedule into his backpack and crouched low to the bush, checking to see that every part of him was concealed.

A minute later, the black car trundled into view. Not a Crown Victoria but a 1970 Chevy Chevelle — a car whose engine signature Scott had learned well and learned to avoid. The Chevelle idled at the stop sign, the chop of its engine like crude laughter. Scott didn’t need to see through the homemade tint job to know who was behind the wheel. The collapse of the car’s frame toward the driver’s side told him everything: Jesse Hoag, all three hundred pounds of him — the same three hundred pounds that had snapped his arm the summer before.

The Chevelle continued chop-chop-chopping, its wheels compressed to the pavement, not moving. When a minute passed, Scott became certain that he was spotted. He darted his gaze to the left. Could he get over the Pattersons’ wooden fence in time, knock on the sliding glass door hard enough to awaken one or both of them, convince them to let him in?

Jesse was too big to give chase, but Creed Bast would be in the car with him. So would Creed’s younger brother, Tyler. Both of them had tormented Scott at one time or another — and why not? Unlike Wayne, Scott knew the game; he knew the score. He was among the weakest and geekiest. He wore thick glasses and carried an inhaler until just last year. And worst of all, he owned a pair of legs that did everything but what he wanted them to do, especially in times of stress. The qualities had singled him out of the healthy herd long ago. Made him fair prey.

Beyond the bush, the Chevelle ripped another belch and idled. Scott inhaled a lungful of exhaust. Were they toying with him, daring him to step out? Scott tried to swallow the hard lump in his throat, afraid he might start blubbering, like the last time they’d cornered him.

When the passenger-side door swung open, heavy-metal music blasted out into the morning. From a swirling fog of smoke, blue-tinted John Lennon glasses appeared. The rest of Creed’s narrow face followed. He’d grown his hair longer, Scott saw. The dirty blond hair fell from a black bowler hat that sat high on his head. Creed looked around, then said something over his shoulder.

One of his slender black boots landed on the pavement.

Crap.

Scott slid his gaze to the Pattersons’ fence and ran his dried-out tongue over his braces. It was now or never. Once Creed’s second boot hit the pavement, Scott wasn’t going to be able to outrun him, much less get himself up and over the fence. Scott rose to his haunches.

Creed draped his hair behind his ears. Then he snorted and hawked something into the street. His boot and glasses disappeared back into the fog, and the door slammed closed, muffling the music.

Scott sobbed once as he let out his air.

Huge brakes cawed, and a chrome yellow nose drew up behind the Chevelle. Two minutes late, but it was here, thank God. Scott stood from his crouch, ready to make for the school bus whenever the folding door flopped open. But the door wasn’t opening. The bus tooted twice at the obstructing car, waited, then blew one long, exasperated honk.

A meaty hand appeared above the Chevelle on the driver’s side, its middle finger extended.

Scott’s thighs began to burn in his stance. Should he go for it, run down and pat on the glass doors? Could he do it without Jesse and the others seeing him? If they did, they would know his hiding place. They’d know where to look for him. And for a moment, Scott wondered who he feared more: the FBI or Jesse Hoag.

Probably a toss-up.

The kids on the bus began to stand. Some lowered their rectangular windows and craned their heads out. A couple of them cheered the obstructing car. Scott squinted to see inside the car’s windows. If Jesse and the others were looking away from him, he would go for it, slip down, sidle up to the bus, get the driver’s attention…

The bus lurched forward. It heaved around the Chevelle, narrowly missing its rear bumper, blasted another long honk, and rumbled down the main hill. Scott wasn’t sure, but he thought he glimpsed the female driver extending her own middle finger. The bus disappeared from his view.

The driver will not stop for students who give chase, the letter from the school warned.

Not that Scott would have. Above the metal music, he heard raw laughter. The Chevelle gunned blue smoke and slogged out into the intersection after the bus, the frame squealing against the left front tire rim.

When the coast was clear, Scott emerged from behind the bush and stood for a moment in the lingering haze. Then he crossed the intersection and made for home. He hoped his father hadn’t fallen back asleep. He was going to need a ride to his new year of hell.

6

“New developments,” the man said.

“Yes?”

“The boy hacked into a high-security military site yesterday.”

“Hm,” the woman responded. “Are we talking computer skills or something more?”

“Sounds like something more. We’ll continue to monitor.”

“And the girl?”

“Some irregular energies manifested around her house last night.”

“Same pattern as the…”

“Ones throughout the summer?” the man said. “Yes. Only stronger.”

“Your orders, sir?”

“Remain vigilant.”

7

Wendy’s Restaurant

Lunchtime

“How’s it going so far?” Margaret asked, plucking up one of Janis’s fries.

Janis hunched her shoulders to her ears as Feather Heather squealed over something being said at the next table. It was the beach all over again, but instead of bikinis, everyone was in high fashion: Chic, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sassoon, Guess. Janis had agreed to wear jeans, even though it seemed ridiculous (Florida, late August… hello?). But she drew the line at the shoulder-padded number Margaret had tried to push on her, opting for a softball T-shirt instead.

How’s it going? Let’s see… I don’t know anyone in any of my classes. My one opportunity to spend with friends was preempted by your decision that I should eat out with The Seniors. And I’m starting to get that rash-like feeling I get around big crowds. Other than that, it’s going great.

“I started off with four killers.” Janis popped her last bite of burger into her mouth and washed it down with a sip of Coke. “Thought I was going to get a break with P.E., but all the guy could talk about was the F’s he gave out. Oh, and the time he made some big, burly football player cry.”

Margaret smirked. “The legendary Coach Coffer.”

“You don’t have him!” Feather Heather cried, spinning to face Janis.

“God help you,” Tina said, and the girls fell away into laughter.

Janis grimaced.

“He talks tough, but he’s not so bad,” Margaret said. “Just do what he says, and you’ll be fine. There will be plenty of ditzes and doofuses for him to make examples of. It’s not like Thirteenth Street High is in short supply.”

Margaret cut her eyes to a table where three boy-men were competing to put away their three-quarter pound triples in record time. A small, chanting audience had gathered. Jocks, Janis guessed.

The boys’ cheese- and mayonnaise-smeared jaws smacked and churned until, at last, a boy with a blond crew-cut pounded the table with both fists, then opened his mouth to show he was finished. A chorus of cheers rose above feminine protests of “How immature!” and “Grody!” that only made the guys at the table laugh harder. All except for the one who hadn’t participated. His lips were pressed into a grin, but his indigo eyes winced.

“Blake Farrier,” Heather said from beside her.

“Who?”

“The boy you’re, like, staring at.”

Janis’s cheeks started to burn. “I wasn’t staring at anyone.”

“Sure you weren’t.” Heather nudged her with a bony elbow. “But in case you were, I hear he’s as sweet as he is cute. I could totally put a word in—”

Janis spun toward her. “Don’t you dare!”

“Oops,” Heather whispered. “Like, I think you just got his attention.”

Janis lifted her face. Sure enough, Blake was looking right at her. Janis’s immediate instinct was to feel terrified, but his eyes were cool, a little mesmerizing. Now a smile reached them, a soft-dimpled smile that seemed to say, Hey, I’m a little out of place here, too. Janis tried to smile back but dropped her gaze to the scatter of fries across her tray, the spell broken.

Heather nudged her again. “Sure you don’t want me to channel my inner Chuck Woolery and make a love connection?”

“Oh, leave her alone,” Margaret said.

Heather opened her mouth to say something more but then got pulled into whatever the girls at the end of the table were shrieking and giggling over. Janis peeked beyond them, but Blake’s head was turned, the feathered sides of his sandy brown hair hiding his face. Soft ridges of muscles showed through his pink Polo shirt.

“Hey, did you have a nightmare last night?” Margaret asked.

Janis blinked. “Huh?”

“I heard you yell, I don’t know, around one a.m. I almost went to check on you, but you only did it the one time.”

Janis felt her stomach lurch. “I… I did?”

A huge mushroom cloud sprang up in her mind’s eye, like one in that movie on ABC last year, The Morning After, about a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. She watched the cloud swell and blister, sensing its tremendous heat. She began to smell it, even, a smell of death and—

“Oh, before I forget.”

Janis found herself staring at Margaret, who was snapping her fingers.

“Alpha meeting this Friday at lunchtime. Don’t make other plans. Understood?”

It took a moment for her sister’s words to compute. When they did, Janis stifled a groan. Alpha was a service/social organization for girls — scratch that — for popular girls. This would be Margaret’s second year as president.

“Alpha has its share of athletes, and it’s never been a problem,” Margaret said, preempting Janis. “It’s not going to interfere with your soccer or softball or whatever other games you decide to play.”

Sports.”

Janis was also tempted to throw in that cheerleaders, while athletic, maybe, were not athletes — not as far as she was concerned. But she bit her tongue. She felt a little more forgiving toward Margaret today. A little more… protective? In her gut, it seemed like the right word. But it didn’t make sense. Why would Margaret need protection? Something to do with the nightmare? Janis fought to think, but all she could dredge up were fragmented images of cockroaches and rotten sacking. Her mind recoiled from them.

“Understood?” Margaret said. “Friday at lunchtime. Don’t forget.”

  • * *

Students poured from the classrooms on all sides of Scott, like water through just-opened sluice gates. He fidgeted with his watch and adjusted his glasses, but his legs remained rooted. To that point, he had known more or less where to go, first period to second to third to fourth, the crumpled schedule his compass. But now, with the start of lunch, he hadn’t the slightest idea where to aim himself.

“I’ve got shotgun!”

Scott flinched back before realizing the guy with the orange, flipped-up collar was talking about riding in the front seat of someone’s car. A group of girls followed closely, shoes clacking, gum smacking, making loud plans for the Wendy’s salad bar.

Scott let the girls’ raspberry scent pull him into their wake, into the general flow. He tried to make himself just another droplet in the gushing current. Nothing to see here, folks. Then it dawned on him that the current he’d entered was pulling him toward the senior parking lot.

You have no car, Scott. No ride, either.

He stopped and, his head buzzing with sleep deprivation, wheeled to go back the way he had come. He didn’t see the solid guy in the pink Polo shirt until it was too late. The impact knocked Scott sideways and as he danced a circle to stay upright, he felt the guy moving in.

Here we go.

Scott cringed and raised a forearm. But when Pink Shirt grabbed him, it was to help steady him. “Oh, man, I totally didn’t see you,” he said, his brow furrowing above indigo eyes. “You all right?”

Scott fixed his glasses. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

“Cool, man.” He clapped Scott’s shoulder. “Catch you later.” Pink Shirt resumed his athletic trot down the hallway. Scott stared after him, as stunned by the collision as by the fact that the guy hadn’t called him geek or dweeb or just pummeled him outright.

Around Scott, the flow of students tapered to trickles. He craned his neck, hoping to spot Craig or Chun, even Wayne. But whatever plans they had made for lunch hadn’t found Scott’s ears — by design, of course.

Things had gone badly that morning in their computer programming class. When Scott had attempted to sit beside him, Wayne threw his backpack over the seat and refused to look up. And when Scott proceeded to try and warn him about the phone tap, Wayne closed his smudged-in eyes, plugged both ears, and gave him the “la-la-la” treatment. Scott ended up spending the period on the far side of the room, drafting his warning on a piece of paper and then passing it to him. But no dice there, either. Wayne’s mustache curled into a snarl and, with one hand, he crumpled the paper into a wad. Then, on his way out of the classroom, Craig and Chun following like obedient lap dogs, he spiked it into the trashcan.

Now, with the last cries of the lunch rush tailing off, Scott gave up his search for his friends and watched his gray Velcro tennis shoes scuff over the concrete. He followed an outdoor hallway that ran perpendicular to the school’s four wings and led to the auditorium. Above the metal doors, a banner with purple lettering read: WELCOME TINY TITANSCLASS OF ’88!

Scott’s mind crunched the numbers. Four school years. One hundred forty-four weeks. Seven hundred twenty days. Five thousand forty class periods. He dropped his gaze from the banner, swallowing his despair.

Twin pay phones stood off to the right of the doors, and Scott scuffed toward them. Reaching back, he fished his hand into the smaller pocket of his backpack until he found a quarter. He lifted the receiver on the rightmost phone and dropped the quarter into the slot. He dialed a random 376- number, listened until the line began to ring, and hung up. The phone coughed his quarter into the change receptacle. Scott started over, this time with another random 376- number. He did this twice more.

Finally, he dialed his own number, another 376- number. Scott listened and replaced the receiver promptly.

Damn.

All of the numbers he had just called were located on the same exchange. And as he’d expected — and as should have been the case — all of the delays before the start of the ring lasted roughly the same. Except for the delay on his own home number. Just like last night, the difference could have been measured in milliseconds, but it was there, just long enough for him to notice.

Someone was still listening.

You need Wayne.

Scott hesitated before nodding to himself. Wayne had hacked Bell South’s switching control system before. Using a clean line — Craig’s or Chun’s, maybe — Wayne could do it again. He could discover when the order for the tap had been placed and by whom exactly. Only one teensy little problem. The last time Wayne had accused Scott of holding back info, he’d gone a month without speaking to him.

“Must be wanting to talk to someone pretty bad, calling so many times.”

Scott’s hand jerked, and the quarter he had been drawing from the change receptacle spilled to the ground. It wasn’t just the suddenness of the voice, but the sense that the person had been behind him the whole time. Scott peeked around. Hands the color of dusty teakwood drew up a pair of blue pant legs. The man had been pushing a cart with a metal trashcan. Several garbage bags hung like drapes from the mouth of the can while a broom and a long pick for stabbing stray trash leaned against it. The man reached for the quarter, which was rolling in dying circles near his paint-spattered work shoes.

Breathe, Scott. Just a custodian.

With a chuckle like dry wind, the custodian captured the quarter between his thumb and third finger. His upper back remained slightly hunched when he straightened. A flat-topped straw hat shaded his black-weathered face, where a row of teeth shone white and straight. The man held the quarter out, the tails side showing. And now Scott recognized him.

“Mr. Shine?”

Mr. Shine was their yardman — the yardman for several families in Oakwood, in fact. Scott was so used to seeing him in cuffed brown trousers and suspenders that his mind was still trying to reconcile that image with the coveralls. But the rich brown gaze was unmistakable, the gaze of someone from another era, an era of sun-bleached dirt roads and wooden porches. Old Florida. That’s how Mr. Shine struck him.

Mr. Shine smiled as Scott reached for the quarter. “Better hol’ to her tight, or next time I’m liable to keep her.” His eyes squinted when he chuckled. “Course, maybe I already kept her.”

Mr. Shine snapped the fingers holding the quarter — a fast, dry sound — and Scott watched the quarter disappear. Mr. Shine showed his large, calloused palm, then the knotted darkness of the back of his hand, also empty.

“How did you—?”

When Mr. Shine snapped his fingers again, the quarter reappeared right where it had been, except now with the heads-side showing. A laugh of disbelief escaped Scott’s throat. He pressed his glasses to his face and stooped toward the coin, still trying to figure out what Mr. Shine had done.

“Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna make her jump again.”

Mr. Shine handed the quarter to Scott, who took it between his own thumb and third finger. Scott began to execute a slow snap, watching the quarter rise between his first and middle fingers.

“Now you don’t go makin’ her jump.” He nodded past Scott. “You need her lots worse than me, seems.”

Heat scaled Scott’s cheeks. “Oh, I was just, um” — he turned his face toward the pay phones and then back to Mr. Shine — “just trying to call home.”

“You forget the number?” Light twinkled from his eyes.

Before Scott could come up with another half-truth, Mr. Shine leaned into the cart, setting the wheels into wobbling motion. “You have you’self a fine day, sir,” he called over his shoulder.

“Thanks, Mr. Shine. You too.”

“Oh, and ’round here they call me Geech. Ain’t my name, but just so’s you know.”

Scott looked from Mr. Shine’s limping, receding figure down to the quarter. He turned it from heads to tails and back. All the years Mr. Shine had worked in their yard and that marked the first time they had really talked. Scott considered this as he pocketed the quarter and wandered off in search of lunch.

  • * *

Janis reached fifth period typing between the warning bell and final bell, out of breath and with the first stabs of a stomach cramp. Eating off campus was liberating, sure, but she’d never had to sprint to get to her next class at Creekside Middle School.

The desks sat in pairs, and the sight of twenty-odd sets of eyes peering over the enormous Smith Coronas unnerved Janis. She scanned the room for a place to park herself, thankful her hair had darkened a shade over the last years. She still harbored adrenaline-spiked memories of other kids, boys especially, taunting her on the first day of elementary school each year, calling her Strawberry Shortcake. Not that she hadn’t eventually straightened them out with her fists. Her temper had once been as storied as her bright hair.

Now, a pair of sniggers made the nape of her neck bristle. Her gaze darted toward the source, a boy with a pug nose and shades parked on the top of his head of tight, blond curls. But his sniggers weren’t meant for her. He was leaning toward the punk-rock girl seated in front of him, poised to set a wad of gum atop one of her blade-like spikes of black hair.

“Hey!” Janis called.

The guy jerked his arm back. The girl, who had been oblivious, turned from the window, one knee hugged to her chest. Janis looked on her gaunt, pale face painted with black lipstick and funeral-dark eye shadow. It was a face Janis had seen once that day already, though she couldn’t remember where. She approached the empty desk beside her.

“Seat taken?” Janis asked.

The girl shrugged a shoulder. “Knock yourself out.”

Janis thanked her and shot a warning look at Blondie, who had popped the gum back into his mouth and dropped his shades. Janis stowed her books under the desk and glanced around. When the final bell rang, the teacher’s desk remained empty.

Janis cleared her throat. “I’m Janis.”

The girl lifted her dark, hooded gaze. “Star,” she said.

And then Janis remembered. “Right, you’re in my American history class. Second period.”

That would be _]Advanced Placement [_American history, Janis. And here you’d figured her for a burnout.

Star tensed her lips and eyes into something like a smile, then looked away. Janis’s gaze fell to the black Chuck Taylor perched on Star’s chair. Messages and little pictures covered the high top’s graying rubber. Question Everything! the toe commanded. It seemed her typing neighbor was into skulls and ravens as well.

“Used to be called Americanism versus communism,” Star said.

“I’m sorry?”

“Our history class.”

Star dropped her foot from the chair and smoothed her ruffled skirt. Beneath the black skirt, she wore black tights. A green-checked flannel shirt hung from her rail-thin torso. Janis wondered what her own father would do if she ever tried to leave the house like that. And it went beyond the clothes and makeup. Janis, who had been allowed her first piercing only last year, counted eight black studs around Star’s right ear.

“The legislature passed a law back in the sixties forcing the high schools to teach anti-communism. They were afraid we’d reject American consumerism if they didn’t. Isn’t that something? Using the same kind of indoctrinating as the Soviet Union — the [_evil empire — _]to cheer our system and crap all over theirs.” She snorted and began nipping at a black-painted pinky nail.

Janis frowned and tried her best to appear thoughtful.

“They only repealed the law last year,” Star went on. “Said it was outdated, and they’re probably right. We’ve got MTV now. And ‘Where’s the beef?’”

Janis nodded, thankful she’d tossed her Wendy’s cup on her way in from the senior parking lot.

“Do you watch MTV?”

“Um, I’ve watched it,” Janis said, “but I wouldn’t say I watch it.”

“Cable’s first nonstop commercial. The new opiate for the masses. And it’s not just music they’re pushing. Take a look around. It’s clothing, accessories. Telling you what to eat, what to smell like, how to act. How to think.” She snorted again. “Everyone wants their MTV. Can’t get enough of it.”

Janis glanced around at the other desks she might have taken.

“And everyone thought Big Brother was going to be government. Turns out it’s big business.”

“Seems a tad dramatic,” Janis muttered.

Black flames seemed to burst behind Star’s eyes, burning away any lingering impressions of despondency. “Oh, really?” Her gaze searched all over Janis before latching onto her pants. “Guess jeans. What did those cost you? Better yet, why did you buy them?”

Heads turned at Star’s raised voice, and Janis fought to not bring her hair around to her nose, wishing she’d never opened her mouth. She wished, too, she hadn’t let Margaret dress her that morning.

“My older sister,” she answered honestly.

Star’s black-rimmed stare remained large and frightening. Janis tried to think of something better to say but couldn’t. After several seconds, the black flames relented. Star’s makeup grew dark around her eyes again. She gave a tired smile and looked down.

Just as their typing teacher arrived, a short woman with a round, pleasant face, Star mumbled, “Yeah, I had one of those once.”

  • * *

Scott balanced the paper plates of pizza on hand and wrist, and found a seat inside the sprawling root system of an oak tree. The day had warmed to ninety degrees, easy. He scooted back until he was against the tree and beneath its shade. With the breeze, it was almost pleasant. He cracked his grape soda, slurped the foam, and set the can atop a flat knot on the root to his right. Long banners of Spanish moss swayed overhead.

This isn’t so bad.

At Creekside Middle School, lunch had to be taken inside their sour-smelling cafeteria every day, no exceptions. That’s where Scott fell victim to the most humiliating “pranks.”

Ha ha! Look, everyone! The dork’s dropped his tray again!

Scott took a large, cheesy bite of pizza and glanced down at his lap. This shirt was clean, but the stains that had never come off his others told the story: faded squiggles of spaghetti sauce, spots of broccoli juice — the sloppy joe stains were especially gory, making it look like he had given gastric birth to an alien fetus. The steak and gravy only left mud-like impressions. And that’s what he had told his mother on that occasion, that he’d fallen in mud, because he didn’t dare tell her he was being bullied. He’d already learned that lesson.

“Oh, stop crying!” she told him when he’d gone sobbing to her one night, unable to sleep for the dread of another school day. “If you can’t stand up to children, how are you ever going to call yourself a man?”

But Scott never stood up to them, not when it happened. He knew that’s what the cretins were hoping for, could see it in their glinting eyes. No, he waited until he got home and was seated in front of his computer.

Who was that who upended my tray today? Cam Moser? Well whadd’ya know? Cam’s in the student directory. How about we change the class code on that phone number from personal to pay. Got twenty-five cents, Cam? Because that’s what that annoying recording is going to ask you to deposit every time you try to place a call from your Touch-Tone. Let’s see how hard you laugh over that one. Hope it drives you and your family straight to the flipping nut house.

Clickety-clack and voilá!

The pleasure Scott would feel was grandiose and guilty, not unlike when he assumed his Stiletto identity in D&D campaigns. There, like in real life, his powers were predicated on going unseen, on being a slink. He would never tell anyone that he was behind the phone tampering, not even when he would hear the cretins grumbling at lunch and he’d want to stand and declare, “Yes, it was me! Behold the power I wield over your puny lives!”

But now Scott recalled his summer spent at his computer, in the darkness, alone. He gazed on the other students spread over the lawn, their chatter as bright as the day. With high school, Scott had expected the worst: middle school on anabolic steroids. It had never dawned on him that the students here had other concerns besides making his life miserable. He remembered the solid guy in the pink Polo shirt. (“I totally didn’t see you. You all right?”)

Then he thought of Mr. Shine and the quarter he’d vanished, then reappeared — now tails, now heads.

In a snap, another thought came to Scott: maybe he could belong, for a change. He looked around again. Maybe he could be a part of this, a part of them. He felt he was already being accepted by his lunchtime peers for the simple reason that, like with Pink Shirt, they were tolerating his presence. They weren’t singling him out, anyway. Not like in middle school. Scott’s back stretched straight, and for the first time that day, he experienced his full height.

Maybe he could—

The thought fell apart. A black 1970 Chevelle was parked on Titan Terrace ahead of the shimmering food trucks, where the road curved near the tennis courts. Scott hadn’t noticed the car when he was waiting in line, hadn’t been looking for it. But now he held his aching wrist as Jesse’s recollected voice rose over him.

Bring him over here. Let’s see how well he pulls his bullshit phone pranks with one arm.

The Chevelle lurched. Creed, with his narrow face and black bowler hat, leaped from the passenger’s side. Tyler emerged behind him. The car was leaning way off kilter, as if it was trying to kiss the curb. Creed and his brother sauntered around to the driver’s side, where an elbow the size of a pig’s rump propped on the windowsill. Above the elbow, smoke steamed out in a jet. Scott couldn’t hear what they were saying, not from his distance. Jesse heaved his arm up, cigarette smoke trailing from his fist. Creed and Tyler lit their own cigarettes, hands cupped to their mouths. The other students gave them a wide berth.

Scott tightened his grip on his wrist as though willing himself to hold his ground, to not care if they spotted him.

But when Creed’s face turned in his direction, Scott dropped his pizza. He scrambled to rescue it from the sandy ground, but managed only to knock over his grape soda, which promptly fizzed away. He left everything where it fell, found one of his pack straps, and slung it over his shoulder.

His knees jimmied like loose hinges, but he didn’t stop until he reached his fifth period class — honors trigonometry — fifteen minutes before it was scheduled to begin. He took a seat in the rear corner of the empty classroom, the front of his shirt spotted with sweat, his lungs wheezing for air.

8

The start of seventh period found Janis speed walking down A-wing, scanning the room numbers above the doors for her final class. She’d gotten turned around and started her search on C-wing, only realizing her mistake when she showed her schedule to a hall monitor and he pointed her in the right direction.

And English was the one class she’d actually been looking forward to. Well, she’d also been looking forward to P.E. until Coach “Two F’s” murdered any and all hope that the class might actually be fun. So she didn’t get her hopes up now even though she enjoyed reading almost as much as she loved sports. She had actually gotten into 1984, creepy though it was. A world in which the government watched everything, controlled everything, all the way down to the thoughts in your head.

Turns out it’s big business.

She broke into a jog, notebooks braced to her chest. First day or not, she felt the pulse-pounding dread of being the only one wandering the hallways after the final bell. And with that thought, an image of a barren beach came to her mind. The dream last night? Room A-14. She’d have to think about it later.

Janis stepped past the threshold and stopped. She’d expected to find the entire classroom seated and silent, the teacher suspending her lecture for the latecomer. Instead, students stood around the rear of the room, backpacks slung over shoulders, books still in hand. Janis followed their bemused gazes to the chalkboard, where in great big letters a message read DO NOT SIT!

The first two words were underlined twice for emphasis.

Mrs. Fern — the teacher Margaret’s friends had said was weird — was nowhere to be seen. Janis scanned faces, disappointed to find another class without any of her friends. That was the thing about taking almost all advanced placement courses. During registration, the guidance counselors had advised freshmen to take no more than one AP course their first year, two tops. Five was considered loony tunes.

But it wasn’t as if she had a choice. Going all the way back to elementary school, her father made sure she was in the highest level of every subject — Margaret, too. He had the teachers give them extra work when he thought they were finishing their homework too quickly (Janis learned to slow way down); signed them up for intelligence camps each summer; and starting in the sixth grade, he enrolled them in an after-school program at the Center for Foreign Language Study until both could speak German and Russian reasonably well. “They’re diplomatic languages,” he explained whenever Janis would complain about having to go — as though their being diplomatic languages were reason enough. Her father would ignore her grumbles that none of her other friends had to learn even one “diplomatic language,” much less two.

Janis was surprised to spot one of those former friends in the English classroom. Amy Pavoni. She stood near the bookcase in a tight circle with two other girls, flipping her bouffant of hair from side to side. In matching blue prep-school outfits and berets, the three were all but declaring their little clique closed for the day, if not the school year. It was just as well. Janis couldn’t stand them. Beside Amy was Autumn, a long, lean clothing model, and Alicia, an aspiring actress with Phoebe Cates eyes. All three had hair the color of dark chocolate. The “A-Mazings,” they had started calling themselves in middle school. Janis could think of a name far more fitting that also began with an A and a hyphen.

Janis gave a small wave when Amy glanced over, regretting it even as it was happening. Amy’s response was to look her up and down and then decide she wasn’t there. She pressed closer to her group and whispered something. A second later, Alicia and Autumn turned and made similar assessments, Alicia rolling her eyes.

Janis lived one neighborhood over from Amy, and the two of them had been best friends throughout elementary school. They had even held a joint birthday party at the Skating Palace in fourth grade. But in sixth grade, Amy joined the Teen Board at the mall while Janis channeled her after-school energies into softball and soccer. They were still friendly, still stopped and spoke in the halls from time to time — until Amy fell in with the other two. Not long after, Janis found a note in her locker:

Softball is for lesbians.

It wasn’t signed, but it was Amy’s handwriting (never mind that she’d played softball herself once). Amy wouldn’t acknowledge her anymore, not even with a nod of her head.

Janis pressed her lips together. It seemed little had changed.

Beyond the A’s, Janis was dismayed to discover Star again. She was perched on the horizontal bookcase like one of the skeletal ravens depicted on her shoes. She hadn’t spoken another word the rest of typing class — not about her sister, not about anything — but just stared straight ahead with vacant eyes. Maybe she was a couple olives short of a pizza. Whatever the case, Janis decided that sitting beside her in one class was more than charitable.

She sidled away until she had a tall student between them. She was preparing to peek back, to see if Star had seen her, when the tall student spoke.

“H-hi, Janis.”

Janis raised her gaze and then stared a moment, recognizing and not recognizing the bespectacled face and distressed head of brown hair. Her gaze fell to his crumpled blue shirt, then returned to his glasses, which went crooked when he smiled. And now it clicked. He lived up the street from her, though she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him. Last school year, maybe? It was hard to say. He had turned into one of those quiet types who were easy to miss. But whenever it had been, he was much taller now.

“Scott?” she asked to be sure.

He made a choked sound and coughed into his fist, then pushed up his glasses and opened his mouth to try again.

The closet door inside the classroom flew open. Janis spun around with the other students. A woman who looked to be in her sixties sprang into the room, a wave of silver hair following her. Off to Janis’s left, the A’s screamed. The woman skidded to a stop at the teacher’s desk, her skirt of multi-colored patches billowing out, and shot her gaze from the columns of empty desks to the students at the rear of the room. She adjusted her glasses from the sides, magnifying her eyes. Then she stood back and grinned.

“Well, drat! I was sure I’d catch one of you at a desk.”

She turned and wiped the DO NOT SIT! message away with an eraser, then brushed her hands together and wheeled toward the classroom again. Her owl eyes blinked twice before closing. She stood there straight, chin lifted, silent. Behind Janis, a couple of titters arose. Mrs. Fern brought a long finger to her lips. The titters broke off.

“Is there a Mr. Dougherty here?”

A block-shaped boy to Janis’s right peered to each side as he inched forward. “Present,” he said.

“Oh, hush with the present. This isn’t a roll call. Let’s see… Dougherty, a variant of Doherty, probably. Irish. Of course it would have originally been O Dochartaigh or something close.” The globes of her shuttered eyes moved back and forth as if she read all of this from the inside of her eyelids. “Unfortunately, the name means ‘obstructive.’ Are you an obstructive sort, Mr. Dougherty?”

“No, ma’am,” he answered.

“Well, we can’t take any chances. It’s there in your name after all. And quit it with the ma’am. I’ll start looking for my mother, and she’s ten years buried. Chop-chop! To the head of the class with you.”

Dougherty made his way to the desk where she stood, the fingers of one hand balanced on the desktop. When Mrs. Fern stepped away, Dougherty snuck a look back and twirled his finger around his ear.

“Obstructive and disrespectful, I see,” Mrs. Fern remarked.

Dougherty jumped, but so did most of the rest of the classroom. She couldn’t have seen anything. Her magnified eyelids hadn’t parted, not even in the slightest. The back of Dougherty’s neck broke out in red splotches, and he began to stammer, but Mrs. Fern held her palm out for silence. No one laughed this time. Her eyes were reading the inside of her lids again.

“Miss Pavoni?”

“Presen — I mean, here.” Amy stepped primly from her clan.

“Is that an Italian name?”

“Yes, I’m Italian on my father’s side. My grandfather arrived on Ellis Island, New York in 1934 when he was twelve…”

Janis tensed her jaw. To anyone they deemed beneath them — which was almost everyone — Amy and her friends were dismissive and cruel. And still they were awarded Good Citizenship awards by hoodwinking their teachers with the same saccharine-speak that Amy was spooning out now.

“…The immigration service held him there because there was a tuberculosis outbreak and—”

“Do you know the Italian word for peacock?”

Amy scratched her elbow, her cheeks beginning to flush. “Well, I’m not sure exactly, but the Italian word for bird is—”

“It’s pavone, Miss Pavoni — with an e instead of an i. But pronounced almost the same. Pavone. Pavoni. Peacock. It was first used as a nickname for a proud person. Someone who thought too much of herself. Now, I’m willing to bet that the quality has winnowed over the generations since being ascribed to your family, if not disappeared altogether. But a bet is never a sure thing. How about this desk here, far from the windows where your reflection in the glass could pose a distraction.”

When Janis snort-laughed into her hand, she thought she saw the corner of Mrs. Fern’s lips turn up slightly. Amy glared at Janis and stomped to her seat, the façade gone. She glanced over her shoulder at her friends, sensing perhaps that she was not going to be sitting with them.

Amy would have been right. For the next thirty minutes, Mrs. Fern divined qualities from the origins of the students’ names and seated them accordingly. Alicia went to the back of the classroom (Joiner was an occupational surname for a carpenter, and Mrs. Fern wanted a good vantage for Alicia to monitor the state of the wooden desks). And Autumn was given a window seat (because Warren was Germanic for “guard,” and Autumn was to cry out at the first approach of anyone suspicious or untoward). Both of them had huffed and rolled their eyes and later tried to exchange a note before Mrs. Fern — still with her eyes sealed — plucked the message away, disappearing it into an unseen pocket in her skirt.

It was the most unusual seating system Janis had ever witnessed — and also the most entertaining. Finally, she was one of only two students left standing.

“Graystone,” Mrs. Fern said.

“Yes?”

“Nothing too revelatory about that name. Nothing too much to glean. English in origin. Self-explanatory, really. And yet I sense there’s something more to you.” She stood silently for a moment. “And your first name, Miss Graystone, is…?”

“Janis.”

The twin globes of Mrs. Fern’s eyes seemed to swell beneath her lids. “Ah, yes. Now we have something to work with. Janis, a derivative of Jane, perhaps, but also a variation of Janus, who was a Roman god. A god of two faces.”

At this, Amy sniggered from her desk.

“But not two-faced in the sense of duplicity, oh no,” Mrs. Fern continued. “Janus is a powerful god, a diviner. A god of doorways. Think of Janu-ary. One face looking to the past. The other peering ahead, to the future. But we speak not just of doorways in the sense of time. No, there is also the doorway between here and there.”

Mrs. Fern’s head bobbed slowly. Janis had been anticipating having her name explained, but now she became uncomfortably warm. She curled her toes inside her white Keds, alternating feet.

“The doorway between this world and another. Yes, another. One not quite seen, perhaps?” When her eyes opened, it felt to Janis as if they were poised to swallow her. “Isn’t that right, Miss Graystone?”

But Janis couldn’t make a sound because she remembered why she had felt protective toward Margaret at lunch. She remembered what had happened the night before. The dream, the experience…

In a torrent of horrifying images, she remembered it all.

“This desk in the very middle of the classroom will suit a Janis quite perfectly, I would think.”

But Janis did not go to the desk Mrs. Fern was opening her arm toward. She turned from the classroom and fled.

9

Mr. Shine stood before Scott, chuckling and holding out a quarter. “Ain’t much magic to making her jump. Jus’ a little diligence. A little patience.” His brown eyes flashed sky blue as he snapped his fingers. The quarter changed from tails to heads. “Go on and try for you’self.”

Scott accepted the quarter from Mr. Shine, whose eyes had settled to brown again, and snapped it between his own fingers.

The quarter disappeared.

“Not bad, young blood. Not bad at all,” Mr. Shine said. “Course, it ain’t gonna happen overnight, but look at you!”

When Scott looked down, he was wearing a full-body uniform, dark blue except for what appeared to be a pair of Speedos and boots, both yellow. Above a broad red belt, abdominal muscles showed beneath the uniform’s fabric in interlocking columns. He was no longer Scott Spruel, he realized, but his favorite comic book character: Scott Summers of the X-Men.

Smiling, Scott began to feel for his cyclopean visor.

Brakes cawed, and Scott jerked awake to find the school bus approaching his stop. After disembarking, he stood a moment squinting into the heat, watching the bus rumble away. He turned to the bush beside the Pattersons’ garage door, the one he’d hidden behind that morning. Maybe it was because of the dream, or because he’d made it through his first day of high school intact, but in the light of midafternoon, everything appeared more promising.

Scott crossed the street, then ran the rest of the block home, rejuvenated, his arms and legs fueled by hope. One of Scott’s hopes was that if the FBI hadn’t come down on his head, it was because they didn’t have enough evidence or didn’t consider his crimes criminal enough. There were still no Crown Victorias in his yard, anyway. Scott let himself in the front door using the key kept on the string around his neck. He dropped his backpack in the hallway and, without breaking stride, headed toward his room, J.R. yipping circles around his feet.

The solution, Scott told himself, was to leave his equipment in the storage room in the garage and give his extracurricular activities a rest for a while, take a hacking hiatus — a long one if need be.

But standing inside his doorway, Scott could see that was going to be easier said than done. His brain still harbored a compulsion to beeline to his computer desk, flip on his equipment, and launch into his latest hack, the behavioral groove well established and deep. Scott leaned his arms on the back of his office chair and stared down at his naked desk. There would be no more navigating the networks, no head-splitting challenges, no fist-pumping victories. He was out of “The Game,” as some hackers called it. At least until he was no longer a person of interest.

You need Wayne.

Scott picked up the cordless phone and punched his number. The exchange and suffix pulsed out — a pause a few milliseconds too long — then a ring. With one hand, Scott ushered J.R. from the room, letting him keep the stick of pizza crust he’d foraged from beneath the bed, and closed the door. On the eighth ring, Scott hung up. Either Wayne had divined it was him, or he wasn’t home yet.

Scott scrubbed a hand over his face and drew up his blinds. Light flooded the bedroom, causing him to frown in thought. Something seemed out of place, and it wasn’t that the walls were bare from his having yanked down the hand-drawn Bell schematics the night before.

Then it hit him.

The room belonged to somebody barely out of elementary school, a child. So much of his attention the last three years had focused on Ma Bell, ARPANet, D&D, and comic books that he had neglected the fact that he was growing up. Today, he’d been the tallest in almost all of his classes. (His P.E. teacher had even asked if he would be trying out for ninth grade basketball — now that was a laugh.) But nothing in his room reflected that growth. And after the revelation at lunchtime that he was among a more mature, more accepting breed of student, he didn’t want to remain in his childhood any longer. He didn’t want to hide in his bedroom behind his computer. He wanted to belong.

Especially after his encounter with Janis.

Scott?

He drew a Glad Bag from the box his mother had given him, whipped the bag open, and pushed a scatter of RC Cola cans into its mouth. At the start of the day, he had imagined himself dropping into bed upon returning home and zonking out until eight or nine o’clock that night. But now that he was home, he found himself incapable of sitting still, much less nodding off. Because with the memory of Janis still swimming through his thoughts, he believed he could do this now, that he could remake himself. That he could belong.

Now tails, now heads.

Scott?

Yes, he had seen her. Better, she’d come and stood beside him before the start of seventh-period English. The flaming cascade of hair that, for so long, he could only watch from a distance, had been right there, at his shoulder. In that first moment, the classroom revolving around him, he’d had to summon almost all of his nerve to compose himself and then the rest to get her name past his stuttering lips. But he had gotten it out. He’d spoken to her, and that seemed a victory in itself — one more monumental than all of the printouts in his hidden box of hacks.

And she’d spoken his name, too.

Scott?

That one word, the texture of it, the breath behind it, were now the most precious things in the world to him. He’d been preparing to ask her how her day was going. It would’ve been a start, something to build on. Hard to screw up. But his throat succumbed to what felt like a seismic tremor, and the words became Larry, Moe, and Curly jammed inside a doorway. Then the teacher jumped out of the closet.

As students spun, Scott’s eyes remained fixed on Janis, the swirl of her hair, the excited shine of her eyes. When the teacher started in with her seating system, he had to bite back a grin. It was no alphabetical system, which would have doomed the names Graystone and Spruel to distant rows. No, it was something different. Something unique. Scott didn’t understand it entirely, but he stood a chance of sitting next to her — or close to her, anyway.

“Spruel,” Mrs. Fern said. “A derivative of Spurling, most likely. And not nearly as lowly as it sounds. The name means ‘little sparrow.’” And she proceeded to seat him as far as possible from another student whose name meant “great cat.” That received a healthy tide of laughter from the class and a pretty smile from Janis — teeth and all. Scott returned the smile. It was crooked and brace-faced, he knew, but he didn’t care. Having her smile at him was right up there with hearing her speak his name. He would not be forgetting either for a long time.

But then something had happened.

Scott stopped pushing trash into the bag long enough to stand and gaze outside. The cul-de-sac in front of the Graystones’ house stood empty. The Prelude was still gone. He bounced the Glad Bag against his knee.

When the teacher had gotten to Janis, she talked about a Roman god and doorways — Scott remembered that. And then he watched Janis’s face change, going from open and bright one moment to tense and pale the next. It was as if she had aged — not outwardly but inwardly, as if she’d acquired all of the cares and concerns of an adult in a matter of seconds.

She ran from the classroom.

Whispers rose. Necks craned. Scott imagined himself going after her, seeing if she was all right. It’s what Scott Summers of the X-Men would have done. He would have pursued his red-haired love, his Jean Grey. But Scott Spruel was no Cyclops, he found out. That would have required something he didn’t have. Gallantry? Courage? A working spine?

He just sat there and craned his neck like the others.

Mrs. Fern appeared unperturbed. “Now, now, settle down,” she said, closing her eyes again. “Our goddess of doorways just needs a little fresh air. A moment to reorient. She’ll return shortly.”

Janis came back maybe ten minutes later. By then, the final student had been seated and the course syllabus distributed. Janis smiled tightly and said something about becoming lightheaded but that it had passed. She still looked pale to Scott, especially around her eyes. And when she took her seat (two rows from him, damn it all), her hair looked as though it had lost some of its luster as well. Amy, a student from their middle school, muttered something — “Faker,” Scott thought he heard. When he turned, she leveled a hard stare at him. The stare reminded him so much of his mother’s that he lowered his eyes and turned back around.

After class, Scott had been determined to ask Janis if she was okay. He followed her the entire length of A-wing before losing his nerve and veering off toward the bus circle. Tomorrow.

And that was the amazing thing, he thought. He had tomorrow, the next day — every day for the rest of the school year. He didn’t have a seat beside her, no, but he shared a class with her (one he wasn’t even supposed to have been in; he’d signed up for honors, not AP, English). A class with the same peculiar teacher, the same reading list — things to talk about. For the first time since they were kids, he would no longer have to resign himself to gazing helplessly on her from his bedroom window, a span which always felt farther than its actual distance.

Scott sighed and dropped the Glad Bag by the window. He pulled a comic book from one of the boxes beside his bookshelf and retired with it onto his bed, his pillows piled three deep under his head.

His favorite comic book artist was John Byrne, and Scott’s acquisitions for the last three years followed his career through Marvel Comics: old issues of The Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Fist, The Amazing Spiderman. Byrne was currently illustrating the Fantastic Four, since issue #232, so that collection was ongoing. And last year, he had started this cool new series about a Canadian superhero team called Alpha Flight.

But Scott’s favorite John Byrne series by far — by light years — was The X-Men, issues #108 to #143. Those issues had everything, cool characters, awesome powers, riveting storylines, and all of them illustrated and co-plotted by John Byrne. The issues Scott liked the most, the ones he had absolutely fallen into (and whose condition he’d knocked down a peg or two through his constant handling) were the ones with Scott Summers and Jean Grey, also known as Cyclops and Phoenix. Scott would start the series at #108, read until Cyclops and Phoenix each presumed the other dead in issue #113, then skip to where they were reunited on Muir Island in issue #126.

He would read and reread the panels when it was just the two of them speaking intimately — before the mess with The Hellfire Club, before the power of the Dark Phoenix corrupted Jean. And maybe it was his knowing that their time together was short, that they only had those few precious panels, that made the panels seem to Scott sadder and more special than anything in his real life.

He opened issue #132 to one of those pages.

Byrne had stopped drawing The X-Men more than three years ago, so Scott had to track down old issues. Some he’d acquired at The Time Machine, others at comic book conventions. At the convention in Gainesville the year before, he’d had the good luck of scoring the two issues where the X-Men visited the Savage Lands. Still others he had bought at school.

Now he owned the entire series, save one: issue #137, the issue where the X-Men fight to save Jean’s life. And without it, he didn’t feel quite complete. It was less that there was a break in the collection and more that it left a hole in the complexity of feelings he had taken from the series and projected onto Janis and himself.

He squinted his glasses up and drew issue #132 closer to his face. He was at the page where Jean Grey interrupts Scott’s meeting with Angel. They’re on the top of a stone mesa in New Mexico. Angel leaves, and now it’s just Scott Summers and Jean. She spreads out a picnic blanket. They speak. They kiss. Four issues later, Scott proposes to her.

Jean Grey-Summers.

Scott rested the comic book on his chest and closed his eyes.

Janis Graystone-Spruel.

Someday, maybe. If he could transform himself. If he could leave Stiletto for Scott Summers. If he could become that person who would pursue Janis down a hallway and ask if she were all right.

Now tails, now heads.

Just maybe.

And that was the final, hopeful thought he carried headlong into sleep, a sleep so sudden and profound that he didn’t stir at the sound of Jesse Hoag’s Chevelle creeping past his house only minutes later.

10

“You know, it sort of defeats the purpose when you drown your yogurt in chocolate syrup and Gummi Bears.” Margaret aimed her plastic spoon toward Janis’s cup before dipping it back into her own — plain vanilla, no toppings. “We might as well have gone out for ice cream.”

Janis watched her sister’s lips ply a layer of frozen yogurt from her spoon. Maybe it was this gesture, or maybe it was the angle of Margaret’s head, the small hunch of her shoulders, that made her seem young to Janis. Vulnerable, even.

“I have to tell you something,” Janis said.

“Oh, right.” Margaret sat up, appearing to remember why they had come to TCBY. She’d blabbed the whole car ride over. “What’s up?”

“It’s…” Janis took a deep breath, wondering where to begin. “Do you remember how you said you saw Mr. Leonard’s car at the beach yesterday? And then we saw him behind us on the way home?”

Margaret nodded, eyebrows raised in question.

“I think he was following us.”

Margaret laughed and brought the spoon back to her lips.

“I’m serious, Margaret.”

“On what basis?”

Janis couldn’t tell her about the experience last night. Just like at the beach yesterday, Margaret wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t believe her. And who could blame her? The whole thing sounded insane, but Janis still needed to warn her.

“I woke up last night from a bad dream. A dream where Tiger was hit by a car,” Janis lied. “It was just a dream, I know, but I went out to look for her anyway.”

Tiger was their gray tabby cat. When Margaret was ten, she had spotted her in the petting area of Fish and Critters at the mall and begged her father that she be able to take the kitten home. He relented on the condition that Margaret care for her and that Tiger remain an outdoor cat. The first chore had eventually fallen to their mother, but on the second point, their father remained resolute.

“What time?” Margaret asked, narrowing her eyes.

“I don’t know — twelve thirty, one? Anyway, when I got to the backyard, I could see Mr. Leonard out on his deck smoking a cigarette.”

“So?”

“He was staring at our house, Margaret. Over the tops of the bushes. I could see his glasses.”

“He probably heard you walking around.”

“I don’t think so.” I was incorporeal.

“Janis, his deck faces our backyard. So he comes out and smokes at night. His wife probably doesn’t want him doing it in bed, which is smart. Lots of house fires start that way. You remember David Cassidy of The Partridge Family? ‘Daydreamer’? That’s how his father died.” Margaret’s spoon scraped the bottom of her Styrofoam cup. “What is it with you and this obsession with being watched anyway?”

“It’s not an obsession. It’s a feeling. A…” Janis searched for a stronger word. “A strong feeling.”

Margaret shook her head.

“Just promise me you’ll be careful.”

“So what you’re saying is that Mr. Leonard — our Mr. Leonard — is dangerous all of a sudden? Why now? He’s lived there since before we moved in. Plus, he’s around students all the time, and he hasn’t done anything to any of them.”

Not that we know of.

Janis rescued a drowning Gummi Bear from her melting yogurt and then ate it. She didn’t have a good answer for Margaret. She only knew what she couldn’t tell her, what she had seen the night before, what she had discovered when she’d gone through the bushes into his backyard.

“Seriously, Janis. Where is this coming from?”

When Janis looked up, her older sister had finished and set her cup aside. Margaret sat regarding her, hands folded on the table, no longer young, no longer vulnerable. And those eyes…

“Just promise me,” Janis repeated, straining to recall what they were even talking about. “That’s all I’m asking.”

Margaret sighed and lowered her gaze to Janis’s half finished cup. “All right, I promise I won’t let the big, bad Mr. Leonard get me. Now hurry it up. I have to stop by the store for some poster board before it closes.”

In the parking lot, Margaret spoke over the car’s roof as she fished for her keys. “Was Tiger okay?”

“Tiger?” Janis had to think for a moment. “Oh, yeah. She’s fine.”

  • * *

Janis stood in her bedroom in a long cotton T-shirt. Next door, she could hear Margaret settling into bed. Her father was the only one still up. Janis pictured him in the study down the hallway, his reading glasses perched near the end of his nose.

Janis had finished what little homework she’d been assigned and already spoken to Samantha on the phone, each recapping her first day of school and making plans to meet for lunch. She had tied up the ends of her day — her normal life, as she’d come to think of it — and now stood contemplating this alternate life that claimed her when she fell to sleep each night.

There is also the doorway between here and there.

And that’s what it felt like to Janis. That she was looking down, not at a bed with soft printed sheets and a light summer comforter, but at the doorway Mrs. Fern had spoken of.

The doorway between this world and another.

And looking down at it, Janis felt small and afraid. To draw back the covers and step inside was to go to a place she wasn’t sure she wanted to go to anymore. And could she even trust what she saw and experienced there?

Janis stepped around her bed to her dresser. Trophies lined its top — gold-painted statuettes of girls dribbling soccer balls, wielding bats, and fielding deep flies on marble pedestals. She parted the medals that hung like necklaces around the tallest trophies and pulled open her top-right drawer. From behind a container holding a medley of loose change, team patches, some old Charlie’s Angels trading cards, and movie-ticket stubs, she drew out the plastic Easter egg. Two quarters shifted inside.

She carried it to her desk, where her books and folders with her finished homework sat in a neat pile. Upon setting it down, she gave the egg a spin. Janis watched it rotate drunkenly, her chin on the back of her hands.

Yellow instead of purple.

Not the same color, no. Not in the exact same spot. But it had been there, her guarantor that the experiences were real.

Or were they?

Of all the Easter egg hunts they had done over the years, weren’t the chances good that at least one or two eggs had gone undiscovered? It wasn’t like her parents took an annual inventory. And where would the eggs be most likely to turn up? In the places hardest to see, of course. In areas of dense growth.

Inside the ferns.

Maybe somewhere in her subconscious mind, she’d already reasoned that out. And maybe that’s all these nocturnal experiences were: voyages into her subconscious mind. Vivid, perhaps, but not happening out there at all. Instead, it was taking place inside her head.

Janis gave the egg another spin.

  • * *

Whoosh.

The force that pulled her through the bushes last night had stretched her, made her feel long and charged. The vibrations tightened, rattling like charged ball bearings inside her head, down her body. She feared for a moment that the energy was going to force her apart, cast her into pieces. Even her mind, in her panic, felt like it was about to be blown like shot pellets.

Then, in a gasp, she was through.

She found herself hovering over the cement culvert that ran from the large cylindrical opening beneath Twenty-first Avenue down to the woods where the cement fell to rubble and sand and joined the creek.

Janis raised her face to the Leonards’ house, which seemed very close, looming above her. A chain-link fence separated her from the steep, unkempt yard. On the deck stood a slender shadow. The cigarette that had earlier illuminated his glasses was gone. Had he sensed something and ground it out? Could he sense her?

She sank to the slanted wall of the culvert and watched through the tall grass along the fence.

She felt his vigilance as he stood there. Yes, an energy surrounded him, raw, and perhaps a little conflicted. Was this his desire for her sister, for Margaret? The thought made Janis’s insides crawl.

She drifted down the culvert to the lower boundary of his property, continuing to monitor him to make sure his gaze wasn’t following her. Then she went for it. The chain-link pattern of the fence offered brief resistance, and she was through. She was in his yard. Above her, Mr. Leonard yawned, his head tilting back. She crouched deeper into the grass. It seemed impossible that he couldn’t hear the energy that whooshed and crackled around her.

A flare made Janis jump. On the deck, Mr. Leonard’s brow shone pumpkin orange. Then he shook out the match, and only the ember and its reflection against his lenses remained.

Off to Janis’s right, a woodshed leaned with the slope of the lawn. A stack of rotten logs huddled against its far side where a shingled roof jutted out. Janis waited for the cigarette to float to Mr. Leonard’s face again, waited for the small ember to swell on his inhalation… She shot behind the shed and hovered, one hand resting against the shed’s back side.

When she peered around, she found Mr. Leonard in the same place but in profile. A cold tremor ran through her. What in the world was she doing here? What was she hoping to discover? That he was monitoring their house was clear. That he’d followed Margaret to the beach that day was also clear.

But is he dangerous?

Yes, that’s what she needed to know — whether he was dangerous, whether he was capable of hurting Margaret, whether he’d hurt someone before. Someone young and vulnerable. Another student, maybe.

The side of the shed facing the house consisted of a double door held closed by a locked bolt. A bolt? Surely he would keep his expensive tools in the garage, like her father did, not out in some decrepit woodshed. She concentrated in the same manner as when she wanted to float and pressed herself against the plywood siding. She encountered a layer of resistance, like the skin around a soap bubble, before popping inside the black confines of the shed.

When she concentrated again, the woodshed illuminated for her in little flickers, like a failing bulb determined to hold on. Shelves lined opposite ends of the shed. A heap of kindling rose from the floor, over what looked like some old sacking. Cockroaches glistened chocolate-brown among the sticks and twigs. Janis recoiled. She could handle snakes, spiders, and other creepy crawlies, no problem — she’d even kept some in jars as a kid — but she detested cockroaches.

She gazed along the shelves, whose contents looked unremarkable: a bow saw with rusted teeth, lengths of frayed rope, a pair of stiff, weathered work gloves — the sorts of things one would expect to find in an old woodshed. Which made the bolt seem even more out of place.

She pushed out her light along the sides and ceiling of the shed. Solid lengths of timber reinforced the inside, their color still blond. Thick silver bolts secured them. From the outside, the shed looked like it would topple from the breeze of someone walking past, but peering around, Janis wondered whether it wouldn’t stand up to the fury of a category four. Between two pieces of sacking that didn’t quite overlap, or had perhaps moved the last time Mr. Leonard stepped inside, Janis could make out a concrete floor.

She reached toward it with her hands. She couldn’t pick up anything in this state, she’d discovered, but she did possess a penetrating sense of touch. It was how she’d found the plastic egg in the ferns.

Her hands encountered a solid slab.

Janis plied deeper into the cement. The slab went down inches, then feet. It was not meant as a foundation for the shed, she realized, but as a ceiling for whatever lay below. She withdrew her hands and hovered in thought. She’d learned about fallout shelters in school, how some families built them or had them installed in the early years of the Cold War, before it became generally known that an all-out nuclear war would reduce them to ashtrays. Janis had never seen one. She just assumed they weren’t around anymore, not in 1984, or if they were, that they had been converted into things like storage basements, wine cellars…

(torture chambers).

If it was a shelter, there would need to be an entrance, and she hadn’t felt one. Unless…

When Janis moved nearer the kindling pile, roaches skittered into the darkest eaves and burrowed beneath the sacking. Could they see her? She glanced toward the door. No gaps around the frame, no space where the double door met in the middle, where whatever light she might be casting would flicker out.

Calm down, Janis. You’re safe. Incorporeal, remember?

Squinting, she reached through the sticks and rotten sacking. Cockroaches scurried around her hands. She was about to draw her hands back when they encountered something metallic in the cement. She felt along its edges. It was smooth and shaped like a manhole cover.

A lid.

The realization that there was a hidden room underground fell over her like ice water. In her mind’s eye, she saw her bedroom and for a moment she wished herself back there, back to the life of a teenager on the eve of starting high school.

Back to normalcy.

Instead, she began to press herself through the kindling and against the metal lid. She had come this far. But like when she’d tried to pass through the bushes bordering her lawn, her progress was barred. The obstruction felt different, though — not like charge repelling like charge but an electrical barrier, fiery and unyielding. She redoubled her concentration.

The field gave a little.

The wooden door to the shed began to rattle. She hadn’t heard his footsteps patter down the steps of the deck or cut through the grass, but she could hear the scraping sound of a key inside the lock.

She fell against the back wall of the shed, her mental commands colliding into one another: Pass though the wall, Janis! Pass through the wall! C’mon, Janis! Concentrate, damn it!

But the skin of the shed’s wall held this time. There was no pop…

Other than the bolt’s release.

A red terror blotted over Janis’s senses like a swarm of cockroaches, flapping their oily wings, spilling down her back, cocooning her arms and legs. It was like those first out-of-body experiences when she couldn’t move. Now the same horrible thoughts assailed her:

What if I can’t return? What if I’m trapped on the other side of that barrier, trapped inside this shed?

The door swung open, and Mr. Leonard’s face loomed from the night like an executioner’s.

WHOOOOSH.

Janis jerked upright in her bed, heart thundering, cotton T-shirt warm and soaked through. But it wasn’t sweat she felt. It was urine. For the first time since she was five years old, Janis had wet herself.

  • * *

Janis grimaced as she gazed at the rotating plastic egg. She remembered the fear and shame of stripping her shirt and sheets the night before, tiptoeing the length of the house to the laundry room, starting the Kenmore, taking a quick, furtive shower, spreading a dry cover across her bed, lying there without sleeping, later moving her sheets to the dryer then back to her bedroom, and at last drifting off, where the memory of the experience receded from her conscious mind like a wretched creature down a slippery hole, deep beneath the ground.

It was the vision of Mr. Leonard’s looming face that had returned to her that afternoon in English, ripped through her amnesia, sent her fleeing from the classroom…

But that was done. The creature was out of the hole.

Now, as Janis chewed the inside of her cheek, two competing questions chewed at her mind: What was beneath Mr. Leonard’s wood shed? And had the experience even happened to begin with?

Janis glanced at her clock radio and sighed. She should have been in bed an hour ago. When she gathered the egg, the back of her hand ached from supporting her chin. She carried the egg to the dresser and returned it to the top drawer.

Yellow instead of purple.

She closed the drawer tight. The experience hadn’t happened, she decided, not out there, anyway. Just like with the egg, it had been a product of her subconscious mind, manifesting the very things she’d expected to see and find, scaring herself half to death in the process. The next time she found herself in the backyard, she would will herself back to bed. She would never put herself through another experience like that again.

With that, Janis climbed beneath her covers and turned out the lamp at her bedside. But she didn’t fall asleep, not right away. A niggling thought came to her as she massaged her hand. She had spun the plastic egg several times in the half hour she’d spent recounting the experience. But how many times had she actually moved her hands from beneath her chin to do so? Every time? Every single time?

Enough, Janis.

She turned over and closed her eyes again, and this time she did find sleep.

11

Thirteenth Street High

Friday, August 31, 1984

Lunchtime

“You can do this,” Scott said into the rust-speckled mirror. Outside the metal door, he could hear the final calls of students headed to lunch. The bathroom stalls and cracked latrines at his back stood vacant. “It’s just an informational meeting. One informational meeting. You go in, you listen, you size it up. If it feels wrong, you’re done. You don’t have to go back.”

But it will be a risk, a voice whispered. Being seen will be a risk.

Scott considered that as he looked back at his pallid face. No one had messed with him all week, or even given him a second look. And now he was threatening that invisibility, threatening to stand out. Informational meeting or not, he might as well be wearing a sandwich board that announced: I want to be like you guys! And on the back side:[_ Please accept me!_]

Scott knew something about healthy herds. They didn’t take well to misfits worming into their ranks. As he worked to flatten a few stubborn sprays of hair, he reminded himself of the progress he had made that week…

After crashing following that first day of school (and sleeping straight through the night), he had rebounded Tuesday afternoon and cleaned the rest of his room. Gone were the relics of his childhood: the Buck Rogers sheets, the plastic models, a View-Master whose lever had jammed years before, a Merlin Phone (“Play it six different ways!”), his old Atari 2600, joysticks, and trays of game cartridges, eight binders of Scratch ’n’ Sniff Stickers, stacks of [Encyclopedia Brown, Choose Your Own Adventure, _]and _Mad Libs, as well as a medley of dog-eared magazines he’d stopped reading when he was eleven: 3-2-1 Contact! and Cracked among them. He filled four Glad Bags and dragged them to the garage.

Immediately, his room felt twice as spacious. It smelled better, too. He proceeded to vacuum and dust in places that no instrument of cleaning had touched in years. But that had been the easy part.

What about his Star Wars figures, his D&D manuals and modules, not to mention his comic books? He made a deal with himself. He would box them all and place them in his closet, out of sight. If by Christmas, he hadn’t gotten them back out, he would sell them to the last. All except for his John Byrne collection — he could still read those.

On Wednesday he had tackled his clothing. All of the stained middle school–era shirts and shorts were goners, along with most of the rest of his clothes. He’d been amused to find a mashed-up pair of Spider Man Underoos behind the bottom drawer of his dresser. He held the diminutive red undies to his waist and then tossed them in the discard pile.

The following evening, Thursday, he had stood in front of his closet mirror, stripped to the waist. His room was clean, his clothes sorted out until he could go shopping for more. It was time for Scott Spruel himself. After deciding he needed his hair trimmed on the sides and grown a little longer in back, he touched his forehead. The red eruptions were fewer than last year, he decided. Even so, he pledged to wash his face twice a day and get back on his Retin-A regimen — something that had fallen to the wayside that summer.

And the rest of him? He examined his body with the clinical eye of Professor X: his lanky neck, his sallow, sunken chest, stark ribs, arms that hung long and thin at his sides, promising harm to no living thing. He rubbed his right forearm. A slight angle showed where the bones had healed (yes, Jesse had snapped both his ulna and radius), a permanent deformity now. Anger flared from the pit of his stomach, the anger that he had not been able to stop them.

Do it again, and it’s gonna be both arms, you little piss stain, Jesse had promised.

He needed bulk. He needed mass. Scott Summers of the X-Men was no Incredible Hulk, but he was solid. He kept in shape. Scott Spruel of Oakwood, meanwhile, had never touched a barbell, much less lifted one. Back in his room, he broke his promise and fished a handful of non–John Byrne comic books from the closet, plopped in the chair at his desk, and began flipping through them. After a couple of minutes, he found what he was looking for:

 

HEY, WIMP! I’M TALKING TO YOU!

REMAKE YOUR BODY IN 15 MINUTES A DAY!

 

It was the full page ad with Bud Body, “The Finest Specimen of Manhood,” standing in what looked like his underwear, fists on his glistening hips, glowering out of the page like he’d just as soon beat you senseless as bestow on you the glories of his strength and conditioning program.

“Bulk out your back, puff up your pecs, strengthen your arms and legs. My easy-to-follow, SCIENTIFIC method will make you fitter, faster, and MORE DESIRABLE than you ever dreamed possible!”

Scott made sure it was one of his rattier comics before taking an X-acto knife to the stamp-sized order form for the booklet. It was a start, he had figured, and would only cost him five bucks plus shipping…

Standing back from the rust-speckled glass of the C-wing bathroom, Scott examined the tuck of his bright-green Izod inside his belted khakis. He turned one way and the other, made a couple of adjustments, and then stooped to rub away a smudge near the cowhide lacing of one of his Docksiders.

Drawing a long breath, he raised his face back to the mirror and nodded. “You can do this.”

He folded his thick glasses with a decisive clack and hid them away in his pocket. Squinting, he pushed the door open on the bright blur of mid-day and set a course for D-wing.

  • * *

The room was a chaos of motion and voices, and for a moment Scott considered feigning surprise with his hands (Oops! Wrong room!) and backing out, resuming his stiff walk down the D-wing corridor and over to the food trucks, where he would eat alone as he had done every day that week. And that was the thought that stopped him: eating alone again.

He lowered his head and stepped into the room.

“Hey!” someone called to his left. Scott froze, waiting for the inevitable, What do you think you’re doing here?

When he turned, the person he beheld was brown haired and blurry, nearly faceless. He was sitting at a table near the door with four other faceless people. Scott went to push up his glasses before remembering he wasn’t wearing them.

“You rushing Gamma?” the voice asked.

“Y-yeah.” Scott cleared his throat. “Yes.”

“You’re gonna need one of these.” Scott felt a piece of paper being pushed into his hands. “It’s a permission slip. Have it signed by a ’rent and back here by the next meeting. Go on and take a seat. Pledges in the back.”

Scott nodded. “Thanks.”

There were other young men’s service/social clubs at Thirteenth Street High, but Gamma was considered the premier. That part didn’t matter so much to Scott. In fact, he would have preferred it if the club were of more middling status, to improve his chances of getting in. No, what mattered most was that Gamma was the brother organization of Alpha, the club to which Janis’s sister belonged (he’d seen her hanging posters on Tuesday to announce their first meeting). And Scott was gambling that if Margaret was a member, Janis would be pledging, too.

Like big sis, like little sis. He hoped.

He supposed he could have asked Janis during seventh period, but just getting up the nerve to speak to her again was proving to be a trial in itself. He wasn’t there yet. And besides, he didn’t want her to think he was stalking her — which, of course, he was. Gamma was going to be another access point into her life.

Scott clutched the strap of his backpack and made his way between two columns of desks, his sternum stiff, his breaths paper thin. Volleys of masculine voices shot through an air thick with cologne. Several Gamma members were parked on desktops, but without his glasses, Scott couldn’t see how they were looking at him, or whether they were even looking at him to begin with. Being half-blind had its advantages. It made the room and everyone inside it seem spectral, not quite real — like he was there and not there at the same time.

Scott edged to the back and joined the other hopeful pledges, where it was decidedly quieter. He wondered if anyone from his middle school had come. He hoped not. He picked a desk in the last row, stumbling around it before getting himself seated.

“SHUT THE HELL UP!”

Scott jittered and dropped his backpack. The louder conversations at the front of the room wound down. Members climbed from their desktops. Scott peeked to either side to find the other dozen or so pledges sitting ramrod straight.

“SHUT IT, I SAID!”

Scott drew his glasses from his pocket and, keeping them folded, snuck the right lens over his right eye. A stocky guy with a blond buzz cut paced the front of the room, arms bowed. His clenched face shriveled Scott’s insides. Was this the president? Was this the guy he was going to have to answer to?

“All right,” Buzz Cut said, his face decompressing into a sidelong smile. “That’s better.”

Laughter from the front rows.

“Now, stay shutted the hell up.” Buzz Cut leaned his butt against the chalkboard, his thick arms folded.

Someone stood up from the table in front, a taller, more refined-looking member of what Scott surmised to be the club’s officers. He strode to the front of the room in a stylish white Oxford, a silver pen jutting from the brown sweep of hair above his ear. “Thank you, Britt. That was… colorful.” Then he spoke to the room: “The sergeant at arms has called the first meeting to order.”

“Hear! Hear!” someone shouted.

The sergeant at arms paused in his return to the table to glare at the shouter, which evoked more laughter.

“All right, guys,” the tall speaker said. “For those who don’t know, I’m Grant Sidwell, president of Gamma.” He went on to introduce the other Gamma officers, who half rose from their seats at the table in turn. Scott made a point of repeating their names inside his head, but with his heart still pumping at a breathless rate and the dry bite of terror in his mouth, the names abandoned him seconds later.

Grant went into some administrative items, clearly meant for current members, and Scott couldn’t concentrate on those either. His eyes were going from officer to officer, struck by how adult they looked. One of them even had a mustache, not one of Wayne’s threadbare numbers, but the real Tom Selleck deal. And they were all stylish and sturdy in a way that Scott could only dream of. It wasn’t necessarily what they wore but how they wore it, the way necks filled out shirt collars, the way an open button showed just enough chest — and chest hair in a couple of cases — the way folded shirt cuffs embraced toned forearms and metallic watches held tanned wrists.

All day, Scott’s shirt had been shifting and chaffing in odd places, requiring constant readjustment. He’d even considered finding some Scotch tape to keep the wings of his collar from curling up. But with these guys, there was no effort on their parts, none at all. It was like their clothes knew they belonged inside them. And with that thought, Scott understood how ridiculous his presence was. He didn’t belong here. He would never belong here.

“A show of hands if you’re planning to pledge this year,” Grant called.

Heads turned in the front as the pledges’ hands went up around Scott. He was late in realizing that he was still holding his glasses to his face. He fumbled them into his lap, went to reach for them, and then shot his arm up instead.

Grant began counting the hands off with the tip of his pen.

Scott’s gaze found the large intercom box on the wall above Grant’s head. Without his glasses, it looked like a manila blur, but it was something to focus on, something to keep his mind from the craning stares of the Gamma members, from his own doubting thoughts.

His head began to spin.

It was a familiar sensation, the filaments of his consciousness winding around one another, harder, sharper…

But here?

His world twined tighter, dimming to the brink of darkness, before bursting open. In the next instant, Scott was scattershot over the intercom system, box to box, then down a stepwise convergence of branches, to the main trunk, where the system was rooted and powered, probably somewhere inside the school’s main office.

Scott braced himself against the stinging current and tried to reverse course, but it was like swimming upstream in a frothing river, the energy less linear, more turbulent. Perhaps it was the age of the system, the dry cracks in the rubber insulation. He stopped straining and imagined the intercom in the meeting room as he’d last seen it: a manila blur. He focused on it, just like he would do with his modem at home, felt his consciousness gathering there…

The report sounded like a cross between a fart and a shotgun blast.

Scott blinked from his seat in the rear of the classroom. At the head of the room, Grant had fallen into a crouch, his pen still held out, his other arm thrown up over his head. Everyone else was staring at the intercom box above him. Glasses to his eyes, Scott’s gaze went there, too. The box emitted a final petering raspberry from its blown speaker, then fell silent.

Heat washed over Scott’s face.

The laughter was sudden and riotous. Britt, the sergeant at arms, stood from the table. But rather than restore order, he waved a hand near his backside in exaggerated motions. “I swear, it wasn’t me this time!”

Grant straightened and swept his fingers through his hair. He peeked back toward the intercom in disapproval, then cleared his throat into his fist. “All right, everyone, return to order.” Then to the back of the classroom: “You can put your hand down.”

Scott made a convulsive sound when he realized Grant meant him. He hugged his arm to his side.

“The Gamma pledge term is thirteen weeks.” The laughter quieted to guffaws. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. They are thirteen demanding weeks. But do everything you’re asked as a pledge, and you’re in. You’re a brother. It’s that straightforward. And once you’re a Gamma brother, you’re a Gamma brother for life.”

“And if Britt can do it, anyone can,” someone called to the back.

That revived the laughter and had the other officers restraining the sergeant at arms as he pretended to want to climb over the table to get at his heckler. Scott smiled at his antics, and for the first time since walking through the door, he felt the knot in his stomach begin to loosen.

Do everything you’re asked as a pledge, and you’re in. You’re a brother.

A roll sheet found its way to his desk. Scott signed it and passed it along.

When the laughter subsided, Grant had another question for the pledges: “How many of you have been eating lunch off campus?”

All of the pledges’ hands went up, and once more, Scott’s hand joined theirs. Not true, of course, not entirely. But who would know? He became worried when snickers began to pop off like bottle caps.

“Well, as of next week, that stops,” Grant announced. Scott could feel the questioning looks of the other pledges as they lowered their arms. “In the cafeteria, there’s a special table for Gamma pledges, and that’s where you’ll be eating. You will partake of the good food that our lunchroom ladies prepare each day but that no one has the good manners to appreciate. As representatives of Gamma, you will appreciate that food, and you will appreciate them. You will do so by eating every bite. I don’t care if it looks and tastes like regurgitated cow cud. At the end of the lunch hour, a brother will stop by to inspect your trays. And don’t try to get cute and dump your food beforehand, or it’ll be two trays the next time.”

“Someone’s always watching!” a voice warned.

“But here’s the most important part,” Grant went on. “When you return your tray, you’re to stick your head through the service window and thank the ladies for your meal, and you will do so with sincerity. Understood?”

“Yes,” the pledges answered in unison.

Scott swallowed. Just when he thought he’d escaped the cafeteria and its depravities — the food not the least of them — he was being ordered right back into that ghetto.

“In addition to daily lunch in the cafeteria, you are all required to dress in what we call ‘Standards.’ Dress slacks, dress shoes, dress shirt, and a tie. Your Sunday best. Blazers optional.”

Grant signaled to one of the officers, who began passing something toward the back of the room. With his glasses back in his lap again, it was all a blur to Scott.

“These are your Gamma letters,” Grant said when they began arriving. “They will complete your attire. You will wear them every day, and you must wear them so that they are visible — not inside your shirts. That way, your brothers can identify you around campus.”

More snickers.

Scott took his giant laminated L and turned it one way and then another before setting it flat on his desk. If he decided to go through with this — the cafeteria, Standards, a giant Greek letter around his neck — there would be no going back into the shadows. Not at Thirteenth Street High.

“Any questions?” Grant asked.

Do you really want to do this? the same voice whispered in Scott’s ear. It’s an even bigger risk than you first thought.

“It all starts the day after Labor Day,” Grant said after no one spoke up. “And the next meeting is a week from today, when you’ll be assigned your big brother. Be sure to bring back your permission slips. We’ll need those. The other requirements for your term are spelled out in these pledge packets. Make sure you grab one on your way out. Good luck.”

The sergeant at arms rose from the table and stalked to the front of the room. “DISMISSED!” he bellowed, throwing his arms out. “NOW, GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE! ALL OF YOU!”

This time, Scott laughed with the others.

12

After school

The garage door was solid. It didn’t rattle when the soccer ball thunked against it, which made the rebounds come off hard and fast. And because of the paneled design of the door, the ball almost always bounced back at erratic angles, first careening to the right, then to the left, then almost straight up in a spinning pop.

Perfect for a goalie in training.

Janis sprinted beneath the latest pop-up, elbows tucked to her sides, the webbing of the goalie gloves spread wide.

Watch the ball into your possession. Always watch the ball into your possession.

Her squinting eyes tracked it into her arms, and she cinched the ball to her chest, crouching protectively. Her father had taught her that after a game when she had fumbled away a shot that led to the other team toeing in the winner. In the years since, it had become automatic for her, a mantra that repeated itself every time she went to corral a shot: Watch the ball into your possession.

She had missed some, sure, but she’d never fumbled away another ball.

She bounced the soccer ball against the pavement as she returned to her starting spot. Clamping the taut ball between her knees, she wiped sweat from her brow and tightened her ponytail. The temperature had climbed into the upper nineties again, and her pores gasped inside her long-sleeved polyester jersey. But she loved the training, even the suffering that went with it. It was who she was, it was where she belonged, not in Alpha. She grimaced. Even the thought of the word tasted bad.

Janis had shown up early to the first meeting that day with the sole intent of telling Margaret that she wasn’t going to be joining and wouldn’t even be staying for the rest of the meeting. Sorry, but Alpha just isn’t for me. Margaret had been in the middle of organizing packets and patting them into neat stacks when Janis arrived at the meeting room.

“Where’s your lunch?” Margaret asked, hardly glancing up. A few members were eating near the front of the classroom, Feather Heather, Tina, and Kelly among them, their desks pushed together.

“I’m sorry, Margaret…” Janis lowered her voice, “but I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

“Do this. I have to leave.”

Margaret looked up from her counting and, for an instant, it felt to Janis as if her sister’s green eyes were around her head. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling but strange and disorienting. Similar to what happens before falling asleep, when your thoughts begin to dissolve a little.

“Oh, march your little bottom to the back and stop being silly.”

And surprisingly, Janis found herself doing just that. Her thoughts on Alpha hadn’t changed, no, but asserting herself before Margaret felt like too much trouble, as if the lead of resistance had melted from her will.

Better just to go along with it.

Janis picked out a desk in the very back and watched the classroom fill with the type of girls she swore she’d never become. Most clacked in on high heels, their hair and makeup way overdone. The older members squealed and clapped their hands when they spotted Janis, but she knew it was only because she was Margaret’s little sister. Celebrity by relation. She raised one hand in response, her resentment at being there seeping back by degrees.

Aspiring pledges entered too, dolled up and doe-eyed, Margaret directing them to the back. They steered clear of where Janis sat, probably because her own fashion sense that day amounted to athletic shorts and a Jordache T-shirt. She might as well have had leprous tumors. Of course, they didn’t know she was Margaret’s sis—

Janis nearly choked.

Amy, Alicia, and Autumn entered the room in virtual lockstep. In their pleated skirts, pink Argyle vests, and matching socks, they looked like a three-headed creature. A hydra. They filed toward the rear of the room, flashing smiles and waving to the older members, like contestants in a pageant. Janis slid down in her seat and swore at herself. Why in the world hadn’t she left when she’d had the chance?

The Amy-Alicia-Autumn hydra stopped at the row of desks in front of hers, a gust of hyperfloral perfume enveloping Janis, and sat three across. They didn’t deign to look back. Big surprise there. The backs of their brunette heads perked up as Margaret called the meeting to order.

The informational meeting was pretty much what Janis had expected: we do service work, we host social events, we represent the school in the community, blah blah blah. The single highlight was when the intercom blew and the room erupted into screams. But the hysteria was short lived, and the meeting resumed with the Alpha pledge term. Lunch in the cafeteria? Dressing up every day? Janis slouched further in her chair. Not for her. Definitely not for her.

And to have to do it with the Amy-Alicia-Autumn hydra? For. Get. It. Janis was sure the feeling was mutual on their end.

But then something weird happened. As the meeting broke up, and the three A’s stood from their desks, Amy, her former best friend, turned and looked at her. “Hey,” she said and smiled. Not a polished, practiced smile, but one that pouched a little at the ends with, what, contrition?

Stunned, Janis returned the greeting with a hoarse “Hey” of her own. It marked the first exchange they’d had in almost three years, their first one since Janis had found the note in her locker.

(Softball is for lesbians.)

And then Amy had turned back to her friends, and the exchange ended.

Out in her driveway, Janis palmed the soccer ball against her wrist and shook her head. She heaved the ball at the garage door, harder than she meant to. The ball caught the left side of an upper panel and careened off to Janis’s right. She had already begun a stutter step in that direction and lunged with her right leg and shot out her arm. The impact stung her fingertips, but the ball was tipped off course, cleared of the imaginary goal. Janis checked her stumbling momentum with her hand and watched the ball dribble off into the side yard.

At first, Amy’s gesture had perplexed her. But by the end of typing class (and through Star’s unbroken rant against “The White Male Establishment”), the obvious dawned on her: she was Margaret’s sister; Margaret was Alpha’s president; the three A’s wanted to get into Alpha; hence, the three A’s believed they needed to make nice with Janis.

And there you had it. Nothing more or less complicated.

Janis followed the ball into the side yard, where the garden hose lay in a loose coil. She tugged off her gloves and shoved up her sleeves. As good a time to take a break as any. She twisted the spigot. The water that gurgled from the hose was still cold from the last time and felt wonderful flowing over her head. She tilted the nozzle up so the water pushed against her face, then took a long drink as the water trickled beneath her jersey, cooling her body in little rivulets.

After tightening the spigot, Janis gathered the soccer ball and sat with it cross-legged inside the wall of shade along the edge of the yard. She traced the ball’s hexagonal seams with her fingers. All around her, the late afternoon heat rattled and droned with insect sounds…

And then drilling.

It was the same drilling that had been whining on and off while she practiced, but Janis hadn’t given it much thought; she couldn’t tell where it was even coming from. But now she could. She left her ball in the shade and followed the sound to the back line of bushes. Beyond the leaves, she could make out someone in a white T-shirt. Janis sank to one knee and pushed aside a low bough.

Mr. Leonard was standing in front of his woodshed, with his back to her. He was bracing the farther shed door open about a foot while, with his other hand, he operated a drill powered by a long orange cable running up to his house. Narrow straps of muscle stood from the back of his sunburned neck. It was her first time seeing him since the dream (experience).

But she felt no fear, not in the light of day. He didn’t know she was watching him, one. And at Janis’s back, across the yard, she could hear the intermittent clinking of pots where her mother was inside preparing their dinner. Janis had only to shout for her to look out the kitchen window.

Janis shifted her attention from Mr. Leonard to the shed. It was decrepit and leaned with the lawn, just as it had in her dream. But of course she’d seen the shed before, like when she and Margaret used to roller skate down the culvert. Her mind had obviously kept the image on file and then called it up when, in her dream, she had ventured into his backyard.

But what about the inside?

The drill rattled to a stop. Mr. Leonard wiped his hand on his hip and began to turn. Janis released the bough and drew back. Through the leaves, she watched him set the drill on a folding chair. She reopened her sight line just as he shut the shed door and locked it with a key.

So there was a bolt lock.

But she could have noticed this feature from the culvert as well. Not consciously, maybe, but her mind could still have recorded the detail and stored it away.

Mr. Leonard tugged on both doors, peering up and down the frame. He turned back to the chair and began gathering his things. Something small went into the front pocket of his cut-off jeans and something else into his other pocket. Then he scooped up what could only be screws by the way he palmed them.

Parts of the old lock? The idea made the damp skin beneath Janis’s jersey bunch into gooseflesh. Sunday night you dream he catches you in his shed. Five days later he changes the lock. Ripley’s… Believe It or Not.

Last, she watched him unplug and disarm the drill and then shove it into the waist of his shorts in the back.

When Mr. Leonard turned, Janis was too slow to release the bough. She froze instead, like an exposed animal. He squinted around, his yellow-bespectacled gaze appearing to hesitate on the spot where she knelt. A second later, he turned and hiked toward the house, gathering the extension cord around his arm in sharp, strong gestures. He didn’t look at all like a hapless substitute. No, he appeared capable — capable in a way that made him far creepier.

  • * *

That night, Janis sat up with her back against the headboard, telling herself she would quit reading at the end of the chapter and turn off her light. In English that week, they’d finished their discussion of 1984, and Mrs. Fern had assigned them To Kill a Mockingbird. “No book better contrasts the imagined realm of children with the stark and consequential world of adults,” she had declared. “And none better collides them.” Janis couldn’t say how, but she felt that Mrs. Fern had intended the message for her.

She was at the nerve-wracking part where the kids sneak over to Boo Radley’s house at night, when a pair of taps sounded on her bedroom door. Janis gasped and pressed the book to her chest.

“Come in,” she called, her heart still thudding.

Probably Margaret, home from her date with Kevin. The rest of the Graystone clan had spent the evening with bowls of popcorn, watching a rental from Video World: The Private Eyes, a Tim Conway and Don Knotts spoof. Movie night on Friday was a Graystone tradition, a reward for their week of work.

But it wasn’t Margaret. When Janis looked over, she found her mother slipping ghost-like into the room, one hand to the chest of her cotton nightgown. She smiled and moved in a way that seemed apologetic.

“I saw your light on,” she whispered.

“What are you still doing up?” Janis asked.

“I could ask the same of you. It’s almost midnight.”

Janis held the book up. “Just some reading for next week.”

Janis’s mother took the book and sat with it on the edge of the bed. “Harper Lee. I would have been about your age when I read this.” She seemed to reflect on that for a moment before smiling and handing the book back to Janis.

“Is everything all right?” Janis asked.

“I just woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep. It happens from time to time. Normally, I go to the kitchen table and read until I’m tired again, but when I saw your light on… I thought maybe you were having some trouble sleeping, too.”

Her mother’s low voice sounded lonely to Janis, but she told herself her mother was trying not to wake the rest of the house.

“No, I’m fine, Mom.”

“You would tell me if you weren’t? If anything was the matter?” She touched Janis’s cheek and smoothed the hair around her ear, like she used to do when Janis was a little girl.

Janis looked into her mother’s eyes. For a moment, she considered telling her about the dreams, about her fear of falling asleep. But Janis knew it would only make her mother worry for her, and what could she do anyway?

“Well, there is this whole thing with Alpha.” Janis cut her eyes to the wall separating her bedroom from Margaret’s. “She just doesn’t get that I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Her mother chuckled, more with her body than with her voice. “Deciding what’s best for others is your sister’s way of showing her affection. She’s a lot like your father that way.”

Her mother looked down in a manner suggesting she hadn’t meant to say the last part. But Janis saw she was right about Margaret — and her father. And in this realization, her heart suffered a pang of what could only be described as jealousy. Ever since she was a little girl, Janis had tried to emulate her father — his strength, his even-spokenness, his athleticism — so to now see this stronger semblance between Margaret and him felt strange.

“You know, I started school this week, too,” her mother said.

“Wait, what?” Janis sat up. She tried to read the soft upturn of her mother’s lips.

“It’s a biology class. We meet twice a week at the community college, Tuesday and Thursday mornings.”

“Biology? When did this happen?”

The smile continued to spread over her mother’s face, as if it had been wanting to express itself for a long time.

“You know how Samantha’s mother is a special education teacher? Works with the elementary school kids? Well, it’s what I’d like to do someday.”

“That’s great, Mom. But why haven’t you said anything?”

The smile lingered across her mother’s lips, then slipped away.

“Your father and I decided to do it this way for now… just a class or two a semester until you graduate high school. And then if I’m still interested, we’ll see about the full-time program at the university.”

Janis giggled at the idea of her mother in a classroom full of students. She had always seen her mother as… well, a mother. But she had been a student once, too, hadn’t she? A serious one. For some reason, Janis had never thought to ask why she’d never earned her degree. But it was obvious. She’d married Dad after taking his course in international relations, had Margaret a year after and Janis three years later. There had been meals to cook, clothes to launder, grocery and shopping trips, rides to and from school, lessons and practices, not to mention batteries of appointments — duties Janis had taken for granted. It had just seemed what her mother did, who she was.

Janis had never stopped to consider that her mother might have other dreams.

“That’s so great.” She took her mother’s hand and squeezed it. “Really. I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, hon.” Moisture glistened in the corners of her mother’s eyes as she squeezed back. “Well, I’ll leave you alone with Scout and Jem.” She planted a kiss on Janis’s forehead. “Don’t stay up too much longer.”

“I won’t, Mom. G’night.”

Halfway to the door, her mother turned, her hand pressing the collar of her gown flat. “What were you doing by the bushes this afternoon? In the backyard?”

“Oh, I heard Mr. Leonard drilling. I just wanted to see what he was up to.”

“I see.”

“Is that all right?”

“The Leonards are… private people. Your father and I have always thought it best that we respect their privacy.” She looked like she was going to say something more but instead glanced around the room. Her gaze touched on the posters tacked to Janis’s walls: the Tampa Bay Rowdies, U.S. women’s softball, a flag-draped Bruce Springsteen. When her gaze returned to Janis, her mother was smiling that apologetic smile again. Or was it sorrowful?

“All right, then. Sleep well, hon.”

But Janis did not sleep well. As she was drifting off, she dreamed she was creeping up to Boo Radley’s front door at night, just as Jem had been doing in the book. Janis didn’t want to, but it was as though some inimical whisper compelled her, telling her she had to. The door loomed closer. In her dream, the door was suburban-looking and yellow. As she reached forward to knock, it swung inward.

A pale hand seized her wrist and pulled her into the darkness.

It took Janis another hour to fall back asleep.

13

Thirteenth Street High

Tuesday, September 4, 1984

Third Period

Scott was waiting for the computer at his station to boot up when a high, sneering voice pierced the classroom doorway: “Even with a plasma effect, the electrical pulses would have to be sustained, dill weed!”

Wayne brushed past, bumping Scott with his backpack. Craig and Chun followed closely. By the time they took their seats across the room, Scott gathered that they were debating whether or not a lightsaber could be built using present-day technology. Scott caught himself cocking an ear before realizing that was just what Wayne wanted: for him to feel left out.

Scott had left several phone messages for Wayne that weekend. None had been returned. He sighed. This had gone on long enough. He pressed his hands to his desk and weaved past the intervening computer stations. Stooping over Wayne’s shoulder, he spoke through his teeth.

“Can we drop the whole Scott Spruel Doesn’t Exist thing already? This is getting way past lame.”

Wayne turned his head one way, then the other, his back to Scott.

“Did you hear something, men?”

Craig’s eyes flickered toward Scott as he shook his large head, his feathery blond hair in disarray. Chun fingered the purple mole above his right nostril and lowered his face. His black bowl cut shuddered with quick rotations.

“Hmm, must be the interference from the simultaneous boot-up of three systems,” Wayne said. “Just ignore it, men, and those annoying noises will go away.”

“I hope you realize how stupid you sound.”

Wayne wheeled to face Scott, his mustache bristling above twisted lips. Narrow, smudged-in eyes looked him up and down. Scott braced for a blow to the stomach, but Wayne’s narrow shoulders began to shudder with laughter. “Talk about stupid! Who dressed you in pink this morning? Miss Pac-Man?”

Scott glanced down at his Standards: Miami-pink shirt, pressed white slacks, penny loafers. He smoothed his yellow paisley tie, his neck burning. “Yeah, well…”

“And what’s this?” Wayne grabbed the laminated letter around his neck. “The sign of The Secret Order of I’m-The-World’s-Biggest-Ignoramus?” He unleashed more spitting laughter.

“It stands for Gamma. It’s a men’s organization, something you wouldn’t know anything about, you — you hacking neophyte.”

Wayne went rigid. “What did you call me?”

In his anger, Scott had gone straight for Wayne’s Doomsday Button. He glanced over at Craig and Chun. They looked back with wide-eyed expressions that said, Now you’ve done it.

“Just forget it,” Scott said.

He tried to draw away, but Wayne still had the other end of the letter in his grip. The glint of condescension in his eyes sharpened to blades of jealousy.

“Let go,” Scott said.

Wayne mimicked him in falsetto: “Let go.

“Let go, I said. You’re gonna tear it!”

You’re gonna tear it!

Scott had hoped to resolve their dispute with the same command and maturity as Scott Summers of the X-Men. But here they were, grappling for a laminated letter like a pair of first graders. All that was missing were the glue sticks and round-tipped scissors. Scott glanced back to make sure the other students weren’t watching and found them standing in a semicircle, all glasses and unkempt hair. He seized Wayne’s fingers and tried to pry them away.

“I just wanted to warn you about a tap,” he whispered as they struggled. “There’s one on my line… might be one on yours.”

“Crap on your tap.” Wayne jerked his arm, and the string around Scott’s neck snapped. They both looked at the letter in Wayne’s hand, an “Oh, shit” flitting across Wayne’s eyes. Then he scrunched up his face and flung the letter away. It flapped over the heads of the onlookers.

Scott stared at Wayne, klaxons blaring between his temples. He imagined himself seizing his best friend’s neck, pressing his thumbs into his bony Adam’s apple. But then he counted off the consequences in his head: trip to the dean’s office, suspension, expulsion from Gamma.

He leveled a finger at Wayne’s nose. “Don’t talk to me. Ever again. I mean it.”

I mean it,” Wayne echoed, waggling his head. Several students tittered, including Craig and Chun.

Scott wheeled to hunt for his letter.

  • * *

Janis stood on tiptoes outside the peeled-paint metal door, trying without success to peer through its mesh window. She knew about the room from when Margaret had pledged. It contained a couple of small tables, a non-working refrigerator, and a countertop with broken cabinets where rats nested. The room’s official name was the Teacher’s Dining Room, a relic of some sepia-toned decade past. Now it was Where the Alpha Pledges Ate Lunch.

Janis sighed through her nose and seized the door handle. Let’s get this over with. Hinges squealed, and the pledging class, crowded around the two pushed-together tables, blinked up at her from the darkness like well-heeled tomb robbers. The room’s lone fluorescent bar didn’t work either, a detail Janis had forgotten.

“Sorry I’m late,” she muttered, letting the door swing closed behind her.

Chair legs scraped, and when Janis’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, a narrow wedge of table had opened up for her. She was glad to see it wasn’t beside the Amy-Alicia-Autumn hydra. It was bad enough having to miss her lunches with her friends, but being confined to a room with her archenemies…

“Just as well for you,” Amy chirped. “It gave us time to spruce up the room a little. You should have smelled this place ten minutes ago.”

Janis didn’t lend her voice to the flutters of laughter. Instead, she unpacked her lunch bag. Apparently the three A’s had been holding court before Janis’s arrival because they resumed chattering about life in front of the cameras to their rapt audience. Janis took a despondent bite from her bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwich and examined the stained ceiling for roach activity. Never in a million years would she have imagined experiencing the place herself. And yet, thanks to whatever power Margaret wielded over her thoughts, here she was.

Yay for me.

The stuffiness of her outfit — slacks and a flipping blouse — made her shift and fidget in the half light. She had drawn the line at hanging the A around her neck. It would be her silent act of defiance, and if it meant demerits, so much the better. Maybe she wouldn’t get in.

“So what do you think, Janis?”

She looked over to find the round whites of Amy’s eye looking back at her, sculpted eyebrows raised.

“What do I think about what?”

“About getting together this weekend. The whole pledge class.”

“No thanks.” Janis took a sip of Capri Sun and pretended to become interested in the writing on the metallic pouch. The other pledges fell silent. Of course to them, she was the stuck-up bitch.

“Oh, are you busy this weekend?” Amy asked.

Janis was, actually. She had plans to practice up in the Grove again with Samantha.

“Not really.”

“Well, think about it.” Amy’s voice sounded a half octave higher than natural. “You still have my number, right?” She didn’t wait for Janis to answer before turning to the rest of the pledges and listing the places they might meet up. Naturally, the food court in the mall topped the list.

Janis pushed the last bite of sandwich into her mouth and scooted her chair out. She had fulfilled the requirement. She’d eaten with the other pledges. No one had said anything about sitting there the entire lunch period. Heads turned as she stooped for her books. Before the door could swing closed behind her, she heard Amy telling the others she would be right back.

Great.

Janis sped up, but Amy caught her near the auditorium.

“Hey,” Amy called, out of breath.

Janis swung around but didn’t speak. She began wadding up the paper bag that had held her lunch.

“Look…” Amy watched Janis’s hands. “I just… I was hoping we could put the past behind us. You know, start over.”

Janis shot the balled-up bag past Amy’s head into a metal trashcan.

Amy flinched then looked back at Janis. “Can’t you say something?”

“How about I write it down on a piece of paper and slip it into your locker when no one’s around?”

The space between Amy’s eyebrows wrinkled into a W.

“Oh, come off it,” Janis said. “I know it was you.”

“You know what was me?”

Janis turned to leave.

“All right, wait!” Amy hustled to catch her. “I was eleven years old. It was immature and… and mean.” Amy’s eyes glistened above cheeks still soft with baby fat. “I don’t know why I did it.”

Janis pointed her chin toward the door they had just come from. “I do. They were just sitting next to you.”

Amy lowered her eyes. “I’ve changed,” she said softly. “We all have.”

“Oh, really?” Janis tapped her foot. “On Monday, you and the A-hol — the other two look at me like I’m something you just stepped in. Then Friday rolls around, and suddenly it’s time we all kissed and made up? That could only mean that whatever change you’re talking about happened in a matter of four days.”

Amy didn’t say anything.

“Hmm… wonder what that could have been.” Janis made a point of staring straight at the red Greek letter against Amy’s chest.

“All right. You’re still angry. I get it.” She started to touch the A, then clasped her hands in front of her. “I deserve it.”

For the first time, Janis sensed her former friend didn’t like what she had done, not entirely. It was in her stance, the inflection of her voice. Amy began to walk away. And now something in her surrender — the totality of it — struck a chord in Janis. She opened her mouth, knowing she would probably regret it.

“I’m not going to say anything to Margaret,” Janis called. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”

The fact was, she’d never planned to say anything to Margaret. If Amy and the others got in, so what? It wasn’t her club. She wanted nothing to do with it, in fact. But at least with the information, Amy could stop making a pretense of being her friend again.

“All right?” Janis called when Amy didn’t answer.

Amy turned partway and nodded. And in that glimpse of her face, Janis saw she was crying.

  • * *

Scott threw his hand over his mouth and shrunk back. There was a quality of sour milk to the smell, of a cold metal railing that had been handled too much. But worse than the smell itself were the associations it dredged up in Scott’s mind.

Memories of torment, mostly.

He swallowed hard and stepped all the way into the cafeteria. The metal door slammed shut behind him. Scott faced an industrial-blue room made cavernous by the absence of students. A far cry from the crowded chaos of Creekside Middle. That was a start. At a table off to his right, two students with rattails faced off in a game of pencil breaks, the splintering thwacks echoing the length of the cafeteria.

It didn’t take long for Scott to spot several pledges seated on the far side of the room, Gamma letters dangling over their steaming lunches. The faint clatter of trays called Scott’s attention to a doorway across from him. He fingered the string holding his Gamma letter (knotted in two places now, thanks to Wayne) and joined the short lunch line.

Just as he had last year, he selected his milk carton from a damp bin and his food from a despondent-looking tray lineup. He separated a dollar from the three his mother had left for him and handed it to the sallow grandmother at the register. As he pocketed the fifteen cents change, he realized that one advantage of eating in the cafeteria was that he would profit ten dollars at the end of each week. Money to buy cologne with, maybe… or take Janis out on a date.

He felt his cheeks flush as he turned with his tray.

Hoping to arrive at the table unnoticed, Scott took a circuitous route. When he went to straddle the empty chair, he nearly kicked the pledge to his right. His knee jarred the end of the table instead. Smooth move, Ex-Lax, he thought, wincing. He should have just set his tray down and pulled the chair out, but that was how his lunches used to get dumped on his lap. Old instincts died hard.

He mumbled an apology that no one heard. They were all engrossed in a discussion. Scott pressed up his glasses (thin metal frames now, courtesy of the one-hour vision store in the mall) and craned his neck like a periscope.

“…and he made me drop right there and give him twenty!”

“That’s nothing,” said another pledge. “I had to run two laps around the practice field and got crud all over my shoes. [_And _]I was late for first period.”

“Next thing you know, they’ll order us to kneel while they use our ties as toilet paper.”

That got some laughter, and Scott was glad to see that the disgruntled joker was short and pudgy with an Ovaltine-colored bowl cut, not of the same physical stock as the officers he’d observed at Friday’s meeting.

There was hope for him yet.

“What about you, Stretch?” Ovaltine asked. “What’ve they made you do?”

It took Scott a moment to realize the boy was addressing him. The rest of the pledges turned. His ears prickling savagely, Scott lowered his eyes and retracted his neck like a tortoise.

“Oh, um…” The truth was, he hadn’t been made to do anything. Not yet, anyway. “Push-ups.”

The others grunted and nodded, all except for the tall pledge who sat across from Scott and ate quietly. He seemed to be the only one without sweat stains in the armpits of his dress shirt. A minor miracle. And then Scott recognized him. It was the same guy he’d collided with on the first day of school.

“All right, guys,” he said once he’d finished chewing. The table fell silent. “Like it or not, this is going to be our life for the next thirteen weeks. We can either sit here grumbling over who has it the worst, or we can say, ‘You’re not going to break my resolve.’ Because that’s exactly what this is — a test of our resolve, our character. But more, it’s a test of us as a pledging class.”

The solidity of his words struck Scott first, then the words themselves. Why couldn’t he talk like that? Scott watched the speaker’s intent blue eyes, his easy smile, the way his fraternal gestures included the entire table. And even though he wasn’t much bigger than the others around him, the Gamma letter around his neck seemed much smaller, somehow, like it was no burden to him at all.

“I say we make a pact right here. A pact that we’re going to complete our pledge term — the thirteen of us.” He bent toward his backpack and reappeared with a sheet of college-ruled paper. He took a couple of minutes to write something across the top, then slid the paper and pen over to Scott. It read:

 

The Pact — Gamma Pledge Class ’84

I hereby promise to do everything required of me as a pledging brother. I understand that failure to do so will result in letting down not only myself but also my fellow brothers with whom I am pledging. If I am ever on the verge of giving up, I promise to first seek out a fellow pledging brother for counsel and support. And if I see a fellow pledging brother in crisis, I promise to do everything in my power to help him.

The “Lucky” Thirteen are:

Blake Farrier 372-8731

 

Scott followed the speaker’s example and printed his name and phone number under the statement. The sheet went around the table and at last came back to Blake.

“All right,” he said. “I’m going to see about printing these off and getting everyone a copy.”

Scott peeked around, then cleared his throat. “I have a printer. I-I could type it up and print off copies.”

“Even better,” Blake said. “Thanks, Scott.”

Scott’s chest swelled as he took the piece of paper from Blake and stowed it importantly inside his own backpack.

The pledges now talked of other things, Scott soaking in the laughter and fraternal chatter. He marveled at how much could change in a week, how much had changed. Last Monday, he was a computer dweeb and recluse, harried by thoughts of phone taps, federal agents, and the ghosts of middle school past. Now he was in high school and a member of The Lucky Thirteen. He was sitting across from a football star, he learned, and was among a group who’d just sworn to help him pledge into the school’s premier club.

The pudgy pledge (“Just call me Sweet Pea — everyone does eventually”) pretended to count on his fingers. “One down, and let’s see … only fifty-nine more cafeteria lunches to go!”

When Scott looked down at his clean tray amid the laughter, he realized that he hadn’t even minded the cafeteria fare, and he said so. The others agreed — Blake, too. An older brother came by to inspect their trays and dismiss them. And when Scott poked his head through the service window to thank the lunchroom ladies, he could not have been more sincere.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to eat lunch anywhere else today,” he told them.

  • * *

Janis hardly heard Star during fifth period. The jackhammering of two dozen electric typewriters had a lot to do with it. And what Janis could interpret from Star’s moving lips when she glanced over was a rehash of the latest fight she’d been picking with their teacher in American history, easy to block out. But she couldn’t do the same with Amy’s final crumbling look back.

Janis’s jaw tensed as she pecked out a line of words from the typing primer: dad dad fad fad sad sad. Janis had watched Amy in middle school, had seen her capacity for cruelty and deceit. And now she couldn’t shake the idea that Amy’s plea to start over — even her tears — were a ruse. The Amy-Alicia-Autumn hydra wanted to get into Alpha, and they feared Janis derailing that ambition.

Plain and simple.

Before the start of English, Janis sat sideways at her desk and watched the door for Amy. In walked Dougherty, who had been seated first last week and was caught making the “crazy” gesture at Mrs. Fern. He hadn’t spoken up much since then.

Scott, the boy who lived up the street from her, strode through next. Lord help him, were those Standards? And a Gamma letter? She hoped he knew what he was getting into. She’d heard stories from Margaret’s friends about the kind of hazing their pledges were put through.

Janis’s gaze lingered on Scott before startling at Amy’s entrance. Janis pretended to feel beneath her desk for a book. Amy had washed her face, but her skin was pale and puffy beneath a fresh application of makeup. And she was alone for a change — not between Autumn and Alicia. Janis watched until Amy’s small, quiet steps carried her beyond her peripheral vision.

So now what?

  • * *

Scott sat holding his head, the base of his skull drawing into a fist. The flame of Janis’s hair glowed in his periphery, but he hadn’t looked toward her, couldn’t look toward her. Not yet. Because everything hinged on what she was wearing.

He held his breath and slid his gaze over to the center row, center aisle…

His desk hopped when he pumped his fist — Yes! Yes! Yes! Students in the next row turned their heads. Scott raised his hand in apology, but when they were done looking, he squeezed it back into a fist and pumped it once more. He ventured another peek at Janis, just to be sure. She wore women’s slacks and tan flats, her combed hair falling over a pink blouse. If those weren’t the Alpha equivalent of Standards, Scott Spruel didn’t know what was.

And our outfits match, he thought with a dopey grin. All except for

His heart plunged into an ice bath. He looked again, not believing it wasn’t there. Where was her letter? His gaze scrambled over her. Where was her A? Scott removed his glasses and pinched the inside corners of his eyes until they began to hurt. Just my cursed luck. Replacing his glasses, he shifted his gaze back to Janis, to her desk, to the storage space beneath her desk.

And that’s where he found it. Not the letter, but a string that trickled out from one of her folders. Where the string was anchored, Scott discerned a shiny sliver of red. His heart resumed beating.

The rest of English fell in and out of focus as the implications of that hidden red letter inflamed Scott’s imagination. After class, he strode past locker doors slamming and the shout and bustle of students going the other direction. Skateboarders shot past, knee-length shorts flapping with each hip stroke. Instead of catching the bus home, Scott had resolved to type and print out The Pact. He wanted to have it ready for the other pledges at lunch the next day.

He had his printer at home, sure, but his equipment remained stashed in the storage room. Carrying it all back to his bedroom would be a chore, not to mention a risk. No, better to keep everything hidden until someone decides I’m no longer worth the hassle of a tap.

Inside the library, beneath a poster of Larry Bird imploring kids to read, Scott parked himself in front of the school’s newest Apple II computer. With the punch of a few keys, he opened the directory. From habit, he pecked out a series of commands that would expose any hidden files within the system. His gaze roved back and forth, like a famished dog’s. And that’s exactly how Scott felt in that moment: as if a part of him was starving. But for what?

Access, a voice whispered.

Yes, Scott agreed, access. He craved the rush of reaching out with the part of his mind that Wayne didn’t believe in and that he himself hardly understood. Were the computer a node on a larger network, he would be inside of it right now, shooting from one department to another, probing data-ways, discovering how this over here connected to that over there, tearing open directories, pawing through files. And by the time his rabid hunger was sated, Mrs. Norris, the head librarian, would be cutting the lights off and on to announce the library’s imminent closing.

Focus, man.

He leaned back, distancing himself from the monitor, from his chaotic desires. After all, there was no network here. No hidden files. The Apple II was just a solitary computer in a high school library.

Remember why you’re here.

With Janis’s hair billowing through his imagination, Scott removed The Pact from his backpack, placed it beside the keyboard, and began pecking out the statement.

  • * *

Janis hurried to the sidewalk outside the front office and waited. She knew Amy’s mother picked her up in front of the school. Janis decided she would approach Amy if she found her alone. She would ask if Amy were all right and then tell her she was forgiven. Ruse or no, Janis just wanted the whole thing off her conscience. She didn’t want to have to think about it anymore.

But Amy wasn’t alone. When she appeared in front of the auditorium, she was in Autumn and Alicia’s company. They chatted for a minute before something made Amy rear her head to the sky in a fit of laughter.

Well there you have it, Miss Gullibility.

Janis wheeled around and stomped toward where Margaret was parked. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She should have known better than to believe anything that came off of Amy’s forked tongue. She switched her books from one arm to the other and had only gone a few paces when someone called her.

“Hey — uh, Janis is it?”

She spun. “What?

Behind her, someone knelt to the sidewalk.

“I, um, I think you dropped this.”

When he stood, Janis recognized the boy with the indigo eyes who had been at Wendy’s last week. Blake — yes, she remembered his name — Blake Farrier. In fact, she’d repeated the name to herself a few times since. Though she hadn’t told anyone else, not even Samantha, it was a name that had come to feel good in her thoughts. But, oh God, had she just snapped at him? Her cheeks flushed with heat.

“I’m so sorry,” she blurted. “I didn’t know… I thought you were…”

He laughed. “I think it fell out of your folder there.”

Janis saw he was holding her Alpha letter. He stepped forward and slid it back inside the folder so she wouldn’t have to adjust the books in her arms. For a moment, his crisp, clean fragrance was around her. His cheeks dimpled softly when he smiled.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Shouldn’t you be wearing that?” Before she could answer, he leaned in and lowered his voice. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. Technically, I should be wearing mine, too.”

Janis took her turn to smile. “Your Alpha letter?”

His light fragrance whisked back around her when he laughed.

She nodded at his blue shirt and tie. “I’m not sure it goes so well with…”

“Nope, you’re right. Guess color coordination’s not my thing.” He took a smiling breath then stopped and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. My name’s Blake.”

I know. The words almost slipped out when she tucked her books to take his hand. “Janis,” she said.

His grip was firm and kind.

“Janis,” he repeated. “As in Graystone?”

She fought off a grimace as she nodded. Once more, Margaret’s good name precedes you.

“Let’s see, star outfielder, stellar goalie…”

Confusion creased her brow.

Blake laughed. “I read the paper.”

“Oh, that.” Janis’s pulse quickened.

The Gainesville Sun had done a piece on her that summer. It took up half the front page of the sports section. The pictures were horrible, but it had been fun to read about herself, Janis had to confess, and to see the pride on her dad’s face. He made several photocopies and had the original article framed. It hung in her bedroom, above her trophies.

“Well, welcome to Thirteenth Street High. I have to go and get ready for practice, but…” He indicated the string of her Alpha letter dangling from her armful of books. “I guess this won’t be our last meeting.”

“No, I guess not,” she said. “Thanks again.”

As Janis watched him turn and step into an assured balls-of-his-feet gait that was somehow unassuming at the same time, she wondered whether pledging Alpha was such a bad move after all.

Biting her smile, she turned toward the parking lot to find Margaret.

  • * *

At the library’s circulation desk, thirteen printed copies of The Pact in hand, Scott asked to use the phone to call his father. Mrs. Norris, who looked as if she’d been shut inside the library since the Woodrow Wilson administration, sniffed and turned the phone around just enough for him to read the message taped to its base: “Not For Student Use.” To underscore the point, a small lock secured the phone’s rotary dial. The chains from Mrs. Norton’s horn-rimmed glasses swayed with the wattled skin at her neck as she stepped past him with a stack of books. Scott waited until she was out of sight, then lifted the phone. Dial tone? Perfecto.

He concentrated into the system. Several seconds later, he had a ring.

“Hey, Scottie!” A gasp for breath. “Whaddya say?”

His father owned a prosthetics practice in northwest Gainesville, and Scott imagined him standing there, brown tie thrown over his shoulder, the bulging belly of his shirt smeared with plaster.

“I stayed late at school to work on something,” Scott murmured into the cupped mouthpiece. “Any chance you could swing over and give me a ride home?”

“Hold on.”

Scott craned his head toward the back of the library, listening for Mrs. Norris’s return.

At last, his father came back on. “Can you give me fifteen minutes?”

So, thirty minutes. “Sure. I’ll be in front of the school.”

Outside the library, the campus looked deserted. The slanting sunlight Scott stepped into threw a long, lone shadow behind him, as though mocking his solitude. Scott should have seen it as a warning, but he didn’t.

At his locker, he swapped some books from his backpack, remembering to grab To Kill a Mockingbird this time. He ambled along the school’s four wings, half expecting — half hoping — to spot Mr. Shine pushing his cart. But Mr. Shine had apparently gone home as well.

Scott wandered behind the gymnasium and joined the few spectators — parents and girlfriends, he guessed — along a low wall in front of the grunting, thudding practice field. In the middle distance, a player launched a football in a long arc toward several players sprinting downfield. The thrower was too far away to tell, but Scott wanted to believe he was Blake, one of his new Gamma friends.

The Fall Jamboree was that Friday, but Scott doubted he would go. The home stadium was across town, and he didn’t think either of his parents would be willing to drive him both ways. The other pledges would probably be going. Janis, too. A sleepover at Wayne’s might have offered consolation, but he didn’t even have that to fall back on.

Don’t talk to me. Ever again.

Scott was wondering if he would come to regret those words, when a cadence of chanting broke up the thought. Scott squinted. The sound was coming from a part of the field away to his right, hidden from view by the tennis courts. Scott hiked up his backpack and trekked over, craning his neck. When he reached the corner of the fenced-in courts, he peered around.

Whoa.

The dozen or so chanting cheerleaders pumped their fists, rose into human towers, rotated, and disassembled. And all of them wore midriff-baring tops and short shorts, muscled legs glistening in the sun. Scott allowed the stunning sight to bombard his retinas — until he realized he was gawking in plain view.

He slinked along the chain-link fence to its far side and entered the empty courts. Just as he’d hoped, the green windbreak covering most of the fence was opaque enough that it was easier to see out than in. Inside, he was all but invisible. Scott glanced at his watch as he hurried across the courts toward the chants. He still had fifteen minutes until his dad arrived.

He slung his backpack over the end of a pole that stretched the farthest tennis net, then reclined against the pole itself, one knee pulled in. The cheerleaders pumped their arms in unison.

“WHO ARE WE? THE MIGH-TY TITANS!”

This, my friend, is the life.

“WHO CAN BEAT US? NO ONE CAN!”

The cheerleaders broke off into leaps and high kicks, then clapped their hands as they reassembled. For Scott, it felt like even more of a shame that he wouldn’t be going to the Jamboree that Friday. Maybe he could—

Metal rattled behind him as the gate to the tennis courts latched closed. By the time Scott turned around, Jesse Hoag was nearly to the center court, Creed and Tyler Bast not far behind.

14

Jesse Hoag was even more massive than Scott remembered. Or maybe he only appeared so because Scott was still sitting against the post, unable to draw his feet underneath himself. The asphalt court trembled with each of Jesse’s closing footfalls. Scott’s gaze shot from Jesse’s fists, which swished at his sides like wrecking balls, to his face. Gobs of grease held his dark hair out of his eyes — sober gray eyes that appeared at odds with his sinister smile.

That got Scott moving.

He sprang up and promptly tripped over his own feet, stumbling backward into the fence. While he struggled to right his splayed legs, the cheerleaders launched into a new chant:

“THAT’S OUR TEAM! GO, TEAM! GO!”

Jesse stepped onto the last of the three tennis courts — Scott’s court. Tyler had lingered behind, standing guard near the gate, the only way in or out. Creed circled around the other side of the tennis net, ensuring that Scott had nowhere to run.

“We were starting to think you’d left Dodge,” Jesse said. “We’ve got some unfinished business, you and me.”

I don’t know about any business.

Scott heard the words, but he only managed to mouth them, his tongue flicking around a bed of desiccated flesh, like a beached fish. It was the calmness with which Jesse had spoken, the coldness, as though he was just there to do a job. Scott knew what that job was. He seized the place where his right forearm bent. The lump of healed bone had begun to ache as if someone were needling the marrow with a shard of ice.

Jesse’s eyes shifted toward Creed, who in the next instant appeared at Scott’s shoulder, his hand locked around Scott’s upper arm. When Scott turned, he was staring into a pair of blue-tinted John Lennon glasses.

How in the world did he move so fast?

Scott tried to shake him off.

“Don’t make me get nasty,” Creed whispered.

And now Scott felt the rim of Creed’s bowler hat against his temple… and something else, thin and sharp, against his neck. Scott froze. Moving only his eyes, he tried to see where Creed’s hand disappeared beneath his chin. A knife? The idea almost made Scott giggle because any other sound would have made him lose it. He’s holding a knife to my throat.

“WHO ARE WE? THE MIGH-TY TITANS! WHO CAN BEAT US? NO ONE CAN!”

Scott’s eyes shifted toward the chants.

“One peep out of those pipes, fuck face,” Creed whispered, “and they’re as good as diced.”

Scott looked up to where Jesse had stopped two feet in front of him. His eyes, deep set and gray, were assessing him, taking measurements, particularly of his arms. Scott could almost hear the slow, clanking cogs of Jesse’s brain. He was calculating breaking points.

“Do you remember what I said?” Jesse asked.

“About whu-whu-what?”

“‘Do it again, and it’ll be both arms.’ Do you remember me saying that?”

Scott started to shake his head before remembering Creed’s knife at his throat. “I didn’t do it,” he murmured, trying to hold his Adam’s apple in. “God, I swear — whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

But he had done it.

Maybe it was having to spend last summer in a plaster cast. Or maybe it was lying to his mother about what had happened and seeing the sharp lines of disappointment around her mouth and listening to her huff as she drove him to the Emergency Care Center. A klutz, she’d probably been thinking. A sorry klutz like his father. Or maybe it was knowing that he hadn’t been able to stop them, had been too chicken to even try. Maybe that’s what had driven him to what he did.

“Ever been beaten by a tire iron?” Jesse asked.

“No.”

“Do you know what that feels like?”

“N-no.”

“The old man thought it was me making all those long-distance calls, running up the phone bill. I told him it wasn’t, but he didn’t believe me. Called me a lying sack of you-know-what. Said if I couldn’t come up with the money, he was gonna take it out on my hide. A few hubcap jobs, a few trips to the pawn shop, and we’re good, you follow? We’re square, me and my old man. Everything’s cool. ’Cept the thing was, it happened again the next month. This time, the bill was twenty pages long. He caught me coming home. It was at night. I’d just parked the car, and he was waiting by the garage door in the dark.”

Jesse pushed up the sleeve on his black Metallica T-shirt. A brown blotch stained the meat of his upper arm. “That was his first good shot,” Jesse said. “The second one caught me here.” He mashed away his upper lip with a hammer-sized thumb to reveal a missing molar. “Third one got me in the skull. Here.” He rapped his knuckles hard against the side of his own head.

Scott had heard about Jesse’s father, about the drinking. But he had no idea…

“I’m sorry,” Scott managed and then began sobbing, “but it whu-whu-wasn’t me! G-god, it wasn’t m-me!”

“And Creed and Tyler here,” Jesse continued in a calm voice, “well, the phone company hit them with a delinquency. Cut their service. Their mother about lost it. Wouldn’t come out of her room for days. Isn’t that right, Creed?”

“Fuckin’ A,” Creed whispered.

Scott remembered hacking the central office that day last summer, remembered taking over Jesse’s and Creed’s phone lines. He had started dialing country codes and phone numbers, one after another: South Africa, Australia, Japan, Nepal — calls where the connection fee alone was worth a prime cut of steak. Over several days, Scott had kept a running tab in his head. When the dollar amounts climbed into the hundreds, he made himself stop, figuring they were even.

Apparently, Jesse figured differently. His hand swallowed Scott’s wrist — the left one this time.

“Good thing is, you know what to expect.” A hint of a grin returned to Jesse’s face.

Jesse’s thumb, which was almost as thick as Scott’s forearm, bore down. A deep ache bloomed beneath the pressure. Scott winced, lips pressed together, determined not to cry. He imagined the latticework of bone — cortical bone, he’d heard it called, his cortical bone — beginning to collapse where Jesse pressed. At any moment, it was going to snap, just like that. He would hear it. And that seemed to Scott the worst part of all: that he would hear his own bone snap. Again.

“Holy shit!” Creed cried. “He’s pissing himself!”

It was true, Scott realized. His bladder had just bailed, turned to Jell-O, said, “The hell with it.” Nothing was contracting to hold anything in. Scott felt the urine matting his pant leg, soaking inside his sock. When he glanced down, he caught it seeping over his right loafer. Creed tried to dance away from the spreading pool. Jesse scuffed back a step, his grip faltering.

That was all Scott needed.

He wrenched his arm down at the same time he shoved Creed, propelling himself into the first gangly steps of flight in the other direction. Jesse lunged, but Scott had enough prescience to arch his back. The fingers that sought him raked his shirt.

Scott turned toward the gate. Tyler, who had sauntered a short distance away, scrambled to get back into position. A cigarette fell from his mouth, and he stumbled for a moment, arms flailing inside his dusky jean jacket. He regained his balance and closed the distance to the gate in four scampering steps.

So much for that.

Scott veered toward the court’s baseline, arms pumping, his paisley tie streaming over his shoulder.

Behind him, Creed swore, still down. Good. But Jesse was chasing him. Scott could feel his footfalls rumbling through the asphalt, gaining momentum. Scott sped past the baseline and straight for the fence.

[C’mon, legs. Don’t fudge on me _]now[!_]

And he leaped.

He rattled against the fence and latched on. But his grip on the chain linking was shallow because of the windbreak. And only one of his shoes had a toehold. The other slipped against the fabric.

“Help!” he cried. “Help!”

The chanting from the field to his left continued unabated.

Scott clawed and pulled, stabbing the toes of his shoes inside the chain-link diamonds like crampons. Upward movement! Craning his neck back, he found the top of the windbreak nearly within his reach. The bar along the fence’s top lay only another two feet beyond that. Scott stretched until his fingers curled over the windbreak, and he pulled himself up. The fingers of his other hand grasped chain linking.

Creed grabbed one of his ankles.

What the—? Three seconds ago, he’d been halfway across the court on his backside. But Scott knew Creed’s grip, thin and steely. And when Scott peered down, he saw the curtains of his dirty blond hair thrashing like Saint Vitus. Creed had always been fast, but that was entering the realm of super speed. Scott jerked and kicked. Behind Creed, Jesse pulled up to the baseline, chest heaving.

“Hold still, goddammit!” Creed shouted.

Metal glinted in Creed’s other hand but not from a knife, Scott saw. The blades belonged to the studded leather glove Creed wore. One long blade extended from the index finger, a second from the thumb. Creed drew the glove back, but with Scott’s next kick, Creed stumbled backward holding an empty loafer.

Humming with adrenaline, Scott pulled with both arms. He heaved his legs up frog-like until his feet perched atop the windbreak, out of reach. His eyes cut up and down Titan Terrace, where there was…

(crap)

…absolutely no one.

“Help!”

The fence pitched backward. Jesse had two of the fence’s poles inside his fists. Scott watched the pole to his left uproot from its foundation in a burst of cement. Great. Super strength and super speed on the same team. His own power? Navigating telecommunication lines while his body remained behind, limp and defenseless. Hardly an equalizer.

Scott clamped the top bar of the fence under his armpit and threw a leg over. If he could just roll over the rest of the way, fall into the lawn, stumble toward the practice fields…

Jesse ripped the other pole free. Its conical base of cement and earth scraped over the green asphalt. The fence leaned inward. Scott had to contract even the tiniest muscles in his fingers and toes to maintain his hold.

Creed’s reedy laugh pierced the afternoon heat.

Scott closed his eyes in resignation. And he’d been having such a good day: the lunch with the Gamma pledges; The Pact; Janis in her Standards, the Alpha A there but hidden away; the growing feeling that he, Scott Spruel, belonged at Thirteenth Street High. Now, here he was, clinging to the top of a fence, being pursued by three future convicts, marinating in his own urine — and drooping.

Jesse’s hand clamped around his neck. “Let go,” he ordered.

Stale tobacco breath broke against Scott’s face. He opened his eyes and stared into Jesse’s huge nostrils. Warped chain linking billowed around them. Jesse’s other hand seized the bar to which Scott clung.

“I said, let it go.”

When Jesse squeezed, the bones in Scott’s neck crunched together, and his body went numb. He had been clasping the top of the fence snugly to his ribcage, but now he could hardly feel it. Was it slipping from his hold? Scott cried out, but not from that thought. Something was spiking through the numbness.

“Ow!” Jesse hollered.

The fence vaulted up several feet and bobbed. When Scott looked down, he found Jesse clenching his hand. Scott squirmed over the fence top, his neck sore, but sensation prickling back into his body like little electrical shocks.

“You’re dead!” Creed yelled.

Anticipating his escape, Scott held up his fist to Creed, thought about it, and then popped out his middle finger. Suicidal? Maybe, but man, it felt good. And with one leg over, he was already halfway home. It was just a matter of—

A jag of metal snagged the crotch of his pants. Threads popped as he strained, but the fence wouldn’t release him. Scott looked toward the gate, expecting to find it swung wide, Tyler running around to intercept him. But Tyler was still at his post, withdrawing his arm from beneath the windbreak for some reason. When the fence beneath him shook, Scott didn’t have to look to see Creed climbing toward him. Scott wriggled and whimpered, a fish on a hook.

“You’re mine now, you little shit,” Creed whispered from inches away.

Make that a fish fillet on a hook.

The door to the courts banged open. A tall man in blue coveralls and a straw hat appeared. In two steps, he had a wad of Tyler’s bleached hair and most of his ear inside his thick hand.

Scott stopped struggling and sagged in relief.

“What in the hell is going on in here?” Mr. Shine yelled, eyes blazing. He marched Tyler toward where Creed had leaped back down to the court. Tyler winced and staggered to keep up with his hair.

Creed showed his glove with the twin blades and began circling to Mr. Shine’s left. “There’s no trash in here, Geech, which means it ain’t none of your business. You follow?”

Still holding his hand, Jesse stood to his full height. “Yeah, go home.”

“Looks like I a’ready done made it my business,” Mr. Shine said, “and I’ll go home when I’m damn ready.” He shoved Tyler toward Jesse and, with as much speed as he’d reappeared Scott’s quarter the other day, produced a garbage pick from behind his back. Except this one looked longer than the one Scott had seen on his cart, sharper. Of course, last week the pick wasn’t being wielded like a spear. Mr. Shine’s teeth flashed white as he pointed it toward Creed.

Creed looked cross-eyed toward the pick’s tip as he retreated to Jesse’s side. Both held their palms out now, as if trying to placate a lunatic. A fresh pink line seared one of Jesse’s hands.

“We weren’t doing nothin’.” Jesse’s voice was suddenly high. “Just trying to help our friend.”

“Yeah, dummy was goofing around up there and got stuck,” Creed put in. “We kept tellin’ him not to—”

“Don’t story me, boy!” With the pick, Mr. Shine motioned toward the gate. “Git on out o’ here.”

Jesse and Creed looked at one another. Tyler stood at their backs, rubbing the side of his head.

“Git, I said. This ain’t no place to be horsin’ around.”

Creed swiped his bowler hat from the ground, then sauntered toward the exit. Jesse grumbled and followed. Tyler took up the rear. Mr. Shine held out the pick as if he were herding cattle, and Scott had no doubt he would prod any that went wayward. The three didn’t appear to have any doubt either. They were almost to the gate when Jesse turned his head. His pitted gray eyes found Scott’s.

“Help’s a funny thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t count on it showing up the next time.”

“Go on!” Mr. Shine said.

When the three were outside, Mr. Shine retreated toward Scott, then slid the pick through a strap on the back of his coveralls. Scott unhooked his pants easily now that he wasn’t being pursued, and he scaled down the fence.

When he dropped to the court, Mr. Shine supported him around the waist. “You all right?” His eyes were dark with concern.

“Just shaken up.” Scott wiped his nose. He hoped Mr. Shine couldn’t see that he’d wet himself.

“I don’t know what you did to get them riled,” he said, looking on the destroyed section of fence. “But them’s some ba-a-ad company. Need to watch yourself. Keep to you own business, hear?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. You got someone coming for you?”

“My dad.” He retrieved his backpack and pushed his sopping foot into his tossed-off loafer. “He’s going to pick me up in front.”

“Well, c’mon then. I’ll walk you over.” Mr. Shine clapped his large hand on Scott’s shoulder. “But remember now what I said ’bout your business. Them boys is nobody to be messing with.”

Scott nodded. He didn’t need to be told a second time.

15

Thirteenth Street High practice fields

Friday, September 28, 1984

3:34 p.m.

Janis bounced on her toes and then paced in front of the goal line. Cinching up her gloves, she flexed her fingers and bounced again. She felt springy. She felt good. If it weren’t for her damned nerves…

“Ready?” one of the assistant coaches asked, bringing a whistle to her teeth.

Janis nodded, blowing a strand of hair from her eye. She crouched and surveyed the four players about fifteen yards out from the goal. That afternoon marked the end of the first week of tryouts, and the coaches had opened the varsity tryouts to all grades. Janis rocked from one leg to the other. She had dominated the junior varsity tryouts that week.

The whistle blew.

But these weren’t junior varsity players.

The first shot came low and hard to Janis’s left. She dove and punched it away, skipped to her feet, and scrambled back to the center of the goal line. The next shot came straight at her, a bullet. She watched it into her stomach — umph! — and rolled it off to the assistant. The third shot went high and to her right. She followed it for a step, then let it sail over the goal. The spank of the final shot sounded quickly — too quickly — and the ball was already on its way to the opposite goalpost.

I’m not going to get there.

But like a ghost image, so faint she might have imagined it, Janis saw the ball careening off the post and angling toward the other side for a score. The image came to her in an instant. Janis pulled up, and when the actual ball did careen off the post, she was there to collect it.

The assistant coach blew her whistle. “Good anticipation, Janis.” Then to the four girls, she yelled, “Reset!”

The drill continued for the next thirty minutes. After set shots, the four girls dribbled and shot, seeming to come nearer the goal each time. Janis understood their frustration. They were aspiring varsity players after all — some of them seniors — and a freshman was denying them goal after needed goal. But the truth was, Janis could anticipate them, sometimes seeing the ball’s trajectory, sometimes just sensing it and reacting, like a reflex. And with every shot she tipped up, punched away, or watched into her possession, her confidence grew.

A few got past her. But only a very few.

When the coach blew the whistle for the final time, Janis’s hands were numb. Her thighs burned with fatigue. The air didn’t scorch as it had in August, but her face still felt like it was on fire. She also had the beginnings of a headache, twin screws in her temples. The assistant coach dismissed the other players, then consulted with Coach Hall, who had walked over to observe the last few rounds.

Janis pulled the stopper on the Gatorade sports bottle she’d parked next to the goalpost and squeezed a jet of warm water into her mouth. Her thin gold chain with its crucifix pendant had wriggled out during the drill, and she tucked it back beneath her collar. The chain had been a gift from her father for her thirteenth birthday. She touched it through her jersey as she watched the two coaches confer.

At last, Coach Hall tucked her clipboard under her arm and walked toward Janis. Her red cap was pulled low over her aviator sunglasses, the rest of her face a bed of frown lines.

“Go on and wrap up today’s practice with the other freshmen,” she said when she reached Janis.

In the sunglasses’ reflection, Janis’s lips quivered once. She nodded. “Okay.”

“But I want you back here Monday. You’re going to finish tryouts with varsity.”

This time, Janis’s lips tried their hardest not to smile.

  • * *

“It’s all the work you put in,” her father said.

Janis took another swallow of Coke and rested her arm on the windowsill. The late-day air felt good billowing around her, stealing away her perspiration. Her father had had the celebratory can of soda waiting for her when he pulled in to pick her up. He’d never doubted the news would be good.

“But now isn’t the time to rest on your laurels,” he counseled. “If anything, you have to be more prepared than ever.”

They pulled up to a light. When her father looked over, a thin mesh of wrinkles grew around his eyes, which was how he smiled. He shook her dusty knee where, for the first time, Janis noticed a dark patch of blood.

“But I know you know that.”

“Yeah, don’t worry. I’m not expecting next week to be any easier.”

“Good, Janis.” He turned back to the road. “Not enough people think that way. There are far too many receiving perks in this country through no diligence of their own. Too many government programs enabling that kind of ethos. They’re well intentioned, I’m sure, but self-defeating. Motivation, initiative…” He waved his hand. “That’s all done away with. And now we’re facing skyrocketing debt and a workforce that can’t compete with the Germanys and Japans anymore. It’s why we’re supporting Reagan again.”

“Mom, too?”

Her mother hadn’t been crazy about staking the Reagan/Bush ’84 sign in the front lawn.

“Well, your mother’s coming around. The sixties left a bit of a stain on her thinking, I’m afraid.”

As Janis lowered the can from her lips, she thought of the way her mother had smiled that night when, in a low voice, she shared her plans to return to school. Janis glanced over at her father. For the first time, she felt a wall going up over the part of herself that had always accepted his opinions as holy writ.

“Star says the debt is because the Republicans are spending money on missiles we don’t need and giving tax breaks to their rich friends. They want us to believe it’s because of welfare spending, but it’s really not.”

“This Star is a friend from school?”

Janis made herself nod.

“What Star needs to understand is that her country is responding to an aggressor that has vast nuclear armaments and has sworn our annihilation more than once. Her country is doing its best to protect her.”

“She says that’s a lie, too.”

They were passing a short strip mall with a convenience store and Laundromat, and her father swerved in. The car bounced against the drive, its bottom scraping the cement incline. Janis gasped and held her Coke up to keep it from spilling. The car cut into a space at the far end of the building that fronted a cinderblock wall. When her father pulled the emergency brake and looked over, his face was so solemn that Janis feared for a moment he was going to slap her. Not that he ever had.

“What is it?” Her eyes felt huge above her quivering lips. The last mouthful of Coke had turned sour on her tongue. She watched her father’s nostrils dilate, his eyes boring into hers.

“We knew that in high school you were going to be exposed to people with different opinions, different views of the world. It was why your mother and I were so demanding of you and your sister growing up. We wanted you to develop the capacity to think for yourselves. And you’ve done that. Your mother and I are very proud of who you and Margaret have become.”

But even as he said this, his face remained stern, his wiry brows nearly touching.

“For some reason, people often get swept up in movements and ideologies that sound moral and righteous but that are, in fact, defeatist. Defeatist for themselves — defeatist for their country. This happens even to intelligent people.”

“I wasn’t saying I believed what Star said.” A lump swelled in Janis’s throat. “I was just telling you…”

“I know.” He closed his eyes and exhaled. His brows drew apart. “But now that you’ve heard your friend’s version, I think it’s important that you hear the truth, even if it scares you. You’re old enough now.”

Janis watched her father’s face, which looked gray and grave in a way she’d never seen.

“You’re familiar with the Cold War, of course. You’ve studied its history in school.”

“Yes,” she said, but wasn’t sure her father heard.

“In the late years of World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union teamed up to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany. Americans advanced through western Europe, the Soviets through eastern Europe. They met at the River Elbe in Germany. Your grandfather was at the meeting point, in fact — your mother’s father. You were too young to remember, but he would tell stories about sharing photos and hand-rolled cigarettes with the Soviet rifle division in the spring of 1945.”

Her father gazed through the windshield as he spoke, and Janis wondered whether he was thinking about his own service in Korea, something he rarely talked about.

“But it was an alliance of convenience, you see. After World War II, the Soviet Army remained in eastern Europe, which had been Stalin’s plan all along. Where he didn’t expand the Soviet border, he installed puppet regimes in countries like Poland, Hungary, half of Germany. It’s why there’s an East and West Germany and a wall dividing Berlin. Communist governments, Janis. No democracy, no free will. Everything controlled by the state. The United States, meanwhile, sent billions in Marshall funds to rebuild western Europe and bulwark its governments from the spread of Soviet influence.”

In the past, whenever her father used to lecture her like this, Janis would have to fight the compulsion to roll her eyes, but there in the car, she could barely breathe. Like stones being set on her chest, his words bore weight.

“An arms race followed. More and deadlier missiles. The advent of the hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more powerful than its atomic predecessors. By the 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had hundreds of nuclear weapons pointed at one another. Did you learn the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction? MAD? It was the idea that a massive launch from one side could be answered with a massive counter-launch from the other. Both countries would be obliterated, you see? Which meant neither country could strike first. And this has been the basis for our peace for the last thirty years. But that may be changing.”

“How?” The question caught in Janis’s throat.

“The Russians have more sophisticated weapons than was previously believed, for one. They pulled ahead in the arms race, and now Reagan is determined to catch up. But it’s not just a matter of numbers anymore. Something else is happening.”

Janis was barely aware of cars coming in and out of the lot, their headlights washing past them and illuminating the dark dumpster that seemed to be squatting in the weeds beside them in wait.

“There are voices in the Soviet Politburo talking now as if a nuclear war can be won. That could be bluster, of course. But it could also mean they’ve discovered a method for launching a first strike that would go undetected until it was too late. Or perhaps they have the means to neutralize a counterstrike. Either way, there would be no retaliation. No Mutually Assured Destruction.”

The cinderblock wall beyond their windshield was dingy and littered with graffiti: crude messages about what this or that person would do, complete with phone numbers — the sort of thing that would normally have turned Janis crimson, especially with her dad beside her. But now the messages barely registered. She didn’t think he was seeing them either.

Janis’s fingers felt for her crucifix.

“I’m not telling you this to frighten you. I’m…” He took a breath and then a long look at her face. “You’re extremely intelligent, Janis. Extremely capable. You and your sister, both. And if this standoff continues to escalate, why, you may be called on one day to help your country. That’s why I’m telling you.”

Her father looked at her for another moment, then started the car and put it in reverse. By the time they rejoined the traffic on Sixteenth Avenue, her father seemed himself again, but everything around them — the entire world — felt different to Janis, as if it had fallen under a dark pall.

He snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot about movie night. Should we swing by Video World and pick up a rental?” He glanced down at the clock display. “There’s still time before dinner.”

“Oh, I’m going to the homecoming game tonight, remember?” Janis’s voice felt far away, as though someone else was saying the words. “And then sleeping over at Samantha’s.”

“Right, right…”

She peeked over to find her father facing straight ahead. Yes, he looked himself again, but knowing what he could look like made him look different, too. Though she tried, Janis could not forget how he’d appeared only a minute before. She could not forget what she’d seen on his face as he stared at the cinderblock wall. Fear. She had seen her father’s fear.

And that upset her more than anything he could have told her.

  • * *

“You all right?”

“Hmm?” Janis looked over at her best friend. She and Samantha were sitting at the top of the football stands in their softball-league jackets from the year before, the shouting of the student body surging and crashing beneath them like a restless surf. A cool gust of wind blew Janis’s hair across her face while Samantha’s boyish brown hair only fluttered. Janis pushed her hair back.

“You’ve barely said two words tonight. Everything cool?”

“Yeah. Just tired.”

On the field, the Ocala team kicked off the ball. It was late in the fourth quarter, and Thirteenth Street High was way ahead. Shrill screams rose around them again as Thirteenth Street’s return man ran the ball to the fifty. Cheerleaders high kicked and showed their shining teeth. A hyper group of freshmen boys turned around and demanded high fives.

Janis held her hands up, numb to the ensuing smacks.

“You’re not holding something back on me, are you?” Samantha asked.

There would be no retaliation No mutually assured destruction.

Janis thought for a second before shaking her head. Her friendship with Samantha had been founded on their passion for sports, not strange dreams or dark musings on the Cold War.

“Hey, isn’t that your man?”

For the first time that night, Blake was putting on his helmet and attaching the chin strap. Coach Coffer shouted something in his ear and shoved him onto the field. Blake jogged toward the huddle.

“Cute butt.” Samantha nudged Janis.

Janis could only nod vaguely. She had finally broken down that week and told Samantha about Blake. She’d seen him several times since he rescued her Alpha letter earlier that month — chance encounters in the hallway, mostly, where they would stop for a minute or two to chat. Just that morning, he’d wished her luck with the varsity soccer tryouts. She’d bitten back a smile, flattered that he’d even known about the tryouts, and responded by wishing him well in that evening’s game.

Blake chuckled. “Well, if we get far enough ahead, maybe Coach will stick me in for the final minutes. You know, just enough time to get me the reps but not enough to mess anything up.”

“You’ll do fine,” she said, placing her hand on his upper arm. The gesture startled Janice, but it had seemed so natural, as if her hand was drawn to the purple mesh jersey, to the swell of his triceps.

She gave his arm a tentative squeeze, then drew her hand away.

“Thanks.” His voice had sounded as soft as his dimples. “I’ll remember you said that.”

From the bleachers, Janis watched Blake run the second-team offense in the game’s waning minutes. Coach “Two F’s” Coffer mostly had him hand the ball off to the backs, but on the final play, Blake faked a handoff and sprinted around the end. With the goal line in reach, he took a knee. Screams collapsed to groans, but Janis understood. The game was won and Blake was showing class.

The cheers picked up again as the final seconds ticked away. Players clapped one another’s helmets. Cheerleaders rustled their pom-poms. But from Janis’s numb distance, the action seemed to be taking place among stage actors and collapsible set pieces.

This can all end, she thought. This can all be blown away.

She zipped her jacket slowly and pushed her hands into her pockets. “Hey, um, I think I’m going to catch a ride home with Margaret.”

“What about the sleepover?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry.” Janis tried to smile. “Tryouts whipped me pretty good.”

“Oh. That’s cool.”

In the quick movement of Samantha’s eyes, Janis felt a chasm separating them. She wondered if they hadn’t started drifting apart that summer when she began having the strange dreams — dreams she’d been too weirded out to share, even with her best friend. Janis wondered, too, if her decision to stick with Alpha hadn’t further separated them. After all, Alpha had deprived them of lunches together. And with Janis possibly earning a spot on varsity soon, they would no longer be practicing soccer together, either.

“We’ll do it another time,” Janis said. “I promise.”

“It’s cool,” Samantha repeated but without looking up. “Well, my mom’s probably waiting out front. I should get going.” She turned and began picking her way down the emptying stands.

Janis stood watching her, wondering whether there would be another time after all.

16

“What are you seeing?” the man asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” the woman replied.

“I don’t like it.”

“Is something the matter, sir?”

“There have been no energetic disturbances around the girl’s house since the end of last month. They’ve just stopped.”

“I see.”

“Similarly, the boy hasn’t been on his computer in the same amount of time.”

“Do you believe there’s a connection?”

“I’m not sure yet. Have they been communicating with one another?”

“Negative, sir.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“If it’s any assurance, they both seem engrossed in high school. I don’t believe we’d be seeing that if…”

“Keep a close eye on them regardless,” the man said. “We’re entering a critical period.”

“Yes, sir.”

17

Friday, October 5, 1984

7:09 p.m.

“Not very many cars.” Scott’s father scrunched up his thick glasses and dipped his shaggy head to peer past Scott. “The front porch light isn’t even on. Sure you’ve got the right house, Ace?”

Scott quickly read the numbers on the mailbox, then looked down at the invitation for the Alpha-Gamma gala, covering the address with his thumb. “It’s supposed to be 2624. Let’s see…” He pretended to search around. “Yup, says it right there on the box. I’m just a little early.”

“Do you want me to wait to make sure?”

“Naw, I’m fine.” He opened the car door and stepped out into the dusky street.

“All right. Well, call me when it’s over. I’ve got Christine loaded in the Betamax. It’s supposed to be a horror flick, but Jagu over at Video World says it’s a riot. Har, har, har! Then I’ve got the latest Dirty Harry flick, Sudden Impact.”

His dad cocked his head and started to squint, but before he could get off his horrendous Clint Eastwood impression, Scott closed the door. When he stood up, all he could see was his father’s belly over the steering wheel. Scott half-waved, half-shooed at him, then took a couple of slow steps toward the affluent-looking house as his father’s Volkswagen droned away. When the taillights had grown small enough, Scott headed toward the actual house, which was two blocks over.

Sorry, Dad, but tonight’s too important.

And it would not be out of character for his father to shout something mortifying from the car as the front door was opening: “Don’t feed him after midnight! Har, har, har, har!”

Scott walked briskly, touching his hair. He’d spent an hour in the bathroom with a blow-dryer and a comb, trying for a feathered style like Blake’s. In the end, he’d rewet his hair and combed it forward. At least the Bud Body book had arrived that week. In the first exercises, Bud had him skipping in circles, pulling imaginary ropes, and slathering his body with vegetable oil in order to “succor the muscle tissue.” Scott had been skeptical, but tensing now, he thought he felt the beginnings of a line separating his pectorals.

He winced when he cupped his bicep. He’d forgotten about the fading brown band on the inside of his arm. Another one marred his upper ribcage on the same side. They were from the day at the tennis courts a month earlier, when the fence he had clung to became… electric? With his cervical nerves being crushed inside Jesse’s pinch, Scott hadn’t been able to feel more than a faint burning. But by the next morning, two raw bands had appeared, their surfaces mottled with blisters like toadstools risen after a humid rain.

Scott was still trying to make sense of it all: Jesse’s strength… Creed’s speed… And what about Tyler? Before Mr. Shine appeared, Tyler had been retracting his arm from beneath the windbreak. Had he shot current through the fence? Scott straightened his glasses. He couldn’t exactly stroll up to Tyler and ask him. Ever since the incident on the courts, he’d been taking extra care to avoid those guys, his ears attuned to the faintest rumbling of the Chevelle.

Scott squinted ahead, penny loafers slapping the sidewalk, pink argyle socks poking out from beneath the hems of his cream-colored slacks. He spotted Margaret Graystone’s Prelude parked among the many cars cramming one particular driveway.

Ooh, boy.

He fanned his face with the invitation. All the curtains on the ground level of the castle-like home had been pushed open, and light shone out into the yard. Inside, young men and women in formal attire sipped drinks and palmed cocktail napkins, some of them tipping their heads back in laughter.

You’re out of your class.

Scott slowed at the foot of the walkway. It was the voice again, the one that had been haunting him since the first Gamma meeting. But he’d done fine so far, he reminded himself. The lunches, where he was beginning to feel comfortable with the other pledges, truly comfortable; the Standards; the two Saturday morning service projects he had attended; even the push-ups and sprints the older members sprung on him from time to time — he’d done fine with all of them.

But the pledge period isn’t even half over, Scott. There’s still plenty of time. Plenty of time for them to see you don’t belong.

Scott shouldered the doubting voice aside and continued up the walkway. A couple was stepping outside when he reached the front porch, and he used the opportunity to slip through the front door. He found himself on a Persian carpet, marble columns standing like sentries beside two doorways. Conversation and music poured in from his left, Chaka Khan, from what little he knew of music.

He ran his hands down the lapels of his Miami-blue blazer, adjusted his pink knit tie, muttered a prayer, and stepped around the corner. The Alpha and Gamma members were spread over the living room. Several clustered around a sleek black piano, singing a rousing song Scott didn’t recognize. Something about a piano man. Cologne and perfume intermingled in an intoxicating bouquet. Scott’s gaze flitted around for the other pledges while his damp hands alternately clasped in front of him and hid in his pockets. He recognized several of the older brothers and raised his chin when they looked his way, but their eyes showed only the dimmest recognition.

That’s what you get for hiding in the back all the time.

It was true. For the last month, Scott had been trying to have it both ways: participating without being seen — or at least without drawing attention to himself. And that’s where he was still conceding to the doubting voice, to his beleaguered past. To be seen was to risk being singled out.

Yeah, but not to be seen is to miss out altogether.

At last he spotted the back of an Ovaltine-colored bowl cut across the room. Scott smiled in relief and made his way over.

Sweet Pea was standing in front of a glass-topped table arrayed with drinks and platters of hors d’oeuvres. He glanced up. In his bowtie and too-small blue suit, he looked like a parody of Spanky from The Little Rascals.

“Whaddya say there, Stretch?”

“Hey, not much.”

Sweet Pea was fixing a plate of food, though loading it was more like it.

Scott stepped up beside him and poured himself a Pepsi. “Been here long?”

“Long enough to pick out the four chicks I’m taking home.”

Scott’s laughter came out louder than it felt. When Sweet Pea turned, his plate was heaped so high with shrimp and cocktail sauce, he might as well have just taken the whole platter.

“Gawd!” Sweet Pea exclaimed around his first wet mouthful, wide eyes sweeping the room. “There’s nothing but nines and tens in here. All right, maybe a couple of eights.” He elbowed Scott in the side and lowered his voice. “What do you figure her for? Size D?”

Scott followed Sweet Pea’s gaze, not knowing what he was talking about. They were apparently looking at a young woman whose breasts jogged inside her dress every time she laughed.

“Yeah, D sounds about right.” Scott brought his cup to his lips.

“Well, she’s not in training anymore, that’s for sure.” That got another elbow into Scott’s side, and Sweet Pea snorted on cue. He suckled his fingers, then wiped them against his round thigh. He popped two more shrimp into his mouth. “Got your eye on anyone, Stretch?”

Scott’s ears prickled. “Hmm?” He took a sip of Pepsi.

“You know — chicks, babes, broads, honeys — whatever you like to call them. Anyone in particular getting you hard?” He lowered his voice. “Better yet, any of them getting you off?”

The way Sweet Pea leered up at him, gobs of cocktail sauce ringing his lips, made Scott want to pack up his feelings for Janis and carry them someplace far away.

“I guess I’m still looking,” he said quietly.

“Playing the field, huh? I like that.” Another shot to the ribs. He brought his hand to his mouth like a megaphone. “DID YOU HEAR THAT, LADIES? MY FRIEND HERE IS A FREE AGENTAND LOOKING! AND THEY DON’T CALL HIM STRETCH FOR NOTHING!”

Scott’s face exploded with heat. He spun toward the table, head down, and pretended to fix himself a plate. “What did you do that for?” he hissed from the side of his mouth.

“Hey, I was doing you a favor. I thought there might be some takers.”

Scott started to shake his head, but from his new vantage he could see into what looked like a den, where several other Gamma pledges mingled. Alpha pledges were down there as well, one he recognized from his English class. And then his heart changed in tenor from the hard, humiliated thuds of only seconds ago, to a fresh, fast thumping.

Janis was down there.

He pushed up his glasses and zeroed in. Yes, she was sitting on the couch, talking with another Alpha pledge. He watched the small movements of her head, her close-lipped smile, the way she palmed her drink in the lap of her black dress. Scott wasn’t sure how he had missed her at first. Her red hair illuminated the room. To her left sat an empty couch seat.

There it is, Scott, your opening. Your opportunity.

“Hey, uh… wait here,” he told Sweet Pea. “I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t you worry,” Sweet Pea answered, fixating on a trio of young women chatting in front of him. “This puppy’s not going anywhere.”

Good.

He needed to concentrate, needed to focus. What he didn’t need was Sweet Pea making his entrance behind him and trumpeting that same horrifying declaration to all of the pledges. Scott edged his way along the refreshment table. At the bottom of three white-carpeted steps he drained the last of his Pepsi and crushed the ice between his teeth. This was the whole reason he’d pledged Gamma.

This was His Moment.

The couch sat on the far side of the room, beside a mirrored fireplace. And for a second, it seemed an impossible distance to Scott, as impossible as the distance separating their houses. He dropped his empty cup in a planter and began fording the room. Pledges in formal wear eddied around him. Scott never shifted his gaze. His focus, his everything, remained on Janis, on her smooth cascade of hair, on her muscular calves, on the unclaimed seat beside her. And the nearer Scott drew to that seat, the more certain he became that someone was going to appear from nowhere and plop blithely down. He tried to swim his limbs faster.

A Gamma pledge passed in front of the couch and paused. Sharp-dressing, smooth-talking Jeffrey Bateman. Disappointment guttered in Scott’s stomach like cold fire. Jeffrey pulled up the knees of his slacks and began to squat, but then raised his hand to someone and strode from the couch.

And then Scott was beside her.

He sat. Air hissed from the leather couch cushion, and he felt himself sinking. Soon, his eyes were level with his knees.

It just can’t be easy, can it?

He peeked over at Janis, who still faced the pledge to her right. For a moment, he was struck by the closeness of her hair, its smooth, almost glossy, sheen. Scott managed to scoot himself out of the hole and to the couch’s edge. He perched forward, an elbow propped on his knee, and angled himself so as to appear interested in whatever they were discussing.

“…so we’re going up there over winter break to tour the campuses,” the girl with the frizzy hair was saying to Janis. “My dad was a Blue Devil, so that’s his first choice for me, you know? But I sorta like Wake Forest.”

Janis hmmed.

Scott hmmed behind her, but it was too soft, a low note buried in the chatter around them. The girl’s rapidly blinking eyes never left Janis’s.

“They’re totally hard to get into, though. Dad says I should have some backups. You know, for just in case.” She went on to list the lesser schools she was considering, none of them familiar to Scott.

He hmmed anyway.

That got no reaction either. And he was sliding backward, sinking into the cushion again. Scott leaned against the back of the couch to slide himself out. And his seat flipped open. The couch featured a recliner on the end, but Scott didn’t realize that, not at first. He believed he was overturning the whole thing. Someone screamed. He flailed an arm over to catch Janis, but his wrist jammed against the adjoining section of couch, which hadn’t moved. When he rattled to a rest, he was nearly flat, the tops of his penny loafers staring back at him.

Laughter rose around him. Scott pressed his calves against the leg rest with such force that he was bolted upright and nearly launched from the seat. For a moment, the room jittered in his vision. This second maneuver earned him more laughter, and Scott could feel the old shame exploding over his face like a devilish case of acne.

“All ri-i-ight!” Sweet Pea cried from the top of the steps. “Now [_that’s _]what I call a ten!”

The room cheered, and Scott realized then that the laughter hadn’t been cruel or demeaning, just fraternal. His throat convulsed around a chuckle. Sweet Pea gave him a thumbs-up. And just like that, the room fell into jumbled voices again, the baking spotlight off of him.

Then Scott remembered the scream. He turned to find Janis’s friend standing with one arm held out in front of her, looking from her black and white polka-dot dress to the cup, where whatever had sloshed out was still dripping from her fingers onto the glass coffee table.

“Oh, my god,” Scott stammered. “I-I’m so sorry.”

The girl glared at Scott, set the cup down, and ran off in search of a bathroom.

Scott turned to Janis. “I really didn’t mean to. Should I…?” He gestured to where the pledge had disappeared, not knowing how to complete the thought. He was waiting for Janis to curl her lip at him and go storming after her friend.

“Oh, she’ll get over it.” Janis waved her hand. “It’s just water.”

He exhaled. “Thank goodness.”

Janis smiled and laughed, which made Scott laugh, too. He stooped to straighten his pant legs and, when he sat up, found her head tilted toward his. He breathed the clean scent of her hair.

“Actually, I should be the one thanking you,” she whispered. “Debbie’s been obsessing about colleges for the last month, but tonight it was reaching a whole new level. I didn’t think she was ever going to shut up.”

“Always happy to be of service.” Scott winced at what he was about to say but said it anyway. “Need a conversation crashed? Call Scott Spruel. Should be getting those business cards printed up any day now.”

Janis giggled and leaned against him. It lasted only a moment, but for that whole moment, Scott’s senses swam.

She leaned away and looked at him thoughtfully. “You know, I was just thinking about you the other day.”

“Really?” He tried to appear calm even as his mind blew apart.

“Do you remember how we used to play in the woods? When we were kids?”

“Yeah, of course.”

[You were the superior shark’s tooth hunter, I’ll admit, but _]I[ built the better forts._] He was pretty sure that would have gotten another laugh, maybe even another lean, but he didn’t say it. He didn’t want to sidetrack her from whatever she was about to reveal to him.

“That’s what I was thinking about,” she finished.

“Um… oh.”

“Do you ever go in there anymore?” she asked.

Only the time I went to spy on you while you were practicing against your garage door.

He shook his head. “Not lately.”

“No, me neither.”

She was looking off to his right, and Scott wondered if the house and the party had become as distant for her as it had for him. He watched her eyes, green eyes, he remembered now. You couldn’t see the green from a distance because it melded so cleanly with the chestnut spires of her irises. You could only see the green up close, face to face.

“It was our world in there, wasn’t it?” she asked, squinting slightly. “Back then?”

He nodded, not quite sure what she meant.

She asked, “Do you remember how, when you went in far enough, especially in the summer, you couldn’t even see the houses anymore? It was just the trees and creek and us, I guess. Whatever we were doing. Whatever we were imagining. The only time our parents ever came in after us was to call us home.”

“I remember.”

  • * *

And Scott remembered because he was seeing it, experiencing it — an episode, anyway. He and Janis were walking along a towering oak that had recently fallen, giving them access to a part of the woods that sank into a low bog. They had always avoided the bog in the past. It smelled like toilet water, for one, and was next to impassable, for another. Plus, they imagined all kinds of creatures and dangers lurking inside, quicksand not the least of them.

How old were they? Eight? Scott wasn’t sure. It was mid summer and they were pretending to be explorers — that much he did remember. As Janis stepped over a limb, she reached back for his hand to balance herself. She was maybe an inch taller than he, her cheeks splashed with bright freckles. And even though he was still aware of himself on the couch, he could hear the whine of mosquitoes and smell the stinging repellant his mother would spray over him in coats. And not only could he see Janis, the girl, he could feel her small hand around his own.

“Whatever you do, don’t fall in.” She stopped on the other side of the limb to help him over, then pointed with a stick she was holding in her hand. “That’s where the water moccasins live.”

Scott squinted into the reedy water but couldn’t see anything.

“C’mon,” she said.

He followed her down the trunk and along a treacherous path of limbs and bifurcations. Squinting, they pushed through showers of branches whose narrow leaves were already browning and flittering into the water. She clambered ahead while he took more care, kneeling down whenever he began to totter. The tree seemed enormous, as if they could keep walking along it forever. He really did feel like an explorer, and the water world they traversed, though only a few hundred yards from their street, looked foreign to him and strange.

Soon, the limbs narrowed and shifted under their feet. Janis took him down a limb that dipped into the bog before emerging again. They got on both sides of the dip and squatted. The tips of Janis’s battered green Keds touched the brown water, but she didn’t seem to notice.

They were peering into an alien world, where little black beetles sped on the water’s surface in circles, like mercury squeezed out in drops. Long-legged insects skated past. And then they did see a snake, maybe even a water moccasin. It lay in a black coil at the bottom of the bog. Janis prodded it with her stick, and they watched it wriggle from sight, mud kicking up around it.

An alien world, yes. But best of all, it was their world, his and Janis’s. She had been right about that, and he felt himself nodding even as he remained immersed in the memory.

Janis swatted a mosquito on her arm, then stood up and looked around. Scott straightened his plastic glasses and followed her example. From their vantage, they could see the cement wall of the levee through the trees. It ran from Sixteenth Avenue around the Meadows on the far side of the creek. Janis had told him her father said it was for when the creek flooded, which happened most summers. It wasn’t to protect their neighborhood but the lower-lying ones around it.

“Hey, look,” Janis said. “If we jump down there, we’ll be past the swamp. We can follow the creek to the end of the Meadows.”

That seemed like a grand idea to Scott. The Meadows consisted of a single street with three shorter streets coming off of it, Janis’s street being the first one. The end of the Meadows, though modest in street distance, seemed really far away in woods distance. And they had never been that far in the woods before.

“All right,” he said.

They made their way toward the end of the oak tree’s branch and scampered down. The ground squished under the soles of their sneakers but soon became solid as they cleared the tall grass bordering the bog. They now looked out into more familiar woods of scrub oak and pine. The creek chuckled off to their left. Janis marched ahead, whacking saw palmettos with her stick as they passed. Scott did the same, imagining the palmettos were brigands come to steal their rations. Both of them had scratches on their legs, the ones suffered in earlier excursions already scabbed over. That always surprised Scott — they could bleed and heal without realizing their skin had been torn in the first place. It was part of the magic of the woods.

“Hey, is that Mrs. Thornton’s house?” Scott whispered.

He aimed his stick off to the right where color showed through the trees. The Thorntons lived four houses from the end of the Meadows. Mrs. Thornton had one of those old-fashioned bikes with a metal basket in front, and she rode it through the neighborhood like Miss Gulch from the Wizard of Oz. Her eyes stayed hidden behind brown sunglasses, lips pulled in as though she had just tasted something sour. She yelled at Scott once for “loitering” in front of her house on his clamp-on skates (he had fallen). Scott and Janis were sufficiently afraid of her that they skipped the end of the Meadows on Halloween, which was saying something.

“Yeah,” Janis whispered. “We better stay back until we’re past it.”

They watched the house through the trees as they crept along, following the bank of the creek. The houses always looked different to Scott from behind than from the street — sinister, almost — as though maybe that was the side you weren’t supposed to see. And Scott had never seen these houses from behind before. They made it past the Thorntons’ and then the one beyond that. Through the slats of a fence, Scott could make out the aqua tiling of a swimming pool. Though they hadn’t meant to, they were drawing nearer to the backyards, where tangled growth met fencing and barbered lawns. The course of the creek seemed to be pushing them there.

The next house stood large and dark, and Scott couldn’t even remember it now from the street.

“Maybe we should go back,” he whispered.

“Just one more, and we’ll be at the end of the Meadows.” Hoarse excitement scored Janis’s voice. She was always the more adventurous. “We don’t even have to go all the way, just to the edge of the last property line. But we’ll still be able to say we went to the end.”

He wanted to ask her about Samson. One of the houses down there was supposed to have an attack dog, though Scott wasn’t sure which house. His mother was always telling him never to play at the end of the street, in case Samson got out. Samson. The name held a grave fascination for him, as if it belonged to a mythical beast. But standing there, Scott felt the fascination turning to dread, like a belt cinching his aorta. He was certain that the tall house with the iron fence was the one — Samson’s house. He looked back the way they had come and then into Janis’s determined eyes.

“Please,” she whispered, squeezing his hand.

He agreed even as his fear centers begged him not to. The thing was, he liked Janis, liked her a lot. And being the only girl he liked — the only girl he really knew — Scott just assumed they’d be married someday. Janis smiled and led him forward again. The woods fell under a shadow as palmettos gave way to woody vines and a dim carpet of poison ivy. Janis seemed to know where to step to avoid the ivy without even looking down. Scott followed her until she pulled up.

“Did you hear that?” Her ponytail swished like a flame as she peered from side to side.

Scott listened. “You’re just trying to scare—”

“Shh!”

And then Scott heard it too: a low growl that ended in what sounded like a dry cough. Gooseflesh broke over him until it felt as if someone was trying to lift him by his hairs. Scott saw him before Janis did. And what terrified him the most was not his nearness, but that he had waited until that moment to announce himself. How long had he been watching them?

“Get behind me,” Scott whispered.

“What? What do you see?”

“We need to back away. Slowly.”

He crouched and held the stick out in front of them. Thin and not very long, the stick looked like a wand with which he was trying to cast a warding spell. And in his mind, that’s exactly what he was doing: muttering incantations, hoping beyond hope that Samson could hear him somehow — and would heed him.

Stay right there… We’re leaving… Please… Please don’t come any closer.

He placed one foot behind himself and then, very gently, his other. Janis clung to his shoulders. He could tell by the movement of her breath, first over his left ear then his right, that she still hadn’t spotted him.

“Where?” she whispered.

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t afford to become distracted. He would learn later that you were never supposed to lock eyes with an aggressive dog, that the primitive part of its brain would interpret the signal as a challenge. But Scott was certain that the moment he dropped his gaze, Samson would charge. He could see the thought process inside the dog’s obsidian eyes: why bite their arms when he could have one of their throats in his jaws before they knew what was happening?

Scott took another step back. The Rottweiler sprinted from the shadows, barking savagely. In the time it took for Janis to scream, the beast halved the distance and pulled up, his scarred muzzle wrinkling from a pair of dagger-like canines. The muscles beneath his chest vibrated, as though the least stimulus would set them off. Pound for pound, he was bigger than either of them.

“Shhh…” Scott whispered, not to Janis, but toward the dog. Fear had numbed his body into an insensate shell, like the papier-mâché globes they had made at school the year before with strips of newspaper and flour-based paste. And it felt to Scott as if he was peering out from the inside of his own globe, from that cool hollow where he had popped the balloon and pulled out its flaccid skin.

Strangely, his fear was the only thing keeping him calm. He hoped to project that calm onto Samson somehow.

“Shhh…” Scott whispered again, the stick still held up in front of them. With his other hand, he felt behind for Janis.

Samson growled from the pit of his stomach.

Can I have your attention, please?

  • * *

Scott started and found himself on a couch, Janis beside him. But she was a more mature version of the Janis he had just been with in the woods, a stunning version.

And then, with the same rapidity with which the party sounds and a Madonna song climbed around them, Scott remembered where he was, who he was. He straightened himself. Janis was looking down between them, and when Scott followed her gaze, he found his hand holding hers.

“Oh!” He fumbled to release her. “I’m so sorry — I didn’t—”

Someone whistled sharply. “Hey! Can I have your attention?”

They looked up to where Britt, Gamma’s sergeant at arms, stood. He was also Scott’s older Gamma brother, who, as older brothers went, had turned out to be indifferent more than anything.

Behind Britt, someone turned down the music. Voices fell.

Britt smiled. “That’s more like it.” He was wearing a white tuxedo, which might have explained why he was speaking with more than his usual refinement. He waved the pledges into the dining room. “The presidents of Alpha and Gamma would like to make a toast.”

“I’m all right,” Janis whispered to Scott, holding her own hand now.

When their eyes met, perplexity wrinkled the space between her brows. She stood and, with a backward glance, joined the other pledges filing up the three steps. Beyond their heads, Scott could see slices of Grant Sidwell and Margaret Graystone standing in the center of the dining room, drinks in hand. Scott followed the pledges but at the last moment veered down the hallway.

Squinting against the bright lights of the bathroom, Scott locked the door and leaned his arms against the marble countertop.

What in the world just happened?

That day in the woods — he hadn’t been just remembering the experience, he had been inside of it, reliving it. Had he just completely zoned out? Had he slumped there like a zombie while Janis sat watching him? He must have. And why was his hand holding hers? How had that happened?

He filled the sink with cold water and scooped it against his face, trying to drown the memory of that final bewildered look Janis had given him. Way to go, Sport. Way to freak her out.

Through the door, he heard shouts of “Hear! Hear!”

“All right,” he told himself as he toweled his face off. “This thing goes until eleven. There’s still time. There’s still time to fix this.” He cleared his throat and spoke into the huge mirror. “Oh, hey, Janis. Sorry about blanking out on you a minute ago. I’ve got this weird epilepsy thing I contracted while, um, watching an episode of The Space Giants. No, no, I’m fine. And don’t worry, it’s not contagious or anything.” He forced a weak laugh.

When Scott emerged, he found Janis across the living room. For a second he thought she was raising her hand toward him, but she was only pushing a strand of hair behind her ear, her gaze fixed on whomever she was talking to. It was not until he skirted a group in the center of the room that he saw the person in Janis’s company: Blake Farrier. It was a bye week, Scott remembered — no football game.

Scott took another step nearer, but something about their closeness told Scott that their conversation would not be welcoming of a third party. He’d get no points for barging in and spilling a drink this time. And Blake looked so solid standing there, so self-possessed. When Janis’s lips turned up at something he said, Scott’s heart crumpled into a wad.

He retreated to the refreshment table, where Sweet Pea was encamped again, a plate piled high to either side. Scott watched their faces from across the room.

Blake and Janis were still together when, an hour later, Scott went to the kitchen to call his father. As he returned through the pillars of the front hallway, he raised his hand to the living room, to no one, then went slouching out into the night, toward the house where his father had dropped him off.

18

“Blake asked me out,” Janis said.

Margaret turned toward her. “Out out? Like on a date?” She smirked and returned her gaze to the road. “I was wondering why you were being so quiet.”

They had just dropped Feather Heather off, and the Prelude’s headlights were sweeping an arc past the Oakwood sign. The Alpha-Gamma gala had gone until almost eleven o’clock, and Margaret and Janis had stayed late to help Kelly and her parents clean up.

“How did he ask you?”

“He said he was getting his driver’s license this week and invited me to a movie next Saturday.”

“And you said…?” Margaret was watching her from the edge of her vision, ready to critique any missteps in her answer.

“I said that it sounded nice but that, yes, I would have to check with Dad.”

Margaret nodded her approval. “You always want them to know you have a father looking out for you. That’s very important. It separates the ones who are serious about you from the sleazeballs.” She patted Janis’s knee. “But I happen to know that Blake is one of the good ones. I’ll be happy to put in a word to Dad for you.”

“Thanks.”

“He’ll still want to meet him, of course.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, how does it feel,” Margaret asked, steering them into the Meadows, “your first time being asked out in high school? You seem sort of, I don’t know, blasé about the whole thing.”

Janis watched the road. How did she feel? In the moment it happened, it had seemed surreal. Blake had found her after the toast and congratulated her for making the varsity team that day. (She was the first freshman in eight years to be selected — and he knew that as well, somehow). From there, they had fallen into the kind of conversation people have when they both know they’re interested in each other and, for the first time, they’re beginning to suspect that the feeling might be mutual: conversation that’s intimate and excited but a little guarded at the same time, a little frightened. Then Blake was telling her about his driver’s license. He was asking her about a movie together. And as Janis wrote down her number on his invitation, she realized that if they had still been in middle school, if it had been only a year or two earlier, she would have written it down on the palm of his hand.

Yes, surreal was definitely the word for it.

But with a little distance, Janis wondered whether the sphere of their conversation, his asking her out, had felt that way for the very reason that it was so far removed from the fear and strangeness that was becoming her life, her reality.

That week, Janis had become more attuned to the news during dinner. The bulk of coverage dealt with the presidential election. (Mondale wasn’t seen as having a spitting chance in November, and even though her mother didn’t say it, Janis could tell that the news depressed her.) Janis paid closer attention to the international stories, the coverage seeming to fit with what her father had told her. U.S.-Soviet relations were as tense as they’d been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reagan was talking about building a missile defense system in space — “Star Wars” they were dubbing it. Even Reagan’s call for an arms reduction treaty seemed to fit. After all, why try to change the rules of the game unless the other team was winning under the old rules?

And during P.E. that Monday, Janis had overheard a fellow student — a nerd, she supposed — telling another student that “the Doomsday Clock” had been moved to three minutes until midnight that year.

“What does that mean?” she’d asked, her shoe still propped on the gym bleachers where she’d gone to tie it.

At first, the student, seated on the bleachers, had only responded by stroking his frayed mustache, grinning up in a way that made his smallish eyes press together. When he spoke, his voice was thin and arrogant. “Well, well, a neophyte doth seeketh a sip from the fountain of knowledge.” He turned to an Asian student beside him. “What say you, Chun? Is this one worthy?”

“Oh, forget it,” Janis muttered.

He spoke rapidly to her back. “The Doomsday Clock is a feature of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists put out by the University of Chicago. The minute hand represents the statistical probability of global nuclear war.” He gasped for breath. “The scientists adjust it depending on how far or close we are. I was just telling Chun that they adjusted it up another minute this year.”

“Is three until midnight really close?” she asked. “Is it bad?”

“Put it this way.” Now that he had her attention again, arrogance crept back into his voice. “It’s the closest we’ve been since 1962, when things were really looking hairy. Two til midnight means we’ve probably crossed the point of no return. One til midnight, and we’ve actually punched the launch codes and are on alert for the final executive order before…” He traced out a trajectory with his finger while he whistled, then he threw his hand open. “Good night, sweet princess.”

Beside him, Chun had nodded. “Affirmative, it’s bad.”

So maybe that’s what it was, Janis thought, sitting beside Margaret. At the beginning of the school year, she had tried to leave her nighttime experiences for the normal, the everyday, only to learn in the last week that “the everyday” was three minutes from being blown to shit. But with Blake, she had a place she could feel normal and safe again, even if she knew it was illusory.

“I’m not sure how I feel.” She turned to Margaret. “I probably just need more time.”

“Well, there’s no hurry. No need to rush anything.” Margaret snapped off the headlights and killed the engine. “Just look at me and Kevin. We started dating as freshmen, too.”

In the darkness, Janis rolled her eyes.

“If you ever have any questions, you can talk to one or both of us.” Margaret unbuckled her seat belt and looked at Janis with a maternal tuck of her chin. “I mean it.”

Janis thanked her dryly as she got out of the car. At the top of the hill and across the street sat the Spruels’ house, a single-story white brick home like theirs, but with navy blue instead of coffee brown trim. The light was on in Scott’s bedroom, Janis noticed. She caught her gaze lingering on the solitary glow as she followed Margaret up to the front porch.

While Margaret dug inside her purse for her keys, Tiger trotted up and began sideswiping Janis’s legs with her body. The cat looked at her with dilated pupils, her meow ending in a question mark.

Janis stooped to scratch her behind the ears. “I’m going to stay out and pet Tiger a few minutes.”

“All right.” Margaret found the key. “Just remember to lock the door when you come in.”

Janis waited for the front door to click closed before making her way back down the semi-circular driveway, Tiger padding behind her. When Janis reached the street, she looked toward Scott’s house again. Tiger mewled and pushed her head against Janis’s calf, no doubt wondering where her ear-scratcher had gone. Janis sat on the curb and let Tiger hop onto her lap.

Her and Scott’ conversation had begun normally enough. But when she looked at his face, she remembered her childhood in the woods. Or more precisely, she remembered she’d been thinking about it that week — a lot. The woods had been her refuge from the adult world. There was no one inside them to scold or shame her, telling her it’s “this not that” or “that not this.” No hydrogen bombs, no arms race, no Mutually Assured Destruction. No one hinting about her responsibilities in a future whose very existence looked doubtful to begin with.

The world beyond the cul-de-sac had belonged to them, and they to that world. It seemed funny to her that she’d tried to explain those feelings to Scott, that she’d opened up to him — and funnier still that he’d seemed to understand.

Janis looked down at Tiger, who was gouging her knees contentedly. Janis stroked her purring body and shifted her attention back to Scott’s house. All year, she had barely recognized him as the same person. He was taller, neater, more appearance conscious, it seemed. Yet his eyes hadn’t changed. She had realized that only tonight, seeing him up close. Yes, beyond the lenses were the same questioning eyes she remembered from when they used to play in the woods together.

And that’s where things had really gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs because without warning, she’d been in the woods again. Not just remembering being there, but actually there. She was a kid — eight, probably — on the summer day she and Scott had crossed the big tree and tried to venture to the end of the Meadows.

She had screamed when the dog came out of nowhere and charged them. She never used to scream — thought it was for a sissier class of girl — but the sudden appearance of the Rottweiler, huge and ferocious, had wrenched the piercing cry from her chest. Janis remembered looking at the twin rust-colored spots at its clenched brow because to look into its eyes or its mouth of bared teeth was too much. She would have screamed again. She squeezed Scott’s shoulders, who eased them back, eased them away, his stick held out in front of them.

And then Britt whistled from the steps, and the woods and the dog vanished, the room oscillating back into being. She found herself on the couch, Scott beside her, holding her hand. Had she passed out? Had he been trying to revive her? But as her head cleared, as the room stilled and sharpened around her, he seemed as startled as she was.

Gazing on his window now, she wondered if something similar had happened to him.

A god of doorways, Mrs. Fern had said. One face looking to the past. The other peering ahead, to the future.

Janis thought about that. All week at tryouts, she had been seeing ghostlike images of soccer balls in motion. They were faint and fleeting, but they gave her just enough time to react, to position herself. Wasn’t that peering into the future? She hadn’t thought about it in that way, but wasn’t it? And then this experience of the past — not just peering there but going there, being there.

And had she taken Scott with her, somehow?

Tiger protested when Janis went to set her aside, clinging gamely to her pantyhose. Janis stood, brushed the lap of her dress, and began walking up the street. Her flats beat a quick rhythm against the asphalt. She glanced back toward her front door. She had five minutes, maybe, but she needed to talk to Scott, needed to ask him. As crazy as it would sound, she had to know if he’d gone back to the summer of 1978, too — back to the woods of their childhood.

She was nearly to the top of her hill when Scott’s window went dark. For a moment, Janis stared at the reflection of the street light against the glass panes, surprised at the weight of her disappointment.

You can always ask him on Monday.

But would she?

She turned to walk home. The shadow of the Leonards’ second story rose through the trees in her leftward periphery. She sped her clacking pace as a breeze rustled the leaves. Janis rubbed her bare arms, feeling the cool of the fall night for the first time. A deeper chill brushed her spine.

And then she caught a whiff of smoke, faint but unmistakable.

Could be anyone’s, she told herself, but without conviction. She fixed her gaze on the yellow light of her front porch. Tiger met her at the driveway and accompanied her the rest of the way.

Janis reached the front door a little out of breath, shaking her head at her own paranoia. She opened the door a crack and automatically positioned her legs to block Tiger from trying to squeeze past, but the cat wasn’t beside her. Janis turned to find her at the foot of the steps, a low murmur caught in her throat. She was peering toward the side yard, ears perked.

[_Probably hears another cat — _]

The smell of cigarette smoke breezed past again, stronger this time.

Janis patted her thigh for Tiger, let her inside the house, and then hurried to lock the door behind them.

Leaning against the jamb, Janis began to shiver. She didn’t need any special abilities to know that for the duration she’d been outside, Mr. Leonard had been watching.

19

Scott stood in his bedroom, his rumpled shirt untucked, one finger hooked over the knot of his tie, staring at artifacts of an earlier hope. The rag and polish he had used to burnish his loafers lay beside his bed; the ironing board where he had pressed his shirt, its legs now folded in, leaned against his closet door; the dark-green bottle of cologne sat on his dresser, its cap still off. Only a few hours old, the ambitions they represented already felt forever out of his reach.

He yanked the pink knit tie from his neck and cast it away.

I told you. The voice again.

“Shut it.”

[It’s not your place, Scott-o. Not your people. What did you expect? Your place isn’t with them. It’s _]above[ them. You know that. You know the powers you possess._]

Scott didn’t fight the voice this time. Instead, he found himself considering his desk. He had dusted and wiped it down with Pledge during the Big Clean, as he thought of it. Now it held his school books and some folders. But looking at it, he could think only of what wasn’t there, what was missing.

He flicked off the light switch, and the room fell dark. The street light shone against his blinds. The Prelude had turned down the street ten minutes before. He’d heard its signature from the family room, where his father had wanted him to watch the end of Sudden Impact (and Scott, feeling too miserable and defeated to say no, had sagged onto the couch). But now, like a desperate flicker, he felt his old hope pleading for a peek outside.

Just a single peek to see if maybe she—

Forget it, Romeo.

He left his room and walked down the hallway, through the blue glow of a television now silent, and past the bass snores of his father. He stopped in the kitchen for the cordless phone, slipping it into his back pocket.

In the garage, he moved the folding card table and the stack of empty boxes hiding his access way. He edged along the tunnel through his father’s hoard to the storage room, the crowded space smelling of sawdust and soldered metal. An aluminum-tipped string dangled from a single bulb. Scott jerked it. A long workbench blinked into view beneath a line of power outlets and a crumbling pegboard that had once held tools. Scott squatted in front of the cabinets. He pulled away concealing boxes and crumpled balls of newspaper and, one by one, stood with his pieces of equipment, setting them across the workbench: TRS-80, DC1 modem, printer, a box of floppies. He emerged with his cables and power strip last.

The next minute was like a familiar dance, something Scott would never blunder, never screw up. He inserted this cord here, that cord there, linking, making connections, enabling communication. With his small network complete, Scott plugged in the power strip and snapped its red switch. He waited a moment, then turned on each device in the proper sequence, finishing with the monitor.

 

TRS-80 Model III Disk BASIC

© 1980 by Tandy Corp. All Rights Reserved

READY

>

 

The sight of the flashing cursor triggered a tide of salivation. This is where you belong, buddy, the voice whispered, in here so you can navigate the greater networks.

Scott reached behind the DC1 modem and drew up the one cable that remained inert. It was the telephone cord, but it hadn’t a receptacle for its plastic head. Which means you don’t have jack, Jack. Scott’s face stung at his own joke. Without a phone jack, there was no way to plug in, no means by which to access the globe-spanning networks, to exercise his power. Scott sighed as he looked around the closet-sized workshop. Without a jack, his world was reduced to—

And that’s when he spotted it. Down beside the bench, just above the short length of wood trim that ran along the floor: a basic wall jack. Over the receptacle sat a glob of dried paint that he had to pick away, but when he pressed in the modular connector, it clicked sweetly home.

Seconds later, the modem blinked to indicate a connection.

“Yes!” he hissed.

But was it a clean connection? Stooping over the computer, Scott loaded his COMM floppy and typed out a command to display the number he was dialing from. Within seconds, he had his answer: same exchange as their home phone, but a different line. Scott’s fingers raced over the keys, commanding the modem to dial the number for automated time and weather.

 

> ATDP3721411

Dialing 3721411

 

Rapid pulses followed, and in each one, Scott could hear the number: …(3) …….(7) ..(2) .(1) ….(4) .(1) .(1). He held his breath and waited. Then came the ring. But before Mrs. Time could answer his call, Scott punched the three-key command to hang up the modem.

“Damn it!”

He turned and paced the small workshop. Another delay, which meant this line was tapped as well. Any hacking adventures he undertook, whether here or in his room, would be recorded, stored as evidence, and read off to a grand jury one day as part of his indictment proceedings.

The muscles between his shoulders tensed, and for a second he pictured himself shoving all his equipment from the workbench to the cement floor. But the anger wasn’t his, not entirely. It came from the part of himself that he’d felt in the library in September when he had gone to print off The Pact. The part of himself that hungered for access and power — that craved it.

And now it was being denied.

But by what? By whom?

Scott rubbed the back of his neck. He had never shared any of his phreaking or hacking exploits on the message boards. He and Wayne had always been ultra careful in that department. And compared to the big names in the hacking-verse, their own exploits had always seemed small town anyway. Until U.S. Army Information, of course, but that had been Scott’s final hack, his last time on the network.

Scott became distracted. At the far wall, something appeared off. He dragged away obstructing boxes, bags of instant cement, and a stack of paint cans. He’d perceived correctly — the wall was a propped up piece of painted plywood. Tipping it out, he managed to maneuver it against the door. The workshop widened by another seven feet. He walked inside the new space and stood in the dim light.

The smell of soldered metal was stronger here, and Scott saw why. The space had been a metal workshop. Actually, it still was a metal workshop. A welding bench stood at one end, crowded around with hammers, pliers, a mounted vice, a drill press, cluttered shelving… and was that a lathe? Sheets of metal leaned against it. He supposed his father could have acquired the equipment on one of his discount shopping sprees, but Scott doubted it. The workshop, with its aluminum siding and singed cement floor, appeared to have been used a good deal. The prior owners had just never cleared it out for some reason.

Scott pulled open the drawers beneath the welding bench. In one sat an acetylene torch and a row of soldering irons. Another drawer revealed a folded apron, gloves, and a welder’s mask. Scott donned them, the mask cold against his face, and lifted out the torch. It still worked. The flame whooshed to life and then hissed as Scott honed it to a point. His old passion for model building sang inside him. But this wasn’t plastic and model glue. This was the real deal.

Scott put everything away and returned the piece of plywood to the columnar indentations that marked the two sides of the workshop as separate. He scooted the boxes, buckets, and cans of paint in front of the false wall and stood back. The computer, the metal shop — he could have his old life back here, and no one would ever know. Scott cracked his knuckles as he considered it. No, not his old life — better. It was the evolution of his old life.

But what about the tap? the voice reminded him.

Scott frowned and brought a knuckle to his lips. He needed an ally. He needed… Wayne. But for the last month, Wayne had been abiding by Scott’s decree to the letter: Don’t talk to me. Ever again.

No surprise there.

But what continued to puzzle Scott was why Wayne had been so dismissive of his warning about the phone tap. It seemed the sort of thing Wayne would have jumped all over — getting to play Whiz Kid, using his technical skills to demystify the puzzle, solve the rid—

Scott froze where he stood.

Unless Wayne’s the one who tipped off the feds.

He began to shake his head, then stopped. He had heard stories about hackers ratting out other hackers. They popped up on the message boards from time to time. Some of the hackers-turned-rats had gotten busted themselves and made deals with the feds. Others seemed to have done it out of sheer competitiveness and spite.

Scott thought of the fights he and Wayne had gotten into throughout the past year, all of them fueled by… competitiveness and spite.

He took the phone from his rear pocket and dialed Wayne. His heart pounded in his temples as he waited for the numbers to pulse out. But just before the first ring, he hung up.

Better to confront him in person.

Scott turned off his computer equipment and began disassembling cords and cables. He disconnected the modem from the wall jack last and stood a moment contemplating the cord’s plastic head. All that separated this lowly space in the back of his parents’ garage from the rest of the world was one cursed tap.

And if Wayne was behind it, so help him.

20

Graystone house

Wednesday, October 10, 1984

Dinnertime

Mr. Graystone slowly wiped his napkin against his mouth and returned his gaze to the muted television — another commercial for Viper Industries. He had said nothing for the last minute. He grew silent like this whenever he weighed a momentous decision. All Janis could do was watch.

“How well do you know this fellow?” he asked Janis at last.

“Pretty well.”

He remained looking at her, his face bearing the solemnity she’d seen in the parking lot almost two weeks before. For a man who dealt in sound thinking, pretty well was not the best answer, Janis realized too late.

Margaret, who had been the one to announce her upcoming date with Blake, spoke up again.

“Well, how well do you know anyone before a first date?” she asked. “That’s what first dates are for. But what we both know of Blake” — she moved her eyes to Janis — “is that he’s responsible, respectful, an A student. His father works in cancer research at the hospital.”

“How long has he been driving?” their father asked.

“He got his license this week,” Janis answered, again too honestly.

Which means he’s been driving with a temporary permit for the last year,” Margaret finished, narrowing her eyes at Janis.

“Has he been driving at night?”

Margaret sighed. “What difference does it make?”

“It makes a considerable difference,” her father answered. “Things are harder to see at night — lane markers, signage — especially if you don’t have experience driving in the dark.”

“Well, I’m sure he does,” Margaret said.

Janis had been watching her sister’s eyes, and now their color began to shift with the tone of her voice. She’s doing it again, eroding his convictions until her way seems the only, or at least the easiest, way. The grooves of concern across her father’s brow pouched and sagged like a sand sculpture facing a shallow but relentless tide. It was hard for Janis to watch. Even though Margaret was intervening on her behalf, this didn’t seem right, as if she were upsetting some hallowed order. And it made their father look old.

“I’d like to meet him,” he said, looking back to Janis, blinking. “Have him come early to pick you up.”

“Or how about inviting him for dinner?” her mother offered.

“That’s a fantastic idea,” Margaret said.

“Here?” Janis’s ears prickled at the thought of Blake wedged between her parents and Margaret. “Nuh-uh. No way. Not on a first—”

Margaret’s foot caught Janis in the shin. [Don’t screw this up, _]the kick said. [_I just got a _]major _concession from Dad for you.

“All right, I’ll ask if he can come.”

And it was settled.

  • * *

“And how about when that marshmallow guy came to life and started rampaging?” Blake asked, wiping a finger beneath his eyes. “Oh, man, I haven’t laughed that hard in ages. I needed that.”

“Yeah.” Janis laughed at how hard Blake was still laughing. “Me too.”

They were parked out in front of her house in Blake’s Toyota MR2, a birthday gift from his dad. The car idled quietly, its interior dim except for the lights of the console. Just as Blake had promised Mr. Graystone at dinner — a dinner that, for all of Janis’s stressing, had gone amazingly well — they had come straight home from the movie. Janis glanced at the clock display again, wondering how to stretch the next five minutes.

“And here I thought it was going to be a horror flick,” Blake said.

Janis leaned away. “Starring Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd?”

That folds of Blake’s purple letter jacket glinted softly as he laughed again. “I didn’t know. I thought, hey, it’s Janis’s pick. If it gives me nightmares, I’ll have an excuse to call her in the morning.”

You don’t need an excuse.

But she didn’t say it. All week, Margaret had counseled her about not being too forward, not showing too much interest too soon. “It’s a mistake a lot of girls make,” she said. “And it’s a major turnoff. Make him do the work.” But Janis felt so comfortable in his presence, so exclusive, that she wanted to shove off Margaret’s advice for a change and say what she felt.

Instead, she gave his arm a playful punch. “If it gives you nightmares, blame the joke writers, not me.”

“I’ll do that.” He turned toward her as his laughter wound down. “I had a great time.”

Janis looked up at him.[_ Is this where we’re supposed to kiss?_] Her last time had been with Keith Rafferty, her last boyfriend. They had sneaked into his parents’ basement during his birthday party and made out for a few minutes in the cool darkness. May, was it? Now Janis wondered whether five months was too long. Could she have gotten rusty in that time? Her stomach fluttered madly.

“Hey,” he said, his eyes brightening with something remembered. “How did you know that old man was going to trip?”

Heat filled Janis’s cheeks. “What do you mean?”

“Outside the theater. You lunged for him before he even started to fall.”

“Oh, I…” She’d seen a ghost image. “I could tell he wasn’t paying attention to the curb.”

“So on top of everything else, you’re a superhero?” Blake smiled, then watched his hand jiggle the stick shift. “You know, when I saw the article about you in the paper this summer and read that you’d be attending Thirteenth Street High this year, I…” He gave an embarrassed laugh. “I was hoping that I’d have a chance to meet you. I remember thinking that. And now I’m really glad I did.”

“Really?” Janis wrinkled her brow. “I mean, about the article.”

It had never occurred to her that someone she’d never met — never even seen — could develop feelings for her from a couple of pictures and a few columns of print.

“It’s funny, I expected us to connect as athletes. I saw a lot of myself in that article. Your drive, your competitiveness. But now, having met you, talking to you, being out with you… I don’t know, it’s like those pressures are a million miles away.” The soft dimples returned, and he tipped his forehead toward her. “That’s something I didn’t expect.”

“No, me neither,” she whispered.

Whether she moved nearer to him or he nearer to her, she wasn’t sure. But in the next moment, their lips were touching. His kiss felt strong and gentle. He brought his hand to her cheek and held it, her hair falling over his fingers. On the radio, Bryan Adams was singing “Straight from the Heart.” How long they stayed like that, Janis couldn’t say. She figured she must be doing something right because she felt warm and a little dizzy. She felt safe.

When they parted, Blake’s blue eyes shone into hers.

“Well,” he said, glancing at the display. “I have exactly one minute before your father puts out an APB on a missing daughter.”

They walked around the driveway in silence, Janis still feeling his close presence, his lips against hers. She wondered if he was thinking about the same thing. She hoped so. The sleeves of their jackets brushed as they walked. Even though Janis knew it was way too early, she caught herself wondering if this was something that might last through high school and beyond. On the front porch, he smiled and kissed her cheek.

“In case your father’s watching,” he whispered, before standing back. “Call you tomorrow?”

She nodded and slipped her hands into the front pockets of her pinstripe jeans.

“All right. Thank your parents again for me.”

“I will. Thanks for the movie.”

“Sweet dreams.”

His gaze lingered on hers as he wheeled to leave. And now Janis became aware of the darkness along the side of the house where Tiger had stopped to stare last week. She remembered the strong scent of cigarette smoke and the chilling sensation of being watched. She had spent the last week trying to explain the experience away, but as with everything else — the dreams, the soccer tryouts, the old man she’d saved from falling tonight — she was running low on rationalizations.

“Wait.”

She hadn’t said it loudly, and for a moment she hoped that Blake hadn’t heard. He turned toward her, eyebrows raised, then sauntered back and stood on the bottommost step to the porch.

“I was just wondering,” she started. “That movie tonight. This is going to sound weird, but… what do you think about ghosts and spirit worlds and all of that stuff? The paranormal, I guess you’d call it.”

“So it did scare one of us.” He laughed.

Janis smiled even though her heart was pounding madly. It suddenly felt important to her that she know. Was his mind open to such things, or was it as closed and resolute as Margaret’s? Now, as he took another step higher, she didn’t want him to answer. She didn’t want to know. She looked around, wishing she had the power to take the question back.

He reached forward and rubbed her arms up and down. “Listen, they’re great for Hollywood, but that’s all. They’re not real.” He kissed her forehead and lowered his face to hers. “Will that help you sleep?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

They said goodnight again. Then Janis watched him climb into his car and drive away.

21

The next morning

Sunday, October 14, 1984

9:22 a.m.

Scott woke up early for a weekend morning — early for him, anyway — and, skipping breakfast, climbed onto his ten-speed Schwinn. He listened to the neighborhood as he pedaled out of the Meadows, relieved to hear only birds. As he gained speed and the cool wind whipped his hair, his eyes flitted from house to house, marking places to hide should he hear the ominous belch of a certain 1970 Chevelle. It was more a precaution than anything. Jesse and company didn’t strike Scott as early risers.

When he cleared the Oakwood sign, he turned left and began standing into his pedals to climb Sixteenth Avenue. He had planned to confront Wayne that week at school, but on Monday he realized that Wayne had Craig and Chun to hide behind, not to mention an entire student body. And Scott wanted Wayne to himself. He knew from sleepovers past that Wayne’s parents were dutiful churchgoers themselves but allowed their son to sleep in. So not only would he catch Wayne alone, he would catch him by surprise, still groggy with sleep.

Wayne lived in a neighborhood not far from the high school. It was lower-middle class, Scott supposed: flat, one-story homes whose roofs were moss covered and most yards too sandy and limb littered to support grass, much less decent landscaping. Scott’s bike rattled as he steered down its gravelly streets. Pebbles of asphalt, spun up by his tires, flicked into his hair and clinked off his glasses. Maybe this is where some of Wayne’s resentment comes from, he thought, looking around at dumpy cars in plastic carports.

But ratting me out to the feds?

Scott cruised by Wayne’s house once to make sure his father’s burgundy Mitsubishi wasn’t in the driveway. It wasn’t. He circled back and pushed his bike inside a cluster of yellowing azalea bushes that stood in the no-man’s-land between Wayne’s yard and the one next door.

At Wayne’s door, Scott knocked with what he hoped sounded like authority, sharp and rapid. Give him a scare. When thirty seconds passed, he rapped again. He was about to try a third time when he heard tired shuffling in the hallway and, seconds later, the lock being worked from the inside. There was no window or peephole to peek out, which Scott considered another advantage. He fixed his face and stood tall, arms bowed out to the sides before deciding to fold them across his chest, his fists pushing out his narrow biceps.

When the door opened, a caramel-colored face appeared.

Scott sagged from his stance. “What the…? What are you doing here?”

Chun squinted in the morning light. And now Craig’s face appeared beside him, flat and bleary, his T-shirt inside-out. Craig and Chun stood for several moments without saying anything. Finally, Chun spoke.

“We’re under orders from Wayne not to talk to you.”

“Is he here?”

“He’s sleeping,” Craig said.

“Well, I need to talk to him.”

The two faces stared blankly from the half-opened door. Chun began to finger the mole above his nostril. It crossed Scott’s mind to knock their heads together like a pair of coconuts. They had been his friends, not Wayne’s. Hell, it was because of him that they even knew Wayne. And now they had Wayne, and Wayne had them, and Scott had… no one. The memory of Blake’s car idling in front of Janis’s house last night only deepened that notion.

“All right,” he said softly. “I see how it is. Just tell him that—”

Scott lunged at the doorway and was halfway inside before the other two knew what was happening. Chun recovered and tried to brace both arms against the door. Craig joined him, but the floor of the front hallway was covered in brown linoleum, and their tube-socked feet slipped and slid. Scott forced them back. A steady diet of D&D and video games had made dough of their limbs while Scott’s had toughened, thanks to his devotion to Bud Body’s program.

To want it is to become it, Bud said throughout his booklet. Repeating the mantra, Scott dug in with the toes of his Nikes.

With one final effort, Craig and Chun managed to slam the door shut, but Scott was already inside, marching toward Wayne’s room. He was dimly aware of the familiar smells of his former friend’s home as he waded deeper into its vapors: a mixture of cigarette smoke and stacks of secondhand science fiction books his father had amassed, their pages spotted with mold.

Scott wasn’t sure if Craig or Chun grabbed his neck, but once there, the aggressor didn’t seem to know what to do. When another hand fumbled for his shoulder, Scott slapped it away and spun.

“Look, you little minions,” he panted. “This is between me and Wayne. I suggest you back the hell up.”

Scott spoke more menacingly than he ever imagined himself capable — especially toward friends. He must have sounded convincing, because first Craig then Chun backed away. When Scott turned and resumed his march down the hallway, the two followed passively.

Wayne’s bedroom door was closed. A sign tacked on the outside read VULCANS AT WORK, with a curvaceous Saavik giving the Vulcan salute. The doorknob wouldn’t turn. Scott raised his fist to pound, thought better of it, and reached into his back pocket. He had sworn off his alter ego Stiletto back in August, but he’d never removed the folding tension wrench and pick from the bottom of his wallet. A single hole pierced the center of the aluminum doorknob. The best tool for opening these, frankly, was a Q-tip with the cotton end cut off.

A metal pick worked too.

The lock clicked, and Scott threw the door open. He faced a cluttered room walled in mahogany-colored particleboard and smelling of Fritos. A thick blanket covered the window on the far wall. He flicked the light switch, but nothing happened. His gaze moved to the right side of the room. The outline of the bed came into focus, its sheets tangled, its mattress half stripped.

But no Wayne.

Scott stepped further into the room, venturing a glance toward the closet. He could feel Craig and Chun breathing behind him. He took another step. Wayne must have heard me, he thought, must’ve hidden. He craned his neck around the far side of the bed, then bowed to look under the computer desk. When he straightened, a point of metal met his low back.

“So you made it past my sentry, I see.” Scott felt Wayne adjust his grip on his broadsword. “But you were foolish to underestimate my powers of perception. Now look at you! Fallen into my trap, like the stupid thief you are. Your disgrace and dishonor are complete.”

“Ow! Be careful with that thing.” Scott instinctively raised his arms out to the side.

“That’s right,” Wayne said. “Nice and easy.”

Scott watched Craig and Chun’s shadows on the far wall. His own shadow blocked Wayne’s, all except for the disheveled side of his head. Wayne had bought the used sword at a medieval fair the year before. Scott had been there; it was the real article. Wayne had even allowed him to handle it — not for long, but long enough that he could appreciate its keen edge. Even someone of Wayne’s small stature could do damage with it. And if Wayne had stayed up D&D-ing the night before, as Scott suspected, lord only knew how much caffeine and raw adrenaline were swimming through his system. He hoped that Wayne had taken his red pill that morning, the one for his hyperactivity, though he doubted it.

“I just came to talk.”

Wayne laughed, high and chopped. “Oh, is that what you call forcing your way in?” His shadow jerked its head.

Craig and Chun seized Scott by either arm, slaying the air with their morning breath. He probably could have shaken them off, but he let them wheel him around.

Wayne stood in front of the doorway, his back arched to counterbalance the cumbersome sword, his splayed toes grasping the shag carpet. A yellowing pair of Fruit of the Looms sagged from the brim of his pelvis. He tottered back against the closet and swung the sword toward the door.

“Deliver this louse from my sight,” he ordered.

“C’mon,” Craig whispered near Scott’s ear. “I think he’s serious.”

Scott waited until they’d stepped into the hallway before calling over his shoulder. “I know about the tap, Wayne. I know you were the one who tipped off the feds. I know everything.” He felt Craig and Chun’s grips falter. “So who’s the louse now?”

“Halt!”

Craig and Chun released his arms, and Scott turned unimpeded. Wayne clasped the sword’s pommel at his sunken navel and glared at him with his smudged-in eyes. Scott glared back.

“Say that again.”

“Oh, choke on it,” Scott said. “I know what you did.”

Wayne’s laugh was a single sharp note. “Oh, do you now?” He looked at Craig and Chun. “You remember the fabled tap, don’t you, men? Scott’s little ruse to worm his way back into our good company?”

“Sure,” Scott said. “That’s what you want them to believe.” He turned from Wayne, who was struggling now to keep the heavy sword aloft, and faced the others. “Who’s he going to rat out next, I wonder? Maybe you can make a little game out of it.” He moved his finger between them. “Eenie, meenie, miney, mo.”

Scott had pulled his bike halfway out of the azaleas when Wayne came after him. He’d stashed the broadsword and pulled on a pair of crumpled blue shorts with red and white racing stripes along the sides. He half ran, half pranced across the yard to avoid fallen limbs and bursts of stinging nettle.

“Wait!” he cried.

Scott wrested the rest of his bike free and huffed. “What is it?”

“You weren’t crapping about the tap?” Wayne was hopping on one leg now, trying to brush something from the underside of his foot. “That was real?”

Scott had half a mind to punch Wayne in his clogged-up nose. Instead, he threw his leg over the fork of the bike. Wayne stopped hopping and blinked at the morning sunlight across his face.

“There was no tap, Scott. I checked.”

Scott stopped. “What?”

“Not on my line, not on yours. No pens, no shoes. Nothing ordered through Bell South. I even went out and physically checked the corresponding B boxes. If our lines were any cleaner, we could eat off them.” Wayne smirked at his own cleverness and smoothed his mustache.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I just thought you were being a putz. I thought you’d made it up.”

Scott shook his head. “I didn’t.”

“Why did you think you were being tapped?”

“After the hack that night… you remember, the one I told you about… I thought I heard a delay on the line. It wasn’t long, but it was long enough that I was sure someone was listening. And I know you don’t believe me when I say stuff like this, but it felt like someone was listening.”

“It’s called hacker’s intuition.” Wayne recovered his conceit. “I’ve heard of it.”

“But now that you tell me we’re clean…” Scott laughed once. “Who knows? My brain was so burnt that night I could easily have heard something that wasn’t even there. I mean, we’re talking about milliseconds. And now every time I use the phone, I’m already convinced those additional milliseconds are there. I guess that’s why I keep hearing them.”

That’s called paranoia,” Wayne said. “Next stop, Chattahoochee.”

Scott smiled as his eyes met Wayne’s. Both their gazes quickly fell back to where Scott was pushing his bike back and forth across a patch of sand. A self-conscious silence followed.

Then an idea occurred to Scott. “Hey, um, can I check something on your phone?”

Wayne shrugged his sloped shoulders and jerked his head. “Why not,” he said. “Yeah, come on in.”

  • * *

Back home, Scott paced his secret workshop, his brain balling into a fist. He pulled the phone from his pocket and for the twelfth time that afternoon, dialed Mrs. Time. Seven series of pulses, a delay, and a ring — and still the delay was too long. He hadn’t imagined it. And yet it wasn’t tapped. Wayne had been exhaustive.

Doesn’t make any flipping sense.

He suckled his vanilla Pudding Pop, going through Bell’s schematics in his mind. He and Wayne belonged to the same exchange — 376 — which meant a call made from either one of their houses went to the same central office. As it turned out, their homes were roughly equidistant from that office (he and Wayne used to sift through their dumpster looking for cast-off equipment and technical manuals until a security guard ran them off), which meant the time discrepancy between pulse and ring couldn’t be explained by distance.

And from that central office, the path was exactly the same. It went from the 376 exchange to the 372 exchange and finally to wherever Mrs. Time’s computer lived. The time it took to connect should have been equal.

But it wasn’t.

“Wait a minute,” Scott muttered to himself. “You’re not thinking.”

Setting his Pudding Pop on its wrapper, he hopped onto the tall stool he had scavenged from the garage and leaned toward his TRS-80. He punched in the command to dial Mrs. Time and closed his eyes. The modem executed the dial, and he listened to the first faint ring.

Scott winced, gritting his teeth. It was the first time he’d exercised his ability in more than a month, and the sensation of his consciousness twining on itself tight-roped between lofty anticipation and crushing pain. Then he was inside, shooting along the lines, tandems, and switches, expanding over the network that connected him to Mrs. Time. Her automated voice crackled around him, blue and electric: “The. Time. Is… One. Forty-two.”

Scott extended himself as far as the connection would allow until he became the connection. The feeling was like that of someone who, having been crammed inside a three-foot-by-three-foot cell for a month, is allowed to stand and stretch at last. Yes, this is where you belong, a voice whispered. Out in the greater networks.

Reluctantly, he gathered himself at the terminal end, where the automated voice continued to report the time. From there he navigated the connection in reverse. Inside the 372 exchange, boxes hummed inside of boxes. Scott continued down the routing path to another exchange, the 376 exchange — his and Wayne’s central office. The exchange was box shaped as well, but characterized by a different arrangement of giant batteries, frames, and switches. Just like the cars in his neighborhood, each exchange had its own signature.

And now Scott encountered… something else.

The box was much smaller than a central office, its energy subtler, its signature nearly nonexistent. In fact, he had almost missed it, had almost sailed right past. But as he drew himself around the diminutive box, Scott became certain it was behind the delay he heard on the phone every time he went to make a call.

Was this what a tap felt like? he wondered. Could Wayne have erred?

[Don’t let it stop you, _]the voice whispered. _Short it.

Short it? Could he?

Scott concentrated, gathering the parts of his consciousness still spread across the connection. He focused on the box-shaped obstruction. Behind his closed eyes, a red point appeared. It felt warm. He redoubled his concentration. The point grew to the size of a small orb, changing from red to orange, becoming hotter.

That’s right, short it.

Sweat sprang from Scott’s brow and trickled behind his glasses, but he couldn’t stop to wipe it away. He was building something, gathering it into a single spot, like when you focused the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass.

He strained harder. The orb swelled, verging on white. And then…

Scott climbed from the floor, his consciousness swimming up from some black void, his body tingling. The stool was down on its side. He knelt beside it a moment and straightened his glasses. Blinking, he could see the white orb — or what remained of it — as a bursting afterimage.

Is that how I ended up on the floor?

He shook his head and stood all the way up, using the workbench for support. The room wavered. The modem’s red light blinked insistently. Beside it, his Popsicle sat in a spreading, custard-colored puddle. He faced the monitor and scanned the command lines. The final line indicated the call had been disconnected — he checked his watch — more than ten minutes ago.

Did I do that?

Scott turned on the cordless phone and lifted it to his ear. Just like with the modem, there was no dial tone. He mashed the phone off then on again, but still he heard nothing.

Both of the lines stayed dead the rest of the day, which agitated Scott’s mother to no end. “I have clients,” she kept repeating. At last, she turned her accusatory eye on Scott. “Do you know anything about this?” He shook his head and remained silent. From his bedroom, he could hear her testing the phone and then huffing or spitting out another curse. Finally, she announced that she was driving to the real estate office for a few hours’ work.

“And you can bet your Benjamins I’ll be calling Bell South while I’m there,” she said. “I have clients, for pity’s sake!”

That night, Scott dreamed about utility trucks rumbling past the house. In the morning, the dial tone was back on their phone.

But so, too, was the delay.

22

Citizen’s Field

Thursday, November 15, 1984

8:06 p.m.

Janis stood in warm-ups with the other subs, watching the corner-kick go airborne off the Lyon player’s foot. The ball hooked inward as it sailed toward the goal. Theresa Combs, Thirteenth Street’s starting goalie, stepped out, her faced tilted skyward. The opposing team’s green jerseys multiplied inside the goal box, overwhelming Thirteenth Street’s purple. Janis strained onto her tiptoes to see. In the next moment, the Lyon players ran shouting from the goal, arms raised.

The ball sat in the back of the net.

Janis thudded to her heels and looked at the game clock. With eight minutes to go, Lyon, the state’s top ranked team, had just pulled ahead, two to one. That day, Principal Munshin had called an impromptu pep rally — a first for a girl’s soccer game — and pledged in front of the two-thousand-member student body that if the undefeated girl’s team won or fought Lyon to a tie, he would moonwalk the entire length of the field at game’s end. Never mind that Michael Jackson was considered “out” by then and Prince “in;” the students applauded wildly anyway.

Now, except for scattered shouts of support, the packed stands at Janis’s back had gone mute. From their silence, a murmuring tide arose. At the same time that the referee was waving his arms across his body to negate the goal, he was rushing toward Theresa. Janis brought her hand to her mouth.

Theresa, who had been one of the few players not to grumble when Janis, a freshman, made the varsity squad, who had remained after practice those first two weeks to help teach her the position, who had been playing her best game of the season, lay on her stomach, not moving.

And was that blood across her mouth?

Janis huddled with the other players on the sideline as the ambulance arrived and paramedics placed a collar around Theresa’s neck. A stretcher waited beside her. Janis wanted to be out there, holding her hand, speaking words of encouragement — something — but the referees had cleared the field save for coaches and medical personnel.

“I saw the whole thing,” Carol Hollis said. Janis and the other players edged closer to their co-captain. “I was right beside her. The Lyon player, the big one over there, smashed her in the mouth with her forearm. Had her eyes on Theresa the whole time. Never looked up for the ball.”

“Why wasn’t she ejected?” Janis asked, eyeing the refrigerator-sized player across the field.

“The ref said he couldn’t toss her without having seen the infraction himself. He’s going to give her a yellow card and award us a penalty kick.” Carol shook her head. “Big whoop.”

They watched Theresa being lifted into the ambulance. The doors closed and the ambulance eased from the field, red lights swimming across the stands.

Coach Hall stormed to the opposing sideline as the siren began wailing from the street. “Is that what you teach your girls?” she shouted up into the Lyon coach’s face. “Huh? Is that what you teach them? To break jaws and give concussions?”

The plodding coach shrugged his shoulders and turned away.

Coach Hall stalked back to the Thirteenth Street sideline and called her team together. “All right, we’ve got eight minutes left. I want you to play with the same intensity that got you here, but I also want you to play with the same integrity. No retaliation, understood? No cheap fouls. And protect yourselves.” She turned to Janis. “That goes especially for you.”

The words hit Janis like a lightning bolt. She was going into the game. She hurried to strip off her windbreaker and sweats, then scrambled out after the starters, shouts of support punctuating the applause from behind: “C’mon, Janis!” “Show ’em what the Titans are made of!”

Eight minutes. Air steamed from Janis’s trembling lips. Give them eight solid minutes.

She tightened her ponytail and clapped her gloved hands together. Thwat, thwat, thwat. Carol Hollis turned and gave her a thumbs up, then took the penalty kick. Thirteenth Street High worked the ball to midfield before Lyon stole it back and came stampeding the other way. And that’s what it looked like to Janis: a thundering stampede. Janis shuffled backward, her joints turning to ball bearings.

The shot came from the right side of the field, hard and low. Janis stumbled and stretched — [_Watch the ball into your possession — _]and caught the ball in both gloves as she landed on her side. The impact jarred the wind out of her. A Lyon player appeared above her. Janis grunted and curled around the ball. The player pulled up at the last instant, her thick leg cocked. She had meant to blast the ball from Janis’s hands, broken fingers be damned.

Janis stood with the soccer ball to a mountain of applause, her breath returning in bruised gasps. The game clock showed six minutes. She bounced the ball twice and got off a solid punt.

For the next three minutes, the action remained on Lyon’s side of the field. Janis used the opportunity to jog in place, windmilling her arms. Her muscles began to loosen. When Carol juked a defender and darted toward the goal, Janis’s scream joined those from the stands. But the trailing defender recovered in time to knife Carol’s legs, sending her tumbling. The fans’ tenor changed from rapturous to outraged. “You’re worse than Cobra Kai!” one student bellowed. Coach Hall threw up her arms. Another yellow card for Lyon, another penalty shot for Thirteenth Street High.

Janis watched the ball sail high, over the far net.

With two minutes to play, the Lyon coach signaled for his players to push up. Even the huskiest defenders trotted out to midfield, eyeing the large net Janis defended. Their hard-bitten faces said it all. They weren’t leaving Gainesville without a win, even if it meant more ambulances.

For the second time since Janis entered the game, Lyon stampeded. The ghost-image was fleeting — almost too fleeting — but Janis reacted. She dove and tipped the ensuing shot out of bounds, a solid blast that would have grazed the near post en route to a score. She stood, heart pounding, breaths flaring her nostrils.

The side judge pointed her flag to the corner of the field to indicate a corner kick.

“Hey, Cherry.”

The menacing whisper came from behind. Janis glanced around and found the Lyon player who had broken Theresa’s jaw staring at her, eyes red-rimmed and wild. Up close, her mud-smeared thighs looked as thick as truck tires. Janis turned and squinted toward the corner flag.

“What’s your pain tolerance, Cherry?”

Janis kept her eyes on the girl poised to kick the ball even as her skin crawled.

“Hope it’s better than your starter’s.”

The shot went skyward, starting out a distance from the goal but quickly hooking inward. It traced the same path as the last corner kick, the one that had doomed Theresa. Grunts and sharp cries rang out. Dark green jerseys collapsed toward the ball, and Janis made the same assessment Theresa must have. She needed to get there first, needed to jump high enough to punch the ball away.

Janis moved forward, gloved hands tensing into fists. The ball hooked nearer. She crouched to leave her feet, even as she sensed Theresa’s assailant watching her from inside Lyon’s thudding mass.

The image came an instant later: broken teeth and a goal.

Janis planted hard and staggered back to the far post, nearly losing her footing. The ball shot off the head of a Lyon player. Janis knelt low, elbows almost to the ground. A row of dirt-caked cleats raked her cheek. The ball bobbled between her hands and chest — Watch the ball, Janis! — then stuck.

Cheers crashed down from the stands. “Way to go!” Coach Hall yelled.

When Janis looked over, her coach was signaling for her to hold the ball, to burn clock. Janis nodded and bounced it, scanning the field. She bounced the ball again. Less than thirty seconds to go. Tie score, one to one.

“I’m counting to five then I’m calling a delay of game.”

The referee’s voice startled Janis.

She stepped into the punt quickly, too quickly. It careened off the side of her foot and straight toward the player who’d just threatened her. The player saw her gift before the Thirteenth Street defenders did. By the time she met the ball with her chest, she had a five-yard lead on everyone else.

And she was fast.

Janis dashed out to meet her. It was what a goalie was supposed to do in a one-on-one situation. The nearer the other player, the larger the goal became, and the more angles she would have to score from. Still yards away, Janis was already bracing herself for the slide, the brutal collision. But the Lyon player had anticipated Janis’s coming out. She cocked her leg.

The image for Janis this time was crystal clear.

She tried to beat a retreat, but the ball was in flight — lofty, with a tight backward spin. It was going to meet the net high but squarely in its center. Janis was that far out of position. The chip shot had come off the forward’s foot that perfectly. Shouts climbed from the Lyon sideline.

Janis grunted and launched into her fading leap with everything she could summon. She stretched her arm — no, pushed her arm — until it felt like her shoulder was wrenching from its socket. She just needed to get her fingers on it, even one finger.

The ball spun above her.

Push! she screamed inside. PUSH!

And then the ground thudded into her. Up behind, she could see the movement of the net. Her fingers hadn’t touched anything. And now the referee was blowing his whistle.

Janis closed her eyes and lay still. Seconds to go and she’d just blown the game.

But the sounds around her didn’t make sense.

She sat up. The Lyon players were sulking toward their sideline. And Janis’s teammates were sprinting toward her. In the stands, the hundreds who had come out to support them were leaping up and down, throwing their arms around one another, breaking into primitive dance. The sound felt like a toppling wall. They heckled Principal Munshin, who was smiling and pulling a red Michael Jackson jacket over his purple Titans sweatshirt.

Before her teammates could descend on her, Janis craned her neck. The soccer ball sat off behind the net. The three shrill screams of the ref’s whistle hadn’t signaled a goal. They had signaled the end of the game.

Thirteenth Street High had just fought the state’s top team to a draw.

The shot had missed.

  • * *

“You’re being awfully quiet,” Blake said.

After the on-field celebration and Principal Munshin’s frightful moonwalk (he looked like he was trying to wipe doggy doo from his shoes and nearly fell backward at the end), after being congratulated by her teammates and coaches, and after her parents had found and hugged her, Janis sat across from Blake at the McDonald’s on Thirteenth Street. He had wanted to buy her a celebratory sundae or shake, but Janis opted for a Mr. Pibb instead. She bit down on the straw now and drew thin sips.

“I would’ve thought…” Blake’s smile looked confused. “You were fantastic out there. You know that, don’t you?”

“Tell me about the last play.”

She’d heard snatches of it from her teammates, the students, but she wanted to hear it from him.

“What’s there to tell, Janis? The ball was about to go in and you vaulted up like Mary Lou Retton and tipped it away.”

“You saw it go off my fingers?”

“Yeah, it popped into the air and went rolling down the backside of the net.”

Janis glanced around. Except for a McDonald’s employee who had unfolded a yellow CAUTION sign and begun pushing a mop under the tables, they had the dining area to themselves. She looked at Blake’s questioning eyes. They had gone out on five more dates since Ghostbusters (Janis supposed this counted as their sixth), and already the student body had them pegged as “an item.” She shied from that title. How could they be an item if she couldn’t be honest with him — about who she was, about what she could do, about what had happened at the game?

She pushed the straw in and out of the plastic top, listening to it squeak. “What if I told you that I never touched the ball?”

He laughed as though it were an odd joke. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Blake…” She moved her drink aside and leaned nearer. “I never touched it.”

“Of course you did. We all saw it.”

Janis closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Well if you didn’t, who did?”

It was a good question, a fair question. She replayed that moment in her mind when, with the ball spinning above her, she had commanded her arm to [_push _]even though she knew she was never going to reach it. But she had felt something, hadn’t she? A pulse shooting the length of her outstretched arm, beginning inside her chest and ending at the tips of her fingers? At the time, it had felt like the shock of a strained nerve. But now she wondered.

Spinning ball. Spinning plastic egg.

Janis shrugged. “I just didn’t feel the ball.”

Blake took her hands in his and bounced them playfully. “You were wearing thick goalie gloves, for one. Two, it was cold enough out there to numb your fingers. And three, your thoughts must have been going a hundred miles a second. I know mine would’ve been.”

Janis dropped her gaze.

“Hey,” he said, leaning nearer. “You were fantastic.”

“Then why don’t I feel fantastic?” Why do I feel like a fraud?

“You just need a couple days for it to sink in.”

Janis hadn’t brought up the paranormal since the night of their first date. She knew Blake well enough now to know that such things were outside of his experience. She couldn’t tell him about her strange dreams and couldn’t talk to him about what had happened tonight — what she was beginning to think had happened. He wouldn’t understand. It wasn’t his fault, but he just wouldn’t. They clicked in so many ways, just not there.

“I guess the whole thing kind of overwhelmed me,” she said at last. “Sorry.”

Even though Blake was still holding her hands, still smiling his concerned smile, he suddenly felt far away from her. “Don’t be.” A squeeze. A kiss. “C’mon. Let me take you home.”

The McDonald’s mopper tipped his paper hat to them on their way out of the restaurant. As Blake opened the car door for her, Janis thought of someone who might understand what was happening and, more importantly, who might be able to help her understand what was happening.

Blake checked to see that she was all the way inside before closing the door gently, then walked around the back of the car. Janis watched him in the rearview mirror, hating herself for lying to him. The next day, she would talk to this person, she told herself. Yes, the next day, after school.

23

Thirteenth Street High

Friday, November 16, 1984

2:31 p.m.

Janis waited for the final students to funnel out of the classroom while she pretended to organize her books. Two girls lingered at her back, whisper-chattering about so-and-so who had overheard so-and-so saying such-and-such about a third so-and-so and oh, the scandal. Janis gripped the back of her neck and dug at the tension. Would you two scram, already?

She tried to think of other things, like how Scott had been one of the first ones out of the classroom when the bell rang. He couldn’t move quickly enough these days, it seemed, his head bobbing above the receding masses by the time Janis would get to the doorway. Since their conversation that night on the couch, he hadn’t spoken a word to her, much less glanced over. And she’d long since lost the nerve to ask whether he’d experienced something unusual that night.

At the front of the classroom, Mrs. Fern sat at her desk in a mauve turtleneck and white woven vest, peering over the student papers just handed in. She laughed once to herself, her hair shaking like silver curtains. Finally, the two chatterers at Janis’s back receded away. She took a deep breath as she stood, leaving her books stacked on her desk.

“Um, Mrs. Fern.” She stepped toward the teacher’s desk.

Mrs. Fern had been shaking her head as she continued to leaf through the typed assignments, several of them nearly opaque with correction fluid. Their teacher was an eccentric, for sure, but also a stickler for spelling and punctuation. “Even the most hallowed cathedrals of antiquity are nothing but for the soundness of plain brick and mortar,” she often said.

“Hmm?” Mrs. Fern answered without looking up.

Janis glanced toward the door, then took a seat in Dougherty’s desk, directly across from her. Soccer practice had been cancelled that day — Coach Hall’s gift to them for last night’s effort.

“I was hoping I could talk to you.” She swallowed. “If you’re not busy.”

Mrs. Fern patted the papers back into a neat stack and blinked up. Her hazel eyes swam inside the thick lenses. Janis’s gaze fell to the white crystal her teacher wore around her neck. She debated whether or not to use her Get Out of Awkward Situation Free card, which would be to ask for a few reading recommendations, thank her, and leave. But something in her teacher’s expression told Janis that she was already aware of why she’d come. Mrs. Fern tilted her head, her eyes glimmering with amusement and knowledge.

“The first day of class…” Janis said, “you, um, you talked about a Roman god… Janus?”

“Ah, yes, the god of doorways.”

“Can you tell me more about him?” She decided to rephrase it. “What you know about him?”

Mrs. Fern grinned as though reading her thought process and sat back.

“Well, it’s like I told you. The god Janus has two faces. One looks to the past, the other to the future. One face sees the world as most do, as it appears to exist. And the other… well, the other sees another world, quite beyond the perceptions of most. It is what makes Janus so special.”

“What is that other world?”

“Ah, it was much debated by the great thinkers.” Mrs. Fern gathered her hair in back and let it fall. “Some believed it to be a realm that supports our physical world, that [_manifests _]it. Not a realm of people and objects, but of the passions and energies that constitute them.”

When Mrs. Fern spoke this last part, Janis felt the familiar vibrations rise and oscillate throughout her awareness before settling down again.

“Do people go there?” Janis concentrated anew. “To this other world?”

“Why, artists go there all the time, writers of poetry and prose — some we’ve read in this course. And how fortunate we are that they share it with the rest of us. Think what our world would be like if it were just plain matter.” Mrs. Fern brushed her fingers through the leaves of the potted fern that sat on the corner of her desk.

“I think what you’re saying is that’s where they get their inspiration.” Janis hesitated. “But can people actually go there? Can they, I don’t know, wake up and just find themselves there?”

“I suppose it can happen.” Again, the amusement in her gaze.

A warm breeze smelling of fall leaves streamed through the open windows and rustled the fern’s fronds. Janis frowned, considering how this had quickly become the weirdest conversation with a teacher she’d ever had. But she was getting somewhere. If she could just find the right question…

Mrs. Fern tee-peed her fingers beneath her chin.

“What would you say to someone who it happened to?”

Mrs. Fern smiled. Well phrased, the smile seemed to say. “I would tell her that she had been given a unique opportunity. I would advise her to explore that world, to learn its laws, its rules — because they are said to be different from the rules governing our own world.”

Janis watched the vertical lines above Mrs. Fern’s lip.

“Similar in certain ways, the rules,” Mrs. Fern continued, “but quite different in others. Time and space are not so… absolute in that world. Past events can seem very present, as can future probable events — and that word, probable, is an important one, I would tell her.”

“Important, how?”

“I would leave that to her to find out.” Mrs. Fern’s eyes became huge — and did one of them just wink? “If I told her everything there was to know, why, goodness, there would be nothing left for her to discover. And wouldn’t that be a shame?”

Janis drew her brows together in thought. “If that world supports this one, can it also influence this one? You know, thoughts, objects — that sort of thing?”

“Here again, something I would leave for her to discover — oh!” Mrs. Fern clapped her hands. “I almost forgot to congratulate you on last night’s match nul. I understand you made a spectacular save in the last seconds. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it. Not something one witnesses every day, I wouldn’t think.”

“Thanks…” Janis eyed her teacher carefully.

Is it just coincidence she brought that up after my question about being able to influence objects?

“Well, I do have your papers to get started on before the weekend,” Mrs. Fern said with a little waggle of her head. “But let me end by saying this. The worst thing anyone newly awakened into that realm can do would be to deny her experience of it. It can be frightening, I understand. But it is a tremendous source of intuition. It is how people come into intuition — some of us more consciously than others. Better to keep your eyes open, I think.”

She just switched from third-person to second — from “her” to “your.”

“Does that answer your question?”

“I think so,” Janis said, not at all sure, and feeling the first stabs of a headache.

“Hmm, fascinating god, that Janus. So much from the ancients we still have to learn. If you’re ever of the mind to delve deeper, my door is always open.” Mrs. Fern picked up her battered leather satchel leaning against her desk and pushed the stack of papers into it. “Good day, then!”

  • * *

Janis’s headache worsened that afternoon, and by dinnertime, it had become almost unbearable — piercing red throbs. She left a message for Blake that she wouldn’t be going to the football game that night. Her mother administered aspirin and came often to her bedside to change the warm towel across her forehead. Janis remained on her back. The effort to move, or even string together the smallest thoughts, had become a dozen strands of barbed wire winching her skull.

Little by little, the dissolving aspirin dulled Janis’s senses until she became dimly aware of her mother removing the towel, kissing her forehead, and clicking off the bedside lamp.

Janis dreamed that she was back in Mrs. Fern’s classroom. She was sitting at the front of the room again, but the fern plant on her teacher’s desk was enormous, its hairy fronds writhing in whispers. Mrs. Fern appeared from behind the plant, and Janis realized she had been tending to it, burying crystals in its soil. When her teacher spoke, her voice sounded like a record player whose volume had been turned up and its speed slowed way down.

“PAST EVENTS CAN SEEM VERY PRESENT AS CAN FUTURE PROBABLE EVENTS.”

As Janis looked at her teacher, she felt herself standing on an empty beach where black clouds gathered into an hourglass. She heard the ticking of a giant clock, its minute hand edging toward midnight.

“Nuclear war?” Janis asked Mrs. Fern. “Is that…?”

“PROBABLE.”

Janis’s eyes began to water. “Wh-what can I do?”

“KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN.”

Mrs. Fern turned in her chair so her back was to Janis, her silver hair flowing down to where it disappeared behind the desk. She took her hair up in layers with her long, slender hands, turning it over the top of her head. When the final layer had fallen away, Janis saw a second face. It wavered in and out of focus but appeared to be a younger version of her teacher. The eyes shone with preternatural light.

“No longer can you deny the experiences, Janis.” The face spoke clearly. “There are things to see. Things you have already seen.”

“What? Tell me!”

“Things you have already seen,” she repeated.

When Janis awoke, her head no longer felt like a spool of barbed wire. Her thoughts were clear. And she was standing in her backyard, beside the island of oak trees and azalea bushes, just out of reach of the English ivy that trickled away from the house. Janis peered around. A faint light similar to what she had just observed in Mrs. Fern’s eyes imbued the night. A familiar whooshing sound filled her ears — a sensation she’d denied herself for the last three months.

Now she remembered all the times in those three months she’d awakened in this state only to will herself back to her room, back to dreaming, to normalcy. The occasions must have numbered in the dozens.

Janis rose into the air and turned toward the back line of bushes.

Things you have already seen.

He wasn’t outside tonight, wasn’t pacing or propping his arms against the deck rail, the burning end of a cigarette illuminating his glasses. The deck was dark, as was the Leonards’ house.

Janis flew to the place in the bushes that had pulled her through the last time. She remembered it was near the tree where her mother emptied compost from the plastic container she kept under the kitchen sink. As Janis extended her arms, she felt herself being repulsed. Then, like air inhaled through a straw, she was siphoned from the backyard.

WHOOSH.

The cement culvert wavered beneath her. She lifted her face to where the Leonards’ chain-link fence stretched to either side, the house looming large beyond. Janis spotted the leaning shed, but it no longer stood in tall grass. A couple of days after seeing Mr. Leonard with the drill, she’d heard the roar of a mower and looked out to see flashes of his shirt beyond the bushes, moving in a line. He had since maintained the yard in a trim state, using a weed whacker to blast away the tall grass and weeds that had once grown along the fence.

The entire yard stood open and naked.

Janis passed through the fence at the edge of the yard and flew up to the shed. It had been a long time since she’d last flown, and a part of her sang with the rediscovery. But she glanced around as she went, making sure that the shadows along the edges of the house were just that — shadows. She hadn’t forgotten the last time. The horrific memory of the shed door opening on Mr. Leonard’s pale face took form in her mind before Janis could stuff it down again.

Keep your eyes open.

Janis peeked up toward the deck before drifting around to the shed’s front. She hovered before the lock, whose bolt seemed larger and more solid than the one she’d seen the last time.

He changes the lock. He mows the yard to eliminate places to hide…

Which could only mean that whatever lay beneath his shed was worth protecting. Janis concentrated, her hands propped against the door. She fell through. The inside of the shed crackled to life around her. She rotated. It appeared the same as it had the last time, although perhaps a little tidier. The pile of kindling still stood in a heap beneath the shelving, but the roach-infested sacking was gone — replaced by a solid piece of plywood.

She probed the plywood with her thought-hands. Yes, the metal hatch remained beneath the pile, as did the electrical field surrounding it. Janis felt along the lines of energy, not pushing too hard. She feared the field had alerted Mr. Leonard to her presence the last time.

Janis withdrew her hands and listened outside before returning her gaze to the kindling. She nodded to herself. That was where the answers lay. Beneath the pile. Down below.

But how to get there?

The vibrations that sustained Janis’s out-of-body state began to fade. Another dream was intruding on her experience, a dream about getting ready for a soccer game but not having the right jersey or shoes, finding holes in her goalie gloves. The vibrations diminished further. The scent of the sea drifted away, but before she could be whisked back to her sleeping body, where the anxiety dream awaited her, Janis pushed her hands beneath the plywood again. She had been so occupied by the hatch that she’d forgotten about the small, square-shaped panel embedded in the cement beside it. Her thought-fingers explored its three-by-three arrangement of blocks. It felt to Janis like a miniature typewriter.

No, a keypad. She would have to remember that…

24

Thursday, November 29, 1984

6:50 p.m.

What are you supposed to be, again?”

Scott’s mother frowned past the steering wheel, then over at his outfit. Scott shifted in his seat and glanced down. He had borrowed the shoes from his father — seventies-era derby shoes, two sizes too big. They shifted over tube socks that showed half their length, thanks to a pair of rainbow suspenders that drew his pants nearly to his sternum. One of the front pockets of his shirt bulged with his scientific calculator, the other with pens and mechanical pencils. A plaid bowtie bloomed from the shirt collar. He tapped his old pair of glasses against his thigh, the thick plastic bridge and both bows bound with masking tape.

“It’s Dress-up Night,” Scott said. “We’re supposed to look ridiculous.”

“Well, you’ve certainly succeeded.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

Older brothers chose the costumes for their pledges, and Britt had come up with his — The Nerd Look. Scott kept telling himself it was just for fun and didn’t mean anything, but apprehension stewed in the pit of his stomach. His mother wasn’t helping the situation.

“I see what this is,” she said. “I see exactly what this is.”

“What what is?”

This.” She jutted her chin toward him. “They’re going to humiliate you.”

Scott groaned inwardly. He had asked his mom to drive him because the risk was too high with his father. The sight of everyone in costume would have proven too much, shorting out whatever inhibitions his father possessed — and there wasn’t much there to begin with.

But now his mother was getting going with her own thing.

“All of the pledges are dressing up, Mom. It’s fine. It’s just for fun.”

Scott reflected on how that week was the first time Britt had acted anything more than indifferently toward him during the thirteen-week pledge period. He’d smiled, but hadn’t his eyes gleamed like ice when he handed over the suspenders and bow tie and ordered Scott to wear them?

“They’re going to humiliate you, but don’t let them, Scott. Stand up for yourself.” She slapped the steering wheel with both hands, startling Scott. “For God’s sake, stand up for yourself!

Her shrill voice made his heart race.

“Mom, what are you—”

“That’s what grates me about your father.” Her eyes glared over the steering wheel, bearing the reflection of the taillights of the car she was tailgating. “He lets Larry walk all over him. ‘You’re supposed to be fifty-fifty partners,’ I tell him. ‘Oh, well Larry wants it like this,’ your father says, or ‘Larry wants it like that.’” She made her voice deep and stupid when she imitated his dad, and Scott didn’t like it. “Now look at him. Look what he’s become.”

Scott watched the street lights passing and felt his heart shrinking inside him like a flaccid balloon.

“And here it is a week after Thanksgiving, and he still hasn’t moved a goddamned thing out of that garage. What is it about the men in this family?” When she looked over at Scott, he saw… revulsion? And for the last three months, she had been gushing compliments over his room and his neat appearance.

“Just stand up for yourself,” she said with an eerie flatness.

“It’s… it’s just for fun, Mom.”

“Don’t be stupid. Their idea of fun is going to be a lot different than yours.” She braked hard enough in front of Grant’s house for his seatbelt to lock against him. “Mark my word.”

Scott barely had time to get out and push the door closed before she drove off. He stood a moment at the curb, listening to the cheery laughter from where the driveway wound down into trees, and lights twinkled from a two-story house. He wiped his eyes with his shoulders. Moisture stippled through his shirt. Sniffling, he donned his glasses and touched his hair, cold and slicked over with gel.

Just for fun, he reassured himself, and made his way down the driveway.

  • * *

The first hour involved food and drinks in the backyard. The older members, wearing comfortable street clothes, smiled over their red plastic cups at the costumed pledges who mingled self-consciously in the flood of outdoor lighting. Scott was more than relieved to find the other pledges dressed as absurdly as he was. Jeffrey, who was supposed to be Peter Pan, kept tugging at his too-short frock, mumbling that his tights didn’t leave much to the imagination. Someone — Brad, was it? — waddled around in a full Gumby getup. And Sweat Pea was dressed as, well, Swee’Pea from Popeye: powder-blue pajamas with footies, a big bonnet, and a pacifier on a string around his neck. Scott giggled. It was too perfect.

“Hey, laugh all you want, Stretch,” Sweet Pea said. “But just watch the number of Alpha chicks who come over and pinch these baby cheeks. And believe me, I plan to pinch me some baby cheeks right back. Ain’t that right, Peter Pan?”

He goosed Jeffrey’s right butt cheek, sending him hollering and high-stepping away. The reaction looked especially hilarious in his green tights and little feathered hat. Scott roared with laughter along with the pledges, Gumby holding his belly.

“Goddamn.” Jeffrey returned with both hands pressed to his backside.

But even Jeffrey was smiling. And that was the reason Scott had stuck with Gamma. Despite the disastrous first social, despite the fact that Janis felt as inaccessible to him as ever, that was why: his fellow pledges. As clichéd as it sounded, all of the days in Standards, the forced exercises and cafeteria lunches, the signing of The Pact — it had bonded the thirteen of them. Scott even began to suspect that they were going to miss their lunches together. He knew he would. But while he had gotten along with all of the pledges, he hadn’t become particularly close with any of them. The person he was the closest to, strangely, was…

“Blake!” the pledges called in unison.

Scott turned to find him striding down the driveway in full football attire — helmet, pads, and a red-and-blue jersey. Janis walked alongside him, her face creased with displeasure. Scott could see why. Her hair had been braided into pigtails and tied off with blue ribbons while her cheeks featured a constellation of large, hand-drawn freckles. And Scott knew from their childhood that she hated dresses. Passionately. The one she wore now was high necked and frilly with blue stripes. Was she supposed to be Pippi Longstocking? The only things missing were the long, mismatched socks, but then Scott had it.

“Wendy!” Sweet Pea shouted.

The others laughed as it dawned on them, too. Yes, Wendy of hamburger-chain fame.

“Oh, c’mon, man.” Jeffrey looked Blake over. “How is that supposed to be embarrassing? This is like a day at the office for you.”

Blake arrived beside them and smiled sheepishly. “Grant knows about me and the Miami Dolphins. What better way to humiliate a Dolphins fan than to dress him up as a Buffalo Bill?”

“Yeah, well, I’ll trade you.”

“I already offered.” Janis flipped up one of her pigtails. “He wouldn’t go for it.”

The others laughed, but Janis’s face held its grimace. When Blake took her hand, Scott suffered a stab of longing so intense he had to turn away.

The thing was, Scott enjoyed sitting opposite Blake at lunch. The sentiment seemed mutual. They had spent much of the last month talking personal computers when Blake’s family had been in the market for one. Scott appreciated that, appreciated him. Even when it became clear that Blake and Janis were an item, Scott found he couldn’t distort his opinion of him for the worse. (And hadn’t the X-Men’s Jean Grey dated Angel before pledging her love to Scott?) If anything, he looked at Blake ever more as someone to model himself after — someone who didn’t have to hide or reinvent himself. He was who he was, which was solid, someone Janis deserved. And on that point, Blake was a gentleman. No matter how much the other pledges prodded, he never went into detail about their dates, other than to say that Janis was a “great girl.” And maybe that’s what pained Scott the most — that Blake was getting to discover what he himself had known about Janis since childhood.

Scott slipped his hands into his jacked-up pants pockets and pretended to become interested in Grant, who was plugging a microphone into the stereo system up on the deck. Van Halen’s “Jump” ended abruptly. Grant descended the steps, unspooling the microphone’s cord as he went. In the yard, members were setting up lawn chairs around what looked like a makeshift stage.

“You look about as miserable as I feel.”

Scott turned to find Janis standing at his shoulder, also peering toward the stage. She was close enough that he could see the shine of outdoor lighting along each strand of her braided hair. The space around Scott began to revolve, just like it had that first day of school.

“On the bright side, this is the end of it,” Janis said. “That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.”

It was our world in there, wasn’t it? Back then?

“Yeah,” was all Scott could think to mutter.

Janis blinked and turned toward him. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why this?” She reached for the front of his suspenders. “Why Gamma? I mean, what made you decide to pledge?”

“I, ah…” He watched the fingers of her hand trace the length of his suspender. “I just thought I needed to, um… branch out… you know, meet new people. Not too many from our middle school came to Thirteenth Street High.”

Janis snorted as her hand fell away. “That depends on how you look at it.”

Scott followed her narrowed gaze to where the three girls from their English class were chatting excitedly with some older Gamma members. The one dressed as a Playboy bunny, Amy, turned around for the guys to feel her puffy tail. “It’s real rabbit’s fur, I swear!” she exclaimed. The guys grinned at one another. Janis made a noise of disgust and turned back to Scott. He watched the soft green rings around her pupils grow as she inched nearer.

“Um, there’s something else I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

Scott’s collar constricted around his throat. Her voice had a special quality: quiet and guarded, almost intimate. He felt the sudden need to swallow but feared it would sound like an off-putting gulp.

“This might sound weird…” Janis started to say.

A trio of shrill voices burst inside their space, older Alpha members.

“Oh my gawd!” the one with feathered hair exclaimed, lifting Janis’s pigtails. “Like, you look just like her!”

“How adorable!”

“For sure!” This one emitted a lengthy giggle.

“Yeah, well, you can thank Margaret,” Janis muttered.

The one with huge, dark hair looked around. “Where is she?”

“Covering the evening shift at Penney’s,” Janis said. “She’s coming by later.”

“What a total, like, bummer.”

Bummed or not, Scott hoped they would blow off just as quickly as they had blown in. He needed to know what Janis was about to ask him — especially while Blake was still occupied with the pledges behind them. Because for a moment, it had felt like just the two of them again, back in the woods.

“TESTING. TESTING.”

Scott turned with Janis to where Grant was holding the microphone to his chin. The older members were settling into the rows of lawn chairs that now semi-circled the stage. Margaret’s three friends squealed and fled from Janis’s side, but Blake was there to fill the void, stepping up and taking her hand. Scott hardly noticed this time. The uneasy feeling was stealing back into the pit of his stomach.

A final hum of feedback sounded, followed by Grant Sidwell’s resonant voice. “Yes, everyone take a seat, please. Not the pledges. I need you around here beside me. Right there is good. And in a line, please.”

Scott followed the pack and took his place at the rear of a line that stretched along the back of the house, nearly to the trees. Outside the lights, he could more clearly see the faces in the audience, flushed and excited. His mother’s words jabbed through his jittery thoughts.

They’re going to humiliate you.

Grant lifted the microphone and turned back to the audience. “All right, all of you know how this works. When your little brother or sister takes the stage, you’ll give them a scenario to act out. As always, you can team up and do a couples or group scenario. Our panel over here” — Grant indicated the four members in the front row — “will be awarding the points. Remember, humor and humiliation score highest.”

Amid the laughter, Grant turned to the first pledge. There had been some jostling and rearranging in the line while Grant had been speaking, and Sweet Pea, by virtue of his pudginess and indifference, had been shoved to the front. He took the stage to a smattering of applause. Soon, his older Gamma brother was beside him, microphone in hand.

“Change his diaper!” someone yelled.

“Yeah, then make him eat it!”

Scott felt too nauseated to laugh. He had held his place at the back of the line by slipping farther into the darkness and then slipping back when the line had returned to order. For an instant, he had considered slipping away entirely, stealing off into the night and walking home. Oakwood wasn’t too far away. But no, he needed to stay, needed to finish what he’d started. He stood on tiptoes, looking for Blake and Janice. He found them in the middle of the line.

“Swee’Pea, Swee’Pea, Swee’Pea…” his older brother said, massaging his neck. “You are going to prove your loyalty to our esteemed club by singing the Gamma fight song three times. Do you remember the words?”

“Yeah, of course.”

By Sweet Pea’s surprised smile, Scott could practically read his thoughts. That’s it? That’s all I have to do?

His older brother raised a finger. “But you have to sing it in goo-goos and ga-gas. With your thumb in your mouth. Crawling around on your hands and knees.” His grin looked positively devilish. “Got it?”

Sweet Pea’s own smile vanished beneath a wave of laughter. He looked at his older Gamma brother another moment to make sure he was serious. He was. Shoulders slumped, Sweet Pea fixed his thumb in the corner of his mouth, sank to his knees, and started into a limping crawl.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo…”

“Faster, baby!”

Scott cringed when Sweet Pea’s older brother kicked him in the rear. That brought down fresh laughter.

“Ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga-goo …”

“I said, faster!” Another kick, this one harder. The laughter became riotous. “And aim your bonnet toward the audience when you sing!”

Scott’s stomach roiled, and he placed his hands on his knees. He could see Janis saying something to Blake. Scott looked back to where Sweet Pea was receiving another kick, his older brother screaming above his ear now.

After two minutes that felt like two years, it was over.

Sweet Pea stood to a round of applause. His older brother hoisted one of his arms like a prize fighter just gone the distance. Sweet Pea looked appropriately dazed. They stood, waiting for the judge’s decision. Two 7s and two 8s.

“Bitchin’!” Sweet Pea’s older brother said. “A 7.5!” He clapped Sweet Pea’s back, then hustled him into the audience where they would enjoy the rest of the show as spectators.

See, it’s all in fun, Scott told himself through his shallow breaths.

The other scenarios went similarly though not all of them were as physically abusive as Sweet Pea’s, Scott was glad to see. Amy, the Playboy bunny, was forced to give an impromptu speech on the importance of sex education, using a list of words she had been given — all of them crude, naturally. And every time she paused, said “um,” or laughed, she had to hop in a circle like a bunny, which was often.

Before long, Blake and Janis’s turn came. Scott lowered his head, not wanting to see her embarrassed. Since Margaret still wasn’t there, Grant came up with a scenario for both of them. Blake was to get on one knee and propose to Janis, who was then to run around squealing like she was “the happiest girl in the world.” It was among the lamer scenarios, but Scott still found he couldn’t watch. He stared at the tips of his father’s derby shoes, the outdoor lighting branding the back of his neck.

“Janis,” Blake said. “These last two months have been amazing. I mean that. And you would make me the happiest man in the world if you would only accept this ring and say, ‘I do.’”

Pretend or not, the sincerity of his words crushed Scott.

“Yeah, yeah, I do,” Janis said flatly. She gave a half-hearted squeal, then said, “All right, we’re done here.”

The audience protested, but when Scott raised his face, Janis was already leading Blake around to the back row to sit. The judging was unanimous: all 1s. Grant shrugged and turned to the next pledge, Peter Pan.

Jeffrey’s dancing and prancing scored an 8.5, the highest so far.

Scott shuffled forward with a line that was becoming frighteningly shorter while the audience, with its retired acts, was growing larger and larger, spilling beyond the lawn chairs. Though the night was cool, the deck lighting that shone ever brighter over Scott made his body pour sweat.

It’s all in fun, he repeated. All in good fun.

Don’t be stupid, his mother’s voice shot back.

By the time Scott’s turn came, he felt as if he’d been cored out and strung through with frayed wires. His shirt stuck to his back, and he could feel a muscle at the corner of his mouth beginning to twitch.

“Last but not least,” Grant announced, opening his arm toward Scott. “Britt, I believe this one’s yours?”

Laughter burst from the audience, and when Scott turned, he saw Britt emerging from a sliding glass door beneath the deck. He was wearing a priest’s robe and a white clerical collar. In one hand, he carried an ottoman, in the other, what looked like a large scroll. As Britt entered the light, the solemnity of his face evoked more laughter. He glanced over, the shine in his eyes speaking not to holy compassion but to punishment, the fire and brimstone variety.

“Silence!” Britt commanded.

He set down the ottoman at the front of the stage. “Sit down,” he told Scott.

Scott stepped forward, and all of Bud’s training left him. His knees began to fold like a lawn chair before muscles jerked into action, throwing him upright. Pinwheeling his arms, he managed to steady himself. Laughter spouted from the audience. Make them think it’s part of an act. Scott led with his hips now, chest sunk back, arms stiff at his sides. But the laughter that accompanied him was not the companionable kind; it wielded a cruel edge.

The muscle at the corner of his mouth began to jump again. Scott bit the inside of his lip to contain it.

“My faithful parishioners,” Britt boomed into the microphone, “my flock, my herd…”

“I ain’t your sheep!” someone shouted.

Britt didn’t break stride. “It pains me deeply to inform you that there is a deceitful presence in our midst. Yes, a deceitful presence who came unto us like a thief in the night this past August, pretending to be someone he is not.”

Scott’s body stiffened.

“But he has been outed. Yes, he has been outed, my flock. Behold!”

When Scott turned, he found Britt holding open the scroll that was not a scroll at all, but a poster. Scott’s first instinct was to leap up and tear it from his hands. Instead, he remained rigid, his face becoming so hot that he could feel the color leaching from it. He was staring at himself, or rather a ghost of himself past, one who had thick glasses, a disheveled head of hair, a smile as awkward and crooked as the collar of his shirt, and volcanic eruptions of acne across his brow. It was his yearbook photo from Creekside Middle School, from the year before. Copied, blown up, and pasted to the unfurled poster in Britt’s hands.

“Ner-errrd!” a voice jeered.

Scott’s breaths wheezed through a pinhole.

Some others took up the call — a few of them girls — but Britt raised his hand for their silence. “That’s right, the nerd has been outed. But he is not lost. No, no, no, no! He is not lost. Not on my watch. Can you give me a hallelujah?”

“HALLELUJAH!”

“Can you give me an amen?”

“AMEN!”

Each shout felt like the report from a firing squad. Britt set the poster aside and stood beside Scott, pressing a hand over Scott’s soaked brow.

Scott stopped groping over his pockets for the inhaler he no longer carried.

“Because, my flock, I sense that this nerd can be saved. I feel the Gamma spirit stirring deep inside him. But only if he is willing. Only if he is willing! Are you willing, son?” He moved the microphone to Scott’s mouth.

Scott ran a furry tongue across his lips. “Y-yes,” he gasped, his lungs allowing him that much.

“I said, are you willing?”

“Yes.”

Britt threw his arms skyward. “Praise the lord!”

“PRAISE THE LORD!”

The crowd broke into applause, and when Scott glanced around, he found them all leaned forward, a keen hunger across their faces, sensing that whatever scenario Britt had cooked up for this last act — for him — was going to blow away all the others. Though he couldn’t see her, Scott knew Janis was out there watching as well.

“All right, son,” Britt said. Sweat shone through his crew cut as he stooped toward Scott’s ear. He hadn’t broken character once, and Scott interpreted that as bad. Really bad. “We are gonna exorcise that nerd out of you. Do you hear me? Right out of your blessed soul! But you have to do what we say. Do you understand me?”

Scott nodded.

“I said, do you understand me?”

“Y-yes, I understand.”

Scott watched someone hand Britt a large wooden paddle. Two lines of holes cored the varnished blade. Britt gripped the end of the paddle, propping the blade over his shoulder.

“Did you see Revenge of the Nerds?” Britt asked him. “Did you see that movie? Do you remember how those nerds laughed?”

Scott nodded, not moving his eyes from the paddle. Wayne’s father had taken them that summer on the condition they not tell Wayne’s mother. Scott remembered the laugh well. The three of them — Scott, Wayne, and Wayne’s father — had brayed it most of the way home.

“Well, let’s hear it,” Britt said.

Scott learned nearer the microphone and emitted two soft honks.

“Now,” Britt said, taking the microphone away, “you are going to bend over this here footstool, and every time I strike, you are going to give me one of those laughs. But it has to be loud, son. It has to be passionate. You have to convince me that my healing strikes are indeed driving the nerd out of you. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” Scott tried to keep his nose from sniveling. He turned over and assumed the position, conscious of the laughter still pelting down around him.

Just a few paddles, and you’re done, he told himself. [_He’s probably not even going to do it very har — _]

THWACK!

Scott’s buttocks exploded with heat, and he bit into his lip to keep from screaming. The taste of warm copper trickled beneath his tongue.

“I didn’t hear a laugh, nerd,” Britt said from behind.

THWACK!

This time, Scott half honked, half grunted.

“Louder!”

THWACK!

Another half-honk, half-grunt.

“I wanna help you, son. I really do. But you have to want it!”

THWACK!

Scott’s next honk emerged as a high grunt, almost a squeal.

“I just don’t think we’re getting through,” Britt said sadly to more laughter, his breathing labored. “But it’s all right. I’ve got a couple of parishioners who have volunteered to help out. Boys?”

Scott heard heavy footsteps land on the tarp and then felt his suspenders being pulled away. Another set of hands fumbled with the front of his pants. Too late, Scott realized what was happening. His pants were yanked to his calves. Cool air needled the skin of his raw buttocks. His underwear was down as well, he realized — also too late. Scott struggled to sit up, to reach back and reclaim them, but his neck and arms were being pinned.

“It’s for your own good, son,” Britt said above him.

THWACK!

A fresh clap of pain.

“I didn’t hear you!” Britt bellowed.

They’re going to humiliate you, but don’t let them.

Scott turned his head toward the house as his chest began to wrack with strangled sobs.

THWACK!

Stand up for yourself.

Thicker, heavier sobs. And Scott realized in fresh horror that he was still trying to do the honks. Like with his sobbing, he couldn’t stop. A swill of tears and snot began dripping from his face.

THWACK!

“H-a-a-wnk!”

Stand up for yourself!

It was no longer Britt striking him, but his mother, her shrieking face looming before his. Stand up for yourself, Scott! THWACK! For God’s sake, stand up for yourself! THWACK! [_For God’s sake! For God’s sake! For God’s sake! _]THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

And without his realizing it, his honking became a series of retching screams, rising in pitch and urgency, occluding all else, even the sharp explosions of pain across his naked buttocks.

25

“Oh, god, do something Blake,” Janis whispered. “Make him stop.”

She had dropped her eyes the minute Scott was made to bend over the ottoman, sick to her stomach. But she could still hear the THWACKs of the paddle, each one landing in her gut.

Blake — !” she whispered.

“He’s stopping,” he said quickly. She could hear his relief. “Look, he’s stopping.”

But when Britt spoke again, he was still using that creepy Southern preacher’s voice.

“I just don’t think we’re getting through,” he was saying. “But it’s all right. I’ve got a couple of parishioners who have volunteered to help out. Boys?”

Janis raised her eyes just as Bo and Shelton, two beefy jock-preps, descended on Scott and began wrestling with his clothes. And then his pants were down, his rail-thin buttocks, which had already begun to redden, bared to the world.

“It’s for your own good, son.”

Janis brought her fist to her mouth and clenched her eyelids.

THWACK!

The sound was starker this time, almost wet. And another sound was emerging. Janis couldn’t tell if she was hearing it over the raucous shouts and laughter or if it was inside her own head, but it was unmistakable. It was the sound of Scott sobbing — just as he had that time in the woods with the Rottweiler.

Even when Samson growled, she remembered, even when he lunged, Scott had remained calm. For twenty minutes or more, holding the stick out before him, keeping her behind him, stopping occasionally to whisper a shh, he had remained calm. His stiff shoulders had felt cool beneath her hands. Only when they’d reached the safety of the fallen tree and climbed up, when Samson had returned to whatever hell-cave had spawned him, did Scott collapse and begin sobbing. The rhythm was exactly the same.

Janis jumped to her feet and began running toward the stage.

“Stop!” she cried.

THWACK!

Stop, I said!

THWACK!

And then she was close enough to see his head shivering, the skin on the back of his neck blanching where Shelton’s fingers dug in. Janis grabbed the collar of Shelton’s shirt and felt it rip when she yanked him backyard. Her assault on Bo, who was holding Scott’s arms, was less a kick and more a pair of stomps — right in the side of his ribs. When he recoiled, his face was surprised with pain. Janis’s only regret was that she wasn’t in cleats.

“What in the hell’s wrong with you?” she cried.

Her fury had swelled into a force beyond her. She turned to confront Britt, who had backed away a step, his thrashing robe gone limp. A strenuous sweat glistened along the sides of his face. The paddle was still suspended, poised to strike again, and in the huge silence, Janis could hear Scott’s gasping sobs. They all could. Britt looked from Janis down to Scott, seeming to return to himself. He lowered the paddle. She grabbed it away and swung it against the nearest tree. The head of the paddle snapped at its neck and shot off into the bushes.

She turned her fury on the crowd. “Is this your idea of entertainment?” she screamed. “Huh? Beating someone who’s defenseless?”

Blake was standing on the verge of the stage, his palms raised to her as though to say, It’s all right, babe. It’s over. Let’s all just cool down. But she could see the pale shock on his face. Whether it was from what they had done to Scott or what she was doing to them, Janis couldn’t tell.

Her gaze returned to Scott, who had gotten his pants back up and was pawing around for his glasses. His body was still hitching, but the sobs were thinner now, smaller. She glared once more at the crowd, at their shocked and stupid expressions, and knelt to help him. His taped glasses had ended up behind him somehow. She picked them up and offered them to him.

“Here,” she whispered.

Scott stood and wiped a sleeve across his nose before accepting his glasses. With his face downcast, he pushed them on. He then began shoving his shirttail into his pants, as though trying to put himself back together. The pens and pencils that had been in his pocket were scattered around his feet. In her periphery, Janis noticed Grant approaching them.

“All right. I think we can all agree that one got a little out of hand.” He spoke with the sober concern of a politician. He reached forward, as though deciding whether or not to place a hand on her shoulder.

“And you let it happen.” Janis rounded on him, her voice shuddering with anger. “At your house.”

She could see in his eyes and faltering hand the implication sinking in. The school took a hard line on hazing. Official notices were posted along the hallways. This was the sort of thing that could get Gamma hit with probation — or worse — not to mention the disciplinary actions against those involved, namely the president and host. Grant ran his fingers through his hair.

“At your house,” she repeated.

“Oh, get over yourself,” someone called.

Janis recognized the voice — just as she had recognized her handwriting years earlier.

When Janis turned, her former friend was sneering out at her, arms folded, head cocked to the side. She couldn’t see the other hydra heads bookending her, couldn’t see Alicia or Autumn, just Amy.

Amy, in her Playboy bunny outfit (“It’s real rabbit’s fur, I swear!”), legs crossed primly to show off her fishnet-clad thighs. Amy, who had slipped that note into her locker three years before, who had treated her and her friends like shit ever since. Amy, who had manipulated her emotions these last months for no other reason than to get into Alpha.

Like a fiery arrow, Janis shot toward her.

Gasps sounded like bottles of cola being popped open. Pledges and members alike cringed from her path. They had already witnessed her attack on Bo and Shelton. So had Amy. The sneer fled her red lips. Her large eyes flew around for someplace to hide. But in the cruelest of ironies, she was trapped between the two friends whom she’d sought safety in these last three years, their chairs pressed together and angled inward.

When Amy tried to stand, Janis shot her arm out. Janis had only made it to the second row of chairs, still a good fifteen feet away, but Amy was thrown backward anyway. One of her black heels snagged in the chair leg. The entire aluminum chair followed her somersault, bunny ears flying from her head. Amy and the chair landed in a clanking heap.

Maybe it was the terror of Amy’s scream or the horror at what she herself had done, but Janis pulled up. Relaxed her fists. Forced herself to breathe. To everyone else, it would have looked like Amy had toppled backward in her attempt to scramble away. But Janis knew better. She had felt the pulse leave her hand, just like the night of the Lyon game…

Only stronger.

Alicia and Autumn, who had been cowering back, arms covering their faces, knelt to Amy’s sides. With worried backward glances, they helped untangle their friend from her chair. When Amy peered over the upended seat, her hair flopped over half her face. One eye searched around and found Janis. In its naked fright, Janis saw that Amy had felt the pulse, too.

An arm slipped around Janis’s waist.

“What’s this?” Blake whispered. “What’s gotten into you?”

She shrugged from her boyfriend’s embrace and waded from the crowd, half of whom were craning their necks around at Amy, the other half still looking warily at her. Feather Heather alternated between the two, a pink-lacquered nail between her teeth. [_This is definitely getting back to Margaret, _]Janis thought but without caring.

She remembered Scott then. He was no longer on the stage. She spotted the pale glow of his shirt at the dark end of the driveway, nearly to the street.

“Let’s go,” Blake said with a sigh. “I’ll offer him a ride home.”

“No, let me go to him. Alone.”

“I have a car, Janis. Wouldn’t it—?”

“You were supposed to do everything in your power to help him.” Vehemence scored her voice. “Wasn’t that The Pact?”

Blake stood back in his bulky football costume, his gaze soft and uncertain. She had never become angry at him before, not like this. He started to say something, but she had already left his side. She clacked up the driveway, deaf to his calls, and then broke into a run.

  • * *

By the time she reached him, Scott was making his way along the parked cars lining the curb, bracing his arm against them for support. His gait was stiff, almost a limp, and broadcast deep bruising.

“Hey.” She arrived beside him. “Are you all right?”

Scott jerked and wiped his face. When he glanced over, narrow, puffed-up eyes looked out from a ruddy face. The street light caught a streak of moisture on his left cheek that he’d missed. He replaced his glasses and lurched back into motion.

“Guess I sort of l-l-lost it back there,” he said.

He snuffled when he tried to laugh, and Janis thought it was one of the saddest sounds she’d ever heard.

“Yeah, well, that makes two of us.”

“I-I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

He was trying to keep his face turned from her while he spoke. “I didn’t mean to get you in tr-trouble… I had no business being there. Why don’t you go on b-back. I’ll b-b-be all right.”

She watched his ribs starting to hitch again and could feel how desperately he wanted to be alone.

“Go back? Pffft. I’m done with Alpha.”

Scott continued to limp forward.

“The only reason I pledged in the first place was because of Margaret. It’s not me. It was never me.”

Janis began yanking the bows out of her hair and stuffing them into her pockets. She groaned, remembering the freckles Margaret had drawn on her cheeks with a brown makeup pencil. They’d probably smear if she tried to wipe them away. She must have looked ridiculous attacking Bo and Shelton in her frilly dress and pigtails. Wendy goes ape shit. She was about to make a joke about it when she realized Scott had slowed down. He was peering over at her with the same searching eyes she remembered from their childhood.

“It was n-n-never me, either.”

“Well, at least it only took us three months to figure it out instead of three years.”

Scott managed another snuffled laugh. “Yeah.”

She touched his arm. “Listen, I know a better way home. If we turn around and go to the back of the neighborhood, we’ll end up at that greenway that connects Eighth and Sixteenth Avenues. We can avoid the streets. And when we come out, we’ll be across from Oakwood.”

Scott stopped walking, his gaze dropping to her hand resting on his forearm. He sniffled, appearing to contemplate her proposal, her touch.

“All right,” he said.

  • * *

Their route took them back past Grant’s house. They kept to the opposite side of the street like a pair of exiles. Janis could hear voices down the driveway, thin and excited, the aftermath of a violent storm. She imagined Blake speaking with a concerned frown, hands held out. He could be very diplomatic — too diplomatic, sometimes. It was why he hadn’t intervened on Scott’s behalf. He would have eventually, Janis knew. But she also knew he was hoping the paddling would stop first.

Safely past the driveway, they resumed walking in the street. With the final parked cars at their back, Janis realized she’d chosen this route, not only for Scott’s sake, but also for her own. She didn’t want Blake pulling up, trying to exercise the same diplomacy on them, on her. Not tonight.

She felt guilty about this until she heard Scott snuffle again.

The street ended at a wooded cul-de-sac. A final street light stood against the night and the gathering trees. Beyond the curb, Janis could make out the beginning of a path that showed pale where the topsoil had worn down to a layer of limestone. She peeked behind them, glad to see no cars coming. Three or four street lights away, someone was walking a small dog. She turned back to the trees.

“There’s just a short stretch of woods before the greenway.”

“All right.” Scott seemed more in control of himself. His breathing had softened, and his walking was not quite as stilted, as if the pain had lessened or he had learned how to move with it. Janis resisted the urge to take his hand as she might have when they were kids.

They stepped over the curb. Gravel crunched beneath their shoes. The path narrowed as it entered the trees, and Janis led the way. Crickets chirped single notes in the cool night. A scent rose around them as well, one Janis had always associated with late fall: the tea-like scent of sweet gum leaves. Janis felt her pupils dilating as she waited for Scott to catch up. Inside the darkness, she found the courage to say what she’d wanted to say two months before, the night she had walked toward his window.

“I went back there, you know. That night.”

“Back where?” His white shirt swam up in front of her.

“To the woods, to when we were kids. It was the time we—”

“ — crossed the swampy area on the fallen tree,” Scott finished for her. “The time we saw the dog.”

She stood looking up at him as if someone had just landed on her back, knocking the wind out of her.

“I went there, too,” he said.

“Wait, not just remembering being there, but there there?”

His glasses nodded. “I know what it sounds like, but…”

“It sounds like exactly what happened to me!” Her laughter was loud with surprise and relief. But then she felt her father’s pragmatism creeping over her. “What was I wearing?”

It came out in a jumble: “Red shorts, one of those Florida halter tops with a smiling sun, and green Keds.”

She laughed again, unreality spiraling through her. She wanted to tell Scott everything then: about her experiences at night, about her saving tip at the soccer game, about her confrontation with Amy just now, about her belief that she had done more than just remember their childhood that night, but that she had carried them both inside of it somehow.

Instead, she asked him a question. “Why did we stop going into the woods? I don’t remember.”

Scott shrugged. “Middle school, I guess.”

They resumed walking, the moonlit streaks of limestone guiding them along. Janis thought about that. Middle school. And she saw that Scott was right. A longer school day followed by blocks of organized activities stacked one right after the other, abutting dusk and dinnertime. And with that had come a rigid rationalization of her world, a brave new world where the tangle of feral woods and her imagination no longer fit. Even their middle school had been neatly cordoned — not just into seven periods, but into A and B teams, new blocks of friends.

“You were on B team, weren’t you?” she asked him. “That’s probably why I don’t remember seeing you. What did you do after school? What sorts of things were you into?”

He seemed to hesitate. “Oh… telephone systems, computers, rockets, D&D… you know, cool stuff.” The noise he made when he laughed sounded healthier. “You?”

“Let’s see… softball, soccer, foreign language study. You know, girl stuff.”

His laughter followed hers, and before Janis was ready, they were coming to the verge of the greenway. Off to the right, she could hear the car traffic along Sixteenth Avenue, could see the phosphorescence of street lights through the trees. Scott shuffled up beside her.

“I know these aren’t the same woods as the ones in Oakwood,” Janis said. “But it’s like… I don’t know… like you’re beyond the reach of the world when you’re in here. Like none of that can touch you.”

“Yeah,” Scott said quietly.

She felt the strange urge to take his hand again, but now Scott was peering behind them, his breathing gone still. Janis listened, and soon she heard it, too, the tinkling of metal.

“Oh, it’s just someone walking their dog. I saw them back on the street.” She quickly added, “A small dog — not a Rottweiler.”

They left the woods for the greenway and were soon climbing over the guardrail that ran along the south side of Sixteenth Avenue. After a dash across the four lanes (or in Scott’s case, a hobble), they were at their neighborhood and beginning the steady ascent up Oakwood’s main street. Beneath the glare of street lights, Janis and Scott walked quietly, self-consciously, maybe.

When Janis looked over, Scott appeared better. He had removed his bowtie and suspenders, undone his top button, and rolled up his sleeves. He’d straightened his hair as well. Except for his stiff-legged gait, there was little to indicate the torment he had just been through. And was that a shadow of a smile?

“What is it?” she asked.

“Do you remember the time we were playing down here and saw Mrs. Thornton coming down the hill on her bike?”

“You mean her broomstick? I thought we always ran away when… wait!” She grabbed Scott’s arm. “That wasn’t the time we made a dare to see who could stay in the street the longest?”

Scott chuckled. “The ultimate game of chicken.”

“I thought I was going to wet my pants.”

“No, that was me. You were the one giggling.”

As they passed over the spot where their eight-year-old selves had once stood facing the terrible Mrs. Thornton, Janis felt fresh giggles bubbling inside her. “What was that thing she used to say?”

Scott screwed up his face and shook his finger at the air. “The streets are no place to be mucking around!”

“That was it, mucking around. Oh, god.”

“Then she’d tell us to go home or else she’d—”

“[_ — phone_] our parents,” Janis finished through more giggles. When she realized she was leaning against him, she released Scott’s arm and looked up at him. “So what happened? Who won the dare?”

“Neither of us.” Scott grinned and combed his fingers through his hair. “Mrs. Thornton braked so hard — to stop and lecture us, I think — that her bike wobbled and tipped over. We fled into the woods.”

“Poor Mrs. Thornton.”

When Scott laughed, Janis realized she had been bearing a yoke around her neck all school year because now she felt it splitting and falling away. She was going to have to answer to some people tomorrow — Margaret and Blake not the least among them — but for now, she was glad she’d walked Scott home, glad that it was just the two of them again. She hopped onto the curb and walked along it balance-beam style, like she used to when she was younger. Scott strolled along beside her, hands in his pockets, not limping at all.

Soon, the curb flowed into a driveway, and when Janis turned, she beheld a garage door the color of old teeth. A dark house rose around it. She felt the smile across her face thin to a line and then vanish. She steered Scott from the house, almost to the other side of the street, where the specter of cockroaches and sheds and hatches and yellow-tinted glasses couldn’t reach them.

At the intersection that split Oakwood into its three subdivisions, Janis slowed. “I guess this is us.” She cocked her head to the left. “The Meadows.” The reluctance in her voice surprised her.

“Hey, um, that house back there,” Scott said. “The brown one…”

Janis turned to where the second story of the Leonards’ house loomed above the house on the corner, and she suppressed a shiver. Why did you draw away from it? she could already hear him asking. Did something happen? She looked back at Scott’s eyes and studied their concern.

“If I tell you something,” she asked, “will you promise not to say anything until I finish? Even if you think it’s completely crazy?”

He nodded.

“I need to hear you say it.”

“I promise,” he said.

But she already sensed that he wouldn’t think it was crazy. That he wouldn’t think she was crazy. Her certainty went back to their childhood and the woods and the way their imaginations had once grown around and inside one another’s. That connection was still living.

“Let’s keep walking,” she said, her heart already doing double-time. “Let’s go up to the Grove.”

When they had walked a block, she took a deep breath.

“I guess everything started this summer…”

26

Scott watched Janis’s hands — hands that, when not holding the thick chains of the swing, shaped the night air in front of her, anxious to convey the truth of what she was sharing. It was a need Scott understood. There was more than one moment when he had wanted to take her hands and tell them to be still, that of course he believed her. But he didn’t move or speak. For the hour or more that she talked, an hour which had carried them into the park and onto the swing set where they eddied back and forth, he watched her hands, mesmerized.

There was her closeness, sure. There was their cocoon of darkness, where the street lights and distant houselights didn’t quite reach. There was the cascade of events that had started with the gut-rending humiliation of being singled out and beaten raw in front of the others — in front of her — but that had led somehow to their walking home together. A magical, cleansing walk that seemed to have spanned years.

But what most mesmerized Scott now, watching her hands, were the very things their motion conveyed: out-of-body experiences, telekinetic powers, ghost-like images that sounded to Scott like precognition, and the whole business with Mr. Leonard and his shed. Whoa.

Maybe because he had spent so much time these last years taking the world of Jean Grey and Scott Summers and projecting them over Janis and himself — what he wanted them to be — little of what she told him jarred with his sense of the possible, the real.

If anything, her account deepened it.

Janis’s hands stopped moving. Scott looked over to find her eyes, large and dark, peering at him through the night. Her hair was still braided into pigtails, her cheeks still dotted with fake freckles, but a tension drew on the contours of her face, making her appear much older than her fourteen years.

“So are we talking straightjackets and padded cells here or what?” she asked.

Only then did Scott realize she’d been waiting for him to respond. “No, no!” He twisted his swing to face her, his too-big shoes digging into the mulch. “That’s not crazy at all.”

“At all?” She smirked and lowered her eyes. “Now I know you’re just humoring me.”

Scott sensed then that she had tried to tell others — probably even Blake — and been looked at askance. Disbelief was what she had come to expect. “What I mean is I don’t think it’s crazy. Really. I believe you.”

She raised her eyes but kept her head down, like she was waiting for the punch line.

He got up from the swing and gestured for her to follow. “C’mon.”

“Huh?”

He walked several paces forward, toward the teeter-totters, then turned around to face the four swings. Janis followed him. “That one, on the far right.” Scott pointed. “Do you think, if you tried, you could make it move?”

Janis looked from the swing up to Scott and back.

“I don’t know,” she said. “The only times I’ve done it, I haven’t really tried. Not consciously. Like tonight. I wasn’t planning to knock Amy out of her chair. It just sort of… happened.”

“Try now,” he encouraged her.

Janis remained staring at the swing. Then she pushed her frilly sleeve to her elbow and raised her arm. Scott watched the way her brow tensed down over her eyes, making them deeper and darker, more beautiful. He stood back to give her space. And then something in the air made his skin prickle, as if the molecules around them were being roused from their sleepy Brownian motion. The chain creaked. The black rubber seat began to rock and twist, back and forth.

Scott laughed. “It’s working!”

Janis dropped her arm. “No, that’s just the wind.”

When Scott looked again, he saw that the other three swings were replicating the creaking motion of the first. The huge oak tree in the corner of the field rustled its dark leaves.

“But I felt something,” Scott said.

“Yeah, me too. The wind.” She shrugged in a way that said, Sorry I couldn’t prove it to you.

Scott came over and placed one hand on the curve of her shoulder and the other on the soft underside of her wrist and raised her arm toward the swing again. It was the kind of contact that, as recently as that summer, would have sent him into conniptions even to think about. Now, a deep calm moved through him, like the tide. It came from the night, from the spell of unreality that secluded them. He stooped until his sight line ran along her arm.

“I find it helps to picture the object as clearly as I can,” he said. “Not just how it looks, but how it feel—”

Janis drew her arm away. “Wait, helps you do what?”

“I, um…” Scott rubbed the back of his neck.

For so long, he had wanted to tell someone, someone who would believe him or, at the very least, not call him an ass-wad. And here she was: Janis Graystone, the love of his young life. And therein lay the problem. How could he start popping off about modems, telecommunication lines, and ARPANet without coming off as a total stooge? The kind of person he had been working so hard to grow beyond? In his mind’s eye, he saw his middle school photo, poster sized and unfurled. He remembered the raucous jeers. Ner-errrd!

Janis crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow. “Scott?”

His own arms sagged to his sides. He never could hold out long against that look. “Yeah, I guess I have something to tell you, too.”

Janis took his elbow and led him back to the swing set. “Sit,” she ordered, pointing. “Speak.”

Scott did the first, removing his glasses. Then he told her everything. From his discovery that he could navigate the telecommunication system to his awareness of the tap — or whatever it was — and his attempt to short it. He picked away the masking tape from the bridge of his glasses as he spoke. It gave his hands something to do and made him all but blind to the way Janis, who stayed silent, was receiving his words. The words came easily, though. In his own telling, he tapped into a resonance that existed between their experiences: projecting their consciousnesses, influencing remote objects, or in his case, remote data streams, being monitored, feeling alone in the experience… until now.

When he was done, Scott wiped his lap of stray bits of tape and pushed his glasses back on. He had enough time to flinch before her fist met his shoulder. The punch was solid but not hard.

“That’s for holding out on me, mister.”

She looked at him another moment, head tilting to one side as if seeing him in a new light. Then she walked her swing backward and kicked out her legs. She swept past Scott and jackknifed her knees. The chains clicked and creaked as her pendulum reversed. Not knowing what else to do, Scott joined her. He modulated the kicks and pulls of his own legs until he and Janis were side by side, taking off and swooping back, the sweet scent of the playground’s mulch streaming between them. Scott hardly noticed the biting soreness across his bottom.

When Janis spoke, her voice sounded close. “So where do you think they come from?”

“Our powers? Well, we haven’t been subjected to high doses of any of the standard radiations — gamma, cosmic, that sort of thing — so we can eliminate the radiation cause. And neither of us are gods or demigods, so far as we know. Or from other planets. Or bearers of magical jewelry.”

Scott cringed. Like she’s going to get any of those comic book references, you monumental dumbass.

“Could be something in our DNA,” he said carefully. “A genetic anomaly, maybe?”

Their legs flexed and extended in time.

“You know…” Janis said. “There is this thing my sister does. I used to think it was part of her my-way-or-the-highway resolve. But it’s more than that. She goes inside your head somehow.”

“Like mind control?”

“Sort of. But it’s more like she weakens your thoughts, makes it so you can’t impose your will. Not against hers, anyway. I don’t even think she knows she does it. So maybe there’s something to your DNA theory. Do your parents have any… I don’t know, special abilities?”

Scott snorted at the idea. “Other than my dad eating an entire pizza in his sleep once?” He shook his head. “How about yours?”

“No. Not that I know of. Too bad you don’t have a brother or sister to test the idea.”

Scott watched the tops of his shoes appear and disappear, the woods down the hill rising into view, a sweep of black, and then falling away. Inside those same woods was the clearing Scott had fled to the summer before, Jesse, Creed, and Tyler in pursuit. The clearing where he had heard the radius and ulna bones of his right arm snap above Creed’s giddy laughter.

Scott slammed down his heels, plowing two furrows into the mulch and nearly toppling forward.

“What is it?” Janis stopped kicking and let the ground catch her feet, rocking to a more elegant stop beside him.

“Creed and Tyler. You know, the Bast brothers?”

Janis’s lips drew into a scowl. “Creed was the only boy to make me cry. Sucker punched me in the stomach when I was nine.”

“Yeah well, there’s something they do, too.” Scott’s words were already tumbling over one another. “Creed possesses some sort of super speed. One second, he’s twenty yards away, and the next he’s at your side.” Holding a blade to your throat. “And Tyler, his power has something to do with electricity. I’m not sure how it works, exactly, but he shocked the bejeezus out of me at the tennis courts back in September. I think he ran a current through the fence when I was trying to climb over. Jesse got a dose, too. Burned like heck the next morning.”

“What were you doing in the tennis courts with those creeps?”

Heat bloomed over Scott’s ears. “I, ah…” THAT’S OUR TEAM! GO, TEAM, GO! “It’s sort of a long story.”

“So there’s Creed and Tyler. Do you know of anyone else?”

Scott thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Jesse Hoag, but he’s always been a freak of nature. Used to rip textbooks in half in elementary school, do you remember that? He got hold of one of mine once, one of those thick readers.”

“Strange,” Janis said quietly. She toed the ground with one of her blue flats. “You, me, my sister, the Bast brothers, Jesse. And even if we have to put an asterisk by Jesse’s name, it doesn’t change the fact that we all live in the same neighborhood.” Her eyes narrowed. “Think about it, Scott. Of all the people we’ve known in our lives, our entire lives, the only ones with unique abil — all right, powers — live right here, in Oakwood.”

He kept staring at her. How hadn’t he seen that? His mind picked up the slack.

“So now it becomes a chicken-or-the-egg question,” he said. “Which came first: our powers or moving to Oakwood?”

“What, do you think there’s something in the water?”

But Janis was peering past him now. When Scott turned, he saw it too: a pale halo against the giant oak tree, starting at the top half and swelling down and around it, becoming brighter. The drone of an approaching engine followed.

Janis stepped from the swing, and Scott stood beside her, his heart pounding the backside of his sternum. The car was coming up the hill, quickly. High beams shot through chinks in the tree’s leaf cover, penetrating their space. Scott instinctively moved in front of her, just as he had done that day in the woods.

When the car entered the Grove, Scott sized up the headlights. He exhaled. “It’s all right.” He recognized the car’s sound too. “It’s your sister.”

He followed Janis through the tall grass and threads of night mist to the curb, the car’s golden light growing over them.

“Offer you a ride?” she asked.

Scott shook his head. “No, thanks. I’ll just walk home.”

“Hey, um, everything you told me… I believe you.”

Scott looked at her face, in full illumination now, and remembered the morning at the end of the summer when a square of sunlight had caught her perfection. He remembered how much it had hurt to look at.

Now he stepped closer to her. “I believe you, too.”

The Prelude swerved up to the curb. The passenger side door flew open. Margaret leaned across the seat, glaring out at them. “Janis Graystone! You get into the car right this instant! Do you know it’s almost midnight?”

Janis gave Scott a tired smile. “See you tomorrow?”

“Right. See you tomorrow.”

“Sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah.” He found it hard to meet her eyes now. “And thanks for… for what you did earlier.”

Janis climbed in and pulled the door closed. The last thing Scott heard before the car wheeled around, its tires cutting sharply against the asphalt, was Margaret’s harping voice: “You assaulted two of their members and tried to attack one of your own sisters?”

Scott pushed his hands into his pockets and set out for home. He could feel the late hour in his spent body and see it in the dark windows he ambled past. The entire street was sleeping save for a lone figure farther down the hill, walking his dog. Above the soft clopping of his own shoes, Scott could make out the distant tinkling of the dog’s collar. But Scott wasn’t thinking about that right now. He was thinking about the fading hum of the Prelude, only minutes old, and how, for the first time, it hadn’t sounded like a missed opportunity.

Not tonight.

27

Scott wasn’t surprised when Grant Sidwell appeared in his first period biology class the next morning and asked the teacher permission to speak with him. He’d steeled himself for the eventuality. But when he found Britt waiting in the hallway as well, a part of his gut quivered like gelatin. But Britt looked nothing like the zealous priest from the night before. His stocky shoulders were rounded, his eyes downcast, and his hair dry. In his lemon-yellow Polo, he looked like just another high school student.

“Listen, Scott,” Grant said. “We, ah, we’ve come to apologize for last night. Things definitely got out of control.”

“Yeah, man. Sorry.” Britt barely raised his head.

“And we want to make it up to you.” Grant placed his hand where Scott’s shoulder met his neck and squeezed him companionably. Scott held himself rigid. “Forget last night happened, all right? You’re in, man. As of right now, you’re a Gamma brother. We’re even going to waive your dues this year.”

“Yeah,” Britt put in.

Keep your mouth shut, and we’ll take care of you. That’s what Grant was really telling him. Sometime following the party, probably while he and Janis were talking up in the Grove, it was the solution Grant and the other officers had come up with.

“Thanks,” Scott said, “but I’m not really interested in Gamma anymore.”

“Did you hear me? You’re in. You’re a brother.” He squeezed his shoulder again until it almost hurt.

“I heard you.”

He could see the growing uncertainty in Grant’s expression. And for the first time, Grant seemed to notice that, though Scott was wearing slacks and a nice shirt, he wasn’t in Standards. No Gamma letter hung from his neck either. Grant’s hand dropped away. “Last night was an aberration, Scott. It’s not what Gamma’s about and will never happen again. I promise.”

Grant’s eyes seemed to be pressing his now, but Scott’s gaze didn’t waver, not once. He remembered that first meeting, in August, when they had all looked like magazine models. And that’s just what they were, Scott understood, two-dimensional models. It was Grant who finally averted his eyes. His gaze seemed to search around a moment before seizing on Britt.

“Britt here’s been put on probation,” he said.

Britt’s head whiplashed up, his eyes huge. A new development, Scott saw. Not something they’d discussed the night before.

“Now wait just a goddamned minute,” Britt muttered.

Grant shook his head as if to say not now, then turned back to Scott. “We’re willing to make this right, Scott. But we need you to tell us that you’re willing to forget last night ever happened.”

Hadn’t Britt said something similar in the midst of swinging his paddle?

I wanna help you, son. I really do. But you have to want it!

THWACK!

“I’m trying to spare us both a lot of embarrassment here.” Grant pushed out a chuckle.

Britt had stalked a small circle and now spoke through gritted teeth. “Can we talk for a second?”

Grant shook his head again. He was in full self-preservation mode.

“The deal is this…” Scott began.

Both of them stood watching him. Though his pulse raced, it was all Scott could do to keep from smiling. He counted slowly to five in his head.

“An Alpha pledge roughed up a couple of your members last night. You know who I’m talking about, right?” He waited for them to nod. “All right, then the deal is this. I’m willing to forget last night, but you have to forget last night, too. If I hear about her getting into any kind of trouble over what happened, I’m going straight to Principal Munshin. He’ll hear everything. He’ll understand there was a reason for what she did. You follow?”

Both of them nodded again.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Yes,” they said.

“How about we seal the deal with…” Scott studied the ceiling in pretend thought, then snapped his fingers. “I know, did you happen to see Revenge of the Nerds? Do you remember how those nerds laughed?”

Grant and Britt looked at one another.

“Of course you did. Let’s hear it. Four of them.”

Grant grimaced. “I really don’t think that’s necessary.”

Scott started to turn away.

Britt’s first honk-laugh ripped down the hallway. He elbowed Grant in the side and shot him a look that said, C’mon, man, this is getting off easy — no probation for me, you’re clear. Grant sighed and joined Britt in the final three honks, though with far less enthusiasm.

“Not bad, gentlemen.” Scott clapped Grant’s shoulder. “For half a second there, you were almost half interesting.” He watched their eyes trying to compute that. “Well, I’ve got to get back to class.”

“Listen, if you ever want…” Grant started to say, but Scott didn’t hear the rest. The door had already swung closed behind him.

  • * *

The Steak ‘n Shake past the university was about as far as you could go for lunch and still make it back in time for fifth period, depending on the wait. Janis peeked over at Blake, who was skipping his final lunch with the other Gamma pledges. Until that day, his pledge card had been perfect. She wondered if he’d brought her out here to break up. She wondered, too, why the idea only made her feel vaguely numb.

“So, is everything all right?” Blake asked her after they had been seated at a small corner table and ordered.

“Yeah. Sorry about last night.” It came out sounding hollower than she meant it to.

“I’ve never seen you like that. You were really… upset.”

Upset? Her brain felt like it had been drenched in gasoline and set ablaze. But that part of the night seemed distant now, as if she had only stood behind that person, observing.

Janis watched their waitress twist back toward them, past tables of college students, brown-suited businessmen, and a group of telephone technicians with hard hats in their laps. She set their fountain drinks down, two vanilla Cokes. When Janis looked up, she found Blake’s hand over his chin and his brows drawn together as though he was trying to decide who she was.

“Look, Scott and I were good friends growing up.” She traced a line through the condensation beading over her glass. “I was taller than him back then, so I used to pretend I was his older sister. I looked out for him.” She shrugged. “I guess the instinct’s still there.”

Blake took a swallow of his drink and set his glass down. When he looked out the window, the light paled his face. He crunched a piece of ice between his teeth, then let out a long breath.

Here it comes, Janis thought. The “maybe we should be friends” speech.

“You were right, you know,” he said.

“About what?”

“The Pact. I should have done something before it went that far.”

Janis’s gaze fell back to her glass. “My dad says hindsight’s always twenty-twenty.”

“Is Scott okay?”

“I think so.”

“I tried calling both of you last night. Him, to see if there was anything I could do. And you to make sure you’d gotten home all right.”

“Yeah, my dad gave me the message. Thanks.”

She could see in his eyes that he was waiting for her to explain why she hadn’t been home when he called. But what could she say?[_ Oh, a funny thing happened, babe. It turns out Scott and I took a trip to the past together a couple of months ago. That’s right! Only neither of us knew that the other had had the same experience until last night. Ha, ha! So one thing leads to another, and next thing you know, I’m telling him all about my dreams of mushroom clouds and out-of-body experiences, not to mention this newfound power to tip away shots on goal and blast ex-friends who turn bitch. And Scott, he tells me about ]his[ power to fly inside telephone lines and blow up federal taps. So yeah, we decided to stay up late talking instead of going home._]

Janis couldn’t even tell him an approximation of the truth, and a part of her mind clenched with anger — anger toward him for being so damned normal and anger at herself for holding his normalcy against him. She started to reach past the condiment basket for his hand, but the waitress returned, setting two steaming plates of steak burgers and fries between them.

“Well, it’s too bad about the grounding.” Blake uncapped the ketchup bottle and coaxed a fat dollop onto his burger. “My parents were really looking forward to meeting you.”

She signaled for him to add some ketchup to her plate, beside the fries. “I was looking forward to meeting them, too.”

Truth was, dinner in polite company with Blake’s parents felt like the very last thing she wanted. Maybe the two-week grounding her father had handed down for her curfew violation last night wasn’t such a bad thing after all. It would give her a reprieve, time to think.

Blake tucked a napkin over the knot of his tie, then paused, his dripping burger poised in front of his mouth. “No Standards today?”

Janis looked down at her purple sweatshirt. She shook her head. “Not for me.”

The realization crept over Blake’s face. He set his burger down and wiped his hands. “But you’re just one day from completing your pledge period.”

“Margaret and I already had that conversation this morning, thanks.”

“But have you thought it through?”

She stared at him.

“What I mean is…” He held up his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “There are going to be service days, socials, weekend trips, that sort of thing. I was looking forward to us doing those things together.”

She kept staring at him, the french fry she held between her finger and thumb growing cold. “Do you honestly think I can just go traipsing back into that club all fa-la-la after what happened last night? You were there, Blake. You saw what they did to Scott. Jesus.”

“Look, I talked to Grant afterwards. He and Britt are going to apologize to Scott and grant him full membership. They’re even going to waive his fees.”

Janis gave a sharp laugh. “Yeah, to save their own asses.”

The muscles at the hinges of Blake’s jaw tensed. “At least they’re willing to own up to their mistake.”

“Big of them.”

“What about you, Janis? Have you given any thought to the girl who injured herself trying to get away from you?”

The fry caught halfway down Janis’s throat. She reached for her Coke. “Injured?” she managed. “Amy was injured?” The fight fell out of her like the checkers from a game of Connect Four.

“Sprained her ankle when she took that spill.”

Janis closed her eyes and saw herself storming into the audience, her fury soaring inside her. She watched Amy’s eyes fly wide as the pulse collided into her; heard her scream, a sound shrill with terror, with pain. And Janis could feel the pain. Because in the moment the pulse had hit her, they were connected, she and Amy. It hadn’t lasted long, less than a second, but in that instant, Janis could feel her own ankle wrenching, the tissue tearing like a nylon stocking.

Janis pushed her plate aside and held the sides of her head.

“Hey, there’s still time to make it right,” Blake said gently.

“How?”

He took her hand. “I’m not supposed to know this, but early tomorrow morning the older Gamma brothers and Alpha sisters are going to surprise us at home and take us to breakfast to celebrate our first day as full members. Maybe you can use the opportunity to apologize to her.” The thumb that stroked the back of her hand felt sensible and reassuring. “You should think about it, anyway.”

“I don’t know,” she said, but her head had already begun to nod.

  • * *

Scott bit into his pizza slice, a paper plate poised under his chin to catch the dripping cheese. A cracked-open can of grape soda fizzed softly on the knob to his right. Nestled in the roots of a giant oak tree, he was in the same spot he’d eaten the first day of school. Indeed, he was eating the same lunch. But Scott didn’t feel the same.

He peered around at the pair of food trucks parked at the curb, at the students spread over the leaf-covered lawn, most of them in jackets now, a cool wind tossing their hair. Scott’s own jacket was padding the ground beneath his bruised bottom, but he didn’t feel alone like he had on that first day of school. And better still, he didn’t feel like he had to hide anymore. His worst fears had come to pass, and strangely, he felt freed from them.

Now tails, now heads.

Scott took a swig of the grape soda. That’s what Grant didn’t understand. It had never been about Gamma. The club had only ever been an access way to something else. To someone else.

For the untoldth time, Scott relived his and Janis’s journey last night, through the band of woods, up Oakwood’s main street, the past three years dissolving into a void, then and now sliding together. And where then and now met stood the same swing set on which he and Janis used to whisk past one another as kids, over the same sweet-smelling mulch. But their time on the swings last night had reached beyond the blithe doings of kids.

Far beyond.

“There’s a wood shed in Mr. Leonard’s backyard,” Janis had told him. “I went inside twice, in my out-of-body state. Passed right through the wall. The first time I found a hatch hidden beneath the pile of kindling. It was surrounded by some kind of energy field that I couldn’t push through. And then Mr. Leonard opened the shed door, and I flew, screaming, back to my body. Do you remember when I ran out of the classroom that first day? Well, that was me remembering. The next time I went into the shed, the lock had been changed, the floor covered with plywood. But I was able to feel a keypad beside the hatch. And that’s when I knew for certain he had something hidden down there.”

The details of the account remained with Scott. He wiped his hands with a brown paper towel and removed a letter from the small pocket of his backpack. It was a note, really, a few handwritten lines that had taken him all of third period to compose. After rereading the note, he folded it back up, more or less satisfied.

I’ll give it to her seventh period.

The casualness of the thought was another way Scott felt different. It wasn’t like those hand-wringing moments past when he used to tell himself he was going to approach her — today is the day, the chant went — and then shied away. Last night had changed that, too.

Which reminded him…

In his backpack, he swapped the note for a thick envelope, pushing it into his shirt pocket.

There was something else he needed to do that day.

He stood and shook the sand from his jacket, collected his trash, and slung his pack over his shoulder. Then he began walking toward Titan Terrace, toward the bend near the repaired tennis courts, where Jesse’s black Chevy Chevelle leaned against the curb, Creed and Tyler standing beside it.

  • * *

Janis reached her locker at the same time the bell rang overhead to start fifth period. With pale fingers, she began twisting out the combination on her Master Lock. After their perfunctory kiss in the dirt parking lot beside the practice fields, Blake had sprinted to make his next class, but Janis had drifted through the thinning students toward her locker. Being late didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to matter — only what she had done.

I injured Amy.

The thought repeated itself like a self-flagellation. She could tell herself that Amy had asked for it, had deserved it. And maybe she had. But in the pulse, Janis hadn’t experienced only their old connection; she had glimpsed something else, pressed deep down into the shadows of her former friend. A secret whose contours Janis couldn’t quite make out. And underneath it, a plea for help?

Janis yanked the lock free and hooked it over her finger. When she opened the metal door on her neat line of books and folders, something fluttered to the ground, a folded slip of paper. She knelt, her books pressed to her chest, and retrieved it. She looked up and down the empty hallway, then shook the note open. A cold sense of déjà vu seized her.

 

I was wrong. You’re not a lesbian.

You’re a freak.

 

This note had no signature, either. Janis let it fall from her fingers.

  • * *

Creed, in his John Lennon shades, spotted him first and jerked from the driver’s side window. Then his younger brother turned. A cigarette dangled from the corner of Tyler’s mouth, and he squinted out at Scott through the smoke. Creed nudged him toward the sidewalk so the way was blocked.

But Scott’s limping stride didn’t falter, even as he glimpsed the narrow blades extending from the thumb and first finger of Creed’s glove. Scott got as close as he dared, about two parked cars from the Chevelle, and stopped. Traffic hummed along Titan Terrace. Students streamed around him. He’d be safe as long as he didn’t go any closer. He shifted his gaze to the enormous elbow sitting on the car’s windowsill.

“Did you come to piss yourself again?” Creed asked.

“I came to talk to Jesse,” Scott called back.

“Come and talk, then.”

Scott shook his head. “Just Jesse.”

Creed glared at Scott another moment and then palmed his bowler hat as he leaned toward the window. He said something, waited, said something else, then stood from the window.

“Jesse says the time for talking is over, shit face.”

“I have something for him.”

“What?” Suspicion narrowed Creed’s voice.

“Something he’s going to want.”

Creed kept staring at Scott, then leaned toward the window again. Tyler watched from the sidewalk, not saying anything. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew an indifferent stream of smoke.

“Bring it over,” Creed said when he stood.

“Not until you and your brother leave.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Creed spiked his smoking butt into the gutter and began stalking toward Scott.

At that moment, the elbow over the windowsill lurched to life, and a hand appeared. With two sausage-sized fingers, it waved Creed off. Creed looked from the hand to Scott and snarled. Then he backed away, jerking his head for his brother to follow.

Scott waited until they were up in the faculty parking lot before approaching. He watched the Chevelle’s open window, his feet tracing a narrow path along the far edge of the sidewalk. Very soon, the elbow in Scott’s view joined a giant shoulder and the shoulder a squat head that bulged from the collar of a black leather jacket. Scott looked into a pair of impassive gray eyes.

“I wanted to give you this.” Scott pulled the envelope from his pocket.

“What is it?”

“There’s more than three hundred dollars inside. I figured it would cover those charges on your phone bill from last year. Yours and Creed’s. I didn’t mean for your father to… to do what he did.”

Jesse’s eyes didn’t move from Scott’s.

“What about last month?” Jesse asked.

“Last month?”

“We lost our phone service. Stayed out all night. Creed’s, too. Happened on a Sunday.”

“Look, I haven’t done anything to your phones this year. I’m just trying to make this right. I want to get past this.” He held out the envelope with the bills. It was the lunch money he’d been able to save over the last three months, plus some. His father had exchanged it all for tens and twenties.

Scott gave the envelope a shake. “Here.”

Jesse’s eyes remained on his, and Scott could see them assessing whether or not he was telling the truth. The gray eyes shifted to the envelope. And just as Scott was remembering how fast Jesse could move, Jesse’s fist swallowed his wrist. He pinched the envelope away with his other hand.

“This doesn’t square us,” Jesse said.

Scott felt his bones mashing together. He twisted around and stifled a cry.

“You’re still gonna get your arm broke,” Jesse said flatly. “That was the deal. But here’s what I’m gonna do.” He held up the envelope of money. “Because of this, we’re back to one arm. And ’cause I’m feeling especially generous, I’m gonna let you pick the time and place.”

“Look, can’t we just—”

Jesse’s grip tightened.

“All right! All right!” Scott yelled. He tried to think, but the pain felt like the stab and twist of a dull knife. “Where it happened the first time — do you remember? We were in the Grove, I tried to run, and Creed caught me down in the woods, in that clearing. Remember?”

“All right. When?”

“After the holidays.”

Jesse cinched his grip. “Be more specific.”

“Ow! New Year’s Eve! Midnight!” It was the first thing that flew into his mind. He knew his parents would be out that night. They went to Larry Habscomb’s party every year. It was one of the few things they still did together.

Jesse’s hand popped open, and Scott stumbled backward, clutching his wrist to his chest.

“You don’t show up,” Jesse warned, “and it’s gonna be both arms when we catch you. And a leg. Now get the hell outta here.”

Scott started to raise a finger. Something Jesse had said was just registering—

“Get outta here, I said.”

When Scott glimpsed Creed and Tyler sauntering back, he nodded, deciding it wiser to heed Jesse’s words. Still cradling his wrist, he retreated the way he had come, opening and closing his fingers. The pain faded to a throb. He glanced around at the Chevelle. Creed and Tyler were back beside Jesse’s elbow, a thin shelf of smoke growing around them again. It wasn’t the deal Scott had wanted, no, but he had just bought himself an arm and another month.

For the time, that was going to have to be good enough.

  • * *

Janis passed the teacher’s desk, feeling no relief at its emptiness, and took her seat. Star was stooped over a crinkled sheet of newspaper. “More of the godamned same,” she grumbled, looking over. “Cut taxes for the rich, slash funding for the poor — that’s food stamps, low-income housing, Medicaid…”

It was a familiar rant: the evils of “Reaganomics.” Janis wasn’t in the mood.

“That’s not ‘trickle-down,’” Star went on. “That’s pissing down or, more accurately, pissing on. And don’t get me started on the military budget. Do you know what he and his cronies are pushing for? Another trillion dollars over the next four years. A trillion dollars. That’s a one with twelve zeros. Do you know how many people that would feed and educate?”

“Maybe there’s a reason for that,” Janis muttered, remembering what her father had said.

“Oh, and what would that be?”

Janis shook her head.

Star laughed. “Let me guess. The United States is vulnerable suddenly?” The derision in her voice rankled like hot needles.

“How would you know one way or the other?” Janis asked.

“Because anyone willing to exercise an ounce of their brain understands how these things work. There’s only so much money in the budget, right? And everyone’s fighting for their slice of the pie. So you have Defense running to the President and Congress like a gaggle of Chicken Littles, screaming, ‘The Russians are getting ahead! The Russians are getting ahead!’”

Janis pulled out her typing primer and set it on the metal stand beside the typewriter, away from Star.

“Meanwhile, the newspapers are printing ‘leaked’ intelligence saying the same thing, getting the public’s paranoia whipped into a panic. And who’s doing the leaking, you ask? Well, ask yourself another question: Who has the most to gain? It just so happens that when your business is defense, your greatest asset is…” She made her voice deep. “…fear.”

Janis remembered the look on her father’s face in the parking lot. She stopped flipping through the primer and turned toward Star. “So you’re saying the Russians haven’t pulled ahead?”

Am I looking to Star for hope? Janis thought in disbelief. She studied her neighbor’s spiked hair, ghoulish makeup job, and crumpled flannel shirt she’d worn more days than Janis could count. Star?

“I wouldn’t bet on it.” Star shrugged a shoulder.

Maybe it was the defiance in the gesture or how Star’s black lips scowled around the words, but Janis felt a sudden urge to hug her, especially after the ominous news that week of Soviet troop movements in eastern Europe and renewed threats to blockade West Berlin. If what Star said was true, then the United States and the Soviet Union were still on par militarily, their “peace” in place. Neither one could risk an attack on the other. MAD still ruled. Which meant the nuclear explosions in her dreams were just that — nuclear explosions in her dreams.

But instead of throwing her arms around Star, Janis leaned nearer and lowered her voice. “Hey, um, you mentioned something the first day of school about having a sister. Whatever happened to her?”

Star’s scowl slid into an expression as flat as stone.

“Do you really want to know?” Her tone mirrored her face.

“Yes.”

Wordlessly, Star began unbuttoning her green-checked flannel shirt. Janis looked around, alarmed, but Star stopped three quarters of the way down. She drew the two flaps of flannel apart, like theater curtains, to reveal a black T-shirt. Faded silk screening called for NUCLEAR FREEZE NOW! in yellow letters with a crossed-out missile underneath. The shirt had been stitched back together, Janis noticed, a long, wending scar. Star inserted a black fingernail into a small hole in the fabric, between her pointed breasts.

“That happened to her,” Star said, “a bullet during an anti–nuclear weapons rally. There’s a bigger hole in the back of the shirt, where the bullet exited.” Star removed her finger and began buttoning her flannel shirt back up. “Blew her chest cavity to soup. She died in the emergency room that night.”

“Oh my god.” Janis’s hand went to her mouth. “Who did it?”

“Someone who didn’t like what she was shouting into her bullhorn, apparently.”

“Were they caught?”

Star shook her head.

Janis didn’t look over when the door banged shut and the roar of voices quieted to murmurs. Her gaze remained locked on Star, who looked down, a fresh scowl struggling to keep the film of moisture over her eyes from spilling.

“I apologize for being late,” droned a voice from far away. “Your teacher, Mrs. Diaz, had to check out at lunch… stomach virus… I’ll be filling in for the rest of the day… open your primers to page 210 and…”

“I’m so sorry,” Janis whispered. “If you ever want to talk about it, you can… you know, talk to me.”

As typewriters banged to life around them, Star moved her head in what might have been a nod. Then, having won her battle with her tears, she set her face in stone once more and opened her primer to a random page.

When Janis glanced toward the front of the classroom, the muscles around her eyes stiffened to ice. At the teacher’s desk sat Mr. Leonard. His own eyes, which had been watching her, jerked away. He cleared his throat into his fist. Then he opened a newspaper and raised it in front of his yellow-tinted glasses until only the top of his pale brow showed, shiny with sweat.

He stayed like that the rest of the period as typewriters went off like gunfire around them.

  • * *

Instead of going to her next class — sixth period Spanish — Janis slipped into the downstairs bathroom on C-wing, sealed herself in one of the damp stalls, drew the latch, and perched atop the toilet tank. If she’d had a cigarette, she might have lit it and taken a drag, like Pony Boy from The Outsiders. That would have been another first for her, after skipping class.

The final bell rang outside.

Janis propped her head in her hands, her hair falling around her view of the toilet bowl like a tomato-colored curtain. “What’s happening to me?” she whispered. The curtain shook back and forth with her head. Just the night before, it had felt as though her life was beginning to make sense again, to find grounding in a new normal. Thanks to Scott. But in the space of, what, twelve, fourteen hours, the stakes were all popping out. Her mind sped back through her argument with Blake at lunch, the revelation that she’d injured Amy, the note in her locker, the ghastly appearance of Mr. Leonard.

The shock of the last continued to tremor through her like the aftereffects of a Pacific quake. For a moment, she had been back in the roach-infested shed, his face staring down at her…

Janis stopped and inhaled the sharp odor of bleach.

And what about Star’s story? There’s a bigger hole in the back of the shirt. Janis’s heart ached… for Star, for Star’s sister. She wished she had the power to go back, to warn them. But her powers seemed to come and go at their own choosing. And besides, she didn’t possess the ability to influence past events, only to observe them.

What about future events?

Her thoughts zoomed in on her own sister. And then Mr. Leonard.

He’d followed Margaret to the beach that day. He watched their house at night. He safeguarded a hidden room beneath his shed, a room that would throw the dark curtain back on who he was. Janis knew these things, even if mostly in her gut. But hadn’t Mrs. Fern called the out-of-body realm a source of intuition — a tremendous source of intuition? Yet what had she done with that intuition? Given Margaret a single meek warning three months ago?

Blew her chest cavity to soup.

Janis’s hair shook above the toilet bowl. It wasn’t enough.

She hopped down, opened the stall door, and heaped cold water on her face. Then she paced the ten feet of bathroom for the next forty minutes — forty interminable minutes — until the next bell sprang her.

The three-headed hydra stood at the back of the English classroom, Amy balancing on a pair of chrome crutches, her right ankle cocooned in Ace bandaging. When her eyes met Janis’s in the doorway, they swelled with fear and fresh hatred. She clanked backward, nearly losing her balance. Alicia and Autumn moved in front of her like a pair of bodyguards, their faces twisting and wringing until Janis thought their pores would start leaking makeup.

So much for trying to apologize.

She put her books beneath her seat and raised her eyes to Scott’s desk. Her heart suffered a twinge to find it empty. [_Probably stayed home. And who can blame him after last night? _]She pushed out a sigh. She’d wanted to talk to him so badly.

But just as the final bell sounded and Mrs. Fern stood to lecture, Scott scrambled through the door. He sat, legs splayed so his knees wouldn’t knock the underside of his desk, and ran a hand through his hair. When he glanced over, his face startled before quirking into a crooked smile. For the first time that day, a smile touched Janis’s lips as well.

I don’t think it’s crazy, she heard him saying. Really. I believe you.

After class, Scott walked up, hesitantly it seemed, and placed something on her desk.

Janis looked from the folded piece of paper to his face. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Only… only if you want to.”

He stood a moment, appearing to mull the note over, then he tapped his fingers against her desk and walked from the classroom. Janis almost called after him but looked down and picked up the note instead. Nervous excitement fluttered through her as she opened it.

She read it a second time, nodded to herself, and tucked the note inside one of her folders.

28

That evening

7:32 p.m.

Scott stood in front of his closet mirror, freshly showered, in a towel-skirt. Pushing out his chest, he angled himself to one side, then the other. Not Scott Summers proportions yet, no. But lines and taut muscles appeared where there hadn’t been any only a few months before. He wasn’t imagining it anymore.

Satisfied, Scott pulled open the folding door on his closet. What to wear?

Jeans for sure. He slipped a pair off their hanger and tossed them toward his bed. A belt sailed after them. Blue-striped Oxford or green Polo? Eenie, meenie, miney, mo… Polo it was. Knit vest? He shook his head. Too much. A jacket would suffice. He drew forth his latest acquisition, a black Members Only jacket, and draped it over the back of his desk chair.

Scott glanced at his bedside clock, his heart beating way too hard. It wasn’t a date, no, not technically. But it would be the closest thing he’d ever had to one. His fingers shook as they worked buttons through holes.

A date that wasn’t a date with Janis Graystone.

If[_ she agrees, buddy — and that’s a big if._]

In the mirror, his shoulders sagged at the prospect of spending the evening clean, fragrant, well dressed, and alone. He stepped into his loafers and, after performing a few final tucks and teases in the mirror, pulled out an X-Men comic and retired onto his bed. It was issue #127, where the X-Men pursue the evil mutant Proteus. Scott flipped to the panels where Cyclops goads Wolverine — and soon the rest of the team — into a fight, to make sure they haven’t lost their edge. A true leader’s move. Even Wolverine says so afterwards.

Scott closed his eyes. A true leader…

He dreamed he was standing in the front yard, watching Mr. Shine rake leaves into small piles. The sun shone down from a brisk blue sky, and Scott realized it was the first time he’d seen their yard man since the day in the tennis courts, when Mr. Shine saved him from Jesse and the others.

Scott stepped closer. “Hey, um, do you think you could show me that trick with the quarter one more time?”

A chuckle crackled from Mr. Shine’s chest as he turned from the half-formed pile he was working on. He pushed his flat-topped straw hat farther back on his head and squinted toward Scott, propping the rake against his shoulder. But the metal rake had become a garbage pick, and the cuffed trousers and suspenders he had been wearing, a blue pullover like the one he wore at school.

Scott smiled. “How did you do that?”

“Jus’ like you done that.” Mr. Shine stuck out his chin.

When Scott looked down, he was dressed as Cyclops. He started to laugh, but then he noticed the array of thieving tools hanging from his red belt. And when he reached for his visor, the one Cyclops used to deliver his optic blast, Scott felt his own glasses and the edge of a hood — a thief’s hood.

“You not there yet, but you closer,” Mr. Shine said. “A little more diligence, a little more patience…”

He snapped a quarter into existence and flipped it toward Scott. When Scott tried to catch it, it bounced off his yellow gloves and into the street, where it started to roll along the gutter. Scott ran after it. He needed the quarter to perfect the trick, to complete his transformation.

“Best you hurry, young blood,” Mr. Shine shouted behind him. “She’s fixin’ to jump for good!”

Scott saw what he meant. The quarter was headed straight for a storm drain. He pumped his arms and legs as hard as he could, but in the minute he’d stood talking to Mr. Shine, the sky had turned black with clouds, and now a hard wind pushed against him. The quarter became smaller as it rolled farther and farther away, hopping along the gutter as it went.

Clink. Clink-clink. Clink.

Just before it disappeared into the mouth of the drain, Scott jerked awake. His eyes took in the popcorn ceiling of his bedroom, his pulse swishing inside the channels of his ears. He sat up and checked his watch — 8:02 p.m.

Clink. Clink-clink. Clink.

The sound wasn’t coming from a rolling quarter but the window. Scott checked his watch again. Shoot! He’d only meant to rest his eyes, not conk out completely. He leaped from his bed as the tapping sounded a third time. Snaking his hand behind the blinds, he gave the signal. He listened beyond his door a moment, then opened the blinds and slid open the window. The screen popped out in a shower of rust, and he lowered it outside.

Two sprays of mint breath freshener later, Scott climbed over the sill himself, closing the blinds and the window behind him. Around the corner of the house, in their old spot behind the juniper bushes, he found Janis. She was sitting with her back to the white brick, legs drawn in. Her combed hair flowed over the shoulder of a shiny purple and green athletic jacket and ran down her side. When she looked up, Scott struggled to breathe.

“Did I remember it right?” Janis asked. “The bug knock?”

The bug knock was a code they’d come up with one summer when they were nine: one tap, two fast taps, and then a fourth tap — meant to sound like a light-seeking insect to anyone who wasn’t listening for it.

“Yeah, um, perfect.” He tried to lower himself beside her without crowding her. Their secret spot felt a lot smaller now.

“I wasn’t sure my dad was going to let me out. I’m grounded, but I told him I was just going to pet Tiger and maybe take a jog down the street for exercise. I’ve got half an hour.”

“All right,” Scott said, even though he hadn’t processed most of what she’d just told him. He watched her brush an auburn strand of hair from her eyes, and for a moment, he saw her not as Janis Graystone but as Jean Grey.

She raised her eyebrows in question.

“Oh, right, right,” he stammered. “What I wrote…”

What he had written was:

 

Janis,

I think I can get us inside the shed. If you’re available, come over at 8:00 tonight and we’ll talk. Do you remember the knock?

Your friend,

Scott

 

He’d struggled over how to close it. That’s what had taken him so many drafts to get right. Just Scott had seemed too blunt. Fondly or Yours truly too personal. Your friend won out by process of elimination.

The important thing was that the note had worked. She had come.

“You said the shed was secured by a bolt lock?” He was trying to make himself sound older, more practiced, like how he imagined Scott Summers would talk. But what came out was closer to Judge Wapner of The People’s Court.

“He changed it between the first and second time I… well, went in there. But, yeah, it was a bolt lock both times. Bigger the second time. It opens and closes with a key.”

Scott dug into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a cloth wallet. “One of the benefits of being a nerd is that the things we obsess over sometimes end up having a use. I wanted so badly to be a thief — you know, the D&D kind — that I sent away for these.” He unfolded the wallet to reveal a row of slender tension wrenches and metal picks. “I actually got pretty good with them. There’s not a lock I haven’t been able to open, anyway.”

He looked away when he realized the last part sounded like a boast.

Janis didn’t seem to notice. She reached over and drew a pick from its sleeve. “What about the hatch?”

“That’s something else I’ve been pondering. The energy you felt — the electrical field — I’m wondering if it isn’t a magnetic seal. A lot of the higher tech locking systems are magnetic.”

“Is that something that can be picked?”

“No, but if I can get inside, I might be able to… influence it.”

He was preparing to explain what he meant, but she nodded. It was only their second day talking, and already they were discovering their own language again. He watched Janis turn the metal pick, examining each end. She slid it back into the wallet.

“What do you think he’s keeping down there?” he asked.

A dark shadow seemed to pass over Janis’s face, and she shook her head. “He subbed one of my classes today.”

“Mr. Leonard?”

“Yeah, fifth period typing.”

“Did — did he say anything?”

“No, he wouldn’t look out from behind his newspaper.”

Scott followed Janis’s gaze beyond the junipers where the Watsons were out on one of their evening walks. Being able to observe the traffic on the street without being seen had been one of the reasons Scott and Janis chose the meeting spot as kids. They would invent stories about their passing neighbors: their secrets, their past crimes, their current nefarious activities.

When Janis looked up at him, an odd light shone in her eyes. “Scott, are you sure you want to do this?”

“Huh? Yeah. Are you?”

He became certain that she was going to say no. And with a no their renewed association, their rediscovered friendship, would end, just like that. He could already feel his heart folding in on itself. Everything would go back to the way it was at the start of the school year.

“I… yes, I need to do this,” she said. “I need to know. I just don’t want to get you in trouble.”

To this point, Scott had not considered the illegality of what they were planning. In its conceptual stage, it seemed as harmless as his old hacks: gaining access, looking around a little, not taking or damaging, leaving everything the way it had been. But to carry this out would be physical breaking and entering and a lot easier to prove in court than hacking.

“Hey, it will be like one of our old adventures.” He forced a laugh.

She studied his face closely. “All right, but if you ever have second thoughts…”

“I won’t. I want to find out what’s down there, too.”

“We’ll have to plan a time when he won’t be there.”

“How about at night, when they’re sleeping?”

“That’s the thing,” she said. “I’m not sure he does sleep at night. During those early experiences, he was always out on his deck. Always watching. He wasn’t out there the last time, but the weather’s colder now. He could have been watching from inside. It felt like he was, anyway.”

“Then we’ll have to do it when he’s not home. Maybe when he’s subbing?”

“But how do we know when that’ll be?”

“We don’t… unless we do.”

The space between Janis’s eyes pinched in.

“I can have Wayne call and say he’s from one of the schools across town, Eastside Elementary, maybe. He could even capture one of their lines to make it look like the call is actually coming from Eastside — in case it’s ever investigated, which I doubt it would be.” Scott felt like a hacker again, his mind planning everything out three to four steps in advance. His mouth was having a hard time keeping up. “Wayne will say he has a teacher out sick, can Mr. Leonard come cover, et cetera, et cetera, the assignment will be waiting for him at the front office.”

“But there won’t be any assignment,” Janis said.

“It doesn’t matter. The time it takes for him to drive there, find out there’s been some mistake, and drive back will take him, what, forty-five minutes? That should give us plenty of time to do what we need to do. We might even still be able to catch the bus to school.”

“What about his wife?” Janis asked.

“Won’t she be sleeping?”

“We don’t know that.”

“Then we’ll need to figure out a way to distract her. Call the house, maybe? Keep her on the phone?”

“What’s to stop her from looking out a back window?”

Scott grinned.

“What?” Janis said.

“You used to do the same thing when we were kids, poke holes in my ideas until I felt like one of those plastic heads you pump Play-Doh through. But that’s good,” he added quickly. “It’s kept me humble these years.”

She smirked with one side of her mouth. “Comes with being a Graystone.”

When Scott realized he was staring, he cleared his throat. “All right,” he said, affecting his practiced voice again. “Mr. Leonard’s on his way to Eastside, his wife’s in the house, maybe sleeping, maybe not… I’ll only need a couple of minutes to get inside the shed.”

“I’ll knock on the front door.”

He began to shake his head.

“No, no, not like our old knock-and-runs,” she said. “I’ll have a story. I’ll tell her our cat’s missing and ask if she’s seen her around. Mrs. Leonard will say no, of course, but then I’ll describe Tiger. Her size, hair color, eye color. I’ll keep her there as long as I can.”

“Tiger’s still alive?”

“Of course she is!” Janis slapped his arm. “She’s only seven.”

“But doesn’t that make her like…” Scott pretended to count on his fingers. “…forty-something in human years?”

“Yeah, and how many forty-something-year-olds do you know who are keeling over from old age?”

Scott’s laughter came out louder and dorkier than he would’ve liked, but it was the most honestly he had laughed all year. It wasn’t just her wit, which he realized how much he’d missed. It was her friendship, which he’d missed so much more. He let his laughter taper off and adjusted his glasses.

“Hey do you still have your walkie-talkie?” he asked.

“I think so…” She looked at him sidelong, as though he was going to crack another joke. “Probably in the garage.”

Scott had gotten a set for Christmas when he was eight — one of those cheap plastic numbers — and given one to her. The idea of talking to each other from their bedrooms had excited them both. But the transmission beyond ten feet was dismal — mostly crackles against a background of thick static. The Morse component worked all right, but Janis hadn’t been as enthused about learning the code as Scott, he remembered. After a month, his had ended up in the garage as well.

“See if you can find it,” he said. “I’m serious. You won’t even have to learn the code. The minute you hear Mrs. Leonard at the front door, you’ll send me a beep, then turn off the talkie.”

And just like that, the gravity of what they were planning fell back over them.

The Watsons returned from the end of the Meadows, both in blue jogging suits. They paused before Scott’s house, looking as though they were debating whether or not to return up their street, before power walking toward the main road.

“What about getting back out?” she asked. “Won’t you need another distraction?”

“Not with the lock already picked, no. I’ll just need to clear out quickly.”

Janis nodded solemnly. “When do you want to do this?”

“It’s your call.”

“How about Monday morning?”

“This Monday?”

“I’m afraid to wait too much longer,” she said. “But Monday won’t be rushing it, either. It will give us a couple days to work out the details and decide whether it’s something we still want to do.”

Scott knew she meant that last part for him. “I’ve already decided,” he said.

She reached for the same place she had just given him a playful slap, his head swimming with her nearness, the promise of her touch. She patted his forearm twice, then held it close to the spot where his bones had once broken and healed, where his arm bent out a little.

“I’m glad we’re talking again,” she said.

The image of Jean Grey swam up in front of him, the dreams he still had for them.

“Yeah,” Scott whispered. “Me too.”

29

“The two have been talking,” the woman said.

“Since when?”

“A long session took place on Thursday night, beginning at the entrance to the neighborhood and ending in the Grove. A shorter meeting took place outside the boy’s house the following evening.”

“The context?” the man asked.

“It appeared to be school related.”

“No transcript?”

“No, sir. Too much interference.”

“Coming from one of them?”

“Possibly.”

“Hm,” the man replied. “We still only have the two events of note from this fall. The outage in October, in which a high concentration of energy originated from the boy’s phone line. And the manifestation of energy in the girl’s yard in mid November. But they’re by far the most remarkable events to date.”

“What’s your read, sir?”

“Given their isolation, either the events in question are anomalies, or the boy and girl have a higher degree of insight and self-possession than we’re giving them credit for. Which would make them a concern.”

“Your orders, sir?”

“Be ready for anything.”

30

Monday, December 3, 1984

6:30 a.m.

Janis stood in the street, hugging her arms, peering up at the glowing square of Scott’s window. It was still dark out and cold. But the shivers that snaked through Janis’s body and rattled her teeth seemed to come from some deep-down apprehension rather than the chill around her. Blowing warm air into the sides of her fists, she tried to remember if she’d had an experience the night before, a bad dream — something to warn her. But she couldn’t.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she whispered, watching his light.

The thought of postponing the operation entered her mind again. She had only to explain her nagging feeling. He would understand. But like every other time that weekend that she’d felt her resolve starting to waver, she pictured the shirt that had once belonged to Star’s sister, perforated and stitched together.

Turned her chest cavity to soup.

Then came the association between Star’s sister and her own. What would happen if Mr. Leonard caught Margaret alone? Janis turned and looked at her sister’s car parked in the street in front of the house. No, there could be no going back. Wheels were already in motion, and for better or worse, their fates were bound to this: hers, Margaret’s, and Mr. Leonard’s.

Scott’s too, she realized.

When she turned back to his house, his bedroom window was dark. Seconds later, he appeared at the front door in slacks and a gray T-shirt, his blue backpack slung over his shoulder. He scampered down the lawn, the dark sweep of his hair bouncing, glasses jiggling. The tremulous apprehension returned to Janis.

“Wayne just called.” His brown eyes shone keenly. “Nut took the bait.”

Nut was their codename for Mr. Leonard after recalling how his thin upper lip remained stiff when he lectured, leaving his lower jaw to hinge up and down — like a nutcracker’s.

Janis stood looking at Scott. Was it right to involve him in this?

“Okay,” she whispered.

They moved toward the bus stop, their footfalls quiet and brisk, neither one talking. Janis resisted the compulsion to smell her shower-damp hair. In her periphery, she noticed Scott pushing up his glasses. When they reached the intersection, Scott led them to the back of a bush that grew beside the Pattersons’ garage door, hiding them from the street. They drew out their walkie-talkies, Scott’s from his backpack and Janis’s from the front pocket of her hooded Thirteenth Street Titans sweatshirt. Janis snapped hers on and twisted the volume to three.

“I know we’ve been over this a hundred times,” Scott said, his eyebrows arching over the tops of his metal frames, “but…”

“I beep you when Nut leaves.” She pressed the orange button on the side of her talkie and held it for one second. An insect-like whine sounded from Scott’s talkie. “You beep me when you’re in position. And I beep you again when Nut’s wife is about to open the front door.”

“And three quick beeps for any trouble,” he reminded her. Three blips sounded from her talkie. Scott’s lips shook around a smile. “Not that there will be any.”

Janis almost called it off. There was a quality in his voice, an uneasy inflection that resonated with the ominous stirrings in the pit of her stomach. It was only then she realized she didn’t fear for herself — not at all — but for him.

Janis peeked around the bush at the Leonards’ house. It was emerging in the predawn, the sickly yellow shutters just beginning to stand out from the brown siding. In the dim light, they reminded her of the rust-colored spots above the Rottweiler’s eyes.

“All right,” Scott said. “Wish me luck.”

“Hey, maybe we should…”

But he was already jogging to the street. She watched him peer around and then slide feet-first into a storm drain that opened like a mouth beneath the corner curbing. As kids, they used to sneak down into the system of cement tunnels and explore their neighborhood’s underworld on hands and knees, listening to the echoing vroom of cars passing overhead. They would crawl as far as they dared, which was never too far — at least not for Janis. Roaches lived down there.

The rest of Scott’s body disappeared, and seconds later, Janis heard the faint sound of small wheels grinding over cement. The evening before, Scott had rolled an old skateboard into the drain. His plan was to lie belly-down and shove off beneath the Meadows, go fifty yards, and take a sharp left. There, he would wait inside the cylindrical opening that became the cement culvert running between Janis’s and Mr. Leonard’s backyards. “That way, the last place anyone will have seen me is walking to the bus stop,” Scott had explained. “And with the skateboard, I’ll be able to stay at the very bottom of the culvert until I reach their fence.”

It made sense, Janis guessed. She looked down at his backpack, which sagged against her own stack of books. She peeked back at the Leonards’ house. It remained dim and still. Janis’s watch read 6:42. When would it be too late? At what point could they call it off?

The Leonards’ garage door gave a shudder and began ratcheting open, the panels creaking and folding into the space above. Pale rear lights spilled out onto the driveway. Janis made herself as thin as she could behind the bush. When the green Datsun emerged, it was not so much rolling as feeling its way backward, like a creature half-blind from being underground too long. The car lurched into the street at an angle, paused, and then started forward. The garage door ratcheted closed. Janis watched the dwindling taillights.

She hesitated, then pressed the orange button on her talkie, counted to one, and released it.

Moments later, her talkie beeped back. Scott had received the signal.

  • * *

Scott crooked his arm behind himself and pushed the talkie into the back pocket of his khakis. The skateboard on which he lay shifted beneath his stomach. He reached for the opening of the tunnel and braced himself. Rolling his narrow hips on the board, first one side and then the other, he was satisfied he could feel the flashlight in his right front pocket and the wallet containing his picking tools in the pocket opposite.

All systems go.

His heartbeats punched the flat of his skateboard. From his dim vantage, Scott squinted toward his target. He gauged the end of the chain link fence to be perhaps a hundred yards distant.

He took a deep breath, moved his hands to the lower lip of the opening, and pulled. The front wheels dropped down first, then the back wheels. Out in the open culvert, gravity took over. Scott tried to use his hands and the toes of his shoes to control his descent, but he was moving too quickly, the wheels grinding too loudly. Each time he met the edge of a slab, Scott winced at the teeth-rattling click-clack.

One of the advantages of using the skateboard, he’d thought, was that were someone to spot him, he would look like a kid playing around in the culvert — not someone on a stealth mission. But so much for that stealth now.

grind, grind, grind, grind…

click-clack!

grind, grind, grind, grind…

click-clack!

He glanced up, glad to find the end of the corner lot approaching. The fencing to his left changed from steep wooden posts to chain linking. Steering to the near side of the culvert, Scott slowed himself. When he looked up again, he nearly choked at seeing the top of the Leonards’ house. It was taller than he’d estimated, most of the second story in plain view.

Which meant he was in plain view, too.

His palms screamed fire when he braked. He shoved himself back up the culvert until he was behind the wooden posts again. He set his board sideways and examined his hands. The heels of his palms looked like a pair of red plums someone had tried to grate. They stung when he blew sand from them. With his fingertips, he reached for his talkie and held it gingerly.

Scott considered his distant position from the shed. Staying where he was would mean more valuable seconds to reach his target, but what choice did he have? It was either that or wait out in the open.

He pushed the orange button.

  • * *

Janis jumped at the sound even though she was expecting it — or maybe because she was expecting it. She answered with a quick beep and hid the talkie deep in her pocket. She knelt for her books and folders. When she stood and emerged from behind the bush, the world whorled and dove around her. Head rush. She staggered down to the street and held onto the stop sign. Two cars cruised by. Janis waited for them to fade down the main hill and for her head to clear.

As she crossed the street, books pressed to her stomach to keep the talkie from bouncing, she imagined Scott lying at the culvert’s bottom just outside the fence. She wondered if his body was as cold as hers, if his breaths felt as feral. Her gaze led her sneakers along the rain gutter.

Too soon, she was standing at the Leonards’ front walkway. When she raised her head, a yellow door stared back, like in her To Kill a Mockingbird nightmare. She checked her watch and drew a resolute breath. The door stood beneath a wooden balcony, where dead plants hung down from metal baskets. With each step, the odor of rotting soil grew stronger.

You haven’t done anything you can’t take back, she told herself. Scott’s in a public culvert on a skateboard. You haven’t knocked on the door. Whatever normalcy your life still holds can be preserved.

But Janis knew that wasn’t true — not anymore. Whatever normalcy her life still held could only be prolonged. That was all. And that’s why her legs continued to carry her forward. But when she was nearly to the front porch, another, more powerful thought entered her mind:

Don’t do it! Call it off!

The apprehension was more than a vague stirring now; it banged and clanged like a fire alarm. It came from the part of herself that slipped out of her body at night, the part that experienced a world beyond the physical, that perceived both past and probable future events. And though Janis couldn’t see anything — no ghost images — the danger she and Scott were about to fall into could not have felt starker.

She nearly dropped her books as she dug inside her sweatshirt for the plastic talkie. The speaker crackled and hissed in her grasp. Her thumb searched for the orange button and found it.

Three quick beeps for any trouble.

She managed to press it once before the front door swung open.

  • * *

Scott had been thinking about Wayne when the signal came. They had met up at Blue Chip Arcade on Saturday, where they went halfsies on the forty-tokens-for-five-dollars deal.

“Yeah, I remember Mr. Leonard,” Wayne said, leaping back and forth across his joystick and hammering the fire button like a telegraph operator on speed. “I never saw anything wrong with him.”

Yeah, well, you probably didn’t see anything wrong with Rick Moranis’s character in Ghostbusters, either — even after he became possessed.

“And you need him out of the house?”

“For an hour or so,” Scott said. He gunned down a Burwor who strayed into his corner of the screen. “We just can’t figure out how. The fact that he’s a sub might be a starting point…”

Scott had long since learned that it was best to steer Wayne toward the solution you already had in mind and let him believe he’d arrived at it on his own, rather than telling him.

“Call him with a fake assignment.” Wayne said it as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Eat laser, turds!

“Yeah, but what if he calls the school?”

“Easy, you set it up so that whatever number you’re supposedly calling from remotely call forwards to your number. That way, if he does call back, the phone will ring at your house. That is, until you take off the call forw — you’re mine, you cross-dressing son of a whore!

Scott moved his blue character out of harm’s way while Wayne pursued the teleporting Wizard of Wor, pumping round after round. The screen flashed with bolts and blasts. Wayne laughed maniacally, then screamed when the Wizard’s lightning zapped him.

“Is it easy to do?”

Wayne scowled and jammed another token into the slot. “For some people. Just takes a little social engineering.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“Ha! You always were a worm when it came to talking to the Bell South techies.”

“And you think you could pull it off?” Scott tried to affect just the right amount of skepticism. With too much, Wayne would go spazoid on him. He was like one of those chemistry kits in the hobby stores: overdose on a substrate and you’d end up with a foaming mess.

“I guarantee it.”

When Wayne looked over, his pupils were huge — the result of two straight hours of video gaming, no doubt. But his eyes also shone with the anticipation of being able to solve something Scott couldn’t. It was a look Scott knew well.

“Let’s make it interesting, then,” Scott said. “Your broadsword if you can’t?”

Wayne’s grin became so sharp it seemed to send a crease down the middle of his face. More than masterminding the solutions, Wayne loved being told he couldn’t pull them off.

“You’re on, numb nuts.”

In the culvert, Scott’s talkie beeped.

He very nearly signaled back before remembering where Janis was and that her talkie would be off now. As he clicked off his own unit and returned it to his back pocket, the shortness of the beep nagged him. It had lasted a half-second, tops, little more than the length of a confirmation signal.

Then he understood: Janis had had to signal to him and turn off her unit in the short space between Mrs. Leonard’s unlocking the door and opening it. No wonder she’d rushed it. The important thing was that Mrs. Leonard was at the front of the house, which meant it was time for Scott to act.

He brought his wristwatch to his chin and pressed a small button. The timer function blipped to life, the hundredths of a second display scrambling madly. Three minutes. That’s how much time he was giving himself.

He sat on his skateboard, aimed the pointed nose down the culvert, and let it roll. At the end of the fence, Scott skidded to a stop. He turned the skateboard upside down and began scaling the steep slant of the culvert. His palms burned where the skin had rubbed away.

At the top, he found himself on a small ledge of grass between the fence line and the culvert. He looked into a lawn shaded by early morning and then up at the house.

Scott remembered how the backs of the houses in Oakwood — the sides you weren’t supposed to see — had looked sinister to him once. This one still did. He couldn’t point to anything in particular; in fact, the backyard overlooked by the high deck showcased a certain middle-class normalcy. The grass, which had begun to brown with the colder weather, was trim and mostly naked of leaves. A plastic rake leaned beside a tidy coil of green garden hose at the side of the house. No, it was the mood of the house: tall and brooding.

A house with secrets.

The leaning shed stood where Janis had drawn it on the map they’d sketched that weekend. Scott inserted the toe of a shoe into a chain link diamond and pulled himself up. The fence shook softly. He dropped onto the lawn and crouched. A criminal now, he hurried up behind the shed until he was hidden from the house.

Thirty-one seconds gone.

Scott had selected only those picks and wrenches that worked with the widest range of locks. He moved them from the wallet to his mouth in a line and slid the wallet back into his pocket. He stepped around to the front of the shed. Doing his best to ignore the house at his back, he went to work.

  • * *

Janis just managed to snap off the talkie, but her heart continued to wallop. She wanted to believe she’d pressed the button more than once, that Scott had received the warning signal, but she knew he hadn’t. The instant the door began to move, her finger had abandoned the orange button in search of the knob that controlled the volume and the talkie’s power. Fortunately she’d twisted it the right way.

“Oh — ah — hi,” Janis stuttered.

The woman’s eyes peered out from a nest of graying hair like a spooked animal’s. Or maybe they only looked large and round to Janis because the woman’s mouth was so small, her lips nearly colorless. She stood in a nightgown as thin and sallow as her skin. The reclusive Mrs. Leonard.

Janis recovered herself. “I’m Janis Graystone. I was up at the bus stop and decided to, um, ask a couple of neighbors if they’ve seen our cat. Tiger’s her name. She left the house over the weekend, the one behind yours, and hasn’t come back. We thought she might have ended up in one of your—”

With the same spooked look, Mrs. Leonard jabbed her finger past Janis. Her nightgown shuddered around her.

“I-I’m sorry?” Janis said, squinting. “Do you want me to leave?”

Only twenty seconds had elapsed, maybe fewer. Not nearly enough time for Scott. She tried again. “Because I just wanted to—”

The woman jabbed her finger with more force, shaking her head now.

No, she doesn’t want me to talk, or she doesn’t want me to leave?

Janis turned to where she was pointing. The newspaper! Protected by a plastic bag, it lay beside the walkway like a deflated balloon. Mrs. Leonard had been coming out to get it, Janis guessed, but now she was asking her to retrieve it. She probably didn’t want to be seen in her nightgown. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen, period. Throughout her ten years of living here, Janis could count on one hand the number of times she had glimpsed her. And that’s really all they had been, glimpses. The woman was Oakwood’s version of Boo Radley.

“Would you like me to get the paper?”

Still pointing, Mrs. Leonard began to nod.

Thank goodness.

Janis set her books on the porch and returned down the walkway. The long bag dripped with condensation when she lifted it from the grass. Janis bounced it a few times from the neck of the bag, pretending to be concerned about its dampness. As she returned with it, she checked off another twenty-five seconds in her head.

Mrs. Leonard’s lips torqued into an expression of gratitude as she accepted the newspaper. She was younger than she appeared from a distance, her brown eyes sharp and clear. Tucking the newspaper to her side, Mrs. Leonard began to retreat inside the house again.

“Oh, but wait, I haven’t told you what my cat looks like.”

The woman made a quick waving motion with her hand. There was an urgency to it, a pleading.

Come inside, the gesture said.

Janis looked from Mrs. Leonard up to the intersection. The sun had still yet to rise, and the street was blue-gray. “Oh, thanks, but my bus will be here any minute. I don’t want to miss it.”

The woman made a different gesture. She brought two fingers to her closed mouth and shook her head, and then with the same hand, mimed like she was writing something on the palm of her other hand.

“Ahh,” Janis said. Mrs. Leonard was mute. That’s what she was telling her. That’s why she hadn’t spoken. And now she wanted to write something down for her.

“I have a pen and some paper right here,” Janis said, stooping for her books.

Mrs. Leonard grunted. When Janis looked up, the mute woman used her hands to explain her bad back and that she needed to sit down. Another reason she stayed indoors, Janis thought. She felt sympathy clouding over the alarm that continued to pulse in the back of her mind. (Don’t do it! Call it off!) But it was too late to call it off. Scott would be in front of the shed by now, and she’d promised to buy him at least three minutes, more if she could.

Come inside, Mrs. Leonard gestured again.

Janis wiped her hand against the side of her Levi’s, her heart starting into a fresh cycle of pounding.

“All right,” she said. “But just for a minute.”

  • * *

For the second time, Scott swore under his breath. He adjusted his pressure on the tension wrench in the bottom of the keyhole and reset his grip on the pick that disappeared just above. At first feel, the lock had seemed like a standard five-pin chamber, which he could have opened in seconds. But these pins had to be pressed in a particular order, he learned; otherwise, they wouldn’t stay trapped along the shear line and the bolt wouldn’t budge.

He hadn’t had a lot of practice with security pins.

He took a quick breath and blinked at the perspiration in the corner of one eye, trying to forget the fact that he was in plain view. The timer on his watch showed more than two minutes. He had figured out the sequence of the first two pins. The third was proving a bitch. Every time he guessed wrong, he lost them all, and the pins were hard to set in the first place.

It took him twenty seconds to retrap the first two pins. The only good thing to be said for having already guessed and lost twice on the third pin was that it could only be the last one. He concentrated, probed the tip of the pin with his pick, pushed it up, and felt it click into position.

The penultimate pin would be a fifty-fifty shot. He chose the nearer one and pushed.

All of the pins fell out.

“Damn it!” he hissed, the spare wrench and picks nearly spilling from his mouth.

He reset the tension wrench, which had become slippery with the serous blood beading from his palms.

The timer raced past two and a half minutes.

The last time he’d done anything like this was when he hacked Army Information in late August. But he’d been under no time constraints then. The hack had taken him nearly fifteen hours, he remembered — fifteen hours to palpate the sequence of zeros and ones. Between the login and password, there had been fourteen characters, 112 bits of data.

The security lock was easier by comparison — far easier. It had components Scott could feel, fewer moving parts, and manageable probabilities. The disadvantage, of course, was that he had less time to sequence those moving parts — minutes, not hours. That, and he was standing in someone’s backyard, not concealed in his own dark bedroom.

But Scott knew the sequence now.

He worked pin one into place again, then pin number two. Runnels of sweat circled the rims of his glasses, gathering at the bottoms of the lenses. As his hands worked, he thought about how the Army Information hack had led him here, in a strange way. Discovering the tap that night, hiding his computer equipment, promising himself that he would use his moratorium on hacking as a chance to embark on his maturation, to embrace it. To get out there.

Oh, you’re out there all right.

He set pin three as he reflected on his Bud Body regimen, his updated wardrobe, old self out, new self in, Gamma — none of which would have happened without the tap. And neither would the disastrous Dress-up Night, the same night he and Janis rediscovered whatever quality it was that still bound them.

Pin four clicked into place.

But to her, he knew he was just an interesting friend from her past. His transformation wasn’t complete, not yet. Friday’s confrontation with Grant and Britt had been a step, as was his attempt to negotiate with Jesse. His note to Janis also represented a step. But here he was, not the person he had envisioned, not Scott Summers. No, he was still Stiletto, his pulse racing in terror and exhilaration over this, his latest stealth campaign.

He set the final pin and twisted the tension wrench. The bolt didn’t move. He’d turned the wrench the wrong way. When he tried to recover and go back, his grip slipped. All of the pins fell out.

No, damn it! No! No! No!

The timer raced toward four minutes.

He snuck a glance at the fence above the culvert, knowing he’d blown it, that his time was more than up. He imagined the front door closing in front of Janis.

With the weight of the house bearing down on him, Scott cut his gaze back to the keyhole. He blinked the sting of sweat from his eyes. He reinserted the tension wrench, hesitated, and then the pick.

31

Janis closed the door behind her and followed the ghost-like image of Mrs. Leonard through the dim front hall. The air inside the house smelled almost pleasant, like cakes of makeup. But within paces, it became apparent that the powdery fragrance concealed a cruder understench of cigarettes and dampness.

A living room opened to their right. A faded, floral-patterned couch and two chairs sat over a dull white carpet. Thick beige curtains covered the windows. Something told Janis that the room had never rollicked with party sounds, not while the Leonards lived here. To her left, a staircase climbed steeply into darkness. Mrs. Leonard led them back to a kitchen, Janis wincing as the soles of her sneakers, still damp from the grass, began squeaking over the black and white tiles. Only then did it occur to her that if Mrs. Leonard was mute, she was probably deaf as well.

“Excuse me,” Janis called, testing the idea.

Mrs. Leonard didn’t turn.

When Janis lifted her gaze, she stiffened. Beyond the round kitchen table stood a sliding glass door, and beyond that lay the deck, the same place Mr. Leonard had spent summer nights watching her house. From her vantage, the backyard where she and Margaret had grown up playing hide-and-seek and “colonial times,” where Margaret still sunbathed sometimes, looked dangerously exposed.

In a few more paces, they would be able to see down into the Leonards’ backyard as well.

Janis recovered herself and edged ahead of Mrs. Leonard to the far side of the table. She dropped her books and pulled a chair for her host, all the time shifting her body to block the view through the glass door.

“Rest your back.” Janis enunciated carefully. “I’ll get you something to write on.”

She pulled up a wooden chair beside Mrs. Leonard. Her fingers shook as she opened one of her notebooks and drew out a sheet of college-ruled paper and a blue pen. When Mrs. Leonard had taken them, Janis peeked behind. In front of the shed, his bowed head nearly touching the lock, stood Scott.

Janis turned back to where Mrs. Leonard’s hand traced thin scrawls on the paper. Good, she writes slowly. Janis kept her torso rigid, fighting the urge to twist around again, to watch Scott to safety.

She leaned toward Mrs. Leonard instead and noticed a fragrance about the woman. It was the smell of the house — fine and powdery on the surface but musty underneath — a smell redolent of illness and sorrow and being shut in. It was the smell of someone who didn’t go outside, not even for her own newspaper. Janis shifted her gaze to the bagged paper. A smear of condensation trailed behind it. At the place opposite Mrs. Leonard, Janis noticed a tall black coffee mug.

Or maybe someone prevents her from going outside.

And now Janis became certain that this woman was as in the dark as anyone. Whatever Mr. Leonard kept hidden under his shed, whatever his past crimes, whatever designs he had on Margaret, his wife knew nothing about them.

Mrs. Leonard pushed the piece of paper in front of her: Your cat comes into our yard sometimes, but she hasn’t lately. I’m sorry.

“So I guess you already know what she looks like?” Janis said.

Mrs. Leonard took the paper back, nodding, and wrote something else, something a little shorter.

I’ve seen her through the window. She’s pretty.

“Oh, do you like cats?”

Mrs. Leonard bent over the paper again.

By her mental clock, Janis guessed it had been about four minutes. Scott had said he would bail if he didn’t have the lock picked within three. She peeked behind her. The top of his head was still stooped toward the door. Her toes began curling inside her white Keds, right foot, left foot, as if that could speed his progress. She turned back to the table just as Mrs. Leonard finished.

Yes, but I can’t have one.

“Why not? Cats are really easy to care for, if that’s, um, your concern. They’re very independent.”

Janis labored to speak slowly, to stretch out the seconds. She’d never been one for small talk, had never seen the point, but now that it was vital she string sentences together, her mind was coming up painfully short.

Mrs. Leonard shook her head and wrote out a fourth line.

My husband.

The word shot through Janis like a bolt, but she composed her face as she raised it back to Mrs. Leonard’s. “Oh, is he allergic?” Janis pointed to her own nose. “Do cats make him sneeze?”

But Janis knew the answer. She could read it in Mrs. Leonard’s conflicted eyes. Her husband had already decided that she wasn’t to have a cat, no matter how badly she wanted one, no matter how isolated she felt. And maybe that was the point — to keep her isolated, to keep her dependent on him. Janis had heard about such relationships from Margaret.

As if to confirm this, Mrs. Leonard shook her head again and began writing something else. And in that moment, Janis found that she was glad to be imparting a little company to this lonely woman.

Mrs. Leonard pushed the paper back in front of her.

He’s here.

Janis thrust herself up. The coffee mug tottered on the tabletop. She hadn’t heard the rumble of the garage door, but it wasn’t the door to the garage that was opening. It was the front door.

Footsteps landed in the hallway.

Janis spun to where Scott’s glasses were just fading into the darkness of the shed, the door closing behind him. And then she looked down at Mrs. Leonard. The deaf woman stared back at her, her face taut.

[Wait a minute. How could _]she[ have heard? Unless — _]

“In here!” Mrs. Leonard called clearly.

It took another second for the full horror to dawn on Janis: Mrs. Leonard had been killing time, too.

  • * *

Scott snapped on his flashlight and swung it around the shed, the stress of the lock-picking exercise still gripping his neck. Janis had expressed doubts about the things she perceived in her astral state, but the inside of the shed was how she’d described it — to the letter: shelves, old woodcutting implements, gloves. The space felt as claustrophobic as she’d described it, too. He ran his beam along the solid frame, then down to the pile of kindling.

Clamping the end of the camping flashlight between his teeth, Scott stooped and began moving the kindling to the shelves.

The wounds on his palms stung as he worked, but Scott couldn’t stop to brush away the flecks of bark. Outside, his race had been against Mrs. Leonard returning inside the house and seeing him. Now, safely inside the shed, his race was against Mr. Leonard returning home in the next thirty minutes, give or take. He considered donning the gloves, but they looked stiff with age and would probably make his hands hurt worse. Plus, who knew what lived inside them?

At last, Scott pried the plywood board up with his fingers and shook away the final layer of kindling. A few roaches scrambled away. He set the board against the door, took his flashlight from his mouth, and shone it down.

“I’ll be damned…” he muttered, kneeling.

The metal hatch was almost the size of a manhole cover. It was solid with a thick hinge on one side and a crescent-shaped depression on the other for grasping. But even using both hands, Scott found he couldn’t budge it. A twelve-hundred-pound holding force, he guessed. At least. Embedded in the cement beside the hatch sat a basic keypad. Scott smiled around his labored breaths. That more than proved it: Janis’s abilities were the real deal. He couldn’t wait to tell her.

But now it was time to establish his own credentials.

He closed his eyes and focused on the hatch. He guessed there was a magnet mounted in the frame and an armature plate around the hatch itself, the two bound by an electromagnetic force. He just needed to locate the source.

He reached with the part of himself that hungered for distance and control, for power. His consciousness began twining in on itself, more tightly, more fiercely.

In the next moment, DC current stormed around him. He was in! Scott pushed against the stinging current, feeling his way toward whatever spoke to the relay. Two lines plunged underground, one leading to a battery backup, he guessed, the other to some sort of central command. But there had to be something more local, something associated with the keypad.

And there it was: a small circuit board.

From far away, Scott felt his fingers resting over the blocks on the keypad. His hacking instinct urged him to probe for the correct sequence of data, the code. But how long would that take? No, better to concentrate on the relay between keypad and hatch, to short it.

Scott pulled his energy in. As always, it was a struggle, as if the energy didn’t want to be harnessed, straining against him like a herd of cats. But at last, Scott contained it. He focused on the tiny relay that directed current to the solenoid — the generator of the magnetic field. A red point appeared in his mind’s eye and then grew, changing color, becoming hotter.

It’s not the concentration of energy so much as its release.

The thought came spontaneously, and with it, Scott understood what had happened the last time, with the tap. The strain to hold the energy in one place had overwhelmed his mind, rendering him unconscious. Free from his control, the energy had exploded outward in a mini–Big Bang.

The trick, then, was to build the energy up and release it consciously.

The orb in his mind’s eye swelled to orange. His head went swimmy. Just a little bit longer… The orb verged on white. Before his awareness could waver away, Scott let go.

He staggered from the flash and the sensation of being blown from the system. He had been kneeling at the hatch’s edge, but coming to, he found himself slumped to one side, the flashlight fallen from his grasp. Its beam shone across his shoes. Standing, he seized the hatch with both hands and pulled. It swung open. Scott fell onto his backside, rattling the shelves around him.

Where the hatch door had been, rebar rungs descended into darkness. Scott got to his feet and shone his light down. The cement cylinder ended in a room, maybe fifteen feet below.

He lowered one leg inside the cylinder and then the other. He hooked his fingers around the rim, then the top rung. As he climbed down, his breaths echoed off the smooth wall in front of him. With his next step, it felt as though his foot had broken into open space. He moved his leg back in a circle to be sure. Cool air stirred past him. Scott was too far down now to see the keypad above, too far down to notice that the bottom-right key had begun to pulse red.

He stepped from the ladder and cast his beam around.

  • * *

“I said, what are you doing here?”

Janis’s voice had become trapped inside her constricting chest. She looked at Mrs. Leonard, whose face remained tense, then back to Mr. Leonard, who stood at the entrance to the front hall. He had come in just seconds before, a black bag hanging from the shoulder of his crumpled gray shirt, his long brow still collapsing into a bed of creases over those awful glasses.

“My cat.” It came out in the wrong key, like when you accidentally hit a minor note in a major chord. “My cat’s missing.”

Mr. Leonard looked to his wife. “When did she come?”

“Right after you left. She was just about to knock on the door.”

His gaze fell back on Janis. “Who called this morning?”

“What do you mean?” She tried to appear confused, but she was no actress. Her eyes felt too large, and she couldn’t stop blinking.

“Who called me this morning?”

Janis’s gut shrank beneath his raised voice. She edged back from the table.

“I-I don’t understand…”

“Don’t con me!” He charged into the kitchen, aiming his finger across the table at her like a weapon. “Don’t you dare con me! Someone wanted me out of the house. The schools don’t call me — we have that worked out. I parked one street over, waited, and came back. And now you’re here. Who put you up to this?”

Janis’s thoughts had been colliding into one another, but now they found common direction.

“I was up at the bus stop. I saw your car leave. And that’s what made me think to come over and… and ask your wife if she’d seen our cat. I swear I didn’t call you.”

It was as close to the truth as she could possibly come. Maybe that’s why her face felt more natural around the sounds her mouth made. She watched Mr. Leonard watching her. He wasn’t looking down and to one side, like he used to do when he subbed, wasn’t hiding behind his newspaper. Beyond his lenses, the whites of his eyes appeared fierce and jaundiced.

“Did anyone see you come?”

“See me?” Fresh alarms clanged in Janis’s head. Yes! Yes! Say yes!

She opened her mouth, but Mrs. Leonard spoke first: “I didn’t see anyone.”

Mr. Leonard looked back at Janis.

“I told my sister I’d be asking some of the neighbors about Tiger, so she probably knows…”

Did his eye just tic at the mention of Margaret?

“And you say you came from the bus stop?” he asked.

Janis nodded, not knowing whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to be admitting. He turned and paced off into the front room. He’s looking out the window. He’s checking to see if anyone else is at the stop. When Mr. Leonard returned, he appeared less harried. He set his bag on the floor.

“Sit down,” he told her.

“I don’t want to miss my bus.”

“If you miss it, we can take you,” Mrs. Leonard said, resting a hand on her arm.

This coming from a woman who just faked being a mute. Janis felt like a trapped mouse. Her gaze skittered between Mrs. Leonard, who blocked escape to her left, and Mr. Leonard, who stood ahead of her to the right.

“I-I really have to go.”

She jerked around to the sliding glass door and saw with relief that it was like the door at their house, the one between the kitchen and back patio. It had a slider lock. Tall means locked, short means unlocked, she used to recite as a little girl. The Leonards’ lock stood in the tall position. Janis jammed it down and yanked the handle.

The door opened an inch, then banged to a stop.

At the same instant Janis saw the broom handle in the door track, Mrs. Leonard was around her.

“Get off!” Janis screamed.

Mrs. Leonard pinned Janis’s arms to her sides with one arm and clapped a hand over her mouth with the other. She was not infirm. Her back was fine. The muscles that restrained Janis felt like steel cords. Janis wriggled and shoved against her, but Mrs. Leonard hardly budged.

Beyond the glass door, she could see the light on in her own kitchen, where her parents would be eating breakfast, her father reading the newspaper. When she kicked the door, it only shuddered. She tried to scream through her sealed mouth. “Mmmfff!

Mr. Leonard moved in front of her, holding his hands out.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” he said.

His voice was calm, but his eyes jittered behind his lenses. Janis leaped up and got a heel into Mr. Leonard’s lean gut. With a low grunt, he stumbled backward. When Janis went to stomp her captor’s foot, Mrs. Leonard anticipated her. She stepped back and tightened her grip.

“Janis,” she said into her ear. “We just want to talk to you.”

Mr. Leonard recovered and drew something from his pocket. It was about the size and shape of an electric razor. When he cocked his wrist, the object hummed to life. Lights on either side of it blinked red.

“I don’t want to have to use this,” he said, recovering his breath.

Oh, god, what is that thing?

She tried to squint away as the blinking device drew nearer. It smelled like a hairdryer beginning to overheat. Then something sizzled, not a sound but a sensation — inside her head. When Janis tried to scream again, saliva spilled against Mrs. Leonard’s fingers and turned cold against her own lips. Gray lights began to flash around the periphery of her vision.

Don’t pass out, she pleaded with herself. Whatever you do, please don’t pass out.

She stopped struggling.

Mr. Leonard stared at her another moment, then withdrew the device and flicked his wrist. The smell and sensation faded with the red lights, and Janis blinked until her vision cleared.

“That’s better.” Mr. Leonard was just returning the device to his pocket and opening his mouth to say something more when the phone in the hallway rang. Janis’s gaze followed his, faint hope flickering inside her. Maybe someone saw me walk into the house. Maybe they told my parents. But Janis had never heard a ring like this before: half ring, full ring, half ring.

“Someone’s inside,” Mrs. Leonard said.

Janis watched Mr. Leonard’s eyes dart from the phone. The pale light through the glass door shrank his pupils to points. “Who is it?”

But he wasn’t asking his wife. He was looking at her.

Janis shook her head.

He dug his hand into the front pocket of her sweatshirt and pulled out the walkie-talkie. He held it up in front of her face.

“Who is it?”

She hadn’t stopped shaking her head.

“Goddammit!” Mr. Leonard wheeled and spiked the talkie against the floor. It burst apart. One of the batteries rolled toward the den. “You have no idea what you’ve done,” he whispered through bared teeth. “Put her in the bathroom.”

Janis writhed and tried to scream again, but Mrs. Leonard’s grip held firm. She felt herself being half carried, half dragged around the table. Mr. Leonard strode ahead of them and punched a code into the wall beneath the staircase. A door appeared, and Mr. Leonard pushed it open.

Scott!

Mrs. Leonard released her at the same time she shoved her through another doorway. Janis fell against a sink. By the time she turned, the door was slamming closed. A bolt clunked home, its sound solid and final.

  • * *

Scott’s flashlight hung down by his side, still on but forgotten. Upon dropping from the ladder, he had found himself in a room with a row of locked cases. Scott considered picking them open, but the cold, flickering glow from a room down the corridor had drawn him forward instead.

“Ho-ly smokes,” he whispered.

The monitors stared down from the wall, like something you would see in the security room of a major department store: twelve of them, four across and three down, black and white screens. Some were still, and some oscillated, but all showed the same thing — the Graystones’ house.

“And I thought[_ I_] was the voyeur.”

In the top left monitor, Scott found himself looking at the Graystones’ front porch. By the angle, Scott guessed the camera was mounted somewhere on the street light — perhaps in the light fixture itself, where it would be hard to see. The top-middle and right images showed the garage side of the house. In the rightmost image, the edge of a leaf fluttered in and out of view. The image was being fed by a camera in the woods.

All of those hours Janis practiced against the garage door…

Scott left the thought at that, coldness worming through his gut.

It wasn’t that he had distrusted Janis’s intuition about Mr. Leonard’s intentions. But to this point, that’s all it had been, her intuition. Now the truth was taking ghastly shape. Indeed, looking at those monitors was like peering into the mind of a meticulous sociopath. And if Mr. Leonard had gone this far, there was no question that he had plans to go further still.

Beneath the lowest monitors, showing the patio and windows at the back of the Graystones’ house, sat a control panel. Scott eased onto the chair, its caster wheels squeaking over a square of balding carpet. Dials lined the panel, numbered one through twelve on clumsy red label-maker strips. Each dial probably corresponded to a camera. A switch beneath each knob seemed to toggle between functions. Focus? Zoom? Brightness? Scott didn’t dare test them to find out.

His gaze moved from the controls to where the panel formed a desk. It was empty except for an olive-green military phone and a flat book.

Scott cannoned the book open. It appeared to be a ledger of some kind. He adjusted his glasses and flipped back a couple of pages until he saw writing. Frowning, he ran his middle finger down the columns.

No, not a ledger. A logbook.

The leftmost column held what appeared to be codes, several of them repeating. The middle and rightmost columns listed dates and times — military times, some with asterisks beside them. Scott started to flip to the beginning of the book when he heard the chuff of a distant door opening. He snapped his head toward the sound, a primal yell lodged in his brainstem.

Descending footsteps followed, wicked in their soft cadence.

Scott rose to his feet. He looked down the corridor where the sound of the footfalls continued to grow, masculine footfalls. Scott wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he did. Mr. Leonard? No, too soon. Unless he’d returned to the house for something he’d forgotten.

Scott eased the chair back in place. One of the casters squeaked thinly. The footfalls paused, then resumed, coming faster. Scott looked around. The military phone, the notes in the ledger, the bunker, the disturbing obsession with security. Was Mr. Leonard a Vietnam veteran? Someone who had killed in the field? Carried out assassinations?

He turned and fled the way he had come. When he reached the room with the ladder, he killed his flashlight and listened back. The whoosh-whumps of his heart filled his ears. Scott pulled himself up the ladder. The column he entered was black, but he couldn’t risk a light.

His raw palms screamed around the rebar rungs. He swam his arm overhead, feeling for the opening, for the rim. At last his hand collided with the underside of the hatch, jamming his wrist.

He shoved the hatch, but it wouldn’t move. Locked again.

The footfalls entered the room beneath him.

32

“Janis, we’re not trying to hurt you.”

The thick door muffled Mrs. Leonard’s voice. Janis had already tried the handle. That had rotated fine, but the door wouldn’t budge, and she could see no means by which to operate the bolt from the inside. A bathroom that only locked on the outside. Janis’s chest began to shudder.

“When Tom comes back, he’ll explain.”

When Tom comes back…

Janis felt the life leaving her legs. Every part of her wanted to collapse in the corner, to shrink between the sink and toilet and close her eyes, to not have to think about what would happen when Tom came back. A minute before, she could see the soft light through her kitchen window. Now she might never see her house again — Dad, Mom, Margaret, Tiger…

Stop it. Pull yourself together.

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and studied the door again. The part where she’d heard the bolt close was at shoulder level, too high to kick out.

She backed herself to the sink, then turned to the wall. No mirror above the sink. She tried the cabinet doors underneath, but they were fake, adhered to the wooden frame. She trained her gaze on the toilet.

The ceramic lid came off the holding tank with a dull scrape, and Janis held it to her chest like her most fervent hope. The lid was oblong and heavy, maybe fifteen pounds. She turned back to the door and moved the lid to shoulder level, testing the weight again. Would fifteen pounds be enough? She gripped the edges until she felt the blood squeezing from her knuckles.

She’d know in a second.

In two lunging steps she heaved the end of the lid against the door’s lock like a battering ram. Something cracked, and the lid fell into two pieces at her feet, shattering against the tile.

She seized the handle. The door rattled in its frame but wouldn’t open. The lock had yielded to the blow but only a very little.

“Janis, please,” Mrs. Leonard called from the other side of the door. “You just need to—”

Janis backed up and kicked the door. She did it again and again, her heel aching to the bone. She switched legs. Every time she struck, the door vibrated, but it wouldn’t swing out, wouldn’t fall open. She imagined Mrs. Leonard on the other side, bracing it with her deceptively sturdy body.

“Janis, listen to me.”

“Shut up!” Janis yelled.

With her back to the sink, she reassessed the brown door. She needed to think. A crusty indentation showed where the lid had met wood. The floor was littered with the aftermath. Janis pulled off her sweatshirt and tossed it away. She picked out the sharpest length of ceramic and slid it into the back of her jeans beneath her shirt, the smooth side against her skin. For when Tom came back.

“Janis, you and your—”

“Stop it!” she yelled, covering her ears.

She could hear her breaths imploding and exploding in her lungs, like a runaway locomotive. She hoped Scott had escaped, that he wasn’t hurt. She would never forgive herself if anything happened to him. And in the midst of that thought came a sensation. It climbed from the back of her throat, the texture of foam, the taste of the sea. Soon it filled her nose.

Fed by her booming breaths, her body began thrumming with the energy of her nighttime experiences.

When she uncovered her ears, the air crackled around her. If Mrs. Leonard was still talking, Janis couldn’t hear her. And if she was still bracing the door, God help her.

Janis stood from the sink and raised her arm. This wasn’t going to be like the night at the swing sets. She puffed out her chest as the space around her pulsed with violent energy — energy she controlled. Though three feet separated her hand from the door, it felt like those three feet didn’t matter. Not anymore.

With everything she could summon, Janis pushed.

  • * *

Footfalls echoed up into the cylinder where Scott clung to the rungs, the sounds narrowing, zeroing in. Scott imagined his pursuer moving past the cases. Gun cases? He suppressed the horrifying thought and concentrated. His mind twined and entered the locking system, finding the relay. It was open again, somehow, current flowing to the solenoid.

Once more, Scott drew his concentration around it.

Build it up, build it up…

And then he released.

Scott’s chin dipped, and his grip slipped from the rung. A sensation of falling, back scraping. A dull blow to the base of his head. Scott gasped and flailed his arms. His hands found a rung. With his feet still planted on the rungs below, he had fallen backward and become lodged in the cylinder.

Now he pulled himself upright and reoriented himself, pawing for the hatch overhead. He found it and shoved. The lid swung out, the hinge reaching its terminus with a dull clank.

“Hey!” The voice below was a throbbing echo.

Scott scrambled up into the shed and slammed the hatch door closed. Seeing the pulsing red button on the keypad, he understood: a passive detection field. That made him even more terrified of his pursuer. The voice that had shouted up at him had been male, and Scott imagined Mr. Leonard racing up the metal rungs still slick with his sweat and blood.

Scott seized the plywood board that had covered the hatch and wedged it between the hatch and the metal brackets of the lowest shelf. A second later, another shout called out, this one from mere feet away. The hatch door jittered. The wedged board and shelves rattled, but held.

As he turned to flee, a paralyzing thought came to Scott: The shed door is bolted again. It’s bolted, and you won’t be able to open it. You won’t be able to pick it. There won’t be time. The thought carried such certainty that he could already feel himself bouncing off the solid frame and landing beside the board he’d just propped up. The board that, with the next jitter of the hatch, shifted another inch.

But the shed doors flew wide, and Scott blinked out into morning light. He reached with his first strides, covering precious ground, taking the straightest line to the fence.

He leaped for the chain linking, threw himself over, and tumbled down the side of the culvert. Cripes, ouch, ouch, ouch! His right hip bore the brunt of the landing. Seizing his skateboard by the trucks, Scott staggered to his feet. He hobble-ran toward the opening beneath Twenty-first Avenue. The fence rattled to stillness behind him.

You might make it yet.

Less than a yard from the adjoining lot, Scott heard the shelving inside the shed collapse. Crap. His brain crunched the numbers:

Three seconds for him to climb from the hatch, another second to emerge from the shed, three to four more to cross the lawn and see the entire culvert.

Scott had seven seconds to get out of sight. He leaned into the steep hill, the skateboard tucked to his side, his talkie, flashlight, and tools swinging in his pockets, their motion fighting his own. He considered ditching them, but there was no time. Besides, he didn’t want to leave any evidence of himself behind. Mr. Leonard hadn’t gotten a look at him, didn’t know who he was.

Behind him, the shed door clapped open.

Three seconds left.

Scott pressed his glasses to his face and moved the skateboard to his stomach. He took four more hobbled steps and heaved himself, headfirst, toward the opening beneath the street. He squinted his eyes, half expecting to crack his skull against the top of the cement tunnel. But the only thing to strike him was the sudden coolness of the space. Both sets of wheels landed inside — a nearly simultaneous CLACKCLACK. The momentum drove him toward the junction with the tunnel running parallel to Twenty-first Avenue.

Heaving for air, Scott turned.

It was like looking out from inside a straw, but what Scott could see of the cement culvert was empty. He imagined Mr. Leonard arriving against the fence, peering up and down the steep length of the culvert — and finding no one. Scott closed his eyes. Fireworks burst behind his lids.

I owe you, Bud Body.

Still gasping, he began pushing himself toward the bus stop. His hip was bashed, his palms raw, and he could feel the place where he’d scraped his back, hot and bleeding through his shirt. But his only thought was returning to Janis and telling her that her intuition had been true all along.

He paused to illuminate his watch face. If he hurried, they might still catch the bus. At school, they could call the police and tell them about the cameras and the monitoring room. Scott suspected that the locked cases held unlawful things as well. Mr. Leonard wouldn’t be able to dismantle and relocate everything in time. The secret he’d been keeping all these years, locked and concealed beneath his house, was as extensive as his evident sickness.

A sickness that can’t harm Janis’s sister now, Scott thought as he rolled nearer the falling wedge of light.

Or Janis.

  • * *

Janis lodged her back foot beneath the base of the cabinet. Aiming her arm toward the door again, she resummoned the energy. Her first attempt hadn’t moved the bolt, but she had heard, had felt, the wood fracture around it. She had also felt herself slipping backward, disrupting her focus.

“Whatever you’re doing, Janis, please stop.” Mrs. Leonard’s voice was clearer, less impeded, and Janis saw that her last attempt had opened a fissure along the frame. “Tom wants to help you. We both do.”

Sure you do.

A jaggedness scored Janis’s thoughts, a meanness that delighted in the fear she heard in Mrs. Leonard’s voice.

She pushed again.

The door groaned its protest and then crunched away. The top half collapsed down. The bottom half exploded out. Mrs. Leonard shrieked. Amid the flying wood, Janis caught a flash of her sallow gown and the flailing of her arms. Her body landed against the opposite wall and fell silent.

A scarlet joy flourished inside Janis. She kicked through the debris and out into the hallway.

Mrs. Leonard scooted backward on one hand and both bare feet toward the kitchen. A patch of blood grew inside the gray-brown hair above her temple. Janis stalked Mrs. Leonard, her lips drawing from her teeth.

“Please…” Mrs. Leonard said, her voice small and dazed. “Please, don’t…”

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” Janis taunted. A small part of her recoiled. She’d never spoken to an adult like that. She drew the ceramic shard from the back of her jeans and pointed it toward Mrs. Leonard.

“Your powers…” Mrs. Leonard sagged against a kitchen chair. “Yours and… and your sister’s. Don’t let them see…”

Janis’s arm faltered. She knew about her and Margaret’s abilities?

“Don’t let who see?” she said.

“Don’t let them know…”

“Who?” Janis cried.

“Please…”

Mrs. Leonard’s face was ashen, her eyes round and spacey.

She’s in shock. Janis had heard the phrase uttered in untold television dramas over the years — so-and-so’s “in shock” — the actor’s voice grave and knowing. Janis had always accepted the diagnosis, never quite understanding what it meant. But now she was seeing it for herself.

Her gaze fell to the woman’s left arm lying limply across her body, the palm turned up at an unnatural angle, the balls of her fingers purple and still. And then Janis understood that Mrs. Leonard’s shock came not only from the blow to her head; her shoulder was broken. Janis covered her mouth when she spotted a shard of bone poking the inside of her gown.

“Wait here.” Janis’s joy evaporated. The vibrations vanished. “I-I’ll go get help.”

“No, you can’t…” Tension creased Mrs. Leonard’s brow, but her eyes remained glassy. “You mustn’t…”

“You’re going to be all right.”

Janis wheeled and made for the front door on flimsy legs. A single thought repeated in her head like a skipping record: You did that to her. You did that to her. You did that to her.

Through the dust of the demolished bathroom, she focused on the front door at the end of the hallway. She needed to get outside, needed to go to the neighbors’. Call the police, she would tell them. She couldn’t even think of the neighbors’ names. Call an ambulance.

The knob turned inside Janis’s grasp, but not from her own power.

The surprise on Mr. Leonard’s pale, sweat-streaked face must have mirrored her own, but he recovered first. He pinned her arms to her sides, just as his wife had done. But he was larger, his strength more bracing.

Janis’s scream pierced the open doorway, echoing out into the neighborhood.

Swearing, Mr. Leonard kicked the door closed and spun with her. A hand clamped over her mouth, fingers and a thumb digging into the corners of her jaw. His leg wrapped around hers, and Janis pitched to one side. She tried to writhe free, but there was nothing to push against. He’d stolen her leverage.

“Colleen!” he called.

Janis twisted her gaze toward the ruined hallway. In the kitchen beyond, the slumped-over Mrs. Leonard looked like a garage-sale doll. The patch of blood had spread to her ear and now dripped from her lobe, staining her gown near the jut of bone. She raised her good arm and pushed it out.

“Go…” she mumbled.

Above her, Janis heard Mr. Leonard swallow.

“Go,” she repeated more urgently. “I’ll take care of myself, but you must go.”

Janis could feel Mr. Leonard’s breath inside her ear now. She squirmed and tried to scream against his hand. He shook her once.

“I only have a minute, so you need to listen to me.” He panted as he spoke. “You’re part of a program, a deadly program. It’s your abilities. I tried to reach your sister, to warn her, but there are too many eyes. Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted. Do you understand me? No one. Not even the ones who will investigate what happened here. Especially not them. Do you understand me?”

She had no idea what he was talking about but tried to nod anyway.

“Your one chance is to hide your powers. Never use them. Never speak of them again.”

He seemed to notice the sharp length of ceramic she still clung to. Moving his hand from her mouth, he twisted her wrist in a way that didn’t hurt but made her fingers turn numb. He eased the shard from her grasp. Why she didn’t scream again, Janis couldn’t say. There had been a quality to his voice, his words, to the way he held her now that felt almost… paternal.

Tom wants to help you.

“You’ll understand this one day,” Mr. Leonard whispered and drove the shard into her side.

  • * *

The faint scream echoed past Scott, like a specter. He stopped to listen, the hair bristling along his nape. He heard nothing more, but the sound, hoarse and high, had been unmistakable. It belonged to Janis.

Scott grabbed for the smooth cement ahead of him. The skateboard veered up the tunnel wall and he nearly tipped over. Scott jerked the board back on course. His legs pistoned at the darkness behind him. The wedge of falling light, still twenty yards away, didn’t seem to be getting any closer. A desperate heat broke over Scott’s body. He was trapped, entombed. He gasped for air.

The second scream to reach him was more of a grunt — a sheared-off beginning with no middle or ending.

Also Janis’s.

In a flurry of kicks and shoves, he pulled himself into the leaf-strewn cylinder beneath the storm drain. Cold air washed around him. He stood and peered from the opening out into the street. Mr. Leonard’s green Datsun sat parked in front of the house where Janis had gone. And then Mr. Leonard appeared, alone. He ran down the walkway. An army-green duffel bag bounced from his shoulder. Peering around, he jerked the driver’s-side door open.

Scott writhed through the storm drain, fingers grasping at asphalt. He heard the door bang closed and the Datsun shake to life. By the time Scott emerged, the car was halfway down the hill. Its engine droned into the distance. Scott jerked his gaze around to the Pattersons’ garage door.

In the thin morning light, the bush stood alone.

He couldn’t feel his legs as he sprinted toward the Leonards’ house, not even his bashed hip.

“Hey,” a man’s voice called from behind. “Is everything all right?”

Scott twisted his head to find the Watsons emerging from the Downs in their matching blue sweat suits. Mr. Watson’s hand made a visor above his eyes.

“Call the police!” Scott gasped, still sprinting. “The Leonards’ house!”

The Watsons looked at one another and back at Scott.

“Please!”

Maybe it was the way the please tore from his throat, but they began running toward the Meadows, Mr. Watson stripping his wrist weights, then hopping to do the same with his ankle weights.

Scott leaped the curb and hurdled a bush. Dew kicked up around him. Beneath the balcony, the yellow door stood ajar. Scott slowed. Was that a shoe he saw beyond, the heel of a white Keds? He pushed the door open.

No.

Janis was lying on her side, her back to him. Hair fell from her head and onto the dull carpet like a spilled drink. Her white T-shirt was eerily bloodless where a narrow shard stood from her ribs.

Nothing moved. Nothing breathed.

Please, no.

In two blinks, Scott’s eyes took in the ruined hallway and the slumped and bleeding woman beyond.

Then he was on the floor in front of Janis. He found her eyes open but empty, the soft rims of green around her pupils thin and hard to see. One hand held a small gold pendant at her neck.

“Stay awake,” he pled, stroking the side of her head. “Help’s coming.”

Her eyes shifted slightly at his voice. She was breathing, he saw, but each breath was so thin that her torso remained rigid. He took her hand in both of his, forgetting the injuries to his palms.

“Can you hear me?” His voice was starting to tremble, to come apart. “Stay awake.”

He kissed her hand and pressed it to his cheek.

“Please,” he said.

Her fingers curled around his and held tight. They remained like that, Scott and Janis, until the distant wail of sirens grew around them and a cadre of footsteps pounded up the walkway.

33

“We’ve suffered a containment breach,” the woman reported.

“What? External?”

“It appears internal.”

“Casualties?”

“One down, one missing. And the girl, sir. She’s being rushed to the hospital.”

“How in the fucking hell did this happen?”

“We’re looking into it, sir.”

“Listen to me,” the man said. “Damage control first, risk assessment second.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All resources, all means. Be goddamned thorough”

“Understood, sir.”

“It’s what I hired you for.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t you dare let me down.”

“No, sir.”

34

Eleven days later

Friday, December 14, 1984

2:51 p.m.

Scott stood in the street in front of the Graystones’ house, hands in his coat pockets, shoulders shrugged to his ears. The wind blew gray around him. Turning, he could see his own bedroom window up the hill. It appeared eye-like, set back behind the bushes, the half-raised blinds a hooded lid. And no wonder. It was the same place from which he’d looked out for three years, watching the very spot where he now stood, the spot that always seemed so far away.

Only someone else had been watching, too.

Scott raised his face to the street light at the end of the cul-de-sac. He’d come home from school one day the previous week to see a police technician standing inside a bucket lift, dismantling a camera. Scott assumed they’d done the same in the woods and around the Leonards’ house. For the entire week, yellow police tape had criss-crossed the Leonards’ front door and fluttered over the gate to their backyard, making the house look sinister from the street, too.

Scott exhaled through pursed lips, turned back to the Graystones’ house, and limped up the semi-circular driveway. The hip he’d landed on in the culvert remained sore. In front of the door, he hesitated. A Gobstopper-sized lump filled his throat. He tried to swallow, but it wouldn’t move.

Shoe on its side, violent spill of hair, jagged shard…

He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. This was proving harder than he’d anticipated. Replacing his glasses, he reached for the illuminated doorbell. But before he could press the button, the door opened.

Bundled in Thirteenth Street sweats, purple and white, her hair gathered in a loose ponytail, she looked stunning, a picture of divine resurrection. Scott recovered his legs in time to keep from staggering. As she stepped toward him, her pale lips leaned toward a smile.

“Hey, stranger,” Janis said hoarsely.

Scott tried to smile back. “Hey yourself. How are you?”

She winced as she raised her right arm overhead. “They took the stitches out yesterday, before my discharge. It’s still a little sore, and I still get short of breath, but every day’s better.” Her arm eased back to her side. “Thanks to you.”

Scott’s gaze fell to his shoes. “No, I just…” He tasted salt in the back of his throat and was afraid that if he tried to say more, the salt would climb into his tear ducts and spill out.

Janis closed the door behind her.

“I was wondering when I’d get a chance to talk to you,” she said. “My dad won’t let me go anywhere until I’m all healed. I would’ve called, but… well, what you told me about your phone.”

Scott shifted his weight. “When I went to the hospital, there were police outside your door.”

Janis shook his shoulder. “They weren’t there to keep you out, dummy.”

“Yeah, I know. I wasn’t sure.”

Both times Scott had tried to visit — a handwritten get-well card clutched behind his back — Blake had been at Janis’s bedside. Both times, Scott had continued past her room, slipped from the hospital, and biked home.

“I heard they found him,” he said.

“Yeah.” Janis sat on the top step and clasped her hands between her knees.

Scott sat beside her.

“They found his car at a rest stop in Georgia. A trucker remembered seeing someone fitting his description climbing into a semi bound for South Carolina. That’s where they found him, in an interstate motel outside of Florence. His body, anyway. And the rope around his neck.”

“So that’s it, I guess?”

“I gave a detailed statement while it was still fresh in my memory. They’ve linked him to some unsolved cases in the state. Kidnapping, abduction…” She hesitated. “…other things.”

“And his wife?”

“She confessed to acting as an accomplice. Prison after her arm heals.”

Scott peeked behind them and then lowered his voice. “Did your powers do that?”

Janis watched her clasped hands. She nodded.

“So what did you tell everyone?”

“I stuck to the story about Tiger. Said that I was worried when I didn’t see her outside in the morning. Thought maybe she’d wandered off, et cetera. I told the rest more or less how it happened, leaving certain parts out.”

Scott listened as Janis gave him the play-by-play, from the moment he dropped into the storm drain until he found her in the front hallway. Scott lined up her experiences aboveground with his experiences below. When she finished, Scott had a complete picture.

“How did you get your powers to work this time?” he asked.

“It was my emotions, I think — fear, anger, desperation — all swirling inside me. It triggered something, turned something on. I suddenly felt in control of my space, Scott, of the objects around me. I reached for the door, and I… I drove all of those emotions against it. Of course, I told everyone else that I’d battered it down with the lid to the toilet tank.”

For a second, Scott felt like they were inside the panels of one of his comic books.

“They believed you?”

“I think so.” She looked over. “What did you tell the police?”

“That I was at the bus stop when I heard you scream. Course, I was still making my way back up the tunnel.”

They both looked out into the street where the sweet gum leaves were skittering and piling into drifts. Janis leaned her head against his shoulder. Her ponytail fell between them, alighting on his thigh.

“You were down there when he went into the basement?”

“I got out before he saw me. But the sophistication of his security system, Janis, the cameras, the whole setup… I’ve never seen anything like it. I mean, it was beyond even what Bell does at their big central offices.” Scott’s next words tumbled out. “How in the hell could he have done all of that on a military pension and the little he gets substitute teaching?”

Janis unclasped her hands and looked at him.

Scott’s face flushed with heat. “Oh, but don’t listen to me. Curse of the nerd brain.” He knocked his knuckles against the side of his head. “It never stops working, I’m afraid.”

But Janis was nodding. “No, I’ve been wondering the same thing.”

“Really?”

“There was this small device he threatened me with. When he turned it on, it made my head buzz, and I felt like I was going to pass out. I’d never seen, much less heard, of anything like that, have you? We have our official versions of what happened — I was looking for Tiger, you were waiting at the bus stop. But what if the information we’ve been given about the Leonards is an official version, too? You know — who they are, what they did, their pasts. Their names, even.”

“What do you mean?”

“The special investigator, a woman named Agent Steel — cropped hair, chilly blue eyes, gave me the creeps.” Janis shivered. “Anyway, she kept referring to Mrs. Leonard as Susan. But in the house, I heard Mr. Leonard call his wife Colleen. He yelled it when he saw her injured in the kitchen.”

“Maybe that’s her middle name.”

“No, the forms I signed had her whole name: Susan Patricia Leonard. And the Leonards knew about our powers — mine and Margaret’s anyways. Then there were the things he said about a dangerous program and not letting them see our powers, not letting them know.”

“Who’s them?”

“He didn’t say.”

Scott started to open his mouth, then clamped it closed.

“‘Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted.’ I kept thinking about that when Agent Steel was questioning me. And I kept thinking, too, about what he said after he helped me to the floor. Right before he left.”

“Mr. Leonard?”

“‘Lay low until I contact you.’ That’s what he said.”

“Well, I guess that won’t be happening anytime soon.”

Janis placed her hand against her side, over the place Scott had seen that awful length of shard protruding. “The wound… The doctors keep saying that it couldn’t have happened in a better place. A punctured liver still functions, still does what it’s supposed to do. And mine’s going to heal completely. I’ll just have a small scar between these two ribs.”

“You think he picked that spot on purpose?”

Janis fell silent. “I don’t know.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything about this, but…” Scott still wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea, but maybe there was a connection with what she was telling him. “Well, I’ve been probing the tap I told you about, exploring it.”

“And?”

“I don’t think it’s a tap, Janis.”

“You’re not being monitored?”

Scott fidgeted with the hem of his jacket. “Yes and no. It’s more like a switchboard, like the ones hotels have. Or very similar. You know, you call a hotel, a receptionist answers, you tell them the room number, and they connect you, right? With some hotels, you can dial the room number directly, but the call still passes through the hotel’s switchboard. The receptionist can still listen in.” Scott looked at her. “I don’t know how to explain this, Janis, other than to say that it feels like Oakwood has its own switchboard.”

The idea had begun with Jesse Hoag. The day Scott had given him the money, Jesse mentioned losing his phone service on a Sunday — Creed had lost his, too. Janis later confirmed hers had gone out as well. And while Scott hadn’t been able to follow up with Jesse for obvious reasons, Janis remembered that her outage had happened on the afternoon of October 14, the day after her first date with Blake — the same day Scott had shorted what he thought had been a personal wiretap.

Janis’s eyes widened.

Scott nodded. “Which would mean[_ all_] of our phones are being monitored.”

“Then who’s the receptionist?”

“I thought it might’ve been the Leonards — I saw some telephone equipment when I went beneath the shed — but all that stuff’s been tagged and warehoused, I’m sure. No longer operational, anyway. And yet there’s still a delay on my line. Yours, too, I checked. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Was the answer also a them?

Janis wrapped her arms around her knees and rested the side of her head there. When she spoke again, her voice sounded older, tired.

“There are things I’m still trying to figure out too, I guess. So much has happened and…. don’t take this the wrong way, Scott, but I need a break. What you just told me, I… I can’t think about right now.”

Scott swallowed and looked at his hands.[_ Way to drop a load on her, dimwit._]

“I’m not going to be at school next week,” she said. “My parents decided we should leave for Denver early, spend a longer holiday with Grams. They thought it best that we get away for a while.”

“I understand.” But the thought of not seeing her in all that time made Scott’s insides feel hollow and metallic. The last week and a half had been hard enough. He studied the gray street.

“Oh! I almost forgot something.” Janis patted his hand. “Wait here.”

Scott turned as she disappeared through the front door.

She returned a minute later, a slender paper bag crackling in her hands. Her eyes shone with excitement as she held it out to him. Scott nearly lost his balance when he stood.

“What’s this?”

“An early Christmas present.”

He took it. “Oh, you didn’t have to—”

But then he had the gift partway out of the bag, and a startled sound sheared his words. The front of the comic book showed a battle-torn Scott Summers and Jean Grey fighting side by side, taking on the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard.

“How did you know?”

Janis laughed. “You told me about it, remember? Up at the Grove that night. You mentioned it was the only one missing from your collection. I guess the issue number stuck in my head.”

He had told her everything that night, hadn’t he?

“But where did you find it?” Now Scott was laughing.

“Well, Margaret felt bad about not believing me about Mr. Leonard. I’d tried to warn her back in August, but Margaret being Margaret…” Janis rolled her eyes. “Anyway, she said she owed me. So I told her about the comic book. Turned out the guy at the hobby store near school had the issue in his personal collection.”

“You mean Tully? And he sold it to her?”

Scott had tried for years to get him to part with the issue but only ever received a condescending smirk in response, no matter what he offered.

“Margaret can be very persuasive.”

Scott kept staring at the cover. Uncanny X-Men #137. “I-I don’t know what to say. I didn’t get you anything.”

“Do you remember what you said when you found me?”

Stay awake. Help’s coming.

“I think so.”

“Seeing you there, Scott. Hearing your voice. Knowing that you were all right.” Her eyes began to glimmer, even as she smiled. “That told me that I was going to be all right, too. That was your gift to me.”

She rose onto her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.

“Merry Christmas, Scott.”

“Merry Christmas, Janis,” he whispered. For the first time, he noticed the fragrant evergreen trim around the Graystone’s front door, the red and white stockings hanging beneath the door’s small windows.

“So…” Her hand lingered around his another moment. “See you in 1985?”

He tried to think of something Scott Summers would say to Jean Grey, something special, something that would capture the dizzying enormity of what he felt for her in that moment.

But all he could come up with was, “You bet.”

When Scott reached the street, he flipped up his jacket collar. He’d have Jesse to face soon, a switchboard to figure out, and Mr. Leonard’s cryptic message to decipher — if it could even be believed. But for the moment, his thoughts were on one person.

Halfway up the hill, he turned, surprised to find Janis still on the front porch, still looking after him. Scott raised the comic book, smiled as she waved back, and hunched his shoulders against the December wind, the touch of her lips still warm against his skin.

End of Book 1

XGeneration 2

The Watchers

Brad Magnarella

© 2014

Prologue

“I’ve read your Orange Report, agent.”

“Yes, sir. We had to shift a few pieces.”

“And the subjects?”

“The sisters are in Colorado, and the rest, we’ve been assured, will remain in town for the holidays.”

“I don’t want a travel itinerary. Their potential. What are we seeing?”

“All continue to demonstrate promise, sir. Three of them have developed abilities that we would deem tappable at this point. The oldest ones, as you might have guessed. We’re still monitoring the others.”

“The Reds have a team ready.”

“I understand, sir.”

“They almost took out our early detection system over the Arctic last month.”

“Yes, I read that intelligence.”

“Your agents have all been re-vetted, the report says.”

“Yes, sir. Delta-one was… an unfortunate case. An isolated case.”

“But you had your suspicions.”

“We noticed some patterns. We were watching him.”

“Not closely enough.”

“No, sir. I suppose not. But there was no outside contact.”

“Why did he want the girl terminated?”

“We’re still trying to determine that, sir. Nothing in his most recent psych profile suggested delusional thoughts, schizophrenia — nothing of that nature. His partner claimed it happened suddenly, and, as his junior, she followed his orders. She’s the one we cleaned and had incarcerated. We’ll remove her in a few months when things quiet down.”

“But this Delta-one is still unaccounted for?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Any leads?”

“No, sir. But rest assured, we’re—”

“What’s to stop him from returning?”

“The second he emerges, we’ll find him.”

“Have you considered that he simply went soft, that he lost his stomach, not his mind?”

“Yes, sir, we’ve considered that.”

“Which would make him immensely more dangerous to us.”

“I understand, sir.”

“You say no outside contact was made, but we still don’t know what he told the girl — or anyone else inside, for that matter. Find out. The name of the game remains discretion, but I’m authorizing you to use all levels of force to fix this, even lethal. No preauthorization required.”

“Yes, sir.”

“A breach could quickly grow beyond our control, and our backs are to the goddamned wall as it is.”

“I understand, sir.”

“The subject line on your next Orange Report will read ‘Contained.’ Are we clear, Agent Steel?”

“You can count on it.”

1

Gainesville, Florida

Monday, New Year’s Eve, 1984

11:07 p.m.

Tyler Bast watched the burgundy pool table through curls of smoke drifting up from a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, a pool cue over his shoulder. A country song stomped and twanged from the jukebox, the lyrics lost within the riot of drunken shouting and clacking balls. He had dibs on the next game, which wasn’t long in coming. Jesse Hoag had fudged what should have been an easy shot, and now Creed’s eyes glinted above his John Lennon shades as he stooped over his cue. Tyler knew that look well.

“Two ball, side pocket,” Creed said.

Clack. Dunk.

“One in the corner.”

Clack. Dunk.

Catlike, Creed eased around the table, his bowler hat cocked back, his dark-blond hair sweeping along the scratched cushion. The tops of his eyes flicked between two of his solid balls. “Let’s make it interesting. Four, this corner — seven ball, that one.”

Clack! Dunk. Dunk.

“And black beauty in the side for the…”

Clack. Dunk.

“…easy win.”

Creed stepped back and admired the table. Tyler followed his gaze to where all but two of Jesse’s stripes still sat. Jesse could break like nobody’s business, and sometimes he’d sink five or six balls at a smash. But when it came to judging space and distances, to finessing shots home, that was Creed’s game.

“How you like them apples?” Creed grinned at Jesse.

Jesse had been watching glumly, the end of his pool cue propped on his giant army boot. His hand disappeared into his green fatigue jacket and returned with a can of Natural Light. He peeled the tab away and finished the beer off in a single tilt. For the first time, Tyler caught a blue-black smudge along Jesse’s jawline. Courtesy of his dad, probably. Little wonder Jesse was acting so sullen.

“Should of sank my shot,” he mumbled, balling up the empty can as if it was a Dixie Cup.

“Yeah, well, tough tits.” Creed turned to Tyler. “You ready for some pain, embryo?”

Tyler stepped forward and racked the balls. Above the smoke-clogged bar at the opposite end of the pool hall, the hands of the Budweiser clock crept toward 11:15.

Just got to keep them here another hour. Long enough to forget about the business with Scott.

Creed was probably a safe bet. He had his hot streak going, not to mention a steady forty-proof soak going on upstairs. Creed took another pull from a flask hidden inside his sleeveless jean jacket and began chalking his cue. Jesse was another matter. There was no telling what was going on behind those eyes — eyes that looked to Tyler like the quarry ponds they used to swim in off Tower Road, opaque and gray. And that’s what made Jesse dangerous. You never knew what he was thinking until it was too late. At least with his own brother, there was some warning.

Creed placed the cue ball off center. “Watch and learn.”

The balls scattered and two stripes sank. Creed’s eyes began to glint in their cunning way again.

Tyler took a long drag off his cigarette, not caring. He had no plans to best Creed tonight, no plans to break his ten-win streak, which would only get his brother thinking about breaking other things — like arms. Tyler still remembered the last time, two summers before. The dry-stick sound of Scott Spruel’s bone snapping inside Jesse’s grip. The way Scott had crumpled to the ground, his face white as ash.

“Whatsa matter?” Creed said from across the table. “Don’t want to watch your scrawny ass get run?”

Tyler opened his eyes, not realizing he’d closed them. Creed, who was stooped over his pool cue, grinned up at him. The table was naked of stripes.

“Side pocket,” Creed called.

He shot his stick forward at the same moment someone backed into him. The eight ball rattled above the pocket and rolled out. Creed straightened. The offender, a baby-faced redhead, continued to laugh and shout toward his own table, oblivious to what he’d done.

Tyler groaned. Couldn’t they go one night without Creed blowing his top? Tyler had already sized up the group, with their shiny jackets, moussed hair, and pegged jeans: college boys. Their numbers had swelled in the last hour, as had the wreckage of beer pitchers around them. The pool hall wasn’t a college joint. The regulars tended to drive pickup trucks and work in the body shops along Main Street, but Fraternity Row was only a couple blocks away, so that crowd would stumble in sometimes.

Through his blue-tinted glasses, Creed’s eyes shone bright. He wheeled and shoved the guy with both hands. Baby Face stumbled forward, the beer in his mug sloshing up. The brew was still dripping from his chubby jaw when he pushed himself up from his pool table and turned.

“What’s your problem?” He passed his glass to the guy behind him, eyes locked on Creed’s.

“You screwed up my shot,” Creed said.

“Oh, yeah?” Baby Face dried his jaw with his shoulder. “Well, I’m about to screw up more than that. Starting with your weasel face.”

The game at the other table had stopped, and six more guys joined Baby Face, three to each side. They could have manned the offensive line of a football team. Two of them wielded pool cues. They studied Creed, then turned their smirking attention to Tyler and Jesse. Tyler could tell these guys had brawled before, that they were confident their seven could handle the three misfits in front of them, even if one of them was the size of an industrial freezer.

Tyler stubbed out his cigarette in a chipped ashtray and glanced toward the door, hoping Gus had taken notice. But the bouncer stood with his back to them, chatting up a pair of rough-looking women.

“You fast?” Creed asked.

Baby Face’s eyes flicked around as if suspecting some trick. “Fast enough for you.”

Creed had slipped his right hand behind his back. Tyler didn’t have to look to know that blades were growing from his glove’s first finger and thumb. “Oh, really?” Creed grinned.

Baby Face cocked his head around at his friends as if to say, Are you hearing what I’m hearing? He turned back to Creed, his balled fist drawn back. “You started this. Just remember that when—”

Creed’s arm flashed. Buttons popped into the air.

“Wha—?” Baby Face hollered, staggering backward.

His silky shirt fell open in two flaps, like cheap drapery. A white line traced Baby Face’s torso from the top of his sternum down to his navel, where it became lost inside rust-colored coils of hair. Tyler let out his breath. Not a nick of blood. Creed’s blade had only scored his skin.

“Now get outta my face before this weasel decides to bite,” Creed warned.

Baby Face held the flaps of what had probably been an eighty-dollar shirt, still trying to comprehend what had happened. Creed struck a match and touched it to the cigarette he had snapped from behind his ear and placed between his lips. He turned through the plume of smoke and began resetting the cue ball and the eight ball, his point made.

“Creed!” Tyler shouted.

The blond varnish of a pool cue flashed under the hanging lamp. Jesse, who had been standing back, shot his arm out. The stick snapped inside his massive fist, the end nicking Creed’s bowler hat as it shot past.

Creed adjusted his hat and continued lining up his final shot.

The college guys looked at Jesse, then at one another. They backed away, the severed pool cue clanking to the ground. Baby Face remained, rouge patches breaking out over his cheeks. The flaps of his ruined shirt fell from his hands. “Oh, you’re gonna pay for that,” he said to the back of Creed’s head, his voice trembling. “Did you hear me, you son-of-a-whore?”

Creed paused mid-stroke, his smile withering. He stood and turned slowly. “What’d you say about my mother?”

Baby Face’s eyes brightened. He’d found Creed’s button.

“You heard me.” His mouth curled into a leering grin. “I heard she does it for food stamps.”

Tyler hurried around the table. He didn’t want to have to deal with the police again, didn’t want their mother to have to drive out to Alachua County holding in the middle of the night, the pouched skin beneath her eyes purple and damp. Barely fifteen, he already felt too old for that crap. He placed a hand on Creed’s shoulder and pulled. “C’mon, man, let’s go shoot somewhere else.”

Creed shrugged Tyler away at the same instant Baby Face drove his fist into Creed’s gut.

Creed dropped to one knee, grunting for air.

Baby Face moved in. “Not so tough now, are ya?”

Though the atmosphere of the pool hall was thick with exhaled smoke and beer spume, the air remained dry, thanks to the winter weather outside. Dry and charged. Tyler called that electricity to him until every hair on his body stiffened at the roots. Television static filled his ears.

But before Tyler could unleash the charge, Jesse seized Baby Face’s throat and lifted him above the hanging light. Baby Face pried and pounded at Jesse’s fingers. His eyes swelled to the size of Ping-Pong balls.

Jesse stared back, unblinking. He cocked his other fist.

Tyler winced. A Jesse Hoag haymaker would send this guy the length of the pool hall and probably through the plate-glass window. No telling how many bones would be spared, if any.

Gus stormed through the circle of onlookers, a vein throbbing beneath the black bandana that capped his baldness. “Drop him,” he ordered, his salt-and-pepper goatee bristling.

Jesse’s dull eyes shifted toward the bouncer.

“Now!” Gus said, aiming his finger downward.

Jesse opened his fist.

Baby Face collapsed to the ground. He backpedaled on hands and feet toward his buddies, who helped him up. “Freaks, man,” he gasped. “You’re all a bunch of… of lowlife freaks.” The group turned and made for the door. Tyler could see in their backward glances they wouldn’t be coming back here. Baby Face was propped up between them like a fighter tangled in the ropes after a TKO loss. “Freaks,” he mouthed, his eyes wide and spacey.

Creed, who had recovered his air, screamed after him, “I could’ve gutted you!”

Gus jerked his thumb toward the back door. “I want you out of here.”

Tyler realized that the pool hall had gone quiet only when the murmurs and clacks of balls started up again.

“What are you talking about?” Jesse said. “It’s us.”

“Yeah, and you’re not even supposed to be in here, legally. But I know your pops, so I do it as a favor. Figure it helps keep you kids off the streets. He tells me the kind of trouble you get into. So I give you a pass, but on the condition you not cause friction. I say that every time, don’t I? No friction. What happened just now, that was friction. So take a hike.”

Jesse grunted.

Gus headed toward his stool beside the front door. “Come back in a month,” he called over his shoulder. “If you’re not in prison by then.”

“Shit,” Creed muttered, snatching up his hat from the floor.

Out in the parking lot, Jesse leaned against his car and appeared to contemplate the distant burn of stars. Creed finished off the last of his Jim Beam and threw the flask against the brick wall of the pool hall. The flask sparked and then crashed into a heap of beer cans near the dumpster. Tyler turned up the collar on his jean jacket and dug around his pockets for a cigarette before remembering he’d smoked the last one inside. Probably just as well. He blew warm air into his cupped hands and stamped his feet. Denim was crap insulation against the cold.

“So you guys wanna go shoot somewhere else? Over at Silver Q, maybe?” He had managed to sneak a final look at the clock on their way out. Still thirty more minutes before Scott would be in the clear.

“You’d think we’d get some respect by now,” Creed said to the ground, his hands shoved into the pockets of his too-tight imitation leathers. “But nothing. Not at school. Not from Gus. Not from those guys. I could’ve sliced that preppie reject ten ways. Don’t he know that? And what does he do? Waits for Tyler to distract me and then sucker punches me in the stomach.”

Tyler thought of all the people Creed himself had sucker punched over the years.

Creed’s lips wrinkled into a snarl as he yanked open the passenger’s side door. “C’mon, Jess. Let’s find those guys and finish the job.”

Jesse sighed and opened the driver’s side door, but he was shaking his squat, grease-slicked head at the same time. “We’ve got other business.”

Creed screwed up his face. “What other business?”

“Scott Spruel. He owes us an arm.”

Shit, thought Tyler.

Understanding dawned on Creed’s face. “Oh, yeah… The smart-ass who screwed with our phones and gave me the finger.” He levered the seat forward for Tyler to get in back. “Well, what are we waiting for?”

Tyler opened his mouth to protest, but he had seen in the rock-hard opacity of Jesse’s gaze that the matter was already settled. And if it was settled for Jesse, it was settled for Creed. By the time Tyler climbed into the backseat of the Chevelle, kicking past crumpled Whopper boxes, the engine was roaring to life. The stink of oil filled the car. Metallica’s Kill ’Em All screamed from the speakers. Creed giggled. A streetlight shone down through Tyler’s window. Through the crappy tint job, the light appeared brown and hopeless.

Just like everything else.

2

Spruel household

One hour earlier

10:46 p.m.

A final burst of sparks splattered against Scott’s face shield. He set down the acetylene torch and pushed the welder’s mask onto the top of his sweat-soaked head. Squinting past coils of smoke, he regarded his work. It isn’t pretty. He turned the helmet one way and then the other. But prototypes rarely are.

He set it down on the workbench and lifted the piece he had finished that afternoon — The Backpack. But this wasn’t his JanSport. Scott examined the metal box and harness, the fastening system fashioned from the straps of a life preserver he’d found among his father’s junk. In one of her softer moments, his mother had given his dad an extension on cleaning out the garage — which was a reprieve for Scott, as well. The same junk concealed his workshop.

Not that he had to worry about being found back here tonight. His parents were attending the Habscombs’ New Year’s Eve party, his mother in a weird Mondrian-inspired dress, his father stuffed inside the ruffled brown tuxedo he’d worn at their wedding some twenty years before. His mother had carped about the tux’s odor all the way to the car, but if New Year’s Eve parties past were anything to go by, they’d be giggling in each other’s arms when they stumbled through the front door sometime after one in the morning.

Scott just hoped they wouldn’t be stumbling home to a son in need of an orthopedic surgeon.

He lifted the pack over his shoulders and fastened the yellowing straps across his chest. The homemade pack felt snug, the metal harness helping to distribute the weight of the car battery, where a pair of wires dangled. He would attach the wires to the most critical component when — and if — Wayne decided to show.

Scott held up his digital wristwatch. “Where are you?”

Frowning, he removed the welder’s mask. Counting on his best friend (and frequent rival) was always a dicey proposition. But the choice was Wayne or no one. And it was his own fault for waiting so long to get started. He’d only begun sketching out the suit’s plans the night before.

It seemed incredible, but since school had let out more than a week before, his date with Jesse Hoag had not been foremost on his mind. No, he’d taken the big questions regarding the Leonards’ warning (don’t let them see; don’t let them know) and the switchboard controlling Oakwood’s phone system and turned detective. He thought about how he’d started small, observing traffic patterns in and out of the neighborhood, looking for anything out of the ordinar—

Scott froze.

Inside the house, J.R. had begun to bark. The storm door to the garage scuffed closed. Scott set the backpack aside and cut the light. He stood with one hand against the door jamb and listened into the floor-to-ceiling junk heap. A footstep sounded and then the slither of something being dragged. The card table. Someone was moving the card table that hid his tunnel entrance.

Wayne?

No, he had specifically told Wayne to call out when he got here and not to touch anything. Scott tiptoed toward the bend in the tunnel. The diffusion of light and shadow indicated that whoever it was had moved the card table out of the way. Scott imagined the intruder stooping to contemplate the low space. Scott had modified the tunnel so a person had to crawl a couple of feet before being able to stand. The arrangement was inconvenient, but that was the point. Better to hide his workshop by.

Hands and knees whispered over the smooth cement floor. The thought of calling out a “Hello?” crossed Scott’s mind, but what if the person didn’t answer? Could he cope with that kind of horror? At the same moment his mouth went dry, his mind went to the acetylene torch in the workshop. It wouldn’t throw much of a flame, but it would make a decent enough weapon.

A weapon? You’re already thinking weapons?

After everything that had happened in the last month, yeah, why not? After all, there had been the disaster at the Leonards’, when Mr. Leonard had nearly caught Scott in his basement and then stabbed Janis; the switchboard over Oakwood’s phone system, which still created a delay on all inbound and outbound calls; and, of course, the cameras. Several had pointed at the Graystones’ house before the police dismantled them, but Scott wasn’t thinking about those. He was thinking about the ones he had found aimed at his own house.

The whispering stopped.[_ Thud!_]

“Crapola!” came a voice.

Scott exhaled, rolling his eyes. He found Wayne in the half light, wincing and rubbing the back of his head. He’d cracked it on the end of the French door that propped up the low tunnel.

“Son of a succubus,” Wayne muttered.

“You were supposed to holler when you got here.”

“You said that was hard to find.” Wayne jerked his thumb back toward the opening. “That was child’s play. Helen Keller could have found it in her sleep. In fact, I’m surprised she hasn’t yet.”

So that was it. Wayne wanted to prove he could find the secret tunnel.

“Did you bring it?” Scott eyed the forest-green backpack hanging from Wayne’s shoulder.

Wayne stroked his frayed mustache and chuckled.

“C’mon,” Scott sighed. “I’ll show you what I’ve got back here.”

When they reached the metal shop, Wayne made a show of appearing unimpressed. He wandered around naming the equipment in a tired voice, suggesting he had spent more time than he’d cared to in metal shops and had since moved on to other things. He laughed as he looked over the two pieces of the suit. At the backpack, he held up the wires dangling from the car battery.

“Do you have a baby brother?” he asked. “Cause it looks like he’s been playing around back here.”

Scott touched the helmet, making sure it was cool, then held it out so Wayne could see the inside. “It’s bulky, but I built the receptacle to the dimensions you gave me over the phone.”

“We’ll see about that.”

From his backpack, Wayne pulled out his science fair project from the year before, a “tube laser.” It looked like a sawed-off fluorescent bulb, but when powered, it emitted a bright beam along its length. Wayne had shot the laser through some gases to prove something or other, impressing the judges sufficiently to send him to the regional and state levels of competition. All well and commendable, but what mattered most to Scott was the laser itself. He had to restrain himself from reaching, knowing Wayne would either pull the laser away or, more likely, slap his hand. In an hour, Scott would be standing face to face with Jesse Hoag, and he still wasn’t sure the laser would fit, much less work. That the tube would emit a laser, he had little doubt. It was Wayne’s baby, after all. But all by its lonesome, the beam wasn’t much good to him. He had something else in mind.

Wayne edged himself between Scott and the workbench. “Stand aside, numb nuts.”

Scott could only watch as his friend fit the tube into the helmet, inserted the box-shaped power supply beside it, and twisting the wire filaments, attached the power supply to the car battery. The components fit snugly inside the receptacles, which eased Scott’s breathing. Retrofitting the design would have cost him in time and nerves — and he was equally low on both.

“Never doubt my genius,” Wayne proclaimed, as if reading his thoughts. Wayne stood back from the pack and wiggled his fingers. “Now, if you could kindly help me don the suit.”

Scott clenched and relaxed his fists. It was the price for Wayne’s help, he supposed — first dibs on wearing it. That and half his Avengers collection, even though the laser was just a loaner.

“Yeah, but only for a second, all right?”

The harness swam over Wayne’s narrow torso, but Wayne didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy pulling the helmet with the newly installed laser over his face and securing the chin strap. The helmet bobbled on Wayne’s head as he peered around, making him look less like the X-Men’s Cyclops, which Scott had been shooting for, naturally, and more like a bug-eyed creature from the planet Dorkus.

Wayne’s small, smudged-in eyes peeked from the slitted opening below the tube laser. He held his finger over a hole at the right temple, where the power switch was seated.

“Ready…” Wayne said, “set…” The laser crackled white, then hummed to life. A moment later, a red beam, paper-thin, shot from the visor and landed against the aluminum wall above the workbench. “Beeyow!” he cried.

The bright line followed Wayne’s gaze as he turned this way and that.

Scott stood back. “Just don’t aim it at my”—

Wayne snapped the beam around to Scott’s — “face,” Scott finished, throwing up his forearm.

“Wicked!” Wayne said, forgetting his tired conceit. “Beeyow!” He whipped the beam at a cabinet, then he knelt and shot it at the lathe.

“Careful, you’re jiggling the battery.”

“Beeyow!” He shot the beam at Scott’s face again.

The beam didn’t hurt and wasn’t even warm. In fact, Scott wouldn’t have known it was on him except for the red glare beyond his clenched eyelids. He groped for Wayne. “All right, that’s enough. Give it back.”

Wayne giggled and slipped beneath Scott’s reach. Scott opened his eyes to find him shooting the beam into the wood shop. Ten minutes later, and only after Scott had given up his pursuit, Wayne clicked off the laser and lifted the helmet from his sweating head. Excitement dilated his pupils.

“So that’s it?” he asked, panting. “That’s the emergency? You needed my laser so you could run around pretending to be a superhero?”

“I’m going to tinker with it a little,” Scott answered carefully. He waited for Wayne to unbuckle the harness before lifting the pack from his narrow shoulders and setting the contraption out of reach. “See if I can’t give it a little punch.”

Wayne shook his head. “Can’t be done. Not with anything you’ve got in here.”

Not with anything you know about, Scott wanted to shoot back. But he had learned his lesson last summer when he’d bragged about his hack into Army Information Systems Command. Wayne had refused to talk to him for more than a month, placing Craig and Chun, Scott’s other best friends, under gag orders. Scott wanted to avoid a repeat if he could help it.

“But go ahead, knock yourself out. If nothing else, your attempts will amuse… me, that is. Just remember” — Wayne tapped the tube laser — “your lease is up at the end of January. If you need an extension, we’ll talk more comics. Now, speaking of said comics, I believe you owe me a certain cache of a certain series.”

He was back to stroking his mustache.

“Yeah, yeah,” Scott said, but he was more than glad to lead Wayne inside the house and away from the laser. He checked his watch again. 11:22. Which meant he would have about twenty minutes to test his theory.

  • * *

Scott’s breath made mist of the cold air as he ran from his subdivision. He switched the helmet with the newly installed laser to his other arm, the battery pack bouncing on his back. He was almost to Oakwood’s main intersection when the first isolated pops of firecrackers echoed from the adjacent neighborhoods.

Damn.

It had taken him longer to get rid of Wayne than he’d planned. Wayne had tried to negotiate up for more comics, and Scott had finally thrown in a couple of Fantastic Fours. By the time Wayne had headed home, it was nearly quarter till — not enough time to test anything.

You’ll just have to trust that your idea is going to fly.

He considered the implications of ducking out, but Jesse’s warning brought him back to his senses: You don’t show, and it’s gonna be both arms when we catch you. And a leg.

But there was also the pact he’d made with himself at the beginning of the school year. The promise to evolve from Stiletto the slinking thief to someone like the X-Men’s Scott Summers, a leader. Changes had followed: new clothes, new look, healthy physique. But more importantly, a healthier persona. Someone who would no longer hide behind a computer in a dark bedroom.

Scott paused at the intersection of Oakwood’s three subdivisions, the last place he’d seen Janis before the stabbing. And now he saw the heel of her Ked beyond a doorway, her hair spread over the pale carpet, like spilled tomato juice, the ceramic shard buried deep in her rib cage.

He had collapsed to her side with the numb certainty that she was gone, that he’d lost her. But her glassy eyes shifted at his voice. And when he squeezed her hand, she squeezed back. The grasp of her fingers had been the most special feeling in the world. Even more so, somehow, than the kiss she would plant on his cheek eleven days later before leaving for Denver.

So, see you in 1985?

The two weeks since she’d spoken those words felt like two years. Scott would die before telling anyone, but each night in bed, he had stared at the comic book she’d given him, Uncanny X-Men #137, the cover depicting Scott Summers and Jean Grey fighting side by side. He would pretend he and Janis occupied those characters, and before snapping out his light, he would touch his lips to her image, close his eyes, and press the issue to his chest, imagining her head rested there.

At the top of the hill, he passed the sign that marked the entrance to the Grove. The field with the giant oak tree and playground spread out to his right, illuminated by a three-quarter moon. He slowed to a walk, thighs burning, lungs heaving for air. No Chevelle, not yet. Maybe they wouldn’t show.

Yeah, dream on.

He cut across the field, toward the swings he and Janis had sat on the night they’d walked there and talked about their powers. The night they’d discovered they weren’t alone after all. Grass gave way to mulch beneath his shoes. He hitched the helmet under his arm and fingered the thick chains of the swings, hoping to draw some courage from whatever lingered of that night.

He left the playground, aiming for the dark sweep of woods below. A sustained burst of fireworks flashed and punctured the sky over the neighborhood behind Oakwood, the sound like the hollow thuds of a firing squad.

So long, 1984.

At the edge of the trees, Scott stopped to listen into the Grove. No approaching cars.

He donned his helmet anyway and secured the chin strap, his view shrinking to a sliver of night. He held out his hands like a kid playing blind man’s bluff. The path fell and wound a short distance and then opened into a kidney-shaped clearing. Scott walked through the same spot where Creed had grabbed the back of his shirt two summers before and hauled him to a stop. He had tried to plead, his words becoming strangulated gasps as Creed placed him in a chokehold, giggling.

Bring him over here, Jesse had said as he plodded into the clearing. Let’s see how well he pulls his bullshit phone pranks with one arm.

Now, as the final pops of firecrackers faded, giggles drifted through the clearing again, like a leak from Scott’s memory. He peered behind him, a tomb opening in the pit of his stomach. Another path dropped into the woods, Scott remembered. Were he to follow that path out of the woods, up to the far side of the Grove, he suspected he would find the black Chevelle parked on the dark end of the street, its engine knocking as it cooled.

More giggles floated past him.

Scott fumbled for the laser’s power switch. A branch snapped, and two slender shadows separated from the trees into the clearing’s two paths. He couldn’t make out their faces, but he didn’t have to. The shadows belonged to Creed and Tyler Bast. They advanced, steering Scott toward the center of the clearing.

“You came,” said a bass voice.

Scott wheeled around. From the clearing’s opposite end, a giant shadow lumbered toward him.

The giggles behind Scott assumed a voice: “Go on, Jess, break his fucking arm.”

Scott ordered his quivering legs to stand their ground. He wasn’t the hapless boy of two summers before. He reached up to his helmet and punched the laser’s power switch. The laser crackled white, playing over the thick folds of Jesse’s face like a strobe light, and then died.

3

Five minutes earlier

Firecrackers thudded, dull and cold, through the trees. Tyler clenched his chattering jaw, wishing again he had a cigarette or at least a warmer jacket. But what he wished for most was to be home in front of their black-and-white television, watching the ball drop in Times Square. Growing up, he’d always heard other kids talking about watching “the ball drop” but had only seen it for the first time three years before, when he had been twelve — too young to be out with Creed and Jesse but too old to be in bed.

His mother had been sitting on the couch beside him, a half-smoked cigarette between her fingers, an old brown afghan covering their legs. This is what families do, he thought as the ball touched down and a smiling Dick Clark wished them a happy new year. Of course his father still hadn’t come home yet, which helped.

“Yeah, and a happy new year to you, Dick,” his mother said back to the television and cackled smoke.

Tyler laughed with her.

His mother turned, her straw-colored hair up in a messy ponytail. “I’m only allowed to say it because that’s his name, you understand?” She squeezed Tyler’s cheeks until his mouth squished, fishlike, and they both laughed some more. It was the liveliest she’d been in months, light sparkling in her brown eyes. He could see that she’d been pretty once.

He play-wrestled with her hand until she let go. She set her smoldering cigarette in an ashtray on the stained end table and lifted a McDonald’s glass, one featuring Officer Big Mac in pursuit of the Hamburgler. She swirled what remained of her brown liquor as she looked into it, gravity pouching the skin of her cheeks, the light leaving her eyes. When she caught Tyler watching her, she seemed to think for a moment and then held the glass out for him.

“I guess a little nip couldn’t hurt,” she said. “What the hell.”

The television backlit the rim of the glass, revealing pink lip smudges. When Tyler took it, a sweet, sickly draft came off its mouth. He tilted the glass to his own mouth and pretended to swallow before handing it back to his mother.

“To health, wealth, and the death of taxes!” she proclaimed, ruffling his hair. “And that’s all you’re getting.”

Tyler licked the sugary burn from his lips. His mother finished the drink in a quick tilt and then collapsed into the corner of the couch as if the effort had exhausted her. Soon, her eyelids fluttered closed and her breaths deepened.

Tyler straightened the afghan over her lap. Maybe it was the late hour or their solitude, but he felt peace in their closeness, in the black-and-white glow of the television — fuzzy images of reverie, pronouncements of new beginnings. Their house was silent, for a change. Tyler thought he could hear the tension relaxing from the walls, the anger slipping deeper into the cracks around the baseboards.

But within minutes, his father’s truck rip-roared up the street, lights and shadows playing beyond the red drapes. A bush along the driveway snapped. The shine of headlights hit the front window head on, seeming to set the drapes on fire. Tyler shrank down and looked at his mother. When the truck door slammed, her eyes shot open, a frightened sound caught in her throat—

“Shhh.” Creed’s thin giggle returned him to the clearing. “He’s coming.”

Tyler peeked around the tree Creed had ordered him to hide behind. His brother was hidden several yards away, beside the other path. Somewhere across the clearing, Jesse stood, waiting. Leaves crunched under someone’s tentative footsteps. And now Tyler could see fragments of a moving shadow.

Damn it.

Dread kicked him in his stomach. Probably nothing compared to the five-member metal band that would be stomping around in Scott’s guts about now. Returning to the place where he’d had his arm broken, knowing he was signing up to have the other one snapped — that took balls.

But Tyler didn’t intend for anything to happen. Not tonight.

Ever since he’d seen Scott on the ground, clutching his flaccid arm, his face ashen, Tyler had been looking out for him. Small stuff mostly, like spotting Scott before Jesse and Creed and distracting them. He’d done that on the first day of school back in August, when he’d seen Scott hiding behind the bush above the bus stop. And then later in the day, when Scott had been in line at the food truck. Both times, Tyler’s diversions had worked. Creed had been the one to spot him the following month when they’d cornered him in the tennis courts.

From the darkness, Creed’s giggles rose like a specter, halting Scott in his tracks.

Tyler heard his brother stand, but Tyler stepped out into the path first, snapping a twig beneath his shoe to give Scott some warning. Scott twisted toward the sound. He was wearing what looked like a crude space suit, but Tyler could tell by his stance that he understood the situation. Like at the tennis courts, he was cornered.

“You came,” Jesse said.

Creed’s laughter sounded as sharp as his blades. “Go on, Jess, break his fucking arm.”

Jesse stalked toward Scott, whose hand had gone to his helmet. The clearing flashed white, as though someone was snapping a series of Polaroids. Jesse squinted against the sudden brightness. Then the clearing fell dark again. If Scott had been trying to blind Jesse, no dice.

Jesse rose over him, his hands balling into fists.

“W-wait,” Scott sputtered.

“For what?” Jesse said. “This was the deal.”

“I have another offer.”

Creed stopped laughing. “Another offer? What are you, a Corleone?”

Scott held his hands up while stepping from Jesse’s reach. “You’re right. We made a deal, and I’m holding up my end. I’m here. But things have happened since we last talked. I have information.” The big helmet peered around. “Information that involves all of us. What I’m asking in exchange — what I’m suggesting — is that you not break my arm.”

He and Jesse continued their slow dance, Scott backing away in a circle, Jesse plodding forward. Every so often, Scott’s hand would go back to his helmet. He cussed under his breath and fussed with what looked like a wire dangling between the helmet and backpack.

Blades stretched from Creed’s glove. “Enough of this shit.”

Glee no longer lifted his brother’s voice. He sounded like their father the nights he would stagger home late and hammer on their locked bedroom doors. You don’t open this door this inshtunt, he would shout,[_ and I’m gonna kick it in and… and murder whoever’s inside_]. By agreement, Creed and Tyler took turns taking their lumps, just as long as it wasn’t their mother. She had suffered enough.

Hearing his brother now, Tyler thought a broken arm would be among the better outcomes tonight.

“Wait.” Tyler caught up to him and grabbed the wrist with the glove. Creed had only been walking, not “slicing through space,” as he called it — here one second, there the next — like earlier that night in the pool hall when he had slashed open Baby Face’s shirt.

Creed glared at him. “What’re you doing?”

“Just wait a minute.” Tyler whispered. “Let him talk.”

“After what he did to our phone?” He twisted his arm from Tyler and shoved him, both motions so quick — almost simultaneous — that Tyler landed on the seat of his jeans before realizing he’d even fallen. “He can talk all he wants after we’re done with him. Now get back to the path.”

Tyler focused into the air, gathering atmospheric electricity to his hands. The others didn’t know about his power. He’d only used it around them once, when Jesse was crushing Scott’s neck at the tennis courts. The air was humid that day, almost too humid, but Tyler used the metal fence to concentrate and conduct what charge he could gather. Jesse had grumbled over his burnt hand for weeks, puzzling over what the hell had happened.

“S-stop right there, Creed,” Scott said.

“Or what?”

Tyler aimed his hand at his brother’s back.

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

The clearing flashed white again, but not from Tyler’s hand. A thin beam shot from Scott’s helmet, silhouetting Creed in red light. Creed and Jesse drew back. Tyler lowered his arm, thinking he might not have to use his powers, after all. Scott had come prepared with… something.

“Nice try,” Creed said, his red-lit face looking from the beam to Scott, “but that don’t even tickle.”

Or not.

4

“S-stop right there, Creed.” Scott was unable to suppress a tremor in his throat, but he’d located the problem. The wire to the laser’s power supply had fallen loose around one of the battery leads. With sweat-slick fingers, he coiled it as tightly as he could while backing away from Jesse and Creed.

“Or what?” Creed said. Slender blades glinted from his fingers as he angled nearer.

Scott probed along the side of his helmet. If the laser failed him this time, he was dead. He found the switch, said a small prayer, and pressed it. The laser crackled and shot to life.

Creed looked down at his chest where the red beam struck through the word ANTHRAX. The lenses of his glasses shone red. He seemed to hesitate. A second later, his razor-thin lips split into a grin.

“Nice try, but that don’t even tickle.”

“No?” Scott focused his energy along the line where the laser emerged from the tube. “Well, maybe this will.”

Scott had discovered his special ability to navigate telecommunication lines as a budding phone phreaker and later computer hacker. But when he shorted what he’d believed to be a federal tap in November and the magnetic seal in the Leonards’ shed weeks later, Scott discovered something else: his powers could be used offensively. All he needed was a medium, something to conduct his energy.

Enter Wayne’s tube laser.

Scott staggered as he let go. A pulse shot the length of the beam. Creed had enough time to scream before being hurled the width of the clearing. Foliage crunched as he disappeared into the trees.

Holy crap, it worked!

Scott had put the percent chance of shattering Wayne’s tube laser at somewhere north of eighty. But not only had the energy pulse followed the path of the beam, sparing the tube, it had taken Creed out of commission. Way out. Scott swung the red beam around, hoping to repeat the feat. But Jesse was no longer there.

“Behind you, sport.”

Boughs of pine needles consumed Scott’s view, and in the next instant, a tree crashed into him. Scott tumbled backward, acid sloshing inside the car battery. He flopped to a rest in the center of the clearing. The laser’s beam projected overhead, fading into the night sky. Scott sat up and performed a quick self assessment: nothing damaged.

Pushing himself to his feet, he peered around. He didn’t have far to look. Jesse stood on the edge of the clearing in a batter’s stance, the fifteen-foot tall slash pine he’d uprooted cocked over one shoulder.

“You made a big mistake,” Jesse said, grunting into his next swing.

Scott threw up his hands. “Wait, wait!”

But the tree was already sweeping toward him. Scott bent at the waist, throwing his torso nearly to the ground. Boughs whacked over him. The trunk nicked the battery pack, spewing bits of bark. Scott rolled with the blow, pressed himself to his feet, and scrambled toward the trees. He was a sitting duck out in the open.

When he turned, his laser lit up Jesse’s face.

Scott concentrated his energy along the tube for another blast, but Jesse grunted and swung. Wind screamed through the tree’s needles. Scott threw himself into the woods and thudded against the limb-littered earth. The swing missed high. Trees cracked and toppled in its wake, falling over him.

When the last limbs settled, Scott opened his eyes. He wasn’t crushed, thank God, just buried. He clicked off the laser and lay still.

If I play possum, maybe he’ll think I’m hurt. Maybe he’ll leave.

Out in the clearing, something crashed to the ground. Scott imaged Jesse tossing off his tree trunk.

“I don’t get you,” Jesse said, almost sadly. “We work out a fair deal, and you pull something like this.”

Scott’s shelter shook. He didn’t have to peek up to know that Jesse was excavating him. Something in Jesse’s determination told Scott that even if Jesse believed him unconscious — or dead — he’d still break his arm. A deal was a deal.

“Wait, listen to me,” Scott pled. “We’re being watched, all of us. That’s what I came to tell you.”

Jesse paused. “Who’s watching?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Jesse sighed, and the collapsed timber resumed shaking. Debris rained down on Scott’s helmet.

“But I think it has to do with what happened to Janis,” he said quickly. “With — with the Leonards and all of that.”

Scott pushed the helmet up his brow and shone the soft light of his wristwatch around. Branches and sap-oozing trunks faced him on all sides. More debris fell as Jesse yanked away another limb. Scott twisted onto his stomach and spotted his best chance for escape: a low opening toward the deeper woods. Using his elbows, he began to wriggle toward it.

“Our phones are being monitored,” he called over his shoulder, trying to project his voice backward. “All of Oakwood, in fact. I checked. Yours, Creed’s, the Graystones’, mine. Some kind of a switchboard over the neighborhood.”

Jesse continued to work but had slowed his pace.

“And — and you remember the cameras on Janis’s house? Did you hear about that? Well, last week, I found a camera pointed at mine. I’m betting there’s some on you guys’s, too. That’s one of the things I’m offering in exchange for my arm. To check it out for you.”

The rustling stopped.

Last Saturday, Scott had gone out the front door with a pair of binoculars and a tattered bird book he’d found among his father’s junk. He made a show of flipping through the glossy illustrations before pressing the binoculars to his glasses. The camera appeared on the first pass, in the same streetlight that illuminated his bedroom blinds at night. He glassed the streetlight again to be sure. The camera was small, pencil thin, but it was there. Watching.

Scott pretended to consult the book while probing the camera with his mind. The camera was wireless, its signal scattering off in all directions. Had a monitor beneath the Leonards’ shed once received the signal, rendering it into black-and-white images? Is that what the toggle switches on the panel had done, changed cameras? Scott had found four more cameras that day.

“Why would someone be watching?” Jesse asked.

“Our powers. I think someone’s interested in our powers.”

“Powers?”

“Listen to me, Jesse.” Scott turned sideways, slipping beneath a limb that had snagged the car battery. “Your strength — haven’t you ever wondered where that comes from? You just uprooted a tree, for Pete’s sake. Or Creed’s speed?”

Or my ability to navigate electronic mediums? Or Janis’s to wield astral energies.

“If this is another trick…”

“It’s not.” Scott swept aside a branch. “But we have to come to some kind of an agreement before I tell you any more.”

“The arm business comes first,” Jesse said. “That’s the deal. Then we talk.”

“Yeah, well, I’m going to need my arm.”

“That part’s not negotiable.”

Scott wriggled free and peered backward. Jesse’s head and shoulders hulked over the collapse. Scott groped for the laser’s power button. No, too dangerous. Jesse would spot him the second he turned it on. And in the time it would take for Scott to gather enough juice for a blast, Jesse could bring a tree down on his head. Scott pressed himself to his feet.

“Now, are you gonna honor the agreement, or am I gonna have to enforce it myself?” Jesse asked the collapse. “We shook on it.”

[_That’s what you call crushing my wrist? _]But Scott stayed low and silent.

“You have until three to answer me.”

Scott backed deeper into the woods.

“One… two…”

On “three,” Jesse’s fist crashed down. Scott’s former shelter imploded. Bits of debris clanking off his metal suit, Scott hurried through the trees. Behind him, Jesse began digging through the wreckage, casting limbs away.

Scott emerged onto the lip of the clearing, beside the path he’d come in by. Jesse was still half in and half out of the woods, his backside heaving like the tail end of a VW bus. Scott slid his gaze to the hole across the clearing where Creed had disappeared. Thin moans issued from the darkness. He’s alive, anyway. Scott searched for Tyler. Not finding him, he made for the path.

There you are.”

Scott spun as Jesse began his charge. Tremors radiated through the earth, up Scott’s legs, and into his quaking bladder. No way he could outrun Jesse, not strapped to a car battery and a ten-pound helmet.

He pressed the laser’s power switch. Nothing happened.

Shit on a stick.

A second later, the tube crackled and blinked on. The red shaft landed on Jesse’s swaying breasts. Scott narrowed his gaze as he concentrated into the tube laser. His consciousness compressed along its length, as though his skull was being hand cranked through an old-fashioned wringer. And then he was inside the conductive channel.

Jesse’s rumbling approach grew louder.

Scott focused his energy along the near end of the beam, watching the orb in his mind’s eye shift from red to orange. A subpar blast would slow Jesse but not stop him. White spots began to blot out Scott’s vision.

A moment longer…

Scott was dimly aware of his legs folding. A fist swooped past his face, knuckles grazing his chin. The pulse released, shooting the length of the beam. The battery cracked between the ground and Scott’s back. The cottony feeling in his mouth dissolved like pink carnival candy, and his vision expanded.

Above him, Jesse swayed.

Must’ve caught him under the chin, Scott thought dimly.

Almost too late, he yelped and threw himself from Jesse’s path. A leaf-blasting whump sounded behind him at the same instant pain stabbed through his left arm. He twisted around to find Jesse facedown. A booming snore stretched the army fatigue jacket over his back, then rumbled from his flapping lips. The red beam followed Scott’s gaze down to where his left arm disappeared beneath Jesse’s stomach.

Great.

Scott winced and tried to retract his arm. The sensation of ground glass made him stop. He worked his legs around, planting the bottom of one sneaker against Jesse’s hip and wedging the other sneaker deep inside the fold of his armpit. Scott turned off the laser.

All right. _]He clasped his trapped arm above the elbow. Took a breath. [_Ready… set…

He rocked to build some momentum, then heaved with both legs, managing to turn Jesse’s body a few degrees, and drew his arm free. Scott fell back to the ground, cradling the arm to his chest. Iciness throbbed through the tissue, as if he’d rescued it from arctic waters. Scott flexed his fingers, rotated his wrist, and palpated his forearm. Not a compound fracture, not this time. But he knew a broken bone when he felt one.

He staggered to his feet, the threat of nausea needling his throat. He looked down at Jesse and then out at the clearing, empty now save for the cast-off tree. The nausea dissipated, leaving behind a cold constellation of sweat.

“They got their arm after all,” he mumbled as he limped up the path. “But a little different than the last time, eh?”

In his half-shocked state, he began to chuckle. The woods around him — and all that had happened inside them — felt unreal, like something out of a comic book. His chuckles swelled into laughter. Jesse Hoag was felled, all four hundred ugly pounds of him; Creed Bast, the giggling demon, was demolished somewhere; and Tyler—

Scott’s laughter ended as if severed by a sword stroke. He lowered his throbbing arm, fumbled for the laser’s power switch, and aimed at the thin silhouette in front of him. But no sooner had he clicked the switch than a hand closed over it. The laser blinked, lighting up a charcoal-colored denim jacket buttoned to the throat. Then a white flare erupted, and sparks spewed from the power supply. A flash of heat seared the side of Scott’s face.

The laser blinked again and died.

Darkness blinded Scott. The afterimage of Tyler’s bleached hair and haunting blue eyes stained his retinas. Scott raised his good forearm and stumbled back, expecting a hail of blows.

“I-I only wanted to talk to them,” Scott stuttered.

“Just get out of here.”

Scott didn’t need to be told twice. He stumbled past Tyler’s voice and then stopped, a memory surfacing. He pushed his helmet up onto his head. Tyler’s silhouette stood out against the moon-pale trees, still and watchful. “That day at the tennis courts,” Scott said. “That was you, wasn’t it? You sent a charge through the fence, but it was to get Jesse off me.”

Down the bending path, Jesse snorted and sputtered against the ground.

“Go on, man,” Tyler said. “Before he wakes up.”

“Why? Why did you help me?”

“I had my reasons.”

“Well… thanks.”

“Hey, were you serious about the cameras?”

“Yeah, I was.”

Tyler stood with his hands in his jacket pockets, shoulders shrugged against the midnight cold. He looked as though he was going to say something more but turned and sauntered back toward the clearing.

Scott watched him disappear before crossing the field and heading home.

5

Denver, Colorado

Tuesday, January 1, 1985

1:33 a.m.

The shard that penetrated Janis Graystone in her dreams was never the cruel detonation she had felt in waking life. No, in her dreams — as in this one — the stab was an icy pressure, one that turned her dream body rigid and insensate.

Strong hands helped her to the carpeted floor. They held her shoulder for a moment. “Lay low until I contact you.” She could not see his eyes, just the top of his yellow-tinted glasses, moving with the words. He stood back. His footfalls fell off behind her. A car door opened and closed. An engine rumbled, and that sound, too, diminished and disappeared.

Janis lay in the front hallway, alone. Her breaths slipped in and out of lungs that would no longer expand. She thinned her breaths and curled a finger beneath the cool chain at her neck, pulling until the small crucifix fell from her shirt collar. She closed her hand around her father’s gift. And to think that he and the rest of her family were just a backyard away.

So close.

She raised her gaze to the littered hallway, where she had blown the bathroom door to pieces — then raised it farther to where Mrs. Leonard was propped against a chair in the kitchen, the right breast of her gown black with blood, one arm twisted across her body.

I’m sorry, Janis wanted to tell her, but she couldn’t inhale through the powder and must of the house. I’m so sorry.

“Don’t let them see,” Mrs. Leonard said in a high, clear voice. “Don’t let them know.”

Who? Janis mouthed.

Mrs. Leonard raised her good arm and pointed beyond Janis. The yellowing sleeve of her gown shuddered. From behind Janis, footsteps approached. Relief welled inside her like an updraft of clean air.

It’s all right, she wanted to tell Mrs. Leonard. It’s my friend. It’s Scott.

Yes, he had come to find her. Soon, he would lie in front of her, and she wouldn’t have to see the ruin of the hallway or the terrible thing she had done to Mrs. Leonard. He would take her hand. He would tell her to stay awake, say that help was coming.

He would—

But Mrs. Leonard jerked her head side to side, her eyes growing wider, whiter. And Janis realized that the footsteps weren’t Scott’s. They were deliberate and heavy. And a smell pushed ahead of them, a smell from another dream. A toxic smell of death and incineration.

“It’s them,” Mrs. Leonard said.

The footfalls stopped. A burning shadow fell over Janis in the shape of a giant mushroom cloud.

Janis’s eyes opened to darkness, terror ringing between her ears. She raised her head. The shadows around her resolved themselves into an antique dresser and lamp, a standing mirror, and a wooden trunk — all of them crowding the small downstairs bedroom in her grandmother’s house. The ringing in her ears faded.

Janis lay back for several moments, breathing, talking her terror back down, back into the deeper places. At last, she drew her covers aside, cool air touching the perspiration over her bare legs, and sat on the edge of the bed. The old frame creaked around the mattress. Janis inhaled the smells of her Gram’s house — cedar balls, sepia-colored photographs, Oil of Olay — glad she hadn’t screamed this time.

She contemplated her socked feet against the wooden floor as she tucked her hair behind her ears.

What are we going to do?

She got up and padded to the bathroom, past the room where her parents slept. Her mother, the lightest sleeper in the house, usually came running. A couple of times, her father had been the one to check on her. Janis always assured them she was all right, she couldn’t even remember the dream that had made her scream. But she could see in the deep lines of her mother’s face or in the dark cast of her father’s eyes that they weren’t convinced.

Janis flipped the switch in the bathroom. Pink plastic curtains covered the small basement window on the far wall. A stack of Reader’s Digests rose from the toilet tank. The ceramic lid was about the same size and shape as the one she’d used against the Leonards’ bathroom door.

Standing sideways before the mirror, she drew up her cotton nightshirt. Her ribcage looked like the slats of a beach fence. She touched the place, pale and puckered, where the ceramic shard had plunged into her. When she applied pressure, pain tightroped a line deep inside her, then bloomed like an aching molar. Janis drew a hiss through her teeth and blew it out slowly.

She touched around the scar. The terror that seeded her nightmares came from Mr. Leonard, yes, but not from the stabbing. What no one in her family knew — what no one could guess — was that the terror came from his parting warning:

You’re part of a program. A deadly program. It’s your abilities. I tried to reach your sister, to warn her, but there are too many eyes. Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted. Do you understand me? No one. Not even the ones who’ll be investigating what happened here. Especially not them. Your one chance is to hide your powers. Never use them, never speak of them again.

A fresh chill brushed Janis’s body, and she unfurled her shirt. Agent Steel, a no-nonsense woman with sheared platinum hair and unblinking blue eyes, had been put in charge of the investigation. A scar cut into one corner of her mouth. With her frostbitten stare and perpetual half frown, her questions to Janis had felt less like an interview and more like an interrogation. And there was something seriously off about her. At the end of the second meeting, Janis nailed it. She could usually pick up some sense of a person, some inexplicable “vibe” — much more since her out-of-body experiences had begun last summer — but it was as if Agent Steel’s vibe had been suffocated in the coldness of outer space. The four times Agent Steel had entered her hospital room, a part of Janis had shrunk, only returning to form when the middle-aged woman left again.

Janis propped her arms against the sink and studied her face in the mirror.

Not even a year before, she’d been a straight-A student, co-captain of her soccer and softball teams, looking ahead to high school. And now she was… what? Someone who left her body when she slept, who visited events from her past and anticipated the immediate future. Someone who influenced objects with her thoughts: soccer balls, bathroom doors…

People.

Janis shut her eyes, but the battered image of Mrs. Leonard only grew larger and clearer in her mind. [Your powers… _]Mrs. Leonard had said. _Never use them, never speak of them again.

“Way ahead of you,” Janis mumbled.

And it wasn’t just that her powers had hurt people. She’d also felt delight, as if some part of her was feeding off the other’s pain and fear. She hadn’t used her powers since that morning — hadn’t even attempted to use them. And the powers hadn’t visited her, thank God, not even in the form of an out-of-body experience.

Now she just had nightmares.

She filled a Dixie cup with cold water and cut the light. Despite telling herself not to, she tiptoed across the bathroom and peeked between the curtains. Moonlight shone over patches of snow and cast long shadows against the yard. One shadow originated from a figure on the sidewalk. Janis recoiled, nearly dropping her cup. A long coat fluttered around the man’s legs as he took another sauntering step, a coldness coming off of him — a psychic coldness.

(…there are too many eyes.)

Janis followed the downward cant of the man’s head. A small dog appeared at his side, nosing the ground and then squatting onto its haunches.

Janis eased the curtains closed, feeling foolish. If she wasn’t careful, everyone would start looking like a watcher.

But had he been watching?

She was almost back to her room when a muffled voice sounded beyond the closed door where her parents were staying. The stern texture of the voice — her father’s — made her stop. Her mother’s answering voice fluttered, verging on shrill. Janis studied the half-inch space beneath the door. Dark. She eased nearer, holding her breath.

“…supposed to be safe,” her mother said.

Her father’s response was too low to make out.

“Well, that’s not what they told—” Their voices bled together momentarily, before her mother’s won out. “…all kinds of assurances.”

“That’s why I’m stepping in.”

“But how can we keep—”

He shushed her back down.

They’re fighting. The idea landed in the pit of Janis’s gut. My parents are fighting.

Her mother cleared her throat. “Janis? Is that you, hon?”

Janis started. Thanks to the nightlight behind her, her legs were casting faint shadows against the space beneath their door, shadows her parents were probably eyeing that very moment. She shuffled backward and tried to make her voice sound sleepy. “Just coming from the bathroom.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m fine. G’night.”

Janis slid beneath the pile of covers and pulled them to her chin. She’d been away long enough that the sheets felt cold, almost damp. She rolled onto her side, away from her closed door, and tucked her knees to her chest. Her teeth chattered once.

What could they have been fighting about?

But she already knew. Ever since the stabbing, a tension had grown among the members of the family. Stiff silences entered rooms, occupied seats at the dining room table. Words came out at odd angles as if by some Doppler effect. Slanted looks replaced laughter. Even her Grams, with her orange-frosted hair and rollicking humor, didn’t seem herself.

And now, arguments at two in the morning.

Blinking back moisture, Janis drew the crucifix from her shirt and caressed it. The warming sheets unmoored her thoughts, setting them adrift toward dreaming. When her eyelids slid closed, Scott was lying in front of her, just as he had done at the Leonards’ house that morning.

She whispered his name.

“Help’s coming,” he said. He took her hand and pressed it to his lips.

She watched his eyes. Soft brown eyes that reminded her of the woods, where the seeds of their imaginations had taken deep root, as had their trust for one another. Scott was the only person with whom she’d shared the truth — not only about the Leonards but about everything: her out-of-body experiences, her intuition, the progression of her powers. And he’d reciprocated that night on the swing set, telling her about his own powers.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered.

She studied his eyes, their clarity and caring. But when she tried to squeeze his hand, she felt the pendent around her neck. His face and the woods around them began to dissolve.

“No, not yet…” she murmured.

Her eyes opened to the pillow beside her. She pressed her hand into the soft down and curled her fingers. The depth of Scott’s absence surprised her. She had thought about calling him from Denver. She’d even picked up her grandmother’s black rotary phone and dialed up to the last number but then hung up. He had warned her about the switchboard over the neighborhood and the possibility someone was listening.

She heard herself asking Scott the question she had asked him on her front porch: Then who’s the receptionist?

But she didn’t want to know the answer. Not here, lying alone in the dark with a strange man outside. Not with her parents arguing in the next room. Not without Scott near. Because she was afraid the answer would be the same as Mrs. Leonard’s, in her dreams: a frightened, whispered Them.

6

Spruel household

Sunday, January 6, 1985

7:41 p.m.

Scott pumped his knees higher — slap! slap! slap! — into his sweat-soaked palms. He watched his profile in the closet mirror, his gray sweat pants pushed up over the knobs of his knees. But his knees weren’t reaching hip level anymore. Drawing a ragged breath, Scott told himself, To hell with hip level, just hold out for another thirty seconds. His burning thighs countered with Fifteen. After five seconds, he groaned and collapsed onto his bed.

The room spun him around. Two weeks had passed since his last Bud Body session, and he was hopelessly out of shape.

Not that he blamed himself. He’d been caught up in other things: investigating the neighborhood, observing traffic patterns, recuperating from his second broken arm in as many years. But with a new semester of school starting tomorrow, the time felt ripe. For inspiration, he’d snipped out an action shot of Cyclops from one of his duplicate X-Men and taped it to his mirror.

Now, with Cyclops’s square jaw and ruby-quartz visor staring down at him, Scott pushed himself up and pawed across his bedside table for the exercise booklet he’d ordered last fall. In a series of black-and-white stills, Bud demonstrated the correct form for “Pogo Legs” (running in place, essentially). Scott flipped to the next exercise: “Heave-hos” (pushups). In the final still, a puffed up Bud faced the reader with a grin that said, I eat patsies like you for breakfast.

The actual caption read: “Dream big, or don’t dream at all.”

Scott tapped the booklet against his chin, then rose and limped toward the window. The streetlight shone over the intersection, but he wasn’t thinking about the camera embedded beside the sodium bulb. He was thinking about how Janis was due home that night. All the time he’d been exercising, he’d been listening for the Graystones’ station wagon — a low, even hum.

Scott caught the brightness of his eyes in the window’s reflection as he sighed. The thought of seeing her for the first time in almost four weeks had been spiraling through him all day, making it hard to sit still for more than four seconds. He leaned his forehead against his arm. As recently as the previous summer, he’d stood at the same window, peeking through the blinds, waiting for her to appear.

A lot had changed.

He dropped to the floor and started a set of one-armed pushups, his casted forearm pressed to his low back. He and Janis were friends again, yes. Confidants, even. And that was wonderful — beyond wonderful. And yet… He managed two trembling presses before collapsing to the carpet. And yet, he ached to be something more to her. Every time he thought of her, the feeling would grow like a hunger that began in his chest instead of his stomach.

Dream big, or don’t dream at all.

“Thanks, Bud,” Scott said, “but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Screw that, came a tough voice through Scott’s thoughts. That’s patsy talk.

“Huh?”

You heard me, pal.

Scott sat up and looked over at the exercise booklet, half expecting to find Bud standing from the pages like a Star Wars hologram, his oiled muscles shining copper-gold beneath the bedside lamp. Instead, he found the same series of black-and-white photos.

I’m tired of you pussyfooting around with this dame.

“Pu-pussyfooting?” Heat scalded Scott’s neck until he realized he was talking to himself. He looked around, then lowered his voice. “I’m not pussyfooting, goddammit. I’m being systematic.”

Call it what you want, pal. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

“Why don’t you mind your own business?”

Bud’s voice taunted: And I know what’s hidden in your top drawer.

“How did you—” Scott began to sputter but then shook his head. Of course he knows, dummy. He’s a voice inside your frigging head.

Scott stood and made his way to his dresser. He opened the top drawer and, reaching past random circuit boards, knotted wires, and a cluster of old Master locks, he retrieved the get-well card he had made for Janis while she was in the hospital. The same card he’d tried twice to deliver before losing his nerve. Scott had considered mailing it to Janis — had even hacked into the DMV for greater Denver and transcribed her grandmother’s address onto an envelope — but he couldn’t seem to make himself carry the card to the mailbox and hoist the metal flag.

Maybe Bud had a point.

Though no voice came, Scott imagined the exercise guru grinning smugly, thick arms crossed over his chest like Mr. Clean.

“Yeah, yeah,” Scott muttered.

At his desk, he pulled the card from the envelope and studied the hand-drawn illustration. He was no John Byrne, but his attempts to imitate Byrne over the years had transformed him into a decent enough artist. The illustration showed him and Janis venturing into the woods together, crossing a fallen tree. However, these woods were magical, with towering, vine-braided trees, flocks of fanciful birds within their boughs, some perched, some just taking flight. Deer and other woodland creatures looked upon Janis and him, who were holding hands.

The inside read simply:

 

Dear Janis,

Get well soon. “Our world” will be waiting for you.

Love,

Scott

 

Scott flushed. He closed the card quickly and shoved it back inside the envelope. Why in the world had he signed it that way — and in ink?

What are you so worried about? said Bud’s voice again. It’s beautiful.

Scott looked over at the exercise booklet with suspicion. “Really?”

Look, a perfect physique is great and all — I mean, get an eyeful of this one. _]For a second, Bud Body’s pecs seemed to bounce inside the photo; when Scott blinked, the effect vanished. [_But the way to a woman’s heart ain’t through her eyes, pal. It’s more through her heart. Bet you’ve never heard that one: a way to a woman’s heart is through her heart. And that card you’re holding’s swimming with the heart stuff. In spades. Har, har! In spades, get it?

Scott pulled the card partway out and studied his colorful, painstaking illustration. “So I should give it to her?”

Bet your ass you should give it to her.

“When?”

[What are we gonna do with this guy? _]When? _he asks. Tonight, you pound of fruitcake. When she gets home.

“Tonight?” Scott whispered, fear stealing his voice.

Yeah, before what’s-his-name shows up with a dozen red ones.

“Oh, right. Blake.”

As far as Scott knew, Janis and Blake Farrier were still an item, still boyfriend/girlfriend. He couldn’t imagine anything had happened in the last weeks to put a crimp in that relationship. If anything, her time in Denver had probably fortified it — absence making the heart grow fonder and all of that.

You’ve got home court advantage, pal. Use it for once in your godforsaken.

Scott closed the exercise booklet and set his letter to Janis on top of it. Maybe the Bud voice was right. Maybe it was time to give her the card, to let her know how he felt. After all, their experience at the Leonards’, the intensity of it, had driven Scott to create the bold card in the first place. With every passing day, that intensity was going to waver and wane. He would lose his courage.

“All right, Bud. You talked me into it.”

A low hum grew from the street. Scott whipped his head around in time to catch the glow of headlights through his not-quite-closed blinds. Brakes strained softly; tires ground over macadam. Red taillights flashed as the car descended the Graystones’ street.

“She… she’s home!”

In a frenzy of steam and suds, Scott showered, brushed his teeth, and then dashed back to his room. He peeked through the blinds. For the first time in weeks, a light shone over the Graystones’ porch. Scott scrambled to pull on jeans, a Sam Malone-style collared shirt, and his black Members Only jacket. He combed his hair down, then pointed at the mirror. “Dream big or don’t dream at all,” he whispered, and tucked the card into his jacket.

In the den, Scott’s father was lying on the couch, a bowl of popcorn balanced on the swell of his stomach, television glow shining across his face. His mother was sitting on the love seat, wearing the same pastel-blue skirt suit she’d worn to show a house earlier that day. Papers and shiny white “Let Us Sell Your Home” folders sat in stacks around her. As Scott speed-walked past them, J.R. squirmed out from where he had nested himself between Scott’s mother and the plush couch arm and began scratching at the carpet around Scott’s feet.

“I’m going to take J.R. out before it gets too late,” Scott said, heading to the kitchen for a leash. The toy poodle followed eagerly.

“Hey, they’re doing a Double-Oh-Seven on the ABC Sunday Night Movie,” his father called. “One of the Roger Moores.” Behind him, Scott could hear the night’s feature beginning to preview: a montage of explosions and clipped British accents.

“It’s too violent,” his mother replied. “I don’t want Scott getting any ideas.”

“I’ll, ah, I’ll be back in a bit,” he called back, his heart thundering in his chest.

“But you’re gonna miss the beginning,” his father said.

“Put on a thicker coat,” his mother shouted.

Once outside, Scott stared through the puffs of his breath down the short street. He would make his way slowly, giving the Graystones enough time to settle in. But in his anticipation, Scott’s first steps felt like someone had strapped springs to the bottoms of his shoes. He couldn’t help imagining Janis through her opening front door, light glistening upon her fiery hair, chestnut-green eyes glimmering, mouth tipping into that heartbreaking smile.

Scott patted his chest to make sure the card was still inside his jacket. He was halfway to the Graystones’ house when a car sounded behind him. Bright headlights swung around. Blake? Scott raised his hand to his eyes and edged himself and J.R. toward the curb.

The car hummed past, a black sedan. Not Blake. The sedan rounded the cul-de-sac and pulled up in front of the Graystones’, behind Margaret’s Prelude. The lights died a second after the engine, and a tall woman stepped from the driver’s side. Her close-cropped hair shone like platinum beneath the streetlight. She looked at Scott for a second, adjusted what appeared to be a holster at her waist, and marched up the semicircular driveway, her boots clacking like a metronome.

An odd chill seized Scott. He backed into the shadows as the woman rapped on the door. Lights turned on inside. Mr. Graystone appeared in the doorway, then stepped to one side to let her in.

Is that the agent Janis told me about?

Scott retreated up the hill and stood with his hands in his jacket pockets, his left one bulging around his cast. He paced back and forth to stay warm, his gaze fixed on the Graystones’ front porch. For his part, J.R. seemed content to sniff along the curb, sprinkling pee here and there.

An hour passed and still the sedan sat out front.

Finally, Scott’s mom emerged behind him and announced that he needed to come inside. “Are you trying to catch a cold?”

Scott sighed. At his front door, he looked down the street once more before closing and locking the door. He’d have to settle for giving Janis the card at school tomorrow. Assuming he didn’t lose his nerve first.

7

An hour earlier

Janis lugged her suitcase over the threshold and inhaled the foreign yet familiar scent. It was one of those things you never noticed about your own house unless you’d been away for a while, and she’d been away for more than three weeks. The scent carried the presence of her father, mostly — academic books, starched shirts, the varnished doors of his study. But then she smelled the refreshing undercurrent of her mother and the Estée Lauder perfume her sister wore. If her own scent were anywhere present in the domestic bouquet, Janis didn’t recognize it.

She followed Margaret’s tall figure and shifting brunette hair down the hallway, her sister snapping on lights as she went. Their parents remained in the garage, setting luggage from the car up onto the landing.

Margaret stopped in front of her bedroom door and turned to Janis. “Are you all right?” she asked softly.

“Yeah, the soreness is almost gone.”

“No, I mean being back. Being home again.”

Janis avoided her sister’s sea-green eyes and swallowed. She wasn’t sure how she felt about being home. Not yet. “Starting school tomorrow will help,” Janis said. “The first few weeks are going to be heck… catching up on last semester, making up tests. But yeah, I think getting back into some routines will help. And I’ll be able to practice with the softball team soon.”

Margaret’s glossy lips tensed at the corners. “The doctor said three months.”

“I plan to heal up before then.”

“Well, remember, I’m right next door. And if you ever have trouble falling asleep, my queen bed is big enough for two.”

Her sister’s eyes shone with maternal concern, but not in the hard or manipulative way Janis had become accustomed to. Now they allowed themselves a certain tenderness. A certain compassion. The last few weeks had changed her sister, too. That was going to take some getting used to.

“Thanks, sis.”

Knocks sounded on the front door, and Janis snapped to attention. [_Scott? _]His bedroom light had been on when they’d passed his house only minutes before, the glow igniting a kind of restless excitement in her. She’d even thought about stealing up to his house and tapping on his window.

“I’ll get it,” her father called from the kitchen.

“I’m going to give Kevin a call,” Margaret said, patting Janis’s cheek and disappearing into her room. Janis remained in her bedroom doorway, aware of how gross she probably looked. Her skin felt oily. Her back itched. She needed a shower. But by her father’s clipped greeting, she could tell the person was not Scott. And though she couldn’t make out a voice, Janis felt a part of herself shrinking, like a helium balloon placed inside a freezer. Or outer space.

Official-sounding shoes clicked on the tiles of their front hallway. Janis shivered and turned to go into her room.

Her father cleared his throat. “Janis?”

“Yes?” she squeaked.

“There’s someone here who’d like to speak with you.”

  • * *

Janis sat with her father on the brown-and-caramel couch in the living room. Agent Steel leaned toward them from one of the chairs opposite, elbows resting on the knees of her slate-blue pants. Her button-up shirt and jacket were the same color, their creases neat and sharp, like a military uniform, but without medals or insignias. Three glasses of water rested on cork coasters around the wooden coffee table, ice cubes creaking.

“We’re working to fit some final pieces together,” Agent Steel said in her no-nonsense tone. “In our work on the Leonard case this past week, some new evidence surfaced. We hate to put you through more than you’ve already endured, Janis, but we would like to ask some follow-up questions. With your and your father’s permission, of course.” Her father turned toward her on the couch.

Janis met Agent Steel’s lunar stare and nodded. “Sure,” she said.

“Were you the only one in the Leonards’ house that morning?”

Janis’s stomach spasmed. “Yes. As far as I know.”

Agent Steel studied her, her mouth sealed in its scarred half frown. The look tempted Janis to offer up something more if only so Agent Steel would acknowledge what she’d said and stop staring at her — until Janis realized that was the whole point. The woman had probably gotten plenty of people to flub their false testimonies with that unnerving look.

Janis gave a small, apologetic shrug.

“We discovered some blood in the shed, Janis — on the door, the hatch, the rungs leading down to the Leonards’ basement. Analysis shows that the blood didn’t come from either of the Leonards.”

The unnerving stare again, her blue eyes nearly colorless.

“I was never down in the basement,” Janis said.

“I didn’t say you were. Do you know someone who was?”

Before Janis could shake her head and commit her first out-and-out lie of the interview, her father cleared his throat. “Isn’t it possible that the blood was left at another time and not on the morning of the incident?”

Above her hammering heartbeats, Janis silently thanked her father. She worked on ironing out her breaths.

“We operated under the same assumption, Mr. Graystone.” Her gaze moved back to Janis. “Until we tested the blood in the fibers of the carpet in the front hallway. Some of that blood was yours, Janis. But the rest belonged to someone else.”

(Stay awake. Help’s coming.)

“The same person who left evidence in the Leonards’ shed,” Agent Steel finished.

Janis furrowed her face into what she hoped was a look of concern and puzzlement, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from blinking. Did Agent Steel already know the blood came from Scott? Was she testing her? What if Janis confessed? Her gut recoiled at the idea. Agent Steel would want to know why he’d gone into the shed and what he’d found. And Scott had found things: the logbook, for example, evidence Agent Steel and the official report had neglected to mention.

Trust no one, came Mr. Leonard’s disembodied voice. Not even the ones who’ll be investigating what happened. Especially not them.

“I’m sorry,” Janis said. “I wish I knew something.”

Her father patted her back. “It’s all right.”

Janis’s mind scrambled to map out the blood trail, to keep pace with Agent Steel. Would there have been blood on the fence, where Scott climbed over? Blood in the storm drain, a rust-colored procession leading to the bus stop where Scott told the police he’d been waiting when he heard Janis scream? Now Janis recalled that rain had fallen that night and the next. She could still hear the storm against the window of her hospital room, like a hard surf.

But had it been hard enough to wash away blood?

“What about this, Janis?” Agent Steel leaned to one side and, pushing aside her holstered gun, reached into her pocket. “Have you ever seen it?”

She took out a baggie and emptied its contents — plastic fragments — across the coffee table.

Janis leaned forward. For the first time, she unclasped her damp hands and moved one of the fragments with her finger — the oblong orange button of a walkie-talkie. She saw by the fine dust that it had been checked for prints.

After several seconds she said, “Yes.”

“Where?” A sliver of surprise seemed to prick Agent Steel’s throat.

You were expecting me to deny that too, weren’t you?

“In the Leonards’ house,” Janis said. “On the kitchen table. When Mrs. Leonard grabbed me, I managed to get a hold of it. I tried to hit her with it, but her husband took the talkie away from me. I think he threw it against the floor. I heard something break behind me, anyway.”

Agent Steel stared at her. “That wasn’t in your earlier statement.”

“I didn’t remember the talkie until you showed me. At the time, I was grabbing at whatever I—”

“So it’s not yours?”

“No.”

Agent Steel collected the pieces. “Talkies typically come in pairs,” she said. “But we never found a match for this one.”

“Is it important?” her father asked.

“It’s unusual.”

To Janis’s father, Agent Steel’s words probably sounded like official commentary. But Janis knew better. She could sense an angle of accusation to them, as though she and Agent Steel were having their own conversation — a tête-à-tête. Janis scooted nearer her father, whose steadying hand remained on her back. She reclasped her fingers, not wanting their movements to betray anything to Steel’s trained eye.

Agent Steel took a slow sip of her water. Janis watched the angles of her jaw, the way they came to a spade-like point at her chin.

“I’m disappointed,” Agent Steel said after she’d set the glass back down. “I’d hoped to have the investigation completed before your return, Mr. Graystone. I don’t like having to put more questions to your daughter, and I appreciate her cooperation.” Her eyes glinted like ice. “It just means we’re going to have to work that much harder. Dig that much deeper. Closing the book on this investigation is as much in our interest as it is in yours.”

“Of course,” Janis’s father said.

“If now’s a good time, Mr. Graystone, I can fill you in on the procedural matters we discussed over the phone.”

Mr. Graystone patted Janis’s back. “Why don’t you go unpack.”

Janis rose and nodded toward Agent Steel.

“Thank you again, Janis. You’re a brave young woman.” Her scar twisted her smile into a taut grimace as she held out her hand.

Janis took it, half expecting Agent Steel to yank her forward until they were nose to nose. I know you’re lying, _]she could hear her saying. [_And I’m going to dig and dig until I learn the truth. Do you understand me, you little shit?

But instead, Agent Steel gave Janis’s hand a single shake, dry and frigid.

Janis had almost reached the hallway when Agent Steel called after her. “Oh, Janis. One more thing.”

“Huh?” Janis turned.

“The bathroom door.”

“Yeah?”

“You said you broke it down with the toilet lid?”

“Well… I pounded and kicked it, too.”

Agent Steel remained staring at her.

“Why?” Janis asked.

“We found some interesting fracture patterns.”

“Oh.”

Agent Steel’s eyes held Janis for another moment, then shifted back to her father. Janis walked down the hallway, her legs as stiff and flimsy as balsa wood, and closed the door to her bedroom. Through the wall, she could hear the muffled tones of Margaret talking on the phone. She heaved her suitcase onto her bed and drew its zipper around. Her hands began to shake. Janis held them together at her chest and sat beside her suitcase.

She suspects Scott.

When the police had arrived that morning, he had been lying in the same spot where they would later extract blood samples.

Janis bowed her forehead to her clasped fists. She never should have gotten Scott involved in this. Would they demand a blood sample from him? She didn’t know. It wasn’t like he was suspected of committing a crime, just of being present. Or more present than either he or Janis had let on. And what about the talkie? Janis’s thoughts raced in circles as she stood. She would tell him to get rid of his. The more threads they could sever, the better.

But what was the deal with that last question about the bathroom door? We found some interesting fracture patterns.

Janis stopped and rewound. Was Agent Steel interested in the fact of Scott’s blood in the basement, or the means by which it had gotten there — just as Agent Steel wanted to know the means by which Janis had escaped the bathroom? Did she suspect the use of powers?

Was she one of Them?

Janis cracked her door. She could hear her father and Agent Steel talking in the living room. She considered opening her window, popping out the screen, and slipping up to Scott’s house to warn him, but one of her parents could discover her missing. And what if Agent Steel’s headlights found her while she was crouched in front of Scott’s window? She and Scott would look guiltier than sin, and she would have done more harm than good.

Janis returned to her suitcase and composed her hands enough to lift out a sweater and hang it in her closet. As much as she hated to, she would have to wait until tomorrow to fill him in.

  • * *

That night, Janis had the dream again. She lay on her side in the Leonards’ front hallway, her fingers seeking her crucifix but not finding it this time. Beyond the demolished bathroom door, Mrs. Leonard slumped against the table. The blood dripping from her earlobe had soaked her gown black.

“Don’t let them see,” Mrs. Leonard gurgled, more blood spilling from her mouth. “Don’t let them know.”

Who? Janis mouthed.

Mrs. Leonard’s broken arm crunched as she jerked it aloft, the shoulder suspended by threads of sinew. Janis wanted to plead with her to stop moving, to hold still until help arrived. Hollow yellow eyes stared past her. Behind Janis came a hot draft and a march of footsteps. Janis strained to see but couldn’t turn her head.

[Not Scott, _]she told herself. _This is not Scott.

With teeth-clenching effort, she managed to twist onto her stomach. Digging her elbows into the blood-stained carpet, she inched forward, away from the doorway, toward the ruined hallway.

Ahead of her, Mrs. Leonard’s eyes grew to the size of tea saucers. Them, she mouthed. Except the shadow that fell over her was not that of a mushroom cloud. The edges of the shadow hardened and assumed the form of a person: tall and solid, fists on her hips.

“Who else is here?” Agent Steel asked. “Who else is with you?”

Janis watched the shadow kneel. The shard twisted deeper into Janis’s side, its iciness worse than pain. “No one,” she gasped.

“You’re lying.” Another hard twist.

“I-I’m not.”

The shadow stood.

“We know who he is. We found him.”

A body landed in front of Janis, facing her. Both lenses of Scott’s glasses were shattered.

Janis woke up screaming.

8

Oakwood bus stop

Monday, January 7, 1985

6:55 a.m.

Scott waited at the corner, a folded piece of notebook paper in the palm of one hand, a wooden pencil sharpened down to its final inch in the other. Both hands were hidden, buried in the pockets of his jacket. The lawn around him bristled with frost. His blue jeans were cold against his legs. The winter morning wasn’t as frigid as those in Michigan, no, but Scott hardly remembered those. He had only been seven when they moved.

“Guess what, Scotty?” His father had slapped the dinner table with both hands, drawing a frown from Scott’s mother. “We just got a ticket to the land of orange trees and rocket ships.” When the Spruels arrived in Gainesville a month later and Scott observed neither, he was bitterly disappointed — especially about the rocket ships, which were all the way down in Cape Canaveral.

But why had they moved? All right, his dad had gotten a contract with the local V.A. hospital to supply their prosthetics. Fine. But why Oakwood? A neighborhood where at least one resident had gone around planting cameras in streetlights, and the phone lines ran through an undeclared switchboard? It was like something out of The Twilight Zone. Looking around, Scott half expected front doors to bang open and the residents of Oakwood to emerge, zombielike, and begin lurching toward him.

But Scott knew the residents of Oakwood — or at least who they claimed to be.

A burgundy Cutlass with a crooked front fender approached from the Grove and cruised down the main hill. Beyond the icy window, Scott could make out a middle-aged woman with squinty eyes: Mrs. Dinkins. Scott glanced at his watch, then scratched on his paper: “Dinkins. Cutlass. 6:58 a.m.”

The notation was not unlike the shorthand Scott had discovered in the ledger in the Leonards’ basement, denoting the comings and goings at the Graystones’ house. Scott had been using a similar system to chronicle the comings and goings in Oakwood. A larger undertaking for sure, but he’d devoted most of his two-week winter break to the project, the information on makes, models, and times going into a database program on his computer.

Another car approached, this one from the Downs — a dirty gray Volkswagen Rabbit belonging to Mr. Clifton. Its brakes creaked at the stop sign. Scott noted the time and jotted down the information.

Scott had been certain he would notice something in the neighborhood’s traffic patterns: strange cars coming and going, members of the mysterious Them unwittingly revealing themselves. But almost all of the cars Scott observed were from Oakwood. They chugged to and from work or errands at roughly the same times every day, a microcosm of suburban neighborhoods everywhere, he guessed. And now he was beginning to wonder…

He raised his face to the Leonards’ house, still vaguely menacing but denuded, its curtainless windows staring blankly.

Yes, Scott was beginning to wonder whether Mr. Leonard’s warning to Janis had been nothing more than the ranting of a man whose own wicked designs had gone horribly wrong. A man about to flee to an interstate motel to hang himself. The cameras on Scott’s house could easily have been put there by Mr. Leonard. Same with the switchboard. He’d seen telephone equipment beneath Mr. Leonard’s shed, after all. Maybe the police hadn’t been sophisticated enough to understand, much less fully dismantle, the system, which would explain why a delay still existed on his line. He would mention it to Janis when he gave her the card. Tell her she probably had nothing to worry about.

A deep belch reverberated from the Downs.

Yourself, on the other hand…

Scott crammed the paper and pencil back into his pockets. He wouldn’t need to record this vehicle. He was halfway up the lawn, his Docksiders crunching through the crust of frost, when he stopped.

He hadn’t seen Jesse or Creed since New Year’s and didn’t know how badly either had been hurt or what kind of retribution they had in mind. That they had retribution in mind, Scott had little doubt. But he couldn’t keep running from them, couldn’t keep ducking behind bushes and school trashcans — not this semester. Scott followed his own trail back to the street corner and waited.

The chop-chop-chop of the engine grew louder. With a pair of weak stomps, Scott jarred flecks of frost from his shoes. The part of his brain charged with self-preservation grabbed at his jacket collar, demanding he drag himself across the lawn and throw himself behind cover. But Scott stood his ground. If he ran, he wouldn’t be able to approach Janis that day with any bearing. He wouldn’t be able to look her in the eyes, much less give her the card.

Attaboy, said Bud’s voice.

The Chevelle turned onto the street behind him, the car’s frame nicking into the asphalt. Scott angled his body away, tucking his chin inside his jacket collar. By the clunk of the brake, he could tell he’d been spotted. He blew tremulous breaths into his fists. The car idled at the stop sign. Scott twisted his neck enough to take in the blur of the Chevelle’s front end, which sat outside of the frame of his glasses. Vapors of melted frost snaked from the car’s hood.

The car door would fly open any second. Creed would leap out first, blades glinting in the cold morning. Jesse would appear next, a resigned look on his face as he lumbered toward him, reaching for his good arm. Business is business, the look would say. A deal is a deal.

Scott wished it would just hurry up and happen.

When the Chevelle’s engine revved, Scott gauged the distance to his house, tensing for flight. The car revved again. With the third rev, it shrieked from the corner. Scott pushed his glasses up, following the two smears of rubber to where the car’s taillights began to dwindle.

That’s it?

Scott’s single laugh was almost a sob. And when a blue Toyota Tercel emerged from one of the driveways off the main street and followed Jesse’s car down the hill, he almost forgot to record the information.

  • * *

Lunchtime

Janis slumped in the passenger seat of Blake’s Toyota MR2 and peeked through the side window. Above the dirt parking lot, where dust swirled over returning cars, she eyed the brick walls of Thirteenth Street High, its outdoor hallways already swarming with just-fed students. From one of the upper levels, a girl in a pink jacket pointed out Blake’s car to a squinting group of her peers, as if Janis was some rare beast of the Serengeti. Janis slumped further down and glanced at the dashboard’s clock. Five minutes until fifth period.

“Is there a rewind button anywhere on this thing?” she asked, touching the time display.

“That bad, huh?” Blake stroked the hair above her ear.

“I think I preferred the attention of being Margaret’s little sister. [_Definitely _]the attention of when I was the team’s starting goalie. But this? Celebrity by stabbing?”

Janis’s skin prickled as she remembered the crush of students who’d been waiting at Margaret’s parking spot that morning. Janis had hardly been able to get the door open before they were pressing against her, touching her arm, asking if she was all right. Margaret had made good use of her powers, ordering the students back, green eyes ablaze. But she hadn’t been there to dispel the small hordes who’d buzzed around Janis between classes like houseflies. Janis hadn’t dared stop at her locker for fear they’d swarm her again.

“Well, you’re all they’ve been talking about for the last month, so for you to be back here, among them, in the flesh…” Blake’s fingers massaged her hairline at the top of her neck. “I think you’re going to have to forgive them their excitement. Just give them a week, and they’ll find something else to spaz over.”

“Short of Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire again, I don’t see that happening.”

Blake chuckled and kissed the side of her head. “At least you’ve still got your wit.”

Janis took Blake’s other hand and squeezed. She wasn’t sure how she was going to feel around him again, having been away for so long. Maybe a little weird. But his close presence felt like a favorite blanket: warm, pleasant smelling, pleasant feeling… and yes, safe. After her latest encounter with Agent Steel, not to mention the nightmare that followed, she needed that today.

When Blake moved his arm around her side to nestle closer, his fingers pressed against the scar between her ribs. A deep ache shot to Janis’s core, making her suck her breath in.

“Oh, hey, I’m so sorry.” Blake jerked his hand as though he’d touched something hot. “I forgot about—”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Janis said, the pain already subsiding. She leaned her head against his shoulder and breathed the cool leather of his jacket. “I’m mostly healed. It just does that sometimes. Nerves growing back, I guess.”

“It’s still hard, isn’t it? What happened.”

Flashes of the recurring nightmare assailed her senses: Mrs. Leonard, mangled and blood drenched, footfalls on the walkway, a stench, a shadow, and, in the latest iteration, Scott’s body.

“Sometimes,” she whispered, “yeah.”

“You know, you haven’t really talked about it. Not to me, anyway.”

Janis kept her face nestled against his jacket. She didn’t want him to see the conflict in her eyes. There was the official version of events and then what had really happened. Only Scott knew the second. Blake, on the other hand, knew nothing. Not even about her powers.

You tried telling him, she reminded herself. The night of the soccer game.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” Janis said. “Not yet. I’m sorry.”

“There’s no reason to be sorry.” Blake smoothed the hair at her temple. “I’m just worried that you’re holding too much in.”

Janis closed her eyes. Was it wrong that she’d told Scott what she hadn’t told him? Was it wrong that she planned to tell Scott more that day? And Blake had been so good to her these last weeks, calling her in Denver most evenings (even though the long distance rate cost a small fortune), sending cards. He’d even mailed her and her family a giant Christmas tin filled with nuts, dried fruit, and foil-wrapped chocolates in the shape of bells. “Whoever this is,” her Grams had exclaimed between wet bites, “you sure as heck better hold onto him.”

But, by no one’s fault, she and Scott overlapped in ways that she and Blake didn’t. Childhood, for one. Their special abilities, for another. And now the fallout from the Leonards. Why should that arouse guilt? Anyway, it wasn’t like she was in love with Scott. She just…

“Hey, I have something for you.”

Janis lifted her head from Blake’s shoulder as he reached inside his jacket. His hand emerged with a small black case. He raised his eyes before lowering them again, and in that brief glimpse, their indigo color shone large and liquid.

He’s nervous? What’s going on?

“This isn’t… I don’t want you to think…” He laughed, cheeks flushing around his dimples. He cleared his throat and tried again. “This is just something to show how much I care about you, Janis. A reminder.”

“A reminder?”

“Hopefully one that fits.”

He eased the case open to reveal a small silver ring. Something inside Janis recoiled even as she leaned over for a closer look. Blake removed the band and, taking her left hand, placed it on her fourth finger. Even though the ring wasn’t a wedding band, his sliding it onto her finger — and looking so serious — seemed whoa momentous.

“I hope you don’t think this is too sudden,” he said.

Maybe it is, _]she heard herself saying as her heart pounded faster. [_Maybe we shouldn’t…

But then his hands were holding her cheeks, and their lips were moving against one another’s, and Janis closed her eyes and let his kiss carry her from all the things she didn’t want to have to think about.

  • * *

Scott craned his neck above the masses as he returned from lunch, eyes casting about for a singular flame of hair. He detoured along A Wing, past her locker, conscious of the card tucked inside the small pocket of his backpack.

But Janis wasn’t at her locker. Neither had she been there before school or between periods. He considered pushing the card between the slits of her locker door, but he didn’t want anyone else around when she opened it. He wanted her to read it someplace private, where she could soak in all of the feeling he had pushed into his pen strokes.

He fidgeted with his backpack strap as he peered up and down the hallway again. Lots of hair, plastic necklaces, earrings, and pastel-colored jackets, but no Janis. Hiking his pack up his shoulder, Scott continued down A Wing. He would try again after fifth period.

  • * *

Janis arrived at study hall, her second semester elective, at the same moment the final bell rang. A former auditorium, the room was octagonal with a small stage at one end, where antiquated props leaned, gray with dust. The room itself was arranged into four segments by class. Heads swiveled in a wave, whispers rising to excited murmurs. “She’s the one…” “Stabbed!” “…almost died…”

Janis’s skin prickled as though from a heat rash. Chin tucked to her books, she found a seat in the freshmen section beside the one student whose head hadn’t moved. The girl’s gaze remained glued to whatever she was reading, probably some sort of anarchist’s handbook.

“So how was your winter break?” Janis asked.

When Star looked up, her gaunt face, with its haunting black eye shadow, didn’t display even the slightest surprise. In fact, it expressed nothing, except perhaps boredom. She scooted over to make room at the small table as Janis set her books down and pulled out a green plastic chair that leaned off-kilter.

“Too short,” Star replied.

Janis could have hugged her. “Well, there’s always this summer.”

“Ever the optimist.”

Janis scooted her chair in, glad to feel the stares dropping off her. “At least we get to give our fingers a rest this term.” She mimed typing.

“I happened to like the exercise.”

“Really.”

Janis chose not to point out that Star’s black-painted lips had gotten far more exercise than her fingers the previous semester. As Star’s attention returned to her book, Janis’s gratitude for her deepened. Finally, a class where she could feel like herself. But as her gaze fell to Star’s flannel shirt, red-checked and thick, she remembered what Star had told her the last time they’d spoken, about her sister. Janis’s smile thinned. She wondered whether, underneath the flannel top, she was wearing the same stitched-together shirt with the single hole between the breasts.

(Turned her chest cavity to soup.)

“Seriously, though,” Janis said, lowering her voice, “did you have a good break?”

“Define good.”

“Um, well, did you go anywhere?”

“Nowhere as exciting as the hospital,” she said without irony, “but yeah, I did go somewhere.”

“Really? Where?” Janis opened her folders and began organizing her notes from the previous semester. She had several finals to make up, English among them, and miles to go before she slept.

“Our state capitol. It’s where the Florida chapter of the nuclear freeze movement is headquartered. I went to a week-long meeting and training. Reagan’s reelection was a setback, but we think this is the year we can do it.”

“Do what?”

“Get Congress to pass a ban on the development of nuclear weapons.”

Janis shivered as if the mushroom cloud from her dreams had thrown its giant shadow over her. Her hand crept to the neck of her jacket and held it closed. “Is that even possible?”

“If we keep the pressure on, hell yeah. The U.S. House came within one vote of passing a ban in eighty-two. That’s when the nuclear freeze spokespeople started contracting a strange case of bullet holes.”

“There were others? I mean, besides your…”

“My sister was the fifth. There’ve been two more assassinations of movement leaders since.”

“But why?” Anger and despair competed in Janis’s voice.

Star held the thumb and first two fingers of one hand up and rubbed them together. “There’s a ton of the green stuff in nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Just look at Viper Industries.”

Janis thought of the commercials that aired during almost every break on every network — “In these challenging times, the security of the United States and its citizens cannot be underfunded…”

“Viper was awarded more than two hundred billion in contracts last year alone.”

“Wait, you think the weapons industry is behind the killings?” Janis heard her father’s skepticism. She couldn’t help it. Granted, Star had lost her sister, but to blame a company as well known as Viper seemed so… conspiratorial.

Star narrowed her eyes. “Either that or an outrageously elusive whacko.”

“If it’s the weapons industry, why haven’t they been, I don’t know, investigated?”

Star rubbed her thumb and fingers together again.

Janis lowered her eyes. Her father would become apoplectic if he heard someone talking as Star was — and even more so if he knew his daughter was listening.

Instead of saying something lame like “Justice will find the perpetrators,” Janis reached over to touch Star’s hand. But the instant their skin met, the octagonal room around them wavered away, and Janis was squinting into blue daylight.

A crowd surrounded her, fists raised, some holding signs; in the sudden brightness, Janis couldn’t make them out. She turned in the direction they faced and found herself staring at a stage. A familiar figure leaned toward a microphone, her face contracting around shouted words. Her shirt read NUCLEAR FREEZE NOW!, the words out of alignment. Columns and the top of a capitol building appeared and disappeared behind her black spikes of hair.

Thunder clapped, the capitol and crowd disappeared, and Janis was staring at a silent, seated Star.

“You’re going to speak?” Janis asked.

Star pulled her hand back from Janis’s and clutched her book. “What?

Janis closed then opened her eyes. “You’re going to speak to a crowd.” It was no longer a question.

“Yeah… that was part of my training last week. The Florida chapter is hosting a rally in March, and I’m — how did you know?”

“I… I can just see you doing it.”

Star looked at Janis for several more seconds, eyebrows pinched together in suspicion, and then returned to the book she’d been reading. Janis lowered her own gaze to a stack of her notes.

One face looking to the past, her English teacher, Mrs. Fern, had said last semester. The other peering ahead, to the future.

It was happening again. Her powers, which had lain dormant for the past month, were beginning to stretch and stir back to life. Janis’s fingers shook as she sorted through pages she could no longer read. Would she be able to control her abilities this time, or would they control her?

And if your premonition about Star just now was spot on, what about your dream last night about Scott?

In the cracked clock above the study hall’s stage, Janis saw a shattered lens. She heard Agent Steel’s chilling voice: We know who he is. We found him. Janis curled her toes inside her shoes as the crooked red hand lurched out the seconds. Seventh period with Scott couldn’t come soon enough.

  • * *

Scott had just completed another unsuccessful pass of Janis’s locker — his sixth of the day — and was wondering whether she was even at school, when he spotted someone familiar drawing a white sheet from a row of azalea bushes. Scott smiled. In place of his straw hat, the man wore a brown woolen cap, pulled to his earlobes. A thick blue jacket gave extra insulation to his coveralls, an edge of yellowing fleece peeking out from the collar.

Scott cut across the strip of lawn between A and B Wings.

“Mr. Shine,” he called.

Mr. Shine turned up his dark face, his teeth showing like a row of white fencing. “Heh, heh.” Puffs of steaming air accompanied his pleasant laughter. “What do you say there, young blood? You and your folks had youselfs a nice Christmas?”

“Yeah. How about you?”

Mr. Shine moved his gloved hands to his stomach and leaned back. “Well, I ate enough to bust two pair of trousers, so it must’ve been good.” His laughter verged on coughing.

Scott nodded toward the bushes. “What are you doing?”

“Had to cover them last night on ’count of the freeze.” Mr. Shine folded the sheet lengthwise twice and drew it to his chest, folding it over in squares. “Was a bad freeze here some years ago, and come springtime, none of the azaleas flowered. Even the dogwoods suffered. And that’s the best part of springtime round here, ask me. Flowers and the fishing.” He stopped midchuckle, eyes glimmering with a new thought. “Say, you ever learn how to make that coin jump?”

Scott laughed. “No, not quite, but…”

Scott started to dig in his backpack for a quarter, but Mr. Shine stopped him. He tapped Scott’s cast at the wrist, his furrowed gaze studying the plaster of paris. “Whoa, there. Who’d you get sore at you this time?”

“Oh, no… I fell off my bike.” It’s what he’d told his parents. He’d even kicked out a couple of wheel spokes to make the tale more believable. But standing there trying to deceive Mr. Shine felt worse, like they both knew he was lying. “Just a hairline fracture,” he said. “The cast should be off in a couple of weeks.”

“Seems I seen you with a cast summer before.” Mr. Shine’s concerned gaze lingered on Scott’s wrist as he placed the folded sheet on his cart.

“That was my other arm.” Scott pushed his hand back inside his pocket. “I’m a magnet for accidents, I guess.”

“Well, you a magnet for something.”

Scott became aware of the thinning shouts behind him. He could feel the warning bell trembling, on the verge of ringing. He was about to wish Mr. Shine a good rest of his day when a thought occurred to him.

“Hey, um. How long have you been doing lawns in Oakwood?”

“Oakwood? Let’s see…” Mr. Shine squinted past Scott’s shoulder. “Probably started in seventy-seven. Somewhere ’round there.”

The year Scott and his family had moved there.

“How many customers do you have?”

“Including your folks, six or seven. Then there’s some that only call me for special jobs. Cleaning out gutters in the fall, spreading fertilizer in the spring, that sorta thing.” The skin around Mr. Shine’s eyes wrinkled above his smile. “You not planning to take my business, are you?”

“No, I was just wondering. Hey, have you, um, ever seen anything out of the ordinary?”

The warning bell clanged over the last part of Scott’s question.

“Well…” Mr. Shine studied the row of azaleas and, apparently satisfied with whatever he saw, leaned into his cart. “Better let you get on to class. Else you gonna end up like me someday, up to your elbows in dirt.”

Scott had no idea how to respond, so he raised his hand and turned to go.

“But ’bout that ‘out of the ordinary…’” Mr. Shine stopped pushing his cart. Scott wheeled around. “Seems I remember a time when they had Oakwood closed up for about a year. Barricades across the entrance. Might’ve been seventy-three, seventy-four. Toward the end of that Vietnam, anyway. Something to do with the creek that runs both sides of the neighborhood. Flooding problems. I don’t know if it was the Army Corps or who, but they brought the big machines in, lots of ’em. Did some grading and put up a pair of levees.”

Scott knew those levees — raised cement walls on the far side of the creek. Janis’s father had told her they were meant to prevent flooding into the adjacent neighborhoods. But Oakwood barricaded for a year?

“What happened to the homeowners?”

“The ones before?” Mr. Shine scratched his temple and resumed wheeling his cart off the grass. “Now that I don’t know.”

Scott was still standing beside the azaleas, staring after him, when the bell to begin sixth period rang.

  • * *

If the rest of study hall felt like a month to Janis, Spanish stretched into a year. The second it ended, she bolted from her seat and through the doorway. Out in the hallway, she dodged around gawkers and shot through whispers of “Look, look, it’s her!” imagining the words blowing apart in her wake.

Janis had made it as far as B Wing when a fire alarm began ringing throughout the campus.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Coach “Two F’s” Coffer, who was acting as one of the monitors between periods, jumped into the hallway and, making an L with his arms, rerouted the current of students toward the practice fields. “This is not a drill!” he bellowed. “Get going! Move your asses!”

Out in the practice field, Janis stood at one end as the school emptied toward her. She spotted Blake jogging down the steps across the field, near the tennis courts, but didn’t approach or wave at him. Instead, she stuffed her beacon-red hair up inside her wool hat and sidled toward one of the baseball dugouts, guilt rippling through her.

Her gaze left Blake and swept over the tide of students. “Where are you?” she whispered.

Her heart gave a hard thump. Like magic, Scott’s bespectacled head had appeared above the masses. Not taking her eyes from him, Janis circled the orange baseball diamond at a fast walk. Judging by his trajectory, he would end up somewhere in right field, where the mass of students thinned. They would be able to talk semiprivately. Maybe the fire alarm was a blessing after all.

“Well, if it isn’t the heroine.”

Janis turned to where three girls were stepping from the throngs of students eddying around her. They wore purple ski parkas, their dark-chocolate hair falling from designer wool hats and flowing over matching scarves. Amy Pavoni, her ex-best friend, no longer hobbled on crutches, but as she came nearer, flanked by Autumn and Alicia, Janis noticed her limping.

Janis glanced distractedly to where Scott’s head was drifting away.

The girls stopped in front of her. Autumn angled her face away from Janis, not deigning to look at her. Alicia rolled her Phoebe Cates eyes. But Amy remained glaring. She stepped closer and said, “I’m not afraid of you,” then flinched, as if expecting Janis to lunge at her.

Janis hiked up her books. “No? Congratulations.” God, I don’t have time for this.

Amy narrowed her eyes. “I don’t care what you can do.”

Janis had begun to step around her, but now she stopped. Amy was talking about her powers.

(Don’t let them see. Don’t let them know.)

“Look,” Janis said, trying to control the muscles in her face. “I’ve been wanting to apologize for what happened at Dress-up Night. I… I didn’t mean for you to hurt yourself.”

“But I didn’t hurt myself.” Amy raised an eyebrow. “Did I?”

In a flash, Janis recalled the pulse leaving her outstretched arm, the sight of Amy somersaulting with her aluminum chair, the shriek, the stretch and rip of soft tissue… and her own furious joy.

Janis stuffed the memory back down. “I’m sorry you were injured.”

Autumn and Alicia pushed out dramatic sighs. When Amy continued to stare, Janis made her expression as sympathetic as she could and then edged past her. She felt Amy rotate toward her.

“What about that Mrs. Leonard woman?” Amy called. “Did she hurt herself too?”

Don’t respond. Don’t even acknowledge her. She can’t prove anything.

“Well, did she?”

A cold hand cinched Janis’s heart. She sped up, dodging around and between students. The alarm continued to clang, echoing through the chill air. Scott had ended up a stone’s throw from Blake, beyond the tennis courts, which meant she was going to have to circle around and approach him from the back of the field, keeping the thickest mass of students between herself and her boyfriend.

How awful does that make me?

When she reached Scott, he was standing with his hips forward, hands stuffed into his jacket pockets, surveying the two-thousand-strong student body. Stray licks of hair — whose carelessness Janis found more than a little cute — fluttered atop his head. She felt the urge to run up and throw her arms around him, press her cheek between his shoulder blades, and listen to the surprised sound his chest would make. She’d really missed him.

But before she could do anything, Janis noticed a distant figure pacing along the sidewalk above the practice fields.

Her throat caught.

Here?

She looked from the slate-blue-clad figure to Scott and back. She pulled a piece of notebook paper from one of her folders, scribbled across it, two lines, and folded it four times. As she walked in front of Scott, she let it fall at his feet.

“Wait five seconds and then pick it up,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll explain later.”

She didn’t glance back to see Scott’s reaction — couldn’t risk it. Removing her hat so her hair spilled out, she made her way toward Blake. He spotted her, his face beaming around a smile, and waved her over. As she raised her hand with her new ring, she ventured a peek toward the sidewalk. Sure enough, Agent Steel’s lunar eyes were staring back at her.

9

Tyler Bast sauntered through the senior parking lot, hiking boots scuffing the asphalt, and stepped onto the sidewalk running along Thirteenth Street. He was almost to the corner gas station before the alarm bells at his back began to fade. He paused at the stoplight, cupped his hand around the tip of a fresh cigarette and a flame, and then, snapping his Zippo closed, crossed Sixteenth Avenue. Traffic zoomed past him but no police cars.

He inhaled and blew out a jet of smoke. The first day back at school had been a drag, a mind-deadening drag, like being hit repeatedly over the head with a remedial textbook whose pages reeked of old cheese. Half of his classmates had slept, the teachers not even bothering to wake them. The teachers had given up too, apparently. Tyler kept the mental fog at bay by penning scraps of thought in the beat-up brown notebook he kept in his jean jacket. It was a journal, he supposed, but he didn’t think of it that way. The entries read more like song lyrics: “I can annihilate you, you can annihilate me, let’s never fight.” Stuff like that. Stuff to mull over.

But by the end of sixth period, Tyler had been holding on by a thread. He was never going to make it through seventh period. So instead, he slipped into the auditorium and pulled the red lever on the fire alarm.

Tyler took another drag, then dropped the cigarette, crushing it into the sidewalk with his next step. He felt hollowed out in a way that inhaled smoke wasn’t helping, probably because he’d skipped lunch to, well, inhale smoke on Titan Terrance. Now he felt like the winter light around him, faint. He squinted down the street, shoulders hunched, and headed for the only place that could cure him: Ducky’s Record Shop on University Avenue.

Tyler’s only hesitation about leaving campus was that he wouldn’t be around if Jesse and Creed started any friction. Creed had wanted to jump Scott that morning at the bus stop until Tyler convinced him that Scott was carrying some sort of weapon. Creed, whose ribs were still black and blue from Scott’s blast, had hesitated, his hand gripping the door handle.

“Why do you think he’s not running?” Tyler asked. “And anyway, look, his arm’s in a cast. It’s broken. We’re all even.”

“The shit we are,” Creed said.

From the backseat, Tyler prodded Jesse’s massive shoulder. “Tell him, Jess. We’re even.”

Jesse grunted noncommittally. When Jesse had awakened that night in the clearing, sputtering through his leaf-coated lips, Tyler told him an exploding battery pack had knocked him unconscious — not a laser blast or whatever Scott had unleashed from that helmet of his. Jesse seemed to have accepted his version, but of course you could never tell for sure.

At last Creed’s hand slipped from the door handle. “Well, what the hell are we hanging around here for?” he’d asked in irritation.

Now, Tyler hawked into the street. A siren made him peer over his jacket collar. A pair of fire trucks was speeding the other way. He hastened along the sidewalk, farther from the school, hoping Scott would be safe on his own.

Tyler reached the record store some twenty minutes later, pushing open the glass door. A small bell jingled, and he was met by the portentous smell of used record covers. The store wasn’t big: three aisles with cardboard boxes-cum-record bins squeezed side by side over tables and along the floor. The far wall held racks of cassette tapes, with one rack dedicated to the latest in music technology, compact discs (which Tyler had no interest in — the players cost a fortune and he’d heard CDs scratched even more easily than records). Band posters covered the windows: Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground.

He moved down the near aisle and began flipping through the stack of records in the D bin. The Damned, Depeche Mode… Dylan. Tyler had always thought of Bob Dylan as a folk musician until Chad lent him a copy of Highway 61 Revisited. What Tyler heard wasn’t folk. In fact, he’d never heard anything like it, the lyrics like an abstract painting you could see all sorts of faces inside if you tilted your head just right. And the faces changed every time he listened.

On his next visit, Tyler had bought that album as well as another Chad suggested, Blood on the Tracks.

As Tyler flipped through the Dylan albums, lifting one out occasionally to read its back cover, he could see Chad at the front counter. He was dickering with a long-haired dude over the value of his trade-ins. Otherwise, the store was as quiet as the suspension of dust in the weak shafts of sunlight. The store’s stereo had been busted since Thanksgiving.

“I’m offering a one-dollar credit for this one,” Chad said, “and you’re lucky to get even that.”

Chad was pencil thin with a trim, rust-colored goatee and a two-day growth on his shaved head. He raised his eyes toward Tyler and made a face that said, Can you believe this guy?

“Four,” the customer said, a bulked-up biker in black leathers.

“You want four bucks for a Billy Joel? What planet have you been living on?”

“Listen, faggot,” the biker said, “I paid eight, and your ad says you give fifty percent for used.”

Tyler’s ears pricked up.

Chad pushed the records toward the biker and, placing his hand on his cocked hip, said, “I’m sorry, sir, but this store does not cater to potty-mouthed Neanderthals. Good day.”

The biker scooped up the four records he’d been trying to trade for and nodded toward the others. “I brought in eight of mine, now I’m taking four of yours. That’s fifty percent. That’s what your ad says. Faggot.”

“First of all, we are called gays. And I should know because I’m it, honey, the real San Francisco treat.” Chad batted his eyelids. “Second, the ad states that the albums must be of tradable value. I’m almost embarrassed to have to tell you this in public, but Billy Joel and, lord save us, John Denver do not meet our standards of tradable. We don’t even carry them.”

“Get bent,” the biker said, tucking the four records under his arm.

“Hey, you come back here with those!” Chad scrambled around the counter as the biker made for the door.

Tyler had seen enough. With an underhanded motion, he released the charge he’d been gathering. The biker shrieked as his hair gusted up, the records clattering to the floor. He stared at them, eyes bugging, lips dripping saliva, the charge fizzling around his cerebral cortex. Raising his face toward Tyler, the biker muttered something that sounded like glog gloop and then staggered outside.

Chad looked after the biker a moment, then knelt and began gathering up the records. “I should have figured him for a lunatic. John Denver?” He shook his head.

Tyler fought to keep his mouth straight.

“So what are you doing here at two o’clock on a school day?” Chad stood with the records, his back straight as a ruler, and began filing the records into bins. He was wearing a Ramones concert T-shirt, the narrow sleeves rolled up. “Did your precious head become too crammed with knowledge?”

“Something like that.”

“Heh.” He put the last record away and dusted off his hands. “What are we in the market for?”

“Any Dylan you’d recommend?”

“Hmm.” Chad peered over his shoulder. “I applaud you for becoming seduced by the master, but you already have two of his most revolutionary works. I would take another six months with them, minimum, before adding to that collection.” Chad teepeed his fingers beneath his chin, then lifted his head. “I know!”

He sidestepped to an adjacent bin, flipped his fingers through it, and drew an album forth. He sighed and pressed it to his chest before revealing the selection to Tyler. The album cover depicted a guy on the verge of smashing his guitar against a stage floor.

“It’s not one I’d normally recommend to someone so young, but you’re hungry. You’re precocious. You can handle it.”

Tyler leaned toward it. “The Clash,” he read. “London Calling.”

“Now, it does deal a lot with the London scene, but it’s punk at its most genius, and the themes are universal. Consumerism, political apathy, nuclear disaster.” Chad grinned as he held out the album. “Try getting that in school.”

Tyler took the album, the anticipation of discovering another world already kicking around inside him. He tucked the album beneath his arm and fished some crumpled bills from his pants pocket.

“Uh-uh-uh-uh.” Chad held up his palms. “Take it home and give it a listen. If it slays, then you pay.”

Tyler smiled and stuffed the bills back down. “Thanks.”

“Anyway, I envy anyone who gets to listen to London Calling with virgin ears. In exchange, I expect full disclosure.” He widened his eyes. “Understood?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Tyler watched Chad sashay his way back to the counter. Upon first meeting Chad, he hadn’t been sure how to take him, with his funny turns of phrase and flamboyant gestures. But Chad seemed to get him. It was his knack for picking out the right albums at just the right times — albums that spoke to him when nothing else could. At the start of high school that August, when Tyler was questioning formal education and where it all led, Chad insisted on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Listening to the double album in his bedroom, Tyler was comforted to discover that such thoughts were shared by a group of musicians an entire continent away. And that’s what Tyler found in the music Chad picked out for him: a community, even if he couldn’t speak to its members. The music that played on the pop stations — synthesized sounds, repetitive lyrics — just sounded like noise to Tyler, clowns on springs. But this stuff… Tyler turned the album over in his hands.

“I wonder.” Chad perused the records the biker had left behind. “What’s going on in a fifteen-year-old’s life that he needs a dose of the Clash?”

“You know. The usual B.S.”

“Let me guess. Your parents.”

“Parent, singular,” Tyler said. “My dad took off when I was twelve. Left the house New Year’s Eve and never came home.”

Chad hitched himself up onto a tall stool behind the counter. “And your mom remarried, and your stepdad’s an intolerant slug?” He sighed. “Been there, done that.”

“No, for that to happen, my mom would have to leave the house first.”

“Ouch. Crippling depression?”

“Pretty much.” Tyler pretended to become interested in the colorful bills taped across the front of the counter advertising upcoming concerts. Thinking about his mother made him think he should be heading home.

“Well, thanks again.” Tyler held up the album.

“Anytime.” Chad fiddled with the stereo system for a couple of seconds before giving up and twisting back to Tyler. “Oh, and thanks for helping me with that Neanderthal. Those records were as good as goners.”

Tyler froze with one hand on the door. “Huh?”

Chad winked. Tyler pushed his way outside.

  • * *

Tyler cut through the neighborhoods between University and Sixteenth Avenues, the Clash album tucked beneath his arm. The shadows of late day had set the air on edge, and the cold crept inside his denim. He pulled the final cigarette from his pack with his lips but couldn’t bring himself to light it, so pushed it back inside the pack and the pack into his breast pocket.

Did I hear Chad right? What in the hell does he think I did?

No answer came, only the cadence of his footfalls over asphalt and his gut telling him he needed to be more careful. Much more careful. Because if knowledge of his powers ever got out, he could be connected to What Happened. That’s how Tyler had come to think of it — not what he did, but What Happened — and What Happened had been pretty damn awful.

Back home, Tyler edged past the truck that sat in the same place his father had parked it New Year’s Eve three years before, half on and half off the twin strips of cement, a crippled bush lying in its wake. The truck leaned like a drunkard on its graying tires. Fallen limbs and sodden pine needles filled the rusting bed. Tyler had offered several times to call and have the truck hauled away, maybe even get some money out of it, but his mother had always shaken her head.

Tyler was surprised to find her inside at the kitchen table, not up in her bedroom.

“Hey, Ma.”

She raised her head and mumbled, “Hey, sugar,” the words nearly shapeless.

He set the album beside the loaded sink and sauntered over. “What are you doing?”

She was sitting back in one of the white plastic chairs, holding onto an empty glass on the table as if it was the only thing keeping her up. The rest of the table was a scatter of unopened mail, stacks of ad pages, and her medications, the brown plastic bottles half toppled like miniature bowling pins.

“Huh?” Her head listed toward him, but her drooping eyes remained on the window looking out on the driveway. Cold seeped in around the panes. She was in shorts and a faded Buccaneers T-shirt. The bottoms of her calloused feet looked like gray ice against the dingy tiles.

Tyler sighed and adjusted the thermostat until air huffed from the overhead vent. “Where’s your robe? You’re gonna freeze to death.”

She laughed hoarsely.

“Is it upstairs? I’ll get it.”

“Naw, naw…” She shook her head, straw-like hair falling over her face. “I was about to go back up. I just came down for a…” She let go of the glass and lurched to her feet.

Tyler caught her around the waist, her ribs mushy beneath his grip. His mother draped an arm over his shoulder and let her head rest against his.

“Can’t keep my eyes open,” she said with another laugh.

“C’mon,” Tyler said. “Don’t stub your toes.” He steered them from the kitchen and up the brown carpeted steps.

“Think he’ll be back?” Her voice rose with a girl’s hope.

“Who?” he asked, already knowing.

“Les. Lester. Your father.”

“I don’t know, Ma.”

They made their way down the wood-paneled hallway, where a few framed pictures still hung; family photos from when he and Creed were kids. In one photo, everyone was smiling rigidly except their father, who never smiled in photos. He stared out with coal-black eyes, his mustache and sideburns as thick as Berber carpet. One arm clenched their mother; the other gripped Tyler’s small shoulder.

Tyler pushed open the bedroom door with a foot. The covers on his mother’s bed were already thrown back, and he set her down and helped her legs onto the bed. She rolled onto her side.

“Thanks, sugar.” She pulled the covers to her ear with a clawed hand and shivered once.

“It’ll warm up soon.” Tyler looked from the vent over the bed to the rest of the bedroom. With its solid brown walls and oiled furniture, it still looked more like their father’s room than their mother’s, which was how she seemed to like it. Tyler would sometimes hear the vacuum cleaner running late at night.

“He was a son of a gun,” she said beneath the covers, “but he was, you know, trying to fix himself. He loved both of you.”

Tyler’s gaze fell.

“It’s why he moved us here. Why he signed the… signed the…”

Tyler looked back to where her pouched eyelids were fluttering. “The lease,” he finished for her.

She shook her head. “Contract.”

“Contract?”

“So you see, your father was trying.”

“What contract, Mom?”

But her eyelids remained closed, and soon thin snores droned from her nostrils. Hands in his pockets, Tyler paced to the window. He parted the diaphanous drapes with his shoulder and scanned a backyard that was mostly dirt and leaf fall. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been out there. Azalea bushes grew wild against the tall slats of the rear fence.

I found a camera pointed at my house, he heard Scott saying. I’m betting there’s one on you guys’s, too.

The drapes floated back over his view. He felt faint. He needed food. There was at least half a pack of franks in the fridge, he was pretty sure. He could boil a couple and eat them with canned beans. Then he’d listen to his new album. He looked down at where the bed covers swallowed his mother.

Stepping from the room, he was careful to close the door all the way to trap the heat in.

10

The woods

4:05 p.m.

The oak tree Scott and Janis had crossed when they were eight sprawled like the fossilized remains of a prehistoric creature. The bark had long since shed off, and the seasons, along with various creatures, had conspired to hollow out the core. What remained was a knotted exoskeleton — if trees could be said to have exoskeletons — solid and bleaching.

Scott peeked back to the entrance of the woods — still no one — and hoisted himself up, near where the roots stood from the earth like a gnarled hand. Years before, when the roots were still earth packed, he and Janis would prod the black dirt with sticks and then stare in wonder as beetles, centipedes (some large as snakes), and neon-colored salamanders spilled out and wriggled for fresh cover. Now, atop the same trunk, Scott strolled its barren length. The bog was gone, its mud sanded over. In the place of green reeds and elephant ears grew an expanse of dry, straw-like plants, some with cottony tufts on the ends.

Scott suffered a twinge of disappointment that the fallen oak wasn’t as large as he remembered. He could already see the final limbs out ahead of him, and beyond the limbs, the cement wall of the levee.

Scott patted his belt at the rear of his pants to make sure his card to Janis was still tucked inside, then he pulled her note from his jacket pocket. He pushed up his glasses and unfolded it.

 

Meet me in the woods today at 4:00. Very important!

 

He hadn’t even realized Janis had been the one to drop the folded square of paper in front of him until she removed her hat and her hair had tumbled down the back of her jacket, like a dream. She didn’t turn around. Instead, she walked into Blake’s arms and remained with her back to Scott through the rest of the evacuation, which ended up lasting the rest of the school day. Scott’s skewered heart had clung to her spoken words: I’ll explain later.

He wondered what was up.

“Don’t fall in.”

Scott’s arms pinwheeled, his feet slapping and shuffling around until they caught up with the rest of him. He tottered once more, then straightened. Janis was standing at the end of the trunk where Scott had climbed up, her eyes pinched with what looked like concern. But then they relaxed and her lips leaned into a smile.

“Oh!” Scott said, pushing her note to him back into his pocket. “You’re, ah, you’re here.”

He heard Bud Body smack himself in the forehead.

Janis glanced over her shoulder and then walked toward him, her expression turning serious again. Her hair fluttered over the shoulders of a charcoal-gray down jacket. Scott swallowed, not sure what to do with his face. When she reached him, he was startled by her gloved hand enfolding his fingers. She led him down a thick branch that dipped below the level of the trunk.

“Here’s good,” she said, releasing his hand and rubbing his arm once. “Have a seat.”

She lowered herself cross-legged opposite him. Scott followed her example, wincing as the card to her crinkled beneath his belt. When he craned his neck, he saw that they were hidden from the cul-de-sac and houses. He turned back to find Janis smiling up at him.

“Hey,” she said hoarsely.

God, I’ve missed you. So, so much. “Hey,” he said back, the slightest tremor in his throat. “How are you?”

Her chestnut eyes fell, and she nodded in a vague way that told him that even if she said she was all right, that wouldn’t have been true. She stopped nodding and reached for his arm. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Huh?”

Scott looked down, terrified he’d brought the card out without realizing and was now holding it open. But her fingers were only exploring the cast around his left hand. The tiny, tickling propagations of her touch reached his skin, filling his head with a dizzying warmth.

“Oh, that. Someone wrapped my arm in plaster.” He shook his other fist in mock anger. “And just wait ’til I find out who. No, I, um…” There was no point in lying. “I got into a little altercation with Jesse and Creed.”

Her brow wrinkled. “Over what?”

“An old score. I think it’s settled now.”

“Are you serious?” She held the underside of his cast as though it was something fragile. “They broke your arm?”

The anger in her voice surprised Scott, and he felt a stammering guilt for having evoked it. “Well, um, the cast is more a precaution than anything.” Whatever that meant. “And your wound?”

Janis drew her elbows to her sides, the shoulders of her jacket bulking around cheeks that had pinkened with cold. How can someone look more perfect? Scott thought. She clasped her hands together in the lap of her blue jeans, the remnants of her touch lingering inside his cast like a halo.

“That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.

Scott pushed up his glasses. I’m here for you.

Janis lowered her gaze. “The agent who questioned me in the hospital, Agent Steel, she came over last night. Put some more questions to me. She suspects…” Janis glanced around. “She suspects that there was someone else in the house besides me that morning. In fact, I think she already knows. I’m so sorry for getting you involved in this, Scott. I should never have…”

“No, no, it’s all right.” He considered taking her hands, but the moment slipped away. “It was my idea, anyway, remember?”

“Did Agent Steel talk to you at school today?”

He shook his head. “But even if she comes around, so what? I’ll just say I wasn’t there.”

“They have your blood in evidence.”

“My blood?” Understanding penetrated Scott’s mind like a stiletto. He looked at his palms, his left one casted, of course, but his right one pink and scaly where the last bits of scab had flaked away the week before. From the moment the culvert had ground them to pulp, his weeping palms had left a trail. “Even so,” he heard himself saying, “I’ve got one of the most common blood types, A positive. So, yeah, it throws me into a pool of suspects — right along with one third of the U.S. population.”

“They have the talkie, too. The one Mr. Leonard smashed. I told Agent Steel it was already in their house.”

“So I wipe mine and ditch it in a dumpster.”

“But not at school.”

“No, not at school.” His shock was yielding to the rational, problem-solving part of his brain. “I was thinking of behind a toy store or hobby shop. Where it would blend in.”

Janis nodded, his reassurances appearing to relieve her. She pushed a strand of hair from her cheek, her eyes slanting away in thought. The stems rustled around them in the late day, and here and there a cotton tuft drifted past. Scott wet his lips and began reaching behind himself. [I meant to give this to you before you left. It’s just, um, something to show how much you mean to me. _]No, he would scratch that last part. Better to keep it short: _I meant to give this to you before you left, and then hand it to her. The card would speak for itself.

“There’s something else,” Janis said.

Scott tucked the card back against his shirt and pulled his jacket straight. “Yeah?”

She scooted herself nearer until their knees were almost touching. Striations of soft green shone around her pupils, making him even crazier. But her smile was thin, little more than a creasing of lips.

“This should be the last time we see each other for a while.”

The words landed against Scott’s chest like an axe. He opened his mouth, but his voice had died.

“The talkie can be ditched,” she went on, “the blood evidence can be denied. But someone still believes we collaborated that morning. And it’s not just that we collaborated, but how we collaborated. How you got in, how I got out. And I don’t mean your lock-picking skills.” She tugged at the fingertip of one of her gloves. “Staying away from one another makes the most sense right now. I mean, if you and I aren’t seen together, aren’t talking, then…” She sniffled and wiped her nose.

“What about coming here,” Scott asked, “to compare notes?”

“I… no, Scott.” She looked around them. “Here might even be dangerous.”

“Are you still worried about a Them?

“Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been watching the neighborhood while you were away — the people, the traffic in and out, that sort of thing. I even set up a database to detect anomalies. And guess what? Oakwood’s a pretty boring place. At least my computer thinks so.”

“What about the switchboard?”

“There was a military phone in Mr. Leonard’s basement I never told you about.”

“You think [_he _]was behind it?”

“Well, he did scale at least one streetlight, not to mention several trees, to rig up his surveillance on your house. I don’t see why he couldn’t have done the same with a telephone pole.” Telling her about the cameras on his house would only complicate the point he was trying to make.

“But why would he have said those things?” Janis asked. “About our abilities and not letting anyone know?”

“All the hours he watched you and Margaret, who knows what he might’ve seen? But that other stuff, about a dangerous program…” Scott dragged a hand through his hair. “If you ask me, he made it up. His attempt to nab you fell to pieces and so, hey, suddenly he’s your guardian angel. And by turning your suspicion on the investigators, he thought he’d buy himself some time to get away. Of course he couldn’t be sure, so he… stabbed you.”

Janis’s gaze fell back to her gloved hands. Scott thought she would have been relieved to hear she was no longer in danger, but the skin over her brow remained taut and worried.

“When you have two competing explanations for the same phenomenon,” he went on, “the simpler one is usually, well, the better one. And the Leonard Explanation accounts for everything.”

“Occam’s razor,” Janis said softly.

“You know about Occam’s razor?” He could have proposed to her right there, but even Bud would have told him to, whoa, slow it down.

“Look, I appreciate what you’re saying,” she said. “And it [does _]seem logical. Maybe it is the better explanation, but I’ve had dreams, Scott. Awful dreams about a _Them. And when I wake up, the dread stays with me. Here.” She tapped her stomach with her fist. “I felt the same dread when Agent Steel came to our house last night. I felt it when I saw her at school today. I feel it now.”

“But they’re dreams.” Scott almost said just dreams but caught himself.

“Yeah, and I told myself the same thing about Mr. Leonard at first.”

Scott rubbed the back of his neck. She had a point. But not to be able to sit with her like this for who knew how long… The pain would be worse than her being in Denver. Then, two thousand miles had separated them. Now, it was only two hundred yards between their houses — and much less than that in seventh-period English. He would see her every day, ache for her, but not be able to so much as wave? Great. Middle school all over again.

She placed a hand on his knee and leaned nearer, “Have you used them? Your powers?”

Only to blast Creed and Jesse. “Not exactly. Not through the phone lines.”

“Good.”

“You?”

Her brows drew together for a moment. “No.”

The light around them was fading, the shadows growing. He hesitated over what he was about to say, fearing she would move her hand. “I bought a military phone this weekend. At the army surplus store.”

“Okaaay?”

“If I can get back into the Leonards’ basement, I can test—”

“Get back into the Leonards’ basement? Forget it, Scott. No!” Her eyes turned bright with alarm.

“What? Everything’s been cleared out. The passive detection field—”

“We don’t know that.”

“Hear me out. A delay still exists on our lines. I’m pretty sure the police disconnected the phone without disabling whatever eavesdropping system he set up over Oakwood. They’re probably not even aware of it. With the military phone, I should be able to connect to his system and check it out. If it runs to a hidden switchboard cabinet, then we’ll know it was a him not a Them. No more worrying. No more hiding.” He lowered his head to look at her. “No more nightmares.”

“I can’t let you.”

“I have to.”

“Listen to me, Scott. Agent Steel is watching, and she’s dangerous. I know you want to help but just… believe in my abilities. Lay low until she backs off. That’s all I’m asking.”

Scott searched her eyes. How? he wanted to ask. How can I lay low, how can I do nothing, when you’re in danger? He blinked back the threat of tears. Janis must have noticed because she leaned closer, her eyes full green now.

  • * *

When Scott blinked again, he was facing a tangle of woods where light poured through the green leaves. He tasted a mix of sweat and bug repellent on his lips, felt his hair damp against his brow. Mosquitoes hovered around his head like spindles of ash suspended in the humidity. His glistening arms were drawn back, about to heave away a rotten log in his hands.

“Hey! The discard pile’s over there.”

Scott turned his head. A lean, freckle-faced Janis was standing in front of their half-built fort, pointing toward a mound of debris. Her orange T-shirt read YMCA Soccer. Even as amazed present-day thoughts echoed through Scott’s awareness — We’ve gone back again! — he felt his nine-year-old shoulders sag with disappointment, and he trudged the log over to the pile. He had wanted to watch the log smash into the trees and brambles.

He dropped the log, wiped his hands on his shorts, and joined Janis, who had resumed work on their fort. They’d chosen a site where four trees grew close together in a nearly perfect square. With a hammer and a bag of nails borrowed from Janis’s garage, they had attached pairs of branches horizontally between each tree, all the way around. Now their work consisted of standing tall branches against the frame and tying them in place. A cone-shaped spool of string lay on the ground nearby. They had been at the project all week, a few hours here, a few hours there. It had become their life that June. It was all they talked about.

“We’ll leave this part open for the door,” Janis said, kicking toward the unfinished wall.

“What about the other side?”

Janis frowned. “It’s too exposed over there. Anyone would be able to see inside.”

Scott pushed up his plastic glasses. He was about to point out that no one came into the woods besides them when he heard something whisking along the trail. Through the green brush, he caught flashes of a boy on a dirt bike. Scott recognized him.

Janis must have too. “Down here,” she whispered, pulling Scott into a hunker beside her.

As the biker came nearer, he slowed. Where the trail began to veer away from their fort, the brush thinned. The biker stopped and faced them, the bangs of his thick bowl cut hanging to his eyes.

Janis stood from behind the fort. “What are you looking at?” she yelled.

“Are you crazy?” Scott whispered. He’d had no personal experience with Tyler Bast — they’d been in different classrooms that school year — but he knew Tyler’s reputation for getting into fights. He’d bloodied Craig’s nose during track-and-field day two months earlier, just because Craig told him he looked like the kid on Eight Is Enough.

Tyler dropped his bike on its side and strode toward them, his too-large jeans scraping through the brush. Janis picked up a thick branch, and after a second, Scott did the same, standing beside her.

“Lay one finger on our fort and you’re in big trouble,” Janis said.

Scott swallowed. “Yeah.”

Tyler looked from their truncheons up to the fort. He jerked his head to clear the hair from his eyes and then reached into his pocket. Something oblong and red emerged.

“Um, that’s a Swiss Army knife,” Scott whispered to Janis. “Race you to your house?”

But Janis didn’t budge. She continued to glare at Tyler, her lips screwed together so tightly they were nearly white. Tyler pried a blade from the knife. He took two more steps toward them and then knelt beside a cluster of saw palmettos. His hair shook as he cut at the base of one of the fan-shaped fronds. When he finished, he rose and jerked his hair from his eyes again.

“These are waterproof.” He held up the frond. “They’d be good for the roof.”

Scott and Janis looked at one another.

For the next half hour, while Scott and Janis finished the walls, Tyler collected a sizeable stack of palmetto fronds. The three of them joined forces on the roof, first finding a bow-shaped branch for a ridge, then tying smaller branches between the ridge and the walls. They used logs from the discard pile to stand on. “See, that’s why we don’t chuck them off into the woods,” Janis made a point of telling Scott. Finally, they layered the palmetto fronds over the trusses of the roof until the inside of the fort was a solid box of shade.

They stood back from the fort and surveyed their work.

“It actually looks habitable,” Scott said, waving away a mosquito. He peeked over at Tyler, who nodded in agreement, his face ruddy with labor, arms crossed over his dirty white T-shirt.

“Next time it rains, we’ll all come and sit inside,” Janis decided aloud. “We’ll bring some cards and cans of soda.”

Scott didn’t want to spoil the moment by mentioning that his mother wouldn’t let him outside in a drizzle, much less a summer storm. He sidled toward Tyler and pointed shyly. “Hey, um, can I see your knife for a sec?”

Tyler held it out to him. “Just be careful. It’s my dad’s.”

Scott took it and admired its gloss. The dark-red knife was old, its Swiss cross nearly rubbed away. He unfolded each implement from one end: two blades, a saw, and a pair of scissors. From the other end, he pulled out a file and small can opener. The concept amazed him. He’d asked for a Swiss Army knife for his birthday the year before but got a switchblade comb instead. Scott folded everything back in except for the longest blade. He knelt and, for lack of anything else he could think to do, pressed it into the earth. When it was almost to its red hilt, the blade stopped cold. A rock? Scott drew the blade toward him, listening to it scrape over whatever was just below ground.

He used the knife to scoop out a blade full of earth, then dug with his fingers. Before long, he’d cleared away a section of smooth cement. “Hey, come look at this,” he called.

Janis and Tyler arrived from the fort and stood over him. “What is it?” Janis asked.

Scott blew dirt from it. “Some kind of foundation, I think.”

“For what? There’s nothing out here.”

Scott peered around. Janis was right. They were pretty far back in the woods, almost to the creek. “Maybe it has something to do with the levee system,” he offered lamely. He squinted up at Janis and Tyler, seeing the same inquisitiveness in their eyes that he felt in his own.

“How far does it go, you think?” Tyler heel-kicked the earth around the cement to clear away more dirt.

“I can grab a shovel from the garage,” Janis said. “Dad has one of the ones with a flat head.” She took two running steps from them and then stopped as if she’d hit a wall. Her hands went to her chest.

Scott turned and saw them too. They were throwing their bikes down next to Tyler’s. Creed’s dirty blond hair flapped around a face already sharpening into a grin. Jesse plodded behind in a black-and-yellow football jersey that, despite riding up his stomach, looked adult sized. Scott stood from the cement slab and moved beside Janis, his bronchial tubes already beginning to constrict. He patted his pocket before remembering he’d left his inhaler on his bedroom dresser.

“Well, if it ain’t Little Orphan Annie and her boyfriend, Four Eyes McQueer.” Creed stopped in front of them. The brown remnants of a bruise circled his right eye, making him appear dangerous. “Oh, and look at this.” He shifted his gaze to the fort. “Is this where you’re planning to make your babies?”

Scott felt his face go molten with embarrassment.

Janis trailed Creed as he circled the fort. “Don’t even think about it,” she warned him while keeping her distance. Creed went on grinning. He was in control, and he knew it.

Scott considered joining Janis — he feared what might happen on the far side of the fort — but his lungs were being milked by a farmer’s fists. He needed to sit, to drop his head between his legs. “In an emergency, it opens your airways,” his pediatrician had told him. But Scott couldn’t think of a worse time to be caught sitting like that.

Tyler, _]Scott thought with hope. [_He’s on our side. We’ve got numbers.

He looked around and found Tyler standing beside Jesse, who was heaving his arms at the gathering cloud of mosquitoes. “What are you doing playing with these sissies, anyway?” Jesse muttered.

Tyler toed the ground. “Who said I was playing with them?”

Well, crap.

Creed completed his tour of the fort, Janis still at his heels. “We’ve got ourselves a bit of a problem,” Creed announced. “Little Orphan Annie here says she don’t have a building permit.” Creed turned to Scott. “What about you, lover boy? Got any paperwork on you?”

“N-no,” he gasped.

“Yeah, that’s a problem,” Creed said. “A big problem. These woods belong to me and Jesse, and you’re building on it without our permission. There are penalties for that. Ain’t that right, Jess?”

Jesse grunted, though whether it was in agreement with what Creed had just said or in frustration at the swelling ranks of the mosquito flotilla, Scott wasn’t sure.

“Where’s your paperwork?” Janis bowed up to Creed, chin thrust forward.

“What do I need paperwork for? Shit. I just told you, I own these woods.”

“Then you’d have a title of ownership.”

“The only title I need is right here.” Creed smacked his fist into his palm, close to Janis’s face.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Janis replied, refusing to flinch.

Irritation and a deeper frustration flashed across Creed’s eyes. Back off, Scott thought toward Janis. He knew about Creed’s temper, and Janis was right in his firing line. Scott stepped toward Creed on willowy legs. “I don’t have any paperwork, b-but is there something else I can give you?”

Creed spun toward him. “Yeah, McQueer, there is. Got any paper bills on you? I’d settle for those.”

Before Scott could process Creed’s meaning, Creed darted in. Scott gasped and stumbled backward. A tree caught him, its bark grating the length of his spine. Creed’s hands knifed into Scott’s pockets, yanking them inside out. Two pink cubes of Hubba Bubba gum fell to the ground along with a crumpled dollar bill, which Creed knelt for and stuffed into his pocket. Scott felt his bladder threatening to void that morning’s Sunny Delight.

“Leave him alone!”

Hair flashed red-orange over Creed’s shoulder. In the next instant, the collar of Creed’s T-shirt cinched his throat. His face assumed a frightened, strangled expression, and he gargled once. Jesse and Tyler looked on in dumb surprise as Janis, her lips wrinkling back from gritting teeth, balled up the back of Creed’s shirt and tugged again. Creed shrieked with rage.

Scott lunged for Creed’s wheeling arm, but he was too slow. Creed’s fist met Janis’s stomach with the speed and force of a baseball smacking a leather glove. She sank to her scabbed knees.

“Janis!” Scott cried, shouldering past Creed.

He forgot his asthma, he forgot the fort, he forgot the fact that they were outnumbered by older kids. Scott forgot everything except the crumpling of Janis’s face the instant before she doubled over. With his arm around her, he felt her lean body struggling for air.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Creed stood over them, panting. “Your girlfriend pulls another stunt like that, and she’s fucking dead. Do you hear me?”

Crouched over Janis, Scott braced for the punch or kick that never landed. Instead, he heard a loud crack. A second one followed. Then came raw, punishing laughter. When Scott raised his head, half the fort was already kicked in. Branches dangled from strings. With Creed’s next kick, a fresh cascade of palmettos spilled around him. He seized a branch and began bludgeoning the far wall while Jesse tore away the rest of the roof with a giant hand.

“C’mon!” Creed called to his brother.

Tyler faced Scott and Janis, his hair forming a screen over his eyes. Then he trudged to the fort. Hiking up his jeans by the belt loops, he put his foot through the section of wall they’d completed that day.

Scott heard a sniffle and found tears dripping from the tip of Janis’s nose. He’d never seen her cry before.

“We’ll build another one,” he whispered. “Somewhere secret.”

He glanced back toward where Creed and Jesse were stomping the branches into pieces, ensuring they couldn’t be reused. Creed was positively dancing, his spindly legs pistoning up and down.

Scott clenched a fist and silently swore his revenge.

Then, from far away: Janis!

  • * *

Scott came to, his forehead touching Janis’s, one hand holding her cheek. Their space pulsed with strange warmth. But then the wind shook the stems around them, and Janis shivered and leaned back. In the winter dusk, her eyes appeared dark green and distant. She drew a breath, then glanced around and back at Scott. The fog of their breath mingled.

“Did you…?” she asked.

“The fort? Creed and Jesse?”

“Yeah.” She wiped her eyes. “Me too.”

Scott nodded, still reconciling the beauty in front of him with the boyish, freckled face he’d been consoling only moments before. “Why does it happen?” he asked. “What does it mean?”

“I… I don’t know.” Janis spoke as if she was still recovering her breath. Her hands held her stomach.

“This is why we need to keep meeting.”

Janis!

She pushed herself to her feet and wiped the seat of her pants. “It’s my father. It must be time for dinner.”

They walked single file back down the pale trunk, Janis leading. The woods to either side had fallen dim. Janis leaped off near the tree roots. “Wait a few minutes before coming out,” she said. “To be safe. And promise me you won’t go back into the Leonards’ basement.”

Scott stood with his hands in his pockets. “So this is it?”

“Yeah. For a while.”

Scott couldn’t tell whether the hesitation in her voice was from guilt or something else. She stood looking up at him as though waiting for him to speak again, her face faintly luminous. When he didn’t, she backed away, then turned. Her footfalls crunched through the leaf fall. Her figure merged with the trees. It wasn’t until she had reached the cul-de-sac and her hair shone beneath the streetlight that Scott remembered the card tucked inside his belt.

11

Thirteenth Street High Auditorium

Friday, January 25, 1985

11:38 a.m.

Janis itched and burned underneath her sweater, as if her skin had been scrubbed with poison ivy. Shifting her shoulders didn’t help. She looked from her damp, laced fingers, out over the packed auditorium, then up into the balcony, where a hundred more faces stared back at her. Beneath the stage lights, her own face felt leached of color. Crowds did that to her, too.

Principal Munshin spoke from the podium to her left, using words like “courage” and “perseverance.” Janis was too mortified to follow his oration. If she twisted her neck and looked up, she’d see a banner — WELCOME BACK, JANIS! — hanging across the top of the stage. She suspected that Margaret was responsible for the banner if not the entire assembly, but Margaret had insisted she wasn’t. Janis spotted her sister in the front row in her JC Penney best, skirted legs crossed primly. She gestured for Janis to sit straighter. Janis sighed and scooted back in her chair.

Behind Margaret, the Amy-Alicia-Autumn hydra made a show of not acknowledging Janis. Alicia rolled a strand of hair around her finger. Autumn popped a bubble of pink gum and smacked it slowly back into her mouth. Between them, Amy pretended to sleep, her head lolled back.

Finally, something we can agree on.

It felt like the principal had been speaking for two hours, though a glance at the clock in the back of the auditorium showed it had only been twelve minutes. The one saving grace, Janis thought as Principal Munshin exhaled more platitudes, was that he’d promised not to make her say anything. But upon concluding, the principal turned in her direction.

“And now there’s someone who would like to say a few words.”

Janis snapped her head around, the skin beneath her sweater bursting into flames. Oh, you son of a… But instead of finding the principal’s round face smiling toward her, it was aimed past her. Footsteps entered from stage right, solid and clipped. A part of Janis began to shrink in on itself.

The footsteps slowed, and in her peripheral vision, Janis watched Principal Munshin retreat from the podium, hands clasped behind himself. A tall figure moved in to take his place.

“Good morning,” a cold voice said through the auditorium speakers. “My name is Agent Steel.”

“Good morning, Agent Steel!” the auditorium answered in sing-song, a joke that went back to elementary school. Janis didn’t have to look to know that Agent Steel wasn’t smiling.

The auditorium fell silent.

“First, I want to echo what your principal has just said of your fellow student. Janis is exceptionally courageous and has been a great help to our investigation. And will continue to be, I’m sure.”

Janis felt Agent Steel’s frosty eyes on her. She tugged at the cuff of her sweater sleeve as the tide of applause flittered away, her sweat stiffening to beads of ice.

“The perpetrator, as most of you know, was a substitute teacher in your school system. Thomas Leonard. The chances are good that he subbed at least one of your classes over the years. In fact, he was here at Thirteenth Street High on the thirtieth of November, a Friday. Three days before the attack.”

Agent Steel gave a signal, and the auditorium dimmed. The light of a projector shot from the balcony, and Janis followed its dust-speckled beam, twisting in her seat to find an image focusing on the auditorium’s giant screen. The details of a face sharpened and blurred. Murmurs rose from the mass of assembled students. And then Mr. Leonard stared out at them, his chin dipped so that his pale brow seemed to go on forever. The photo looked as though it had come from some government ID photo, which was to say he looked like a serial killer. The image was definitely at odds with how he’d seemed to Janis in those final moments before… before…

Before he stabbed you?

Janis frowned, recalling what Scott had said in the woods almost three weeks before about the likelihood that Mr. Leonard had acted alone — Occam’s razor and all of that. Yet she was still having the dreams about being pursued by a Them, an unrelenting Agent Steel directing the effort.

Janis scanned the auditorium, row by row, until she located Scott. He was seated toward the back. Light from the projector reflected off his glasses, and for an instant, the lenses appeared smashed, made white by a million minuscule cracks. But then his lenses shifted toward her, and Janis breathed again. She wanted to nod her head, to send some signal that she saw him, that she was thinking of him, that he hadn’t become invisible to her. But it was too dangerous, especially here.

The projector died, and the overhead lights swelled.

“Obviously, the perpetrator’s death has deprived the investigation of an important source of information. So I am asking anyone who has any information about him — anything at all — to please tell me. It could be as simple as something he said or did that seemed unusual to you. And if he attempted to contact you outside of the classroom, I would certainly like to know. I will be in the front office every day after school for the next few weeks. Or, if you prefer, you can reach me at a number that your teachers will hand out at the end of the assembly. Any information you share will be kept in strict confidence.”

Where is she going with this?

Janis squinted toward the back of the audience, where staff stood along the wall and in front of the exit doors. But two men caught Janis’s eye. In their corduroy jackets and collared shirts, they looked like teachers, heads tilted in affected interest. One held his bearded chin between his thumb and forefinger. The other stood with his hands behind his back. But the cold fist in Janis’s stomach told her these were not teachers, not at Thirteenth Street High, anyway.

Janis scanned the rest of the auditorium, spotting two more men who didn’t fit, one in an aisle seat to her right, the other across the auditorium to her left. The sight of them delivered the same cold punch to her gut.

“Also,” Agent Steel went on. “If anyone has any information about the attack itself, I would be very interested to hear about that as well — no matter how strange, inconsequential, or off the wall it might seem.”

Agent Steel was managing to make herself sound half approachable, but her frigid vibe continued to envelop Janis. I’m going to dig and dig until I learn the truth. Do you understand me, you little shit? Janis fought the urge to look back at Scott, to make sure the strange men weren’t converging on him and ushering him off. Her gaze went to the Alpha section instead, where Margaret nodded her head as though Agent Steel were the most sensible adult in the world. Alicia and Autumn continued to act out their indifference.

But not Amy.

An odd enthusiasm shone from her eyes. And when she caught Janis looking at her, the corners of her lips spread into a malicious grin.

  • * *

All through English, Janis watched Scott in her peripheral vision. His pen hovered over a spiral notebook as Mrs. Fern lectured. Janis had to get a message to him, to warn him that the situation was even more dangerous than she’d first thought. There was Agent Steel’s resolve, of course, and now those sketchy men who had vanished like chameleons after the assembly.

Janis chewed the top of her pen. She needed to tell him to keep as low a profile as poss—

“What say you, Miss Graystone?”

“Huh?” Janis blinked up at Mrs. Fern, whose owl eyes frowned down on her. “I… I didn’t hear the question.”

“Apparently not. And by that faraway gaze, I’d guess your thoughts were on something, or perhaps someone, rather special.”

Janis felt her cheeks go red as the classroom tittered.

Mrs. Fern held up her hand. “We were discussing Piggy’s glasses. I asked what the significance was of them being damaged. One lens was smashed, if you recall. Chapter four. What did that act herald?”

“It, um…” She shifted in her seat. “It heralded the beginning of the end.”

“In what way?”

“Well, Piggy was the… the thread. Their world was straining at the seams, threatening to spill chaos like pillow stuffing. Piggy tended to overthink things, but he was the only one Ralph could trust. The only one he could confide in.” From the corner of her eye, Janis could see Scott watching her. “When Jack broke Piggy’s glasses, it…” She swallowed. “It all started to come apart.”

“And with Piggy’s untimely death,” Mrs. Fern said gravely, “come apart it did. Their world became an inferno.”

After class, Janis shuffled down A Wing, toward her locker. Scott was ahead of her. She watched him turn a corner, his glasses glinting in the sun, and disappear. She considered running to catch up, but she’d already asked him to trust her intuition. What more could she tell him? To lay even lower?

She regarded the white laces of her Keds, the way they flopped back and forth. She only realized how slowly she was walking when the clacking of three pairs of heels caught up with her. Janis recognized their owners’ voices, but it was too late to outpace them. When the shoes were nearly at Janis’s heels, Amy’s voice became unnaturally loud.

“Oh, do you mind telling my mom I’ll be a few minutes late?”

“Where are you going?” Janis couldn’t tell whether it was Alicia or Autumn.

“To the front office.” Like a pageant contestant, Amy was being careful to enunciate every syllable. “I’m going to have a chat with this Agent Steel. I think I have some information she might be interested in.”

A feverish heat broke throughout Janis’s body, but she kept walking.

“Seriously?” Alicia or Autumn asked.

“She said no matter how strange or seemingly inconsequential, right?”

Janis stepped aside and, with her books balanced across her thigh, knelt as though she needed to tie one of her shoes. When the three A’s had clacked past, Janis followed them at a distance, her heart racing. She’s just bluffing, right? They trotted up the steps to the front office. Using a steel column for cover, Janis peeked around. The three A’s air kissed, and Alicia and Autumn headed toward the auditorium. Amy remained behind, shifting her weight from foot to foot. When Janis stepped from behind the column, Amy started, then quickly averted her gaze. She began to pull the door to the front office open.

“Hey!” Janis called.

Amy paused and turned. Her eyes widened in a show of pleasant surprise. “Oh, I was just going inside to visit your friend,” she said as Janis came up the stairs, two at a time.

“What’s going on?” Janis asked. “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean? I’m doing my civic duty. I’m helping with an investigation.”

Janis glanced through the door’s glass window and saw several students standing in line to use the front office phone. “What are you planning to tell her?”

“I’m afraid that’s between me and Agent Steel. ‘Strictly confidential,’ remember?”

Janis felt her nostrils flaring around her escalating breaths.

“Is there a problem?” Amy eased the door open.

She’s bluffing.

Amy shrugged at Janis’s silence and began to step into the front office.

“Wait a minute,” Janis said in a low voice. Amy backed out of the doorway, eyebrows arched, but her fingers still hooking the door handle. “There’s much more going on here than you realize, Amy. More than you could possibly understand. I said I was sorry for what happened. Just let it go.”

When Amy grinned, something hard shone in her brown eyes. “Did you know I tore a ligament? Did you know I spent three weeks on crutches? Did you know that, because of you, I was passed on for the mall’s Christmas ads? They gave my spot to Rita Kuntz.” Amy spat out the name as though Janis would sympathize. Janis had no idea who Rita Kuntz was. “The photographer said that, even without the bandage, my swollen ankle compromised the shots, made my poses seem unnatural. I needed those shots for my portfolio.”

Tears quivered in Amy’s eyes, and in their distortion, Janis glimpsed something else. A furtive shadow. But she didn’t have time to look closer. “All I can say is I’m sorry,” Janis said. And she was sorry.

“The thing that hit me, that blast. How did you do it?”

“What are you talking about?” Janis asked, wrinkling her brow.

Amy went to pull the door wide again, but Janis’s foot blocked it. “I don’t know,” she said quickly. “I don’t know how I did it. What do you want me to say? What do you want from me?” She couldn’t keep the tears from her own voice. There was so much at stake.

Amy studied her face for a moment. Slowly, the pressure eased from Janis’s foot. The door closed.

“I want you to know defeat for once, Miss Perfect.”

“Defeat?” And where was this “Miss Perfect” coming from?

“I’ll keep what happened between us,” Amy said, “but you have to do what I say.”

What are we, in the fifth grade again?

A gaggle of students exited the front office, passing between them. Through the closing door, Janis spotted Agent Steel entering the front office from the parking lot. Janis jerked back until she was hidden by the building’s brick edifice and then waited for the students to recede from earshot.

“And what’s that?” Janis asked.

Amy grinned as her eyes fell to Janis’s ring. “For starters, I want you to break up with him.”

What?

“You heard me.”

“Amy, there’s no way…”

“You have a week from this coming Monday.”

She must have read Janis’s incredulous silence as acceptance because she released the door handle and began walking toward the auditorium, her brunette hair flipping side to side with each peppy step. “Just be sure to let him down easy,” she sang over her shoulder. “Or on second thought, don’t. He’ll be keener to rebound.”

The odd, trilling laughter that trailed off behind Amy told Janis that her ex-best friend wasn’t toying with her.

She was dead serious.

12

Spruel household

Saturday, February 2, 1985

1:08 a.m.

Scott slipped over his sill and closed the window behind him. He’d taken care to WD-40 the track earlier in the evening, so the window slid smoothly. Juniper bushes concealed him where he ducked. The night was dark, which helped — just a sliver of moon. The only light-colored clothing on Scott’s body was his underwear. He retucked his black hooded sweatshirt into the darkest pair of pants he’d been able to find and cinched the belt tight.

Now for the camera.

Probably a Leonard leftover, but still. Better to play it safe.

Crouching lower, Scott unzipped his JanSport and pulled out the laser helmet. Wires ran from a new power supply to the car battery, which nested in the bottom of the backpack. The metal harness was sitting on a shelf in his metal shop — too bulky for covertness.

Yep, he was on another stealth mission.

Hey pal, he heard the Bud voice saying. Pull these shorts of mine down in back, and maybe you’ll find a needle stick or two. I mean, I’m not saying I juiced, but I’m not saying I didn’t, if you follow. What I am saying is that sometimes you gots to do what you gots to do.

“Yeah, whatever,” Scott whispered.

But Bud had a point. Whenever it came to Janis, Bud seemed to have a point — several of them, whether Scott wanted to hear them or not. In fact, it was the Bud voice that had prodded Scott into action. His isolation from Janis these last weeks had been torture. He, along with Bud, reasoned that if he could identify the Leonard house as the source of the surveillance — phone, video, the whole shebang — then his and Janis’s relationship could resume. They could explore their powers again and become like Cyclops and Jean Grey, maybe.

And what better time than the present, his left arm fresh from its cast.

Scott pulled the helmet down over his ears, then made an adjustment to an add-on he’d built that week — a metal slider that controlled the amount of beam emitted — and clicked on the power. The juniper bushes flickered. A pencil-thin beam shot from the helmet. Scott raised his head until the red beam pierced the bulb of the streetlight. He concentrated on the near end of the beam, watching the orb in his mind’s eye turn from red to orange.

Steadying the helmet with both hands, he let go, feeling the pulse speed the length of the beam. The streetlight shattered with a hollow pop. Scott cringed as glass tinkled onto the pavement.

So much for stealth.

He cut the laser and stowed the helmet back inside his pack, mostly by feel. Without the streetlight, the yard had become midnight dark. He hefted the pack over his shoulder, paused for a breath, and stole around the bushes, down toward the street. At the storm drain, he slid in feet first.

The cement cylinder beneath the drain stank of rotting leaves. He pawed through the muck until he found his Logan Earth Ski skateboard, which he’d “accidentally” rolled into the drain the day before. Not until Scott and skateboard were safely inside the tunnel pointing toward Oakwood’s main street did he risk a light. The flashlight’s beam cast long, haunting shadows. For the first time that night, a morgue-like fear filled Scott’s insides.

Can’t believe I’m doing this again.

His destination was the same as in December — the tunnel that opened onto the culvert — but he was propelling himself toward it from the opposite direction. Five minutes later, he emerged, his hair matted with cold perspiration. Leaving his skateboard in the tunnel this time, he crab-walked down the culvert on fingertips and toes. The houses on both sides loomed in silence. At the Leonards’ chain-link fence, Scott scaled the slanting cement wall.

Something skittered up the wall after him. When it curled between Scott’s legs, he bit back a scream. It wasn’t until the thing pushed its head against his arm and purred as loudly as an idling lawnmower that Scott recognized it — or rather, her.

“Tiger?” he whispered.

He tried to coax the Graystones’ cat down the wall with a little pressure to her ribcage, but Tiger tensed and kept her footing. She made another pass between Scott’s legs, this time with a small meow.

Shh,” Scott whispered, peering around. This was the last thing he needed. He climbed the fence close to a post, where the fence wouldn’t rattle, and eased down the other side. Maybe Tiger wouldn’t follow. He peeked back in time to see her leap up, walk a short way along the metal bar, and then leap down, the bell on her collar giving a small jingle. She pattered through the grass after him.

Scott made a shooing gesture, but Tiger wasn’t a dog. She continued, undeterred.

When Scott reached the shed, he was surprised to find it unlocked. He slipped inside and closed the door just as Tiger’s face appeared in the doorway. He waited a moment, then clicked on the flashlight.

The shed had been cleaned out, the kindling removed. Scott shone the light over the wooden shelves, all bare. The cleanliness of the shed told Scott it had been investigated, every item picked over and studied, and then bagged for further analysis — including scrapings of his blood, apparently. Even the plywood that had once covered the floor was gone. The hatch and square control panel sat in plain sight, but a taut chain, anchored by four large eye screws, crisscrossed the hatch. A brass-colored padlock glinted in the flashlight’s beam.

Scott picked the lock open in less than a minute.

Holding his breath, he drew the chain away with his gloved hands, wincing at every hollow clank. Scott closed his eyes and focused toward the keypad. No current. The circuit was dead. He opened his eyes and pulled open the hatch, standing it on its hinges. He shone the flashlight past the descending rebar rungs, illuminating a familiar basement room.

Could he assume the passive detection field was inactive, too? So far, his findings were consistent with what he had come to believe. The Leonard Creep Show had been shut down, which explained the unlocked shed, the exposed hatch, the disabled magnetic lock…

What about the chain and padlock?

Scott shifted his small beam of light to the pile of chain. Of course the investigators had secured the hatch. They didn’t want some neighborhood kid wandering in and throwing open the lid, only to fall fifteen feet to a cement floor. It suggested standard procedure, not Super Secret Organization. Anyway, without a current, the passive detection field was inoperable. Any kind of battery backup would have run out of juice long before.

Satisfied with his reasoning, Scott stepped into the cement cylinder and climbed down. In the room below, he took his flashlight from his mouth and shone the beam around. The cabinets he’d seen the last time were gone. He followed the corridor to the monitoring room.

Except for the bolts and brackets that had once held twelve black-and-white monitors, the room was naked. Missing, too, was the control panel with its dials, as well as the log book and the military phone. All that remained was the shelf-like desk, still bolted to the wall, and a square of balding carpet underneath. The investigators had even removed the chair. Scott shivered as he remembered its squeaking casters and Mr. Leonard’s hastening footfalls.

Scott aimed his light along the far corridor, where Mr. Leonard had entered that December morning. Setting his bag beneath the shelf-desk, he began to creep after his beam. There probably wasn’t a great need for stealth, not like the last time — after all, it was one thirty in the morning and the house above was vacant — but something about the secret, subterranean world Scott had climbed into, something about the circumstances, seemed to demand it. Even the smallest scuff of his shoe echoed off the cold cement like the most damning incrimination.

Partway down the corridor, a room opened on Scott’s left. He fully expected to find a switchboard cabinet, the room being in closest proximity to where he’d seen the military phone.

But the small room was empty.

As Scott stepped inside, the acoustics made it feel as if the walls were breathing around him. Affixed to two of the walls were what appeared to be large, flat cages. Scott approached one. The cage creaked when he pulled it open. Two rubber-capped prongs reached for the floor. What he’d mistaken for caging was the steel frame and springs of a bunk rack.

Scott examined the frame, which glimmered in the flashlight’s beam. Not a speck of rust. He shone the light over the cement floor, then up at a pair of dark bulbs in the ceiling. Scott propped his chin on his fist, trying to make sense of the room and the newish bunks, but couldn’t. Farther down the corridor, he discovered a larger room with four more of the military-style bunk racks, two each on opposite walls.

Was Mr. Leonard having slumber parties down here? Scott swept the room with his light.[_ Or was he prepping for World War Three?_]

Outlets appeared along the bottom of the wall every few feet, but whatever they’d once powered was — surprise, surprise — gone. His beam crept back to the bunks. Had people been down here the morning he broke in? Scott swallowed as he thought back. He didn’t remember seeing any light from the far corridor, didn’t remember hearing any sounds.

They could’ve been sleeping. They could’ve been—

“Chill out,” Scott whispered, his heart beating wildly.

He’d only heard a single set of footfalls that morning, and they’d belonged to Mr. Leonard. Who knew why the wackadoo had had those bunk racks installed? It certainly didn’t mean anyone was using them. Scott swept his beam over the bunks once more and then wandered from the room. The corridor ended at a flight of wooden steps that led up to the house. He considered taking a peek inside, but the house would be empty too. On two occasions in late December, he’d seen a large moving truck in the Leonards’ driveway, its back abutting the garage door.

Back in the monitoring room, Scott explored the wall around the shelf-desk.

“Bingo,” he whispered.

He shone his light into a PVC pipe embedded in the cement beneath the desk. Using his fingers as tweezers, he reached inside and drew out a cable. Wires blossomed from the end in a colorful spray.

Scott wasted no time getting his backpack open. He set his military phone on its side and, with a few firm twists of wire, connected the phone to whatever system Mr. Leonard had rigged up down here. Scott flipped a switch on the phone and held the receiver to his ear. No dial tone, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected. With the part of himself that hungered for access and distances, Scott could feel the living connection.

He concentrated, teeth grinding together, as his world compressed to a point. He could almost taste the grease and metal of the old phone. And then he was inside the phone system, shooting off in all directions.

Whoa, whoa, whoa!

He reined himself back toward the phone as electrical current burned and crackled around him. From the military phone, he felt his way along the cable, expecting at any moment to discover the small box-shaped signature that had been listening in on his home phone — to all of their home phones — for the last four months. Once he established the switchboard’s presence, mission accomplished: no more Them.

However, instead of a box, Scott arrived at what felt like a small hub. From there, the current branched off in five different directions.

Not cool.

One at a time, he followed each divergent cable. They led not to switchboards but to what felt like more phones. And the cables terminated at each one, like spokes on a tire. Scott backtracked to the hub, then along the main cable to his military phone. He concentrated and, seconds later, opened his eyes.

As he did every time he left a system, Scott felt a child’s disappointment guttering in his stomach — and beneath that, a seething anger. He suppressed both emotions and recalled what he knew of military phones. Soldiers used them in battle, of course, but security-minded paranoids — like Mr. Leonard — were also known to use them for communication off the grid.

But to communicate with whom?

Military phones were only good for a few hundred meters of communication, a mile tops, so the other phones would have to be close. But how close? Scott reached into his backpack and pulled out a voice-activated tape recorder. The other thing about a network of military phones was that the connection was always open. Anyone speaking on one of the phones could be heard by all of the others.

He held the receiver to his ear again. The line was quiet, a one-forty-in-the-morning kind of quiet, but that could change over the next twenty-four hours. Scott set the recorder down, alligator-clipped it to the cable, and depressed the recorder’s power switch. The instant someone spoke, the recorder would kick to life; whatever voice data came through the cable would land on the fresh tape.

Scott pulled a roll of duct tape from his pack and secured the recorder to the underside of the desk, out of sight. With another length of tape, he affixed the cable to the wall, covering the alligator clips.

Back inside the shed, Scott lowered the hatch lid and chained and padlocked it closed. Fatigue smoldered in his eyes and draped his limbs like chains. He had been anticipating his triumphant declaration to Janis that she had nothing to fear — that he, Scott Spruel, had solved the puzzle. But, no. He had only thrown a curtain open on more questions. And to even begin to answer them, he was going to have to return the next night to retrieve the tape.

Hooray for me.

He was preparing to push the shed door open when he thought to listen through it.

Terror blew his weariness to dust. The footfalls crossing the lawn were soft, but their weight and cadence were all too human. And they were coming toward him.

Scott swung his beam toward the hatch door before remembering he’d replaced the chain. The time required to remove the chain, not to mention the noise it would make…

No, not an option.

He stood the flashlight bulb-end down on the cement floor and slipped his pack off. His eyes felt lemur sized in the scant light. The footsteps came nearer. Scott fought with the backpack’s zipper before getting it open. My suit, I need my suit! He dug as quietly as he could. He had the helmet in both hands when the footsteps paused mere feet from the door.

Someone chuckled, then spoke in a murmur — a man’s voice. Purrs bubbled into Scott’s hearing. The man had stopped to pet Tiger.

All right, kitty, just buy me a minute here. One minute to lock the shed door.

It took Scott ten seconds to select the tension wrench and pick from his wallet and insert both into the door’s lock. Did he remember the sequence? The first two pins he chose stuck along the shear line. A third pin followed. Outside, the purring and occasional murmuring continued. Something in the texture of the voice sounded familiar to Scott, but he couldn’t think about that now. He chose a fourth pin, and then — when the others didn’t fall out — pushed the fifth pin home with confidence. Tiger mewled softly, a question, and the footsteps resumed.

Just have to turn the damn wrench the right way this time.

Eyelids pressed tight, heart pounding, Scott eased the tension wrench to the left.

The footsteps stopped outside. The shed doors creaked, then strained against one another.

Scott nearly collapsed in relief. He had turned it the right way. The bolt had slid home.

The mysterious visitor tried the doors again. Then he stood there. Oh, god, please don’t have a key. A minute passed before the footsteps departed in the direction of the gate leading to the Leonards’ driveway. Scott waited another five minutes before unlocking the shed door and stealing home by way of the storm drains.

13

Graystone cul-de-sac

Saturday, February 2, 1985

8:16 p.m.

“So we’re breaking up?”

“No, I…” Janis resisted pulling a strand of hair around to her nose. “It’s not a breakup. It’s just a break.”

“I don’t understand.”

In the bluish light of the console, Blake’s face appeared wan. Not an hour earlier, they’d been sitting across from the other at Mr. Han, Janis’s favorite restaurant, celebrating her fifteenth birthday. They joked about the names of their dishes; they fumbled with the chopsticks; they laughed honest laughter. For the first time since the stabbing, Janis had begun to feel like her old self. The plan had been for Blake to join her and her family for birthday cake at home afterward.

But they never made it inside. When Blake pulled the emergency brake and leaned toward her, Janis had stopped him.

Kissing him suddenly felt dishonest.

“I don’t understand either,” she said after a moment.

“Then talk it out. Talk to me.” Blake’s indigo eyes implored her.

Janis looked down where her fingers fidgeted with the zipper on her letter jacket. “What happened in December, Blake… I thought after coming home from Denver, life would go back to normal — not right away, but eventually, you know? Like one of those snow globes that gets shaken up but then the flakes settle. But everything’s as chaotic as ever.”

“You mean the attention at school?”

“Yeah, that. But it’s more than that. There’s this never-ending investigation, there’s my parents…”

Blake’s brows drew together. “What about your parents?”

Janis peeked toward her house. Her parents were inside, her father probably in his study, her mother spreading the special checkered tablecloth reserved for birthdays over the kitchen table. Janis hadn’t meant to open that door. “It’s nothing.” She shook her head. “It’s just…” She glanced up at Blake, who continued frowning with concern. “They don’t talk anymore.”

“At all?”

“I mean, they talk but not like they used to. They talk because they have to.”

Blake’s fingers climbed into the hair above the back of her neck, and she felt the warmth of his hand against her skin. She tensed briefly, then closed her eyes. In the next moment, she was against his shoulder. A whisper of Drakkar Noir mingled with the comforting scent of his leather jacket.

“Your parents have been through a lot, too,” he murmured through her hair. “It’s going to be all right.”

Her father spent most evenings in his study with the door closed. Occasionally, she could hear him on his phone, his muffled voice low and stern, like it had sounded that night in Denver. And her mother, when not performing her domestic duties, burrowed deeper into her studies. She had registered for three college courses that semester, in defiance of Janis’s father. The original agreement had been for her to take one at a time, two tops.

“I want to see you through this,” Blake said.

“I know, but it’s not that easy.” There’s Amy.

All week, Janis had been planning to defy her, to dare her to go to Agent Steel with her story of being blasted at Dress-up Night. But what would Amy do if pushed? There had been her strange talk about Janis being “Little Miss Perfect,” about wanting her to suffer.

And Janis remembered the disturbing shadow that had flitted behind Amy’s eyes.

Janis examined the ring hugging her finger. The most honest course would be to explain it all to Blake, starting from the beginning: her powers, Mr. Leonard’s warning, Agent Steel, Amy’s threat. [_So you see, we just have to _]pretend [_to be broken up until the investigation ends and Agent Steel says so long. Otherwise, she’ll know about my powers. She’ll dig deeper with her investigation, threatening me, threatening Scott, pushing my parents further to the brink. _]Janis thought about the strange men she’d spied at the assembly the previous week. She thought about the Leonards’ warnings and her own recurring nightmare. Beyond the windshield and up the street, Scott’s bedroom window shone like a faint penlight.

Janis’s gaze fell to the gray knit gloves she’d set on the dashboard. If she came clean, Blake would want some kind of proof. But, absent emotional distress, Janis hadn’t been able to summon her powers at will. Would this time be any different? She squinted as she concentrated on the leftmost glove. Slowly, the smell of the sea grew inside her nose. Her skin tingled.

It’s happening…

The first finger of the glove vibrated, then jerked.

It’s working!

Janis felt herself conjoining with the glove, as though the space separating them was filled with living threads. The second finger of the glove began hopping, then the third. Soon, the entire glove looked like something out of a Herbie Hancock video.

Blake’s eyes must have been closed because he didn’t move; his breathing above her remained even.

At last, the glove slid from the dashboard and fell into the footwell, out of sight.

“Maybe you’re making it harder than it needs to be,” Blake said.

Janis leaned away. “What do you mean?”

“It’s something I’ve noticed about you. When you’re upset, you turn away from those who care about you, who want to help the most. It’s like you’d rather take on the world alone. And that’s what I’m telling you. You don’t have to.”

“It’s not always a choice.”

“No? What do you call it, then?”

Janis’s gaze fell to the glove lying across her shoe. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Because you’re not explaining it to me. Make me understand, Janis.”

“I can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

She swallowed. “All right, do you see that glove?” She nodded toward the one remaining on the dashboard.

Blake’s head turned. “Yeah?”

Janis’s heart hammered beneath her sweater. If she showed him, there was no going back. It was a threshold she couldn’t uncross. She concentrated again. The smell of the sea crept back into her nose; the electrical pulses tingled over her skin, connecting her with apparently empty space, connecting her to the glove. She felt the fabric of the glove’s first finger begin to stiffen as a low vibration hummed between her ears.

Just a little more concentration…

But then she understood the impossibility of it. The sensations faded, and the glove’s finger went slack.

Blake wasn’t Scott.

“It’s for the right hand,” Janis said lamely, picking up the glove. “The other one’s down here.” She stooped and retrieved the glove from the floor, her thoughts racing to come up with something sensible. She held the gloves together. “They’re perfect complements, see? Right hand, left hand.”

Blake’s brow wrinkled. “I’m not following you.”

“To make you understand what’s happening with me, I would have to know that we were complements. That this…” She gestured between them. “That this was it. You’re wonderful, Blake, more than wonderful, but we’ve really only been together for, what… three, three and a half months?”

“Is there someone else?”

“Someone…? Of course not!” Blood rushed to her face.

Blake held his brow and took a deep breath. “Amy Pavoni came up to me the other day at my locker and told me to be careful. She said, and I quote, ‘What you don’t know about your girlfriend could fill a book.’ Normally, I wouldn’t take stock in what Amy had to say — and I didn’t at the time — but it sounds like you’re confirming what she told me.”

Janis bristled. “I think your first instinct about Amy was the right one.”

“Well, what could she know that I don’t?” Janis was picking up an edge in his voice.

“I don’t know, Blake. Considering that I made her sprain her ankle at Dress-up Night, jeopardizing her precious modeling career, I’m guessing she would say and do anything to get back at me.” Anger seeped into her voice. “And that apparently includes planting doubts inside my boyfriend’s head.”

“She said something else.”

Janis’s heart leapt into her throat, but she forced her eyes to roll. “What?”

“She said you spend half of English class every day staring at Scott Spruel.”

“And you believe her?”

“Should I?”

“What do you think?” Scott’s distant window felt like a spotlight.

Blake sat back in his seat and sighed. “I know. I just…” He ran both hands through his feathered hair. “I thought you and I were solid. Especially after getting through last month.” He blinked three times quickly. It was the closest Janis had ever seen him come to tears.

“It’s just a break,” she said, more gently now.

“Until the flakes settle?”

“Until the flakes settle.”

When he smiled, his dimples looked sad. “Can you promise me they will?” he asked.

Janis thought of her parents, waiting inside but not talking to one another.

“I… I have to go.” She pushed her gloves into the pocket of her jacket. “I’m sorry.” She touched his hand, which lay on his thigh. She considered kissing him, but it still felt dishonest.

“Oh.” She twisted the ring from her finger. “You should hold onto this.”

He held up a palm. “I meant that as a gift, not a loaner.”

“I know, but…” She continued to hold the ring out. “It would make it easier.”

After a moment, he nodded — more to himself than to her — and slipped the ring into the front pocket of his shirt. Only when Janis was at the front door and the taillights of Blake’s car had climbed the hill of her short street and disappeared did she begin to wonder what she had done.

  • * *

The tapping on her bedroom door didn’t surprise Janis. It was still early, only quarter after nine, but she was already in bed, her highlighted copy of Lord of the Flies facedown across her stomach. At the family party, she’d managed to eat a small wedge of cake (double chocolate with maraschino cherries, her birthday dessert of choice since she turned five) and to unwrap her presents, but she’d said little. Her father asked where Blake was, to which she replied, “Home.” No one had asked again. Janis figured it was only a matter of time before one of them came to check on her.

“Come in,” she called.

The door opened, and her mother appeared. “Hey, hon.”

“Hey.” Janis scooted over to make room for her on the bedside.

“Do you want to talk about whatever’s eating at you?”

Janis shook her head.

Her mother sat and nodded toward the dresser. “That’s the brand you like, right?”

Janis followed her gaze to the new honey-colored softball glove leaning against her trophies. “Yeah, thanks. Course, I won’t be able to break it in until the doctor gives me the green light.”

“That should happen soon.”

“If you call two months ‘soon.’ Half the season will be over by then.”

Her mother smiled and stroked her hair. “We’re all just glad you’re on the mend. So what’s going on with you and Blake?”

“What’s going on with you and Dad?”

Her mother’s fingers paused. “What do you mean?”

“Ever since… you know… what happened, you just don’t seem the same.”

“Well, we were worried about you, Janis. We’re still a little worried. We want to know you’re all right.” But even as she said this, the lines around her eyes appeared to waver. She gave Janis’s hair a final stroke, then clasped her hands together in her lap. “Your father and I are fine.”

[_Fine? Give me a break. _]“Well, what were you arguing about that night in Denver?”

“What night?”

“When I was coming back from the bathroom?”

“Oh.” Her mother fell silent for a moment. “What did you hear?”

“Your raised voices. You sounded upset. Dad sounded mad.”

Her mother looked toward the ceiling as though she was about to pray. “What you have to understand, Janis, is that when you’re a parent, your children are everything. And when something happens to one of them, like what happened to you, our instinct is to blame ourselves.”

Janis sighed and reached for her mother’s hand. “It wasn’t your fault.” Her skin felt like crepe paper. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

When her mother tried to smile, her face appeared on the verge of collapsing. She inhaled, pulling herself together. “You’re our baby. We just want to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. That’s what your father and I were discussing in Denver. We’re fine. We’re all going to be fine.”

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

And now Janis knew how Blake must have felt earlier that evening, because when she sat up to receive her mother’s hug, she found herself wishing she could believe her.

  • * *

Janis awoke in the backyard, the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the out-of-body state filling her senses. It was her first experience since before she’d been stabbed — the first one she could remember, anyway. Janis rotated, her feet skirting the grass. She was in the same spot where she used to awaken, beside the island of oak trees and azalea bushes, just out of reach of the English ivy. Only, where the yard used to appear dark, its edges suffused with supernatural light, luminous strands now glimmered in the space around her.

All right, this is new…

Janis drifted upward, parallel to the trunk of an oak tree. The broad tree was composed of the same strands that spanned the yard, but these wound around each other in a kind of columnar matrix. Threads linked the tree to other trees. And Janis could feel her own connection to the trees, just as she’d felt her connection to her wool glove earlier that evening, in Blake’s car.

This is how I’m able to influence remote objects. Only they’re not remote. The living connections are all around us.

She thought about her conversation with Mrs. Fern last semester, when her English teacher had described another world, one that supported the physical world, manifested it. “Not a realm of people and objects,” she had told her, “but of the passions and energies that constitute them.” She’d also said the world was beyond the perceptions of most. “It is what makes Janus so special.”

Yeah, so special that she’s being stalked, apparently.

Janis turned from the tree until her gaze came to rest on the tall shrubbery bordering the back of the lawn. She rotated, taking in the entire property line.

Or caged….

Because inside the bushes, where Janis used to feel an impenetrable force — a charge rebuffing another like charge — she could now see a field. It wavered as it rose, lines crisscrossing like latitudes and longitudes on a globe. Above the house, amid the high branches of oak trees, the lines converged to a point. However, the globe-cage wasn’t impenetrable.

Janis flew to the place along the back line of bushes where she had left her yard twice before. The air crackled around her. She didn’t have to probe with her hands now; she could see the disruption in the field, a hole where luminous filaments strained and fluttered like an underwater swimmer’s hair. Janis didn’t slow but let herself be pulled through.

Whoosh.

She peered up and down the culvert. Above her, the Leonards’ old house stood large and dark, its back deck empty. She looked at her own house and saw the field she’d just passed through, appearing fainter from the outside than the inside, shimmering in the night air. And though she was free of the dome, she had no idea where to go or what to do. Her modus operandi for the last month had been to remain distant from those closest to her, if not physically, then emotionally.

Blake had been right about that.

But what about what he’d said about Scott? Okay, maybe she did peek over at him from time to time in English, but so what? She was responsible for him. She was the reason he’d bled in the Leonards’ shed. She was the reason he’d fallen under Agent Steel’s suspicion.

And the recurring dream of his body landing in front of her…

When the Leonards’ shed door creaked open above her, Janis almost screamed. She pressed herself to the bottom of the culvert before remembering she was in her out-of-body state. Incorporeal. A slender figure emerged and peered around, a man. He was dressed in black. From inside his hoodie, a pair of glasses flashed in the low light like ghosts.

Mr. Leonard?

He stepped into the yard and closed the shed door behind him. Janis remembered his parting words: Lay low until I contact you. But Mr. Leonard was dead. And something felt different about this person’s energy. It was cleaner and lighter, more familiar.

Hunkered over, the man moved toward her. Something shifted against his back, a bag. When he reached the fence, he peeked around, then climbed over. He lowered himself down the wall of the culvert, using the tips of his rubber soles for traction. He crouched a few feet from her, and Janis watched their threads seeking one another’s. When the threads touched, Janis shivered warmly, and her incorporeal form pulsed with fresh light.

“Scott?” she whispered.

The man turned and looked straight at her — no, straight through her, his eyes large and startled — before slinking up the culvert. It was Scott, but what in the world was he doing out here?

Janis followed him. Hadn’t she told him not to go back into the Leonards’ basement? Hadn’t she made him promise? But he hadn’t promised. She remembered that now. He had stood on the fallen tree in the twilight, hands in his pocket. “So this is it?” he’d asked her, his voice small and beaten.

She watched him crawl into the tunnel beneath Twenty-first Avenue.

Oh, Scott. What have I gotten you into?

She drifted to the street and down toward his house, the night air alive with dancing threads. She waited above the storm drain until Scott emerged. Their threads touched once more as he gained his feet, then they broke apart like a lingering handhold. Scott stole over the yard and disappeared inside the bushes at the front of his house. Janis followed until something pushed against her, a charge rebuffing a like charge.

And now she could see the faint, wavering lines rising dome-like over his yard and house as well.

Janis circled the dome, searching for any holes like the one that perforated the field in her backyard, but the integrity of this one was sound. She arrived back where she had started, near the storm drain. Hovering, she rested her hand against the push of the field and watched the small glow in Scott’s window until, eventually, the experience faded into dreaming.

14

Spruel household

Sunday, February 3, 1985

1:42 a.m.

Scott shoved his hoodie back and slumped to the floor, his head propped against the windowsill. Behind his closed lids, terror and exhilaration put on a Fourth of July Spectacular. But he was safe. He was safe. There had been the one moment, upon descending into the culvert from the Leonards’ lawn, when he’d felt someone standing behind him. Scott even thought he heard his name. Convinced it was the person who had tried the shed doors the night before, Scott had spun, a cry halfway up his throat.

But he’d been alone.

He illuminated his wristwatch. The timer showed that he’d climbed outside only eighteen minutes before. Not bad, considering that he had to pick several lingering threads of duct tape away from the underside of the shelf-desk, his fingers trembling madly in the flashlight’s beam.

But the reward had been worth the risk. The voice-activated recorder was back in his possession. And judging by the spool on the cassette, it had grabbed at least twenty minutes of conversation.

Scott stood and lowered his blinds, twisting them shut. He tiptoed to the door — prying his feet from his shoes as he went — locked it, then tiptoed in sweat-damp socks to his desk, where he clicked on the swing-arm lamp. He used to sit at the same desk for hours, if not days, lost inside his latest computer hack. The computer was no longer there, but as Scott set the tape recorder down and pressed REWIND, the same excitement pumped through him.

Scott retrieved a pair of headphones from his dresser and pulled them over his ears. He returned in time to catch the rewind button before it popped up with a clack. “All right,” he whispered, easing his finger from the button. “Let’s find out who’s chatting on our little party line.”

He plugged the headphones into the recorder’s jack and pressed PLAY.

The first seconds of clear tape whispered through the headphones. Then came a sound, a man’s clipped voice. Scott pressed the headphone cups to his ears and bowed his head in concentration. Another voice answered.

What the…?

None of it was sensible, as though all the consonants and vowels had been swapped. Are they even speaking English? A third voice entered the conversation, this one belonging to a woman. More nonsense. Then Scott had it.

Aw, crap.

He pulled the headphones from his head by the cord. It was English, all right. Scrambled English. The network was more sophisticated than he realized. To those using the phones, their conversation was as clear as a bell. But to prying ears, like Scott’s, it sounded like perfect gobbledygook. Scott eyed the turning sprockets. [So, a network off the grid _]and _scrambled.

And Scott had learned something else important that night: he was wrong. Whatever Mr. Leonard’s role, he had not been acting solo. That alone was worth the price of admission.

He placed the headphones back over his ears to try to discern something amid the nonsense — anything — but it was futile. He might as well have been listening to Mork from Ork.

Shazbot!

He considered his next move, then groaned. He turned everything off, hid the tape recorder in his closet, swapped his burglar outfit for a T-shirt and sweat pants, and flopped into bed.

It seemed he had a lunch date on Monday.

  • * *

Wayne spewed bits of burger as he spoke. “The malfunctioning robots are called ‘runaways.’ So this one goes berserk and hacks up the family it’s supposed to be serving. A special division on the police force is called in — that’s the runaway squad I was telling you about. They’re trained to hunt down the runaways. Only this robot has a special chip to attack humans.”

“Just take out the chip,” Chun interrupted. “Problem solved.”

“Oh, yeah?” Wayne’s cheeks began to turn pink. “For that one robot, maybe, but what if the chips are being mass-produced by a mad genius?”

Craig leaned over to Scott, his blond hair a cumulous cloud around his flat, gentle face. “Wayne saw that Tom Selleck movie this weekend, Runaway. Now he wants to start his own runaway squad.”

“Then you throw the lunatic in jail,” Chun said. “Shut down the operation.”

“Oh right, just throw him in jail.” Wayne threw his arms out, his laughter sharp and incredulous. “And what’s your plan when Gene Simmons starts shooting smart bullets at you, genius? Or when one of his assassin robots jabs an acid-filled syringe into your neck?”

Chun fingered the purple mole above his nostril. “I just don’t see why you need a special law enforcement division.”

“Oh, you will,” Wayne promised. “You will.”

By Wayne’s slanting eyes, Scott guessed he was imagining all sorts of scenarios in which Chun would one day be accosted by killer robots and require his expert help. Scott cleared his throat; probably not the best opening, but he needed some real-world help.

“Hey, what do you guys know about scramblers?”

Craig and Chun stared at him with blank faces, then went back to work on their chicken sandwiches. Jeez, thanks a lot. He hadn’t expected them to be fountains of information, but he had been counting on them to come up with something — the farther off target, the better so that Wayne would jump over himself to correct them. The alternative, putting the question directly to Wayne and expecting a straight answer, was about as much fun as extracting one’s own molars.

Wayne’s eyes slanted toward Scott. His blue jacket, the kind that looked like a slicker but whose cotton lining took on rain like a sponge, was snapped up to his chin, the large collar swimming around his ears.

“Who wants to know and why?” he asked.

“I was just curious,” Scott said. “They were, um, talking about scramblers on Miami Vice.” It was the best he could come up with on short notice. He just hoped Wayne wasn’t a fan.

Wayne took a long, loud slurp from his cherry-flavored Florida Frost, smacked his red lips, paused, and then took another slurp. “That all depends on what kind of scrambling you’re talking about,” he gurgled. “Do you mean simple inversion? Bandshift inversion? Cyclical bandshift inversion? Time division? Special time division? Frequency—”

“All right, all right. I don’t know.”

Wayne folded his napkin into a small square and dabbed the upturned corners of his lips. He had just heard his three favorite words coming from Scott’s mouth: an “I” and a “don’t” followed by a “know.”

Scott spoke carefully. “But if I was in the market for one, where would I, you know, shop around?”

Anyplace that sold scramblers would also sell descramblers, Scott reasoned. Then he could talk to a real expert — someone who wasn’t Wayne — and decide what kind of device he would need.

“Nowhere around here, I can tell you that,” Wayne said. “You’re looking at mail order. I might know of a few companies.” He lifted his burger back to his mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly.

“Which ones?” Scott asked.

Wayne peered over the top of his sesame bun. “Which ones, what?”

“Which companies might you know of?”

“Oh, probably none you’ve ever heard of.”

Scott gritted his teeth. “Can you at least tell me their names?”

Wayne dabbed his mouth again and inspected the napkin, suddenly interested in his cleanliness. “What’s it worth to you?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Scott turned to Craig and Chun. “Do either of you know?”

They shook their heads. A dollop of mustard landed on Chun’s green MIT Winter Camp sweatshirt, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.

Still grinning, Wayne spread his finger and thumb the length of his mustache.

“All right, what do you want?” Scott asked.

“No, the question, my friend, is what do you want? I quote you a price; you pay me in cash; I contact the supplier; the supplier ships me the equipment; I deliver the equipment to you.”

“That’s it?”

“Well there is my standard commission. Twenty percent.”

Twenty percent?

Wayne blinked. “Eighteen.”

Scott ran his hand through his hair and looked around. Craig and Chun were still staring at him, jaws churning. If one of you two dimwits had just spoken up earlier… Scott sighed. “Fine. Eighteen percent.”

Wayne grinned and rubbed his hands together. “What’s your item of interest?”

“It’s a descrambler for a phone system. A military phone system. Well, that’s what Tubbs told Crockett, anyway. I’d just like to get my hands on one. You know, play around with it, see how it works.”

Scott expected Wayne to laugh and say something cutting, but instead he squinted toward the ceiling. Now that they had come to business terms, Wayne’s mind had switched to problem-solving mode. “If we’re talking about phones, the scramble wouldn’t involve frequency inversion, unh-uh.” Wayne drummed his smallish fingers against his chin. “My guess is time division. That’s where the audio is sliced up and rearranged.”

Right! Scott nearly blurted out. That’s exactly what the voices sounded like!

“Yup, you want a device that puts the pieces back together. I’ll call Zeph this evening. He’s a supplier out in California.”

“You’re on a first-name basis with these people?”

“As far as price, I’ll go ahead and put it in the ballpark of sixty-two fifty… five bucks S and H… plus my standard eighteen percent… Let’s just say eighty even.”

Scott pulled four twenties from his wallet, almost all of his Christmas money, and slid the bills across the table. Wayne’s eyes lit up. He tapped the bills into a stack, folded the stack in half, and pushed it into his jacket pocket.

“So when can I expect the descrambler?” Scott asked.

“Please allow six to eight weeks for delivery,” Wayne answered in monotone.

“Six to…? I can’t wait that long!”

Wayne shrugged. “I’m just a middleman.” He turned back to Chun. “Oh, and there’s another reason for a special police division. Let’s say a batch of runaways started reprogramming the phone system so that only they could communicate through it. Your average police officer…”

Scott tuned him out. He thought about the cassette, which he’d moved from his closet to the workshop in the garage that morning, hiding it in the back of the workbench. The tape was the key to his growing pile of questions. But six to eight weeks? What was he going to do for six to eight weeks? Then he remembered what Mr. Shine had told him on the first day of school.

“And that’s assuming their technology curriculum is current.” Wayne laughed sharply. “Which I highly doubt.”

“Oh, cut the crap,” Scott said.

Wayne’s head jerked as though he’d been slapped. “What did you say?”

“You’re never going to start any ‘runaway division.’”

Craig and Chun stopped chewing. Their wide gazes crept toward one another, then over at Wayne. Red smudges had already begun to anger Wayne’s cheeks.

“Look, you’re obviously well connected. You’re helping me get a descrambler, and that’s great. I’m impressed. But you said it yourself: you’re a middle man. What do you know about investigative work? I mean that’s nine tenths of policing right there.” The nine tenths figure had come straight out of Scott’s butt, but Wayne didn’t need to know that. Anyway, his lips were too busy sputtering.

Scott held up his palm. “Here’s an easy question. If someone needed you to find out about housing transactions, where would you look? Home purchases, sales — that sort of thing.”

“The County Recorder.” Wayne said it all at once.

“What’s that?”

“A government office downtown. It’s where they keep copies of deeds, mortgages, birth certificates, death certificates, official stuff.” He was talking as though he was on The $10,000 Pyramid.

“So anyone can go there and access that information?”

“It’s public record.”

“Really?”

When Wayne saw that he had answered the question to Scott’s satisfaction, he crossed his arms and grinned as if to ask, What else have you got, dillweed?

Scott gazed past him. Beyond the plate-glass window, the midday traffic was drying up on Thirteenth Street. The lunch hour was almost over. Scott wasn’t sure what a search of housing transactions in Oakwood would turn up, if anything, but the idea of the neighborhood being cordoned off for a year…

“Do you think the office keeps a digital database of that information?” Scott asked.

“If not, you can bet there’s one under development. Wake up, Scott-o, it’s the eighties.”

“Probably hard to hack into, though.”

“A government site? Ha!”

Even Craig and Chun laughed at the idea. The notion of it as a challenging hack was ludicrous, but Scott couldn’t afford to take chances. His phone line was still being monitored, which meant any hacking he attempted from either of his home lines would be monitored too. He would need to use someone else’s line.

Or better yet, have someone else do the hacking for him.

“I have a challenge for you,” Scott said.

Wayne squinted in a way that suggested that whatever challenge Scott had in mind was already well beneath his skill level. Craig and Chun’s faces glowed with excitement. The shirt beneath Craig’s gray sweatshirt was on backward, Scott noticed, the frayed tag poking out beneath his Adam’s apple.

“There’s about eighty houses in my neighborhood,” Scott said. “And I’m guessing there’s about the same number in yours.”

“Eighty-two and seventy-nine,” Wayne corrected him.

“Fine.” Scott didn’t bother asking how he knew. “The first one to access and print off the housing records for the other person’s neighborhood wins. And it has to be every house. I’ll even let you use Craig and Chun as assistants.”

“What are we playing for?” Wayne asked.

Scott could see in the way Wayne was sitting, his neck periscope-straight, shallow chest thrust forward, that Scott had him. Just the idea of Wayne getting to measure his hacking powers against Scott’s was incentive enough. But having spectators, even Craig and Chun — that sealed it. What Wayne didn’t know, of course, was that he had no intention of looking up a single house in Wayne’s neighborhood. Manipulative? Dirty? Cheap? Sure, all of those.

“How about a Runaway movie poster?” Scott said. “Something to hang up in your office some day?”

Wayne smirked, his stained lips twisting over one another. He reached across the table, wrapped his ice-cold hand around Scott’s, and gave it a hard pump. “Prepare to be humiliated.”

  • * *

That afternoon, Scott went to his hidden workshop in the back of the garage. He didn’t own a descrambler yet, no, but he had almost two weeks’ worth of neighborhood traffic data to input into his database. He’d fallen behind on that chore, possibly because the data was about as interesting as the daily tide reports in the Gainesville Sun.

As his TRS-80 booted up, Scott pulled out the folded piece of paper on which he’d logged cars and times and smoothed it out on the workbench. He loaded a floppy and for the next forty minutes punched the data into the respective fields for the roughly four hundred car trips in and out of Oakwood. Upon finishing, he entered a series of queries and scanned the results, his fist propping up his chin.

Pretty much what he’d expected. People going to and from work, to and from daily errands. The predictability was actually a little haunting. But now Scott saw something that made his face dip toward the screen.

“What do we have here?” he murmured.

Beginning on January seventh, a new data pattern had begun to emerge. Cars he hadn’t observed on the earlier dates were leaving the neighborhood anywhere from seven o’clock to seven fifteen each weekday morning. January seventh, January seventh. What was going on January seventh?

Of course! The start of school.

But he knew some of the cars’ owners, and none of them had kids or were kids themselves. Besides himself, Jesse, the Basts, and the Graystones, there were no other kids in Oakwood. Could these be teachers? Possibly. But he was looking at data on five separate cars from five separate houses, and on any given day, only one was leaving the neighborhood during that early slot.

Scott punched in a new query and studied the results. Even stranger. The cars weren’t departing the neighborhood on any particular morning. That, he could have understood: a Monday-morning class for the community college professor or a Tuesday-morning mall walk for the aging widower. No, nothing like that. The pattern looked about as random as the casting of dice.

And why that time?

Scott created a new database, exporting only the new batch of cars. He went date by date, picturing the cars he had inputted backing out of driveways, emerging from the Downs, descending from the Grove. He closed his eyes so he could see the cars more clearly. He watched them dwindle down the main street, toward the traffic on Sixteenth Avenue, their turn signals flashing.

But the cars were never alone. Scott’s eyelids popped open.

Every time, there had been another car ahead of them. A car he had never bothered inputting: Jesse’s black 1970 Chevelle.

15

Friday, February 22, 1985

11:48 p.m.

Metallica screamed from the Chevelle’s speakers as cold air battered through the open windows, slapping Tyler’s head. His shoulders were nearly touching in the front to keep the cold out of his jacket.

“Where the hell are we?” he cried.

They’d left Gainesville behind some ten minutes before, and from Tyler’s backseat vantage, peering past Jesse’s and his brother’s shoulders, it looked like they were hurtling into infinite night. No streetlights — just two lanes of gray road rolling out in front of the car’s beams, pastureland on either side. Squinting, Tyler took a final drag on his cigarette, then pitched it out the window behind Creed’s flapping hair. His brother had his bowler hat pinned between his knees and was nodding his head to the music.

Tyler nudged his shoulder. “Where are we!”

“Archer,” Creed yelled back.

“What’s in Archer?”

Jesse and Creed had apparently made their plans while Tyler was using the john at the pool hall.

“Privacy.”

“Privacy? What’s wrong with Gainesville?”

Hair blew over Creed’s face as he shook his head. “Too many goddamned cruisers. City, county, university.” He wiped his face. “Just itching to shine their light into a parked car. Naw, ain’t nothing out here. Just clean, country air and good ol’ Mary Jane.”

“Who’s Mary Jane?” Tyler shouted.

Creed dug into his jacket pocket and came back with a rolled-up Ziploc bag. When he held it up, the baggie unfurled and rippled in the wind. Tyler saw clumps of marijuana strewn along the bottom. “Tyler, meet Mary Jane. Mary Jane, meet Tyler.” Creed grinned before stuffing the baggie away again. “You two are about to become well acquainted.”

Tyler sat back in his seat. He’d been smoking cigarettes since he was twelve, but he’d never touched drugs. He couldn’t afford to lose control. Not after What Happened. He glanced around, feeling trapped. Through the rear window, a pair of headlights pricked through the darkness, maybe a half mile back. For some reason, the back of his neck began to prickle.

“Hey, there’s someone behind us,” he called.

Jesse turned the volume down on the stereo. His flat eyes appeared in the rearview mirror. “So?” he said.

“It’s almost midnight, and we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Creed squinted above his small oval shades. “Probably just a farmer coming home after a few beers in town. He ain’t gonna mess with us. And if he does…” Creed held up his gloved hand and giggled. “Time to meet the butcher.”

“Turnoff’s up ahead,” Jesse said.

They rounded a bend, and the headlights behind them disappeared behind a bank of trees. Jesse slowed and swerved onto a dirt road — twin tracks of sand through the weeds — that ran past a leaning metal gate and into a plot of woods. The Chevelle’s headlights bounced up and down scrub oaks and pines, painting their trunks white, then shot out over a downsloping field. Jesse killed the lights and engine, and they all listened. Seconds later, the car that had been behind them hissed along the asphalt road, not slowing. The sound faded into the night.

Creed laughed. “You haven’t taken your first hit yet, and already you’re paranoid.”

“Yeah, well, after what Scott said…”

“After what Scott said,” Creed mimicked. “Shit, he’d say he was Ozzie Ozborne’s love child if he thought it’d save his skin. And he’s not gonna be saying much of anything after I deal with him.”

Tyler shook his head. “It’s history, man.”

Creed spun and jabbed his finger over the seat. “Speak for yourself. That four-eyed twerp didn’t laser-blast you into the woods.”

“C’mon.” Jesse pushed his door open. The car gave a seismic heave as he stood.

Creed glared at Tyler another second, then turned and climbed out himself. Jesse yanked up a section of barbed wire fencing, uprooting three wooden fence posts, and held the strands for Creed and Tyler to walk under. Tyler waited for Jesse to duck underneath and then watched him and Creed stroll into the moonlit field. A large oak stood nearby, and Creed squatted beneath it, fishing the crinkling baggie from his pocket. Away down the hill, Tyler could make out a herd of cows standing around a pond.

“Hey, I’m going to take a leak,” he called, not waiting for an answer.

He walked along the fence back toward the road, stepping over the occasional cow pie. Tall grass whisked around his pant legs. He looked back at where Jesse and Creed moved as shadows and then up at the huge night sky, where stars swirled cloudlike around a half moon. It looked beautiful in an out-of-this-world way, like something from a Pink Floyd song.

But when Tyler inhaled, a deep unease moved through him.

The feeling didn’t just come from being in the middle of a random field with Jesse, Creed, and Mary Jane. And he couldn’t chalk it up to school, either, even though Thirteenth Street High had mailed his mother three failing slips in the last week (not that she’d read them or would’ve cared even if she had). No, the unease came from Scott’s warning to them about being watched. It came from the obsessive thoughts Tyler had been having ever since, thoughts about What Happened. The memories began with the headlights of his father’s truck shooting through the red curtains that New Year’s Eve night.

And then Tyler was there, reliving the experience, moment by moment.

  • * *

His mother gasped awake on the couch, as though she’d been plunged underwater and was just coming up for air. She blinked at Tyler and then at where the truck lights were dimming, the red cast falling from her face. Her fingers dug into his shoulder.

“Go on, Mom.” Fear stripped Tyler’s voice to a naked whisper. “Get upstairs.”

She had always been in bed when Tyler’s father came home, Creed and Tyler, too, their bedroom doors locked. Alcohol went down one of two ways with his dad: either to the good place, where he’d laugh and effuse like a new groom, and she’d let him into their bedroom, or to the bad, where he’d accuse her of “running the streets” and use the foulest words Tyler had ever heard a woman called. On the worst nights, his father would threaten to kill her unless she opened her door. Those were the nights Creed and Tyler took turns stepping out into the hallway.

The truck door slammed shut, and Tyler’s mother cringed. A shadow passed the curtains. Throwing the afghan off himself, Tyler hurried to the door. The staggering scuff of engineer boots mere feet away, he twisted the dead bolt. His mother remained on the sofa, staring blank-faced at the black-and-white television, where Dick Clark grinned back at her.

“C’mon, Mom,” Tyler said, waving for her to follow him upstairs.

She didn’t move. Outside, keys jingled on a ring.

Mom,” Tyler whispered. When he took her by the arm, her skin felt cool and claylike, as though she’d already surrendered to whatever horror might come through the door.

The keys fumbled and landed on concrete. “Shit!” a voice barked.

At twelve, Tyler was no bigger than his mother, but he scooped her up like a roll of sagging carpet and held her to his chest. He tottered back from the couch. Outside, the keys skittered, as if they’d been kicked. His father swore again. Tyler stumbled past the wooden coffee table, nearly falling.

“He’s going to kill me,” his mother mumbled, her lips pale and waxy.

A fist pounded on the front door, rattling the walls throughout the house.

Tyler hiked his mother higher and took three lurching steps toward the staircase. He tripped over something and landed on his elbows. His mother shook with the impact but didn’t so much as murmur.

More pounding on the front door. “Hey, I’m locked out!”

“Can you walk?” Tyler whispered.

His mother’s eyes stared, but she didn’t answer.

Tyler managed to work her up and over his shoulder. He hugged her sweatpants-clad legs. Beneath the baked-in smoke, Tyler could smell the corrosive sweetness that had come off her drink earlier. He pictured the alcohol oozing from her skin. When he reached the stairs, Tyler hiked her and used his free hand to grasp the wooden stair rail.

The knocking at the front door ceased, but the sound of jangling keys returned.

Tyler grunted through clenched teeth as he tried to climb faster. The loose rail rattled in his grasp. His mother’s fingers bounced against the backs of his straining knees. When he reached the top of the stairs two things happened: the front door opened, and the banister broke from the wall.

There was a moment of unreality as Tyler teetered in space with nothing to hold on to. Then he heaved his mother forward, managing to set her bottom on the top step. Her trunk flopped backward into the carpeted hallway as his own body began to fall away. His shoulder blade hit first, and then his legs passed over his head. Time slowed. Carpet, wood paneling, and cheap plaster cycled through his vision. Amid the images, Tyler caught glimpses of his father’s engineer boots stepping into the house. The front door slammed behind him.

Tyler landed spread eagle and quickly pulled his legs in.

“What in the hell are you doing?”

Tyler pushed himself to his feet. The severe face of his father spun in front of him. Underneath his jean jacket, he was wearing a thick, red-checked flannel shirt. “I… I fell,” Tyler said.

“You broke the damn banister is what you did.”

Tyler peeked around. The stair rail had slid some of the way down with him and now jutted out into the front hallway. At the top of the dark stairwell, his mother’s legs were a pair of shadows.

“You drunk, son?”

“No.”

“Where’s your mother?”

Tyler’s bladder spasmed, leaking urine. “In bed.”

“What are you still doing up?”

Tyler nodded toward the television. “I was watching the ball drop.”

His father strode over and slapped the knob on the television. The screen shrank to a point of light, then went dark.

“Anyone else been here tonight?”

“No.”

His father stared at him, then stripped his jacket and tossed it over the couch. Sighing, he pushed his hands through his thick hair. “All right. Get to bed. I’m headed there myself.”

But Tyler remained in front of the stairwell. If his father discovered his mother laid out, there was no telling what he’d do to her. Tyler tried to swallow, but the air was too dry. Electricity crackled around him.

“You deaf?” His father stood straight. “I said get to bed.”

Tyler cleared his throat to give his words more force. “You should sleep on the couch tonight.”

His father stared at him, brows, mustache and thick sideburns collapsing toward each other. “You telling me where to sleep in my own house?” He pushed his sleeves up. Long underwear hugged his hairy forearms. “Huh? You telling me where to sleep in my own goddamned house?”

Tyler stiffened. If his father got much nearer, he’d see his mother, and Tyler had already gotten a whiff of his mood: Anyone else been here tonight? That’s how it would start, him shouting that question in her face, fist raised. And when she didn’t answer…

Tyler took two steps forward.

His father drew up in front of him. “You the man of the house now, that it? What do you think you’re gonna do?”

“You’ve been drinking.”

“I’m gonna say this one more time.” His father bent forward until their foreheads almost touched. “Get your ass to bed.”

Tyler stared back at him, trying to imagine his own legs as roots, reaching beneath the linoleum, immovable. Instead, he became even more aware of the electricity crackling through the dry air. He had just peeked down at his arm to find his hairs standing like pins when his father’s fist crashed into his head.

Tyler collapsed onto his side, his brain ringing. The blunt toe of his father’s boot caught him in the navel. A sick feeling exploded deep in Tyler’s gut, curling him into a ball.

“I come home ready to make goddamned amends, and I get this smart-mouthed bullshit?”

Tyler whined for air as another kick landed against his arm and two more found his exposed sides. Each one appeared as a bruise-colored starburst behind his clenched eyelids. His father grabbed a handful of hair and hauled him to his feet. Tyler grasped at his father’s arm with both hands, his scalp on fire.

His father’s breath smelled like diesel fumes. “You’re going to bed. Now.”

Tyler tried to answer, to tell him no — he’d already begun shaking his head, or trying to — but the electricity in the air was inside him now, contracting his muscles, locking his jaw.

His father’s gaze jerked to his own wrist, where Tyler’s fingers were clamped into his thick tendons, like hooks.

“Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

His father shook him. A thin whine grew in Tyler’s throat. His teeth clenched together until they felt as if they’d fracture and grind to dust. When his father’s face drew away, something in his eyes had changed. The bullet-like hardness was being replaced by a quivering uncertainty.

“Stop it, son.”

Tyler tried to tell him he wasn’t doing it, but the electricity had him in its violent grip. His muscles felt like they were going to burst their sheaths. His fingers dug between the bones of his father’s wrist.

His father’s face winced. “Stop it, I said.”

I can’t stop! He’d never heard this kind of fear in his father before, and it was scaring the shit out of him. I can’t, I promise! Then Tyler caught a cruel smell. Horrified, he watched the hairs around his father’s forearm begin to curl and ignite in small pops. Thicker hairs flared in bunches. Tyler could feel the heat against his eyeballs.

His father opened his mouth, but whatever he planned to say rose into a babble of shouting as his red-checked flannel shirt burst into flames.

Above them, the fire alarm began to bleat like a stuck sheep.

  • * *

“You taking a dump out there, or what?”

Tyler craned his neck, his gaze passing over the dim, moonlit pasture to where a red point shone under the oak tree. He heard Creed’s high giggle at the same moment a low, mean smell, like burning hair, wafted past. Tyler yanked his shirt collar to his nose and for a second thought he was going to lose his two tacos from El Indio. His brother’s silhouette handed the joint to Jesse, who stooped down for it.

“Be there in a sec,” Tyler called back.

He turned and strode farther away from them, his heart beating hard and high in his chest. He couldn’t keep doing this. Couldn’t keep reliving the events of that night. He’d go crazy.

And his mother’s questions. Do you think he’ll be back? Your father. Think he’ll be back? The deeper she waded into her pills and drink, the more she seemed to ask. She had been half catatonic when it happened, laid out at the top of the stairs, but was she beginning to suspect something? And what about what Scott had said about the cameras? Tyler had searched all around the house in the first days of the new year, looking high and low, and had come up empty. But that didn’t mean anything. After all, surveillance equipment was meant to be hard to find.

And then came the thought that roiled his stomach. Could someone else have seen What Happened that night?

When he was almost to the paved road, he let his shirt collar fall from his nose. The moon cast the asphalt in blue. On the other side of the road, up a short distance, he noticed a parked car — or at least one of its headlights. The rest of the car was concealed by high grass and the low branches of an oak tree. Tyler eased onto his haunches. He listened, but all he heard was the breeze and the occasional cow lowing down the hill. Was the car there when we turned onto the dirt road? He gauged its distance. The beams on the Chevelle would have caught the rectangular headlight, for sure, maybe even flashed over the windshield. But then he remembered that he’d been looking back, watching for the car behind them.

It’s the same car.

After all, there hadn’t been any other cars during the drive out. No cars had passed in the last ten minutes. And now a car was parked across the road from where they’d turned off, in the middle of nowhere.

Too much of a damn coincidence.

Remaining on his haunches, Tyler took several large backward steps. When he could no longer see the car, he spun and raced toward the oak tree.

“There you are,” Creed said. “I was starting to think—”

“Shh!” Tyler pushed his hands toward the ground.

“What the hell’s with you, bro?”

“That car, the one that was behind us…” Tyler paused to control his breathing. “I think it’s out on the road.”

Creed rose from his seat in the grass. Jesse twisted his hulking shoulders.

“How do you know it’s the same one?” Jesse asked.

“I just do.”

Creed took a final drag and giggled out a mouthful of the stale-smelling smoke. “Let’s check it out,” he said, pitching the joint away. “Been a while since I’ve gotten to exercise these bad boys.” When he held up his gloved hand, the blades were already extended.

Jesse lumbered alongside Creed. Tyler took up the rear, his eyes sweeping the field. He had little to fear in Jesse and Creed’s company, but a dry bitterness filled his mouth anyway. Saying nothing to the others, he focused until bits of electrical energy rushed toward him like metal shavings to a magnet. He concentrated the stinging power in the palms of his hands.

At the fence, Creed climbed up the wooden slats and craned his neck. His hair glowed in the moonlight. “Where?” he asked.

“Up the road a little ways,” Tyler whispered.

But when he arrived beside the other two, the tall grass and low branches across the road no longer harbored a car. He looked again, not believing it could have slipped off in, what, the one minute he’d been away.

“It… it was parked up there, under that tree, I swear. Just a minute ago.”

Creed brought his hand to the side of his mouth. “Yoo-hoo,” he sang down the road. “Scary ca-ar?”

“C’mon, man,” Tyler said, his heart still beating too hard. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“Aw, quit acting like a pansy. The party’s just getting started. In fact, let’s put some music on in the car.”

“We’re leaving,” Jesse said.

“What?” Creed’s hair whipped toward Jesse. Tyler was just as surprised by Jesse’s announcement.

“We’ve got rap sheets,” Jesse said. “If it’s the police and they catch us out here with this stuff, we’re looking at time. And jail would be the easy part.”

Tyler nodded, knowing Jesse was talking about his own dad.

“The freaking police?” Creed said. “There’s not even a car here, for Christ’s sake.”

Jesse turned from the road. “I’m not taking any chances.”

Creed shot Tyler a look that said, See what you’ve done, you goddamned twerp? In his relief, Tyler let his electric charge fall out and disperse into the ground. He followed Jesse toward the barbed-wire fence. Muttering, Creed veered off toward the oak tree to retrieve his baggie and package of cigarette paper. When he arrived at the Chevelle, Jesse held out his hand.

“Give me that.” He indicated the Ziploc, which Creed had started to shove inside his pocket. Creed sighed and placed it in Jesse’s palm. Jesse drew his fist back and fired the baggie off into the woods.

“Hey! What’d you do that for?”

“Let’s go,” Jesse said.

The car sank beneath him as he got inside. Worried Jesse might change his mind, Tyler hurried to the passenger side and ducked into the back seat. Not that Jesse ever changed his mind. Tyler twisted to look back through the rear window, half expecting to find a pair of high beams bearing down on them. But the view through the brown tinting was dark.

Creed sagged inside and slammed the door closed. “That was twenty-five dollars you just chucked!”

Jesse ignored him. He backed the Chevelle down the dirt tracks and onto Archer Road.

Creed turned the radio on, but Jesse snapped it off again. The windows remained up, sealing in the silence. Tyler sat sideways, one knee on the seat, looking out the back window. As the miles ticked off, his view remained as black as the night…

Until two spots of light appeared.

“Shit!” The word shot out of his gut and landed on his heart with a shudder. Creed turned and squinted over his shades. Jesse’s eyes went to the rearview mirror.

“Could be anyone,” Creed said.

But Tyler shook his head. “Naw, man. The road’s been running straight as an arrow, but those lights just appeared. They’ve been following us in the dark until just now.”

Jesse depressed the accelerator, and the engine rose an octave.

“You trying to lose them?” Creed’s voice wavered for the first time. Whether it was from fear or blood lust, or maybe some dangerous concoction of the two, Tyler couldn’t tell.

“Just checking something,” Jesse said. The headlights, which looked to be about a half mile away, fell back for a moment before growing to their former size. Jesse grunted and eased his foot from the accelerator. The engine wound back down. “They’re matching our speed.”

“You think it’s the police?” Creed asked.

“Don’t know,” Jesse said.

Ahead of them, the first streetlights appeared, tall cement columns spaced every fifty yards or so. The pastures and sweeps of woodland on either side had been cleared for development. No homes yet — no materials, even — just massive debris piles and wide plowed roads. Before long, the first sodium lighting fell through the windows of the Chevelle. Glowing squares passed over Jesse’s hands, which gripped the steering wheel like a pair of ham hocks, his thumb knuckles nearly touching. Their car passed beneath the second streetlight and then the third.

When Jesse braked, Tyler was thrown against the front seat. Jesse’s hands cranked hard to the right.

“What the hell!” Creed’s arms flailed for something to grab hold to.

Tyler covered his head as the car bounced over a rutted dirt road. The Chevelle’s beams cut off, and the car turned about sharply. It braked again, then rocked to a rest in the dark.

Creed held the sides of his head. “Son of a bitch!”

“Shut up,” Jesse said.

The Chevelle was aimed toward Archer Road, and through the windshield, Tyler could see the car that had been behind them. As it approached the first streetlight, its sleek blue color glistened. A passenger car. Some sort of Toyota. Tyler studied the rectangular headlights.

“Was that the one you saw?” Jesse asked.

“I think so.”

“Yes or no?”

What are the odds? “Yes,” Tyler heard himself say.

“Put on your seat belts.”

Jesse stomped the accelerator. The engine roared like the first blast at a heavy metal concert. A wave of dirt and rocks pelted the undercarriage. The Chevelle leaped forward, fishtailed one way and the other, and then latched onto the rutted road like determination itself.

“Dude,” Creed cried, “you’re headed right for it!”

His brother was right. As Tyler clung to the rubber handles above both windows, he could see the small turns of Jesse’s head, gauging his path to that of the approaching Toyota.

They were on a collision course.

The driver of the Toyota saw it too. Brake lights spilled red over the road. Jesse aimed the car toward it, like a shark toward blood. Through the Toyota’s passenger-side window, Tyler caught a glimpse of a startled face. Hands went up in the window — hands suddenly close enough to touch. Tyler squeezed his eyes closed as the Chevelle’s windshield imploded.

16

Thirteenth Street High

Monday, March 11, 1985

3:10 p.m.

Janis paced near the dugout, stubbing the toes of her cleats into the orange clay. Familiar sounds came at her — metal bats clanking, bulls thudding into leather, shouts, whistles — but it all originated from the other side of the chain-link fence. Janis sank onto the bleacher and punched her duffel bag.

Unbeknownst to her parents and Margaret, she had dressed for the final day of softball tryouts only to have Coach Sessions tell her she couldn’t practice without a doctor’s clearance: “You’re welcome to come and watch, attend team meetings. I just can’t let you play, not until you pass your physical. But don’t worry,” she’d whispered. “We’re planning to save you a spot.”

The thing was, Janis needed to play now. The competition, the regimen of daily practice, the sting of the grass, the sounds, even — without them, she might lose her mind.

She needed to reclaim at least the sports part of her old life.

Spotting her friend Samantha in the newly seeded outfield, Janis cupped her hands to the sides of her mouth. “You’re too shallow!” she called. Samantha shook her head of short hair. But Janis could see a ghost image of a ball in flight, its trajectory passing well above Samantha, who crouched beyond second base. A coach tossed up a softball and swung her bat into it. Samantha tilted her head, retreated several steps, then turned and broke into a full sprint. The ball landed several yards beyond her and rolled toward the outfield fence.

Far from vindicating Janis, the premonition weighed on her heart like a curse.

“You’ll never have your old life back,” she muttered, slinging the strap of her duffel bag over her shoulder. She surveyed her friends and teammates from the previous summer spread over the practice field and then hung her head and embarked on the two-mile walk to Oakwood.

  • * *

The lights beyond the open curtains told Janis her mother was home. Janis stood at the foot of the driveway, a knot of resentment hardening inside her chest. Finally she continued toward the woods, mimicking her mother’s voice: “We’re all going to be just fine, you’ll see.”

Is that what you call the growing silence with Dad? Is that what you call the frigid exchanges?

And who was the man she’d seen her mom with at Westside Park? That had happened last week, en route to the mall with Margaret. She’d only gotten a glimpse, and at a distance, but Janis recognized her mother’s lavender pea coat and her Dee Wallace blond ’do. The tall man in the khaki duster and graying hair looked too old to be a fellow student. Janis glanced over at Margaret, who evidently hadn’t seen them. Was he one of her mother’s professors at the college? Was he the reason she’d been spending less time at home?

Her mother never mentioned the man, and Janis had been too afraid to ask.

Janis dropped her duffel bag at the entrance of the woods. She found a bat-length branch and tapped the ground with it as she sauntered. At the creek, she tossed a small stone into the air and nailed it with her stick. The stone sailed over the levee and landed in the leaf litter beyond — a solid shot — scattering a group of sparrows. Janis twisted her torso one way, then the other.

“Barely even felt that,” she grumbled, thinking about what Coach Sessions had said.

But she had felt it. The crack of stick on stone had awakened the deep smoldering in her liver. She clamped a hand to her side, as though to staunch an invisible trickle of blood, and climbed from the creek bed. The pain eased. Was a person just the activities she participated in, the friends she hung out with, the family she had grown up with — or was she something more?

Because absent those, Janis felt like thinning smoke.

She sighed. And the one person she could talk to was the one person she had to maintain the farthest separation from. She wasn’t thinking of Blake, though she missed him too. In the five weeks since their breakup, he had looked at her with less and less expectancy when they passed in the hallways — less and less familiarity, even, his smile too weak to form dimples. To add insult to injury, their breakup had become the flavor of the month in gossip circles.

Janis swung her stick through a growth of saw palmettos.

Amy Pavoni, with her little smirks, thought she had won. But she didn’t understand the stakes — no one did. Janis still heard the Leonards’ warning in her head, still dreamed of Scott being thrown down in front of her, his glasses smashed, the world bursting into a nuclear-fueled inferno.

When she sniffled, the taste of salt found her throat. She’d continued to keep her distance from Scott — she had to. Agent Steel remained a fixture on campus, along with the mysterious men who moved among the faculty, emitting strange space vibes.

But a few times, in her out-of-body state, Janis had gone to Scott’s house. Who are you kidding? _]Every time [_you’ve awakened in your out-of-body state, you’ve gone to Scott’s house. At first, she told herself it was to make sure he wasn’t going to the Leonards’ anymore, to see that he was safe.

But something more was happening, because as she hovered outside the force field and watched his dim window, Janis had come to feel a loss deeper than that which she felt toward Blake. With Blake, she experienced a wincing regret. With Scott, it was as though something were being uprooted inside her.

Janis realized she’d strayed from the creek, ending up on an old path. Without the tread of children’s feet to maintain it, the path had become faint and grown over. She followed the thin seam deeper into the woods until, despite the mostly leafless state of the trees, she could no longer see the houses on her cul-de-sac. The shifting patterns of growth around her appeared familiar, but in a dreamlike way. When was the last time she’d come back this far?

She spied something on the ground amid the leaves. A cone? She walked over and lifted it with her stick. The leaves fell away, and she recognized the spool of string, gray and stuck together now. Four trees rose around her, in the shape of a square. She was inside her and Scott’s old fort, the place they’d gone to a month before, in their shared past.

Why does it happen? he had asked her. What does it mean?

I don’t know, she’d answered.

She examined the four trees, running her hands over them. She found several old nail heads, half swallowed by the growing bark. She imagined the fort’s walls with their columns of strung-together branches, the roof with its trusses and layer of palm fronds that Tyler had cut for them with his father’s knife.

“Why does it happen?” Janis mumbled to herself. “And why here?”

She thought of something Mrs. Fern had told her last semester — or rather, what the dream face on the back of Mrs. Fern’s head had told her: “THINGS YOU HAVE ALREADY SEEN.”

Were these experiences — the one at the end of the Meadows with the Rottweiler, the one here — were they to show them something they’d already seen? Janis closed her eyes and frowned in concentration.

She and Scott had been building the fort. Tyler showed up and cut the palm fronds with his knife. Then Jesse and Creed appeared. Creed socked her in the stomach, and the three proceeded to destroy the fort so thoroughly that six years later, Janis had almost strolled right through the site without realizing it. But what had she seen?

Think!

She reached for the small cross at her chest. At the same moment, she remembered the faded white cross on Tyler’s old knife.

Of course.

Janis turned in a circle to orient herself. There. The spot where Scott had stuck the knife into the ground had been about ten paces toward the creek. She counted the paces off, her cleats crunching through the leaf fall.

At the approximate spot, she cleared debris away with her shoe. Then she plunged the end of her stick into the earth. Dirt flew up in front of her as she levered the stick. How could she have forgotten Scott’s discovery that had so fascinated her once? Well, after getting the wind knocked out of you and crying, you weren’t exactly in a hurry to come back here. True. And add to that the fact she’d been only nine years old, an age when lots of things were competing for her fascination.

The end of the stick struck stone, the vibration driving to her core. Janis pressed her hand to her side, winced once, and knelt. The earth broke into clumps in her hands, and she tossed the clumps away. She wiped and blew the surface clean. A smooth section of cement looked back at her.

Still here.

She leaned on her stick, contemplating the unusual slab. She thought of the other slab in the Leonards’ shed — not a foundation for the shed itself, it turned out, but the ceiling for an underground room.

Janis tapped the cement with her stick. The sound was cold and hard.

The slab could have something to do with the neighborhood’s storm-drain system. A cement tunnel did open to the creek, but that was several hundred yards from where she stood.

She tapped the cement again.

Six years ago, she’d planned to return with one of her father’s shovels, the one with the flat head. The shovel still hung in their garage between two nails. If she couldn’t play softball, maybe she could come here after school and dig around the cement until it began to take shape, to make sense… because nothing in her life made sense right now.

And you’re alone.

She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and began walking in the direction of the cul-de-sac. She hadn’t gone more than four steps when a man’s voice called from behind her, almost too low to hear.

“Janis.”

She turned but didn’t see anyone. She twisted the other way. Then someone was climbing from the creek bank, to one side of where their fort had stood. He was without his glasses, and a wreath of hair fell to his shoulders, but Janis recognized him. At the top of the bank, he straightened, his long brow paler than ever.

Janis’s side began to throb. She stumbled backward.

“Don’t scream,” the man said as he continued toward her, palms held up. “Please.”

17

An hour earlier

Scott leaned against the wall beside his window, two fingers opening a sightline through the blinds. Janis was almost to the bottom of her short street, her ponytail swishing in time to the bounces of a blue sports bag against her hip. Scott stared, his brain swimming in a bath of teen hormones, then sighed impotently. “Guess it’s back to being full-on creepy,” he muttered.

Well, what’s to stop you from going down there?

“It’s not that easy,” he told the Bud voice.

Believe me when I tell you nuttin’ could be easier. She’s no longer seeing what’s-his-name, and now, look, she’s going into the woods all by her lonesome. How many more green lights does a fella need?

“I told her I believed in her powers,” Scott said, watching Janis disappear into the trees, “in her premonitory abilities. If she says we’re safer apart, then I have to respect that. At least until I can prove otherwise.”

Except trying to prove otherwise was proving challenging.

He’d yet to make sense of the traffic data, but with Jesse’s car being garaged (word around school was that he and the Bast brothers had been in a serious smash-up), the odd patterns had reverted to normal. The recording he had obtained from the Leonards’ basement remained hidden in his workshop, still scrambled. And Wayne’s “Runaway Squad” had yet to produce his housing data.

I don’t understand half of what you just said, pal, came the Bud voice. Premonitory who? Look, alls I knows is that if you woulda given her the card when I told you, you and the dame would be sitting pretty right now.

“I told you, I forgot,” Scott said.

And you’ve forgotten every day since, right? You go to the same school. She lives right down the street from you…

Scott let the blinds snap closed, then took the Bud Body booklet from his nightstand and shoved it into his top drawer.

I’m telling you pal, she’s not gonna wait around for

Scott pushed the drawer closed. He turned to his mirror, where the picture of Cyclops stared down on him.

“Why don’t you ever say anything?” Scott asked.

A rap sounded on the door, and his mother’s frowning face appeared. “You have company,” she informed him.

Wayne bopped past her. “Why, thank you, Mrs. Spruel.”

He shook off his backpack and leaped onto Scott’s bed, hands behind his head, legs crossed at his ankles. He hadn’t bothered to kick off his dirty gray Velcro shoes. Craig and Chun wandered in behind him. His mother tensed her jaw and closed the door. She’d never been fond of Wayne.

Scott looked at Wayne’s backpack. “What’s up?”

“For starters, you’re late on payment.”

“Payment? What payment?”

“Hey, do you mind if we play this?” Chun had spotted the box for Dark Tower on a closet shelf and was pulling it out. When Scott nodded distractedly, Craig and Chun began setting the board game up on the floor.

Wayne stroked his ’stache. “Your lease on my laser covered you through the end of January. It is now…” Wayne consulted his digital watch. “…March eleventh. I’ve come to collect on months two and three.”

Scott hadn’t used the laser since his encounter with Jesse and Creed in the Grove (unless he counted popping the bulb in the streetlight), but he shrank at the thought of surrendering it. The voice he’d heard outside the Leonards’ shed, the facelessness of it, continued to haunt him.

“Fine.” Scott sidled past Chun to the closet and came out with the rest of his Avengers collection.

“Just set them beside my backpack.”

Scott looked at the cover of the topmost comic — issue 189, featuring a badass-looking Hawkeye — sighed, and did as Wayne instructed. He lifted his friend’s backpack just enough to gauge its weight.

“Ah-ah-ah!” Wayne sat up and snatched the backpack away. He stuffed it behind his head.

“Do you have the descrambler or not?”

Wayne grinned. “There’s something else you owe me. A certain movie poster?”

“Y-you did it?” Scott stammered, staring around at the others. “You got the neighborhood data?”

“Oh, yes we did. Do you have mine?” Wayne’s grin continued to sharpen until it formed a crease down the middle of his forehead.

“Eighty percent of it, maybe.” Scott made his face sag. “So, yeah. I guess you won.”

“Ha-haaa!” Wayne pumped his fists like a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot.

“Hey, not so fast. I have to see it first.”

“No problemo.” Wayne snapped his fingers. “Men?”

Craig and Chun rose reluctantly and unzipped their backpacks. They placed four thick manila folders on Scott’s desk, then returned to their game. Scott straddled his swivel chair and, fingers trembling, began flipping through the first folder. The printouts and copies of housing transactions had been organized by street, he noticed. Scott pictured each house as he went. Fifteen minutes later, he reached the bottom of the fourth folder.

All the houses for Oakwood were there.

Scott swiveled around, still struggling to affect disappointment. “I guess it’s official.” He shook Craig and Chun’s hands, then extended his arm toward Wayne. “Good job. You won.”

“As if there’d be any doubt.” Wayne’s grip was damp and confident.

“Don’t you want to know how we did it?” Chun asked.

Craig lifted his face from the Dark Tower game. “As you know, the digital database was incomplete.”

“Right… incomplete,” Scott said.

“Social engineering,” Wayne announced from the bed. “We showed up in person. It’s all public record, remember? The secretary even helped us sort through the data. It was like having a personal assistant in our employ — except we didn’t have to pay her one red cent. Not even for the copies.”

“Well, I have to admit… I didn’t think of that.”

“You overthought it. That’s where you erred,” Wayne said.

“Some interesting patterns in there, too,” Chun said.

“Really?”

Chun came and stood behind Scott. “The original sales were in sixty-six, sixty-seven. The developer was a Phillip Erney.”

“Yeah, my mom’s mentioned him,” Scott said. “He’s still around.”

“Well, there were a few sales after that. Homeowner to new homeowner. Then in seventy-two, all of the houses were bought by another entity: Blue Sky Realty.” Chun opened the top folder, pulled out the stapled-together packet on the first house, and folded it back to the third page. “And look at what Blue Sky paid. That was like two times market value. And then they sat on the houses for a year. They did that with every single house.”

Scott studied the exorbitant price. “Our yardman said the neighborhood was barricaded in seventy-three. Said some sort of engineering corps came in here to do grading and flood control.”

“But here’s the thing…” Craig pushed himself up from the floor. He turned to the next page. “When Blue Sky resold the homes, they resold them for a loss. Every single one. And we’re talking a big loss.”

“What?” Scott took the packet from Craig and compared the two transactions that bracketed 1973. They were right. “Depreciation?” he asked, thinking aloud.

“Fifty percent?” Chun said. “And after a year’s worth of neighborhood improvements?”

“Forget it,” Craig concluded.

Scott closed the packet and drummed his fingers over it. Already, his mind was whirring with the implications. He would have to examine the data on every home, of course, but who was Blue Sky? His mother was always talking about this or that realty, and she’d never brought them up.

“Yawn,” Wayne said, getting up from the bed to leave.

“Wait, what did you tell the secretary?”

“About what we were doing?” Wayne dangled his legs off the side of the bed, his thin hair in disarray. “We explained it was a project for school. She was elderly and lonely, primed to be engineered.” He chuckled. “Anyway, she thought it was precious that we were learning about county records. She wheeled them out on a wooden cart along with this huge jar of gumdrops…”

But Scott was only half listening.

A mysterious entity pays a king’s ransom for all of the homes in Oakwood. Shortly after, the neighborhood closes. Some sort of flood-control project, so the story goes. Levees erected on both sides. Then this Blue Sky Realty sells every home for a big fat loss. Where’s the sense in that?

But maybe it had made sense to someone. Scott wondered what else had been done to the neighborhood during the year it had been barricaded…

“She mentioned that we weren’t the first to ask for all of the records for Oakwood,” Chun said.

“Huh?”

“The old lady in archives. She said someone came in asking for the same thing.”

Scott’s pulse quickened. “Did she remember his name? Did he have to sign out the records?”

“How should we know?” Wayne interjected. “She just said he was a ‘colored fellow.’ Came in a number of years ago.”

“Colored? Who says that anymore?”

“Welp, gotta run. A new Dr. Who airs in T-minus twenty minutes.” Wayne began packing the comics into his backpack. “And I’ll expect that movie poster by Friday. Oh, and…” He pulled something from the small pocket of his backpack and tossed it toward Scott.

Scott bobbled the plain box before catching it. He turned it over in his hands.

“Your descrambler,” Wayne said.

  • * *

Scott set the tape player, descrambler, and headphones across the workbench in a line. An open spiral notebook and mechanical pencil sat beside them. Scott connected the equipment so the tape would play into the descrambler with the output going to his headphones, the last requiring a bit of jerry-rigging. His breaths sounded loud when he placed the plastic cups over his ears.

“Here goes,” he said and pressed PLAY.

The tape whispered. Then came a clipped male voice. The quality wasn’t perfect — squibs here and there — but the voice was intelligible now. And vaguely familiar. “Known movements for two, two, eighty-five.”

Two, two, eighty-five… Scott rubbed his mouth. The date! February second, nineteen eighty-five.

“Standing by,” said a gruff male voice.

“X-zero-two will depart solo at oh-eight-forty. Destination, JC. Duration, eight, then direct return.”

Scott paused the tape and wrote down, “X-02, 8:40, JC? 8 hours.” He tapped his eraser on the X-02. He’d seen that somewhere before.

“Will X-zero-two require escort?” the gruff voice asked.

“Negative.”

“Next known movement…”

“Standing by.”

“X-zero-three will depart with guest at approximately eighteen hundred,” the clipped voice said. “Destination, Mr. Han. Duration, two hours, then direct return.”

“Will X-zero-three require escort?”

“Affirmative. Escort of one.”

Scott paused the tape and jotted down, “X-03 + guest, 6:00 p.m., Mr. Han, 2 hours.”

The code “X-03” looked familiar, too. And then Scott had it. They had been entries in the logbook he’d found in the Leonards’ basement, beneath the monitors. Code names. But what about the rest? He pressed the eraser into his chin, then drew an arrow from the JC to a pair of parentheses where he wrote “JC Penney?” Margaret had worked there since her sophomore year of high school. Scott remembered an incident two years earlier when his mother had plopped a pack of boys’ underwear down at Margaret’s register, telling Scott to be sure to keep this set clean. In the rightmost margin of the page, he wrote, “X-02 = Margaret Graystone.” If that turned out to be accurate, then these people knew her schedule.

Wow, creepy.

Scott reread the second line. He returned to the right margin and wrote, “X-03 = Janis?” Mr. Han was a Japanese restaurant past the mall. And wasn’t February second Janis’s birthday? Six o’clock would mean dinnertime. Two hours to get there, eat, and come back sounded about right. But who was guest? And what did “escort of one” mean?

He thought of the cars that had been tailing Jesse’s Chevelle in the mornings. Had those been “escorts of one”?

Scott pressed the PLAY button. Following the sound of the voice-activated recorder clicking off and then on again, a woman’s voice said, “X-zero-two departing.” Margaret departing.

“Affirmative,” replied the gruff voice.

Who were these people? And how hadn’t he seen them in the neighborhood?

Several minutes of silence followed. The voice-activated recorder hadn’t shut off, apparently. The devices weren’t known to be perfect, though Scott also wondered whether Wayne had known it was defective when he sold it to him the year before.

“Delivery vehicle incoming,” said the woman’s voice again.

“Stand by,” the gruff man answered. “Checking with the front.”

The tape played static for several seconds.

“The numbers check out,” he said.

Numbers? License plate numbers?

Another pair of clicks sounded before the woman’s voice said, “X-zero-two returning.” Margaret returning.

“Affirmative,” the gruff voice answered some seconds later. “X-zero-two home.”

The next exchange announced X-03’s departure with guest. Janis and… Blake? An exchange followed, discussing their return.

A pair of clicks. “X-zero-three home?” the gruff voice asked.

“Negative,” the woman replied. “Still in parked vehicle.”

A pair of clicks. “All right, X-zero-three entering home solo. Guest departing.”

Scott paused the tape and removed his headphones. He ran both hands through his hair, his thoughts whirring like a microprocessor. He pushed himself from the bench and paced his hidden workshop.

“All right, all right,” he whispered and took a breath. “Mr. Leonard wasn’t acting alone. He was part of something bigger. Proof’s right there. Janis’s intuition was spot on. But who in the hell are they? [_Where _]in the hell are they? Think, Scott.” He looked at the recorder. “That phone was hardwired to five others. Five houses, probably. And all of them monitoring the Graystones — their goings and comings, delivery vehicles, other cars, maybe.”

He thought about cameras in streetlights. He thought about a hidden switchboard. Why hadn’t his traffic surveillance picked up any strange vehicles? He’d noticed strange patterns, sure…

A cold understanding dawned on him.

The neighborhood isn’t being watched. The neighborhood is the watcher.

He clamped the headphones over his ears again. Judging by the size of the tape roll, a few minutes still remained.

“Say,” a male speaker said when Scott unpaused the recorder. The clipped voice was the familiar one from earlier. “Were any of yours at Delta-one’s last night?”

“Negative,” the gruff voice answered.

“Thought I heard some noises. The shed door was locked.”

Scott bolted upright. The voice! It was him! It was the man who had tried the shed door that night! Scott rewound and played the segment back, scribbling in the right margin.

“We’ll send someone to investigate,” the gruff voice said.

Scott pressed the cups until the fast whumps of his heart echoed in his ears. Between the time he had planted the recorder and the time he returned to retrieve it, someone had gone down into the basement to investigate his intrusion. The double click of the recorder sounded again.

“Delta-one’s has been searched,” the gruff voice said. “No evidence of entry.”

Scott exhaled. They hadn’t seen the recorder.

“All right,” the familiar voice answered after a pause. “With Delta-one still AWOL, I’m just—”

The snap of the recorder sounded through the headphones. No! The voice activation had fudged again. It had turned off prematurely. Scott watched the sprockets roll, willing the voices to come back, but all he heard was the steady hiss of blank tape. He thought about that last line.

With Delta-one still AWOL

Scott shuddered, his gaze sliding to what he’d scribbled in the right margin:

“D-1 = Mr. Leonard.”

18

In the computer programming section of Janis’s seventh-grade enrichment class, her teacher had had the students write a simple function that would divide a number by zero. “Nothing can divide by zero,” the teacher said, “not even a computer. It’s a mathematical impossibility. It defies reality. Don’t believe me? Watch what happens.” And sure enough, when the dubious students punched in the divide-by-zero function and hit enter, their lab computers began to freeze.

That’s what Janis’s brain felt like now: a frozen computer, a computer ordered to divide a number — to divide reality — by zero.

He’s dead. He’s alive.

A mewling sound crept from her lips.

“Shh…” The skin over Mr. Leonard’s palms was pale yellow and lined with grime. “I know what you must be thinking. But I’m not going to hurt you. You have to let me explain.”

He advanced slowly but with long, reaching strides, like a spider’s. He wore a khaki coverall that appeared too small for him, its hems drawing up his shins and down his bone-thin wrists. Occasionally he reached out to touch a passing tree. And then his long fingers rested against one of the trees that had anchored a corner of her and Scott’s old fort.

Janis staggered back another step, but she was only hemming herself deeper into a corner. Beyond the creek stood the six-foot-tall levee. “Stay away,” she managed to whisper.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated, his brow creasing over his wide eyes.

Where have I heard that before?

Janis blinked and blew a strand of hair from her vision. She sank into a half crouch, her brain beginning to reboot. For the past months, she’d been telling herself that she was less traumatized by what he had done than by his warning. Under the present circumstances, that felt like a pile of bull crap.

He took a long stride nearer.

Her eyes slid to the right. Too dense. Trying to flee in that direction would be like running into a web. Her eyes touched his, then slid to the left.

Janis had grown up playing in these woods, her mind developing an implicit understanding of the spatial relations between the trees, of how to move among them. The aptitude was embedded in the gyri and sulci of her brain. She spotted a seam, one leading to a path that would deliver her to her cul-de-sac. If she hit the seam at a sprint, she might lose Mr. Leonard in the twists and hairpin turns. She wouldn’t have to slow much. Her body would make the adjustments of their own, gray matter and muscle fibers working hand in hand.

Leaves crackled like cellophane under Mr. Leonard’s next reaching step, thirty feet away.

Janis’s body tensed. But before she could break for the seam, she caught a ghost image of Mr. Leonard darting laterally, arms outstretched, cutting her off. And he was carrying that device in his pocket, the one that looked like an electric razor and hummed when he flicked his wrist. He would pin and incapacitate her before she could make a sound.

Janis felt her mind beginning to lock up again. “Stay away,” she repeated.

The creek bed seemed her only choice for flight, but she had no advantages there. Her shoes and socks would sop up the sandy water and weigh her down. The steep banks would muffle the sound of her screams. Could she summon the same energy she’d used to blow the Leonards’ bathroom door to pieces? More crucially, could she summon it in time?

Janis knelt for her branch and gripped it with both hands.

“Wait,” Mr. Leonard said, holding his palms out again. “Look look look.” He lowered himself until he was sitting cross-legged. “You can keep back as far as you like, but I need to talk to you.”

Twisting her fists around the thick end of the branch, Janis circled to the left until she had enough of a lead that, were he to try to stand, she could outrun him. She chanced a glance toward the seam.

“You’re in danger,” he said.

Janis looked back at him. He held his outfacing palms at his shoulders as though to say, I’m at your mercy.

She could run, scream, escape…

“H-how did you get here?” she asked.

“I never left, Janis.”

“But…”

“I’m dead?” Mr. Leonard nodded. “For all intents and purposes, that’s still true. Everything in the name of Thomas G. Leonard is gone. Somewhere, a death certificate bears his name.” He spoke without emotion.

“Then you didn’t hop a semi to Florence, South Carolina…”

“No, Janis.”

“Didn’t hang yourself in a hotel room.”

He hadn’t stopped shaking his head.

“What about the other crimes?”

“Fictions.”

She squinted toward him in the fading light. Without his yellow-tinted glasses, his eyes looked small, the skin around them pale. Was this Mr. Leonard? “Who are you?” she asked.

“My birth name is Michael.”

“Just like your wife’s name is Colleen?”

His smile looked like a grimace. “I did let that slip, didn’t I? Except she isn’t my wife.”

“Then who is she?”

“She is… she was my junior agent.” A shadow passed over his pale brow. “We worked together.”

“Doing what?”

“Look, we’re not safe talking in the open like this. There’s a place below ground—”

“Doing what?” Janis repeated.

“Watching you and your sister.”

A flu-like chill shuddered down her spine. [_What are you still doing here, Janis? Run! Run! Run! _]She cinched her slick grip. “How long?” she asked. “How long were you watching?”

“Seven years.”

“Seven…?” The word years stuck in her throat. “Why?”

“To safeguard you, Janis. You and your sister.”

“Safeguard us from what?”

“I was never told. The assignments are highly compartmentalized. Everything beyond our assignment was off limits, doled out on a need-to-know basis. But after so many years, you start piecing things together.”

“Like what?”

“Like why two normal kids would need our protection, for starters. The only answer that made sense was that you and your sister weren’t normal. So we started looking more closely, Colleen and I. We saw your sister’s talent early, at her job. There’s upselling and then there’s upselling.”

Janis caught her head making small nods.

“You took longer to figure out. You didn’t appear to have the same abilities as Margaret, so we decided it must be something else. And then I saw you in our shed late one night. An apparition. Staring up at me one second, gone the next.” He made a noise that sounded like a chuckle. “Scared the crap out of me, if you want to know the truth.”

Scared the crap out of you? She remembered sprinting from Mrs. Fern’s class that first day of school, the specter of Mr. Leonard’s face looming over her.

“But the real proof was your saving deflection at the soccer game. I think you know the one I mean.”

“You were there?”

“I was on the visitor’s side as I was for most of your games, an interested spectator you would never have thought to look twice at. Except that game, I was able to see you play. It took some doing, but I had your starter decommissioned.”

Janis remembered Theresa Combs lying face down, blood across her broken jaw. “Wait, you did that?”

“Indirectly, yes. It’s sobering what a few folded-over bills pressed into one’s palm can accomplish. In that case, the opposing coach’s.” Mr. Leonard frowned. “But you have to trust me when I tell you it was in your best interest. The sooner I could ascertain that it was indeed your abilities they were interested in, the sooner I could warn you and your sister.”

A blowtorch ignited inside Janis’s head. “And I suppose stabbing me was in my best interest, too.”

Mr. Leonard peered over his shoulder. The woods had grown dim around them. “Janis, we’re not safe out here.” He started to get up. “There’s a door in the embankment…”

Janis stepped back. “You have two seconds to park it, or I’m gone.”

Mr. Leonard sighed and lowered himself. “That morning was never supposed to have happened the way it did. I put that on myself. You have to understand, to even ask questions of the assignment is forbidden. But I was taking it one further, trying to position myself closer to you both. And I was running on fumes by then — three, four hours’ sleep on the better nights — trying to figure out how to get you and your sister out of this while keeping the rest of my surveillance team in the dark. And then I’m called to a subbing job at a school I’ve never been to. My first thought is they’ve got it in for me. The security on this thing…” He peered around again, his face drawn and gray. “And then I’m convinced they’re coming for Colleen. By the time I returned and found you in the house, I was in a bad state.”

Janis remembered Mr. Leonard aiming his finger at her across the kitchen table. Who put you up to this?

“It didn’t calm me to discover that someone was also snooping around the basement.” Mr. Leonard leveled his gaze at her. “Scott, right?”

Janis kept her face as expressionless as she could.

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I just want you to see what happened from my point of view. I was standing there, holding you in my arms, thinking, ‘How in the hell can I convince this kid of anything after what Colleen and I have put her through?’ But most important to me was your abilities, that you not let them be seen, not let them be exploited. I’d witnessed their power…”

“Tipping a soccer ball isn’t exactly power.”

“Maybe not, but vaulting a person into the air from fifteen feet away qualifies in my book.”

Janis nearly dropped her branch. “You were at Dress-up Night?”

“Just a curious neighbor out walking his dog.”

Janis suddenly remembered the lone person she had spotted as she and Scott made for the greenway that night. She recalled the sound of tinkling dog tags. Was there anywhere he hadn’t been?

“Anyway, if I hadn’t convinced you to conceal your powers — because I wasn’t sure I had convinced you — my only choice was to incapacitate you. It was a split-second decision, using that piece of ceramic. A decision that’s troubled me ever since. But a wound would force discretion on you, Janis. No more soccer or softball — for a time, anyway. Long enough, I’d hoped, for me to reach you.”

Janis relaxed her grip on the branch. “But how did you know I’d be here?”

“I didn’t.”

But even as Janis had asked the question, she knew he hadn’t found her, but that she had found him. The experience with Scott the month before had drawn her here, to the site of their old fort.

“What is here, anyway?” Janis asked. “Underground?”

“An emergency bunker. We held drills here a few times before your family’s arrival. Motion sensors line the levees, but I had ample time in the last year to practice slipping past my own system. Back inside Fort Oakwood, I was in the last place they’d think to look. And closer to you.”

The growing dusk had reduced Mr. Leonard’s head to a pale sphere. The depressions of his eyes and hollows beneath his pronounced cheekbones had become large and shadow filled, like on a plastic Halloween skull. Janis stood in a tandem stance, her weight shifting from her front toes to her rear heel. She struggled between wanting to see Mr. Leonard more clearly and wanting to draw farther away from him. Similarly, her mouth grappled with the question that had been on her mind ever since he’d stabbed her.

She took a small step nearer. “Who’s Them?”

Mr. Leonard’s head crouched low and angled toward a distant snap followed by the crunching of leaves. Footfalls. The pale sphere turned back toward her. “Someone’s coming.”

But Janis remained rooted, the sound of leaves being crushed underfoot still distant. “I need to know.”

“Next time.” Fear spiked his voice.

“I’ll come tomorrow then,” she said.

“No, not tomorrow,” he whispered. “No patterns. Saturday.”

“What time?”

“Whenever it seems most natural that you might come into the woods. Don’t look over your shoulder. Don’t act as if you’re being watched. And don’t come straight here. Move in a large, meandering circle, like you’re just out on a walk.” The whites of his eyes shone with insistence. “When you do get here, tap a stick against the cement. Like you did earlier.”

Janis nodded, not knowing whether he could see her.

He stood and began creeping away from her. And as he did, something seemed to trail after him, more felt than seen. An energy, gray and ponderous, like heartache. Like loss.

“Your partner,” she said.

He paused and twisted his torso.

“Is… is she all right?” Janis pictured his wife-who-wasn’t-his-wife as she had last seen her, slumped over and bleeding, a bone jutting against the inside of her gown.

You did that, a voice reminded her.

Mr. Leonard didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know,” he admitted at last. “I don’t even know where she is. After I help you and your sister, I intend to find out. That’s the plan.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Janis said.

“Nothing that happened that morning is your fault.”

“Why are you trying to help us?”

His gaze never left hers. “Because you’re innocent.”

Janis felt the threads she experienced in her out-of-body state reaching toward him like fingers. The woods around her became overrun by images: Mr. Leonard infused in the orange glow of a cigarette, watching her house; Mr. Leonard at the kitchen table, head in his hands, Colleen holding her to him; Mr. Leonard staring at his bedroom ceiling. Now the faces of neighbors appeared, and Janis understood them to be members of the surveillance team, members Mr. and Mrs. Leonard had had to lie to. And she felt his fear for Colleen now, a brand on his heart… Janis understood because it was the same fear she’d come to feel for Scott.

“Be careful,” she whispered.

He hesitated in what seemed surprise. “You too,” he whispered back.

As Mr. Leonard threaded his way through the trees and retreating images, Janis crouched and listened. The sounds that had driven him back into hiding were fading. Janis couldn’t see anyone through the dark and trees. She waited several more minutes, then began picking her way home, surprised to discover that she was no longer holding her branch.

19

Scott lifted Janis’s bag by the canvas strap. Pine needles fell away while books and some bulkier items shifted inside. He peeked around, then held the strap to his nose. The clean smell of her hair still lingered, summoning a flood of longing that frothed around his heart.

What in the hell are you doing? _]he thought. [_Not only is Mr. Leonard alive, but at least one of the voices on the tape believes he’s still lurking around. She needs to be told, not drooled on, dummy.

Scott set the bag back down, duly self-admonished, and peered into the dim woods. The woods seemed to steal an hour of daylight — more if you ventured into the thickest parts — like something out of a Dungeons & Dragons module. In any case, no sign of Janis. He half considered cupping his hands to the sides of his mouth and shouting her name, as he would have done when they were kids. But finding her out here had to look like an accident.

If I’d come here to think, where would I go?

He headed in the direction of the fallen tree, the remnants of the winter’s blowdown crunching beneath his shoes. But, arriving at the tree, Scott found it empty. He climbed onto the tree anyway. At the trunk’s midpoint, he heard the creek ahead of him, tinkling over sand and stones. He pushed up his glasses and squinted at the cement levee rising beyond the creek’s far bank.

“Who built you?” he muttered.

As he regarded the levee, he experienced a piercing notion that the pale reflectors along the top of the cement wall were regarding him right back, like eyes. Scott continued across the log until the branches diverged and thinned and he had to hold his arms out to the sides like a tightrope walker. Scott shuffled down a dipping branch and jumped the last two feet to the ground. Five years earlier, that would have landed him in two feet of boggy water — and maybe a nest of water moccasins — but now tufted seeds gusted up around him.

Up close, the levee appeared solid and imposing, like a fortress wall. Scott closed his eyes… and felt something.

Damned if there isn’t a current.

He seized the sides of his head as his consciousness twined more and more tightly. He sagged to his knees. A gasp spewed from his lips as he burst inside what felt like a power line.

Inside the levee? Why would a levee need power?

Scott concentrated and pushed against the direct current. He was inside a cable running along the base of the cement wall. Vertical shoots terminated at what felt like small circuit boards. He arrived at a board, but before he could inspect it, he was being shot out in all directions — a sickly, weightless sensation.

Then he was staring at a fallen branch in front of himself, the cool ground against his cheek. Scott pushed himself up until he was kneeling again. He brushed his face and straightened his glasses. Blinking, he ran his gaze along the line of reflectors. The levee hadn’t been watching him, after all, but monitoring him, sensing his body heat. What had been made to look like reflectors were infrared motion sensors. Cold stole inside Scott’s sweat-damp shirt.

Like the camera in his streetlight, the sensors were radiant, their signals being gathered at some unknown point and monitored by God only knew who.

At this very second, someone knows I’m here.

By the time Scott returned to the entrance of the woods, Janis’s bag was gone. Lights glowed from the Graystones’ windows out into their lawn. He imagined the Graystones inside, sitting down to dinner. The knowledge that Janis was safe calmed him — for the moment. He needed to find a way to reach her, one that wouldn’t alert anyone watching that he and Janis were colluding. Her insistence on discretion had been right as rain. More than she probably realized.

  • * *

“Blue Sky Realty?” Scott’s mother squinted at him over a forkful of rice and lemon chicken. The frozen entrees were the latest in her long chain of diet plans; Jenny something or other. “Never heard of them. Why?”

Scott was prepared. “Someone at school mentioned his mother used to work for them.”

“Selling houses?”

“I guess so.”

“Not in Gainesville, she didn’t.”

“Maybe this Blue Sky went under,” Scott’s father offered. He had finished his first entrée and was starting on his second.

But Scott’s mother was already shaking her head emphatically, eyes closed. “Realtors rarely go under, Stanley. They get bought up, brought into a larger fold. And if this one had been bought, I would know. I’m a member of the regional association of realtors, for Pete’s sake. No one’s ever mentioned a Blue Sky.” She looked back at Scott and spoke with finality. “Your friend’s mother was not working in the local market. Either that or your friend’s a fibber.”

“Probably a different market, then,” Scott said, becoming defensive over his imagined friend (who looked like the Karate Kid for some reason). But there had been a Blue Sky Realty. It was there in the county record data.

His mother pushed the forkful of Jenny something into her mouth.

Not only that, Blue Sky had sold his parents their house. Scott had checked.

“Hey, um.” His vision swam at what he was about to ask. “Who did we buy our house from?”

His mother stopped chewing and spoke into the side of her fist. “Hell’s bells, Scott, what is it with you and your questions suddenly?”

He turned to his father, who seemed to be frowning over the speed with which his second entrée was vanishing. “Dad?”

“What’s up, Scotty?”

“Who sold us our house?”

“We were in Michigan at the time,” his mother said, then took a quick gulp of water. Scott had figured that putting a question to his father on which his mother was, by all rights, the authority would get her talking. Indeed, she would shudder to know how much she had in common with Wayne. “The whole thing was done through a third party, a housing attorney. Someone the V.A. had recommended. Why on earth do you want to know?”

Scott watched his mother’s black eyes. When they didn’t flinch or waver, Scott decided she hadn’t heard of Blue Sky Realty. He released his breath. She was telling the truth.

She raised her stenciled eyebrows in question.

“Oh, that guy at school said his mom had sold some of the houses in Oakwood — when she was working for another realtor. I thought our house might have been one of them.”

“And your friend’s mother’s name is…?”

“Um, Macchio. Mrs. Macchio.”

“Macchio?” Scott’s mother frowned over her next forkful of lemon chicken and rice. “Never heard of her.”

  • * *

Scott paced the length of his bedroom until he lost count of the about-faces — in the hundreds, probably. He removed his glasses and scrubbed his face with his hand. It had been a mind-blowing day. But everything fit somehow. If only he could find the nerve center. An operation over Oakwood had to have a nerve center, some sort of command and control — maybe even based inside the neighborhood itself.

“Here’s what we know,” Scott whispered, snapping on the radio. “Phones are monitored. The levees on both sides of the neighborhood are rigged with motion sensors. Janis’s house is being watched. Mine too. Not only that, but Janis and her sister are routinely followed. Yours truly as well. Maybe.” Scott had been vigilant for the past few weeks but hadn’t noticed anyone tailing him. Of course, he hadn’t gone anywhere besides school. “Jesse and those guys were definitely being followed before their accident. The computer data bears that out.”

About the accident, Scott knew little. The details were only beginning to gel around a consistent narrative at school, if you used “consistent” in the loosest sense of the term. Jesse, Creed, and Tyler had spent time in the hospital and were recovering at home. Nothing too, too serious — bumps and bruises, a couple of minor breaks, a concussion, maybe. The story of who had suffered what kept changing, though, depending on who you talked to; in some of the early versions, one or all of them had gone into comas. Scott cared little for Jesse, of course, and even less for Creed, but he kept picturing Tyler as he had last seen him New Year’s Eve — a lonesome silhouette against the moonlit trees.

Scott resumed pacing. “So someone uses Blue Sky Realty as a cover to buy up the houses in Oakwood. They close the neighborhood, turn it into something out of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, populate it with watchers.” Scott thought about the military network extending from the Leonards’ house, the basement rooms with the bunk racks, the voices on the tape. “Watchers working in groups of anywhere from five to ten, probably. Only, one of the watchers freaks out and makes an attempt on Janis’s life. The police supposedly find him. He’s supposedly dead. But now someone’s talking like the man’s capable of taking a midnight stroll around his old homestead, like it’s no biggie.”

The clipped voice had used the term AWOL, absent without leave. If Mr. Leonard had come back, his target was Janis. Of this, Scott had little doubt. But whether his motive was to warn her — as he’d claimed to be doing before he stabbed her — or to finish the job, he couldn’t be certain. Which meant Scott had to assume the second.

“Got to communicate with her.”

The only problem was the information wouldn’t fit on a note or within a passing whisper. No, he needed time with her, uninterrupted time to explain everything that had happened since they’d last talked…

Scott’s feet stuttered to a stop as he squinted at the school calendar tacked beside his desk. That’s it! He double checked the date and picked up the cordless phone. Though he hadn’t dialed her home in more than three years, the sequence of numbers came in a rush as his fingers punched the keypad. Following a delay that remained milliseconds too long, the line rang.

Attaboy! the Bud voice called from the dresser.

Scott waved for silence.

“Hello?” a man’s voice answered.

“Is, ah, is Janis there?”

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Scott almost mashed the OFF button when a memory came to him. It was from when he was a kid, nine or ten years old. He’d gone down to play with Janis and found her and her father throwing a football in the backyard. Janis explained her father was having her run routes.

“Wanna try?” she asked.

Scott shrugged, not knowing what a route was. The first route was a “post.” Scott was supposed to run ten yards, then angle toward the line of bushes that bordered the yard. He did as Janis’s father said. When he turned, the football was already in flight. Scott threw his arms out, getting his elbows twisted somehow, and the ball bounced off his forehead. He fell into the bushes. The rest of the routes went similarly.

“Football’s not for everyone,” her father had said at last, tucking the ball under his arm. “I’m a little worried you’re going to break your glasses.” He had turned to Janis, who had snagged everything he’d thrown at her, naturally, and whispered, “We’ll do it another time.”

With the phone to his ear, Scott felt like that suffering boy again, as if his transformation over the past six months had never happened.

“It’s Scott.” He cleared his throat. “Scott Spruel.”

“It’s a little late to be calling, Scott. Is this something that can wait until tomorrow?”

“I’m really sorry, sir.” Scott never called anyone sir, but the tone of her father’s voice, authoritative, almost stern, seemed to demand it. “It’s just, we’re in the same English class, and I forgot to write down the assignment for tomorrow. I hate to call, but I really need it.”

A pause. “Let me see if she’s still up.” He heard the receiver being set down.

His heart hammering away, Scott closed his eyes and concentrated on what he was going to say.

20

Graystone household

Three hours earlier

“Have you been crying?” Janis’s mother asked.

“What? No.” Janis said. Margaret’s and her father’s faces turned toward her. She lowered her gaze and pressed her fork into the square of corn soufflé on her plate.

“Your eyes look a little puffy.” Her mother gestured to her own face.

Janis shrugged, not surprised. During her shower, everything Mr. Leonard had said had risen around her, mingling with plumes of steam. Alive. Observing her and Margaret for seven years. Seven years! Developing a kind of affection for them, even — yes, Janis had felt that — a tenderness stemming from the absence of children in his own life, maybe. His and Colleen’s. And then an upswell of sorrow had seized Janis, squeezing her throat until her tears ran with the water. It had come from the part of her that had reached for Mr. Leonard, that had felt the depth of his pain. He had loved Colleen — a love bound, in part, by their shared concern for Janis and her sister. But Janis might as well have smashed their love to pieces that morning, just as she had smashed Colleen into the hallway wall of their house.

Her father muted the television. “I understand you went to softball practice today.”

“You did?” Margaret said — an accusation.

Janis shook her head in irritation. “Just to watch.”

Margaret glared at her.

After I stopped in at the library,” she added, remembering she’d told Margaret she was going there to study.

“How did you get home?” her father asked.

“I walked.”

He frowned with his entire face. “Call us next time. One of us will come get you.”

“We don’t want you walking alone,” her mother added. “We’ve told you that.”

“It’s only a couple miles.”

Her father studied her a moment as though deciding whether or not to raise his voice. “Just listen to us, Janis. Call next time.”

Janis forked a broccoli crown and glowered at her father in her thoughts. Yeah, just listen to you: Mr. Invisible and a mother who sneaks out to meet strange men in parks. Fine examples.

“I can take care of myself,” she muttered.

Her parents glanced at one another, her mother’s face taut. She shook her head slightly as though to say, Leave it. Sighing, her father lifted his coffee to his lips. The world news began, and he unmuted the television.

“Today, the Kremlin announced that the aged Soviet president Konstantin Chernenko has died,” the anchor began.

Janis’s father turned up the volume. Margaret twisted to face their console television, both hands on her backrest.

“The long ailing Chernenko is reported to have succumbed to emphysema and other health-related problems. His successor is Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, marking a new generation of leadership. In his acceptance speech today, Gorbachev said that the Soviet Union wants a ‘major reduction of the arms stockpiles.’ He went on to say that he would welcome peace accords with the U.S. based on respect and cooperation. From Washington, President Reagan sent a message of condolence to the Soviets, reiterating his strong desire for world peace. Though speaking in cautious tones, many in the administration expressed hope that, with the transition, serious arms-control talks can begin…”

“Oh, my god.” Janis’s mother brought her hands to her mouth. She made a sound like a chuckle, but when Janis looked over, she found tears sliding down both sides of her face.

“Mom?” Janis looked from her to her father and back.

Her mother sniffled and touched the back of her wrist to one eye, then fell into her open hands, sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” Janis asked, cold dread swimming up from her gut. Was this where she would announce her break from their father? Was this where she’d utter the dreaded ‘D’ word?

Her father scooted over and wrapped his arms around their mother’s quaking shoulders. But she didn’t shrink from him. Instead, she grasped his hand, moisture shining along her gold wedding band. “I know,” he whispered, leaning his head against hers.

The sight almost made Janis forget about Mr. Leonard. It was the most affectionate she had seen her parents in, like, ever.

“Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” Janis looked over at Margaret, who shrugged with her face. Her sister reached over and set a tentative hand on her mother’s back.

“Your mother’s just a little overcome,” their father said, “as we all should be.”

“Why?” Janis asked.

Their father moved his gaze to the television, which broadcast an image of the Soviet Union’s new leader, a robust but pleasant-faced man with a wine-colored mark on his forehead. “This Mikhail Gorbachev is a moderate politician, maybe even a reformer,” he said. “There’s a good chance we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the Cold War.”

Her mother’s sobs became laughter.

  • * *

Janis sighed and slapped her Spanish book closed. How in the world could she memorize the thousand-odd differences between por and para after everything that had happened that day? She had a quiz the next day, but big whoop. At worst, she’d just choose one of the words, maybe para, and stick with it for every question. Couldn’t do much worse than fifty percent, right?

Can’t believe you’re stressing over grades at a time like this.

She lifted her gaze to the curtained window. Mr. Leonard was out there, alive and sleeping in her woods.

Should I be afraid?

She hadn’t imagined his sincerity. He had put himself at her mercy. If she’d run for help, he’d be sitting in a cell right now — or dead, if he was to be believed. She chewed on the end of her eraser with her lips. Could he be believed? Everything he had told her, even the stabbing, followed a sort of twisted logic. She hadn’t been able to play soccer or softball due to the injury, and if that day’s tryouts were any indication, her powers would have become more and more apparent. She would have been positioning herself and her fellow outfielders for balls before the batter even swung. Someone would have caught on eventually.

But who?

She pushed herself from her desk and paced the room.

Agent Steel?

Janis had seen her less and less in recent weeks. Even the strange men at school seemed to have disappeared, their investigation wrapping up, Janis could only hope. But Agent Steel continued to play a starring role in her nightmares — stooping over her, driving the ceramic shard deeper into her side, demanding to know who was with her in the Leonards’ house. Then her cold voice would announce, “We already know. We found him.” And Scott’s body would land in front of her, his glasses shattered and blood specked.

Who is she? Who’s she connected to?

Janis jumped at the sound of knocking on her door. Her father’s visored face appeared in the doorway.

“There’s a call for you,” he said.

“Oh.” Janis remembered she’d turned the ringer off on her phone to study. “Who is it?”

“The boy from up the street. Scott.” A single, solid thump from Janis’s heart froze her arm, midreach.

“Should I tell him you’re studying?”

“No, no. I’ll take it.”

Her father retreated down the hallway. She lifted the receiver to her ear, eyes wide. “I’ve got it,” she said into the mouthpiece. Her father hung up. She waited another second, listening to Scott’s breaths on the other end. They were coming almost as quickly as her own.

“Janis?” His voice sounded strange.

“Yes?” Why in the world’s he calling? We’re still being listened to, right?

“Look, I, ah, I know it’s probably kind of strange, me calling. I mean, we haven’t talked much since the fifth grade.” An awkward laugh. “Don’t worry, I promise not to do my Gonzo impersonation.”

Janis laughed shyly, the way she imaged she might have laughed had they really not spoken in more than three years. “Good,” she said. Brilliant, actually. But where is this going, Scott?

“Anyway,” he continued. “There’s the spring dance on Friday and I was… Well first, is, um… is anyone taking you?”

Blake would have been taking her, if they were still together. For the first time, Janis wondered if Blake would be going with someone else. A pang of jealousy bloomed in her solar plexus.

“No,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even planning on going.”

“Oh.”

A silence followed during which Janis was convinced he was going to wish her goodnight and hang up. Please keep going. You’re doing great, Scott. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this, but we’re almost there. She twisted the phone cord until it coiled the entire length of her finger.

“Well, would you like to go?” he asked at last. “I mean, would you like to go with me?”

“All right. Yeah, sure.” Did I answer too quickly?

Through the line, she heard the clatter of what sounded like a chair toppling. “Scott? Are you still there?”

His voice came back on with a gasp. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just knocked over a book. The dance starts at seven. I’d offer you a ride, but I’m not sure there’s room on my bike seat.” That awkward laugh again that sounded entirely convincing. “How about we meet there, in the gymnasium?”

“Seven?” she asked.

“Right, seven sharp.”

“I’ll be there. And, um, thanks for asking me.”

She replaced the receiver and sat still, eyes closed, hoping that to whoever was listening, her performance had been as convincing as Scott’s. It had felt real, anyway. Too real. Because with her heartbeats still echoing in her ears, Janis wasn’t sure what excited her more: the chance to talk to Scott, finally, or the idea that they were going to a dance together.

Either way, she was going to need a dress.

21

Bast household

Friday, March 15, 1985

7:00 p.m.

Tyler awoke with a gasp in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets, and for a moment he thought he was outside, his father looking up at him. He crawled his hands out until he felt the bed frame. His fingers clung to the wood as he fought to straighten his thoughts.

Where’s the light?

His hospital room had always been aglow, if not from his own side, then from his neighbor’s — and if not from his neighbor’s, then from the window that looked out onto the nurses’ station.

Home, man, you’re home. You got out last week, remember?

He nodded. Yeah, yeah, he remembered now. His sharpening thoughts drew the dimensions of his bedroom around him again. It had been happening a lot lately, waking up with no idea where he was, scared out of his mind. He was still downing some heavy-duty painkillers, which probably had something to do with it.

His bedroom spun around him as he sat up on the edge of the bed. He held the sides of his head.

“Shit,” he moaned.

The word described how he felt, but it also summed up what he remembered of the accident — a flash of lights, shattering glass, then cut to a hospital bed and a doctor telling him how lucky he was to be alive. The Chevelle had been creamed, apparently, and everyone inside nearly so. Jesse had suffered a broken collarbone; Creed, a pelvis cracked in two places and a partially crushed vertebrae — no spinal damage, the lucky bastard — and himself, a concussion so severe his brain had swelled. The concussion had kept him in the hospital after the other two had been discharged. “For observation,” the white coats kept telling him. He had slept for most of those two weeks.

Sitting on the side of his bed, his mind felt like a colossal smear. He could hardly link his thoughts together until he’d been awake for an hour or more. Could hardly talk without his head hurting. Even his vision spotted over sometimes. “All of that will improve before long,” the white coats told him. “Brain needs time to heal. Going to have to quit the smokes for a while.”

No problem there. The thought of a cigarette made his chest ache.

The only thing the accident and pain meds hadn’t touched, it seemed, were his dreams. If anything, they’d become more lucid, more real — especially the bad ones. And the one bad dream whose reality he could least afford to contemplate was the one that recurred the most. It was the dream he’d just awoken from in a sweat. The dream about What Happened.

  • * *

Maybe his father’s screams had broken the spell. Or the fire alarm. Or the fire itself, hot against his face. Or perhaps the electricity that had built up in Tyler’s twelve-year-old body had simply spent itself.

Tyler’s fingers popped from his father’s wrist. He fell back, his head thudding on the bottom step of the staircase. He lay there, jaw throbbing, every muscle burned out from contracting long after the point of exhaustion. When he tried to push himself up, his arms collapsed — nothing to support him. He stared at the crescents of his fingernails, realizing they were filled with blood.

His father continued to scream.

Tyler turned his head enough to find him thrashing against the walls, struggling to tear the flaming shirt from his body. Only, the flames had scaled his thick sideburns to his head while burning plastic from the shirt’s liner dripped down his jeans in fluttering streaks.

Tyler squeezed his eyes shut but found the afterimage of his father’s face, awash in orange and white, burned there. Something crashed, and his father’s screams fell to gurgles. Then they stopped.

The fire alarm continued to bleat.

Tyler opened his eyes to a room filled with foul, drifting smoke. Small pools of fire burned here and there like elements in a satanic ritual. He glanced up the stairs and saw the shadow of his mother’s legs, right where he had left her. In the living room, the large lamp had been knocked to the floor and now cast an eerie glow like a grave keeper’s lantern. From behind the couch, another pair of legs jutted out, black and smoking.

Dad…?

Tyler’s chest heaved, and watery vomit gushed onto the floor beside him. He managed to choke back a second wave.

He pulled off his shirt and knotted the sleeves together behind his head so the shirt’s body hugged his nose and fell over his mouth. His muscles protested but were working again. He stood on rubbery legs. Without looking toward the couch, he stumbled to each window, stamping out small carpet fires as he went. He thumbed the metal locks open and lifted. Cold air rushed in.

Then the sound of an approaching car engine.

Tyler threw his back against a wall. His brother couldn’t see, couldn’t know. Tyler would never be able to explain that it had just happened, that it wasn’t his fault. His brother and father had… something. A bond, he supposed. Creed swore beneath his father’s blows, sure, swore all the things he’d do when he was old enough. But then Creed went out and acted just like him. Mouthing off, starting fights, drinking, eventually — he’d even started to strut like him. But where their father was physically solid, Creed was lanky. It was as though his brother was trying to draw strength from his only real model for it, as effed up as it was. Tyler guessed it was also why he hung around with Jesse Hoag.

Tyler listened to the approaching car, wondering whether he should run up to his room and pretend that he’d been sleeping the whole time, that he was just as confused as anyone.

You committed murder.

The car turned down the street and faded into the night sounds.

You committed murder, and now you have to bury the evidence.

Tyler turned to the couch, the back of which was pluming black smoke. Another wave of nausea hit him, and he crouched and lifted the shirt from his mouth. The wave passed.

A neighbor’s gonna want to know why the alarm’s going off. Get him outside, damn it. Now.

Tyler staggered through the kitchen, kicked a path through the garage, and opened the cobweb-sealed door that led behind the house. He scanned the yard. A patch along the back fence, beneath the azaleas, looked darkest. On his way back through the garage, Tyler stopped to pull on a pair of his father’s work gloves. They swam on his shaking hands, the material damp and leathery smelling. He spotted a shovel leaning against the workbench.

He would need that too, eventually.

Tyler inhaled a lungful of clean air. He’d always been a good underwater swimmer. He’d once held his breath for two minutes at the quarry pond before Creed yanked him up, worried his idiot brother was drowning. Now, cheeks puffed, he waded through the smoke to the living room.

His father had fallen facedown. Tyler stared at an inhuman black scalp glistening red in places. The living room wavered. Tyler felt his knees buckle, but he caught himself against the couch.

He squeezed his eyes closed.

It’s not your dad. It’s a body. Just a body. If you’re going to get through this, that’s how you have to think about it.

Just a body.

Tyler opened his eyes and stepped inside the plume of smoke. He straddled the body, his black-checked Vans at rib level, toes pointing toward the head. Then he gripped beneath the armpits, heat pushing against his work gloves, and lifted. The body came up with the sensation of a bandage being pulled from scabbing skin. The melted jacket had begun to fuse with the nap of the carpet. But Tyler couldn’t think about that. His back bent nearly ninety degrees, eyes locked on the kitchen, he took his first step. The body resisted, then jerked forward beneath him. Tyler grunted and shuffled his other foot. This time, the body slid more readily. By the tenth step, he and the body were clear of the couch, and their movement had fallen into a steady, waddling rhythm.

Slick linoleum sped their passage through the kitchen. At the rear of the kitchen, Tyler stuck his head into the garage and pulled in another lungful of air, the heart-pumping exertion replacing the heart-pounding horror of only moments before. A strange rationality began to take over, as though he was just doing a job. Hauling a sack of junk to the backyard — something his father might have had him do on a weekend morning or a lazy summer day.

Tyler scooted the stiffening body down the small step into the garage. Like the linoleum in the kitchen, the oil-stained cement smoothed their passage. The toes of the body’s engineer boots caught and skipped behind them. Outside, a cold wind brushed around Tyler’s bruising torso. He parked the body against the house and lay an old car cover over it, weighing the moldy fabric down with bricks. Tyler pulled his shirt from his face.

Not done yet.

Back in the living room, he set up a floor fan to blow lingering smoke from the house. He aimed a second fan at the bleating smoke alarm until it went mute.

Tyler peeked through the red, flapping drapes out at the street, which was blessedly still. He picked up the lamp, replaced the shade, set old newspapers back on the coffee table, and spread the afghan over the back of the couch. He studied the floor around his feet. The smaller burn marks blended with the existing wear and tear of the brown carpet, he decided.

What about behind the couch?

Choking, Tyler willed himself back to the scene of the crime. The blackened spot looked as incriminating as a chalk outline without the arms. Threads of smoke spiraled from the melted napping. Tyler grabbed a bottle of Dawn from the kitchen sink and hosed the length of the burn mark. In the downstairs bathroom, he balled up a bath towel and soaked it beneath the cold tap. He carried the dripping towel back to the living room and started scrubbing.

Black scabs of carpet came up, and soon the large spot frothed with foam. Tyler scrubbed a path to the kitchen, following the journey of the body — over the linoleum, down the step, and through the garage. He threw the blackened towel beside the mound beneath the car cover and returned to the living room, where he performed a rinse cycle with a second and then a third soaked towel.

By the time Tyler returned to the living room, the haze had thinned to the point that he couldn’t tell whether he was just imagining it. He seized one end of the couch and scooted it back two feet. He did the same at the other end, checking to see that the man-sized burn mark was hidden. Then he arranged the end and coffee tables to fit. The dimensions were all wrong — the space between couch and television too long — but maybe his mother wouldn’t notice when she came downstairs in the morning. Better yet, he would tell her that his father rearranged things. That was the way he wanted it now, goddammit. She wouldn’t argue. But his father would never say that, or anything like it, again. Tyler’s lips trembled around a whimper, the bolts of his nervous system shaking loose.

Just a body.

He ran his forearm across his wet nostrils, straightened his torso, and headed back to the garage. The smell was baked into his skin and hair, but he couldn’t contemplate showering, not at that moment. He would shower later. He picked up the shovel from the workbench, looked over its crusty blade, and pushed his way outside. Right now, he had a hole to dig.

  • * *

“What in the hell are you staring at?”

The light snapped on.

Tyler swung around from his bedroom window. He’d been looking at where the azalea bushes grew half wild against the slats of the rear fence, trying to determine whether a slight mound showed beneath the years of cast-off limbs and fallen leaves, or if that was just his imagination.

“Nothin,” Tyler said.

Creed hobbled into the room on a chrome cane. He lowered himself onto the side of Tyler’s bed, his right leg extended. A metal brace hugged his torso. “This sucks,” he said, wincing. “How’s your bean?”

“Ehh.” Tyler waggled his hand. He pulled his chair from his desk and straddled it backward so he was facing Creed and the line of band posters tacked over his bed, freebies from Chad — which reminded him he’d never paid for the Clash album.

“Jesse got his car back today,” Creed said.

“The Chevelle? They said it’d been totaled.”

Creed shrugged. “She ain’t pretty, but she runs. Gus from the pool hall helped rebuild her. Jess and me took a ride down Powerline Road. Every little rut hurt like hell, but I couldn’t lay up here another day. I was starting to lose my mind.”

Tyler nodded. “Jesse doing alright?”

“Still can’t quite lift his arm.”

“He say anything about the wreck?”

“Jesse?” Creed laughed, then winced and shifted on the bed. “Yeah, we sat on the hood, and he blubbered and poured out his emotions. It was freaking beautiful. What do you think?”

“Naw, I mean, does he remember anything?”

“What’s there to remember? He pulled out in front of some dude going sixty. Almost punched all of our tickets.”

Tyler picked at the paint of the chair’s backrest with his thumbnail. With the dream of What Happened recurring, he’d been dwelling more and more on Scott’s warning: cameras pointed at their houses, strange people watching. But in the last few days, the idea of people watching, as horrifying as it was, also seemed to link the three of them crowded together in Jesse’s Chevelle with the three of them waking up in separate hospital rooms.

Two pinpricks of light…

Headlights…

“We were being followed,” Tyler blurted out.

Creed, who had been adjusting a strap on his brace, jerked his head up. “The hell are you talking about?”

“The night of the crash. We were going out to a field in Archer, remember? You’d scored some weed, I think.” Tyler, meet Mary Jane. Mary Jane, meet Tyler. His head throbbed with the effort to concentrate. “Then, then… I don’t remember if we were coming or going… but one of us said, ‘They’ve been following us in the dark,’ or something like that. And when we all turned around, there were these headlights behind us.”

Creed squinted at him, his head tilting.

“I can’t say for sure,” Tyler continued. “But I get this feeling that the car we hit was the same one that had been following us.”

Creed grunted and lifted his cane. “I don’t know, embryo, but all this talk of pot’s got me thinking… thinking that there might still be some hidden in my top drawer.”

Tyler sighed. “Yeah, whatever.”

Creed paused in the doorway and staggered around the cane to face Tyler. “Hey, would you mind cooking us up some spaghetti? Mom’s down for the count again.” He must have seen Tyler’s frown. “If you want, I’ll whip up some sauce—”

“Forget it.” Creed couldn’t boil water. Tyler pushed himself to his feet. “I’ve got it.”

Creed raised his cane and aimed the rubber stopper at him. “I owe you, bro.”

“Yeah, you always say th—”

Another memory shot to the surface, like a red inflatable ball that had been held deep underwater. It was accompanied by a searing streak of pain. Tyler clasped his forehead. The memory wavered — no, no, no! — before resolving as the pain abated.

Tyler blinked at his brother. “They pointed something at us, like you just did with your cane.”

“Who pointed something at us?”

Tyler saw it more clearly now. “The people in the car.”

“The car we hit?” Creed’s voice grew an edge. “You’re telling me they attacked us?”

“I… yeah. I think so.”

22

Thirteenth Street High School

7:21 p.m.

Scott burst through the front doors of the gymnasium, panting from his bike ride and subsequent sprint across campus. With Scott’s mother at her new fitness club, his father had pulled the short straw as chauffeur. But not even a block from the house, the Volvo had hitched and sputtered, then stalled. “You know,” his father said, scratching his beard, “I thought it’d been a while since I filled up.”

As the gymnasium doors clattered shut behind him, Scott pushed the sleeve of his gray blazer off his watch face. Twenty minutes late. Could’ve been worse. He straightened his electric pink tie, shook down his pant legs, and hurried toward the doorway to the gym floor, where lights and music pulsed. The thought of Janis inside, waiting for him…

Just so long as she hasn’t hitched her cart to another horse.

“Hey,” Scott whispered to the Bud voice. “You’re supposed to be supporting me.”

What can I say? I’m a realist.

“Ticket, please.”

Beneath the glass trophy case to Scott’s right, three young women sat behind a streamer-festooned table. The one with blond feathered hair had upturned her hand and raised an eyebrow.

Scott swallowed. “Ticket?”

“We’ve been, like, selling them all week,” the one next to her said with a sigh. Dark hair erupted around a banana-yellow headband. The third girl, this one with crimped hair, giggled.

Scott patted his breast pocket. He hadn’t known about any tickets much less purchased one. Fresh sweat broke over his brow. “Can’t I pay here?” he asked, reaching for his back pocket. But his hand encountered no mound of wallet, just a flat butt cheek. He had changed pants a couple of times that night in nervous indecision and must have left his wallet in one of the other pairs.

Some date you’re turning out to be.

“Wait a second…” Feather Hair’s open palm turned to a pointed finger, her eyes gleaming with sudden interest. “Weren’t you the guy that, like, got paddled at Dress-up Night?”

Scott’s face exploded with heat, and he touched his glasses. “No, no, I think you have me, um, confused with—”

“It’s totally him!” Big Hair said, sitting straighter. “Remember when they pulled his pants down?”

“I’m pr-pretty sure I was never at anything called Dress-up…”

Feather Hair spun toward Big Hair. “Janis totally freaked out that night. Do you remember?”

“Duh, I was right next to you. She was a complete, like, basket case.”

“I’ll kill you if you say anything to Margaret, but I was totally, like, whew” — Feather Hair air-wiped her brow — “when Janis quit Alpha. She looked capable of murder.”

“For sure,” Big Hair said.

Giggles huddled nearer her two friends and giggled some more.

Scott raised a finger. “I’m going to go in now.”

“And then she breaks up with Blake Farrier.” Feather Hair clutched Big Hair’s forearm. “Blake Farrier. As if she…”

Scott sidled from the table and into the gymnasium. The dance committee had pushed the bleachers into vertical stacks against the side walls, and the varnished floor was all but packed. Scott rose on tiptoes, then edged his way around the court’s sidelines. A dim purple hue infused the gymnasium court while spangles of white light gleamed from a rotating disco ball.

He was almost to the refreshment table when he spotted Sweet Pea, his bowl cut now a mullet, pushing fistfuls of popcorn into his mouth and jawing with Jeffrey Bateman, another Gamma pledge from last semester. Scott reversed course, edging the other direction. Back at the entrance, he nearly bumped into Grant Sidwell, Gamma’s president, who was shaking hands and beaming for all he was worth. Britt, Scott’s older Gamma brother — and paddler — from last semester, entered behind him, a dizzy-looking blonde hanging from his arm.

“What is this?” Scott muttered. “The flipping fall reunion show?”

Head bowed, he plunged toward the center of the gymnasium. Maybe he’d find Janis among the growing knot of dancers. He still couldn’t believe that his phone call to her had worked, that she had picked up on what he was doing. For a moment, he’d been sure she hated the idea and was going to shut him down. But she hadn’t. She’d said yes. The temperature beneath Scott’s collar ratcheted up a few degrees as he remembered how he’d toppled over in his chair.

A student with glow-in-the-dark glasses robot danced into his view, popped an arm wave, and “passed” it to Scott. Scott tried to pass it back, but the guy had already robot danced away.

Someone tapped his shoulder.

Scott spun and found Margaret leaning toward him, her hair piled up like Princess Leia in the ceremony scene. An intoxicating perfume filled Scott’s nose. For a second, he became lost in the shifting of her sea-green eyes. Then he realized her mouth was moving: My sister gave up on you.

The life seeped from Scott’s organs. “She did?”

Margaret leaned nearer, her voice bordering on accusatory. “My sister’s looking for you,” she repeated.

“Oh, right, I’m looking for her, too.” His heart resumed beating. “Do you, ah, do you happen to know where she is?”

Scott realized how idiotic he sounded, telling the sister of the girl he’d asked to the dance that he had no idea where to find her. And after she’d caught him popping an arm wave. Margaret’s eyes shifted past him, the corners of her glossy lips turning up. She leaned in again and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I think it’s really sweet you asked her. She wouldn’t have come if you hadn’t.” She patted him and rejoined the short guy she’d been dancing with.

“Is my sister spreading rumors about me again?”

Scott wheeled around to find a constellation of disco lights illuminating Janis’s upturned face. He took in the strong lines of her cheekbones, her sensuous lower lip. And so close. When the lights swept over her eyes, their colors — chestnut and green — glimmered magically. Scott staggered forward.

“Wow,” he said. “Thanks for… for coming.”

Nice opener, pal. Why don’t you go ahead and shake her hand while you’re at it, give her your business card?

“Thanks for asking me.” Janis’s hand moved to tuck her combed-down hair behind her ear before she seemed to recall it was fastened from her face with a pair of slender barrettes. Her hand fell to the side of her smooth black dress.

Scott touched his glasses. “You look—”

“Getting down!” The deejay’s voice boomed over the speakers. “Are you having fun?” A smattering of screams answered in the affirmative. “I said, are you having fun?” More screams. “Good, because yours truly, Deejay Sweat, is spinning all the hits all night long. But now, we’re gonna slow it down for a few songs. So grab that girl or guy you’ve had your eye on and tell them, hey, I’m crazy for you. Can you do that? All right…”

The lights dimmed and three descending beats sounded from the speakers as the first slow song started: “Crazy For You.” Couples paired up, led by Madonna’s sultry voice.

“I was going to say you look incredible,” Scott said.

Nice save, Bud whispered.[_ Was startin’ to worry about you there._]

“Thanks.” Janis glanced around before returning her gaze to Scott’s. “Shall we?”

He nodded quickly and reached forward. His hands found her hips, then inched up the smooth fabric to her waist. He hoped his palms weren’t as damp as they felt. Janis stepped into his embrace and draped her wrists over his shoulders. Her body rocked to the slow beats. Scott followed her lead, trying to relax his hyperactive muscles. When she moved her face nearer his ear, her fresh scent overwhelmed him. He closed his eyes. He hadn’t thought they’d ever be this close again.

“Good call, Scott,” she whispered.

“Thanks for catching on.”

“You got your cast off.”

“Good as new.” He rotated his wrist. “How’s your wound?”

“Almost healed. Two more weeks before I’m given a clean bill.”

He nodded against the side of her head. They rotated in silence as though both were deciding how to begin the business side of the evening. Scott figured it was best to just cut to the chase.

“Mr. Leonard’s alive,” they said at the same time.

Janis drew back and stared. “How did you know?”

“I should be asking you.” Scott felt his wide eyes mirroring hers. Everything he’d had to go through to get that bit of intel — the two trips to the Leonards’ shed, the voice-activated recorder, the descrambler… And even then, he’d had to decipher code words, hoping he’d done so correctly.

Janis leaned in to Scott, nearer this time. “I saw him. We talked — shh, stay close.” She fastened herself to his shoulders until he relaxed again. “We need to keep speaking like this, in close, so no one can overhear us. And we should use our old code name for him: Nut.”

He edged in another inch and laced his fingers over the shifting muscles of her lower back. “When was this?”

“Monday.”

“But where?” he asked. “How?”

“Do you remember the fort we built as kids, the one we visited when we went back? The slab of cement you found belonged to an emergency bunker. That’s where he’s been hiding.”

“He didn’t try to hurt you, did he?”

“No, nothing like that. He genuinely wants to help. I could… feel it.” Her fingers ran beneath the back collar of his jacket. “And even though you don’t believe him when he talks about a Them, he—”

“I believe him now.”

Her fingers paused as though in question.

“I know you told me not to,” Scott said, “but I went back to Nut’s basement a couple months ago.”

“Hm.” She sounded neither upset nor surprised. She smoothed the back of his collar and rested her hands there. “What did you find?”

Scott described the operation step by step, from going into the basement to discovering the cable inside the PVC pipe, as well as the two rooms with the cots, to setting up the voice-activated recorder to retrieving it the next night to ordering the descrambler (he spared her the theatrics with Wayne), and, finally, to listening to the tape. “Oh, did you happen to go to Mr. Han on February second?” he asked. “It would’ve been a Saturday.”

“Yeah, Blake took me.”

Scott’s heart suffered a jealous punch. “Well, the voices on the tape seemed to know that — beforehand. There were at least three voices. They knew when Margaret was going to work and coming home that day. They knew about your… your dinner with Blake. They even talked about sending you with an ‘escort of one,’ which tells me they had you followed.”

Janis moved away enough for him to see the what the frick? in her eyes.

“So yeah, whatever Mr. — I mean, Nut was involved in was collective,” he said. “And it continues in his absence, apparently. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are cameras aimed at your house again but being received on a different set of monitors. I heard someone outside the shed door the night I set up the voice-activated recorder. He would’ve strolled right in if Tiger hadn’t insisted on being pet. I owe your cat. Whatever she wants — my computer, my stock in IBM — it’s hers. I’m serious.”

“But how did you learn about Nut?” Janis asked.

“One of the voices on the tape — the same voice I heard outside the shed door, in fact — referred to him as AWOL. That’s how I figured he was still in the land of the living.”

“Did you hear about yourself on the tape or about any of the others?”

“No, but that’s the other thing. I thought I would find a switchboard in his basement, remember? But what I found was a crude telecommunication network made up of five military phones, off the grid.” Scott was acutely aware that one of his hands was holding his other wrist now and that her hips were brushing his legs. “If your family was the only one being monitored, fine. Five pairs of agents could handle that in shifts. But I’m ninety-nine percent sure Jesse was being followed too. And over the winter break, I found some cameras pointed at my own house. I assumed they were Nut’s, but now I’m almost certain they’re not.”

In the dimness around them, couples rocked gently to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

“Nut did mention something about their assignments being ‘highly compartmentalized,’” Janis said after a moment. “He didn’t even know why he was watching me and Margaret, only that he’d been ordered to. Anyway, the compartmentalization could mean that you and the others have your own surveillance teams.”

Scott pursed his lips in thought. “Makes sense — each team with their own phone network, their own surveillance routines. But if Nut was as out of the loop as he says, how does he know you’re in danger?”

“We didn’t get that far. We heard footsteps, and Nut beat it back to the bunker.”

Scott thought back to that Monday and winced. “Oh, shoot.”

“What?”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Wait, that was you? What were you doing in the woods?”

“I, um…” Better shoot straight with her, pal; you know what they say about a dame’s intuition. “Well, that was the day I descrambled the tape and learned Nut was still walking and talking. I’d seen you go into the woods. I know we agreed on discretion and all, but… well, it didn’t seem so important suddenly. I needed to make sure you were safe.”

When she caressed the back of his head, Scott nearly collapsed.

“So where did you end up?” she asked.

He swam back to the gymnasium floor with its dim purple lighting and sea of swaying students. At the beginning of the school year, he would never have pictured himself here, in mid-March, holding the girl of his dreams. He reminded himself that this was a business meeting, not a date.

“Oh, I ended up going to the fallen tree, thinking you might be there. You weren’t, of course, but wait until you hear this. The levee around our neighborhood? The reflectors across the top?”

“Yeah?”

“They’re infrared motion sensors.”

“Oh, right, right!” In her excitement, Janis stepped on his toes. “Nut said something about that. He had to scramble the sensors on the levee to get back in. ‘Fort Oakwood,’ he called the neighborhood.”

“I’m starting to think it is a fort. How have you ever entered or left the neighborhood?”

“The front entrance.”

“Exactly. The only entrance. You couldn’t leave by another way if you wanted to. There’s the levee on both sides of the neighborhood and the houses at the top of the Grove with their fenced backyards slamming right up against one another. Oakwood is one big suburban bottle.”

“I’ve never thought about it that way,” she said.

“That day, February second, a delivery vehicle went to your house.”

“My Grams sent flowers for my birthday.”

“Well, one of the voices on the tape checked the plate numbers with what he called ‘the front.’ I’d bet anything there’s a system at the entrance of Oakwood that photographs plates and cross-checks them with the DMV’s database. Anything unusual or out of the ordinary gets tracked.”

“But why?”

“I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I might have stumbled on a lead.”

Someone’s been busy.”

A guilty heat washed over Scott’s face. “Yeah, the whole laying low thing lasted for about a week after we talked. Sorry, but I just couldn’t stay sitting on my hands.” He went on to tell her about the housing data, the transactions with Blue Sky Reality, and Oakwood being barricaded for a year.

“So you think Blue Sky is responsible for Fort Oakwood?”

“Only they don’t exist. At least, not according to my mom. My guess is that Blue Sky was a dummy company set up for the sole purpose of clearing everyone out of the neighborhood, then — after the cameras, levees, bunkers, and God knows what else were in place — repopulating it with watchers and our families. After that, the company went poof. I’m even starting to wonder if the name they chose was some kind of inside joke. You know, B.S. Realty.”

Someone might have been able to slide a piece of paper between their bodies, but just barely. That made it that much harder for Scott to say what he was about to say. He pressed his lips together before forging on.

“You may not like this. It will seem to go against what Nut’s telling you, but…” he hesitated.

“What?”

“I’m not so sure we’re in danger. After everything I’ve found, I’m starting to think we’re being protected.”

Protected?

Just as Scott had feared, the space between their bodies grew. A couple of inches, maybe, but it felt like leagues.

“Wait, just hear me out. For all of their monitoring and following, these people haven’t done anything to us. And it’s not like they haven’t had opportunities. They’ve had years’ worth of opportunities, and yet they haven’t lifted a finger. The one time one of them did _]hurt us, the reaction was like a kicked ant’s nest — Agent Steel showing up with her band of Merry Men. To me, they’re behaving much more like government secret service than a squad of hit men. You asked why they’d be tracking visitors to Oakwood? For the same reason, I would think. To make sure no one comes to harm us. I’m not saying Mr. Nut is one of the bad guys. I’m just saying maybe” — Scott winced — “[_probably he and his partner, lacking perfect information, came to an imperfect conclusion.”

Except for the barest swaying, Janis had almost stopped dancing. “When did you first notice your abilities?” she asked.

“One, two years ago. They came on slowly. I didn’t realize they were anything special at first.”

“I only started having my out-of-body experiences this past summer. The precognition and telekinesis stuff came months later. Which means we both moved to Oakwood well before we discovered our powers. At least five years before. So how would anyone have known to put us here?” she asked. “How would they have known to protect us?”

Scott stopped rocking altogether. It was the most obvious question in the giant puzzle, and he’d neglected to consider it. The question hadn’t even registered as a blip in his mind. He thought Janis had been preparing to ask him how they had all come to live in Oakwood, which was the question he’d been puzzling over all week. But she’d done him one keener. Much keener.

“I… I don’t know,” was all he could think to say.

“So let’s not jump to any conclusions about who’s on the right and wrong side of this. If you had the nightmares I’ve been having…” She paused as though to swallow. “It could be that they haven’t done anything because they don’t know about our powers, not yet. I’m going to meet with Nut tomorrow. He’ll tell me who They are and whatever danger he believes them to pose.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, Scott. I…” When she spoke again, her voice was less defiant, but a certain finality lingered. “It’s hard to explain, but I need to meet with him alone. We’ll compare notes later, I promise. We’ll make it a second date.”

Heat burst from Scott’s core and tingled throughout him like the final glitters of a Disney fireworks display.

You see, pal, what did I tell ya? You’re in like Flynn.

“So where do you suppose Agent Steel fits into this?” he asked after they’d resumed swaying.

“She hasn’t been to see you or anything, has she?”

“No, no, I was just thinking about what you told me in the woods — her interest in how someone got into the basement, how you got out of the bathroom. Also, her investigation of Nut seemed pretty excessive, considering he’s supposedly dead. It also suggests she has a higher level of access, that her authority straddles a number of these so-called compartments.”

“I haven’t seen her around lately, thank God. Or the other creeps who had been showing up around—” She stiffened against him.

“What is it?”

“There’s a man leaning against the pushed-in bleachers, wearing a white suit and hat. He’s staring right at us. I’m going to turn you slowly. Don’t act like you’re looking for him. Just sort of glance up.”

When they made half a revolution, Scott faced a swaying sea of students. His gaze went from seam to seam among the couples, looking for the man Janis had described.

“Do you see him?” she asked.

“No, not yet. Wait…”

The man in the white suit was near the refreshment table, arms crossed, one knee bent back, propping himself against the vertical wall of bleacher seats. His hat, a white fedora with a black band, was pulled low, the brim further hiding his face in the already dark gymnasium.

“He’s one of them,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“You talked about the cars in our neighborhood having a signature, a certain sound they make. Well, people have a signature, too. It’s hard to explain, but they carry their emotions around them in layers, sort of like winter wear. Sometimes I can see the layers, but more often I feel them. With Agent Steel and the strange men, I feel nothing. The thing is, they’re not… naked. It’s more like they’re wearing a void, if that makes any sense. When I reached toward the man in the white suit a few seconds ago, that’s what I felt. A void.”

Scott allowed his gaze to linger on the man a bit longer than he probably should have. But there was something very familiar in his stance, the line of his shoulders, and the casual tilt of his head. Then the man took something from his mouth, an unlit cigar, and with a thick knuckle pushed his hat up. From the darkness, a row of white teeth shone out.

Scott jerked his gaze away. “I-I know him.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s our yardman, Mr. Shine. Remember him from when we were kids?”

“Of course. But what’s he doing here?”

“He works at the school, too. He’s a custodian. Maybe the school asked him to come help chaperone or something.” Scott’s gaze wandered back to the gleaming teeth for a second look. “He saved me from Jesse and Creed the day they came after me in the tennis courts. He’s the one who told me about Oakwood being closed for a year. I’m pretty sure he’s not one of them.”

But how sure could he be? Scott thought about the way Mr. Shine’s eyes always seemed to twinkle, as though someone far more knowledgeable was peeking through them.

Janis sighed. “This place is so packed, who knows what I’m picking up. He’s probably fine. ‘Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted.’ Maybe I’m taking it to the extreme, though the first part has certainly borne out.” Her words resonated with loneliness.

“Well, whatever he meant by the second part, it can’t have been literal. Maybe it’s better to think about the people you can trust.” Scott rubbed her back before relacing his fingers.

Not the smoothest, said the Bud voice. But not bad, neither.

For the first time that evening, Janis lay her head against his shoulder. Foreigner sang “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and as Scott watched the light playing over Janis’s combed-down hair, something told him that this would be their final slow song. He touched his cheek to the side of her crown, not quite daring to rest it there. Mr. Shine rotated into view again. He held up his cigar to Scott as though to say, Hey, there you are, young blood! as his crescent of white teeth grew broader. Scott raised his own hand and gave a small wave.

“Promise me you’ll be careful,” Janis said.

“That’s the second time you’ve made me promise.” He jerked with a revelation and tucked his chin so he could see her. “It’s your dream, isn’t it? You’re seeing something in your dream.”

Janis seemed to study the lenses of his glasses for a second before focusing beyond them. When a point of light swept over her eyes, they caught flashes of moisture. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”

What would Scott Summers say to Jean Grey?

“Nor I you,” he answered.

Bud groaned, but Scott hardly noticed, for as the final slow song built toward its choral crescendo — “I want to know what love is…” — Janis brought her face up and kissed him. On the lips.

Two seconds passed, three. The sensation was warm and dizzying, and before Scott could figure out what to do with his own lips, it was over. Janis’s face fell away, her eyes opening onto large pupils.

“I missed you,” she said.

Scott licked his bottom lip self-consciously. “I, ah, I missed you, too.” Heartbeats punched through his breathy words, his nervous system only now seeming to grasp the enormity of what just happened. The lights swelled as the song faded. Couples began to separate. Scott cleared his throat into his fist. “Would you like to, um, get a drink?” he asked.

Janis nodded, and they made their way to the refreshment table. Thanks to the patron saint of first dates, Scott found a crumpled dollar in the bottom of his pants pocket and, unfurling it with shaking hands, paid for two Cokes. As he waited for the girl to pour them, Scott looked for Mr. Shine but couldn’t find him.

“So, do you want to tell me about the dream?” He gestured toward a pair of metal folding chairs, then sat beside her, his tie dangling between his knees as he rested his elbows.

Janis took a sip of her Coke. “I haven’t had the dream all week. Not since the change of leadership in the Soviet Union. I’m hoping that whatever future existed before — the future I was having nightmares about — is being replaced by a new future, one where we won’t need that stupid clock counting down the minutes to a nuclear doomsday. One where I won’t have the same nightmares.” She squinted up at him. “Does that make any sense?”

Scott nodded even as he dreaded what he was going to have to tell her.

“With Reagan and Gorbachev planning talks, my parents think the Cold War is all but history.” She smirked a little. “All week, around the house, they’ve been acting like a pair of newlyweds. Not that I mind. It’s just not something I’m used to—”

“Gorbachev is dead,” Scott said.

The color drained from Janis’s cheeks. “What?”

“I heard it on the way over. I had to stop at the corner gas station for air for my back tire. The guy inside had a radio on, and there was a special bulletin. It seems the hardliners in Gorbachev’s party thought he was capitulating to the West. He was shot while giving a speech in Leningrad.”

As Janis brought her hand to her mouth, some new horror seemed to spread over her face. Scott took her cup from her and set it down, afraid she was going to drop it. Her irises turned deep green.

“Janis?” The skin of her forearm felt cool and faraway.

She blinked her eyes as though the room around here were coming back into focus. Then her brow tensed, and she stood. “I-I’m sorry, Scott. I don’t have time to explain, but I have to go.” She touched his cheek.

Scott set his drink down, but Janis was already pushing her way through a crowd of students. He took a step after her just as someone seized his arm.

“Scott Spruel?” a voice said.

He turned and found himself staring into Agent Steel’s frigid blue eyes. The expression around her scarred lip was as resolute as granite.

“You’re wanted for questioning,” she said.

Scott tried to swallow, but his mouth felt like ground chalk. “F-for what?”

“Obstructing an investigation.”

She tugged him to her side and steered him toward the door Scott had come in by. The entire gymnasium revolved around them. Everywhere he looked, lights pulsed over students laughing, pushing out their arms and legs, ties flipping back and forth, dress hems bouncing. Nobody seemed to notice him. They were in their own world, and Scott was in his.

Well, you know what they say, pal, Bud said sadly.[_ It’s not who you take to these things, it’s who you leave with._]

Scott twisted his neck around and spotted Janis. He opened his mouth to call to her, but her back was to him, and she was falling away, and she was talking to Blake Farrier. Agent Steel gave him another hard jerk, and the gym door slammed closed behind them.

23

Minutes earlier

Janis shielded her brow and squinted. A chanting crowd surrounded her, but they weren’t Thirteenth Street High students, and she clearly wasn’t in the school gymnasium. The crowd consisted of women and men of all ages, pumping their fists and holding signs aloft that read NUKE THE NUKES and RADIATION KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES.

I’ve had this experience before, when I touched Star on the first day of school.

Janis wasn’t actually there, yet she couldn’t escape the vividness of the bobbing signs and flapping coat sleeves and the way breath steamed from the mouths of the crushing crowd. She turned in the direction they all faced and took in the same steps she’d seen in the last experience, the white columns and dome of the state capitol building reaching toward a blue sky. And there was Star, shouting into a microphone, her spiked head lunging forward like a medieval weapon. Over a long underwear top, she wore her sister’s black NUCLEAR FREEZE NOW! shirt.

Star glanced to where Janis stood. Her eyes widened in recognition. Then Star clenched her face, raised her fist — and a deafening sound clapped through Janis’s awareness, like thunder.

Janis felt herself tumbling out of the experience. After an instant of darkness, Scott wavered into focus. She regarded his face a moment: the handsome searching eyes, the lips that had felt so warm against hers. Then she remembered what he had just told her: Gorbachev had been shot and killed giving a speech. It was what triggered the vision of Star. She was planning to give a speech at a rally tomorrow in Tallahassee, for the Florida chapter of the nuclear nonproliferation movement. She had been talking about it all week in study hall.

And now Janis understood that the sound she had heard was no thunderclap. It had come from a high-powered rifle.

She stood. “I-I’m sorry, Scott. I don’t have time to explain, but I have to go.”

She caressed his falling face, but her heart was pounding too hard, her mind racing to assemble a plan. Could she call Star’s mother and get the number where Star was staying? But even as she thought this, she knew a phone call wouldn’t dissuade Star from speaking. No, nothing short of going to Tallahassee herself was going to spare her friend’s life.

Which meant she needed a ride.

She spotted Blake farther down the court’s sideline, near the deejay booth. A small group surrounded him. Using her arms like a wedge, Janis began squeezing her way toward him.

Drawing nearer, she recognized several of Blake’s football teammates — and the three A’s. Amy was leaning her head back at something Blake had just said. Then she fell against him, her hands clutching his arm. Blake’s cheeks dimpled softly. Janis hesitated, a jealous knot forming in her stomach.

Blake hadn’t taken [_Amy Pavoni _]to the dance, had he?

Janis set her face and strode forward. One by one, the members of the group turned toward her, Alicia’s and Autumn’s smiles souring. Blake straightened as if he’d been caught climbing onto the counter for a package of Nutter Butters. Amy’s hands writhed possessively up his arm. She arched an eyebrow and smiled with one corner of her mouth.

Janis fixed her gaze on Blake. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yeah… sure.”

But Amy wouldn’t release him. “What Janis meant to say, I’m pretty sure, is, ‘I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’ll be leaving now.’” She narrowed her eyes. “Isn’t that right?”

“It won’t take long,” Janis said to Blake.

“It’s fine.” Blake tried to ease his arm from Amy’s hold.

“Gosh, I wonder what we can talk about in your absence.” Amy looked straight at Janis. “So many interesting things. And unless I’m mistaken, I still have…” She released Blake’s arm, as though of her own volition, knelt daintily for a glittering hand purse on the chair beside her, and snapped it open. “Ah, yes, here it is.” She flourished Agent Steel’s contact card with a small laugh before dropping it back in her purse. “I keep meaning to call, to see if I can be of any assistance. Maybe tonight I’ll finally get around to it.”

Janis balled up her fists. Do it or shut the hell up.

She thought the words so aggressively that the whooshing of her out-of-body experiences filled her head at once. Pulsing meridian lines appeared between and around her and Amy, and Janis knew she only had to push to shove Amy to the ground — or hurl her the length of the gymnasium. And part of her wanted to hurt Amy, hungered for it. Badly.

Instead, Janis examined the layers of her former friend because, for the first time, they were all laid out before her. She could see old birthday parties and sleepovers and summer days spent at Westside Pool, where they used to bike over together. And now a shadow — the one that had always lurked just out of Janis’s sight, like a floater in her vision. But the shadow couldn’t escape her sight. Exposed, the shadow took slow, horrifying shape.

Oh god, Amy.

Cold fingers enveloped her heart as Janis willed the vibrations away. They, along with the lines and layers, thinned and disappeared. In their place, Janis experienced a yawning sadness, like innocence lost.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Janis said.

“Tell you what?”

Janis leaned nearer and lowered her voice. “About your aunt.”

Amy flinched.

“The one who used to spend summers at your house when we were kids. She’d play softball with us in the street and rent R-rated movies when your parents went out. I always thought she was the coolest. I had no idea…”

“Shut up,” Amy said, but with no force behind her words.

“That’s why you put the note in my locker in sixth grade.”

“Shut up, I said.” Amy shrank back, her eyes flicking around as though to see whether the others knew, too. Whether they knew what her aunt had done to her when she was ten.

“You didn’t ask for it to happen,” Janis whispered. “You need to tell someone.”

“I have to go.” Amy clutched her purse to her chest and pushed past Janis, mascara starting to smear beneath her eyes. She hobbled on her high heels like a girl trying on her mother’s shoes for the first time. Tugging down the back of her short sequined dress, she disappeared toward the bathrooms.

“You’ve ruined everything,” Alicia hissed as she and Autumn, in matching silver sequins, went after their friend.

The rest of the group shrugged and started talking football.

“What was that about?” Blake came and stood next to Janis.

“It’s… complicated.” She continued to look at the place where Amy had disappeared. But it explained everything: why Amy had ditched softball, ditched Janis (who, by her own admission, had been a proud tomboy), and taken up with the most aggressively feminine girls she could find. It explained why she batted her perfect lashes at any cute guy who gave her his passing attention. Amy hadn’t wanted to leave a scrap of doubt in anyone’s mind — not least of all, Janis guessed, in Amy’s own — that she was anything other than a well-adjusted heterosexual.

“Did you still want to talk?”

Janis’s thoughts returned to Star with the shock of a gun blast. She looked up at Blake, who must have seen the sudden change in her face. His brow creased with his old concern as he reached for her arm.

“I need to ask a huge favor,” she said.

24

Nothing moved on Agent Steel’s dispassionate face. Scott shifted in his chair, sweat beading along his hairline. He started to hook a finger inside the knot of his tie before realizing the gesture made him look hot — a sure sign of guilt. The room in the front office was, in fact, cool. Cool and deathly quiet. The fluorescent bars didn’t even hum.

Scott’s gaze flicked from Agent Steel’s eyes to her empty desktop, then back. Her eyes weren’t even saying, I’m waiting; her eyebrows would have to move for that to happen. They just stared, which was worse.

Scott’s gaze fell to his squirming fingers. “There’s nothing more to tell you. I was at the bus stop, and I… I heard a scream.” His throat clicked when he swallowed. “I followed the sound to the Leonards’ house, and that’s where I found Janis.”

“And where were you before?”

“At the bus stop.”

“Before that?”

“My house.”

“Between your house and the bus stop, Scott, were you anywhere else?”

“Except for the street that runs between them?” He tried to smile in a way that said, I know you’re doing your job, but isn’t this getting just a little ridiculous? He drew courage from the thought of Janis’s lips against his. “No,” he lied.

Agent Steel stared for another minute and then rose from behind her desk. Scott straightened in the hope that she was preparing to dismiss him, but instead, she began pacing the perimeter of the small room.

“When you were in the fifth grade,” she said, “there was an officer at your school.”

“Yeah, Officer Friendly.” He craned his neck as she paced around his left side.

“What did this Officer Friendly do?”

Where is this going?

“She came to our class every once in a while.” Scott swallowed. “Talked to us about good behavior.” He craned his neck around to the right, but she had stopped behind him.

The door to a filing cabinet rumbled open. Folders shifted. The door rumbled closed. From over Scott’s shoulder, something pale appeared. He flinched before realizing that it was a piece of paper — a piece of cardboard, actually, slightly larger than a four-by-six index card. He took it, turned it right-side up, and felt his entire world fracture.

“She also had you fill out one of these,” Agent Steel said, “in the event that you or one of your classmates went missing. It’s been on file at the police department ever since. Do you remember doing this?”

Scott continued to study the card, fingers over his lips. Across the top was his name in large block letters, along with his address and telephone number. The bottom half of the card consisted of ten squares, one for each of his ten-year-old fingers. The prints looked as fresh as the day Officer Friendly had ordered him to “press down.” He fought the impulse to smell the ink.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“So you don’t deny the prints are yours.”

“Why, uh, would I?”

He had considered prevaricating. Well, I’m pretty sure we swapped them around. Lots of practical jokers in Mrs. Kiester’s class. Guess we thought we were being funny. Heh, heh. But what was to stop Agent Steel from demanding a fresh set of prints right then and there? For all he knew, she had a stack of cards and all the ink pads she needed in one of her desk drawers.

Another piece of paper appeared over Scott’s shoulder.

“These are copies of prints taken from the Leonards’ shed and basement. Blood makes almost as good a staining agent as ink.” Agent Steel’s silence drove the facts home like spikes.

Scott looked from the piece of paper to the card he had set on his right thigh.

“Our technicians say the patterns are a match,” she finished.

“Hm. Strange.”

He tried to hand them back, but Agent Steel’s hand didn’t reappear to accept them. I get it; she wants them to stare me in the face for another few minutes, to unnerve me. And it worked. The card and sheet of paper, damp where he’d handled them, felt like a pair of telltale hearts. He wanted nothing more than to flip them face down. But that would look like guilt, too.

“Is there anything you’d like to amend to your statement?”

“I… don’t think so.” He tried to sound confused.

A full minute passed. Agent Steel strode back to her desk, standing in front of it this time. She stared down at Scott, who had to lean his head back to see her face. Muscles began knotting where his neck met his shoulders. More sweat leapt from his hairline. Scott pictured the salty beads conjoining, growing fatter, threatening to trickle into his eyes and tickle his nose.

He pushed the sweat up into his hair.

“Lying to investigators is a grave offense,” she said.

“I understand.”

“Punishable by jail time.”

“Well, I’m not lying…” He cleared his throat. “So what’s there to worry about?” He tried again for that you-and-I-both-know-this-is-ridiculous-right? smile, but the coldness in her eyes killed it. His mouth staggered. For the first time, he sensed the void around this woman that Janis had talked about. Like outer space.

“How would you explain the matching prints?” she asked.

“I thought that was your job.”

He pushed his sweat through his hair again and felt it run down the back of his neck and into his shirt collar. If this went on much longer, he’d be able to wring out his blazer.

She sat against her desk. “There’s a phenomenon known as missing time. It’s most commonly seen in subjects following highly stressful events. When asked to recall the event in question, a subject will believe himself to be recounting the event exactly as it happened when, in fact, there are gaping holes.”

“Okay?”

When Agent Steel’s hand dropped to her belt, Scott thought she was reaching for her holstered gun. Perhaps she meant to give him that impression. Instead, she unclasped the handcuffs. Agent Steel held the cuffs up at chest level and drew the chain taut. Then she brought the cuffs together until they were nearly touching and pinched the drooping length of chain at its neck.

“There is still a beginning and an ending” — she indicated each cuff — “a kind of continuity. But notice how the chain went from a dozen links to four. That’s what a subject will do with the chain of events in question: truncate the links. We believe it’s the brain’s way of mitigating trauma to the subject’s psyche. Perhaps your brain is doing the same thing.”

She set the cuffs gently on her desk.

“Perhaps,” Scott said, then realized his mistake.

For the last fifteen minutes, Agent Steel had been ratcheting up the pressure — the questions, the stares, the long silences, the standing behind him, the incontrovertible evidence, the hint of violence — all so she could back off and land him here: to conceding that, by golly, there just might be more to the story, after all. He could have punched himself in the mouth.

“But I doubt it,” he added hastily. “My memory’s pretty clear on the, um, event in question.”

“Then tell me why you went into the shed.”

“I didn’t go into the—”

“How did you open the hatch door?”

“What hatch do—?”

“What did you see in the basement?”

“How could I see anything if I—”

“Where’s Mr. Leonard?”

Scott’s brain had been primed for another fastball, but she’d thrown a nasty, nasty curve. For a second, he could only stammer. His mind flashed involuntarily with what Janis had told him on the dance floor about meeting Mr. Leonard in the woods. He buried the knowledge, but it had already shone across his eyes. He’d felt it. And Agent Steel had seen it.

For the first time, she squinted and leaned nearer.

“Where’s Mr. Leonard?” she repeated, the scar twisting her lip sideways.

“Mr. Leonard? Oh, I thought you said Mr. Ed. You know, the talking horse.” He could feel her studying his eyes for the least glimmer of falsehood. He managed an awkward laugh, as though he’d just made a fool of himself. “I was like, ‘Mr. Ed? What’s she talking about?’ I guess the answer’s the same, though. Buried, right?”

He raised his eyes like he was being tested.

Agent Steel made a move toward her belt. The small device was in her hand before Scott knew what was happening, its two red lights blinking on. The air hummed. Scott stared at the device cross-eyed, recalling but not quite grasping something Janis had told him in December about a device in the Leonards’ house. The high humming filled the room.

“With your cooperation, we can locate those missing links,” Agent Steel said. “And more, perhaps.”

Scott drew his head away but he couldn’t seem to avert his gaze from the lights. He seized his temples as the humming became a sizzling. Is that the sound of my brain overheating? His vision began to spot over. He went to push away the device, but his hand swept through empty air.

“Unh,” he grunted.

The sizzling rose in frequency. The right lens of his glasses shattered with the sound of a pick being driven into ice, then the left one. He felt his glasses being lifted from his face, but he could no longer see Agent Steel. Only the blinking lights. And the lights became a pair of red eyes watching him through a gray fog.

“Let’s start over,” the eyes said. “Why did you go into the shed?”

I didn’t go into the shed. But the slurring movement of his tongue and jaw didn’t match those words. They did more. They said more. What in the hell’s going on? Scott thought from a dim, dwindling corner.

“Very good.” The eyes seemed to grow larger.

Some infantile part of Scott’s mind was glad that whatever he’d said had pleased the eyes.

“Now, how did you open the hatch door?”

No, no, don’t…

Scott felt drool trickle from his lower lip as his mouth smiled and his tongue and jaw lurched back into motion. More drool spilled with the words. And as the red eyes stared down on him, he hoped he was saying more of the right things.

25

The next morning

Saturday, March 16, 1985

8:22 a.m.

The sun filled the back of Blake’s Toyota as he sped them west on I-10. Janis watched for the green road signs that counted down the miles to Tallahassee, a strand of hair pressed to her nose. She didn’t know what time Star was scheduled to speak, only that it would be mid to late morning, when the sky was bright blue and the air still cool enough to make mist of people’s breath.

She peeked up through the front windshield. The sky stretched away, pale and cloudless.

Janis had told her parents that Blake was taking her to Cedar Key, a quaint little town on the Gulf coast, for the day. Instead, she was having him drive two hours north and west. Janis didn’t know what Blake had told his own parents and didn’t ask. She hated the thought of him having to lie to them for her sake. She never wanted to be that girl. But this was life and death.

She looked over at him. “I really do appreciate you doing this.”

“I’m glad I can help, especially if your friend’s in as much trouble as you say.”

Janis’s gaze latched onto the approaching green sign showing cities and distances: Tallahassee 46.

“So what’s the plan once we get there?”

“First, I’m going to call the police anonymously. Tell them that someone’s planning an assassination at the rally. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have to persuade Star to stay off stage.”

“And if she says no?”

“Then it’s on to Plan B, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet.” The Plan B Janis had worked out would be riskier — far riskier. If she was even a split second off… Janis drew her socked feet up onto the seat and hugged her knees.

Blake watched her for a moment from behind Polo sunglasses, then returned his gaze to the road. “You know I have to ask…”

“How I know all of this?”

“That’s the one.”

Janis set her chin on her knees. “That night you took me out for my birthday, I said there were things about myself I couldn’t explain. I didn’t think you’d understand. But maybe I was more afraid of what you’d think of me if you did understand.” Janis reflected on Amy and the horrible secret she’d kept locked away for all those years. She lowered her legs. “I guess the best way to sum it up is that I’m not normal. I’ve been having experiences — experiences I never asked for — that I can’t always explain.”

“What kinds of experiences?”

[_Start with a sample and see what happens. _]“Well, sometimes I have dreams. And when the dreams are especially vivid, when I’m practically awake inside of them, they sometimes come true.”

Blake appeared to mull that over. “You had a dream that your friend was shot?”

Janis nodded. “And it’s not as farfetched as it sounds. Her sister was assassinated at a similar rally a couple of years ago.”

“And you don’t think the dream came from this knowledge? From you already knowing about her sister?” He passed a car and slid back into the right lane. “I’m not trying to sound skeptical. I just want to understand.”

Janis recalled the sound of the gunshot in the experience, the way it clapped through her. “No,” she said.

“Then I believe you.”

She lifted her face. “Really?”

“If you say this is happening to you, then it’s happening to you.” He found her hand and squeezed. “You’ve never given me any reason to doubt you. But now I have another question.”

“What is it?”

“Do you think less of me for not having these kinds of experiences? Is that why you gave the ring back?”

“No, of course not.” She squeezed his hand, but hadn’t there been the slightest hesitation in her throat before answering him? “Of course not,” she said again. Then, releasing his hand, she went back to watching the side of the interstate for more mileage signs.

  • * *

White sunlight shone over the capitol’s tall columns and the broad lawn that fronted them. While a crew fussed with a sound system on the capitol’s steps, men and women — like the ones in Janis’s vision — milled on the lawn and beneath the oak trees in loose clusters, some of them kneeling to work on their protest signs.

On the other side of Monroe Street, Janis made a visor with her hands and counted one, two police cars — hardly the “vigilant police presence” the 911 dispatcher had promised. Blake had pulled into a Shell station off the interstate fifteen minutes earlier, where Janis had placed her call.

Janis threw her hands down.

“It’s still early,” Blake said, massaging her shoulder.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to leave anything to chance.” She squinted around, trying to think like a sniper. Apalachee Parkway, the street Blake had parked off of, ended across from the capitol building. On one corner of the street was a parking lot, on the other, a small park — both potential candidates for a sniper to set up. Two blocks away, a single building poked above the trees, the only one tall enough, it appeared, to offer a clear shot to the capitol steps.

“How about we split up?” Janis said. “I’ll take this side of the street and the parking lot, you take that one. Check in the bushes, up in the trees. Everywhere. If you see anything that seems off, tell one of those policemen. I’m going to do a quick check of that building down there, too.”

“You sound like you know what you’re doing.”

“I don’t,” Janis said. “But I watched enough Charlie’s Angels growing up to fake it.”

“Where should we meet?”

“How about over there, under that tree.” Janis pointed out an oak on the edge of the capitol lawn. “If we haven’t found our shooter, we’ll need to look for Star and warn her.”

As Blake nodded, his lips creased as though he’d tasted something sour.

“What is it?” Janis asked.

“You introduced me to Star after school that time, remember? I don’t think she liked me very much.”

“Welcome to the club.”

Janis checked the sky as Blake jogged across the street. The blue was growing but had yet to approach the level she’d seen in her vision. She crossed a narrow lawn toward the filled-to-capacity parking lot. She scanned the glinting glass and metal for creepy cargo vans, heavily tinted windows, or pickups with covered beds but spotted none of the usual suspects.

Beginning on the near side, she snaked the length of the lot, peeking into every car and truck. She reached out with her thoughts as well, probing the air for murderous intentions. Occasionally, Janis turned back toward the capitol building, gauging angles. When she reached the final car, she was as certain as she could be that the lot was clean. She wondered how Blake was faring.

Applause rose from the capitol lawn. Janis spun, her heart in her throat, but the woman standing before the podium was not Star. If anything, she was Star’s antithesis… and familiar looking.

Janis squinted at the middle-aged woman in the swooping blond Mary Tyler Moore ’do and pink cardigan. “Barbara Collingsworth,” Janis whispered at the same moment the woman introduced herself to the crowd. Janis’s father muted the television whenever she appeared on the news. She was one of Florida’s two representatives to the U.S. Senate, a Democrat, and an evident supporter of the nuclear freeze movement.

But if the speakers were already starting — Janis checked the sky again — she needed to get moving.

The building whose highest floor peered above the surrounding treetops looked like something out of a Humphrey Bogart film. A long vertical sign threaded with neon bulbs (long burned out, no doubt) read HOTEL SINCLAIR. Janis’s rapid breaths fogged the air as she looked the whitewashed building up and down. She counted six floors. The windows along the ground level had been boarded over, several with notices warning against trespassing.

Shielding her eyes, Janis studied the topmost floor: seven windows inset atop an ornate stone ledge. Janis ran her gaze across them, then locked on the middle one, the one that didn’t quite belong. Its horizontal pane stood higher than the other windows’. Someone had slid it open, not by much — a crack, maybe — but how much space did a rifle barrel require?

Fear stole the moisture from her mouth.

Do I run back and tell the police? Is there even time?

She could no longer see the capitol lawn, but she could hear occasional bursts of applause. Star might be going on at that very moment, for all she knew. Janis assessed the sky — still paler than in her vision — then trained her gaze back on the middle window, top floor.

You once told yourself that if you’d had the power to prevent Star’s sister’s death, you would have. Well, your powers have led you here. And now you have the chance to alter Star’s future.

Put up or shut up.

Janis crossed a patchwork of crabgrass and sand to the side of the hotel. She went window to window, pulling on boards, her heart pumping with a firm but steady rhythm, like a ritual drum. At the back corner of the hotel, behind an eruption of bushes, she found a loose board — or rather, the board covering the bottom half of the window had been completely removed and then wedged back in place, as though someone were trying to hide the entrance. A cinder block sat in the weeds beneath the window.

Janis glanced around but didn’t see anyone, not even her “escort of one.” After what Scott had told her, she assumed someone had followed her and Blake from Gainesville though she hadn’t spotted any cars tailing them — no obvious ones, anyway. She tugged the board free, stepped up on the cinder block, and peered into a dark, cavernous room. A cold, stale draft brushed her face. The draft carried a smell of decades long gone and decomposition.

“You’ve done some stupid things in your life, Janis Graystone,” she whispered, “but this…”

She set one leg over the sill and then, ducking, pulled her other leg inside before anyone outside spotted her. She crouched beneath the window. When her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she made for the room’s faint entrance. The carpet squished softly beneath her shoes, the sensation more than the sound raising her hackles.

She emerged from what she guessed had been the hotel’s dining room into a once-grand lobby. The boarded-over windows dimmed the marble floor, but some light fell in from the mezzanine, illuminating the empty space. Here and there lay empty beer cans, crumpled paper bags, and the scatter of smashed bottles. Janis kept near the wall as she crept. Cigarette burns dotted the yellowing wallpaper, with crushed butts hugging the baseboards. Above her, someone had scrawled FEAR TRIPS in dark red paint. Probably high schoolers, Janis told herself.[_ They come in here at night to scare-slash-impress their girlfriends, crack beers, pass the bottle, tell ghost stories… _]And Janis could hardly imagine a better candidate for a haunting. Eyeing the front desk, she half expected a dusty skeleton to rise from behind the wooden counter, tip his hat, and ask, “May I help you?”

Janis jumped when she heard something that sounded like a distant cough. Bracing against what had once been the lobby’s stone fireplace, she listened, eyes wide. When she didn’t hear the sound again, she decided it had come from the traffic outside, a truck backfiring, maybe.

“Hold it together, girl,” she whispered.

Beside the hotel’s elevator, she found a stairwell. The elevator itself was a classic make with an arc of wrought-iron numbers inset above the caged door. As though announcing Janis’s fate, the arrow pointed to 6.

The stairwell door creaked open onto a flight of wooden steps. A mean stench of urine wrinkled Janis’s nose. The smell of decomposition, which had whispered around the lobby, was stronger in the stairwell, pushing up beneath the urine. Janis dragged a stone planter from beside the elevator and propped the stairwell door wide. It would spare her total darkness for a few flights, anyway.

Heart drilling her sternum, Janis crossed the threshold and began her ascent.

The darkness closed in by the third floor, and by the fourth floor it enveloped her. So did the smell. Janis pulled the collar of her sweatshirt up over her nose and breathed through her mouth.

Two more floors to go.

Her hand sliding along the wooden rail, she counted her steps. She’d learned that each floor consisted of ten steps, a small landing with a 180-degree turn, and then ten more steps. The stink of decomposition approached her gag threshold. A fly buzzed past her head — a rapid zzzip — then the stairwell fell quiet, save for the thin creaks of wood beneath Janis’s shoes.

One more.

She began to wince with the certainty that at any moment she would hear the clap of a gunshot, she would be too late. She turned the corner that marked the midpoint of the final flight.

Just let me get there in ti

Her foot thudded into something soft and heavy. From the floor came a sound like a weed whacker buzzing to life. Janis grunt-screamed and threw her hands to her face, her cheeks and brow stinging from what felt like hail pellets. Some landed, crawling, on the backs of her hand. Flies. Bristle-legged flies. She couldn’t see them, but she imagined their swollen bodies, black and bottle green, hundreds and hundreds of them, still swarming up her. One ricocheted around the inside of her ear before flying out. She shook her hands and batted at the air around her head. A putrid smell joined the insect swarm, one that reached through the fabric of her sweatshirt and squeezed the uvula in the back of her throat until she gagged.

The flies had been burrowing inside a rotten carcass at her feet.

She stumbled backward, nearly losing her grip on the rail, and beat a retreat. Back on the fifth floor, she found her legs again. She cupped a hand over her sweatshirt-covered nose and inhaled the scent of her mother’s fabric softener. Ten steps above her, the flies settled back over their breeding ground.

Please don’t let that be a person.

Janis clung to the end of the railing, her eyes feeling huge in the dark. Every instinct shrieked at her to flee down the staircase, across the lobby, through the window and back out into the sane sunlight and vigorous blue day. But the thought of the sky stopped Janis. It wouldn’t be long before it was a vigorous blue — if it wasn’t already.

She swallowed and eased back up the steps. At the landing, she shuffled forward, her toe feeling for the slightest contact. A single buzz sang out. Janis stopped. Nearly underneath her, there rose a wet sound, like lips smacking.

And those would be maggots.

Pinching her eyes closed, Janis lifted her front foot to hip level, reached as far forward as she could, and lowered it. Slowly. When her foot met bare ground, she exhaled. But in lifting her rear foot, the toe of her shoe nudged the carcass. Flies erupted. Janis scrambled up the final steps — eight, nine, ten! — and began pawing the wall for the door to the sixth floor.

She found a handle and pulled. Pale light met her eyes. She hesitated, then, holding the door open with her foot, peeked down the stairwell. The dog had belonged to a large breed. German shepherd, maybe, judging by the steep triangular ears. Bloated now and bald, it lay on its side like a mother offering up its milk — or in this case, its rot. Thousands of flies shimmered over it.

How in the world did it get in the stairwell? From deeper down, another voice whispered, Who put it there?

Janis grimaced and stepped into a carpeted hallway. Across it to her right, a couple of doors stood open, allowing in natural light. Janis stopped to orient herself. The side of the hotel facing the capitol building would be to her left, around the corner.

She crept from the open doors and along the dimming hallway. If there was a shooter up here, he’d probably be in position by now, watching the capitol steps through his scope.

But what if he heard me cry out in the stairwell? What if he can hear me now?

Janis reached the corner and peeked around. Another hallway stretched away from her, empty except for a square of light illuminating the pale-ochre carpet halfway down. Releasing her breath in a slow exhale, Janis craned her neck to count the doors. The light was being cast from the middle of the seven rooms, the same room where the window pane stood a few inches higher than the others.

Put up or shut up.

Janis concentrated until the smell of salt filled her nose and the air began to crackle and hum. Threads of light grew around her, quivering in and out of focus. As in Amy’s presence the night before, the sensations came quickly — fed by fear this time rather than fury. But the fury was there, too, Janis realized, simmering just beneath the surface, like a pot of heated oil.

Pushing up her sweatshirt sleeves, Janis passed the room numbered 608, its door sealed, then room 609. She studied the diffusion ahead of her. Was that a shadow bisecting the light or a trick of her mind?

Make him fear you, a voice was already telling her. Make him feel pain.

Janis’s heart was pounding too hard to question the voice. Besides, she sensed that without the voice, the sensations would disappear. She would become plain Janis Graystone again, a fine enough goalie but no match for someone wielding a high-powered rifle.

Room 610 slid by to her right.

Blood is good, the voice whispered.

Janis stopped outside room 611, her shoulder to the door frame, and counted to three. With a whip of her head, she ventured a peek. Back behind the door frame, her mind assembled what she’d seen. A large room with refuse pressed up against one wall. A sniper’s nest? She shook her head. The window had been cracked open, yes — Janis could still envision the panes and the tops of trees and buildings in silhouette — but the floor in front of the window had been empty. No boxes, no crouching figure, no rifle.

The air still crackling around her, Janis stepped into room 611.

The room appeared as she had seen it at a glance. Save for the trash heap against one wall, the long suite was mostly barren. A sheet of newspaper skittered over stained carpet as a fresh breeze pushed through the cracked-open window. Whatever prestigious history the hotel had once boasted — regularly hosting this or that politician, dignitary, or film star — was just that: history.

Janis approached the window and peered down toward the capitol building. The demonstrators now crowded the lawn all the way to the oak trees lining Monroe Street, where she was glad to see a couple more squad cars. Senator Collingsworth continued to address the crowd in her pink cardigan with finger points and small pumps of her fist.

All right, a quick check of the other six rooms, then we’ll get out of here and see if Blake found anything.

She was gauging the color of the sky, bluer now, certainly, when a roar of cheering reached her ears. She watched in horror as Senator Collingsworth yielded the podium to a rail-thin girl with a black shirt and spiked hair.

“Shit!” Janis cried.

At the same moment she spun from the window, the trash heap at the side of the room rattled to life. Janis froze. The man who emerged, newspapers and soiled sheets spilling from him, staggered to his feet. Janis spied the corner of the gray mattress where he’d been sleeping. He blinked at her from a whiskered, tobacco-stained face, a brown wool hat pulled almost to his ears. The left earlobe was split, Janis saw. She followed the pale scar down his neck.

“I-I’m sorry,” Janis stammered. “I didn’t know anyone lived here.”

On odd light grew in the bum’s eyes as his face slid toward a leer. Behind his nubs of teeth, his tongue rolled back and forth.

“I’m leaving now.” She had to force the words from her constricting throat.

He shambled to the middle of the room, cutting her off, the hems of his blue pant legs flapping around filthy socks. A toe poked through a hole in one of them, its nail orange and horny.

“Oh, you’re not going anywhere.” He smiled that awful, wet smile again.

You don’t make it out of here in the next minute, and Star’s a goner.

The vibrations roared inside Janis. She raised her palm just as she had done that morning in the Leonards’ bathroom. Except this time she could see the lines joining subject with object, cause with effect. And as she eyed the ruin of a human being blocking her way, fury boiled through her fear.

“Don’t make me hurt you,” she said.

“Hurt me?” He clapped his thick hands. Then he began jumping up and down in a strange dance, making the room shudder, his eyes never leaving hers. The luminous threads flickered in and out with Janis’s concentration.

“Wake up, wake up!” the bum’s voice boomed. “We’ve got a visitor!”

When the bum stopped, his eyes shifted side to side on his grinning face, as though he were listening. Janis caught herself listening, too. The old walls of the hotel began to creak. A bump sounded. From the room below, a phlegmy bout of coughing erupted. Somewhere on the sixth floor, a door banged opened. And then another. Footsteps seeped into the hallway.

Janis staggered back until her hands encountered the cold glass of the window.

“Now what was that about hurting me?” the bum whispered, drawing a long, serrated knife from inside his coat. His oily face shone as he advanced. Behind him, the first shadows filled the doorway.

26

Scott opened his eyes to a pale blur and a pounding headache. He started to roll onto his side before groaning to a stop. No, calling it a headache would be putting it sweetly. His brain felt like it had been removed with ice tongs, the inside of his skull lined with sandpaper and metal wool, handfuls of tacks and screws thrown in — and, what the hell, a tumbler of Tabasco sauce — his brain dropped back into place, and the whole thing shaken like a Magic 8 Ball.

Will Scott Spruel wish for death? Outlook good.

He smacked his lips and ran a furry tongue over his braces. Even that bit of exertion hurt, and that was to say nothing of the demonic taste.

“Saints alive,” he mumbled.

He made it to the side of his bed and lowered his legs. He remained there, elbows on his knees, head in his hands, until the spinning stopped. Squinting toward his alarm clock, he found a blinking red blob. Power must have gone out last night. The sun was up, anyway, and bright against his closed blinds. He pawed over his bedside table for his glasses.

“No, no, you shouldn’t be up.”

Scott turned toward his mother’s voice. A pink snowman entered the room.

“Where are my glasses?” he croaked.

“Lie down. I’ll get them.”

The snowman went to his dresser and, after Scott had pulled his legs back into bed, handed the glasses to him. His bedroom sharpened as he pushed them onto his face. In her pink workout sweats, his mother frowned down at him in concern. But the glasses didn’t feel right. Scott ran a finger over the thick plastic.

“No, my newer ones,” he said.

“They’re broken.” Her mouth pinched in a way that said, And do you know how much those cost me?

“Broken?”

“What possessed you to bike home in the dark? You know you could have called me or your father. One of us would have picked you up. But biking home in the dark?” She huffed as though he had been Evel Knievel attempting to leap Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle.

Scott scrubbed his jaw. “I was in an accident?”

“You rode right off the sidewalk and over an embankment. The police found you in a ditch, for Pete’s sake.” Seeming to understand that her son’s well-being was perhaps more important than a pair of glasses or the fact that he had been found lying in a ditch, she took a calming breath through her nose. “You were groggy when they brought you home and explained you’d probably suffered a small concussion. The best thing, they said, is for you to rest.”

Scott was pretty sure the concussed were to be kept awake at all costs, but he was in no condition to debate the point.

“Oh, and drink plenty of fluid. Which reminds me… I meant to mix you up some Crystal Light.”

A dozen aspirins too, please.

Scott squinted after his mother, who closed the door behind herself. J.R. had already slipped into the room, though, and he now tiptoed around the bed. He looked up at Scott, his tag jingling.

“Do you remember any of this?” Scott asked.

J.R. licked his muzzle and peeked around, seemingly disappointed that the room was no longer the trash heap that used to hide all sorts of goodies. Scott dropped an arm over the side of the bed and ran a languid hand over J.R.’s stiff curls.

“Dad’s car stalled, so I biked to the school,” he murmured. “I remember that. Then there was this guy with glow-in-the-dark glasses… oh, yeah, Mr. Roboto. Janis and I danced. I definitely remember that… and the close talking… and the kiss.” Scott raised his head. “Holy cow, we kissed.”

J.R. looked up as though the change in Scott’s tenor meant a treat was forthcoming. But Scott’s head had already fallen back to the pillow, his hand clasping his brow. He remembered the gymnasium with its disco ball and the constellation of lights revolving around them. Janis’s face tilting up toward his. The moist pressure of her lips. The world around them falling away.

“And then…” The rest of the night became lost in gray fog.

Hate to break it to you, pal, but then you got to talking politics, and she up and left. Went looking for that other fellow, what’s-his-name. Serves you right, if you ask me. Politics, for crying out loud?

Scott knew it hadn’t happened quite like that, but Bud was in the ballpark. Scott sat up to think. The room spun a little less. He pushed both hands through his salt-stiff hair, the roots aching to the deepest layers of his scalp.

All right, so he had told her about Gorbachev’s assassination, but only because she hadn’t known. But that was the extent of the political talk, as far as he could remember. After her shock, Janis’s face had taken on a distant look, like when they went into their pasts together. Then Janis said she had to leave, that she would explain later. When he closed his eyes, he could see her back, her flaming hair shifting side to side, as she hurried toward… Blake.

Scott groaned, prompting J.R. to look around worriedly and flatten his poodle tail.

Yeah, but it’s not like you left there solo either, pal. There was something of a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” in Bud’s tone.

“What are you taking about?”

Tall broad. Five ten, five eleven. Good build. Not a lot of personality to the face, though. And the hair? Don’t know about you, pal, but if it ain’t past the shoulders, I ain’t buying. Know what I mean? Well, I don’t guess you do. This one’s barely grew past her ears.

“Where did we go?”

Hey, now! Scott imagined Bud throwing his palms out. Whattya figure me for, one of them fruity Peepin’ Toms? Look, I’m here to help with the redhead. That’s what you bought my program for, right? Anything else is your business, far as I’m concerned. He lowered his voice and spoke in Scott’s ear.[_ But here’s a freebie: watch your step with the older ones. That one especially. Looked like she coulda snapped you in half if she’d had a mind to._]

“Older…? Wait, did she have a scar on her mouth?”

Yeah, wasn’t so sure about that either…

The room spun so violently when Scott stood that he staggered in a circle to keep his balance. He grabbed onto his desk, his head threatening to come apart. Agent Steel? He pressed his eyes closed, bolts of light jagging across his vision. And then he saw her dispassionate face. And the room in the front office. And the card with his fingerprints. And something about handcuffs and links in a chain…

She had drilled him pretty good, he remembered, and he had — Scott clenched his eyelids tighter — denied everything.

Scott stood straight, his eyes opening. That’s right. He had stonewalled her. He remembered thinking that if she really had something on him, she would’ve arrested him on the spot. Instead, she’d brought him to her temporary office at school, no parents, no lawyers, to see what she could scare out of him. In the end, nothing. Scott grinned as he remembered how he’d even managed to slip in a few jokes. Janis’s kiss had done wonders for him.

Scott paced the room on unsteady legs, like a sailor on his first minutes of shore leave.

The rest of the night? Nada, not even fragments. He guessed the accident had happened shortly after his dismissal. Must’ve landed on my head in that ditch. He paused in front of his closet. Or was I even in an accident?

He felt over his scalp for a telltale cut or lump before remembering his entire scalp hurt. In the mirror, he saw the sorry state of himself. Scott had never been hungover — never even had a drink — but he guessed it looked something like the swollen-faced, bed-headed thing squinting back at him. He’d be able to think more clearly after a shower and some breakfast. He glanced over at his alarm clock.

Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.

For some reason, the sight made a slow wash cycle of his already delicate stomach. He staggered toward the clock and began mashing the buttons until it displayed a time — any time — just as long as the infernal thing stopped blinking at him. Then, for no reason at all, he sank against his bedside. His chest begin to hitch. The sobs that emerged were dull and bruising. Maybe it was Janis, he told himself. Maybe it was his fear — no, his certainty — that she’d gotten back together with Blake.

Scott sniffled and pushed his forearm across his nose.

But then why did he feel guilt?

27

There was a spinning, mind-bending moment when Janis wondered whether she could fly. Whether she could slide the window in room 611 the rest of the way open, dive out into the naked air before one of the vagrants grabbed her, and use her abilities to, if not float, then stall her descent enough that she wouldn’t wind up a broken heap, doomed to power an electric wheelchair with puffs of breath for the rest of her life.

That last thought killed the idea.

Her knees began to wobble. She clutched the sill behind her as though she were about to launch into a set of dips.

“There there, kitten,” said the bum holding the serrated knife. He spoke in a syrupy voice that made Janis’s skin crawl. “We’re not here to hurt you, heh heh. We’re gracious hosts, aren’t we, boys?”

Janis’s eyes shot to the two men who had entered the room. One was dark skinned and lean with an afro the size of a beanbag chair. His grin broke open around a row of glinting gold teeth. The other man, white, squinted at Janis from a pointed face, his nose upturned. Stuffing burst from slashes in his red-brown jacket, which whispered as he shuffled toward her, sniffing the air.

“She smells nithe,” he lisped, saliva hissing through his overlapping front teeth.

Outside, a tide of applause rose at something Star had said.

Focus, Janis.

“Just so long as she plays nice,” Split Lobe said. He paused ten feet from Janis and, half crouching, made a beckoning gesture with his crusty serrated blade. “Here, kitty kitty kitty.”

Janis stood from the sill, searching the room for a seam to slip through, for something to use as a weapon — anything that would get her back to street level and the capitol building. But judging by the footfalls in the hallway, the only way out — the only sane way out — was about to become even more crowded. And unless she was planning to wad up greasy newspapers and throw them, there were no weapons, either. She thought about her “escort of one.” If they were protectors, as Scott seemed to think, now would be a good time for them to start, well, protecting. But Janis sensed it was only her.

Her and her abilities.

Split Lobe puckered his lips and smooched the air. “Here, kitty kitty kitty. Heh heh.” The other men chuckled as they made room for a new addition, this one with a wild smile and leering blue eyes. And Janis could see in his eyes, in all of their eyes, that this was their game: batting their prey around, stoking her fear to an insane, eye-scratching pitch, and then finishing her off. The men here feasted on fear.

As much as you do?

The same hungry voice that had begun stalking Janis in the hallway seized her like a pair of jaws. Make them fear you. Make them feel pain. Janis staggered from the voice’s suddenness, from its… vehemence.

Blood is good.

Janis grunted and held her hand out, as though to blunt the voice. Instead, the luminous threads burst back into being, bright throbbing lines connecting her to the room and the men inside it.

“Aww, are we frightening you, little kitty?” Split Lobe shuffled forward. “I bet if we stroked her little belly, she’d calm right down.” He grinned with his nubs and started into another series of wet smooches, groping forward with his hand.

Her pulse caught him in the right hip and spun him through the air like a gyroscope, his dirty coat flapping madly. He collided into the wall above his bed with an umph! and landed on his mattress, newspapers and plastic bags gusting off around him. The knife clattered across the room.

Janis aimed her hand toward the others.

“What in holy mother of shit…?” Afro staggered back a step, his gold smile shrinking.

Mr. Lisp scrambled on hands and feet for the knife, which had come to a rest near the bathroom, while the man with the lecherous blue eyes, his smile wilder than ever, leaped over him and stumbled toward Janis, arms outstretched. His fingernails were long enough to be blades.

He hits you at that speed, and you’re both going through the window.

Janis spun from his path. Claws raked the back of her sweatshirt before her neck whiplashed back. She collapsed to her knees, her scalp on fire. He’d seized the end of her pony tail, and now he twisted it around his fist. No! The breath of high laughter brushed her ear. A second later, she smelled it, a stink of doggy doo and madness. His other arm closed around her throat. Janis dug her fingers beneath his slick, steely grip, her teeth gritting.

“Get over here with that knife,” Wild Smile called to Mr. Lisp. Then into Janis’s ear, sweetly: “I prefer cutting to the chase.”

More applause rose beyond the window.

Make them feel pain.

Janis released Wild Smile’s arm and aimed her palms at the wall in front of her. Squeezing her eyes closed, she pushed with both hands. The force shot them backward. They collided into Mr. Lisp en route. He somersaulted over them, serrated blade flashing. Janis grunted with the teeth-rattling impact at the far wall, her legs kicking up in the air. Dust fell around them. Wriggling from a pair of twitching arms, she pushed herself to her feet and stood with her back to the window.

The bedding where Split Lobe had landed remained still. To her right, Wild Smile was down for the count, a bowl-shaped indentation in the wall above his sagging head. And Mr. Lisp was pawing around for the knife, too dazed to realize that the blade was hilt-deep in his shoulder, blood already dripping from the handle.

Good, the voice whispered.

Janis pulled her gaze from Mr. Lisp, from the red speckles on the carpet. Fresh arrivals crowded the doorway, the tattered assemblage bunched together like the flies she’d seen crawling over the carcass in the stairwell. Their hungry, soot-ringed eyes surveyed the room. She took out three of our men, they seemed to be thinking.[_ But what if we rush her at once?_] As though having calculated the risk to be worth the reward, blades began glinting among them.

“Let me out,” Janis said, her voice thrumming like a power line, “while you still have the chance.”

Laughter rumbled from the men, and a few of them exchanged amused glances. Even if she had managed to batter three of them senseless, the picture of a fifteen-year-old girl, alone, cornered, and by all appearances weaponless, threatening a mob of armed men on their own turf probably would seem pretty darn funny were she on the other side of the room.

But they’d have to forgive her for not laughing.

They shoved their way toward her. Janis narrowed her eyes at the lines that pulsed throughout the suite. Without quite understanding what she was doing, she began shaping the lines into a circle, a vortex, all the while feeding it energy from her moving arms. The newspapers and plastic bags succumbed first, flapping in circles like nightmare bats. Sheets billowed up around Split Lobe, who lay prostrate, half on and half off his stained mattress. Then the mattress itself began to shift into a herky-jerky dance across the room.

As if being buffeted by storm winds, the front line of men bowed their heads. A couple of them staggered onward, each with a forearm to his eyes, the jacket sleeves of their outstretched arms slapping back and forth.

Make them fear you.

Janis pushed more energy into the twisting formation. The mattress dumped Split Lobe to the floor and then lifted up and joined the newspapers, bags, empty food cans, and streams of sheets. Men shouted as the thrashing mattress slapped them into walls and one another. Janis watched a potbellied man claw at a blanket that had wrapped itself around his head, muffling his screams.

A dark joy spouted inside Janis, as though from a spike driven into a pocket of black crude. And even though she feared it, she allowed the joy to fill her veins and vital organs… to feed her. When the same voice inside her began to laugh, it felt like flames licking through her.

Make them feel pain.

And now men were being picked up and carried into the maelstrom, the air vibrating so insanely that Janis could hardly hear their shouts and screams. She glimpsed Mr. Lisp, who had found his knife. He was gripping the buried hilt with blood-soaked hands as he wheeled in circles. The other half-dozen men flopped through the air of the high-ceilinged room, half senseless.

Those who’d had the prudence to retreat to the doorway of room 611 began to flee.

“Trips!” Afro cried. “Get Trips!”

Janis watched her hands, mesmerized at their motion, at their ability to shape space. One of the men passed so closely in front of her that the toe of his duct-taped shoe grazed her cheek.

Janis recoiled and blinked her eyes.

Star, she reminded herself. You’re here for Star.

She stopped circling her arms and tried to pull her energy from the room. It was a struggle, as though she were engaged in a tug-of-war with another force equal to the task.

She gritted her teeth. Please, there’s no time for this!

Slowly, the lines stopped pulsing; the vibrations faded. Bodies thumped to the floor. The mattress flopped against the wall, then fell with a shudder atop Wild Smile. Empty cans clanked around. Sheets, newspapers, and plastic bags billowed to a rest. Janis surveyed the sprawl of bodies until she found Split Lobe.

He groaned when she tugged his wool hat from his bald head, his eyelids fluttering.

“Kitty says thank you,” she muttered.

Glancing toward the doorway, Janis stuffed her ponytail inside the hat and tugged it over her ears. One of Split Lobe’s arms had come out of his coat, and she pulled the empty sleeve until he flopped onto his stomach and the rest of the coat came free. Grimacing, she pushed her arms into the foul-smelling coat and zipped it up. The coat fell to her knees, but she wrapped a dark blanket around her waist to hide her jeans and Reebok sneakers.

Finally, she allowed herself a peek toward the window. Star remained behind the podium, but the crowd was pumping its fists in unison, just as they had been doing in her vision.

Stepping over mumbling bodies, Janis half ran, half shambled from the room. The hallway was empty, but she could hear shouts from the other floors — and echoing in the stairwell, the only way out. Janis turned the corner. That stretch of hallway was also empty. She seized the handle to the stairwell door, said a prayer, and pulled it open.

The smell landed in the pit of her stomach, and Janis choked back what would have been her breakfast. Flies swarmed angrily, probably from the recent commotion up and down the stairwell. Janis could see where the dog’s carcass had been trampled and kicked to one side.

At least it’s out of the way.

Janis held her breath and descended, her feet pattering through the dark. At the fifth-floor landing, she drew in a giant lungful of air. A babble of voices outside the door shouted for “Trips.” Seconds later, the door flew open. Pale light and a wet bout of coughing filled the stairwell. But Janis was already at the fourth floor, and her feet weren’t slowing. By the third floor, the stairwell had fallen dark again. She listened, but in the mixture of her own echoing footfalls, she couldn’t tell whether the new footfalls were going up or down.

She collided with someone, and a pair of hands seized her arms. Bloodshot eyes appeared from the dimness.

“That you, Graves?” a sniffling voice asked.

“Sh-she’s crazy,” Janis cried in as low a voice as she could project, ducking her face. “She’ll kill us all!” Janis flailed from his grasp like a man fleeing for his life and continued her descent. The man didn’t follow her.

Janis burst through the stairwell doorway at a run. The soles of her shoes squeaked over the marble as she veered right and broke into the open lobby. The sky stared through the mezzanine windows, vigorous and blue. As she went, she shed her blanket, then the disgusting coat. Her arms and legs pumped at full speed. At the far side of the lobby, she pulled off the wool hat.

When she was nearly to the dining room, a spout of cockroaches shot up through a crack in the marble tiles. Janis screamed and cut hard to the right. She lost her footing and landed on her side. Gasping, she shoved her heels against the floor, trying to backpedal from her greatest phobia. The spout grew thicker and browner, oily wings filling the air. Janis covered her head with her forearms.

This can’t be real. It doesn’t make any sense.

Then why are you seeing it?

A phlegm-filled cough echoed through the lobby. Still on the seat of her jeans, Janis twisted toward the sound. The man shambling toward her looked like he’d been plowed by a Mack truck and then hastily reassembled. One eye squinted from the flat, bald side of his head, while the opposite eye bulged blood-red. Breath wheezed from a broken bulbous nose. When he coughed again, strings of snot swung from his nostrils and sputtered over his lips. Something in the way his crazed eye stared, in the way it seemed to reach inside Janis’s head and prod her gray matter, told her this was the man they called Trips.

“Stay back!” Janis cried, frightened by the fear in her voice.

She tried to concentrate, but the threads of light wouldn’t appear. It was the feeling of the man’s eye; it was the thought of the roaches filling the air. She turned back in time to see the marble floor shift and crack open. The hissing fountain of roaches became a chattering mound, pushing up from the ground, blocking the entrance to the dining room and spilling toward Janis.

She scrambled to her feet and searched the lobby for other exits. Her gaze latched onto a window whose boards she might be able to kick out. She glanced over at Trips. He was almost to the fireplace. Nostrils sputtering, he fixed his bulging eye on her. Something wriggled inside her mind again, the feeling reaching her gut and nearly doubling her over.

“Ungh!” she cried.

A new spout of cockroaches burst up in front of the window. Janis batted the air around her head. She spun to search for alternatives. One by one, fountains shot up before the remaining windows and doors until the entire lobby was a brown storm of hissing and flapping.

Trips proceeded toward her, his ragged right leg dragging behind, his blood-red eye pulsing larger.

This isn’t real, Janis told herself.[_ He’s in your head. He’s manipulating your fears._]

When an especially large roach landed on her sleeve, Janis resisted the urge to shake it off. She examined it, even as the rest of her body tried to shrink away. The roach appeared solid enough. But where its chocolate-brown back had consisted of three glistening segments a second before, Janis now counted only two. And its shape was becoming rounder, less slender. Before she could touch it, the roach flapped away.

Janis waved her arms through the air but felt nothing.

When Trips coughed again, flecks of mucus hit Janis’s skin. She wheeled from his grasping hand and oriented herself toward the dining room. The crawling mound continued to push up through the cracked marble, almost to the height of the mezzanine. She squinted as she broke into a run, anticipating the squishing impact, the sickly taste that found the back of your mouth when you stepped on one, to say nothing of hundreds.

“If you’re wrong about this…” she gasped.

The brown storm circled her head like a veil, and then she was at the mound. The chattering became a clamoring. She closed her eyes, forcing her arms and legs to keep pumping despite everything her brain was telling her: You’ll fall in the hole! You’ll be buried inside of them!

The ground squished beneath her feet.

When Janis opened her eyes, the dining room carpet stretched ahead of her. At the far end of the room, a blessed square of light shone out. She climbed through the window, her breaths booming from her chest, and looked back. The air inside the hotel was silent and still. Not a single roach disturbed the stale air. She wedged the board back in place, sealing in the madness.

Then she turned and began sprinting toward the chan