Phillip tried to hide the shock from his face, but it was obvious. “You never suspected?” Chloe asked, quietly.
“I never thought,” Phillip started. “I mean, he’s smart, and he hangs out with the kids, but…”
“But he wasn’t part of Blue Streak, so you never gave it a second thought,” Katherine said. “Not an unreasonable conclusion, but Rob’s family wound up non-responding to that. We took it as an implicit ‘no’ at the time.”
“How did you get him in here for the interview?” Phillip asked.
“I managed that,” Daniel said. “How it was done is not pertinent to this situation.” Phillip could tell that it may have been, but he also knew that Daniel was covering something up. “Please proceed with the data analysis, Doctor.”
Katherine frowned for a moment, but spoke again. “Anyway, Rob’s metrics on the test used in the Seneca Report blew away our expectations. Even factoring in that he might have snuck a peek at the sheet, he’s still exceptional.”
“I thought that we threw away all the outliers,” Chloe said. “If he did cheat, he naturally would have had a high score on the test.”
“That is true, but the final evaluation matrix used for determining candidacy relies on factors that would not be covered by a mere test score,” Daniel replied. “It was in these factors which Robert excelled.”
“Factors like what?” Phillip was willing to let his curiosity carry him through this particular stretch.
“Handwriting analysis, procedure analysis, steps taken to reach the answers, and so forth,” Katherine said. “We tried to cover everything that would just use the paper he handed in, but not the raw numerical accuracy score. Sometimes the wrong answers he gave were more valuable than the right ones.”
“The paper itself was also revealing,” Daniel said. “Pressure used when writing his answers, and such. The full analysis procedure is fascinatingly thorough. I suggest you look it over, Mister Brookfield.”
“I’ll give it a look,” Phillip said. “All right. So Rob is the last candidate, but his parents aren’t responding. What should we do?”
“That’s a long question,” Chloe said evenly. “Overall, there’s little we can do. We have to give the MacKenzies a specific amount of time before they can be contacted again by the Foundation.”
“Okay,” Phillip said, “but I see him pretty much every other day. Maybe I could…”
“Mister Brookfield,” Daniel interrupted, “the factor of your employment with us is at the heart of this discussion. Please have patience and we shall explain what it is we require from you.”
Phillip seethed at the admonition, but nodded and said nothing. They’re using me, he thought; they promoted me because they need me. Otherwise I’d still be back with the grant grunts.
“To the point, then,” Katherine said. “Rob has to participate in Twilight Wings, or the program will have to be cancelled. We need you to help ensure his participation.”
“However, you can’t act as an employee of the Foundation outside of your regular work hours,” Chloe said. “Your contract is very specific on this point. If you were to represent us in any official capacity, we’d have to know about it beforehand and make a record of it.”
“And this grace period hasn’t run out yet,” Phillip said, starting to follow the line of thought. “When does it run out?”
“Tomorrow morning, in point of fact,” Daniel said. “However, contacting the MacKenzies is not to become your primary purpose in this endeavor.”
“Daniel’s right,” Chloe said. “We need you to coax the MacKenzies into helping us, not outright pester them. The fact that they’ve been non-responsive thus far indicates that they’re either too busy or they’re apathetic to the Foundation.”
“Subtlety,” Phillip said, “is not my strong suit. You hired me for my ability to beg for money, after all.”
“From a certain perspective, that is true,” Daniel said; Phillip wondered which part of his statement he was agreeing with. “However, you have shown yourself to be more than capable of handling delicate situations with aplomb.”
“All right,” Phillip said. “So walk me through the plan.”
“The first step,” Katherine said, “is to review the interview tape this afternoon. You and I will watch that and see what we can do better in the contact tomorrow.”
“I shall be handling the direct communications to the MacKenzies,” Daniel said. “Do not concern yourself with the method of delivering the message.”
“Once we’ve identified where we can improve,” Chloe said, “you and I will write up a draft of the message. It needs to be concise and direct. With any luck, it will be accepted.”
“Assuming it is,” Phillip said, “what then?”
Chloe leaned back in her chair a bit. “That depends on your analysis. If we need another interview, we’ll ask for it in the message, and then we’ll have to analyze that. If all goes well, then we can go ahead and finish the vetting process.”
“Rob will have to get started on an accelerated version of Blue Streak right away,” Katherine said. “Granted, having him at the lower end of the scale on a few subjects will help to improve the coverage web, but he needs at least one topic where he shines in order to not wind up the ugly duckling of the group, and we need to find that PDQ.”
“Obviously, we’ll need to work out any kinks with why his family didn’t respond to Blue Streak initially,” Chloe added. “I suspect it might have something to do with a misperception of the costs involved, but we’ll focus on that later. Once he’s in, you’ll have to monitor his interactions with the kids very closely, Phillip.”
“We cannot let them become too closely intertwined,” Daniel said. “Doctor Bellis’ web analogy works best when the connections between the students are strong yet fluid.”
“If he starts to outpace Gene, for example, he needs to know that he can move on to work with someone else,” Chloe added. “It’s supposed to help the kids learn how to work in an agile environment, even if I think it’s slightly cruel.”
“There’s nothing cruel about it,” Katherine said. “They have to bond, yes, and work together, but they can’t let that bond become an anchor around their necks. We’re not trying to make them drones, either– they have to be able to trust everyone in their group, not just one or two close friends.”
“With too few connections, the web breaks down,” Phillip nodded. “Gotcha. All right, so I’m still not seeing how my own connection to Rob is a problem here.”
“It is not specifically a problem,” Daniel said, “so much as it is a factor in the analysis. We must determine whether or not the data we receive from Rob should be part of the control group, or the primary group.”
“And that’s where you come in,” Katherine said. “When we get Rob into the program, you’ll keep an eye on him and let us know if you think he needs some additional prodding towards other students beyond what we’ll be using.”
“Wait, aren’t we being a little hasty here?” Phillip said. “You mean, ‘if’ we get Rob in.”
“Phillip,” Chloe said, “we don’t have much in the way of a choice here. If we don’t get Rob, we can’t run Twilight Wings. If we can’t run Twilight Wings, we’ll be without enough data to produce results, so we can kiss any further grants goodbye. We’ll have to close up shop entirely.”
“That is no exaggeration,” Daniel said. “Our accounting department is scrambling to ensure that we are capable of failing gracefully, should it come to that.”
“Is it likely that we’ll be done for?” Phillip asked.
“That,” Katherine said, “all depends on the answers you can give us starting in about ten minutes.” She stood up and moved towards the door. “I’ll be in Interview 1, with the footage from a month ago. See you there.”
The door closed behind them; Jeanne was the least winded from the run, but even that wasn’t saying much as she dredged huge gasps into her lungs. Rob was doubled over in the foyer, and Gene was leaning against the door. It would not have been nearly as bad, she thought, if the trip from school to the house wasn’t predominantly uphill.
“Thanks,” Rob said, slowly uncurling himself back to a position approximating upright. “I should probably call my mom.”
“Catch your breath first,” Gene said, “or she’ll get suspicious.” It had been Gene’s idea to invite Rob over after school. Phillip was lenient about guests dropping in, so long as the visitors behaved themselves; it went without saying that Rob was always welcome at the house. Today, however, the visit was more practical than recreational; Deacon had been making eyes at Rob all afternoon, and it seemed that he had gone out of his way to give him grief in gym class.
When the three children had recovered sufficiently, Gene showed Rob to the cordless phone hanging on the wall, while Jeanne ran upstairs to get changed. It didn’t take long for Rob to relay the appropriate information to the answering machine; Gene cleared some space on the den’s table, gently pushing aside a huge jigsaw puzzle.
When Jeanne came down from the common room, she wasn’t alone. Curled around her shoulders like a stole was a silvery ferret, twitching its tail lazily and making contented noises. “You remember Matsuri, right?” Jeanne asked, as Rob hung up the phone.
“Yeah,” Rob said. He reached out to the ferret; she lifted her head slightly, letting Rob give her a gentle scratch between her short ears, which prompted a soothed coo. “I wish I could have a pet.”
“You could ask,” Gene said.
“Nah,” Rob replied. “My dad would freak. He’s probably going to be upset now.”
“You called, right?” Jeanne said, a puzzled expression crossing her face. “That should be fine, right?”
Rob shook his head slowly. “If mom gets the message first, it’ll be fine. If dad does…”
“That’s weird,” Gene said.
“I don’t think it’s weird.” Rob smiled. “It’s just the way it is.”
“Hey,” Jeanne said. “We’ve got time before Phillip comes home. How about we play this game he has?”
Gene gave Jeanne a look. “You don’t mean the one with the buttons, do you?”
“We’re not supposed to use the game room without him,” Jeanne said, cocking an eyebrow. “No, I meant the one with the roads and the little wood people.”
“Oh, that one!” Gene said, grinning. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
“Is it hard?” Rob said.
“No, no,” Jeanne replied. “It’s really easy. You just have to match stuff and put your guys down. It’s really simple.” She gently handed Matsuri to him; Rob took the ferret in his arms like he was cradling a baby. Gene had already disappeared down the hall to the closet.
“Okay,” Rob said. He sat down at the table, near one of the corners. Jeanne followed suit, but she put her messenger’s bag on the table next to her and started to remove things from it. “What are you doing?”
“Homework,” Jeanne said. “It’s really simple stuff. Baby stuff, really. We can get it done now and play the rest of the day. Won’t take long.”
“I can’t,” Rob said. “I know my dad would freak if I tried to tell him I did it already.”
“Then tell him you didn’t have any,” Jeanne said. “Come on. Just a few minutes.”
“If I don’t do it in front of him…” Rob said, but Jeanne cut him off by closing her bag up again.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s kinda dumb to do it now anyway while you’re here.”
Gene emerged, carrying his backpack over one shoulder and the game box in his hands. “Sis, aren’t we…?”
“It’s a cheat day today,” Jeanne said, glancing at Gene. He seemed to get the message, and let his bag fall to the floor. “Come on, let’s set up the game.”
Phillip first noticed the third coat hanging in the foyer; he recognized it immediately, but didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. The three kids were in the foyer in seconds flat, welcoming him with cheers and affection. He hugged Gene and Jeanne; Rob offered his hand, which Phillip shook gently. “You guys having fun?” he asked.
“Tons,” Gene said. “Rob’s whupping us in that road game.”
“What, Milles Bornes?” Phillip asked, pulling his own jacket off.
“No, the tile roads,” Jeanne said. “Car something.”
“What, we get cars, too?” Rob asked, his eyes lighting up.
“No, no, the name’s something like Car Sun or something,” Jeanne said.
“It’s French, I think,” Gene said. “Carcassonney.”
Phillip smiled, trying not to correct him. “Anyway, since we have someone extra, I was thinking about pizza tonight.”
Gene and Jeanne exchanged a glance for just a fraction of a second before celebrating with Rob. Phillip caught their eyes as well, and he knew that they had their doubts. It didn’t matter right now; he’d be able to tell them what was up soon enough.
“I hope I’m not causing trouble,” Rob said, bowing his head.
“It’s fine, Rob,” Phillip said, offering his hand once more. “You know we love having you here.”
“I know, but, well…”
“His dad is really strict, too, you remember, right?” Gene said. “But he called ahead, so things should be okay.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “Hey, we’re just about done with this game. You want to play too, Phillip?”
He hesitated. The kids were very easy-going, but they were also intensely competitive. He wondered if that was a trait they shared from before, or if his own tendencies had rubbed off on them. They could probably tear him apart if they worked together… or if they were playing Clue. “Sounds good,” he said. “Let me order the pizza first, though.”
“Okay,” Gene said. “Let’s finish this, then.” The three kids went back into the den while Phillip climbed the stairs to the bedrooms, then up to his attic room.
The house was far too large for just the three of them, but it was unavoidable. Phillip was housesitting it for a friend on an extended leave, on the order of years. This gave him not just the use of the– well, the best way to put it, really, was the kids’ nickname of “The Old Mansion”– but a small stipend for his work in keeping it up. He’d wondered, actually, what it would take to buy the house outright. He could scarcely conceive of living anywhere else.
It didn’t take him long to get changed into somewhat more casual clothes than his usual work attire, and as such the pizza was ordered just about twenty minutes after he’d arrived home. The usual wrangling had occurred in trying to get toppings that fit everyone; Gene didn’t eat meat, while Jeanne was almost implacable in requiring olives on her portions. Rob curiously didn’t make a sound during the process. “Anything’s fine by me,” he said at the start, and then remained silent.
Dinner wasn’t exactly late, but neither was the delivery made in anything that could be reasonably called a timely fashion; the kids moved from the den to the dining room while Phillip dealt with the pies. Phillip passed out the slices quickly, putting two of the buffalo-wing and olive slices onto his own plate.
“So, how was school today?” Phillip asked, once the children had settled down and were eating.
“It was okay,” Jeanne said. “Mr. Walsh has this weird thing he’s doing, though.”
“Please don’t let it involve monkeys again,” Phillip said.
“What happened with the monkeys?” Rob said. “I thought they looked good.”
“Yeah, but we’re Antarctica,” Gene said. “There’s no monkeys in Antarctica.”
“That’s why we put coats on them,” Jeanne said. “Anyway, no, this is different. We’re having an election.”
“Oh, really? That sounds cool,” Phillip said. “Who are you electing?”
“We don’t know yet,” Rob said. “We haven’t even voted yet to see who we can vote for.”
“I mean,” Phillip said, trying to stifle a chuckle, “what will the person who wins be doing?”
“Oh, President of the World,” Gene said. When no explanation was seeming to be forthcoming, Phillip gave a slow flip of his wrist. “The President gets to pick what the class gets to do next Thursday.”
“Hmm,” Phillip said. “What, like anything at all?”
“I guess. Mr. Walsh didn’t say,” Jeanne added. “I hope we win.”
“We got to pick out who would represent our continents,” Rob said. “We picked Gene.”
“That’s great,” Phillip said. “You have a face for politics.”
“Thanks,” Gene said. “I still don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“You haven’t won yet,” Rob said.
“Yeah, but we gotta tell people what we’re voting for, though,” Gene shot back. “Otherwise they’re just voting for someone, and then Deacon will win that.”
“You don’t know that,” Phillip said. “Deacon’s a scary guy.”
“That’s why they’ll vote for him,” Rob said.
“You do know,” Phillip said, “that the votes are secret, right? He’ll never know who voted for what.”
“But we–” Jeanne started, then clamped her hands over her mouth. “I mean,” she said, “It always seems like he knows.”
“Yeah,” Rob replied. “Anyway, thanks for the pizza.”
“You’re not staying?” Phillip asked.
“No,” Rob said, getting up. “My dad is probably home now, and it’s getting late. He’s going to be really mad at me.”
“Why would he be?” Phillip said, wiping his hands on a paper napkin. “You called, right?”
“Yeah, but mom hasn’t called for me yet,” he replied, looking down. “And since it’s this late–”
The phone interrupted him, ringing out a shrill electronic tremolo that sounded nothing like a melodious ringing bell. Rob blanched after the first ring ended. “That’s him,” he whispered. “Oh God…”
“I’ll get it,” Phillip said. One of the cordless handsets was just inside the kitchen; he glanced at the caller ID as the second ring ended. “It’s not your dad, Rob. Hello?”
As Phillip moved into the kitchen, the kids moved towards the foyer, following Rob. “Sorry you have to go,” Gene said.
“It’s okay,” Rob said. “It got me away from Deacon, at least.”
“Are you gonna be okay heading back by yourself?” Jeanne asked. “He might be out playing, too.”
“No, I think he’s home now,” Rob said. “He doesn’t stay out late, I don’t think. At least, not when I’m out.”
“You wanna come over again tomorrow?” Gene asked. “I bet you he’s mad we got away from him today. He’ll try again tomorrow.”
“We’ll see how mad my dad is,” Rob replied. “I want to, but I bet I can’t.”
“Your dad is really mean,” Jeanne said.
“He is not!” Rob replied, slightly hurt. “He’s just… well, he’s a dad. Isn’t Phillip like that?”
“No way,” Gene said. “He understands us, you know?”
“I don’t think he does,” Rob said. “I think you’re just missing it. He’s gonna be mean to you guys, too. That’s just how dads are.”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s different,” Jeanne said. “Anyway, are you sure you don’t want one of us to go with you? Maybe to explain to your dad what happened?”
Rob had gone white when the phone rang, but it was only so he could prepare himself to turn even paler now. “That’s… I mean, that’s fine, but I can’t. I’m not allowed.”
Jeanne and Gene exchanged glances again, fast enough for Rob to miss it. She nodded. “All right. Just send us a message when you get in, to let us know you’re okay.”
“I’m not… I mean, I’ll try,” Rob said. “Okay. See you both tomorrow at school, okay?”
Gene and Jeanne both pulled him into a three-way hug, which he returned. He knew that they were scared for him, but that fear was nothing next to his own. “See ya,” Gene said.
They walked with Rob down the front steps and along the slate walkway to the mansion’s front gate; Phillip had latched it behind him when he came in. Gene opened the gate, which led into another group hug, before Rob left. Jeanne waved as he ran down the hill, towards the school.
“He’s really scared,” Gene said, closing and latching the gate.
“Ya think?” Jeanne replied. “His dad’s a looney.”
“I don’t know,” Gene said. “I mean, he can be really mean, but… it’s like there’s two dads for him. Remember last week, when he wouldn’t shut up about his dad taking him to the football game?”
Jeanne bit her lower lip. “Yeah,” she said. “I don’t get it. Plus, he never talks about his mom. Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” Gene said, “but I think we’d better not ask him. I don’t think he knows, either. He definitely doesn’t know about us.”
“But he’s like us,” Jeanne said, taking the steps two at a time. “Like how Tegan is.”
“I know, and that’s the weird thing,” Gene said. “If he’s like us, why isn’t he better in school? He’s really smart. I know he is.”
“Yeah, but maybe…” Jeanne said. “It’s weird. It’s like, maybe he doesn’t know he’s smart. I know it sounds nuts, but…”
“No, no, I get it,” Gene said. “It’s like when I was with those guys, or you were with the Yokotes. They didn’t know we were smart.”
“That’s different, I think,” Jeanne said. They had an agreement that they would not talk about what had happened to them before Phillip adopted them, and this was getting dangerously close to breaching that arrangement. “Anyway. It’s not like he doesn’t show up, right? We see it. Maybe Phillip does, too.”
“Phillip, I’m glad I got you at home,” Chloe said. “Do you have a second?”
“Yeah,” he said. He glanced into the dining room; the kids were moving towards the front door. “We just finished dinner. What’s up?”
“There’s something I forgot to tell you,” Chloe said. “I know, it’s one of those blonde moments, I should have made sure about this in the meeting, but…”
“It’s okay, Chloe,” Phillip said, chuckling.
“It’s not,” she said. “I keep trying to, you know… Anyway. You haven’t told the kids about Rob yet, have you?”
“No, I haven’t,” he replied. “Why? Should I?”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Chloe said. “No. Absolutely not. They can’t know just yet.”
“Why is that?” Phillip said. “It would be a perfect subtle push. Not even Daniel could object to that.”
“Well, yeah, if the kids were trying to encourage him to join, that would be fine, but the data we have indicates that it’s not Rob that’s the problem.” Chloe’s voice wavered a bit. “He really wants to join us.”
“But something’s in the way,” she said. “Having the kids talking it up would set him up for so much heartbreak if the whole thing collapses. It could also push his metrics down if he’s let down so badly– how would you feel if you lost the best learning opportunity of all time through no fault of your own? He’d probably go into total depression.”
“Probably, but I doubt it,” Phillip said. “I just had dinner with him. He’s already in depression.”
“What?” Chloe’s voice jumped an octave; Phillip jerked the handset away from his ear at the spike of noise. “What do you mean?”
“He kept obsessing over his father,” Phillip said. “That wasn’t in the interview tapes.”
“I know,” Chloe said. “We specifically make sure that the interview is a neutral, ‘sealed’ space. Nothing that happens there ever leaves it.”
“Aside from the videotape,” Phillip said wryly.
“Well, yes, but those are under lock and key, and destroyed regularly.”
“I’m tweaking you,” he said.
“Sorry, I’m not in much of a mood for teasing,” she shot back. “This is serious. He never showed any indicators of depression.”
“Your sealed space works both ways, you know,” Phillip said. “Especially with kids like these. They’re smart enough to know that if nothing goes out, nothing can come in, too. That’s gotta be worth a few more points in your metrics.”
“You’re right,” Chloe said. “What specifically did he say about his father?”
“Nothing specific,” Phillip said, “but he’d mentioned that his dad was expecting him, and he kept looking at the clock. He also thought, actually, that your call was his dad.”
“That’s paranoia, not depression,” Chloe said.
“Same difference, in my book,” Phillip shot back. “Dad apparently has some sort of hold on this kid, and that has me worried. Hey, something I just thought of, too, how did you manage to convince him that the interview was safe if there was a camera there?”
“He never saw it,” Chloe said. “You’ve been in there. There’s a dozen different hidden cameras there, all of them concealed perfectly.”
“Gene’s spotted three of them,” he said, his tone deadpan. “I bet Jeanne has a different three.”
“We’ll, ah, handle that tomorrow,” Chloe replied. “Anyway. Promise me you’ll keep this a secret.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Look, maybe I’m just grasping at shadows here. I don’t know if his father is a real problem or not, but right now, from where I’m sitting, that’s where I’d lay my money.”
“We’ll see,” Chloe said. “I don’t know either. Daniel’s handled the contact with the MacKenzies all along, citing special privilege.”
“Special privilege?” Phillip’s expression scrunched up. “What kind of special privilege would the head of the accounting department have that allows him to contact a candidate directly?”
“I can’t say just yet,” Chloe said. “It’s complicated. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Phillip inhaled, but caught his response before he could unleash it. “All right,” he said instead. “See you tomorrow, then?”
“Tomorrow. Daniel will deal with the MacKenzies, you just keep the kids in the dark for the time being,” she said. “Goodbye, and take care.”
“You too,” he said. “Bye.” The phone clicked dead, and Phillip hung up himself just as the kids came back into the dining room. “You guys all full?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Gene said. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” Phillip replied. “All right, Jeanne, could you help me put the leftovers away? And Gene, could you load the dishwasher?”
The children nodded their assent. As they cleared away the dinner table, Phillip asked about their homework and their study guides; both admitted that they hadn’t started either. Jeanne attempted to explain Rob’s insistence on doing his work alone, but Gene cut her off. “We had a guest, and who wants to do homework when there’s friends over?” he said.
“I suppose,” Phillip said. “How long do you think you’ll be?”
“Maybe half an hour,” Jeanne said. “We mostly have math. Some science reading, too.”
“Nothing too interesting, I hope,” Phillip chuckled. The kids giggled at the joke as well; while the reading wasn’t necessary for the knowledge imparted, it was still a requirement so the kids didn’t show off too much in class. “Well, get it done and we’ll see what we can do for the rest of the night.”
Once the dinner chores were completed, the kids went up to the common area outside of their bedrooms. The hardwood floor was covered by two large crazy-quilt rugs, which were far more comfortable than they looked; their thickness made them perfect cushions for doing homework. The lapdesks were set aside, however, and the two were ostensibly reading over their science texts. Their backs were to each other as they sat on opposite sides of the imaginary line dividing the bedrooms into the boys’ wing and the girls’ wing.
“What do you think that phone call was about?” Jeanne asked, airily.
“It was Chloe,” Gene said. “She only calls when it’s really important.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “I guess we’re going to have surprise evaluations tomorrow.”
“They wouldn’t do that on a Friday,” Gene said. “Doctor Katherine said she’d never have evaluations on Friday.”
“Well, maybe she’s gonna be busy on Saturday,” Jeanne said. “Maybe she’s sick.”
“If she was sick,” he said, “she’d make us come in on Monday. No, this is different. I don’t think it’s about us.”
“Well, then, who could it be about?” Jeanne said, turning to look at him. “Maybe Phillip got another promotion?”
“No, that’s not it, either,” Gene said. “I don’t know. It’s just really hard to figure it out right now.”
“You don’t think he’s getting better at hiding stuff, do you?” Jeanne asked.
“No way,” Gene replied. “I saw every card today.”
“Me too.” Jeanne grinned. “I love Clue.”
“It’s too easy,” Gene sighed. “Anyway. I think we know something’s up.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said, “but this doesn’t make much sense. Hey, what if Chloe called just to talk?”
“What, to Phillip? Maybe,” Gene said. “Maybe she wanted to talk to us. I feel bad we missed her.”
“We’ll see her soon,” Jeanne sighed. “You think we should tell her about Rob then?”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “We definitely have to. If we get him with us, then he might not be afraid of Deacon so much.”
“Deacon…” She shuddered at the name. “I don’t know. He’s like us, too.”
“Don’t say that,” he shot back. “He’s nothing like us.”
“But he is,” Jeanne said, “just… backwards. In reverse. He’s as dumb as we are smart, you know?”
“Kinda,” Gene said. “I just don’t think what we are can work in reverse. You can only be so dumb.”
“And Deacon keeps getting dumber,” Jeanne giggled. “Maybe we don’t know everything yet.”
“But we’re close.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said, closing her eyes. “Close.”
It turned out that the kids spent longer on their homework than expected, so the remainder of the evening was occupied with the bedtime routines. Phillip gathered up the day’s laundry as the kids showered, and checked on the clothes that were in the dryer already; they were done, but not yet necessary, so he left them in the machine. They could be run through again on low to remove the wrinkles, when the kids could get to folding them.
Gene was the first one ready for bed, as was usually the case, and Phillip played cards with him in the den until Jeanne came down. “I fed Matsuri,” she said. “She had water, too.”
“Good,” Phillip said. “All right. Time for bed, then.”
“We haven’t done our study guides,” Gene said. The attempt was valiant, Phillip thought, but it was already late. “You said we need to do them every day.”
“But today’s a cheat day,” Phillip said, smiling. “We already put the stars up and everything. Don’t worry, you can catch up tomorrow.”
“All right,” Gene sighed. Jeanne giggled. “Aw, quiet you.”
“Hey!” Jeanne said. “I was just thinking, we did say it was a cheat day.”
“That’s enough,” Phillip said. “Come on, up we go.”
The children squabbled a little more as they climbed the stairs, with Phillip close behind them. It wasn’t any more malicious than the usual sibling banter found in any other family; some of the words were sharper, but they were delivered to each other in such a way that the cutting edges were well-protected, and the pain they brought was dulled by the affection applied immediately afterwards. Jeanne’s room was closest to the den stairs, so Gene went on ahead while Phillip double-checked the latch on the cage in the common area.
Jeanne’s room was quite androgynous. It was at first glance impossible to tell if a boy or a girl slept there; the bright primary colors selected were appropriate for any child, without leaning one way or the other over the gender line. In this regard the room could have been said to be ordinary, were it not for the fact that the bright colors selected were seemingly at total odds with each other. Jeanne’s eye for decoration was, to say the least, unique; orange crushed up against purple, with yellow and scarlet close at hand. The topmost blanket on her bed was patchwork, and scattered with splotches of colors just as vibrant as the ones around it. “Thanks for the extra blanket,” she said, crawling into bed. “I put it on already.”
“If it’s too hot, you can toss it off,” he said. “Did you have a good day, Jeanne?”
“I did,” she replied. “I mean, it was a little rough, with Deacon and everything, but we managed okay.”
“How was it rough?”
“Well, Deacon was being really nasty all day. That’s why Rob came over,” she said. “They live in the same part of town, and he could have chased Rob if they ran into each other while walking home.”
“He can’t do that every day,” Phillip said. “One day he’s going to have to confront Deacon and get him to back off.”
“That’s not something Rob does,” Jeanne sighed. “He’s… kinda shy.”
“I saw that,” Phillip smiled. “Good night, sweetie. I love you.”
“Love you too, Phillip,” Jeanne said. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek; he returned with one on hers. “Good night.”
In contrast to Jeanne’s room, Gene’s was clearly the territory of a young boy. Posters of hockey players adorned the walls, and a pair of hockey sticks leaned against the corner where the dresser met the wall under the window. On the other wall, next to the door, short bookshelves lined the room, each filled with paperbacks of all shapes and sizes. It was a considerable personal library, and Gene had probably read every book on the shelf at least a dozen times. The bed itself had a simple gold-striped black comforter atop it, and Gene was already in it; a small blue nightlight was on underneath the window. The thin blue blanket Phillip had brought down for him was folded neatly on the floor at the foot of the bed. “It’s way too hot for another blanket,” Gene said, frowning. “Jeanne has, like, ice water for blood.”
“She’s always run cooler, yeah,” Phillip smiled. “So, today was a good day, huh?”
“Kinda,” the boy said. “The election thing was kind of cool, but then the whole thing with Deacon made that not so cool.”
“Jeanne told me,” Phillip said. “Rob will be okay.”
“Not that,” Gene said. “Deacon got picked for Asia. He’s going to be one of the cannibals.”
“Candidates,” Phillip corrected. “Though given Deacon, maybe you’re not far off.”
“Yeah,” Gene giggled. “At least he doesn’t really eat people.”
Phillip fought the urge to say what he was really thinking. It wasn’t appropriate to suggest it seriously, right before bed. He’d probably crossed the line already, but he shrugged it off. “There aren’t any cannibals in Pittsburgh. I promise.”
“I know,” Gene said. “It’s just, I could kinda see Deacon doing it.”
“He can’t,” Phillip joked. “He has terrible taste.” Gene laughed, and Phillip reached down to give the boy a hug. “You have a good night, Gene. Dream of peace for me.”
“Love you, Phillip,” Gene said. “Good night. You sleep good, too.”
Phillip shut the door behind him and slowly walked downstairs to the den. He made his usual rounds of the night, checking doors and windows, and shutting off lights. The day had been rough on everyone, he reflected, but at least it was over.
He didn’t go to bed right away; instead, he went into what the kids called the “game room”. It was actually just the rear room with the television and the pool table, but Phillip’s collection of old video games also lived there. He didn’t have the drive to start up any of them right now, however, and there was nothing good on television this early, either. He flopped down onto the sectional couch and fished his cell phone from his pocket.
What would he talk to her about? Why was he desperate to hear her voice? It didn’t make sense. Neither of them had any real reason to contact each other, but they did. That contact had blossomed into a connection. It might have just been infatuation, it might have been something different. He didn’t know, and right now he was disinclined to care. All he knew was that now, he needed to call her.
The number was the most frequently-called one on his handset. Muscle memory had him connected almost as soon as he had flipped it open. “Hi,” he said. “No, they’re in bed. No. No. I know. It’s not about that, I promise.” He grinned, alone in the room. “No, not that, either. I just wanted to talk. Yeah. Well, it’s like this…”
The conversation lasted until his phone’s battery died.