The silence surrounding Phillip startled him almost as much as the chill. He jerked awake, the sensation of something missing dragging him to full consciousness within a fraction of a second. The children, he thought. They’re gone.
The first light was filtering in from the rear windows; dim as it was, its presence indicated that the morning was still young. The kids knew better than to go out before the sunrise, Phillip thought, as he threw the blanket over his head and onto the chair behind him. Where…?
“I think he’s up,” came a voice from the television room. Phillip moved through the halls to the rear den, where Gene and Jeanne were leaning against each other on the couch. The cabinet was still locked, and an infomercial of some sort was playing on the television; atop the cabinet, the cable box showed the current time. Jeanne turned to him as he entered, and smiled. “Morning, Phillip.”
“Good morning,” Phillip said. Gene waved in response. “Did you guys sleep well down here?”
“Yeah,” Gene said, turning around. Both were now peering over the back of the couch at him, the television completely ignored. “We woke up a little later after the storm was over, though.”
“You could have gone back upstairs,” Phillip said.
“We didn’t want to leave you alone down here,” Jeanne said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. “Besides,” she added nonchalantly, “we liked it down here.”
“No dreams,” Gene said. That doesn’t make me feel any better, Phillip thought. Gene frowned; did he just hear me? “But that’s okay. I didn’t want to go back to being Patrick just yet.”
“I had a dream about a ton of ice cream,” Jeanne shot back. “Like I was swimming in it. ‘Cause I was cold!”
“It wasn’t that bad, you big baby,” Gene said. “Phillip was way warmer than a bunch of old blankets.”
“It’s getting late, kids,” Phillip said, attempting to defuse the scuffle before Jeanne could react. “Let’s get showered and dressed.”
“Can’t we wait a little longer?” Jeanne asked.
“Today’s going to be a long day,” Phillip said. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we can be done and back home. And you know the buses don’t wait for us.”
“Awww,” Gene said, “just a few more minutes?”
Phillip pointed to the cable box; a red light was now on, just above the time readout. “Your programs are recording,” he smiled. “Just like always. We’ll get to them soon enough, okay?”
“All right,” Jeanne said, vaulting over the back of the couch. Phillip caught her as she stepped away. “Sorry,” she said, cutting him off before he could admonish her. “But we’re in a hurry, right?” He chuckled and let her go. Gene walked around the side of the couch and up the other set of stairs to the bedrooms.
“Hey, Phillip,” Jeanne asked, poking her head back into the television room. “Can we call Rob later on and see if he wants to come over? ‘Cause, you know, we didn’t get to see him yesterday?”
Phillip paused. How much did Jeanne know, he wondered? It was no longer just a matter of keeping the secret; now he had to gauge whether or not she had deduced what was really going to happen at the Foundation. Of course, he thought, I could also be completely overthinking this, and she really doesn’t know about Rob’s interview. But there’s no middle ground here, besides… “We’ll see, sweetie,” he said. “I know that sounds bad, but we’ll have to see how long Katherine keeps us today.”
“I know,” Jeanne sighed. “But, I’ll just hope for him, then, okay?”
“Sounds good,” Phillip said. “Scoot, we’re running low on time.”
Phillip showered in the stall in the basement; it was an old pre-fabricated shower installed decades ago, probably around the time the pipes were fitted for the washing machine. It was cold and not at all pleasant, but he was not lying or coercing the children in the slightest– it would be a tight squeeze to make it to the bus stop in time.
The rush to the bus stop, then, was a bit of a panicked run as the kids ran ahead; Phillip was walking briskly to keep up, not needing to run at full tilt to keep up anyway. Their bags flopped with each bounding stride, and their coats trailed behind them, half-zippered. Phillip’s long jacket flourished behind him as well, the slight breeze offering no resistance to him. Both of the children were out of breath as they approached the bus shelter, and Phillip felt a stitch forming in his side as well. They were alone at the stop; few people used this stop on the weekends, compared to a school day.
The bus came a few minutes later, and the children, recovered and once again of good cheer, entered first. The bus itself was crowded, but there was a short bench near the middle; Gene took the window seat, while Jeanne took the outside. Phillip couldn’t sit in the narrow space between them, so he stood beside Jeanne, gripping the overhead bar with his right hand and taking Jeanne’s hand in his left. Jeanne patted Gene in the stomach a couple of times before he took her other hand.
Phillip was aware of the children’s agoraphobia. It was a common trait, Katherine had said, among the children the Foundation considered most gifted and most suitable for its advanced projects. However, it was precisely because of this crippling fear of excessive crowding that it was unlikely that the traits the Foundation was searching for could be found in individuals above a certain age. The way Katherine explained it, those who could overcome their phobia did so at the expense of their compatibility; those who did not simply became shut-ins or– at the extremes– suicide statistics. The reason for the fear, as well as the reason why multiple suitable individuals traveling together fared better, was a complete mystery to Phillip; he doubted that even Katherine knew.
What puzzled him more, however, was why the children always insisted on holding hands during the trips to the Foundation for their evaluations, but never needed to on the way back.
The bus let them out about a half dozen blocks away from the Foundation, and the children were ready to run once more, but Phillip stopped them gently. He pointed out that they had not had breakfast yet, and the children quickly caught on. The bus had, in fact, made better time than they had been expecting, and a fast-food restaurant was nearby. The kids’ attitude changed from wanting to hurry to their evaluations to wanting to hurry to a seat on the balcony level of the restaurant. Phillip let them find their usual seats upstairs while he ordered.
After breakfast, the children walked at a more leisurely pace to the Foundation, and they arrived at the Old Fortress with a good amount of time yet to spare. Katherine greeted them as they emerged from the elevator. “Hi there,” she said.
“Hello, Doctor,” came the synchronized response. Phillip merely smiled.
“You gave them caffeine,” Katherine said, her eyes fixated on Phillip. “I know you did.”
“Come on, Kath,” Phillip said. “It was just a little soda.”
“You know the rules,” Katherine said, glowering. “No soda before the evaluations. It’s no matter, really– this time– we can adjust for it, but…”
“I know, not the best way to start today,” Phillip shrugged.
“Phillip’s in trouble!” the kids sang, still in perfect unison.
“Knock it off,” Phillip said, groaning.
“He’s not in trouble,” Katherine said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Don’t you start, too,” Phillip shot back.
“Anyway, kids, in you go,” she replied, gesturing the children down the hallway. “Amberlynn’s waiting for you.”
“I call the blue room!” Gene said, rushing ahead. The two dashed ahead, careful not to hurt one another as they ran through the open door.
“They’re certainly energetic,” Katherine said.
“Oh, will you give it a rest?” Phillip said. “I’m sorry about the soda.”
“It’s not that big of a deal, really,” Katherine said. “Just wanted to get that last shot in.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“Of course I did.” Katherine glanced at her watch. “We’ve got just enough time before the MacKenzies arrive,” she added. “Head on in. Daniel will give you the heads-up on what you can expect.”
Phillip nodded. “By the book, right?”
“I should hope not,” Katherine snorted, pulling the door closed behind her. “We’re writing the book now, Phillip.”
Amberlynn saw both of the children into the separate evaluation rooms, one painted a deep blue, while the other was a seafoam green. Other than their colors, Jeanne had noted, the rooms were conspicuously identical. Each had a doctor’s examination table in their center, which was always set to a precise one hundred and thirty-degree angle; off to the left, there was a wide metal desk, which looked like a massive teacher’s bureau. The desk sat beneath a row of large cupboards, painted to match the remainder of the otherwise unadorned walls. A window set opposite the door was completely obscured by the wide-slatted beige venetian blinds. Two chairs were along the wall near the door, they were simple metal chairs with brown faux-leather seats and backs.
The room wasn’t hot or cold. A fan set in the ceiling, near the fluorescent light, blew gently on her face as Jeanne sat atop the examination table. Her coat and bag were in the hallway, on the hook on the outside of the door; she had set her study guide on the desk.
Time passed. The temptation was always there to start snooping through the drawers of the desk, or the examination table; the cupboards were usually locked, but the one time she had managed to get them open, they were empty. It was hardly a challenge to unlock the cupboards; she reasoned that if they didn’t want them opened, why would they have left the pens and toothpicks on the desk that day? It impressed Katherine, but Chloe had been horrified.
A knock came at the door. Jeanne straightened herself– why did she feel guilty? She hadn’t even done anything this time!– as Katherine entered. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. “How are you feeling, Jeanne?”
“I’m fine, Doctor,” Jeanne replied calmly. “A little hyper, though.”
“I can see that,” Katherine said. She looked so different when she was wearing her glasses, Jeanne thought. “Well, let’s have a look at last week’s guide, okay?”
Jeanne frowned. “Do we have to?”
“This won’t take long, I promise,” Katherine said. “Now, let’s start with your Russian. You did that one first, and it kind of shows. You left half of it undone.”
“We were gonna get to it later,” Jeanne said, “but things happened.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “We had Rob over, and then there was the storm… Oh! But before that, we had another one of those dreams.”
“Before Rob?” Katherine said, her eyebrow jumping higher on her forehead than Jeanne thought possible.
“No, after Rob,” Jeanne said, “but before the storm last night. You remember the storm, right?”
“Yes, yes,” Katherine said. “In a moment. This dream, it was about the Academy again, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Fox Valley,” Jeanne said. “I wasn’t Patrick this time, either. I was Lilly.”
“That’s a very good sign,” the doctor said. Jeanne knew that Katherine believed her, but there was always the sense that she was being misunderstood somehow; how Katherine reacted wasn’t exactly what she was expecting, for some reason, but she could never identify why. “What happened this time out there?”
“It was amazing,” Jeanne gushed. “We had a big battle again, against the Red Squadron.”
“Oh,” Katherine replied. “Is that all?”
“Well, no, not really,” Jeanne said. “We saw… I mean, Patrick and Lilly, they saw… their parents. But they were our parents.”
“Your what?” Katherine said, almost dropping her pen. “Wait, whose parents?” Jeanne explained again, and with each passing second she saw something dawn across Katherine’s visage.
“Is something the matter, Doctor?” she asked. “You kinda went all funny there for a moment.”
Katherine’s eyes flashed for the briefest of moments, but she regained her composure. “I’m fine,” she said, smiling. “Sorry to frighten you. This is wonderful news.”
“I don’t think so,” Jeanne said, frowning. “The spell you gave us doesn’t work anymore.”
“No,” Jeanne said. “Well, not on these kinds of dreams. On the other kind, the kind we used to have, it still works… but we don’t get those as often. I miss those.”
Katherine didn’t respond immediately. “You know what?” she said, grinning. “I think we’re going to be doing some interesting things in the next few weeks.”
The rest of the examination went as normal. After reviewing the previous week’s study guide, Katherine gave Jeanne a short test to fill out. Unlike the tests from school, though, this had questions she hadn’t ever seen before, and she wasn’t expected to be able to answer all of the questions. She was left alone to answer it, and it took her a short amount of time just to translate some of the questions.
Languages were Jeanne’s favorite subject, and she was very good with them; she felt confident with most of the Romance group, and Japanese was easy to learn because of all of the puns. Russian gave her the most trouble lately, primarily due to having to learn another alphabet; Greek was bad enough, but she knew some of that already through math and her early physics work. But the Cyrillic glyphs were slowly becoming more and more familiar to her.
About half an hour later, Katherine came back; the test was almost done, and Jeanne tried to get a few more moments out of the doctor, but she was stymied. Katherine set her back up onto the examination table and started the medical part of the evaluation; this was always the longest part, and it was something that Jeanne was not happy about. At least, she thought, as the cold stethoscope pressed against her back, it wasn’t Amberlynn doing it. The worst part was always the heart-counter; Jeanne had to stay completely still for what felt like forever.
Soon, Amberlynn came in. “Kath, we’re all set over here.”
“Ah, excellent,” Katherine said. “All right, Jeanne, you can sit up now. We’re going to try something a little different today.”
“Oh?” Jeanne said. She got the feeling that Katherine was worried about something, but she couldn’t figure out what.
“It’s a very simple thing,” Katherine said. “Please, come with me.” She led Jeanne out of the examination room and into another part of the floor, to a room with what looked like a dentist’s chair in the center. Jeanne tensed up, but Katherine squeezed her hand. “It’s not a dentist’s visit,” she said, smiling. “I know it looks like it. But it’s not, and you know why, don’t you?”
Jeanne looked around. “There’s no water,” she said. Indeed, the room was in fact emptier than the examination rooms were; the white walls had no adornment, there were no other chairs in the room, and there wasn’t even a desk.
“Very good,” Katherine said. “Now, up you go.” Jeanne clambered into the chair, and Katherine handed her a pair of large headphones. “Don’t put those on just yet. I’ll explain what’s going to happen, okay?”
“All right,” Jeanne said.
“We call this room the Quiet Room,” Katherine said. “It’s because no sound can come in here and no sound can come out. It’s very special. What we’re going to do, though, is ask you what you hear in here.”
“But I shouldn’t hear anything,” Jeanne said.
“Right,” Katherine smiled, “but you know how sometimes you hear things that aren’t there, especially when it’s really quiet? It’s sort of like that.”
“Oh,” Jeanne said. “Okay.”
“There’s more to it, too,” Katherine said. “We’re going to give you special goggles to block out what you see.”
“So I can see things that aren’t there, too, right?” Jeanne said.
“You’re catching on!” Katherine said. “Very good. This experiment is called the Sensory Void Contact Experiment.”
“That sounds really important,” Jeanne mumbled.
“It’s nothing, really,” Katherine said, “just a bunch of fancy words that say you’re going to be all alone for a little while. All you have to do is just talk about what you see and hear while the experiment goes on. Okay?”
“Okay,” Jeanne said, “but who’s going to hear it? I’m going to be alone, right?”
“The chair has a tape recorder in it,” Katherine said. “It can hear everything in this room. So don’t be afraid to talk out loud. We’ll leave you alone for a few minutes at a time, and we’re going to do it five times. If you get scared, we can take a little break in between.”
“I’m not scared of being alone,” Jeanne said, grinning defiantly.
“It can be scary,” Katherine said, taking Jeanne’s hand. “I did this myself a few times, and it freaked me out once or twice. There’s no shame in saying you’re scared.”
“I’m not scared,” Jeanne repeated.
“Okay,” Katherine said, smiling. She placed some swim goggles over Jeanne’s eyes; they were frosted over with some glittery spray paint. Confident that she couldn’t see, Katherine put the headphones over Jeanne’s ears. The girl gave a confident thumbs up and started speaking, mostly disjointed remarks about stars and light. Katherine smiled; such a good girl. The dream worried her, though– maybe it’s not a dream?
“Something, like, a shadow,” Jeanne said. “A big shadow coming… something really bad.”
Katherine’s smile faded instantly. This was not good.
Phillip settled down into the conference room; moments later, Daniel entered, carrying a short stack of papers. “I trust you had a good night, Phillip?” he said, his expression neutral.
“Good enough,” Phillip said. “Could have been better– the kids were freaked out by the storm.”
“That should not have an effect on their evaluations,” Daniel said, smiling slightly. “The caffeine, however, might.”
“Good God, it was half a cup of soda!” Phillip said. “I didn’t expect Katherine to react like I’d just poisoned them!”
“Relax, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said. “I am simply teasing you. Katherine is overreacting, as she is wont to do. I share your assessment of the situation.”
“Coulda fooled me,” Phillip groused.
“Regardless, we have business to attend to,” Daniel said. “Please read over this and sign it.”
Phillip took the proffered page and set the black pen to the side. “What is it?”
“A standard form, indicating that you will not take an active role in the interview process,” Daniel said. “Merely a culpability release form. For your own protection, you see.”
“Protection against what?”
Daniel leaned back in the tall-backed chair. “Mister Brookfield,” he said, “you are aware of the, shall we say, critical nature of this interview, yes?”
“Of course I am,” Phillip said. “Don’t patronize me.”
“I am doing no such thing.” Daniel frowned. “The situation is not entirely as you believe it to be. The Indigo Foundation has troubles pervasive beyond the Twilight Wings project.”
“Such as?” Phillip leaned in.
“Nothing as scandalous as I imagine you have just envisioned,” Daniel smirked, “but troubles of a significant nature nonetheless. Our research is in grave peril.”
“Could you be a little more vague there?” Phillip snipped. “I almost understood what the hell you just said.”
“To the point, then,” Daniel said. “The directors of the Foundation, Miss Reed among them, have made some promises to our creditors which I am not convinced we will be able to keep.”
“We’re in the hole?” Phillip said. “I thought we had enough–”
“Our debt is not measured in dollars, but in data,” Daniel said. “We have placed many of our best talent on the Twilight Wings project, and as a result our secondary business unit– data analysis and processing– has been faltering.” Daniel sighed deeply. “We have taken on several contracts which will have to be unfulfilled, should Twilight Wings fail.”
“I don’t get it,” Phillip said. “If we lose Wings, we should be able to re-assign–”
“Much of the data we are processing for these clients,” Daniel interrupted, “is data we will collect over the course of Twilight Wings.”
Phillip pieced it together. “We sold them something we didn’t have yet,” Phillip said. “This is really, really bad.”
“Yes,” Daniel said. “However, all is not yet lost. The MacKenzies appeared quite receptive to the proposal that I presented yesterday. We are in luck, for the moment.”
“What do you mean, for the moment?”
“I am afraid that I cannot go into further detail,” Daniel said. “I merely must stress that signing the culpability form is in your best interests at this moment.”
“So this absolves me from responsibility if the whole deal goes belly-up,” Phillip said, “but at the same time this also means that if it’s a huge success, I can’t take any credit for it.”
“Officially, yes,” Daniel said. “Even though your presence is greatly beneficial to the Twilight Wings project, you must be absolved of any connection to the actual interview process.”
“I see,” Phillip said. He signed the form and slid it across the table. “After the interview, though,” he cautioned, “this gets destroyed. Understood?”
“Understood,” Daniel said. “Your optimism is refreshing, Mister Brookfield.”
“Tell me about it,” Phillip sighed. “Everyone seems to be big ol’ Gloomy Guses about this.”
“With good reason,” Daniel replied. “If you could please come with me, then?”
“It sounded like you had more to tell me,” Phillip said. He stood anyway and followed Daniel out of the conference room.
“I did, but time is, quite unexpectedly, not on our side,” Daniel replied, his tone identical to how he would describe the weather. He led Phillip down the emergency stairs to the floor below, where the monitoring room was located. “You remember Ben, I believe?”
The technician in the room looked to be no older than his early twenties; Phillip thought for a moment that he might have babysat for him at some point. He was dressed in black jeans decorated liberally with chains and steel rings, and his collared shirt poked out from underneath a bright fuschia band t-shirt. “Of course,” Phillip said. “But I don’t get down here much.”
“No problem,” Ben said, extending his hand. “I don’t deal with the big kids much myself these days.”
The room was dark, Phillip noticed, but the glow from the bank of small flat-screens on the far wall lit it sufficiently so that he didn’t have a problem seeing clearly. Two chairs were near the bank of screens; Ben was in the one closest to a massive control board that looked as if it belonged in a television studio. The wall to the left of the door was dominated by a large plasma television, which glowed flat blue– there was no signal.
“Excellent,” Daniel said, grinning. “From here you shall monitor the interview. Ben will be recording everything, but if you would like him to change what is on the main screen, simply let him know.”
“This switchbox,” Ben said, “lets you pick the plasma’s camera. Think of it like a badass remote control.”
Phillip nodded and took his seat near the main control board. “Gotcha,” he said. “You’re sure it won’t screw up the recording?”
“I wired it myself,” Ben said. “The cameras go into the DVR before they output to the monitors. There’s no way this can go bad, short of the power going out.”
“Let us hope that does not happen,” Daniel said, grimacing. “I shall leave you two to get acquainted. The MacKenzies should be arriving shortly.”
“Hey, what about…?” Ben held up a headset with an attached boom mike.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Daniel replied. “Phillip, if you foresee the interview going in an unfavorable direction, you may communicate to Ihab directly. She alone will be able to hear you.”
“You got her wired up,” Phillip said, grinning. He put the headset on; it was wireless. “This is almost like a spy movie or something.”
“It practically feels like one,” Ihab’s voice came from the headphones. “Hi, Phillip. Nice to meet you.”
“Excellent, it appears to be functioning properly,” Daniel replied. “We will finish the preparations. Amberlynn will be down shortly if you need anything.” Ben asked Daniel to have her bring a bottle of water, and Phillip concurred. Daniel left, the door clicking shut behind him.
“So,” Ben said, grinning, “you ready for this?” He pressed a button on his control board, and the plasma screen immediately switched to a split-screen crazy-quilt of images. It took Phillip a moment to get his bearings, but he realized that each of the screens were showing a different angle of the interview room. Eight cameras, all set up so that no detail would go unnoticed.
“Very nice,” Phillip murmured. The door to the interview room opened, and a woman of diluted Arab descent entered, carrying a clipboard. She looked up, her eyes not facing any of the cameras, and waved. “Peek-a-boo,” he said.
“Very cute, no?” Ihab said, grinning. She set the clipboard down on the small coffee table in the interview room. It was a cozy room; a short, over-upholstered love seat sat opposite two similarly plush chairs. Potted plants dotted the room, filling in the corners and lining the walls; a glass lamp stood on the end table which capped the chairs. If he concentrated, Phillip could envision where each of the cameras was probably placed, though he was surprised to note that he couldn’t actually see any of them.
“The room’s not bad, either,” he said.
“You know I’m married, right?” Ihab replied, frowning slightly.
“You know I’m teasing, right?” Phillip shot back. The grin returned to her face, though, and she seated herself in one of the chairs.
“Sorry to cut in.” Chloe’s voice came from Phillip’s headset, and Ihab reacted as if she could hear it as well. “The MacKenzies have just entered the downstairs lobby. Katherine is going down to meet them now.”
“Showtime,” Phillip muttered.
Jeanne did not like the experiment that Katherine had run. She made no effort to filter her thoughts after it was over, either, using some Russian that had definitely not been covered in her study guide to date. Katherine, to her credit, did not rub it in that Jeanne had said she wasn’t going to be scared, but then again she knew the doctor had the potential to do so.
It wasn’t really that it was scary, she thought, sipping the hot chocolate. Gene was sitting next to her, also drinking cocoa. He leafed through a magazine that was laying on the table in the spare interview room. Sure, it was scary, but there was something else. She had been scared before. The dreams, where she was Lilly, those were scary, and it was a worse scary there, because she really was Lilly.
But this… It was hard for her to believe that what she saw and heard in the static and the nothingness wasn’t really there. She knew, on some level, that it was just illusions– her mind playing tricks on her. But then again, her mind knew a lot of tricks, not all of them entirely bad. This felt like one of the good tricks… but it wasn’t telling her anything good.
She stood up and flopped back onto the couch dramatically. God, if she could just talk about it!
“Something wrong?” Gene asked, not looking up from the magazine. It was an old manga, one he’d read a dozen times over, but there was little else to do in the small room. Amberlynn hadn’t given them their new study guides yet.
“I’m just so bored,” Jeanne moaned. “And… I don’t know. Hyper.”
“How can you be bored and hyper at the same time?” Gene asked. “And there’s stuff to do here.”
“Yeah, you say that ’cause you got the good magazine,” she said. “This girly stuff is annoying me.”
“You’re a girl,” he said. “Deal with it.”
“You’re a boy,” Jeanne said, smirking. “You need to know how girls think. You should read this.”
“No way,” he shot back. “Besides… nevermind.”
“Besides what?” This was getting interesting. “Besides what? Come on!”
“I’m not telling,” Gene said. “Leave me alone. I’m reading.”
“You read it already,” Jeanne said.
“I did not!” he cried. “I mean, yeah, I’ve read this one already, but I’m reading it–”
“You did!” Jeanne gasped; her open mouth changed quickly to a grin behind her hands. “You did read the girly manga already!”
“I did not, and you know it!”
“You can’t lie to me, Gene,” Jeanne said. “You read it.”
“A little,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You were taking forever, and it was on top of this one. I thought it was new.”
“These are so old,” Jeanne said, the scandal temporarily forgotten. “I wonder why they don’t get new ones.”
“Probably no money,” Gene said. “That’s the way it usually goes.”
“They can get us new study guides all the time,” she said.
“That’s different,” he said, rolling his eyes again. “That’s school stuff. There’s always money for school stuff.”
Jeanne bit her lower lip. “Maybe,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘maybe’?” Gene said. “It’s school. There’s going to be school forever. Unless you know something?”
“Well, we’re going to be done with college,” Jeanne said, “but that’s different. Did you notice anything weird with Katherine today?”
“A little,” Gene said. He closed the manga and tossed it aside gently. “Amberlynn was way worse, though.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. She picked up the magazine, but made no move to open it just yet. “They’re nervous about something.”
“They’re always nervous,” Gene said.
“But, major time nervous today,” she shot back. “Like something else was happening today.”
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “And I can’t guess, either.”
“Yes,” he said, “we can.”
“I don’t wanna,” Jeanne said.
“It’s not hard.”
“It’s not easy, either.”
“You’re only a month older,” Gene growled.
“But I am older,” Jeanne said, grinning.
“I’m gonna guess,” Gene said.
“No!” Jeanne shrieked, putting her hands over his mouth.
“Let go!” Gene said, pulling her away. “Just… hey, what’s up? What’d you do that for?”
“Don’t guess,” Jeanne said icily. “Just let it go.”
Gene opened his mouth to speak again, but Jeanne fixed him with what she called her ‘laser eyes’. It was a stare she’d perfected while trying to guess what Phillip was holding when they played Milles Bornes, and while it didn’t always let her see his cards, it did have the interesting side effect of totally freaking Gene out. “Fine, fine,” he said. “Whatever. You brought it up.”
“You said Katherine was being weird,” he said.
“Yeah, well… just nevermind.” She sulked for a moment. “Hey, let’s play first and last.”
“Trouble,” Gene said, putting his hand out in a gesture with his middle two fingers extended, his index and pinky clenched.
“Exactly,” Jeanne replied, grinning. She took his hand, linking their fingers. It was the signal that started the game. ‘First and last’ was the first game Phillip had taught them; the first player spoke a word, and each subsequent player had to speak a word that started with the last letter of the previous word. The first player to repeat a word, or to use a word that ended in “-tion”, lost.
The game was still going on when Amberlynn came in to refill their hot chocolate. Both times.
The adult MacKenzies were seated on the love seat; Rob had been taken to one of the examination rooms for his own interview. Mr. MacKenzie was best described, and most charitably, as having a physical build. He was too heavy to be considered athletic, but even under the suit, the hints of powerful muscles made him too fit to be considered simply obese. In sharp contrast, Mrs. MacKenzie seemed almost too thin. She certainly was not anorexic, though her slender arms and legs might easily have been mistaken for such. Both were dressed fairly well, if somewhat conservatively; Phillip noted that Mrs. MacKenzie would have been right at home in the Cleaver kitchen. Mr. MacKenzie kept tugging at the knot in his tie; whether it was a nervous habit or genuine irritation was unclear to Phillip.
He motioned to Ben, pointing to his headset, then the microphone, and giving a throat-slash gesture; the intent, he hoped, was clear: “How do I mute this?” Ben took his hand and put it to a tiny switch on the left earphone. After flipping it, a red light turned on at the end of the microphone.
“What’s your take on these two?” Ben asked, pointing to the screen that gave him the clearest view of the love seat. “They look, I don’t know, too normal.”
“How can they be too normal?” Phillip scoffed.
“They just are,” Ben said. “Like, you know how you can tell someone’s trying way too hard? That’s the kind of vibe I’m getting from them.”
“Trying too hard?” Phillip murmured.
Chloe’s voice cut in. “Phillip, talk to me. First impressions?”
“Nothing too strange,” Phillip said. Ben groaned, and Phillip looked puzzled for a second before realizing the headset was still muted. He flipped the switch again and repeated his assessment.
“Interesting,” Chloe said. “Their body language seems stilted somehow.”
“Ben caught that, too, though I can’t say I see it,” he replied.
“Now,” Ihab said, “I suppose you’re wondering why we brought you here again.”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Mr. MacKenzie said.
“Do we have names for them?” Phillip asked.
“Alex and Mirielle,” Chloe replied. “That’s honestly the most background information we have.”
“Is Rob in some kind of trouble?” Mirielle asked.
“Not at all,” Ihab replied. “Quite the opposite.”
“I don’t see how there’s an opposite to trouble,” Alex said. “And I especially don’t see how he can’t be in trouble. He’s always bothering someone.”
“How do you mean?” Ihab asked.
“Well, take his behavior the other day,” Alex said. “He’s a liar and a sneak.”
“Rob went over to a friend’s house without permission,” Mirielle said.
“He knew he wasn’t allowed,” Alex said, his voice rising slightly, “and he did it anyway. And then he has the gall to say it was to avoid an imaginary bully.”
“An imaginary bully?” Ihab’s voice was curious, but she also seemed a little unnerved by Alex’s increased agitation. Phillip shared her apprehension.
“He thought he was being so clever, too,” Alex said, smirking, “blaming Willy Flay’s boy. I know Deacon, he’d never so much as hurt a fly. Rob and him get along so well, too. Rob couldn’t give any better explanation than to lie about his friend. He’s grounded now, of course. For longer than he was before.”
Phillip fumed. He knew about Deacon, of course; the abuse his own kids had experienced at the hands of the tin-pot tyrant was well-documented. The problem arose with his father, Will Flay; he was a minor executive in the county government, and his star appeared to be on a meteoric rise. Family troubles had the unnerving tendency to disappear around him. “Get him off this topic, fast,” Phillip said.
“Let’s just set that aside,” Ihab said, smiling. Mirielle returned the smile; Phillip clicked on the control panel, and her face filled the plasma screen. Ben gave an inquisitive murmur, but Phillip simply shook his head and returned the screen to the eight-way view. Something bothered him about Mirielle. The fact that he could not identify it served only to infuriate him.
“What exactly is this about, anyway?” Alex asked. “If it’s about the Flay boy–”
Katherine entered the interview room at that moment; Ben flipped a few switches on the board. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” Katherine said, smiling. “I think we can begin now.”