Jeanne sighed; Gene clapped her on the back. “What was that for?” she asked, irritably.
“I thought you were gagging,” Gene said.
“Did not,” Jeanne said. “You’re just lucky Ms. Bloom didn’t catch you.”
Gene leaned back in his chair; the classroom was still slowly being filled as students reluctantly took their seats. Mondays did that to him, too, but he knew that the sooner he got into his seat and ready, the less chance there was for trouble. “What we’re really lucky for,” he said darkly, “is that Deacon didn’t catch us.”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said, sighing again. She risked a glance over to his usual seat; it was still empty. “Wonder where he is?”
“Probably giving Rob a hard time,” Gene said, shrugging. “As if he really needed to.”
The events of Saturday hadn’t faded entirely from their minds, but it was only vaguely connected to Rob. Jeanne insisted that they should have asked Phillip about it, but Gene had advised against it; both knew that it was pressing against him. It was also entirely possible, they thought, that it could make him really mad– mad enough to shout again. They were sadly unclear as to exactly who had been shouting that day, just that everyone had felt like it when it was all over.
“Hey,” Tegan said, taking her seat near Jeanne. “Did you guys see Rob yet?”
“Nope,” Gene replied. “Why? Gonna kiss him?”
“Ew, gross!” Tegan snapped. “No, dummy, he asked to borrow my math notes. I need them back.”
“Yeah, we’ve got that test on Friday,” Jeanne sighed. “Stupid Mr. Green, doing a test this close to Thanksgiving.”
“At least it’s not next week,” Tegan shrugged. “Anyway, he’d better get in soon or he’s gonna be late.”
“Ask Deacon,” Gene said, pointing half-heartedly. The bully was swaggering into the room, his bravado front-and-center. Tegan shivered and turned away. All of them knew better than to go anywhere near Deacon on Mondays, as he tended to vent his frustration at being ejected from the weekend on his classmates. “Hey, maybe we should…?”
“No way,” Jeanne said, glaring at her brother. “Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
“Scaredy-cat,” Gene grinned. “If you won’t, I will.”
Tegan didn’t get the chance to tell him to sit down; the bell rang at that moment, and Ms. Bloom closed the door. The three friends glanced at Rob’s empty seat, and exchanged glances. All were in agreement as the roll was started; this was quite unusual, but nothing to worry about just yet.
They started worrying when the class was over, and Rob still wasn’t there.
Phillip’s office was exactly as he had left it on Saturday. Nothing was out of place, nothing was extraordinary, and nothing had changed. With the exception of the clock, his e-mail inbox, and the beginnings of a dust layer, it was as if no time had ever passed.
So why does it feel like I’m walking on the moon? he asked himself. He had barely managed to get himself situated and his coffee mug in hand when the computer alerted him to a newly-arrived e-mail. A meeting had been called seconds earlier, and his presence was required. It noted that coffee was waiting for him in the conference room. Cute, he thought. I’m going to thank Daniel, and then smack him.
True to the word, a tall polystyrene cup was at his place along the conference table. “Vanilla latte, extra sugar and cream,” Katherine said.
“You remembered,” Phillip said. “I’m touched.”
“Indeed,” Daniel said, smirking, “but we manage to overlook your eccentricities at times, Mister Brookfield.”
“Be nice, Daniel,” Chloe said, sipping her coffee. “I hope you didn’t call this meeting to snipe at Phillip.”
“Of course not,” Daniel said. He slid a manila folder across the table to Phillip. “Please read over this at your leisure.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a complete record of all of the public information about Rob MacKenzie, as well as the test results,” Katherine said. “Nothing we haven’t shown you before, but we think it might be helpful in how we’re going to proceed.”
“How do you mean?” Phillip asked. “You’re not thinking of pinning this on me, are you?”
“Certainly not,” Daniel said, “but we believe that your involvement is, in more sense than one, critical to our success.”
Phillip assessed Daniel carefully. The accountant was obviously holding something back, but what exactly that could be was impossible to determine just yet. “All right,” Phillip said. “Test results. If this is nothing we haven’t seen before, then why compile it now?”
“This includes information we might not have correlated to other events just yet,” Chloe said. “I have a hunch you might be able to find something we don’t know.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Phillip said. “You guys are the geniuses. I’m just the Beggar King here.”
“Do not sell yourself so short, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said. “I have complete faith in you.” The words sent a chill down Phillip’s spine.
“In that case,” Phillip said, trying not to betray his unnerved state, “I did some looking at the interview video last night.”
“And I bet you found something we can use,” Katherine said. “Excellent. Let’s hear it.”
“I think Rob is completely cut off from us as of right now,” Phillip said. The stunned silence was almost too much to bear. “I mean, there’s no… I can’t… It’s just… impossible.”
“Please explain,” Daniel said.
“Alex has… an unpredictable streak,” Phillip said. “From what I can tell, it seems to be centered around his son’s intelligence. Either he’s afraid of Rob being smarter than him, or…”
“Or he knows that Rob is smarter than him,” Katherine said, slowly, “and he’s doing everything he can to cut him down to size. Dammit.”
“Something like that,” Phillip admitted weakly. “It just seems like Alex is trying his hardest to prevent Rob from learning. It’s like he changes the rules on Rob every so often, without telling him.”
“This is troubling,” Daniel said. Phillip was unnerved even more by the slightly lowering note in Daniel’s voice. “I wonder if it is too late.”
“Too late?” Chloe asked. “What do you mean?”
“That is to say,” Daniel said, “I wonder if perhaps the… work, for lack of a better word, of Mister MacKenzie has damaged Rob beyond repair.”
“You sound like you’re talking about a machine,” Phillip spat.
“He’s not far off,” Katherine sighed. “If Alex was screwing around with how Rob reacts, it could change his readings on the tests. We’d have to rerun our analyses with a different psych baseline.”
“The end result being that Rob may not have been suitable for Twilight Wings from the very beginning,” Chloe said. “We have failed.”
“Not yet, we haven’t,” Phillip said. “Kath, just how much variance could this really introduce? I mean, most of these tests are pretty objective, aren’t they?”
“That’s true on some level,” Katherine said, “but many of the most critical ones rely on an accurate foreknowledge of the subject’s mental state and psychological blocks or known reactions. Think of it like a scale. You have to know where zero is, or the number you get off of it is meaningless.”
“Only, in this case, there are an infinite number of unknown zeroes,” Daniel said. “This complicates matters to too great a degree for my liking.”
“We should proceed with our plans for dissolution,” Chloe said.
“I object,” Daniel said. “We are not in that much danger yet.”
“We very well could be,” Katherine said. “We have no Twilight Wings, we have no more funding, we have no data. We are finished, Daniel!”
“We are not,” Daniel said. “I believe that, with the right steps, this situation may be salvaged, for certain degrees of survivability already decided to be acceptable. We can still execute Plan C, Miss Reed.”
Phillip glanced at Chloe’s face, as the expression shifted from outrage to confusion to dawning surprise. “What exactly is Plan C?” he asked.
“You are not authorized to know,” Daniel said.
“I’m authorizing him,” Katherine said. “Spill it.”
“You are not authorized either, Doctor,” Daniel said, smiling politely. “I apologize, but it is a precaution that must be taken. We are in agreement, then, Miss Reed?”
Chloe nodded. “I understand. If we have no other choice, then, we’ll have to do that. I’ll fill you in later, Katherine, Phillip.” Katherine nodded once. Phillip saw no other option but to play along; he felt a bit like he imagined Rob must have.
“Very well,” Daniel said. “Moving on, then. I am hereby tendering my notice of an unpaid sabbatical.”
“What?” Phillip roared. “Effective when?”
“Around the time when you took your sip of coffee, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said. “I was informed last night of immediate, pressing personal matters which must be attended to.”
Katherine glared at the accountant. “We’re in a crisis here,” she snarled. “What could possibly be worse than losing your job and the entire company? This had better be life-or-death.”
“It is,” Daniel said flatly. “More than you are aware of.”
“You are not ill, are you?” Chloe asked. If she was surprised by the announcement, she didn’t show it.
“I am not,” Daniel said, “but this situation concerns a family member I am close to. I fear that my presence here now is placing her in danger.”
Phillip paused before speaking. “All right,” Phillip said. “I hope it turns out all right.”
“You’re accepting this, Phillip?” Katherine asked.
“We’re not heartless,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think Daniel would say that we could still get out of this if he knew he had to bail out.”
“Impressive, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said, smiling. “Indeed, my presence at the Foundation will not aid the recovery effort to a significant degree. I have given instructions to my staff on how to proceed in my absence.”
“If there is no other way?” Chloe asked; he nodded once. “Then I accept your notice. Good luck, Daniel.”
“Luck, Chloe, has absolutely nothing to do with this,” Daniel said, standing up. “Still, for her sake, I thank you.”
“Daniel,” Phillip said. “Keep in touch. Let us know how things go.”
“If I am able to,” he responded. “Perhaps…”
“It is nothing,” Daniel said. “I am late as it stands. Please excuse me.” Phillip and Katherine nodded as he left, closing the door behind him.
“So,” Phillip asked. “What is this mysterious Plan C that doesn’t need its mastermind?”
Chloe grinned. “You’re gonna love this.”
The weather was still warm enough for outdoors play, and after the usual troubles at lunch, Jeanne, Gene, and Tegan sat on the steps they considered their own, watching the other children run and play. “This sucks,” Gene said.
“Yeah, we know,” Tegan replied, rolling her eyes.
“No, I mean, this really sucks,” he said. “Rob is probably in a lot of trouble right now.”
“Or he’s sick,” Tegan said. “That could happen.”
“I don’t think he’s sick,” Jeanne said. “I think he’s just skipping school. It’s no big deal.”
“It is if he gets caught,” Gene protested, but his enthusiasm died as the sentence ended. “But he wouldn’t get caught.”
“He’s too smart to get caught,” Tegan nodded.
“If he’s so smart, then how come he can’t outsmart Deacon?” Jeanne said.
“The same reason we can’t,” Gene sighed. “Deacon has the teachers on his side.”
“How does he do that, I wonder?” Jeanne said, leaning against the chain-link fence. “Everyone knows he’s mean. But the teachers just kind of ignore it.”
“I heard his dad is someone really important,” Tegan said. “Like the mayor or something.”
“The mayor’s kid wouldn’t go to Seneca,” Gene said, scoffing. “He’d probably go to some really rich kid’s school.”
“I don’t know about that,” Tegan said. “It’s like how Mr. Walsh said people get votes. They stay connected to the people whose votes they need. If Deacon is the mayor’s kid, then it kind of makes sense that he wouldn’t want to give the idea that he doesn’t have an interest in all of the city.”
“Even Seneca?” Jeanne said.
“Especially Seneca,” Tegan said. “There’s, like, a zillion kids here.”
“Kids can’t vote,” Gene pointed out.
“But their parents can,” Tegan said, her voice trying not to snap. “Their parents would have to see that the mayor’s kid goes here, so it’s going to get a lot of attention.”
“Yeah, but just because Deacon’s the mayor’s kid–” Jeanne began.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Gene interrupted.
“If Deacon is the mayor’s kid,” Jeanne said, “that doesn’t mean he’s magically in charge of the school. He might be the mayor’s kid out there, but in here he’s just like us.”
“You mean, he’s no better than anyone else,” Tegan said. “I don’t like calling him just like us.”
“Okay, then,” Gene said, “he’s equal. That better?”
“Close enough,” Tegan scoffed. “I still think he’s a little turd.”
“Well, yeah,” Jeanne grinned. “But at least he’s not the big turd he thinks he is.” Gene and Tegan giggled at this, and for a moment, Deacon was taken down a notch in their minds.
“But Rob,” Gene said. “He’s still not here. Deacon being big or not, that’s nothing to do with us, but Rob’s our friend.”
“So what can we do about it?” Jeanne asked. “Katherine said we shouldn’t worry about things we can’t change.”
“Katherine says a lot of things,” Gene said.
“Who’s Katherine?” Tegan asked. “Someone to do with your study guides?”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “She’s really nice. You’ll get to meet her someday.”
“I hope so,” Gene said. “But Rob is something we can change. We can go look for him after school.”
“I don’t know,” Tegan said. “I’ve got piano lessons tonight, and I get yelled at if I’m late.”
“And Phillip would freak if he found out we didn’t come straight home without telling him first,” Jeanne said. “We could call ahead, but…”
“We can send him an e-mail,” Gene said.
“We’re not supposed to bug him at work,” Jeanne shot back, “and he’ll just say no anyway.”
“We should tell your dad about Rob, I think,” Tegan said, “but going to look for him would probably not help much. What would we do if we found him?”
“Or, worse, what if he’s at home and just sick?” Jeanne said, sighing. “It could happen.”
“I bet he’s at home, but he’s not sick,” Gene said, darkly.
“You think his dad…?” Jeanne trailed off as something on the far side of the playground caught her eyes.
“Jeanne?” Gene asked, but she simply pointed in response.
Nick was approaching the trio, quickly, but Deacon was coming up beside him. Gene started to shout, but was squelched when Deacon just put his hand up, defensively. Nick slowed and stopped, glancing warily at Deacon, whose back was now turned to the three. There was an exchange of words, short, but not heated; the kids were too far away to hear it, but Nick did not seem to be enraged or upset by it. To all outside observers, it looked like Deacon was just talking to Nick in a friendly manner.
“What do you think they’re saying?” Tegan asked. Jeanne shushed her; if she concentrated, she could possibly have caught a few words here and there against the background din.
Nick’s eyes widened, and he nodded. Deacon still hadn’t made any overtly hostile gestures towards him, but Jeanne got the distinct impression that the conversation was not nearly as pleasant as it appeared. After a few more moments, Deacon pointed off towards the monkeybar cage; Nick and the three all shifted their gazes there just for a second, long enough to see two of the middle-sized boys in the class talking; one was rubbing his arm above the elbow, as if it were injured. Nick turned quickly back to Deacon, but to his surprise the bully hadn’t made a move to sucker-punch him. Deacon shrugged, and walked towards the balance bars, where his own two friends were waiting. Nick walked slowly over to the steps where his friends were waiting.
“This isn’t good,” Gene sighed. “Deacon’s up to something.”
“Deacon’s always up to something,” Tegan spat.
“Guys, you’re not going to believe this,” Nick said.
“We saw it and we don’t believe it,” Jeanne said. “What did you say to make him leave you alone like that?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Nick said, taking his seat next to Gene. “It’s the weirdest thing. You know how Deacon’s getting votes, right?”
“Threatening other kids, I bet,” Gene said. He pointed to the monkey bars. “He hurt Tommy and Chuck.”
“Well, it’s weird,” Nick said. “He hurt Tommy, yeah, but he said he wasn’t gonna do that to me. He just told me how he wanted me to vote.”
“He can go to hell if he thinks he can force you to vote for him,” Jeanne said.
“No, no,” Nick said. “That’s what’s so weird. He told me to vote for you, Gene.”
The news stunned them all. “Wait, what?” Gene said. “Why? What’s he doing?”
“He says he knows he can’t get everyone to vote for him,” Nick said, “or Mr. Walsh will get suspicious. So he has to have some people vote for you and Fran, so it looks like he won fair and square.”
“He hasn’t bothered us,” Gene said.
“He knows that he can’t get Fran’s group or us to vote for him at all,” Jeanne said. “It’s the smartest thing he’s done in, well, forever.”
“Yeah, but, here’s the other weird part,” Nick said. “He said that if he wins, he’ll find out who didn’t vote for him and put them on the other team from him.”
“So he can beat them up,” Tegan said.
“But he already knows who’s not going to vote for him,” Jeanne said. “So why–”
“He’s lying,” Gene said. “He hasn’t figured out how to find out who voted for who, so he’s making it look like he’ll know.”
“That’s why he didn’t beat you up,” Jeanne said. “He wanted you to tell us.”
“I’m sorry, guys,” Nick said. Tegan put her hand on his shoulder. “I figured that it couldn’t hurt.”
“It won’t,” Gene said. “If we’re gonna stop him, we need to figure this out fast. We need to go find Fran. Do you know where she hangs out?”
“Usually over by the shed,” Jeanne said. “What are you thinking about?”
“The way I see it,” Gene said, “Deacon just messed up big time. He’s messing with the way people decide. I can’t figure out how he’s going to win by telling people not to vote for him, but that gives us a better chance to tell Mr. Walsh about what he’s doing.”
“How do you figure?” Nick asked. The four were walking towards the faded red utility shed that stood on the opposite end of the playground.
“The more people who Deacon bullies into voting his way, the more people we can convince to write something else on the vote,” Jeanne said. “Something like, ‘Deacon told me to vote like this.’”
“And they won’t get into trouble,” Nick said, “because it’ll be the truth. That’s amazing.”
“Right,” Gene said, “but that leaves what we’re going to write.”
“Well, I’m going to write like that,” Nick said.
“No, he means us,” Jeanne said. “Deacon hasn’t talked to Gene, Tegan, or me.”
“He probably won’t,” Tegan said. “He knows how we’re going to vote.”
“So who should we talk to?” Nick asked. “Besides Fran and her friends.”
“Everyone,” Gene said. “Especially the kids Deacon could really hurt. Like Tommy and Chuck, and…”
“And Rob,” Jeanne sighed. “Especially Rob.”
“That’s it?” Phillip asked, incredulous. “That’s all we’re going to do?”
“It’s missing something,” Katherine mused airily. “Like, oh, I don’t know. Common sense, for starters.”
“We don’t have much choice for the time being,” Chloe admitted. “It’s got a very slim chance of solving our problems permanently, but it is something we should look into before we close up shop.”
“I don’t know,” Phillip said. “It’s one thing to say that we’re not ready, but to ask for extensions on contracts that have long been in place…?”
“That’s where your magic is needed, Phillip,” Chloe said. “Your team is going to have to burn the midnight oil getting more grants and more funding while the legal team tries to fend off the vultures.”
“It’s too risky,” Katherine said. “What if we get our extensions, but no additional funding?”
“There’s a last-resort funding measure we can take,” Chloe said, “but it’s something that we can only do once, ever. I can’t give you the specifics right now– that’s more on Daniel’s end– but I want to reserve that for when we have exhausted all our other options.”
“We’re getting to that point,” Phillip said. “I still can’t believe that Daniel ran off like that. What nerve.”
“You said it yourself, though,” Katherine said. “We’re not heartless, and he thinks we can handle this ourselves.”
“He gives us too much credit, I think,” Phillip scoffed.
“Be that as it may, it’s what we’re faced with,” Chloe said. “Anyway, I think we all have a lot of work ahead of us. We should get back to that, then, and later today we’ll go over the finances one last time to see what we’ll need to do.”
Ben was waiting for Phillip outside of the conference room. “Hey, you got a minute, chief?” he asked.
“Sure,” Phillip said. “In here, or…?”
“Let’s go to the interview room,” Ben said, his voice low. Phillip wondered if there was more to the need for privacy than he anticipated. “I found that thing you were looking for.”
“What?” Phillip asked. “Where?”
“In the interview room,” Ben repeated, stressing the location. “Quiet.” Phillip opened the room, glancing to the left– the lights of the computer equipment were barely visible through the narrow wooden slats of the closet door.
“You found it, then,” Phillip said.
Ben closed the interview room door. “Good, we’ve got some privacy.”
“Ben, do I have to remind you that we both know this room is flagrantly bugged?” Phillip said, cocking an eyebrow.
“Of course I know that,” Ben snapped. “But the difference is, I bugged it. And I turned off the wireless monitoring before I came up. We’re secure in here.”
“Good,” Phillip said. “Well, better, at any rate. So you found how the signal was cut off?”
“It’s so brutally simple that I can’t believe I missed it,” Ben said, burying his face in his hands. “The first thing you need to know is that, when I looked in the closet the first time, everything was working perfectly.”
“But obviously it wasn’t,” Phillip replied.
“No, that’s the first brilliant part,” Ben said. “Everything was working exactly as it was expected to. What changed is that someone did something we didn’t expect.” He produced a small device from his pocket. “This little puppy is a remote double-solenoid actuator.”
“Which means, what exactly?”
“A solenoid is… you know how in a pinball machine, when you hit a bumper, it’ll sometimes kick the ball back?” Ben asked. “Solenoids are the bits that do the kicking. They’re like miniature pistons. So, if you set up two of them in a very close casing, like this, and have them alternate, what do you think it could do?”
“It could hit a switch,” Phillip said.
“Bingo,” Ben said. “This sucker frobbed the rocker switch on the main power strip for the camera receivers. It looks so ugly because whoever built it Frankensteined a garage-door opener receiver onto it.”
“So someone crossed a pinball machine with a garage door opener,” Phillip said, “and came up with a twenty-first-century sabot. Fascinating, but if the power was off, how could you tell everything was working fine?”
“That’s where the second solenoid comes in,” Ben said. “The device was triggered twice. The first time, bam, it turns the switch off, and the second time, boom, it turns it back on. That’s why the receivers died.”
“Still not getting it.”
“The receivers themselves work like cordless telephones,” Ben said. “You know how when the power goes out at your house, the cordless phones have to be returned to the base station when the power comes back on?”
“Yeah,” Phillip said. “The cameras didn’t have the right frequency set?”
“The other way around,” Ben said. “The cameras were still happily bopping along, but the receivers were oblivious. Even if they did have the right frequencies, they needed the encryption keys from the cameras. Standard security procedure for the cameras, really.”
“Okay,” Phillip said. “Do you know who has the remote for it?”
“That’s the hard part,” Ben sighed. “It’s a pretty standard garage remote. You could walk into any hardware store in the world and get it.”
“But these solenoids,” Phillip said. “Those are a bit harder to come by, right?”
“Not necessarily,” Ben replied, “but they’re harder than a garage-door opener. Actually,” he added, “the bit about pinball wasn’t that far off. These look like they came straight out of that old Addams Family machine they used to make me fix up at Fun ‘N Stuff.”
“Look into it,” Phillip said. “Someone’s playing games with us, but I intend to win.”
Jeanne hated being in the principal’s office, but she hated waiting to be in it even more. She wasn’t called into it often enough to have figured out things to do to take her mind off the impending lecture, but it was often enough that she already despised the squat, old, hard stacking chairs that served as the students’ equivalent of Death Row. She stared at the receptionist’s desk and fumed.
It was bad enough that they looked like they’d been salvaged from a kindergarten classroom (they were), but the fact that they were situated directly across from the open door in the receptionist’s office exposed their occupants to everyone who passed by. Given that the office was placed near one of the drinking fountains in the front sector of the school, students passed with an alarming frequency. Jeanne suspected that whenever she got called in, Mr. Lorentz turned up the heat in the rest of the school, just to drive more kids for water.
“It won’t be long now, Jeanne,” Ms. Claire said. She was nice enough, but Jeanne suspected that she had to be– if she acted as scary as she looked sometimes, kids would run screaming from the office. “You’re not in any trouble.” Jeanne knew she was lying. She always said that.
“I didn’t do anything,” Jeanne said. She always said that, too; it was expected of her, after all. She wondered, however, if it was true. Deacon was doing something wrong by bullying other kids into voting, but weren’t Gene and her doing the same thing by convincing kids to tell on Deacon? The difference, she reasoned, is that we’re not telling the kids how to vote. Just to add something extra onto the paper. That’s not wrong, is it? There’s no rule that says we can’t, is there?
The door opened, and Mr. Lorentz glanced at Jeanne. “Miss LaFayette?” he said, his deep voice rumbling with a tone she was not expecting. He wasn’t upset in the slightest– at least, she thought, not at her. He seemed calm. “Would you care to step inside, please?”
“Yes, Mister Lorentz,” she said. She entered the office slowly. It was decorated sparsely; a few awards and diplomas hung on the wall, mostly in fancy Gothic writing that Jeanne always had trouble deciphering. On the shelves behind his desk, Mr. Lorentz had set up trophies and souvenirs from his years as principal; she always wondered about the one that looked like a big blue crystal.
Mr. Lorentz gestured to the shorter leather-bound chair on the near side of his desk, and she sat down; he closed the door slowly, making sure its latch caught with a loud click. It sounded like a gunshot in the quiet office; Jeanne willed herself to calm down as Mr. Lorentz stepped cautiously to the side shelves. A water boiler was there, with a couple of gallon jugs beside it; a faint trace of steam billowed above the boiler. “Would you care for some hot chocolate, Miss LaFayette?”
“No, sir, thank you,” Jeanne said. The offer was tempting, but she was worried she’d spill it all over herself; she clasped her hands together and squeezed tightly, hoping to stop the shaking.
“Suit yourself,” he said, smiling. He sat down at his desk and peered across it at her. “I know that you’re expecting me to say this, Jeanne, but you’re not in trouble.”
“I didn’t think I was, sir,” Jeanne said.
“So you can relax,” he said, chuckling. “I know that you’re having a little trouble with Deacon Flay. I can’t fathom why,” he added. Jeanne cursed internally; if not even the principal could see Deacon for who he was, there wasn’t any hope. “I’ll deal with him later, don’t you worry. But he’s not the reason I called you in here, Jeanne.”
Jeanne cocked her head to the side. Maybe he did get it, after all. “Sir?”
Mr. Lorentz’s expression changed just then; she had never seen this on the principal’s face before. Being an older gentleman, she always thought his expression looked warm and friendly– to a certain degree– but now, the wrinkles on his face just made him look old. She’d seen that sort of expression before, of course, but never on her principal; it was mostly on the faces of the older people she saw sitting in the doctor’s office, after having received terrible news. She peered closer at him, trying to peek at his true mood.
And just as she thought she had a way in, the expression was gone, and he began to speak again. “I also know you’re close to Rob MacKenzie,” he said. “Both you and your brother are good friends with him. That’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mister Lorentz,” Jeanne said. What did Rob have to do with this? “Is Rob in trouble?”
“No,” Mr. Lorentz lied.
As soon as the three o’clock bell rang, Gene and Jeanne were off like rockets. They barely stopped to tell Tegan they were busy, before racing away from the school and up the hill to the house. While the mad dash home was becoming increasingly common for them, the falling temperatures made things harsher on their lungs; they collapsed against each other on the front porch, back to back, panting and wheezing. “We can’t keep doing this,” Gene gasped, sucking in huge breaths.
“We needed to get home fast,” Jeanne said.
“Phillip’s not here,” Gene snapped. “He wasn’t going to be here for a long time. We could have waited.”
“No,” Jeanne said, “we couldn’t.” He knew why, and didn’t respond. “Besides,” she added, “now we know Rob’s in trouble.”
“Yeah,” he said, his respiration slowing back to normal. “Why else would he ask both of us about him?”
“It’s weird,” Jeanne said, “but we’d better get inside. We should get ready to ask Phillip.”
“What will he know?” he asked. He unzipped his coat and reached down his shirt; the house key was on a chain around his neck. His cold hand gave him goosebumps every time it brushed against his chest. “He probably won’t know anything more than Mr. Lorentz did.”
Jeanne closed her eyes. Mr. Lorentz had the same disadvantage that most other adults did when dealing with Jeanne and her brother: he underestimated her. Every question he asked told her the answers to the questions she was asking with her answers; every answer she gave was nothing but the absolute truth, just not all of it. She had learned long ago not to reveal everything all at once. “He didn’t know anything either,” she said. “It’s weird. Like he was being told to ask us about Rob.”
“Who can boss around Mr. Lorentz?” Gene asked, incredulous.
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “Hurry up.”
He unlocked the door, and Jeanne rushed past him, dropping her bag on the foyer floor. She dashed into the bathroom, closing the door almost with a slam; Gene rolled his eyes and shut the front door behind him. He was careful to flip the deadbolt lock twice, making sure it locked securely.
After both of them had done their respective business and changed into play clothes, they sat down in the front den and flipped through their study guides. “I can’t concentrate on this,” Jeanne said after a few minutes. She rolled over in the over-large beanbag chair, and stared at the ceiling tiles. “Rob is in really big trouble and we’re sitting here doing homework?”
“We don’t know for sure that Rob is in trouble,” Gene said. “And we’re not doing homework, we’re–”
“They’re the same thing,” she snapped, glaring at him. He closed the guide and rolled onto his side. “And we do too know Rob is in trouble. He doesn’t show up for school, Mr. Lorentz asks both of us about him, and Deacon didn’t know anything, either.”
“You didn’t.” His face was ashen.
“I did, and I’ll do it again if I have to,” Jeanne said, defiantly. “We have to, Gene. We’re the only ones who can.”
“But he’ll tell,” Gene said. “He always tells on the people who can get us in the most trouble. He’ll tell Katherine.”
“He doesn’t even know who Katherine is,” Jeanne said, smirking. “It was completely safe.”
“It was not!” Gene said, lunging for her. “You know we’re not supposed to!”
“Who’s gonna know?” she said, rolling away. Gene landed face-first in the beanbag. “We are the only ones, Gene. Nobody else can—”
“We’re not!” Gene said, righting himself. “Chloe can. Katherine can. Phillip–”
“He’s a million, zillion years behind us,” Jeanne said. “In the school, we’re the only ones who can. That’s all that matters, and that’s all I care about.”
“Tegan can,” Gene said.
Jeanne started to speak, but stopped. “She doesn’t count,” she said, finally.
“She does too!” Gene shouted. “She does, and Rob does, and Nick counts halfway… but Deacon…”
“If Nick counts halfway,” Jeanne said, “then I guess Deacon has to count halfway too.” Gene didn’t have an answer for this. “They’re close. I know they are.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “We can’t tell them.”
“We’d better not,” she sighed, flopping back onto the beanbag chair. “Nick would freak if he knew how close he was to Deacon.”
“It’s the other way around,” Gene giggled. “Deacon would try to beat him up if he knew how close he was to catching up to even Nick.”
“Why can’t we?” Jeanne sighed. “It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong.”
“But we could,” Gene said. “Katherine keeps telling us not to cheat.”
“She knows we can’t cheat,” Jeanne said. “This stuff is too easy to cheat on anyway.”
“But we could, and that would be wrong,” Gene said. “You know what she always says. If we cheat once, we can’t ever be trusted again.”
That always hit a note with his sister, and he knew it. “Who cares about trust, anyway?”
“You do,” he said.
“A little,” she admitted.
The instant of silence that passed was just enough for the front door unlatching to sound like a firework going off; both of the kids sat bolt upright. “He’s here!” Jeanne hissed.
“It’s early,” Gene replied. “What do we say?”
“Let me tell him,” Jeanne said, standing. “I’m better at this sort of thing than you.”
“Are not,” Gene said, but the time for protest was over, as Phillip stepped into the foyer.
“Hi, kids,” he said, smiling. Both of the children ran up and hugged him, wrapping their arms around each other in a very lopsided triangle. They held it tighter and longer than he had expected. “Is everything all right?”
“Kinda,” Gene said.
“We got called into Mr. Lorentz’s office again today,” Jeanne said.
“What now?” Phillip asked, his voice stern. “Wait. Both of you?”
“Well, not at once,” Gene said. “Jeanne–”
“I’ll tell it,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I got called in first, and then Gene after me. We weren’t in together.”
“Did someone pick a fight with you?” Phillip asked. He hung up his coat as he spoke.
“Not this time,” she said. “Mr. Lorentz asked us about Rob.”
Phillip froze in place. “Rob MacKenzie?”
“Yeah,” Gene asked. “We thought it was weird too.”
“What did he ask about?”
“Just boring stuff,” Jeanne said. “Like when we saw him last and all. It was weird.”
“When you saw him last?” Phillip said. “Wait, he wasn’t in class today?”
“No,” Gene replied. “We thought he was sick.”
Jeanne bit her lower lip and glanced up at Phillip. “Phillip, is Rob in trouble?”
“Of course not,” Phillip said, but he regretted it the instant he saw the scorn cross Jeanne’s face. “Wait,” he amended. “I don’t know if Rob is in trouble. He might not be in trouble at school, at any rate.”
“This has something to do with Saturday, doesn’t it?” Gene asked.
Phillip weighed his options carefully. Telling the kids had been expressly forbidden, but that was before things had collapsed entirely. On the other hand, lying to them now would not set a very good precedent in dealing with adversity in the future– and there seemed to be no end to adversity in his sight. “Yes,” he said, “it does. Rob was being interviewed while you were both being evaluated.”
“I knew it!” Jeanne said, smiling. “I knew he was there! I don’t know how, but I knew he was there!”
“But there was shouting,” Gene said. “Someone was really mad.”
“That was Rob’s father,” Phillip said. He led the kids into the den and sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs; they dragged beanbags in front of it and sat, facing him. “We were trying to convince him that letting Rob take the same study course you guys do would be a good idea. He… disagreed.”
“He really disagreed,” Gene said.
“Yeah,” Phillip said. “I can see now why Rob was so afraid of him. Rob’s dad is…”
“Really, really mean,” Jeanne finished.
“Something like that,” Phillip shrugged. “Anyway, there was another reason we wanted Rob in the program. It would have helped us open up a new course. You might have heard Chloe or me talking about a ‘Twilight Wings’.”
“That’s that after-school thing, isn’t it?” Jeanne asked.
He nodded. “It needs a certain number of kids to start up… kids like you guys.”
“Like us, or…” Gene tapped his head. “That kind of like us?”
“Take your pick,” Phillip smiled. They knew anyway. “We were one short, and Rob would have fit the bill… but his dad said no.”
“There was something else, wasn’t there?” Jeanne said. “I mean, people have said no before, right?”
“Not like that, I bet,” Gene said.
“That’s right,” Phillip said. “The more I think about it, Rob might be in serious danger.”
“With his dad?” Jeanne frowned. “He’s always in trouble with his dad.”
“That’s the problem– or at least, that’s one way of looking at the problem,” Phillip said. “Think of it like this. Even if you guys did some pretty bad stuff, I would still love you both.”
“But…” Gene put the pieces together. “You’re saying that Rob’s dad doesn’t love him?”
“It’s complicated,” Phillip admitted. “He might think he loves Rob, but what he’s doing isn’t… it’s not helping.”
“Then we need to fix that!” Jeanne said.
“We can’t,” Phillip said. “We don’t have any proof, for starters.” They didn’t need to know right away that he was uncertain of the ‘proof’ he held anyway. “And another thing, we’re still bound.”
“Bound– oh, right,” Jeanne said. “He hasn’t asked for help yet.”
“But he can’t ask for help,” Gene said. “Doesn’t that change things?”
“A little,” Phillip said, “but not enough. And he can always ask for help… but his dad made him forget that.”
“The next time we see him, we’ll remind him,” Jeanne said. “I bet he was just skipping school today to stay away from Deacon anyway.”
“We can’t force him to let us help him,” Phillip reminded her. “But yeah, you should invite him over the next time you see him.”
Before either of the children could speak, the phone began to ring. Gene dashed off, with Jeanne rushing behind him, both shouting that they had it; Phillip was a bit startled. “Hello?” Jeanne said; Gene groaned behind her as she carried the receiver into the den. “Yes, Chloe, he’s right here,” she said. He smiled and took the phone from her gently, slightly puzzled at the frown on her face.
“Chloe?” Phillip asked.
“Phillip, we’ve got trouble,” came the panicked voice. “I’m… I can’t…”
“Chloe, calm down,” he said, standing up. “What’s wrong?”
“The police called me, Phillip,” Chloe said. “They think I kidnapped Rob MacKenzie!”