Chloe glanced at me, and I nodded. If they were talking entry angles, this afternoon really was going to happen, and since Chloe couldn’t exactly leave the audio feeds behind long enough to do a cameo upstairs, it was up to me to pass the message along.
“I’m going back up now,” I said.
I thought about thanking her for reading me the riot act about Jack and telling me a secret she’d kept from Brooke for years, but decided against it. This was Chloe, and she didn’t want to hear it from me.
Code Word: Answers
By the time I made my way back up to the cafeteria, my presence had definitely been missed. The other girls’ eyes registered my entrance the moment I walked into the room, and the decibel level of conversation in general went up a couple of notches when the rest of the school saw me.
I was going to go out on a limb and guess that my…errrr…tumultuous relationship with Jack and my…creative display of “affection” that morning was the reason why. Luckily, people didn’t get a chance to stare at me for long. One guess as to why.
“Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this nation the sacred tradition of homecoming.”
First the homecoming pirates, and now this? Where was Noah coming up with this stuff?
“That one girl might be named queen.” Noah paused for just a moment, and it occurred to me that he hadn’t prepared a speech and that perhaps he was having more difficulty with his Abraham Lincoln persona than he had foreseen. Unsure exactly what to say, he continued babbling on, his voice getting louder by the moment. “You! You there!” he yelled, pointing to a random guy who’d just gotten up to throw his trash away. The guy in question couldn’t decide whether or not everyone thought Noah’s outbursts were secretly funny, or whether they were just weird, but when Noah called on him again, he answered.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“Uhhhh…God?” the kid asked.
“Answer the question!” Noah boomed, sounding for all the world like a courtroom lawyer.
“I guess so,” the kid said finally.
“Who are you voting for?” Noah asked.
“Uhhhhhh…” The kid clearly wasn’t sure how to answer the question, but none of Noah’s freshman friends suffered from any such doubt.
“To-by! To-by! To-by!”
For the love of all things good and coffeelike, I thought. The chant was catching on.
“For truth! For justice! For the American way! Vote Toby Klein!”
“Actually,” I said, speaking up for the first time during one of Noah’s little performances. “Please don’t.” I tried to phrase this in terms that wouldn’t compromise whatever cover I still had left after the last couple of days, which meant I couldn’t tell the entire student body that I would prefer to eat my own tongue than wear a tiara at that stupid dance.
“I’m just a sophomore,” I said. “And there are four seniors nominated, even though none of them are here today, because they’re…posing for Seventeen magazine….” The lie seemed like the kind of thing everyone would buy, and by the time the magazine actually came out, another rumor would have jumped to the forefront of the gossip mill. “Even though the seniors aren’t here right now,” I said, “I know that it would mean a lot to them if you voted for someone who’d been at and loved this school for four years. So don’t vote for me. Vote for one of them.”
Done with my speech, I walked to our table and sat down, mentally daring any of the others to comment on anything I’d just said. The girls knew me well enough to keep quiet. Chip didn’t know anything or anyone well enough to do the same.
“That was kind of cool,” he said. “You’re a really strange girl.”
All things considered, it was probably the nicest thing Chip had ever said to me. For the first time since I’d met him, I didn’t feel even slightly compelled to castrate him with a butter knife.
“Where’d you go?” Bubbles asked me.
“I had to check on the banner paint,” I said. “I thought we left it in Brooke’s car, but we didn’t.”
“Banner paint?” Jack asked. “Really.”
“Yes,” I deadpanned. Then I turned to the other girls. “About the thing. The thingy-thing after school?” The other girls nodded.
“Yeah huh?” Lucy asked.
“It’s like thinging,” I said. I probably could have thought of a better word to tell them that our plan this afternoon was still on, but a better word might have actually made sense to someone other than the five of us, so I didn’t bother.
“And FYI, Chip,” I added. “If you don’t stop trying to look down my shirt, I’m going to castrate you with a butter knife.”
This time, Jack’s grin was sincere. The others just laughed off my threat, though Chip’s laughter definitely fell under the heading of nervous.
Sometimes, in the midst of all of this, it felt good to be me.
The rest of the period flew by in a blur, and I managed to make it through the rest of the day without causing a single scene, which was impressive given my track record. The closer seventh period got, the quieter and more withdrawn I got, and the less I thought about Jack and the more my mind played over every piece of data I’d encountered during my hacking spree the night before.
If things had gone differently, I’d have been getting ready to go out into the world and fight the good fight. I’d have been the one taking Amelia Juarez down, the one making sure that Anthony Connors-Wright didn’t unleash the bots. If we hadn’t been taken off this case to begin with, I might have been tracking down the person who’d stolen the bots in the first place, the person who had tagged me.
If I’d been part of our last line of defense against biotechnological warfare and the dangerous precedent that Ross’s invention could set, my adrenaline would already be pumping. I would have barely been able to sit still in my seat. As it was, I felt drained. Empty.
What if I’d been wrong about Amelia? What if I was missing something? What if the other girls went and something happened to one of them? What if Amelia won?
Under the influence of the what-if game, I didn’t even register the occasional barb that Mr. Corkin threw my way during history, and during computer science, I just stared at my screen. By the time seventh period came around, all I could think about was the fact that despite all of the what-ifs and everything that had happened in the last few days, the one feeling that I couldn’t shake was that I hated being left out.