We kept eating pizza and talking and drinking beer (except for me; luckily, I had a water bottle in my backpack). It was weird, because it felt like being online, checking out different threads, jumping from one conversation to another, but with real human beings involved. I was still having trouble putting their faces together with the people I knew from the Group. Mostly I sat on one of the folding chairs, thinking about how I would ask Nikko for a big favor.
Zeke sat beside me and tried small talk, which neither of us was any good at. He asked me if I’d been to any meet-ups before. I said I hadn’t. He told me the first one he’d been to was in Amsterdam and it had been awesome; he was fourteen and had been invited to speak at an international conference. It felt like he was trying to score one off me.
“What’s it like having a brother?” he asked suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“Just curious. I’m an only child.”
“My parents are cool, but it’s not like having a brother or sister. I guess. I mean, how would I know?” He started laughing and I realized he was pretty drunk. “So, you guys are close, huh?”
“Not really. He’s eight years older than me.”
“If you’re not close, why are you doing all this?”
“Because . . . I don’t know. He’s pretty annoying, but he doesn’t deserve to be in jail. None of them do.”
He nodded, and kept on nodding, as if his neck had a loose spring. His eyes drooped shut and for a moment I thought he was asleep. “Hey, sorry I made fun of your name.”
“I’m used to it.”
“Me too. First two minutes at preschool and I was Zeke the Freak. Man, I hated school. Do you, like . . .” He got distracted, listening to something Ian was telling Geoff. “Do you still have to go to school?”
“Yeah, but it’s online. It could be worse.”
“Sorry if I acted kind of . . . I’m still trying to match you up with Shad, you know? I had this different picture in my head. Not a girl.” He pressed his lips together and tried to hold it in for a minute, little snorts leaking out. “Named Zenobia.” He was howling with laughter again as the party started to break up.
~ ~ ~
Jason and Tyler stayed behind to take apart the traveling Faraday cage and erase all signs of our presence. Outside, the freezing rain had turned into snow. Ian said I couldn’t ride my bike in such awful weather. For some reason, I didn’t mind him fussing at me, even though I was used to riding in snow and not at all used to letting people tell me what to do. I took my front wheel off and stowed it and my bike in his trunk as Geoff put the empty pizza boxes and case of empties into his rental car. Zeke, fortunately, didn’t have a car, so nobody had to worry about taking his keys away from him. He climbed into the back seat of Ian’s rental. By the time I got in, he was stretched out across the backseat, his knees bent to fit, one arm dangling down to the floor, doing a great dead-guy imitation until he started to snore.
“He’s bunking with me,” Ian said, glancing into the back seat. “He hitched a ride up from Chicago with a truck driver. Didn’t have any place to stay, just counted on it that things would work out. Which usually they do for him.”
“You met him before?”
“I’ve known him since he was twelve. He took a class from me once, when he was actually younger than you, though he dropped out before the semester was over. He’s brilliant, but he doesn’t have much interest in following rules or filling out forms, and he thinks money is stupid. That makes it pretty impossible to complete a college degree the way we do things, but he learns whatever he finds interesting enough to figure out and picks up enough freelance work to put together a living. He travels constantly and has friends everywhere, even though he can be kind of a jerk sometimes.”
Ian glanced at me. “Being accepted to MIT at fourteen can mess up your grasp of social codes, but he’s a good guy. Just awkward, sometimes. Which way to your house?”
I gave him directions to Cedar-Riverside. I didn’t want to go home just yet. I needed to talk to Nikko.
~ ~ ~
He had mentioned that he was rehearsing a new play with friends in the basement of a bar somewhere in the neighborhood, but he hadn’t said which bar. I put my wheel back on my bike and waved to Ian as if I knew where I was going. Then I spent forty-five minutes checking all the bars to find Nikko. This involved pretending I was old enough to go to bars, which didn’t always work. Calling him would have been a lot easier, but no way was I going to leave a metadata trail for the cops. I had begun to wonder if I had heard it wrong and they were over in Dinkytown when I finally spotted Nikko’s clunky fixed-gear bike chained to a gas meter in an alley. I locked my bike next to his and went into the bar, thick with the scent of spilled beer, fried onions, and mildewed carpet. A bartender gave me the stink-eye, but when I told him I was crewing for the play, he let me go down a flight of creaky stairs to the basement, which smelled too, but it was a more wholesome smell, like a damp cave.
Nikko didn’t notice me at first. He was busy blocking out a scene and arguing about whether it called for slapstick comedy or for Brechtian epic gestures. I had hung out with Nikko enough to know that Brechtian was a thing, even if I didn’t know what it actually meant. While they hashed it out, I sat on the bottom step and waited until the director called for a break. Nikko play-punched one of the actors, exchanged rapid-fire barbs with some others, and then caught the hand of a girl who had purple hair and cute clothes, striped tights and Converses covered with sequins. She had big blue eyes and giant lashes. Basically, she was going for the anime look, which she was skinny enough to pull off. He twirled her around so that she ended up nestled in his arms in a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire clinch (which I only know about because Nikko loves old black and white movies and makes me watch them with him sometimes). They cuddled for a minute, exchanging a kiss that lasted long enough that it stopped being a joke. The girl must have sensed me staring, because she poked Nikko, who looked over and squeed loudly. “Zen! What are you doing here?”
“Um, I was hoping to talk to you?” My voice sounded funny.
“Sure.” He was suddenly serious, and murmured something to the girl that I couldn’t hear, before giving her a last squeeze and smooch. “What is it? Your brother?” he asked me, drawing me back into a corner of the basement where it was dark and there probably were spiders. I focused for a minute on looking for bugs until I could get my thoughts together. Something was crackling through my head like static electricity.
“Sort of. I had this idea, but actually it’s kind of crazy.”
“I like crazy.”
“I’m not sure you’ll like this kind of crazy. It could get you in all kinds of trouble.” I rubbed my eyes, feeling weird and out of place. People like that skinny girl with purple hair belonged here, but I didn’t. I was feeling really tired all of a sudden, and a little dizzy. “This is dumb. I should go.”
“No, tell me. I want to help.” He looked at me steadily, insisting that I look back at him.
“You’re busy here.” It came out sounding like an accusation.
He waved a hand, as if with that little motion he could push everyone in the basement to one side. He could do that, make a small gesture and have it mean so much. I felt a weird ache in the center of my chest, a soreness in my throat.
“No problem. We’re done for the night, anyway.”
“Yeah, but you probably want to hang out with your theatre friends.”
“Not when you need me.” He glanced over at the purple-haired girl, who gave us a brilliant smile, then back at me, light dawning. “Do you know Bree?”
“No. How would I know somebody like her?”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t do theatre. I don’t socialize with college kids or whatever.”
“You socialize with me. I may not be a college kid, but I’m a whatever.”
“Yeah, well she’s not, I mean – you know a lot of people. I don’t have a lot of friends. Not people like this, like her. You, know. Popular.“ I was jabbering. I stopped and pressed my lips together for a minute, damming up the stupid words that had been pouring out. Then I started over. “So no big deal, right? I just feel stupid that I didn’t know you, like, had a thing going with somebody.”
“She’s not a thing. Her name is Bree.”
“I mean a girlfriend, whatever.”
“We only met two weeks ago. I really like her, though. You look mad.”
“I’m not mad,” I said, hearing how angry I sounded. “I’m just dumb about people, that’s all.”
He reached out and pulled me to him in a hug, one that wasn’t anything like the way he hugged Bree. He rubbed the back of my head hard with his knuckles. “What do you mean, dumb? You’re the smartest person I know. Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, I’m just an idiot,” I said into his shoulder.
“Shut up, you imbecile.”
I sniffed his shoulder. He always smelled good, like green tea, or maybe mint, or just the fresh way clothes smell when they’ve been hung outside on a clothesline. You are not going to cry, I told myself. Absolutely not. No way. I blinked hard a few times and I didn’t.
“So, what is this crazy thing?” he asked.
“It’s really, truly crazy.” I pushed him away. He waited. “It’s dangerous. It could turn really bad. And it would take an excellent actor to pull it off.”
He spread his arms and gave me a look as if to say, Hello? Right here in front of you.
“So of course I thought of you, but you’ve got other stuff to do, and this is going to take lots of time and chances are you’d end up in jail or on the news or both. I can’t ask you to do this.”
“I would love to be on the news. Jail, not so much. Luckily, my dad’s a lawyer. What is it you want me to do?”
I looked around to make sure we couldn’t be overheard. “I need someone to make friends with a guy and get him to talk about blowing things up. And rat him out to the FBI so that they can set up a sting and arrest the guy as a terrorist.”
He frowned, his eyes going side to side as if he was trying to read what I’d just said, over and over. Then he shook his head. “Huh? This sounds like what happened your brother.”
“Exactly. Only this time I want to record everything that the FBI does to show how it works. How the FBI talks people into incriminating themselves.”
“Ah, okay. But what about the guy who gets ratted out? He’ll end up just like Wilson.”
“Only unlike Wilson, he’s not innocent.”
“He really wants to blow things up?”
“No. He’s guilty of something else. But that’s not the point. The point is to get it all on the record. To show everyone. There’s this filmmaker who might make a documentary, but I can’t remember her name.” Suddenly it seemed like a totally stupid idea. “Never mind. You have stuff to do. I should go home, anyway. Monica’s going to go nuts if I’m out too late.”
“No, wait. You don’t remember this filmmaker’s name?”
“It was weird. Esteban or something. Only that’s her last name. She’s a woman.”
“Yeah. I know somebody who knows her, and he said it was her kind of thing.”
He stared at me for a moment, then shook his head. “Look, give me two minutes, then let’s go to my place so we can talk.”
He went back to his actor friends and I turned away so I didn’t have to see him with the purple-haired Bree. A few minutes later he was back, pulling on his jacket, following me up the stairs and through the stinky bar out into the snowy night.