I had to watch out for cops, given that it was past curfew, but with any luck they would be tied up with accidents. The roads weren’t too bad, though I did fall once, hitting an unexpected ridge of frozen slush at an intersection where a plow had passed by, creating a hump of concrete-hard crap. My wheel went sideways and my body didn’t. Luckily, my backpack (and the laptop inside) escaped getting as banged up as me. The shoulder I had landed on ached as I pumped the last blocks home, and I was so wet and cold that I almost didn’t notice the SUV parked a couple of doors down from our house.
It was black and more rust-free than the other cars parked along the curb. (Did I mention we live in South Minneapolis? The part that isn’t gentrified yet?) The parking situation was tighter than usual, with a snow emergency in effect and parking limited to one side of the street. I would probably hear the plows overnight, rumbling and beeping in the darkness. It was a noise I’d soon sleep through as the winter wore on, but in the first weeks of winter it sounded like a nightly invasion of beeping tanks.
Monica might have to park blocks away, unless somebody left at just the right moment. That’s why I noticed that one of the cars not far from our house had a person in it. His engine was on; I could see the steam billowing up from the tail pipe. I watched for lights to go on as I peddled up the street, thinking I would try to hold the space for her. If she came home before I got into a fight with another driver or died of hypothermia, she’d get a great parking space, but the man in the car drive off. Then I noticed the car had one of those giant antennas on the back and the guy inside was just sitting there, looking bored.
Great. A cop was earning overtime, watching our house. I climbed up the front porch steps and stomped snow off my boots, glancing back as discreetly as I could. He was staring right at me. I was tempted to wave at Big Brother, but I’ve learned through experience that cops don’t like it when you’re not afraid of them. Besides, I was afraid.
When I got upstairs I checked the apartment thoroughly. I should have left some kind of sign that would let me know if somebody had been in my stuff – a thread stuck in the door that would fall to the ground if it was opened, for instance. I was used to my online life being subject to surveillance, but not my bedroom. Not the kitchen or bathroom. I don’t know why that would make any difference, really. More of my life is lived online than not. But it did.
Nothing seemed out of place. Nothing seemed disturbed – except me. I couldn’t shake off the creepy-crawly feeling that somebody was watching me, was in some weird way touching me. That somebody had been in our apartment, going through our clothes, fanning our books to see if anything fell out, browsing through the big fat stack of paper about Monica’s school loans, thinking “why would you borrow that much money for a useless history degree?” Holding up the underwear that had holes in it. Opening our refrigerator door and seeing that fuzzy thing that used to be a radish stuck to the bottom of the vegetable bin. It felt invasive. It felt dirty.
And so far as I could tell, it hadn’t even happened. Yet.
~ ~ ~
“What are you doing?” Monica asked.
“Cleaning the refrigerator.”
“It’s one in the morning.”
“Yeah, but it’s gross. I cleaned the bathroom, too.”
“Are you feeling all right?” She dumped her bag on a chair and unwrapped her scarf. “I thought you’d be in bed.”
“I thought maybe you were.” I waggled my eyebrows like Groucho Marx, but she looked hurt. “Just kidding. I’m glad you were having fun.”
“I shouldn’t have stayed out so late. It’s not every day that you get woken up by cops who want to question your niece about a terrorism case.”
“A so-called terrorism case. Did you see the one outside?”
“The what outside?”
“There’s a cop watching the house. At least there was when I got home. Hours and hours ago,” I added, remembering that she didn’t know that I hadn’t gotten home until after midnight.
“I didn’t notice anyone out there. Are you sure?”
“It was either a cop or just a guy who decided to sit in his car and stare at our house. Maybe he’s gone now.”
“Why would the police be watching our house?”
“Maybe they think Wheeze will show up.” She looked confused. “The tenth guy. The one they haven’t caught yet.”
“Why would he come here?”
“He wouldn’t. It would be stupid, and he’s not stupid. They’re just pulling out all the stops, which probably means we’ll have cops bugging us for a while. I don’t think they’ve been in our apartment yet. At least nothing seems disturbed, but they might come back with a warrant.”
“So that’s why you’re cleaning house in the middle of the night.”
“Kind of. I was getting squirrely and felt like doing something useful with that energy.”
Her mouth made a thin straight line and she gave her head a little shake, as if she was Having a Word with herself and was Very Disappointed in her Behavior. “I should have been here,” she muttered.
“Why? You had a good time, right?”
“Yes,” she admitted, finally taking off her winter coat and working her boots off, wobbling on one foot and then the other. “The play was great.”
“And we went to his place and had something to eat.”
“And none of your business.” She tried not to grin, but she couldn’t hold it in. It was good to see her so happy, even though she was guilt-tripping about me at the same time. She didn’t got out with guys very often, and none of the ones she’d been seeing in the past year seemed like anything special until German Guy. Maybe this was serious.
“How did your homework go?” she asked, being all responsible again.
“It’s done. Luckily, I got to do my section with Nikko and not with Marcella or Dave, which would have sucked.” I babbled for a while about some of the art we saw at the museum and how stupid the assignment was while I finished cleaning the refrigerator, chattering just to fill in the big hole left by all the things I wasn’t telling Monica about my day – the parts that were none of her business.
“This Nikko – he sounds pretty neat.”
“He is. But it turns out he has a girlfriend, so it’s not like . . . you know. He’s a good guy, though.”
She sat in a chair and rubbed her foot, absently fingering a hole in her tights. “What?” I asked, because something in her face told me she had something to say but didn’t know how to start.
“I had a long conversation with Peter and Lauren today.”
Wilson’s dad and his wife. My adoptive parents. My stomach clenched. “What do they want?”
“They were just checking to make sure you’re okay.”
“What did they say about Wilson?”
“They told me he has a good lawyer. They’re hopeful, but concerned. They thought . . .” she paused, picking her words carefully. “They wondered if you might want to go home for a while.”
“To their house? No way.”
“There would be no problem with school because it’s online. You wouldn’t be left alone in the house to deal with the police all by yourself if they show up again, and if reporters came around—”
“No. Stop.” She stopped. I took my hands off my ears, but they balled into fists and I couldn’t unclench them. My words seemed to echo in the silence while I waited for the neighbors downstairs to pick up their broomstick and thump it against the ceiling.
“Do you want me to go?” I asked.
“I want whatever you want.”
“So the police don’t hassle you anymore? So you can spend the night with German Guy whenever you want?”
“Zen . . .”
“I don’t care. I’m not going back there.” I could hear the hurt in her voice, but I was too angry to care.
“Good. Cause I’d miss you if you did.”
“No you wouldn’t. You’re just saying that.” I wasn’t mad at Monica, but she was there, so all that jittery anger went in her direction. I couldn’t seem to help myself.
“I don’t lie to you, Zen.”
“I’ll bet you do sometimes. People lie all the time.”
She poked a finger through the hole in her tights, actually noticing it for the first time. “You’re right. I might say ‘good morning’ when it’s actually a crappy day, or ‘that’s interesting’ when you’re telling me something about computers that I don’t care about. Sometimes the stuff we say when it’s not that important is automatic, just social noise. But I don’t think I have ever lied to you about anything that really matters. And I do enjoy having you for a roomie.”
“Yeah, right. I bet it makes everything harder, having me around.”
She thought it over. “Yes and no. I worry more about some things, like whether you have enough friends and if you’re getting a good education because honestly, this program you’re in sounds pretty bad. I wonder it’s fair to you to have to sleep in an attic closet on a mat instead of in a real bed in a real bedroom, if I’m giving you good advice, if I’m around enough for someone who’s only fifteen. But if I wasn’t worried about that, I’d just be worried about other stuff.”
“I love my bedroom.”
“It smells funny in there.”
“I like the way it smells. And the online classes are lame, but it’s way better than my old school. At least for me. Liv would hate it. Not enough opportunities to form cliques and torture each other.”
“She’s not that bad.”
“I just don’t fit in there. I’m a lot happier now. I’m sorry I got loud. Again.”
“At least the neighbors didn’t notice.”
“You know, you don’t have to pretend to be interested in stuff I say.”
“I know. Even if I’m not into technology like you, I enjoy hearing you talk because you’re passionate about it.”
“Pfft. I like hearing about history because it’s interesting.”
“I can’t help it if my specialty is more interesting than yours. Did you hear about the rally downtown tomorrow?”
“Yeah, Nikko wants me to go with him.”
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic.”
“Protests are a waste of time. They just make people feel good. They don’t change anything.”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
“It depends. In this case, it may show the authorities that people are paying attention. That they think these arrests are unjust.”
“Or it might show that there aren’t many people willing to show up on a Sunday afternoon after a snowstorm for some kids who they say are terrorists. It’ll probably be a bust.”
“Well, I want to show support for your brother, so I’ll be there.”
“If you can get your car dug out.”
“Dieter’s picking me up, actually.”
“Oh ho! Things are getting serious with German Guy.”
“Maybe you should start using his actual name. By the way, he’s just as upset with the NSA as you are. I have a feeling you two would get along. Will you need a ride?”
“No thanks. I’ll probably hang out with Nikko later, so I’ll take my bike.”
“Well, the offer is open if the weather gets worse,” Monica said, leaving off the usual lecture about how dangerous it was to ride a bike in the winter. She was getting resigned to it.
When I finally went to bed, I peered out to see if the cop was still there. He wasn’t, and I began to wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing.