27

I wasn’t under arrest, it turned out. Whatever I had heard in the confusion must have been a mistake, or so they claimed. The handcuffs, too. Crossed signals. Mistakes were made.

Frances Bernadette McSweeney listened to their excuses with one eyebrow raised, perfectly polite and absolutely clear that she didn’t believe a word of it Later, I found out that Nikko had live-tweeted the bust, grabbing and posting shots from the video feed as events unfolded, then uploading short snippets from the sting, mostly the bits where the two FBI agents were prompting Danny and me to do illegal stuff. Even more popular was the clip in which a giant in body armor tackled Sara Esfahani, world-famous filmmaker, while her camera rolled. They were so busy barking orders and pointing big guns, it took them a while to realize it was still running. There was also a blurry clip of me opening the door and getting grabbed by a cop. Luckily, it didn’t include the part where I kicked him in the shin. It was a reflex action. Mistakes were made. Besides, I probably had worse bruises than he did.

At the same time, by strange coincidence, a photo of Simon Meyer turned up on Instagram and rapidly went viral. It didn’t take long for people to connect the dots. Good old Simon was not only a sexual predator, he was a fake activist on the FBI’s payroll.

The afternoon and evening was a blur of fear and excitement and bureaucracy and sitting on hard chairs, waiting for decisions to be made. We’d done it. We’d exposed how these stings worked. After being publicly humiliated they’d have to let my brother go. I felt like a balloon filling up with righteousness and excitement, as if my skin was actually stretching to contain it all. But instead of lifting me up so I could float away, it popped.

I was free to go, they told me sometime after midnight. My parents were waiting to take me home.

~ ~ ~

It felt weird, walking into the ginormous suburban house that I had hated so much, seeing the kitchen that always looked as if it had been recently sterilized. The big, soft couches in the living room, the enormous entertainment system. A wall full of family pictures, including one of me and Wilson. He had his arms draped over my shoulder. I was five years old and scowling for the camera.

“We got new window treatments,” my adoptive mother said with desperate cheerfulness. “What do you think?”

“Nice,” I said, wondering how expensive curtains had to be before they were called “treatments.”

“How about something to eat?” Wilson’s dad was scrubbing his hands together as if he couldn’t wait to fix me a meal, but he was watching me nervously like bomb squad technician checking out a suspicious device that might explode at any moment.

“No thanks. I’m pretty tired. Is my old room—”

“It’s ready for you. Liv said she would put clean sheets on the bed.”

“Well, goodnight then.” My voice sounded like it was coming from someone else, someone far away. As I climbed the stairs, the carpet was so cushiony under my feet that it felt as if I were drifting, a ghost who might meet my younger self coming down the stairs, that angry, frightened kid who had to run away. What would I say to her? Sorry. You tried. It was good for a while. We’ll be okay.

~ ~ ~

Strangely enough, it was okay. I stayed in my bedroom most of the time, doing my homework, scrolling through the Group’s message threads, and reading the texts that Wheeze sent me through Convo. I only left my room to eat and help with chores and do family things when I had to, but the giant battles I expected didn’t materialize, mainly because I was tired of fighting and had surrendered unconditionally.

A couple of FBI agents came out to interview me. I had a lawyer with me, a young one who was helping with my brother’s case and was crushing hard on Frances Bernadette McSweeney as we waited for the feds to arrive. The two agents were very polite, as was my lawyer, as were my adoptive parents who hovered the whole time. The feds asked questions about my connection with the Minneapolis Nine and whether I knew where Wheeze was and hinted that I might get in big trouble if I didn’t cooperate, but the lawyer did all the talking and they left without learning anything.

Afterward, I went back to my room and scrolled through the messages Wheeze had been sending. I was always happy to see a new one, even if I couldn’t seem to make my fingers send a reply.

<wheeze> My ankle is feeling better. So is the sick chicken. I have recorded so many chapters of Charles Dickens my voice is completely gone. How are you?

<wheeze> it was so cold this morning there were sundogs. Did you see them? I hope you’re okay.

<wheeze> There’s a picture of Simon Meyer all over the internet. Whoever did that was incredibly brave.

<wheeze> I just watched all of Sara Esfahani’s blitzdocs again. They’re amazing. That one where you all got arrested had me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew it would turn out all right. Thanks for trying to take the heat off me.

<wheeze> Jane taught me how to milk the goats. It took a while to get the hang of it. How are things? Are you still living with your aunt? Did you guys get a lot of snow? We got buried. You can’t even see the fence posts it’s so deep.

<wheeze> What I would really like to do is write you an old-fashioned letter by hand. I would tell you about the farm and what it’s like to get eggs from the nest while they’re still warm and how getting to know the goats is turning me into a vegetarian, though Jane says that won’t last. It feels weird to type things this way. I don’t know if you get these messages. It’s like writing with disappearing ink. I miss hanging out with you.

I lay back on my bed and thought about taking a nap, but instead started to type.

<zen> Sorry for the long radio silence. I’m fine. Kind of. My parents made me move back in with them because Monica is a radical leftist. (She so isn’t.) The FBI was here today, but so was a lawyer, so I didn’t have to say anything. Is your ankle better? Can you walk now?

<wheeze> w00t! I thought the computer was broken. It made this weird sound and there was your message! I was beginning to worry you had been sent to a black site or something. I can walk a little. I do chores in the morning – did I tell you I know how to milk goats now? Otherwise I have to stay off my ankle until it’s stronger. I’m sorry you had to move back with your parents. I know you hated it there.

<zen> It’s not that bad. I just do homework and take naps and stay up all night goofing around on the internet.

<wheeze> Any word on your brother?

<zen> Nothing definite. I never thought it would take so long.

<wheeze> Me either. Sometimes I forget I’m a fugitive from justice, but when I remember, I worry that they’ll find me and Jane will get in trouble and that would be awful. Do they let you visit Wilson?

<zen> We go every weekend. SO. WEIRD. They have those telephone things like on TV, so you can’t really talk.

<wheeze> Why can’t he get out on bail?

<zen> A stupid judge said he was a flight risk and a danger to society even though everybody knows he didn’t really plan to blow up anything. It sucks. Wilson’s getting really skinny. He says the food is worse than school lunches. It’s baloney every day, and he hates baloney. Are you still a vegetarian?

<zen> I eat A LOT of eggs. The chickens are starting to look at me funny.

~ ~ ~

My stepsister Liv decided she wanted to be best friends and kept coming into my room to sit on the bed and tell me all about her life. I figured that was mainly because Sara Esfahani had put me in one of her blitzdocs and Sara was famous, therefore I was someone worth knowing after all. But we got along okay. She even asked for my help on a research paper about Edward Snowden and why privacy matters.

My adoptive mother seemed a little scared of me. I had grown taller since I’d left home and it unnerved her that we were the same size. In December she said she would take me to a spa as a treat. We could use the sauna and get a massage, then get our hair done. Wouldn’t that be fun? She was twisting her wedding ring nervously. I said thanks, but no, and she didn’t push it, even though I knew my untamed hair was driving her nuts.

Nikko sent me links to his latest goofy animations regularly and every couple of weeks I got package in the mail, something strange and useless that he had created just for me. He made a couple of short documentary pieces about Sara Esfahani’s cabdriver Bahdoon, hoping to lure Sara back to Minneapolis or at least score an internship with her.

Every now and then I used one of my fake Facebook accounts to check up on Marita and her baby. Danny, it turned out, had violated probation in Illinois, so the authorities shipped him back to spend some time in jail there. I asked Nikko to stop by the punk house to see if she needed any help, but she had moved out and nobody knew where she was. It took a while, but I found her profile. She was staying at her parents’ house in Milwaukee and working for Dominos when she wasn’t posting baby pictures and updates about some cute guy she’d met at work.

The Secret Avenger told everyone who wrote to her that she was too busy to take on new projects at the moment.

Monica and I talked on the phone every few days. She offered to drive out to see me, but I didn’t want her to. It would poke a hole in my suburban bubble and all the sad would rush in and I would drown.

~ ~ ~

<zen> It’s Christmas in the suburbs! Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells ringing, and everybody’s yelling or sobbing in a corner. I’m glad I can hide out in my own room. What is Christmas like on the farm?

<wheeze> We had a big solstice party at a neighbor’s. Lots of music. There was an amazing fiddler. All those shirts I silkscreened? The bookstore in Madison sold them all, and they placed another order. We’re having a couple of friends over for dinner tonight but it’s just soup, not turkey. Jane Shandy doesn’t hold with Christmas.

<zen> Me either. Not like this. I wish I was there.

<wheeze> I wish you were here, too.

~ ~ ~

In January, Wilson finally was released. Frances Bernadette McSweeney wanted to get all the charges dismissed, but Wilson just wanted out, so he took a plea deal, copping to a trespassing charge for living in the abandoned house nobody wanted in exchange for the time he’d already spent in jail. The day after he got out, he borrowed a friend’s car and drove out to visit. It was a sunny day, so we bundled up and went for a walk around the old neighborhood, ending up in a playground that we used to go to when we were kids.

“Remember when you fell off this thing and broke your arm?” he asked me, brushing the snow off the seat of the seesaw with his arm.

“You hijacked a car and took me to the emergency room.”

“I didn’t hijack it. I knew that girl. She didn’t mind. Much.” He cleared off the other end. “Then it turned out they wouldn’t do anything until Dad got there, anyway. Get on.”

“I’m too heavy for this thing.”

“Are not.” We balanced on it, swaying up and down. “See? Still works. We spent a lot of time in this playground.”

“Probably bored you to death.”

“Didn’t have anything better to do. It’s not like I had any friends my own age. Listen, Emily and me are sharing a house with some people. We have two super-friendly dogs and a big kitchen and lots of space in the back for a garden when spring comes. I got some hours at a bar so I can pay our share. You can even have your own room.”

“What, at your place?”

“It’s a little room that nobody’s using except to store stuff. It’s basically a big closet, to be honest, but it has a window that faces south so you’ll get lots of sun.”

I didn’t say anything, just pushed against the ground to go up.

“I’m sure I can talk the parents into it.”

“No, that’s okay. You and Emily need your own space. Sounds like you’re getting serious.”

“Emily is awesome. I didn’t know how much I’d miss her until . . . I did. But she’s fine with you moving in. Don’t you want to get away from this place?”

“It’s not bad. They have really fast broadband.”

“Look, what you did for me, for Emily—“

“Don’t. It was . . . really, don’t feel like you owe me.”

“Are you nuts? You got me out.”

“You took care of me before, so we’re even. Anyway, I got my application in for this program where high school kids can go to college for free. If I get accepted at the U, I’ll probably get to move back in with Monica so I can get to school. Until then, though . . . I’m good. I’ll just be happy when Wheeze is in the clear.”

“It’s stupid. He didn’t even do anything.”

“In the criminal justice system,” I said in a Law and Order voice, “the people are represented by two separate groups: Dumb and Dumber. Bump bah.” That got a smile out of him. “Hey, I want to go to the swings. Will you push me?”

~ ~ ~

Two weeks later, I heard the familiar Convo blurp. I set aside my laptop and the routine I was trying to debug and reached for my phone.

<wheeze> It’s official. No charges. I’m not a wanted man anymore!

<zen> yay! Free at last. What a relief.

<wheeze> How’s Wilson doing? Is he okay with his plea deal?

<zen> It may screw things up later, having a record, but he’s just glad to be out. He and Emily moved in with some friends. I went to visit them yesterday. Nice house, but it takes forever to get there by bus and then it’s awkward because he’s all “wow, I can’t believe you did all that for me.” I actually get along better with Emily. I’m glad they dropped all the charges against her, even though the idea that Wilson was a ringleader and she wasn’t is pretty hilarious.

<wheeze> Headdesk. Wilson and ringleader do not belong in the same sentence.

<zen> That thing about you not being a wanted man? It’s not true. It’s just the *police* who don’t want you.

<wheeze> Haha. My parents didn’t, either. Or my relatives. But I’m glad you do. I can come visit you now! I’ve been checking out the bus schedules. I can’t wait to see you.

Something in my stomach twisted hard. I lay back on the bed, trying to empty my head, trying not to think or feel. Eventually I turned off my phone and went back to looking for the bug in my code. When I pulled back the cover to get into bed around four a.m. the phone fell to the floor. I stuck it in a drawer and went to sleep.

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