“I’m not going to ask you why.”
I don’t want to meet the guard’s eyes. But there’s nothing else to look at, except the too-bright glare of white light on white walls.
“I’m sure you could give me a terrific excuse, a real tear-jerker,” she says. “But let’s be honest. Really. You just have too much time on your hands.”
I force my palms to stay flat on the tableI don’t want to move, either. Movement is the enemy. Movement might reveal how scared I am.
“Isn’t that right?”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m a bad person. A bad, bad person, and nothing I can say will change that. Will you at least tell me where Sal is?”
“Your boyfriend?” The guard leans over, and before I know it, I’ve retreated a few inches. “That’s right, we know all about the two of you.”
“Surewe’ve got nothing to hide. We’re not ashamed or anything.”
The guard stares at me; suddenly there’s a sick, squirmy feeling in my stomach and I imagine slamming her face against the metal again and again until something cracks.
“Not ashamed?” she says. “Of course you’re not ashamed. Kids like you think you can do whatever you want. La-dee-da, who cares what happens to the ship and everyone on it, right?”
I look away. She slaps her hand against the table and, involuntarily, I snap back to attention.
“That’s lazy, dangerous thinking, Grant, a symptom of a larger mindset,” the guard says. “A mindset that can lead promising young men to do very stupid things, to thoughtlessly hurt a lot of people. A mindset we need to free you from.”
As she finishes, the guard places her hands on my shoulders, just a few inches from my neck. Very slightly, I shiver.
“I’m trying to help you, Grant,” she says. “You understand that, don’t you?”
I manage to smile at her.
“A good Samaritan, huh? Lucky me.”
The guard’s hands tightenonly barely, but I feel it.
“I don’t like this part of my job,” she says. “I don’t. But what you need to understand right now is where you stand. You don’t have a lot of options, and even fewer that aren’t going to be painfulnow, later, maybe both. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I know exactly what she’s talking about: the chip, newly planted at the base of my neck.
“Yeah,” I say quietly.
“Good,” she says, and I realize what’s coming. My heart speeds up and I tell myself that I’m not here, that this is happening to someone else. “Wellyou’re forbidden from speaking to your friend Sal for the next two years. You’ll run into each other at school, of course, but you’re not going to say anything, not even ‘hello.’ Your teachers will be informed. Nothing extracurricular, got it?”
I don’t scream. I don’t hit her. I don’t even flinch. I keep telling myself that I knew this was coming, and I try to take a deep breath, but I can’tit feels like the guard’s forcing me against the wall, pushing on my chest, crushing my lungs.
Finally, I manage a single, shaky breath.
“Yeah,” I say. “Okay.”
“All right. That’s the main point; I’ll skip the rest of it. Whatever else you might be, you’re not a moron. Just stay out of troubleand no matter how clever you think you are, we’ll know if you’re causing trouble, all right? We’re giving you a second chance, Grant. There won’t be a third.”
“Great. I really appreciate it.”
“Take it however you like, just as long as we’re clear. We’re clear, aren’t we?”
“Absolutely. Can I go?”
“Almost. I have one more questionyou knew, didn’t you? You knew that we couldn’t stop with you, or with your friend? You knew who we would punish?”
“Yes. I did.”
“Okay,” she says, and suddenly she looks old and very tired. “Okay. That’s what I was afraid of. Your father’s in the next room. Get out of here.”
Dad is sitting quietly, waiting.
He turns at the sound of my voice. I almost wince, expecting to see anger and blame. Instead, his expression is composed, blank.
“Grant . . . are you free to leave?”
“Yeah. We’re finished.”
“Okay,” he sighs. “Let’s go home.”
We leave the quiet emptiness of the security station for the bustle of the street, then the crowd of the subway. Dad doesn’t speakhe barely glances at me, instead keeping his mouth shut and his gaze straight. I walk a few steps behind him, trying to stay focused on the fact that I’m finally out, but I don’t feel free. I just keep picturing my new implant, Big Brother’s eye and hand planted deep inside me.
Finally, as we ride the elevator down to our apartment, I ask, “Are you okay?”
Dad laughs, but still refuses to say anything.
When we reach our floor, he starts nodding to himself, as if he’s made a decision, and, as we step into the common area, he says, “Pack a bag. We’re going to take a little trip.”
By the time Dad’s finished speaking, he’s already shuffling off to his bedroom. I could lock my door and refuse to go, but considering how angry Dad must be right noweven if he refuses to show itI should probably humor him.
So I throw a change of clothes and a cleansing kit into a duffel, sling it over my shoulder, and join Dad in the kitchen, where he’s slicing apples. He wraps the slices in plastic, then slides them into his bag, along with four readymeals and two bottles of water.
Dad’s still not in the mood for talking, so I follow him wordlessly back to the elevator. He pushes the button for the top floorapparently, we’re going to the surface.
Once the elevator stops, we walk up the final flight of stairs, push the hatch open, and scramble up into the heart of the Odyssey, out of the maze of rooms and passages burrowed into the ship’s hull. Miles of trees, fields, and parks surround us now, curving around to match the cylinder of the ship.
I bend my head back to peer at the sun. The repairs are done; it looks as though there was never any damage at all. Before I can feel regret, or despair, or anything else, I close my eyes and force myself to stop thinking.
Dad says, “Let’s take a walk.”
We were both nervousSal kept looking around, as if we were being followed, and I couldn’t stop talking.
“Oh my God,” I said, but I didn’t have any content to follow the exclamation, so I just babbled. “I can’t believe it. I can’t fucking believe it.”
We were in one of the busiest segments of the night strip, but we slid along the sides of the buildings, staying out of the lamplight. It was still a few hours before the peak, so the only people out were kids looking for an early start to their revelry. Kids, plus the freaks and the weirdos, the ones who had vanished from the main flow of ship life.
I turned my head, already against Sal’s shoulder, so I was facing him, and I pressed my mouth onto his sleeve.
“I love you,” I whispered.
I looked up at him, at the side of his face illuminated by green-blue-purple neon, and I wanted him even more badly than I had a second before. His eyes were wide, his lips pressed together.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” he said.
I grabbed his hands and walked ahead of him.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
Sal turned away from the shadows.
“Hell yes. Aren’t you?”
I stuck my tongue out.
“I live for danger, baby.”
He pulled me in, his breathand, I suppose, mine toosmelling faintly of alcohol. His expression was still serious.
“Grant, come on.”
I leaned close, and as I whispered, my breath rustled the black hair behind his ear.
“Yeah, of course. Of course I’m scared. But I’m ready.”
That wasn’t quite true. I should have been scared, any rational person would have been scared, but I just felt a ball of giddy energy bouncing around my chest, practically lifting me off the ground and propelling me forward.
“I’m already there, Sal. I can see it, I can hear it, I can feel it.”
Sal looked at me without speaking.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said. “Seriously. Do you still want to do this?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes. Everything you saidyou’re right. I don’t want to be just another drone. But I’m thinking about afterward. About what they’re going to do to us.”
I pressed my forehead against his.
“I know,” I said. “It’s going to be tough. Really tough. But we can do this; we have to do this.”
“The problem” Sal hesitated. “The problem is that I don’t know how long we’ll have to waitbefore we see each other again. I don’t know how long I can wait.”
For a second, I thought I might be angry. But it was fear twisting inside me, making me too nauseous to shape my feelings into words.
“Yeah,” I said finally. “Me neither.”
We stood against the wall and kissed for a long time.
We wandered for another hour before we were passably close to sober. Every few minutes one of us would look or point upward, and we would stare at the walkway’s silhouette thousands of feet above.
By some unspoken agreement, we walked as slowly as we could, meandering between the buildings and through the alleys, but we eventually made our way to the repair shuttle. The tracks began here, on the flat ground, then flipped ninety degrees, straight up, climbing the ship’s wallthe lid of the cylinder.
Sal hiccuped, then steadied himself before pressing his thumb against the scanner. His school record was a lot better than mine, so we’d decided that he’d be the one to apply for the maintenance job. He’d only joined the crew a month before, but the system didn’t distinguish between veterans and newbies.
The door opened, and I strapped myself into the passenger seat while Sal took the controls. He pushed the lever forward, and we lurched ahead on the rails; I closed my eyes as the car turned and centrifugal gravity pressed my body harder and harder against the seat.
Eyes still closed, I reached out, gripped Sal’s wrist, and squeezed. As we got higher, the pressure decreased, and my breathing eased. I opened my eyes and turned to Sal, whose face was pale and motionless. I managed a small smile.
“No problems?” I asked.
Sal shook his head. The shuttle stopped.
“This is it,” he said.
“Are you ready?”
“We can still turn around,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get fired, maybe we’ll have to pay a fine or something, but that’s all.”
“What do you think, Grant? We can still go back.”
“You know what I think.”
“Okay,” he said, and moved to get up. I put my hand on his chest.
“But that’s what I think; we’re in this together. You want to turn around? Fine, let’s turn around.”
Sal fell back into his chair and rubbed his hands over his eyes. He lay there for a moment, not speaking, barely moving.
“But you have to decide, one way or another,” I said. “There won’t be a second chance. You want to go down? Fine. But you’d better be willing to stay down there.”
I sounded angrier than I’d meant to. I really would have understood if he couldn’t go through with it. This was, fundamentally, a futile gesture. But that wasn’t something we overlooked, that was the point. I was ready to launch myself through that door, hand in my backpack, feet clattering across the walkway. To turn back nowthat would hurt.
“You win,” Sal said.
“I don’t want to win. I want you to make up your mind.”
“Well, I’ve made up my mind, and I’ve decided that you win. Is that good enough for you?”
“Okay,” I said. “Love you.”
And we were out the door. The maintenance walkway was narrow, suspended maybe twenty feet below the Odyssey’s sun. It was night, so the light was dimmed, but the air was still hot and electric. Sweat started to drip from my face and armpits almost immediately.
Looking down, I could see the parklands and the bright, colorful lights of the night stripwhich, from up here, looked about as narrow as a string bean.
I opened my backpack. I’d filled it with random crap from my room and, when that source was exhausted, from the kitchen. I grabbed the metal notebook that I used for schoola perfect start.
Up it went, arcing beautifully. Then came the tinkling of breaking glass, and out went a ten-foot segment of our long, narrow sun. The notebook curved down just as gracefully, crashing into the walkway just a few feet from where I stood.
“Fuck!” I screamed. “Yes!”
As I spoke, a siren began to wail, and a disembodied voice above us boomed, “Cease and desist.”
Sal was already under the next segment. He hurled a drill, the ground around him went dark, and he gave me a thumbs up.
And so we ran and we smashed and we ran and we smashed. Here, at the heart of the world, this wasn’t vandalismit was rebellion; it was history. We each hit seven or eight segmentsa fraction of a percent of the sun’s lengthbefore the bugs arrived. One second I was yelling and waving my arms like an idiot, the next I was staring at two hovering metal footballs, each with a small camera extended toward me.
“Cease and desist,” they said in unison.
Slots opened below their eyes, and long probosces slid out.
“Grant” Sal began.
But we didn’t have time to talk. I grabbed Sal’s arm, turned around, and started to run back to the shuttle. It was pure reflexI knew we didn’t have a chance.
Sure enough, I had barely taken two steps when I felt a prick on my neck. A second later, my eyes rolled back and I fell.
The monkeys are restless today; as Dad and I watch them, they stare right back and shriek.
Compared to the rest of the Odyssey, the zoo seems positively decadent. True, none of the individual pens are that large; most of them would fit into the apartment that Dad and I share. But it still seems like a parade of wonders, walking from tortoises to lions to dogs, on and on.
So I lean over the railing and only barely resist the urge to shriek back.
“When was the last time you were here?” Dad asks.
“I don’t know. It must have been before Mom died.”
“You never came on your own? Or with your friends?”
“To the zoo? Are you kidding me?”
“I like it here, though.”
“You do? Why?”
“Grant, everything I know about you is embarrassing. That’s the point of being a father. So spill it.”
I look at Dad and wonder if he’s thinking about yesterday, and about the future, but he seems cheerful enough.
“Okay, but you’re not allowed to laugh.”
“That’s not fair! How’s thisI’ll keep my completely well-intentioned laughter to an absolute minimum.”
So I answer in a rush. “Have you ever wished that you could go to a real zoo? On Earth, I mean?”
Right on cue, Dad laughs.
“No, not terribly. What’s wrong with this one?”
“Nothing, really. I mean, that’s why I like it here, because it’s almost as good. Butit’s not the same, is it?”
“And how do you know that?”
“Real zoos are outside, aren’t they?”
“I guess they are,” Dad says. “Then I don’t get itif this place is so disappointing, what do you actually like about it?”
I realize that I’ve been running my right hand back and forth along the railing. I let go and jam my hand deep into my pocket.
“Wellas I said, it’s close. Closer than most things on the ship. I guessI don’t know.”
“Well, do you like it here?”
Dad gives me an I know you’re trying to change the subject look, but he goes along with it.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve always thought it was kind of depressing.”
“Now you’re the one who’s got some explaining to do.”
“It’s not that interesting,” Dad says. He points to the monkeys. “They just have no idea, that’s all, and they never will. They have no idea that they’re millions and millions of miles from a home that they’ll never see.”
“You’re right. That is depressing.”
I look back at the monkeys, who have gotten bored with us and returned their attention to each other. I rest my chin on the railing, and I imagine that I’m not on the Odyssey at all, that I’m at the New York Zoo. When Dad and I go home, it won’t be to a subterranean apartment, but to a sprawling maze of streets, to crowds of people pushing forward and backward, left and right. And if I feel like it, I could break away from him, away from anyone and everyone I know. Within a few steps, I’d be lost in the crowd.
Harry was late, as usual. Sal and I sat in a corner of the bar, drinking while we waited. We didn’t talk much, just leaned against each other in comfortable silence, our feet entwined under the table.
“Gentlemen.” I looked up from my beera little too quickly, judging from the uneasy shifting of various fluids in my body. Harry was standing next to the table, bent over in his normal slouch. “Grant, it looks like you’ve gotten way ahead of me.”
“Not my fault you’re late,” I said, taking care to enunciate.
“SorryI ran into an extremely attractive young woman on the way, and, well, you know how”
“Sit down,” Sal interrupted. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
Harry slid into the chair across from us.
“What do you want?” Sal asked.
“Rum and coke, thanks.”
Sal pecked me on the cheek. “I think you should probably sit this one out.”
“Sure.” I waved my hand dismissively. When Sal had wandered over to the bar, I leaned toward Harry. “So? Did you get her ident?”
“The girl. Did you get her ident?”
Harry glanced at the table for a second, then looked up again and met my eyes.
“Yeah, of course.”
“What? II’m not going to share it! I worked hard for this! Besides, her ident isn’t going to do you any good.”
I didn’t say anything more, just kept staring at him. Harry held my gaze for another second, then focused his attention on the drumming of his fingers against the table.
Harry was more Sal’s friend than minesure, he was one of the few people who didn’t act like Sal and I were doing something vaguely immoral, but he still annoyed me. Even so, I finally got tired of watching the annoying, pompous asshole suffer.
“How’s school going?” I asked.
Harry did a surprised little hop in his seat.
“Oh, it’s good,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of work out in the fields now. It’s nice.”
Harry was in the agriculture track, lucky bastard. While I didn’t hold it against him, it didn’t make me treat him with a lot of sympathy, either.
“Do you have exams coming up?” I asked.
“Yeah, the written. Practicals are next year. How about you?”
“Don’t ask Grant about school,” Sal laughed, nudging me to make room for him in the booth. He slid a glass to Harry. “Rum and coke.”
Harry downed his drink in a few quick gulps.
“Why not?” he asked, a mean grin on his face. “What’s wrong with school, Grant?”
“School’s great,” I said. “Fantastic.”
“Sure, if by ‘great’ you mean ‘hovering on the edge of disaster,’ ” Sal said. I kicked him under the table.
“Not doing too well, huh?”
“Nope, not doing well. So what?”
“Is this academic stuff, or attendance, or what?”
“Oh, a little bit of everything. If you skip school on the day of a big test, that falls into a nice, broad range of categories, doesn’t it?”
“Are you going to graduate next year?”
“Probably not. Who wants to be a fucking librarian anyway?”
“Well, uh, isn’t that the track you applied for?”
“Yeah, I was dumb.” I slurped up a final mouthful from my beer. “Let’s talk about something else, huh?”
“Hey, you’re the one who brought school up.”
“My mistake, time to move on. I know! Let’s talk about Harry’s wonderful love life!”
But Harry wasn’t going to let embarrassment silence him this time.
“You know what your problem is, Grant?” He pointed a finger at me. “You’re full of it. Full of yourself. You just want to sit around and bitch and moan; you can’t be bothered to do any real work.”
“Drop it,” I muttered.
Harry half-stood in his seat.
“No. You always treat me like I’m not worthy, like I should be grateful to hang around with someone as brilliant and charming as you. Well, I’m not going to take it sitting down, not anymore!”
“Harry, shut up.” Sal said. “Stop acting like an idiot.”
“Who the hell do you think you are, Grant? Where the hell do you think you are? Maybe this prima donna crap would fly on Earth, but on the Odyssey, you’re worse than useless. You know what you are? You’re a fucking parasite!”
My body moved faster than my brain, and even as I was trying to formulate a snappy comeback, I leapt to my feet and punched him.
“Oh Christ, not again,” Sal muttered behind me.
Harry curled into a ball on the floor.
“Getupyoufuckingcowardsackofshit!” I screamed. Then I kicked the side of his body with as much force as I could muster. The mewling cry that Harry made was muffled by blood and snot.
Two arms wrapped around my chest.
“That’s enough,” Sal whispered into my ear. “Let’s go.”
I went limp in Sal’s grip and let him lead me out of the bar.
Sal called me the next day. Actually, he probably called two or three times before my phone’s beeping dragged me from the depths of sleep.
“Hey.” I stifled a yawn.
“How you are feeling?”
“Eh, not bad,” I said. Then I looked more closely at Sal’s image, and I realized that his eyes were red and wet. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I . . .”
“What is it?”
“Grant, they found Harry’s body this morning. On the 38 line. On the tracks.”
I held tightly to the monitor.
“Harry’s dead. He killed himself.”
“Oh my God. Why?”
Sal made a short, raspy laugh.
“You think I asked him?”
“No, II mean, it’s probably for the usual . . .” My mouth was dry; I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Oh, sure, the usual reasons. Except this isn’t like your mom or anyone else, Grant. He killed himself right after you beat the shit out of him.”
“We left him bleeding on the ground, Grant, and when we were gone, he went to the train station and killed himself.”
I took a deep breath.
“Are you at home?” I asked.
“Just . . . just stay there, okay? I’ll be over in a minute. Don’t go anywhere.”
I stood up and rushed out the door. Dad was in the living room, watching Casablancathe retro, 2D versionbut I didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t know why I was in such a rush, or what I would say to Sal when I got to his place, but I knew that I couldn’t be inside my room anymore. I couldn’t.
I walked for a minute before I realized that I was crying. I clumsily rubbed the tears from my eyes and the snot from my nose. I needed to hit something. No, I needed to run somewhere, to get out, to escape. But there was nowhere to go.
Harry was dead. I wasn’t sorry, even then, for the crappy way that I’d treated him. I just felt something terrible pulling at my body. First Mom, now Harry. Even my enemies were dropping dead. Why Harry? Harry had his shit together. If it could get Harry, it was only a matter of time before the despair got to me, too. Or Sal. Unless I did something to stop it.
By the time I rang Sal’s bell, an idea was forming.
The wall looms ahead. This is the second time in a week that I’ve gotten close to it, and it’s still creepy as hella cold slab of featureless metal. Dad doesn’t acknowledge it; he just keeps walking.
“Dad? Where are we going?”
He looks back.
“I told you. We’re taking a walk.”
“Yeah, but, uh, the ship wall is right ahead of us. Maybe we should head home?”
“Oh, that’s not a problem. We’ll just go around.”
He points straight uppast the sun, to the other side of the ship.
“Shouldn’t we take the subway?”
“Nah, it seems like a nice hike.”
I look up againI guess it’s not that far. No more than a few miles, anyway. Dad is looking at me expectantly, so I nod at him.
“Okay. Why not?”
Dad turns right and begins to walk beside the wall. As I follow him, I think I feel the grassy soil curve upward beneath my feet, but that’s probably just an illusionthe disorienting effect of seeing the ground curve ahead of me.
A few minutes into our climb, Dad reaches out and runs his fingers lightly along the metal. It’s weird, but touching the wall doesn’t seem to hurt him, so I follow suit. I press my hand completely flat against the wall, and it’s not cold, like I expected, but pleasantly warm. It even vibrates faintly.
We walk for an hour and a half before we reach the opposite side of the ship. I begin to worry that Dad wants to go all the way around, making a full circle, but he stops, then looks at me and points upward again. I smile back and nod, to show that I get the ideawhen we look up, we can see the spot where our hike began.
And then we keep walking, past creeks, baseball diamonds, and little kids flying kites. Dad barely seems to notice them; he just keeps moving. Eventually, the lights dim, marking the fall of night. We’re in an orchard when it happens, and I look at Dad expectantly, waiting for him to finally say that it’s time to go home.
Instead, he leans toward one of the trees and inhales deeply.
“This should do,” he says.
“Yeah, I think we could spend the night here pretty comfortably. Are you up for it?”
I crouch and press my hand against the grassit feels soft, welcoming. And hell, it’s just for one night.
We sit under a tree and eat our readymeals. Throughout dinner, I keep looking at the branches above, which bend with the weight of their fruit. I know it would be a very bad idea, but I feel myself yearning to pluck just one apple. There are so manywhat are the chances that a camera would spot me?
Dad touches my arm, and I brace myself for a lecture. Instead, he puts a plastic bag in my handapple slices. I take the bag from him, and we munch in contented silence. When he finishes, Dad sprawls out on the grass, his head cradled in his hands.
I’m not tired yet, so I lean against the trunk; for a long time, I just look ahead through row after row of trees. Now that we’ve stopped moving, I find myself glancing at Dad again, and wondering.
“Dad?” I ask.
It takes him a moment to answer.
“Okay,” he says.
“On a scale of one to ten, how mad are you?”
“Jesus, I don’t know.”
“Um . . . maybe a three.”
“So that’s pretty low, right?”
“I guess so.”
I hear him inhale as he prepares to speak, but he doesn’t say anything more.
“What is it?”
“Well, I was really pissed off earlier. I mean really, really mad, like I didn’t know how I could punish you to show you how mad I was, or even if I wanted to see you again.”
I close my eyes. Am I sure I want to talk about this?
“Really?” I ask.
“Really. But nownow it seems less important. Look, don’t get me wrong, the last twenty-four hours have been hardhell, they’ve been painful. But . . . ”
“. . . I don’t know. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
I don’t want to let him drop the subject that easily, but I’m also relieved, so I say, “Okay.”
I wriggle down into the grass, so only my head is still propped up by the tree. I’m almost asleep when Dad speaks again.
“Did you know? Did you know what they would do to me?”
“I” Very briefly, I consider lying, but I know he would see through it. “Yes. Yes, I knew.”
“I figured you did.”
“It’s not fair, is it? You didn’t do anything; it was me all the way.”
“Sure.” Dad sits up. His voice is slow and quiet. “But you knew. And it didn’t stop you.”
It’s true, I knew exactly what would happen. That Sal and I would be the ones up there, but we wouldn’t be the only ones punished. That’s not how it works anymore, not when half the people who break the law want to die. So some of my privileges have been restricted, and a small tracking device has been inserted into my neckand because of me, exactly the same thing has happened to Dad. How can I can defend that? How can I explain it?
“I justI didn’t think about it.”
“You didn’t think about it. What about next time? Are you going to think about it then?”
“It’s not going to happen again.”
“Oh yeah, I find that very reassuring. What you can’t seem to understand is that what you do affects other people.”
“I know that.”
“Well, what the hell were you thinking?”
“I told you. I wasn’t.”
“You just don’t understand.”
“What, you think I’ve never wanted to do something dumb like that? Of course I have. Everyone has. But they don’t. They take whatever their problems are, and they deal with them.”
“You mean like Mom dealt with them?”
Dad doesn’t respond, just sits there for a second, then lies down again. I immediately want to say that I’m sorry, but it looks like I can’t make an apology without screwing up, so I keep my mouth shut. If there was any doubt before, I have now proven that I am completely heartless.
“Get some sleep,” Dad says.
And I try. But as I lie there, even after I’ve managed to force the guilt out of my consciousness, I remember the warmth and pressure of Sal’s body against mine. I force my eyelids tight against each other, and I try to tell myself a story, but before I realize it, I’m thinking about Sal again, about the way he felt curled up against me, and I realize that it’s going to be a long night.
I inspected myself one last time, making sure I hadn’t gotten any last-minute zits or left a button on my shirt undone. Then I walked out of my room and barreled through the common area. In a few minutes, I’d be on my first datewell, semi-datein at least six months.
“Where are you going?”
The Maltese Falcon was on; Dad was in the middle of another Bogart marathon.
“Out,” I said.
“Hm.” Dad looked less than thrilled, but he didn’t say anything until I was about to open the door. “I heard from school today.”
“Got in another fight, huh?”
“How many is that this month?”
“Everybody gets into fights.”
“Not as many as you.”
“It’s a rough place!”
Dad paused the movie.
“Do you think I’m an idiot? Try another one.”
“He deserved it.”
“What does that mean?”
“He insulted one of my friends.”
“Is this the friend you’re going out to see?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I’m your father.”
“Yeah, and you’re doing a great job.”
Dad stood up.
“Look, Grant, you don’t want to tell me? Fine. Just be careful, okay? I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” I said, and I walked out the door.
I knew some of the people on the street, but I stuffed my hands into my pockets and kept my head down. When someone called my name, I just walked faster.
When I reached the subway station, I came to a dead stop. What was I getting myself into? I didn’t know this kid, and he didn’t know me. I’d only met him today, and I was already getting beat up for him.
On the other hand, he was the most gorgeous boy I’d ever met.
Finally, I forced myself to walk through the entrance. I saw Sal waiting on the platform, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about the ship, or Dad, or school, or anything. I sprinted forward, waving. He waved back.
“Hey,” he said.
I couldn’t think of anything to add, and the loud conversations of the people passing us only made it more awkward.
“Look,” I said quickly. “About today. I want you to know that I’m not like that. Well, once in a while. But not normally. Those guys just make me crazy.”
“Me too. Don’t worry about it.” Sal took my hand. “If you’re having second thoughts, that’s okay. I mean, I just thought it could be fun. But if you don’t want to hang out, just tell me.”
“No, I’m . . . I’m happy to be here.”
“Yeah. It’s good to see you. Outside of school, I mean.”
“All right. So. Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere,” I said. “Anywhere at all.”
“Dad, do you like being a librarian?”
It’s early afternoon, and the ground has turned into gentle hills. Dad’s been giving me the silent treatment again, which I’ve decided is absolutely worse than flat-out anger.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I suppose it’s all right.”
“Doesn’t it seemdon’t you sometimes think that it’s kind of pointless?”
“What?” Dad tries to laugh, but it comes out more like a squeaky gust of air. “Where is this coming from?”
“I just wondered. I’m not going to be in school forever, you know. No matter how badly I do.”
“So you want to know if being a librarian is pointless. What do you think?”
“Well, at school, they’re always talking about preservation, right? About celebrating the memory of Earth. And I guess I can see the point in that. Kind of. But when I think about spending day after day in the archives, week after week, year after yearit’s scary.”
Dad glances at me, and he holds his gaze for a disconcertingly long time. Finally, he says, “Yeah, sometimes when I’m down there, I feelI don’t know. Trapped, I supposed.”
“What do you do when you feel like that?”
Dad rubs his lower jaw, newly covered in stubble.
“I don’t know. I guess I just close my eyes and sit down until it passes. What can I do about it?”
“You could quit.”
“Sure,” he says. “Because I’m highly qualified for so many other positions. Besides, I think being a librarian beats most of the other jobs on the ship.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I wish I knew.”
The ground is flattening again; we’re entering familiar territory. Dad and Mom and I used to play around here when I was a kid.
“Okay,” Dad says suddenly. “Make me understand.”
“Last night, you said that I don’t understand. Maybe so. Maybe I can’t. But seeing as how I’m going to have to suffer right along with you, it’d be nice if I knew why. I think you owe it to me to try to explain it.”
“I’m not sure if I can. It just seemed like something I had to do.”
“But why? Why was it something you had to do?”
“I don’t know!”
“That’s pretty sad.”
“Sorry, but that’s how it is.”
Dad turns around and puts his hands on my shoulders. He doesn’t grab them or anything; he just makes contact.
“Grant. I don’t think you’re crazy, okay? I know you’re not. And I need to know what you’re thinking.”
With the weight of Dad’s hands on my shoulders, I suddenly stop trying to make up stories or to think of excuses.
“I’m thinking . . . I’m thinking that I did something really stupid. Something that seemed totally logical, totally meaningful when I did it, but now it’s like I woke up, and I realized it didn’t mean anything at all. Like I had a dream that I was someone else, someone heroic, but now I’m right back here, and I’m still me.”
“Maybe that’s not as worthless as you think it is,” Dad says. I start to roll my eyes, but he continues, “Anyway. I never got to find out about this boyfriend of yours.”
“Well, I can’t see him for two years.”
“Can’t you send him a message? Contact him some other way?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, for God’s sake, find out!” Dad shakes me; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this excited. “Don’t let those fucking captains run your life, you hear me? Not now. Especially not now.”
I pull away and step back, making small, terrified gestures of appeasement.
“Okay, okay, I’ll look into it.”
“Good,” Dad says. “So tell me about him!”
And I do. As I talk, the lights dim again, but we’re almost home, so we keep walking, and I talk about Sal. About how we met, about all of his asshole friends. I even tell Dad about cruising the night strip with Sal, and going dancing. Dad doesn’t say much, he just listens, and asks a question or two to keep me going. I’m in the middle of a sentence when Dad stops walking.
“What?” I ask, but before he answers I realize where we are. Home. We’ve gone all the way down one side of the ship, and all the way up the other.
“Well, we did it,” Dad says. “Two days walking, and we made it all the way around the world.”
“I guess we did.”
Dad leans down and opens the hatch to our building.
“How do you feel?” he asks. “Glad to be home?”
“I guess so,” I say, walking down the steps. “Well . . . not really.”
“Me neither,” Dad says.
Then he laughs, and the hatch slams shut above us.