by Lacy Boggs
“Well, hey there Quasimodo.”
James smirked. “What’s with the eyebrows?”
Grace subconsciously put a hand to her forehead, where she had thickened and darkened her eyebrows considerably with makeup. She looked like she’d been attacked by an Avon sales lady out for revenge. “Facial recognition software at the school. It’s not very smart.”
James nodded, trying not to laugh. “And the limp?”
“Gravel,” Grace said simply, kicking off one of her shoes, a staccato of small rocks hitting the tile floor.
“Ah. Of course.”
“Throws off the gait recognition algorithm.”
James leaned back in his chair, pushing his square, horn-rimmed glasses up further on his nose, his bright blue eyes dancing with mirth. “Seems like a lot of trouble to skip fifth period.”
Grace tossed her backpack onto the table and dropped into the chair next to him. “More fun this way.”
“Your idea of fun is a little bit different than other people’s. What class are you ditching?”
“Only pre-cal.” Grace pulled out a mirror and a kleenex, which she licked and began to wipe off her eyebrows. “Don’t make that face. You look like my mother.”
“Why are you skipping pre-cal? I thought you liked math.”
“I do. Which is why I can do it with my eyes closed.” Grace pulled her laptop out of her backpack and booted it up. “Mr. Sharfenberger only averages quizzes and tests for the final grades, so I don’t have to even do the homework. Besides which, even if I had trouble answering a question on one of his tests—which I don’t—he uses a variation on the Fibonacci sequence to program his answer key. A-A-B-A-C-A, and so on, so I don’t even have to actually look at the problems.”
James sighed. “The idea of going to school is generally to actually be at school. It won’t matter if you’ve got a 4.0—you’re not even going to graduate with all the classes you’ve ditched this year.”
“Not true,” Grace said, holding up a finger to stop him. “According to district policy, I have to miss 64 days of class to not matriculate to the next grade. I’ve figured out how many times I have to show up in each class, each week, so that the teachers don’t get suspicious.”
“Suspicious?” James repeated. “Do I want to know?”
Grace waved her hand dismissively. Her programs had loaded. “I just keep rolling the numbers back in my permanent file. But I have to show up enough that none of the teachers thinks to question the official tally.”
James laughed. “I still say it would be easier to just go to class.”
“Easier, yes. But way less fun. There’s more to education than schooling.” Grace grinned at him and his exasperated look as she reached up and twisted her long, thick brown hair into a knot at the nape of her neck and secured it with a pencil. “So, what are you working on?”
James launched into a description of the problems he was having with his latest project. Grace made a suggestion. James bit his lip and hmmmed, and was lost. She tried to get into her own work, but she kept looking over at him.
“What?” he said, catching her at it. “What did I do wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Why are you here?” Grace demanded.
James frowned. “What? I—”
“I mean, why are you here, James? Going to junior college that doesn’t even have an engineering program, messing around in the library basement or your garage with robotics that would make NASA jealous.” She glared at him. “What are you doing?”
James fidgeted, lining up his tools on the table. “You know my dad can’t afford to send me to—”
“Bullshit. You could have gotten a free ride anywhere you wanted. You didn’t even apply.” She shook her head at him. “I can’t wait to get away, and it’s like you want to be stuck here. It’s like…” She frowned, the pieces starting to click into place in her head.
“Is that a Rhubarb pi?”
Grace blinked and looked up. A guy about James’ age with a lime green mohawk was leaning against the table next to her. He was gesturing to her laptop. He was also ridiculously cute. “What?” she said, thrown off momentarily. “Oh, yeah. Well, I’m running the Blueberry beta, actually.”
“You’ve got a dev license? Sweet.” He smiled and Grace felt herself blush. “What are you working on?”
“I’m building an AI that will be able to recognize your moods and adjust your surroundings to match. So, if you come home feeling like crap, the computer can tell the house to play upbeat music, put some lavender scent in the air, order a pizza, whatever you’ve pre-programed your ‘bad mood’ settings to look like.”
“You’re teaching the computer to alter reality,” the guy said with a disarming smile.
Grace smiled back. “Something like that.” She kept talking, explaining her theory, but there was something off. Part of her brain was running through everything she knew about flirting. (She calculated that if he smiled again, she should say something funny, and if he laughed she could try touching his arm casually to indicate she was interested.) Another part was in full-on code mode, ready to talk shop, answer any questions he might have, because by the slightly glazed look he was getting he wasn’t entirely following what she was talking about. (Did being cute make up for that?)
But there was another part of her brain that was pinging wrong. Bad. False. And she couldn’t put her finger on why.
“You build the box?” he asked. He leaned down to look at the computer, and she caught a whiff of something unusual; he smelled like cheap cologne and something else. Rotten eggs. Sulphur. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Grace thought she saw his hair move. Writhing and slithering like a snake. Her eyes snapped up to it, but it was just hair. Lime green hair, but hair all the same.
“No,” she said quickly, realizing she was staring. “No, I’m not into the hardware. That’s James. He built the—James?” she looked up and realized that James, his project, and all of his tools were gone. “Where did he go? Crap,” she said. She slammed the laptop closed and started packing up.
“S’that your boyfriend?”
“James? No. He’s my best friend. And my ride.” She smiled at him as she zipped up her backpack. “Maybe I’ll see you around?”
“Oh, definitely,” the guy said. He smiled, and Grace could have sworn she saw fangs.
Feeling like she was cracking up, she threw her bag over her shoulder and bolted.
Grace burst out into the gravel parking lot of the library, but sure enough, James’ beat up yellow truck was gone. She swore under her breath, hitched her backpack higher onto her shoulders, and started walking.
She hadn’t gone more than a block before she spotted him. Or didn’t spot him, to be more specific; she didn’t want to turn around and look. But she could tell he was there.
Snake boy was following her.
She glanced around at the houses lining the street. Any one of them would contain one of the nice, blisteringly normal families of Blue Pines. She could ring any doorbell—or just open the door, likely as not—and be safe. So she kept walking.
But it was like she could feel his presence. A block behind her. Half a block now. She picked up her pace. What did he want? Not to carry her books for her, she thought ruefully. Was he just interested? That seemed unlikely, now that she thought about it. She wasn’t that pretty. Not ugly, to be sure, but not the sort of girl that guys just tried to hit on. Maybe because her face was always buried in her laptop. Or because her constant companion was a geeky, yet nonetheless six-foot-two 18-year-old guy.
She pulled out her phone and dialed. James answered on the second ring.
“Thanks a lot for ditching me, jerk face.”
“You didn’t seem to need a wing man. You were doing fine on your own.”
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know, I think I’ve come down with a stalker.”
“Oh, so that clean-cut young lad at the library didn’t turn out to be prince charming? Shocker.”
“Actually,” she said, resisting the temptation to look behind her as she waited for a car so she could cross the street, “he was a perfect gentleman. Until he started following me.”
“What?” James’ voice had dropped an octave. Good, she thought. He should feel worried about me. Serves him right. “Where are you?”
“I’m walking home, since my ride left without me. It’s fine. He didn’t do anything. He was just giving me a weird vibe, and…”
“I thought his hair moved.” There was a pause on the other end of the line.
“You mean like, blowing in the wind, supermodel hair moved?”
“No. There was enough shellac on his head I don’t think a hurricane would have been able to make it blow in the wind. I mean, out of the corner of my eye, it looked like his hair was moving. Like snakes. Full-on Medusa head. Did you put acid in my coffee or something?”
“Grace, was there anything else weird about him?”
“You saw him. I guess it depends how weird you think a lime green mohawk is. Although for Blue Pines…” She scoured her memory. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before. Do you think he’s a tourist?”
“I don’t mean his hair,” James said impatiently. “Was there anything else… you know. Weird about him?”
Grace paused. “Well.”
“His teeth. He had them filed to look like fangs. Superfreak, right? I mean, that might fly in Denver—”
“I’m coming to get you.”
“Don’t be a spaz,” Grace said. As she rounded the corner onto her street, she glanced behind her as inconspicuously as possible. There was no one. The street was empty, full of shadows in the twilight. But she could have sworn… “I’m half a block from my house by now. I’ll be home before you find your keys.”
“Don’t hang up,” James insisted. “Let me know when you get inside.”
Grace smiled despite herself, affection welling up inside her. They made such an unlikely pair. James was two years older than her, already graduated. But they’d been inseparable since they’d met on the playground when she was six and he was eight. He’d been her best friend for 10 years now. The only one who could keep up with her most of the time.
“James,” she said as she pulled out her key and unlocked her front door. “Tell me something.”
“Tell me you didn’t stay here because of me.” She shut the door behind her and, feeling only a little foolish, locked the deadbolt. She walked over to the front windows and pushed the curtains aside just enough to peek outside.
“Don’t be stupid,” James said. He sounded far away.
Across the street, the guy with the green mohawk walked past her house, and glanced right at her as he passed.