|Primary Characters:||Mac, Casey|
|Description:||Mac is picked up by two FBI agents. From then on her life turns into a nighmare. At one point, her life is in danger, after an accident, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can help her. Except maybe one person, someone who needs a little help himself.|
Mac glanced reluctantly at the time. It was getting late. She’d have go now, or there would be trouble at home. If she missed dinner, her ‘mother’ would probably call the sheriff. Definitely not worth the hassle. Mac shut down the computer and pushed the chair against the desk. She was the last to leave the computer lab that afternoon, as usual. When she got back to her room, she’d get started on the new home page. This one would, hopefully, make her a little more money than usual.
She picked up her own laptop and put in her backpack. At the last minute, she recalled that she’d promised to let Josh use it. She hated to lend her computer to other people, but all the important stuff was password protected anyway and Josh was the last person in the world who could hack into a computer.
On her way through the corridor she kept an eye out for Josh. He’d been so insistent, she didn’t think he’d bail on her. Just as she’d thought. There he was, waiting by her locker. His eyes lit up when he caught sight of her, but Mac knew better than to expect that look was for her. It was just the computer he was eager to get his hands on. He’d assured her that if only his aunt got to see the laptop, she’d pay the extra couple of hundred, which was the difference between this one and the run-of-the-mill PC’s most people used.
“Do you have it?”
“Yes, it’s here.”
She wasn’t too thrilled to hand it over, but she knew he’d be too scared to lose it or mess it up in some way. The kid was a wimp. He took the laptop from her and let his eyes roam across the shiny silvery surface. She almost got the impression he wanted to lick it. Ugh. He’d better not do that.
“I want it back on Monday, is that clear?”
“Whatever you say. My aunt will be impressed too and then she can’t refuse to pay up.”
“Let’s hope so. These are the best. Ok. And not a scratch on it.”
He reverently placed it inside his own backpack and disappeared in the direction of the front entrance. Mac decided to leave her backpack in her locker. There wasn’t anything much still in it anyway. She made sure she had her cell phone and her car keys, then hurried towards the door.
Her car was one of the few still left in the parking lot. She frowned in concern when she noticed the men hanging around on the sidewalk outside the schoolyard. What were they looking for? Since she’d become involved in Veronica Mars’ investigations, she’d become wary of anything out of the ordinary. She put the key in the lock and was about to open the door to the driver’s seat, when the two men who had been standing outside the schoolyard, began walking in her direction.
One of them reached inside his pocket and Mac suddenly felt scared. He pulled out a wallet with an ID attached. FBI? What was going on? Now the other one too, pulled out his ID and held it in front of her.
“Please step away from the vehicle, miss. I’ll take those.”
The man who had first spoken took her car keys. To her alarm, they began to search her, probably for hidden weapons. The other guy found her cell phone and pocketed it.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get them back – later.”
He went on to read her her rights. Mac was only listening with half an ear. What did they think she’d done? This had to be a setup.
“Have you understood your rights?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
With a feeling of hopelessness, Mac followed them to their car. It felt unreal – being taken away by two federal agents. They didn’t cuff her but one of them sat in the back with her all the way to their destination. When she realized they were taking her out of Neptune, Mac began to protest.
“I’m under eighteen. Don’t you need to have my parents present when you question me?”
The one sitting next to her shot her a condescending glance.
“Don’t worry about it, miss. We’ll do things by the book.”
An hour later she was sitting in a small interview room, experiencing a mounting panic. They’d left her there on her own, and she could imagine them staring at her through a one-way screen. By now, she was both hungry and thirsty, but worst of all, she was terrified. She had no idea what they thought they had on her, but she’d read horror stories online, about people literally vanishing. That was a bit too X files, but how did she really know things like that didn’t happen?
Finally, by the time she felt like screaming, the door opened and one of the two agents who had picked her up came inside. He had a cup of coffee in his hand and Mac suddenly had the impression he’d had dinner or at least something, while he deliberately let her wait, just to intimidate her. If so, it was working. Whatever they wanted to know, she’d tell them, right away, if only they’d let her go afterwards.
“We tried to get hold of your parents, but we got no reply. Were they at home when you went to school this morning?”
“My mom was and my little brother. Dad had left for work.”
“Were they going somewhere?”
“Not that I know of. By the way, aren’t I supposed to get one phone call?”
A look of dismay spread across the agent’s face.
He handed her his own cell phone and stared impatiently at her.
She took it gingerly. It was heavy. One of those smartphones. Mac would have wanted one of those herself, if it hadn’t been so bulky. She hurriedly punched in her home number and waited. After it stopped ringing, she still hadn’t had a reply. Where could her parents be? On their way here? Before the man should change his mind, she punched in Veronica Mars’ number. No reply there either. As a final resort, she punched in Wallace Fennel’s number. Her – boyfriend’s. He didn’t reply either.
“Give me that. You will have legal representation in due course.”
“Can you question me without my legal guardian present?”
“If you insist, we could wait until we can get someone from social services here. My guess is that they’ll get here on Monday, at the earliest. It’s your choice. You could talk to me now – or we could lock you up until Monday morning.”
Mac knew he didn’t have the right to pressure her like this, but she also knew that he could lock her up anyway and worry about the consequences later. She might as well find out what he had on her.
“Ok. Go ahead. I haven’t done anything, but ask away.”
“That’s interesting. You don’t even know what I’m going to ask, but you still insist you haven’t done anything. Ok. Let me show you something.”
He reached for a thick folder which he’d put on the table between them when he walked in. Inside were piles of paper. Now that he pulled some of them out, Mac noticed that they were computer printouts.
“There. Do you have any comments?”
She scanned the pages. They were transcripts of computer traffic. As far as she could tell, the IP address matched hers, but – the real surprise was that according to this, someone using her computer, or at least one of them, had accessed sites she’d never visited. She continued on through the pages. None of the URL:s were familiar – neither their real addresses or the domain names.
“I don’t get it. This has to be a forgery. I’ve never visited those sites.”
“Really? Why would anyone go to that trouble?”
“I have no idea.”
“Ok. Say for argument’s sake you didn’t. Who else has access to your computers?”
“No one. I lock my room so no one can get in.”
“Not even your parents?”
“Not even them. I changed the lock, so I’d be the only one with access to them.”
“Why is that?”
“They’re mine. Besides, I’m the only one who knows how to use them. My parents wouldn’t be able to do more than check their email.”
“I see. Then do you mind telling me why you find it necessary to lock them out? Just out of curiosity.”
“It’s not my parents I want to lock out. It’s my younger brother. He’s a real pain. Always trying to take my stuff and mess it up.”
“Right. Moving on – I have more questions to ask you. At precisely two fortyfive in the morning of the tenth this month someone caused a very important server to crash.”
“What kind of server?”
“One at Kane Software.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“About the server crashing? No. I don’t do that sort of thing. Who says I do?”
“We’ve received a tip from a credible source, so naturally we were required to act on it.”
“You’ll get a chance to answer to these charges at a later date.”
“I didn’t do any of that.”
“So you say. Come on. You’re seventeen. At your age, it might not be easy to tell what’s right or wrong. Especially when it comes to the internet. You see it all as an exciting game, not as the real world. If you confess, you might get off easy. With a good attorney -”
“Where is that attorney?”
“You demand to have an attorney present during our – interviews?”
“Maybe I’d better. You don’t seem to believe me. I didn’t do it. I swear.”
“Ok. Suit yourself. We’ll terminate the interview now and wait for your attorney to get here. I’m afraid we’ll have to put you in a cell.”
Mac forced herself to keep facing the agent squarely, hoping he couldn’t tell just how close she was to bursting into tears. She’d never imagined she’d end up in this situation. Unlike many of the other high school kids in Neptune, she’d never done anything remotely illegal, except that one time she helped Veronica Mars trace some photos which had been sent to her. Fortunately, that wasn’t what she was being accused of.
“Can I get that phone call now?”
“I let you use my phone earlier. That’s really all I’m required to – but ok. You can try one last time, but if you can’t reach anyone you’ll just have to ask your attorney to contact your family.”
Mac nodded gloomily and took the guy’s phone. This time, she didn’t feel very hopeful. She tried her home number again, with the same results, then Veronica and finally Wallace. This time someone really did pick up.
“Hello? Who is this? Darrell, is that you?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“It’s Mac. Wallace’s friend.”
“Veronica is Wallace’s friend.”
“I know. Is Wallace there?”
“No. I have to go now. My show starts.”
“Wait. Please tell Wallace I called.”
There was no reply and the click told her the little boy had hung up on her. Now she’d wasted her only phone call and still no one knew where she was.
The agent held out his hand for his phone and Mac gave it back to him. She had to bite down really hard to keep herself from sobbing out loud. He processed her, then took her to a cell. With a feeling of unreality, Mac handed over her shoelaces. Since she didn’t wear a belt, nothing else was demanded of her. They didn’t take her fingerprints or photographed her, but she didn’t ask why not. Maybe it was because she hadn’t been formally charged yet.
The cell almost made her succumb to a panic attack. It was so small and stuffy. There was no proper window, only a small one very high up. Other than that, there was just a narrow berth and a bucket. A bucket? Mac felt sick. She was hoping she wouldn’t have to use it. Shaking all over, she sat down on the berth and pulled her feet up. She hugged herself, hoping that someone would come for her soon, even that agent.
Nothing happened for what felt like hours. Finally, a uniformed guard opened the door and handed her a tray with an unappetizing meal. She tried to ask him what was going on, but he ignored her. Half an hour later he returned to take the tray away. It was almost untouched. A little later, the lights were turned out.
Now she really gave in to her emotions. She cried for close to an hour, but even that didn’t make her feel any better. Eventually, she dozed off, but she slept fitfully and woke up several times during the night. She had a feeling someone kept looking in on her once in a while. Though she couldn’t remember them in the morning, she had a feeling her sleep had been disturbed by bad dreams.
At regular intervals the guard or another one more or less like him brought her trays with meals, then removed them again. Twice they took the bucket away and brought back a new one, though she’d only used it once. According to her calculations, she was kept there, without any kind of explanation for almost three days.
Eventually, another agent, not the one who had interviewed her on Friday night, but the other one, came to take her back to the interview room. He informed her that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with her parents but that both an attorney and a person from social services were coming. In the meantime, he left her alone in the room.
Mac couldn’t believe they hadn’t been able to find her parents. They had to be lying. It must have been part of their technique to get her to confess. Hoping that being alone would break her. She wasn’t going to let them win.
She thought it had been over a week, but she wasn’t quite sure. No one had told her anything. The attorney and the lady from social services didn’t seem to be on her side at all. All they would tell her was that it was in her best interests that she confessed. Stubbornly, she refused, no matter how terrified she was. To her astonishment, one morning, the guard told her to go outside. There was no sign of either of the agents, her attorney or the lady from social services. Instead, she was given back her stuff, all of it, and – more surprisingly – a female agent told her to get in her car.
No further explanation was offered, but after just over an hour, she found herself back in Neptune, close to the center of the town.
“Wait. What’s going on?”
“The charges have been dropped. Didn’t anyone explain to you?”
The young woman actually looked both confused and quite sympathetic. Mac decided to take a chance and ask her a bit more.
“No. No one told me anything. Where are my parents?”
“I don’t know. I was told to drop you off here. This is where you live, right?”
It wasn’t too far from school. She could walk there. No need to make a fuss about it.
“Yes. It’s my hometown.”
“Right. That’s it, I think. I don’t think you need to worry about this anymore. It was just some misunderstanding. I think someone explained to the people at your school. You won’t get into any trouble for missing classes. I have to go now. I have work to do.”
“No problem. Just stay out of trouble from now on, ok?”
Mac just nodded. How was she supposed to stay out of trouble when she never knew if someone was going to spring false charges on her? Still, it was no use answering back. This woman hadn’t been responsible for what had happened to her. Now she’d just go to school and get in her car and drive home. They’d let her shower a couple of times, but she hadn’t had any change of clothes, so she felt sticky and uncomfortable.
It took her ages to walk to school. A lot longer than she’d thought. By the time she got there, most of the other students were going home. She noticed that everyone was talking excitedly about something. Since no one looked at her especially, she could only conclude that what they were so worked up about wasn’t anything to do with her.
By her locker, she ran into Josh. He stared at her, like he’d never seen her before. If the little creep was going to pretend he’d never borrowed her laptop, she’d twist his arm so hard –
“Where have you been?”
“Long story. Do you have my computer?”
“Sure. I’ll go get it. Oh – did you hear about Veronica Mars and -”
“No, what happened to her?”
“She found out who killed Lilly Kane.”
“Where have you been? Out of the country?”
“Sort of. Well?”
“It was Aaron Echolls.”
“Ha, ha. What’s really going on?”
“No, I mean it. It was him. Everyone’s talking about it. He nearly killed Veronica and her dad and – I don’t know. Anyway, he’s locked up now.”
“Ok. Thanks for the info. Now go get my computer.”
In the meantime, she opened her locker and pulled out her backpack. Everything was in disorder. So the feds had been here to search her stuff. At least everything seemed to be there. Nothing was torn or broken. She unzipped the backpack and put her cell phone in it and waited for Josh. He handed over the laptop and after a final inquisitive stare, he scurried off towards the exit. As if struck by an afterthought, he turned and faced her again.
“My aunt agreed. I’m getting one of my own.”
Her lack of enthusiasm was lost on him. He virtually skipped outside. Mac made a face. Was he really only three years younger than she was? He looked more twelve than fourteen. Not that it was her problem.
She went outside again. Standing by her car, she worriedly glanced around. It was in this exact spot she’d been standing when the agents had come to take her away. This time, there wasn’t anyone staring at her. Or wait a minute – a black man was standing across the street looking almost straight at her. He was smiling smugly as if somehow, he was enjoying the view. Mac shuddered and got into her car. By the time she was turning onto the street, the man was gone.
She drove all the way home, and parked her car in the street. Usually, her dad’s car would be blocking the driveway and – Suddenly, she had a dizzying sense of dislocation. Was she in the wrong place? Had she lost her mind completely and driven to another house or another street?
There was a For Sale sign in the yard in front of her house and the windows looked empty somehow – blinded. There was no car in the driveway and the garage door was open. Filled with dread, she ran up to the window leading into the kitchen. Normally, her mom would be there, serving her younger brother his afternoon snack. Now, it was empty. No lights were on and there was no furniture. Almost sobbing, she ran to the other windows. It was all the same. Empty. Dark.
She had to be having another one of those bad dreams. If she wasn’t delirious. What if she’d been in an accident and was only dreaming the whole thing? She wished that any time now, she’d wake up and realize that the events of the past week or so had all been just a bad dream. Except she knew it was all true. For some horrible reason, her life had fallen apart.
She had no idea how long she stayed in the yard in front of her home – or what used to be her home. Now she could hardly remember how fondly she’d wished herself away from there. Right now, all she wanted was for everything to get back to normal.
She had no idea what to do next. Calling to the house wouldn’t do any good. Her mom didn’t even have a cell phone, but her dad – he had one of those smartphones, like that agent. With a shudder, she repressed that memory. She pulled out her own cell phone, only to find that it was dead. It needed recharging after her time in that cell.
She got into the car again and sat there, staring through the windscreen. Where would she go now? Wallace. It didn’t occur to her to wonder why Wallace hadn’t missed her in all the time she’d been gone. She just eagerly seized on the idea and turned the key in the ignition and drove to his house.
The doorbell kept ringing for so long, she had a horrible feeling Wallace and his family would be gone too. Finally, when she’d given up hope that anyone would answer the door, she began to walk around the house and looked through all the windows. Everything was still there. Whatever had taken Wallace and his family away from their house, it couldn’t be the same reason her own family was gone.
Again, she was at a loss what to do. She didn’t want to go to Veronica Mars. Clinging to the last traces of pride, she stubbornly refused to run to her PI friend for help. She knew far too well that she cared more about Veronica than Veronica cared about her. It occurred to her that it was probably the same with Wallace. Wallace had been feeling vulnerable at the time they’d ended up together. He’d been flattered and excited to finally have a girlfriend. Even though they hadn’t gone all the way, it must have been a great thrill for him to finally get to make out – even a little – with a girl.
So that was it. She was on her own. Really on her own. There was nowhere for her to go. She wanted to cry but she couldn’t. It was just too much for her to deal with. In the end, she couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, but back to school. At least she still had that. That and the scholarship to go to college. As long as she got her high school diploma and found a way of getting to UCLA, she’d survive. Whoever had done this to her, wouldn’t have the satisfaction of breaking her.
Mac woke up to the realisation that she was sitting rather uncomfortably. She opened her eyes and became aware of sitting in her car, in the driver’s seat. It was a while until she recalled all the things that had happened. At least that explained why her eyes felt like someone had thrown sand into them. It sure wasn’t the sandman.
She was hungry and her hair felt greasy and she knew she smelled of sweat too. If she went inside she could probably get cleaned up in the girls’ washroom. She didn’t have any change of clothes, unless there was something in her locker, but even if there was, they wouldn’t be clean. Since she couldn’t do anything about that, she just went inside to get cleaned up. There were people around, but no one saw her. Most of them must have been in class. Mac frowned. She must have forgotten to set her cell phone to wake her in time.
Once she was done, she sneaked into the computer lab and sat down in her usual place. She had to think. There were still her home pages, and she had her bank account. That meant she should be able to buy some food and a change of clothes. Maybe she could hang on until graduation. After that, she could go look for a real job and figure out a way of keeping herself until she’d be expected at college. All she had to do was watch out so that social services didn’t find her. The last thing she wanted was another family who didn’t really care about her.
The first couple of days felt strange, but as time went by, Mac got used to living out of her car. She learned to be sneaky about it and – to forge her mother’s signature on her report cards. That was easy. It was harder to keep looking neat and tidy so no one would guess.
She’d tried calling her dad’s cell phone, but only got a message that the number wasn’t in use. Thinking it was a mistake, she kept trying, but never got a reply, only that recorded message. She knew it was his number. There could be no mistake about that. For some reason, he’d canceled his subscription. In the end, she’d been forced to give up.
She set up some more home pages where she could make a little more money and put the word out that she fixed computers for a modest fee. Most of the rich kids could afford to send their computers to the repair shop, but some of the others were only too grateful to accept her services.
Even some of the rich kids were willing to pay for her help with deleting the cache so that their parents wouldn’t find out what sites they’d been visiting. Mac thought they were worrying needlessly, unless their parents worked for Kane Software or some other IT business. Most parents didn’t know which end was which on a computer. Of course, she didn’t have to tell her clients that.
Just as she’d expected, Wallace had forgotten all about her. By the time they finally ran into each other, she could tell that he was just going to pretend they’d never been involved in the first place. It didn’t make much difference to her. All things considered, that was just a minor setback.
It was a long time until she saw Veronica again too, and since it didn’t seem Veronica needed any help with anything computer-related, they didn’t have any reason to talk again. Mac just asked Veronica if she was ok and Veronica assured her she was. Veronica didn’t ask Mac how she was, and it occurred to Mac that she never really did. Fair enough. They both had enough on their plates, without having to worry about others.
One day, a guy named Casey Gant showed up, carrying a laptop just like hers. He was one of the rich kids so Mac didn’t understand what he wanted with her.
“You’re Mac, right?”
“Someone told me you’re good at fixing computers.”
“It depends on what’s wrong with them. Would you like me to take a look?”
She didn’t expect him to make an offer, but she might as well help him out so he’d know what to tell the repair guy.
“It just won’t start.”
“Ok. Anything else you can tell me? Is the battery fully charged?”
“How can I tell?”
“Did you just get it?”
Casey looked embarrassed.
“Yeah. Is it that obvious?”
“Give it to me and I’ll check.”
Mac flipped the laptop over and pressed the little button to see if the four little lights lit up. No. Nothing.
“Didn’t you charge it? With the cable that was included in the package.”
“The white one. With a heavy square sort of box attached. You know what I mean?”
“Yes. And yes, I plugged it in.”
“Right. Was there an orange light there at the end?”
“No. No light.”
“Hm. Could just be a faulty cable. Let me check.”
She used her own cable and plugged it into a wall socket. Everything seemed to work fine now.
“You need to replace the cable. Take it all back to the store and have them give you one that works.”
He smiled, looking a lot nicer than she’d expected him to. Usually, he hung out with a group of his friends and they all had the mindless grins of the typical rich Neptune guy. They stared stupidly through fashionable sunglasses at all the girls in short skirts and talked about drugs and cars and trips to Mexico. On his own, Casey seemed – different. Not so smooth or full of himself.
He seemed to hesitate, then smiled again and left.
Casey was wondering if he ought to pay Mac for her trouble, but decided that she might be offended. This couldn’t be referred to as repair work. He was just hoping he’d be able to tell the guy at the store the right thing, so he wouldn’t end up with a computer that still didn’t work. In that case, he could always ask that girl Mac again.
She was funny. Not at all like the usual Neptune girls, not even the ones – with less money than he had. He liked that. The fact that she was different. It was a long time since he’d tired of hanging out with his old friends and the same went for the girls. Maybe it was a good thing he’d bought that computer. It would be something new to do.
Even though Mac was able to stay below the teachers’ radar, she couldn’t completely fool the other girls. They immediately noticed her scruffy appearance and it wasn’t long before Mac heard the first spiteful comments in the girls’ washroom. The others seemed to believe she was living in some pitiful garret in the poorest part of town. At least no one suspected the truth.
As far back as she could remember, three girls especially, had always been on her case. Joanna Ashford, Caitlin Vogel and Rhonda Williams. Of the three, Joanna was by far the worst. She was a computer illiterate but that didn’t stop her from talking expansively about geeks and nerds and dorks as if she knew exactly what they were about. Her grades weren’t any good in most of the other subjects either, but since she was the only child of an extremely wealthy man, that didn’t bother her. She had a huge wardrobe, with clothes her father let her buy from New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo.
One day, Joanna had been totally humiliated in a class, when she’d been asked a question about the media industry. The question was only vaguely computer related, but most of the boys in the class had laughed at her reply. It was just bad luck that Mac happened to be walking just ahead of Joanna and her friends as she was about to walk down the stairs. She didn’t even know it, until she heard Caitlin say something about how no one in their right mind cared how or even if a photo was edited before publication.
Suddenly, Mac felt someone’s foot snake in front of hers and as she had just taken a step down, she lost her footing and toppled over. She kept rolling down the stairs, being kicked and bumped by the other kids as she descended, all tangled up in their legs. At the foot of the stairs she remained lying for so long, the others began to complain loudly and stepped across her. She felt dizzy and for a moment, she’d blacked out. Eventually, she was able to pick herself up, but she only made it as far as the corner next to someone’s locker. She had to fight not to throw up.
When she was feeling a little less odd, she returned to the computer lab to get to work on her home pages. At least she had plenty of time for that now. Her homework didn’t take up too much of her time and now there was no one to call her to dinner. She was lucky if she could afford a pizza or a sandwich in the evening.
As she sat bent over the keyboard, squinting to make out the letters on the screen, someone walked in and sat down in the chair next to her.
She slowly turned and faced the newcomer. It was Casey.
“Are you ok?”
For a while now, Casey had had a feeling there was something odd about Mac. He hadn’t been paying attention before, but surely she hadn’t been that – unkempt – in the past? She also kept losing weight, though for all he knew, that was intentional. All the girls were constantly worrying about their weight. After he’d begun to pay attention, he noticed that Mac was always in school. She seemed to be there before anyone else in the mornings and she was always there until late in the evening. In fact, as far as he knew, no one ever saw her leave. Today, she looked – sick.
“Yes, of course. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Listen – my laptop keeps freezing on me.”
“That’s odd. OS X shouldn’t freeze a lot. Anything else?”
Haltingly, Casey described the symptoms of the problems he was experiencing. Mac frowned and tried to keep track of what he was saying. It was odd, but she kept fading in and out. She was hoping he wouldn’t notice. From what she could tell, there might be a problem with the internal battery but unless she took a closer look, she wouldn’t know if maybe there was a system conflict.
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
“Yes. Look, I’ll need to take a closer look to find out what’s wrong. I might be able to help you, but I can’t promise anything. If there’s something really wrong, I think you should take it back and ask for a replacement.”
“Can I leave it with you? I’ll pay.”
“Yes. Ok. I’ll take a look as soon as I can.”
“Do you have any really important files on it? Like music you’ve bought or movies or something?”
“No. Not really. I’m still just figuring out how to use it.”
“Ok. I won’t look in your files, but I’ll have to take a look at your desktop so if you have some wallpaper you don’t want me to see -”
“No. It’s just the one it came with.”
“Ok. I’ll probably be able to tell you what the problem is tomorrow.”
Mac squinted at him. She had a headache and Casey seemed to be blurring around the edges. All she wanted was to get back to her car and tip the seat back so she could get some rest.
Casey studied her uneasily. She looked really sick. He hadn’t heard anything about a bug going around, but maybe there was something anyway.
On his way out, he happened to overhear some girls giggling and talking about something. He never paid attention to that kind of thing, but this time he thought he heard a familiar name so he listened up.
“And that awful girl Mac just went flying down the stairs. You know, I think she might be on drugs or something.”
“I know. Didn’t she just stay there? You know, lying flat on her back for like ten minutes?”
“Yeah. And have you noticed her clothes? I’m serious. She’s got like two outfits. Really. Two. And it’s not like even one of them is really decent. I don’t think she has anything else to wear. How cheap can you get?”
The rest of the girls’ talk was lost as a group of younger boys chattering and yelling passed them. Casey’s concern increased. He didn’t think Mac was doing drugs, but what if she’d hit her head, falling down the stairs? That might explain her appearance. He hesitated. If she was hurt, he should probably go back and check on her. On the other hand, he’d noticed how she resented having anyone pry into her personal life.
In the end, he cautiously returned to the computer lab, but she was gone and his computer with her, just like her own, which had been lying on the empty chair on her other side. He didn’t know what else to do, so he got into his car and drove home.
Mac had parked at the other end of the school parking lot and Casey didn’t see her car. She had just managed to sit down and close the door behind her. In a minute, she’d have to go out and get something to eat, but for now, she just wanted to rest. If she didn’t move her head at all, it didn’t hurt so much.
Deep down, she was worried that maybe she’d been seriously injured when she fell down the stairs. She’d blacked out for a while, she was almost sure of that. Didn’t that mean it was serious? But she couldn’t go to a doctor. If she did, someone was bound to find out. Besides, she didn’t have any insurance. Her parents had taken care of all that. If she went to see a doctor, she’d have to pay in cash and she didn’t have that kind of money.
It felt good to just sit for a while. She closed her eyes and leaned back into her seat.
In the morning, Casey went straight to the computer lab, looking right and left for Mac. She was always there, but not today, apparently. His concerns deepened. When that odd looking kid who always hung about there too walked in, Casey asked him.
“Have you seen Mac today?”
“No. I just got here.”
“Ok. If you see her, would you tell her I asked for her?”
“Sure. What’s it about?”
Casey didn’t want to say anything about his concerns to the kid, so he just told him the first thing that came into his mind.
“There’s something wrong with my computer and she’s taking a look at it.”
“Oh. Yeah. I’ll tell her.”
All day, he kept looking for her. He even took the risk of finding out her schedule, but though he waited outside each classroom, he didn’t see her anywhere. Now he was getting really concerned. After his last class, he returned to the computer lab and found the geeky kid there, but Mac wasn’t around.
“Have you seen her?”
“No. It’s odd. She’s always here, you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Did you look for her car?”
“No. What kind of car does she have?”
The kid described it for him. He even helpfully pointed out where she usually parked it. Casey thanked him and left.
Outside, the parking lot was emptying out. Apart from his own and three more cars at the end where he was standing, there was just one more car. It matched the description that kid had provided. Casey made sure no one was looking, before he hurried across the parking lot towards it. No point in drawing attention to himself.
To his alarm, Mac was sitting slumped down in the driver’s seat, looking like she was deeply asleep. He tried to open the door and to his relief, it was unlocked.
“Mac. Hey. Are you ok?”
No reply. Filled with misgivings, he gingerly put his fingers against her neck. She was so cold. The sun had been basking down on the roof of the car, but she was cold and clammy to the touch. It took him at least thirty seconds to detect a pulse. The whole thing reminded him uncomfortably of the time when his grandmother died. Only Mac was so young. She couldn’t just die. Whatever it was, she’d need to get to the hospital right away. If she’d been sitting like this since yesterday afternoon, it could be too late already.
He managed to shift her to the other seat, then sat down in her place. There was a smell of vomit in the enclosed space. Now that he was paying attention, he noticed that she’d thrown up on her clothes. He had a feeling it could be something really serious. The key was in the ignition so he turned it. Nothing. The engine just spluttered briefly then died. He glanced at the gas meter. It was in the red. Now what?
After some reflection, he got out of the car and hurried back to his own. He drove it to the spot next to Mac’s car and stopped. Frowning in concentration, he considered his options. If she was suffering from concussion, she shouldn’t be moved. Maybe he should just call an ambulance. The only thing keeping him from doing that was something about her reaction when he’d asked her about something personal. He had a hunch she was trying to avoid attracting attention for some reason. Maybe she had left home and didn’t want to be sent back to her parents, for some reason. That was something he could sympathize with.
He decided he’d have to take the chance of moving her. Even more gently now, he carried her round to his own car and put her down in the seat. He took her keys and locked her car. As he was sitting down, he realized he had an audience. Two of his friends – Roger Yankovich and Garret Torrence – were staring at him, open-mouthed.
“Hey, man. I didn’t know that was your type. What is it – GHB? Besides, if you’re really that hard up, I’m sure a girl like that would be so flattered she’d be all over you if you just smiled at her. What a waste of some good stuff.”
Casey’s face lost all trace of color, as it always did, when he was furious. That guy Roger was a real moron.
“Shut the fuck up. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. She’s sick, ok? Just like your mind. Except I’m taking her to the hospital. I don’t think there’s anything to do about you.”
“Why are you getting so worked up? We’re your friends. If that was what you wanted, we wouldn’t have said anything. I mean, come on. Who’d believe her anyway?”
Casey took two steps in Roger’s direction. The guy, who was at least half a head shorter than Casey, took a step backwards. Garret put a hand on Roger’s shoulder.
“Back off. You got it wrong. I really don’t see why Casey got it into his head to play the good samaritan, but hey – that’s his problem, right? Let’s go.”
Casey watched the two guys turning and walking away, before he got into the car again. Now he’d wasted enough time. He had a feeling Mac wasn’t going to appreciate his paying her hospital bill but at least she was in no condition to complain. They’d work something out later. Now all that mattered was getting her to the hospital.
It turned out he’d been right. She was suffering from concussion, but she was going to be ok. Casey sat beside her bed for a while, but she didn’t regain consciousness and eventually, he decided he might as well go home. He didn’t want the humiliation of having his parents send someone to look for him. They would. It wouldn’t be the first time either.
If only it had meant they cared about him, it might have been ok, if mortifying, but he knew that all they cared about was his money. He supposed he should consider himself lucky they hadn’t simply had him killed. That sort of thing wasn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Even if Lilly Kane had been murdered for other reasons, she’d still been a student at Nepune High and she’d been heir to a fortune probably as big as his.
When he returned to the hospital the next day, Mac was awake and looking slightly disoriented, but she had no trouble recognizing Casey.
“It was you. I couldn’t figure out who the nurse was talking about. She said some guy brought me in here yesterday. I don’t remember anything. What happened?”
“You tell me. I did hear that you fell down the stairs the day before yesterday, so I guess that was it. Didn’t the staff tell you it was concussion?”
“Yes, but I mean, I didn’t remember coming here.”
“Oh. I – found you in your car and took you here. You were out cold.”
Suddenly, Mac realized something else. Casey must have paid for her in cash. How humiliating. There was no way she could repay him, even if she emptied out her account. At any given time there was only barely enough to pay for a few meals per day and sometimes the gas for her car. Even the clothes were a bit beyond her means nowadays. She’d had to buy the new clothes second hand. No wonder the other girls were so down on her.
“You shouldn’t have. I can’t afford to pay you back.”
She almost began to cry, but with an effort she managed to control herself.
“That’s ok. Believe me, I have more than I can spend. You can pay me back any time. Like ten years from now if you like.”
Something about his tone made her bite back the sharp retort she’d had on her tongue. More money than he could spend. How nice for him. Except he didn’t sound as if he thought it was nice at all.
“It might have be at least four years. Until I’ve graduated from college. Yes, I’m going. I have a scholarship, in case you’re wondering.”
“Of course. What are you going to study?”
“Computer science. I guess. I mean, after graduation, I think I could probably start a business and start earning money right away, but I’d kind of like to go to college.”
“Yeah. Me too. I can’t wait to get away.”
“So where are you going? Harvard? MIT? Princeton?”
Casey shrugged. Naturally, she’d assume he’d go to some Ivy League school. Of course, that was what everyone assumed. Except his parents couldn’t care less what he did, unless he dropped out and decided to play in a band – or follow a band around as some kind of groupie. That would sure get their negative attention. Come to think of it, that might be reason enough to do it, just to see their faces.
“I don’t know. Where are you going?”
“UCLA. Or CalTech. I don’t know. Wherever.”
“Mac – you don’t have to tell me, but – what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
Instantly she tensed up.
“Did you run away from home?”
“If you did, it’s ok. I’d understand. Believe me, I’d understand better than you think.”
“No. It’s – complicated.”
“And a long story.”
“I have all day.”
“You cut classes to come here?”
Casey shrugged. He only bothered going, because otherwise his parents would have him locked up in some institution. ‘For his own good’. He might as well toe the line, until he was eighteen. Even after that, he’d better have his escape planned well in advance and only take part of his inheritance.
Mac hesitated. She had no reason to trust this rich guy, even if he had turned out to be a lot nicer than she’d thought. On the other hand, it would be a relief to be able to tell someone.
“It’s sort of the other way around. My parents just left.”
“They took off without you?”
“Yes. When I got back – long story – the house was empty. They’d put it up for sale.”
“Just like that?”
“I don’t get it either.”
“Did you call the police?”
“No. I didn’t want to be put into care. Besides – there’s something else too.”
“You can’t tell anyone, ok?”
“I mean it.”
“Someone planted fake evidence against me. Two feds came to pick me up one day and they kept me locked up in a cell for over a week.”
Casey stared at her in confusion.
Mac felt stung. She should have known he wouldn’t believe her.
“You don’t believe me. Fine. Suit yourself. You did ask.”
“Hey, wait a minute. Who says I don’t believe you? I’ve heard stranger things.”
He sighed and looked so sad, Mac immediately regretted asking him.
“Personal stuff. I’ll tell you later. Go on.”
“That’s it. Eventually, they just let me out and told me the charges had been dropped.”
“Didn’t they offer any explanation?”
“No. Another agent drove me back here and left me. That’s when I found out my parents were gone.”
“And you have no idea why someone would do that to you?”
Mac didn’t want to sell Veronica out. That story about her being raped had seemed so real. Now Mac had heard that it wasn’t true. The photos she’d seen had been staged for some reason. Even so, someone had resented her helping Veronica.
“Yes. I have an idea. A while back, I helped a friend out with something. I think someone didn’t like that. This was their way of paying me back.”
“I see. I’m really sorry. Parents can be -”
“Yeah. Except these weren’t my real parents. That’s another long, weird story.”
“Oh. I’m not surprised. My parents – you can’t tell anyone about this either – I don’t know if you heard but I moved to a commune outside of town.”
“Sure. Everyone was talking about that. But you came back.”
“Not because I wanted to. My parents hired a deprogrammer to – make me see sense. Except there was nothing to deprogram. It wasn’t a sect or a cult. No one gave us drugs or had sex with us. It was – really great. This guy on the other hand – once he got to work on me, I just got scared and gave up. He was really sick, you know. I had the feeling that if I didn’t do what he wanted me to, he’d have me lobotomized or something.
I’m not kidding. My parents were telling me that I’d been confused but it was ok, it was over now. They even tried to make me say things against the people out there. Like they’d been touching me or whatever. Talk about ridiculous. Unless you count hugging. They hugged us a lot. You know, my parents never hugged me. I can’t remember ever sitting on my mom’s lap or anything like that. They always had a nanny or someone to take care of me. The only one who ever cared about me was my grandmother, and she’s dead.”
“I’m really sorry, Casey. I had no idea.”
“No. It’s nothing I like to tell people. No one knows about this, except you. And maybe – Veronica Mars.”
Casey was struck by an idea.
“You know, if you like, I could take you to them. That commune, I mean. It’s a really fantastic place. Everyone’s really nice. They let you be who you are. No one tries to change you. That way, you’d have – sort of a home.”
Mac considered his offer. It certainly sounded as if Casey had loved the commune. That didn’t mean she’d feel the same way. On the other hand, she probably couldn’t keep living out of her car. The doctor had told her she was lucky to be alive. If her concussion had been left untreated for much longer, she might have died. She owed Casey for that, only she didn’t know how she could ever pay him back.
“Thanks. I could go out there and check it out. If we get along, it might be best.”
He sounded so wistful, Mac found herself wishing he could live there too.
“What about when you’re eighteen?”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking. Maybe then they’ll let me go. If I leave most of the money. It would be worth it. Except I guess I should go to college first. Maybe I could go to UCLA or CalTech too. That would – bug them, but not enough to put a stop to it. Yeah. It might be fun.”
Mac stared at Casey. Was he making fun of her? It didn’t seem that way. If he really wanted to go to the same college she did, it might actually mean he liked her.
“I hope so.”
Casey came to see Mac every day, until she was released from the hospital. He drove her back to school and dropped her off beside her car.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I filled it up. You have a full tank now.”
“You shouldn’t -”
“I know. I – just thought – you know, so you could get around. Listen, my parents are away on a cruise. They won’t be back for at least three weeks. If you like, you could come and stay at my place. There are, you know, servants everywhere, so -”
Mac couldn’t help smiling. Casey was actually kind of sweet and old-fashioned.
“Servants, huh? Sounds – nice.”
“Yeah. It’s really something. I can’t even drop a pair of socks on the floor before a maid appears in my room and picks them up. No privacy. I can understand if you don’t want to come. Of course, I could tell most of them to take a few days off. They do that, when I invite people over. The guys, I mean.”
Mac had a feeling that wasn’t what he’d been about to say, but since it was none of her business, she let it go. Casey was obviously taking great pains not to make it appear as if he was hitting on her. She didn’t know if she ought to be flattered or offended. In any case, it was clear that Casey really wanted her to come and stay.
At first she’d thought he was merely being kind. Now she realized that wasn’t all. In the time she’d known him, her original impressions of him had been revised. He was lonely and he liked her company. That was totally unexpected. She had to keep reminding herself that in his situation, just about anyone might have been good company, compared to what he was used to.
“Ok. I’d love to come. I could always use the washing machine.”
Ever since she’d been left alone, she’d had a hard time getting her laundry done. She’d been forced to hang out at the laundromat all weekend.
“No problem. There has to be one somewhere. I just – drop things into the hamper and – I get clean stuff in my closets.”
Casey looked really sheepish when he confessed to that.
“I can tell college is going to be a totally new experience for you.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
So they ended up driving over to Casey’s house, each in their own car. She waited on the driveway while he got rid of all the staff except for the cook and the housekeeper. Those two would never accept being dismissed anyway. He also had to let the gardener and the pool guy stay, because they weren’t really employed by his dad. They came through a maintenance firm. At least all the maids and the butler packed up and left.
Casey returned to show Mac inside and took her to a huge room, which apparently wasn’t really a guestroom but just a spare room. They had so many rooms some of them were usually empty. It was bigger than her old room and her younger brother’s put together.
Casey hesitated a little before going on.
“I – asked about the washing machine but the housekeeper told me to just send for her and -”
“Oh. Will she tell your dad about me being here?”
“Probably, but that’s ok. I can invite friends over, as long they’re not from the commune.”
Mac was wondering how many girls had come over but decided it wasn’t any of her business.
“Ok. I said we didn’t want anyone waiting on us, so the housekeeper will just set it all up and leave us alone.”
He left her to do her unpacking in private. Not that there was any unpacking to be done. There were only the two sets of clothes, her cell phone and her laptop. She decided to leave her other set of clothes to be laundered. Even though she showered and did her hair in the bathroom, she wished she’d had something clean to put on. Oh, well, Casey probably wouldn’t notice or care.
When she walked in, she noticed that he hadn’t changed clothes either, so she wasn’t that out of place. There was a bottle of wine, but it wasn’t open and a couple of bottles of beer – not open either, and – to her relief, some soda and Perrier. It felt like having dinner in a restaurant. The table was so huge, it would have comfortably served at least a dozen people. Casey looked lonely, but his face lit up when he caught sight of her.
“Great. You found it. Must feel like The Rocky Horror Show or something?”
“Not that gothic, but yeah, a bit.”
“Gothic would actually be an improvement. So, anyway – As you can see it’s all been served so just grab whatever you want and – well, tuck in.”
At least he didn’t go all romantic and polite. It was obvious that Casey saw her as a pal, a sort of female buddy most of the guys at Neptune High didn’t have, except for Seth and the other gays. Great. Here she was – the straight guy’s faghag. On the other hand, it sure beat being no one’s friend, which she had been for most of her school years.
Mac was hungry and unlike most of the girls from school, didn’t find it necessary to starve herself in front of a guy. She worked out or used to, while she still could afford to, and she felt that was enough. Who would have looked twice at her, after all? Other than a few computer nerds – or, rather, dorks – who couldn’t get any date and thought she would be grateful at least one guy was interested.
After a while, she noticed that Casey didn’t seem to have much appetite. He was picking indifferently at the food, which made Mac blush intensely. Casey didn’t notice her reaction. He sipped a glass of Perrier and toyed with the bread but didn’t eat much of the actual food. She was wondering if it was a temporary thing or his usual attitude towards food. He was so – fit. In fact, he had a really great body so he must be working out. Surely he needed to eat some to maintain that look?
When she’d finished her meal, they got up and left the dishes on the table. Again, Mac had an impression of being at a restaurant or rather at a fancy hotel. It must be odd to live like that.
The whole house just for Casey and his parents, who apparently weren’t around very much, once they’d made sure Casey was forced to leave the only people who had ever really cared about him.
She’d take her own situation any day, even if it still felt scary to be completely on her own. On the other hand, she was getting increasingly sure of herself, as she became more and more self-reliant.
They walked out onto a patio and on towards a secluded spot on the grounds. Mac was beginning to feel uneasy, this far away from the house. She could still see it but guessed they’d be out of earshot. Of course, she’d never had any reason to fear or distrust Casey, so she told herself not to be silly.
Reading her look, Casey apologized.
“I’m sorry. If you’d prefer to go back to the house, we’ll do that. I just wanted to get away from all the prying eyes. I mean – they’re always reporting to my parents. It’s kind of unnerving to always feel spied on.”
“I can imagine. Or rather, I know the feeling. That day, when I got back, there was this black guy standing across the street staring at me, sort of gloating. Like he’s the one who’s behind what happened.”
“You haven’t tried to find out what happened to your parents?”
“No. I thought I’d show that guy I’d been suitably punished. If he knows I’m not doing anything to provoke him, maybe he’ll leave me alone. It’s not like I have that much left to lose. Next, they’ll probably tackle me physically.”
“Oh. Of course. It’s just so odd – no. What am I saying? Nothing surprises me anymore.”
“You mean after your parents tried to brainwash you?”
“Brainwash? Great description. Except it was more intimidation. You see, I’m a real coward.”
“I don’t think so. You’re not a CIA agent. Why should you have to take that kind of treatment?”
“Maybe because I turned my back on my only real friends.”
“They’re still ok, though, right? No one got to them, I hope?”
“Not that I know of. I mean, I can’t go there anymore and – I’m just too ashamed to talk to anyone from there. Besides, if I did, I don’t know if I could – never mind.”
“You still miss it that much? I guess I should check it out.”
“You’ll love it. It’s a really great place. I know I’m not very good at describing it, but you’ll see. And it’s not a cult. If you don’t like it, they’ll never try to keep you there. It’s just, you know, if you want to be there. Everyone’s welcome.”
“Sounds really sixties. Flowers in your hair, kind of thing -”
“Right. It is. Except, I have a feeling some of that real sixties stuff was just a lot of hype. You know, drugs instead of real changes and sex instead of love.”
“Could be. My parents were too young to be a part of that stuff and even if they’d been around, I know they would just have done what was expected of them. They were – I mean, are, very ordinary. We didn’t have anything in common and my younger brother was a little monster. And still, I miss them all terribly.”
“I’m really sorry. They cared about you, right?”
“Yeah. They didn’t understand me, but they always took really good care of me.”
Mac was beginning to get a bit misty-eyed and to her surprise, Casey seemed to sense that. He hurriedly changed the subject. After a while, they returned inside. They sat in Casey’s room, listening to music and talking about computers. It was clear that Casey knew next to nothing about anything beyond checking for email and searching for information, on a very basic level. He seemed genuinely interested though, which surprised Mac. It occurred to her that he was looking for something to lose himself in, to escape from his everyday life.
She realized that she might have been doing the same thing. Losing herself in the computers, rather than facing up to the fact that she felt like an outsider everywhere. Not just in school, where after all, many others were outsiders too, but also at home. When she’d told Casey her parents didn’t understand her, she’d really been telling the truth. Literally. Most of the time it was like she and her parents spoke different languages.
After that first night, she found that it was actually kind of reassuring to be sleeping in a house after such a long time. She agreed to stay on, not only because it was more comfortable, but also because she had the impression Casey enjoyed the company.
Knowing how deeply in his debt she was, she did her best to teach him how to use the computer to the full. She taught him about cell phones, digital cameras and naturally, about web page design.To her surprise, Casey had a truly creative streak. He had a real eye for taking photos, something Mac didn’t know much about, but recognized when she saw it, and he wrote poetry. She was allowed to read some of it and she was really touched when she realized that he’d never shown it to anyone, or even mentioned his writing to anyone else.
In return, she showed him her webpages and patiently explained how she’d made them.
“You’re actually making money from them?”
“Not a lot, but yeah. It’s all I have now. I can buy a meal or two a day and some clothes and sometimes a bit of gas for my car. I guess I should sell it, but then I’d have nowhere to sleep.”
“You wouldn’t have to sleep in the car if you moved to the commune.”
“I know, but even if I like it, the car is just all I’ve got left. When I go away to university, I’ll have to live in it until the semester starts.”
“In a way, I wish I lived you do. I know how it sounds. It must be really scary. But – if I only had a car and the clothes I’m wearing, no one would care what I did. I could go anywhere and do whatever I like.”
“I know what you mean. I’m free. Totally free. Except it doesn’t always feel so great. You remember when I fell down the stairs. If you hadn’t come looking for me, I’d be dead. The doctor told me that. He was all serious and telling me I have to take better care of myself. Like, ‘you kids don’t realize what can happen’ – and so on. But I did know I should have gone to a doctor, I just couldn’t. If you were sick, wouldn’t your parents make sure you got help?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I just don’t know anymore. If I died, they’d get the money my grandmother left me. I think they might actually prefer it if I died, or if I was sectioned. In fact, that would probably be best. They could just dump me in an institution and forget all about me. It would be like I never existed.”
Mac shuddered. She knew Casey had reason to feel that way, but it was still horrible. Again, she got the impression she was the lucky one. This really cute guy who had all this money was actually not at all enviable.
“Did they always treat you like that?”
“Pretty much, except when I was younger, I didn’t question it so much. It wasn’t until after my grandmother died, that I really found out what they cared about. For a while, I tried all kinds of things to make them notice me.”
“No. Not even when -”
Mac didn’t know what to make of his tone. It sounded as if he was disgusted with himself, but she didn’t know what he had to be ashamed of. He wasn’t the one who had done anything wrong, it was his parents.
Casey smiled wryly.
“Once I – invited a guy over. Not one of my friends. No. I can’t tell you that. You’ll think I’m totally -”
“It’s ok. I can understand you wanting to make your parents notice. I did too. For a long time, I thought they’d be proud of me for everything I achieved. I kept showing them stuff I’d done – scripts and applets and all kinds of things.”
Casey smiled again. This time, his smile actually reached his eyes.
“I don’t know what that is, but I can imagine it’s really complicated. They didn’t care?”
“Sort of. They said they thought I was really good at computers and stuff, but I could hear that they were just saying that because they felt they had to. It was totally beyond them. So what did you do?”
Casey hesitated. This was really the last thing he wanted to tell anyone, but Mac was the first person he’d ever felt he could talk to. About anything that mattered. Somehow, he had a feeling she’d understand.
“I just want you to know it was just to – shake them up, you know? Nothing else.”
Not sure of what to make of his sudden vehemence, Mac nodded.
“Well, this guy is – gay. He’s into acting and modelling and so on. I explained to him what I wanted to do and he thought it was hilarious so he was cool about it even if I wasn’t – Anyway, I made sure my dad and mom saw us – kissing. You know, really kissing. Don’t tell me. That’s totally insane. And in the end, dad just pretended he hadn’t noticed anything. At dinner, he talked politely and impersonally to this guy, like he was just another one of my friends. Mom too, looked like she hadn’t seen it happen. I had a feeling I could have smoked crack or – I don’t know – cut myself and they still wouldn’t care, unless I made a mess on the carpet.”
“That’s – weird. I mean, your parents. Of course, if you didn’t know what they were like, they might have been – you know – supportive.”
“Yeah, right. As long as I didn’t have sex in public, I don’t think it would matter to them if I was into guys or girls. I’ll bet you never kissed a girl.”
Mac sadly reflected that she’d hardly even kissed a guy.
“No. I wouldn’t want to, but even if I did, there’s no one from our school who’d want to kiss me. Not the guys either. I – don’t really date much.”
That was the understatement of the year. It was like saying Unix was a little complicated to use.
“I think you’re wrong.”
“About no guy from our school wanting to kiss you.”
Mac was about to laugh and tell Casey not to make fun of her, when suddenly, he leaned over and placed a light kiss on her lips. Her face heated up and she shot up, as if she’d been burned. Tears came to her eyes. She felt betrayed. It had all been too good to be true. Casey was just like the other guys – worse.
“You – how could you? I thought we were friends.”
She turned and ran from his room, back through the corridor to the guestroom. This had been a big mistake. She should never have trusted him. At least she’d never make that mistake again.
Casey followed her, calling her name.
“Mac, please. Wait. I’m sorry. I – just -”
“You just couldn’t resist making fun of the computer geek. Fine. Your friends will get a good laugh at me, I’m sure.”
“No. I’d never do that.”
“Ok, so you felt sorry for me and -”
“No. That’s not it at all. Mac – didn’t you ever notice how I feel about you?”
“Like I said, I thought you were my friend.”
“I am. It’s just that – I – think I love you.”
Mac turned and studied his face intently. She blinked to clear her sight. He looked serious. Either he was a really great actor – or – suddenly, the anger and the disappointment left her. Of course. Poor Casey was so starved for affection, he thought he was in love with the first girl who came around. She’d been wrong to yell at him.
“It was stupid of me. Sorry. You don’t feel the same way. It’s ok. Let’s forget it ever happened.”
“You don’t have to apologize. It’s only natural, that you – I mean, you feel lonely and – I’m a girl.”
“Hold it. What are you saying? I’m so desperate I’d even hit on the computer geek? Is that what you think? Mac, I don’t have any problem getting a date. If you knew – It’s just that you’re different. For the first time, I felt I could really – I thought -”
He actually looked so sad, Mac was beginning to regret her words. Obviously, they’d upset him. It just wasn’t fair. Someone like her could only dream about a guy like him. Having him offer – whatever it was he was offering – was everything she’d ever wished for. Except how could a guy like that be interested? She still thought she was right. He just didn’t know it. Everything she’d learned in her seventeen years, told her it was impossible, and also foolish to think that a guy like Casey could ever fall for a girl like her.
“I know I’m different. That’s why no one wants to date me.”
“If that’s true, it’s their loss. I’m serious, Mac. I love you. You’re the first person I’ve ever felt this close to, unless you count my grandmother and of course, that was different.”
She was almost beginning to think she’d slipped into a coma after her concussion. Maybe this was just a hallucination.
Casey still looked serious, but sad, as if he could hardly believe Mac could return his feelings. Was she dead and this was the afterlife? Things like that just didn’t happen to people like her. Except, what had happened to her, didn’t happen to people like her, but she knew it had, so what was possible or impossible, really?
“You’ve probably heard about – my friends and our parties and – the girls I’ve been dating. I understand if you don’t think I’m very – You heard me tell you about J – that guy. If you think I’m – too crazy or – weird -”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course I care about you too. I’d be stupid not to. Besides, I didn’t want to tell you this, but you’re probably the best looking guy I’ve ever – actually hung out with.”
Suddenly, she did something she never thought she’d do. She reached out and pulled Casey closer and kissed him again. It felt great. For the first time since she’d been picked up by the FBI agents, she felt completely at ease. Not bad for a computer geek.
They went into the guestroom and sat down on the bed. Kissing Casey was very different from kissing Wallace. Wallace was such a kid. Casey – his touch made Mac feel different too. Like a new person. The old Mac would have been scared to go all the way with a guy. Now, she just took it for granted. It was only for a moment she began to feel awkward and Casey helped smooth it over.
“I’ve – never – you know.”
“Ok. No problem.”
His kisses made her feel like maybe her announcement had been unnecessary. She was wondering how long ago his first time had been. He just seemed so – expert. Then suddenly, he pulled back and a funny sort of look got on his face.
“Don’t go away. I’ll be right back.”
When he returned, he had a small package in his hand. Mac began to relax. At least he wasn’t getting a pair of handcuffs or something like that. It was good that he thought about that, because the last thing she wanted was to end up getting pregnant. She’d had a hunch Casey wasn’t exactly proud of having dated so many girls, but at least that meant he wasn’t such an innocent as Wallace, and she certainly wasn’t complaining.
Waking up together was kind of nice. Mac didn’t want to move. Fortunately, it was a Saturday, so they could stay in bed as long as they liked. It wasn’t just the sex. Feeling his arms around her made her feel – loved. It had been a long time since she’d felt this good about anything.
Casey’s eyes fluttered open and a smile spread across his face.
“It was true. I was afraid it had just been a dream. But you’re still here.”
“And you’re still here. That was the last thing I had expected.”
“Oh, you probably have no idea what a catch you are. Even if no one talks to me, I hear things. Everyone wants to go out with you.”
“Almost everyone already has.”
“You’re saying that like you don’t care.”
“I guess – I don’t. Not anymore. I mean, after I lived at the commune, I began to see that dating all those girls, never made me happy. Besides, it wasn’t just girls.”
Mac’s eyes widened. Was he saying what she thought he was saying?
“You dated guys?”
“What? No, of course not. Oh. You mean that guy. I wasn’t dating him. We just kissed once. What I meant was, I – kind of slept with a friend of my mom’s.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I thought – it would be the coolest thing.”
“And it wasn’t?”
“Not really. It was just the same. Oh, she was a bit more – experienced, but that was all. It didn’t make me feel any better, except for like five minutes afterwards.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I have a feeling it’s going to be different now.”
“It can’t be because I’m so experienced, because – I’m not.”
Casey kissed her again.
“I mean – you make me feel – happy. Like there’s something to look forward to. Before I met you, I just didn’t care what I did. Nothing was really – fun, or exciting, or interesting.”
“I feel the same way about you.”
She closed the distance between their faces and for a while, they didn’t talk about anything. Afterwards, Mac’s head was resting on his shoulder and she reflected on what he’d just told her. She felt exactly the same way. Finally, she had something to look forward to again.
Before all this had happened, the best she’d had to look forward to was more of the same thing. Endless years of designing webpages and creating scripts – all of it interesting, but still, just make-believe stuff inside a little box filled with electronics. She was grinning happily and she sensed that Casey was just as content as she was. A thought occurred to her and her smile deepened.
“So – that guy – what was it like kissing him?”
“It was gross. I mean, he was a guy.”
“He was that bad at it?”
Casey’s eyes met hers, a thoughtful look on his face. Then he smiled again.
“I guess that’s being unfair. Technically, he was great. It was just that -”
“Ok. I can understand that. Nothing could make me kiss a girl. So was he better at it than me?”
He covered her mouth with his and for a while, that was all the reply she had. Finally, he pulled back a little and looked at her, eyes filled with such love she almost shivered.
“What do you think?”
“Well, he probably had more practice than I’ve had -”
“I guess some people are just born great kissers.”
When they got too hungry, they went to the kitchen and helped themselves to orange juice. Afterwards, they had breakfast in the same room they usually had dinner. Before they had time to disappear, the housekeeper walked in.
“Mr Gant. Your parents called. They’re on their way back.”
Casey’s smile went out.
“I see. Thanks, mrs Raditch.”
She nodded and left the room.
Casey looked distressed and Mac suddenly knew it was time for her to go. She had a feeling she knew what he was going to say, even before he opened his mouth. That turned out to be the case.
“Mac – I don’t want to throw you out, but trust me, you don’t want to meet my parents. Not you. Other girls probably wouldn’t care, but – I know you’re different. They’re -”
“It’s ok. Time for me to go anyway. It’s been wonderful. Spending this time with you has been – the best time in my life.”
To her surprise, it almost looked as if Casey’s eyes were swimming with tears. She felt so sorry for him. His parents had to be the worst parents in the world.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Mac.”
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I wish we could be together all the time, and – maybe after graduation, we’ll be able to, but until then – you’ll be happy at the commune. I know you will.”
“We’ll see each other in school. If you don’t want your friends to know about me, you can always bring your computer to me and ask for help. They’ll never guess anything.”
“I want them all to know, but – if they did, sooner or later my parents would find out and I don’t know why, but I think it’s better if they don’t have anything to do with you. I just don’t trust them.”
“Ok. I’ll just go pack.”
He nodded sadly, not taking his eyes off her, until she left the room. Half an hour later, they were sitting in their cars. Casey had promised he’d show her the way to the commune, but he wouldn’t come with her all the way. She sensed a deep longing inside him, but he just couldn’t bear to see his friends again and not be allowed to stay.
Mac knew she’d told him she’d like to check the place out, but now that she was going there, it felt intimidating. She didn’t know anyone there and besides, this was Casey’s special place. It was all wrong he wasn’t allowed to be there.
She had a feeling it would be hard to have a relationship when she was living out there and he – maybe it would get better after he graduated, but maybe not. She wasn’t going to take anything for granted. After all that had happened in the past couple of months, she knew better than to trust anyone or anything.
Standing a little distance away from the houses, they held each other. Casey held on to Mac so hard, she knew he had a hard time letting go. She didn’t feel like it either, but she knew it was time to go. If he wasn’t at home when his parents got there, he’d be in trouble. She tried telling him that, but he kept holding on to her. They kissed again, then Mac gently pushed him away. His eyes looked suspiciously shiny. In fact, her own sight was a little blurred as well.
“Go on. It will be fine. Tell them – if they ask about me -”
“Nothing. It’s no use.”
He sighed and began walking away. Almost every step he took, he stopped and looked back at her. Finally, he got into his car, turned it around and drove away. Back to his luxurious home where no one cared about him. To his parents who wanted his money and nothing else.
Mac remained standing on the narrow track, staring in the direction he’d disappeared. Right. Time to face the sect. Except it wasn’t a sect, according to Casey and she trusted him. Whatever it was, there was no guarantee that she’d like it. She’d just have to wait and see. If she didn’t like it, she could always continue living out of her car. By now, she knew she could do it. Whatever happened, she’d be fine.
She was only hoping Casey would be too. Some day, she was hoping he’d be free of his parents. All he had to do was hold on until then. That was all she needed to do as well. Wait a little longer. It would be ok. Thanks to Casey, she was back on her feet again. Whoever had taken her life away, wouldn’t win. They could take her family and her home, but they couldn’t take her computer skills or her determination.