Loopholes, Chapter 17

Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4567, 891011, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16.) (And ©!)

Except nobody grabbed me. I lay face-down on the floor, smelling dust and old paint. I heard noises on the street, and yelling, but it seemed like it was outside, far away. When no one came in I started to stand up. Though maybe I was in some weird kind of store where they don’t care if you lie face down on their floor without speaking? Which was kind of creepy in itself. I had risen to my knees when there was a shrieking mechanical screech. I threw myself down again. It screeched on and on and then it stopped. No voices. I raised my head and finally just looked around.

A rack with clothes in bags swayed above a counter. It was just a dry cleaning store. I sat back up and tried to breathe. Where was everyone? I heard voices from somewhere way in the back, past all the hanging clothes. With another whirring screech the clothes started up again, but I only flinched this time. They went just a short way then stopped, swaying.

I looked around. No one was up at the front, no one was barging in to grab me. I was safe, for the moment anyway, and I tried to figure out what to do. The phone rang and I jumped, but someone answered it in the back of the store, talking loudly in a language I didn’t understand. Then it hit me—the phone!

I scrambled under the little counter door. I always wondered what it was like behind the counter, and the truth was it was really cool. There was someone’s purse, and an iPhone, and a big plastic bag of those white pillow mints with colored candy jelly inside to refill their dispensers. And since there was a whole bag I didn’t have to risk getting a licorice one. I took one red and one green. Then I thought about the iPhone, but it seemed safer to use the one on the counter. I looked at it. None of the lights were lit up, which I figured had to be a good sign. I picked it up, and it had no sound, so I pushed a button. A dial tone! I pressed in Phoebe’s telephone number, my hands shaking. It rang, and then it rang again, and I looked out the front window as it rang again. “Come on, Phoebe,” I muttered under my breath. And then someone picked up.

“Hello?”

“Phoebe!” I bent down behind the counter hoping that no one would see me, and began to whisper fast. “Phoebe, everything is crazy, and you have to tell me what my mom has for me, and I talked to a lizard, and it told me to work with these two kids, but one of them killed a kid by mistake, and the other one wanted to go to the mall and is a total jerk, and I don’t even like them is the truth, so you have to help me, OK?”

“Hi, Alyssa,” she said.

“Phoebe!” I took a deep breath. “OK. First. What do you have from my mom?”

“It’s—I don’t know what it is, it’s like an equation or something. It’s in my backpack. Why are you whispering, anyway?”

“Because I’m in a dry cleaning—wait, never mind. Can you go to your backpack and get it? Because something really messed up in happening. Phoebe, can you look at your arms?”

“What?”

“Look at your arms!” I whispered, looking around. I heard voices in the back, but no one seemed to be doing anything. Maybe they were about to close? “Are they—silvery or anything? Like, glittery?”

There was a pause, and I heard the phone moving around. She came back on. “No. They’re not.”

“Oh,” I said. I sank lower behind the counter. “OK, that’s weird. Maybe that’s what they mean by being in the same situation? But then why am I in the same situation as the guy at the convenience store?”

“You’re not making as much sense as you usually do,” Phoebe said calmly.

“OK. Sense. Right.” So I tried to explain everything the lizard told me, whispering fast. “But then they left, and so I have to get the paper or note or equation or whatever.”

“Alyssa.”

“What?” I kept looking around me, waiting for the police to bust in, or the dry cleaners to show up.

“You have to do what the lizard says. You have to find—who were they again? Emmeline and Andy?”

“Emily and Adam. But did you not hear me? He killed someone. And her—she’s awful.”

“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “But Alyssa, you are not the easiest person in the whole world.”

I didn’t say anything.

“It’s just true,” she said as though I had said something. “But what’s a bigger deal—I mean, a lizard talked to you. That doesn’t happen to everyone, you know. It means you have to listen.”

I slid down the wall and rested my head down on the cold cement floor. “I do?”

“Yeah, you do.”

“Oh,” I said, and sighed. “So, tell me what the paper says.”

I heard the crinkly sound of unfolding. “It’s actually sort of hard to understand what she wrote. It’s like—a whole bunch of arrows and letters. Are you sure you can’t get to a real phone or email or something?

“I’m sure.” I imagined my grandma’s face when she found out about my day at school. “In fact, I may never have access to electronics ever again.”

“OK,” she said. “Then I’m going out and I’m going to email it to you, and also send this to you, like, express mail or whatever. You need to see it. It’s your grandmother’s address?”

“Yeah, I gave it to you before I left—.”

ROBBER!”

The phone got knocked out of my hand. A tiny, skinny old Asian lady kicked it out of my hands, then stood back like I was dangerous. “ROBBER!” I was sitting on the floor behind the dry cleaning counter and somehow five people were there with me, all rushing forward from the back of the store. The old lady started to scream this high-pitched crazy scream that sounded like a siren.

“Wait, no, I just want to use your phone! Here’s money!” I grabbed inside my backpack for Phoebe’s wallet while the lady kept screaming. “I’m sorry! I promise!” She was screaming so loud and high I could barely think. All the chords were standing out on the side of her skinny neck, and still she kept screaming. “I’m innocent!” I cried, but not before I noticed her skin: Silvering. Along her arms and the sides of her cheeks.

I tried to scramble out, but a young guy grabbed my arm while the old lady screamed. I tried to call into the phone on the floor, “Phoebe? Send it, Phoebe!” And then the police came.

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