Loopholes, Chapter 21

Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4567, 891011, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.) (©!)

There were three more security people standing there when I walked out, but I walked right by them with my blondeness. Until one of them turned, fast. “Miss?”

My heart went all rabbity, but I reminded myself that I was blonde and sparkly and not at all who they were looking for. “Hi!” I said, and he seemed sort of taken aback. “I was wondering, is there an Armenian restaurant around here?”

It took him a moment. “A what?”

“She’s talking about that new restaurant,” the guy next to him said. “Zar? Down by the food court? Nice little place?”

“Look, young lady,” the first guy said, as if he hadn’t stopped me first. “We’re pretty busy right now, and we don’t need….”

“Just go on down to the food court,” the other guy said.

“Thanks.” I tried to smile like a girl who hadn’t done anything wrong.

“And you know,” he said, “if you see a girl? Big bushy brown hair? Looks lost, like she’s in trouble? Have you seen anyone like that?”

I tried to look thoughtful for a second. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Well if you do, tell her to get on over to security, OK?”

“Sure!” I gave him a big blonde smile, and headed down the escalator to the food court, sweating.

Zar was there, and it was a restaurant, too, not just a stand. I went inside but Emily wasn’t anywhere. Not in the booths, not at the tables, not even in the bathroom. I went back outside, trying not to panic, reminding myself that I could find some pay phone or something and call Phoebe. I grabbed a plastic chair they had for people to sit and wait, and then someone yelled, “NO! Idiot!

I froze, then tried to unfreeze, because they couldn’t be yelling at me. They couldn’t be yelling at anyone, really, it didn’t sound like the way you would yell at a person, it sounded the way you yell at a dog. And I turned around and saw Emily, her head down, looking at the floor, while a man—a short man! Like, only as tall as she was!—stood near her with a furious face, surrounded by a whole huge group of people that had to be her family.

There was an old lady with a cane and a scarf, and another lady with dark hair who sort of fluttered around the angry man. I figured they had to be her father and her mother, and maybe the old lady was her great aunt? There was a little boy who was wheeling around with his arms out like an airplane and then a big guy with a fancy sweater who walked out of the restaurant grabbed the short guy in a giant hug.

I inched closer, watching. Emily kept staring at the floor, like there was something totally interesting there and she had to focus on it, and I realized she looked like I felt when I was using every single thing I had to not cry. The two men were hugging and laughing, and Emily was staring down, and then her mother was trying to guide the old lady with the cane into the restaurant, except the old lady didn’t want to go, and that’s when I had the excellent idea of standing up and offering them my plastic chair.

“Thank you!” the person who had to be Emily’s mother said, but the old lady ignored me and just sat down heavily in the chair, and closed her eyes. Her skin looked ashy, almost silver. “That’s very sweet of you,” Emily’s mother said, though you could tell she didn’t want to talk to me at all. Her eyes kept darting between where Emily was staring at the floor and the old lady sitting in the plastic chair with her eyes closed. “She’s not feeling well,” she said, her hand on the old lady’s arm.

“Are you Emily’s mother?” I asked, and then she looked at me.

“Why yes,” she said, and then she smiled. She actually had a really nice smile, it made her much younger, like she was hopeful. “Are you one of Emily’s friend’s from school?” Like that was the greatest possible thing a person could be, but also like she couldn’t really believe it. So of course I said, “Yes.”

“Emily!” she called, and Emily looked up from her special patch of floor. Her face was all flushed, and she looked miserable. She didn’t react when she saw me. I touched my hat-wig guiltily. She didn’t recognize me. “Come, it’s your friend from school!” She beckoned her over with a big friendly wave. Emily started walking towards us, looking completely confused. “What did you say your name was again?” her mother asked me.

“Alyssa,” I said, hoping Emily didn’t have any weapons nearby.

“It’s Alyssa!” her mother said. Emily’s eyes got wide, and I prayed for her not to say anything, and I gave her a big stupid smile that (I hoped) said, “Uh, sorry about stuff!”

“Hi!” I said when she reached us, but she just stared.

“Emily!” her mother said. “Be polite! It’s your friend!” and then both Emily and I were too embarrassed to look at each other or her mother.

“You, uh, changed your hair,” Emily finally said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I got bored of my old look.” She didn’t laugh. And I was beginning to think I would have to go find Adam, or call Phoebe back, when her great aunt moaned.

Emily grabbed her mother’s arm. “See? Mommy? I told you she wasn’t feeling well, I told you we shouldn’t go out!”

“Emily, shh.”

“Emily!” her father came over, and everybody tensed. But he just came up to us and looked down at her great aunt. Her mother stood there, not quite breathing, and we all waited while he looked down at her great aunt. Then the big guy in the sweater came over and put his hand on her dad’s shoulder and led him back to where they were before, and they started talking again, and everyone relaxed.

“Your father is worried, that’s all,” her mother said quietly, bending down over the great aunt, who had covered her eyes with her hand. “Go talk to your friend, I’m sure you have lots of things to talk about.”

So we edged away, banging first into her brother, who was still running around pretending to be an airplane, until we got a little ways away, towards a clump of plastic plants in giant decorative pots. “Wow,” I said. “Your dad really is a jerk.”

“No he’s not.” She was looking at the floor again, and I let her look, because basically you learn in 1st grade how to deal when other kids are crying, because you know how crappy it feels yourself. “He’s really not,” she said. “He’s just worried, you know? I mean, did you see her?”

I nodded. “I saw her.”

“And he just—he has high expectations is all,” Emily said. “He wants me to be perfect.”

“Wow,” I said, and looked at him talking with the big sweater guy. “He’s lucky I’m not his kid,” and she even sort of laughed. And then she stopped. “I try to get close,” she said.

“Close to perfect? You’re kidding.”

“No. I mean, it makes sense. He really does just want what’s best for me, I know he does, but even if he does he isn’t right all the time.” She straightened her narrow shoulders. “So I figure if I get pretty much everything right, he’ll realize that sometimes he should just, you know, listen to me.” She wasn’t looking at the floor anymore. She smoothed back her long hair. “Maybe you don’t understand, but some of us like to be—.”

“You’re trying to be perfect? Seriously? Like, all the time? So why was he yelling at you?”

She blushed. “I told him something was wrong with Aunt Dokhik.”

“She’s not OK?” I said, though I knew it wasn’t really a question.

“She’s not OK.” Emily’s mouth straightened into a hard line. “So. I know my dad will kill me, but we have to find Adam.”

“And do whatever else the stupid lizard said.”

“Exactly,” Emily said.

I looked at her family, and at her arms. “Do all of you have it? The silver stuff?” I said.

Emily nodded, looking back at them, her face tight.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t say I was scared.

“We can stop it though, right? Don’t you think so?” Emily turned to me. Her eyes were really dark brown under straight black brows.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s find Adam.”

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