(Start here.) (Or just go backwards.)
“Let me talk,” Emily said as we went into the station. “In case, you know, they remember you.” I fixed the hat-wig more firmly on my head and kept a lookout for police officers. Emily marched up to the ticket window, and I hung back with Jacob and Adam.
“She’s more of a bus person, generally,” I told them. “But in this kind of situation, she might take the plane, don’t you think?” I was nervous and talking too much and too high, because I knew they all thought I was this terrible person.
Jacob scuffed his sneakers on the bus station floor and muttered, “Whatever.”
“I bet Mom will have written notes that are supposed to go with the equation, that’s what I bet,” I said. “It’ll probably all be really obvious as soon as we see it.” Adam didn’t say anything, just watched while I blathered on and Jacob looked at his sneakers. He had this patient suffering look, like he understood why I couldn’t stop talking, and would just listen to me forever, even though I was just blathering. “It will make more sense once we see Phoebe,” I said. We watched Emily at the counter talking to the ticket guy. Jacob kicked the ground with his sneaker.
I did a quick check of my arms. Still scary. I looked away. I was sure we still had time to make it all work out, we still had 15 minutes! And probably they weren’t even so serious about the deadlines.
“Gate four,” Emily said when she got close to us.
She picked up her bag, which clanked against the floor because of the frying pan in it. “There’s a bus coming in from Boston, and it’s gate four—in ten minutes. Come on.”
To get to gate 4 you had to go the other side of the bus station, and then you could even go outside. We did, that’s where all the little crowd of people was, waiting for the bus to come in. It was hazy afternoon, and I went over the curb to stare down the road. I didn’t see anything.
“It’s not for ten more minutes,” Emily said, setting down her bag. “And then once she’s here, we need to get the equation or notes or whatever from her and just go. We have no time. But maybe that will give us another idea.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It probably will have all kinds of ideas. And they might even be really obvious, right? It might say, I don’t know, ‘If you spray them with baby shampoo, then they will vanish.’”
“Spray them with baby shampoo?” Emily said.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “Something easy. Something we can just do. Like with water and the wicked witch of the west.” I went to look again.
“It’s not like there’s just one of them though,” Emily said, but I ignored her. I squinted down the long hot street.
“What’s she supposed to have anyway?” Jacob asked from over by the wall. “I mean, what could be that important? Probably nothing. I mean, you already got the equation or whatever.”
Adam shrugged. He was standing between the building and the street, wearing his sweatshirt even though it was hot. “Well, we think there’s more than just the equation—there’s what it means. But we know they want it.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Which I think means they’re scared of it.”
“But it also means we shouldn’t give it to them, right?” Jacob said from behind us.
“Well, yeah,” I said, still looking down the road, not wanting to miss the bus when it came in sight. “I didn’t exactly promise to give it to them. I just mentioned it as a possibility, that’s all.” No one said anything. “They also said if they didn’t get it in the next hour, it wouldn’t matter anymore,” I said. “So either that means they need it fast to succeed. Or….”
“Or they think that whoever gets it, or knows it, will figure out how to stop them,” Adam said.
“Yeah right,” Emily said. She was pacing up and down the sidewalk where everyone was waiting, fidgeting. “With baby shampoo and water.”
“With something,” I said. “I think there’s something in it, and that’s what my mom was—I mean, is—trying to figure out.”
Jacob slid down the wall until he was sitting on the sidewalk. “What are we going to do if she doesn’t bring it though?” His voice sounded high and unsteady and not really like him at all.
I squinted hard down the street. Something looked like a bus, but was probably just a van. “Why are you always such a bummer? Phoebe’s totally reliable.” Not like me, I thought but didn’t say.
But Emily said, “He’s right, though. We should have a backup plan. I mean, are you even sure she’s coming?”
“She said she was coming,” I said. “Besides, I hate backup plans. She’ll come here, or maybe she’ll come to the airport. That’s enough of a backup plan for me.” I peered down the road. Something that looked like a very tall car was coming, could it be a bus?
“I’m going to try her phone again,” Emily said, stopping pacing and taking her phone out.
Adam came over next to me and looked down the street too. “Do you see it?”
“I see it.” And I did. It was definitely a bus, you could see its high gray top. “That’s it!” We both watched it stop at a light way down, then move again, getting nearer. I rose up on my toes.
“She’s not answering,” Emily said from behind us, but I didn’t care, because the bus from Boston was just down the road and getting nearer.
“She might not be on it,” Emily warned, but I ignored her. Then the light changed and the bus headed towards us, a stream of cars ahead of it, and then finally it pulled into the curb. With a groan and then a hiss, the door pushed open.
“Hold on,” Adam said when I bounced forward. “Give them a second.”
So I did. First, a young tattooed guy jumped out with his duffle bag, then an older guy with a big belly, then streams of people. And then a girl, with big bushy hair, orange tights, a crazy purple dress, and an orange suitcase.
“Phoebe!” I screamed, and grabbed her.
“Hey!” Because it wasn’t Phoebe. The girl stepped back with a terrible expression on her face. I dropped my arms.
“Becky!” a tall blonde lady called.
“Sorry,” I said, but she had her arm around Becky and was leading her away. But not before I caught the first sparkle of their skin. “I thought you were someone else!” I called after them, but they didn’t turn around.
Adam and Emily were watching me, Jacob stared at his shoes.
“More people will get off,” I said. “Just wait.”
And a few more people did trickle out—a mom with two kids, one in her arms and one she held by the hand. A guy with a guitar. Then a break. Then a tall thin man. Then no one.
“She might have fallen asleep.” I started up the bus stairs, but the bus driver rose out of his seat. “Miss, we don’t board for twenty minutes.”
“But I think my friend is on there. Maybe she fell asleep or something, but I really need to see her, and—.”
“Is she an old man with one arm?”
“An older lady?” I shook my head. He stood up, and looked down the length of the bus. “What does your friend look like?”
“Well, she’s about my age, and she’s got bushy hair.” I touched my own weird baseball hat of hair.
“She’s not on this bus.” He started to come down the stairs.
“Can I check?”
He was tall and black with a drooping stomach. “No, you may not.”
“Please!” He looked at me, shook his head ruefully, and walked back on the bus and beckoned to me. I followed him on. The bus smelled bad—stale and tired, like too many people all together for too long. It was almost empty. We walked down the aisle, on top of old candy wrappers, past empty seats, past the sleeping lady until the way back, where we got to the old man with one arm, who looked up at me—it wasn’t a friendly look. “Sorry,” I whispered. We were at the bathroom by then. I opened it real fast then slammed it shut. That’s where the smell was coming from. But no Phoebe, not anywhere.
“Satisfied?” the bus driver asked. I nodded. “OK then,” he said and we got off the bus. I walked fast. I heard Adam call, “Alyssa, wait up!” but I kept walking, wiping at my eyes with the back of my stupid disintegrating arm. “Alyssa!” I kept walking. I didn’t know where Phoebe was. I didn’t know where my mother was. I hadn’t gotten closer to knowing anything and there was no more time.
“Alyssa!” Emily’s wiry little hand was on my shoulder. “Remember, your grandmother’s at the airport. She could be with Phoebe there right now!”
“She’s not coming.”
We both turned around. Jacob had spoken, and he looked miserable. “She’s not coming because I told her not to come, OK? Everything’s ruined, and it’s all my fault, and I’m sorry.”