(Start here.) (Or just go backwards.)
Phoebe got on her bike and we raced towards each other. I prayed the shadows wouldn’t notice. My legs didn’t feel right when I ran, they were wobbly and weak, like in a bad dream, but Phoebe had her bike and she was fast. We reached each other at the far side of the basketball court.
“Alyssa!” she said.
“Give it to me,” I said. “Give me the papers, whatever you have just give it to me. I reached into her pocket before she could even get off her bike, and tore the envelope out of it.
“Whoa!” she said, losing her balance, but I didn’t have time—I turned away and tore it open. And there, inside the envelope, was a wad of pages scribbled over and over in my mother’s handwriting. I rifled through it, while behind me I heard Emily and Adam calling my name. Page after page, all I saw was If A, then B, then if -B then -A. Each one had absolutely nothing useful in it, and I dropped them on the ground when I was done, until I got to the very last page. It was covered with As and Bs, and then at the bottom were two stupid words: Be Good.
I stood there staring at them dumbly. “Is there anything there?” Phoebe said, hauling up her bike and resting it against a tree. “I didn’t think there was anything there, really, that’s why I didn’t send it, but I figured I would bring it along with me anyway, because I’m here to see if I can help—Alyssa?”
“Nothing,” I choked out. “There’s nothing.” Emily and Adam ran up behind us, and Emily began scrabbling on the ground picking up the papers and putting them in order.
“What does it say?” she asked. “What should we do? Is it—.”
“It’s nothing,” I said, and I let the last page drop onto the ground. “It’s just like the least useful thing it could ever be.”
“Are you OK?” Phoebe said. She came up to me, to look at me more closely. “You don’t look OK.” She touched my silvery arm, then her own. “I have it too,” she said. She held her arm up, and there it was, the very faintest tracing of glittery dust.
“Of course you do,” Emily said in a flat voice. “We all do—everyone will. I mean seriously, do you think there’s a single group of humans that never got targeted? It’s everyone.”
“But,” I said. “But—.”
“I’m sorry,” Phoebe said. “I figured the equation was enough.”
“Why wouldn’t you answer your phone!” Emily cried.
“Oh!” Phoebe said. “I’m sorry. Is it off?”
“But,” I cried, and I could barely talk. My lungs felt pressed and empty, like they were collapsing.
“They’re leaving,” Adam said quietly. “They’re walking out of the park.” We turned and there they were, walking off the basketball court, heading for the street, a high buzzing excitement coming off them.
“Wait!” Emily cried. “It said ‘be good!’ I have an idea—let’s try to be good, like completely nice to them. And then they’ll turn friendly.”
“It won’t work!” I said, but she ran ahead of us, towards their backs. We followed her, dragging our clanking backpacks, my grandmother and Doris and Pinky still far on the other side of the park. The shadows were moving in a ragged group, and Emily ran up to one and touched his shoulder. He was a tall skinny guy in a vest, and he turned around to face her. “Um,” Emily said, squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath. “We want to be good to you.” She reached out and tried to hug him. And for a second I hoped it would all be OK, except then he reared back and knocked her flat onto the ground.
“Wait!” I said, running forward. “You can’t do that. You don’t have that power.” Emily was curled on the ground, clutching her face, and I was just standing there in disbelief, saying, “Wait, no, you can’t do that.” But when I looked at them I saw: they could. And they would. Because it made them happy.
They stopped, then, all of them, with this energized look on their faces. They turned to face us. My heart was hammering in my chest. I didn’t know what to do or how to stop them. And then the red-haired lady slapped me so hard across the face that I spun around. I staggered over. My cheek felt like it was on fire, and I put my hand to it and stared at them, and they stared at me. “But we can,” she said. “We can do this. We can be like you.” She smiled, like she was learning to like it.
The next one caught me in the forehead. A skinny shadow kid whipped a rock at me, a piece of gravel, really, but it burned. The kid made this face, this awful, satisfied nasty face, and I wasn’t shocked anymore. I was angry. I reached out and shoved the red-haired lady back as hard as I could, and she fell, off balance but somehow thrilled.
“Wait, Alyssa—.” Adam tried.
Whack. I slapped her right back with all the strength I had left, hating her, hating them all. And she smiled wider, she looked stronger—energized. She reached across and slapped me even harder. I staggered, my face stung and burned.
“Come on,” I cried to the others. “It’s our only chance.” The shadows didn’t come to help the lady. They just turned to us, like they’d found the best new game ever. I squared off to face them and clenched my hand around my heavy, clanking backpack. Then I shut my eyes, and with my last bits of strength I swung it, its weight of pans and kitchen crap hurdling with a metallic smash into the red-haired lady.
“Alyssa, no!” Adam yelled.
She reeled, blood pouring from a cut on the side of her head. I couldn’t believe she bled, just like a person. She staggered to the side, into a group of other shadows, and they moved away from her and let her fall. My arm was trembling with the force of impact, and I felt sick to my stomach. I tried to stand, to feel stronger. I stepped back but she steadied herself, and turned, and grimaced at me, her mouth wide and triumphant, blood seeping down the side of her head. I got ready for her. She walked towards me, and I swung back my backpack, but instead of hitting me she turned fast—an old lady!—and punched Adam hard in the bloody side of his head.
“Adam!” He sank down to his knees, shaken, looking sick and gray. I took a deep breath, swung my clanking bag again, and struck her in the stomach with a sickening thud. She fell down. But she looked stronger, and I felt weaker.
“Help me!” I screamed to the others. Emily snapped out of her trance and dropped to the ground, rummaging through her backpack. And then everyone was hitting—the shadows were hitting us, they were even hitting each other. Someone kicked me, and I spun over towards Adam. “Come on!” I said to him. I scrambled back towards my backpack and grabbed my frying pan out of it, and Emily shoved another one into his hands. It seemed almost too heavy for me to lift, but I brought it back behind me, because Ernesto was there, skinny and thrilled. I focused on his narrow, disdainful mouth, then swung my frying pan forward with all my strength. It connected full force with his face. Blood streamed from the corners of his mouth and he dropped down. I staggered back, my hands aching, scared for some reason, though he was down, finally, on the ground and weak, blood pooling around his face. I had the weirdest feeling that I should check to see if he was OK.
But then he looked up, his face broken but grinning savagely. His arm bent off the wrong way, and he lifted himself up and moved toward a rock but couldn’t grab it. “And so I will need another body,” he hissed out of his broken mouth. “You are only forcing us to generate more.”
But I’d succeeded in destroying his body, at least in part. “Come on!” I called weakly to the others. “They’re not invincible!” Emily was struggling with a skinny black-haired kid. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw Adam. He had his frying pan in his hand but he was just standing there, not hitting anyone. The old lady with the red hair stood again, and stepped up to him, a rock in her hand. “She’s coming, Adam,” I cried. “Hit her! If you hit them hard they go down!”
He raised up his frying pan. All he had to do was smash it down over her head and then we would have two of them that couldn’t pick up any more rocks. I heard voices screaming all around me, and someone calling my name. The red-haired old lady shadow moved towards Adam, who stood watching her come, his face sweaty, looking terrified.
But he wouldn’t do anything. “Adam!” I cried.
“I won’t,” he said. He lowered the frying pan, and just faced her. And she grinned.
“Adam!” She smashed the rock into his forehead, and he dropped to his knees. She stood over him, and looked over to make sure I saw her, then she raised the rock high. I grabbed my frying pan and crawled towards them. “Leave him alone!” I shouted. I dragged myself across the hard dirt, then staggered to my feet behind her. And she let me—she stood there like she was waiting. Her back was old and fragile, with flat orange freckles across the top knobs of her spine. I raised the frying pan, all the noise and voices a huge mess around me. Except one voice made its way through all of them, Pinky, calling to me from somewhere in the craziness, “Alyssa! Alyssa!”
The old lady turned, catching me with one baleful eye, but I searched till I saw him, being pushed and shoved in a mass of bodies, but not hitting anyone, only trying to reach me. The red-haired lady reached back and jabbed me, but I kept watching Pinky.
“Alyssa!” he called.
“Pinky! Get out of here!” The old lady raised her rock over Adam.
“Alyssa, you’re supposed to be the loophole!”
“You’re the loophole!” And I saw that maybe I couldn’t be nice to them. And I couldn’t destroy them. But if I could save Adam, if I could save anyone at all, maybe that was enough. I stood there, staring. Because if a genocide was completely successful, it meant that no one had tried to save anyone. But that meant, if you could save someone—. I swung back around just as she started to bring the rock down. And instead of hitting her, I dived between her and Adam, and raised my pan. Her rock clanged down on it, vibrating along my arms, missing him.
She staggered forward, off balance, and I kept my pan up in front of Adam. It actually worked better as a shield than as a weapon. I reached down and started writing with my other hand, scratching words in the baked Florida dirt. If a genocide is completely successful, it meant to no one was saved. If A, then B. My fingernail tore and started to bleed. She brought the rock down again and I shifted, deflecting it. It was weaker this time. I kept writing with my other hand, a messy illegible scrawl in the dirt. If –B, then –A. If someone was saved, then a genocide was not completely successful.
And then the red-haired lady just stood there, the rock hanging heavily from her hand. She lifted it up to swing again. Then she staggered for a moment. “Adam?” I said. He was bleeding through his nose and on his forehead, all shiny and covered with sweat. He nodded. “Stay behind me,” I told him. His head was bleeding.
“You can’t save him,” she croaked. But she looked weaker—I knew she did. “You hate us,” she hissed, and then she kicked me where I lay on the ground. But I rolled away. She kicked me again but by then she had lost so much strength it didn’t even hurt.
I grabbed Adam’s giant arm and tried to help him up, but I couldn’t. A few feet away, Ernesto got to his feet, his messed up arm hanging down, and staggered towards us. “Come on, Adam,” I said.
And then Emily was on Adam’s other side, small and strong, hoisting his arm around her shoulders, then Phoebe was helping her. Jacob stood in front of us, to stop her from getting any nearer.
“Alyssa!” Pinky called. “Alyssa!”
We pulled Adam to his feet. What used to be Ernesto stood in front of us, his face broken and strange. “You can’t win,” he rasped out, his jaws clacking. Adam felt heavy and sweaty, like we couldn’t carry him for long.
Ernesto leaned into my face. I could smell the sweat and blood and cafeteria food. “I’m part of you,” he said, then he stood up straight, a surprised look on his face, like he’d just remembered something. Behind him the old lady sat down hard, and made a sharp high sound. Then Ernesto’s shadow just dropped—it slipped off him and onto the ground. It made a quiet sound, like clothes sliding off a chair. For a second there was a shadowy haze in the air. And then he was gone, leaving a smell of blood and metal. Then hers went too, and then one after the other until they were all gone and only the smell was left.
Pinky reached us, slamming into me at high speed. I went down, but Emily, Jacob, and Phoebe kept Adam up. I watched from the ground as the silver drained from his skin, and the air seemed to get lighter again.
I looked at my hands and the skin was just skin, all one color and regular. I sat up, turning my hands over in front of me, feeling a rush of relief and energy. Pinky started running around, waving his hands and shrieking his head off, until he stopped dead.
“What is it?” I got shakily to my feet. His face was open in shock. “Pinky, what is it?”
He said, “Mom.”
I whipped around, and there was my mom, sitting up, leaning against the skinny old palm tree, her hair all messy, smiling.