Loopholes, Chapter 41

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I grabbed my bag with the frying pan and the pig flashlight and followed them. We started through the tunnels. “Did she tell you what we’re supposed to do?” he said.

“No,” I said. “It’s bad.” I tried to explain about my dad and the equation. “And she didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. I have no idea what Phoebe has. I only know—.”

“What?” He walked heavily, my mom on his shoulder slowing him down.

“That we shouldn’t betray each other,” I said, fast. “They liked that.”

“Yeah,” he said nodding. “OK.” And that’s all he said. And so I could keep walking. “I don’t know,” he said, out of breath. “They just seemed to get more and more energized. They kept turning on more and more lights, until one of them said they were ready. That now was the time.” He was breathing hard, and I tried not to look at my mom hanging upside down on his back. “They got all worked up, pushing each other to try to get out. They didn’t even seem to notice that we were there anymore, they just scattered. So Emily and Jacob followed them, and I came to find you and your mom. I think maybe, you know, the fact that the shadows are so negative towards each other might make them easier to work against.”

“Yeah right, I don’t know,” I said. We walked. “My mom has…she’s turned silvery. They had her in this box, and it’s where they do whatever it is to them, and it’s like they were hollowing her out and she was already taking on all their bad feeling and—.”

“But you got her,” Adam said. He had to stop and shift her.

“Yeah. And sorry, she’s heavy,” I said.

“She’s OK.”

“I can help,” I offered.

He stopped, and together we made a platform out of our arms like you do in Girl Scouts, and we shifted her onto it. She slumped against me, then fell against him as we moved ahead.

“What are we going to do when we get up there?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.” She was so heavy, and we stumbled along, mashing into the walls of the tunnel, almost falling once, until we got to the ladder. Then he picked her up and shifted her over his shoulder, and used his other hand to climb. I followed him, watching my mom’s head bounce when he moved, and her arms hang loose.

He pressed against the door until it swung open with a horrible creak, and we were out in the air again. The sun was low. And there they were, the shadows, blinking at the light, clustered on the basketball court.

Loopholes, Chapter 40

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I got my arms around her, and shifted her so she wasn’t on broken glass, and dragged her out until we were on the tunnel floor, away from the box, near the wall. She had a thin tracing of blood on her forehead from where the glass flecks had cut her.

She was breathing—that’s what I kept reminding myself, as I tried to move her away from the glass: she’s breathing. And her face was still, not twisted and angry like it had been, just pale and gray. Her eyes were closed, and as I watched her, silver washed across her skin like a spreading stain.

I sat on the floor next to her and shook her shoulder. “Mom?”

And here is the absolutely infuriating and excellent thing about my mother: she fluttered open her eyes and she started to laugh.

“Mom! It’s not funny!”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was weak and her eyes were teary, but you could tell from her face that she was just trying not to laugh again.

“Mom, this is serious!”

“I know, sweetheart, but your hair.”

I touched my stupid hat, and took it off.

“Oh my,” she whispered. She reached over and rested her cold hand on mine. “Alyssa.” She closed her eyes again as though she was falling asleep.

Mom.” I shook her shoulder. “You have to wake up. Everything is crazy, and Mom: what about if A, then B?”

She wrinkled her forehead as though she was trying to remember, though she didn’t open her eyes. “Then if not B, not A? Is this a logic test?”

“Mom!” I looked around. I didn’t even know how to get us out of there. “You were writing equations, right? And you left something in the house before they came and got you or whatever. The shadows, Mom? And Phoebe sent me the equation, but that’s all it says, Mom, and it’s not helping. What are we supposed to do?” Her eyes started closing again, and I shook her shoulder, hard. “It’s important.”

“Oh!” And any laughter drained from her face. She tried to open her eyes and sit up. “What’s happened?” She was really weak.

“I don’t know—they’re these shadows, and there used to be loopholes, and—just tell me how to stop it, Mom, can you?”

“Oh Alyssa.” She looked at me, her eyes searching my face. “I’m so sorry. You weren’t supposed to—.”

“Yeah, well the lizards found me.”

“The lizards,” she whispered, and she almost smiled again. “They thought that was a good idea.” She tried to shift onto her side so she could see me better, but she couldn’t even quite move herself. “I told them to leave you alone, but they said you could do it.”

I looked down. “I betrayed everyone,” I whispered.

“Alyssa.” She touched me again. Her hand was really cold. “It’s not about that.”

“What is it about?” I asked. “What are we supposed to do? How does any of it work? Mom, you have to tell me what you know. What happened to Dad?”

She closed her eyes again, like even hearing that hurt. I tried to listen for sounds in the hallway, for something, I didn’t know what. But it was quiet in an echoing, terribly way, like we were the only ones down there and the air was slowly emptying out. “It’s sort of funny,” she said. “It started out as a logic problem, if you can believe that,” and she almost smiled.

“Yeah, Mom, that’s actually not so funny, and also: what are you talking about?”

She sighed. “I’m talking about how it started. Oh Alyssa. It was so long ago. Your dad and I, remember how we used to work together? This was years ago.” Her eyelids fluttered, like she was sick, but she kept talking, pausing to catch her breath. “You know—I work with morality, and your father is…was, more of an expert on logic. Your father was so impossible,” and she smiled, just happy to be remembering him. I leaned in closer to hear her. Her voice was getting thready and strange. Her skin was getting more and more glittery, and I wanted her to keep talking, but I thought we needed to get outside too. The shadows couldn’t really be outside, could they? Weren’t they not OK in the sun except for that one with red hair? But I didn’t want her to stop talking. “We were at a conference, in Prague, which is such a lovely city!” Her voice sounded light and almost happy, like it hadn’t sounded in so, so long. “Your dad and I got to talking about how so many people participate in genocides, you know? Perfectly ordinary people, people who you think wouldn’t. People who later go on to be perfectly nice, they do terrible, terrible things. That’s how genocides work, there has to be participation or they don’t happen.” She stopped. She almost seemed to fall asleep, but then she started again. “Dad wondered about the…implications.” She breathed in and tried to keep talking. “If there were all these ordinary people who would participate, well, what about the other people? What about the people who didn’t participate?”

“The loopholes,” I said.

“Yes, the loopholes,” she said. “Just one person to help others escape. It…it changes things. And you know Dad.” Her voice was faint. Her eyes were closed. “What do you think Dad did?”

“He made it into an equation,” I said, because that’s what my dad did with everything. He loved writing equations.

The ghost of a smile was on my mom’s face. “Yes. He transcribed it into a logic problem. An if, then problem. If a genocide was unsuccessful, that meant someone had tried to stop it. And then he looked at the contrapositive. What would happen if no one had tried to stop it?”

“Then not A,” I said. “Then it wouldn’t be unsuccessful? I mean—.” I stopped. I got it. “If no one tried to stop it, then it would be successful. Like, totally successful.”

“Yes. He wrote that equation down, and—and it distressed him very much. He went for a walk.” Her voice got ragged and tight. “He called me from his cell phone, on his way back, to tell me to erase it, that it was a mistake. And that’s when….”

“That’s when he got hit by the car?” I said. “When he was trying to tell you?”

She nodded, exhausted. Her eyes filled with tears, and she was quiet. “And then, slowly at first, things started to happen. And they started to get worse. I thought it was just me. I thought it was the effects of mourning. And then the paper we were working on vanished somewhere. And somewhere along the way I realized,” she grabbed my arm with her hand, but she was so weak I hardly felt it. “I realized that it was connected. I should have known,” she said. “When he was writing out the equation, it felt like the room went dark.” She stopped talking.

“Mom, how do you reverse the equation?” I shook her shoulder. “Mom? How do you reverse a contrapositive? Can you just reverse it: If someone tried to stop it….”

“You can’t,” she said. “That’s not sufficient to make the opposite. You can’t undo logic,” she said. “It just…it just is.” Her head lolled back.

“OK, I have to get you out of here,” I said.

“Alyssa.” She smiled, but didn’t open her eyes. “Go. Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m not leaving you here. Come on, I’ll carry you. Stop laughing!” I took her arm, which felt way too limp, and put it around my shoulder, then tried to get my arm under her knees to stand her up. She was heavy. “OK, Mom, we’re going to stand up now. You have to hold on.”

“Alyssa.” She opened her eyes. Even they looked silvery and far away. “It’s OK, kid. All right?”

I tried to get my balance before I stood up with her. “No, it’s not OK, actually. It’s not. There’s too many people. There’s the guy from the store down by the bus station, and Officer Rivera, and the lady at the Laundromat—.”

“Who’s Officer Rivera?” she asked sleepily.

“Never mind. Mom, now hold on or—.”

“Just be good, sweetie.”

“Yeah,” I staggered. “OK. Promise. Now on the count of three—.”

“Alyssa!” She grabbed my arm with her weak hand. “You’re not listening!” Her voice strained, it seemed like she could barely keep talking.

“I’m listening, Mom. Now: one. Two.”

“Be good.”

“Three!” I stood up, and staggered there for a second, with my mom in my arms, and then one foot slid out from under me and we collapsed on the ground, scraping the wall on the way down.

My mom was on top of me, completely limp. I said, “Mom, get off of me,” for a while until I finally half shoved her, half rolled out from under her, then sat up, panting, while she lay on the ground, dirt scraped in her hair and across her pale silvery face. She looked like she was dead. I didn’t have the strength to lift her. I closed my eyes, and tried to remember what, if anything, could help me. “Lizards,” I whispered. But nothing came.

And then a heavy, warm hand touched my shoulder. I flinched around. “Adam,” I said.

“Come on,” he said. “Emily and Jacob snuck out to try to find Phoebe. I’m supposed to find you. But we have to go outside. They can be in sunlight now. They’re stronger, and they’re outside, and—wait. Is this your mother?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He looked down at us collapsed there on top of each other. He nodded, and then be bent down and put his giant arm underneath her, and heaved her up. She hung there, heavily. “OK,” he said, breathing hard under her weight. “Come on. We’ll go up together.”

Loopholes, Chapter 39

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It was cold inside the box. The seat was glass, or something like it, so smooth and polished I almost slipped off. I lowered my backpack to the floor where it settled with a clank. I leaned back and let my head rest against the cold, glass wall. He slid the door shut with a smooth chunk and walked away at that same, measured pace.

And then we were alone in our side-by-side boxes. Me and my mother—or what used to be my mother. She stared ahead with her face set. And even though it was maybe just the outside of her, I just wished I could talk to her again, that she would somehow, some way, be OK. “Hey,” I said. Nothing. “Hey!”

I grabbed for the handle of the door. Except there was no handle on the inside, it was nothing but cool, smooth thick glass. I hit it with my hand, hard. Nothing. Again. Nothing. It made me so mad!

I kicked my stupid backpack and banged my toe so hard tears came to my eyes. I grabbed my foot and then I stopped and let it go. Because my backpack clanked. And when I kicked it, I hurt my toe: the frying pan.

I opened my backpack and there it was, the heaviest one, Grandma’s cast-iron special. I hefted it—it was heavy. Then I stood up. “Mom?” I called. She looked over at me, her face twisted and mistrustful and full of venom. It scared me, but I said, “I’m going to get us out of here, hang on!” Her face didn’t change. But maybe it would, I told myself. Maybe it still could. Or else why was she still there?

I hauled the frying pan over my shoulder, lifted it up, and swung it into the wall. The pan shuddered in my hands and the glass made a dull cracking sound. But nothing, no change. My mom—if it was still my mom—kept watching. I hauled the pan back again, swung it high above my head, and brought it down. The impact was so intense I staggered. But again: nothing. I brought it back and shut my eyes, every frustration built so high in me, and I wailed it down with a long, hoarse scream. It whacked into the wall with a thunderous crack. The glass shimmered in the air for a moment, then dropped like a curtain, shattering.

The air washed over me. I shook myself, like I’d just gotten out of the water, taking huge gasps of air.

“Mom.” I came over to her box, lugging the frying pan and my backpack. I tried to pretend she wasn’t looking at me the way she was, that it would change when I got her out of there. My arms were weak and trembling. I still held the frying pan. I put my hand up against the glass. If I blurred out her face, she looked like herself. Her profile was the same. It was her, it had to be her. My throat got tight. My arms were heavy with exhaustion. “Mom?” My voice caught in my throat. “Mom, be careful. Now!”

I swung the frying pan over my head and smashed it into her wall. A long crack flashed up the side. Her eyes followed it.

“Mom!” I called. “Cover yourself!” She just looked to where the crack had almost reached the top of the glass wall. Her face didn’t change. Then with all my might and a crazy, desperate yowl I slammed the pan right into the crack and the wall exploded with a heavy echoing crash.

Glass showered down around us. The air from inside the box smelled cold and stale. “Mom?” Her face was turned to me. She had tiny pieces of glass in her hair like jewels.

“Mom?” I reached in to where she sat—she hadn’t moved. A thin line of blood ran down her face from where a fleck of glass had struck her forehead. I touched her shoulder. It felt loose but alive. The awful, angry look was gone, but in its place was a look of sick and profound exhaustion. “Mom?” Her lips were moving, just the tiniest bit. I leaned in close. “Mom?”

She put out her hand towards me, then she landed on the floor in a heap.

Loopholes, Chapter 38

(Start here.) (Or just go backwards.)

“You know, I get that you want to experience the world, but it’s not really in such great shape,” I offered as we walked.

“Yes, that is due to humans.”

“Well, yes,” I admitted. “But it’s not going to be here forever either. I mean, the sun is a star and all. It’s going to burn out or explode sooner or later.”

“We’ve accounted for that.” The corridor seemed to stretch on and on. The shadow-Ernesto walked with this easy confident stride, much smoother than the last time we were there, and I reminded myself that I didn’t even have the thing to give them, that I couldn’t betray anyone: I had nothing left to give.

And with no warning, no special announcement or anything, my mother was there. Well not there, exactly. She was sitting inside a see-through box, tucked away in a corner of the tunnel like Snow White in her glass coffin. She wasn’t silver at all. Her eyes were open and she was facing me but her expression didn’t change. I tried not to look to the sides, where there were rows and rows of empty boxes just like the one she was in, because I knew it meant something bad and I didn’t want to think about what that was.

“Mom!” It was her! Except somehow it wasn’t. She kept looking at me. She didn’t smile, she just looked. Something inside my chest felt like it broke.

“Mom?” Her curly brown hair was pulled behind her in her old silver clasp. She had the roadrunner bandaid on her finger. She was looking at me with a pinched awful look—it wasn’t her at all. “There’s something wrong,” I told Ernesto. “That’s not my mother.”

“This is your mother,” he said. “Now you must give me what you have.”

My breath got short in my chest, like my lungs couldn’t expand. “No, I won’t, because that’s not my mother.”

“That is exactly like a human,” he said. “You don’t like the outcome, so you try to deny its truth.”

“Alyssa,” the thing that looked like my mother said flatly, “I am your mother.”

“You’re lying!” I cried at her. “You’re not my mother!”

“Give it to me,” Ernesto said, except he didn’t seem upset, he seemed—relaxed, happy, like everything was going just how he wanted it to, like none of this surprised him.

“What did you do with her?” I shrieked at the fake mother. “Give her back!”

Ernesto, watching me scream at the thing that looked like my mother, smiled. My arms and legs got buzzy and weak. “She is just in the process of transformation, that is all.”

“You CANNOT use her body,” I hissed at him. “Take me to my mother, my real mother.

“This is your real mother. We can do a DNA analysis to prove—”

“That’s not what I mean!”

“Give me what you have,” he said with that half smile.

“Never! Never. And I couldn’t anyway,” I spit at him. “You know why? Because I don’t even have it! I never had it, you stupid thing! Phoebe has it, and it’s somewhere else, and she’s going to use and she’s going to make you disappear!”

And instead of recoiling in horror, he smiled this satisfied smile, like I’d given him the best news, just what he’d been waiting for. “So,” he said. “You betrayed them all for nothing. With nothing.”

I stepped back, trembling. “I didn’t betray anyone.”

“Because you couldn’t,” he said. “But you would have. And you did—in words, in intention, in thought.” He put his hand on the glass box next to hers. “I think this is the right place for you.”

“No.”

He slid open the glass door, while my mother’s sharp eyes followed him. A waft of cold, dead air came out of the box. “Go in. Betrayer.”

“No! I’m not a betrayer. And I won’t go in!” I tried to make my voice sound strong, but my legs felt weirdly weak. I looked down and saw my bones through my skin.

“Get in,” he said. The door was open and the inside was smooth and gleaming. It looked like it would be cool to the touch. And why not go in anyway, I wondered. Because he was right: I would have done it, wouldn’t I? I mean, I didn’t say, “Never!” when they asked. I said—well, I’d said OK, I knew I had. And saying OK seemed like it had given them the extra power they needed. I took one small step. My legs felt heavy and sleepy. He looked at me. “Get in.”

I looked back at him. I never realized before how much you end up looking at people to see what they’re thinking, and how weird it is when looking at them you have no idea. I looked at what used to be my mother. I didn’t even know why I’d screamed at it—it wasn’t her fault she was gone. There was nothing connecting me to anyone anymore. “Get in,” he said. And I did.

Loopholes, Chapter 37

(Start here.) (Or just go backwards.)

We were back at the entrance to the tunnels. Adam lifted the flap of grass so we could see the metal door underneath. I tried to think of what we had: Adam, Emily, Jacob. A backpack with maybe $60 left, some frying pans, some leftover beef jerky, and a flashlight shaped like a pig. The other chocolate bar got eaten long ago. A bunch of kids who were disappearing, including me: a person who might betray anyone. Who’d said she would betray everyone.

Adam pulled open the door and started to climb down, and I went after him. The tunnel air was cold and damp. Jacob and Emily came down behind me, then pulled the door closed with a creaking metallic sound. I was scared, so scared it was a little hard to breathe. I wished my mother were there, or Phoebe.

They were at the bottom, as still as if they’d been there the whole time waiting for us. I heard Jacob suck in his breath behind me. There were more of them than before, lots of Asian people from some terrible genocide I didn’t want to think about.

Ernesto was at the front, next to the old lady with the red hair and the terrible face. He looked eager in some terrible way—they all did. They murmured together, and then he said, “OK, give it to us now.”

My scalp prickled with sweat and panic. We didn’t have anything to give, and we didn’t have anything to hold back. All we had was ourselves. But they didn’t know that. “Not until I see my mother first,” I said. And I smiled, like I was the kind of person who would betray the whole world. Because maybe if I could get them to believe that, we had a chance.

They didn’t even hesitate. “As we expected,” Ernesto said, and Jacob grabbed my hand in his icy cold one.

“You’ll show me my mother?” I said.

“You’ll give us what you have.”

“First I have to see her,” I said, dizzy.

“Follow me,” Ernesto said.

“We get to see Mom?” Jacob cried.

“No,” Ernesto said. “Only the betrayer.”

I opened my mouth and shut it again.

“No, Alyssa, I want to see her, too,” Jacob said.

“You stay here,” I told him. “Stay with Emily, don’t come with me.” He stepped back, stung, toward Emily, and I acted like that was totally fine. I could feel Adam and Emily and Jacob tense up beside me.

“Come, Betrayer.” Ernesto’s voice was as flat as his eyes. You could almost smell it on all of them—the embodiment of every negative impulse anyone ever had.

“It’s OK,” I said to the others, though it didn’t seem OK at all. I felt like I was walking down a long hall, and there was only an end, no doors left. But there wasn’t anything else to do.

He started walking, and I hefted my clanking junk-filled backpack onto my shoulder, and followed his narrow back down the dark tunnel, leaving everyone else behind.