Everyone was asleep by the time she got back. Ed climbed the stairs in the dark and sat on her bed. The tablet rested silently on her lap. She pressed her hands on its case, feeling it warm.
Over and over she remembered Em’s bare feet scrabbling through the snow.
Where was she? Who was she? What kind of people were they? They weren’t…There was something wrong with those guys. The rich one seemed normal, but those things…
How could you report that? Who would listen?
She jumped when lights came down the street, and went to the window. The shadows passed smoothly over her walls. No one could have followed her. Still…
She curled up on her bed, hugging the tablet.
By the time she stumbled into the kitchen the next morning only Auggie was left, finishing his breakfast.
“Fuuuuuck, Ed, you look like hell.”
How could she start? She sat in her chair, pulling her knees up to her chest.
“She cheating on you?”
“Nothing like that.”
When she didn’t keep talking he sighed and picked up his dishes.
He palled around with car people. Maybe there was something about the black van that could give her a clue.
“Auggie, what kind of vehicles go around without licences?”
“None that I know of.”
“Not even government? Or military?” she added, thinking about how big they’d been.
“Government ones have tags, and military have numbers.” Auggie looked over his shoulder, sponge and plate still in hand. “What’s going on, Ed?”
If she told him he’d want her to ignore it. Or report it to security or police and call it done. And she should. Probably. Emma was probably some freak or criminal. Maybe she was crazy. Maybe those guys were taking her to a hospital.
She found scrap paper and drew the logo that she’d seen on the van. Auggie ambled over, watching.
“Something I saw on a van. A black van. There were no other marks. I must have missed the licence. Can you ask your car friends if they’ve ever seen it?”
“What was this van doing?”
“I just thought it was strange.”
Suzie would have kept asking. Auggie just took the paper, patted her hair, leaving a fluff of soap bubbles, and went to work.
She slept a little, uneasily, then showered. In the mirror she eyed her pink hair. Suzie was right; she always did her hair in bright colours after a break up. How pathetic that there’d been so many that she’d developed a habit. Em would probably like it. Would have…
She got ready for work, deciding on orange shadow. Peach. Something cheerful.
After that she paced the house. The warped floors creaked under her feet, each squeak unique to its place. You could always tell who was going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or going down to steal the last piece of pie. That was how she’d found out there was no Santa; she recognised the sound of her parents making their way downstairs, arms full of toys.
Today the silence felt guilty. Or she felt guilty and was projecting wildly. When she put on some music she let it stop at the end of the playlist.
Where was she? Who was she? Why had she been taken away like that? Except for her awkwardness there was nothing weird about her. At least, nothing worthy of being dragged away. She hadn’t seemed crazy. Not to her.
She called in sick and crawled back into bed, tablet under her hand. The silence passed from oppressive into comforting. She let her eyes close.
She screamed, struggling with the blanket tangled around her. The early winter night had come in. Auggie straightened up.
“What’s going on?”
She reached for the lamp and he slapped her hand.
“No light. Ed, what the hell was that symbol? Where did you see it?”
“I told you. It was on a van. What happened? Did someone recognise it?”
He peered at her in the faint silvery light from the street.
“No. Not for sure. A couple of guys said they heard about these vans that come down from the upper city through Middlefield. They say they just get waved through without security checks. There’s all these stories, you know. Rich kids slumming or surveillance or something. Mostly bullshit. Gil decided to search for the symbol but nothing came up.”
He froze when lights traveled over the wall. She heard his relieved exhalation when it passed without pause.
“I went to get lunch. When I came back the guys were gone. There were these huge men in suits by the door. I think they were waiting for me.”
“Are you okay? Oh fuck, Auggie I’m sorry.”
He waved it off. “I ran off. Took me forever to get back here.”
He froze again. There were no lights, but it felt like a vehicle of some kind. It was like feeling the air move.
“We gotta go, Ed.”
She barely had time to grab her bag and Em’s tablet before Auggie dragged her out the door.
“Where are we going.”
“Just drive into the city.”
“What about Mom and Dad and Suzie?”
“I called Suzie and told her to send them to Aunt Sandra’s. I told her to be careful.”
She kept the light off, puttering slowly through the back alley. The end was always blocked with trash and Auggie hopped down to clear a path. She looked back. The dark windows of their house flashed. Not the main lights. Search lights. Someone was moving around in the dark.
He glanced back, then ripped a tarp out of the way, sending a clutch of rats scattering. Ed’s skin crawled. She felt the rumble again and edged the bike behind the pile of garbage. Auggie pressed himself against the fence across from her. They stared at each other while a black van sharked along the street. A light flashed once, casting stark shadows across the snow.
It hummed on. The feel of it faded. She fired up the bike again
“Like you’re trying to lose someone. Like in movies.”
He made her drive for a long time. She spontaneously changed directions, trying to get lost once the traffic started getting heavier. Finally he told her to go to an hourly hotel they both knew. It was anonymous and it took cash. Auggie turned on her as soon as they were in the room.
The look in his eye stopped her short. His sudden arrival and the ride had felt unreal, but seeing the fear in her brother’s eyes made it crash around her. She sat on the bed abruptly, knees weak.
She told him all that she knew, spilling it all in a confused tangle. It felt like nothing. Less than nothing, because it was suddenly so serious.
“Fuck. Ed, why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t know! I thought maybe it was a hospital or something. Maybe she was…maybe she was s-sick…”
She tried to keep her lips from trembling. She hated crying anyway, but in front of Auggie would be worse.
The bed sank. She sniffled miserably and scrubbed at her eyes.
“We’ll figure it out, Ed. Suzie will know what to do.”
“She’s gonna be pissed.”
She was. Ed and Auggie sat while she harangued them for an hour. She did it after making sure that they were both all right, and assuring them that their parents were okay, though. She only stopped when her voice gave out and she had to stop for water.
“Right. We’re going to report this to the police tomorrow.” She looked around the room. It was clean, but obviously meant for dirty things. She made a particular face. Despite the situation Auggie rolled his eyes. Ed tried to smother her smile.
“Do you think the police are going to help?” Auggie asked.
“Help? Help what? Ed stole a goddamn tablet. We’re going to explain what happened and give it back.”
“Back to the people who dragged her away?” Ed stood up. “People who go around kidnapping other people?”
“Yes. So it isn’t us who get taken next.”
“We can’t just let her be taken away!”
“Yes, we can. For fuck’s sake, Ed, you barely know her. Now Mom and Dad are scared and we’re acting like criminals in a crap hotel room. You’ve gotten us all in trouble just because your latest piece is batshit crazy.”
Ed felt it like a slap to the face.
“Suzie, that was cold.”
“It’s all right, Auggie. You can’t expect Suzie to understand. Love is just something that would get in her way.”
“Love? You think it’s love?” Suzie laughed. “Come on, Ed. You’ve ‘loved’ every girl you’ve dated, and they’ve all been gone a week later.”
“At least I feel something.”
“And look where it got us.”
“C’mon, guys. Cut it out.”
“This none of our business,” Suzie said, bulldoggish as always. “If someone broke the law it’s up to the city to deal with it. Not us.”
“Not if they came from the upper city.”
It stopped Suzie talking. They’d all heard stories. Everyone knew that if you got into trouble with someone from the upper city that they’d end up being let go. At least they didn’t come down often, but some of them liked slumming.
“Even more reason to get clear of it,” she said, finally. “Come here.”
Ed did, just because it was habit. Way easier than fighting her only to have her win in the end anyway. Suzie took out a wet tissue and cleaned her eyes.
“How long was her make up smeared?”
“Not that long.”
“Jerk.” It was an Auggie thing to do, so she didn’t mind.
“Let’s get some rest. We’ll go to the police first thing.”
Auggie offered to take the floor, but Ed refused. It was her fault anyway. Why should they suffer? She lay awake, listening to the unfamiliar gurgles and the thumps of strangers with different schedules and different ideas of quiet. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw Em, and the way the slabs had easily picked her up off her feet and put her into the van. She wasn’t all that big anyway, just verging on too thin, but in that moment she’d been like a doll.
That guy in his fancy coat. He’d been involved. Unlike the slabs he just seemed like a regular person. So why did he have her tablet? Was it trafficking? Was Em..?
She rolled onto her side. It didn’t seem like that kind of thing, but what did she know about it?
That guy looked like he knew his way around the under city. She bet he came down to fuck around. The van hadn’t taken him away, so maybe those guys were on the same team, but they weren’t together. So he must use under city transportation. So he would have to go through an Exchange. Auggie said the stories about the vans were about the Middlefield Exchange.
She got up and dressed, using the dim light from the window to find her bag and the tablet. She felt a stab of guilt at leaving them, but maybe this way whatever happened would only happen to her.
The icy wind made her stomach tighten. She felt cold and miserable, hating the slabs even more, as she tucked her scarf into her jacket. They should all be home in their own beds. Maybe she could convince Emma to spend the night. She bet Emma would make breakfast. It would be healthy, too.
She screamed when a hand descended on her shoulder, swinging her paralyser. Auggie swore and jumped back.
“What the fuck, Ed?”
“You’re lucky.” She shook the tiny injector.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna find the guy I swiped Em’s tablet from.”
“How’re you going to do that?”
“I have a plan.”
“Wait at Middlefield until you see him?”
Normally she’d react to Auggie’s smug smile. She looked away, pulling on her mask.
“I have to do something. No one else gives a shit.”
“It’s not that we don’t care.” He paused. “It’s not that I don’t care, anyway. I know you want to help, but we’re out of our depth here.” She rooted through her bag searching for her scarf. “The police will tell us what happened when they find it out. You’ll have done your bit. She’ll come back or she won’t. Nothing you can do about it. Ed!”
He grabbed her arm. She shook him off.
God, she was wearing the fucking thing. Stupid.
She zipped up the bag and pulled it on.
“Maybe she’s no different than any other loser I brought home for Suzie to disapprove of. I don’t know. But when I’m with her I don’t want to be…I don’t know. Negative. She makes me try to be happy. I just…I just want to see her again.”
“I don’t know! What’s it to you anyway?”
“You’re our sister, stupid.”
They both turned. Suzie was watching her. She was a little frustrated. Maybe a little sad. That was a new one.
“You were always so much better than anyone you brought home.”
Ed felt heat rise in her cheeks and looked down, popping a little ball of ice under her boot.
“Hey, Suze…What’s up?”
She turned on Auggie. “You’re both crap at sneaking around.”
Suzie looked at her, and Ed didn’t recognise that expression at all.
“Well, we have the tablet you stole. Maybe there’s some clue on it.”
She looked at Auggie. He shrugged.
“I didn’t want to try and start it. In case they could track it somehow.”
“Right. Smart. Well, I know a guy.”