I remembered this time Liam was in tenth grade, I think, and he’d gotten a job at Jiffy Lube. It didn’t last long. He’d only done it to appease Dad, that whole macho thing. But Liam said if Dad ever asked about the gunk around his cuticles, he could always claim it was grease.
Pink grease? Right, Liam. Good thing Dad never asked.
As Bruchac began to explain our first assignment, scribbling equations on the board that might as well have been scientific notation in Swahili, Chris seemed enthralled with the way water trickles through a loose fist. This might’ve hypnotized me all day, too, if Bruchac’s voice hadn’t sliced through the stupor. “Before we begin,” he said, “in the top drawer you’ll find a laminated sheet titled, ‘Laboratory Safety Guidelines.’ Remove this now, if you will, and read along with me.”
I pulled on the drawer handle. It stuck. I gave it a good yank. It wouldn’t budge. Chris jimmied it. No use. He bent down to check underneath, while I braced against the cabinet leg with my foot and wrenched on the handle. The drawer flew open, smacking Chris in the forehead. He grunted and reeled backward, losing his balance and thudding to the floor on his butt. His stool teetered and fell on top on him. Everyone around us snarkled with laughter.
I died. As I slid off my stool to help him up, he scrabbled to his feet. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m cool,” Chris said.
I reached over to brush him off. God, I almost touched him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, as he righted his stool. “I’m sorry. Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine.” Chris slammed the drawer back into the slot. He seemed mad.
He resettled on his stool.
“I’m really sorry. Are you okay? I mean it, I’m sorry. I didn’t think —”
“I’m fine, Regan.” He looked at me, hard. “Regan,” he said again and smiled. “I like your name.”
My name. It sounded strange coming from his lips. Sounded . . . nice. I never liked my name. It was a last name, not a girl’s name. He wasn’t mad. Good.
Bruchac was eyeing Chris and me over his glasses. He was mad. Oops. Not missing a beat, Bruchac continued his recitation. He was on safety tip number four by the time my brain caught up. “‘Report all accidents. No accident is too small to report. Five. Know the location of fire exits.’ Mister,” Bruchac scanned his class list, “Garazzo. Can you point out the fire exits?”
Chris flinched beside me. He long-armed the two doors. “Front. Rear,” he crossed his arms, “and over the wings. Emergency exits must remain clear at all times.”
Bruchac sighed wearily. “‘Safety glasses,’” he went on, “‘i.e., splash-proof goggles, must be worn while working with any chemical that could be harmful to the eyes.’” Bruchac paused and glanced up. “This means at all times. Sorry, girls. It’s a state law. Chemistry is not a beauty contest.”
Oh, brother, I thought. Talk about sexist.
Chris muttered, “Pig.”
I was beginning to like this guy. Not Bruchac.
“‘In addition, you must confine long hair while working in the laboratory. Keep it away from flames and machinery.’ Girls.” He widened his eyes at us again. “Got that?”
Hey, come on. There were guys with long hair, too.
My head tingled suddenly. Chris dangled my hair over the Bunsen burner and went, “Pssst.” Made me laugh. Too loud.
Bruchac nailed us with a death look. Chris and I ducked our heads, but couldn’t suppress the snickering.
As Bruchac wandered around, noting lab partners on his chart and passing out the first lab assignment, Chris surveyed the contents of our cabinets. He located the goggles and handed me a pair. “You must wear these at all times,” he mimicked. “It’s a state law, girls. Chemistry is not a beauty contest.” He snapped the elastic band over his head. I copied him and put mine on.
We looked at each other through the clear plastic, and burst out laughing again. Me, because I was hysterical. Him, because I looked like a geek.
Bruchac stalled in front of our station to glare and tick off our names. Apparently, fun was not an element of chemistry. He handed us the lab paper and moved on.
Chris plastered the single sheet against his goggles. “What are we supposed to do first?” he asked. “I can’t read this.”
It was a terrible Xerox, like Bruchac couldn’t splurge on fresh toner for us. I scanned the sheet and read out loud, “‘Inventory the supplies. Familiarize yourselves with the lab equipment. Count the test tubes and pipets —’”
“Who are the Pipettes?” Chris goosenecked the room. “Are they here?”
I went to smack him, but stopped myself in time.
“Is this a good school?” Chris asked suddenly. “I mean, I transferred here to play ball, since Horizon took state last year. Hewitt’s, like, a legend. I’d kill to play for him. What’s the social life like? I hear it’s a big party scene.”
He was asking me? My social life consisted of one word: utter void. Okay, that’s two words, but you get the gist. “Yeah, it’s wild,” I said. According to Aly and Liam, who actually got invited to parties. Aly got invited more often, and dragged Liam along when he’d go. Although, Liam was pretty popular himself. With girls, anyway.
I felt Chris staring at me. What? He was just staring, his dark eyes boring holes into the side of my face. I swiveled my head slowly to face him.
His eyes dropped.
Did he blush? I thought only girls blushed. Liam blushed, but he was a girl.
Chris mumbled, “Sorry. You’re just . . .”
“Are you two planning your wedding or what?” Bruchac boomed behind us.
We both jumped.
“You might want to get hopping on this assignment before the honeymoon is over.”
I twisted around. Bruchac’s tie drew my attention, since it was dangling in my face. Down the entire length, a hundred little Tweety Birds were embroidered in full color. Please. Why not advertise you’re Looney Tunes?
“You’re Liam O’Neill’s sister, aren’t you?” Bruchac said.
I turned back.
He added, “I just now made the connection.”
Break it, I thought. Every semester I deliberately avoided taking classes taught by the teachers Liam had had, since he was like their wunderkind. Scientists should publish the definitive study that proves genius does not run in families. Ever since I started school, I felt like I had this older sister to live up to. She was smarter, nicer, prettier — or would’ve been if she could dress the part. Liam’s footsteps were way too big for me to follow in. I kept tripping on his high heels.
Bruchac circled our lab station and pointed a finger me; actually waggled it in my face, as if to say, “I’ve got your number now, missy.”
Crap. Why was he the only one teaching Chem I?
Bruchac addressed the room, “I have high expectations of everyone in this class.” In a lowered voice, he added, “Especially you, Ms. O’Neill, now that I know.” He trundled off toward the front.
Chris arched eyebrows at me.
He said under his breath, “On the A.B.S, I put Bruchac at ten.”
I frowned. “The A.B. what?”
“A.B.S. Asshole Behavior Scale.”
I grinned. He got that right.
We busied ourselves with the assignment. We were deep into counting pipets and test tubes when Chris reached over and wrote at the bottom of our inventory sheet:
I blinked up at him. “Huh?”
“Say the words,” he told me. “Keep repeating them. Let me know what you come up with.” He clinked both sides of a beaker with glass pipets.
I read aloud, “Sofa king wee Todd did.” Again. “Sofa king —”
I got it. I burst into laughter. I couldn’t stop laughing. My eyes began to tear. I was giggling so hard it got Chris going and we sank to the floor to fly under Bruchac’s radar.
The bell saved us. “Turn in your inventory forms and you’re dismissed,” Bruchac said over the rising din.
Chris stood up and began to scratch out his Sofa King message on the inventory form. I snatched the sheet out from under his pencil. Rushing it to the front, I smacked it atop the stack of assignments on Bruchac’s desk and exaggerated a smile. Bruchac smiled back and winked.
At the door I turned and sailed a real smile across the room to Chris. He seemed kind of freaked, but I didn’t think he had anything to worry about. Bruchac’d never figure out the joke. And if he did, maybe he’d figure out something else — I wasn’t Liam.
My head was still in a helium balloon when I floated into the house after school. Wow, I had a lab partner. I flung open the basement door and the lights flickered. Down the stairwell, I called, “Yo.”
Liam had rigged up a silent alarm system years ago — his safeguard against detection, should anyone wander downstairs while he was dressed as Lia Marie. Excuse me — Luna. He’d wired it so the basement lights blinked on and off whenever the door opened. It used to drive Dad crazy. For months he searched the electrical system for a short, and never could find the problem. For times when the lights weren’t on, Liam had programmed sound effects to mimic footfalls on the stairs. Creak, creak, creak. It felt like you were tripping off to Transylvania.
Liam was careful. Paranoid, actually. He’d never been caught. At least, not by Mom or Dad.
It seemed like a lot of worry for nothing. The parental units pretty much designated the basement as our private space. We had our bedrooms and shared bathroom down there, plus the big room where we could hang out and watch TV. Mom and Dad rarely ventured downstairs, and when they did they always announced themselves. The way I do automatically. Which, if you think about it, is weird behavior for parents. Aren’t they usually nosing around, invading your space? Aly’s parents were, which is why she hung out here.
As usual, Alyson was in the basement playing video games with Liam. His job — one of them — was a game tester. This company, Games People Play or something stupid like that, downloaded beta versions of all the new games their cyber-heads created, then sicced Liam on them. It was his job to play all the levels, to evaluate them, rate their fun factor, graphics, ease or difficulty of user interaction. Most of what he spent time on was seeing if he could crash the system. And he usually did. It got to where the geeks were asking him to look at the code and fix bugs. The company paid him megabucks to do this. Their kid wizard, they called him.
From the computer speakers mounted overhead, a scream split the air — Aaah! It was Alyson’s voice. My feet hit the bottom steps running. “Are you okay?” I dropped my pack at her side. “What happened?”
She glanced over, briefly. “He vaporized me.” She returned to the monitor, thumb-punching her joystick. “Dammit, Liam. How did you find me?” Aly said.
Liam’s voice echoed out of the speakers: “Ha. Ha. Ha.” A sinister laugh. Spooky.
Liam pressed a series of buttons on his joystick and I crouched beside Aly to study the monitor. The characters in the game were Alyson and Liam, perfect clones, right down to their clothes. “How’d you do that?” I asked.
Neither responded. A fireball shot out of a handheld bazooka that Liam was carting. Alyson pedaled down an alley, but the blazing cannonball hit her square in the back. Her scream made my ears squinch. Blood splattered the screen and dribbled down. The Aly clone dissolved in green goo. “Goddammit, Liam,” live Aly shrieked. “Give me a chance, at least.”
His laugh echoed overhead: “Ha. Ha. Ha.” Live Liam smirked at Alyson. “You’re toast, baby.”
“What is this game?” I asked again.
Alyson flung her joystick to the ground. “Something Liam’s writing. He’s fixed it so he’s the only one who can win.” She scrambled to her feet.
“Not true,” Liam said, tallying his score and hers. “The characters are able to learn from their mistakes. Unfortunately, you keep making the same one. I told you, Aly, stay out of dark alleys.”
She slapped him on the head. “Kill him for me, will you, Re?” She stalked across the room.
I reached for my backpack. “He’ll have to do that without my help.”
Liam’s head shot up and fixed me with a look.
“I didn’t mean —” I began. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Liam resumed the tally.
“Did you guys decide what you want yet?” Alyson spoke behind me.
I whirled around and saw we weren’t alone in the basement. There were two other girls here who I hadn’t noticed in my rush to rescue Aly. They were huddled over the scarred coffee table that doubled as Liam’s office. One of them was ordering a computer.
Liam’s other job was building PCs for people. Actually taking orders and assembling hardware in the basement. Like I said, brainiac.
Great. He had to have customers today. I really wanted to lock myself in my bedroom and put on my Carmen CD. Crank up the volume and lose myself in, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle.” Love is a rebellious bird. Forget that now. Alyson was okay with my opera addiction — though she called it an “unnatural bent,” an expression she’d obviously picked up from Liam. But I wouldn’t want it to get around.
Like anyone would care what I was into.
“How much if I want a scanner?” One of the girls wound her hair around her index finger. She didn’t look familiar. Had an accent, too. German? Russian? Was Liam going global now?