If Principia said anything else, Bobby didn’t hear it.
Gardner High must have had another Jamal Cooke. Or some guy with the same name had croaked instead and the doctors got their lines crossed. Besides, Jamal had called Bobby just last night, the same night he’d supposedly died . . . and Bobby hadn’t answered.
He felt Mrs. Andrews’s eyes on him. Their gazes met, she nodded, he left the room.
Bobby had kept a special eye out for Jamal ever since that one week last year, when Jamal himself had kept a bundle of bruises tucked under one eyebrow. When Bobby had discovered the source of the beatings—a quarterback with a plumage of gold, strutting for dominance among his carbo-loaded flock—he sprinted up to parry the attack in progress. He’d rammed the jock off his feet, but squandered the opening as he stumbled forward and pawed at his side.
Then the jock recovered and counter-attacked. Unable to block the next blow, Bobby lost his lenses. He used it to his advantage and threw a headbutt, introducing a bruise or two for the quarterback to wear. Bobby’s astigmatism had prevented him from foreseeing the next hit. The hits after that could only be felt.
By the end of the following day the whole school knew that Bobby and Jamal were thick as thieves, maybe related, and definitely gay. So of course Mrs. Andrews assumed that Bobby needed to go blubber in a corner. Even teachers kept one ear to the rumor circuit.
When that upper classman had died in last year’s car accident, half the senior class had proceeded to the media center for grief counseling (or pretended to, anyway). Bobby would be expected there now, as well. He ducked into a restroom and examined the redness creeping across his eyes.
How did Jamal do it—stay up all night breaking, then tolerate school the next day? Was it worth it? Etherlib breakers took the time to lift media because it was easier on the bank account, never wondering if the time they spent was more valuable than the money they saved. Sure, exchanging dollars for goods and services took less time than stealing them. But then again, you’d be required to spend time earning that money in the first place . . .
Had Bobby been more mindful as he left the restroom, he may have noticed the low object that trailed him. As it was, he had almost reached the media center before he became aware of the tap-tap-tapping echoing off the walls. He turned and found an automated dog trotting behind, about the size of a small space heater. Its chrome coat was brightened by the glittery shamrock sticker on its brow (which explained why Bobby had been getting pinched by strangers all day—he wasn’t wearing anything green).
With his walk on pause, Bobby could hear the whirr of the puppy’s eyes adjusting for his change in distance. The hall monitor stopped in turn, then asked with head askew, leaden ears flopped over on their hinges, “I do not detect a hall pass. Are you lost and in need of assistance?”
Bobby gave his destination, and the machine asked for his hall pass again.
“My frakkin’ friend just died, you stupid karakuri.”
The dog’s head swiveled on its servomotor shoulders, and Bobby shifted on his feet. “Thank you, Ill-yuh . . . Arr . . . Rosey-er,” it said. “Have an educational day.”
Bobby sighed, shook his head, continued on his way. The last thing he needed today was some Scrappy Doo wannabe getting him on facial recognition. When the school district first initiated its biometric policies, Bobby had thought it was kinda cool. Everyone in every school marched up into a photography booth on their auditorium stages. Technicians hid behind the flare of standing lights, instructing students to sit straight, remove your lenses, tuck your hair behind your ears. The photo found its way to a sequence that mapped Bobby’s facial landscape, proportions woven in a wire mesh, cataloged for easy reference. “Enrollment,” they called it.
Now that Bobby recognized it for what it was—a preemptive mug shot for all these potential criminals and communists and cult members—getting facerec’d by an automated dog had graduated from annoying to insidious.
He’d walked a few yards when the dog’s eyes adjusted again, then the echoed taps resumed until Bobby reached the media center. The doors slid open, and the kid left the surveillance appliance sitting on its haunches outside.
The media center always had this air of cleaning supplies and freezer food. To his right were the communal boxes for research and reference, then a few Cutter columns to register for media privileges. In one of the study rooms embedded in the back wall sat a dark girl with broad shoulders trembling, wearing her fingers like a widow’s veil.
“Are you here for counseling, Son?” asked a voice to his left. Son. His own mother didn’t even call him Son (though Bobby couldn’t be sure what his mother was calling him). He nodded to the woman at the checkout desk and gave his name when asked. She told him that the three study rooms in the far corner had been dedicated for counseling.
“You mean those back there?” he asked, pointing toward the girl currently experiencing a mild exorcism. The woman nodded.
He was collating the data as he made his way to the corner. Did Jamal even have any friends besides Graeme? There was no reason to assume the kid’s social circle was as lacking in curvature as Bobby’s, but a female in the mix was pushing the limits of belief. The odds were ten to one that this wasn’t his Jamal.
The girl’s black pigtails were as coarse as her felted wool sweater. The freshman guidance counselor across the table offered her sympathy and tissues. As the girl raised her glossy face, her eyes met Bobby’s. Some new look interrupted her mourning—recognition or confusion, or just a rational response to the boy’s eavesdropping. He passed through the doorway of the next room over, and the moment was gone.
Waiting to console him in the cinder block study cube was a fake tree, a few chairs, and a table with an embedded automator. Rushing in behind him came the flaxen-haired fox that counseled the sophomores. All school year, Bobby had been scheming some excuse to visit her office for a little one-on-one time. Now Bobby had his proof that destiny was a bitter prick.
She introduced herself as she closed the door and tapped on the tabletop automator. “Would you like to sit down?” she asked. “Just make yourself comfy.” Bobby moved for the nearest chair, bumped it with a Nike, flushed with awareness of his oversized feet, certain that she had noticed. But it was okay, she was way too old. And they would be illegal, anyway. Though maybe not in the South. There was that one headline about a teacher who—
“Do you pronounce your name Rosey-er,” asked the guidance counselor, looking down at the screen, “or Rossy-eh?”
“It rhymes with closure,” said Bobby. “Rosier. And I go by Bobby. Or I mean, whatever.”
“Thank you, Bobby. Would you like to talk?”
There was no other reason for him to be here, but there was also nothing to talk about until the deceased’s identity was confirmed. And if it was his Jamal, the worst place to confirm it would be this well-lit room, across from the foxiest woman at school, crapping his emotional pants right next to that gigantic window overlooking the media center. This wasn’t the time or the place for anyone to be honest . . . but honesty would bring answers.
Bobby clasped his hands together and pinched them between his knees. “So, I don’t get it,” he said. “Jamal’s dead?”
The guidance counselor launched into some Psychology 101 script about “difficulty” and “acceptance,” all that “five stages” noise. No doubt read for the first time on the way to this room. It would never work out between the two of them. She was the velour track suit type, snuggling with her boyfriend down at the tennis court.
“Yeah, okay,” said Bobby, “but like . . . what time was this supposed to have happened? Because he called me last night. I mean, how did he even”—air quotes—“die, anyway?”
The counselor took a breath, then she said it: “He was found in his bedroom last night, Bobby. It appears as though he committed suicide. I’m sorry.”
Bobby was silent for a long time. “Huh,” he said at last. The odds against this being his Jamal just went to forty-seven thousand to one.
“You and Jamal were good friends?” the counselor asked.
“Why’d he kill himself?”
“Oh, Bobby, who knows why things like this happen? But you can’t blame yourself.”
“So did this Jamal leave a suicide note or anything?” She said she didn’t know, and Bobby’s teeth ground together.
The girl from the next room passed by the window as she left the media center. She was wiping her face with her sleeve, her black eyes flooded with pink. She knew who it was that had died last night.
“Bobby,” the counselor said, “is there anything you wanted to tell Jamal that you never had the chance to?”
“Okay, thanks,” he said, and left.
He found the grieving room girl in the small courtyard beside the media center. Top-heavy on chicken legs, dragging light grey loafers in a little radius. Her hands pawed at the straps of her backpack, an attempt to contain her quivering.
He called out to her, looping alternative icebreakers just behind his lips, but when she saw him she already knew what to say. “You’re like, Bobby, right?”
He answered, and was almost knocked over by the force of her embrace. He held up his arms like a confused Frankenstein—returning her hug would be saying “let’s go steady” and violate Gardner’s PDA policies. But he erred on the side of compassion anyway, and found himself consoling her backpack.
She pushed away from him, apologizing through the tears and congestion. She blew into a tissue, then continued. “I’m Carolyn,” she said.
“And you knew Jamal, too?”
The girl’s face wobbled at the edge of equilibrium. “Yeah . . . I was in love with him.” Her composure collapsed again, leaving Bobby standing there to squint under the early sun. Where was his Psychology 101 script?
He nudged the girl around till they found a bench in the spotted shade of a hibernating tree. They sat adjacent to some art program sculpture—a hovering book, parted dead center, facing a massive plaster eyeball with the Earth as its pupil. It was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen.
The girl’s breathing normalized, and she flattened her face with the palms of her hands.
“So,” said Bobby, “you guys were dating, or . . .”
“No,” she replied. “We hadn’t gotten that far, yet. But we’ve shared A/V Club all year together. I was gonna ask him to ask me to prom.”
“Freshman and sophomores don’t . . . never mind. Are we talking about the same Jamal Cooke, here? Blobby kinda Afro, small eyes, his front teeth kinda—”
“His bunny teeth . . .”
Bobby shook his head. How were they sitting there discussing a dead Jamal? “How do you know who I am?” he asked.
“He talks about you sometimes,” Carolyn said. “You saved his life once. God . . .”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far . . .” Now Bobby hesitated, but was soon overwhelmed by curiosity. “He killed himself? I mean . . . why?”
“I don’t know. I mean . . .” She paused, surveyed the area, then leaned in. “Did he say anything weird to you last week?”
“No, but I wasn’t . . . I was busy with an English project last week, so I didn’t talk to him much.”
Carolyn stared at her feet and spoke low. “Jamal found some free floorspace on a remote automator. So we like, use it as shared doc storage, y’know? Just stuff we were working on together. I would write viruses and port scanners and stuff . . . we’ve been building a passphrase dictionary. But I would like, leave little notes in there, too. Just to say hi and stuff. To surprise him.”
She sniffled, wiped her nose on her sleeve, then the corners of her mouth took a dive. “He was never really into that sort of thing, like affection or whatever, but over the weekend . . . Sunday night . . .”
Realization swept across her face. It must have been hitting her: all the little things that she and Jamal had shared for the final time. It was just hitting Bobby, as well.
A minute passed, and he tapped her knee with his knuckles in some kind of consolation knock.
Another minute, and his legs had begun a restive kick up from the toes. The girl composed herself and apologized.
“So, there was something for you in the rack?” Bobby asked.
“A doc,” she said, “about what was happening to him. Last week, he’d been complaining about headaches and stuff, y’know? And then Friday, he told me he was seeing things in the corners of his eyes and stuff.”
“What do you mean, things?”
“I dunno . . . he wasn’t sure.”
“What was on the doc?”
“It was . . . weird. I can’t remember. Do you think we can pull it up in the media center, or . . .”
Bobby shook his head. Accessing illegal floorspace on a public automator that required a student ident just to turn the thing on? Despite such an oversight, she did sound legit when it came to sequence writing. Bobby checked the courtyard for cameras, made sure Droney Doo was nowhere around, then dug into his backpack.
“You carry an external rack around with you?” Carolyn asked. She was peeping over his arms, had spotted CUB among the loose papers and folders.
“Yeah, twenty terabytes,” Bobby said. “It’s my backup for my entire system, so it goes wherever I go. Just in case . . . y’know, my place gets broken into or whatever.”
“So I guess you’re a breaker too, huh? I mean, who else would actually name an external rack, right?”
“No, I mean . . . that’s cool. That’s really deece.”
Bobby produced his chrome school-issue autobook, flipped it open, booted up, and plugged it into the bench’s data cable jack. Carolyn lurched with him as he covered the screen with his bulk, but she didn’t seem to know why.
“It’s not just my school books,” he whispered.
Her expression didn’t waver.
The school had lied to its students, he explained. Had made them believe that their autobooks could only access the glasslit resources needed for each semester. But Bobby had discovered their secret: the library card inside the book was actually full access. The restrictions on the autobooks’ etherlib readers were just a wall of ice erected by the school administrators. Bobby had melted through that wall.
“The school board has a deal with PanUT, for obvious reasons,” he said, “so the sequence network on this thing is a bare-bones version of Open79, which I know pretty good, so . . .” Bobby shrugged. “Now I can navi the lib with this thing whenever I want, and no one really notices.”
“That’s pretty deece,” the girl said, giggling and sniffling simultaneously.
Bobby smiled and bobbed his head. “And you’re sure nobody’s noticing you guys access this remote rack? Nobody knows their floorspace is being taken up by weird documents?”
Carolyn nodded, and he passed her the book and lightpen. She navigated the etherlib to the remote machine, accessed the collaboration rack, and pulled up Jamal’s final document. As she read it, her countenance soured one pixel at a time. She passed the book back to Bobby with revulsion. He gave the text a cursory scan, then started again from the top, taking his time.
Jamal was cycling through topics in a run-on sentence complicated by misspellings and caps lock. That Jamal would be able to type at all under such obvious mental distress was best attributed to his hours of midnight navigating, lit only by the glass’ glow. On the third read through, Bobby pieced it together in his own words.
When Jamal managed to sleep, his dreams were of three-eyed lions hocking acid loogies like something out of Alien. The fever dreams of waking life were worse. Colors would saturate and purify, tremble and flow away; shapes appeared everywhere, throbbing into swollen forms; he suffered recursive deaths and resurrections; he soared through forests in a thousand-eyed raindrop; a shadowed man, taller than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, waited at the edge of his periphery—in A/V Club, at the arcade, stooping on the fire escape. And always there was this rolling growl just below the threshold of hearing. They were all outside of somebody’s house—Jamal, Bobby, Graeme, some girl, a shiesty monk—then Graeme turned into an animal. NEED GET OUT MY HEAD, it read at the end.
“And there were no more docs from him or anything?” Bobby asked the girl as she gnawed at one of her knuckles. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“Friday, here at school.”
“How was he then?”
“He said he wasn’t able to keep his food down. And he was looking totally sick. Oh, and he was twitching. I’ve spent a lot of time gazing into those pools of brown he calls eyes, and I never saw them twitch once before that.” She looked at Bobby now. “Are you going to find out why he . . . why what happened . . . happened?”
“I dunno, I mean . . . I hope, um . . .” Bobby sighed. “I’m really sorry.”
The girl began to tear again, and this time Bobby’s compassion didn’t hesitate.