“It felt like a nightmare. Maybe it was. Or maybe it never happened at all. By the time you finish reading, you’ll know what I mean.”
It felt like a nightmare. Maybe it was. Or maybe it never happened at all. By the time you finish reading, you’ll know what I mean.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2031, 1:15 PM
EMERYVILLE MIDDLE SCHOOL, EMERYVILLE, MONTANA, ROOM 201
“Jennifer, would you like to share your report next?”
I smiled as Ms. Bragenstien acknowledged my raised and wriggling hand.
“Of course.” I strode to the front of the room and grabbed the Grain Projection Chip (PC) connected to the Smartboard from her desk. Ms. Bragenstein said nothing, only smiled silently and expectantly as I plugged the PC into the Grain slot in my head and murmured, “Saturday, October 3, 2031, 5:00 PM.” My Grain presentations were already almost legendary at Emeryville Middle School.
The Grain was invented in 2027 as a security device to monitor released prisoners. Their Grain recordings would be reviewed to make sure that they weren’t participating in any illegal activity. Thanks to the Grain and its memory recording power, crime rates plummeted phenomenally. But over the years, people started to implant it voluntarily, so they could relive the best moments of their lives. These days it was common, with babies getting it as young as 2 months old. There was even talk of making it legally mandatory. And if you didn’t get it, you were deemed suspicious — people assumed you had something to hide.
I grinned at Ms. Bragenstien as the recording began to play on the Smartboard at the front of the room.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2031, 5:00 PM
22 WEMBLY ROAD, EMERYVILLE, MONTANA, JENNIFER’S BEDROOM
I smiled in the mirror, made sure my hair was neat, glanced at my notes, and began.
“This report is on a very serious topic: The Cha — ”
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 3, 5:01 PM
1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, WASHINGTON DC, OVAL OFFICE
The door burst open and I stepped into the Oval Office. The door slammed shut behind me. President Jackson looked up from the letter he was skimming and stared at me.
“Marshal Jackson,” I growled. My voice didn’t sound like my own. “It’s time to pay for your crimes.”
Before he could stop me, my knife was hurtling toward his heart. It found its mark. Jackson collapsed with a thunk.
Almost immediately, two men in black suits with guns jumped out at me from behind blue drapes on both sides of the room. I ran.
The window exploded in a shower of glass behind me, the grass outside rushing up to meet my feet before me.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 5, 1:17 PM
EMERYVILLE MIDDLE SCHOOL, EMERYVILLE, MONTANA, ROOM 201
Everyone in the room was speechless.
For a minute.
My chest heaved up and down, beads of sweat starting to form around the hole in my head where I had yanked the PC out. I took a deep breath, tried to compose myself. Tried to look less panicked than I really was.
“Ms. Bragenstein,” I began. “This is all a big mi — ”
“Jennifer,” Ms. Bragenstein interrupted. Her voice was oddly stiff. “Did you assassinate President Jackson?”
I was shocked. “I — what — no! Ms. Bragenstein, I have no idea how that recording got in my Grain!”
“You — you’re lying,” she said coldly. It nearly broke my heart. “No one can alter their Grain.”
“Please!” I cried. “I can give you my report now! The Challenger — ” The other kids were staring. I didn’t care. All that mattered was Ms. Bragenstein and if she believed me, but she was unmoved. I panicked. Tears started to wet my cheeks.
“I didn’t know you had this in you, Jennifer.”
“Please! You know where my house is — where I was recording! Wembly road! That’s nowhere near the Oval Office! How could I — ”
“That could have been any mirror. I didn’t see your surroundings, murderer,” she spat. “I suppose that was a confession. Rather odd way of doing it, but — never mind. The police will be here soon.” She picked up her phone to dial 911.
I ran for the door.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2031, 1:40 PM
22 WEMBLY ROAD, EMERYVILLE, MONTANA, KITCHEN
“A half-day,” I told my mom, out of breath. “I’m going to my room.” I raced up the stairs of our small suburban house before she could object.
I slammed the door of my room and collapsed into my desk chair, staring into the mirror. How was this my life? I lied to my mom. I ran out of school. And I was about to become a fugitive from the law. I couldn’t believe it.
Sighing, I opened my computer and grabbed the PC connected to it. I plugged it into my Grain slot and said clearly, “Saturday, October 3, 2031, 5 PM.” On the screen, I watched the recording of me — no, of someone — assassinating the president. I paused as they threw the knife. Then I took a screenshot. Their hands were darker than mine. It wasn’t me, but I couldn’t very well go back to Ms. Bragenstein and show her the evidence. She wouldn’t believe me. It still hurt how quickly she had shunned me.
But there was no time to dwell on this. I took off my backpack and dumped out all the schoolbooks. I took the purse containing $327 from various birthdays and gifts from my desk and put it inside the backpack. Then I emptied my state quarter collections into my backpack as well (for use in laundromats). I also put in some outfits, jackets and coats, books, my computer and PC, and an empty notebook and pen. I hesitated, then tore the first sheet from it, wrote a quick note, and left it on my desk.
Dear Mom and Dad:
By the time you read this, I bet you’ll have seen the news. It looks bad, I know. But I swear I didn’t do it. You have to believe me. I had to leave. I’m going to try to find out what really happened.
I’m so sorry.
I put on my backpack, grabbed my sleeping bag, and headed downstairs.
“It’s, um, actually, we’re supposed to go back because we’re going to watch a movie in the gym. With sleeping bags.” I told my mom quickly.
She gave me a suspicious look. “And… why didn’t I get an email about this?”
“Ms. Bragenstein told us she forgot to send it.”
“Okay, but I’m going to check your Grain later.”
“Sure, mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering. If I ever saw her again, I knew what she would find if she checked. I grabbed an umbrella and opened the door.
“It… might rain.”
MONDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2031, 5:09 PM
DELI & BEER, EMERYVILLE, MONTANA
“Oh… and a butter roll, please.” I added.
The man at the counter of the small, grubby, cramped deli gave me a strange look as I asked for the breakfast special at 5 in the afternoon. I glanced outside to avoid meeting his eyes. The ugly Deli & Beer was topped by a faded awning in a particularly ugly shade of green. It smelled of rat droppings and hastily applied cleaning supplies. I waited patiently.
I took out one of the books I had brought, an atlas of the United States. It had maps of the whole country, each of the states, highway and landscape maps, etc. I opened it to the general map of the country. I took a pen and made a line from Emeryville, Montana (usually Emeryville would be too small to be featured on a map, but there were so few towns in Montana that it had to be there) to Washington DC. It looked far. I probably couldn’t get on a train or plane because I was a minor, so I would have to walk. I couldn’t think of any other option. Then, just as I was thinking it couldn’t be any worse, I heard:
“We interrupt this broadcast for some breaking news. Live from the Oval Office in Washington DC, I hand it over to Josephine Merson…”
I swiveled in my red, cracked leather stool, turning my attention from the atlas to the television almost hidden in a corner of the wall. The blond woman on-screen was standing in the Oval Office in front of the president’s desk… but it looked more like a crime scene. The window behind the desk was shattered, there was caution tape everywhere, and police officers and investigators were poking around with flashlights and magnifying glasses everywhere.
“Thanks, Paul,” said Josephine. I could tell she was distressed, though she was trying not to show it. “We’re sorry to pull you from your soap operas” — she seemed to wait for laughter — “but something much more dramatic and entirely real has happened here. We’ve just received word from the police department in Emeryville, a small town in Montana — ” At the mention of his hometown, the man, carrying my plate out from the kitchen, stopped and stared at the screen. “ — That in the local middle school, a child has just played a Grain recording of herself assassinating President Marshal Jackson.”
I froze. This was my worst nightmare, and it was already happening. It was revealed.
They cut to a recording of Ms. Bragenstein in our classroom with a microphone held up to her mouth.
“Angela Bragenstein, this student — Jennifer — was under your care,” said a voice on-screen. “Did you ever get any notion that she might have done something like this? Was this expected?”
“No,” she replied breathlessly. “Jennifer was a good student. The best. But now I can see it was all a ruse.”
They cut back to Paul at his blue desk in the newsroom. Flashes of the crime scene played on a screen behind him. “The student, Jennifer Hudson, allegedly fled the classroom after abruptly tearing out the PC that played the recording, and has not yet been found.” Then my school photo played on the screen. I gasped. The man with the plates looked at me. I looked away.
“Wait a second,” he said. I hastily pulled my hood up, but it was too late. He’d seen my face.
“If you have any information, call 1-800-706-2948.”
The man reached for his phone.
I slammed the atlas shut and shoved it in my backpack. I put it on and grabbed my sleeping bag from the floor.
The man dialed the number. He noticed me sneaking toward the door. “No you don’t,” he growled. “That reward money’s gonna fix this place up… buy me a new pair o’ shoes. I’mma finally make me momma proud.”
“Sorry!” I cried, and dashed out the door.
“WAIT!” He yelled, squeezing himself around the counter. “WAI — ”
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2031, 8:47 PM
ONEOTA PARK, SPENCER, IOWA
I stretched out my legs in my sleeping bag and tried not to cry. I’d been away from home for almost ten days. I missed my bed and my home and my family. I was lying in the dirt in my sleeping bag, leaning against a tree. Chipmunks skittered across the ground a few feet away. Owls hooted high up in the treetops. Even the animals were keeping their distance. I needed privacy. Other humans could recognize and capture me, but it was driving me slowly mad. There was only me to keep me company…
Or maybe not, I realized suddenly.
I remembered the person in the recording. They must have altered my Grain to put the recording there. Maybe they had left other recordings. I opened my backpack and took out my computer. I opened the Grain app, plugging in my PC. I browsed through my recordings. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary — me going to school, reading, hanging out in my room. Then I noticed something. While scrolling through the automatically taken screenshots from every hour, I saw one of a tall, white building from 6 PM on October 5. This was from just after the assassination. There were no buildings like that in Emeryville — just little delis and suburban houses. This had to be something from the secret assassin. I clicked the screenshot. A recording began to play on the screen.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2031, 6:00 PM
CLIVE’S, BETHESDA, MARYLAND
I glanced up at the skyscraper, then crossed the street to the park, ignoring the honking cars. I sat down on the stone wall of the park and looked down at my jeans.
“So, you found me. Maybe by accident. Or maybe you knew what you were looking for. If you have no idea who I am, close this recording now, Jennifer. You’ll know soon enough.”
I waited. Then continued.
“You’re still watching, which means that you now know I assassinated the president about an hour ago, and altered your Grain to frame you. You’re not going to believe me, but I didn’t mean to. I know who you are, Jennifer Hudson. You do well in school. I’ve seen your Grain recordings. You’re a total goody-two-shoes. I know this must have ruined your life. And I’m really sorry. Putting my recording in your Grain was a mistake.
“After I killed Jackson and crashed through that window — ” I let out a soft chuckle. “I took a taxi to the Rocket Pharmacy in Bethesda, Maryland. I have a… well, it’s where I’ve been living. I had been looking through people’s recordings. There was a list — well, hard to explain. I found you. You were perfect for what I needed. I know that sounds horrible, but — ” I tried to keep my voice even. “Just — try to understand. I only meant to take some of your innocent recordings, and copy them into my recordings, over when I killed the president. I didn’t know it would replace yours with mine. I didn’t know it would… switch us. I never meant for this to happen. Never. So I want to help you make this right. Go to the pharmacy. At least — at least give me a chance to apologize.”
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2031, 12:05 PM
ROCKET PHARMACY, BETHESDA, MARYLAND
I stopped to catch my breath behind a massive shelf of band-aids, hidden from a girl a few years older than me sitting behind the counter. The sunglasses started to slide down my sweaty nose. I briefly took them off, wiped my face with the scarf I was wearing, and put them back on quickly. I couldn’t risk anyone seeing me. I picked out a pack of brown band-aids, some disposable latex gloves, and two packs of tissues. I brought them to the counter, trying to listen to the radio while still concentrating on the girl to make sure she wasn’t studying me too closely. An 11-year-old on her own with a sleeping bag and backpack wearing sunglasses and a scarf could arouse suspicion, I had learned.
“Your total is $9.72,” she said slowly and carefully. I put a $10 bill on the counter.
On the radio, someone was saying, “Jennifer Hudson, who has still not been apprehended, is described as eleven years old, white, five feet tall, and with medium-length light brown hair. She was last seen on October 5, wearing a yellow collared shirt, blue jeans, and a cream-colored sweater.” I frowned and self-consciously tucked the yellow shirt I was wearing into my jeans. The owner of the shop frowned at me. I took the items, not bothering with the change, and quickly made for the door.
“Wait a second,” I heard the girl say to me. “Get back here!”
“The reward for information leading to Jennifer’s capture is $500,” droned the man on the radio. “Her capture will warrant a reward of five million dollars. If you have information or believe you have sighted this young fugitive, simply call 1-800-706-2948.”
It still hurt being called a fugitive, even though it was kind of true. You’d think that after nearly four weeks of living on the edge and running from the law, I’d have gotten used to it. But the teacher’s pet in me could not adapt. That part of me felt like salt being rubbed on an open and infected wound every time someone mentioned the reward for my capture or how I was a dangerous fugitive. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how I could stand it.
And the worst part was, I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t learn anything. Going inside public places had led to too many close calls. I’d only gone inside this almost deserted pharmacy because I had a cut on my elbow that was probably going to get infected if I didn’t put a band-aid on it. And just my luck that this tiny place (that sort of resembled a hospital) didn’t carry newspapers. Well, it might have, but they were all already bought. That was how it was with all the free newspaper boxes on the streets, too. I couldn’t read the news, and I couldn’t watch TV. Instead, anything I picked up, I picked up by listening to people talk on the street. People wondered where I was. They talked about my “poor parents.” Sometimes how “ruthless” I was. But the most puzzling thing was this:
A few days ago I had passed an elderly couple on the street. One of them had said: “That dastardly Jennifer. So lucky that her plot was foiled. And how are you, young lady? Wait…”
Then I had had to hide in a bush, so I didn’t hear the rest of their conversation. I’d spent the time since trying to figure out what they had meant.
My “plot” was obviously the assassination of the President. So how had it been “foiled”? Maybe they were talking about how I had been caught. But somehow that just didn’t feel right to me. My plot had still been executed (definitely no pun intended), even if I had been caught.
My plot was to kill the president. But what if he hadn’t been killed?
No, that was impossible. The knife had hit him right in the heart. But still…
However, there were more pressing problems at hand. I couldn’t get caught here. This was where the assassin had led me. It couldn’t end here.
Summoning all my courage, I turned to face the girl, who was slowly walking toward me. “It’s all right,” she said to me unconvincingly. “I’m not going to hurt you. Just tell me…”
I took a step backward, reaching to pull up my scarf.
She lunged, surprisingly fast, missing my arm but grabbing my hand and pulling it and the scarf down. I gasped. She’d seen my face on the news, like everyone in the country, I was exposed — she knew, she knew, she knew.
What did I do in that moment?
In my old life, I would have tried to talk it out. I would have tried to explain, to gain approval. I would have tried to make things right. But maybe this life of crime was rubbing off on me. Maybe I was developing new habits, or maybe I was simply becoming a new person, because I ran.
I wasn’t even thinking. I just dove to the wall, then bounced off and darted behind a shelf, sticking out a hand, sending boxes of Tylenol tumbling to the ground, blocking the girl’s path. I didn’t even feel bad about it. I wove my way through the aisles to the back of the shop, where a shelf of cleaning products stood in the center of the back wall. I looked around. I had assessed the entrances and exits of the pharmacy before I went in. The only way in or out was the door. There were locks on the windows. I could smash them with my backpack. Maybe I could get to the door and flee into the street. But everyone would see me. I had only one choice: hide.
Thankfully, the shelf didn’t make any of those horrible screeching noises when I moved it a few feet away from the wall. I squeezed in behind it, taking off my backpack and putting it on the floor. Then I pulled the shelf back as far as I could and hoped the owner wouldn’t think to look behind the shelf.
A few seconds later, I heard the girl’s footsteps. I peered through the gap between two boxes of Miracle Clean Powder. She examined the shelf. I held my breath. Then she turned around and walked back to the counter. I let out my breath in relief. I slowly, awkwardly, turned around in the small space between the shelf and the wall. Then I noticed something odd. The walls of the pharmacy were tiled, but this section of wall in front of me looked wrong. It was a little dim, but I realized that this part of the wall wasn’t a wall at all — it was a 5 foot square of wallpaper.
It looked like a sample, the kind you might buy at a store and stick on your wall to see how it looked. I tugged at the bottom-right corner. It peeled. I peeled the whole thing off. There was a white door in the wall behind it. This was a secret door.
I felt a rush of excitement. I couldn’t believe it. Secret doors were the stuff of stories and books, but here was a real one. It was thrilling — moving — to be trusted with a real one. And even more than that — I remembered what the assassin had said. I have a… well, it’s where I’ve been living. This was their hideout. This was where I would meet them and get all my answers.
The door looked a bit dirty but used. This was it. I picked up my backpack and, holding its handle with one hand, I turned the rusted knob of the door with the other.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2031, 12:07 PM
ROCKET PHARMACY, BETHESDA, MARYLAND, BACK ROOM
The back room of the pharmacy looked like it might once have been used for storing goods. There were dusty piles of boxes with long-faded labels in one corner. It was small, around the size of my kitchen at 22 Wembly Road: about 15 by 15 feet. There were no windows, but I felt along the wall until I hit a switch and flipped it, turning on a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling. There was a desk pushed to one wall, with a spinning-type professional chair next to it and a computer, mouse, speakers, and headset on it. There was a shelf on another wall with a microwave and a package of instant noodles. Under the shelf was a sink and — what? — a toilet. I edged away from the toilet and noticed a few potted plants on the floor. They looked like someone was watering them daily. There was a dresser next to a bed on the wall opposite the toilet. I dropped my backpack onto the small bed that was very slept in (this assassin sure was messy) and sunk into a battered armchair near the entrance. Then I remembered to close the door behind me.
I tried to relax. Papers, notebooks, and books were piled up in a corner next to the desk. The room felt like a home, but it felt wrong. Something was missing. No, someone was missing. The assassin wasn’t here. And I was getting impatient. I had come here, on his orders. So why couldn’t he be bothered to show up?
Then I realized what some of the papers were. Newspapers. I grabbed the one on the top. It was dated October 4. The day before I “revealed my plot”. Too early. I wasn’t going to get any news about the assassination from that.
I kept searching. I noticed a mint-green three-ring binder with pink polka dots with tape over where a title might be written on the cover. That intrigued me. I opened the cover. It looked like it had been a photo book. But all the photos were torn out, leaving only tape and cheerful messages written in marker. It looked like a family scrapbook. Someone nicknamed “Win” and his mom. Win played soccer and a wide variety of video games. His mom worked somewhere that had a “take your child to work” day and a vending machine.
This all felt strange and wrong.
Tucked into the back was a copy of American News from October 11. Suddenly, the strange history of this scrapbook didn’t matter anymore.
The headline read:
ASSASSINATION PLOT BY 11-YEAR-OLD REVEALED, THEN FOILED
There was that word again — foiled. Heart racing, I stumbled back into the armchair and read on.
To be continued…