With just seven days left to live, how would you face the end?
That’s the question you’re asked in Farah Naz Rishi’s debut novel, I Hope You Get This Message. When earth is faced with the news that its creator, “Alma,” is deciding whether or not the hit the kill switch on their “colony” of Earth, the US erupts into chaos.
Three teens, Jesse, Cate, and Adeem, each respond to the news of this impending doom differently, from trying to right the wrongs they have done, to not believing it’s real and trying to profit off of it. Over the course of their week, they each end up facing their truths and colliding paths just as the world is (potentially) about to be pulled apart.
Intrigued? Well you can start reading the first few chapters of I Hope You Get This Message right now!
“Don’t you dare,” Jesse muttered. But the closeness of Ian’s mouth on his neck killed his willpower, making his threat weak, and his knees weaker. Ian was teasing him, definitely teasing. And although it felt kinda good—okay, really freaking good—he didn’t exactly like being at someone else’s mercy.
Teeth grazing. Mouth tightening. Jesse could practically hear his skin pop as he watched his own breath come out in clouds against the cold September night air. But as Ian’s hand explored down his arm, as his fingers brushed against the leather cuff Jesse wore around his wrist and reached for the hem of his T-shirt, pleasure slipped into annoyance.
Jesse threaded his own fingers between Ian’s, keeping them in place.
Jesse had two rules: his clothes stayed on—well, except for his pants, currently unzipped, if that even counted—and no touching the cuff.
And then it was over. Ian pulled away, smiling. The lime-green Close Encounters sign gave Ian’s cheekbones a neon cast as it flickered and buzzed. Jesse was surprised the sign stayed lit at all; the place, like many others in Roswell, had closed down months ago.
Jesse’s skin burned where Ian’s mouth had been. He released Ian’s hand and pressed his cool palm against the sear.
“Jesus. Really? A hickey?” He zipped his pants.
“Didn’t hear you complain.” Ian’s smile faded. “Plus”—he looked away—“I wanted to leave you somethin’ to remember me by.”
For the last few months, Jesse and Ian had been meeting in the back of Close Encounters to have close encounters—of the casual kind. Before Ian, it was Joey behind the Arby’s—his choice, not Jesse’s. Before Joey, it was Ryan in the UFO Museum parking lot. Etcetera. Jesse was good at picking out the tourists who seemed a little more interested in him than the souvenirs he used to sell at the Roswell Plaza Hotel gift shop. Usually, it didn’t last. The tourists left. That was the great thing about tourists: built-in security.
But Ian wasn’t one of the usual picks, in part because Jesse had lost the gift shop gig. Ian went to the same school as Jesse, and thanks to Jesse’s poor attendance—and his “behavior challenges,” as his principal called it, Jesse was held back the year before, which made them both juniors now. He had seen Ian around; he just didn’t realize Ian was interested in him until recently. Turns out Ian was just as good at keeping a low profile as Jesse was.
Jesse had wanted to—meant to—end it a while ago, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Besides, with the extreme lack of tourism these days, Ian grew more and more . . . convenient.
That’s all, Jesse told himself. Convenient.
So here they were again, in the most run-down part of Roswell, in the middle of the night, flat desert spread around them both like a musty hotel blanket. A seemingly normal night, even if the wood fence behind them was covered in graffiti depicting green aliens in sombreros.
Except that it wasn’t like Ian to leave a trace on him, and he knew damn well how Jesse felt about anyone staking a claim on him. Claims meant emotional investments. And investments meant living up to someone’s expectations.
And expectations would only disappoint.
Jesse knew. He’d disappointed enough already.
“I have to tell you somethin’.” Ian spoke gently. His accent was more intense tonight, which meant one of two things: (1) Ian was angry, or (2) Ian was nervous. Either way, it wasn’t a good sign, and it put Jesse on edge. “There’s—there’s been a change of plans.”
Jesse knew that tone of voice. He knew plans, and how they changed. His throat tightened. “Spit it out.”
“We’re leavin’.” Ian sighed. “Tomorrow. I’m leavin’ tomorrow.”
A flare of pain shot through Jesse’s chest, but he immediately flashed his trademark cover-up smile. “Oh. Good for you, man.”
“We’re headin’ to my grandpop’s place in Nashville. I mean, I can’t blame them. Roswell’s a hellhole, and it’s only getting worse. My dad’s shop hasn’t had a car come in for weeks.” He brushed a clump of sweaty bronze strands off his forehead. “Blame NASA, I guess.”
It had been three months since NASA and some other science-y, alien-seeking organizations had supposedly discovered a nearby planet they called Kepler that could sustain life—that did sustain life. Two weeks since scientists supposedly intercepted an encoded radio message from the planet itself. The bunch of static they picked up was apparently more than just, well, static. What it meant was anyone’s guess.
But it didn’t matter if NASA hadn’t yet figured out how to decode the message, if it even was that. It didn’t matter that the whole story was probably cooked up bullshit, more government distraction tactics. All anyone ever wanted to talk about now was real aliens. Not the big-headed stuffed ones you could win at Close Encounters if you had enough tickets, back in its heyday, or the cardboard cutout you could take a picture with inside Pluto’s Diner, where Jesse’s mom worked. Fake aliens weren’t all that exciting anymore, hadn’t been for decades, and it wasn’t long before tourists, as few as there were, stopped showing up. Even Roswell’s small local population had begun to dwindle to near-ghost-town numbers. Jesse’s mom had called it the end of Roswell as they knew it—a total exaggeration, Jesse had thought at the time.
Now he was changing his mind.
Jesse shrugged. “No need to explain yourself to me. Your life is none of my business.” The words fell from his mouth faster than he could stuff them back in. His counselor would shake her head if she could hear him. He’d just seen her yesterday for their weekly at La Familia Crisis Center, and the sound of her featherlight voice was still fresh in his mind. Only five seconds of thought stand between you and a crap-ton of regret, she’d say. Too late, though.
“None of your—?” Ian’s fists curled. For a moment, Ian stared at Jesse, as though searching for something. Then he shook his head. “Ya know, I really liked you.”
Jesse’s skin prickled. He’d heard the same words come from Joey, from Ryan, from all the others who tried to stop him from pulling away from their lives. But the worst part about all this was that this time, it was Ian who was leaving.
Jesse should have broken things off weeks ago, when he’d first had the thought that maybe he would meet Ian’s folks and stay for dinner, maybe he would hang around Mr. Keller’s auto shop.
He’d been letting himself get too close.
“Yeah, sure. What we had was fun, and now what we had is over,” Jesse said. And why had Ian thought it was a good idea to hook up one last time before dropping this news? Now Jesse just felt stupid. He pulled his leather motorcycle jacket—the one with the ugly crow patch on the front—closer around him. It was too big for him, but the extra leather felt good—protective, somehow. It’s why he always kept his clothes on during every hookup. Most of them, anyway. “It’s better this way,” he said, forcing a laugh. “Trust me.”
Ian was quiet for a while. He looked down and licked his dry lips. “It’s funny,” he finally said, in a way that wasn’t funny at all. “I knew what people said about you, but I didn’t care. I didn’t believe ’em.”
Jesse didn’t need to ask what he meant. People were always running their mouths about him at school—whispering that he was white trash, that he was a thief, that he was a piece of shit. It wasn’t even being gay that was the problem. Jesse’s sexuality was like his tattered leather jacket: a part of him, nothing more. Just one of the many reasons people chose to keep their distance from Jesse, and Jesse chose to keep his distance from everybody else.
He rubbed at his wrist, at the raised scar tissue beneath his leather cuff. “Maybe you should have,” Jesse said.
“Yeah.” Ian’s voice cracked. “Yeah, maybe.”
Jesse almost said I’m sorry. And he was. The truth was that every fiber in his body screamed, Please don’t leave me behind.
But what was the point? In the end, all he could muster was an icy “See you around.”
Ian managed a laugh that sounded like he was choking. “I doubt it.”
There was nothing more to say. Jesse could feel the weight of Ian’s gaze on his back, the heaviness of Ian’s anger and pity. He took a deep breath, ignoring the twisting in his stomach. He would not turn around.
Ian would go to Nashville and forget all about Roswell and Close Encounters and the nights they’d spent touching each other under its fluorescent radiance. He’d forget all about Jesse.
And Jesse would stay here. Jesse would always stay here.
Above him, the stars were winking. Gloating, maybe.
Or maybe they felt sorry for him, too.
Cate’s Bucket List for the End of the World (IN PROGRESS!)
- Actually go to a party
- Sneak out (sorry, Mom!)
- KISS JAKE OWENS!!!
One minute, Cate was straining over the pounding music to explain the difference between “literally” and “metaphorically,” and the next, Jake Owens was holding her face between his sticky hands, pressing his beer-soaked lips to hers.
She stiffened in surprise. She was kissing Jake Owens. She was kissing Jake Freaking Owens. She’d had a crush on Jake forever. The guy had bright green eyes speckled with gold, played ice hockey (and had the body to prove it), and had those low eyebrows that gave him an expression remarkably like an adorable, sad puppy in an SPCA commercial. But all she could think was that his mouth tasted sour. Before she knew what she was doing, she put her hands on his chest and pushed.
“Wait.” She resisted the urge to wipe her lips when he pulled away.
He frowned. “I thought you wanted . . . ?”
The rest of his words were lost beneath a surge of music. Around them, bodies undulated to the beat of some annoyingly repetitive dance song, and the bass thumped in uncomfortable syncopation with Cate’s heartbeat. The floor, tables, and every available surface sprouted empty red SOLO cups. Someone—Ivy, probably—had set up a fog machine, cloaking the inside of Krysten Meyer’s basement with a thick layer of white that swirled and shifted against the dancers, ghostlike.
A couple of days ago—a few seconds ago, even—Cate might have drunk it all in—literally and metaphorically—reveling in the freedom of just being here. But now it looked gross. Tacky. Like everyone was trying way too hard to look like they were having fun.
“Sorry,” she said. “I—I’m not feeling great.” Which was at least partially true. She hadn’t thought kissing would taste so much like Bud Light.
“I’m not feeling great,” she shouted.
“I’m not feeling great!” This time, at maximum decibel levels.
The hunger in Jake’s eyes vanished. “If you’re going to puke, go outside,” he shouted back at her matter-of-factly. “The upstairs toilet’s clogged.”
She stared at him in amazement. This was the guy she’d even told Mom about, who’d listened eagerly, excitedly. And she’d stared at him so many times—fleeting glances in the halls, in third-period Honors English and seventh-period World History—that she was startled to realize she had never truly seen what he looked like before. Maybe sad-puppy Jake from class had only existed inside her head. Now, up close, she noticed not one, but two thick hairs protruding from his nostrils like spider legs, and the noxious beer-and-cheap-
cologne fumes wafting from his neck.
What would he say, she wondered, if he knew about Mom’s condition? She didn’t want to think about it.
“Thanks for the tip,” Cate said. When she pushed past Jake, he didn’t try to stop her.
She needed air. The music was giving her a headache, and she was dizzy—she’d only choked down a few crackers for dinner before the party. Her mom had thrown out the Chinese food she’d been planning to eat for dinner because she swore she “saw a camera hidden inside the lo mein.”
She felt a bead of sweat roll down her back. It was too hot, too damn hot. She should never have snuck out in the first place. She should never have let Ivy convince her. Usually, she knew better.
Listen, Babe, Ivy had said, wrapping her arm around her. The world is probably ending. Aliens on the march and all that. So why are you holding yourself back?
It was typical Ivy exaggeration—the bunch of radio static or signal or whatever it was from the newly discovered alien planet Kepler-88a hadn’t even been decoded yet, and for all they knew it was nothing more than an alien butt-dial, or maybe a simple Hello, little Earthlings! Mind if we borrow some sugar? Nothing to panic about.
Cate couldn’t help but feel that this time, though, her best friend was right. Why else would aliens ever bother to contact Earth? And if it really was harmless, why bother encoding it? At this rate, the world probably would end before Cate’s life had even begun.
And if that meant tonight would be one of her last memories, she really had to rethink her life decisions.
As Cate pushed her way toward the stairs, Ivy’s voice reached her from across the room. “Cate! Get over here!”
Ivy glowed against the fog, and the way her smile crinkled the corners of her eyes made her almost painfully gorgeous. A girl in her element. A girl with no regrets.
And why would she have any? The girl knew how to live, how to grab everything she wanted; despite dealing with parents who argued more than they breathed, she was named captain of the debate team, snagged an early acceptance to Stanford, and had 100 percent certainty in her future career as an attorney just like her mom. She made it all look effortless, too. Soon, Ivy would be free. She’d deserved it.
When had their paths diverged so much? Cate was happy for Ivy, and proud as hell. But she couldn’t help but feel left behind. Then again, it wasn’t like Cate had much of a choice. She had to be there for Mom. Mom, whose tired eyes always held a glint of guilt whenever she looked at her, who always insisted that Cate stop holding herself back because of her.
But she had to. It was stupid to imagine, if only for one night, she could have anything resembling a normal life. How could she, knowing Mom would be home alone, fighting demons in her own head?
What happened? Ivy mouthed, flashing an all-knowing grin from across the room.
Cate smiled weakly. Bathroom, she mouthed back.
Ivy fake-pouted. “Fine, but hurry!” she shouted, cupping her hands to her mouth so Cate could hear her above the music.
Cate took the stairs two at a time, grabbed her jacket from the couch, and flung it over her shoulder. She dove through the crowd of classmates clustered in the front hall—some she didn’t know; some she didn’t care to know—reached for the doorknob, and plunged outside.
She wasn’t going to the bathroom. She was going home.
The September chill made Cate grateful for the jacket she’d brought. Light gray vegan leather, on sale. A certified Ivy Huang pick, like most of her best clothes, like her newest haircut, a cute bob. But she still couldn’t shake off the cold that had crept on her skin when Jake touched her. She’d imagined her first kiss would give her a rush of butterflies, that it would feel sweet, like liquid gold.
She shot a text to Ivy to let her know she’d left the party, and took a deep inhale. An afternoon rain had brought out the scents of metal and oil and earth from the veins of the city. The night was unexpectedly clear, and the fog had rolled off the bay, leaving the stars intact, glimmering against the dark.
She used to like looking up at stars. She’d even talk to them, too; on nights Mom couldn’t listen, Cate knew that at least they would. But ever since her Environmental Science teacher told her that by the time their light had reached Earth, the stars had already died, the night sky creeped her out. The stars she saw were shining corpses, echoes in a hollow sky. She might as well have been venting to dead people.
She wondered if the aliens on Kepler-88a had seen the same stars, before they had died. Were they even prettier back then, up close and brimming with life?
Immediately, she tried to quash the idea of alien planets and their stars. She had enough to think about, and until the little green guys showed up with neutron guns, she still had to go to school every day and grab groceries for her mom on the way home, still study like hell just to catch up, make sure Mom took her pills, make sure that she ate, make sure that she slept, make sure Mom held on to her receptionist job at Health First Medical, which she’d managed to keep for an entire nineteen months (and four days). As long as Cate helped her mom stick to their routine, things could be normal, stable. Otherwise, her mom would stay glued to the TV, absorbing every bit of information about the weird signal from the new planet, melding news with the false thoughts and memories that seemed to grow in her mind like fungus. Ever since talk of aliens had become the topic on everyone’s lips, Mom’s condition threatened to spiral out of control. While the rest of the world buzzed with excitement, Cate had fished softened peach-colored pills out of a toilet bowl with a pasta spoon strainer and begged her mom to take one, just one pill.
She turned the corner of Folsom, and the Citizens for a Safer World office came into view. Tonight, the lights in the windows were off, but the sidewalk was still littered with anti-alien protest signs from an earlier demonstration.
Earth First, most of the signs screamed.
Love Is Not an Alien Concept, a lone counterprotest sign retorted.
She’d been so caught up preparing for the party that she hadn’t even registered the sounds of the demonstration, hadn’t even known it happened. She’d been so stupidly filled with hope for tonight. For her first—
She stopped walking. She’d had her first kiss. She touched her fingers to her lips. Did she feel different?
A little bit.
Maybe. But she was probably imagining it. Just like she’d imagined sad-puppy Jake.
Her house emerged over the lip of a steep hill, a tiny slice of building smashed between other narrow homes. Cate and her mom rented the bottom floor of a traditional single-family home, remarkable only for its lurid flamingo-pink paint, which always flaunted itself from a distance. Tonight, however, as Cate approached the house, number fourteen lit up different shades of red and blue, red and blue, flashing staccato in the rotating sweep of police lights.
Guilt squeezed at her lungs with an icy grip, leaving her breathless.
She should never have left her mom alone. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
The slamming of car doors resounded in the quiet night air; two police officers in dark uniforms emerged from the police cars. Her mom, still in her pastel blue pajamas, was hailing the cops from the front porch as if they were arrivals on some cross-oceanic ship.
“Mom!” Cate gasped, finally reaching the front yard. She was always struck by how effortlessly gorgeous her mom was: sand-and-sunbeam-flecked hair, glimmering green eyes—neither of which Cate had inherited—and laugh lines like memories of happier times etched in her skin. But now Mom looked sickly pale, like she was straining beneath some invisible weight. She tilted her head, squinting, as though she didn’t recognize her daughter.
And maybe she didn’t. More and more often, Cate’s strong and beautiful mom felt tucked away somewhere. More and more often, Cate came home to Molly.
No. That wasn’t right. Dr. Michel had told Cate that different sides didn’t split her mom into different people, that everyone had different sides to them, and that didn’t make them any less whole. But Cate, she hated to admit, still caught herself calling this stranger by Mom’s given name whenever she appeared: Molly, a stranger she found unpredictable, even frightening at times, someone who didn’t respond when spoken to, or spoke in rhyming phrases and nonsense words. Someone who dumped pills in the toilet because the voices told her to. Someone who saw cameras hidden in the lo mein.
But no, Mom was Mom, full stop. She would always and only ever be Mom.
Even if, in the dark corners of Cate’s mind, it sometimes didn’t feel like it.
The two police officers turned at the same time. “This your mother?”
“What does it look like?” Cate snapped. She had to stay calm, she knew that—but sweat trickled down her back. She dodged the cops and leaped the porch steps, grabbing her mom by the elbow.
“Are you okay?” Cate asked in a low voice. “Are you hurt?”
Her mom shook her head, even as she began to sway. “Not yet. Not yet. But soon,” she said dreamily. “The police know.”
“You called the police?” She could only imagine what Mom had said to them on the phone.
“Your mother called to report some kind of home invasion,” one of the police officers said. “Dispatch had trouble getting the story.”
Cate pushed down another surge of nausea. Her mom had been worried for weeks about an invasion—but not the kind they meant.
“It’s okay, we’ll put your alarm on, all right, Mom?” she replied, keeping her voice as steady as possible. They had no alarm system, but whenever her mom was upset, the idea of an alarm had seemed to pull her back. “It’s my fault. I didn’t set the alarm. No one’s going to get in.” Cate clenched her mom’s hand, pulsing it steadily one, two, three times. Again, one, two, three, just like Dr. Michel had told her. Thankfully, her mom started to squeeze back. That was a good sign. Cate turned back to the cops, flashing them a big smile. “We moved from a bad area. Lots of home invasions. My mom gets nervous.”
The police officers exchanged a look. One of them cleared his throat. “So there was no burglary?”
Invasions and burglaries: Mom thought Kepler-88a had infiltrated Earth long ago. Sometimes she thought the aliens were snatching babies, stealing secrets, lifting thoughts, even from inside people’s heads.
“I—I’m so sorry,” Cate said quickly, pivoting toward a new lie, a new explanation. “There’s been a misunderstanding. See, what she told dispatch was probably that we moved from our last home because of a burglary. But she was calling this time because I snuck out without telling her and she was worried.” She spoke in a fluid rush, hoping the police officers would miss the gaps in her story. “But I’m here! I’m fine. Everything’s fine, see?” It was only a matter of time before one of the neighbors noticed the commotion. Cate had lost count of all the times she’d had to explain why Mom was wandering outside at odd hours: she was just forgetful, she’d had one too many mimosas, she’d chased off a raccoon. Her mom’s behavior had made Cate a deft liar; she’d had more than enough practice for the inevitable day that cops would show up.
Finally, the second officer, a kind-faced woman whose badge read Rodriguez, sighed. “Just do me a favor and don’t give your mom a heart attack, all right? That’s what cell phones are for. You gonna be out late, you call her.”
“I will,” Cate said. “I promise.”
She stayed there, holding her breath, until the cops had returned to their car. Only after their taillights had disappeared over the hill did she realize how badly she was shaking.
She let go of her mom, wiping her wet palms on her jeans, sick with relief and with terror at how close they had come.
“Come inside, Mom,” she said.
“Why did you let the officers go?” Her mom’s voice was sharp, escalating. Across the way, Cate thought she saw the neighbor’s curtains twitch.
“They’ll come back later. They’re going to patrol for . . .” She couldn’t bring herself to say “aliens.” “They’re doing a neighborhood patrol. They said to get inside. Let’s stay inside and turn on the alarm, okay?”
She whipped her keys out of her jacket pocket with trembling, still sweaty hands and approached the front door. The tiny blackbird key chain her mom had given her, before the schizophrenia took an aggressive hold five years ago, thwacked against the door as she turned the handle. She had once truly liked her blackbird. Her dad had carved it by hand and given it to Mom when they’d first met. It reminded her of Mom’s first story about Dad: that he was a shape-shifter who transformed into a bird and flew somewhere far away. But one day, he’d fly back home, she had promised. Now the key chain was a reminder. A reminder that her dad, whoever he was, would not come back. A reminder that the stories she’d loved as a kid were just signs of Mom’s early delusions.
A reminder never to rely on anyone but herself.
She sat her mom on her reading chair in the family room before racing into the kitchen to find the pills she’d been drying out on a paper towel. After checking her phone again—Ivy still hadn’t texted her back—she made the mistake of glancing up and catching her reflection in the mirror above the sink, bleary-eyed, her concealer faded to reveal the stress zits she’d painstakingly hidden. But at least she was home, and that meant Mom was safe now. That meant Cate could breathe. She could deal with smudged eyeliner later.
When she came back into the living room, Mom was pacing in front of the TV, gripping a folded piece of paper. Cate recognized the paper right away: a ripped sheet from one of the many marble composition notebooks Mom kept tucked in the back of the broom closet, filled with strange drawings and coordinates that made no sense to Cate. Cate had discovered them years ago, but when she’d asked her mom what they meant, her mom had only smiled and said, “It’s a secret.” Cate never looked at them again. Looking inside them felt too much like a window into Mom’s mind.
The news was on now, but muted. The screen revealed a panel of experts in suits with furrowed brows and pursed lips. Below them, a ticker at the bottom of the screen displayed the headline: KEPLER-88A: ALLY OR ENEMY?
The screen cut to the president of the United States at a podium, and the ticker changed: POTUS AND HIS JOINT SECURITY COUNCIL BOAST PROGRESS MADE ON DECODING MISSIVE FROM OUTER SPACE. . . .
Before she could read any more, her mom stepped in front of the television, blocking it. Cate swallowed her irritation. Selfishly, she just wanted a second to wipe off the rest of her makeup, to get out of this stupid dress, to pretend that tonight never happened.
“I’ve got your medicine,” Cate said. “You can take it and go to bed.”
“I’m not tired,” her mom replied flatly. She took a step forward and seized Cate’s wrist, knocking the pills from her hand. Fingernails dug into Cate’s skin. “Listen, Cate. I want you to promise me that if anything happens to me, you’ll get this letter to your dad.” She pressed the folded square of paper into Cate’s hand. “He’s one of them, you know.”
Cate didn’t have to look at it to know that what was written there would be more nonsense. She didn’t have to ask what Mom meant, either. First it had been the guy behind the register at the grocery store. Then the little girl selling Girl Scout cookies to fund a trip to the space station museum in Novato. Then a random old woman feeding birds in the park. “Aliens,” her mom had said. “All aliens.” The invasion wasn’t coming. It was already here.
“Dad was an alien, too, huh?” Cate bent to retrieve the pills. She hated having to talk to her mom like she was a child, hated having to pretend to take her seriously in moments like these, hated all of it—this disease that had invaded their lives, more terrifying and insidious than any aliens could be.
Worst of all, she hated that, despite everything, Mom still clung to her memories of Dad like a comforting blanket, still clung to her desperate hope that he would come back after all these years. Mom and Molly seemed to be in agreement about one thing: Cate wasn’t enough to protect them. Maybe they were right.
No. Stop that.
But her mom didn’t seem to notice her discomfort. “Tall, with thick brown hair and dark eyes,” she went on. “He looked like us. Blended in. But I could tell he seemed different. Special. Always had his eyes on the sky. I had no idea, of course, where he was from. Everyone in Reno is from out of town, you know. I was.”
“Why don’t you take your medicine,” Cate said, handing her a single pill.
Her mom inspected the pill between her two fingers, gripping it like a diamond. Cate tried not to cry with relief when her mom brought it to her lips and swallowed, leaving the water untouched.
“My feet are cold,” her mom added. “What time is it?”
“Almost midnight, Mom.” Cate’s voice cracked. “It’s time for bed.”
“You shouldn’t be up this late,” her mom said, as if suddenly realizing it.
“It’s okay.” Cate drew her mom into a hug. This is my mom, Cate repeated inside her head. No matter what, this is still my mom. “I will never let anything happen to us, okay? I promise. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Over her mother’s shoulder, the news was showing another press conference, another parade of military higher-ups, another cycle in the endless rotation of frowning experts. She read the ticker: DEMONSTRATIONS ROCK THE COUNTRY, DEMANDING THE GOVERNMENT RELEASE ITS TRANSLATION OF THE KEPLER-88A SIGNAL . . . NORTH KOREA THREATENS BALLISTIC MISSILES IN RESPONSE TO “WORLDWIDE HOAX” . . . CHRISTIAN EVANGELISTS TAKE TO THE PULPITS TO DECLARE END OF TIMES . . .
Cate’s mom pulled away. She was sweating, despite the coolness of the air. But her eyes, at last, found focus. “Nothing’s going to happen to us, Cate,” she said, her head tilted like a bird’s. “Why on earth would you say such a thing?”
“Earth to Adeem,” Miss Takemoto’s voice rang out from the front of the computer science lab, shocking Adeem into awareness like an electric jolt to his skull.
Adeem looked up, confused. At the front of the room, Miss Takemoto’s hand was still gripping the Expo marker to the whiteboard where she’d begun writing a string of code. From the looks of it, they were reviewing arrays. Kindergarten stuff. He knew he’d zoned out for a reason.
“Glad you could join us again,” she said as the class erupted in snickers. “Now if you could refrain from huffing on that applesauce pouch like a baby elephant, we can all get back to class.”
Adeem shoved his red-rimmed glasses back into place and blinked in slow, clumsy realization. He pulled the applesauce pouch from his lips. He’d been sucking, not blowing—not that he was about to correct her, of course—on an empty pouch of Very Berry Applesauce for God knows how long. When had applesauce turned to air, anyway? Was that why he was so airheaded? The lack of sleep was affecting him more than he thought.
He’d been up all night listening in on ham radio nets—basically discord channels for radio junkies—on his shortwave radio. Ever since he’d overheard a former NASA engineer explain what he knew about the alien message on one of the nets, information not available to the general public, he’d been hooked. He’d even discovered the radio could allow him, if the timing was right, to communicate with astronauts on the International Space Station, people who’d reached the scientific equivalent of enlightenment. And they’d talk back, their voices carried by nothing but photons, almost three hundred miles from Earth. Who knew what else he’d find?
An embarrassed smile crept across his face. “My bad, Miss T.”
She waved her hand impatiently. “Just toss it, please. How many times do I have to remind you there’s no food allowed during class?”
As he stood and dropped the empty pouch with a thunk into the nearby trash bin, he could feel his classmates’ eyes on him, wondering if Miss Takemoto would finally snap and write him up. It wasn’t the first time Adeem had caused an interruption, after all. Once, he’d made a program on C++ to control her mouse cursor from his phone, forcing her to click on all the wrong programs; it’d taken her ten minutes to realize it was him. Then the other week, he’d made her computer meow whenever she pressed the space bar. But his grades had cushioned him from any kind of penalty, and he was pretty sure Miss Takemoto had been impressed he could pull those pranks in the first place. It’s why she’d been hounding him since freshman year for his college plans, trying to get him to meet with an MIT rep, and throwing sign-up forms for code jams and national robotics competitions in his face—sometimes literally.
Even the applesauce pouches were her idea. Easy to eat when coding, healthy sugars and all that. “I’m not having you become one of those Mountain Dew–chugging zombies, not under my watch,” she’d said before tossing him a pouch after school at Coding Club. Back when he actually showed up.
He took his seat in the back of the classroom. Beside him, Derek Robinson, his best friend since fifth grade, shook his head. Idiot, he mouthed. Adeem flashed him a grin.
Adeem normally spent his weekends at Derek’s house, where they made their own video games. They’d work side by side late into the night before Adeem would call it quits and crawl to the kitchen to eat all of Derek’s Corn Pops in the glow of the refrigerator, while Derek sat cross-legged on the countertop, adding final touches to some artwork on his tablet. Their latest project was a cat simulator game. Before that, it was a dating sim for AIs. A platformer. They’d done it all.
But the games never went anywhere, and Adeem’s parents—
and Miss Takemoto—were hounding him now with words like “wasted potential” and “future plans.” They might have had a point. Making games took time, time that probably could have been spent doing homework or fluffing up his résumé or studying for the SATs. Things he never did. In the end, though, Adeem put their game-making on hold, if only to stop dragging Derek down with him, give him his weekends back. Even if his future was a black hole, Derek’s didn’t have to be.
Not that he’d told Derek the real reason, of course. As far as Derek knew, Adeem simply didn’t have time to make games anymore now that his weekends were taken over by his newest weird hobby: amateur radio. Which was partially true.
It’s not Thursday if you don’t get dragged by Miss T at least once, Derek typed on a blank Notepad file on his computer—their way of passing notes, though they sat next to each other—once their teacher began lecturing again.
Derek’s eyes widened. Why do you even bother taking any comp sci classes when you’re just gonna dominate them?
Adeem shrugged and typed: And miss baby’s first steps into programming? No way.
Miss Takemoto finished writing the array object and was now highlighting the various elements and variables in different-colored markers. But Adeem caught her glancing back at them, as if she knew he wasn’t really paying attention. He batted away at the guilt buzzing in his head like a fruit fly that wouldn’t die.
The thing was, Miss Takemoto had high hopes for Adeem, and he knew it. Adeem wasn’t exactly a genius—and according to his mom, he was an idiot for not taking school seriously—but he’d always been pretty good at fixing things. It had started with him tearing apart his sister’s old toys and putting them back together: a plastic “robot” dog, a canary-yellow drone, a remote-controlled R2D2. Then his dad’s antique Philco radio, chipped at the left-hand corner from when his sister, Leyla, had once dropped it. He’d nearly taken apart the family computer until Leyla introduced him to programming, and he soaked up code like a sponge. He loved everything about it: the fractals of scattered text across his white screen, the delicate architectural coherence of it all, and the looming threat it could all fall apart with a single misplaced symbol. Coding was like a game of chess, but he could make the rules. With his own imagination being the only constraint, coding was the closest he’d ever felt to having some semblance of control over something.
The skill had other benefits, too. Being the only two brown kids in school, Adeem and Derek were practically walking targets for people like Chris Wakely, the kind of kid who proudly hung a certain red baseball cap in his locker and grumbled, loudly, about the growing population of “Mexicans” during every school assembly. When Chris Wakely called him a terrorist in the hallway last year, Adeem hacked into Chris’s email and created a macro that made every one of Chris’s emails autosign as Shit Wakely. Coach Grier wasn’t too thrilled; apparently, it had made Chris’s college football scholarship prospects a little . . . strained.
But that was the extent Adeem had ever used his talents: making silly little games, pulling stupid pranks. As for anything else—anything more—some invisible weight was holding Adeem back.
How was he supposed to explain to Miss Takemoto and his parents that taking his coding talent seriously would mean that his future would forever be tied down to memories of his sister? Memories that still stung every time he saw the chipped Philco radio or wrote new code he was proud of. Code that she would have been proud of, too.
If she’d cared enough to stick around.
The eighth-period bell chimed.
He turned off the computer and stood, racing to pack his notebook, when Miss Takemoto called his name, her voice only just bobbing above the cacophony of rustling backpacks and chairs scraping across the linoleum floor.
She was waving him over. Dread coiled down from his stomach to his feet, fastening him to the floor.
Derek looked at him sympathetically and shook his head but said nothing. Adeem breathed in, letting the oxygen settle before walking through the crowd of glazed-eyed students making their way out of the classroom.
“You staying after school for Coding Club?” Miss Takemoto asked as he approached, hastily erasing the whiteboard, leaving behind trace marks of code. It smelled sharply of alcohol solvent and ink, and made him dizzy.
Miss Takemoto was also the supervisor for Coding Club, and there was no way Adeem could deal with her any longer than he already had. He scrambled for an excuse. “Not today. I’ve got a . . . dentist appointment.”
But Miss Takemoto suddenly spun to face him, her eyebrow raised. “Another one?”
Shit. Note to self: think of other kinds of appointments. “Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “All that applesauce, I guess. Eroding my enamel.”
She wasn’t convinced. Her eyes bored through him, and her face contorted as though it was straining to hold back her accusations. If he was lucky, the smell of alcohol solvent would hide the smell of his bullshit. Behind her, the flyer for the National Robotics Challenge still hung on the corner of the whiteboard. She’d probably put it there on purpose.
It was times like this he wished he could ask Leyla for advice. Leyla, the one person responsible for his love of computers and old tech. Leyla, the one person who could always make sense of him when he could not.
Leyla, the one person who he’d been sure would always be there. Until she’d ninja’d her way out of his life.
Adeem flexed his stiff fingers and smiled through gritted teeth. “I’ll start showing up again soon. Just been busy with other stuff.” Like avoiding you.
Miss Takemoto’s expression was unreadable. “I’ll hold you to it,” she said. And Adeem knew she would.
Maybe Derek was right. He was starting to regret signing up for her class. He needed to avoid her altogether.
Derek was still standing by the doorway, waiting. He always waited. And it surprised Adeem every time. He was starting to get convinced Derek would always stick around, a feeling so uncomfortably unfamiliar to Adeem.
Because when Leyla left, Adeem was sure everyone else would, too.
Adeem grabbed his backpack off his chair and followed Derek into the hallway. They walked side by side, making their way toward study hall.
“Everything okay?” Derek asked casually, but his eyes spelled out worry.
“Oh, that. I’m grounded from applesauce, apparently. Guess I’ll have to start bringing corn chips and Pop Rocks to class instead.”
Derek snorted. “I honestly don’t know why Miss T puts up with your ass.”
“Honestly? Me neither.” Adeem pulled his hood back down, letting cool air hit his neck. “Me neither.”