“Please identify yourself,” said the bland, computerized voice of the house system.
“Shaun Phillip Mason and guest,” I said.
“Rebecca Atherton, guest,” said Becks. Her words were almost precisely overlaid by Georgia’s, as she said, Georgia Carolyn Mason.
The light above the door blinked several times as the house checked my voice against its records. I was allowed to bring guests home—had been since I was sixteen—but I hadn’t done it very often. Part of me was even ludicrously afraid the house would somehow pick up on George’s phantom voice and refuse to let us in until it had figured out how to test her for viral amplification.
The light blinked just long enough for me to get nervous before the house said, “Voice print and guest authorization confirmed. Please read the phrase on your display screen.”
Words appeared on my screen. “Ride a c**k horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse,” I read. The words blinked out.
On the other side of the door, Becks recited, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.” The light above the door began blinking again. She cast me a nervous glance, which I answered with an equally nervous smile. The feel of George’s phantom fingers wrapping around my own didn’t help as much as I might have hoped. Every time she touched me, it was just a reminder of how little time I had left before I wound up going utterly insane.
The light over the door changed from red to yellow.
“Please place your right hands on the testing pads,” requested the house. I did as I was told, slapping my palm flat against the cool metal. It chilled half a second later, and something bit into my index finger, a brief sting followed almost instantly by the cool hiss of soothing foam. The light above the door began to flash, alternating red and yellow.
“Isn’t this fun?” I asked, with forced levity.
Becks glared. She was still glaring when the light stopped flashing.
The door hissed open. “Welcome home, Shaun,” said the house. “We hope you’ll have a pleasant visit, Rebecca.”
“Um, thanks,” said Becks, looking to me for what she should do next. I shrugged, smiled, and stepped through the open door.
The kitchen hadn’t changed since Georgia and I lived with the Masons. The floor was still covered in the same off-brown linoleum, and the walls were still papered in the same cheerful yellow floral print. Papers and clippings from the U.C. Berkeley student newspaper—printed on actual paper, although it was hemp, not wood pulp—covered the refrigerator. The urge to open it, grab a snack, and go up to my room was as strong as it was unexpected. Walking into that kitchen was like walking backward through time, into a part of my life where the biggest thing I had to worry about was whether the new T-shirt designs in my shop would sell well enough to justify their printing cost.
A part of my life where Georgia was alive, and not just a voice in my head and a ghostly hand on my arm.
“Shaun?” said Becks, voice barely louder than a whisper. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I shook off the past, shoving it away from me as hard as I could. “Come on.” I gestured for her to follow as I stepped out of the kitchen and into the front hallway, intending to wait in the living room until the Masons woke up and came downstairs for breakfast. It was a good plan. It was a plan intended to leave them off balance and catch them during the one time of day when they were as close to unarmed as possible.
It was a plan that died as soon as we turned the hall corner and found ourselves facing my adoptive mother, Stacy Mason. She was wearing a robe over sensible cotton pajamas, and holding a revolver. It was aimed straight at my chest. I stopped. Becks stopped. None of us said a word.
Correction: None of us said a word that anyone but me could hear. Hi, Mom, said George, her voice falling into the silence like a stone. I managed somehow not to flinch.
Finally, Mom lowered her pistol, saying calmly, “You must be hungry. Why don’t you kids go back into the kitchen, and I’ll see if I can’t whip us up some pancakes or something?”
“That’s okay, Mom,” I said. “We didn’t come here for breakfast.”
“I know,” she said, voice utterly calm—the voice that used to greet me when I came home late from school, or got another detention for fighting with the kids who picked on George because of her eyes. “I raised you better than that. At the same time, whatever you did come for can wait until we’ve all had a chance to sit down and eat like civilized people. All right?”
I know when I’m beat. “Okay, Mom.” I hesitated before adding, “You know you can’t upload any footage of us being here, right?”
“I invented the rules to this game, Shaun,” said Mom. “Now go wash your hands.”
“Yes, Mom,” I said. Georgia echoed the words inaudibly, her voice half a beat out of synch with mine. “Come on, Becks.”
Looking uncertain, Becks turned to follow me back to the kitchen. We had barely crossed the threshold when Mom called, “Oh, and Shaun?”
I tensed, not turning. “Yeah?”
Somehow, that didn’t reduce the tension. “Thanks, Mom,” I said, and kept walking.
Now that we were back in the kitchen, I could really look at it, rather than letting the overwhelming impression of coming home wash over me. Everything was old-fashioned to the point of parody, with frilled gingham curtains hiding the security mesh worked into the windows and fixtures originally installed sometime in the 1940s. It was all part of the homey atmosphere the Masons worked so hard to project—the homey atmosphere that had required, once upon a time, that they go shopping for adorable orphans to complement the rest of their décor. The worst part was the way I could see Becks buying into it, the tightness slipping from her shoulders and the lines around her mouth relaxing. Stacy and Michael Mason were heroes of the Rising. They were two of the best-loved faces of the media movements that came after it; between them, they defined what it was to be an Irwin, what it was to be a Newsie… what it was to be a blogger.
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