The last thing Michael noticed before Helga stepped out of the room was how she avoided Walter’s gaze as she passed him on her way into the main barracks.

4

Michael lay on his cot, hands clasped behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He stared at the shadows crossing its surface, and the longer he looked, the more they seemed to be moving, swirling, concealing something. It made him feel like he was inside the Sleep.

“Well, peeps,” Bryson said from his own cot just a few feet over. “Today was what you’d call a very strange day.”

Sarah was across the office, between her parents’ cots; her dad was already snoring quietly, and Nancy had admonished them every five minutes to go to sleep until she finally went under herself. There was a squeak of movement on a cot, then soft footsteps and a moving shadow. Sarah sat down on the floor next to Michael’s cot and patted his hand.

“Strange doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she said.

“Makes our old gaming days seem downright dull,” Bryson added.

Michael shifted and leaned up on an elbow. Sarah was close and warm, and it gave him some comfort. “I can’t believe you guys don’t hate me,” he said. “Think how sweet your lives were before I yanked you into my freak show.”

“Oh, please, not this again,” Sarah groaned. “Like we’d be better off living at home, not knowing the world was being possessed by Tangents and crumbling around us. At least we have an opportunity to do something about it this way.”

“But that’s the thing,” Bryson said, his face hidden in darkness. “What’re we going to do? Even if we do go to the Hallowed Ravine and somehow manage to destroy the Mortality Doctrine program, Kaine or someone else could just recode it down the road. Plus, there’s that giant Hive, growing by the second. Wipe that thing out and who knows how many people we’d kill? That true death crap.”

Sarah was rubbing her temples with both hands. “Guys, can we talk about something happy for a little while? Something that has nothing to do with the Sleep, or Kaine, or Tangents, or mass murder? Please?”

Michael reached out and touched her shoulder. Sarah had never said anything so glorious in all the time he’d known her.

“What else is there to discuss?” Bryson asked. “Are we going to tell each other our favorite childhood memories or something?”

“Yes, actually. That’s a great idea,” Sarah said, suddenly cheery. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do. You first, Bryson.”

“What? Serious?”

“Totally.”

Mostly dressed in shadow, Bryson swung his legs around and sat up on his cot, leaning forward with elbows on knees. “All right,” he said. “You asked for it. But it’s going to shatter your illusion that I was a childhood prodigy, well on my way to becoming the smartest man alive.”

“We’ll risk it,” Michael muttered.

Bryson rubbed his hands together, then started in. “Okay, I was…five years old, I think. So I was a little kid, but that still doesn’t excuse how stupid I was. I mean, seriously, I had to have been one brainless child. Maybe I had an implant later in life. Or hey, maybe I’m a Tangent!”

“Not funny,” Sarah said. “And would you please get on with this amazing story of what an idiot child you were?”

It didn’t faze Michael. He’d long since accepted that he was a Tangent. The lighter they could make of it, the better. It was a huge, and relieving, change for him.

“Christmas,” Bryson said. “Snowing outside, sparkly lights everywhere, a real tree in the living room. Man, that thing smelled good. My dad chopped it down himself while I watched. I’m pretty sure we stole it off some dude’s land, but that’s another story. Anyway, I was the youngest kid, three brothers and a sister. They were all at school and my mom had gone upstairs to take a nap. And there I was, poor little baby brother, sitting in the living room, staring at a mound of wrapped presents under the tree. So inviting. It was like the paper could talk, telling me I should take a peek, see what everyone would get from Mom and Pop.”

“You sneaked a look at some Christmas presents?” Sarah asked. “That’s it? What kid in history didn’t do that?”

“Well, I didn’t,” Michael said. “I’m Jewish.”

Sarah laughed. “What? You are? How’d I not know that?”

“My parents weren’t the most religious people on the block.”

“Excuse me?” Bryson interrupted. “Can I finish?”

Sarah laughed again, and Michael’s heart felt just a little lighter. He hadn’t realized how great that sound was and how much he’d missed it.

Bryson kept up his riveting tale. “Anyway, on that lonely, cold, wintry day, Bryson the Dope came up with his genius plan. I thought that if I opened up all the presents, and then—wait for it—then if I hid the paper, my mom wouldn’t be able to tell that I’d done the deed. So I ripped the wrapping off each and every one of those presents—even my brothers’ and sister’s. For about twenty minutes I was the happiest kid that had ever breathed. After I stuffed all the paper behind the dryer, I took the unwrapped presents and, like a genius, put them back under the tree. Then I sat on the couch and looked at a book until my mom came down from her nap. I was sure she wouldn’t see a difference.”

He paused to let his moment of glory sink in.

“Wow,” Sarah whispered. “That is some kind of dumb.”

“So what happened?”

“Shockingly,” Bryson answered, “my mom immediately figured out what I’d done. She saved the paper from behind the dryer before it caught fire and burned our house down, and then she rewrapped the presents before my brothers and sister got home from school. All was well.”

“What did she do to you?” Sarah asked. “I’m sure half of her wanted to laugh and the other half wanted to murder her own child.”

Michael snickered, just enjoying the fact that they were acting like old times.

“I think my mom was really smart about it,” Bryson explained. “She knew I realized what a historically stupid thing I’d done. And my embarrassment and having to live with it for the rest of my life was punishment enough, although I’m sure she was raging mad on the inside. She tells that story to everybody.”

***

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