During advisory at the end of the day, while Mr. Mater drones on about a student council food drive and tryouts for the upcoming musical, I count three news teams on the school’s front lawn, waiting to ambush me the second I walk out the doors. When my dad died, they were more discreet. Aside from Emi Vega, who nagged me for an exclusive, cameras filmed me from a distance. They wanted nothing more than a shot of the fatherless girl walking around looking sad and pathetic.
They weren’t as lenient with my father. Every local station slandered his name. They made him out to be a narcissist and called his case against Morrell erroneous and self-serving.
This time, I can tell they’re out for blood. They check their watches beyond the school property lines, ready to swoop in and pick at my wounds like starving vultures.
Like the Swarm.
I grab my phone and key in Jeremiah Dopney. It takes two links before I find an update. “Northwestern Hospital spokesperson said Dopney is still in the ICU in critical condition . . .”
He has to pull through. I can’t handle spending my life knowing I should have tried harder to save his.
I tap the home button to check the time. Two news banners pop up. The Tribune: “Was Lia Finch the Real Target?” and the Sun-Times: “Does Lia Finch Know More than She’s Letting On?” I toss my cell
back into my bag and shove it near the bottom.
Adam was right. News feeds have been speculating all day about whether I knew about the attack. As if that’s more important than the Swarm’s resurgence. They want to discredit me like they did my dad, dissect me until there’s nothing left, without caring what their implications could mean for me.
The bell rings. Chairs and desks screech across the floor as everyone scrambles. Mr. Mater shouts over the chaos—something about Science Olympiad—but no one listens.
I don’t move.
The news teams outside inch toward the front door. I’d love to think they’re looking for Cullen, someone who relishes his media attention. But they’re not.
Kids spill into the courtyard two stories below. Hundreds of teenagers dressed in hoodies, sunglasses, and scarves start filling the space until the courtyard itself becomes a patchwork of unidentifiable milling high school students. The scene is too familiar, the suddenness too reminiscent of yesterday.Any one of them down there might be a part of the Swarm. They survive on their ability to remain concealed, anonymous. They thrive on people’s fear that they could be anyone, anywhere. Because of it, they’re never caught.
Any one of them down there might be a part of the Swarm. They survive on their ability to remain concealed, anonymous. They thrive on people’s fear that they could be anyone, anywhere. Because of it, they’re never caught. My classmates flood the lawn, and my insides twist like the tight coil of a spring. One—or more—of my classmates buzzing below might have been there Saturday. Or worse. They might have been there the day my dad was murdered.
I grip the edge of my desk. I should look away. Escape out back. But I’m locked in place. Any second, little blue orbs might perforate the brimming mass. Starting the attack. Denoting someone’s murder.
And then suddenly, I see him. Broad shoulders. Hooded sweatshirt. The gray-eyed attacker. His back is to me, but I’m sure it’s him. Even from where I sit, immobilized in my desk, I recognize his shape. He leans against the school’s stairs, his head bent, shoulders hunched, watching people leave, waiting for me.
I can’t move. Can’t breathe.
I shut my eyes. Picture Hana. The purple sky.
My throat clenches, restricting the thickening air. I force an inhale, tighten my focus: the black rock beach. Salt water foams and swirls around boulders. Swishing. Fizzing.
Mr. Mater startles me. “Lia?”
It takes several moments to register his presence. He stands behind his desk, waiting for my answer as I remind myself I’m still in his classroom.
I spin back toward the window. By the time I look outside, the boy with the hood is gone. As if he’d never been there.
“Everything okay?” Mr. Mater asks.
I stand—an awkward, jerky motion—and stack my books. “Yeah, I was just . . .”
Momentarily hallucinating? Flipping out because I watched someone practically murdered three days ago? Wondering where and when someone’s going to kill me? There is no way for me to finish the sentence.
Mr. Mater slides his hands into his pockets and steps out from behind his desk. “If you give me a couple minutes, I can walk you out.”
I jam my notebooks into my canvas bag. “No, I’m fine.”
“Lia,” he says quietly. “You’ve been through quite a bit. It’s okay if you’re not fine.”
I wrap my thin beige cardigan around my torso. I should be used to it—adults always walking on eggshells, asking if I’m all right, like I’m a helpless, injured little bird, too weak to function. Mr. Mater has always been one of the few to treat me like everyone else—not the freak with the tragic backstory.
I consider saying, “It’s okay if you don’t force an unnecessary conversation.” But I find that kind of response invites adults to talk and pry more. Instead, with my books tight against my chest, I cast him a sideways glance and mutter an obligatory “bye” on my way out the door.
Mr. Mater gives me that familiar look of pity I’ve seen all day. I pick up my pace toward the main staircase, eager to get home and scrub away each of those looks with a long shower.
I head to the ground floor, trying to convince myself the guy who tried to kill me or save me or scare me—whatever he did or didn’t do—is not outside. More than once I’ve considered that he delivered my bag. So, what’s he doing now? Checking up on me? Does he know about the IP address?
I race down the stairs, trying to convince myself it doesn’t matter. Because the more I think about it, the more I’m certain I didn’t see him. He was a figment of my imagination. Not a hallucination. Just my eyes and my mind playing tricks on me.
I grip the rail, steadying myself, and pause on the last step. Relaxing my shoulders, I take three deep, meditative breaths until my heart rate steadies. I fumble for my inhaler, shoot the medicated mist into my lungs, relieving the tension in my chest. Then, I turn the corner.
When I hit the school’s main corridor, the hallway is near empty. I rehearse my statement and my saddened, comatose expression. But as I approach the front doors and peer out the window, I second-guess my game plan. Maybe I should call Katie to meet me around back with her car. I could sneak out, lose the cameras, escape.
Except Adam won’t find that IP address for me until I shut the media up. And if I wait too long, he might become preachy and decide that helping is somehow bad for me. Besides, if anyone is out to kill me—like the guy I didn’t see waiting for me in the courtyard—no one will do it on camera.
I’m about to burst through the doors when someone grabs my elbow. I spin around, ready to punch, and find Cullen Henking. He flashes a one-dimpled smile, clearly amused by my reaction. “Easy, there. You don’t want them to catch you looking jumpy and spastic on camera.” He clucks his tongue. “Somewhat suspicious—like you’ve done something wrong. Bad for the image.”
I straighten my sweater, my bag. “I almost died Saturday,” I say, angry with myself for sounding too defensive.
Cullen’s smile deepens. “Good thing my dad pulled you from the lake when he did,” he says in a sarcastic way, like we both know it’s a lie.
I turn toward the window. At least Emi isn’t out there.
Cullen steps beside me. “You know, my car is on the other side of the fence.” He gestures to his black Lexus parked in front of a fire hydrant, two steps past the courtyard’s exit. “We could walk right past the cameras,” Cullen says. “I’ll take you home.”
I snort. “You can’t be serious.”
He leans against the doorframe. “I’m willing to bet you’d do just about anything to avoid those reporters, which includes accepting a ride with me as much as you’d despise it.”
I scrutinize his expression, trying to figure out his angle. Either I’ve grossly underestimated Cullen’s narcissism or there’s something more to his charade.
“In seventh grade, you posted a picture of me yawning on Instagram and called me the ugliest girl in school.”
Cullen breaks out laughing. “Oh God, I forgot about that.” He bends over like he can’t control himself. “I’m sorry, but have you ever seen the face you make when you yawn?” He puts his hand on my shoulder. Composes himself. “Would it help if I told you you’re pretty, Lia?”
I jerk away. “I hate you more than I do those cameras.” I lift my chin. “I’m actually about to give my statement.”
Instead of looking surprised, Cullen opens the door and stands aside. “Fair enough. Your funeral.” He winks, still snickering. “Too insensitive for the girl who ‘almost died’?”
I grab the straps of my bag slung across my torso and brush past Cullen through the second set of doors. Before I hit the third step, the news teams rush toward me. Three cameras crowd my personal space. Their black lenses and tiny red lights. I’m caught halfway down the school’s front steps, worried if I keep walking, I’ll miss a step and fall down the concrete stairs.
Three reporters talk over each other.
“Amelia, how do you feel today?”
“Why were you at Navy Pier on Saturday?”
“Did you know there would be an attack?”
The questions jar me. I’d expected them, but not so abruptly.
I mask my face. Sullen. Lifeless.
“My father,” my voice squeaks. “My father,” I say again, sounding somber, “loved Navy Pier. He started his career in the Navy.” Not what I’d rehearsed. “He was an attorney for the Navy.” I can sense red blotches creeping up my neck. “He loved to go there on weekends.”
All three camera lenses swell. “I wanted to spend a holiday meant to celebrate working men and women honoring his memory. My father worked hard for this city.”
A burning sensation ignites behind the bridge of my nose. I clench my gut. “That’s all I have to say.”
I try to sidestep them, but they inch closer.
“Can you tell us what you saw, Lia?”
“What was it like watching what happened to your father?”
“What’s your reaction to alleged gang affiliate Rafael Nuñez being brought in for questioning?”
I step back, nearly tripping over the stair as I climb it. I don’t know who they’re talking about. “What?”
“What did the Death Mob members look like?”
“What did you share with police that implicated the Latin Royals?”
I search for my next sentence, my next move. “I didn’t.” I sound too weak, uncertain.
The cameras move closer, as if to swallow my head with their little black mouths.
Cullen steps in front of me, forcing them back. “As I told you earlier today, Lia has been through a traumatizing ordeal. She’s answered everyone’s burning question, but now, understandably, needs time to mourn the loss of her father and pray for Dopney and his fight for life.”
His response sounds calm, rehearsed, like something his dad might say. How didn’t I come up with something so simple?
“Now, if you’ll excuse us,” Cullen says.
Maybe I should shove him away. Proclaim I want nothing to do with him in front of the cameras. It’s not like he actually cares about me or my father or Dopney. But the courtyard is thick and claustrophobic, and my inadequacy handling the media is glaring. Cullen guides us away from the reporters shredding me with their questions, and I let him.
He loops his arm around my shoulder in a way-too-intimate gesture. I imagine viewers watching at home, fawning over his chivalry, speculating about a relationship between us, and I jerk my shoulder.
He chuckles under his breath. His hand slips away as I focus on placing one foot in front of the other, desperate to escape this moment I’m sure will be broadcast a million times over tonight.
Cullen pulls his keys from his pocket. His Lexus beeps twice. The engine starts.
“No way,” I say, refusing to get in a car with him.
I backpedal, eager to walk home and put this all behind me, when a WGN news van passes. It parks a few cars down, and Emi Vega jumps out in four-inch heels.
This can’t be happening.
Cullen opens the passenger door. “The lesser of two evils?”
Emi snaps at her cameraman and darts into the street toward us.
I’ve loathed Cullen Henking since middle school, which is all I can think about as I bite the inside of my cheek and duck inside his car. Sinking into the leather seat, I hide behind the tinted windows. The reporters yap at their cameras in the courtyard while Emi Vega picks up speed, trying to block us.
Cullen climbs in. The car revs and peels off in the other direction, making a dramatic escape.
Adam’s not going to let me hear the end of it.
“Where to?” Cullen asks, as though he doesn’t have a care in the world.
I brace my feet against the vacuumed floor mat and fumble for the seat belt. There’s no way he cleans his own car.
“You love this, don’t you?”
His grin widens. “Love what?”
“Acting like you’re rescuing me.” I’m so angry for letting it happen, I stutter.
“Is that how you see me?” He squeezes my knee. “Lia, I’m touched.”
I slap his hand away.
Cullen chuckles and turns left, away from the school.
“It’s a game, Lia. They’re so hungry to tell a story that sucks people in. Why not create that story for them? The one you want to tell. In my story, I get to rescue you.” He flashes his irritating one-dimpled smile. “In your story, you get to hang out on Navy Pier for no other reason than to celebrate your late, hard-working father.”
In the thirteen years we’ve gone to school together, it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever heard him say, and I wonder if I did enough to silence the media’s speculations. My dad was so good at spinning stories, controlling what the media reported. Why didn’t I inherit that?
We pass beneath the “L” track. “Head toward Division and State.”
“Gold Coast? Interesting. Didn’t expect that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Cullen looks me over and shrugs. “Didn’t peg you for a rich girl.”
I cross my arms. Of course, the entire Henking family would snub anything without a designer label. “You’re a jerk.” I try not to squirm in my tight jeans, T-shirt, and cardigan sweater.
“And you’re quite the actress. Quit changing the subject. I don’t believe for two seconds that you knew nothing about the attack before it happened. And I certainly don’t believe you couldn’t identify anyone there.”
I cast him a dirty sideways glance. “I don’t care what you think.”
My phone chimes in my bag. Twice. I dig through it to find texts from Adam.
you let CH help you?!?
your story was pathetic BTW. Somehow I think it worked.
Nice to know they didn’t waste time broadcasting.
“Go ahead, Lia. Tell me your little secret. How did you know there’d be an attack?”
My phone chimes again, but I’m too caught up wondering if this has been Cullen’s motive all along. Today’s teasing, his fake cameraderie, helping me with the cameras, taking me home—I can’t help but think he orchestrated it so he could ask me my secrets in a moment like this. And for what? So he can spill them to reporters, monopolize the attention?
We pass Second City and hang a left on North Avenue. My phone chimes, nagging me to check the incoming text. Theyre making you sound like a couple. I hope ur not still w him. Followed by, Dont ignore me. I got something for you.
Cullen’s phone buzzes too. “We’ve already made the news. According to Celia Green, I looked very attractive.”
??? I text. He must already have the IP address. My heartbeat thumps in my temples as I wait for Adam to fill in details.
I’ll ditch tonight!! Spill!
Even if the IP address doesn’t link to the guy in charge of organizing the attacks, it will at least tie to one of his lackeys. Maybe a house. Or apartment complex? Even an office building is a lead.
Cullen leans over like we’re exchanging secrets. “Did I look attractive, Lia?”
He runs a light as it turns red. Two cars honk at him.
I grip the door, bracing myself. “Watch the road.”
Adam texts, Took 42 minutes. New record.
Cullen accelerates. “Where to in Gold Coast?”
With one hand still clutching the door, I silently curse Adam for taking so long.
“Am I supposed to guess?”
Then at last: Snapchat from Adam Cohen.
Of course. He has to make this difficult.
Grabbing a pen from my purse, I tap the notification, half convinced they wiped my account for inactivity. It’s a picture of numbers. I scribble 126.96.36.199 to my wrist before the image switches to a scrap of paper with Adam’s handwriting: creepy demonic building 😉 The second snap vanishes faster than the first.
In true Adam fashion, he’s ambiguous on purpose in case my phone isn’t safe, but I know exactly where he means. The Harold Washington Library. The giant Gothic owls perching along its roof freak Adam out. He calls them spawns of Satan, mostly because he knows they fascinate me.
“Change of plan,” I say. “Drop me off at the Brown Line.” It’s not the lead I’d hoped for. So many people use the Harold Washington Library computers each day that it might be another dead end. But it’s the only thing I have to go on.
Cullen scoffs. “I’m not a cab.”
He yanks the wheel to the right, shooting across three lanes of traffic. I brace myself as cars screech and swerve to avoid us. Cullen stops at a curb, in front of an Italian café.
“And you say I’m crazy.” I go for my buckle, but he clamps it down and holds it, trapping me in place.
A woman in a tight suit looks up from her patio table. She watches me as she sips her red wine.
“As I said, I am not a cab. I am, however, all about negotiating.”
“Let me go.” I claw at the straps of my belt.
“How did you know there would be an attack?”
He tries to pull off a playful smile, but there’s something sinister behind his narrowed eyes.
I grit my teeth and glare at him. “I didn’t know about the attack. It was a horrible, cruel, ironic fluke I was there. Now let me go before I give you a different reason to be on the news tonight.”
Cullen lets out a low chuckle and releases his hold on the belt. I unbuckle, fling open the door, and nearly jump out of the car, trying my best to look more pissed off than panicked.
Cullen shakes his head and puts on a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses.
“So many secrets, Lia. Don’t think I won’t get them out of you.” He leans across the passenger’s seat and drops his voice to a near whisper. “I’m pretty good at getting what I want.”
I slam the door as hard as I can, as if I can somehow hurt him. Instead, it draws the attention of the café’s half dozen patrons enjoying a late-afternoon meal.
Cullen cranks up the music before cutting off a car as he pulls away from the curb.
I swear I hear him laughing as he speeds away, leaving me behind.
And even worse, exposed.
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