"DID YOU WASH YOUR HANDS?"
"Yes, I washed my hands."
My father looked up at me, for once finding*my tone more disturbing than this morning's terrifying graph.
"Oh, sorry. Of course you did."
Victory. If only I could have smiled. After so many years of trying, I had finally managed exactly the right robotic voice. Toneless, soulless, empty. I knew Dad would never ask me again if I'd washed my hands.
My anger at Jen, and at myself, had faded on the way home the night before, turning to something hard and cold by the time I'd gone to bed. This morning I was a dead thing.
Mom poured me coffee silently.
A solid minute later my father asked, "Long weekend?"
"Still love your hair like that," Mom said, her voice tipping up at the end, as though she were asking a question.
"And those hands don't look as purple today."
"I wouldn't go that far." Under the harsh light of my bathroom mirror, I could see that the dye had faded only a tiny bit. At the current rate of decay, I might be graduating college with non-purple hands.
"Tell us what's wrong, Hunter?" Mom asked.
I sighed. They'd probably already guessed, and I do tell them most things, sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Hunter."
"That was fast," Dad added, bringing his brilliant empirical mind to the matter.
"Yeah, I guess it was." I'd met Jen Thursday afternoon. It was what? Sunday morning?
Mom put her hand on mine. "You want to talk about what happened?"
I shrugged, moved my face around, tried out different sentences in my head, and finally said, "She saw through me."
"Saw through you?"
"Yeah. Straight through." I could still feel the hole her gaze had left. "Remember when we moved here? When I lost all my friends?" My confidence, my cool.
"Of course. That was really hard on you."
"I'm sure it was hard on you guys too. But the thing is, I don't think I ever got over it. It's like I've been a wimp since then. And Jen figured me out—I'm too lame to hang with her."
"Lame?" Dad asked.
I found a better word: "Afraid."
"Afraid? Don't be silly, Hunter." Mom shook her head at a forkful of eggs. "This is probably something you two can work out."
"And if you can't," Dad chimed in, "at least you haven't wasted much time on her."
Mom did a minor coffee spit at this, but I managed to say the mature thing: "Thank you both for trying to make me feel better. But please stop now."
They stopped. And went back to saying and doing the usual, predictable things. Eating breakfast with the parents is always calming: they follow immutable patterns in that married-couple way, as if things have always been and will always be the same. They aren't Innovators. Not at the breakfast table. For one hour every morning they are Classicists of the best kind, my own Rock Steady Crew.
But after I finished and went back into my room, there wasn't much to do but sit on the bed, wishing I still had my bangs to hide behind.
The tiny teams of bottle jerseys were mocking me from their shelves, so I began a little project. I took the jerseys off the empty water bottles one by one, entering the vital statistics of each into eBay, then placing each jersey underneath its own book full of obscure and useless facts, flattening them for shipment.
It was sad to break up the carefully assembled teams, but every general manager has to go into rebuilding mode every few years, sending away the familiar players and starting over with the low draft picks that losers are guaranteed. Plus if the auction gods were good to me, I might have the minimum payment for my next credit-card bill by the time it arrived.
When my phone rang, I closed my eyes and took a breath. It's not her, I repeated silently a few times, then forced myself to look at the caller ID.
I should have been glad that she was calling, that she had escaped the purple heads and was already talking to me again. But the name made my heart sink a little further. If it was going to be like this every time the phone rang and it wasn't Jen, my life was going to suck.
"Hey, Hunter. Just wanted to catch up with you."
"First, let me say sorry for missing our meeting Friday."
I laughed, which hurt because of the cobblestone in my stomach. So those were the rules: no mentioning the Jammers or the shoes. Mandy's lost weekend would be our little unspoken secret.
"That's okay, Mandy. I know it wasn't your fault. I'm just glad you're okay."
"Never better. Actually, I'm up for a promotion."
I nodded, feeling a little twinge of pain that Jen had called that one.
"But thanks for your concern. Greg told me you called. So did Cassandra. In fact, everyone told me about how worried you were. I may have seemed annoyed the last time I saw you, but I won't forget that you came looking for me."
"No problem, Mandy. Looking for you led to some… interesting adventures." The cobblestone rumbled at the words.
"So I hear. That's the other thing I wanted to call you about." She paused.
"Well, there are issues around this weekend, things we need to let chill for a while. The client doesn't want to get connected with events at a certain launch party. Certain influential persons are annoyed, and we have constituency relations to consider."
"Oh." My mind translated slowly, however straightforward the text: The client didn't want the purple-headed powers-that-be to know about their deal with the Jammers. Those powers were very pissed off and would be for a while. "What does that mean, Mandy?"
"It means that I can't give you any work. Not for a while, anyway."
I saw it all clearly now: I was the fall guy. The only person that the hoi aristoi could get their purple hands on, the only thread that might lead to the Jammers. The client would be keeping its distance.
"I'm really sorry about this, Hunter. I always liked working with you."
"Me too, with you. Don't worry about it."
"And you know, these things don't last forever."
"I know, Mandy. Nothing does."
"That's the spirit."