I checked my phone – still no news from Wheeze – and then rode home as fast as I could. Coming down from the top of the hill on Franklin gave me a great running start. I was flying when I approached the first traffic lights. There was no sign of cops around, so I sailed through the red lights and onto the bridge over the Mississippi, keeping it up all the way to our house.

But I realized Monica had beaten me home when I saw her old battered Prism parked on the curb. I slipped in the front door as quietly as I could to avoid riling up the other people living in the house, hoisted my bike onto my shoulder, and trudged up two flights of stairs, gearing up for a lecture.  Luckily, even though Monica’s a college professor, she’s lousy at lectures.

She was waiting for me, arms crossed. “I was about to call the police.”

I hung my bike up on the rack by the door. “No you weren’t.”

“All right, I wasn’t. But I was wondering how I would live with myself when I finally did call them and they made me identify your body at the morgue and asked me why it took me so long to report you missing.”

“Yeah, right. You know what happens when you call in a missing teenager? They blow you off, unless you’re somebody who’s important which, no offense, you aren’t. Did you know that people used to hang telephones on their walls? Those big clunky landline phones with push buttons? Isn’t that crazy?”

“Seriously, Zenobia. I was worried.”

And angry enough to use my full name in all its dorkiness, just to rub it in. “I was talking to a lawyer. Wilson got arrested.”


“This time it’s serious. It was probably on the news. Is your computer on?” I pulled the keyboard over, checked to see that the VPN I’d installed was ready to route me through another country – Norway, this time. I went to MPR’s website and pulled up a news report: “Nine Arrested in South Minneapolis.”

“Oh my God, that’s Wilson,” Monica said in a squeaky voice, staring at the photo and flopping down in a chair as if she was about to faint. “What did he do?”


“Shhh, don’t shout,” she said automatically.

“See?” I said in a fierce whisper. “Everybody sees a picture like that? He’s guilty. Automatically.”

“I didn’t mean he’s actually guilty. Not Wilson. He would never hurt anybody. But look at all those police.”

“And federal agents.” I enlarged the image and pointed out the pony-tail woman with the hat.

Monica made another squeak. “Oh my God. FBI? What did he do?”

“Nothing!” I stomped away. Stomp stomp stomp. Then, right on schedule, thump thump thump. A broom handle being banged against the ceiling downstairs to tell us to keep it down. I made my wild Medusa face at the floor, took off the stupid hat and my coat, then sat on the floor to pull off my boots. I figured I might have to do more stomping yet tonight, but it would be quieter in my socks. As much as I hated it when Monica reminded me to keep it down, we really couldn’t afford to piss off the downstairs neighbors. The apartment we were in, the attic floor of an old house, wasn’t actually a legal rental property, but it was the nicest place we’d lived in a long time, and the cheapest. We couldn’t afford to get thrown out.

She played the radio report on low volume as I wrestled with my laces.

FBI agents and local police raided a home in South Minneapolis today, arresting nine residents. A spokesman for the Department of Justice told reporters that the arrests were made in connection with an ongoing terrorist investigation conducted by the Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force. Though officials declined to provide details, an FBI spokesman indicated that the six men and three women arrested were self-described anarchists who had previously been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. They were arrested as they attempted to purchase bomb-making equipment from an undercover agent. According to the spokesman, the public was never at risk. “Authorities were aware of their activities and were able to make arrests before anything bad happened,” he said. Police are still seeking a tenth resident of the house.   


“Oh, Wilson,” Monica moaned to herself.

“They were set up,” I told her, stomping around the room softly in my socks, wondering whether Wheeze was still okay and how far he’d gotten away from Minneapolis.

“Set up by that guy you told me about? Peppy?”

“His name is Zip. Well, it’s not his real name. It’s the name he was using while he pretended to be a radical. The feds do this all the time, set people up to justify dragnet surveillance.” I realized I was starving and reached for a bowl of leftover beans in our dorm-sized refrigerator. I also pulled out a bowl of cooked brown rice and a bottle of hot sauce. “Want a burrito?” I pushed things around to see if there was any cheese hiding in there, but there wasn’t. Monica says it’s too fattening, but really it’s just too expensive.

“No. Seeing Wilson in that photo – I’ve totally lost my appetite. You said you found him a lawyer?”

I spooned beans on two tortillas. “Yeah. He has a whole legal team.” I scooped up rice and mashed it on top of the beans, squirting on plenty of hot sauce. “The woman who put it together is a really famous civil rights lawyer.” I flashed on that incredibly messy house and hoped Frances McSweeney was up for it as I rolled the tortillas up into fat, squishy bundles, and put them on a plate in the microwave.

“How is Wilson going to pay for someone like that?”

“Um, I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” She frowned in concern. “I just knew he needed a good lawyer, so I found him one. I mean, jeez, what else am I supposed to do? He’s my brother.” I checked my volume before the downstairs neighbors would start banging on their ceiling again.

“Sorry. You’re right. I shouldn’t be thinking about money at a time like this.” But she got a constipated look on her face, one she gets a lot, and I knew she was thinking about the $157,000 give or take that she owed in school loans. She loves teaching history, but even with a PhD she can only find part-time gigs. She teaches courses at three different universities and barely makes enough money to pay the rent.

On top of that, she has me to worry about. It wasn’t easy for Monica to take me in. She’s the black sheep of the family, the one who didn’t major in accounting or pre-med or anything else practical and boring. Besides, she’s not even really related to me. She’s Wilson’s stepmother’s first husband’s younger sister, if you can follow all that. But she was the only person in the extended family apart from Wilson who seemed to like me – not the idea of me, the messed-up brown-skinned orphan who was the kind of burden you have to carry, like missionaries taking care of African children with disfiguring diseases, but the real me. She seemed impressed by the way I taught myself to code and asked what I thought about school. Not “how’s school?” but “how bad does it suck, and are you okay?” She’d gone to the same school as me and hated it almost as much as I did. She gave me tips on how to survive and told me that I was smart enough and tough enough to make it to freedom in one piece.

She also talked to me about why schools are as screwy as they are, about the politics and the economics and how school reform was always run by people who send their kids to private schools that didn’t have to be reformed. It was pretty cool to have a grown up talk to me as if I was on her level. And we talked a lot about history because everybody else in the family thought it was boring and irrelevant. But it wasn’t boring. It was really interesting the way she talked about it, not the way we learned it in school.

So when I found out I wasn’t as strong and tough as she thought and I wasn’t going to survive if I didn’t get out, I thought of her. Moving in with Wilson wasn’t an option. The house he was living in at the time was total chaos and his sketchier friends were always getting drunk and hitting on me. There were shelters for homeless teens, but they didn’t have enough beds and would make me go back to that giant house in the suburbs. I knew Monica didn’t have any money and it wasn’t fair to ask her to put me up, but it seemed like the only solution.

When I showed up at her door that night and asked if I could stay, she said yes because she’s like that. She set aside all the class prep she was supposed to get done that night to ask me what was going on and whether I was all right. Then she called Wilson’s stepdad to explain the situation so that I wouldn’t have to talk to him. (I was sitting in a corner of the bathroom while she did that, with my arms wrapped around my head so I wouldn’t hear any of it. I was kind of a mess that night.) She was renting a studio apartment at the time, one that was not much bigger than a medium-sized doghouse, but she borrowed an air mattress and sleeping bag from a friend, probably thinking it would only be for a few days. That was two years ago.

It saved my life.

No, she saved my life, seriously, and I will never, ever forget it. She’s the best.

She even made it official by getting my adoptive parents to sign a form that gave her legal parental authority, in case I had to go to a doctor or needed permission for some school thing. They acted all concerned and reluctant, but they actually were relieved. They made sure I knew that they could revoke that Declaration of Parental Authority if they ever felt like it, but that was just a chance to remind me they had power and I didn’t.

There was some confusion about who would handle the school paperwork. Carefully organized confusion. I made sure everyone thought somebody else was taking care of it, because going to school was not high on my list of fun things to do. Everyone thought I had been enrolled at a local public school. I set my alarm to get up early and would head out the door in time for the first bell, but I would go to a coffee shop with wifi and cool staff who didn’t think it was weird that I would hang out there until school was out. But it’s illegal for a kid my age to skip school, so I had to think of a better plan. Also, I was sick of having to get up so early and leave the apartment just to keep up the lie. I’m not a morning person.

Then I remembered seeing advertisements constantly on TV for this dumb program run by a textbook company that takes tons of money from public schools to educate kids who didn’t want to go to public schools, which is totally insane when you think about it, but whatever. I found a list of state-approved online schools and picked one that didn’t look too terrible and made some phone calls pretending to be Monica. (Hey, she was busy; I figured I was saving her the time and trouble of sorting this stuff out herself.) I even convinced them that my records got messed up when I changed schools so I could get into the grade I was supposed to be going into instead of having to repeat the one I never finished. It would have been simpler to just read some books and take a GED test, but that’s not an option. Basically, school is a prison system combined with a mass babysitting operation. The last thing they want is kids running around on the loose.

It worked out okay. The teachers were a mixed bag – some were decent, some were totally annoying – and the students were even more mixed, like a can of bargain-bin salted nuts. The classes were taught through a totally borked class management system, and a lot of the assignments were really dumb and boring, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting in a room full of bored teenagers who act mean to each other just to have something to do.

I grew a lot taller once I hit fourteen and started hanging out at the libraries at the University of Minnesota where there was guest wifi and no little kids running around screaming like at the public library. I liked being able to wander around the stacks and read weird old books just for fun and you can get access to the articles that you find on Google Scholar that cost thirty-five bucks but are free if you use a library computer.

I started to feel comfortable in those libraries, like just another college student. They don’t have to sit at desks in classrooms all day. They go to classes a few hours a week and for the rest of the time they get to roam around or sit for hours reading in the library without anybody bugging them. Also, college students came in all sizes and colors and didn’t instantly judge you based on what brand of shoes you were wearing. One of the students told me about a program where high school kids could take college classes and even get free textbooks. I looked it up and figured I would try for it next year when I was sixteen and old enough to be eligible and I could go to classes with kids who looked kind of like me.

Meanwhile, I was plenty busy. I had my own business to run and I had the Group and I could keep up with homework without wasting a lot of time on it and I didn’t miss going to a regular school at all.

“Wilson’s father must be going crazy,” Monica said, still staring at the picture of the kids being led out of the house, with Wilson in front, looking like he just woke up and was wondering why all those people with guns were in his front yard.

“You mean, ‘how embarrassing, my kid’s on the news? What will people think?’”

“Like worried. Wilson could be facing prison.”

“No kidding, years and years in prison. You think his dad cares?”

“Yes, I do.” She tried to get me to look at her by staring really hard, but it didn’t work. I didn’t want to look at her. I didn’t want to feel sorry for the guy who divorced my mom and thought living in a big house in the suburbs and making lots of money was the best thing ever. “He may be kind a pompous jerk sometimes,” Monica added, “but I’m sure he cares about Wilson – though maybe not as much as you do.”

The microwave beeped and I punched it off, wishing I could be punching somebody in the face, instead. Monica watched me stomp softly back and forth across the room a few more times, and then I sat down in the chair beside her and she put an arm around me. I let my head rest against her shoulder for a minute.

“Wilson’s lucky to have you on his side,” she said.

“He didn’t feel that way before.”

“What do you mean?”

“I tried to warn him about Zip. It backfired. He hasn’t said a word to me since last summer.” I didn’t want to cry, so I had to blink fiercely for a minute.

I heard her sigh and she hugged my shoulder tight. “I’m sorry. That must have been tough. You should have told me.”

“Why? There wasn’t anything you could have done.”

“Still, I should know if you’re having a hard time. You keep too much to yourself.”

“I’m discreet, that’s all. Discretion is a good thing.”

She chuckled softly. “I’m not sure discretion is one of your strong points. But you never have to be discreet with me. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“It sounds as if Zip is an incredibly manipulative person.”

“He totally is. It’s like he could control Wilson’s mind.”

She gave me another sideways hug. “Don’t blame your brother for falling for it. And for sure, don’t blame yourself.”

It was weird how she could do that, know exactly what I was thinking. I sat up, suddenly feeling as if leaning my head against her shoulder let my thoughts leak out of my right ear so they could travel up her neck straight to her brain. There were a lot of things I didn’t want her to know about, so I would have to limit how often I did that. “The burritos are ready,” I said to change the subject.

“Smells delicious. Guess I’m kind of hungry after all.”

“Good, ‘cause I made one for you.”


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if then else Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.