“Mmr?” Jane growled as a hand gently patted her shoulder. She snuggled deeper under the covers.
“Wake up. I need to speak with you. It’s important.”
Mathias Benedict’s whisper cut through Jane’s mental fog. “Dad?” She blinked away sleep. “It’s still dark. What time is it?”
“Not quite six.”
She yawned. “Too early.”
“I’m sorry. It can’t be helped. I’m on my way to the bureau. Make sure Will gets to school on time.”
“You’re going to work now? Is anyone even there yet?”
“I need to message a rim colony. Now is my only chance for privacy in the com room.”
Jane reached for the lamp by the bedside. “Why do you need privacy?”
Her father’s hand rested on hers. “No lights.”
She sat up straight, an anxious knot tightened in her stomach. “What’s wrong?” Even in gray morning light, tense lines around his eyes were visible.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain later.” His gaze strayed out the window.
Fingers tightened around her wrist. “Jane, I want you to memorize a string of numbers and letters.”
“No questions. Keep it secret. Promise me.”
The anxious knot became a cold hard lump. “I-I promise.”
“That’s my girl. UAS19090213P24RE35…say it.”
Jane repeated the sequence over and over to her father until she committed it to memory. He kissed the top of her head then strode to the door. “I’ll see you at dinner. We’ll talk then.”
She swallowed hard. “Dad, do the numbers and letters have to do with Mom’s death?”
His hand froze on the doorknob. “She died in a shuttle accident.”
“Shuttles are so safe. They never have accidents…”
“The months since her funeral have been hard for all of us,” he said tenderly, “but especially you. Minding Will and running the house while I worked long hours wasn’t easy. You had to cut back on classes while your friends finished lower level certifications and left to start the upper division. Life is nothing but home and school. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a fifteen year old.”
“I’m sixteen in a few weeks. Anyway, I don’t mind. I want to help.”
His voice softened. “I know. I’m very proud. You’re so much like her.”
Jane flushed under his praise. “No, I’m not. Mom was a doctor. She loved caring for sick people. I think they’re gross.”
His lips formed a wistful smile. “Eva Benedict knew the true meaning of sacrifice. So do you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My special project is nearly finished at the bureau. The long hours will end and then we’ll take a trip—someplace far away. Would you like that?”
“Sure,” said Jane, confused by the abrupt change in topic. “Where will we go?”
“I’ll explain tonight. Goodbye, honey. Never forget I love you and Will more than anything.”
“We love you, too.”
Her father darted out the door. His footsteps pounded down the stairs, and then the front door slammed.
Jane flung aside the covers and slid out of bed, shivering as her bare feet touched the cold hardwood floor. The house was suddenly too quiet. A gust of wind through the open window twitched the curtain. Jane shifted her weight. The floorboards creaked, and her heart skipped a jittery beat.
“Get a grip,” she muttered in disgust.
“Why did Dad leave so early?”
Jane placed the plates in the dishwasher. “I told you fifty million times he didn’t say. Get your things or we’ll be late for school. I don’t need another lecture from Mrs. Lee.”
Will slapped on his wrist com, grabbed his jacket and school tablet, and then opened the front door. “I like it better when Dad’s here. Then we get a ride. Hey—the hover is still in the driveway. Dad must have taken the public shuttle to the city.” His eyes lit up. “Why don’t you drive us?”
Jane secured her com. “Duh. Don’t have a license yet.”
“Nope. Merely smarter than my twelve-year-old brother. Anyone caught in a hover without a license is sent straight to the magistrate.”
“Then it’s a one way ticket to the rim.”
Jane shut the door behind them. “Banished across the galaxy for a traffic ticket? Geez, that’s harsh. I hope you never go into law enforcement.”
“Mason’s dad works for the magistrate. He told Mason people sent to the rim are criminals.”
“Mason’s dad is a dope. So is Mason for believing him. Not only criminals go. United Earth Corporation built a big compound. The colony planets have Freetrader settlements. Lots of people live there. Everyone can’t be a criminal.”
The ground vibrated under their feet. A low rumble filled the air. Both looked up as a fiery streak split the sky. A spaceship launched from her father’s workplace, UEC Port Control on the outskirts of the city.
Will’s gaze followed the track. “Another one headed to the rim,” he murmured. “Which planet, do you think? Rimrock? Pacha? Maybe one of the space stations?”
“Beats me.” Jane shielded her eyes from the sun’s glare and watched the ship until it was nothing more than a suspended pinprick of light. “But I’ll bet the people on board won’t be back soon.”
Jane peered absent-mindedly out the classroom window. Her father’s mysterious request echoed in her mind the entire day. The strange chain of numbers and letters wasn’t for anything as obvious as a com device, map coordinate, or government ID. Her gaze drifted to the computer tablet on the desk. Several times, she almost succumbed to curiosity and keyed in the sequence for a quick search. A finger hovered over the touchscreen. Maybe the answer was only a few taps away…
Jane’s hand dropped into her lap. She promised to keep a secret. Her father would explain at dinner. Surely, she could wait a few more hours.
Jane’s head jerked up.
Mrs. Lee tapped her toe briskly on the floor. “An answer, Miss Benedict.”
Jane’s cheeks turned red. She peered in desperation at the wall monitor behind Mrs. Lee for a clue to the lecture’s topic. As the silence lengthened, another student snickered. It sounded like Farad. He always had the right answer.
A buzzer signaled an end to the class period and cut short Jane’s misery. She scrambled from the seat and gathered her belongings.
“One moment, Miss Benedict.”
Jane bit back a sigh. “Yes, Mrs. Lee?”
“I have multiple concerns about your performance lately.” She narrowed her eyes. “Multiple,” she stressed. “You are unfocused and distracted. Grades have slipped. I realize you assumed more responsibilities at home, but qualification exams begin soon. They can’t be ignored. You wish to be certified for advancement to the upper levels, don’t you?”
At the thought of another six years of training and education, a heavy weight settled on Jane’s shoulders. Unconsciously, she hesitated. “Of course, Mrs. Lee.”
She frowned. “You sound unsure.”
“I-I meant I haven’t decided what to study.”
“You needn’t worry. Students are assessed with academic testing and psychological evaluations and then placed in fields where workers are needed most. However, if you don’t qualify for advancement, the decision won’t matter. No position will be available. What happens then?” The irritating toe tap started again.
“You get shipped to the galactic rim?” Her teacher’s horrified expression tickled Jane to no end.
“No, of course not,” Mrs. Lee sputtered. “The correct response is the student is assigned remedial training until grades are up to par. No decent person is ever sent to the rim.”
Her huffy attitude pricked at Jane. “What about people who work for UEC?”
Mrs. Lee’s posture stiffened; her annoyance plain at Jane’s unwillingness to cede the point. “United Earth Corporation manages the Citizen Education Center and owns the bentite mine. Employees return to Earth as soon as their contract ends, and relieved to be in civilization again, I’m sure.”
“Not everyone,” persisted Jane. “Rimrock and Pacha have settlers.”
“Freetraders.” She wrinkled her nose. “They refuse the protection of UEC and have no respect for our ways. All were either in prison or related to someone still there.”
Jane stifled a smile. The teacher’s political correctness slipped. She said prison instead of Citizen Education Center.
“Once time is served,” Mrs. Lee droned, “ex-prisoners and their families choose to stay. It’s a perfect arrangement. Those with criminal records won’t find a welcome here. Who’d hire them? Thanks to UEC and their work in the rim, troublemakers are removed from society while bentite provides Earth with an inexhaustible supply of power.”
Jane’s irrational urge to horrify Mrs. Lee wouldn’t let go. A long-buried memory bubbled to the surface. “My aunt was sent to the rim. She killed a man.”
The effect was better than expected. Mrs. Lee made a sound as if she abruptly swallowed her tongue. “I’m certain…I mean,” she flustered, “her incarceration was for the best. Decent people don’t consort with criminals. Neither should you, even if they are relatives. Earth has no room for slackers and misfits. Because of UEC, we live in a golden age, Miss Benedict. A place for every citizen and every citizen in their proper place. If you wish to become a productive member of society, you need to apply yourself.”
“Yes, Mrs. Lee.”
The teacher made a shooing motion as if she couldn’t get rid of Jane fast enough. “Run along now. You’ll be late for the next class.”
A self-satisfied smile played on Jane’s lips as she left the room.
“We have an aunt on the rim?” Will whispered, eyes wide. He pressed against the wall right outside the door.
“Why are you here?” Jane cast a nervous look over her shoulder as she pulled him down the corridor. “School isn’t over for another hour. Did you cut class again?”
Will stuck out his lip. “I don’t want to go. All teachers do is drill us for those dumb end-of-year exams. So who is this aunt? How come I never heard of her?”
“I have class—”
“Come on, Jane,” he wheedled. “Let’s ditch school this once. You never do anything wrong. You don’t want to listen to more stupid lectures today, do you?” At Jane’s hesitation, Will threw in an incentive. “Dad will write an excuse for us tomorrow.”
She shot a sly glance at Mrs. Lee’s classroom. “Let’s go.”
Will let out an excited yip, and Jane clapped a hand over his mouth. They darted out the nearest exit and ran until the school was no longer in sight.
“Okay, now give,” demanded Will, panting for breath. “Who’s this aunt?”
“Her name is Adelyn. I caught Mom and Dad talking one night years ago. Mom was upset. She wanted to send a message to Adelyn on Rimrock, but couldn’t—some problem with contacting prisoners. I didn’t understand. Dad told her he’d figure out what to do. Then they saw me standing there and shut up fast. I asked about Adelyn. Mom told me she was her stepsister and left home a long time ago for the rim. She made me promise never to tell anyone. I forgot about Adelyn until now.”
His eyes widened. “Mom had a stepsister?”
“Uh-huh. Mom said her folks divorced when she was a teenager, and then her father married a woman who was lots younger and had a little girl. He died years before I was born, so I never heard of his second family.”
“Wow, that’s so weird having a secret relative.”
“No kidding. I don’t even have Adelyn’s last name.”
Will scratched his head. “Why didn’t Mom and Dad talk about her?”
“Maybe because they both worked for United Earth Corporation. It isn’t smart to tell people you’re related to an exile. Mom was sad though. She and Adelyn must have been close.”
Will drew in a breath. “Who’d Adelyn kill?”
“Nobody. She had one too many traffic tickets.”
“Aw, c’mon. Tell me.”
“I don’t know if she killed anybody,” said Jane with an impish manner. “I said it to freak out Mrs. Lee.”
Will snickered. “It worked. I thought she was gonna pee herself—hey, do you think Dad will talk about Adelyn now?”
“Maybe. It’s been a long time, and we’re older. I’d like to learn more. Dad trusts me to keep a secret,” she added with a cagey look, “although I’m not sure you can.”
“I can keep a secret. I’ll bet you didn’t know a bottle of liquor is hidden in the teachers’ lounge.”
Jane raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“I snuck in once and found it in the back of a cabinet. It was half-empty.”
“You’ll get in so much trouble one of these days.”
Will shrugged. “They have to catch me first.”
“You realize now that you told me, the liquor bottle isn’t a secret anymore.”
“Will you squeal?”
He wore a superior expression. “Then it’s still a secret.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “You have the most unbelievably flawed sense of logic.”
They rounded the corner toward home, and Will stopped short. Parked in the driveway was a second hover. “Hey, look. Dad must be back. We have company.”
The door to the house opened, and a man stepped outside.
Will frowned. “Who’s that?”
The man gazed at them. Although Jane only met Mr. Gunter once, she recognized her father’s superior at UEC Port Control. He had worn the same indifferent expression at Eva Benedict’s funeral.
Jane’s chest tightened. She placed an arm around Will’s shoulders, drawing him close.
“Jane?” Will regarded her with obvious confusion. “What’s wrong?”
Mr. Gunter strode down the steps and walked toward them.
“Ow!” Will shifted under her touch. “You’re squeezing too hard.”
“There was an accident,” said Mr. Gunter. He mumbled consoling phrases…how tragic for a man so young…must have fallen…died instantly…so unfortunate.
Jane stared blankly; the words didn’t register any meaning. Dead? How could her father be dead? She spoke with him a few hours ago. They were going on a trip.
“Liar!” shouted Will. He broke from Jane and pummeled Mr. Gunter’s chest. “You’re all liars. How can he die from falling? H-he went to work…he’s coming home…he’s…he’s…” His voice choked.
Mr. Gunter grabbed Will by the wrists and pushed him to arm’s length. “Control yourself, young man. Nothing is gained by an emotional outburst. Your father left the bureau and then fell down a flight of stairs at the shuttle station. He hit his head.” Mr. Gunter gave Will a vicious shake as the boy struggled in his grip. “That’s all there is to it.”
“Don’t touch him.” Jane shoved Mr. Gunter aside. She placed a protective arm around her brother once more. “Come on, Will. Let’s go in the house.” He nodded numbly as she led him away.
Mr. Gunter straightened his collar. “I’ll stay with you until the funeral, and then we’ll discuss the future. You needn’t worry. All will be well. Official legal procedures are in place.”
A rumble drew Jane’s attention. The brilliant trail of another spaceship rocketing from Port Control tore through the sky. Soon its light would disappear the same as the others, devoured by the cold, uncaring universe. Tears stinging her eyes, Jane climbed the stairs.
What’s Black and White and Red All Over?
Mr. Gunter took over the household. He immediately announced the need to inventory their parents’ possessions, but stayed in the office scouring Mr. Benedict’s computer files. As a temporary guardian, Mr. Gunter displayed a peculiar lack of interest in Jane and Will. His stock answer to each of Jane’s questions was, “Official protocols are in place and will be explained at the proper time.” His only interaction was to order Jane to fetch him a cup of coffee or something to eat. Jane shot Mr. Gunter an ugly look whenever she set a plate on the desk.
The next few days were a blur. The doorbell rang constantly. People came and went from the house, their meaningless condolences spilling together. Jane barely listened. Words held no comfort. Nothing anyone said would bring Mathias Benedict back to life.
On the morning of the funeral, people flashing UEC identification arrived to pack everything in her father’s office. “Where are you taking those?” Jane demanded as they tossed books into a crate.
Mr. Gunter regarded Jane as if she was an annoying, but harmless insect buzzing around his head. “On occasion, your father’s position in the Bureau of Freight Oversight at Port Control required him to work from home. Anything taken from the bureau to perform his duties belongs to UEC.”
“Dad bought the computer with his own money,” she shouted. “Those books were my mother’s. Nothing in here belongs to the company.”
“It’s protocol,” he stated with finality. “I’ll examine the items and those deemed private property will be returned.”
Jane seethed in helpless rage as the men sealed the packing boxes. They emptied the entire contents of the study, including the desk.
The funeral, arranged by Mr. Gunter, was short and efficient. Afterward, people came to the house. Mr. Gunter advised Jane protocol required a light buffet. Guests milled about drinking coffee and nibbling cookies. Jane’s head pounded with the effort to maintain self-control. Each “You poor dear” ramped up her desire to scream at everyone to go away.
Will made his dislike of Mr. Gunter plain from the start and stayed in his room. He only emerged to sit stiffly through the funeral. Soon after the reception started, he bumped into Mr. Gunter at the punch bowl. A bright red splotch now decorated the front of the man’s shirt. Will offered a half-hearted apology and then sprawled in a corner chair, glaring at any visitor who dared approach.
Jane envied him. She gritted her teeth at Mr. Gunter’s repeated reminders that as the oldest sibling her duty was to mingle and accept condolences. She hated mingling and watched in amusement as Mrs. Lee bent over to murmur a trite phrase of sympathy to Will. He told her to get lost, and she flounced off in a huff.
“What other behavior do you expect,” Mrs. Lee sniffed to another, “when children are left alone?”
Jane clenched her fists. We’re not alone, she ached to shout. They had each other. She shivered with an unexplained chill. Life had changed so fast. How much farther could it slip from her control?
When the door shut behind the last visitor, Mr. Gunter ushered Jane and Will into the living room. He took a seat in her father’s chair. Scowling, Will flopped on the sofa next to Jane. She gave him a subtle kick in the shin as a reminder to keep his mouth shut.
Mr. Gunter cleared his throat. “I was appointed to oversee your welfare. As you know, your father wasn’t a wealthy man. However, after the sale of the house and furnishings enough funds will be available for Jane to complete Level One training at a boarding school I selected. As beneficiaries of a UEC employee, you’ll keep company credentials. They allow access to health care and other benefits. You’ll also receive preferential treatment when applying for a position with UEC in the future.” He impassively regarded Will. “As Mathias Benedict left no relatives, you’ll enter foster care until your sister is legal age and can petition the court for guardianship.”
“No!” shouted Will. “You can’t. I won’t go.”
“Young man,” said Mr. Gunter without a shred of emotion, “you have no choice.”
Jane fought the urge to slap the indifference off Gunter’s face. “Why can’t we stay here?” she demanded. “I’ll care for Will. I’ve watched after him since Mom died.”
Mr. Gunter eyed her askance. “Nonsense, you can’t do that and attend school at the same time.”
“I’ll quit and get a job.”
“Without certification? Impossible. Besides, the argument is moot. In the eyes of the law, you’re too young to be a suitable guardian.”
Red-faced, Will sprung from the sofa and ran upstairs.
“Change is often unpleasant,” crooned Mr. Gunter, “but it’s best for you and your brother to quickly accept the new arrangements.”
Trembling with rage, Jane held in check a heated reply. She had encountered his type all her life. Her parents called them zebras. They only thought in black and white. Gunter made his decision. Any further argument was a waste of breath.
Mr. Gunter folded his hands on the desk. An underlying question appeared to lurk behind his sharp eyes. “I’ve searched the computer files here and at the bureau. Did your father mention anything out of order?”
Jane tensed. A mental warning bell clanged. “What do you mean?”
“Something work-related on his mind, perhaps?” he said smoothly. “A girl such as you certainly noticed. Your teachers said how clever you are. Why, Mrs. Lee was very complimentary.”
Mrs. Lee didn’t like her. Jane didn’t like Mrs. Lee. Mr. Gunter’s insincere praise set her teeth on edge.
Mr. Gunter leaned forward. “Anything at all?”
“Dad scheduled shipping to the rim,” Jane murmured. “He never talked to me about work.”
“People say things that at the time appear to have no importance. Only later is the meaning clearly understood. I must ensure business at Port Control runs smoothly. Loose ends tied up, all questions cleared—those sorts of things.” His voice tightened. “It’s your duty to report any of your father’s concerns.”
Jane’s heart pounded. She forced a smile. “I don’t understand.”
Mr. Gunter’s complexion reddened. “A message went to Rimrock the morning your father died. Someone erased the identity of the sender, the recipient, and the message’s contents.”
What’s black and white and red all over? A zebra fishing for information.
“If Dad sent the message,” Jane answered coolly, “I’m sure there’s a record. Why hide it?”
“Of course, of course.” Mr. Gunter’s eyes narrowed. “What did he say to you before he left?”
“The same thing Dad said every morning—he loved me and Will.”
Her response appeared satisfactory. The hawkish intensity of his expression relaxed. “Think no more of it. The erasure must have been a glitch.” Mr. Gunter rose to his feet. “I’m off to the bureau to oversee the examination of the items from the study. I’ll return this evening with legal forms for disposal of the property. First thing in the morning, you and your brother will go to new accommodations. I expect the packing to finish tonight.”
The front door slammed. A few seconds later, Mr. Gunter’s hover lifted off the driveway. Jane exhaled a long breath. The reason her father left so early was now plain. The message he was desperate to send must have gone to Rimrock in secret. It had to be connected to the strange list of numbers and letters. But how?
Jane wandered to the study. She leaned against the doorframe and gazed lovingly into the now barren room. She imagined her father in the chair at his computer working on shipping invoices. A quiet, gentle, unassuming man, not a person anyone looked at twice—certainly not the type to relay secret messages. Her lips twitched in a smile. Maybe that’s why he got away with it.
Or did he?
Jane shivered. His death had been so sudden and unexpected, the same as her mother. How did a healthy man simply fall down the stairs? Why did her mother’s transport shuttle with a perfect safety record suffer catastrophic failure and kill every person onboard? Was something sinister behind their deaths?
She realized with a start her father never responded when asked if the strange sequence of numbers had a connection to Eva Benedict’s accident. “Dad,” Jane whispered to the empty room. “What’s going on? What do you want me to do?” No comforting answers came from the silence.
With a sigh, Jane went upstairs in search of her brother. Will was in their parents’ room stretched out on top of the bed, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. “Did Buttface leave?”
She plopped next to him. “Yes, finally. He went to the bureau and won’t be back for hours.”
“I caught him in here snooping through Mom and Dad’s things after we got home from the funeral.”
“He did what?” Jane sat up, incensed. “He had no right.”
“Buttface said he wanted to check if Dad brought stuff from work that had to go back to the bureau.”
Jane drew in a breath. Gunter must have searched the whole house for evidence of the message. “Did he find anything?”
“Nope. He chased me away, but I hid outside the door to spy on him.” Will shot her a sideways glance. “He stole Mom’s wedding ring.”
“The lousy, stinking, dirt bag—”
Will sat up with a crafty look. “Relax. I swiped it back when I bumped into him at the punch bowl.” He fished a white gold filigree band sprinkled with tiny gemstones from his pocket and placed it in her palm. “Mom would have wanted you to have it.”
“Thanks, Will.” Overcome with gratitude, she gave him a quick hug and then kissed his cheek. “You’re the best.”
“Yeah, I know,” he muttered with an embarrassed grin. He wrapped his arms around his knees, holding them tight to his chest. “I don’t want to go to foster care.”
“I don’t want to leave, either.”
“We can run away—”
“Where?” she demanded. “How will we live?”
Will’s face knotted in anger. “Why can’t you do something, Jane? You’re smart. Mom always said you could think your way out of anything. It’s not right.” The words caught in his throat. He buried his head in his knees. “It’s not fair.”
Jane drew a shuddering breath. “I know this sucks, but without at least Level One certification I can’t get a job and keep us together.” Her voice took on a determined tone. “Will, I swear to you, I’ll work nights, weekends, holidays. I’ll take extra classes and finish in a year. The second I’m done, I’ll come get you. They won’t dare deny custody.”
He raised his head. “Level One only gets a crappy job. Mom and Dad wanted you to finish all the upper levels.”
“I don’t care. They’re not here anymore, so the decision is mine. I’m sure they’d have understood.”
The storm left Will’s face. “It’s okay, Jane. I didn’t mean to jump on your case. I miss Mom and Dad…” He swallowed hard. “Everything stinks, is all.”
Jane tousled his hair. “Yeah. Everything stinks.”
Will swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I should pack, I guess.”
“Me, too.” Jane watched him leave and then cast a wistful gaze around the room, taking in the comforting warmth one last time. Soon strangers would live here. Her attention strayed to a picture on her mother’s nightstand with the four of them together, laughing and happy. They took it a few months ago, right before her mother died. Jane ran her fingers delicately across the frame. Now life was upside down. Nothing made sense, and all that stretched ahead for her was a dismal future surrounded by more people with the attitudes of Mrs. Lee and Mr. Gunter.
Jane opened her mother’s jewelry case. She slipped the wedding band on a gold chain and secured it around her neck. “Somehow, I’ll make a home for Will and me,” she whispered, tucking the necklace under her shirt. “I swear it.”
She jumped at a muted chirp. An incoming message to her wrist com arrived from Port Control. Jane frowned at the display. Probably another acquaintance of her father dutifully offering condolences. Her jaw tightened at the thought of reading another half-hearted “So sorry for your loss” from a stranger. Jane’s thumb hovered over the touchscreen debating whether to hit delete.
No. Dad would have wanted her to at least send a polite acknowledgement. She opened the message and scanned the subject header.
Jane’s legs wobbled. She sat hard on the bed. With shaking hands, she scrolled through the message three times. Convinced she hadn’t misunderstood, Jane raced to her brother’s room.
Will stood among a pile of suitcases. “What gives?” he said, puzzled. “You see a ghost?”
A wild light shone in Jane’s eyes. “You won’t need all those. The rules say only one piece of luggage per person is allowed on the ship to Rimrock.”
Jane held out the com on her wrist for him to see. “UEC Port Control sent a message. Passage for Jane and William Benedict is confirmed on a ship leaving at midnight tonight.”
Will gawked wide-eyed at the display. “The rim?”
“According to this, on the morning he died, Dad booked us on the next available flight to the settlement of Alpha Station on Rimrock.” She shook her head in disbelief. “It must have taken every cent he had.”
“Why didn’t Dad tell us?”
“I think he meant to that night. Before leaving, he told me we’d take a trip.”
“To Rimrock? Alone? Why not come himself?”
Will’s troubled look echoed her own. “Maybe he couldn’t get away. Maybe...”
“Dad knew he’d die?” Will said in a small voice.
“I-I don’t know, but Dad was worried. He wanted us out of here.”
The clouds vanished from Will’s expression. He gave an excited hop. “No foster care. I’m going to Rimrock. This is so cool.”
“Hang on a second,” she cautioned. “We have to think this through.”
He snorted. “What’s to think about? You want to stay?”
“No, but do you honestly believe Gunter will wish us well and then drop us off at Port Control? Plans for our future are set. He made it clear we’re minors and have no say. He’ll ask all sorts of questions. Why did Dad buy the tickets? Who will meet us on Rimrock—?”
“Adelyn?” jumped in Will.
“You got me. Still want to go?”
Jane grinned. “Me, too, but we need a plan. The message says we have to be at Port Control by 10:00 p.m. for pre-flight check-in or lose our seats. We can catch the commuter shuttle, but have to leave the house by eight o’clock.”
“How do we sneak past Buttface?”
Jane rubbed her chin. “That’s the problem. It’s too early for him to go to bed.”
Will scowled. “Knock him on the head and tie him up.”
“First let me say, geez, pickpocketing and assault in the same day? You are so going to get a lecture from me later. Second, he’s way bigger than either of us. I’d have to climb on a chair with a hammer to reach the top of his head—not too suspicious-looking. What am I supposed to say? ‘Please stand still while I give you a good whack?’ Third, yuck. I’d rather not pound away at anyone, even a person as hateful as Buttface. The whole idea makes me a little sick.”
Jane thought for a moment, and then her eyes lit up. “I got it!” She ran to their parents’ bathroom with Will on her heels. Jane opened the medicine cabinet and snatched a pill bottle. She shook it, and something rattled inside. “Yes! There are still a few left.”
“What are they?”
“Leftover pain pills from when Dad wrenched his back last year. Mom wrote the prescription. They helped him sleep at night, but he hated to take them. Dad zonked out and was groggy in the morning. I remember Mom teased him at breakfast.” Jane removed the cap and shook six tablets into her palm. “These should be enough. The normal dose is two.”
Will squinted at the label. “The expiration date was last month.”
“It’s barely been a few weeks. They’ll still be good.” Jane spoke with more confidence than she felt.
Will regarded her with doubt. “Buttface won’t swallow them.”