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The paper airplane soared upward, grazing the bottom branches of the sycamore tree before skidding to a stop on the grass. Sydney raced across the yard to retrieve it, the plaid pleated skirt of her girls' academy uniform swirling about her long, thin legs.
"Daddy! Daddy, look! I made it fly!"
Mr. Bristow's head remained hidden behind the front section of the Los Angeles Register.
"Daddy?" Sydney asked, taking a few steps toward him. "Daddy, you aren't listening to me. I made a good plane! It flew really far! Didn't you see?"
"Yes. I saw," came a flat response.
"No! You didn't!" she yelled, stamping her burgundy penny loafer. "You weren't watching, you were reading! That's all you do all the time! Read, read, read!"
The paper lowered and Mr. Bristow's blank expression fell on his daughter. "Stop being dramatic, Sydney," he said. "You're acting like a child."
But I am a child, she thought, angrily tossing the plane into the air again. It sailed straight up for a few seconds before becoming wedged in a tangle of twigs. She turned back toward her father, hoping he would offer to pull it loose. But his newspaper barrier was raised once again, and all Sydney could see were the large black letters screaming SPACE SHUTTLE EXPLODES!
"Hey? You awake?" Todd de Rossi's voice penetrated the daydream.
Sydney jerked her head slightly. "Huh? What?" The childhood memory dissolved as she found herself back in her American History seminar, her pen still poised over her spiral notebook. Professor Baldridge was lecturing in his tired drone, his words melding with the steady whir of the old building's air-conditioning system. On the giant screen behind him loomed the famous image of the Challenger exploding high in the atmosphere.
"Sorry," she whispered, smiling weakly at Todd. "What did you say?"
Todd grinned. "I said it takes a special kind of boring to make a major disaster dull. Guess I made my case. Where were you just now? In orbit?"
"No. I was just . . . I was just remembering where I was when I first heard about the Challenger exploding." She rubbed her eyes and sat up straight, trying to shake off the residual anguish stirred up by her memory. She could practically smell the olive trees shading the Bristows' old front porch and feel the light weave of her school uniform, as if her body had carefully recorded every sensation for careful replay later on.
It had been one of those pivotal childhood moments: the point when she'd finally understood that her father was lost to her. The tragic car accident that had taken her mother seemed to have completely diminished her father. He had never been the cheerful life force her mother was, and yet Sydney had never doubted his devotion to his family. But that day on the front lawn, all hope that he might someday come back to her shattered like the hull of the ill-fated space shuttle. From then on she stopped consciously trying to please him and began preparing herself for a life alone.
"You know, I don't remember what I was doing when I first heard about the Challenger," Todd mused, rubbing his chin. "Probably standing in front of my mirror doing my best James Dean."
Sydney rolled her eyes. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"Excuse me? Professor Baldridge?" Sydney glanced up to see a tall guy with shaggy red hair rise from his aisle seat, his left arm high in the air.
"Oh, goody. Burke has something to say," Todd whispered, leaning forward in his seat. "This ought to be entertaining."
Most of the other students in the lecture hall were also shifting to get a better look. Sydney let out a small moan of frustration and slouched back in her chair, folding her arms across her striped sweater. Great. Another outburst from Burke Wells, campus radical extraordinaire.
Professor Baldridge's reaction was not unlike her own. "Yes, Mr. Wells?" he asked, his voice sounding more weary than usual.
"Isn't it true, Professor," Burke began, "that the shuttle blew up due to sabotage and not because of an accident?"
The professor heaved a long, audible sigh. "No, Mr. Wells. I'm afraid that was simply a story a few tabloids used to try to sell papers. As I said earlier, the explosion was caused by a faulty--"
"Excuse me, Professor," Burke interrupted, waving his arm in the air again. "But it wasn't just in the tabloids, was it? I mean, sure, it wasn't reported in any of the so-called legitimate, corporate-run U.S. papers. But several highly esteemed foreign news agencies reported the existence of a top-secret surveillance satellite aboard, which was the motive behind the sabotage."
Sydney shook her head in disbelief. "What's up with this guy?" she grumbled.
"Don't know. Isn't he dreamy, though?" Todd's large brown eyes seemed to droop as they beheld Burke. Sydney glanced around the room. Dozens of girls were staring at Burke with the exact same puppy dog expression.
"Full of himself is more like it," she said.
"No, Burke's cool," Todd countered. "I've gone to a couple of demonstrations he's organized. The guy knows a lot about human rights violations and government cover-ups. He feels it's his duty to tell people the truth about stuff. Things they don't tell you in college."
Sydney squinted at Burke. His knit cap and woven Guatemalan shirt were standard-issue hippie radical, although he wore athletic shoes. His arms were lean and well toned, thanks to a regimen of one-hour yoga sessions, a strict vegetarian diet, and lots of dancing to bongos, she guessed. Of course, the most in-your-face thing about Burke Wells was how beautiful he was. His scruffy appearance implied the absence of massive vanity, but it was hard to hide the Green party's version of Brad Pitt.
That was just it. He was almost too handsome. His features were oh-so-perfectly proportioned and symmetrical, his eyes were fairy-tale bright and twinkly, and those thick red waves that grazed the tops of his broad shoulders looked as if they belonged in a shampoo ad. Never mind his ad-libbed approach to history. Sydney always had trouble trusting anyone that perfect-looking.
From the Paperback edition.