By N. K. Traver
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 N. K. Traver
All rights reserved.
SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK
IT FIGURES THAT between the two of us, my laptop is the first to grow a conscience.
"You had no problem yanking credit cards last week," I remind it, tapping my finger on the desk as I glare at the words on the screen. Words that should say STARTING JOB as my newest hacking bot cracks BankPueblo.com's security layer. Words that should say PROCESSING as the bot downloads two hundred fresh account numbers to my thumb drive.
Words that should not say GET SOME SUNSHINE, LOSER.
I must've typed the wrong name for the bot. My laptop's full of old code I keep telling myself I'll clean out and I must've triggered one of my old insult programs. I hit the shortcut keys to close everything, then reopen the console window and type the name of the bot, again. Z-O-O-M-F-I-S-H—
ONLY COWARDS STEAL FROM THOSE WHO CAN'T FIGHT BACK, says this good-for-nothing piece of metal that dares call itself my computer.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," I mutter, but I'm not feeling so sure about this anymore. That's not an insult I would've coded into my own work. And if what's happening now isn't something I wrote ... that means it came from somewhere else.
Which is, I remind myself, impossible.
I set my jaw and type the name of the bot. Again. All but the last letter: "zoomfis." Then I hit the H key and the Enter as fast as I can, but somehow, somehow in that millisecond between keystrokes "zoomfish" changes to PLAY A SPORT IF YOU WANT EXERCISE and I slam my fist on the desk.
How? How the hell would anyone—
My computer starts typing.
YOU SHOULD FIND A DIFFERENT HOBBY.
I didn't touch the keys. I didn't type anything that should trigger an insult, not "zoomfish," not "you freaking traitor," not anything, but there are the words on my screen, white as ice.
And my heart comes to life in my chest, because I know what this means but I want to keep thinking it's impossible.
I need to reboot. Now, before the virus digs into my hard drive and downloads my hacking bots or my passwords for the hacker forums or the list of sites I'm planning to hit after I clean out Bank Pueblo. I jab the power key to restart, but it ignores me. Ignores me and says,
YOU WEREN'T VERY NICE TO EMMA.
My blood changes direction. My fingers sting from the death grip I have on the desk, but I can't let go, can't stop shaking my head no no no because it can't know about that. It can't. That happened fifteen minutes ago, maybe twenty, and it would take longer than that to hack through the firewalls on my computer.
Which means this is more than a virus someone planted and forgot about.
Someone has a live feed to my room.
I eye the camera lens on my laptop and jerk open the desk drawer to find something to cover it. I wish I hadn't smashed the overhead light after Emma stormed out, because that leaves only my lava lamp to see by, and its useless glow is just making more shadows. My fingers find a stack of Post-its. I rip the top note off and stick it over the lens.
There are new words on the screen. Words I want to unread the second I read them.
I THINK YOU REGRET WHAT YOU SAID TO HER.
My heart thumps Do you? Do you? Do you? and my grip on the desk slips from sweat. Emma is none of his business. How I feel about it is none of his business. If she hadn't ruined everything telling me how she wants ... things for us, I wouldn't have had to break her heart.
That weird ache starts in my gut again, the same one I almost got rid of by running zoomfish.
I don't regret things.
AFRAID OF CARING FOR SOMEONE BESIDES YOURSELF?
I'm done with this guilt trip. He's clever, I'll give him that, psyching me out while he's probably corrupted half my hard drive, and I do what I should have done to begin with and switch off the wireless. That'll kill his sicko webcam and anything he's downloading. It's going to be a pain getting the virus off my system, but—
YOU THINK IT'S THAT EASY?
I think I actually squeak. Squeak, like a little kid afraid of his own shadow, not someone used to living in them. I don't remember getting up but I'm five feet away from the desk now, my chair overturned in a pile of printer paper. The breath I'm holding chokes free.
He can't. He can't keep typing if I'm not connected to the Internet.
I paw for anything behind me I can use as a weapon, and I come up with—I squint in the dark—the long tube of cardboard my newest Metallica posters arrived in. Great. If something leaps out of my computer, I can amuse it to death. It'll have to do. I wait in the corner, tube poised like a bat. My laptop glows, innocent.
I inch forward.
No new messages.
I inch forward again.
The cursor blinks on and off, on and off, not typing anything. I right my chair and reach for the laptop's power cord.
YOU KNOW WHY THIS IS STILL WORKING, RIGHT?
"How the hell are you doing this?" I snarl. The tube crumples when I clench it and I chuck it aside. Nothing's going to jump out, nothing's even really happened except he's rigged the virus to type a different set of phrases after the wireless turns off. Obviously that's it. It can't be that hard to do. I'll figure out how after I dig his virus up and break it to pieces.
Then I'll find him.
THAT'S THE IDEA.
Did he just read my ...?
HERE'S THE GAME, HACKER. I'M DONE WATCHING YOU RUIN PEOPLE'S LIVES.
HEARD THE PHRASE "YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY"?
YOU'RE ABOUT TO LIVE IT.
Something in me wakes up. Common sense, maybe, because I slam the laptop closed, rip out the power cord and eject the battery, and that's what I have in my hand when I see movement to my side. I don't care if it's a moth, if he's somehow in my room I'm going to get the first move, and I chuck the battery at whatever it is and glass shatters and I duck and I realize—
I'm an idiot.
The remaining shards of my now-broken closet mirror wink at me, then drop to the floor in tattletale chimes.
I stand there a minute, breathing deep, my heart beating crazy in my ears. Something in the back of my head whispers seven years bad luck and something else says that's a load of crap and I suck a piercing in my lip, because louder than that, like the virus guy's hissing in my ear, are the words here's the game, hacker.
He couldn't have read my mind.
I pace so I can breathe. I kick torn textbook pages and shredded posters out of the way as I go, flexing my hand, plucking splinters out of my knuckles as I glance at the fist-shaped dent in my dresser.
I remind myself I don't regret things.
I'd usually leave this mess for Mom to remind her I'm still alive, but I can't sit here waiting for my laptop to turn itself on or blow up or who knows what, so I stoop for a piece of plastic that used to be the case for an old Manson CD.
My hand is shaking and all I can do is look at it.
Because who found me? Who cares enough to find me? Can't be a cop, because he'd cut to the chase and knock on my door with a warrant, not play cat-and-mouse on my laptop. Can't be a bot because he knows personal details about me. Like what happened with Emma. But I can't think of anyone, even super hackers who get their thrills hunting other hackers, who would care what I say or do offline. Emma's not the kind of girl who'd have connections like that and she's not the kind of girl who'd get revenge, either.
Dammit, it doesn't matter what kind of girl she is. I don't need her. I don't need anyone—
Something on my floor glints. A piece of the mirror, though I can't imagine what it's reflecting since I haven't moved. The puckish gleam of my lava lamp isn't near bright enough to cause a flash. I glance at the ceiling, at the wooden blinds half covering the window, and decide it must've been something outside. I'm tossing pieces of chapter six from my Spanish book into the trash when the shard winks again.
This time I'm focused enough to know nothing outside made that light. I pluck the glass off the floor and turn it, trying to recreate the flashing, but I get nothing. I wouldn't care except that freaking hacker guy said he wanted me to find him, didn't he? And how am I supposed to know if he means online or ... or here? That makes me freeze and squint out the bottom of my window, but no one's shining a flashlight in, no one's standing on the street below.
I hate this. I'm supposed to be the kid they warn you about in those "online safety" classes. I'm supposed to be the monster, not this jerk. I'm Brandon Eriks, I like to break things, I'm good at breaking things, and if this guy's itching for a fight, he's found one. If he wants to meet, let's meet. There's a reason the kids at school stay away from me. There's a reason the Feds can't trace my hack jobs.
I just have to figure out his riddle. "Your own worst enemy. You're about to live it." They must be codes. I start working out an algorithm in my head as I pick up the rest of the shards and carry them with me to the bathroom. The phrases sound familiar, but I don't know if that's because I keep thinking them over and over or because I've seen them someplace.
I flip on the bathroom light, toss the shards into the seashell trashcan, and—and do a double take at the mirror.
It's because I'm jumpy over that whole seven years bad luck thing. That has to be it. I move my hand across the counter, and back. Across, back. The mirror moves with me, like a mirror should.
Of course it does. It's a mirror.
But I swear when I threw the shards away, my reflection flipped me off.
Someone pounds on my door, hard enough that it sounds like it's the third or fourth knock, not the first. I jerk my head up and wince as my face pries itself from the keyboard. My laptop screen flashes to life. I squint as it comes into focus, cursor blinking after the random set of characters my cheek pushed, underneath a message that says RUN SUCCESSFUL.
Above that, it says ZOOMFISH.
"Brandon! Don't you have class at seven-thirty?"
I check the clock. Eight-twenty A.M., meaning I've already missed first period and will be running on three hours' sleep. Last I looked, it was five A.M. and I still hadn't found the damn virus. The activity log on my laptop claims I didn't even turn my computer on until nine last night, an hour after my new stalker made his threats.
Like it never happened.
"I'll take this thing off by its hinges," Dad says, rattling the handle. "What did you do to this lock?"
I breathe out and slog across the room, push a key code into the box by the door, and twist open the knob. Dad glares up at me (he has to glare up at everyone, even Mom) and adjusts his nerd's glasses. I'd say he looks mad, but he always looks like that.
"God, you're a waste of talent," he says. "You can build code locks but you can't do better than a C in history?"
"Missed you, too," I grumble.
"Save it. I'm supposed to be on a conference call with London right now, after getting absolutely no sleep on the redeye from Atlanta. But no, instead I'm excusing myself to see if my high school junior has got himself to class yet. Did you sleep in all last week while I was gone?"
I think about that and make a face. Not because I ditched, but because ... I didn't. Because I started meeting Emma before school—
"Brandon, when are you going to grow up?" Dad shouts. "I shouldn't have to babysit you at seventeen! Dammit, I—" His face pinches. A muscle works in his jaw as he pokes a bony finger into my chest. "Get your things. You have ten minutes, then I'm driving you to school."
"What?" I say, though it's more of a squeak (shut up) because I can't decide if I'm stoked he's driving me or terrified to be dropped off in public. "No, I'll get ready fast, I'll drive myself—"
"No. I'm done with your games. What are you missing right now?"
"Creative writing. It's a joke."
"Oh, which means you're getting an A, of course, so you can afford to skip?" I close my mouth.
"Did you do your homework this weekend?"
"Yeah." It's mostly true. Somewhat true. The more Dad gives me that soul-piercing look, the less sure I am. "I mean, some of it—"
"Nine minutes left. After school, I'm picking you up and you're coming right home and sitting in that living room until I say you can leave."
He slams the door in my face.
I'm too shocked that he's going to make London wait—so he can drive me—to yell my usual snappy comeback. I trace the knuckle dent in my dresser and pull out a Rage Against the Machine tee. Grab a pair of old school jeans off the floor, then it's combat boots over those, a black leather wristband that makes Dad grind his teeth, just need to make sure my hair's jacked up enough to get the same reaction—except my room has no mirror, so I'll have to use the bathroom's.
I glance at my laptop, lid closed on the desk.
It let me run zoomfish, so everything's fine, right?
I listen for Dad and close myself in the bathroom. Dolphins smile at me from the shower curtain, and I shake my head at the seashell tile and think this room is one of the reasons I never bring anyone over. I guess that's the good thing about moving so often. This theme's a year old, so in another six months we'll have a new house and I'll have a new room I don't show to anyone. And new stuff, meaning a dresser without my fist emblazoned on the front, because Mom is all about "New." Seriously, I've never owned anything for more than two years.
I think of Emma showing me her bracelet.
"It was my grandmother's," she says. She holds her wrist over our unopened textbooks, angel's smile in place. "Grandpa gave it to her, and she gave it to me before she passed away. Now it's like I always have them with me."
I reach for her hand. She doesn't pull back. I hold her wrist and trace the tiny gold chain with my thumb, my pale finger against her tan skin, trying to understand how something this old can still exist. It's like trying to see a new color.
"This helps when you miss them?" I ask.
"Yes," she says. Watching my finger on her wrist. She laughs, quietly. "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I can hear Grandma talking to me sometimes when I look at it. Telling me about the night Grandpa gave it to her."
I turn my arm to see more of my scorpion tattoo. I hear Bev and Eric, my sophomore year friends, cheer as the artist fires up the gun and starts drilling into my skin. I smile.
"Not crazy," I say.
I grit my teeth. I don't want to think about Emma.
And nothing in this house means anything to me.
I search the medicine cabinet and pop a few caffeine pills. Wet my hand and lean toward the counter-length mirror to run it the wrong way through my hair, and—
My wristband is gone.
I stare at my arm and try to remember if I actually put it on. It's not on the floor or the counter. Of course, it would've been the last thing I grabbed, so maybe I meant to get it when I noticed my broken mirror and came straight to the bathroom instead.
I decide that's what happened. I rake my hair back until it looks like I had a run in with a falcon, which doesn't take much considering I slept on my keyboard, then lean in to check how bloodshot my eyes are. They look clear enough, but last night was a bad night and sometimes I get bored waiting for a bot to finish, but I swear I threw out that rubber cement—
My reflection blinks.
I jerk back. It's not possible, not possible, to see yourself blink. I don't feel that tired. I won't until after lunch when the pills run out. I watch myself a moment longer, wanting and not wanting to see it happen again, and when it doesn't I go for the doorknob. My reflection goes for the light switch. I yank the door open just as the room pitches into darkness, bolt into the hall, and slam the door behind me.
I didn't touch the light.
But it's off.
Your own worst enemy.
I'm going crazy. Apeshit bonkers. Viruses stay on computers, they don't turn into magic curses. This is what happens when you break a mirror? Not that that makes sense either, because the superstition is just bad luck, not freaky reflections moving when they shouldn't.
Yeah, it's finally happened. I've officially lost my mind.
"Brandon, time's up!" Dad yells from downstairs.
I chuckle to myself, because, you know, that's what crazy people do, and grab my backpack off the floor, where it's sat untouched all weekend. To prove I've further gone off the deep end, I contemplate the thumb drive on my desk awhile, the one that should be full of zoomfish's spoils if it worked like it said it did: two hundred names, addresses, routing numbers and passwords for Bank Pueblo's richest clients. If I leave it here, Bank Pueblo may never find out they've been hacked and the owners of those bank accounts will continue on with their happy little lives like there's nothing at all that can hurt them.
I think of Dad calling me a waste of talent.
I snatch the thumb drive off the desk and flip it into my pocket.
* * *
"It's time to straighten up, son," Dad says, as he backs my ten-year-old Corolla out of the driveway. I gaze longingly at the silver BMW Z4 in the garage, which used to be mine before I got three speeding tickets and Dad got sick of shelling out bribe money to keep my license active. Still, it was worth the sacrifice. Dad drove me to school for a whole week after.
"Your mother's working eighty-hour weeks, you know, with not a day off in between. She deserves to come home to a quiet house. You need to think of how hard this is on her, with all the traveling I have to do right now. Yet she still finds time to go to the grocery and clean and fill your pocket with lunch money. It would be nice if you showed some appreciation. No more ditching. No more skipping assignments, and I'm serious this time. You're out of this house as soon as you graduate if you don't have a college lined up, you hear?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Duplicity by N. K. Traver. Copyright © 2015 N. K. Traver. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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