In the back of the squad car, CJ Hastings hung his head. He was never going to go anywhere. He was never going do anything. He was never going to be anyone.
He and his mother, along with the cop driving, listened to the police scanner in silence until they reached the house. The cop said, “Will you be all right?” to CJ’s mom.
The cop turned back to CJ and asked, “Do you feel safe enough to go home with your mother tonight?”
CJ blinked. No one had ever asked him that question before. He didn’t reply at first. Aside from Mom going thermo and him getting grounded for the rest of his life, he didn’t think anything else would go wrong. He said, “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” The cop nodded, got out and let CJ out. Mom got out on her own.
When they got in the house, he nodded to Phyllis and muttered, “Sorry.” He headed downstairs where…absolutely nothing awaited him.
He was sound asleep when the light came on and Mom said, “Chris! You have to get up. The doctors called. We have to go to the University now.”
“What?” Chris croaked, sitting up. Mom never came down to his room. He suddenly remembered he hadn’t changed into sweatpants or gym shorts last night and pulled his sheets and blankets into his lap, piling them high. “What?” he tried again. This time is sounded like he was speaking English instead of Entish.
“We have to go. The U called and said the nanomachines are ready!” she said, spun around and hurried back upstairs.
He dressed in jeans and a T-shirt after using the badly needed bathroom and ran upstairs with a fresh pair of socks in hand. His shoes were outside on the steps because they smelled bad no matter what he and his mom did. She already Mai Li set up with Cheerios on her tray. CJ leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. A slow grin spread across her face as her arm came up just as slowly to grab him. If her reflexes were fast like a regular person’s, she’d have been able to catch his head and give him one of her slobbery kisses.
“Why’d you wake me up?”
Mom stopped pouring a bowl of cereal and turned to face him. She said, “You don’t think I can do this alone, do you?”
CJ turned from the intensity of her look, shrugging. “It’s just that when we went there before, I got creeped out.”
“I thought you were the one who thought nanomachines were…what did you say? Trash?"
CJ rolled his eyes. It sounded stupid when old people tried to talk kid. “Track, Mom. Track. Nanos are track, but putting them in Mai Li’s head?” He shrugged again. “I dunno.” This time he looked at her, head on, “What if they don’t fix her brain? What if her head blows up?”
His mom took a deep breath and let it out, blowing straight up, making the hairs that had escaped her bun flutter up. She was staring at Mai Li who was busy picking up a Cheerio again. She said softly, “I don’t know, Chris. Maybe it would be for the better…”
“Mom!” CJ exclaimed. Mai Li started, throwing her hard-won Cheerio over her shoulder. She started to cry. He went to his adoptive sister and took her head between his hands, one on her forehead, one cupping the back of her head, and pulling her ear to his chest. She struggled a little at first, but once she heard his heartbeat, she relaxed and went limp. He looked down at her. She was staring, blinking slowly, mouth open, chewed Cheerios drooling out of the left corner of her mouth. The look, no matter how hard he tried to see something, was vacant. No matter how much he loved Mai Li, he didn’t see the same thing in her eyes that he saw in Job’s, or Ms. Hester’s or even either of the Mr. B’s. He set her back upright and she resumed her hunt for the Cheerios. He said, “It’ll work. They said it would reconstruct her brain. They know what they’re talking about. Nanomachines are speed track now, Mom.”
Mom deliberately lowered her chin, staring at Mai Li. Without thinking, CJ took a corner of his T-shirt and wiped her face. Mom was watching, but said without heat, “Go down and put on a clean T-shirt, Chris.”
CJ sighed. In the eyes of the world, he’d never amount to anything or do anything important. He wasn’t going to the Math Tournament, either. But at least he was going downtown to the U – where researchers were going to shoot his sister’s brain full of nanomachines that were supposed to reconstruct her brain.
Or turn it into something resembling the chewed Cheerios sliding down Mai Li’s chin.