September 11, 2001
6:00am
Where were you?

When my mom decides to show up, that’s what I will ask her.

Because she isn’t at the end of the long accordion-looking walkway they pull up to Gate 61 when I get off the plane. And she isn’t at the baggage claim like the flight attendant named Anne thought she might be. She still doesn’t show up when they page her to Terminal C. Instead we grab my stuff, and Anne leads me to a mostly-glass room with a sign above the door that says: Young Travelers Club. There are three kids already in the room: two small kids, and a girl my age with black hair pulled into a huge knot on the top of her head. She’s reading, and her eyes flick up to look at me and then go right back to her magazine.

She’s not interested. Nobody ever is.

There’s also a too-tall, too-skinny guy who smiles too big when he sees Anne. He’s wearing a name tag that’s shaped like a pair of gold bird wings. The tag says TOM W. Tom takes my bag and guides me by the shoulders into the room.

“I’ll be your Travelers Club Tour Guide today, Brady McKinley,” Tom says as he reads a piece of paper Anne handed him. “I’ll help you with whatever you need while you’re with us.”

“Tour guide?” I ask.

“Pilot of the crew. Captain of the room,” he says, grinning like he’s clever. Maybe
if I were six I’d agree. When I don’t give him the response he wants, he says, “Just a title, bud. This is where kids wait for their flights when parents can’t wait with them,” he says, smiling at me as though I’ve just landed myself a premier spot in the most prestigious club ever. His teeth are very white. My mom, a dental hygienist, would approve.

“I just got off my flight. I’m not waiting for one.”

Tom’s smile disappears. “I realize that.”

“I’m too old to be here,” I say, looking at the little kids who are watching a cartoon about a sponge, which is actually really funny, but I’d rather be anywhere else right now. Sleeping, snoring, and dreaming in my bed is one idea. Chasing Bigfoot across the Siberian tundra is another.

“The Clubroom is glad to make an exception,” Tom says, like the room has a brain. I’d like to not be an exception to this room for kids who can’t take care of themselves. Except the older girl looks like she could take care of herself. She looks strong, like weirdly strong. No idea what she’s doing here.

“Hey everyone,” Tom says, his voice getting higher with every word, as I walk in
and inspect the room. “This is Brady.”

I half expect everyone to say ‘Hi, Brady,’ like it’s been rehearsed, but they say nothing. This is going to be a long morning. There’s not much to do. Table and chairs, two recliners, and a small couch. A half-full bookshelf with a few novels and a bunch of magazines. Fully stocked vending machine, but I don’t have any money. TV, but I could be watching that at home in my bed.

Girl my age, but reading what must be the most interesting magazine ever written since she can’t take her face out of it.

Two little kids. They are maybe eight or nine years old, small, and now that I see them closely, definitely siblings. One boy, one girl. They each sit with one leg up on the couch, almost mirror images of each other. The girl is coloring while her brother messes around with a pair of walkie-talkies. They buzz and crackle as he turns knobs and presses buttons. The walkies scream when they are too close together. He doesn’t seem to understand how they work.

“Uri and Phoebe,” Tom W. says even though I didn’t ask. “They are headed to Florida. Going to Disney.” When he turns back to me, he has a smirk on his face and adds, “Very soon,” as if I’m on his side.

The boy grins at me. The girl ignores me. The walkie-talkie squeals.

Tom closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Uri, please stop doing that.” He points to the girl reading, who still doesn’t look up at us as Tom talks about her.

“And this young lady is Jada. She’s headed home to Colorado Springs. I think you two are about the same age. Maybe you can keep each other company? Play Uno or something?”

He says it in a hopeful way, and glances at Anne who’s still standing in the doorway. I
get the feeling he’d rather follow Anne out of the room when she leaves, but he only follows her to the door and watches her walk down the hall. Jada doesn’t look at me again so I’m guessing Uno is out.

I head for the table in the back corner. The chair makes a loud screeching sound on the tile floor when I pull it out. Tom flinches a little bit. If he doesn’t like noise, he’s
probably got the wrong job, but I don’t say that out loud.

I drop myself into the plastic orange seat, throw my backpack on the table, and purposely scrape the chair as I pull it back in. Inside my bag, I have a big green spiral notebook. The McKinley Book of Records. I slap that on the table upside down so no one can see what it says on the cover, rip out a piece of paper, and start folding it. Folding paper calms me down. My dad’s the same way; he says it’s meditative.

“How long do I have to stay here?” I ask, as I fold the corners to the middle of the
page.

“Until a parent shows up.”

“My mom, you mean.”

“Whoever is able to pick you up.”

“My dad is an air traffic controller in Boston.”

“Where does your mother live?”

“Mars.”

Tom squints at me like he’s trying hard to keep his eyeballs behind his eyelids.

“Then I guess…your mother?”

“I guess.” If she decides to show.

“What are you making?” he asks, pointing to my paper. I notice Jada looks up, too.

“A starwing.”

“That’s an unusual way to fold a paper airplane.”

“My dad taught me.”

“Your dad sounds like a pretty cool dude.”

I look at him. But I’m done talking. Jada goes back to her magazine. Tom stands in the doorway and stares out like he wishes he were somewhere else. That’s something we could agree on, I guess.

*

Mom’s forgotten me before.

The last time she swore it would never happen again. But here I am. I understand sometimes it’s hard for her to get out of work early enough to meet me at school and on those days, I walk home alone. Last year, my ex-best friend Charlie’s mom would sometimes make me dinner, but if she couldn’t, I’d walk to Mr. Lou’s or the pizza place, and they know my usual order: General Tso’s Chicken or Two Slices Extra Pepperoni, Extra Cheese—Hold the Oregano. No big deal. But since I’ve been flying to Dad’s, she has never been late to the airport to pick me up. She always meets me at the gate when I come home, waving like she hasn’t seen me in a year.

She borrows Dr. Ross’ BMW. He’s the dentist at the practice where she cleans teeth, and they’re good friends. Mom tells me she loves to pick me up because the car ride is the only time she can keep me in one spot for more than fifteen minutes anymore, and she says how did that happen? because in sixth grade, I still hugged her in front of the school and now I won’t even look her in the eye. But she must not love it enough to be on time this morning. Even though I was gone all summer, I didn’t think she’d forget to pick me up. Even though we hadn’t been talking much by the end of seventh grade, you don’t forget your only son. Right?

Her lateness definitely makes the McKinley Book of Records, the notebook Dad and I started over the summer. It’s just like the Guinness Book of World Records, only just for our family. After we got in a fight about which type of paper airplane flies the farthest (Dad won), Dad said people will always fight over facts because they use whatever facts they want to back up what they believe from their own experience. In other words, I’m young and don’t know any better. He also says if I write stuff down, I might like to read it when I’m older.

I don’t really know if I’ll care about all the crazy stuff I wrote down about what we saw in the city, like the Drunkest Man at a Red Sox Game (Dad’s friend Zeke), and Farthest Frisbee Ever Thrown (Dad), and Loudest Root Beer Belch Ever Performed in a Taxi (me). I asked him if he should keep the book at his house until I come back, but he said to bring it with me and continue the recordkeeping in New York. Show him when I returned.

I’ll show him.

Worst Mother Ever: Lauren McKinley

Then I feel really bad. She’s not really the worst mother ever. She isn’t even strict. My mom’s just busy. I cross her name out, but not so much that she couldn’t still read it if she ever decides to pick up the record book and skim through. Because that’s how mad I am.

Latest Mother Ever: Lauren McKinley

I still feel bad.

I rip out the page, fold it into a classic dart plane, and fly it into the garbage.

*

I pretend the W on Tom’s name tag stands for Warden and I write Tom into the record book, too.

Skinniest Man Alive: Tom Warden

Seems to me he’s kind of like a teacher, only he has less power than a teacher so really he’s just like a super skinny babysitter. Tom finally leaves the doorway and now sits in the corner of the room on a computer, scrolling through lists of auctions on eBay. He’s wearing headphones and taps his foot, humming way off key, but I recognize the song anyway. Dad and I sang it most of the summer. It’s our song.

Tom confirms it with a sudden “Sweet Caroline! BUM BUM BUM!” For some reason this makes me mad. I grumble out loud and kick the chair across from me. Jada scowls at me. Tom lowers his headphones, turns to me, and asks, “Is there a problem?”

“Problem?” I say. “There’s no problem.” I even raise my hands up like I’m innocent. I don’t say anything about how only Red Sox fans sing that song and he couldn’t possibly be one because this is New Jersey. Just then the walkie-talkies squeal with feedback.

“Uri!” Tom jerks around to him. “Please. Stop. Doing that. I’ve been asking you all morning. I implore you to play with something else.”

“What’s implore?” the little boy asks.

“It means to beg,” Jada says, not looking up. She turns her page and then catches me watching her. She’s wearing black leggings and a long red t-shirt that says USA and she has crazy strong biceps. She tilts her head and widens her eyes like she’s saying ‘What are you looking at?’ I don’t want to, but I look away.

“Just play with something else, please,” Tom says.

“Like what?” Uri pushes one walkie-talkie over to his sister. She doesn’t look at it, but puts it in her pocket. “There’s nothing to do.”

“Why not get out a game?” Tom gestures to a big cabinet. “There’s a bunch to choose from. Clue, Monopoly, Life…maybe you and your sister can get this guy to join you.” He nods toward me.

Uri takes one look at me and politely says, “No, thank you.” He pulls a magazine off the rack instead. It has motorcycles on the front.

Good choice.

“Come sit by me,” Jada says, as she rolls her magazine up and sticks it in her bag. “We can look at that one together.”

Uri grins and squeezes himself between Jada and the arm of the oversized chair. They turn pages and talk about chrome and big tires, and Uri is about the happiest kid ever.

My stomach growls and the vending machine brags all about its Snickers and Doritos that I can’t buy. Dad said I wouldn’t need any money because Mom would be right there and could take me to breakfast. But that obviously did not happen. I stare out the glass windows that make up the front of the clubroom to try to take my mind off my stomach. Out in the hall, more people are passing by, dragging wheeled cases and small children.

The sun is coming up over the New York City skyline way in the distance. From the horizon up, the sky goes from yellow to white to blue to violet, and the sun is just below Manhattan so that the buildings look black against the pink and orange clouds. I don’t usually see the sunrise like this because I live on the Lower East Side and the buildings are too tall to see the whole sky at once. A sunrise in the city is more like a dimmer light slowly turning on. This looks like the world is on fire.

At the gate across the hall from us, an American Airlines jet taxies in and the massive engines come to a slow spin. Even behind all this glass, I can hear the steady roar die down. Lights on the tail blink and hypnotize me for a minute, makes me think about the first time I watched a plane pull up to the gate like that. I thought I was the luckiest kid with divorced parents ever because I got to get on that plane all by myself. I got free food and all the root beer I wanted. I got flight attendants like Anne fussing over me the entire flight. I didn’t have to drive back and forth like other kids. Flying was way cooler. But a year later, I’m over it.

Mom should probably send me back to Boston, let me live with Dad like he offered over the summer. He doesn’t want me getting into any more trouble at school.

But that would really hurt her feelings. But I’m also dreading going back to school because ever since Charlie ditched me, we haven’t said a word to each other. But I’m not sure I want to move to Boston. What if I couldn’t make any new friends? I’m not that great at it. But not going to Boston will hurt Dad’s feelings. I can’t win. Just thinking about all of it makes me feel like my eyes are bouncing around inside my head.

I grab my Sharpie and start scratching on the desk instead of the record book: L-O-S-E-R. When I’m done I stare at the word for a long time. Who is it for? Charlie? My very-late mother? Dad for sending me off without money? Or me for being me?

*

Caroline must have stopped being so sweet. Tom is suddenly standing in front of me yelling my name.

“McKinley!” It makes me jump. I’m starting to really not like him and his skinny chicken legs.
“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nothing,” I say. I look at the desk. I don’t know what I was thinking.

“Well, it looks like nothing is defacing airport property. Do you write on your tables at home with black permanent marker?”

“It’s just ink.”

“Oh, okay. If it’s just ink,” he finger quotes ink, “go get something to wash it off with.”

He mumbles, “Unbelievable,” as I get up and loudly scrape the chair again. I swing open the bathroom door so hard it crashes into the wall. I yank on the paper towels so the cover pops off and clatters to the floor.

“Jesus, kid! Could you be any louder?”

I kick in the stainless steel garbage can. The more noise I make, the angrier I get. Phoebe holds her hands over her ears. Jada takes Uri by the hand and sits on the couch between the twins. They all look at me like I’m a crazy person and then I feel really stupid. I’m not a crazy person, I’m not even mean. But it’s hard for me to stop arguing with Tom. I want out of this room.

“You do realize it’s a privilege to be here?” Tom says. “You could sit in the security office until your mother arrives. I don’t have to keep you, especially if you’re a danger to the other kids.”

I’m not a danger to other kids. Only to garbage cans. “Then why are you?”

“Because I thought this would be more comfortable for you. Be with other kids, TV, stuff to do.”

“I didn’t ask for any favors,” I say. I’m not trying to be a smart-ass; the words just fly out of my mouth by themselves. But it’s the truth. This was the airport’s idea. I’d never choose to sit in a room with Tom or a security guard or anyone else. Well, maybe with Jada, but she’s so not interested in me. So probably not even with her either. If I had money, I could have gotten a cab home all by myself.

“Just clean up that mess please. Use this.” Tom places a bottle of Windex on the table. I hate to tell him Windex will not clean up Sharpie. I’ve tried it before in the boys’ bathroom at PS 276 after Charlie and I got in trouble for drawing a giant Tic-Tac-Toe board. I was X’s, he was O’s. It was a tie.

“When you’re finished, please just sit still like the Wonder Twins over there.”

“What’s a wonder twin?” Uri asks in his high-pitched voice.

Tom sighs and ignores him, but keeps lecturing me. “You need to keep it down and respect the property of the Clubroom. We made an exception for you today, so it would be helpful if you minded the rules; set a good example for the younger kids.”

I almost tell him to set his own example, but instead I spray the table with the Windex and keep my mouth shut for once. He doesn’t.

“You’re not above them, you know. Just because you’re what, twelve?”

I feel my skin getting hot as I scrub at the word LOSER. It’s not coming off, of course. I hope my face isn’t turning red. “Thirteen.”

The table will not come clean. Some things are permanent.

“Excuse me. Thirteen.” Tom sits on one of the reclining chairs and his voice changes, he’s trying to be nice now. This is where I should calm down and make peace.

I focus on the 747 outside. I imagine everyone boarding and storing their bags, unbuckling the seat belts and cursing when they can’t buckle themselves in. The way the compartments never close all the way, but somehow the flight attendants can always figure it out. How no one over the age of eleven can fit in those seats. How you always have to sit by strangers, but the roar of the engines at takeoff always puts everyone to sleep.

“Were you visiting your dad in Boston?” Tom asks.

I rest my chin on my arms. I don’t even look at him and he still won’t stop trying to have a conversation.

“Pretty well-off parents, I guess,” he says, smirking a little bit. “Used to getting what you want, I’d guess.”

If I were someone who laughed, I’d have laughed right out loud. Flying is just a perk from Dad’s job. And Mom is anything but rich. She works real hard, but never makes enough to buy Air Jordans or anything like that.

Rich is a fairytale, something you see in the movies.

Rich is for kids who have their own drivers with signs in fancy script who are always on time after school or at the airport.

Rich never has empty pockets or a growling stomach.

Rich is reserved for kids like the one who walks into the room right now.

*

“This is Nicholas Grace.”

Anne comes back into the room behind a blonde kid in khaki cargo pants and a white polo shirt who looks like he stepped right out of the Macy’s display window. He has a video camera around his neck and looks cleaner than an Ivory soap commercial.

Anne rushes over to Tom, who is suddenly Mr. Too-Nice Guy again, with a big stack of papers. Like an entire file-folder of papers.

“What’s all this?” Tom gets up from his chair and flips through the pages.

“His instructions,” Anne says. “Including a list of meal preferences?” Her flushed face has an unreadable expression, though Tom seems to understand it.

“O-K,” he says and tosses the folder on his desk. “Welcome to the Clubroom, Nick.”

“Nicholas,” the kid says.

He surveys the room with his camera in hand, panning across very slowly, filming the entire room and stopping on everyone’s face. Especially Jada’s. Tom and Anne look at each other. Anne shrugs, and smiles at Tom, tapping his shoulder.

“You have quite the group today, Tommy.”

She leaves and we keep watching Nicholas as he scans the room with his camera like he’s gathering evidence.

“Tom?” he says. “Your name is Tom, right?”

“Yes.” Tom points to his wings. “Tom.”

“This room is freezing, Thomas.” Nicholas walks over to the thermostat and raises the camera to it. “This should be set at seventy-two.”

“It’s just Tom. And why is that?”

“My father, Gregory Scott, you may have heard of him, he’s pretty famous. He’s written thirteen books and produced five movies, mostly about natural disasters, and he wrote a book about Mt. Everest and avalanches and hypothermia…”

“Sit down, Nick.”

“Nicholas.”

“Sit down, Nicholas.”

I get out my record book. This is gonna be good.

“I’m just saying, Thomas. Prolonged exposure is a dangerous and underrated phenomena.”

“I’m just saying,” Tom takes a breath, “you’re in an airport. And it’s September.”

“My fingers are already cold.” He blows on his hands like he’s trying to warm them up. “And my father…”

Tom walks over to the thermostat. “It’s sixty-eight, kid. Sixty eight is hardly freezing.”

“Seventy-two is recommended room temperature.”

Tom stares at Nicholas and punches a button on the thermostat four times with dramatic force. He slams the cover shut, returns to his desk, puts on his headphones and starts scrolling through eBay again. I’m willing to bet he’ll be sitting like that for a long time.

With a smug smile on his face, Nicholas goes to the windows and films the airplanes on the tarmac as if nothing ever happened. Jada and I look at each other. She shakes her head and sighs and I can almost hear her thinking it—boys—and I want to say something about how I’m really nothing like that kid even though I know so far I’ve sounded like a total jerk, but her attention goes right back to the twins.

“You’re a talented artist,” she says to the little girl. “Those skyscrapers look real.”

“She says thank you,” Uri says.

“Can’t Phoebe speak for herself?” Jada asks.

“No.”

Nicholas swings around with his camera and films their conversation.

“Why won’t your sister talk?” Nicholas asks from across the room.

“She only talks at home. She’s really shy.” Then he leans over to Jada and whispers, “Sometimes she wanders too, which is why my mom makes us carry these.” He taps the walkie-talkie.

“That’s fine,” Jada says, looking at Nicholas. “She doesn’t have to talk if she doesn’t want to.”

“So where are you all flying to?” Nicholas asks, still looking through his camcorder.

They tell him and he continues interviewing them like he’s some kind of reporter.

He has this weird way of getting them to talk, like part of him is grownup and important
and part of him is just nosy but maybe even a little shy too. I can tell he’s the kind of kid
who knows exactly how to use words to get what he wants. I can’t decide if I admire that
or hate it because I’m terrible at it. But I write their entire conversation down in the
record book. And then I rip out a page, scribble something down and fold it into a classic
plane. I send it to Uri and it lands right on the couch between him and Jada. They both
seem surprised, but when he opens it, he lets Jada and Phoebe read it, both twins grin at
me. Jada even cracks a tiny smile.

Most Powerful Superheroes = Wonder Twins

Then Nicholas whips his camera over to me. He doesn’t feel the need to keep his distance from me like he did with Jada. He walks right back across the room and stands in front of my table. When he pulls out the chair, it’s silent.

“What are you writing?” He asks in his reporter voice. But I don’t trust him.

“Nothing.”

“Is it a diary?”

“No. It’s just a book.”

“That’s not a book.”

“Yes, it is.” I close it and show him the spine and flip the pages. “See? A book.”

“Not a regular novel is what I mean. One that you read.” He brings his camera up and asks if he can get me on film. “I’m making a movie. Can I record you?”

I stare at him over the lens. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually looking for an answer.

“I’m serious, you’re a very interesting character,” he continues. “This army jacket that’s obviously way too big, faded camo pants that you’ve clearly worn a lot, silver stud in your ear which has to be new because your earlobe is still really red, and writing in a diary. It’s a great juxtaposition.”

He’s right on all accounts. These pants are my favorite because they have a ton of pockets. I keep my Sharpie in the lowest pocket. Other stuff like a small paper plane my dad left me, and a couple bottle caps from the day Charlie and I sat at the park and drank an entire six-pack of root beers. The army jacket was my grandfather’s and my dad just gave it to me before I left his place. And the earring, well, that was my own personal experiment this summer. Dad bet me I couldn’t do it. I won. Total record book material.

Nothing Nicholas needs to know.

All I can say is, “It’s not a diary. It’s a record book.”

“Can I read it?”

“No! Now go away.”

He gets out a small kit with a soft cloth and tiny spray bottle and cleans his perfectly spotless camcorder. “My dad sent me this.” he says. “It’s a Canon FV30.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It’s only one of the best and most expensive hand held video recorders you can get that also takes still shots. It’s perfect for amateur filmmakers such as myself.”

I don’t like that he thinks he knows everything. I want to tell him to buzz off, but with a better vocabulary word than “buzz.” But Tom would be on me for that one. Still, what could he even do? I’m already a prisoner of the airport. I don’t have any money. They can’t kick me out, they can’t send me anywhere except the security office, whatever that is. I can do whatever I want, though punching this mini Steven Spielberg is not smart. He probably has his own lawyer. I glare at him and say nothing and he seems to finally be out of questions, so he gets up and moves to one of the reclining chairs to watch videos on his precious camcorder.

When I was little, Mom used to tell me to punch a pillow or my bed if I got really angry. It doesn’t work anymore. And when I’m not home, there’s nothing to punch anyway. It builds up inside like a balloon with too much air and especially after last year, I feel almost ready to pop all the time. But these aren’t the things Dad wants me to record. He told me to write funny things, fantastic things, anything I want to remember. I think he’s right, not everything is meant to be in permanent ink. Instead I get to work on a zip dart, one of my best airplane folds, and push thoughts of Nicholas out of my head.

When I look up, I notice the little girl half of the Wonder Twins staring at me from the couch. She intently watches my fingers as I fold and crease and fold and crease until the plane is finished. When I’m done, I hold it up, aim it toward her, and when she smiles and nods, I send it her way.

*

Nicholas can’t stay quiet for long. He turns the camera back on and asks Jada if she wants to be in his movie.

“Not really,” she says. “But thanks.”

“Why are you making a movie?” Uri asks.

“Because it’s in my genes.”

Uri blinks. Nicholas explains, “My dad’s books get made into movies. That’s why I’m flying out to see him. I’m going to be on set of this next one.”

“Wow! So your dad’s really famous.”

“Pretty much,” Nicholas says and shrugs like it’s no big deal, even though he’s said it at least three times in about just as many minutes.

Phoebe whispers something in Uri’s ear. He speaks for her, “Phoebe wants to know if you’re going to be famous, too.”

“I am. That’s why I carry this camera around with me. I’m going to write screenplays—that means basically I will write and direct my own movies. I already have a ton of ideas.”
I grunt from my corner.

“What?” Nicholas says. “You don’t think I can do it?”

“You have to have something interesting to write about. Something people would actually watch.”

“I have plenty of interesting ideas.”

“Like what you do on Sundays at racquetball club? With your crisp white polo shirt and fancy camcorder? Everyone’s going to want to see that.”

“You don’t know a thing about me,” Nicholas says, angrily. It’s the first time he doesn’t sound spoiled. I’m almost willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he opens his mouth again.

“Who wouldn’t want to see the secret lives of the rich and famous? Look at all the reality shows on TV. My dad is a celebrity. Why couldn’t I have my own show?” He crosses his arms and smirks.

“You can’t just be rich. You’d have to do things no one else does. The only way to get a good story is to do things other people are too afraid to do.”

“How do you know I’m not?” Nicholas crosses his arms.

I can’t think of anything to say, so I shrug.

“Whatever.”

I put my headphones on and Nicholas goes back to the Wonder Twins. I close my eyes and try not to think about my growling stomach or what questions Nicholas might be asking those kids now. Jada laughs at something Nicholas says. I bury my face in my arms and drift off, hoping when I wake up the others will be on their flights and most importantly, my ride will show up.

*

Uri’s walkie-talkie screeches through the room like a jet.

I fly back in my seat, the sound jolting me from a dream I can’t remember. I check the clock and realize not even a full ten minutes passed while I drooled. Sleep was my only chance at escape and Uri ruined it. But I’m not as mad as Tom.

Tom whips around like someone hit him in the back of the head with something.

“Uri! Didn’t I ask you to please turn those off?”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t take it anymore.” He stands up and walks over to the couch. “Let me have them until it’s time for you to go.”

Phoebe’s eyes go wide and frightened. Uri shakes his head. “I won’t do it again. I promise.” He turns his off. “See?”

“I think it would be better if you let me hold them. I’ll set them right here on my desk.” Tom walks over and puts his hand out. Uri looks at his sister, but hands it over.

Phoebe doesn’t move.

“Phoebe?”

Neither twin says a word. Nicholas does it for them. “They need those because she doesn’t talk to other people.”

“Thank you for your help, Nicholas. I realize that. I’m not keeping them. I’m just going to hold them until they are ready to leave.”

After a few more seconds of nobody moving, I can’t help myself. “Leave them alone. You’ve already got one. The other one can’t make noise by itself.”

Tom stares at me. My armpits sweat bad. He points at me, but then shakes his head and says nothing. Instead he sets the walkie-talkie on the table, sits back down to the computer and puts on his headphones. I exhale. Then I look at Nicholas and tell him to leave the twins alone too. He seems surprised.

“We’re just talking,” he says. “This is how you make friends, you know. You talk.” He drags out “you” and “talk” like I can’t understand English. Like I’m some kind of ape in a cage.

“You’re not making friends, you’re making fans.”

Nicholas looks at me for a minute like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Then he points the camera at me. He seriously has no fear.

“Where are you flying?”

“I’m not.”

“This is an airport. If you’re not flying, why are you here? Are you the janitor?”

“I already flew. I’m waiting for my ride.”

“You must have had a red-eye,” he says. “That means an overnight flight.”

“I know what a red-eye is.”

“They don’t usually let kids do that.”

“I’m special.”

Nicholas shrugs and continues filming, but swings his camcorder over to Tom. I want out of the room so bad it’s hard to sit still. The walls seem closer and sitting here seems more and more ridiculous. I shove the record book in my bag and scrape my chair out. Everyone is watching me, but I pretend I don’t notice. I pace in front of the windows that look into the terminal.

“Can I make a call?” I turn and ask Tom.

Tom looks startled. “Why?”

“Because I want to make a phone call.”

“Who are you calling?”

I’m so tired of people’s questions. “What does it matter?” My foot kicks the table leg and sends it a couple feet. Phoebe jumps. I look at her and want to tell her I’m sorry, but the words don’t come. They never do. I don’t have those words, I’m sorry. But Tom has plenty.

“I think you should give me a good reason why you need to use the phone.”

I don’t have a good reason, at least not one that will convince him. Tom seems to know this because he sits in his chair with his arms folded like he’s waiting for me to do something besides pace. I wish I could. I wish I was brave enough to pound out of the room, but I’m not.

“Why can’t he make a call?” Jada asks. My skin reacts before my brain. She’s sticking up for me?

“Yeah,” Nick chimes in. “Isn’t that the point of having a phone?” I won’t lie, I’m annoyed when I hear his voice, but interested to see where Nicholas, lawyer to the people, takes this one.

“There needs to be a reason,” Tom says.

“Does it cost money to dial out?”

“No.”

“Is there a limit to how many phone calls a day can be made?”

“No.”

“Then why does he need a reason?” Nicholas is as calm as anything. Like they’re discussing the morning’s weather. I’ve never known a kid who can challenge an adult without skipping a beat. All without showing any frustration.

Ballsiest Lawyer in Training: Nicholas Grace

Nick continues. “If he doesn’t have a cell phone, he should be allowed to use the phone in here.”

“I have a cell,” I lie. “It’s just dead.”

“I rest my case,” Nick says.

I could learn something from him. Jada beams at him. That makes me want to throw a paper airplane at his face, but I can’t. He’s helping me out.

“What’s with the three of you? Do you know each other or something?” Tom asks. “Brady, no phone for right now, okay? Your mom’s on her way. Just sit tight.”

Nicholas sighs. Loudly. Then he stands up, reaches in his pocket and holds out his phone. “You can borrow mine. It’s supposed to be for emergencies only, but my parents don’t care.”

I stare at the phone, pretty much the best phone you can get, and stare at Nicholas. My mom would say tearing someone else apart just makes you feel worse in the end, but I can’t keep my mouth shut.

“Do you have your own credit card too?” I ask, unable to hide the sarcasm that fills the air like a giant cloud of black gnats.

“Actually…”

“I’m good.” I put up my hand to block his offer. “I don’t need your phone when there is one right there on the wall that I should be allowed to use.” I glare at Tom.

“Fine,” Tom puts his hands up. “I was simply asking you a question. Calm down and make your phone call.”

Now everyone is staring at me as I walk to the phone. I hadn’t intended on causing such a scene. I don’t even understand why I get so mad sometimes. Since I never seem to know where my feet are, I kick the trash can on the way over, surely making Phoebe jump again, which makes me feel bad.

I dial the phone and listen to it ring and ring and ring as my insides dry up and turn to dust. She’s either on her way or sleeping. Either way, Tom looks way too satisfied that no one picks up. I slam the receiver down so hard the phone rings back at me.

Sorry, Phoebe. I stare at the phone. Twenty more minutes and I’m calling Dad.

I stand there for a while. Tom returns to his computer, and Uri starts talking to Nicholas again. But Jada looks at me, worried, this time. I don’t know what to do with myself so I sit back down and hide my face again. There’s nothing worse than disintegrating in front of all of them.

This is all my mom’s fault.

*

My stomach growls so loud, Phoebe looks at me. I pretend it came from Tom W.

I did not sleep at all last night because I was so nervous about coming home, and I haven’t eaten in over twelve hours. I drum my fingers on the table thinking about all the food I could be eating out in the food court right now if I wasn’t stuck in this room. And if I had money. Cheeseburgers, spicy tacos, sweet and sour pork, cinnamon buns dripping with icing, warm chocolate chip cookies, French fries…my stomach growls even more thinking about it.

Jada pulls out her magazine again and now I realize it’s a photo of a gymnast on the front. She reads with a serious expression on her face.

Nicholas keeps his eyes on his camcorder, and he let’s Uri watch clips he’s recorded over and over. Nick cracks up every now and then, which looks like his shoulders are shaking, but no sound comes out of his mouth. His ears are pink. I think he’s super nervous sitting by Jada, but I guess it’s a good thing if the director likes his own work.

No sound from Phoebe except the continued scratching of her pencil.

“Is it okay if I sit next to you and read?” Jada asks. The girl nods and even smiles a bit, so Jada sits across from her and starts pulling things out of her bag. Water bottle, more magazines with gymnasts, a book, a box of protein bars, a pencil, and an iPod. She lines them all up on the table in a nice row. As soon as my brain registers the sound of the foil wrappers, my stomach growls so loud that Jada turns to me.

“Want one? I have plenty, and my mom sent more boxes in my checked bag.”

Shoot me now. I might as well announce that I’m penniless and foodless. I don’t need handouts. I need my mother to be where she’s supposed to be. I shake my head and put my face back in my arms and breathe on the table, where it feels like my own private greenhouse.

“I’ll have one,” Nicholas says, finally brave enough to speak to her. “I mean if you’re offering.”

“Sure!” She tosses one across the room; I hear him catch it. I get the feeling he will save that wrapper until the day he dies.

Meanwhile, my stomach curses me for saying no. I continue to breathe in my arm-head-table fort, listening as she settles back in her chair, how the pages of her magazine whisper when she turns them. Phoebe’s scratching pencil. Tom W’s fingers hitting the keyboard too loudly. Uri rocking his chair. Only Nicholas can’t be located by sound. I peek up and see him filming through the windows again. He is seriously obsessed with that camcorder. And then I realize there’s a protein bar on the table in front of me. Which is really, really nice timing because I was about to start eating my own fingers.

I look at Jada and try to give her a silent thank you, because I don’t really want to talk out loud and get Tom after me again. I’m not sure if she understands or not, but she nods and goes back to her magazine. I unwrap the peanut butter oatmeal piece of heaven, fold it in half, and eat it in one bite. I need about eighteen more of those things to make a dent in my starvation.

“Excuse me, Thomas?” Nicholas suddenly asks in his lawyer voice.

Tom sighs.

“Any chance you can get me out there?” Nicholas points toward the windows, but Tom doesn’t turn around.

“No.”

“You didn’t even look where I’m pointing.”

Tom pretends to turn and look. “No.”

Nicholas walks right up to Tom’s desk and stands to his left.

“Do you have kids?”

“No.”

“Then what’s with the figures?”

“My nephew’s birthday is coming up.”

“He must really love Star Wars. Bet you’ll be his favorite uncle.”

“What do you want, Nick?”

“Nicholas. I want you to take me outside so I can get some up-close shots of that airplane. It’s really important that I get all the right angles for this movie.” He sounds so professional and convincing, it’s creepy.

Tom spins his chair around now and folds his arms. “What’s your movie called?”

“It doesn’t have a name yet. Only a working title.”

“What’s a working title?”

“It means,” Nicholas impatiently sighs, “I have a title but it could be changed.”

“So what’s your working title?”

Nicholas dramatically poses and raises his hands like there’s a banner in the room.

The Day Everything Changed.

“Interesting,” Tom says, sounding genuine. “What happens on the day everything changes?”

Nicholas is quiet for longer than three seconds, which for him is a lot. “I’m not sure yet, but it’ll be good.”

Tom laughs. “Well, I can’t take you out there. You’re not supposed to leave this room until Anne comes to get you for your flight. And I definitely can’t take you outside the building. Nobody goes on the tarmac except employees or if a plane is boarding out there. Sorry.”

“No one will ever know,” Nicholas suggests. But Tom shakes his head very slowly.

“My father…”

“Don’t start.”

Nicholas sighs and gives up even though I know he’s accustomed to winning.

This must be new for him. When he passes by me, he whispers, “I’m getting out of this room and getting out there. You watch.” I guess he’s not giving up after all.

Adrenaline pumps through me. Could he be serious? I have to believe if anyone could wheedle his way out, it would be this Nicholas kid. And there’s no way I’m staying in here if he manages it. I’ll call my mom from a payphone and hide out in the men’s room if I have to. Anything is better than this place. Nick sits on the couch next to Jada and inspects his camera. I rip a piece of paper out of my record book and write: If you’re going, I’m going.

Then I fold it into a basic dart, the best fold for a quick and easy note pass, and send it crash landing into Nicholas’ lap. He reads it, looks surprised, and glances at me. I raise an eyebrow. He nods. And just like that, we’re on the same team.

*

Anne pokes her head in the room again.

“Tommy, can I talk to you for a minute?” Tom gets up in a hurry, a big smile on his face, and leaves the room without saying anything to any of us. The second the door is closed, Uri runs to the table, grabs the walkie-talkie and hides it in his pocket. I like that kid.

I forget my fortress of solitude at the table and go up to the window to see where Tom went. They are standing outside the door to the right, talking about something I can’t hear, but clearly isn’t about Young Travelers. Anne tucks a piece of hair behind his ear and he pokes at her ribs. Gross.

“Ready to leave?” Nicholas says, suddenly standing at my side. We don’t make eye contact and just stare out the window.

“Yes.”

“Have you thought about security?”

“Not worried about it. I only have to get to a taxi.”

“Do you have money for a taxi?”

“Shut up.”

“I’m trying to help you think it through. When someone tries to help, you don’t have to be so nasty.”

“I don’t need your help.”

Nicholas looks me in the eyes like no one ever does. “I think you do.” And he shows me a wad of money like I’ve never seen.

“Your parents let you travel with all that?” Jada asks, surprising us both at the window.

“They don’t know what I travel with,” Nicholas says and shoves it back in a pocket.

“What are you saying?” Jada asks.

“I’m saying they don’t know what I travel with.”

“You know it’s dangerous to go around with that much cash in one place. Everyone knows that. Someone could steal it all in one shot.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Nicholas says. “I have this too.” He pulls out a wallet and flashes a little plastic rectangle. I’m beginning to think money comes out of his pores.

“I knew it,” I say.

“It’s for emergencies, but my parents seriously don’t care.” He slides the credit card back and puts the wallet in his bag. “So, if we can get out, your ride home is on me.”

I can’t tell whether or not Nicholas is telling me the truth. Although getting home is totally easy if I have the cash, escaping is a different matter. If he’s all talk, I’d be stuck out in the airport with no way to even call my mom without going back to the clubroom like a dog with its tail between its legs. Can’t do that.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” I say.

“How do I know you won’t keep it?” he asks.

“Because I want out of here more than anyone. Did you not see how much Tom likes me? He’s a jerk and he’s going to make the rest of my day miserable.”

“You’ll get me out, too?”

“Promise, but I can’t get stuck out there with no ticket home. Cash first or no deal.”

Nicholas looks at Jada. “Don’t look at me,” she says, crossing her arms and grinning. “You two seem to have this all figured out.”

But I have the feeling she doesn’t really think we do.

“Cash for my ride home and I’ll get all three of us out,” I say.

“You’re crazy,” Jada says, but she’s still smiling.

“I like it,” Nicholas says. “You get your ride, I get a close-up of that plane. We help each other out.”

I nod. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

“Perfect. My flight isn’t for hours. I got dropped off early cause my dad had to work,” Jada says, rolling up her magazine and sticking it in her bag.

“You just said we were crazy!” Nicholas says.

“You are, but it’s still an awesome idea,” she says, grinning. “So how are we doing it?”

“You don’t even know me,” I say, not sure why.

“I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

“Why do you want out?”

“Why not?” she says with an expression on her face that tells me that’s all I’m getting. I figure it’s as good a reason as any other.

“I’m totally getting a Cinnabon,” she says.

Feedback from Uri’s walkie-talkie makes us all jump. “Can we come?” he asks.

“No,” Jada says. “But I’ll bring you back treats.”

Uri seems satisfied with that. Phoebe smiles, but doesn’t look up from her drawing.

“Do you think they’ll say something?” Nicholas whispers.

“What would they say that Tom wouldn’t already know? Besides, we’re going to need their help,” Jada says.

“We are?” I raise an eyebrow. Whose plan is this?

“Those walkie-talkies. They could seriously come in handy.”

I think about what Uri said about why he had them in the first place. “I don’t know.”

“What is there to know? If we get separated, we can stay in touch. I’ll make sure to bring them back here later.”

I don’t say anything to that because I didn’t even think we were going to stick together the second we get out the door. If we even get out the door.

“And no matter what happens,” Jada adds. “If we get caught, they can’t do anything to us. It’s his job to watch us, he’s the one who’s gonna get in trouble.”

“What are you going to do out there?” Nicholas asks.

“I don’t know. Explore. Shop,” she says.

“That’s a super exciting plan,” I say.

She makes a face at me. “And yours is so much more spectacular?”

“Nicholas is the only one with a grand idea,” I say. “I just want to get out of here.”

“A grand idea that I’m never going to have time to do,” Nicholas says as he looks at the clock.

“Why?”

“Because my flight is supposed to leave at seven-thirty. I don’t know if there’s enough time before they board me.”

“Oh no,” I say. “You don’t get to call off the bet now. A deal is a deal.”

“I didn’t realize the time!”

“Too bad!”

“I can’t miss my flight. My dad is waiting.”

“Yeah!” chirps Uri. “He has to be on set!”

I roll my eyes. Fans.

“On set for what?” Jada asks. “Are you actually part of the cast?”

“Long story,” Nicholas says and for what I think is probably the first time in his life, he doesn’t tell the story. Another entry for the record book.

“Flight or no flight, you can’t go back on a bet,” I say. I ball my fist up in my pocket. It wouldn’t take much to knock him over and take the cash, a thought that surprises me as soon as I think it. I’m not really a bad person, but I am so close to getting out. This is our best chance, with Tom distracted in the hall and now Nicholas is going to wreck it. It makes me want to wreck him.

Only I don’t think it would impress Jada and I know it would scare the twins. I walk away from them both. There has to be another way.

Then Tom returns and my stomach drops. Chance lost.

“Nicholas?” Tom says. “You’ve been put on a later flight.”

“Why?” Nicholas asks.

“Mechanical issues with the plane. You’re going to catch the nine-thirty instead.”

Tom closes the door and goes back to flirting with Anne.

“Well,” Jada says. “There you go. Hand over the money.”

*

I stare at the ten and two twenties. Besides Christmas, I don’t know if I’ve ever had this much cash in my hand.

Jada and Nicholas stare at me now, waiting to see what I’m going to do. Honestly, I didn’t think Nicholas had it in him to live up to his end of the deal—not the guts or the generosity. But I was wrong. Both of them have their bags and are ready to go as if we’re going to walk right out the door. But Tom and Anne are standing too close to it.

“I still don’t have very long,” Nicholas says. “I need a shot of that plane and the food court.”

“I know where the food court is,” I say. I shove the money in my bag and put the bag near the door. “You’re on your own with the plane.”

“What’s the plan?” Jada asks.

“I’ve got it covered,” I say.

“Well, you better hurry up because I think the love-birds are wrapping it up,” Nicholas says.

“I’ve got it,” I say, and I do. I have an instant escape plan, one that Charlie and I developed in sixth grade. It failed, but I think I’ve got the kinks worked out now. And it should buy us enough time to sneak out before Tom even knows what’s going on. I crouch down in front of Uri, who seems a little intimidated at first. I’m careful to not get too loud.

“I need you and your sister’s help. We’re going to, um, detain Mr. Tom, but I don’t want him stuck forever. It’s only so we can sneak out. You’ll let him out after a little while. Can you do that?”

He turns his walkie-talkie on and off, on and off while he stares at me, then nods and says, “As long as there’s a cinnamon bun in it for me and Phoebe.”

Jada laughs. “Kid after my own heart.” She bends down to us too, and it’s like we’re making this pact together, a small team united by cinnamon buns. “What time do you and Phoebe leave?” she asks.

He pulls out a folded piece of paper with all his flight information handwritten on it. “My mom made me carry this.” He hands it to Jada who reads it and nods again.

“No problem,” she says. “Plenty of time. I’ll bring you guys back a whole box.”

She looks at Nicholas who nods as if this has been his whole plan all along. Still, I like
this girl more and more, and even Nicholas doesn’t seem so terrible right now. The fact he
actually gave me fare for a cab? You never really know what someone else is thinking, I guess.

I look at the Wonder Twins and hope they don’t rat us out before we escape. Then I get an idea.

“Lend me one of those.” I point to the walkie-talkie in Uri’s hand. “Do you know what air traffic control does?”

Uri nods and then shakes his head no. “Not really.”

“They sit up in that tower out there by the runways and help tell the airplanes where to go. When a plane is up in the sky, there’s no road signs or anything so air traffic control keeps track of every single plane to keep it on the right path. To let them know if there are any problems. They stay in touch.”

“You want me to do that?” A smile stretches across Uri’s face.

“Exactly. You tell us what Tom is up to and where he’s going, after you set him free. And we will bring the walkie-talkie back before you have to leave. Do you think you can do that job?”

Uri nods like crazy, like he’s been dying to have a reason to use the walkie-talkies and I just gave him the most important job in the airport. I’m glad he’s into it, because this way I can stay in touch with him, and know what Tom is up to. I give him a quick lesson in how to use the thing right, to make sure it’s not too noisy and Tom finds it. “Don’t use it if he’s right in the room, though.”

“Got it,” Uri says and slides back on the couch. His feet don’t even hit the ground because he’s so small and something about it gives me a weird feeling like maybe I really shouldn’t get them involved.

“You ready?” Jada asks.

“Yeah. Yep, I’m good,” I say. “Let’s get this thing going.” I get up, shove the walkie-talkie in my pocket and explain the plan to everyone. We line up our backpacks under the window by the door and wait for Tom.

*

Tom walks in looking like he just saved the world. I think maybe he finally got a date.

“You should probably call whoever is picking you up in San Francisco, Nicholas. The airline will call too, but it’s good for parents to hear straight from their kids and since you have your own phone…”

Nicholas looks unsure. “Nah, I’m good to go,” he says, looking at me instead of Tom. It sends a rush through me to move quickly. I get up and go into the bathroom, and waste five minutes unraveling three rolls of toilet paper, remembering how Charlie and I tried this to get out of going to see CATS on Broadway. Instead of expulsion, Mr. Jones threatened to make us go to the show twice. We got two days of detention instead. After the show.

But this time no one can give us detention. I stuff all the toilet paper and some paper towels for good measure into the toilet in a manner in which you should never flush.

And I flush.

I peek out the door. “Um. Tom?”

“Yeah?” Tom barely looks my way, busy settling back to his eBay auctions.

“Toilet’s clogged.”

“Seriously?” He shoves his chair back, and attempts to move me from the doorway, in which I scramble away from his hands anyway so that he can fully appreciate the fountain of tissue and water I’ve created. I move behind him, slam the bathroom door, and hold it tight while Jada wraps Tom’s headphone cords between the bathroom doorknob and the supply closet right next to it. Then we slide the big table up against the doors. The entire time Tom yells and bangs on the door.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Uri giggles on the couch. I give him a thumbs up. “Fifteen minutes, okay?”

Uri holds up his walkie-talkie and paper airplane and whispers, “I got this.”

I salute the Wonder Twins. We grab our backpacks and slip out the door, escaping the Young Travelers Club.

Freedom is way easier than I expected.