No wait, that’s not what happened. This is what happened.
Helen called Jane at 5 in the morning.
"There’s an enormous hot air balloon here," Helen said. "At the park. And nobody’s guarding it."
"Hot damn! I am on my way," Jane replied.
Jane parked her bike against a tree, and the two girls approached the balloon. The hot air balloon was part of a realty advertising campaign, it looked like. It was just going to go straight up and hang there, tethered to the ground by a long rope. Jane and Helen climbed into the basket.
It was wonderful. There was a flame thrower in the basket, pointed up into the balloon. When Jane pulled a lever, giant flame spewed up with a roar, and the balloon lifted skyward. When it reached the end of the rope, they were almost two stories high. They could see the harbour, and the bridge. Nobody spoke for a long time. It was early, and the air was still cool, and they were flying.
"I got accepted to MIT," Jane said, after a few minutes. "In their physics program."
Helen smiled and pulled the flame again. The balloon creaked against the rope.
"Let’s never go back down," Helen said.
"What happens when we run out of fire?" Jane said, like she was perfectly serious.
This was their last summer before they went off to separate schools. They were laying on their backs looking for faces in the clouds, talking about the future. When they talked about the future, they didn’t discuss school. They made plans for some undefined future when they were together again.
"We can get a train pass for like five hundred dollars," Helen said. "A month-long train pass. We can go anywhere we want. We can do anything! New York City! San Francisco! Lawrence, Kansas! We just show up at the train station and pick a place off the map. We can do anything."
"We can go out to the desert," Jane said, "and take Peyote. We can go on a spirit quest. Find our spirit animals. I’ll bet my spirit animal is John Candy."
"I want John Candy. Can two people have the same spirit animal?" Helen said.
"I don’t see why not."
"We can take the ferry to Alcatraz and try to swim back to shore." Helen said. "Like escapees. We’ll be lost forever."
"We can just walk around doing nothing at all," Jane replied. "We can just talk about dumb things and make stupid jokes and laugh. We can get ice cream in Denver. What the hell is in Denver?" She laughed.
"So much ice cream," Helen said. "And that sniper I guess."
"Oh yeah," Jane was quiet for a minute. "Snipers always hide in bell towers. If I was a sniper I wouldn’t hide in a bell tower. That’s the first place people look. Obviously the sniper’s in a bell tower. That’s where snipers go."
"Well, it gives you a pretty good view," Helen said.
"I’d hide out down low."
"What, like you’d shoot people from the bottom of a well?"
"Yes," Jane said. "And it would never even occur to anyone to look down there. The bodies would just keep piling up around the mouth of the well, and everyone would be going nuts, trying to figure out which bell tower I was in."
When the windows started bursting out of the buildings above them, they went inside. A hotel was sheltering people, and handing out glow sticks. So Helen and Jane sat at the back of the hotel’s lobby, glow sticks lit around their necks, and listened to the broken glass whipping around outside.
"My father wants to pay for my tuition," Helen said.
"So you don’t have to get a student loan?"
"I’m getting a student loan," Helen said. "I would rather go into debt than take a dime from that man. I remember what he did to my mother, even if she acts like she doesn’t." Helen took the glow stick from around her neck and looked down at it. "It’d be easier if I’d gotten a scholarship, though," she said.
The hurricane went on and on around the building, and to pass the time Jane and Helen started trying to guess why the other people hiding out in the hotel had been outside. Jane pointed to a young woman, dressed all in black, sitting by herself.
"I bet she was robbing a bank," Jane said. "Or a jewelry store. She’s probably got pockets full of diamonds."
There was a group of young men in business suits.
"Professional hitmen," Helen said. "In town for some kind of conference."
There was a female security guard, sitting by the window, flicking her flashlight on and off, looking bored. She didn’t look much older than Helen.
"I’m sorry I didn’t congratulate you about getting into MIT," Helen said to Jane.
"It’s okay," Jane said. "Dal’s a good school, too. You know that."
"Richard Feynman never went to Dal," Helen said, and Jane laughed.
"You don’t even like Richard Feynman," she said.
But Helen didn’t say anything. She just turned the glow stick over in her fingers for a while.
"I guess you do like Buzz Aldrin though," Jane said.
Hurricane Anthony was on his way. It was all the news would talk about. It was a powerful storm, especially for so early in the hurricane season. Even at school, the announcements took a break from talking about the upcoming prom to warn students about the impending hurricane. When the bell rang for their last class, Jane and Helen went outside and stood looking at the sky.
The wind was already picking up, and the clouds were dark to the south. It was the exact right kind of dark, too. Suitably threatening. The sky was ominous and violent. Disaster was coming. Finally!
"This is going to be amazing," Helen said. Her voice sounded far away in the wind.
They went to Jane’s house first, and then Helen’s. They got their bike helmets, and waterproof clothes. And then they went downtown, near the waterfront, where the hurricane was going to land.
In a lot of ways, being out in a hurricane is like being in a space ship. Gravity doesn’t apply in the same way anymore. Helen could lean forward at an impossible angle, and the wind held her up. She put her arms out to the side, laughing into the wind. Beside her, Jane tried to match her angle, but the wind kept staggering her backward.
So she jumped straight up, and the wind carried her back a few feet. Both of them let out a shriek, and Helen jumped up into the air, too. It carried her a few feet before gravity won out again.
"Oh my god," Helen yelled. "Oh my god this is amazing."
The could see people lined up on the waterfront boardwalks, with the waves crashing against the wood around them, surf splashing high into the air. But Jane and Helen had lived here all their lives. Laughing and jumping in the wind was one thing, but the ocean was no joke. It killed people.
So they stayed up between the buildings, laughing and jumping, and holding onto each other’s arms. A security guard came running out of one of the office buildings to scream at them, his arm held up against the wind and rain.
"Are you stupid?" he yelled. "Get inside!"
"Fuck you!" Jane yelled at him, "These are our salad days!"
After the movie, they walked along the highway. When they started walking, the sky was grey, but it got darker and darker as they headed away from the city. They climbed up the rocks along the side of the road, so they were up above the approaching cars.
"Why does it have to be so far?" Helen said. "Oh god, I am going to sleep forever."
"We’re almost to my house," Jane said. "You can stay over, if you want".
"No," Helen said. "No, I just want to go home." She stopped and put her hands on her knees.
Jane stopped too, looking back past Helen, where the city stretched out wide and bright. It felt like Christmas lights after looking into the same yellow headlights for half an hour. The city was a mess of streetlights and traffic signals lined up and around the brighter shapes of billboards and office towers.
"Oh," Jane said. "I think we’ve been looking the wrong way."
The secretary’s name was Ruth. She led Jane and Helen to a leather couch, and asked if they wanted juice or coffee. The couch was so comfortable. It was ridiculous. There was no reason for a couch to be that comfortable, especially not in a big office building. Jane ran her fingers up and down the leather stitches.
"Juice?" the secretary said again.
"I’ll have a juice," Jane said. "Sure!"
When Ruth was gone, Helen nudged Jane in the ribs and pointed to a spiral glass staircase that went up and out of sight.
"What do you think is up there?" Helen said. But then Ruth was back with Jane’s juice, and she led them down the hall and into the CEO’s office. He was a tall man with silver hair and a warm smile. He came out from behind the desk when they entered, and he shook Jane’s hand first, and then Helen’s.
"Thank you, Ruth," he said, and the secretary left. He turned back to the girls. "Now," he said. "How can I help you? Ruth tells me you’re writing some kind of profile for your school newspaper?" Helen shook her head.
"No," she said. "We just said that. We wanted to see if it would work. We’ve never met a CEO before."
"You aren’t students?"
"No, we are," Jane said. "We just aren’t writing anything for the school newspaper. Do you play chess?"
"I’m sorry, there’s been some kind of miscommunication," the CEO said. "I’m unfortunately very busy right now." He pushed a button on his desk, and it buzzed.
"We just think every CEO should play chess," Helen said. "It’s weird that you don’t."
"Are you a very good CEO?" Jane said.
And then Ruth was behind them.
"Ruth, these young ladies were just leaving," the CEO said, putting on a pair of glasses, and turning away from them. They followed Ruth back out of the office. Jane paused in the doorway.
"I have a book about chess that you could borrow," she said to the CEO. "Bobby Fischer wrote it. It’s pretty good."
"Do you play chess?" Helen was asking Ruth in the hallway. "Maybe you should be CEO."
The Smithsonian Air and Space museum was everything Jane wanted it to be. Sputnik, the lunar lander, cosmonaut suits. It took her breath away. There were strange things, too. Unexpected things, like a homemade chess set for playing in zero gravity on the space station. It was the chess set that got her excited about going to the gift shop. It was so small and simple. They must have a replica for sale.
They did not. In its place they had a cheap plastic chess set, with identical astronauts on both sides. It was lazy.
"They could have had astronauts on one side and cosmonauts on the other," Jane said to Helen. "They could have had a cool space race chess set. Sputnik and Laika. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin!" She dropped the box back on the shelf in disgust. Helen didn’t say anything. She didn’t expect much from a gift shop, but it didn’t seem like the right time to mention that.
Jane led them around the small shop. There were no decent spacecraft models. They didn’t even have a model of sputnik she could buy. She was getting agitated, now.
"I’m going to go find a bathroom," Helen said.
Jane looked around for an employee.
"Is there anything I can help you find?" he said.
"Why don’t you have a model of sputnik?" Jane said. "That seems so simple. So obvious."
"We have a sputnik paperweight and note holder," he said, leading her to a table.
"That is the tackiest thing I have ever seen," Jane said. "I don’t understand you people. The rest of the museum is so cool. Why don’t you let the museum curators pick things for the gift shop? Doesn’t it matter to you?"
"I’m sorry you’re disappointed."
"I don’t think you are!" Jane said. He started to turn away, and she said, "Wait. I’m sorry. I know it’s not your fault. The rest of the museum is great. It was everything I imagined, and this just doesn’t live up to it. It seems like just another lame gift shop."
"I don’t get to pick the merchandise," he said. "I just work here."
When Helen came back, Jane was sitting on a bench outside the shop.
"Come on," Helen said. "Let’s go look at the cosmonaut suit again."
"Maybe if I sent them suggestions?" Jane said. "I could write a letter to the museum’s board of directors, maybe. I could threaten their families?"
In Washington, DC. there were men with machine guns in the train station. American soldiers.
"This country is insane," Helen said, watching them. "Are they worried that someone is going to hijack a train and drive it into the White House?"
"You know what we should do?" Jane said. She kept her voice low. "We should hijack a train, and drive it into the White House."
They walked all over the city, climbed on monuments, rested on benches. There were tour groups everywhere, packs of old women and school children. Occasionally, while they walked around, a burst of energy would come out of nowhere, and Jane would just start running and laughing for no reason.
The next time they rested, Jane went around behind the bench and put Helen in the sleeper hold. A group of school kids watched Helen struggle, laughing, and then slump down, and fall off the bench. At first Jane thought she was faking. She kicked Helen’s leg, and Helen sat back up.
"Did you pass out?" Jane said.
"No," Helen said. She looked around in confusion. "Wait. What?" she said.
Jane smiled at the kids, who were all still staring, and one of them pointed. Two policemen were headed their way.
"Shit. Get up," Jane said. "We’re done for."
"What’s this?" the tall policeman said, as Helen climbed to her feet.
"It’s okay officer," she said. "We’re best friends!"
"You didn’t look like best friends two seconds ago," the policeman said.
"No, no, it’s okay," Jane said. "We’re from Canada."
"Yeah," said Helen. "That’s how we show affection."
"At hockey games and things," Jane said.
"Identification, please." The policeman took a look at their passports, then shrugged at his partner. He handed them back. "Just try and behave yourselves," he said.
Jane and Helen decided to take a weekend trip to Washington. Adam and Helen were sort of dating by now. So Adam drove Helen to the train station in his dad’s car, and he was quieter than normal.
"I still don’t like this," he said. "For the record."
Helen reached into the back seat for her bag. “I believe your objection has been noted already,” she said.
"It just seems really sudden. You don’t know where you’re staying?" Adam said.
"We’re staying in Washington!" Helen said.
"I feel like you don’t realize how dangerous it is to be just wandering around a strange country by yourself."
"I won’t be by myself," Helen said. "Jane will be with me."
Adam made a face. “I don’t like it,” he said.
"I’m sorry," Helen said. "And I know that you’re trying to take care of me or whatever, so I hope it doesn’t sound harsh when I say this," She leaned over to kiss him. "But that sounds like a personal problem." She opened the door to the car and got out. "See you in a few days," she said.
After school, Helen was waiting in the same place as always. She fell into step beside Jane, and they started walking home. They were quiet for a while, Helen had been crying, but Jane didn’t know what to say. She decided it was better to pretend that it wasn’t obvious.
"I can’t believe she suspended you," Jane said. "Did they suspend him, too? What is it, illegal to make out with people now? This is bullshit and she’s a bitch. I don’t think you should feel bad at all."
"I called her old and lonely," Helen said, and Jane laughed.
"Good," she said.
But Helen couldn’t stop thinking about the vice-principal. That flash of hurt on her face didn’t fit into Helen’s idea of teachers. It wasn’t about enforcing the rules, or being angry at insubordination. It was something else. She felt so stupid.
"I want to do something," Helen said.
"Yeah!" Jane said. "We should throw a bag of burning shit on her porch. We should egg her car."
"No," Helen said. "I want to do something nice for her."
But what? She didn’t know anything about the woman. She didn’t even know her first name. After Jane went home, Helen caught the bus to the mall and looked through store after store. Flowers would be cheesy and stupid. Maybe a book. Maybe some kind of chocolates?
In the end, she decided on a book, and bought some plain birthday wrapping paper. In the morning she stood outside the vice-principal’s office and waited. When the vice-principal arrived, she had an armful of papers and frowned when she saw Helen. She unlocked the door to her office, and nodded her head inside.
"You aren’t supposed to be on school property today."
"I just wanted to give you this," Helen said, fishing the gift out of her backpack. She handed it to the vice-principal.
"I don’t understand," the vice-principal said. Helen just nodded at the gift, and then waited as the older woman unwrapped it. The vice-principal looked at the book in her hands, and turned it over. She turned it over again. "A book about bank robberies?" she said.
"It’s a really good book," Helen said. "It’s one of my favourites."
Helen, on the other hand, did get suspended. The music teacher walked in on her and Adam from the chess club, on the sink in the teacher’s bathroom. He had his shirt entirely off, and Helen had her legs wrapped around his waist.
"Why don’t you take a picture?" Helen said to her. "It’ll last longer."
Adam put his shirt on fast, and ran. Helen slid calmly down off the sink and watched him go. Maybe he got in trouble too, later. Maybe he didn’t.
The vice-principal wasn’t amused by the story.
"First," she said. "I want you to tell me how you got into that bathroom. The door locks automatically, so I know none of my staff left it unlocked. Did you steal someone’s key?"
Behind the vice-principal, Helen could see Jane in the hallway, watching. She smiled and gave a little wave. The vice-principal turned around, and motioned for Jane to leave. Jane’s smile disappeared, and she took her time picking her bag up and leaving, the whole time keeping the vice-principal’s eyes.
"You girls think the rules don’t apply to you," the vice-principal said to Helen. "Well, that’s not true. It’s not true here, and it’s not going to be true out in the real world. The sooner you learn that lesson, the better off you’re going to be. I have no choice. I have to suspend you."
Helen nodded, and stood up.
"It must be terrible being so old and lonely," Helen said. But instead of the flash of anger she expected, the vice-principal’s face fell. The hurt on her face was so sudden and so unexpected that Helen couldn’t help it. She blurted out, "I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry."
"Just go," the vice-principal said. "Just please get out."
Jane and Helen were in the same physics class in high school. And, unlike the other classes they shared, their teacher had latched onto them as stand-out students. In private, he told them to call him Greg. He confided in them about his frustration with the school administrators, and his frustration with empty-headed students. When he won the Mayor’s Teaching Medal, it was Jane and Helen he invited to the ceremony.
In other classes, the teachers separated the girls. They had to sit on opposite sides of the room. They couldn’t work on projects together, because they were too much trouble. But not in Greg’s class. In Greg’s class he treated them like they were his prize students. And for that, Jane and Helen loved him.
And he encouraged them to study whatever they wanted. For their year end presentation in his class, they talked about possible power sources for UFO technology. Jane had designed a poster, demonstrating the various types of UFO commonly reported, as well as a breakdown of which seemed most likely to be interstellar and which might be designed for exploration planet-side.
"Oh please," a girl in the front row said. "Give me a break." This girl was named Caitlin.
And instead of ignoring Caitlin, Greg stood up at the back of the class.
"She’s right, Jane," he said. "Helen. I think it would be helpful if you girls slowed it down just a bit. I think some people are having trouble keeping up with you."
After class, Caitlin was waiting in the hallway for them.
"Why don’t you ever do a science project about real science?" she said. "All you ever talk about is bullshit, like UFOs and the moon landing." Helen tried to keep walking, but Jane held her back.
"The moon landing is not bullshit," Jane said quietly.
"The moon landing was faked," Caitlin said. "Everybody knows that."
"Fuck you! You were faked!" Jane said. She shoved Caitlin hard against the lockers.
Later, it was her teacher Greg who wrote a letter in her defence to the principal.
"She is passionate about science," he wrote. "I have never had a student with her combination of intelligence and passion before, and I think it would be a crime to limit her future options by putting this blemish on her record. She should of course be punished, as violence is never acceptable, but I urge you to find a punishment that will not go on her permanent record."
In private, though, he was even more supportive.
"I cannot say that what you did is right, Jane," he told her, "Even though, let’s face it, it was. I suppose I should not say this, either. I am very proud of you. Your passion is inspiring to an old man. When the school year is over, I will be sad to lose you."
"There’s a hot air balloon here," Helen said. "At the park."
"Hot damn! I am on my way," Jane replied.
It took Jane one minute to get dressed and out the door, and it took her five minutes to bike down to the park. This was one of Helen’s favourite things about Jane. When she said, “I’m leaving now,” on the phone, she would be out the door within a minute.
Jane parked her bike against a tree, and the two girls approached the man standing beside the balloon. The hot air balloon was part of a real estate agency advertising campaign, he told them. It was just going to go straight up and hang there, tethered to the ground by a long rope. But if they wanted, he could take them up.
It was wonderful. There was a flame thrower in the basket, pointed up into the balloon. When the operator pulled a lever, giant flame spewed upward with a roar, and the balloon lifted skyward. When it reached the end of the rope, they were almost twenty stories high. They could see the harbour, and the bridge. Nobody spoke for a long time. It was early morning, and the air was still cool, and they were flying.
"I got accepted to MIT," Jane said, after a few minutes. "In their physics program."
Neither said anything else. Helen didn’t know what to say. The silence stretched on and on. They just looked out over the city until the balloon operator cleared his throat.
Jane and Helen read every book the library had on serial killers. They read sections out loud to one another, and they underlined passages. They even had a pact. If they turned thirty and they weren’t happy with their lives, they would go on a cross country killing spree. They would go out in a blaze of glory!
So when Jane saw that a behavioural analyst was scheduled to speak at the university, she called Helen up. The topic was serial killers, and there was no way they would miss that. They skipped off school for the day, and took the bus downtown. When the balding man with glasses came out onto the stage, Jane and Helen were front row centre with popcorn and soda.
It didn’t matter that it was mostly old information. They’d heard the stories before, but it was fun to be in a room full of people, hearing them again. They clapped and cheered when the analyst mentioned Canadian serial killers by name.
But then the analyst started talking about female serial killers.
"Female serial killers are rare," he said. "They fall into certain types. Black Widow, revenge killer, profit killer, Angel of Death." He went into a bit more detail, describing a few famous female killers. Jane kept elbowing Helen in the ribs when he said something obnoxious. "Often they are motivated by material gain," the analyst said.
"Boo!" Helen yelled. "Boo!" She made the thumbs down sign with both hands. The analyst stopped talking to stare at them. He was clearly not used to being interrupted.
"Pardon me?" he said.
"What is this, a rap song?" Helen said, loud enough for the room to hear. "Women only kill people because they’re gold diggers?"
"There are several types of female serial killers," he replied. "If you were paying attention you would have heard me name several other…"
"Right," Jane joined in. "Women can also kill people because a man treated them wrong? These are my options if I want to become a serial killer? I’m killing people because I’m either a gold digger or a woman scorned? What, I can’t kill people because it’s fun?"
"Yeah," Helen said. "Why can’t I kill people because it’s exciting and new? This is bullshit."
"I’m sorry," the analyst said. "We have more ground to cover. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you ladies to either quiet down or leave."
"LADIES?!?!" Helen said. "We are NOT ladies!" She jumped to her feet and threw her popcorn on the ground. Beside her, Jane climbed up on a chair and turned to face the room.
"We are become death!" Jane yelled. "Destroyer of worlds!"
Jane bought another Richard Feynman book. He was fast becoming a hero of hers. He was just so curious about the world around him, and he made Jane curious, too. The way he wrote made science seem fun again. He had written a book called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. How great was that, Jane thought.
He wrote an essay about bloodhounds, and about how under-appreciated the human nose was. He asked his wife to pick a book off their bookshelf when he was out of the room, and then he came back in and identified which book she had held just by smell.
Jane was a sucker for that kind of thing. She loved the idea that human beings were capable of so much more. In elementary school she’d spent hours learning to construct a memory palace for herself, based on her childhood home. If you associate specific facts with landmarks in your memory of a physical place, it makes them easier to remember. So, she used the memory palace to remember all the provinces and territories of Canada for instance. The shoes on the floor just inside the front door, that little island of shoes was Prince Edward Island. The coat rack had moose antlers. It was Newfoundland and Labrador. The television in the corner was showing video of the Halifax ferry. That was Nova Scotia.
And she could do that to remember anything! The human brain was awesome, and this book smelling thing was exactly the kind of party-trick science that appealed to Jane the most. But when she tried the trick with Helen, it didn’t work out so well. Helen didn’t dust her shelves very often, was the problem. So instead of looking like a human bloodhound, Jane got a nose full of dust and went into a sneezing fit.
"That was truly impressive," Helen said, when she had stopped laughing. "What are you going to do with your Nobel prize money?"
Jane couldn’t help it, she started laughing too.
"Jesus it burns," she laughed. "You have to try this."
And that was that.
The rest of the night was lost. After they’d both choked on the dust from Helen’s bookshelves they went from cupboard to cupboard in the kitchen looking for anything else they could dare one another to snort. Time passed in a haze of mustard powder and juice mix snorted through rolled up five dollar bills. The more blindingly painful something was, the more they laughed and laughed.
Helen sometimes calls Jane, “Watermelon Head.” Because Jane has a big head, is the reason. She does it a lot, in front of other people, and at school, and Jane likes it. She hates it when other people try to be a part of the joke, and she acts sour, but she secretly likes it when Helen calls her Watermelon Head.
Jane’s obsessed with Richard Feynman now, too. He was a physicist.
"He knew how to pick locks," she told Helen. "He worked on the atomic bomb with Oppenheimer, and he picked the locks to the other scientists’ filing cabinets just because he could."
"We should learn to pick locks!" Helen said. "We should learn how to pick locks and pick pockets. We can practice on each other! And that way we’ll always have this skill, you know? So if we get old and we get Alzheimer’s or crazy, we can still survive on the streets!"
"Feynman wrote a book called What Do You Care what Other People Think of You?" Jane told her. It was the most amazing title for a book.
"Scientists are boring," Helen said. And Jane laughed at her.
"That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!" she said. "Did you know Alan Turing committed suicide with a poison apple? And he had a van that he used to travel around the country with his wife in. He called it the Touring Machine."
"You’re making that up," Helen said. "We could probably order lockpicks off the internet. Do you think that’s illegal?"
"There’s only one way to find out," Jane said.
When their lockpicks came, they started by picking the front door to Helen’s house. Then the padlock on the garage. But people kept walking by, and they kept having to stop because they still weren’t sure if it was illegal to own their own lockpicks. They needed privacy. So they put their money together and they went to the hardware store.
"We want a lock," Jane told the clerk.
"Sure thing," he said. "What kind of lock do you want?"
"Like a front door lock," Jane said. "I want the same lock you would sell me if I were just a regular person coming in to buy a lock for their front door, you know? Not the cheapest, but not the most expensive either."
"Like you were just a regular person?" the clerk said.
"Yes," Jane said. "Because I am."
"She totally is," Helen said.
"Right," Jane said. She smiled. "We’re just regular people. Honest citizens like yourself!"
"I don’t understand why you’re being weird about this," Helen said to him. "Are you prejudiced? Please treat my friend the way you would treat someone with a regular sized head."
Jane and Helen walked everywhere. The bus was expensive and slow, and the bus didn’t go most places. They walked home from school, a different way every day, just roaming the streets, just enjoying each other’s company. They skipped school to go to the library, some days.
Then they sat between the shelves, looking at books about UFOs. Books about female serial killers. Books about movie stars. They used the library computers to start a website where people could report UFO sightings in their city. They never got one email.
And then they were outside again, walking. They had all the time in the world.
They went to coffee shops, but couldn’t afford to buy coffees. Sometimes they bought a single donut each, and asked for glasses of water. At the table, Jane would pour sugar into her water, stirring it in, then adding more and more, stirring it until it wouldn’t dissolve any more, until the water was almost crunchy sweet.
At night, walking home along the highway in the dark, Helen told Jane about her father, about how he was gone, and it was good that he was gone. She talked about how angry she got, when he tried to call her, tried to act like he was just a regular dad, like he hadn’t hurt Helen’s mother.
Jane could hear that Helen was crying, but she knew the difference. These weren’t weakness tears, they were anger tears.
"Fuck him. He sounds like an asshole," Jane said. Because what else can you say? The highway passed along the water, and Jane pointed down to the shore. "Come on," she said. And they climbed down to the water, and together they lifted the biggest rock they could, and threw it into the dark. The splash was so satisfying. The weight in their arms was satisfying. Helen picked up another big rock by herself and threw it in. They lifted rocks even after their muscles were burning from strain and exhaustion.
"This feels good," Helen said. "Why does this feel so good?"
"Who cares?" Jane said. She picked up another rock. A light turned on across the highway, and a woman came out on her porch and shouted at them.
"What the fuck are you doing? Do you know what time it is?"
Neither Helen nor Jane were very good at chess. They joined the chess club anyway, though. It was Helen’s idea.
"One day," she said. "We’re going to be criminals. And let’s face it. We’re too smart to just be regular thugs. We’re going to be criminal masterminds and criminal masterminds play chess. Or that Chinese game, Go."
But there wasn’t a Go club. So they bought a book about chess, and played against each other until they were relatively certain that they knew the rules. Then they joined the chess club. It met Wednesday at lunch, in Mr. Gallagher’s room. They were the only girls.
The teacher chose partners for everyone, otherwise they just would have played against each other.
"Do you have a boyfriend?" Jane’s first opponent asked her. He had a t-shirt with a giant turtle on the front, and his name was Andy. Jane couldn’t hear what Helen was saying, over at the next table. "It’s so cool that you play chess," Andy said.
"I’d like to apologize ahead of time," Jane said, "for the brutal beating I’m about to put you through."
"Oh yeah?" Andy laughed.
"Does insurance cover chess related injuries?" Jane asked.
They played four games, and Jane lost every one of them. The whole time, she berated Andy with trash talk, accusing him of cheating, of being the product of an incestuous family, of not eating right. Afterward they shook hands, and Andy was still smiling.
"It’s so cool that you play chess," he said again.
In the hallway, Helen was waiting for her.
"What a stupid game," Helen said.
"I don’t think we have to really learn it anyway," Jane told her. "We just have to have a chess board, and when they see it, everyone will say, "Oh my god, they play chess and they’re girls? They’re not just criminals! They must be criminal masterminds!"
It was the Halloween dance. They were both dressed as male FBI agents. Jane’s hair was pulled back in a pony tail. No makeup. She wore an ill-fitting suit that she borrowed from her brother. The jacket looked silly over her breasts unless it was closed, and the pants were way too long and had to be rolled up at the ankles. Her father had printed out an FBI badge for her, and safety-pinned it on her lapel. It fluttered in the slightest breeze, flimsy and fake.
Helen, of course, looked just right. She bound her breasts with big bandages, to hold them flat under her suit. And it was her suit, not borrowed. She bought it used, with her own money, so she could bloody it, and tear it. There was a bullet hole in the shoulder, where she told people her partner shot her. Her hair was cut short. Her FBI identification badge was laminated, with a little picture of herself in there.
"Look at her," Jane thought to herself when she first saw Helen. She did her jacket up so that her breasts didn’t look stupid. Then she snuck up behind Helen in line.
"The truth is out there," she whispered.
Both girls had fake guns with the orange tips painted black. Before the dance had even officially started they were blocks away, standing in the middle of the road, pointing those guns at one another and shouting one-liners. It was a stand-off. Traffic stalled in both directions while Helen and Jane shouted at one another and waved their plastic guns.
"You think you can cover everything up?!" Helen yelled. "Too many people have seen what happened here. Too many people know your secrets. You can’t kill all of them."
"Of course I can," shouted Jane. "Haven’t you figured that out yet? There is no such thing as too many people. We’re everywhere."
The police found them ten minutes later. It was the first time either of them had been handcuffed. It was the first time anyone had ever pointed a real gun at them. In the back seat of the police cruiser, they stole glances at each other while the police examined the shattered toy guns. It was like being in a television show. Jane struggled against her cuffs.
"You boys bit off more than you can chew tonight," she said. Helen nodded.
"We’re FBI," she confirmed. "And you are interfering with a serious investigation."