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Chapter 1

What’s Real Is What’s Real

“You’re not a real boy. You know that.”

I glanced at the kid sitting next to me, gauging his reaction. He might seem real to most people, because he's good, but I wasn’t fooled. Let me tell you how I know, starting with a description. You’ll need that to understand.

Cam has long hands and narrow feet, with strong legs, like a lot of fourteen-year-olds. Brilliant blue eyes, too, the sort girls fall into because they’re so clear. He even looks and acts like a real boy. But he’s not real. I’ve come to know him too well to believe that.

He looked at me and grinned. His expression was bright and open, the honest look of an ordinary boy. When I was a kid, I was a choirboy back in Casper. St. Anthony’s. I had to put that innocent look on my face every Sunday, and that’s how I know. That grin was part of his disguise.

I smiled back, casually suggesting, “Let’s go have some lunch.” The back gate approach. Catch him off guard. At the same time, I slapped him on the knee with the back of my hand, a friendly gesture, but stupid on my part. It was that tear in his jeans, the one I knew was there. Pain shot through my finger, reminding me of my torn fingernail, and I jerked my arm away. Then I laughed and stood, only to find myself biting at the fingernail.

Now, you probably think there’s nothing odd about what happened, and you’d be right, if this was anything but a Center kid. The thing is, there was nothing odd about what happened, and that’s what was odd. Any other kid, and he’d jerk his knee sideways, grab my arm, something. This one just laughed it off. Anyway, I was a little put out by the rip in his pants, but mostly because my nail stung, and I was giving the pants the blame.

By then, actual hunger pangs had kicked in. I glanced at him to see him still on the bench. I looked away, deciding on how long to wait on his response. I knew he hadn’t eaten all morning; he’d been with me the entire time. Maybe today I’d learn the real truth. He didn’t require food. He was made out of aerated titanium and woven glass instead of bone and tissue, with a fusion heart instead of beating muscle. Maybe his brain really did operate on a nano scale with chips and processors. It couldn’t be only my imagination that his eyes glowed brighter than humanly possible when reaching a new level on his favorite video game, could it?

See what I mean about needing his description? You have to know what he looks like to understand what’s got my suspicions up. He looks normal, okay, but that’s only most of the time. Other times, well, that’s what I’m trying to get across to you.

I was distracted when the park bench made a noise. That caught my attention, because it hadn’t done that when I stood, and I’m a good forty pounds heavier than he should be. Maybe he really was all machine under that skin. If you think about it, that’s the only explanation. All that machinery to run those high-speed processors has to weigh a ton.


His question broke my concentration. I turned, and there he was next to me, his wallet out, like he’d stood and then was there, instantly, without taking the time to move. Then there was the wallet, polished, woven stainless steel mesh, of course, as if leather was foreign to the touch, and he couldn’t bear to think about it next to his skin. When he saw my disbelieving look—I knew he didn’t have an allowance living at the Center—he pulled out two twenties.

“I’ve been mowing yards. I get repeat business. I’m fast, and I do the yards exactly the same every time. People like that.” He gave one of those half grins, one side of his face pulling up. His eye even had this twinkle, a real-to-life sparkle like you see only in the movies. It looked normal, ordinary, even—the grin, at least—but it struck me as more. Studied, even, like it was meant to look ordinary.

See? You have to know what Cam looks like, or all this makes no sense at all. Now, you might call me paranoid, but this next thing is proof positive of my theory that Cam can’t be a real boy. I reached for the bills, only to have him pull them away. I lunged, and he gave in. I watched him slow down and let me grab them. It was that small amount of hesitation that real humans aren’t capable of just as I drew close that gave it away. What real person can do that, and especially a fourteen-year-old? If I hadn’t been looking, I’d have missed it, but I was looking now. For all sorts of things I was looking, and I was finding it, proof that he was something besides a real kid.

Heck, I know how this sounds, even to me. Ridiculous, right? Artificial kids? Like, how would they do that? Cloning? Gene-splicing and perhaps a bit of surgery? Maybe a helium nuclear fuel cell that could power the kid’s energy needs for at least a century? Let’s pull out the cloned heart and stick this fuel cell in. He’ll never need food again.

Was I a nut or what?

Now, I don’t get to Mass as often as my mom wishes. I get the willies seeing confessionals, thinking of bleeding my sins, real and imagined, to a man I can’t see, but I do go now and then, and there’s something that bothers me. What does it mean if Cam was made in a laboratory? Would he even have a soul? Could he? I get the chills thinking about that.

Am I getting across why this is important to me? Everybody deserves a shot at heaven, and if the kid can’t confess—and I’m pretty sure computers aren’t welcome in the confessionals at Sacred Heart, even if they can walk and talk and have blue eyes—I don’t want to think about what that means.

Holding that money, I felt foolish, because I really liked the kid. And he seemed to enjoy spending time with me. I guessed he did, anyway. He kept coming to our Saturday games, and that must mean something. I chuckled to cover a flush of embarrassment, and I said, “Sure, you can pay. You charge forty for one yard?”

I held the bills out to him.

“I don’t charge them. If they like my work, they give me money. Why would I charge them? I don’t need the money.” He slipped the money and his wallet back into his jeans, and he knelt to tie his shoe.

I recognized what he was doing. He was refusing to look at me. Maybe he realized I’d finally seen through his thinly-veiled charade, and he couldn’t face me any longer. He knew if he did, I’d see the machine-boy in his eyes. His cover’d be blown, and he’d have to be dismantled so all his individual parts could be recycled into other robot boys. That was funny and yet disturbing in a bizarrely scientific sort of way. After all, think about it. That’s what they do with outdated computers and other sorts of machines.

“You don’t need the money.” I had to laugh at him, so intent on tying his shoes, but I wasn’t laughing inside. It was the feeling that I was being handed yet another proof that Cam couldn’t be a real boy. Real boys always need money. Then I shook my head. He wouldn’t have suggested pizza if he had fusion power cells inside, now would he? Only real boys needed to eat.

“Well,” and he looked up with a teasing grin, like he was back in real-boy mode; and he stood and punched me on the shoulder, dancing like Ali sparring in the ring. “Only if you let me pay for the pizza. I might need money for that.”

I laughed. It was only later that I realized it was exactly what he intended. Maybe it was me getting light headed, because we took off to Snarky’s Pizza, and I let it go. It didn’t matter, anyway. I was hungry, and he was paying. That was enough for the time being. If I still felt like it, I could figure out the rest later.

Chapter 2

Home Sweet Home

The Center for Innovative Software Specialization and Intellectual Enhancement, or CISSIE, had been the butt of Denver’s standup crowd for years. Of course, there was nowhere in the Center’s charter or paperwork that the acronym CISSIE showed up, but the letters plastered across the side of the campus, the ones backlit in red LEDs, telling everyone on the distant highway that only the most esoteric and brilliant work went on here, were spaced in such a way that at a glance, only the uppercase letters C-I-S-S-I-E were easily visible at a quarter mile. Then, the human mind twisted the acronym, and it was history. SISSY.

No one knew just what went on inside the huge, ultra-modern facility. The walls were glass, clear in places, and frosted or mirrored in others. Massive beams jutted out at the most inexplicable angles, and it seemed the architects had left their plumb lines at home the day they designed the complex.

Inside, there were vast corridors with doors that were always closed, and visitors rarely met the employees. After all, to get any place in the complex, any place where any real work was done, required badges, thumbprint identification, and retinal scanners. Visitors were certainly welcome, and schools sent their students on field trips to the Center all the time, but they had to be content with the stunning architecture, the cafeteria with its glass tables and high-tech food service lines, and the elaborate landscaping visible from every window. Most views even included original fountains and modern sculptures commissioned just for the Center’s grounds.

Those areas behind the closed doors and the retinal scanners were just as bright and beautiful. The ceilings were tall with skylights that let in the sun. The floors were polished, and noise-canceling software kept the spaces hushed even as work was being done. Through a series of glass doors, lights flickered on banks of computer servers. There was no cloud processing done here. The research the Center did was totally proprietary, and nothing left the premises. Even the backup systems were all in-house, buried in basements that were sunk deep into the hillside.

One set of glass doors was labeled Dorms. No one was going in or out at the present. Down the long hallway, there were rows of doors on each side, each one made of glass with a name etched into its surface. Inside could be seen a white leather lounger, looking rather like a dentist’s chair, and little else. There were closed cabinets lining the back wall of each compartment.

The fourteenth door had a familiar name on it. Camden Archer. It wasn’t what most people expected as a home for orphaned children, but then Cam wasn’t exactly orphaned, not in the way the good citizens of Denver believed.

Chapter 3

When Rain Falls, Everyone Gets Wet

The pizza place was closed, of course. The sign said Snarky was out of town, but the place was a dive. I suspected the health department had been by for a visit. More than once I’d gotten dirty napkins, but the pepperonis were spicy, and no one could beat Snarky’s price.

“So,” and I grabbed Cam by the neck. His skin was warm, and as I squeezed, I felt for high-tension cables instead of tendons, and for servo-motors moving his head from side to side. All I could find were muscles that felt very real around a neck that didn’t seem mechanical at all. I let him go with a push. Then, just for a joke, I teased, “You want to skip food for today? We can find something else to do.”

I watched him, fighting a smile. Would he say, sure, let’s see a movie, instead? I can catch a meal next week or next month. What good’s food to a fusion-powered body? He might laugh, but it might be the truth.

“There’s your place. We can get a sandwich there. You had a couple cans of root beer last time I was over, that and we picked up some ice cream on the way. Remember? I’ll pay, if you want.” He ran his finger over the closed sign, tracing the words, as if he didn’t want to look when I gave him my answer.

Didn’t he trust me? Or was this a test of his own?

“And you ate everything. Do you remember that? The best I can do is maybe rustle up a sandwich or two.”

I pressed my fist against his shoulder, pushing him, like I was giving him a punch in the ring. A prize fighter, maybe, like Ali, the best ever by anyone’s measure. Then I let my fist slide off. I waited, daring Cam to call my bluff.

“We don’t have to. I mean . . .” His voice trailed off. He looked at me, then away again.

“Sure,” I said. “My house, my food, my money. I’ll expect you to treat next time.” Hesitation? From Cam? I felt bad for teasing him.

There was that smile again, breaking across his face, spontaneous, just like a real boy’s, as if he wanted to spend time with me, even without the root beer and ice cream. Well, I guess if I were an orphan, I’d find an adult to latch onto, also. It’d make me feel better about my situation. If he were picking me, I guess anyone would do, too. Don’t know what I had to offer, but he was welcome to it.

Then a siren sounded in the distance, high and lonely, insistent and forlorn at the same time. I glanced down the street but didn’t see anything. Cam had a puzzled expression on his face, and then it cleared. As it did, the siren shut off, and it was quiet.


He kicked at an empty can on the street, leaping at it, his arms out like a ninja warrior. That rip in his pants caught my eye. He was ignoring me.

“Cam, what do you know about that siren?”

“It’s cool. Everybody’s okay.” He hit the bill of my cap, knocking it off my head and catching it in the same motion. I never saw his hand move until he held the cap out to me.

There it was again, more proof. First the money, and now my cap. I reached and took it from him, putting it back on my head. I don’t know why it mattered to me so much. I wasn’t raising the kid. Weekend a while back, shooting hoops at the park, I happened to see him and recognized him from one of my classes. We hung out on the courts and bumped fists when it was over. After that, he showed up again at the park a couple weeks later, then every weekend. I didn’t mind. I liked his company, that and to kick his backside at video games a couple times when he stopped by my apartment afterwards. However, real parenting of a fourteen-year-old? That was for suckers dragged down by responsibility.

Single was better, and I was living proof of that, but that’s beside the point. It was spending time with him that was giving me the opportunity to figure out that this kid at my side couldn’t be real. Are you getting the big picture, yet? Do you see what I mean?

Then he punched me on the shoulder with his fist. “You need mustard. We’ll pick up some on the way. We’d better hurry if we don’t want to get wet.”

How did he know I needed mustard? I didn’t even know I needed mustard. Like I’ve said a million times, or at least twenty, there’s no way he’s a real boy.

Just then there was a crack of thunder, and the sky opened up. I began to run. Cam just laughed; his hair was plastered to his head. It seemed we had no choice but to get wet. We were already soaked.

Chapter 4

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

Thank the lucky stars my apartment has two bathrooms. Oh, one isn’t really mine, but it might as well be. My neighbor, that’s Mrs. Osgood, locked herself in her apartment one Sunday, and since the building is an old mansion from two centuries ago, it’s been chopped up so many times that each of the original rooms is now several rooms. Well, I have a door I never had a key for, and we found out it opened into Mrs. Osgood’s bathroom. Odd, but handy. I picked the lock, and now she lets me use it when I have guests over.

The rain never let up. Instead, it got worse. I do have a car, but of course I’d left it at home, so we just had a good time getting wetter and wetter. We found puddles to jump in, and at one point Cam stood under a downspout letting the runoff hit him in the head until he nearly disappeared in the shower. I half hoped sparks would shoot out, because that would prove my theory, but he exploded out of the flood, laughing, and jumped on me, shaking his head from side to side to make sure all the water in his hair landed in my face. I just turned him upside down and carried him back to the downspout, letting the water hit him from the other end. Fourteens love stuff like that, the roughhousing thing. Of course, I got it, too, but as I was already soaked, it didn’t really matter much. And we got a good laugh out of it.

I don’t have a mop, so before going inside, Cam and I stripped most of our clothes off. We wrung them out as best we could in the rain, tossing them through the door into a pile in the hallway. If I had any neighbors watching, they’d probably think we’d been to the beach or something, except the nearest beach is nine hundred miles away, and that’s only if you’re a bird that can fly over the mountains. We didn’t care what they thought. Cam and I were so hyped up on the rain, and with just being stupid, that if we saw Mrs. Osgood running around outside, we’d just laugh, and she’s nearing eighty! Cam’s met my neighbor, and he says she’s a nifty old lady, but of course, being Cam, he was much politer about it.

I do have a washer, one of those two-in-one jobs, the kind where you wash one towel, then you put it in the little dryer on top and let it heat up the apartment while the towel tries to get dry. Well, when Cam and I got inside, you can imagine the two of us in soaked boxers, holding dripping clothes. I pointed him to my bathroom, and I headed to Mrs. Osgood’s. Only thing, Mrs. Osgood didn’t do her washing, so I had no towel. Still, I did have hot water, and I was warm when I got out. Last night’s towel was still in the dryer, and when I went down the hall to get it, I could hear Cam in the shower. I knocked on the door, yelling out that I’d leave him a towel on the knob, so don’t hurry. I only have the one, so I dried my hair, patted the rest of me, and slipped a pair of jeans on. Then I opened the bath door and hung the damp towel on the knob as I’d promised. The water was loud, and I think Cam was supposed to be singing, but it was more of a howl than a melody, so maybe the water was too hot, and he was in pain. I glanced at him. The curtain is patterned, but as far as I could tell, his legs were real legs, not mechanical pistons or articulated metal stalks like in War of the Worlds. The curtain is only about shoulder height, and he was rinsing his hair. I called to him, and he pushed his hair out of his face and waved.

“Towel’s on the door, Cam. Damp, but I’ve only got the one. Sorry.” I made a face that I thought would make him laugh. It did.

“I’m good. Thanks. We never did get mustard.” He stuck his head back under the water. With shampoo running down his face, he called out, “I found your mothballs. They stink. I put them on the floor,” and the singing started up again.

There they were, a science experiment I was working on called Foaming Mothballs. They were supposed to rise and fall on air bubbles in a jar of water if I mixed in baking soda and vinegar, but I think I got the wrong kind. All they did was smell like something died, and I’d forgotten about them.

I shook my head and picked them up, and I stepped outside and closed the door. I wondered if Mrs. Osgood used mustard. She might. She was gone to her brother’s for the rest of the month, but she wouldn’t mind if I looked. Not after I saved her life. I cut through her bathroom, which was the easy part, because I don’t think Mrs. Osgood has thrown anything out since she moved in, and that must have been forty years ago, at least. On the way through, I flushed the mothballs down, glad to see them gone. That was an experiment I wished I’d never started. To get to the kitchen, I walked over forty years of clothes and newspapers, but I guess I was lucky. She hadn’t thrown out her old mustard, either. There were maybe ten jars, and since mustard doesn’t spoil, Cam and I would have plenty on our sandwiches.

He was at the kitchen table when I got back. His hair was sticking up on end, and water was running down his neck. He had the towel around his waist, and he was peeling a very brown banana I’d forgotten to throw out. It was something only a real boy would do, eat an old banana, when food was on the way.

“Cam, mustard!” I tossed it to him, and he caught it without looking. “You want sandwiches now, or do you want to take care of the towel thing?” I pointed. It was tucked at the waist, but barely. A sudden move, and it would be gone.

“Food.” He worked in the top of the towel tighter. “Where’d the mustard come from?”

“Mrs. Osgood. There’s more where that came from, too.” I didn’t expect we’d need it, since he was here just for the day, but it was nice to know there was plenty. He could eat all he wanted.

“Her brother’s, again?” He was chewing the banana. Somehow he’d managed to eat around the really brown spots. “She’s a good neighbor. She really likes you.”

Really likes me? Where’d he get that from? All I did was save her life that one time, and now I use her bathroom when she’s gone, and well, sometimes when I have company, like today.

We prepared our sandwiches. Cam ate two, like a normal boy would. I found him a pair of my clean boxers, and I tossed the towel in the washer. We sat around and played Gods of War and Warcraft, switching out one for the other when one of us got too far ahead, all the while listening for the rain to stop. It never did, just got harder and harder, with thunder rattling the windows. A real frog strangler. That and with Cam there, I decided I was skipping Saturday evening Mass. When I do go, that’s the service I choose. I like to sleep in on Sundays.

Later, about ten, Cam asked if he could stay the night. We have to call the Center, I told him. He said they wouldn’t care since it was the weekend, but I said I wanted to hear them say that. I got a pleasant woman on the phone, and she said, “Oh, so you’re Camden’s friend. We do like for our children to make friends outside of the Center. It helps them acclimate to the real world. We’ll make a note that he’s with you for the rest of the weekend.”

She never did ask my name. That, and when I picked up Cam in the rain, he was really heavy for a skinny kid. However, I didn’t think of that until the next morning. I had to rustle up an old blanket for Cam to use on the sofa, and I let him use one of my pillows, the one with the freshest cover. I hadn’t changed the bed in several weeks, but I only slept on the pillows one at a time. I didn’t think he would mind, since his visit was a surprise.

Once the TV was off, Cam and I sat in the dark and talked for a long time, mostly about me. It was like he needed to know all about me. I was telling him things I didn’t even remember. Real things, just that I thought I’d forgotten them until he asked, then there they were all over again.

That was odd, too, but not at the time. Not until the next morning. It was just me and Cam, my little brother that I never had, sleeping over, as if he did it all the time. It was like he’d planned the whole thing. He couldn’t have, though, could he? Nah! While Cam might not be a real boy, even he couldn’t pull all that off, just to spend time with me.

And dang it, the entire visit he seemed just as real as a real boy could be. Still, I had to look at the bright side. Maybe he did have a shot at heaven after all.

Chapter 5

Sleep Tight till the Bedbugs Bite

There were eighteen doors altogether in the dorms at the Center, one for each of the orphans that called the Center home. It was night now, and the electrochromic glass in the doors was darkened, providing an element of privacy. They all glowed with a bluish light, except for number fourteen. Camden was away for the evening, and the door with his name etched into the glass was still clear.

The kids in their recliners were sleeping soundly, or at least anyone who happened into the dorms would think they were asleep. They were reclined, covered with identical blankets, but oddly enough, each child had a cap on, with wires running from the cap to the back of the chair. From the smallest child behind door number one to the tallest girl who slept behind door eighteen, all appeared to be at rest.

It was the bedbugs that were the problem. During the storm, lightning had struck the building holding the Center’s servers. Of course, lightning rods protected each of the campus’ buildings, and the servers were grounded. That would have protected the servers, except for the mower that had clipped one of the cables the week before. A work order had been turned in, but the welder scheduled to complete the repair was married, and his wife was due. She went into early labor, and the repair was delayed by a day.

Even then there would have been no problem, for there were backup servers, and backups for the backups. It’s just that a power surge—bedbugs—hit the compromised system just as the children were undergoing their routine, nightly updates. The updates only took a fraction of a second, as the Center had the most powerful computer processors money could buy, but that was exactly when the backup servers kicked in, and that was all it took. Seventeen children suffered bedbug bites, and they didn’t awaken the next morning, not as normal children, anyway.

The repairs would take a while, too. The children had to be normal, after all.

Chapter 6

One Plus One Equals One

I’m not much of a TV watcher. Really, I’m not, not since college, but missing last night’s service, I tried to catch the Archdiocese’s televised Mass at seven. It’s nice in Denver they do that. Keeps the faithful faithful. And being only thirty minutes, it doesn’t take up much of your day.

Might even keep me in the running for heaven, I chuckled, as I watched out of the corner of my eye.

Cam was on the sofa, his face buried in my pillow, and the blanket on the floor. I would’ve thought he was freezing, but when I felt his back, he was plenty warm. Still, I shook out the blanket and covered him. To give me something to look at besides Cam, I angled the set towards the table and turned the sound down low. I only get a couple stations, what with the free cable box, and after my program, all I had was the local news. Of course there was Snarky’s, and I was right. Rat turds in the storeroom. Heck, I’ve probably got rat turds in my refrigerator, but I still eat the food. Oh, well. Then they showed the dead woman from the park, the one I knew about from three days ago. They had a lead on her identity, but they didn’t say who. I started to tune out when the Center popped up on the screen. I glanced at Cam. He was on his back by then. He’d tossed the blanket off, and I stood to put it over him when the newscaster caught my attention.

“As you can see behind me, there’s all sorts of activity going on at Denver’s Center for Innovative Software Specialization and Intellectual Enhancement.”

The camera zoomed in on the name, and at the angle, all I could really make out was CISSIE. I grinned, even as I felt sorry for Cam. He was too nice a kid to be saddled with that. I looked more closely, and there were emergency vehicles—helicopters and the like—crowding into the picture. Then the camera zoomed out again, and the newscaster was back in the scene.

“We have no idea just what is taking place in this super-secretive location, but we do know this is approximately where the dorms for the Center-sponsored orphans are located.” A satellite shot of the campus appeared on the screen, and a red arrow pointed to one part of the image. “The storm that hit Denver last night damaged several area businesses, and it appears that the Center may have taken its share. There are reports of a lightning rod on the campus clipped by a mower several days ago. We don’t know as of yet if the two incidents are connected, but there is some concern for the welfare of the Center’s children, as the number of arriving emergency vehicles continues to grow. Wait.” She reached to her ear as if listening. Then she took a piece of paper from someone nearby. She read it before turning back to the camera. “We have received confirmation from the Center that one of the dorm residents was away for the evening. His name is Camden Archer. Camden, if you are listening, we wish you the best, and we hope that each of your housemates is able to welcome you home when you return.

“This is Stella Whittinger with ABC 7News from Denver.”

I looked at Cam and frowned, not really comprehending what she had said. Her mentioning Cam, though, bothered me. Like, that was where he lived, and if the storm had damaged the dorms—as suggested pretty plainly by the newscast—well, that was his home. What did that mean? Reaching to turn the TV off, I bumped a glass from the night before, and it fell over, spilling its contents. I grabbed a paper towel and began sopping it up. I set the glass up, hoping I hadn’t disturbed my visitor, but I could see him yawning. I glanced at the TV, glad to see it had gone on to another report, a house fire, or something.

“The news is on?” It was Cam. “I thought you never watched TV.” He yawned again and stretched. It was a real-boy thing, and I was sort of disappointed. I liked him as a robot or a cyborg better, with a mechanical pump for a heart and piston legs.

“Aren’t you cold?” The storm had dropped the temperature, and it was probably sixty in the apartment. I hadn’t really paid it much attention before, but I didn’t want to talk about the Center just yet. The cold was a safer topic.

“I never get cold, not at night, anyway.” Then he let out a screech and sat up. “Whew! That wakes me up! How about breakfast?” He grabbed the blanket and tossed it at me.

When I caught it, he grinned, like it was something we did all the time. A father and son thing, one of those simple and very ordinary actions that speak years of nuanced understandings, this time triggered by a toss of a blanket. Yeah, sure, that’s part of the fun having Cam around. We “get” each other. However, I like the whole relationship better as big brother, little brother. Then I can send him home when I’ve had enough.

His eyes twinkled. “I’ll take mustard on mine.”

I felt a sudden urge to tell him about the newscast, but he stood and was gone to the bathroom before I could get the words out of my mouth, leaping over the sofa in a burst of energy that I never feel so early in the morning.

He was still in my boxers, but I didn’t look at what he was wearing. What caught my eye instead were his bare shoulders flexing and his long legs pumping, flinging him over the sofa like Superboy leaping a tall building in a single bound. There was nothing mechanical about that, just real muscle and real skin stretched over real bone. Normal boy body parts on a normal body.

It was just Cam, my pretend little brother over for the night.

Once he was out of the room, I began to shake. Weird, I know. I don’t normally get the chills. Like Cam, I don’t get cold at night unless it’s close to freezing. Now, though, I wrapped the blanket around myself and wished I hadn’t turned the TV on at all. Stella Whittinger had made me responsible to tell Cam the news. I didn’t want to be responsible. I wanted to play basketball with him, beat him at Warcraft, maybe Gods of War a time or two, and send him home. I wasn’t a parent, and I had no desire to do the parenting thing.

Thank you, Stella, I thought bitterly. You’re going to make this all my fault. Then I thought about Cam. What if all those other kids were injured? What if he couldn’t go home to the Center? Was it that bad out there?

What if he needed a home, God forbid? Could I do it? Would I? A boy sleeping on my sofa every night?

Could I afford it, was more like it. I had no idea if two could really live as cheaply as one, but I knew one thing. I had no desire to find out.


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