Girl_2

File_03

The Richmond Youth Center was a small, nondescript building in the very center of the city. Sat at the very end of the block, it was right by the intersection of Brooke Street and Paddy Avenue, where traffic roared even in the early evening.

As her sleek black Land Raider sedan pulled into the center's parking lot, Zoe's eyes were pulled from the busy street by the low vibration of the smartphone she was holding gingerly in her lap. She'd been fielding texts from Gabbie all afternoon. They alternated from "Wish you were here" texts, since Gabbie had yet another big deal music video premiere to watch today, to "Kay's an idiot!" texts.

Earlier on, at lunch, Zoe had given Gabbie the whole play-by-play of her confrontation with Kay in the Journalism club room the day before.

She'd mulled over her situation as she stirred a low-fat soy yogurt cup. St. Augustus might have been a traditional school in most regards, but the board had instituted a healthy food policy that had resulted in a lot of clandestine lunches brought from home.

Zoe, found it too much of a hassle to smuggle food into the lunchroom, so she made do with what was available. Today, though, as she'd recounted the story, the soy yogurt tasted extra bland.

"I don't think it's okay for people to agree that we're all going to discuss something together at a specific time, and then change the rules at the last second," Zoe explained.

"Obviously!" Gabbie agreed as she took tiny nibble after nibble out of her full-fat grilled cheese sandwich. She'd cloaked it in the signature paper all of the sandwiches from the school cafe came in. All of those sandwiches, as far as Zoe knew, barely contained any actual bread unless it was non-GMO, gluten-free slices that the nuns who conducted lunch service claimed were "rye".

It was an acquired taste, one of the nuns had once told her. It was one that Zoe was yet to acquire.

"Kay is always so selfish," Gabbie said. "I mean, your dad and my dad probably know some guy at the zoo, but we didn't play any dirty tricks."

"I know," Zoe agreed. "The worst part was that I still didn't get it, even after I confronted her."

Zoe sighed. "She'll probably get front page too."

With the team's only photographer and a bevy of cute animals at her disposal, it was practically guaranteed.

"No way, Zo-se," Gabbie said, laughing at her own joke. A string of gooey cheese flew out of her sandwich and landed on the table. With warp speed, Gabbie quickly grabbed it up in a napkin and hid it under her tray. A boy sitting at the table next to theirs glanced longingly at the wadded up piece of paper before returning to his fresh kale salad.

"Don't think about whatever Kay's up to too much. She's just stuck-up, and I mean more stuck up than normal for this place," Gabbie said seriously. "But she doesn't have an original bone in her body.

"She probably just wanted the gig because you did first," she continued.

"Really?" Zoe had asked thoughtfully, her heart swelling with pride at her 'originality'.

Now that Albertus, the Kingsley family's middle-aged driver who was constantly looking for ways to cover his bald spot, was giving her a quizzical look after surveying the property, she didn't feel so positive.

"Ms. Zoe, do you want me to come in with you?" he said as his gaze landed on a teenage boy with unruly blonde hair who had a large utility knife handle sticking out of a pocket in his long slung jean shorts.

"No, I'll be fine," Zoe said quietly, trying to keep her gaze away from the boy. She unbuckled her belt and exited the car quickly, her hands clamming up as she approached the building. The youth center was a single storey high. It looked out of place next to a large laundromat and three-story office building.

The boy Albertus had been staring at sneered at somebody inside the center before turning on a dime, right in Zoe's direction.

He smiled widely, revealing dagger like teeth. Zoe felt her breath catch as he stared her down.

Right before his eyes went elsewhere.

A strong hand gripped at Zoe's left shoulder, and she looked up to find Albertus' tall, burly shape at her side.

"Do we have a problem?" he said as clearly as his heavy Moldovan accent would allow.

The boy casually put his hands in his pocket and leaned against the center's door-frame before he spoke. "Iunno. You tell me."

Before Zoe could high tail it behind Albertus, a short, stout man burst through the center's double doors, forcing the boy to jump to the side to avoid getting clocked in the face.

Behind him were two men in uniform of about the same height and frame as Albertus. They looked at the boy with a sense of weary disdain, as if they had seen it all before.

"Kane, what have I told you about hanging around here?" the short man said, his voice was quiet, entirely mistakable for a low hum, but the power behind it surprised Zoe. The boy -Kane-, kept his cool, sauntering away from the doors and almost grazing Zoe as he walked off. Just as he was about to pass, Albertus pulled her back, glaring at the boy before turning Zoe around.

"You can only come in here if you're serious about changing your ways," the man continued as the boy walked away. Kane never looked back or sped up above a leisurely base.

"Your parole officer has been asking for you!" the man tried. Again, there was no response. Finally, when the boy had reached the edge of the driveway, he raised his hand to give them all a familiar, if unpleasant, signoff. The short man sighed loudly and shooed the two large men away.

Albertus leaned down to Zoe's level as he examined the three men. "I'm sorry, Ms. Zoe, I think we're going to have to leave this be."

"No, no!" the short man said, clapping his hands together with a smile. "I'm so glad you came. You're from St. Augustus' high school, aren't you?"

"Uh-huh," Zoe said quietly, still a bit shaken by the incident.

"Come in, come in!" he said happily. As if he hadn't just warded off the early afternoon equivalent of a savage murderer.

Albertus stood firmly by the door, and he had an even firmer grip on Zoe's shoulders, but as the man's smile grew wider and more pleading, Zoe felt his grip loosen.

She escaped as soon as she could and slipped past the short man before she lost her nerve.

Inside was a large, open-plan play area with a variety of table-top games set up. There was air-hockey, a foosball table, and a ping pong table along side it. In one of the corners was a large bookshelf, and a young girl was sitting in the center of a circle of other kids, reading them a story.

The wall farthest from where Zoe was standing housed a computer bank, where lots of kid's crowded, trying to get a view of whatever was on the four computer screens.

The kids inside seemed to be buried in their activities, barely looking at the girl in a uniform or her large, minder in a three-piece-suit. Some kids were younger than Zoe, but most were older. A few adults were moving throughout the crowd, keeping things in line. The two large men in uniform stood at either side of the room, completely immobile as they watched the days events.

One little boy walked up to the brunette man and blew a raspberry at him, laughing at his lack of response. As soon as the boy's back was turned, the man blew a loud, booming raspberry right back at him, then he was back in formation at warp speed. The boy turned around, confused as to what had happened.

"I'm Warwick Greene, head of the Richmond Youth Center," he explained as he escorted them to his office. Behind the open plan space were rows and rows of rooms, with small windows atop so you could see what was going on inside.

In one, kids sat at evenly spaced desks, studying quietly. In another, a group of kids was sitting in a circle. A woman with a large afro sat at the end of the room, listening intently as one of them spoke.

"I swear we don't always have mysterious stragglers casing our doors."

There were a lot of words Zoe would have used for the creepy teenage boy from earlier, but mysterious was not one of them.

"I actually went to St. Augustus all through elementary and lower school," he said as he opened the door at the very end of the corridor.

"Really?" Albertus asked, his tone confused. Zoe had asked the same question in her head, but was afraid voicing it would make her sound rude or stuck-up.

The previous night her father had commended her for sticking to the story, even if it wasn't her first choice. She didn't want to end up making a mistake by saying something that made her sound immature.

"I'm glad you're taking this so seriously, Zo," he said at dinner, which was practically the only time she ever saw her father every day. "It's nice to see you take steps towards your future."

"I hope you don't get into any more scraps with this Kay girl though," he continued in a warning tone. Zoe sighed loudly, but eventually gave in and nodded. "Donnell, you said? Ashleigh and Ted's daughter?"

Zoe had nodded absentmindedly as she rolled her peas from one side of the plate to the other.

"I never trusted that family," he said with a conspiratorial smile. "Ted's always cheating at golf."

That had made them both laugh.

She wasn't sure her father would be laughing when Albertus told him about the little confrontation they'd had outside.

"I was a scholarship kid," Mr. Greene explained. "But the grant I was on stopped at upper school. Attended regular public school after that."

"My time there afforded me a lot of opportunities," he continued, a dreamy look in his eyes. "But I wanted to stay close to home, give back to the community."

Albertus wrinkled his nose and narrowed his eyes, clearly not buying the story. It deflated the sense of wonder Zoe had felt at listening to Mr. Greene speak.

At least to her, he didn't seem dishonest.

"Now, you're here to ask questions about our upcoming 50th Anniversary?" Mr. Greene asked with a large smile, his green eyes crinkling at the sides.

"That's right," Zoe said. She, very professionally, turned off her phone and put it in the side pocket of her blazer, then pulled her recorder from the same pocket and set it on the table. Her father had gotten it for her the week she'd joined Journalism Club.

The interview went well, despite the bemused audience of one sitting pretty beside her with a sly, proud smile. She'd rehearsed all of her questions with Gabbie over lunch after they'd finished their Kay 'download and downvote', so she would have to constantly be looking down at a sheet of questions.

Mr. Greene was nice and kind, and he spoke lovingly of the center. He explained exactly what the center did; providing somewhere for low-incode kids to go after school so they wouldn't be alone at home. They also had lots of quiet spaces to study and do homework, as well as providing counseling for at-risk minors.

He'd taken over three years ago, after the previous chairman had resigned, but he'd been working there on and off for years on end.

"In fact, I was right here when the Spiked Sphere incident happened," he said suddenly, as if he'd jumped off one history to the next.

"Spiked... Sphere?" Albertus asked curiously, the way he always did when he came upon an English phrase that he'd never encountered before.

"Twelve years ago," Mr. Greene said excitedly, turning to Zoe. "You must have been a baby back then. A toddler, maybe."

"What about-" Zoe started, a bit embarrassed at the image of herself in a cornflower blue camel-themed onesie, falling over her own feet. She wanted to get the interview back on track. They still hadn't talked about the 50th Anniversary festivities in detail, and time was running out.

"Spiked Sphere?" Albertus repeated, rolling the words over on his tongue as he tried to get used to them in that order. "What is that?"

"I was standing right here," Mr. Greene said, jumping up from his desk and practically sliding to the window.

He started pointing out spaces in the room. "We were discussing the that year's basketball tournament. Mr. Kirk, the last chairperson, was sitting at his desk. Meghan, oh Meghan, from the Dispatch-Post, she was here covering our outreach efforts. She was standing right here."

"First, the lights went out, and then the phones went silent," he explained. "All the lights just... disappeared."

"The Girl_2," Albertus said quickly, his breath catching. His face hardened and his eyes gained a faraway gloss.

Zoe had heard of the Girl_2 phenomenon, but was largely uninterested in it. However, she knew that when adults mentioned the Girl_2 phenomenon, they could spend all day droning on and on about it.

As far as she knew, all that had happened was that all digital devices had gone kaput for 15 minutes, including most of the electric grid and any cars with digital watch or basic memory capabilities. She had no idea what was so interesting about it, aside from it had been caused by a supposedly sophisticated computer virus.

But nowadays, they had phishing and ghosting to worry about, and anti-virus software was a million times better than it had been. Girl_2 was practically ancient history.

There was no reason to worry anymore.

Mr. Greene pointed outside, his hand moving with an unmistakable fervor. "The Spiked Sphere appeared right there, in the middle of the road."

"At first, it was like a speck, but then it grew and grew until it was swallowing all the cars in the area. It was like a solid, angry rainbow."

"We all came to the window first, and Meghan tried to take a picture of it with her new camera phone, but it had gone dead just like everyone else."

The room was silent as he recounted his tale, except for Albertus' enthusiastic but solemn 'hmm', spurring Mr. Greene on.

"All the kids were pouring outside, so we did too. Everybody could see it. Everybody agrees that it was there. For fifteen good minutes, I know it."

Zoe cocked her head to the side, trying to understand why Mr. Greene was making such a point of having seen it.

Then it hit her all at once; he was describing some type of technicolor disco ball in the middle of the road.

The sensation seemed to reach Albertus too, because his eyes suddenly regained life and he gave Zoe a sidelong glance.

"I think we should go," he said suddenly, grabbing Zoe's tape recorder off the table in one hand and Zoe's upper arm in another. In all honesty, Zoe didn't need to be told twice. She stood almost straight up and followed diligently.

"Wait! Wait!" Mr. Greene said, his face growing red. His little lark had clearly just come into focus for him too. "I'm sorry, I got so caught up in the story. Let's get back to the interview."

"No, we're sorry for..." Albertus said as he let go of Zoe's hand to grip the door. His eyes moved around the room, as if he were thinking of an excuse. "Intruding."

And with that, Zoe and Albertus left the Richmond Youth Center and never looked back.

Until they had to, of course.