She slipped into the alleyway and waited, trying not to be too nervous. True, she said five minutes, but it was mainly to make sure they weren’t seen going into the alley together. The windows were mostly darkened. Hopefully no one would see and report them. One window had a light on and was opened. Someone was humming inside, and her heart sank. There was going to be no privacy in this place. She also had to take into account they had the chips in their brains. Her heart sank. The chips. Were her friends singing right now? She did just randomly show up in their lives. It would give anyone a shock great enough to trigger a song.
There had to be a way she could tell them some things without telling them everything, just in case. This was already dangerous, and she was worried for her friends’ safety, but she was terrified of what would happen if the underground didn’t get this information.
It was closer to ten minutes when she saw her three friends enter the alleyway. As soon as they were deep enough, Billy ran to Marie and hugged her tightly, swinging her around in a circle.
“You’re alive! You survived the wall! You remember us! I can’t believe this! This is the best day ever!”
“Billy, shhh,” Marie said, pointing to the open window a few stories up.
Billy nodded as he finished his hug with an extra hard squeeze. As soon as Billy released her, Albert was there, hugging her tightly. Marie smiled, feeling her heart glow within her.
“I missed you,” he said, hugging her tight.
“I missed you too.”
He broke away, then saw the healing bruise on her face. “Are you okay? Who did that to you?”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it,” Marie said, moving on to hug Abe so Albert could drop the subject. Marie tried not to feel weird about hugging Abe’s abdomen.
“I swear you got taller,” Marie said, craning her neck to look up at him.
Abe smiled. “I think you just forgot how tall I am.”
“I have so much to tell you, but...” Marie again glanced around the alley way. It wasn’t nearly as secure as what she’d like it to be. She seemed to see more windows with lights on, some cracked open, others open all the way. It wasn’t safe here. Marie glanced at her three friends. “There’s so much to say. And so much not to say. I’m assuming you all still have chips in your head.”
Billy nodded emphatically. “It’s why we were a little late. We had to finish singing a song.”
Marie’s eyes widened. “Are… are you okay? Did you say anything?”
“Don’t worry, Marie. We found a loophole,” Billy said.
Marie glanced at the three of them. This was really good information to have. “Really?”
“The S.E.A. only records what you sing, not the lyrics the chip gives,” Albert said, his voice a whisper as he too looked around and saw the open windows. “So we just change some of the more suspicious sounding lyrics.”
Marie raised an eyebrow, impressed. “On the spot?”
The three of them nodded.
“That’s got to take a lot of skill,” Marie said.
“Albert and I have been memorizing the rhyming dictionary. Billy, on the other hand-” Abe pointed at Billy.
“I’ve been making up poems and songs since before I can remember. I just make up completely new lyrics on the spot!” He looked particularly pleased with himself. “I’ve been training for things like this my whole life! Just in case.”
Marie laughed quietly again. “Well, I’m glad you guys are safe. I… I was worried when I left.”
“We’ve given them no reason to suspect us,” Albert said.
Marie frowned, her voice dropping again. “Well, me coming back isn’t going to help at all.”
“Come back to our apartment and tell us what’s been going on,” Albert said. “It’ll be safer than here.”
Marie frowned. “Your… apartment?”
“Not too long after you left, President Arnold sent out another law. Everyone high school and up are in school sanctioned apartments,” Billy said.
With all the insanity happening in the clearings, she didn’t stop to think that Musical Land was probably getting its own share of insanity. “Really? Why?”
Abe shrugged. “He gives night time messages every night over the TV to us. Talks about how we need to be careful of suspicious people and radical ideas.”
“Gives us a hotline to call if you see anything suspicious. Tries to make himself more of a fatherly figure,” Albert said.
Marie once again glanced around the alley way. Call for suspicious activity, like a hobo talking to three high schoolers. “Let’s get to your apartment. It’s clearly not safe here.”
Billy nodded, then slipped off his backpack and handed it to Abe. He took off his blazer. “It’s not for a couple more blocks, so we’ll have to smuggle you in.” He draped his blazer over Marie’s shoulders, and Marie quickly put it on. Billy turned a critical eye on her before pointing at Albert’s tie. “Tie off, Albert. Her pants will work, but we should cover her shirt as much as possible. Looks like you haven’t been a hobo too long,” Billy said.
“No, I got here a few days ago,” Marie said.
“So you have been over the wall?” Billy asked quietly as Albert helped her get a tie on quickly over her neck.
“Yes,” Marie said as she straightened the tie.
Billy’s face turned serious as he studied her carefully. “Did you see Elvis Presley?”
With the stress of the situation, Marie couldn’t help but let out a laugh. “Oh, Billy. I missed you.”
His eyes shone with light. “I knew it. You’ve met him and you’re not allowed to say anything.”
Marie giggled again as Billy unzipped his backpack and searched through it. “I know I have it here somewhere,” he mumbled, before pulling out a hat. “Aha! Found it! Can you believe the drama department wanted to throw this old thing away?”
Billy helped Marie gather her hair up and placed an old newsboy cap on her. Marie made sure the final strands of hair were up in there.
“Well, what do you think? Can I pass for a boy to get into your apartment?” Marie asked her friends.
“You...” Abe started to say. He frowned before he started again, “You look...”
Albert shook his head. “Let’s be honest, Marie, there is no good answer we could give you to that question.”
Marie gave a small smile as she straightened her jacket that felt way too big on her. Billy came up to her and took her hand. “Marie, my dear friend, the way you look would make all the men question their sexuality, and all the women confirm theirs, and hilarity and blunder would ensue.”
Marie couldn’t help but give another laugh. Albert rolled his eyes. “I stand corrected. Billy has a correct response to that question.”
A familiar light burned in Billy’s eyes. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea.” He turned to Abe. “Do you think anyone’s tried to write a play like that? I feel like that is rife with possibilities.”
Abe held up a hand. “You’ve got to finish your tragedy for school first, Billy. Finish that, then you can move on to other projects. Besides, we’ve spent way too much time here. We’ve got to talk to Marie and get her back before our roommate returns.”
Billy gave a smile. “Yeah, you’re right. Come on, Marie, let’s go.”
They walked out of the alley way and Marie did her best to blend in.
“I mean, some of these stories are insane. Some people even claim to be abducted by aliens and have experiments done on them,” Billy said, picking the previous conversation back up as though nothing had happened.
Marie couldn’t help but smile to herself. She never thought she’d be such good friends with a genius. Billy could act so well. What with making up entire songs on the spot, he had to be one of the smartest guys she’d ever met.
“I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,” Albert said.
“You know, the logical explanation might just be that there are some aliens out there taking notes on our civilization before they invade.”
Albert couldn’t help but give a laugh. “Nonsense, Billy.”
“Yeah, because certain conspiracy theories simply couldn’t be true,” Billy said. Marie grinned, figuring Billy was making a veiled comment toward her and their current situation. “I’m just saying, it’s enough for a person to start wearing a tinfoil hat. Got to keep my mind sharp, away from the brainwashing.”
Marie smirked as she put her hands in her blazer pockets. “You know, a tinfoil hat wouldn’t protect you against brainwashing.”
Billy turned to her, cocking an eyebrow. “Of course it does! It messes with the alien readings.”
“Aluminum has been known to amplify certain radio frequencies, and I’m sure if aliens know what they’re doing, which they would if they’re smart enough to discover space travel, they’d know how to tune into those frequencies,” Marie said, trying to make her voice sound a little deeper as they passed a group of civilians.
They let the group pass before Albert started talking. “If anything, tinfoil hats would make it easier to brainwash people.”
“So there’s no hope?” Billy sounded so sad and pathetic Marie almost felt bad for squashing his hopes before she remembered he was talking about an alien invasion.
They turned another corner when Albert gave a shrug. “I’m sure if you want it to work, you’d probably have to ground it somehow, get wire from the aluminum and plug it into the wall. I don’t know. I doubt the few scientists have done studies on it because it’s a con-”
“Because the government have bought them off so they can work with the aliens to get better control over us,” Billy filled in for Albert.
Marie had to cover her mouth to stifle a laugh. Now that she was back with her friends, she missed these conversations.
Abe took out the keys and unlocked the door to the apartment building and they all filed inside.
Marie had to admit it was nicer than the apartment she and her dad used to live in. There was even an elevator. Albert hit the down button. "I thought you didn't believe in aliens."
Billy shrugged. "Sometimes the best way to understand the people who believe in aliens is to become a defender of the belief to the harshest of critics."
The doors opened with a soft ding and they walked inside. Billy whistled along to the peppy elevator music as they traveled up.
The elevator doors opened to a small entryway with two doors. Abe again opened the door on the left and held it open for everyone to get inside. The moment Albert shut the door, Marie gave a small sigh of relief.
“I’m glad nothing went wrong,” Marie said.
“Talking with you in the alleyway made us avoid the usual student rush to the apartments,” Albert said. “How’d you get to be a hobo?”
“Are you posing as one to get better intel?” Billy asked.
“Did you actually go over the wall? The agents told us you left,” Abe said.
“What were the woods like? Do they really reveal your deepest darkest fear and use it against you to drive you insane?” Billy asked.
Marie stared at Billy, blinking a few times. “I think the truth about the other side of the wall is going to disappoint you, Billy.”
There wasn’t the smallest hint of wavering to Billy’s smile. “We’ll see.”
They walked down the small entryway of the apartment before they came to the main part of the apartment. Marie took it in. It was small. It had a living room with some couches and a TV. There were three doors leading to what she assumed would be the bedrooms and a bathroom. There was a small tiled area that had a sink, a cupboard, and a fridge.
“Is this your kitchen?” Marie asked.
“Yeah. The school provides all three meals at the cafeteria. The fridge is if we have any leftovers,” Abe said.
“Oh,” Marie said. “But what about your parents? Do they visit you at all?”
“No, President Arnold only lets us visit them on the weekend,” Albert said. “Part of the law to help us stick with our studies,” Billy said.
Albert gestured to one of the couches. “Have a seat, Marie. Tell us everything.”
Marie took the seat, but still gave a frown. “That’s the thing. I’m not sure how much I can tell you, since all of you still have the chip. I think I should just tell you enough so you know what kind of situation I am, but not too much. Just in case.”
Abe sat down on the couch across from her. “Then tell us what you feel most comfortable telling.”
Billy and Albert joined Abe. Billy tried not to seem too excited, and Albert watched her carefully.
“All right,” she said. Her heart was heavy. She needed her friends, especially since she needed to find the underground, but giving them more information felt like she was handing over some dangerous equipment and hoping it wouldn't kill them.
She was careful what she said, and part of her still felt like she said too much. She didn’t tell them anything about the S.E.A.’s involvement with the hobo’s or how they’re wiping their memories. Subsequently, she kept the incident of the omnitocsil to herself. She did tell them about Josef and how he was evil. How if he took over President Arnold’s spot, it would be very bad for everyone and how she wanted to stop him. That was safe to tell them, because it would play into President Arnold’s narrative already.
“And now I need to find the underground to let them know Josef is bad, but I don’t know where they are. I’ve tried every place I know, but they’re not there.” Marie felt her stomach sink. What if the underground wasn’t there at all? Marie tried to hold on to hope. Josef was still communicating with them when she left, or at least he said he was.
“Wow,” Albert said.
“Yeah,” Abe said, staring off into the distance. “Wow.”
Billy was taking all this information in with a slow nod. “Fascinating.”
“I need your help. There’s only so many places a hobo can go without raising suspicion. I can’t use computers or go to campuses or hospitals or any of the sort. Hobos are being tracked. We’re all given watches that have some sort of tracking system or bug or possibly both. I don’t know yet. I left mine this morning, but I’ll have to be wearing it from now on.”
“All these precautions so the S.E.A. can watch you,” Billy said before his eyes twinkled in mirth. Abe gave a soft groan.
“You need us to find the underground? A group of people who have proven to be so ridiculously hard to find that even President Arnold can’t find them?” Albert asked.
Marie nodded. “Except I have three names of their members. You need to guard them with your life. They can’t be found by anyone else.”
The three of them, almost as an instinct, leaned in closer to hear. Marie felt like she was giving up a precious gem as she opened her mouth. “Harriet Tubman, Samuel Morse, and Charles Darwin. I know Harriet attends Franklin university. I’m pretty sure Sam works at an art museum, and Charles works as a doctor in one of the hospitals here.”
Billy gave a low whistle. “They must be good at hiding.”
“They’re the best,” Marie said. “We need to find them, and if you get to them before I do, tell them Marie Curie is back, she remembers everything, and she needs to talk to them.”
The boys nodded.
“How do we get back in touch with you after all this?” Abe asked. “Because I’m assuming hobos aren’t allowed phones.”
“Good point,” Marie said, tapping her chin with her finger. “Nighttime is the only time we can meet. I can leave my watch in the barn and come find you guys somewhere and we can update each other on what’s going on. Where do you guys want to meet?”
She glanced at the boys and felt her heart lurch into her throat. Albert looked frozen, staring past Marie. Abe’s eyes were wide as he shot Billy a glance. Billy practically leapt out of his seat and pushed Marie over so she was lying flat on the couch.
“Poe! What a pleasant surprise! We didn’t expect you back until later! Weren’t you retaking a test or something? Clearly not, because you speed through that fast!”
Marie closed her eyes, wincing. It was no use. Edgar clearly saw her, and he knew something suspicious was going on. Despite Billy’s genius, he couldn’t act his way out of this one. She took a few deep breaths before standing up and facing Edgar.
“Edgar! So… so incredible to see you!”
Edgar didn’t so much as blink when he saw her. Billy quietly backed away to give her room to talk. Very little had changed in the half year since she’d been away. He still had his goth look, his black bracelets, his black eyeliner. Even his school uniform looked a shade darker somehow than everyone else’s. He still had the barest hint of a mustache on his upper lip, and his eyes still reminded Marie of black holes, sucking all the light from the world and giving out an air as mysterious as black matter. She swallowed before continuing.
“I’m… I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here! It’s been so long. But maybe you already know. How long have you been standing there?” Marie asked, her words tripping over each other as she spoke faster and faster.
Edgar said nothing, and with his silence, Marie’s anxiety grew. No one had heard him slip in. Maybe he just barely did, and in that case, Marie had already blown her cover. She, as a hobo, wasn’t supposed to remember anything.
“It’s great seeing you! I… I…” Marie had no idea what to say, what to admit to, what story to hide. She’d given the names of three people in the underground, and Edgar could very well report her and them.
She hadn’t noticed her friends had stood up to gather around her, just as anxious to see what was going on. Marie felt nervous, almost sick.
Edgar seemed to understand he had the power, and that he’d have to talk. In one fluid motion, he slid his backpack off his shoulders and set it on the ground.
“You’re fighting against President Arnold?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marie said, her voice rising a few octaves.
“If you succeed, things will drastically change around here?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marie said, her voice even higher than before.
His small mustache twitched. “Then I’ll help.”
Marie let out all the air she walled up in her lungs and gave a relieved smile.