Leah’s friends were waiting outside her home when she walked up at a brisk pace. The one who dared her to go inside the Murder Death Kill house was pacing back and forth along the sidewalk. The other friend had her arms crossed, staring at her soon-to-be-former friend in disgust. When she spotted Leah approaching, she let out a squeal of surprise, which caused the insulting friend to stop her pacing and look around. As she saw the disheveled girl walk up to her, she opened her arms out in a worried hug towards Leah. To Leah’s credit, she returned the slap that was delivered earlier in the evening.
“You left me.”
The insulted girl stammered, “Leah… I… we… we thought…”
“You both left me.” This statement was aimed at the other friend. Abashedly, the second friend decided to look at the ground.
“I could have died! You didn’t even come to see what had happened!” Leah’s head of steam was starting to coalesce into a full thunderstorm. “I fell through the floor in that place into the basement and could have died in there.” Leah’s mind flashed to the older man who was actually living in the house. That was a surprise. “And both of you ran. Did you even tell my parents? Is that why you’re outside here, waiting for them? Do they know? When would you have told them? Tomorrow? When I didn’t show up for school?”
The insulted, now remorseful friend, meekly replied, “We were scared, Leah! We didn’t know what to do.”
The other friend countered, “I followed you, but you bolted back there like a scared rabbit. I didn’t know what was going on until you slowed down and I got to ask you why you were running. I didn’t know that you weren’t behind us, Leah.”
“That still doesn’t excuse you. Can’t look back?” Leah snapped.
The second friend examined the ground again, this time, red in the face.
“Hey, don’t yell at her, she didn’t do anything wrong!” the remorseful friend said, in an attempt to deflect some of the guilt back onto Leah. “You didn’t have to go into the house, you know.”
Leah blinked, shook her head while raising it up, in total shock. “Did you honestly just say that? So let me understand, I get the teasing from you that I never did anything scary, you pressure me into going into the house, presumably because if I don’t you’ll tell the school some crazy ass lie, and now that I did your stupid dare, nearly getting myself killed, it’s my fault? Why would you pressure someone like that in the first place?”
The remorseful friend opened her mouth to say why, then closed it. Her shoulders slumped.
“Get away from me, both of you.”
“Leah,” the second friend said, feeling extra guilt at this turn of events.
“No, you’re as guilty too in all this. Get away! We’re not friends anymore!”
The two former friends looked at each other, then at Leah, whose normally olive face was now turning a few shades darker in anger. That look was all they needed, as they picked up their bags and slowly walked away. After they had disappeared from sight, Leah snatched her own bookbag and stormed inside, up to her room without saying hello to anyone, kicked off her shoes into the closet on the opposite side of the room, faceplanted onto her bed, and began to sob.
“Leah? Leah, are you home finally?” her mom asked from downstairs, some time later. Leah sniffed horribly, wiped the tears away with the heel of her hand. Clearing her throat she replied loudly, “Yes mother, I’m home, I’m in my bedroom. I’m not hungry, ok?”
“Leah, you must eat something!” her mom said sharply with a heavy Indian accent. “I’m making dinner, I will call you when it is ready.”
Whatever, Leah thought. I just lost two friends and had a life scared out of me. Who cares about dinner? She sighed and flounced up from her bed to examine herself in the mirror. Her school clothes were dusty, torn, sweaty. Her fitted top had marks that looked like dirt, or grease, or something dark. Her skirt was torn in a few places, and bore more dirt marks. Her face had smudges of stuff, and her long, dark hair was a bird’s nest in places. Add in that her eyes were now bloodshot and puffy from crying, Leah looked like a runaway that had been out for about a month. She undressed rapidly and threw her dirty clothes into a pile in the corner, finding her comfy sweatpants and a loose fitting t-shirt that said ‘PINK’ on it, to put on instead. She grabbed a brush off her mirrored stand and began attacking the knots in her hair, in an attempt to look presentable. Leah looked over at her bookbag to see what state it was in, since she had landed on it, and that’s when she noticed something green, rectangular, with silvery spots on it, and a bunch of large black-looking bug shapes, attached to her bag. Her heart skipped a beat, thinking it was some sort of hive of insects that had latched onto her bag. Her heart skipped another beat when none of the black bugs were moving, and she realized that it was electronic in nature. A circuit board.
Leah paused in her brushing, midstroke, and left her brush in her hair as she plucked the board off her bag. It had stuck there by the welds on the backside that held the pins of the chips in place. She examined it critically, looking for some sort of identification. All she saw were odd parings of letters and numbers, an occasional tech-sounding word, and all these small chips. This came from that guy’s basement, she realized. She bounced onto her bed again, focused solely on this 3” x 6” PCB treasure that had latched on for a ride. The board was placed reverently in front of her slender crossed legs as she continued to brush her hair slowly. I wonder what this goes to, she thought, fascinated. Could it be that machine that was on the table? Or is this old RAM? It doesn’t look like RAM. There was a small pair of ports on one side of the board, a set of dipswitches, and a small arrow in a circle that looked like it could move. Leah grabbed a pair of tweezers and attempted to spin the arrow. It moved after some initial reservation, clicking softly into each detent.
“Leah? Dinner’s ready!” her mom called.
She tucked the board under her pillow, looked into the mirror critically, and walked downstairs, her mind on two mysteries now – what was that board, and who was that man? Now that she brought her mind back to that man – wild, dark brown, curly hair, receding hair line, gray in the beard – the thought of his intense stare focused solely on her in those tense moments, where she was, trapped in his basement, no way out… the thought caught Leah in the chest. That man probably built, or bought this, with all of that other stuff, he must be really, really smart, she thought. Absentmindedly she sat at the table. Her mom looked at her only daughter and said, “Leah, what happened to your face? You look like you’ve been crying? Why is it so dirty? Were you in another fight at school?”
“No, mother, we were doing a lab in science and it blew up in my face. I didn’t have time to wash it before coming home. I’m sorry.”
Leah’s mom cradled her face in her one hand, turning it back and forth, examining it for signs of a fight, or anything to call out the lie. She found nothing, and dismissed it with a flick of her hand. “You should be more careful, Leah! Silly girl, when will you stop getting so engrossed with science? This is not how young ladies should behave! You get teased at school for being this way, you know this!”
“And another thing, I noticed you were late coming home, you know we talked about this! 5pm sharp, in the door, nothing extra! I want you home where its safe as soon as possible!”
“Yes, mother.” Leah began to rearrange the food on her plate with a fork.
“This weekend you will clean your room and the rest of the upper level for being late.”
Leah dropped her fork. “Mother! I had plans to go to the mall with my friends!” The same friends she now told to go away, she realized, with a sharp pang of regret.
“No buts, you disobeyed the rules, and there must be punishment!” With that, Leah’s mom signaled the end of the discussion by starting into the evening meal. Leah’s shoulders dropped, and she sighed audibly. Her mom retorted, “Leah! Enough! Eat!”
Leah’s lip quivered as she fought back the second wave of sadness, using a large mouthful of food as a decoy, from her mom.