In the yard’s far corner, Shade’s “Shack” stood ten feet off the ground, balanced on six 4x4 timbers sunk into poured concrete blocks. Shade had removed the original stairway his father installed and used the boards to create a storage shelf under the main floor. A wrap-around patio and waist-high railing surrounded the structure. The only way into the tree house was through a trap door in the patio from which dangled a rope ladder. The building measured only 8 x 10 feet, but it featured insulated walls, tinted sliding windows, a sleeping loft topped by additional storage, three electrical outlets, a miniature refrigerator, and the automated, remote-controlled security system Winston had installed two summers ago.
The Shack only lacked plumbing. Shade’s dad had drawn the line at installing a porta-potty in the back yard. As a result, a visit to the Shack’s back side often found two or three water bottles filled with urine. Sometimes Shade used these for science experiments, knowing that he would need a complete understanding of biological waste if he was ever to fulfill his dream of being an astrobiologist. Convenience and education aside, Winston still found this repulsive.
So while Shade essentially lived in the Shack, he was still obliged to “come home” at least once per day — more if his mother could talk him into sitting down with the family at dinner or doing his laundry.
Winston walked around the side of the house and approached the Shack, careful to stop before the red string marking the “security zone” boundary. With three sisters and a keen sense of personal space, Shade had turned the perimeter around the Shack into a minefield of booby traps. The willow trees in the yard, the ground, the Shack’s shadows and crannies — all were potential hiding spots for his latest “counter-intrusion” measures. The traps had grown so intricate over the years, and Shade had to change them so often, that he now logged their positions and trajectories with a mapping program on his tablet.
“Hey!” called Winston.
Shade slid a window open and poked his head out. He was nearly a head shorter than Winston but at least twenty pounds heavier, with shaggy dark brown hair that fell around his ears and a burnished complexion that was oddly flawless for an eighth grader. He sported a black T-shirt showing a winged gargoyle — the same shirt he’d worn yesterday. Unless he had football practice and needed to change, Shade would go two or three days in the same outfit, always claiming that he had more important things to think about than fashion.
“You’re early,” said Shade.
Winston thought about his mom’s note, now crumpled in his pocket. He shouldn’t say anything. But this was Shade, the one person in the world he told everything. He had to tell Shade or else his head would explode.
Still… On the outside chance that his mom was right, it would make sense that Shade and his Shack would also be under surveillance since he spent a large part of his time here.
That thought sent a shiver down his back.
“Yeah,” Winston said. “It’s been a weird morning. OK to come up?”
“Sure. Hold on.”
Shade’s head disappeared into the Shack, and Winston knew that he was calling up his security app. He looked around the yard, admiring how well manicured Mr. Tagaloa kept it. The grass was an even, dark green, devoid of the brown patches of crane fly damage that mottled Winston’s yard. Roses and chrysanthemums lined the house’s back wall, filling the air with a deep, fresh sweetness. The patio, still arrayed with its collection of outdoor dining furniture, boasted a stainless steel barbecue the size of a Smart car, and Winston knew that Mr. Tagaloa cared for it with more love and attention than typically shown to his children.
“All right,” Shade said, stepping out onto the balcony, tablet cradled in one hand. He wore khaki cargo shorts and no shoes or socks. Shade hadn’t been to his South Pacific homeland since the age of two and had no memory of it, but island habits were clearly wired into his DNA.
Shade checked the back of the house for any sign of sisters who might be snooping on his security secrets. “I changed a couple things last night. Come six paces forward.”
Winston slumped with exasperation and held up his hands. “Dude. Can’t you just drop the—”
“Testing and calibrating, man. You’ll be fine!”
“That’s what you said when you almost electrocuted me.”
“Again with the electrocution thing!” Shade smacked the windowsill in exasperation. “It wasn’t my fault! The store mislabeled the part!”
“I am all about caution and safety. Do you know anyone safer than me?”
With a deep breath, Winston stepped over the red string and took six slow paces. He’d learned the hard way not to rush through this.
“Now three to the left.”
Winston turned to the left and started to take a step.
“Stop!” cried Shade. “Sorry. My left. Your right.”
Winston turned around and took three even paces.
“Now take four steps straight toward me.”
“You couldn’t just use a deadbolt like the rest of us?”
Shade crossed his arms, holding the tablet to his chest like a teddy bear. “You know why. It’s the point. I’m outnumbered here, three to one. It’s like the Spartans when they were up against that Persian nutjob.”
“That was more like twenty to one.”
“Whatever. OK, you’re clear. Go straight to the ladder.”
Winston climbed the rope ladder, the coppery threads woven through the rough fibers glinting in the sunlight. As always, Winston found it difficult to keep his spindly legs straight and the ladder from swinging wildly. Coordination had never been his specialty.
Shade had put a lot of thought into the Shack. The sleeping loft accessible via a square cut into the ceiling’s corner had been almost entirely converted into storage. In the main room, a 30” flat screen TV hung on the wall and doubled as a second display for his laptop. Shade didn’t bother with decorations. Most of the bottom level was occupied by one red beanbag and two walls of benches and racks filled with science equipment and various experiments.
Shade plopped down on his beanbag, tapping at his tablet. Winston pulled the lone stool out from under a bench and sat. He couldn’t help but look around the Shack, especially in the corners, wondering if the place was bugged. Then he realized that it wouldn’t have to be bugged. Shade had four mics and surveillance cameras scattered around this place, all of which were online so he could monitor them from anywhere. “They,” whoever they were, wouldn’t have to plant anything. They only needed to hack his systems.
Winston smiled at the thought of the government taking on his own security deployment. He had no illusions of withstanding hacks from a group like the FBI, but it would be fun to know how long it took them to break through.
“Something funny?” Shade asked.
“No, just thinking.”
“Alyssa again?” His tone was so flat that Winston wondered if Shade was either sick of hearing about the girl or just a pinch jealous, although that would be unlike him. Plus, Alyssa really wasn’t his type.
Winston puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “No, not this time.”
Alyssa Bauman. Five foot three. Auburn hair like hot coals, with an attitude to match. Pale, freckled skin. Wit sharp enough to slice through a can. She had been in his classes for five of the last six years and hardly seemed to have given Winston a thought. He wished the feeling was reciprocal. Unfortunately, when he didn’t have his brain dialed into electronics, he thought about little besides her.
Winston tried not to take her lack of interest personally. He had a big head on a skinny body, with a bunch of premature gray hair that looked like two faint white stripes. The Internet said it might be vitiligo or Waardenburg syndrome or any of a dozen other things that could mess up his life, and his mom still hadn’t taken him in to see a doctor about it. Winston was smart, but showed it too often. Between his studies and his work, he had little interest in the YouTube shows and music streams that his classmates loved.
As a result, Winston knew he wasn’t terribly popular, and that was probably an understatement.
“OK,” said Shade. “Spill.”
Winston looked at him, uncomprehending. “Huh?”
“Your text? This morning?” Shade arched his eyebrows and gave Winston a look that asked Did you eat your brain for breakfast? “You texted me at—” He flicked his own phone to life and tapped a few times. “7:14 AM. ‘Unbelievable! You won’t believe this!’”
His text…of course. Just before his mom had come in. How had it slipped his mind?
Winston thought again of the note in his pocket. He should tell Shade everything. That was how their friendship worked. But would doing so put him in danger? Without any answers, Winston needed to stall for time and think.
“Here’s a hypothetical for you,” said Winston. “You always worry about your sisters spying on you, right?”
“They do!” He pointed an accusing finger at the house. “I mean, not Alia so much, now that she’s a senior and everything.” He said the word as if it were a life-threatening disease. “But the other two. It’s like the more I have my own space, the more they want to pry into it, you know?”
“I know,” said Winston. “It’s horrible.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“A little, but listen.” He leaned toward Shade and lowered his voice. “If your sisters were determined to spy on you through any means necessary — hacking, eavesdropping, telescope, whatever — where would you go to avoid them?”
Shade looked offended. “Dude, this is the Fortress of Solitude. I designed this place to be sister-proof, and you did the security system, so…”
Yeah, about that, Winston thought, wondering if they were being monitored by someone at this moment. But Shade wasn’t going to understand if he kept on like this.
“I know you think this place is totally safe,” Winston said. “Just in case, though, we need to find someplace more private to talk.”
“So grab your stuff, and let’s get out of here.”
“Dude, I can’t leave until I generate and store the morning specimen.”
Winston grimaced. Shade’s scientific name for peeing into a plastic bottle and labeling it didn’t make the process any less stomach-churning.
“Um,” said Winston as he pushed his stool back under the counter. “That’s really tempting, but…”
Shade gave him a sly glance. “Or you could tell me what’s going on.”
Winston wanted to spill everything then and there. He cringed inwardly, knowing he would cave in no matter how much he tried to obey his mom’s note.
Fine. Not here, though.
“I will. At lunch, OK?” He edged toward the door.
Shade faced him directly, a slight crease forming between his brows. “You can’t keep a secret even if your life depends on it. Why wait? What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Winston’s foot found the balcony’s rope ladder opening. “Maybe.”
“Is it a girl thing?” Shade’s face lit up and he snapped his fingers. “That’s it! You like someone else, and you don’t want my sisters finding out.”
Winston rolled his eyes and started gingerly down the ladder. “I’m leaving. Can you disarm the yard?”
Shade tapped an icon on his tablet and Winston heard the beep that meant the security system would be deactivated for sixty seconds. He made it to the ground as Shade tromped around his balcony. Winston heard the sound of Shade’s zipper and resisted the urge to break into a run.