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The four figures stood huddled together, pressing against the railing.
“All clear,” the boy whispered into his cupped hands. “Over and out.”
“Shh,” the girl bumped his shoulder and giggled against herself.
The two teenagers stopped behind the man's outstretched hand. He pointed upward and lightening flashed suddenly, followed by thunder.
“Oh dear,” the old woman wrung her hands worriedly. “Now, you're sure that it isn't your parents' storm.”
“Grandma, once again, you know that I hardly understand my parents' research. But, no, I don't think this is the one.”
“All right, dear.”
“You two better take this one, and make sure your faces are covered.” The older man handed an umbrella to the boy and opened up a second one for him and the woman.
The boy pulled the girl's double hood up closer around her face and snapped the umbrella open above them.
“We better hurry, Ellie-pant.”
The four stepped willingly inside out of the rain, then hesitated to drop their umbrellas.
The older woman traded a glance with Ellie and she felt the pain in the glance. She tried to convey her thoughts silently. Yes, we shouldn't be here, but we all needed this. There's no backing out now.
The boy placed his arms protectively around her shoulders and the two elders turned away, cautiously looking out from under their hoods.
The boy bent his head down so the girl could whisper straight into his ear.
“I know we shouldn't have come, but you really don't have to be here. If you leave now, no one will notice and you can skip any trouble to come,”
“I'm not going anywhere, Ellie. Your family is my family and I'll never leave my family in trouble.” She smiled and took his arm, following the other two into the room as conspicuously as possible.”
They had opted pushing through the crowd to sit near the bac, close to the exit, rather then sitting near the front and risk being recognized.
That didn't however, mean that the speaker's voices didn't sound like they were right in front of them. Ellie tried to keep her ears open for anything slanderous said about her parents. So far, most of the speeches involved vocabulary far above her head.
One such speaker, however, started by saying how truly sorry she was that they two honored researcher's family couldn't be here.
Liar, her mind spat, wishing she could let herself relax as easily as her friend could.
He was reclining in his seat, staring at the ceiling, unblinking, but when he saw her glancing at him, he shifted uncomfortably, and she knew that he was listening.
“You okay?” he mouthed. She looked over at her grandparents. They were on the edges of their seats, whispering to each other, but they didn't seem overly concerned.
She nodded and stuffed her hands into her pockets, trying to hide their clamminess, a sure sign that she was nervous. He pressed his arm against hers on the armrest and leaned back again.
After a second glance over at her grandparents, she tried reclining too, half closing her eyes, trying to arrange herself so that she looked eased, even bored.
Finally, it ended.
Ellie sat staring up at screen the last ten minutes of the presentation where a photo of her parents was shone.
She was jostled to awareness by her companions. They gestured to the back exit and she hurriedly wiped away her stray tear and led them to it.
Her grandfather reached his hands around her and he pressed against the metal door, carefully tucked between his arms.
Before he could open the door, a voice from the speaker's podium rang out, “Not so fast, Yorkers!” The voice sounded half hesitant, but their stiffened postures and the concerned glances they passed among themselves, made it clear they were caught.
“Ellie? Jack?” The voice came from only three rows down from theirs; probably meant to be a whisper, it carried easily throughout the room.
“Chris?” Jack whispered back. He glanced toward the front; they hadn't much time.
“Cricket,” he called to the boy looking surprisedly up at them ,”distraction, quickly!” The boy nodded and stood up, smiling encouragingly up at them.
Jack turned back to the others. “Go! We'll buy you time!” Ellie hesitated at the door and turned back to clasp his hand.
“Thank you, Jack Rabbit. Be careful.” He nodded, pushing back his hood, showing her his worried yet confident expression, and all but pushed her through the door.
Ellie and her grandparents flew down the stairs and out the back. They met no one. The door at the bottom of the stairs had been locked, but it was easily picked open.
They were cautious as they walked the back roads to the complex where they'd parked their car. Again, they saw no one. Once they made it to the complex, it was easy enough to climb the stairs to the third floor, though they had to go considerably slower for her grandmother.
At the top, Ellie paused to glance out the window, searching in vain for her friend, hoping to see him racing through the rain. He grandmother, breathing heavily now, put a hand on her shoulder, and they supported each other to the car.
“Damn it!” The old man slowed down as they rounded the street.
“What are those?”
“I don't know, but they need to move!”
“Should I get out and...”
“No Ellie!,” they both snapped at her. She slouched back against the seat of the car and the woman shot her an apologetic look.
The car inched slowly toward one of the blocks in front of it.
“Come on, you pile of rusty nails!” The old car sputtered momentarily when it hit the block, then it started forward again, gentling pushing the block out of its way. The resulting hole was just big enough for the car to inch through and the man speeded down the back road.
The city was full of twists and turns. Many times they found themselves lost or their way blocked. Finally, they managed to find the road that would take them to the highway.
Ellie was clutching her slightly frayed seatbelt, looking worriedly out the window into the rain and her grandparents were arguing over the light that refused to turn green, when something slammed into the side of the car.
“Hey!” a voice shouted, and Ellie smiled widely. She opened the side door the a sopping Jack.
“Get in, hurry,” the older man said, frustrated.
Jack threw in a skateboard before climbing in and pulled off his jacket with difficulty. Ellie handed him one of hers and helped him to buckle the stubborn seat belt.
“Borrowed the skateboard from Cricket so I could catch you guys.”
“You all right?”
“That's it!” Ellie's grandfather slammed the peddle and took off through the red light. Ellie and Jack clutched each other's hands.
“Yeah. Cricket's fine too. He wanted me to give you this.” Jack pulled Ellie closer and enveloped her in a complete hug. She burrowed her face in his arm, ignoring the fact that he was wet.
He pulled away and when the woman looked back, expecting him to go on. Ellie grabbed his hand again, squeezing it when the car lurched.
“We set up a few obstacles of our own. The company's men will be far behind us.”
The three looked impressed and Ellie smiled, knowing she would get the exaggerated version of the story later.
As they neared the ramp to the highway, traffic slowed, and their faces became downcast again.
Jack looked back and squeezed her hand hard. Ellie turned around, gasping. Two white vans were approaching their car, scientific research logos printed on their doors.
Trading looks, they reached under the seats, hands reaching for the guns they left there.
Slowly the car inched toward the highway. The grandparents saw the vans too, and the car swerved dangerously to put another lane between them.
After a few minutes which stretched on forever, the vans passed by and they all sighed as they turned onto the highway.
Ellie's grandfather glanced behind her. “Oh, you two, put those down. What were you going to do, soak them?”
“Couldn't hurt,” Jack laughed and Ellie laughed with him.
She relaxed against the seat, still holding his hand, and sighed. Some part of her mind looked out at the storm and worried what would happen when her parents' storm did come. But she closed the part off and thought only that she had done what she had to do and now they could go. It was over.