The Arctic CodeMatthew J. Kirby
For Jaime, who brought such light and
warmth into my world
About the Author
About the Publisher
ELEANOR STEPPED UP TO THE EDGE, FRAMED BY THE OPENING in the cinder-block wall, and looked down over the construction site. An icy, brutal wind whipped and slashed the plastic sheeting at her feet, which stretched downward from her at an angle, two stories to the ground, forming a transparent slope.
“I really don’t think you should do this, Ellie.”
Eleanor looked over her shoulder, back to where Claire and Jenna huddled together, teeth chattering amid the building’s bare bones. Her friends had left their outer coats at home, and their inner coats weren’t strong enough to stop the cold up here. But Eleanor had warned them about the temperature.
“This is probably the last sub day we’ll have this spring,” she said. Subzero days were common enough in other parts of the southern United States, but they might only get a dozen each year in Phoenix. “And,” Eleanor continued, “Mr. Goering announced they’re going to finish this construction next week.” The plastic tent was only there temporarily to protect the fresh masonry. “Plus, it’s a Sunday and there’s no one working here. This is the only shot we have.”
“The only shot you have.” Claire shook her head, the little pom-poms on her knitted cap batting at each other. “I was never doing this.”
Eleanor cocked her head to the side with a crooked smile. “Right. You’ll just stand there and watch me do it.”
“That’s right.” Jenna nodded in mock condescension.
Eleanor shook her head. “Whatever, you guys. Just bring me that fan, okay?”
The two girls groaned, clapped their gloved hands to warm their fingers, and reached for the industrial fan Eleanor had “borrowed” from the school’s custodian. While they dragged it up to the ledge, Eleanor crossed the cement floor, threading the building’s metal and wooden framing, to the fire hose. No one had bothered to lock the glass case yet, since this new wing the city was adding onto their school wouldn’t have students for several weeks.
But the hose had water, and the fan had power. That was all she needed.
Eleanor wrenched the hose’s nozzle out of its cradle and walked backward away from the wall, tugging the coiled hose free. It was heavier than she’d expected it to be, and she heaved and panted as she dragged the nozzle to the ledge, where the frigid wind nipped at the insides of her lungs.
“Seriously, Ellie.” Claire’s glance flicked to the steep drop-off. “It’s too high, this is crazy.”
“Just watch.” Eleanor pointed. “Jenna, go over there, and when I say, you turn on the water.”
Jenna rolled her eyes. “Ellie—”
“Just do it, okay?”
Jenna sighed and stomped over to the fire-hose valve.
Eleanor smiled and flicked on the fan. Construction dust and debris stirred on the floor around them as the blast and roar picked up. Eleanor put her hand in front of the fan, spreading her fingers wide, testing its force. The air pushed hard, making it difficultto keep her hand there. This was going to work.
She picked up the nozzle and shoved it tight against the back of the fan, right where it sucked the air in. Then she looked at Jenna.
“Now!” Eleanor shouted over the storm sound of the fan.
Jenna cranked the valve, and Eleanor watched a traveling bulge as the hose expanded like a digesting snake. She braced herself as a moment later the water reached the nozzle and hissed into the spinning blades.
On the other side, the fan shot a ragged mist into the air, and with the temperature waiting below zero, the water droplets froze into little crystals, instantly.
It fell onto the plastic sheet below, some of it sticking, some sliding downward, until a trail of white ran from their high perch almost to the ground below. Eleanor kept her makeshift snow machine churning until the fan sputtered, coughed, and gagged to a stop, its blades and insides encrusted with ice.
“That’s enough!” Eleanor called to Jenna.
Her friend turned the fire-hose valve, and the water from the nozzle dribbled off.
Eleanor dragged the hose out of the way, and then she moved the fan. Jenna walked over to stand by Claire, and the two of them had gone from looking worried and annoyed to looking scared.
“Okay, it worked,” Claire said. “You’re a genius. Can we go now?”
“Not until I ride down my hill.” Eleanor marched over to where she’d leaned a sled against the wall. She didn’t want to let her friends see, but her hands were shaking. Her rapid heartbeat had begun to steal the edges of her breath.
“Ellie,” Jenna said, “you can’t do this. You’re gonna kill yourself.”
“No, I’m not.” Eleanor propped the sled in front of her, right at the ledge. “There’s snow down there for a bit of cushion. That’ll help. And then the angle of the plastic at the bottom will just shoot me out across the ground.” She used her flattened hand to demonstrate the motion. “I’ll come to a gradual stop.”
“You mean a sudden stop!” Jenna said.
“Guys, it’s sledding. People do this all the time. Just . . . not in Phoenix.”
The wind had turned more aggressive, somehow. Like it was taunting Eleanor. Daring her to follow through with her plan. But now that she stood here at the edge, ready to do it, she could also hear her mother asking just what exactly she was thinking. Her mom would go ballistic over the sled part, of course. But she would probably smile wryly over the snow machine.
“Don’t do it,” Claire said.
“I have to.” Eleanor backed up and let the sled fall flat to the ground.
“You’re a freak!” Jenna said.
It wasn’t the first time Eleanor had heard that. She had plenty of friends, but she had a reputation for being . . . different. Even though she’d long since accepted that she was different, it still hurt to have someone call her a freak to her face.
No doubt this stunt would be all over the school before they were even back from break, but that wasn’t why Eleanor was up there, sitting down on a sled, scooting right up to the ledge. She didn’t care what people would say about this afterward. It was about what Eleanor said to herself, right now. How she felt about herself in this moment. It was about the drive inside her, almost an itch. There was only one way to scratch it, and this was the part of Eleanor no one understood. Not even her mom.
The sled scraped across the cement floor as Eleanor jostled into position, its nose now jutting out into space.
Jenna clutched her stomach. “Oh my God, I’m gonna hurl.”
“Go do it over there,” Eleanor said. She reached forward with both hands and grabbed the ledge of the building to either side. All she had to do was heave herself forward, and she’d launch over the edge and down the plastic slope. She took a deep breath.
“Please, Ellie.” Claire’s voice b
“STOP!” a male voice shouted. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
Eleanor whipped a look back. Mr. Goering, the principal, rushed toward them through the building with a couple of cops trailing behind him. Eleanor only had a moment before they reached her and she lost her chance.
“Don’t even think about it, Miss Perry!” Mr. Goering shouted, red-faced. “If you’re still alive at the bottom, I’ll expel you!”
That caused Eleanor to hesitate. Kids in Phoenix sat on long waiting lists to get into public schools. With the refugees pouring into the city every week, there just wasn’t enough room for all of them. If Eleanor got expelled, she wouldn’t get back in, and there was no way they could afford private school. Her mom would be devastated.
That moment of hesitation was all Mr. Goering needed. In the next instant, Eleanor felt his big hands on her shoulders, pulling her away from the ledge.
“It was all Ellie’s idea,” Jenna said, her voice a high-pitched squeal.
Eleanor rolled her eyes as she got to her feet. Jenna was always the first to crack.
“Of that I have no doubt,” Mr. Goering said. He was wearing only his inner coat, too, his customary comb-over a fluttering wisp on the wrong side. He must have rushed to the school in a hurry.
The two cops had stepped away, one of them speaking into a staticky radio clipped at his shoulder.
Eleanor turned to Mr. Goering. “How did you find out I was here?”
“You thought no one in the neighborhood would notice?” Mr. Goering pulled her farther into the building, as if the ledge made him nervous. “I received three phone calls asking why there seemed to be a snowstorm blowing from inside my school.”
Eleanor hadn’t figured it would be that obvious.
“Honestly, Miss Perry.” Mr. Goering shook his head. “These antics of yours must stop, or one of these days the consequences will be dire. What would your mother say if I called her?”
Eleanor couldn’t keep the scoff from her voice. “Good luck with that, Mr. Goering. She’s still in the Arctic, and honestly, I think she has more important things on her mind.”
“And that is the only reason you have enjoyed my forbearance,” he said. “But mark my words, after today you are but one tiny infraction away from expulsion. I don’t care how small. If I hear that you have so much as littered, you’re done at my school. Do you hear me?”
The mention of expulsion hit Eleanor just as hard the second time. She dropped her gaze to the ground, deflated. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Mr. Goering breathed in deeply. “And now, these two fine gentlemen will take the three of you into custody.”
“What?” Claire said. “Why?”
“Trespassing.” One of the cops stepped forward. “Destruction of property.”
“But it was all her!” Jenna’s glare brought up a twinge of guilt in Eleanor, but she was able to ignore it. The three of them had been friends long enough for Claire and Jenna to know exactly what it meant to hang out with Eleanor. They got a bystander rush out of it, too. This would blow over like it always did.
“We’ll sort it out at the station,” the cop said. “With your parents.”
That thought caused a different kind of guilt that lingered. With her mom in the Arctic, the police would have to call Uncle Jack, and he didn’t need this. Eleanor cast a final glance at the ledge, the iced-over fan, and the sled, and let the cop lead her away.
UNCLE JACK SAID VERY LITTLE AT THE POLICE STATION. Mostly, he just nodded along with whatever the cop was saying, very slowly, as if the earth’s gravity had doubled. He was wearing his blue coveralls, which meant he’d been at work when they called him. Uncle Jack was always picking up extra shifts when he could, even on the weekends.
“Young lady,” the cop said, “do you know how lucky you are Mr. Goering decided not to press charges?”
He expected an answer. Eleanor sat up straight. “I do, sir.”
“This could have been a lot worse for you,” the cop said.
“I know,” Eleanor said.
The cop directed the next thing he said to Uncle Jack, and Eleanor mostly ignored what he was saying. They weren’t going to charge her, that was what mattered. Instead, she focused on the cop’s cluttered desk, the half-buried photo of his family—wife, two kids, one of whom was squeezing an unhappy cat fighting to escape the frame. She focused on the water cooler burping every few minutes in the corner—
“Ellie,” Uncle Jack said.
“Officer Nez asked you a question.”
Eleanor looked in the cop’s eyes. “Yes, sir?”
The cop angled his head, like he was stretching a kink in his neck. “I said, you’re not going to set foot on your school’s construction site, or any other site, ever again. Are you.”
Uncle Jack was wrong, it wasn’t a question. “No, sir.”
“Good. I suppose you’re free to leave.”
“Thank you, Officer.” Uncle Jack labored up from his chair, still fighting gravity. “What do you say, Ellie?”
“Thank you, Officer,” Eleanor said.
“Have a nice day,” the cop said, and Eleanor was pretty sure he wouldn’t have said it any differently if she were being escorted out of here in handcuffs.
Eleanor followed Uncle Jack out of the office. She walked behind him as he lumbered down the crowded hallway, clearing a path to the elevator, where he hit the ground floor button with his thick finger. They rode down listening to music that left Eleanor’s brain itching, and then Uncle Jack led the way through the lobby, out to the heated parking garage, to their small, ancient electric car.
Eleanor wanted him to say something as they drove home, but he kept his eyes forward, right hand on the steering wheel, left hand rubbing his forehead. Eleanor looked out the window, at a billboard with a picture of a young mother reading a bedtime story to her two children by the soft glow of a lamp. The caption read, THIS MOMENT BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE GLOBAL ENERGY TRUST. The G.E.T. supplied power to, well, just about everyone.
They took the freeway, swinging around the maze of towering apartment buildings someone had long ago nicknamed the Ice Castles. They’d been built to house the thousands of refugees from Canada and the northern states who had been staggering into the city day after day, driven from their homes by the sheet of ice clawing its way south. Claire and Jenna lived in those apartments, and they hated it. Eleanor felt horrible when they talked about the crime, the plumbing and the power going out, the noise, the police raiding one of their neighbors down the hall in the middle of the night. But there were plenty of refugees who couldn’t even get a place in Phoenix and had to keep moving south, hoping for a chance to cross the border into Mexico.
Past the Ice Castles, they entered into the suburbs where Eleanor lived. It wasn’t the nicest neighborhood, but it was better than most people had it. Her mom was a geologist, and she’d been lucky enough to land a good job with Sohn International, a nonprofit oil company. And in today’s world, oil meant the ultimate job security.
They rolled down the narrow streets, past the identical narrow houses planted but inches apart, until they reached their home. Uncle Jack pulled into the driveway, left the engine running, the heat blasting, and cleared his throat.
“What would your mom say if she were here?” he asked. He sounded tired.
“She’d blame the Donor.”
Uncle Jack chuckled. Eleanor’s mom had never made time for romance but had always wanted a child, so she’d finally gone to a clinic. Eleanor’s dad had been, and always would be, anonymous. That was just fine with Eleanor. She never even thought about him, except for those times her mother jokingly suggested that he was to blame for whatever it was about Eleanor that was irking Mom at that moment.
“And then what would she say?” Uncle Jack’s voice sounded a bit lighter.
Eleanor shrugged. “She’d say she was disappointed in me. She’
d say she was angry. But more than anything, she’d say she was glad I didn’t kill myself.” Eleanor swiveled toward him in her seat. “Which totally would not have happened, by the way. I had it under control.”
“I’m sure you did.”
“And she’d probably say it was ‘devilishly clever’ that I made my own snow.”
He nodded. “Sounds like her. And since you already know what she would say, I don’t think you need to waste the little time you get to talk with her making her say it.”
“You mean . . .”
Uncle Jack ran his hand back and forth across the top of the steering wheel. “I mean we’ll wait until she gets back from the Arctic to fill her in.”
Eleanor smiled, relieved. “Thanks, Uncle Jack.”
“No problem. But if you end up dead or in jail, I’ll have to spill the beans. Got it?”
Eleanor laughed. “Got it.” But her laughter faded quickly. “She was supposed to be home by now.”
“I know. She’d be here if she could.”
“But she hasn’t even told us why she’s still up there.”
“She will when she can.”
Eleanor gave a very small nod.
“Okay, get on inside. I gotta head back and finish my shift.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Jack. I didn’t mean to mess up your job.”
“It’s okay. Maybe if I weren’t working so many hours, I’d be around to keep you out of trouble.”
“Oh, you think you can keep me out of trouble, do you?”
Uncle Jack shrugged. “I can try.”
Eleanor opened her door. “Love you, Uncle Jack.”
“Love you, too, Ell Bell.”
Before she shut the door, he craned toward her across the passenger seat and looked up. “Oh, and Ellie?”
“For the record, I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.” He winked.
Eleanor winked back and went inside.
Later that evening, Eleanor woke up to the sound of Uncle Jack in the kitchen downstairs. She’d lain down for a Sunday-afternoon nap shortly after he’d gone back to work, and opened her eyes to a room striped with evening sunlight through her blinds. It was a golden light, but cold like exposed metal. Her mom and Uncle Jack could remember a different sun, a warmer sun that reached through the cold and could even make you sweat. The distant sun Eleanor knew wasn’t something she ever looked to for heat. She climbed out of bed and shivered a little, shuffled into her slippers, and left her room.