The new girl was very persistent. "What are you doing? Why aren't you hanging out with the other kids?"
"I'm doing homework." Matt answered both questions at once, trying to get back to the math worksheet.
Matt sighed and put his stylus down. "Why aren't you hanging out with the other kids? It's a nice day." He could hear the other teenagers playing basketball, and the younger kids running around the yard screaming. He had no idea why the new girl would rather hang out in the study room. Matt was usually the only one here on weekends.
"They said my Spanish was dumb and I should go back to California."
Oh, this was who Matt had heard the nuns talking about, Mary Sue Poots. She had run away from another St Agnes group home and somehow made it all the way to New York before getting caught. Family Services in the two states were arguing over whose legal responsibility she was, exactly, and in the meantime she was living here.
"Probably you will be going back to California soon, Mary, so maybe you could leave me alone until then?"
"Okay," she said, but instead of leaving, she lay on the floor and kicked at the leg of the desk next to Matt's.
Matt tried to ignore her, but the constant clunk, clunk, clunk and the slight shifts of his table were driving him rapidly insane.
"Stop it!" he snapped at her. "Just tell me what you want."
She stopped kicking immediately and jumped up to stand much too close to him, with her hand on his Braille frame. "What's that?"
"It's how I write down my homework. If I wrote it with a pen, I wouldn't be able to read it again." Well, he could, probably, but it took a long time and his writing was so messy that he couldn't always work out what he had written.
"Cool! So then you hand the paper part in to the teacher?"
"I wish. None of them read Braille, so then I have to go type it out for them. But I don't want to write out the whole thing on the computer first up, because I'm not allowed to do that when we have a quiz or a test."
Mary's breathing shifted and she shuffled her feet a bit. Someone as kinetic as her was quite easy to read and he could tell that she had something else to say. He waited her out.
"So…some of the other kids said you had the key to the computer room. And I guess they were right."
"I knew you wanted something! You could have asked instead of annoying me."
"Nuh uh, I wasn't just annoying you! I had a plan!" She sounded so indignant that Matt laughed.
"What kind of plan?"
"I was hoping you'd go to the bathroom and leave your key behind."
He laughed again. "That's a terrible plan! But since I'm not going to give you the key, it's better than nothing."
Mary returned to the floor and sighed heavily.
"No, seriously, I can't give you the key. I'll get in trouble from Sister Immaculata." She was eighty-one and the only nun to go around in a full habit these days. Half the staff were laypeople who scared nobody, but all the kids knew not to cross the Sister. Even Matt, a known teacher's pet, had got on her bad side a few times.
Mary obviously hadn't been here long enough to learn to fear Sister Immaculata, because she sighed again, even louder.
"Go away, Mary."
A third sigh, and Matt got the feeling she could do this all day.
"All right, I give in. If you leave me alone to finish this math homework, you can come to the computer room with me. If you can be quiet. I have to type in my answers next, then do my English homework."
"No problem! Is that why you have the key? Because you have to use the computer for schoolwork?"
"Yeah, it is. And because, unlike some people, I'm responsible."
Mary giggled. "Okay, I'll let you do your homework. I'm just going to sit over here and read."
Despite Matt's suspicions that she was going to bother him further, she was as good as her word, sitting on the vinyl beanbag in the book corner and reading something. The squeaking of the vinyl every time she shifted slightly was still annoying to Matt, but that wasn't Mary's fault, and it was a sound he was used to shutting out.
Some time later, Mary closed her book, wriggled out of the beanbag and came over.
"Um, excuse me?"
"You said you weren't going to bother me," Matt snapped.
"It's been a really long time and I finished my book. If we don't go soon it'll be dinner time."
Matt put down his stylus to check his watch. She was right. He'd spent most of the afternoon on this one worksheet. "Sorry, I didn't know it was going to take so long. It's stupid." He tailed off. She wouldn't be interested.
"Why? Your worksheet is Braille, isn't it?" She tentatively put out her hand and touched the dots.
"Yeah, but it's not very good Braille. Whoever made the textbook and the worksheets didn't proofread them, and it's not like the teachers can read regular Braille, let alone mathematic notation, so they can't check. Some of it's fine, but some of it makes no sense. It's always been like that, but as the math gets more difficult, it's harder and harder to work out what it's supposed to be."
"Do you have the, um, not blind version?"
Matt appreciated that she didn't say the "normal" version. "Yeah, it's in with the Braille pages so the teachers know what to give me."
"I could tell you what it's meant to say."
"You're in what, sixth grade? I'm in ninth grade. You won't get it."
"I'm good at math. And if I help you, we'll get to the computer room faster."
Mary helping him with his schoolwork was definitely something he could use to try to butter up Sister Immaculata if they got caught. "All right, read me question 3."
It took barely fifteen minutes to correct the problems and finish the worksheet, which should have made Matt happy, but it made him mad instead. All that wasted time, and a sixth-grader could have done it.
"Come on, Mary, I have to get English done before dinner, too."
"Yay!" Mary jumped up enthusiastically and trailed after him to the computer room, staying out of the way of his cane.
There weren't as many nuns as there used to be, so the former Mother Superior's office was now the computer room, housing the two computers that had been donated to the orphanage. Technically it wasn't even an orphanage anymore, but a Catholic-run group home for the overflows from the foster care system, but it had been an orphanage for over a hundred years before that, so that's what everyone in the neighbourhood still called it.
"Do you have nuns at your home in California?" Matt asked Mary.
"Yeah, more than here, and we've got some young ones, too. They're not as mean as yours."
Matt was about to defend his local nuns, but Mary went on.
"But they're always brushing my hair and telling me that I'm pretty and I'll catch a nice husband." She blew a raspberry. "Gross. I don't want to catch a husband, I want to be a computer programmer."
"That's pretty cool," Matt told her, unlocking the computer room door. "I thought you just wanted to play computer games or something. I don't think there even are any on these computers, just word processing." Computer programmer was on his list of possible careers, too, if he didn't make it into law school, or his dad's money didn't last – there weren't many jobs where blind people could make a secure living, but computer programmer was one. Not that Matt was particularly interested in computers, but he was pretty good at solving his own technical issues, so he thought he could probably learn if necessary.
"I like computer games!" Mary waited for Matt to sit down at the computer with the headphones before taking the other computer opposite on the big wooden desk. "They're just a starting point, though. Ugh, this computer is even slower than the ones we have at my St Agnes. Is yours any faster?"
"Don't think so. Now let me do my homework, like we agreed."
Matt settled down to type in his math answers, with the headphones on, and Mary didn't interrupt him again. She got up and down from her chair a few times and wriggled around a lot, but Matt put that down to her general lack of ability to sit still and ignored her. He'd managed to type in all his maths answers and was starting on his English assignment when he heard a familiar noise from school that he really shouldn't be hearing here. It was a modem dialling the internet.
"Mary! What are you doing?"
"Don't worry, they won't know about it!"
"You're going on the internet?"
"I said don't worry about it! I turned the sound right down. You must have extra good hearing."
"That's a myth," Matt lied. "I just pay more attention to what I can hear than a sighted person would. And you're trying to distract me, aren't you?"
"Maybe," she admitted.
"So what are you doing?"
"There's people who are going to be worried about me if I don't check in. So I'm checking in."
Mary scoffed. "You make them sound like gangsters or something. It's just some friends on a forum, don't worry. They're trying to help me find my parents."
Matt had heard the parents story before, a hundred times over. If they hadn't got their lives together and come looking for her by now, they weren't going to suddenly want her even if she did find them. If they were even alive. His opinion must have shown on his face because Mary tensed up.
"Don't even say it!" Mary snarled at him. "You don't know anything about me! I was anonymously dropped off at St Agnes when I was a baby. My parents might not even know where I went!"
"I didn't say anything." Matt knew he sounded defensive.
"So I came to New York because I found a clue and now I'm locked up here and can't go looking anyway!" She sounded like she was trying not to cry in anger and frustration.
"Can't your internet people help you? Some of them have got to be in New York."
"Stop saying 'internet people'! They're just people. They're my friends. They'll help me research things but they're not going to come and break me out. They'll get arrested for kidnapping."
These internet friends were sounding more sensible than Matt would have thought. "What was the clue you found? Maybe, and I'm not promising anything, maybe I can help?"
Mary brightened immediately. "Okay, it's not much to go on, but my friends helped me track down one of the social workers who worked on one of my placements. It was when I got brought back to the home from a family that wanted to adopt me." She took a deep breath. "So this social worker, she was really old, retired now, and she thought she knew everyone in her department. The woman who brought me back from the Brodys, she didn't know her. So she got a name, which was fake, and made her give a contact number. That turned out to be fake, too."
"If it's fake, how does that help?"
"It had a New York City area code, 212. That's weird for a California social worker, right? Why would she put that if she wasn't from here? Or worked here? Or something?"
Matt nodded. "I get it. I don't know any area codes apart from the local ones, so if she was making up a plausible fake number she might have used one she knew. But that's not much to go on. There's millions of people inside the 212 zone and people move in and out of Manhattan all the time."
"It's worse than that – when I was little, 212 covered the Bronx as well." Mary didn't sound disappointed, though.
"Okay, so why did you come to New York?"
"Because the number she gave was a real number, just out of service. My friends helped me track down the address it was assigned to before it was cut off in 1994, and it's an apartment in Chelsea. Not even far from here."
"So you think this bogus social worker rattled off an old number she knew was out of service? I guess that makes sense. It would have to sound like a real number and it would be hard to think of that on the spot." Stick had once told Matt that the best lies were nearly true, the hardest to catch in voice pitch and breath and heartbeats.
"Now you get it! I mean, it might not have been her own number. It might have been her best friend's number or her grandma's or something, but it's a clue! I dialled it when I found out, just in case, but now it's a dance studio on the other side of Manhattan."
Matt had to agree with Mary: that wasn't the usual story that kids here had. Most of them knew who their parents were, at least, and plenty went back and forth between a parent's or grandparent's home and St Agnes. Occasionally a very young baby came in, but they got adopted very quickly.
"So if you first got dropped off as a baby, why didn't you get adopted?" Matt asked her, figuring it was best just to come out with it. "All the babies that come here do."
Mary didn't seem angry about it like Matt had expected. "I know, it's strange. I've been placed a few times but it never stuck. That one family that was going to adopt me, the Brodys, they were great but it didn't work out…"
"Yeah, the weird social worker."
"You're right, though, all the babies get adopted unless they're really defective and even then they usually go to special foster carers." She glanced over at Matt, making a gesture around her face that Matt guessed was indicating her eyes. "Oh. Sorry. Is that why you didn't get adopted?"
Matt laughed. "Sort of? Not that I really want to be adopted. I don't want to have to call some random guy 'Dad'. And I'm not the right age anyway – I wasn't a baby when I came here. I've been to a couple of foster homes, but the ones that want disabled kids, they want kids more disabled than me." Matt thought about the last one he'd been at, which he'd actually liked: not the parents so much, but the other kids had been okay. "I guess I don't need enough looking after for people who want disabled kids. And the regular families don't want a blind kid who gets migraines. Defective, but not defective enough."
"Stuck in the middle with you," Mary sang, briefly. "I used to think that it was because I'm mixed. But there's heaps of mixed-race kids out there, that can't really be the problem. Like, one minute the Brodys had a plaque on my bedroom door with my name on it and were getting me ready for school, and the next minute I was back at the group home. It's just not normal. And I've been in a couple of St Agnes homes, too."
Matt had to agree it was odd. "Okay, I'll help you with this mystery apartment. But you've got to do what I tell you or we'll both be in big trouble."
To Matt's surprise, Mary was not too bad at obeying instructions for an annoying little kid. She followed Matt's plan of going to the reading corner every afternoon, so when the nuns checked for her, she was where they expected her to be. Matt had debate club after school on Mondays, but Mary told him that she'd done what he said.
"I stayed there and read all afternoon. Your plan isn't so great so far."
"Yeah, but now the nuns are going to expect you to be out of the way and quiet. They're not going to go looking for you if you don't give them a reason."
"That's how you get away with everything, isn't it, Matt?"
"Pretty much, yeah. It worked on my dad, so…" He shrugged. He didn't talk about his dad much, but Mary didn't ask annoying questions about him and his fights like some of the other kids did. He guessed that Jack Murdock's fame was pretty local. He would have liked it that way.
"Well, there's enough kids here making trouble to distract them anyway."
"As long as you're not one of the kids causing trouble," Matt corrected. "Do the same again tomorrow, then on Wednesday we'll go to the apartment. The kids in the Confirmation class go to Mass on Wednesday evening as well as Sunday, so the staff are extra busy getting them organised for early dinner. As long as we're back by six-thirty, no-one will notice."
"Awesome! I'll meet you by the community garden at four."
After school on Wednesday, Matt headed out from school to meet Mary. The middle school let out earlier than the high school, so she'd gone back to St Agnes first to establish a presence before sneaking out again through the gap in the chain link fence around near the old furnace. All the kids knew about that one, and the nuns probably did too, but it was out of sight of the main building and that's what mattered right now. Matt had told them he was going to the library after school, as he often did, and nobody had any reason to be suspicious about that. He really hoped they didn't get caught: it would be a big hassle for him to have to sneak out to study and train. Something about Mary's determination to track down the slightest clue really struck a chord in him, though, and he wanted to help her.
"Hey! Matt!" Mary was leaning on the railings of the community garden. Matt almost told her to get off, drunk people peed there, but then again, where didn't they?
"Hi Mary. Let me take your arm, it'll be faster."
"Uh, okay. Do I tell you what's going on around us or something?"
"The cane tells me more than you can, but just say when there's a kerb or if there's something in the way. If I've got someone guiding me, people don't stop me all the time trying to help."
"Ha, okay. So basically you're going to guide me? I'll try not to get in your way!" Mary put a hand on his forearm and let him arrange them correctly so they were side by side with the cane moving freely in front.
They had about a mile and a half to walk to the address, but Matt was a champion at getting into the gap behind a fast pedestrian and using their wake to ease his way. Mary wasn't as used to New York crowds but, unlike most sighted people, was happy to follow Matt's lead and let him navigate the streams of people that were crystal clear to locals and incomprehensible to the visitors that kept interrupting the flow.
Mary counted down the blocks as they walked and they eventually arrived at 41st Street, not far from the Port Authority.
"Is it still the same building?" Matt asked.
"Looks pretty old, so I guess so. That's great!"
It sounded like an older building to Matt, too. He thought about putting his cane away to be less conspicuous, but they weren't there to do anything illegal! It was only the nuns they had to fear.
The outer security door was locked, but they didn't have to wait long for an older woman to go inside, and she didn't spare a glance at the kids trailing behind her. There were a couple of kids kicking a ball around the lobby and her wrath was reserved for them.
"You kids! How many times do I have to tell you to go break your own windows!"
"There's hardly any windows here!" one of the kids protested. "And they're tough glass anyway!"
"Well, I don't want to hear about you knocking some poor old lady over with your horseplay."
The kids sniggered – they must have heard this all before – but they held onto their ball and sat by the mailboxes at least long enough for the woman to make it into the elevator.
"Who are you guys? Why've you got a stick?" one of them asked Matt and Mary.
"First, none of your business. Second, I'm blind."
"Yeah, get lost," Mary added.
The kids backed off, but as the elevator doors closed behind Matt and Mary they heard the ball thump against it.
"Assholes," Mary muttered, but Matt couldn't blame them for defending their own turf. He would have done the same, in his building.
The elevator stopped and Mary followed the apartment numbers along the hall. Luckily it was one of the logical buildings, not one that had all been subdivided and renumbered ten times.
"409, here we are!" Mary sounded less than triumphant, and her hands were shaking slightly.
"I don't think there's anyone home," Matt told her. "I can't hear anyone."
Mary shuffled her feet. "Okay, well, it's probably the neighbours I should talk to anyway. Whoever lives here now probably didn't meet the old tenants."
"Great plan. Try 410, there's someone home."
410 was directly across the hall and had a shopping cart parked outside. Matt thought that was a good sign – old people hated moving, so they'd probably been here when Mary's adoption had been interrupted.
Mary knocked politely, to no reply, so she knocked again louder.
"I'm coming, I'm coming, hold your horses!" shouted an old lady from inside, and shuffled up to the peephole. "Who's there? Who are you?"
Matt pulled Mary back a little way so that the woman could see both of them, and elbowed Mary so she'd start talking.
"Good afternoon, ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm an orphan trying to find my parents and I think they knew whoever used to live in apartment 409, across from you."
"Really? Goodness! So you're not selling anything?"
"No, ma'am." Matt copied Mary's extra politeness, as if he were speaking to a nun. "We'd just like to ask you about the people that lived there a few years ago. We're from St Agnes orphanage."
She hesitated, but obviously decided that a blind boy and a little girl were no threat, and unbolted the door.
"All right, come in."
Mary clapped her hands together in delight, but Matt noticed that she kept them clasped, to stop the shaking.
The old woman was named Mrs Calhoun, and it turned out that she'd been at St Agnes herself for a few months back in the Depression.
"I don't remember much about it – I was just a tot – but my sister was with me and she remembers porridge for breakfast then soup for every meal, great pots of it. Saved our lives, most likely. Our baby brother died that winter."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Mary told her. "But you went back to your parents afterwards?"
"Yes, my father got a job mending roads and things looked up from there. But you two lost your parents?"
Matt realised what she was assuming. "No, we're not siblings. My dad passed away a few years ago." He put on his most teacher-pleasing smile. "Mary's too young to be allowed out on her own, so I'm helping her."
"What a lovely boy – it must be so hard for you to get around."
Matt didn't dignify that with a response.
Mary kicked him lightly in the ankle and managed a chirpy, "Well, I guess we're helping each other!"
Mrs Calhoun brought them some cookies and sat in an overstuffed armchair opposite their perch on a low table. "Now, what did you want to know about the Youngs?"
"That's a good start!" Mary had a notebook out and was writing the details down. "Can you remember who they were? Or where they went?"
"Now, let's see – I don't remember the father's name, but the mother was Patricia, and there were two little girls, Suzanne and Jennifer. Oh, but by the time you're talking about, the younger one would have been in college and the older one would have graduated. They both went, I can remember that. Pat was very proud. Pat and her husband retired out in Jersey somewhere around the time you say. Or Long Island? No, I'm sure it was New Jersey." Mrs Calhoun leaned forward, conspiratorially. "Now, you think one of the girls might have been your mother, perhaps?" She was excited at the prospect, as if the whole college story had just been a cover for their misdeeds.
"I don't really know, I'm sorry. I think it was a friend of theirs who brought me to the orphanage."
"So it could have been one of them, and their friend helped out!" Mrs Calhoun sounded triumphant. "They did like to have boys around, I know that."
Matt rolled his eyes, knowing she couldn't see it behind his dark glasses.
"Do you remember any of their friends? I mean, not the boyfriends, girls they were friends with." Mary leaned forward too, mirroring Mrs Calhoun's position. Matt didn't think she was doing it deliberately, but Mrs Calhoun was immediately more relaxed and ready to share. He'd have to remember that, if he ever made it as a lawyer.
"There were a few girls in the building, I suppose…I didn't notice any particular girls."
"Any Asian girls?" Mary's voice was full of hope.
"Oh, no, I would have noticed an Asian girl."
Matt tried not to roll his eyes again. If she'd thought Matt and Mary were siblings, she obviously wasn't the most observant about people in the first place.
Mrs Calhoun went on. "There weren't any Asians in this building until a few years back. Mostly Irish and black girls, that's all I can remember. They went to the elementary school right around the corner, if that helps."
Mary lost her expectant tension and leaned back. "It does. Thank you for everything you told us. It's a really good start."
Mrs Calhoun reached over and patted Mary on the knee. "You're a good girl, looking for your parents. Will you let me know what you find out? Especially if it was one of the Young girls."
"I certainly will," Mary said, in a sweet and completely fake tone.
"Thank you so much for the cookies," Matt told her, even though they had been chokingly dry. "We really appreciate your help."
Mrs Calhoun stood up to let them out. "Lucky you came to me, then. This building's had a lot of turnover since the eighties. Families moving out to the suburbs, seniors retiring to somewhere cheaper…I think I'm the only rent-controlled apartment here, that's probably the main reason. It's all surly kids and yuppies now." She slowed down, trying to keep her company for longer. "Maybe I'll see you in church on Sunday? I don't always make it, with the arthritis."
"Of course, maybe we'll see you there," Mary smiled back, pulling Matt out the door and closing it firmly behind them.
"She's right," Matt told her. "Everyone else in these few apartments right now is either at work or a teenager or kid. Oh, there's one person home in 407, but they're asleep. Nightshift, maybe."
"Huh, I can't hear anything."
"Pay attention," Matt said. "Listen carefully, you can hear when someone's home. These apartments have paper-thin walls."
Mary concentrated. "Oh yeah, I get it! I can hear kids playing Nintendo and a TV with Looney Tunes…I can't tell which one comes from where, though. Maybe the Nintendo is over there?"
"Practice and you'll get it. You're almost right about the Nintendo." Matt was actually pretty impressed. She had done well for a first try. Most sighted people couldn't place quiet or muffled sounds accurately. He knew how long it had taken him, and he had an advantage.
"I will practice!" Mary sounded surprisingly cheerful for someone who had got very little information. She stuck herself to Matt's arm again and headed for the elevator.
"Is that enough to help?" Matt asked her.
"It's the first time I've ever got a name, for sure. What if the woman who dropped me off was friends with the Young girls? They'd be about the right age, I think – the social worker said that the woman was maybe mid-20s."
"Like one of them was her best friend, maybe? So she remembered an old number from her childhood, one she knew well but would be hard to link to her." Matt thought about the numbers he knew by heart: his old home phone, Mrs Ferrara who babysat him when his dad was fighting, Josie's bar, Fogwell's gym, the talking books section of the library. The only numbers he'd added to that since were his high school and St Agnes. "That's still going to be hard to track down."
"Yeah, but names, Matt! For the first time I've got names! And they went to college – colleges have so much information online, they're going to be traceable. So even if I can't directly find their friends when they were kids, it's a good start."
They walked out into the lobby and something came flying at Matt's head. He dodged instinctively, remembering too late that he shouldn't be able to sense it, and the kids' ball thudded into the wall by the elevator. Luckily, no-one seemed to notice. Maybe the trajectory had been bad anyway.
"What the hell?" Mary yelled. "You nearly hit a blind kid!"
"Maybe we meant to," another kid shouted back. "You don't go here!"
"We're leaving now," Matt told them, keeping his hands spread wide and placating. Kids rarely bothered to beat him up these days, but it had happened plenty before his accident. He'd sometimes been able to talk his way out, even back then. These annoying kids should be no threat.
"Why were you here then?" another kid asked them, and threw the ball back at them, hard. Matt held himself still this time, ready for the impact, but Mary stepped in front of him and caught it against her chest, though it knocked a breath out of her.
"Now we've got a hostage," she said, displaying the ball. "Let us go past and I won't stick this needle in your ball." She held up her other hand, which, as far as Matt could tell, had nothing in it at all.
"You bitch! That's a Michael Jordan ball!" The kids moved restlessly, but they didn't take a step towards Mary and Matt.
"Come on, Matt." They went for the doors, with no intervention from the local kids, and as soon as they were outside, Mary threw the ball back in, aiming for the opposite side of the lobby so the kids would have to scramble for it rather than running after their targets.
She and Matt ran for it, dashing through the gap that an errant skateboarder had left, pedestrians switching their curses from the skateboarder to the two kids. Two blocks away, they finally stopped, outside a bodega.
"Ha! They were so scared!" Mary laughed, triumphant.
"But why did you have a needle?" Matt asked, not willing to let on that he knew she was bluffing. Well, as far as he could tell.
"I didn't!" She laughed harder. "Someone pulled that trick on me one time so now I paid it back!"
She took Matt's arm and they started walking uptown back to St Agnes.
Mary explained to him. "I used to have this stuffed toy turtle that I really loved, Leonardo. And there was this kid, Barney, who threatened to cut him open with a razor blade so his guts would fall out and he would die."
"You believed him?"
She punched Matt indignantly. "I was a little kid, okay? I didn't believe him exactly, but I didn't know for sure, so I couldn't risk it. So I waited until one day when the big boys had gone to the pool, and I went through all his stuff. He didn't have a razor blade, nothing sharp he could hide in his hand. So the next time he grabbed Leonardo, I called his bluff. He pretended to slice Leonardo open, but I knew he couldn't have, so I kicked him in the leg and grabbed my turtle back and he was fine!"
"Did he ever bother you again?"
"Oh, he bothered everyone. But he and his dumb brother left not long after, and he never came back."
"Good riddance. Do you still have Leonardo?"
"Yeah." She sounded unhappy about it, then took a deep breath and explained. "This isn't the first time I've run away. They haven't given him away yet but I guess one day they will."
"Maybe you should take him with you next time."
"Maybe." Mary didn't have anything else to say and they returned to the orphanage in silence; Mary through the hole in the fence and Matt through the front doors.
The next afternoon Mary showed up in the study room after school, when Matt was settling down to do his math worksheets.
"You want me to read those?"
"Thanks. You need computer time?"
"Of course I do!"
They got through the worksheet in a quarter of the time it would have taken Matt alone – and this one only had a few typos – and headed down to the computer room. Matt had a debate speech to plan, which he did as Mary got online and talked to her internet friends.
"Any luck on the Young sisters?" he asked, after a while.
"Yeah, actually. One is a nurse and the other one works in an accounts department."
"A nurse might have reason to leave a baby at an orphanage."
Mary didn't sound convinced. "As far as we can tell, neither of them have ever been out of the tri-state area, except for a few trips to DC. They, well, they don't sound like very exciting people."
"Why would you want them to be exciting?" Matt snapped at her. "Exciting people end up dead." He thought about the cheers of his dad's last fight, how thrilled everyone had been. And just how short that excitement had been.
"No, I didn't mean that –" Mary stuttered. "I don't know. I guess I just built up a picture of these people, my parents, who were doing something so important that they couldn't look after me. You don't think of an accountant or whoever hiding a baby from her mother. And dumping the kid across the country so no-one can trace her back."
Matt sighed. Mary didn't deserve him getting mad at her. "Yeah, I know. Whatever reasons they had, I think it sucks that you don't get to know them. And I hope you can fix that."
Mary walked around the computer table and punched him lightly in the arm. "Thanks, Matt. You're pretty cool for a total teacher's pet."
The next day, when Matt got back from school, Mary was gone.
"Sister, what happened to Mary?" he asked Sister Immaculata, who happened to be the one looking in on the study room.
"Mary Sue Poots? What a nice, quiet girl. California sent a social worker to collect her and she's on her way home now."
"Oh. Thanks for letting me know, Sister."
Two months later, Matt got a postcard from Macon, Georgia, of all places. It was written in block print, the pen dug hard into the shiny card to leave an impression he could easily read.
Hi Matt! I'm probably back at the home in Cali by the time you get this! Hope you can read it! Don't worry, I'm still looking! It wasn't the Youngs! Love from MSP.
He sent one back, in Braille, to Mary's group home, but heard nothing back. At first he felt vaguely disappointed, but after a while – no Christmas card either, and he knew the nuns made kids send a card back to everyone who sent them one – he just let it go. It wasn't as if they had time to really be friends, and, after all, Mary had something to do with her life that Matt couldn't help with anymore. It was no surprise that she didn't want to stay in touch.
Years later, when the SHIELD archive went public, Matt – along with most of the rest of the world – searched his own name and was most surprised to find it, along with "Mary Sue Poots", in a small digitised archive of letters and postcards. Mary had been writing to him, but everything she wrote bar that one postcard while on the run had been intercepted and filed by SHIELD. So had the cards and letters he'd sent her. He laughed, quietly. Maybe her parents really had been exciting people!
Foggy leaned over the wobbly partition between their cubicles. "You found yourself yet? I showed up in student protests, like ten times! Who knew I was such a dangerous radical?"
Matt shut the file. "Nothing important. Some angry letters I wrote about disability access. One day we'll rise up and then SHIELD will fall! Oh, wait, they did that already. We're too late, my radical friend."
Foggy shook his head. "I'm shaking my head. Man, I cannot wait to see what freaky stuff is in that archive. Right back to the days of J Edgar Hoover, for sure, and we all know he was a kinky dude."
"Yeah. I guess a lot of secrets are going to be coming out in the next few hours. And you know what that means?"
Foggy cheered. "More jobs for lawyers! Woo hoo!"
Matt turned off his Braille display. He'd check up on Mary later, sure, but now he felt oddly cheered that she hadn't dumped him the moment he was no longer useful. Maybe they really had been friends, even for only a week.
He stood up and went around the desk, felt for Foggy's arm then lightly punched him in the bicep. "Let's go get some dinner before we finish up these depositions."
"What brought this on?"
"Sudden appreciation of a friend who can keep my secrets, that's all."
"Sure thing, buddy, just let me get my jacket."
Matt smiled, and let him go.