Blue mascara and eye shadow dripped down Ally’s face. Her whole body trembled with the force of her heaving frame.
“Um, Ally? What are you doing here?”
“You’ve got to help me.” Her voice quavered. “You’re my only hope. The treatments aren’t working.”
“Whoa, hold on, let’s not be hasty, girl. It’s only been a day—not even.”
“I can’t stay away from the raves. You’ve got to treat me again. You’ve got to make me better.”
Jaden felt a growing sense of unease at her words, but fought to keep his expression calm. It wouldn’t help either of them for Ally to know that her seemingly unstoppable addiction was as much of a threat to his well-being as it was to hers. “Look, I was just going out for a drive. Want to come?” It wasn’t safe to talk in the parking garage, and probably not even in his stupid flying car. The Corporation listened everywhere.
Ally nodded, and they rode in silence to the Ybor City Mall.
Jaden knew the mall had sensors, too, but he figured they were probably focused on catching shoplifters or identifying drug dealers, not tracking the conversations of two shopping teenagers. Even if one was a raver and the other looked like a dealer.
Once safely inside the mall, Jaden spoke. “How do you know you can’t avoid the raves? Your addiction is securely walled away in your mind. I saw to that. All it will take now is a little behavioral modification on your part. Stay away from the friends who took you to the raves. Burn all your contraband, including the stuff your parents don’t know about. Behave like a productive Employee of The Corporation, and your cravings will go away in no time.”
“I’ve already been back to a rave. This afternoon.”
“How? Didn’t your parents—”
“They don’t care where I go or what I do as long as they don’t have to see me.”
“Even after you were arrested?”
“They’d like to forget they have an addict as a daughter.” She snorted out a laugh. “Besides, you cured me, remember? The super-adept cybernarc, or however that scary Asian woman described you. What did they have to worry about?”
The balding security guard next to the food court eyed them. “We’d better keep moving,” Jaden said, taking her by the elbow. “The walls have ears—not to mention the balding security guards.”
“What are you so worried about? This is my problem, not yours,” Ally said.
“Bro, you’re making this my problem by asking me to treat you again.”
“So you’ll do it?”
Jaden turned and took her hands in his. “Ally, you’re a neophyte when it comes to dealing with the system. If I treat you again, I’m supposed to pink-slip you as an incorrigible. You know where a pink slip gets you, right?”
Ally paled. “But I’m asking for treatment, not prison. I want to get better. I really do.”
“They don’t factor in intent here. Three strikes and you’re out. You’ll be remanded to the Unemployed Zone.”
Ally gasped. “There has to be some alternative.”
“There isn’t,” Jaden said, knowing full well that he actually had some discretion in the matter. It didn’t matter, though. He couldn’t have Ally coming back to the center to be retreated, not with those auditors hanging around the center. The Corporation would discover his powers were on the fritz, and he’d never get promoted to the Ripper Squad.
“Then you might as well turn me in now. I’ll end up there eventually. One day they’ll arrest me at another rave, and I’ll finally be out of my parents’ hair for good. They’ll have to deal with the humiliation of having a worthless addict like me as a daughter, but—”
“Cut it out already! If you really want to quit, why don’t you just do it? Grow a backbone, get some guts. It’s all about fortitude.”
“I can’t, I just can’t. You make it sound so easy, but you have no idea what I’m going through.” Ally buried her face in her hands.
“I’ve treated thousands of addicts over the last five years, and they all have some sob story—whether they’re addicted to video games, alcohol, or music.” Filled with derision, Jaden’s voice mocked hers. “ ‘It’s so hard. I can’t do it on my own. You’ve got to help me!’ ” Jaden pulled Ally’s hands from her face. “Get over yourself, Ally.”
“You’re such a hypocrite, Jaden. You slouch around with these big dreads, acting all cool, you obviously have a past, and yet you stand there lecturing me like the big, supercilious narc you are.”
Jaden was speechless.
“Look, I don’t need this. You’re not better than me. If you won’t help me, I’ll find someone who will. You’re not the only splitter in Tamlando, you know. I hear Reth Warren is also quite proficient. Some might say better.”
“Look, any splitter you go to will have to pink-slip you. The computers are linked. They’ll know this is your third time for treatment.”
“My parents won’t let me end up in the Unemployed Zone.”
“If that’s the case, why are you sneaking around behind their backs, demanding treatment on the sly?” Jaden asked. “Because they’re so supportive of you and your addiction?”
Ally folded her arms across her chest. “Take me home.”
“No problem.” He’d be glad to be rid of her.
As they neared Ally’s home, she finally spoke. “Cut the lights. It’s past my curfew.”
Jaden shut off the headlamps. This girl was bound to get him in trouble one way or another. His stupid Phoenix 5000 slid onto the darkened landing pad next to Ally’s parents’ home in the estimable upper-class neighborhood.
Ally paused, her finger hovering above the button to open the door. She turned to Jaden, her upturned face filled with fear and desperation. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you can do for me? Some alternate path I don’t know about? It doesn’t matter how hard it is. I’ll do whatever it takes. . . . ” Her voice faded off painfully.
Jaden started to answer her, but realized he hadn’t the slightest clue what to say. Corporate Culture didn’t leave that many options for dealing with addiction.
“What are you doing with my daughter?” a deep voice boomed.
Mr. Fayre glared at the pair without saying another word.
Ally bounced to life. “Hi, Daddy!” she called, as if nothing on earth was wrong. She bounded out of the car and around to Jaden’s side. She opened the door and pulled Jaden toward her father.
“You remember Splitter Emory, don’t you, Daddy? We met at the Ybor Mall. I was out spending my allowance like a good employee. Jaden complimented me on how well I was doing and offered me a ride home. Isn’t that right, Jaden?”
Mr. Fayre ignored Ally’s blathering. “You’re late. It’s past your curfew.”
“Not much, Daddy, and I would have been even later if it wasn’t for Jaden. I just lost track of the time at the mall, that’s all.”
“It’s all being delivered. I didn’t think I’d have a ride home until I met Jaden.”
“You can fabricate whatever stories you’d like, but I know the truth. You probably spent it all at some rave.”
“Daddy, I’m cured. Ask Jaden. I don’t do that stuff anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re still raving or not. You’ll always be an addict—and an embarrassment.”
Jaden heard his own life echoed in Ally’s. Just as Ally’s father would always see her as an addict, Jaden feared The Corporation would always see him as the kid dealer they had scraped up off the streets so many years ago. But he’d gone through a metamorphosis, and so could Ally. They might not see it yet, but they would.
He couldn’t allow Mr. Fayre to abase his daughter further. “In my professional opinion, she’s doing quite well.”
Mr. Fayre narrowed his eyes. “In your professional opinion? What profession would that be—professional skateboarder? Besides, it’s only been a day.”
“Recidivism is almost nonexistent in my line of work.”
“And is that why you had to treat her twice?”
“A small leak in the fortifications, that’s all. Firmly patched and well secured, I assure you. You’ve got a good girl here, Mr. Fayre, and more important, an outstanding employee for The Corporation.”
Mr. Fayre snorted. “That’ll be the day.”
“Daddy, it’s true—”
“Don’t you ‘Daddy’ me! Get inside, Ally. Now.”
Mr. Fayre’s voice remained firm, but it lost its incensed edge. “Look, despite the freaky hair, you look like a well-intentioned kid, Jaden. Leave my daughter alone, for your own sake. She’s nothing but trouble.” He extinguished the porch light and went inside.
Jaden wanted to follow him, to decry his hateful words about his daughter, but he abstained. He had a better way of making Mr. Fayre understand. Just like The Corporation had helped him all those years ago, he’d help Ally become the person she wanted to be, no matter what the cost. And he knew just how to do it.