My eyes shoot open.
Pain grips my wrist.
‘Dane!’ I try to pull away, but he holds tight, squeezing harder, watching my face for my response.
‘Let go,’ I tell him.
His face is no longer empty but instead crackling with something else.
It is the only time I have seen his eyes bright and engaged, like he has been plugged in. He doesn’t smile.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he says.
‘I’m not walking anywhere with you, Dane.’
‘Why? You prefer boys like Ethan who are dangerous? I could be dangerous.’ He pulls me closer, his breathing labored.
I feel his fingers dig into my skin, his blue eyes, pulled to sharp pinpoints, like an animal’s, adrenaline-driven, hungry for nothing else but destruction, empty of self and others. Dane, fully flesh and blood, but one hundred percent of nothing.
‘Not nearly as dangerous as me. I’m leaving.’ I try to pull away.
‘I said we’re going for a walk,’ he says, jerking me closer.
‘Let’s not,’ I answer, and my free hand juts forward to his groin. My aim is on the mark, my grip as tight as his. His eyes widen. His fingers tighten on my wrist. My fingers tighten, too. His eyelids flutter, his face reddens.
‘I may walk funny, Dane, but Ethan says I have the endurance of a horse. I can stand here all day long. Can you?’
He makes a last effort by twisting my wrist. Pain rips up my arm. In return, my other hand squeezes beyond his limits. He screams out, releasing my wrist. I let go of him, and he falls to his knees, moaning. Besides the revulsion running through me, I feel something unexpected—gratitude. He’s shown me how empty a one hundred percent human being can be. Percentages can be deceptive.
His face trembles, and his eyes are sharp and cold looking up at me. He is still trying to catch his breath, and I know I have only a few seconds before he comes at me again.
‘Jenna, there you are! Shall we finish our walk?’
Mr Bender comes through the woods, making a show of his golf club, swinging it more than he is using it for balance on the hillside.
‘Yes,’ I say, leaving Dane to contemplate how much worse a golf club in his skull might feel than my hand in his groin.
Mr Bender and I walk down the incline and cross the creek where a downed log provides a bridge. ‘I was in my yard when I saw you walk into the forest,’ he says. ‘When I saw Dane follow a short time later, I grabbed my club.’
‘Thank you. Between your golf club and my grip, I think he’s headed in the other direction by now.’ We walk out of the forest and up the path that leads to his house.
‘Should we call the police?’
I hesitate. ‘No. It wouldn’t be a good idea for either of us. I’ll be more careful in the future.’
‘You shouldn’t go into the forest alone. It’s not just that criminal. Sometimes there are mountain lions in the area.’
I stop and face him. ‘Really, Mr Bender—or should I call you Edward?—we both know I can be replaced as easily as a damaged Netbook. Backups are handy that way.’
He looks almost as stunned as Dane did a few minutes ago. ‘How’d you figure it out?’
‘The backups or you?’
‘I have five hundred billion neurochips, Mr Bender. It wasn’t difficult. But Father probably told you about that already.’
Mr Bender nods, looking down. He shouldn’t be ashamed. He was Father’s friend before he was mine. I resume my pace. ‘When you have five times the brain capacity, I guess it’s just a matter of time before you start using it.’ Details from two-year-old Jenna’s brain had surfaced sometime after I saw the old battered aqua car in Mr Bender’s garage. ‘And I finally remembered an old photo that hung in our brownstone when I was a toddler. It was of Father with his first car. The aqua one he passed on to you.’