But the murmur in the dining hall grows louder. More sirens, more lights, casting shadows that swell and loom, monstrous, on the ceiling. Outside, a tangle of angry voices and the jostle of bodies, booted feet on pavement. He's never heard anything like this and part of him wants to run to the window, to peek out and see what's going on. The other part of him wants to duck under the table and hide, like the small scared creature he suddenly knows himself to be. From the street comes a scratchy burst of megaphone: This is the Cambridge Police. Please shelter in place. Stay away from windows until further notification.
Around the dining hall, students scurry back to their tables, and Peggy, the dining-hall manager, skirts the room, yanking the curtains shut. The air tingles with whispers. Bird imagines an angry mob outside, barricades of trash and furniture, Molotov cocktails and flames. All the photos from the Crisis they've studied in school, come to life. He jitters his knee against the table leg until his father returns, and then the jittering transfers itself inside him, to the hollow part of his chest.
What's going on, Bird asks.
His father shakes his head.
Some disruption, he says. I think. And then, noticing Bird's wide eyes: It's okay, Noah. The authorities are here. They have everything under control.
* * *
During the Crisis, disruptions happened all the time; they've learned this over and over in school, for as long as he can remember. Everyone out of work, factories gone idle, shortages of everything; mobs had looted stores and rioted in the streets, lighting whole neighborhoods ablaze. The nation paralyzed in the turmoil.
It was impossible, his social studies teacher had said, to lead a productive life.
He'd flicked to another slide on the smartboard. Streets in rubble, windows smashed. A tank in the middle of Wall Street. Smoke rising in an orange haze beneath the St. Louis Arch.
That, young ladies and gentlemen, is why you are fortunate to be living in an age where PACT has made disruptive protests a thing of the past.
And it's true, for most of Bird's life disruptions have been vanishingly rare. PACT has been the law for over a decade, passed with overwhelming majorities in both House and Senate, signed by the president in record time. Poll after poll still shows huge public support.
Except: over the past few months, strange things have been happening all over—not strikes and marches and riots like the disruptions they've learned about in class, but something new. Weird and apparently pointless stunts, too bizarre not to report, all of them anonymous, all of them aimed at PACT itself. In Memphis, ski-masked figures emptied a dump truck of ping-pong balls into the river and fled, leaving a plume of white orbs in their wake. A miniature red heart drawn on each, above the words END PACT. Just last week, two drones had unfurled a banner across the Brooklyn Bridge, arch to arch. FUCK PACT, it read. Within thirty minutes, the state police had closed the bridge, rolled a cherry picker to the support towers, and taken it down—but Bird has seen the photos, snapped on phones and unleashed online; all the news stations and sites had run them, and even some papers, too. The big banner with bold black lettering, and beneath it, a splotchy red heart like a splash of blood.
In New York, traffic had snarled for hours with the bridge closed: people had posted videos showing long lines of cars, a chain of red lights stretching into the night. We didn't get home until midnight, one driver told reporters. Under his eyes, dark rings bloomed like smudges of smoke. We were basically held hostage, he said, and no one knew what was going on. I mean, it was like terrorism. News reports calculated the gasoline wasted, the carbon monoxide released, the economic cost of those lost hours. Rumor had it that people were still finding ping-pong balls floating in the Mississippi; Memphis police released a photograph of a duck they said had choked, gullet bulging with tumor-like lumps.
Absolutely unacceptable behavior, his social studies teacher had sniffed. If any of you ever get wind of someone planning disruptions like these, it's your civic duty under PACT to report it to the authorities.
They'd gotten an impromptu lecture and an extra assignment: Write a five-paragraph essay explaining how recent disturbances to the peace have endangered public safety for all. Bird's hand had curled and cramped.
And here is a disruption right outside the dining hall. Bird is equally terrified and fascinated. What is it: An attack? A riot? A bomb?
From across the table, his father takes his hand. Something he did often when Bird was still small, something he almost never does anymore now that Bird is older, something Bird secretly misses. His father's hand is soft and uncalloused, the hand of a man who works with his mind. His fingers wrap warm and strong around Bird's, gently stilling them.
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks.