The Company Van
“You’re scaring me.” Julie Jordan said to Dr. Huitre, who was now standing on the porch flanked by two security guards from Luce Laboratories.
Binny thought she recognized the security guards from earlier that day at the greenhouse. After a whisper in Zach’s ear he confirmed her suspicions. Grater and Barrios were in fact the very same guards that were flanking the thin doctor the lab coat. Grater looked smug. Barrios just looked uncomfortable.
“There is nothing to be scared about. It is simply a precaution.” Huitre put his hands on Cassie’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze. Cassie was actually approaching the end of her ice cream cone at this point.
Binny found it hard to listen to what Huitre was saying. All she could do was stare at the small bandage and the slightly larger bruised lump that had formed on the side of Huitre’s forehead. If Huitre blamed the children for what happened, he could have gotten them in big trouble when Binny’s parents inquired about his injury. But he just laughed it off saying he had been ‘clumsy’.
“Could you please explain to me again – why this has to happen right now?” Jay Jordan had a note of irritation in his voice.
“Where’s Rembrandt?” Cassie’s priorities were different than her father’s at the moment.
“He is at home, dear.” Looking back up at Jay, Huitre continued, “It was really your comment that triggered this. When you asked me yesterday whatever happened to the clinical trial, I decided to look it up. What I found was a note to all physicians who had administered the trial to check-in with children born from mothers who participated. Apparently in some extremely rare cases there were potential side effects.”
Binny felt dizzy. She looked over at Zach, he seemed to be shrinking into himself, watching the discussion between their parents and the doctor.
“What kind of side effects?” Jay demanded.
Julie squeezed Jay’s shoulder, trying to keep him calm.
“I want to emphasize that this is only in an extremely low percentage of cases according to Luce Laboratories, but they worry that children who were produced with the help of the drug could have increased susceptibility to meningitis if exposed.”
Julie gasped. Binny didn’t understand… what was that word? What did it mean?
“Okay, so let’s take them to their pediatrician tomorrow to get them checked out. We’ve had a difficult day. It’s almost Cassie’s bedtime.” Jay was starting to get angry.
Huitre continued, “Well, I do not mean to scare you but when I was looking into this, I also saw there have been isolated reports of streptococcal meningitis in our state. Your pediatrician would just refer you to a facility like the one at Luce Labs anyway. And in these cases, we waste no time making sure the children have not been exposed.”
Jay glared at Huitre.
Huitre continued pleading his case. “The notice about this possibility was issued two years ago. For some reason I never received it. I am feeling a special urgency now because of the reports.”
“So because you screwed up, we need to put our kids through some scary experience tonight?”
There was a long pause as Jay’s accusation sank in.
“What is geninmitis?” Cassie asked interrupting the tense silence.
Huitre tried to reassure her. “The word is actually meningitis,” he sounded out the syllables, “but you do not have to worry. I am sure you are fine, and this is just a precaution.”
Binny was staring hard at Huitre. Every single word out of his mouth sounded so smooth. But she knew in her heart he was lying.
Only briefly did Huitre stumble over his words when he saw Binny’s gaze fixed on him. “The chances are very very low, but I didn’t want to waste any time in letting you know and getting the children checked. I know you are their parents, but your children are also my patients.”
Jay was about to respond acidly with another observation when Julie gently turned him towards her using the hand she’d placed on his shoulder. “I’m sure that Dr. Huitre feels bad enough as it is that we just got this information. It’s likely the drug company that screwed up the notification. He’s just trying to help now. He’s just trying to protect the children.”
Binny felt like she was floating above the conversation. The worst possible thing was happening. All her efforts to discredit Huitre had failed. She could never convince her parents of the danger now, either in front of Huitre and the security folks from Luce Laboratories, or alone, they would never believe her. And given how fragile and distracted they were, she thought a big speech from her might cement their trust in Huitre even further.
“Jay, I think I would feel better if we just got this over with tonight.” Julie was now talking only to Jay. Everyone else was just watching their conversation. “I’d hate to think that a choice I made resulted in any possible health problems for the kids.”
Suddenly it dawned on Binny that their visit to Huitre earlier that day, which was her idea, was the reason he was pushing to have the kids go in so quickly. Their behavior had prodded Dr. Huitre into wanting to move faster. Binny was horrified that she’d not only failed to protect her sister and their secret, but was now directly responsible for handing her sister over to the bad guys. Binny’s skin felt hot.
That last argument from Julie appeared to soften Jay’s stance. He seemed only slightly more trusting of Huitre than Binny was, but Julie’s urging had convinced him this was necessary.
The heavy feeling in Binny’s stomach made an angry reappearance. But with it came the same resolve she’d felt earlier that evening. She may not have a super power, but she was going to do everything she could to take care of her sister, her brother, and her parents. She knew that the best way to keep Cassie safe was to stay out of the hands of Huitre and Luce Laboratories. But that appeared to be the very place they were headed.
Maybe there was still a way out. Binny knew Huitre was lying, but not about everything. Earlier in the day, at Huitre’s house, he’d made it clear that he too didn’t want anyone to know about Cassie’s power. He was telling the truth about that. How did she know? She wasn’t entirely sure. But, when she looked at him, she just knew he wasn’t lying about wanting to keep it a secret. Maybe he wanted to take the credit for discovering what gave Cassie her power on his own? Binny knew that scientists could be competitive.
But still, whatever his reasons, Huitre appeared to want to keep Cassie’s power a secret. This knowledge made Binny reconsider Huitre’s suggestion earlier in the day that they submit to the tests at the lab and not reveal Cassie’s power. If they could stay composed, and not reveal anything important, they would be free of Luce Laboratories involving themselves in their lives. Huitre’s proposal might be the only solution to their predicament.
But there was one more detail that was needed before this plan could work. It had danced in Binny’s mind since they were in the woods with Caleb. Something important. She was so close to seeing a way out of this. She could feel it.
And then, without warning, something clicked in Binny’s mind.
There was plenty of room for all the Jordans to go together in Jay’s station wagon but Dr. Huitre explained that in contagious disease cases quarantine was key until the tests were conclusive Julie wondered if she and Jay should be getting tested. Huitre said it was the kids with the potentially reduced resistance, but in the unlikely case that they found anything, they’d test the parents too. But “first things first”. Cassie was excited to go in the Luce Laboratories van with the other kids which made things easier.
The Jordan kids lined up at the back of the van. The larger guard, Barrios, went to unlock the back door but the handle opened without him having to enter the key.
“Are you serious?” Barrios muttered angrily.
“What’s wrong?” Grater asked him, heading around to the driver’s side of the van.
“The lock, it’s broken. The door still closes but it won’t lock.”
Grater eyeballed the kids and wagged a finger in their direction, “no jumping out while we’re driving, please. That only works in the movies. In real life you would get badly hurt.” It occurred to Binny that despite his warning, Grater didn’t seem particularly perturbed by the possibility of the Jordan kids going splat on the asphalt. To his partner he uttered a terse, “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.”
The Luce Laboratory van had a divider separating the two seats up front where the security guards sat from the back section, where the “prisoners” would sit. It appeared to be designed to keep whatever had infected the people in the back from getting to the people in the front. There were benches on either side of the back, and a pile of tarps up against the dividing wall between the benches, presumably to prevent any sick person’s fluids from spreading around.
The kids filed into the back of the van, taking their places on the benches. Zach was about to speak when Binny held up her index finger to both of her siblings and mouthed the word “wait”.
Once the caravan was driving up the Madrona hillside towards Luce Laboratories, Binny finally put down her hand. “Penny, it’s okay, you can come out now.”
Cassie and Zach’s mouths dropped open as out from under the pile of tarps, glasses slightly askew, emerged Penny.
“How did you –” Zach started to ask, incredulous.
“Shhh. Whisper.” Binny interrupted, admonishing him gently while keeping an eye on the two guards up front through the small divider window.
Penny whispered, “I couldn’t let you go alone.” Binny smiled sweetly at her friend’s loyalty. Penny continued, a baffled look on her face, “But how did you know I was there?”
“I’ll explain later. What’s important right now is that I have a plan. We only have a few minutes until we get to Luce Laboratories so every second counts.”
Binny now turned to her brother with a serious look and asked, “Zach, please tell me you still have Cassie’s coloring pages?”
Binny repeated the plan three times, making sure everyone knew their job. When she got solemn nods from each of them, she turned her attention to her sister.
“You have the most important job of any of us.”
Cassie broke into a proud smile.
Binny continued, “Do you know how superheroes always have a secret identity?”
“Like Clark Kent?” Cassie asked.
Zach patted Cassie on the back encouragingly for knowing the right answer.
“Why doesn’t he use his powers when he’s dressed as Clark Kent?” Binny was trying to keep Cassie focused on the matter at hand.
“Because then his secret identity won’t be a secret anymore!” Penny smiled looking satisfied with herself.
“The question was for Cassie,” Binny raised her eyebrows at Penny, “but that’s exactly correct.” Binny returned her gaze to her younger sister. “And your secret identity is – Cassie Jordan.”
“If that’s my secret identity, then what’s my superhero name?”
Binny was flustered for a moment not expecting the question. “That doesn’t matter.”
Zach suggested, “How about Invisible Girl?”
“Nah. I want Sparkle Princess.” Binny could almost see Cassie designing her Sparkle Princess costume in her head.
Penny piped up again, “Ooh, I like Sparkle Princess.”
“But you don’t sparkle, you turn invisible.” Zach pointed out. “And not even on command,” he added under his breath.
“Stop!” Binny corralled everyone, trying to keep her voice down. “Can we please discuss Cassie’s ‘superhero name’ when we’re not trapped in a van heading to a creepy lab?”
Penny and Zach murmured apologetic assents.
Binny tried to compose herself, knowing she needed to humor Cassie, “The point is, no matter what superhero name you choose, right now you’ve got to be Cassie Jordan.” Binny took her sister’s hand in hers. “Listen to me closely Cassie – you have to hide your invisibility power from everyone but the three of us. No matter what.”
Horrible scenes of Cassie being experimented on flashed in Binny’s mind. “Because that’s what kid superheroes do. They keep their powers a secret from grownups. Grownups would never understand.”
Cassie was so happy to be included in the older kids’ plans that she agreed emphatically.
Binny continued, “But do you know how to stop yourself from disappearing? What if you get stressed out?”
“Absolutely. I won’t turn invisible in front of any of the grownups. I promise.” Cassie sounded as confident as any seven-year-old ever had.
Binny hoped her little sister was right.