Ezra Reznick stood against the wrought-iron fence, between a couple from Japan who were having their picture taken, and a family of five from somewhere in the Midwest who couldn’t get their littlest to stop screaming for more than half a minute. There were tourists everywhere on Pennsylvania Avenue, along with police, Secret Service agents, and people who actually had jobs to go to, and Ezra wondered again if what he was about to do was a good idea.
The teachers had taken his class off to walk through the Mall, with plans to stop at every major monument that they ran across. From the last time his family had visited, he knew the Washington Death March very well, and had no interest in wearing out the soles of his shoes to go see stuff he could perfectly well see on a postcard. So he hung back and counted on the natural chaos that comes with trying to shepherd a hundred high school students through the city to hide his escape at least for a little while. Even if they did find him, there was nothing they could do that would be worse that what the Secret Service could dish out.
And they would. Of that he was certain. Only if they could catch him, though, and that was the key bit.
He took a breath, held it, and let it out. The black fence was solid and hard, as iron usually is. He rapped his knuckles against it and there was just a dull thud. He flexed his fingers and held them up to the bar again and pushed. This time, his hand went through as though the bar wasn’t even there.
Which, if you wanted to be really pedantic about it, it wasn’t.
Ezra had no idea how he did what he did. The first time he’d managed it was when he was eleven and his drunk stepfather thought it would be a good idea to lock him in a closet for spilling a beer. Ezra had yelled and screamed and pounded on the door until he he just fell right through it. Like a ghost.
It happened again about a week later as he slipped from the crushing arms of Otto Dunnigan, the resident bully at Ravensbrook Elementary, and a third time when that selfsame bully tried to shove him into a locker and he fell through into the classroom on the other side. Clearly, something strange was going on. And for a boy who grew up stealing comic books from the local drugstore, he was pretty sure he knew what it was.
He experimented, trying to make his new talent work without being furious or in mortal danger. And he couldn’t.
Several bloody noses and a few visits to his school counselor later, he was beginning to wonder if he had imagined everything. If maybe he was going to end up being the crazy kid in the school, the one who walked into walls and muttered about how it worked before, dammit.
In the end, it was his science teacher who convinced him. Mr. Tebow, teaching them about atoms and electrons and other things that none of the kids would ever need to know about when they grew up, said something that caught Ezra’s ear.
“Matter,” he’d said, rapping his knuckles on the desk, “is mostly empty space. It seems solid enough, but in reality, there’s more nothing in this desk than there is something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a golf ball. “If the nucleus of an atom were the size of this ball, the nearest electron would be almost a mile away. And in between here and there?” He bounced the ball on the floor once and caught it. “Nothing at all.”
Nothing. That word hung in Ezra’s head. Nothing. Lots of nothing.
He looked down at his desk and tried to imagine all the nothing that was in there. In between the atoms, between the electrons and the nuclei – nothing. He raised his hand, and Mr. Tebow looked a little startled before he called on him. “If there’s mostly nothing, how come we can touch things?”
His science teacher grinned broadly and said, “An excellent question, Ezra!” He then started drawing pictures of atoms on the board, explaining about electrical charges and how they came in positives and negatives. He went to the supply closet and brought out a stick on a base, put it on his desk and started floating magnets on it, north-to-north and south-to-south. It was the happiest Ezra had seen his science teacher in a long time, and he tried to pay attention.
About a minute before the bell rang, Mr. Tebow said, “And that’s why we can touch things, Ezra.” He picked up the golf ball and tossed it to Ezra, who caught it. “Your electrons won’t go past the electrons in that golf ball. If they could, then, well, – you wouldn’t be able to catch it.” The bell rang and everyone filed out. Ezra sat at his desk while the other kids ran to lunch, just pressing his finger on the desktop.
Mr. Tebow walked over, books and papers in his arms. “Thank you, Ezra,” he said. “Your question was really very good. Keep it up.” He smiled and left, and Ezra felt a little grin of his own crawl across his face. Empty space, he thought. He stared at the desk and his finger. And he had pushed.
Now, in front of the White House, he was ready. He pulled his baseball cap down low and put on a large pair of dark sunglasses. He took a few more deep breaths, closed his eyes, and took a step forward.
There was shouting from the street almost before he’d taken three steps. He opened his eyes and looked behind him – the fence was still there, along with a group of gawping tourists. He grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets. He whistled as he walked casually across the North Lawn towards the White House.
Moments later, there were three men in black uniforms barreling towards him. They looked like football players and were shouting at him to stop and get on the ground. Ezra felt his mouth dry up, and for a moment felt his feet settle on the close-cropped grass. He focused – this would be a very bad time to lose control – and kept walking. Whistling was a bit of a challenge, though.
One of the men dove at him, his arms stretched out to catch him at the waist, and wend right through. Ezra didn’t look back, but kept going through the fountain at a casual, almost touristy pace. The other two reached for his shoulders and grabbed handfuls of nothing at all. Ezra did his best not to laugh as they yelled into their radios for backup.
He had looked at floor plans online, and knew where he wanted to go. After all, if he was going to just walk into the White House, there was really only one room you had to see. He kept the West Wing in his sights and made a straight line for it.
A group of men in suits ran out to block his way and stood with guns drawn. An older man held up his hands. “Stop right there, son,” he said. “I’m -”
Ezra didn’t know who he was and didn’t really care. He walked right through him and kept on his way.
The first wall that he walked through led to a small office with a very surprised young woman on the phone. She yelled out to someone in the hall, who tried to block the door and failed. Ezra turned left down the corridor and headed towards the small suite of offices that surrounded the one he wanted to see.
The White House was in a panic. There were Secret Service agents filling the corridor, and none of them were able to touch him. They were barking orders in strong, authoritative voices that he just pretended were his father’s and ignored. He kept walking. An older woman stood in the doorway of the President’s secretary’s office, her arms crossed. “Young man,” she said. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Ezra stopped and looked up at her. She was really trying hard, even he could see that. “I’m visiting the President,” he said. And stepped forward.
She screamed when he walked through her, but he didn’t look back. He was a little startled when a stapler flew through his head and bounced off the wall, but he kept his focus on the simple white door in front of him. Nothing fancy or elaborate about it. Just a door. And on the other side of that door was the most powerful man in the world. A man who was supposed to represent the hopes and dreams of millions around the world. For the first time, Ezra wondered what he’d say when he saw him. He grimaced. The rest of the plan had been meticulously planned out, but somehow he’d avoided thinking about that.
He shrugged. He was a bright kid, he knew that. He’d think of something.
Ezra stepped through the door and entered the Oval Office.
It was just like he’d seen on TV. Paintings on the walls and elegant, uncomfortable-looking furniture. He stepped onto the carpet, pale gray and blue, with the giant eagle in the center. There were bookcases with carefully displayed books and gifts from other nations, and a bust of some guy with a huge mustache and tiny glasses on an antique desk. In front of the tall windows at one end, in between a pair of flags, was the biggest desk he’d ever seen, made from wood so dark it seemed almost black.
There was no one else in the room but him.
“The hell?” he said. He looked around, but he was alone in the Oval Office. “Aww, man,” he said, his shoulders slumping. “This sucks.”
“He’s in Indonesia.” The woman he’d walked through before was standing in the doorway, looking like she was trying very hard not to be angry. “And even if he weren’t, do you really think the Secret Service would have let him stay here?” She took a few steps in and closed the door. “You didn’t really think this through, did you?”
She was right. If this had been a movie, the Secret Service probably would have picked up the President like a football and carried him off to some bunker or other where no one – ghost-kid or otherwise – would be able to find him until he was meant to be found. All the panic that Ezra had caused would be nothing compared to what it would have been like if the President were actually in the house.
“No,” he finally said. “I guess I didn’t.”
She seemed a little more at ease, and took another step towards him. “And you probably don’t have a plan for getting out of here either, do you?” She smiled, and right there he decided he wasn’t going to like her. The woman was pretty enough, but there was a gleam in her eyes. She looked like one of those kids in school who knew they had you where they wanted you. Those jocks who made you buy lunch for them, or the girls who pretended to be friends just long enough for you to embarrass yourself. The fact that she was right again didn’t make any difference. This woman would bully him if she could.
“No,” he said again. “I didn’t.” He looked about the office again and did his best to look completely bored by it. “I guess it all wasn’t worth it, really.”
She nodded. “Now, why don’t you tell me your name and we can get this unpleasantness sorted out.” She reached out a hand to him.
Ezra stared at it for a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I will.” He wasn’t sure if what he was about to try would actually work, but he sure couldn’t make things worse. He waved at her, said “Buh-bye, lady,” and dropped through the floor.
He found himself in a cafeteria, surrounded by more very large men who looked very surprised at his appearance. As they started reaching for their guns, he dropped through the floor again. This time he found himself in a service tunnel, empty and dark, lit every few feet by dim lights. For the first time, he let his feet settle to the floor, and he leaned against the cold concrete wall. His heart was racing, and he was just noticing it now. “Holy shit,” he whispered. “Ho. Ly. Shit.”
He started laughing. He knew that he still had to get out, and he still wasn’t sure how he was going to manage that, but that wasn’t important. He had done it. He had walked into the White Frikkin’ House, and hadn’t gotten caught. Anything else ought to be a cakewalk.
He let his laughter die down, took off his sunglasses and wiped his eyes. There was a whole new world open to him now, and he was going to have as much fun in it as he could.
As he walked down the tunnel, he started making new plans.
Maybe the Pentagon.
“I know, shut up.” Ezra traced the red wire back to the control box, then started turning the box over in his hands.
“I’m just saying, you know. Keeping you up to date.” Sigrid leaned against the wall, picking at her nails with a small blade. “Just wondering if Mister Walks Through Walls is havin’ a little difficulty.”
Ezra glared over his shoulder. “Mister Walks Through Walls could leave you here to undo this by yourself, you know.”
She nodded. “He could. But he won’t.” She glanced at her watch. “Four minutes thirty.”
He turned back to the timer and ran his finger along the blue wire to the brick-sized block of C4 that was wedged against the door. If they opened it, a relay would trip, detonating the explosive immediately. As it was, they had been given ten minutes, more than half of which was already gone. The only reason he was doing this instead of her was that he had marginally more experience in disarming bombs.
Marginally. Once. And that was very nearly successful. Kind of.
He held out a hand. “Give me a knife.”
She didn’t move. “Which one?”
“Big or small?”
“It doesn’t matter, just-”
“Do you want the double-edged flickknife or that new ceramic one I picked up back in-”
“Just give me a damn knife!”
She clucked her tongue. “Testy,” she said. She dropped a knife from her right sleeve into her hand, flicked it open and handed it to him. “Ceramic is best for this kind of thing,” she said. “Non-conductive.” Another glance at the timer. “Oh. Three-thirty.”
He didn’t say anything, but just started slicing wires. There didn’t seem to be any kind of booby trap in place, but he started closest to the brick and worked back towards the timer. If it did blow up, at least she wouldn’t have enough jaw left to say “I told you so.”
The wires cut, he pulled the ends out of the putty-like brick and tossed it to her. She didn’t give him the pleasure of panicking, but rather just caught it in one hand. “Nice,” she said. “But I was kinda hoping you’d hold off until the timer was just about at zero.”
“Well, next time you can do it,” he said, standing up. he tossed the knife to her, and she caught that as well. “Happy?” he asked.
“Why, about what, Ezra?” she actually fluttered her eyelashes at him. If this was her attempt at looking innocent, he couldn’t imagine why she wasn’t doing time.
“I didn’t tell you I could get out of that room back in Jersey. All right? You had your revenge, now can we just get on with this?”
She laughed, and it was about as amused as that look had been innocent. “You think I was upset about that, Ezra?”
“You didn’t talk to me for weeks.”
She shrugged. “Okay. Maybe a little irritated.”
“You. Burned. My. Jacket.”
“I was trying to clean it.”
She smiled and shrugged. “Whatever,” she said. “The point is that now we understand each other, right? We know where all those silly little buttons are and no one needs to push them anymore. Right?”
He could leave her here. That was perfectly possible. Just walk through the wall and let her wait until someone wondered why she hadn’t blown up yet. He glanced down that the timer, which was still counting down. Two minutes. He took a deep breath. “Look. In slightly under two minutes, someone is going to wonder why there hasn’t been an earth-shattering kaboom. They will come investigate, and I know for a fact that they won’t find me here. Give me a reason why they shouldn’t find you.”
The pleasant expression melted from her face and turned into something harder, colder. “Because, like I already said – you wouldn’t.”
He had to fight to keep his hands at his sides. She really was right. He’d worked with a lot of people, had a lot of partners, but none of them got him the way she did. None of them clicked the way she did. He wasn’t ready to examine the feeling much deeper, but he knew she was right. He wouldn’t leave her.
Ezra shook his head. “Wait here,” he said. He slid through the door and, a moment later, it popped open. He stuck his head into the room. “This would be a whole lot easier if I could just bring you through with me. We wouldn’t have to worry about defusing anything.”
“Not a chance,” she said. “I’m not getting my atoms mixed up with anything else’s atoms.” She put the knife back in her pocket and swung the door all the way open. When she stepped out in the hall, she paused.
“What?” Ezra asked.
She glanced over at him. “What’s it like?” she asked.
He rolled his eyes. “We really don’t have time for this,” he said.
“Then tell me,” she said. “What’s it like?”
Ezra thought for a moment. “Ever been through a spaghetti strainer?” he asked.
He grabbed her arm. “Kind of like that,” he said, and they dropped through the floor to the room below, and the one below that. She’d probably spend a little time puking, but it would be worth it. And there’d be plenty of time to make up for it.
“I hope you’re happy,” Sigrid said, tugging at the ropes. “All we had to do was show up, hand over the money, and we’d be done.” She tugged again. “Out.” She made a little growling noise as she managed to get her left hand into her back pocket to reach the switchblade. “Finished.” There was a pause, and a quiet noise. “Hah!”
The knife clattered to the concrete floor.
The man chained to the floor in the corner shrugged, torn leather scraping against the concrete wall he was leaning against. The chains jingled slightly. “I told you to hire another guy.”
“We didn’t have the money for another guy, Ezra,” she said, trying to take one shoe off with the other. “We had money for the guns – DAMMIT – and the… What did you call them? ‘Foolproof disguises?’”
“I never said they were foolproof,” he said. “Just that they were good.”
She stopped moving and glared at the wall in front of her as if Ezra were there, instead of chained out of her sight behind the chair she was tied into. “Yes. Of course. Very good disguises. If by ‘very good’ you mean ‘Perfect for getting our asses handed to us and making sure we would never be seen by our loved ones again.’”
“You don’t have loved ones, Sigrid,” he said, and she could hear the smirk in his voice.
“You don’t know that,” she said. There was at least one more knife in the other boot. She started trying to wriggle her toes under the laces.
“You don’t. People with loved ones don’t try to scam the Mob.”
“Point. But that’s not helping us get out of here.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“If I can get this other boot off, I’ll be able to cut myself free and then – despite my better judgment – I can get you unlocked.”
“You’re definitely changing the subject.”
“Gimme a sec to….”
There was a minute of silence, broken only by the soft scuffle of her feet. Then a quiet metallic ‘snikt’ noise.
“Good,” she whispered.
“Did you just -”
“Shut up,” she said, and began sawing through the ropes. Her breathing became labored as she contorted her leg up to get to the rope that bound her arms to her sides. She cursed quietly but proficiently under her breath as she picked away until the rope came free with a soft tearing sound.
She grabbed the knife in her newly freed hand and made short work of the rest of her bindings. “All RIGHT,” she said, standing up. “Now, can you give me a really good reason why I should WHAT THE HELL?”
Sigrid turned around to see Ezra leaning against the wall. The chain was coiled up neatly at his feet.
He held up one hand, the other in his pocket. “I just wanted to see if you could manage it. Now let’s get out of here.”
“You could have helped me!”
“Yes, I could have,” he said, running his hand down the wall by the door. “But I didn’t. I wanted to see if you could get out like that.”
She spun the knife in her hand. There was a tiny spot on the back of his jacket, a little place where the seam had rubbed away a bit. It was slightly worn and discolored and it called to her, practically begging her to just jam a blade in there. She bit her lip and snapped the blade shut. “If you got out of those,” she said through her teeth, “you should be able to get us out of here.” She picked up her third knife and laid it carefully in his outstretched hand.
“Thanks,” he said. “And yes, I can. So long as I think about it the right way.” He tapped the concrete wall with the edge of the blade, causing her to wince.
“Do you know what matter is?” he asked after a minute.
“Do you know what matter is? Things.” He gestured aimlessly. “The stuff all around us.” He tapped the wall again.
She shrugged. “Concrete. Steel. Armed thugs.”
He smiled and looked back at her. “Nothing.”
“Well,” he said, waggling his fingers at her. “ Mostly nothing. There’s a little bit of something in there. But not a whole lot.”
“Well a whole lot of nothing is staring me right in the face, and even more of it is on its way to drop us in the East River, so if Yer Honorable Zen-ness wouldn’t mind holding off on the philosophy until we’re far, far away from here, I’d really appreciate it.”
He turned back to the door and tapped it again with the knife. “The neat thing is that there’s so much nothing there that, if you know how, you can just….” He slid the knife into the concrete quickly and quietly. His hand followed with it.
“Slip right through.” He turned and grinned and stepped through the wall.
She jumped at the door after him, and her hand slapped cold steel. “Ezra, you son of a bitch, what did you do? Don’t leave me here, you… you… FREAK!!”
The lock clicked, silencing her. She backed away from the door, palming the switchblade. The door swung open, revealing Ezra, hands in the pockets of his jacket and a smug grin on his face. “You comin’, Sig?” he asked.
She grabbed her other boot and pulled it on. “One of these days you’re going to tell me how you did that,” she said.
“I told you – it’s mostly nothing.”
“And when you do I’m going to beat you senseless.” She stood up and held out her hand for the knife. Ezra gave it to her. “But until then, we have a small legion of large men in bad suits to get away from, so let’s go.” Sigrid stepped gingerly out the door, looked to see that no one was around, and dashed off to the stairwell. Ezra followed, his pace slow and sure.