Inside Out Page 47

I didn’t hesitate. He pulled the stepladder from the table, folded it and leaned it against the wall. In two strides he sat at the computer and whispered, “Stand behind me. Follow my lead.” He rested his fingers on the keys.

The door opened as I reached Riley’s chair. We both glanced at the man entering the room. He stopped short when he spotted us.

“Hi, Dad,” Riley said. “You’re back early.”

15

THE SURPRISE ON RILEY’S FATHER’S FACE TRANSFORMED into a smile. He had the same build as his son, but his thinning hair was brown and cut short. Riley’s blue eyes must have been inherited from his mother. His father’s brown eyes and beak nose gave him a friendly and inquisitive appearance.

“I see we have a visitor,” he said as he stepped into the room and closed the door.

“Dad, this is Ella, the student I’ve been training,” Riley said. “Ella, this is my father, Jacob.”

“Hello, Ella, I’ve heard so much about you.”

I shot Riley a look.

His father chuckled. “Don’t worry. Nothing bad. Riley says you’re a quick learner and coming from him that’s high praise.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Something happen?” Riley asked his dad.

“No. I had to work through my breaks, so my supervisor let me leave a little early.” He glanced at the clock. “Shouldn’t you be reporting for duty? Or are you training Ella here?” He smiled broadly with a gleam in his eyes.

Riley stood. “No. We need to go. Just need to get…something.” He strode into the bedroom.

Jacob stepped closer to me and whispered, “You’re as beautiful as Riley claims. I hope you’ll visit us again.” He winked.

I smiled and wondered what the real Ella looked like. Riley returned.

His father spotted the ladder along the wall. “What’s this?”

“Oh. Maintenance was testing air flow again. They must have forgotten it. I’ll return it on my way to work.” He grabbed the ladder and turned toward the door.

“Wait,” his father said, staring at the ceiling. “They forgot to cover the vent, too. Hand me the ladder.”

“I’ll do it, Dad.” Riley set the stepladder on the table.

“No. You’re going to be late.” He shooed us out.

Riley shrugged and opened the door. I hoped Logan had the sense to scoot away from the vent and to keep quiet. Jacob reached for the air shaft as Riley escorted me into the hallway. The door clicked shut.

“Let’s hope Logan doesn’t give himself away.” He strode down the corridor. “Does he know where to go?”

I hurried to follow. “No. I’ll have to go back and get him. Isn’t this dangerous?” I swept my arm out, indicating the hallway.

“Not really. Just act like you belong here. Walk with confidence. No one knows who you are. Since you’re wearing a student jumper, they’ll assume you’re from another sector.”

“Don’t you know everyone up here?” My vision of the upper levels as one big happy family was being shredded strip by strip.

He laughed. “No. Do you know all the scrubs?”

“There are ten times as many of us.”

“Well, up here everyone keeps to themselves. I have a few aunts and uncles, some cousins, a friend or two and I know my fellow workers of course, but that’s about it.”

“What about the real Ella? What if she sees me?”

A few uppers walked toward us, and I braced for their cry of alarm. They nodded at us and continued past. Riley was right. I relaxed a bit and looked around. There wasn’t much to see. Doors and plain white metal walls, the same as in the lower levels. The only difference was the thin strip of gray carpet on the floor.

When the uppers moved out of hearing range, Riley said, “You are Ella.”

“I am?”

He gave me a don’t-be-stupid look. “How do you think I justify all my time spent in our storeroom? My father likes to know what I’m doing during my off hours, so I tell him I’m training a student. Actually, his unexpected arrival helped me. Now he has met Ella and knows she’s a real person. It should keep him happy for a while. Although…”

“What?”

“He might start bugging me to bring you around more.”

Confused, I asked why.

Riley’s stride slowed as he stared at me. “You really don’t know anything about families do you?”

“Scrub, remember? We have care facilities not families.” I believed I did a good job of keeping the bitterness from my voice, but he still frowned.

“Well, parents want their children to grow up, earn important positions and find mates. According to them, that’s the key to happiness. My father, being no different, wants me to find a mate. It’s the reason why he was grinning so much. He’s hoping I have found someone.”

I considered his explanation. In the lower levels, scrubs waited until after their tenure in the care facility to become couples. Care mates didn’t hook up. It was frowned upon.

“Don’t you already have someone? Another upper?” I asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

He stopped and searched my expression. I tried to let my genuine interest show. He had been right about my lack of curiosity and my assumptions of upper life. I was determined to learn more.

“I haven’t met the right woman yet. Guess I’m waiting for someone to…surprise me.” He continued walking.

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