While the rest of Atlanta has expanded greatly in recent years, exploding into the biggest metropolis on the continent, the Cobb County area has largely remained stagnant, getting richer but growing very little. Its county seat Marietta for a long while has been considered one of the most high-class, wealthy districts in all of Atlanta. If your family lives in Cobb County and you aren’t making more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, let’s just say you’re probably going to feel out of place.
I already feel out of place, and I’ve only been here an hour. Thanks to rich people getting everything first, there’s a rapid train that goes directly from Central Station to downtown Marietta, and from there you can get to Middlebridge with just a bus ride. I wouldn’t have been able to do this myself without getting lost, but with Karina here, we actually make it to the high school a little earlier than we expected.
The neighborhood the Burrows live in was daunting enough, but this is a whole city of wealth.
Karina and I, trying to pose as high school students as best we can, are wearing casual outfits that could hopefully plausibly pass off for a teenager’s– me my only remaining decent t-shirt (forest green with the Pikmin logo) with shorts, and Karina a plain gray hoodie with leggings. Why she’s wearing that hoodie again after the uh, incident the other day, is beyond me. Not to mention it’s hot as usual.
Our temperature tolerance rates must be different.
We stand in front of the entrance to Middlebridge High School and College.
“Wow, I wish I went to a school like this,” Karina says. “They probably get teachers who actually care about teaching.” That sounds like bitter sarcasm on her end, but I think she genuinely means that. “I think I’ve made a couple deliveries near here before, but I’ve never seen this campus before. It’s beautiful.”
I actually have been here once before, thanks to my misadventures with R8PR.
For a high school, this is definitely top-tier. It’s the kind of school where they not only have hedges, but those hedges are regularly trimmed. In fact, there’s a worker up on a ladder right now cutting down a bush into the shape of an elephant, the school’s mascot.
The place is empty and lax enough that us trespassing onto the property goes off without a hitch.
“I really hope this goes well,” Karina says. “If we can be done with all of this by the middle of the afternoon, it’ll all work out. If not, things will get annoying.”
“Oh, today must be…”
“Yeah, it’s Friday.”
Karina always has some sort of thing going on on Friday evenings. She refuses to give me any details as to what, but it’s consistently every week. I don’t want to pry, but…
“Even if it gets really serious?” I ask.
“This isn’t the type of thing that gets cancelled even on account of serial killer hackers?”
“Well then… that’s good incentive not to let this investigation drag on,” I say, trying to keep positive.
Who knows, maybe we’ll actually be really successful here.
We enter the high school, and the halls are similarly nice. There’s rows of lockers that almost certainly go unused throughout the year, but even the banners pasted on the walls are nicer– made in Illustrator instead of Paint, if you know what I mean.
A robot hallway patrol paces up and down, trying to bust people for getting out of class early.
It facing away from us now, but it’s about to turn around and see us.
“I wonder how that robot works,” Karina says. “Do you think it’s programmed to alert on seeing anyone in the halls, or do you think it has a registry of every student enrolled? Maybe they have hall passes that the robot can recognize from a distance?”
I pull Karina along with me into another hallway quickly so it doesn’t see us.
The hall patrol bot turns into the same hallway. Ah crap–
I can’t believe a rich high school for privileged Cobb County residents has such a menacingly strict guard around all of their classrooms… they say poor public schools are akin to working in a factory, but at least it’s not like a secret prison.
Actually, high school really sucks now that I think about it. I never had particularly good times back then, and honestly I can’t even remember it that well at this point. If I had any good friends from back then still, maybe I’d look back more fondly, but anyone I was close with then I’ve mostly drifted apart from.
We have to back into a wall, a narrow gap between rows of lockers, so the patrol robot doesn’t see us. It’s a little smushed in here, and Karina’s face lights up like a fire. “Get off me,” she whispers.
Obviously I can’t do that at the moment.
Oh, I sure hope I don’t smell funny. I haven’t showered since yesterday morning.
The robot passes us, then reaches the end of the hallway and passes us again before veering off in a different direction.
Karina shoves me out of the narrow space and then takes a large step back. We both breathe a sigh of relief.
“Okay, so we didn’t think this plan through that well,” I say.
“No, we didn’t,” Karina says.
What do we even do now while all the students here are still in class?
Karina seems to have a guess, as she wanders over to a corkboard with posters and notices stuck up on there.
The only one that sticks out to me is a flashy pink piece of paper advertising the Middlebridge Girls’ Basketball team’s next playoff game. Apparently their team is on the path to their third All-Georgia Championship in a row? That’s pretty good. The poster is accompanied by a picture of a dark-haired girl in a ponytail dunking a ball into the basket.
“Look at this,” Karina says, pointing to a plain black-and-white text poster near the center of the board.
It reads “Open Dialogue: Ethics, Fame, and the Social Media Killer. Wednesday at 4 PM in the cafeteria mezzanine. Please join us.”
“I wonder if some of the Social Media Killer victims might attend this event,” Karina says.
“Nobody in their right mind would stay after school to participate in an intellectual debate,” I say. “Right?”
“I used to be part of the debate team in high school, so I don’t think I could say…”
I don’t want to make a rude comment but I have a hard time believing Karina was ever on any debate team.
Okay, I can’t resist.
“You were on the debate team? Karina, are you… joking?”
“No..” She blushes. “I mean… I wasn’t one of the top students, but… I went to a lot of the meetings and did matches. I wanted it to look good on university applications when I started my A-levels.”
“Well… you did more than me, at least.”
By the way, if you didn’t know, Atlanta’s education system has undergone a number of reforms in the last decade or two. When I started school, Kindergarten through sixth grade was elementary school, then seventh through ninth for middle school and tenth through twelfth for high school; you start school at age five and graduate at eighteen. Then you went to university for the next four years to discover and find yourself until you drop out or graduate with thousands of dollars of debt to the government.
But by the time I was in middle school, everything got shuffled around. Kindergarten has been turned into a years-long public daycare for children ages 3-5, essentially, with some learning but mostly playing and social interaction, modeled after the West German style. Then elementary school goes from first to fourth grade, middle school from fifth to seventh, and high school from eighth to tenth. The ages are shuffled around apparently to better group children in their growth, especially those awkward teenage years.
The most important alteration has been in erasing the final two years of high school; the education standards were sped up to accommodate this, but after age 16, anyone with a diploma can go out into the real world workforce if they wish. But most go on to the A-levels, a tertiary education program that has more advanced study. They are allowed to choose more specialized courses of study and work in different fields, but they are still given a general education that will help them if they decide to go to a university. They’re supposed to serve as the introductory classes for potential degree programs so that students can figure out what they’re actually interested in. By the end of the A-levels, every student is asked to submit a final project to showcase what they have learned in their time studying, kind of like a baby’s first thesis, and then that project will be part of university applications.
I did my A-levels but decided not to go to university after all, because I felt like a general study of every subject was enough to propel me through my possibly-meaningless existence. It wasn’t. My final project was… something about mathematics, but I can hardly remember it anymore.
Karina, either using her father’s influence as a prominent scientist or scoring absurdly well on entrance exams, got into Georgia State University before she had even finished her A-levels. It’s uncommon, but it happens. With her grades, I’m still unsure how she managed it.
A-level colleges are usually separate from high schools due to space issues; most of them are repurposed junior colleges and community colleges purchased by Georgia after vigorous lobbying on behalf of Mayor Epstein. But richer schools like Middlebridge have the A-level classes built right into the school. They’re the kind that already have an amphitheatre and indoor badminton arena, so why not build an extra couple buildings, you know?
I’ve never understood how public schools can have such wildly varying quality of life experiences when they’re all funded by the same government with allegedly equal funds. Well, that’s Atlanta for you.
“I kind of miss high school,” Karina said. “University is so much more stressful when you have real-life obligations…”
“Quit school,” I say.
“Maybe,” she says. That’s not the answer I was quite expecting.
I know she’s had a hard time balancing school and life, though, so I probably shouldn’t provoke her. “You really did it to yourself by double-majoring while working, Karina.” I just can’t help myself.
“You’re an asshole.”
“I’m an asshole.”
“Language!” someone whispers in a harsh tone, right behind us.
We turn around. A craggly old woman carrying a large paper-filled folder in her arms glares at us. A teacher of some sort. “What are you two doing out of uniform?” Uniform…
The class bell rings and a few students begin exiting their classroom and going towards wherever they want for their lunch period.
Now I see it– The students each wear an indigo blazer with a red tie and black skirts or pants. Of course a school this fancy would have uniforms, even if it’s a public school.
A few students are wearing plain clothes though, so I wonder…
“We’re… uh, exempt,” I tell her. “Since it’s Friday.”
She groans. “You’re part of Mr. Reinhardt’s construction project?”
“I’m going to the principal with that man. He is a useless, time-wasting…” the rest of her harsh words turn into mumbles I can’t make out. “Well, you’d better change back into your uniforms and go to your next class. If I catch you out here again I’m sending you to the office!”
She walks off and the hallway becomes packed with uniform-wearing students.
“Time to go?” I ask.
“Time to go,” she answers.
We bolt out of the building.
There’s a few students walking around outside, too, mostly going between buildings. The music hall over at the corner of the campus seems to be a popular destination for students this period, with dozens of teens carrying musical instrument cases walking in that direction.
“Okay, so what do we do now?” I ask.
“Well, do we have any clue where Philip Rogers or Courtney Trudeau might be?”
“Uh, not really.” They don’t typically release class schedules for high school students on the internet.
“Let’s go over there. It looks really cool,” she says. Karina, besides the other hundred things she does with her time, plays the piano and was active in her high school orchestra, so she’s probably floored to see students out practicing by themselves all around the huge concert hall at the edge of campus. The ones outside seem to be doing solo practice right now, before grouping up into the full ensemble to rehearse later in the period I guess.
Darn these free-form non-strict class schedules.
One kid is playing clarinet, and he’s slightly out-of-tune, just enough that it would probably be rude to comment on it.
“I’m going to ask them about it,” I say, ignoring any common sense to be courteous.
But then when I get up to them, all I can think to ask is, “Hey, you ever heard of a girl names Jones Burrow?”
They take a long look at me, and then put the clarinet back in their mouth and continue to play. I will admit it was not the least conspicuous question I have ever asked.
Oh hey, there are some other students, a couple of boys, who aren’t wearing uniforms. They seem like they could be useful. One of them has a hat turned backwards and both are wearing oversized striped shirts, so it’s nice to know fashion hasn’t changed much since I graduated.
They are both wandering around in circles while one of them talks with large arm gestures and stares into the mid-distance. Must be romance problems.
Before the teens scamper off, I call them over. They have the baddest attitude I’ve ever seen out of high-class students; one of them is chewing gum and loudly smacking, while the other, besides his aforementioned hat, is crossing his arms at me and looking pretty displeased. What hooligans.
“Yeah?” one of them asks. “You in Mr. Reinhardt’s class too?”
“I ain’t seen them before,” the other says. “I think they’re phonies.”
“We’re hardly phonies,” I say.
“You don’t even look like a high schooler. What’s with that cast?”
I knew this would never work.
“Hey, sorry to bother you,” I say. “But I wanted to ask you a question or two.” The boy chewing gum nods at Karina and flashes his eyebrows at her. She pushes up her glasses and rolls her eyes. “Do you know a girl named Jones Burrow?”
One of them snickers and nudges his friend with his elbow. “Heh, do we KNOW her…”
“They say she don’t talk to anyone,” the other says. “I sure got her to talk at Mitch Dukakis’s party last month… Real loud, if you know what I mean. She was really… FEELING it, if you know what I mean. You know what I mean, girl?” He winks at Karina. Karina scowls.
“We get what you mean,” I say, “Tell us what you actually know about her. Seriously.”
The backwards hat one scoffs. “Let’s get out of here, dudes.” They both scamper off, presumably to cut class and knock over recycling bins on their way out.
“Well?” I shrug.
“The next period is probably going to start soon, so we need to hurry or we’ll be stuck here all day..” Karina clearly doesn’t want to be here any longer than she has to, because she’s shaking with anger right now. “High school never changes, does it?”
I shrug. “Probably not.”
We keep walking.
I’m still awestruck at how rich this school is. Most schools in downtown Atlanta area single large building with an athletic center to the side and a parking garage underneath. Some have a significant number of classrooms built entirely underground, though many parents and teachers protest this because of how drab and contained it makes classes feel.
But this one is like a university campus, with one main building for normal classes, and separate ones for A-level courses, for music classes, for theater, and for science labs. They’ve even got a greenhouse up on the roof of the main building, it looks like.
Karina goes over to a vending machine and looks over all the drinks. “What should I get today…” she mutters.
“Aren’t all those drinks half-price if you get them at the store?”
“Well, we aren’t at a store, are we Morgan?” She shoots a glare at me as she puts two dollar coins into the slot and selects a Mugi-Tea.
Sorry if I want to save people money.
She tilts the bottle towards me. “You want some?”
Blech. I forgot, I hate Mugi-Tea.
I’ll pretend it’s okay though.
We make our way back towards the main building, where we see a group of teenage girls chatting and giggling while sitting around a small table. I’m… gonna let Karina take the reins on this one. I push her in front of me and let her do all the talking.
Not my cup of cola, talking to cliques. I can’t get past the hivemind and all the damn snickering.
“Hey, y’all,” she says to them.
“Who are you?” A dark-skinned girl with a giant lollipop in her mouth asks.
Karina immediately deflates, her shoulders slumping down. “Okay, I won’t lie. We’re not students here, we’re trying to find information on someone here…”
“Ah you’re probably here about the Social Media Killer, huh?” asks a girl so pale I’m worried about her health. “Man, there used to be guys coming around all the time with that shit.”
All of them start laughing and telling each other stories about the crazy stuff the Social Media Killer has done. Karina whips her head back and forth trying to understand everything. I don’t even attempt it. They aren’t running away, so at least it’s a start.
“Actually… do any of you know a girl named Jones Burrow?” Karina asks them. “Do you know if she’s here today?”
“Nah, Jones called out sick,” the real pasty one says. “She wasn’t in my Applied Psych class this morning.”
“I heard he hooked up with Mitch Dukakis’s older brother last weekend,” another adds.
“The one that goes to Kennesaw State?” the dark-skinned one asks.
“Yeah. He’s kinda ugly.”
“Probably all Miss Quiet could manage.”
They all let out high-pitched chortles.
Why is it always about sex? I really don’t want to hear about this from a bunch of teenagers.
“Okay… Do you know anything about… Philip Rogers?” Karina asks. “Does he have any relation to Jones?”
The super-skinny blonde one shrugs. “Never heard of him.”
“Oh, I have,” the pasty one says. “He got killed by the Social Media Killer so he transferred to some school in the sticks near Macon last month. Too many reporters harassing his family, I heard.”
“Well, that was a bit like we were going to do…” I mutter.
The blonde one eyes me.
“So what, you saying Jones is gonna get killed next or something?” one asks.
“Uhh….” Karina seems to be struggling to come up with some sort of excuse why she would be asking any of this. “Oh, what about Courtney Trudeau? Do you know her?”
“Well, we… ugh.” The girl speaking shuts up after the dark-skinned girl elbows her.
“‘Well we’ what?” Karina asks.
“We used to be friends with that total bitch until got killed too. Social media killed. She’s a huge loser now.”
“You weren’t supposed to tell them that!” the lollipop girl yells.
“Maybe you could help us find Courtney,” Karina says.
“It’s– ugh– She’s over behind the amphitheater. She always goes there during lunch. Nobody else sits with her on account of her being a total bitch.”
“Well, thank you very much!” Karina says.
We walk away and as soon as the girls are out of earshot Karina rolls her eyes.
“Those are the worst kind of people ever,” she tells me. “Girls just like them are what made every school day a living hell…”
“You should have just beaten them up,” I say.
“It probably would have been better than bottling it all up and crying for an hour after school every day,” she says.
Over by the amphitheater there is a girl sitting below a tree by herself, reading a book; she’s got bright hair but everything else she wears is black, and her eyeliner and eyeshadow are on thick.
“Think that’s her?” I ask Karina.
“Definitely. No girl reads Wuthering Heights unless she’s depressed.” I don’t know if that’s remotely true but then again, I never went through a goth phase. Karina? One look at her and you know she still has a stick of black lipstick in her purse from when she was fourteen.
Karina’s got this one again. She may complain about lacking charisma and being nervous with people, but she’s a lot better at this than I am. Maybe it’s the high school setting. “Hello, are you Courtney Trudeau?” she asks.
The girl nods, inserts a bookmark into the page she was reading, and puts her book into her backpack. “Do you have questions for me?”
Karina squats so that she can reach Courtney’s eye-level. “A few.”
“I already told those guys the other day, and the day after that…”
I figured that other investigators, including my sister herself, may have already covered this ground before us, but I don’t like how it’s entirely possible someone else may have already connected all the dots together.
“But… you two don’t seem like assholes, so… shoot away.” Her frown is infectiously depressing.
She stands up, and Karina follows suit. Through all of this, Courtney refuses to make eye contact with either of us.
Karina gets into interview mode again. “So… What do you know about the Social Media Killer?”
“I got killed by them, that’s for one.” She begins walking away from us, then turns around to make sure we are following. “Yeah, I did some bad shit. I said a lot of horrible things about a lot of other people, and I probably deserved it. I lost all my friends and I’ll probably be alone my whole A-levels, but at least I got off better than some other guys who got killed on Netnect. At least I didn’t go to jail like the principal’s niece.”
“What are the circumstances?” Karina asks. “Why’d they choose you?”
“I don’t know,” she says. But I notice her eye twitch as she says this. “I guess I talked to the wrong person–”
“Do you know Jones Burrow?” I interrupt.
Her face goes even paler.
“Uh, I’d rather not–”
“Please,” Karina says. “We think she might be in danger.”
Courtney sighs. “Just… leave her out of it, okay? She doesn’t deserve this.”
“Doesn’t deserve what?”
“I did a lot of horrible stuff to her,” she says. “I don’t want her to get hurt anymore.”
“Could you… please explain it a little bit?
“It’s pretty simple,” she says, looking at me and making eye contact for the first time. “She’s the Social Media Killer, and it’s all my fault.”