Poor Henry Jennings. If you believe The Americans, the only thing he ever does is tell his parents where his sister, Paige, is. She’s the one who gets to learn how to be a spy and watch her mother kill a man in a parking lot with her bare hands while Henry sits at home and reheats macaroni and cheese in the oven waiting for everyone else to get home. What they don’t know is what Henry gets up to when he’s in that house all alone. It’s a lot more than you think.
Henry Jennings always loved the noises the modem made. The static rutting and frenzied synthetic belches of one computer talking to another, of passing little parcels of information back and forth. He thought it was like magic, like teleportation without ever having to leave the house. It’s why he spent so much time on the computer — the emptiness of the house needed filling. Each one of those squeals from the computer was a razor, cutting through the tightly wrapped tarp of his loneliness.
When Henry got off the bus every day Paige was probably at church or the homeless shelter, something boring like that. He would hustle off to his computer, swiping his long hair out of his eyes repeatedly, as he always did when excited, and sign on. His parents would still be gone for a few hours, sometimes overnight. He never knew, and wanted to get as much time on the computer as he could.
This afternoon was no different. He logged on and waited for the green cursor to start blinking. Henry was always seeing where he could go, how he could use the computer to pierce other worlds, conjuring up the right keystrokes to navigate his way through the vast spaces between mainframes. He felt at home on the green avenues in a sea of darkness.
His neighbor, Stan, told him about something they were working on at the FBI, how one of the secretaries had run into some trouble with the law and disappeared. Henry thought he might be able to find her, traveling down one of those green avenues. That’s the kind of attention Henry wanted: Someone finally seeing that what he did when he was all alone was worthwhile.
He’d gotten into the municipal databases easy enough, looking up his friends’ parents and seeing how much their houses were worth or how much they owed on their mortgages. Easy stuff like that. He found out that Matthew Bolson’s mom was arrested for a DUI a few years back, and that’s probably why he started taking the bus with Henry every morning.
Looking for Martha was a bit trickier. Henry knew he wasn’t an investigator, but he figured eventually he’d hit on something if he could gain access to the right places. Just as he was going to give up, shut off the modem, and play Asteroid Belt until he couldn’t put off his homework any longer, he came across a vague server with no title. PASSWORD//: ??? was all his monitor said. He entered REAGAN84, figuring if it was the government, maybe they were supporters of the president. His screen went black, then green. The cursor traveled down the page, and letters started to fill the screen: “CIA,” it said in huge letters across the monitor.
Henry’s heart pumped faster as the letters faded away and a command line materialized. Somehow, he had gotten into the CIA’s server. This had to be a mistake. It had to be harder than this. It’s not like Henry was a hacker. If he could do this so easily, couldn’t the Russians?
There were lists of letters, numbers, and symbols sorted randomly, like some kind of index. Maybe it was a code. Henry opened a few of them, their contents spilling onto his screen like so many squiggles, completely incomprehensible to the untrained eye. There wasn’t much he could do here, but his heart was still beating wildly. This was the farthest he’d ever gotten. It was like climbing a huge mountain: Once you get to the summit there isn’t much to do, but Henry didn’t want to leave so quickly. What if he could never get back?
Suddenly, his screen went black again and the cursor began blinking at the top of the screen. It was a dialog box. “Hello?” it asked, almost innocently. “Who is this?” Henry felt as if someone had just grabbed the back of his neck. He was so scared he couldn’t move. Was this the CIA? Some other hacker? Had he let someone into his computer just as they had gotten into his? He didn’t know how to respond. How could he?
Henry placed his fingers on the keyboard and the plastic gave a little rustle as he contemplated what to type. He drew a sharp breath when another message flashed on the screen: “I know where you live.” It was then the front door to the Jenningses’ house opened, and he let out a little scream as he jumped up from his chair.
“Henry, it’s only me,” his mother said as she walked in with an armful of groceries. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Where’s your sister?”
“I don’t … I think at church,” he stuttered. Henry sat back down and stared at the computer screen with the threat still staring back at him. He shut the computer down.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked.
“Just messing around with the computer,” he said. “I’m going to go do my homework. Call me for dinner.” He walked slowly and quietly up the stairs and felt like he was going to throw up as he closed the door and collapsed onto his bed. The house was full now, maybe too full. He’d opened up a door, and now he didn’t know how to close it.