I jumped out of bed much faster than normal when my alarm went off. The sun was barely up, but that didn’t matter. Today was a very important day. I had gotten a letter with an offer I couldn’t refuse, and had to propose it to my friends in a way that they wouldn’t refuse either.
Not having phones made this much harder than it should have been. Normally I would have called them, but that was out of the question. It wasn’t too bad though, since talking to them in person was likely to turn out better anyway. I just had to make them see that stealing wasn’t something that bad. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they said no, since that meant more loot for me. It also would meant a harder time doing whatever the mission was, but I could get over that.
I took a shower and got dressed, before remembering today was a gym day. That necessitated a change of clothes, which didn’t take too long. Somehow, the whole quarantine incident had made me much less afraid of gym. At least, it made me dread it less, there was no telling how I would feel once it actually started. Emma and her horde were still going to be there, unless they had somehow been affected by the explosion. Well, I could maybe try to ignore them. I even made a daring move and didn’t wear sliders today. If Janine was right and Emma did have a crush on me, then fuck her, she could see whatever she wanted. Yeah, I probably would regret that later.
Checking the cafeteria before school, Jacoby was absent again. Just Ava and Claire to talk to during the day. I’d get those two to go over to his house after school.
English class approached quickly, and I felt more nervous as each minute ticked by. It was my first class with either of them. I waved them over to desks near mine, like normal, grateful they both were on time today. I had to somehow get them to go over to Jacoby’s today without seeming incredibly suspicious about it.
Fuck it, that shouldn’t be hard! It was entirely reasonable for me to be asking with no ulterior motive.
I leaned back in my desk so I could see both of them, and said, “So, I’m grounded. Do you guys want to go to Jacoby’s after school today to check on how he is?”
Claire looked puzzled. “If you’re grounded then why do you want to go to his house?”
Huh, that needed explaining. I didn’t even remember if I had told them what happened to Jacoby yesterday.
“Cause his brother died in the explosion and I want to see how he’s doing. I think it would be good if we all went,” I said.
Ava chimed in, “Yeah, I think that’d be great! I feel so bad for him, I know it would cheer me up if my friends came to see me if I was in a situation like that.”
Claire said to her, “I think so too; we should go. But Elie’s grounded, she’ll just get in more trouble if she does.”
I had to think fast. It would be completely pointless, though nice for Jacoby, if they went without me. I also needed an excuse to tell my parents when I got home afterwards.
“Claire, don’t you think that seeing him is more important? He’s grieving, and were his only friends that care enough to go see him. I can just tell my parents that I got in trouble at school and had to stay for an hour after. Since there are no phones, they’ll have no way to know I’m lying.”
She still seemed disgruntled, but nodded before crossing her arms and looking away. I didn’t know why she was so worked up; it’s not like I was sneaking out to do drugs or anything. She was just that way though; a stickler for the rules. At least for me to follow the rules, her strictness didn’t apply as much to herself.
I felt extremely relieved once that was over and they’d agreed to go. The first hurdle of the day had been cleared with flying colors. Gym sank to the back of my mind, but when the bell rang, it sprang forward once again. I wasn’t as afraid of it as before, but I still knew it wasn’t going to be fun.
The passing period allowed for a brief respite, a time to gather my thoughts. It didn’t help me gain any more confidence; just let me churn up old fears. I slowly made my way towards the gym, this time without Jacoby for comfort.
When I got there, the locker room was more crowded than on Wednesday. I was jostled and pushed as I made my way to my locker, and started shrinking in on myself. Janine didn’t say anything to me this time, just smirked and mimed a rude gesture while mouthing “Emma.” Somehow that unsettled me more than anything else.
Emma was already there when I got to our section of lockers. As I entered her line of sight, her grin turned huge and garish.
She shrieked, “Elie! Are you alright? Did anything happen to you guys in the explosion? Are both your parents’ fine?”
Shit. That reminded me that Ava’s dad was still stuck outside the city and I hadn’t asked her whether she was okay. Oh well, more pressing problems at the moment. Emma was at it again with her condescending bitchiness.
I reached my locker, then turned tiredly around. The charade was exhausting to preform over and over. I was scared, but that was morphing into being fed up as well.
“Yes we’re fine,” I said. “You know the explosion was small. You also probably know where I live so you’d know my house is nowhere near where the explosion was.” Maybe if I was more brusque she’d stop, or maybe it’d just aggravate her more.
She leaned against the locker, and motioned Maya to come closer, saying, “And I bet you know where I live too, right? Cause you’re coming to the party today?” She inclined her head hopefully at the end. Fuck me, I’d forgotten all about that.
For all the same reasons I told them before, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t trust them. They were just going to use it against me, somehow.
I saw Maya rush over to us, bumping me in the process. I stumbled sideways into my locker. Yep, definitely not going to their party. It would just get worse if I went, give them more opportunity.
She started whispering in Emma’s ear while I opened my locker. When I looked inside, I saw the shorts and the shirt. I looked down at my legs, and saw pants. Fucking shit. That wasn’t good at all. It meant I had to change. It was especially awful because of this morning’s moment of bashfulness, with no sliders or anything. Normally I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be in just my underwear in front of anyone, but Emma’s presence changed that. Before I had started wearing sliders, or the shorts to school, it had been bad, but Emma had gotten worse since then. I was afraid to find out what she’d do now.
After a quick glance behind me showed Emma still in hushed conversation with Maya, I slid my pants down quickly, and then reached for my gym shorts. As I reached down to put my feet through, I felt two cold hands on my butt.
Emma was seriously giving me an almost nude wedgie? The underwear cut into me, and I almost yelped in pain. I could feel her breasts pressing up against my back as she leaned in close. This was seriously fucked up.
Someone screeched her name, at the same moment I spun around and shoved her backwards. At least she still had a shirt on. Her expression turned to one of hurt. Faked, I’m sure. Maya pulled her away, to a different alcove, while flashing me an apologetic glance. At least someone felt remorse; no one else looked the least bit sorry about what happened, all giggling and whispering to each other.
I’d never fought back against the girls before, but it didn’t make me feel good, only sick to my stomach. I pulled my shorts on, and changed shirts, face burning. Emma came back, but didn’t say anything more to me. She seemed to be ignoring me, other than some sullen glances. Well fuck you too. Everyone was staring, at one or both of us. I rushed out of the locker room, embarrassed, all eyes turning to follow me.
Somehow, every time, Emma managed to top her previous performance. The weird thing was, it was only her who did the really bad stuff. Everyone else joined in for the teasing, but when I thought about it, that was the kind of thing they did to each other as well. Emma was the only one doing anything sexual. At some point soon, I’d have to give real thought to the idea that Emma had a crush on me. Preferably sometime when a toilet was near so I could throw up, as repulsive as it was. It was completely ridiculous to even think contemplate. No one could be that insanely bad at flirting.
I was still preoccupied thinking about her when school ended. I was determined as the final bell rang to forget about her until Monday, since there were many more important things to worry about.
First up was finding Ava and Claire after school. I spotted Ava’s strawberry blonde hair, slightly above the rest of the girls she was with. I wrestled her away from her friends, and set off to find Claire, who we discovered talking to a group of boys, explaining something or other about history. Anyone who needed help in that class needed some serious mental help too. Most everyone else failed, something I considered herculean in difficulty.
We started off to Jacoby’s. It would probably be awkward when we all showed up there, but we could escape up to his room quickly. Having to deal with his depressed parents wouldn’t be too bad.
The bigger issue was him. I had left so abruptly that he probably thought I hated him or something. Hopefully he was thinking more rationally now, and would be able to figure out why I acted like that. I wasn’t mad at him anymore; I don’t think I ever was. Just had to keep myself from either slapping him or kissing him again. Each came with their respective problems.
We knocked on the front door, which was locked this time. I guessed everything wasn’t so frantic and crazy now. Two days had settled the town down a lot, even though it was stupid to have things go back to normal. We were caged, yet everyone was okay with it. Even animals in zoos acted differently at first, didn’t just keep calm and carry on. It was unnatural, artificial.
Jacoby’s mom opened the door.
“Oh, how are you guys doing?” she asked, injecting artificial cheer into her voice.
Ava was our spokesperson in these situations. She said, “We’re fine. We’re all so sorry about your loss though. I wish we’d brought a pie or something so you didn’t have to cook. We came straight from school, but I’m sure we’ll be back in the next few days with a full stock of food.”
“Oh nonsense,” his mom replied. “Thank you for the condolences, but we’re doing fine otherwise. No need for you to go out of your way.”
She waved us in, then shut the door and turned the key again.
“Can’t be too careful, some people might get ideas with the quarantine. This isn’t anarchy quite yet,” she said, as way of explanation.
Those people who did leave their houses unlocked would be our targets when we stole stuff. Strange to think about; if we gained a reputation we might cause people to lock their doors more. Making a difference, one house at a time.
We were just standing there, silent in the entryway, but thankfully Claire took initiative.
“We’ll just go upstairs to check on Jacoby.” And get him to join our thieves guild, I added mentally.
On the way up the stairs, I tried to plan how to persuade them, but drew a blank. How do you get someone to go completely against their morals and do something they would normally never consider? I had no idea. Before I knew it, we were at his room, and all I could do was improvise.
Claire knocked on the door, then opened it. None of us ever waited for a response after knocking on each other’s doors; we all just burst in. I hoped to sometime catch one of them doing something sexually explicit, but it never seemed to happen. I was unlucky this time too.
Jacoby looked up as the door swung back. For all I knew, he might not have moved since I left the room two days ago; he was perched in the same position on the side of the bed. I smiled at the memory. He still looked like a mess though.
We moved towards his bed collectively, while Ava pulled up a chair. Claire and I sat on either side of him, each wrapping an arm around him, while Ava put her hands on his knees. None of us spoke a word.
He broke the silence, saying, “Thanks guys. Thanks for coming to see me, I think it’s just what I needed. And thanks again Elie, for being here before, and what you did when I got the news.”
I blushed at that, and Ava looked curiously at me. She turned to Jacoby, and teased, “Something Sarah would be jealous about?”
He might have flushed, but it was always hard to tell with his skin color. He did manage to keep a straight face, unlike me, who was having a hard time not giggling.
Jacoby responded, “We didn’t do anything, God Ava! Thinking I’d take advantage of the situation like that.” Then he turned to me and smiled, questioning. I grinned back. Everything was all right again between us.
Claire was looking back and forth between us, puzzled. Ava grabbed her hand, and stood up, pulling her, and said, “I think we need to leave these two alone.”
I responded quickly. “That won’t be necessary! You guys could stay and we could all have some fun, but I’m not doing other than that.”
It was nice to joke around, but I didn’t want them to think there was actually something between us. Because there wasn’t, yet. Now still wasn’t the right time.
Ava laughed and sat back down. “Nope, not up for that.”
There was a pause, as everyone calmed down, then I said, “Okay, there’s something I need to ask you guys.”
“Well you already invited us to have a foursome with you, so I don’t think anything could be worse,” Jacoby joked.
“No, this is serious. And you can’t tell anyone about it,” I urged.
That last part was unnecessary. At least, I hoped they didn’t routinely share details of my conversations with other people. Everything I said came with an implicit ‘do not tell’ clause.
They all looked at each other, stoic for once, and nodded.
“Okay, shoot,” said Claire.
I didn’t know how to start. Improvising was normally one of my fortes, but this was such a delicate subject. I couldn’t present it too favorably, because then they’d think I was covering up something, but present it too unfavorably, and they wouldn’t agree. It would have been nice to have the actual letter with me, because that would work well for an introduction, but I’d left it at home. That was a stupid mistake. It was probably the concussion’s fault.
They were looking at me, curious. Nothing to do but start, as best I could.
I said, “Okay, so today, I got a letter in the mail. It had an offer in it, to do things for money.” There were some smirks and giggles in response to that.
“No, it wasn’t anything sexual, though it’s still morally… questionable. This letter said that I would get paid to do missions here in Stockton while the quarantine is going on. The only thing it mentioned specifically is stealing. I don’t know whether it will give me specific targets, or just a general ‘steal x amount of stuff’ order. I also have no idea why someone would want me to do this, since I can’t send anything back out to them.
“I guess it could be that they will pick it up when the quarantine ends, at least that’s the only reason I can think of. The amount I’m paid will be more than how much the stuff stolen costs, so I’d be earning a good amount, for the risk. What do you think?”
Jacoby started guffawing. “That can’t possibly be a real offer. Do you really think someone is going to pay you to steal random stuff from people’s houses? That’s ridiculous.”
I blushed a little. I wasn’t naïve; I knew that there was a pretty reasonable chance it was fake. It was just that the downside versus the upside favored doing it either way.
Before anyone else could ridicule me more, I said, “Does it matter whether it’s a real offer though? I either get money and more contracts for thieving, or I get a bunch of free stuff.”
Ava was looking more and more worried by the second. Her brow furrowed up, and she asked, “But what if you get caught? There’s a reason that people who aren’t desperate don’t just take stuff, because of the risk of getting caught. It would be bad if you got arrested. If the money wasn’t involved, you wouldn’t just steal stuff, would you?”
I had thought about this a bit when contemplating the morality of what we were going to do. Before I got the note, I would have been afraid of doing anything like that, and generally had an unconscious aversion to breaking the rules. When I actually analyzed it, that aversion was pointless. Yes, I could go to juvie or something if I got caught, but that was unlikely. I wasn’t stupid. I couldn’t say that to her though.
To assuage her worries, I said, “No, of course I wouldn’t. I don’t have a reason to just take something. As you said, it’s all in the external motivation. The mail came on a fancy letterhead, which I know can be faked, but it had a real name and company probably. It also came yesterday, the day after the attack. You really think someone would priority mail a scam?
“Also, there’s no point if it’s a scam. Whoever executes it isn’t getting anything from me. They aren’t even if they are paying me, until the quarantine is over. So I don’t see how it’s not worth it to do it.”
She shut her eyes, and looked to be deep in thought, formulating a response. I waited for the next assault on my morals, or general judgment.
Claire had been sitting silently, just listening. Right when she opened her mouth to say something, Jacoby broke in again.
“What about the other side of it though? Even if you are getting paid, you’re still stealing. You wouldn’t kill someone for money, you wouldn’t kidnap someone for money, you probably wouldn’t even get them kicked out of school. How is this any different?”
I had an answer for that, courtesy of the letter itself. “Well, the people here can’t use money much right now, since there isn’t the internet for shopping. That means people will have more money to replace what’s stolen. They also can’t use most of the stuff I’d be taking, high value electronics that are easily portable.”
“I don’t think that absolves you from the moral part, but I guess, thinking about it, it lessens the actual effect of the stealing,” he said, then fell silent.
I’d gotten Jacoby to at least stop arguing against the thievery as a concept, but that didn’t mean they were anywhere near willing to join me. Hell, they probably still didn’t like me doing it.
“Okay, so do you still have a problem with me accepting the offer, to test whether it’s real?” I asked.
Claire shook her head, but she hadn’t made any objections in the first place.
Jacoby said, shifting uncomfortably, “No, I guess it makes sense. Its money, after all, and it doesn’t seem like it would hurt people that much.”
We all turned to look at Ava. She was suddenly under pressure, and balked, shrinking in on herself.
“I don’t think you should do it. It’s too dangerous, someone might have a gun, or the police might catch you. You aren’t exactly the most cautious person. I’d feel better if Claire or Jacoby were with you,” she said.
Bull’s-eye. That was an introduction into getting the others to join me. I didn’t know why I was so fixated on having them join, but it would be lonely on my own, not to mention much less safe. Lookouts were always a good thing.
I stood up, and faced them. It was time for a grand speech. Because what the hell, I was feeling good.
“I agree fully that help would be beneficial. These missions will probably not be ones that can be fulfilled easily by one person. That is why I propose that we form a thieves’ guild, a group that will take these contracts that arrive in the mail, and complete them, whatever they are. Any type of illegal work is much more likely to succeed as a group, as long as we all trust each other. Which we do. Therefore, we are going to work together, and if necessary, fail together. Now, who’s with me?!”
Claire enthusiastically whooped, while Ava and Jacoby just sat there looking concerned, but also like they were trying to not laugh. A hard face to manage.
Claire exclaimed, standing up as well, “Hell yeah, I agree. I want to do this.” Her enthusiasm surprised me, especially since she hadn’t wanted me to come here since I was grounded. I didn’t know why she’d switched stances, but it was a good thing. At least now I had one person on my side. Just two more to go.
It seemed that it would be easier if I tried to get Ava and Jacoby to agree separately. Jacoby, I thought, would be easier since his moral objection applied to me as well, while Ava was just afraid for herself. Fear is harder to overcome than moral qualms.
Jacoby had an issue with stealing in general, a more prominent one than the rest of us. If I could get him to see how it wasn’t really going to hurt people, maybe we could work around it.
I turned towards him, and gazed intently into his eyes, in a weak attempt at being intimidating.
“Okay Jacoby. You don’t want either of us to do this because you think stealing is wrong, right?”
He nodded in affirmation.
“So how about you back up. Think about stealing in general. Think about why you think it is wrong. Then think about its actual effects, okay?”
He nodded again, then looked contemplative, staring down, face scrunched up. I waited patiently. Both Claire and Ava were watching us, not daring to interrupt. If I could get him to pick out actual, tangible objections, the actual aspects of his issue with it, then I could tear them apart individually.
Jacoby looked back up, seemingly ready to proceed.
“So what’d you come up with?”
He shifted positions, scooting a little further away from me so we could see each other better, still beside me on the bed.
“I don’t like stealing because it takes stuff that other people have. That’s just something I don’t agree with on principle. Ownership of property is very important. If that’s not there, society doesn’t function. I also don’t like it because of the use people get out of things. They don’t get that enjoyment anymore. That’s pretty much what I can think of, trying to break it down.”
I could work with that. There wasn’t anything too deep rooted. Thank God none of them were religious, because I didn’t think I could argue against the Commandments. Those were too big, too firm. His principles were weaker.
I crossed my arms to give myself a more imposing air, then said, “In regards to the inherent right of ownership, that just has to be glossed over. Try to just look at the actual effects. We’re also only doing very small scale stuff, and things get stolen all the time. It won’t have that big of an impact. So it won’t make society fall apart.”
I knew this wasn’t the most honest argument, since it’s stupid to do something just because it won’t have as large an impact as if everyone was doing it.
But, I still continued, “The people who have the things now aren’t getting use out of them as it is. If you want, we can only take electronics and other things that use the internet and radio towers, since those aren’t working. It’s pretty much a useless piece of metal right now, and people can get new stuff afterwards. There’s also probably some kind of disaster payment that people can get money from when this is over.”
He frowned, and repeatedly opened his mouth, but closed it every time. Fuck, I had argued him speechless. That was a good thing I think. I did feel vaguely guilty for using dishonest tactics, but then reminded myself what I was trying to persuade him of. If any argument deserved all available methods to be employed, it was this.
I looked at him expectantly, hoping he would be forced into saying something before he could think of an actual response.
I got him. He said, “Okay, I really don’t like this, but I’ll go along with it. I don’t want you to get caught, and I might as well go down with you. I would also feel better about the moral part if we do this as a group; since it’s less responsibility for me. It was also your idea, so…“
Now I felt even worse. I should only care whether I got caught, for my well-being, but this wasn’t a thing I could make that work with. Especially since I was the reason they were going to do it in the first place. Well, I could cross that bridge when I came to it. I justified it by thinking that it was safer with more people, as long as it wasn’t too many. If we all worked together, we could be much more successful than just me. Much less likely someone gets caught.
That was what Ava was worried about; getting caught. I patted Jacoby on the back, and he moved to his desk, where Claire joined him. Probably to start scheming. I focused on Ava. She was leaning forward in her chair, hands clasped in her lap, nervously messing with them.
Before I could start, she said, “I know you’re going to try to convince me. I’ve been trying to convince myself while you talked to Jacoby and he thought, and even before that. I don’t want you guys to do that alone, I think I’d be helpful. But I just can’t justify it to myself. My dad is stuck outside of town-“
Shit, I still had forgotten to ask her about that-
“-and my mom’s practically going crazy. She’s stayed home from work the past two days, just lying in bed or on the couch. She barely talks, and I can’t imagine what would happen if she had to pick me up at the police station. She’d go completely insane. And I love her, and I just can’t do that to her.”
Jesus; they were all, unintentionally I hoped, guilt tripping me. I was doing something somewhat similar to them, or at least forcing them into a situation where they had to make that type of decisions. I did care about them, even if I shouldn’t. I cared whether they were happy. I didn’t care too much whether they were conflicted, but if it led to unhappiness that was bad. I didn’t want to pressure her anymore, but my inner conscience reminded me to at least try to stick to my morals. Make a probably futile attempt.
I sat up straighter, and said, “I know that’s tough, and I hope you’re family starts doing fine, sorry I didn’t ask earlier. But you don’t want us to get caught, do you? You have such great eyesight, that would really help, and you’re tall too. Just think about if we got arrested because we didn’t see a police officer coming fast enough. How would you feel then?”
Her face twisted into a grimace, synchronous with my stomach. I wasn’t too happy about how I was going about this. Turning a guilt trip back on her, plus flattery, then more guilt. Still, I hadn’t technically told a lie. That absolved me of most the bad stuff. She couldn’t be left out of this group activity, it would just be too weird. We only very rarely did stuff with less than the four of us, and never anything as important as this.
She looked almost physically sick as she said, “I’d feel awful, but really Elie. You can’t do that to me. If you weren’t accepting this stupid offer, you wouldn’t be in a position to get arrested in the first place. Please Elie…”
I had to stay strong. I was going to do this, and it was going to be awesome, and we were going to have fun together, and earn a ton of money.
I said, trying to steady my voice, keep it resolute, “Don’t flip this around. I’m for sure doing it, Claire and Jacoby are too, and you’re going to be left out. If you really don’t want to that’s fine, but think about it more. I’ll signal the senders of the letter and they’ll send another one hopefully, and if not, then it’s fine; we’ll all know its fake, and we can forget all about it. If they do send another one, then we’ll go ahead with it. You can still join us any time you want before the first mission.”
I stood up, and announced to all of them, “Everyone meet at my house tomorrow, at three. The mail should be here by then.”
Her expression became angrier. Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have used that guilt ploy. I felt a little bad for her, but it was her fault. She could just join us and it would all be okay.
She stood up abruptly and turned towards Claire and Jacoby, who were sitting on the floor by his desk.
“I don’t know why you guys are putting up with this; you can’t just let Elie boss you around. It’s not right.”
She turned back to me, and continued, “You don’t normally act this domineering towards us. Calm down a bit, please. I know this quarantine has everyone edgy, but that’s not a good excuse to be a jerk. My mom’s insane, Jacoby’s brother’s dead, and you’re the one showing up with this oh so amazing plan, getting us to break the law. Please think about what you’re doing…”
The door slammed behind her on her way out. That was shitty. Fuck, Ava. She was the calm, nice one. Always had the right thing to say to change your mood, make you happy, no matter the situation. I was probably too demanding of her. She had the issues at home, and maybe that made her snap. Still I wasn’t being that bad. Not domineering or aggressive, though I guessed I normally acted a lot more normal when with only my friends. With other people, I was like this: rude, and pressing my point without regard for its appropriateness in the situation.
Claire and Jacoby were looking anywhere but me.
To break the tension I said, “I know what you’re thinking: she’s right. Maybe she is. But she didn’t have to storm out like that, you guys can at least agree on that, right? I’m going to go home now, so I’ll see you tomorrow at three?”
Jacoby met my eyes. “Yeah, sure.”
“I’ll be there too,” Claire chimed in.
She didn’t get up, so I presumed she was staying a little longer. Jacoby had mellowed out from his excited state earlier, and seemed to be becoming depressed again. Maybe they would make out while after I was gone. Well, they were welcome to it. Fuck all of them.
I left, checking to make sure the door was okay on the way out. Ava had slammed it pretty hard. It was extremely frustrating trying to get friends to do things they weren’t comfortable with. You had to actually be careful with their feelings, unlike in normal discussions. Otherwise you’d regret it afterwards, like this.
Fuck, it was all the quarantine’s fault. We were trapped in this town, and everyone was getting cabin fever, even if they didn’t know it. Ava wouldn’t act like that, and her mom wouldn’t have those issues. Claire probably wouldn’t be so impulsive, though maybe it was just that I didn’t know her as well as I thought. Jacoby’s brother would still be alive, and we wouldn’t have any issues between us. On the other hand, those weren’t so bad…
Still, it was all hellish. Life felt surreal, and that didn’t seem like it would change anytime soon.