Book One – B.4

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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.

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Book One – B.3

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The moment I woke up the next morning, I knew the day at school was going to be bad. Jacoby was probably going to stay home, and everyone was going to be out of their minds about the quarantine. At least they would be justified in their excitement for once. Normally, it was some stupid thing that, anywhere else, no one would give a fuck about.

When I was awake and thinking more clearly, it seemed like there may not be school. There had been a huge disaster, and if that wasn’t a justification to cancel it, I didn’t know what was. They wouldn’t really take the Homeland Security person’s advice to ‘instill a sense of normalcy’ to heart, would they? You have a fucking fence around you, everything being airlifted in, and yet you act like everything is fine. It would be just like Stockton to do that, a place where nothing had changed since the 50’s.

I got confirmation of the town’s idiocy when my mom yelled up. I did have school, and even thought I was grounded, I couldn’t to be late. She got to stay home though, because her job was pretty much talking to people in other countries, something with business.

I was glad in one way that there still was school. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be able to see my friends at all today. Not having working cell phones really sucked; if they worked I could just invite my friends over, but without them, I had to go over to their places or just wait and hope for them to show up. At school I knew they would be there.

Even though I didn’t have gym today, it didn’t seem like it would be as much a problem as before. Everything was much more inconsequential now. We could die from whatever disease tomorrow, and even alive, were trapped here for who knows how long. It was even crazier, since the rest of the town was pretending nothing had changed. Like the old elephant in the room saying, except this was more the fucking Godzilla suspended over our lives, and everyone was just expected to ignore it.

The morning classes were typical. History, English, and Chemistry passed with their normal dullness. I continued my pattern from yesterday of staring at Janine, and she seemed to be basking in having double the pairs of eyes focused on her. In English, Claire, Ava, and I spent the period bitching about how awful the quarantine was. Normally Claire wasn’t one to complain, but this got even her riled up. In Chemistry Jacoby didn’t show, and I had to work with Sarah. That passed in awkward silence, and I wasn’t able to get the feeling of Jacoby’s lips off mine. Near the end, I remembered that Sarah probably didn’t know what happened to him, so I told her. She ran out of the classroom, probably going to comfort her beloved. How typical. Well, I was the one he had kissed, when he really needed someone, so she was late.

In the afternoon, there was an assembly, about the quarantine. I tuned it out because I had seen the full thing on the TV. It seemed most people hadn’t since there were choruses of boo’s at all the right places, namely punctuating every sentence. I made a mental note that the high school student body, mindless as they were, could form a good mob if one was ever required.  Not that I had those plans for the immediate future, but long term, you never knew.

The school day was much worse without Jacoby, especially with how we had parted. Hopefully when he came back we could pretend nothing had happened until Sarah was either out of the picture or irrelevant. It wasn’t so much that there was a sudden romantic spark as that it was so fun to do that stuff with him.

I said good bye to my friends, feeling melancholy, knowing I wouldn’t see them until the next day. No contact with anyone but my family for 18 hours was going to be hard. I guessed if I really needed it I could climb out the window or just run away; the worst they could do was ground me for longer, but with no phones or internet grounding could be pretty bad. I thought about stopping by Jacoby’s on the way home, but didn’t want to get caught in the morass of mourning, especially not bearing a gift. Nothing else to do but go home.

My parents were conspicuously silent when I opened the door. Instead of the usual barrage of greetings, all I got was silence. It was somewhat a relief, but it was also irksome. Could they really suppress their caring and interest in every minute aspect of my life? Well it didn’t matter; I shouldn’t be getting happiness anyway from their doting.

In the living room, there was a stack of mail on the table. Still without speaking, my mom threw me the topmost envelope. This silent treatment was getting to be a bit much. I picked up the mail for me, a rare occurrence in itself, and went upstairs.

On the way to my room, I passed Rick’s old one. It brought back a memory: the last time I saw him. It was the day he left. He had graduated high school a full year early, and was taking a gap year to volunteer in India before going to college. I had been excited since forever to be in school with him again, with him as a senior and me as a freshman. But he finished school before I came, and didn’t even stay in town. It was completely unfair, to just ruin my expectations, change something I was hoping to have as a bedrock to ease my transition into high school.

So on that day, he was in his room, packing away his last few things. I waited at the doorway, just watching him, before he finally saw me and smiled.

I walked over to him and pleaded one more time, “Can you please stay? I really need you for this, and you said you would be there for me.”

He sat down on the bed, gently pulling me next to him. “I know I said that, that we would go to school together, and I really want to. There are just people who need me more. If I stayed, I would hate myself for betraying everything I have ever believed in, putting me, or even you, over everyone else. The collective happiness of the hundreds of people more is important than your own.”

No matter how many times he said that, it still hurt. Tears almost started flowing from that, as well as the emotion of the day, but I resisted.

“That’s just unfair! You can’t be expected to put everyone else above you.” I knew that argument wasn’t going to get through to him since that was what he did every moment of every day.

He just smiled, and said, “I have to; it’s only what’s right. You don’t need to hear that argument again.”

If we had stopped there, I would have still been okay. Instead, I said, rightfully and completely justified, “Even if you don’t put yourself above everyone else, you should care about us. We’re your family, and you’re killing us!” Anger filled my voice, and I stood up and practically yelled.

He looked as if someone had punched him in the gut, and rushed to his feet as well. “Please get out of my room. You know that that is ridiculous, fuck, you agree with me on that. Don’t you dare use that against me.”

I ran back to my room then, locked my door and didn’t come back out until after he had left. Seeing his door now, I just wished he would come back, so I could talk to him again in person. Phone calls weren’t nearly enough. Mostly, I knew I was wrong, with what I had said to him. I did think it was ridiculous to put your family and friends above everyone else in the world, but fuck, he still shouldn’t have left. It wasn’t like he was actually accomplishing something. That was why I prioritized myself, and put everyone else far below me. They didn’t matter, and their fucking neediness had taken him from me.

My door was open, as usual. We didn’t have any pets or anything to keep out, and a quick glance in from my parents wouldn’t matter. My bed was still unmade, and the rest of the room was a haphazard mess. It wasn’t disgustingly bad, but clothes were scattered around, and various knick-knacks covered all the surfaces besides my desk. I put my bag down next to my chair, and set the letter on top.

The very existence of the letter was weird, since I rarely received mail. There were a few magazine subscriptions here and there, and the renewal notices that came with, but I could tell at a glance it wasn’t one of those. The only other mail I got was from relatives, grandparents mostly, but the name on the address was unfamiliar. It was Marvin McCree, and the address was some place in Nebraska, a town I’d never heard of. The fact that any mail was coming was strange, but I guessed it arrived with the rest of the first air drop.

The envelope ripped easily, and I managed to get the letter out without tearing the contents. It had a formal letterhead, and a gold and red seal in the upper left corner next to the name of the company, Right Man Industries. The name told me nothing about what they did.

I settled into the chair, and started to read. After the salutations, it started:

We would like to offer you a unique opportunity. Everyone needs money, and we can provide it, in exchange for some services. As your town is quarantined currently, we need people on the inside willing to take some risks for us, since our normal people cannot get into the area. Whoever accepts will be compensated greatly in return.

The actions we ask you to undertake are of dubious morality and some illegality. We will not offer you any legal representation or method of other escape if you get caught. The only solace we have is that punishment, especially for someone of your age, will most likely be more lenient, given the current circumstances.

We need people who can follow instructions, and carry out tasks very specifically. As communications will be one way for a while, if there are any issues we will not know of them. We will only know if a task is completed as assigned. After it is finished, we will send the compensation in the mail like this.

After a certain amount of time has elapsed, you will no longer be able to back out of this agreement without suffering repercussions. When two-way communications and the internet are reactivated, you will be let in on certain secrets that would hurt our organization if they were ever revealed. We will have measures in place if the unauthorized sharing of information ever seems like a realistic possibility.

If you accept, please place a large white sheet on your roof, which will get filmed by the news helicopters. We will then send another letter with more information on your first assignment. Many of the missions near the beginning will be focused on thievery and burglary. Hopefully you are comfortable with this. If not, we will find someone else.

Now, if your scruples are getting in the way, remember this. The people in your town are unable to use the internet for the foreseeable future. This means that they have little use for their money, as well as electronic devices. Thus, there is less reason than usual to feel sorry for the people you will be taking things from.

We eagerly await your response. You may involve up to four trustworthy acquaintances in any missions if you wish. 

I stared blankly at the letter, rereading to make sure I had understood. When I opened a piece of mail from a stranger, I wasn’t expecting this. I didn’t think anyone in the world would think this was something normal for a letter to contain. An offer to pretty much be a contact mobster.

I would get paid to be a cat burglar, and if I got caught, I probably wouldn’t get in that much trouble. That, as a general concept, seemed pretty awesome. Money was always nice, and my allowance was cut off while I was grounded. Being grounded could pose a problem to going out, but, stealing things would probably happen at night, so I would have to sneak out anyway.

I didn’t have a moral problem with stealing. It always seemed sort of glamorous, as long as it took an amount of skill. If I was getting paid for it, whatever my task was probably would take some skill. It was like winning an online video game, or scoring a nice goal in soccer; it hurt someone else, they lost, but what I got out of it was more than worth the harm.

Just because stealing in and of itself wasn’t something bad didn’t mean I did it. Mostly I’d been too afraid, and there was nothing I wanted enough. I had never really tried though. There had never been an extrinsic reward, which may have also dissuaded me. This situation was different, since I would get paid some amount for incurring the risk. I could imagine going into someone’s house, after making sure they didn’t have any pets, and taking some easy to grab stuff. I would probably be nervous, but that didn’t matter. It would be worth it, and if the senders of the letter never paid up, well I’d have a bunch of free stuff and wouldn’t do it again.

Now that I had persuaded myself, the next step was to get my friends on board. That would be a harder task. I had no idea how they would react to such a strange request, or whether they would have as much faith as me in a strange letter in the mail. Ava was a bit of a wimp, and Claire was too, but if it was only Jacoby that joined me that would be okay as well. We were the most athletic, so if there was climbing or running involved we’d be the best at that. He might not be at school tomorrow though. Well, we could all go to his house after, damn any other plans. Course of action decided, my stomach was tossing as I waited for the next day to come.

Last Chapter

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Book One – B.2

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On the TV, a reporter was talking about our town. “…and we have just received breaking news from our reporter stationed near Stockton. As he tried to drive into the small city, he encountered an army barricade. He reports that it is currently blocking traffic both into and out of the town. There are also troops forming a perimeter in both directions around the city.

Neither the state nor national government have answered our questions. But, our reporter at the scene has told us that there are numerous CDC personnel in the area taking air samples.”

We all sat still, barely daring to breathe. This wasn’t just dramatic news, this was dramatic news about us. Indirectly, anyway. The presence of CDC personnel was a bit frightening. That meant there was some kind of bio problem, like a virus. But then why would the internet and phones be down too? Shit. Whatever happened, it much have been pretty bad. It still seemed unthinkable that they would keep us here too long though.

The view on the TV switched from the news anchor at the station to the field reporter, who was near a place I had driven by many times. There were a ton of soldiers, on both sides of their vehicles, not letting cars pass through. They seemed to be in the process of packing up, and for a moment I thought they were going to start letting people past.

Then, as the first car drove towards them, the soldiers started gesturing to all the cars and people outside of them, motioning away from the currently erected barricade. I didn’t like where this was going. He should be opening it up and letting the people through, not making them move away!

The screen flashed to the reporter, and he said, moving back towards his news van, “It appears that the barricades have to be pushed back farther. It also seems lie the people on the other side right now are being asked to stay where they are and not follow the troops back to the new barricade location. No explanation has yet been given for any of this, but I’ll try to find out as much as I can. We will get a new video and audio feed going from the new location.”

He looked around surreptitiously, then rolled the microphone towards a gathering of officers.

From the TV, I heard snatches of conversation, mixing with the wind blowing past the microphone. “We need… quarantine… no one… out. No communications-“ The voice broke off as someone else yelled. There was a burst of static, then the microphone cut off.  The troops approached the cameraman too, and the screen went dark, before the news station appeared again.

The anchor said, a smile plastered to her face, “We have lost contact with our reporter in the field, but hope to have it resumed as soon as possible. In the meantime, here is a commercial break.” I looked at everyone else assembled on the couches. Most of them had started to look afraid sometime during the last scene. Personally, my heart was beating much faster than normal, and since the news report had started I had been having a constant adrenaline rush. I couldn’t think of anything that would be bad enough that would make a full scale quarantine happen that wouldn’t have already killed us yet.

While we were all too shocked to move, Claire asked, “What if it’s zombies?” I started laughing at that, and the rest of them joined in. It was nice to lighten up the mood, and I released the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Claire let out a little laugh too, but it seemed strained.

Jacoby gave her a look, and said, “Oh come on, Claire. There’s no such thing as zombies.” I was pretty sure it wasn’t zombies as well, but with how fucking weird things had gotten, nothing could be ruled out yet. Hopefully the news person would come back soon and finish telling us what happened. There still wasn’t an explanation to the internet and phones too. Claire shifted closer to her mom, who put her arm around her. I couldn’t think of anything reasonable that could cause all this, at least nothing specific. If it was a bad disease, then there would be extra Red Cross people and supplies coming into the town, not it completely shut off. If it wasn’t a disease, why would CDC people be there?

The commercials were still going when Jacoby stood up and announced, “I think I should get home. My parents will be freaking out by now. I’ll see you guys soon?”

I didn’t get why he wasn’t dying to know what happened. This was a huge news event, it could be the moment our lives changed forever, and he would miss it with no TV on the walk home. I was about to say goodbye to him, when I remembered my own parents. They would be frantic about me too. The effect of the news wouldn’t change if I waited to see it. There’d be a TV at both his and my houses. His was pretty much on the way to mine too, and I still wasn’t sure whether I could get home in one go. So I stood up as well, and turned to Jacoby.

“Could I come with you? Your house is on my way home.”

He looked surprised, but said, “Yeah, that’s fine. My mom might be able to drive you home from there if you want.” I didn’t think I would take him up on that, but it depended how late it got. I needed more time on my own to think about everything before having to face my parents.

“Ava, can you get your bikes home okay?” I asked her.

“Yeah, it will be fine. My mom will be able to come get me.” I didn’t remind her that there weren’t phones, so she would be able to contact her mom. I wasn’t going to ride a bike all the way back to Ava’s and then go home. Claire’s mom could handle it if there was actually an issue.

Jacoby and I left, and began walking to his house. He was fine with the silence, so I tried to come up with some valid ideas about what could be happening. There was no one allowed in or out of Stockton. Earlier today the air raid sirens had gone off, which only happen if there is a serious disaster or problem. Phones and the internet were down, but television wasn’t. The air raid sirens indicated attack, while the CDC people would only be there if it was biological.

Yeah, that didn’t really tell me anything, but what there was didn’t look good. The disease or whatever could kill us by tomorrow. If it didn’t we were still trapped here for who knows how long. Viruses and bacteria were some of my worst nightmares, because you couldn’t see or fight them. Unlike the girls in the locker room, there wasn’t a firm limit to what they would do. I knew those girls wouldn’t kill me, hopefully. With a disease, it was a flip of a coin, a roll of the dice. It was completely based on luck. Fucking hell. The air seemed thick to breathe after that, as if it had an intent of its own, and the streets seemed narrower.

The real irksome thing, though, was the futility of all of it. I couldn’t do a thing. Maybe at Jacoby’s the government person would be on TV, and would actually know what the hell was going on. There was no other option other besides waiting, unless charging the soldiers at the barricade to get out seemed like a good idea. I thought it unilaterally did not.

The front door was unlocked when we got there. We walked in, still not having spoken a word since leaving Claire’s. As the spring pulled the exterior screen door closed behind us, I heard faint crying coming from the living room. I had no idea what was going on, yet again, but all I could think of was wanting to be somewhere else. It seemed like someone had died or something, and I had no idea what the hell to do or say. Soon, Jacoby would be crying and sad, and I’d have no idea how to help him. Jacoby’s dad entered from the living room, eyes red and still slightly damp.

“Jacoby! Thank God you’re safe!” He moved towards him and hugged him, before noticing me. “And you too, Elie.” He paused, as if unsure how to proceed, before saying, “I need to talk to Jacoby alone. You can go up to his room; I think it would be better if he had someone for support after this.”

What his father said pretty much removed all possibility of escape, so I slowly trudged up the stairs. I knew that whatever had happened shouldn’t affect me more than a stranger’s death, but something about the proximity shocked me. I didn’t think I would cry, but it would make me sad. I shouldn’t be sad, other than the general disappointment at a life ending, but sometimes emotions are overpowering. Oh well, it was something I could fix later.

Jacoby’s room was in between those of his two brothers, Leroy and Brian. All three doors were closed, but I heard sobbing from behind one, while the other was ominously silent. I opened his, and sat down at the bottom end of the bed. There was some sports equipment in the room, but it was also filled with mementos of each of us, his friends, and Sarah. That was new since the last time I was here. I was jealous that she got to be remembered here with us, but then my thoughts turned back to what to do when Jacoby came up.

Fuck. From my limited experience, I wasn’t good at dealing with grief. No one close to me had died, only one grandparent when I was still very young. Pets, well those had always seemed pretty expendable. Therefore, when I tried to console friends about their losses, I was clueless. No personal experience on the subject of death would normally be a great thing, but this was an instance where it sucked. Not that I wished my parents had died or anything, it just left me without an idea of what to do.

After a few more minutes looking aimlessly around the room, mind running in circles, Jacoby opened the door, then slammed it behind him. His eyes were bloodshot, and tears streaked his cheeks. I jumped up, and we stared at each other for a moment. Then he took two quick steps to the bed, before laying down and burying his head in the pillow. Muffled cries came through the stuffing. Shit. I was just standing there awkwardly, but didn’t want to risk sitting back down; he might need his space.

Fuck it, doing anything could help.

I sat down gently on the bed, and started rubbing his back. He didn’t flinch or pull away, so I took that as tacit permission to continue. This was going okay, at least I hadn’t made it worse so far. His shirt crinkled up under my hand, and I started rubbing under it. Only because skin on skin contact might help him, help keep him more grounded. There was nothing to say, especially since no one had told me exactly what happened, so I stayed silent.

I wished there was a television in the room, so I could see what was happening on the news. The end of the world could be announced, and I wouldn’t know. It didn’t seem that implausible that at least our, Stockton, world as we knew it was over. Would I act any different if I knew I was going to die? Feeling antsy, I almost got up, but didn’t want Jacoby to get even more upset. Sometimes microscopic events are more important than the larger ones, to certain people at certain times.

Eventually his crying slowed down, and finally stopped. At that point I removed my hand, and he rolled over onto his back. His face was a mess, as could be expected. I handed him the box of tissues from the bedside table, and he took a few and started cleaning himself up. That was when I noticed his chest was still heaving; the sobs had just become silent. Shit, that meant anything I did could set him off.

When most of the tears were dried, he threw the tissues away, and said, “Thanks.”

“Yeah.”

After a few seconds of silence, he announced, “It was my brother, Brian. He was caught in the blast; there was an explosion. It was pretty small, and only got ten people, but it got him. He had to be one of the ten…”

I had no idea how to respond. I couldn’t just say I was sorry. That was useless. It was completely unfair that his brother was one of the people. Why did any of the people who died have to be close to me? I knew that was the selfish way of looking at it, but fuck, it didn’t matter. He just wanted his brother back. As much as I wanted it not to have happened though, I couldn’t think that I would switch his brother for someone else. That would be going too far.

I settled for, “That really sucks. It’s fucking stupid, fuck, only ten people…” Hopefully my cursing could express my emotion and sympathy adequately. It was such a shitty situation.

A hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “Thanks, it is. Fucking stupid.”

“Yes it is.” I didn’t want to grin, that would feel inappropriate, but keeping a still face would just make him more depressed. “Do you want me to stay, or…” I trailed off. Maybe he wanted me to go, which I would like, but I would stay if he needed me. This was an exception to my empathy circle being limited to myself, but I could deal with clearing up my morals later.

He looked panicked for a second, then almost yelped, “No! Please stay. I just need someone here, and my parents are so wrapped up in each other.” At that a few sobs managed to break through. He sat up, shoulders shaking, and hugged me. I tried to envelop him in my arms, make him feel safe, but I wasn’t sure I managed. It must have gone well enough, since he kept clutching me.

“It’s okay,” I whispered, while stroking his back. This wasn’t too bad. I had imagined holding Jacoby like this before, tight to me. In fact, he was resting his head on my chest. It wasn’t quite big enough to function as a pillow, and besides, it wasn’t very comfortable like that, so I laid back, adjusting his head down to my stomach. Hopefully that was firm enough that he didn’t sink in too much.  I liked having him like that, and kept holding him, one hand on his head, one on his shoulder. His breathing became more even, and I thought he was asleep. The world ending right now wouldn’t have been the worst thing. I might have dozed off a little myself, but my stupor was broken when he got up, and without facing me, started wiping his face dry again. He then turned towards me with a big smile on.

“Thank you so much just for being here right now. It’s hard, and I don’t know… I don’t know what would have happened if you weren’t here. I just needed someone whose attention was focused only on me, didn’t have a wife or husband or kids to worry about.” He paused, then grinned even larger. “Or do you have a secret family?”

It seemed like he was back then, at least as much as he could be. I hadn’t had anyone close to me die, but didn’t mourning normally take longer? He was probably just repressing it for now, starting to cope. Well that was good. Life has to go on. No matter what.

So, I decided to joke a little back. “Maybe I do have a secret family. What if I say you’re the father?”

He just laughed. “I think I would know if I’d had sex with someone as beautiful as you.”

I blushed. It didn’t matter how much I knew I was pretty, people rarely told me. I just wished it was a situation where I could do something in return.

“I’m not so sure, you were pretty drunk. Your dick wouldn’t stay up, so was it hard to do anything, but I managed.”

“Oh, sure. I thought you were responsible, what happened to the condom and birth control pills?” He smirked at me. From sad to happy so quickly… And I still had that nagging fear about a localized apocalypse in the back of my mind. Nothing to do but keep joking.

“I actually have this deep seated desire to have children that I just needed to fulfill, so I didn’t use them. You seemed like the best match, with pretty good genes yourself. “

“Well I hope this didn’t actually happen, since I can’t pay for child support right now.”

“Oh don’t worry, I can handle it. I am responsible in some ways.”

His laughter burst out like a river over a dam, and I joined in, though his smile never quite reached his eyes. If he could still do that, then he’d be okay in the long term. The giddiness bubbled up in me, and coursed through my veins. This was always so fun, and distracted me from worrying about the quarantine. He leaned on me, but this time it was happy, not sad. Then he looked up, a hint of seriousness in his eyes.

“Can I kiss you?” he said.

I involuntarily jerked backwards. Where the hell did that come from? I hadn’t been acting more provocatively than normal, and he hadn’t been acting any different either. He did look handsome though, and was pretty hot… not to mention nice and all that other stuff, but neither of us was looking for a real relationship – I bent down, cupped his chin in my hand, and kissed him.

His face was smooth, no stubble growing yet. His lips meshed with mine. They tasted slightly salty, the residue of tears, but that didn’t matter. Our mouths molded together, working in furious ecstasy, while I reached my arms behind him and pulled him closer to me. He leaned back on the bed, and suddenly I was on top of him. We broke apart, taking deep gasps of air, before plunging in again.

My arms clutched his chest. One of his started working its way through my hair, down barely past my shoulders. His other one, plucking at the back of my sports bra, reminded me that I still had my stinky gym clothes on. Even though we were locked together, a laugh escaped me, and he let go. I sat up a little. Whoa, that was a rush. And shit, that was a good kiss. The blood rushed back to my head as I came back down to earth, leaving me dizzy.

“I just remembered, we’re both still in our gym clothes. Practically the stereotype of sweaty, stinky teenagers with out of control hormones,” I said, as way of explanation.

“Do you want us to compete that stereotype?” he asked, glancing down at my shorts. Oh fuck no.

I scrambled up from the bed. “You fucking dick! I’m sorry about your brother and all, but I’m not having sex with you! Period. You’ll just regret it.” If Sarah’s picture on his dresser hadn’t reminded me, I probably would have done it. As it was, I was sorely tempted, but managed to resist.

He pleaded, “But we already made out. I… I just think it will really help me right now.” Jesus, that wasn’t how he normally was. Not so pitiful and needy. I could see now that he was still pretty messed up. Pure escapism, and sex would just be the next logical step. Escapism that, so far, had been very enjoyable for me.  In the back of my head I realized that I should be taking advantage of the situation, but I couldn’t bring myself to.

“No.” I stated, more resolutely this time. “I won’t let you be such a deuce. You could explain away the making out as just part of the grief, but this would be too far. It would just make you feel even worse than you do now. As much as I want to, I can’t like this.” I turned and ran down the stairs, already feeling the regret well up. Jesus, was my sex drive really such an uncaring bitch? Wanting to fuck my best friend when his brother just died? And did I really just tell Jacoby I wanted to have sex with him?

Once I was out the door and had calmed down, I could think about it clearer. The pavement seemed to pass rapidly away under me, moving much too fast. When I got home I would have to confront my parents, which possibly could end even worse than the time at Jacoby’s house had. The sky seemed to be looming low and ominous.

The thing that happened with Jacoby was probably my fault as much as his. He was the one who had just had his brother die, while I was only a bit depressed about a probably temporary quarantine. It was a bit of an escape of my part too, but our situations weren’t even comparable.

We had never gone that far before. There were a few pecks during spin the bottle and related games back in middle school, and maybe a goodbye cheek kiss before summer or something like that, but never full-on making out. At least he didn’t start feeling me up. That be too awkward to ever go back to normal afterwards.

After a few minutes, by which time my pace slowed to a crawl, the situation with him seemed salvageable. We could just dismiss it as caused by the collective external pressure. Not that we wouldn’t cross that line again now that we had crossed it once, I just hoped that maybe a next time would happen when one of us didn’t have the mental faculty equivalent to being stoned. I did want to go farther, it was just that he would regret it because of Sarah. I didn’t want him to wreck their relationship over me, at least not when he couldn’t be fully culpable for his decision.

My moral code said that I should do what’s best for me. That was the only way to make sense of the world, if I thought about logically. There were at least two instances where I didn’t act like that in Jacoby’s room. Other people, except as interacting with them benefits me, shouldn’t factor into my decision making. As hard as I tried though, I couldn’t bring myself to be entirely self-interested.

Fuck, it all went back to Rick. My goddamned over-the-top altruistic brother, who had to fucking leave. How the hell could he do that to me? I couldn’t imagine if he died. It was simply not within the realm of possibility. My brain literally couldn’t think of the world without him in it. The issue with him was, there were probably hundreds of other people by now who thought of him that way too. It was just completely unfair. I was his sister.

Shit, back to reality. I recognized the street I was on as one adjacent to mine. How would I explain to my parents why I was getting home when it was nearly dark, the day of the apocalypse? In their view we should be weathering the storm, whatever it was, together as a family. If given the choice, however much I loved my parents, I would choose to spend my last hours with Claire, Ava, and Jacoby. If I told my parents I was with my friends, though, they would be furious and disappointed at the same time. I couldn’t stand that combination. I would feel inferior and angry, and when that happened, I normally lashed out. No, better to tell them about the concussion only, and that’s it. They would then be sympathetic to me, and I could just say I was at school the whole time. Then I could figure out why the hell all of this was happening.

As I walked up the steps, there were butterflies in my stomach, no matter how solid my plan seemed. My mom opened the door as I was reaching out for it, and stood there, glaring at me. She didn’t wait for me to get inside before she started yelling at me.

“Where have you been? We’ve been worried, and had no idea where you were. You know that if there’s an emergency you’re supposed to come straight home! You were probably with your friends instead of family, you know both of us have people we care about and want to see if are okay? But neither of us wanted to leave, not knowing if you were all right.” Her eyebrows were furrowed, mouth pinched in a straight line. I could see my dad standing farther back, arms crossed. I guess I’d underestimated the extent of their anger.

He moved forward a few steps and laid a hand on my mother’s shoulder. He looked at her tenderly, and said in measured voice, “At least let her come inside before laying into her. We need to discuss this calmly.” She turned towards him, outraged at his pseudo-betrayal, and haughtily marched past him, into the living room.

I looked at my dad sympathetically. Maybe I could turn them against each other and get him on my side. He grimaced back. Yeah, that was working. Always good to have multiple avenues of attack.

When we got into the living room, my dad started talking to my mom in a hushed tone. I sat down on the sofa, letting them conspire. The longer I waited before telling my concussion story, the sorrier they would feel after.

With a united plan, they sat down on the couch. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Now they weren’t mad at each other anymore, and could launch a two front assault easier. I still had the trump card though. Just a little bit longer…

My dad spoke first. “You really need to get your priorities straight here. We are your family, we raised you, and all we want is some contact. Just for you to us know before going to a friends after school. Since I presume you know the phones are down, all we needed is for you to come home first before going off to who knows where.”

Now was the time to do it. Pull their whole argument out from under them. “I knocked my head against the wall when everyone rushed out of the room, when the siren went off. I was knocked out, and woke up in the nurse’s office twenty minutes ago, and came straight home. So I also don’t know how my friends are. I’m also worried, and when I woke up I immediately thought of you guys.” I didn’t include any anger, nothing vehement. That would just give them an excuse to berate me over something else. My mom was shocked, and immediately stood up and came over to me.

She sat down and hugged me, saying, “Oh sweetie, are you okay? I’m so sorry we yelled at you.” I basked in the attention, but my dad was still on the couch, frowning.

He said, “Well that’s good then, and we’re all here safe. Any news from school today? I want to go see if everyone’s okay, which of your friend’s families should we check on first?”

I needed to reassure him. Maybe a helpful hint would relieve his attention. “Jacoby’s brother’s died in the explosion, they might need something…”

Shit. My mom immediately released me. The explosion happened after I was knocked out, so I couldn’t know about Jacoby’s brother if I had come straight home. She glanced at my dad. He looked furious, but at the same time barely suppressing a smile. He thought he was so fucking superior, that he got the best of me once again.

He said, looking at her but directed at me, “I think we need to go upstairs and discuss your punishment.”

Fuck this. Now I was in serious trouble, as if the day wasn’t already bad enough. I also felt vaguely guilty that I had tried to use Brian’s death as a way to get out of trouble, but I guess the karma bit me in the ass. Stupid air raid sirens and pretend earthquakes.

Stockton, in its eternal idiocy, had made its air raid sirens combine with a very small earthquake generator, because that supposedly would help people realize bad was happening. The people would then get to safety faster. Instead, what they got was much more panic there would be otherwise. The worst thing was they hadn’t changed it, ever.

Now I just had to wait for my punishment to descend from the heavens. Might as well find out why all this awful shit was happening in the first place. I turned on the TV, and switched to a news channel.

On screen, the Secretary of Homeland Security started speaking.

“Hello all, especially those in Stockton, the people most affected by this horrid event. I hope that the circumstances there aren’t too bad.

Two days ago, we received word that there may be a potential terrorist attack in the upcoming days. Thought all the branches of government pooled their resources and collaborated, we were not able to stop the attack from happening. We were warned that an Iranian bioweapon facility was going to be broken into, and an extremely potent weapon released in the United States. We tried to destroy this biologically hazardous weaponry, but were evidently unsuccessful, or too late.

“Our screening efforts for such a weapon focused mostly on population centers, where an attack would do the most damage. Stockton, along with hundreds of other cities across the US, were deemed too small by our analysts to be a target. Again, let me stress that every precaution was taken, and we did everything in our power to prevent such an attack.

“Around 11:30 this morning, we received word from law enforcement in Stockton that a small explosion had gone off, but more importantly that a gaseous vapor was released. The Tyron Medical Research Facility was one of the bodies assigned to research the biological agent brought back by our troops from the base in Iran. When the explosive went off, they started preforming tests of the air in the surrounding area. At 11:53, the Tyron facility n told us that air samples were now matching those taken from the Iranian weapons base. We had National Guard troops on call, ready to be deployed to any area in the event of a quarantine. As soon as we knew where the bioweapon had been released, we started enforcing the quarantine, with a one mile radius to begin with. We set up a perimeter with guards ready to stop anyone going in or out of the city. We also enacted an information lockdown, to prevent alarmism and widespread panic. This may have been a mistake, and I am sure in the coming days we will analyze the situation so that we can perform better in the instance of a future attack.

“Now, there is no need to panic, as the Tyron facility has one of the best research labs in the world. We have full confidence that they will quickly develop an antidote to the disease released. In the meantime, since the disease requires exposure to an activation agent for it to start attacking the body, everyone will be fine as long as the quarantine is enforced. It will be lifted after the weaponized agent is deemed neutralized. The communications blackout will continue for the foreseeable future to lessen the possibility of a breach, either outwards or inwards, of the quarantine zone. Residents of Stockton, we are truly sorry that this awful attack has occurred, and that we could not prevent it.

We will work tirelessly to make sure that you are fully supplied with anything you may need. All normal shipments, anything that would normally go into the city by truck or trail, we will now try to airdrop in, though there may be temporary shortages of non-essentials until we appropriate aircraft as necessary. We urge you to resume your normal lives, and try to instill a sense of normalcy in those around you. Weather the storm, and stand strong. Thank you, and God bless you.”

I was stunned by the news, and literally didn’t move until my parents came back down. My thoughts weren’t so much racing as frozen: information overload. It seemed like something from a science fiction or apocalyptic book, except happening in the real world. At least we would still get food and everything, but did we really have to school? That was fucking ridiculous. I hated this place, and now I was stuck here. I was trapped with these people with no internet and no phones for who knows how long. Fuck, this sucked.

My parents came back downstairs, looking stern. They moved so my mom was sitting down in a chair, my dad leaning against it. I sat up straight; I was going to receive my punishment with dignity. It couldn’t be that bad; nothing could be worse than the quarantine.

My dad started. “So, Elie, you need to start acting like you actually care about us. All we want is a little compassion. A little caring. An acknowledgement of our existence once in a while.” His voice rose in pitch through what he was saying.

They were staring at me expectantly, so I said, “The quarantine is going to last until they cure the disease from the bio-attack, and the communications blackout will go on too.”

I was hoping they’d be surprised, but was disappointed. “Don’t think you can distract us from the real problem here. You’re grounded for two weeks.”

Wow, that was the longest they’d ever grounded me. It could have come at a worse time. At least now there wasn’t anywhere to miss out on going to. I would probably not be able to go to friends’, but I still would see them at school. There were also no electronics to take away, since those were down.

With the punishment phase done, I just wanted the conversation to be over. “Okay. I’m sorry for what I did.”

Both of them looked upset, probably because I wasn’t throwing a tantrum. Well I wasn’t going to satisfy their petty desire to feel superior. I’d take it like an adult.

“You don’t sound very sorry. How about you go to your room and think and maybe work up some remorse. You have no idea how worried we were,” my mom said.

In response, I stomped up the stairs. That was some bullshit; how did they think I felt when I woke up in the nurse’s office alone, my last memory of the air raid siren going off? I was freaked out too, and also couldn’t go very far.

It was stupid for them to expect me to walk all the way home after that. I know they wouldn’t have liked if I had passed out along the way. They wanted me to be safe, yet also wanted me to go see them. It was only natural for me to go to Ava’s, then Claire’s, then Jacoby’s. I had to stop, or else I might have fainted, and their houses were at least marginally on the way home.

I hadn’t even stayed longer than I needed to. At Ava’s I just told them what happened, then got on my way. At Claire’s we talked, then watched TV. At Jacoby’s, I literally couldn’t leave. Of course, I also fell asleep and made out with him, but that was its own problem. So even if I had lied to my parents at first, I had done what they should have wanted me to do.

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Book One – B.1

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The nurses’ office was bathed in a florescent glow when I woke up. The brightness made my violent headache worse. I tried squinting, but that didn’t help my vision, or do anything about the amount of light coming in. My head was throbbing, and I moved my hand up to touch it. Big bump, and it hurt like hell. I didn’t notice a scab or bandage though, so hopefully it wasn’t bleeding. I wondered where the nurse was. It seemed irresponsible to leave someone with a concussion unconscious on a bed. What if I had woken up and flailed around and hurt my head again and died? Not likely, granted, but still. My throat was also dry and mouth hard move. I turned my head to the side to avoid the direct glare of the lights before attempting to open my eyes again. This time it wasn’t so bad. There was a glass of water on the table, thankfully, and I reached over for it. Now, how to drink without pouring water all over myself?

In the end I settled for propping myself up on my side with my eyes closed, then blinked quickly to get a bearing of where the glass was and grabbed it, before shutting my eyes tightly again. The light really was awful, and just aggravated the pounding behind and above my eyes. I could barely get my mouth open, but the water soothed all the pain. Maybe it was laced with morphine or something, though I doubted the school had enough money to get that for students. After what happened though, there could be a big emergency and it was being used everywhere. That was another thing annoying about the nurses’ absence; I had no idea what was going on. Fuck, the world could be ending, and I was stuck in this bed. Just my luck. I considered trying to get up, but it didn’t seem worth it. Holy fuck, my head hurt. Better just to go back to sleep…

This time when I woke up, my eyes didn’t hurt as much, and I saw the nurse standing over me, just staring. That was a bit weird. I tried speaking, but all that came out was a croak. God damn that sucked, why was my body going through water so fast? Even after a full sleep I can usually talk. She noticed my predicament and handed me the water, and I moved so I was sitting up a little and took a drink. Again, it made me feel much better.

This attempt, I managed to get words out, and somewhat blearily asked, “What happened?”

The nurse looked at me with concern, and said, “You hit your head dear, don’t you remember?” That was a dumb answer. Of course I remembered what happened to me. I wanted to know about the rest of the city. It’s not like there weren’t a ton of freaky vibrations or anything that might, just might, have had an effect beyond my head injury.

“Of course I remember. I meant what happened in general,” I said tersely. Hopefully she could comprehend that, after misunderstanding so badly the first time.

Her frown grew deeper. “No one knows what’s going on, but everyone at school got sent home. That awful siren from before got turned off, so nothing’s shaking anymore.” Then she became more businesslike as she said, “Now, how are you feeling?”

“How do you think? My head hurts.” She looked disappointed when I said that. I don’t know why, it’s not like she did anything to help me.

She pressed for more information. “But did you wake up before? Are you feeling better since then?” Her voice rose slightly in volume as it became more insistent, which was annoying. It blasted my ears and did almost as much for harm to my head as the light had before. I just wanted her to go away now. Maybe she could let me go too. She wasn’t being helpful, pestering me instead of giving me medicine or telling me to get rest.

“Yes, I’m better, I think I can leave now.”

“Are you sure? Are you fine getting home by yourself?” So now she cared about whether I was okay. I guess she might have had other people to look after, the first time I woke up, but still. It’s nice to have someone there when you wake up from being knocked out. Not like I had any past experience with that.

I hadn’t tried standing yet so I wasn’t actually sure whether I could move, but I really wanted to know what happened. She obviously didn’t know anything more, but the internet would. I said, “Yes, I can walk. Where’s my backpack?”

She handed it to me. Now that I had reassured her, she looked relieved. Maybe she did actually care. I felt honest when telling her thank you, a pretty rare occurrence. She left the room after that, saying she needed to go check on other people. That made me feel even worse about my thoughts earlier. Regret was useless though, and I repressed it before it could do too much damage. Unless you can time travel, there’s no use dwelling on the past like that.

Now to get out of the bed without my head exploding. It was harder than it sounds. My legs had to be swung down, after which I was sitting on the edge, feeling dizzy with the added height. I could feel just how thin the mattress was when gripping the edge, but it still urged me to lie back down. I shoved myself to my feet before I could give in to the temptation. I almost fell over, stumbling a few steps, but managed to catch my balance and rest my hands on my knees. This wasn’t so bad. I could still think pretty clearly, and the dizziness was starting to fade.

When it cleared completely, or at least as much as it could a few hours after having a concussion, I tried taking some steps. This wasn’t a complete failure, but it was still good the wall ended up within arms’ reach. The white brick walls were curiously rough, poking into my hands. I didn’t stop leaning until I felt I could make it out the door fine. Once I started walking, putting one foot in front of the other was easier. There was a certain pattern, a rhythm. I didn’t know where to go. Home was a bit far away, while I was in this state. I also wanted a computer to get a more complete perspective on whatever happened. Ava’s house was the closest, and her parents were nice, so I set off for there.

The walk took longer than it normally would have. Her house was only five blocks from school, while mine was more like fifteen. It was in a reasonably good neighborhood, as her parents were both lawyers. They weren’t around much, so it was a good place to hang out normally. That’s why when I knocked on the door I was so surprised to see her mom answer. I wondered for a second whether I was at the wrong house, but then saw Ava in the background.

Her mom looked relieved to see me, and exclaimed, “Thank goodness you’re okay! Ava didn’t have any idea why you weren’t outside at the end of school, and I can’t get in contact with your mom.” I guess the school didn’t see fit to tell my friends what happened to me, but I hoped they at least called my parents, otherwise they would be frantic. That would be hell to go home to, especially since I came here first, before checking in with them. I could blame the concussion for making me not think straight if it was really necessary.

I said to her, “Oh. I guess I’ll can call her then so she’s not worried.” Hopefully that would keep her from mentioning to my parents that I came here before I talked to them.

As I entered the foyer, she asked, “So what happened? Why were you late?”

“Mom! Stop bothering her, she just got here,” Ava interjected.

I smiled at her. “It’s fine. Don’t you want to know about my big adventure?” It was a pretty good story, with me being the only sane one. I took my shoes off and placed them neatly on the mat, then moved farther in the house. Ava and her mom followed me expectantly.

I sat down at the dining room table and started to mentally spin a tale of bravery and desperation, courage and futility. Then I remembered that I actually liked the people I was talking to, and had no reason to brag to them. Extra sympathy couldn’t hurt though. They pulled up chairs, and I started.

“So, we went upstairs to play dodgeball like normal. Everyone split up into teams, and no one wanted to be on my side, but we still won. I ran sideways across the gym, did a flying leap, then ended up taking out Janine as she was making a desperate run forward. So that was awesome. But then when the balls were all put back in the middle, and we were back on our sides, the balls wouldn’t stop moving. That was when we first noticed the vibrations. I-“

“We felt it too, in history,” Ava broke in. “It was freaky, No one knew what was happening, not even the teacher. She hid under her desk, and left us without any idea what to do. But, -“

I cut back in at this point. I loved Ava, but I wanted to get my story out. Especially since I did realize what it was when it was happening. “So I looked up, and some other people had noticed the vibrations too. I think everyone’s first thought was an earthquake, but I looked up, and the windows were vibrating too. I knew it wasn’t an earthquake then. It was exactly what would happen with the air raid siren. I tried to tell everyone that, but they were already too panicked. I was worried someone would get trampled on the stairs, so I ran forward, but they were already stampeding. I got knocked against the wall, and blacked out.” I tried to look as pitiful as I could near the end. I had done everything I could to stop the people from hurting themselves with their own stupidity, but failed, and got hurt myself in the process.

Ava’s mom looked like her heart wanted to break. I felt a little bad for the embellishments, but backtracking would be worse. She said, “I hope you aren’t too badly hurt. That was a great thing you did. How exactly could you tell the difference between those awful sirens and an earthquake?”

That was a tough one. I don’t think there were any actual differences, but my mind just ruled out earthquake, and I ended up right. And I still had no idea why the siren had been set off. It clearly wasn’t anything too bad, or someone would have known and told me. “I could feel the difference in the… vibrations.” That was a semi-plausible explanation. Better than just saying I wasn’t going along with the dominant theory, and had been playing devil’s advocate in my own mind.

“That’s pretty amazing that you could tell that! Do you have extra sensitive feet or something?” Ava was trying not to look too annoyed by this point. She seemed to know I was stretching the truth.

“Maybe I do. Maybe I have extra fine-tuned senses, like Spiderman!” We all cracked up at that. And I had gotten out of another tough situation, another win for me.

“Okay, well I’m glad you aren’t too badly hurt. Make sure to tell me if you need anything. I don’t want you to have any aftereffects or whatever they’re called of the concussion. And make sure you don’t do anything dangerous, repeat concussions are really bad!” Ava’s mom left after the warning.

I reached up to touch my head, but stopped before actually feeling the bruise. That wouldn’t do any good. I still had a headache, just had been distracted by the conversation. I looked at Ava. “So do you have any idea of what happened? Why the siren went off? Was there a bomb or something?”

“I don’t think there was a big explosion. No one has any idea what happened.” She sounded surprised I would even ask such a question. I guess things become common knowledge ridiculously fast in Stockton, and you don’t learn those things if you are unconscious. What a shock.

I was getting impatient. How hard could it be to know why everyone was sent home from school and work, and all the air raid sirens and related devices had gone off? “Then could I get on your computer? It’s like everyone’s forgotten the internet exists. Giant database of information and news at your fingertips…” I looked at her expectantly, eyebrows raised. Jesus, I knew this place was backwards, but they couldn’t have forgotten to check the internet, could they?

She huffed, and crossed her arms. Clearly exasperated, she smiled and said, “No, no one’s that stupid. The internet is down, I mean you can use the computer, but it won’t do any good.”

Well that was an issue. How could the internet be down; It came from phone lines. Maybe there was an problem with those, like a tree fell or something. “Have you called Claire to see if her internet is working?” I was getting more and more worked up by the minute. Fucking idiotic that I couldn’t find out what was happening.

Ava sighed. It seemed like her patience was wearing thin, but if she would just tell me the full story, I wouldn’t have to keep asking. “The phones are down too. You know I’m not stupid, the internet could have been just affecting an area, but if the phones are down, landline and cell phones, that means something bad happened. No one that I talked to on the way home heard an explosion, and there were a ton of people outside, so I don’t have any ideas. My mom’s trying to not panic, but every time a buzzer goes off she jumps.”

Shit. I felt even worse about not going to see my parents. And how the hell could everything be down, except for electricity? That really didn’t make any sense, since the power wires and phone ones were strung on the same poles. I guess either of them could be underground at some point. But then the cell phone towers, which only needed electricity, were also not working. This was really fucking weird.

“Do you want to go meet up with Claire and Jacoby? Maybe one of them knows what happened.” This was an instance where I wished I had more friends. It’s hard only have two sources of information in a confusing situation. Maybe Emma would tell me something… but no. Fuck, how could I even think of that? If I never saw her again it’d be too soon.

Ava jumped off the seat from where she had been sitting stiffly. “Yeah! At least then we’ll be doing something, but what about my mom? I don’t want to leave her alone.”

That seemed like an unnecessary worry. If she couldn’t keep it together, we were all screwed. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. And anyway your dad’s coming home soon.” Her dad worked outside the city, so he wasn’t home yet.

She smiled in response, and said, “Okay.” Then she yelled up to her mom, “We’re going to ride bikes over to Claire’s, is that fine?”

“Can you come up here and talk to me for a minute?” Her mom yelled back down. All the loud noises were making my head hurt again, and I sat down on the couch, my forehead wrinkled, frowning towards Ava. She looked at me apologetically, and shrugged, before going upstairs.

When she came back down, she flashed me a thumbs up, and headed out to the garage. “What did your mom want?”

“Oh she was just worried. I told her that whatever happened was over now, and there was no reason to stay cooped up. She said we could go after that, but didn’t seem like she really wanted us to.”

“You think we should stay here?” I asked. I really wanted to go to Claire’s but felt like I should give her the option. Ava seemed a bit pissed at me from before, and this would hopefully fix that.

She flashed me a smile, and got on her bike. “I think its fine. Dad’ll be home soon.”

When we got to Claire’s, Jacoby was there as well, having come home from school with her. After greeting her parents, I told everyone what happened to me, making sure to keep it entirely truthful this time. Then we all went up to her room to talk. I started, “So does anyone know what happened?”

“No idea.” That was Claire.

“I don’t know anything either,” Jacoby said.

Well that’s great, we were all clueless. I had no idea what to do now. I had seen Claire’s mom trying her phone for what looked like the fiftieth time when we walked through, so the problem with the phones wasn’t isolated.

Claire said, “My mom’s been watching the news since she got home, so that’s something. It said that communications are down with Stockton, but nothing besides that. There doesn’t seem to be any contact with us from the outside. It’s weird that the TV’s still working though.”

I got up from where I had been sitting on the corner of Claire’s bed, and started pacing. I felt trapped, and helpless to change that, even more than I had for the past few years. Before I had access to the rest of the world through the internet and phones, but now that was gone. Fuck. I blurted out, exasperated, “Well that’s just great! So we can get a glimpse of the rest of the world, but we can’t talk to them. This better be gone soon, because fucking shit it’s ridiculous. We’re in a fucking bubble.”

Ava, ever the voice of reason, broke in, “It’s probably not that bad. There’s probably just a temporary issue with everything, like an EMP or something.” Okay, that made sense, except that the electricity was still on. Land phones were out in addition cell phones, so it wasn’t just a radio wave thing.

“I don’t think an EMP would do it, but there might be something else that’ll be fixed soon. There better be…” I trailed off, staring at each one of them in turn. They all nodded in agreement. No one crossed me when I was in a mood.  Also, no one could possibly think that being more isolated and stuck in Stockton was a good thing.

A knock on the door broke the moment of solemn silence. Claire’s mom entered, and said in a rush, “You guys have to come see this!” We all jumped up and ran down the stairs. My head was spinning from the sprint, related to the concussion I suppose. Once down the stairs, Claire and her mom led the way into the living room, and we sat down on the couch. What could this be?

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Prelude – P.1

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The sun hadn’t fully risen when I woke up to the chiming of my phone alarm. The red and purple rays illuminated the clouds nicely, which provided enough of a boost to get me out of bed. I regretted it the second the cold October air hit my exposed skin.

Walking to my dresser, I glanced over at my desk. Shit. No homework done. The realization never fully hit until the morning. I’d just have to stagger it and do it the period before the class it was due in.

I opened up the top drawer in my dresser, and grabbed the necessary undergarments, then remembered there was gym today. In that case I needed sliders, those spandex short things that go underneath slightly looser shorts. I took a pair of those out, got a shirt from the drawer below, then shorts from the one below that.

Supplies collected, the next step was a shower, which was a good place to think. I had gym today. It was always one big pile of shit. I had managed not to get killed so far, but there was no guarantee that would hold up for much longer. They, Emma in particular, were relentless, and not going wasn’t an option. There was no solution, but that didn’t stop me from dwelling on it. At least I didn’t have to use the showers in the locker room at school, I’m pretty sure that if that happened… well it wouldn’t be good.

After finishing up morning tasks and wishing my parents quick goodbyes, I hitched my backpack up higher and bent my shoulders, hurrying to catch the bus. It was freezing outside. I had worn the shorts for gym to school today, because that meant a minute or two less in the locker room. Damn it. I had to sacrifice being warm for being safe. Well it would hopefully be worth it in the end.

In the cafeteria at school I found Jacoby, enthralling his friends with what was undoubtedly another story of his amazingness. I started moving towards him, and he noticed me before I got too close. He hopped off the table, and joined me over by the lockers.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I replied, looking out at the assembled herd. Nothing noteworthy happening. “Did you finish the Chemistry lab write-up for today?”

He frowned down at me, the five inch difference in height seeming much greater. “You didn’t do it, did you? I guess you can copy mine, but that’s the last time.”

Sure it was the last time. I didn’t make a habit out of copying, but sometimes, like last night, I just couldn’t work up the energy to do homework. The lab was easier to copy than do in another period, since it had to be in the notebook.

I tried to sound earnest as I said, “Thanks a ton, I promise it’s the last time.”

I guess I didn’t do a good enough job, because he rolled his eyes. I glared back. He had no right to be berating me on my study habits. It’s not like he was the perfect student. He was trying to make me do the “right” thing, but there was really no harm in copying. Half of the lab was writing down the procedure and materials, then making up a vague conclusion. It wasn’t worth the time that had to be put into it.

“So did you do any of your other work last night?” he asked.

“Yeah, the lab was the only thing I didn’t finish.” The lie came out easily. He wasn’t in any other class where homework was due, so he wasn’t going to discover that I wasn’t telling the truth.

I tried to smile while waiting for his reply. Lying didn’t bother me too much. I wouldn’t have a problem lying to a complete stranger, so I shouldn’t have a problem doing it to my friends. He just looked at me, an unreadable expression on his face. He could know I wasn’t telling the truth about the completed homework, or he could just be wondering why I only had one class not done.

Jacoby sighed. “At least that’s good. Sorry if I sound naggy. So, what are you going to do about gym?”

“Uhh,” The change of subject caught me off guard. “Let me think.”

I felt a little bad, since I knew he hated it when he was ‘forced’ to act like a parent. I was glad about the change of subject though. Gym was something there was no messed up moralizing associated with.

I collected my thoughts, and continued, “The main problem is the locker room. I’m stuck in there with the rest of the girls, and I can’t avoid it. We get graded on whether we dress out, and though I wore shorts–“ I gestured down at my bare legs, “I still have to change my shirt or else Coach will get mad. I think I can get my shirt off and the other one on fast, since I don’t have to switch bras. I could get a bit quicker with it though, if you want to come behind the school and watch me practice?”

I wanted to lighten the mood. Jacoby blushed and shoved me backwards. He laughed, a little high pitched, and said, “You know that however much I’d love to, I can’t. Committed relationship right here.”

“Fuck exclusivity, it takes the fun out of everything. Though you’d have had to pay to see the show.” I winked.

He calmed down a little, and smirked back at me. “Fuck you, I don’t want to see that flat chest anyways.”

That one brought some flush to my cheeks. My boobs weren’t as small as before, but you couldn’t tell much since I wore t-shirts most of the time. He was pointing at them too, and I tried to puff out my chest to make myself look bigger. We both started cracking up, holding the pose.

Of course, Sarah, Jacoby’s girlfriend, showed up at the most worst possible moment.

She took in the scene, and almost shrieked, “Jacoby! Why are you touching Elie’s tits?”

He instantly retracted his hands, and I felt a slight pressure leave my breasts. Whoops. I guessed after he made that flat comment and I was trying to make myself look bigger, I stretched a little too far out. As I shrunk back to a normal standing position, Sarah turned her glare towards me. Shit, this wouldn’t be good. As much as I hated possessive bitches, I took Jacoby’s happiness into account. He wouldn’t want me to start a fight with her. No. His feelings shouldn’t matter more than a random person’s.

I still said, “It was my fault. I got too close. Sorry.” I rationalized what I said as just being honest, but it still felt disconnected from my previous thought.

“Can we have some time alone?”

This was Jacoby. Gone was the lightheartedness of moments before; this was serious time. I felt a moment of loathing towards Sarah for interrupting us. I had no problem with her having time with Jacoby, but why did it have to be now? This was the problem with exclusive relationships: someone being able to demand your time no matter what you are doing. An obligation that was constant and unending. The anger in me increased, and I stalked off without responding.

Jacoby, even though he had brought up gym, had done a good job of distracting me from my fears surrounding it. He played along with my joking, maybe flirting, which I mostly did to avoid actually talking about the class. I felt a surge of gratitude towards him, and even more disgust directed at Sarah. We had something great going, and she ruined it.  She had no sense of situation or appropriateness, just like the rest of the people in this school.

I trudged to my first period class, feeling deflated once again. Nothing would go right today. First I had no homework done, then Sarah barges in while I was in the middle of a nice, distracting moment with Jacoby, then I have to do homework during every class, then go to gym and face everyone and that awful situation.

Thankfully, Ava ran up from behind me and jumped on my back before I could descend into the abyss of History and my depression.

I almost tripped, but caught my balance and let her down gently. “Wow, you’ve gotten stronger,” she exclaimed.

I crossed my arms and said with a frown, “Nothing new here.”

“Oh, that’s bull and you know it. You would have fallen over if I’d done that last year, instead of catching me and then almost dropping me.”

I flipped her the bird, but she just laughed it off. “Don’t be mean, that was a compliment.”

After I growled in response, she laughed once more, then moved off farther down the hallway.

I knew History was going to be an awful experience; it always was. It would have been better if I had someone to talk to, someone to share the misery with, but I was alone.

The people in the class were all so stupid. They might have been average intellectually, but in one way or another, they were infuriating to be around for too long. The insanely wrong answers my classmates could come up with were physically painful to sit through.

Mr. Parr was droning on in the front of the room. He wasn’t so bad when he actually taught, but his stares were awful. I didn’t even like thinking about that two week period in September, the 15ththrough the 27th. Teachers shouldn’t be allowed to have infatuations with students. He didn’t only ogle, he blanked out whenever you spoke, if you were his target at the time.

He hadn’t said anything important while I was reminiscing, judging by the looks on my classmates’ faces. Of course, they usually looked slightly stupefied and uncomprehending, so that wasn’t that strong of an indicator. The better one was the white board, which Mr. Parr wrote on so he didn’t forget what he’d just said. He must have spent a good deal of the time staring at Janine and her green sports bra, peeking out from under her tight t-shirt, as well as listening to her honey-like voice. Sickly sweet.

Just that moment, Janine was spouting off something supposedly profound, and most the class had turned towards her.

“I’m just saying, Monsieur Parr, the French Revolution was the culmination of hundreds of years of pent up frustration within the French people, and indeed in the whole of Continental Europe, at the tyranny of the absolute monarchs. France, with its weaker lords and nobles, was naturally the first to have a true revolution of the petty bourgeoisie.”

It was such bullshit. Not that what she said was factually wrong, only that it was idiotic. She most likely had no idea what it meant, and had probably got it off a Spark-Notes like website for history. Janine wasn’t the worst though. Everyone else seemed to come to class knowing less than the day before. Maybe if Mr. Parr actually taught instead of just stared… God, he was annoying, but better he was interested in Janine than me.

My apprehension about Gym made the rest of the period pass quickly. Just English, then it’d be here. The bell rang, and on the way out I heard two of the buffoons talking about her.

“She’s so hot dude. Imagine her in spandex,” one said. It’s not like she didn’t wear leggings every other day or anything, those were just as sheer and tight.

“I don’t have to imagine, I have gym with her,” his friend leered, leaning casually against the lockers lining the halls.

“Aww, lucky. Wish I could see what was under it.” They were missing out there; I knew from the girl’s locker room.

“Fucker,” the other replied and gave his friend a shove as they peeled off to their respective classes.

I didn’t know why I’d just listened to that. I was just as sexy as Janine, but everyone liked her. They described me, on the other hand, as ‘abrasive’. Personality overcoming looks, you didn’t see that every day. Not that she as great in that department either.

I left the history classroom, after seeing Janine was the only one left. She was bending down, Mr. Parr staring at her butt. I had no idea why she relished his looks, but she did. I wanted to puke every time I saw his jaw slack and eyes wide. They would be fine in the room alone, though, because he was too afraid he might lose his job if he made a move, and then he would also lose his only chance at eye candy.

The five minute passing period was barely enough, but I somehow made it from History down to my locker in the cafeteria, then back up to the next classroom. I grabbed a desk somewhere in the middle, in the so-called ‘learning T’. God knows it was the only reason my grades were reasonable.

Claire came in alone, clutching a sweater in her arms. Her hair was a somewhat mousy brown, with a constant frizz, freckles dotting her nose: pretty, in a shy sort of way. She took the seat on my right.

Ava entered a minute or so later, with a boy metaphorically on each arm. She was talking to two people at once, not that her conversation partners were complaining. As she walked across the room I gestured to the seat behind Claire. The boys following her looked disappointed, since there were no adjacent seats for them to take.

Ava flashed me a grateful glance, and said, “Thanks for organizing the seats like that, I don’t want to spend a whole class talking to those guys.”

I rolled my eyes. She definitely could have made it clearer she wanted them gone. With her enigmatic personality, as well as the physical attractiveness, people couldn’t help themselves from falling all over her. The good thing was that she didn’t act like the rest of the popular people; her natural charisma more than made up for it.

The teacher, Mrs. Gissard, entered, even later than Ava, and tried to get the class to be quiet. We three were practically the only ones who shut up. I was quiet since I didn’t have anything to talk about, Claire was quiet because that was just how she was, and Ava was quiet out of solidarity with us, a moment of separation between our group and the rest of the school.

After everyone had calmed down and stopped gossiping, the teacher introduced the assignment for the day.

For in-class work today, we were supposed to analyze how the book 1984 exemplified American values. There were so many things wrong with the question that I stopped and stared when the teacher wrote it on the board.

That drivel was simply a symptom of the main problem with this town. The people here had no independent intellect, other than what their parents told them, and their parents before them, on and on ad infinitum. Claire and I were only different because we had moved here, and Ava was just naturally an outlier.

I guess I was staring so long that Claire had to say, “Elie, are you alright?”

I rolled my eyes, and replied, “Do you see what’s on the board?”

I went on a long tirade about Orwell and socialism and 1984, which some people near us heard snatches of. They were the type to agree mindlessly with whatever the teacher said, and started responding. Given a dearth of past experiences with them, I knew they wouldn’t have anything good to say, so I tuned them out. Claire tried to fight back, but they overwhelmed her in volume and she gave up. Ava didn’t get involved with these types of things; she was too nice and conciliatory. Not that she was cultivating an image; there was no subterfuge, it was just how she acted.

Claire turned to me after failing to get a word in edgewise with the rabble.

She asked, exasperated, “Why do you always have to do that?”

“I don’t mean to antagonize them, it just happens,” I shrugged. “Pretty much because there’s no reason to try not to, and it’s sort of fun to have a good argument every once in a while.”

She glared at me. “But you never finish the arguments, just start them. It’s annoying when I’m left cleaning up your mess.”

With that, she went back to the impossible task of defeating the relentless enemy, while the teacher and I looked on in amusement. I didn’t like Mrs. Gissard very much, since she gave us prompts like that, but at least she let us do our own thing every once in a while.

After ten minutes or so, she stood and broke up the ‘productive discussion’, as she termed it. I snorted a little too loudly at that, and she shot me a look. I put my head down and quickly got to work with my friends, writing down some BS and finishing with some time left.

The rest of the class went by much too quickly, and I became more brooding as it went on. At one point Mrs. Gissard actually asked me whether I felt sick and needed to go to the nurse. I considered using that as an excuse to get out of gym, but I had to face my fears. Soon after, the bell rang, the toll of a sentenced woman.

The hallway loomed, stretching onward. One last walk as a free person, then through the doors and into hell. The hallway could be purgatory, while the rest of the school was heaven, but that was ridiculous. I almost broke out laughing, but realized the demons were close behind me. The alcove with the doors to the cafeteria was on the left, so I ducked in there and waited for the people to pass. Their incessant yammering was already starting to pound on my brain, forming a backdrop for any other thoughts. None of them turned their heads, and I chanced a peek out after they were past. I was still going to gym, just taking a break first. They went through the doors, and into the gym proper.

Looking the other way, back down the hallway, I saw Jacoby come into view and rushed up to him. He seemed startled by my sudden appearance, but it didn’t matter what impression I made, only that I was safe for a little while longer. I restrained myself from clutching him; it wasn’t that bad. I could face it by myself. He wrapped his arm over my shoulder anyway, which I was grateful for. We walked together down the rest of the hall, and I closed my eyes and clenched my fists as we stepped through the doorway.

The smell of stale sweat, and what I thought of as the smell of fear, hit me like a wave.

Jacoby turned to me and said, worry evident, “You’ll be okay, right?”

“Yeah.”

I hurried away before I could say anything else, or run out of the building and never come back. The girl’s locker room was on the far side of the gym, and I made my way over there, trying to compose my facial expression. No use letting them see my eyes wet, or face otherwise out of the ordinary.

The door of the locker room was propped open, and I took a deep breath before entering the pit of doom. My muscles were tensed as I rounded the first corner, and saw the three red stacks of lockers before me. There were a few people in here, but none of the group I was really worried about.

Janine was in the back, flaunting herself as usual. She was in the midst of changing, and was stretching, arching her back and thrusting her chest in the air. Not nude of course; she still had that bra on. It was completely unnecessary since everyone was already envious of her, and Mr. Parr wasn’t here to stare. Her friends were sitting on a bench near her, and I overheard one of them say something about a how hot a guy was.

Janine interjected, “Oh he’s so fucking hot, when he took his shirt off I think I had an orgasm!”

That was abrupt.  A few of the girls started when she said that, but one of them broke the silence before it could fully set in. “I wish I could have seen him. He’s so juicy.”

“You’d like to juice him? Okay, but I don’t think it will taste very good.” She smirked.

“Fuck you, that’s nasty!”

Janine just laughed, but then her eyes caught me, like a deer in headlights. Shit, I should have at least gone behind the locker partition before listening. But then I wouldn’t have seen Janine stretching.

“Elie, I bet you want to do that to Jacoby, right?” Everyone’s eyes turned towards me. I wasn’t prepared for anything from her, only Emma and company. With Janine, the best thing to do was beat her at her own game, namely shocking everyone by being sexually forward. I could do that, though the depths that she sunk to were normally a bit far for me.

So, I said, “No, his black dick is a bit too large for my hand, but I think it’d fit perfectly in your big mouth.”

Her eyebrows raised for a second, but then she responded, “I don’t think I’d like something that big there, necessarily… but I might not mind it somewhere else. Like you and Emma and her toys?”

That left me with my mouth hanging open. What the hell? I had no idea what she was talking about. I guess she thought she won because she turned back to her friends with a self-satisfied smile. I backed up and went towards my locker. Emma? Did she think that Emma did something sexual to me or something? Because she definitely didn’t, at least not overtly. She might have a crush on me or something, but that would be pathetic. And fucked up, given how she acted towards me. I’d thought of it before though, but it just seemed so unlikely.

My locker was in the first section, closest to the door. I only had to change my shirt, then I could be out. If the bad girls didn’t come in until after I was gone, well, sometimes people got insanely lucky. I had started turning the combination lock when I heard the telltale chattering in the background. It was as if the noise was being made by rabid squirrels, coming to eat me. The steady drum of footsteps came closer, until the sound changed. I wasn’t going to turn around, but I knew they’d be at the opening for this group of lockers now.

I willed my hand to start moving again, and the lock spun to the required second number. As I made it to the final number and the locker clicked open, I heard Emma’s voice, and it felt as if ice had been poured down the back of my shirt.

“Hey Elie. How are you today?” she asked, edging closer, still surrounded by her gaggle.

Maya, the only not awful one, stayed near the back, but others were trying to get as close as they could to the action. Emma’s locker was on the left side of the section, while mine was near the rear. She ostensibly moved towards hers, but I could still feel her eyes bearing into my back. One of the other girls ‘accidentally’ bumped me as she went to her locker. I shrank back towards the wall, not daring to pull my shirt over my head and be blind for a second. Nothing to do to advance the situation but respond to Emma’s question.

“I’m good, how are you?”

I tried to keep my voice steady, but didn’t manage completely. I turned around a little bit, putting my back more towards the wall. The incessant clanging of metal on metal, the opening and shutting of lockers, set the mood perfectly.

“Good. You excited for what we’re doing today?” She would always toy with me, before escalating. I couldn’t do anything but play along.

“No, I hate this class. You know that,” I said, hoping to speed up the process.

No such luck. She adopted a hurt look, and almost whined, “But it’s your only class with me. Don’t you love me?” She sounded like she was trying to be lighthearted, but failing. No idea what she was going for with that. I knew the worse was still to come, so better to appease her for now.

“I… like you,” I said grudgingly.

“Oh, good. But why aren’t you changing? Afraid?” She looked at me curiously, like someone would normally look at an insect.

“No, I need to open my locker. My shirt’s in it.”

“Well go right ahead. Maggie! Get out of the way.” The command she had over the rest of the girls was frightening. Maggie scurried backwards, and I reluctantly turned back to my locker. The combination lock shook in my hands, but I got it open and my shirt out. Tie dye, from some old soccer thing.

The fabric was rough in my hands as I laid it on the bench. I then reached down, and took my shirt off. Just the sports bra on now. A few of the other girls glanced at me, but I wasn’t embarrassed; that was the least of my issues. I noticed Emma staring. That was strange, since it wasn’t like this didn’t happen every other day. Maybe Janine’s comment had just put me in a mindset to notice the wrong things.

“Ooo, you’ve grown some. Nice,” Emma smirked. “How do you think she’s doing, everyone?”

“Looks good,” chimed in Maya, with what I hoped wasn’t a serial killer smile. Some of the others made similar comments, and my face stared burning.

Emma looked disappointed at my reaction. I didn’t know what she was hoping for, but it couldn’t be good.

She said mischievously, “Aren’t you going to put your shirt on?”

I grabbed it, and tried to get it over my head, but one arm got caught in the rush. I felt hands on my waist, then my shorts being pulled down. A voice gasped “Emma!” and I got the shirt over my head without managing to fall over. I reached down, more resigned than anything now, and pulled the shorts up. Thank God I wore the sliders today.

Looking up, Emma at least seemed a bit remorseful. She muttered, “I just was wondering why you wore the shorts to school today, maybe you had a thong on or something and didn’t want to show that off. Sorry…”

I rushed out without saying anything. This was how it always was. She took the remarks and other things farther than anyone else, every single time. It was weird. The rest of the people played along, but they didn’t take charge. There might have just been a few teases and accidental bumps if Emma wasn’t there. But she was, and since she was, everyone joined her in a vendetta against me. It never got worse than that in the locker room, but going through it every day was awful. I didn’t know why she was so mean to me. Maybe she was jealous of my athletic prowess, since her friends and she could barely run the length of the gym. That was probably fantasizing by me though, since she seemed happy to be the head of the popular, immobile girls.

I was standing by the wall, watching a few of the boys mess around. I wasn’t the first girl finished changing, but the few who were out here were unimportant. Just two more examples of the mediocrity that this place was filled with. My train of thought turned from Emma’s motivation back to what Janine had said. Janine wasn’t a trustworthy person in general, but there’s usually a grain of truth behind her perverted comments. Like, I had for example, extremely rarely, imagined doing things with Jacoby. And she probably had as well, much more often. So, it wasn’t likely the thing she said about Emma was completely false. Maybe she just said it because Emma did stuff like pantsing me almost every day.

I had a pet theory that Emma was in love with me, like the lesbian or gay bullies in movies who took out their anger at their target. I know it was improbable, but I was pretty good looking. would have liked myself. I didn’t want her to like me like that, since that would mean she wouldn’t stop if I ignored her. I didn’t care about her at all, but confronting or asking her could hurt me in the future. With the remark from Janine, it seemed a little more likely, but still not very probable.

My pondering was interrupted by Coach calling us to come in to the center. I moved to stand by Jacoby, and nodded at him, trying to suppress the grimace. It must have worked somewhat, as he smiled back, looking relieved. Nice to have someone who cares.

“Okay everyone, whoever wants to play dodgeball, go upstairs, and if you want to play basketball, stay down here,” the coach announced.

I knew Emma’s group would stay downstairs and stand around talking, and I couldn’t handle being around them anymore.

I turned to look at Jacoby. “I want to go upstairs; basketball’s boring.”

“No its not,” he said indignantly, “I’m staying down here.” That was fine by me. I didn’t need allies, I could take on the whole school in dodgeball and win.

“Okay. See you later.”

I started walking to the stairs, but then he shouted after me, “Yeah! Good luck, wipe that smile off of Janine’s face!”

That made my lips curl up a bit, and before disappearing into the stairwell I yelled back, “I won’t mess up her face too bad, she wants to fuck you!” I’m glad I wasn’t around to hear the fallout after that. It would make Janine mad, that’s for sure. Well, I was going to be facing her anyway. Work out some of the frustration with the Emma situation.

The wresting room was up the stairs. Red mats covered the floor, and three were rolled up, forming thigh high barriers between the two teams. There was a railing on the side of the room that overlooked the main part of the gym. Everyone else was filing up and picking teams. Two groups formed, and like normal, no one called me over to their side. It didn’t really matter, since I was going to kick all of their asses. I moved to the far side of the room, and reluctantly was joined by one of the two blobs of people.

When the two sides were marginally even, the balls were dumped out in the middle. Janine was on the wall across from me, ready to run as soon as the balls stopped moving. I was ready too, crouched down, eyes intent on one green and one orange ball.

The last ball finally bumped into another and stopped, and off we went. I ran and leapt over the first rolled up mat, before ducking down behind the middle one, and grabbing two balls. I looked back towards our wall and saw two of the best throwers standing there. Good. They knew the strategy. The green, slightly smaller ball I threw back to them, while I picked up another one and tossed it too. Okay, enough time in the danger zone. Those people covered me while I sprinted back to our side and slid over our sides’ mat, lying down behind it in one smooth motion. I saw a few of our weaker teammates on suicide runs, pushing all the balls back from the center towards our side. The center roll didn’t provide enough protection, and they were quickly knocked out.

At least our side had ample ammunition now. I held a ball in each hand, for defense. The other team was mostly milling around, waiting for someone on our side to fully break cover. Our two best throwers were building up piles around themselves. They were still crouched next to me. A few of my other teammates were kneeling down in the open but near the back, presenting as small a target as possible. When the two throwers looked like they were ready, I nodded to them, and they nodded back. Time to go.

With the signal given, I moved forward, presenting an easy target. Everyone on the other side warily aimed at me. When no one else on my side appeared, they started throwing. I ran parallel to the center mat, then jumped, tucked, and rolled, all the while blocking with my two balls. Their throws all missed, and I turned to face them. Now the opposing side’s attention was fully on me. I stood up, and a few more people threw their balls, all of which I blocked. They were exposed, watching me. This was when our team’s best offensive weapons started firing. I did as well, moving to the far side of the room. Pick up ball, aim, fire. Simple as that, with a few jukes and ducks here and there. Our team quickly demolished them. Janine was one of the last to go down, but finally fell when she was running forward to reload. Victory was ours.

After a quick celebration, the balls were all placed back in the middle, for the next round. When they stopped moving, the game was supposed to start. The problem was, the balls didn’t stop. My concentration was broken, and when I glanced up, everyone looked bewildered. It was then I realized the floor was shaking. A few other people noticed it around the same time, looking down at their feet. Oh shit! I saw the two small windows on the side of the room were vibrating as well. I knew what it was right away, but some complete idiot shouted, “Earthquake!!”

We were on the second floor, so of course everyone stampeded down the stairs. I tried moving towards the front to stop them, which was a big mistake. An elbow to my ribs, a shove in the back, and I was next to the wall. Then it felt like a bulldozer rammed me. My head snapped backwards, but I could still see the brick wall approaching way too fast. I barely felt the sharp pain of impact before everything went black.

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