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.