Book One – B.12

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When I opened the door of my house, my parents ambushed me, like usual. They were clearly over their silent treatment that they’d done because I was grounded. The questions came in rapid fire, including a ridiculous number of clarifications on the content and quality of each class, mostly from my mom. My dad predominantly threw in unnecessary comments about my attitude.

Normally I’d have gotten pissed at them and escaped to my room, but today I had something I needed downstairs, so I’d have to endure. I edged into the living room while carrying on a Q & A session with my mom, eyeing the coffee table that usually held the mail.

I stood in front of the table when I got there, not wanting it to be obvious that I was expecting something. My mom eventually stopped nagging me, and I was free to sort through the stack to my heart’s content.

I didn’t find anything with an initial search. Then I went back through the pile. Nothing again.

The organization we’d been contacted by wouldn’t betray us or scam us, like that. I knew they wouldn’t. There was too much involved at this point: the letters, the sheet signal, the drop off building with Mr. Owens and the creepy mask man.

No matter how strong my belief, I was still disheartened when I didn’t find anything in the stack of envelopes and catalogues. After a fifth time rifling through it, I finally gave up, disappointed. How could there not be a letter for me?

I picked up my backpack from where I’d dropped it, and slowly trudged upstairs. The day was bad as a whole, and I’d been hoping for this one thing as a pick-me-up. I guessed it was reasonable the letter could come tomorrow, but it didn’t seem likely.

When I got to my room, the sun had started setting, so I turned the light on. My bed looked inviting, and I thought about a short afternoon nap, but vetoed the idea almost immediately. Even without the letter, I could still plan another mission. Hell, I could fake a letter and everything and get my friends involved. Problem was I couldn’t fake the payment for this past mission, so that plan wouldn’t work.

I walked over to my desk, ready to analyze and think about how we’d failed the last time. Just the thought of trying again, of improving, brightened my mood enough that I wasn’t completely depressed.

I pulled my chair back and sat down. It wasn’t comfortable; all the furniture in my room was childish white wood, relics of a much younger me. No idea why there weren’t cushions.

The desk was cluttered with random papers, both school related and not. Most of it was random junk, but there was also a to-do list, on which there wasn’t anything to do with school. If I’d had school shit on there the page would have been overflowing. Right now it just had ‘deliver money to friends’, and ‘find out what is up with Claire’. I couldn’t think of anything to add, but I hadn’t finished either of those things either.

I was reaching for an empty sheet of paper when I saw an envelope sitting on the corner of my desk. My spirits skyrocketed instantly, and I broke into a huge grin. This had to be the letter!

It was addressed to me in the same style as the first two. I uttered a silent prayer of thanks that they hadn’t put a return address on there; that would have raised my parents’ suspicions. I knew there would be problems with that in the future, but it would be nice to hold them off for as long as possible.

I hesitated, not wanting to rip the letter open immediately. It was somewhat thicker than a normal one, but you couldn’t tell by the shape that money was inside; another thing to be grateful for in regards to my parents.

I settled for going over to my bed, so I could lay everything out better. I smoothed down my comforter, which had a silly blue cat pattern on it. At least it was monotone enough that I wouldn’t lose any fragments of the envelope, or bills, in it.

I’d kept the other two letters, every scrap they’d sent me, in a drawer of my bedside table. I wasn’t going to stop now. Sometime when I was old and bored, wishing my life was as thrilling as it was now, I’d look at everything and be nostalgic.

Now, I’d have fun.

I slipped a single finger in between the outer flap and the main body of the envelope, then carefully ripped it. I didn’t want to damage anything inside. I tried to ignore the sensory feedback my finger was sending me; I didn’t want either confirmation or denial that it contained money until I actually saw it.

The top fully open, I ceremoniously upended the body of the envelope, and out spilled out one piece of paper, and numerous twenty dollar bills.

Fuck yes!

I stood up, and checked to make sure my door was shut. It was.

I pumped my fists in the air, barely able to vocally limit my exuberance to a muffled yell. I’d believed, but I hadn’t dared to hope. Now we got our reward for our hard work.

After a minute of happiness, I’d calmed down enough that curiosity got the better of me. I didn’t want to see how much they’d sent, so I read the letter instead, leaving the pile of green untouched.

It read:

Our contact Elie;

We are, for the most part, pleased with the outcome of your mission you undertook on our behalf. You and your friends didn’t get caught, which is always the most important result. Many of the things you attempted took skill, especially the last second escape, and we applaud your efforts and success in these areas. You and your crew look to have a bright future ahead of you.

Now, in regards to what we actually contracted you for, the stealing, we found your performance lacking. We did not ask you to break into a house, cause a commotion, and then escape. We asked you to burglarize someone’s house. That means we wanted you to take as much as you could, the most valuable things you could find, in as short a time possible. Again, we want to reiterate that your safety in regards to the law is the most important aspect of a success, and that came out positive. The slightly secondary aspect, the taking of things, was what we found lacking.

You delivered to our man Mr. Owens: one cordless phone, valued at approximately seventy-five dollars; one painting, valued at two hundred dollars; one Nintendo Wii, valued at approximately two hundred and fifty dollars; and a mouse and keyboard, valued around 50 dollars together.

In short, you underperformed. This was a dismal showing, and the goods you brought in were simply not up to the standards that we require from you. That means you are on a short leash for future missions. If you don’t acquire at least one thousand dollars’ worth of goods next time, then we may have to terminate your contract.

Again, we appreciate your efforts, especially the escape through the basement window. That was skillful, and the tactics to get out of the general area also were an example of your teams’ talent. Make sure to keep them on your side.

Finally, we promised compensation for the work you have done. In addition to the $2000 signing bonus that is currently in a bank account we set up for you, we sent in this envelope $1600 in cash. This is purely payment for the individual mission. This amount was chosen based partially on the value of the goods you stole, and partially on the fact that there are four members, including you, on your team. This means that you can divide the proceeds evenly.

We have included a map of potential locations for your next mission. Please have it carried out by next Sunday. Keep in mind what we said about the value.

All the best,

Marvin McCree

Right Man Industries

 

The letter left me feeling conflicted. I didn’t know how to feel. On one hand, I was glad we’d been paid, but being criticized left an ugly mar on the whole ordeal. I had known back then that we hadn’t taken very much, which had just been reaffirmed.

The thing was, we couldn’t have taken the computer even if I hadn’t broken it and we’d gotten it out the window. It was too heavy to run with, and too suspicious to just carry down the street. Computers and jewelry, if I could get Jacoby, our conscience to acquiesce to the latter, would increase our total money value next time.

The distinctive smell of the money wafted into my nose, borne on the breeze from the cracked open window, which quickly banished my slight disappointment. It was all twenty dollar bills, for which I was thankful. Much easier to spend. I thought for a second about lying about how much they’d sent, but quickly dismissed the idea.

Ava, Claire, and Jacoby deserved the money. They deserved it just as much as I did. They’d worked just as hard, and even though they questioned it at times, they’d come through when it most mattered. I needed to be able to count on them for future missions too. Thinking of all they’d done, I was insanely glad I had them. If they hadn’t joined me I would have been caught, plain and simple.

So I pulled out 20 of the twenties, put five in my wallet, and stuck the other fifteen under my light on my bedside table. Not necessarily the safest place, but one I’d remember, and one someone wouldn’t search automatically.

Looking down at the pile on the bed again, it really seemed like a lot of money. Eighty bills in total. Well, sixty, now that I’d taken a quarter for myself.

Giving the rest to them at school might be hard, but arranging a meet-up after school would be a hassle as well. I still wasn’t sure how Jacoby was feeling about the whole situation. He was unsettled enough that he didn’t want to go with us to visit the drop off site, but he’d agreed to the next mission. No one could resist money either, but it would be easier if I shoved it on him in school, somewhere where he had to grab it or risk it being seen, than if I waited until we were at his house. He might be madder about it, but the other way was more likely to lead to a long lasting disagreement. I needed to avoid that at all costs.

Ava and Claire wouldn’t mind too much either way, I was sure. Ava might be slightly pissed I’d risked someone catching us by doing the hand over in public, but that was worth the lessened chance of another argument with Jacoby.

Now that I’d settled what to do with the money, I could think more about the most recent letter. It slightly freaked me out that they knew what we’d stolen. It freaked me out a lot that they knew the details of our mission, including our escape.

Given the quarantine, especially the cutting off of cell phone and internet services, they shouldn’t have been able to know either of those. I supposed they had a satellite phone or something similar, or some other technology that was able to get through, which was how they knew what we’d stole. That made sense, even if I was jealous.

What was much more unsettling was the implication that they’d been spying on us while we’d broken into the house. That meant they probably had video of it, proof we’d done something, since a person outside the city had analyzed our actions. It was much more damaging than them having copies of the letters or of us meeting with Mr. Owens. Since I hadn’t sent letters back their letters didn’t necessarily mean anything. The meeting with Mr. Owens wasn’t us actually doing anything. A video of the break in was another story. If they had filmed our whole trip, they would have caught us with our masks off.

I supposed it wouldn’t be that difficult for them to have filmed us, but it was still creepy. Hell, we’d changed right before we’d broken into the house. If they had any decency they wouldn’t have filmed or kept that, but if they employed someone like Mr. Owens, I wouldn’t put anything past them.

 

I immediately decided not to tell the other three about the specifics of the letter, namely the compliments about parts of our execution of the mission.

As much as I wanted to talk this problem over with someone, I knew it’d just make it worse if I talked with Ava or Claire or Jacoby. They would all worry, even Claire. Though she’d been much more forward and willing to take risks, I knew if I was freaked out by this, she’d be at least doubly so. Secrets, though treacherous, were sometimes necessary.

Alone, I didn’t have any idea what to do to avoid them watching or filming us next time. I decided to keep an eye out on our next mission, but it was dark. Now I saw how that could be a disadvantage as well as an advantage. If they were as good and professional as the letters indicated, I wouldn’t be able to find them.

So I put that problem to the side.

The good news was that the organization was at least semi-legitimate, in the sense that they were going to pay up. I briefly thought of the possibility of fake money, but it had looked real to me. That meant nothing, but we wouldn’t be making any huge purchases probably. Department stores wouldn’t check a seemingly normal looking bill when we were still there, so I didn’t worry too much about that hypothetical. Anyways, we could just say we didn’t know where the money came from.

I thought for a second about the contractors’ potential motivations, but didn’t really have anything to go on there. They could be a gang or something, other people inside the city with outside contacts and a way to communicate, using us to do some dirty work, or people on the outside with a new or old interest in the town. With how little information I had, this was something it was better not to worry about. For now, it didn’t matter too much, as long as we got paid. Which we had.

Next up on my mental list was Claire. I set that one aside for later, after I had a talk with her. Given that she was enthusiastic about the stealing, she probably either had a newfound need for money, or she was a closet kleptomaniac excited to finally act on her urges. I thought the first was much more likely, given that we hadn’t yet taken anything when her enthusiasm emerged. Her weird connection and closeness with Mr. Owens was another deal entirely. That could again be related to the money, or she could just have a thing for middle aged men. Hey, I wasn’t going to judge. Whatever made you happy.

I’d been thinking so much about the thievery that the events of the school day had slipped my mind. It was the thought about weird preferences, Claire maybe having a thing for old men, which made me think of Mr. Parr, then Janine.

The stuff in History and then Gym was completely unexpected. She had been the same stuck up bitch since I’d met her. She seemed to be just like everyone else here, not that I’d actually talked to her in private.

The extent of my interaction with her was listening to boys fall all over her, listening to her prattle on idiotically in class, and listening to her say she was going to beat me in Gym before getting her ass kicked. Oh, and also seeing her be very physically attractive, constantly. That was the only thing that made her physical presence bearable.

Today we’d actually agreed on something without fighting. I didn’t know if she’d disliked me as much as I’d disliked her before today, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. I hadn’t been the nicest to her, miming and mocking her both behind her back and in front of it. I’d thought she deserved it, and still did think so, at least mostly. When someone acted that way, maybe they’d stop if other people showed them how dumb it was.

That was why I was so shocked when she’d stuck up for me. It wasn’t something too major, but arguing on the same side was a big step for us. Then talking to her afterward had been nice. She got it, so much more than everyone else here. So I’d like to do that again. Even if it was strange to talk to her, it was another bit of sanity added to my day.

The thing troubling me was the locker room. First she’d somehow gotten everyone else to leave and probably saved me from more harassment by Emma. But then she’d rejected me when I’d make a move on her.

These two actions didn’t seem to align very well. The first, if how she’d startled me then left her hands on my waist was factored in, seemed to indicate that she wanted to do something with me. At least I didn’t know of anyone who would do that without wanting to, or at least not minding, at least a subsequent make out session if not more.

Then she’d pulled back from my kiss and didn’t want to do more. But she still wanted to keep up the improvement in relations between us. I didn’t get it. Maybe I was missing something obvious, but I saw an incongruence between the two things she did in the locker room.

When I thought about it, I’d kissed Janine because she was hot and because that’s what I thought she wanted. Since she flat out said she didn’t want to in the future, I wouldn’t do it again. It was just lust, and if it wasn’t mutual, then nothing would happen. I wasn’t obsessed with her or anything.

So more questions were raised than answered about the company by their letter, though at least they paid up. I had a plan for how to get the money to Ava, Claire, and Jacoby. I still had no idea what was up with Claire. Janine was an enigma, but at least I knew what to do going forward with her. All in all, things were looking up.

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Book One – B.11

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I was wrong. School started off much worse than I’d imagined it would be. It had been less than a week since the quarantine had started, but over the weekend it seemed like everyone got cabin fever. The only thing I heard mentioned in History was how much it sucked that we couldn’t go out of town. Not a single mention of the internet being down in the same breath. I didn’t get that. How could people think driving to a mall was more important than having the world at your fingertips? Just showed how backwards this place was.

Mr. Parr, trying to get some enthusiasm from the class for once, decided to abandon any semblance of teaching and discuss the quarantine for the whole period. He tried to teach about historical parallels to our situation, which was a bit hard since we didn’t have computers to research with. Our school’s library was mediocre, and we weren’t going to go down to the public one. So the whole class period pretty much consisted of him and whoever else wanted to talk vaguely remembering something and spouting off stories that may or may not have been true.

I got so frustrated at one point that I decided to start an argument with the class about the whole thing, something I normally wouldn’t do without backup. Surprisingly, when I brought up our situation being more like that of people in Communist China or Soviet Russia, vis-à-vis the restrictions on information and communication, Janine agreed with me. If not for the quarantine itself and the letters, that would have been the strangest thing to happen to me in a while.

I mentioned the likeness, Mr. Parr and a bunch of classmates shot me down, then Mr. Parr asked the class if anyone agreed with me.

Janine raised her hand. Mr. Parr’s scowl at that was incredibly pleasing. He thought of her as his equal or his side kick, an effect of his present infatuation.

“I agree with Elie, Mr. Parr,” she said. “The class has completely forgotten about the information blackout with the discussion of the impact of the quarantine. It’s much more important that we don’t have freedom of information, can’t check the claims made on TV, than whether we can drive to a city fifty miles away. With the invention of the internet, it’s become the main way people communicate and do business, as well as access news. It is much more important than physical transportation, and in the long run would impact the town much more.”

I would have thought she was just repeating, potentially verbatim, what another source said, but with the internet down that was impossible. The TV stations were all saying the same thing idiotic things; I would know. Pretty much all I did after getting home from the delivery of the stolen goods was watch TV.

Before Mr. Parr could retort, I said, “And I second everything she’s said.”

Now it was Janine’s turn to look surprised. Normally, if she’d agreed with something I’d said, I would have in turn played devil’s advocate. Hell, I rarely talked in this class in the first place. Too many idiots who would counter me, including the teacher.

I smirked at her, then continued, “The internet and phones being down is much more important than us not being able to get out of town. So much of commerce and business, of everything, happens over the internet, it hurts us much more.”

We continued a tag team approach, and gave it a valiant effort, but the multitude was eventually too much to overcome. We gave up after Mr. Parr flat out told us we were wrong. The rest of the period was then filled with the normal cacophonous agreement and mimicry of him. It was bullshit.

On the way out, I saw him still frowning at Janine. Maybe his crush would abate, at least a little. She’d be glad of that.

As I walked out the door, Janine grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side. I was flustered, had no idea what was going on.

She let go once we were out of the flow of traffic, and said, “I didn’t know we could agree on anything.“

Well, that was rude.

“I didn’t think so either,” I said. “Guess there’s a first time for everything. It does suck that the internet is out though. I don’t know how I’m going to manage without it.”

“Yeah,” she replied, leaning against the wall. There was a brief pause, before she continued, “Did you see that article about Iran the day before this happened?”

I racked my brain, trying to remember the reference. Janine looked on impatiently.

“Oh yeah!” I finally exclaimed. “I saw that. I thought it was stupid we’d launched a strike like that, but now I wish they’d actually managed to take out all the weapons on time.”

“Me too,” she said. “If they’d actually got the right targets, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

I was about to agree, but then thought for a second.

“Maybe the army troops gave whoever took the weapon an opportunity to steal it,” I said. “If it wasn’t Iran who actually did the attack, and it probably wasn’t since they wouldn’t risk it, it must have been some terrorist group. And there’d hopefully be good security on that kind of place normally. So the attack was sort of an unintentional distraction.”

She laughed. “I think you just want to have been right. But I do too, so let’s go with that theory. The strike made the breakout possible which allowed the quarantine to happen. So it’s the government’s fault. Of course.”

“Of course it is,” I laughed back. “Who else’s fault could it possibly be?”

Our conversation paused for a second, to let the giggles die down. Politics is funny.

Then she said, “I think this is the first time we’ve had a normal conversation, without trying to piss each other off.”

Huh. I thought back, trying to recall another instance of this. We meshed so well, how could we not have talked before? Oh yeah, because she was normally an annoying bitch. But at least she wasn’t as stupid as everyone else here, in a multitude of ways. Better than Sarah, in fact, and I tolerated her, at least for Jacoby’s sake.

“I guess…” I trailed off. I was a little embarrassed by the fact that we’d never talked. She could be blamed just as much as me though. I looked down at my watch, at a loss for what to say. It read 8:58.

She glanced at hers as well.

“I should get to class,” she said, but continued, “I’ll see you in Gym, and hopefully Emma won’t make it so bad today for you.”

I barely managed to get out a stunned ‘goodbye’ and halfhearted wave as she flounced off. I hadn’t once noticed what she was wearing, but with the rearview, definitely did now. Gym might, just might, not be so bad today.

I’d forgotten all about English, almost walking to Chemistry, before turning around and making my way back to the right class. The bell rang when I was still a hundred feet away from Mrs. Gissard’s classroom, but I managed to slip in before she did. It would have been embarrassing to have to knock, since she locked her door. I didn’t mind everyone’s stares, it was only Ava and Claire that I was worried about. I was always one of the first ones here from History, and they might be suspicious as to why I was late. Not that I wanted to keep it a secret I’d talked to Janine, I just didn’t want to discuss it at the moment. It’d been too strange, too unexpected.

Looking around, I saw they’d saved me a seat. I made my way over to it and slung my backpack off. Ava sat much lower in her desk than normal, and Claire had her head buried in her sweatshirt, which was bundled on her desk. I wondered for a second why they were acting so weird, before remembering the obvious. We’d robbed Mrs. Gissard. It made sense to be freaked out to see her.

She came into the room looking frazzled. Even before she looked our way, I felt like a deer in headlights. It wasn’t as if she’d have a sudden burst of cognition upon seeing us and recognize us. We’d had masks on, and full body covering, except for Jacoby. And he wasn’t in this class. So logically, there wasn’t a reason to be worried.

Knowing that did nothing to quell my anxiety. Mrs. Gissard put her computer down on her desk, and turned to face the class with a sigh. Probably tired from being woken up in the middle of the night by us.

She started off by saying, “Sorry if I look tired, my house was broken into on Saturday night. Thankfully not very much was taken, and most of it was electronics we can’t really use now. But it really freaked us out, since with the phones down we couldn’t call the cops. So can you all just try to be a little quiet and calm today?”

That definitely subdued the class. The normal murmur and hubbub that would be going on while the teacher was saying something meaningless cut off. You could have heard a pin drop, if the floor wasn’t carpeted.

For my part, I just tried not to look too nervous. I had no idea whether she suspected it was students who did it, but that was a possibility. Acting normal is much more difficult than it sounds. I didn’t know how much attention I’d normally be paying, how I would be sitting, et cetera. I probably fidgeted more than normal, and was too nervous to make any of my normal sounds of disgust at the lesson.

Ava, Claire and I sat silent the whole period. I thought we all recognized we should have been speaking, to keep up the appearance of normalcy, but it was too hard to get words out.

Mrs. Gissard occasionally jumped at a noise, or went over to her desk and rested her head on her hands, distraught. That just made me feel guilty, in a personal sense. I felt remorse, but it was only directed at her, not at the whole concept of stealing. Seeing her like that was bad enough that I had to go to the bathroom twice to get out of there, but not bad enough that I wanted to change my whole philosophy. Moreover, I desired my philosophy to stay the same. The obvious solution to this guilt was to burglarize a stranger’s house next time. I just hoped that having to see Mrs. Gissard so upset the whole period wouldn’t successfully guilt trip Ava and Claire out of the next mission. It was a good thing Jacoby wasn’t in the class, since he was the one with the strongest purely moral objections, and would have been swayed the most by seeing her.

The bell eventually rang and class let out, after what felt like days. Ava looked miserable as she left the room, while a change I hadn’t noticed had come over Claire sometime during the period. She walked out of the room with her head held high, seemingly resolute and firm in her belief in our actions. I really needed to get around to talking to her about whatever her problem was. I didn’t like my friends becoming all strange. It was a very bad thing to have unknown motivations on the team. I still trusted her, but anything new and different was suspicious.

My brain shifted gears as I found myself in the hallway leading to Gym. I looked around for Jacoby, and not seeing him, looked at my watch to see whether he was more likely to be behind or ahead of me. It was two minutes to the hour, so the passing period was more than half over, though Gym was far enough away from other classes that he could still not have gotten here yet. I decided to wait a few more minutes. I’d gotten to school too late to catch him in the cafeteria, and Gym was my only class with him other than Chemistry.

Three days of the week I had Gym before lunch, while the other two I had Chemistry. How the hell athletics could be considered more important than chemistry I could never understand. I knew which one I’d rather do, but in the larger picture, one was much more important and deserved more time devoted to it than the other. Stupid Stockton.

I stood in the same alcove that contained the cafeteria doors. Jacoby appeared around the corner just as the bell was ringing, almost running to make it. That was silly since it didn’t matter when we got into the Gym, just that we got out of the changing room before too much time had passed.

I moved out from behind and grabbed his arm. He twisted away instinctually, before looking up and seeing it was me. He stopped.

“You know you’re not going to be late,” I said.

“Yeah, but I don’t like getting there after the bell rings,” he said, furtively glancing at the double doors that led to the gym.

“Relax. There’s no reason to be worried at all about this.”

“I know,” he responded, frowning down at me, “I just want to be there.” He looked at me more intently. “And why are you so calm today? Normally you’re the one ridiculously worked up about this.”

“Oh, no reason. I’m still afraid and everything, just with the—“ I looked around, checking if anyone was within listening range, then lowered my voice. “—stealing and everything, it’s not as big of a deal.”

“Huh, well that’s good.” He glanced at the doors one more time, then continued, “But we really need to get to class.”

I nodded, and we walked together through the former gates of hell.

As I hurried through the gym it looked like a sizeable amount of people were already outside, finished. That wasn’t a good sign, both for Emma and for my class attendance.

Inside, the smell of stale sweat assaulted me. I started breathing through my mouth to avoid it, at least partially. Janine was in the back, changing slowly, as usual, but she winked at me this time instead of miming anything or mentioning Emma. Maybe we weren’t enemies anymore, but I’d bet against her helping with Emma. That was just something I needed to deal with myself.

I slowed down my rushed pace as I made it to the first block of lockers. The metal was cold under my hands as I grabbed the edge to peek around the corner and do little reconnaissance before entering the battlefield. I saw Emma and Maya inside, as well as some other girls, but ducked my head back around before they saw me.

Well, nothing to do but go in. I looked down at my hands and realized they were shaking. Funny, how I had to look to notice.

I was about to rush to my locker and try to get it over with as quickly as possible, but as I saw Emma, anger swelled up. My shaky hands settled into fists. Every time, every fucking time I tried to be brave, weather the storm, she just kept coming.  A continuous cycle of misery. It was even worse if she didn’t mean to cause it, if she thought she was just teasing, or if, God forbid, she actually liked me.

I wasn’t in control of myself at the moment. I might have been about to punch her in the face, or at least shove her against the lockers. Then I thought about her liking me, and that stupid emotion sprung up. It was that shitty compassion or that you feel towards someone who likes you. It wasn’t a good or productive feeling, but in the moment, it helped change my mind. I didn’t want to embarrass her, even if she was the cause of all my problems. And I resigned myself to another day of humiliation.

Emma and Maya both glanced up at me from where they were conspiring. Or maybe Maya was trying to persuade Emma not to do whatever idiotic thing she had come up with this time. It didn’t matter to me. I had defeated myself, defeated my urge to resist.

I glared back at them as I moved to my locker. The few remaining people in here parted like the Red Sea before me. That was unexpected. Normally everyone would be bumping and shoving me out of the way.

I spun the combination lock, not remembering what I needed to dress out in. When it opened, I saw a shirt and pair of shorts, barely visible in the darkness. Fuck. Again I had to change all my clothes. I hadn’t been thinking about Gym enough this morning to remember to wear shorts. At least after last time’s debacle I’d remembered to shove a pair of sliders in my bag, so she wouldn’t give me a wedgie again. Or at least it’d be a lot harder.

My clothes were soon laid out on the bench, to make the process faster when I actually started stripping. I glanced over my shoulder at Emma before starting, and quickly wished I hadn’t. She was in the midst of changing, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

I turned away to keep from puking, or at least gagging. I almost pulled my shirt over my head, but then realized I didn’t want to be without clothes at the same time as her. There was no telling what she’d do. Instead, I sat down on the bench and looked over at Maya. Might as well have nice scenery while waiting for Emma to finish, even if I couldn’t interact with it.

Maya had a strawberry-blond pixie cut, and a smile that made you feel as if you were alone in the room with her. The pixie cut framed a round face that fit her well. My eyes then travelled downwards; she was in the process of changing shirts. Her breasts weren’t large, and in fact when smothered by the sports bra seemed quite the opposite, but overall she had a petiteness that somehow worked.

It didn’t surprise me when she noticed me watching her. She flashed me one of her marvelous smiles. I was entranced. Normally I’d look away when someone caught me staring, but that smile was so open, so inviting, that I almost got up and kissed her right on that amazing mouth.

Then I remembered where I was, and who she was, and didn’t.  She was practically a work of art, and I didn’t want to crack the incredibly rose colored glasses I saw her through by getting too close. Or worse, making her mad at me. For God’s sake, she frowned whenever Emma did something to me. She was perfect, in an abstract way, but out of reach.

I turned back to my clothes before I could examine the masterpiece too closely. It didn’t due to see the flaws beneath the outward façade, when the vision itself was so wonderful.

Emma still hadn’t said anything to me, which was strange. Normally she’d be hounding and nagging me. Rarely, if ever, did she leave me alone for such an extended period. I looked at her, and she was done changing, putting everything back in her locker. She seemed subdued for some reason. I moved my gaze away before she saw me watching. I’d never have heard the end of that.

Now was as good a time as any. I took my shirt off in one quick motion. I heard some whispers behind me, then footsteps, but I resisted the urge to twist my head around to see what was going on. Emma’s current mood reminded me of a sleeping tiger, and I didn’t want to set her off. No more glances at her, no nothing. I put my other shirt on, then reached down to unbutton my pants.

Two hands were around my waist in a flash, cold against my stomach. I had no idea whether they’d move up or down, and didn’t want to find out. This was too far. If she was trying to embarrass me, technically it was working, but I was more mad than anything. If she liked me, I wished Maya would control her better, tell her how much of an idiot she was being.

I spun around, hand raised to slap Emma in the face. Fighting back would at least get her to stop for today. I couldn’t deal with it anymore, with everything else going on.

Instead, I came face to face with Janine, a mischievous smile on her face. This section of lockers had somehow cleared out while I was changing shirts, except for us.

Well, that was unexpected.

Before I did anything, she said, grin never leaving her face, “I bet you didn’t expect that, did you?” Her hands were still on my waist.

“Uhh…” I had no idea what was going on. She kept looking at me expectantly, and I managed to pull my scattered mind together in that time.

“No, I definitely did not,” I continued, “but sometimes the most unexpected things can be the best.”

How’s that for a witty retort?

She snorted. “That they can.” Then she looked down at her hands, still resting right above my hips. “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” I said, even more bewildered.

I truly had no idea where this was going. I knew where it’d go in my dreams, but this was real life. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“Okay.”

She leaned forward, and for a second I thought she was going to kiss me. Instead, she whispered in my ear, “You’re not so bad.”

That was underwhelming. I frowned. She pulled her head back, still holding me, so we were once again looking into each other’s eyes. After such a rollercoaster of emotions, I decided why the hell not? Let’s try someething.

This time it was my turn to lean forward, trying also to gauge her reaction while in the midst of the process.  I pressed my lips to hers, holding them tightly.

She gently pushed me back. That didn’t work out like I’d hoped. She set up this situation, then didn’t want to kiss? What the hell was she going for then?

She frowned, saying, “Let’s not do that too often, alright?”

“Okay.”  I was done caring. I felt numb. Fuck Gym. First harassment by Emma, then this shit with Janine.

Janine let go of me, taking a step backwards.

I was about to leave the locker room in disgrace, when she grabbed my shoulder. What now?

She said, “Were still good. Don’t read into that.”

I nodded mutely. She was too much of an enigma for me to figure out at the moment.

We walked out of the locker room together. Before she left to join her friends, I asked her what she’d done to get everyone else out.

She said, “I just told Maya to get Emma and everyone else out. My friends help me with my devious plans, unlike Emma’s, so mine could explain what I was doing and get hers to leave. Most people were gone already anyway.”

“So why did you do it?” I asked.

“I didn’t like what Emma was doing to you. But you’ve always been a complete bitch before so I hadn’t done anything.” That wasn’t true. I frowned at her. She continued anyway, “Then we had today in History, where we interacted like normal people, so I thought I could try being nice.”

Well I was grateful, but that didn’t answer my biggest question. I opened my mouth to ask more, but she ran off to her friends before I could get anything out. Damn.

I still didn’t know why she’d gotten everyone else out of the locker room before sneaking up on me. It was downright creepy, in fact, that she’d been able to do that. The only reason I could think of that’d she’d want to get me alone in there was if she had wanted to do something with me, but that was clearly off the table when she rejected my kiss. I didn’t regret it though. Janine wasn’t my favorite person, or one I’d consider a friend, but she was hot. If I’d missed that opportunity I would have always second guessed myself. Even though it didn’t work out, it seemed like it was no harm, no foul, at least in hindsight. We weren’t any worse off than we were before.

I didn’t think we were going to be friends or anything. We had too much of a rivalry, too much disagreement. She still associated with the dumbasses, both athletic and not, and did that annoying shit with Mr. Parr.

But none of that mattered too much. Because I just had the rest of the school day, then I’d get the letter with money from the robbery people. It could still be a good day.

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Book One – B.10

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My heart was pounding. What the fuck was going on? First a face on one side, then a creepy as hell man on the other.

The guy was looking at us, head cocked to one side. He had glasses and a grey suit on, and looked to be in his forties or fifties, though it was hard to tell in the lighting. Maybe around my dad’s age.

I didn’t know what to do. Stay or run? He looked professional, but was acting incredibly weird. Before I could work up the courage to get out of there, or more like tell Claire and Ava to go since they were behind me, he continued speaking.

“You guys are our little thieves, right? Do you want to come into my office?” he asked, leaning forwards and against the wall.

He was much too close for comfort. I tried to back up, get a little personal space, but bumped up against Ava and Claire. The man smirked at my awkwardness. I glared at him.

I responded, “No, we don’t. Do you want the things we have?”

He looked disappointed at my refusal, but said, “I guess. I don’t get many visitors around here, sorry for the weirdness at the beginning. I thought I’d freak you guys out, but it’s no fun if you’re going to leave.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. One the one hand, I felt sorry for him, but on the other, he might be a serial rapist. He looked too professional for the part, but his acting was right on par.

Luckily, Ava cut in before I could formulate a response.

She said, “We’re sorry that you are stuck here all alone, but maybe if you didn’t act so creepy you’d have more people to talk to.”

I thought she’d nailed it. No reason to freak us out if all you want to do is talk.

He obviously got the message, and his frown grew.

“Okay, I understand. Can you give me the stuff you took? I’m Mr. Owens, by the way, but you can call me Joe,” he said glumly.

I wanted to get out of there. There wasn’t anything we could do for him.

I held out the bag, and he reached for it, but Claire spoke up first.

“I think we can come in and talk to you, right?”

She glanced at Ava and me. I looked to Ava skeptically. She shrugged. No help there. Well then, we were going to talk to the creepy man some more. Claire, who’d been so afraid before, now was positively eager. I wasn’t going to deny her this simple thing. No telling when she’d decide to grow a conscience like the other two, and not want to do the missions anymore. I needed some leverage, a reminder of something I did for her.

I told the man we’d come with him. His face lit up, and he turned and motioned for us to follow. As we weaved between columns and stacks of boxes, my apprehension grew. Every second it became darker, though my eyes were now mostly adjusted. I remembered that other face I’d seen, and every noise made me jump. It made sense if they were going to kill us or mug us or anything that they’d bring us farther into the warehouse. I thought of taking the knives out of my bag, but that would just alert them that I was onto their plan. If it, in fact, was a plan.

I’d just have to be cautious. We walked in silence, but soon got to a lit room. It was built into the structure, but there was a big window to look inside. It didn’t look like a torture chamber which was comforting. Mr. Owens held the door open for us, and I tentatively walked in, regretting ever agreeing to this.

Mr. Owens sat down behind the desk, while we each took one of the three chairs in front of it. My chair wasn’t very comfortable, and I was on edge, sitting up straight and alert.

He looked positively giddy, leaning forward, elbows on the desk.

“So I have a file on you guys, but I want to hear more about you from yourselves. Is that okay?”

“Uhh, why?” I asked. “If you have information on us, why ask us anything?”

His grin turned into a frown. “I don’t know everything about you, but I know the other member of your group of four is named Jacoby, and he decided to stay at home today because his brother recently passed away. I do know the same amount about either of you, but I want to talk. So, please talk. “

He looked so pitiful at that moment that I nodded reluctantly, and out of the corner of my eye saw Ava doing the same. He probably knew anything we were telling him anyway. Claire looked more excited than the both of us combined, so I let her go first.

“Well, I moved here after eighth grade, and was friends with Ava and Elie and Jacoby, our other partner in crime, right away. The first day of school, I was nervous. I was sitting in English class, surrounded by people talking to each other, not included in anything. I didn’t want to be looked at like only a smart person, like before, but I couldn’t stop myself from answering the questions. I answered something, some opinion, “wrongly”, and Ava and Elie jumped to my defense. And we became friends. But recently, well, my family…”

She glanced at us, then stood up and went over to the man, and whispered in his ear. He smiled at whatever she’d said to him. She looked pleased at that, and came back to her seat.

So Claire’s problem was something to do with her family? Huh, I’d have to figure that out later though, since Mr. Owens was talking again.

“… I wish I’d had better friends when I was in high school. I was a bit of a loner.”

Why was this man so depressing? He seemed like he didn’t have a cheerful bone in his body, except for whatever jollies he got from interacting with teenage girls. I thought I’d go next, because why the hell not?

“Well, I moved here after fifth grade,” I said. “I had an older brother named Rick. He was the smartest person in this whole fucked up town, but he graduated high school early and left, so fuck him.”

It made me uncomfortable to say that; it felt like heresy. I still felt muddled mix of apologetic and angry towards Rick.

I continued anyway. “I became friends with Ava and Jacoby right away after moving here; Jacoby was new that same year. He didn’t come with us to meet you since he has a weird aversion to stealing, thinks it’s wrong. I mean I do too, but not enough to not do it. High school is somehow is filled with more idiots than I realized existed, but at least I have these guys.”

I looked affectionately at Ava and Claire. A little flattery never hurt anyone. Ava rolled her eyes in response, but at least she smiled. Claire was still glowing, looking at the man.

He looked like he expected me to continue, but I was done. He turned to Ava.

“And what’s your story, pretty lady?”

Again, his creep factor was through the roof. He didn’t seem to realize the effect his words had. We all visibly recoiled every time he said something like that. I guess he was a new candidate for weirdest person I knew, but still not the winner by a long shot.

I turned towards Ava. She grimaced, but hid it quickly. Never an impression of negativity from her.

“Well, I’ve lived here my whole life,” she started. “I don’t know why Elie thought I was different enough to become friends with when she moved here, but I’m glad she did. She wasn’t as rebellious then as she is now, but she still had a contrary streak going. I’m pretty sure she’s broken some type of record by now. Whatever it was, we’ve been friends ever since. I don’t only hang out with these guys though.”

The man looked satisfied, like he was getting some sustenance out of our storytelling. Maybe he really was that lonely. That would suck.

Before the silence could fully set in, he said, “So, if you don’t mind me asking, whose house did you guys break into?”

Claire opened her mouth to answer, but before she could get anything out, the door behind us opened. I spun around, startled.

A man was standing in the doorway, wearing a white mask. He had on a black hoodie and sweatpants, almost our exact outfit from the night before. I checked his hands; no weapons. I still stood up, at the very least putting my chair between him and me. Ava did the same, while Claire yelped and ran behind the desk. Mr. Owens put a hand on her shoulder.

Before any of us moved more, the man stated in a monotone, “That is an unauthorized topic. Please cease and desist from that line of questioning Mr. Owen. You know you are out of line.”

Mr. Owen practically groveled, such was the urgency of his apologies.

He hurried out from behind the desk, hands alternatively clasped together and wiping his newly sweaty brow.

Then he said, tone exceedingly apologetic, “I’m sorry sir. Very very sorry. I simply forgot for a second. Please forgive me. I need this job, sir.”

The man in the doorway leaned against the wall, arms crossed. He started stroking his chin with one hand, as if thinking. I had no idea what was going on. The man was the same one from before, who was creeping around the warehouse when we came in. He must be the real company man. I’d already figured out that Mr. Owens was just another lackey, so this new information further validated that. They had to have a real person here to make sure everything went according to plan. This just made the organization as a whole seem even stranger and more mysterious.

The man who had burst in appeared to be done thinking.

He said grudgingly, “This one slip up will be forgotten, and will not be reported to your superiors. Make no mistake though, we are watching you. We will know if you do anything like this again. You will be fired, if such an act is discovered. Good day to you all.”

He left as quickly as he’d came. We sat back down in our seats, but I was itching to get out of there even more than before. Mr. Owens was clearly shaken by the interruption, and didn’t appear to be able to think of anything else to pester us about.

After maybe thirty seconds of silence, I stood up again.

I said to Mr. Owens, “We’re going to be going now. Goodbye. We’ll see you the next time we make a delivery. Here’s the backpack, this has all the stuff we stole in it.” I then turned to Ava and Claire, and said, “Come on, let’s go.”

They both stood up. Ava said a quick goodbye to Mr. Owens. She got a little freaked by disciplinary authority figures, as the man who’d appeared in the doorway seemed to be. Claire, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be affected by that. She hesitated for a second, then went over to Mr. Owens and hugged him, again whispering in his ear.

He showed us out, and we left. The building looked non-descript when we were again on the outside. I was simply glad we’d made it out okay; the place freaked me out even more than before we’d gone in.

We walked together, no one speaking, all of us stuck in our thoughts. I looked at my watch; only 12:30. There was still half a day left. I didn’t have anything to do, except for some homework.

I’d have gym tomorrow. That depressed me. I was dealing with a shadowy organization, with breaking into people’s houses, and yet I couldn’t deal with a bunch of bullies in gym class. That was a problem. I didn’t want to fight back; after Janine’s comment supported my hypothesis, namely that Emma had a secret crush on me and sucked at flirting, I’d felt more pity for her than anything. She sucked at romance, just like her friends. Except maybe Maya, who at least looked pretty.

I still dreaded it. Just because I thought it wasn’t malicious now, didn’t make it any more bearable. That was another thing I tried to make myself do: have only the actions affect me, not the motivation behind them. Why she was a pain in my ass didn’t matter, she still did what she did.

Janine, no matter how annoying she was in class, wasn’t as bad in gym. She acted like a bitch to everyone there, because she was better than them. She acted like a bitch toward me because I was better than her. She was athletic though… If I had half an ounce of trust in her I’d be tempted to try to get her to join us. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself though. Further recruitment depended on how much we got paid, and whether we actually needed more people, like if they told us to rob a mansion or a bank.

The exciting futures ahead made me perk up, and when we split up, I went home feeling happy. School wouldn’t be too bad, and we’d get paid tomorrow.

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Book One – B.9

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The next morning, I woke up to the sun coming in the far window. Ava was still asleep next to me, having shifted over to her back. I was vaguely disappointed she wasn’t still holding me, but at least we’d fallen asleep like that. Better to have a fleeting moment awake than the whole night unconscious. My stomach was feeling slight hunger pains, but nothing so bad I needed to eat immediately. Instead, I decided to lie in bed for longer: just enjoy the company, the peace and the warmth.

The first order of business for the day was to get all the stuff we’d stolen to the drop off point. Once we did that, the final confirmation of the contacts’ trustworthiness would happen; whether they paid us. I’d ideally have a letter in the mail waiting for me when I got home from school on Monday, with a big stack of cash in it. And I’d forgot to get some of the advance payment, taken out of the bank and sent in the mail by doing some fancy sheet-on-the-roof maneuvers. It didn’t seem worth it now. Whatever we got this time would be enough, even splitting it four ways.

These thoughts were accompanied by a few nervous aches through my abdomen. It was strange, since I hadn’t been very nervous before we’d robbed the house. I guessed the guilt and fear, was only setting in afterwards for me; the opposite situation of my friends. Normally I could rationalize, as in using rational reasoning, not BS, the apprehension or anxiety away. So I tried that.

The major seemed like it would be the computer that we’d taken. I’d never had a painting or Wii or kitchen knife set that I’d miss much if it got taken, but a computer was more important. So why shouldn’t it be too much of a problem that I’d tried to take and broken theirs?

Well, first of all, Mrs. Gissard was a jerk. She at least acted like the conservative blowhard the school wanted her to be during class, which I hated. She also wasn’t nice to students in general, singling them out, and not stopping kids when they were picking on others. Those were issues. But what we did wouldn’t change her behavior, and revenge was pointless, so that couldn’t be an excuse. There was also the fact that I shouldn’t care about her. Caring for others only leads to trouble; you never get anything out of it. I wasn’t an extraordinarily selfish person until I’d decided that I had to be that way. It was the only way to keep my morals consistent. So that was a big point in favor of taking things from her.

I waited a few minutes, but that didn’t help the stomach ache either. I felt that I should have a more surefire way of measuring how well my reasoning aligned with my moral compass, but thinking just got too convoluted and confused after a while. It was easier to come up with propositions in my head, hold them tight, and wait for a gut response. Both literally and figuratively.

If I couldn’t justify it because she was a jerk, and not because selfishism is the best and most superior way, then I was stuck. This was shitty. I’d robbed a house, because I thought it was going to be fun, and we were going to get money. Which it was, and we were. But that didn’t help me justify why I should get the happiness from those things instead of Mrs. Gissard and her husband getting it from the stuff we stole.

I thought more about her, and how she would react the next time she wanted to get on the computer. Well she was a teacher so she had a laptop. I had no idea what her husband did or whether it required a computer. So that would most likely be fine. Then the Wii. Old people normally didn’t like video games, especially silly ones like that, that much. So they’d be fine. I also tried to imagine if we’d instead robbed someone I didn’t know. A faceless man with no personality. He I wouldn’t feel as bad for. Simple recognition. The facial expressions, and how well I could imagine them, played a part too. So if I used a combination of mitigating the harm done, and cutting off empathy by anonymity…

It worked! The relief came in a rush. I didn’t want to have to realign my moral code. I just needed the right excuses for remaining selfish. And we could continue robbing houses, which was the best part. Now I just had to get Jacoby and Ava on board long-term, for more than just ‘one more mission,’ and figure out why the hell Claire was screwed up.

I almost jumped out of bed in excitement, but the daunting list of tasks for the day made me want to sink back into dreamland. But we’d also be dropping off the things we stole which would be a step of progress, if not thrilling, and might involve meeting a member of this mysterious organization. And we still had no idea why they were doing anything they did.

I started peeling the covers back, only on my side of the bed, so I could get up. There wasn’t any reason to delay the day any longer; it couldn’t be too bad. Before I’d managed to get my feet free from their toasty confinement, Ava moaned and threw an arm over me. I almost lay back down, like someone caught in the act, before I remembered I was just getting out of bed. No reason to feel guilty. I removed her arm from where it was draped over me, taking care not to wake her up more. For all I knew, she’d done that to keep me in bed, but that was probably wishful thinking. More likely it was a random movement.

Once out of the bed, the first thing on the agenda was normal morning maintenance. I brushed my teeth and used the bathroom, and changed back into my pants. The shorts were fine for wearing around the house, but we’d be going outside soon enough that it wasn’t worth delaying changing.

I peeked into Jacoby’s room on the way to the staircase. No one there. They must be up already. A glance at my watch told me it was 9:40. Not too late to be waking up on a Sunday morning. A pleasant cake-like smell filled the air as I started descending, the stairs cold under my bare feet. Socks would have been nice, but I’d forgotten to pack a pair and didn’t want to be wearing dirty ones without shoes on.

Jacoby and Claire were sitting at the kitchen table when I got there. His mom was making pancakes at the stove, and was the first to notice me.

“Good morning, Elie. How are you?” she asked, a pleasant smile smoothing out some of the more recent wrinkles etched on her face.

“I’m fine,” I replied. “How are you?”

“Oh, good. I’m just cooking, pancakes every Sunday. How many do you want?”

I made my way over to the kitchen table before saying, “I’ll have three, thanks.”

I was more partial to waffles personally, but most anything was good for breakfast. As long as it didn’t have too much fruit. While we were waiting, I turned toward Jacoby, who was staring down at the newspaper in front of him. Normally he’d be on his phone or something, but with no internet or data service, there was no point. At least the paper had some news. He was focused on the sports section, but I was fine with reading pieces of articles over his shoulder. I didn’t want to piss him off by asking for a piece or section of the newspaper.

After a few minutes, he looked at me, seated to his right around the circular table.

“Please don’t do that,” he said, frowning. “I hate it when people read over my shoulder. You can have the normal news if you want, but don’t look over my shoulder.”

Well that backfired. Must be normal before-breakfast grumpiness, unless he was still mad or something about last night. I thought Ava had pacified him, so it was probably the first one. No matter.

The partial newspaper he handed me was the Chicago Tribune, and of course its front page was plastered with Stockton. Stockton was the most important city in America at the moment, with the quarantine. The only information everyone on the outside had was photographs and videos of the town, and that just made people hungry for speculation. Most of it was completely off base, ridiculously outlandish, and much too pessimistic.

I pointed an article out to Claire, one hypothesizing an anarchy-like scenario. I hadn’t spoken a word to her yet, but a nod of acknowledgement, a glance up from her book, was enough to let me know she wasn’t upset with me as well. We read the article simultaneously.

I still had a few paragraphs to go when she finished, but she’d took the paper out of my hands and put it down on the table, then looked at me expectantly. I guessed she wanted a reaction to it. Well I could that to her.

I started, “I don’t know why they think we’d fall to pieces after the quarantine was put in place. We’re doing just fine like this. It’s stupid of them, I mean can’t they see were fine from their helicopters?”

She looked at me skeptically. “What they’re saying probably isn’t based on what they’re probably seeing, but it makes sense otherwise. You said you felt trapped when you first found out about the quarantine. You were all riled up at school, and even more unpleasant to be around. You’re just saying different stuff now because of the article. You always think people with authority are wrong.”

She adopted a self-satisfied gaze. I needed to think of a response to get rid of that smugness.

Maybe I was thinking differently about the quarantine because of the article, because I wanted it to be wrong. I’d woken up the first morning of the quarantine, thinking it was the height of ludicrousness to send us to school and everyone to work. After a few days though, especially with the huge distraction of the letters, I wasn’t as preoccupied with raging against it at every opportunity. Because of the distraction I was probably adapting faster than most, but they’d get used to it if it went on much longer. Which would absolutely suck, but was still a possibility. The quarantine should end when they find a cure or inhibitor for the virus. I couldn’t stand to be stuck here much longer, but being stuck here didn’t affect my day to day life. The lack of internet and phones was the bigger problem for me, and most likely everyone else as well. Tons of jobs couldn’t be done without it, but those weren’t the jobs of the people who’d start riots or anything the article was talking about.

So I said to Claire, “My opinion has changed a little. The situation is still—“ I glanced at Jacoby’s mom, who didn’t seem to be paying attention, “shitty as anything, but that’s more the lack of internet and phones. Not being able to get out of here feels entrapping, but it’s not like I leave every day or anything. I still can go to the store and get food. Sure, some people are trapped outside or inside like Ava’s dad, but it’s not that big of a deal. I mean I feel bad for her, but it doesn’t affect too many people. So it’s not too bad here, and the people writing the newspaper articles should be able to see that.”

She just gave a small ‘humph’ in response, and went back to the book she’d been reading. I didn’t feel satisfied with my ‘victory’. It takes the fun out of it when the other person just leaves the argument, without even a token surrender.

The pancakes were ready soon. I lightly buttered mine, then drowned them in syrup. The sweetness mixed with the salty in perfect proportions. The newspaper, which I continued to read while eating, didn’t contain anything else interesting.

Ava came downstairs after we were all finished. She was still in her pajama pants, hair a mess. At least she’d brushed her teeth.

When she got to the table, she stretched, yawned, and said, “I’m tired. How’d you guys sleep?”

We all answered positively. She soon broke into a conversation with Claire, before noticing we all were done, and getting up to get some food.

After breakfast was completely done with, and we’d cleaned our dishes, we made our way back upstairs. Ava seemed to be heading straight for our room, but before we split up I asked them if they wanted to come drop off everything with me. Jacoby wanted he should stay with his parents, but Claire and Ava were coming. I thought Jacoby really was still upset about it all, and wanted to distance himself some. I didn’t see how actually delivering the stolen goods was any worse than just having them, but if it made him more likely to come with us next time, it didn’t matter. I could have done it on my own if need be; most everything fit into one backpack.

When everyone was ready to go, we gathered the bags in the hallway, wary that the grownups were downstairs. I didn’t remember what the letter said about keeping some stuff we found, but it didn’t seem likely the people would be very okay with it. Well, hopefully they’d have no way to know. The stuff that Ava got from the kitchen actually seemed like it would be useful, the knives and pepper spray. Not that we’d be any fights soon, hopefully, but it never hurt to be cautious.

We dumped everything out, so we could organize packs we were going to keep, and ones we were going to give to them. I suggested we put the things we wanted in bags with our clothes, sort of as a disguise. Whoever was there to get the stuff, unless we were just dropping it off, probably would feel awkward searching through backpacks full of teen girls’ clothes. We’d dumped out the clothes in our rooms before going on the mission, so the bags were empty to start.

I took two knives, wrapped carefully in some newspaper from downstairs, then bundled in clothes and placed vertically in my bag. Claire and Ava each took another, and Ava also grabbed the pepper spray. We then filled up a fourth bag with the painting, phone and Wii. It seemed like a pitifully small amount when I felt it. The bag was very light compared to the others. Hopefully, if there was a person there, they wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t very much.

We left after packing. I was holding the fourth bag in my hand. The stuff in it probably wasn’t worth more than 500 dollars, which was disappointing. I was resigned to getting a pretty small amount in payment, but it better not affect whether we got future missions. Sure, we’d screwed this one up a bit, but we would do better next time.

The warehouse was maybe a twenty minute walk from Jacoby’s house, and I was shivering by the time we got there. The fall air and a crisp breeze lowered the temperature below what was comfortable in a t-shirt.

The building was mostly brick, with an old sign in the front. A few of the windows were broken, but for the most part it looked to be in good shape. I started moving towards a metal door, human sized, but Claire grabbed my arm.

“Are you sure we should go in there?” she questioned.

It was a far cry from her attitude the night before. I still had no idea what was up with her.

“Oh course we should,” I replied. “This is what the letter said to do.”

“But what if it only said that so we’d go in there and then they’d kidnap us or something,” she pressed.

“And how likely is that? Contrive this whole scheme, with the burglary or everything, just for this. It seems way too complicated for such a simple goal.”

Before she could respond, Ava grabbed her arm, and dragged her forward. Claire let out startled yelp, and I followed them to the door.

The metal knob was cold under my hand, but turned easily. We looked in, not able to see much. There weren’t any lights on, and barely any light streamed through the grimy windows. None of us crossed the threshold. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted more, and I could make out a barren cement floor, with boxes stacked in one corner. I slowly looked from left to right; I could miss something in the dimness. There were square support columns, again brick, spaced evenly throughout the room.

As I turned to the far right, a face peered back at me from the shadows.

Whoa!

I flinched back, bumping against Claire and Ava, who were lurking slightly behind me. I quietly pointed out the figure.

“Is that the guy we give stuff to?” Claire whispered. “I thought this place was going to be empty.”

“I guess,” I whispered back.

Not wanting to betray my fear, I asked, trying to project my voice, “Are we supposed to give this stuff to you?”

“And what might you have, dearies?”

The voice came from the left. I whirled around, and came face to face with a man who I presumed to be our contact.

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Book One – B.8

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Ava led me to a park near Jacoby’s house. The trees cast eerie shadows on the deserted playground equipment, like ghouls growing out of the darkness. There was a pagoda with benches inside, where Claire and Jacoby were seated. They hadn’t seen us yet, and I started moving towards them, but Ava grabbed my shoulder, and whispered, “No.”

She continued sternly, “I need to talk to you first. In private.”

She pointed towards a bench a hundred feet towards the nearest street, where we’d be alone. Before going over there, I took off my t-shirt mask and shook my hair out. I felt relieved; the undoing of my hair was akin to the release of stress, of the pent up tension within me during the burglary. We’d made it. A smile tugged at my lips, but I needed to get though with Ava before I could feel truly relieved. She was bound to be pissed because of my repeated being a dick.

The cold from the metal bench seeped through my thick pants, thoroughly chilling me. I placed my hands on my lap and turned to my right to face Ava.

“I can’t handle it anymore,” she burst out. “You’ve been so frustrating these past few days. I know you’re a bit of a bitch to everyone—“

Not true at all.

“But you’re normally nicer to us. It’s just not how you’re supposed to treat your friends. I know we were on a mission, and everyone seemed to put you in charge, but you can still take our opinions into account.”

She took a breath, then was about to launch into another tirade when I cut her off.

“I’m sorry,” I said simply. “The stress got to me, and I didn’t need to be so mean. It was completely unnecessary. I should have asked you guys what you thought of the plan.”

Hopefully that would do. I did feel bad, but it was more because she was upset than out of remorse for my actions. Taking the context into account, they were acceptable, maybe even the right ones. When you are with a group of people in a risky situation, and there isn’t much time for talking, someone needs to be in charge. I came up with the mission, and they naturally defaulted to me. I wouldn’t have minded Ava being a leader, but that wasn’t even what she wanted. I had to be authoritative, and decide on my own, not to be rude, but because that was what the situation demanded.

She looked somewhat pacified, but when she responded, the vitriol was still there.

“I understand why you did what you did, and it’s not even that you did it that’s the problem, it’s that you showed such little concern for the rest of us. You didn’t ask us beforehand if it was okay for you to be in charge, and never asked a real question about whether someone was okay doing something. Anything you asked for, it was with the expectation that you would be obeyed. That’s my real issue with what you did.”

“Again, I’m really sorry,” I pleaded. I almost got down on my hands and knees, but she probably wouldn’t like that.

I continued, trying to sound a bit firmer, “I do care for you guys, I really do. Don’t for a second think otherwise. I just wanted the mission to succeed, and became way too single minded. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I just can’t handle it.” She looked away, over to Jacoby and Claire. “You’ve been treating us like shit, like you treat everyone else here. Don’t do that.”

She paused, but I didn’t interrupt. Better to let her get it all out this time before responding.

When she looked back at to me, it seemed that there might have been tears in her eyes; a slight glistening lined her eyelashes. A single trail ran down her cheek. I thought of reaching up to wipe it away, but she’d be as likely to slap me away as to bite my finger off. I didn’t think she wanted comfort, more reassurance.

Ava continued, “And then when I almost got caught, I thought of turning myself in, pleading for her to not tell. You never even mentioned she had a husband! I heard two people talking upstairs after something fell off the counter, then the footsteps. I grabbed as much as I could and ran outside. I don’t think whoever came downstairs heard the door shut behind me, and I made it around the hedge and stuffed the backpacks. And you guys were trapped in the basement. Honesty, that was shitty planning. I was so scared, this was exactly what I was afraid of.”

“I said I’m sorry.”

I tried to sound it. Some frustration might have slipped through though, because she looked skeptical. Well she was the one insulting my planning and organizational ability. That was uncalled for; we’d made it out without being caught. And wouldn’t be recognized and no one would come after us, because of the gloves and facemasks.

But no matter what, I had to make her not leave.

“Come on Ava. We got some good stuff, and now we can we turn it in and get some money. You can be in charge for the next mission if you want. Okay?”

She looked conflicted.

“I guess, but you really need to change your attitude. It depends on how you act at school this week. I know you always act more normal towards us, but be on your best behavior. It matters more what you do next time we decide to rob somewhere, but I hope that’s not until next weekend, and I want to make a decision before then.”

She smiled a little, continued, “And it was a little fun too. Not that I want to make a habit of it, but it wasn’t too bad. But I do want to at least be involved in the planning next time. No offense, but I’m more careful than you. I don’t know if walkie-talkies would work, but if those don’t then we need to have a more cohesive plan, so we can react to unexpected events better. Especially something like the basement, I could have communicated with you and caused a distraction or helped you escape. So if you’re willing to agree to that, I guess I’m on board for another. Sorry I was a bit of a bitch in this.”

“Yeah, I can do that,” I said. Anything to make her come again. “Whatever you need so you don’t leave. And you weren’t a bitch at all, I think I needed someone to tell me how I should’ve acted differently. You guys are different than everyone else, I recognize that, that’s why I’m friends with you, and there’s no point to it unless I actually act like you’re my friends. So we’re good?”

“Yes,” she said, “we’re good.”

I grinned. Euphoria erupted in me. I hadn’t won, per se, but she wasn’t leaving either. That was the most important thing. I needed her to stay and be with us on all the missions. It would mean a smaller split for me of the money, but I didn’t mind that at all. I wasn’t really in it for the money, more for the fun. And, though there were issues, it had been fun. Very fun, in fact. Anything that took skill had to be admired. What we’d done took skill, and was fun, so it was a close to perfection, on a personal level.

Impulsively, I reached over and hugged her. She pulled back a little, before relenting and embracing me in turn. She was solid; an anchor. I couldn’t lose her. Jacoby and Claire were great, but Ava was the one I liked, I needed, the most. She was the one that was always there when I needed cheering up, when I needed someone to talk to. I couldn’t imagine having her mad at me for long.

We let go of each other and stood up. Hopefully Jacoby and Claire had heard us, because otherwise they’d be worried. We’d been talking for at least five minutes, and that was five minutes more we could have been captured or caught by Mrs. Gissard or someone else.

I decided to sneak up on them. They had taken off their facemasks, but were still in the clothes. Jacoby’s looked mostly normal, but Claire appeared to be a cat burglar. Which she was, but you wouldn’t want to be seen like that in the middle of the night. I tiptoed up behind the bench she was on, Ava following a few paces back. She seemed to understand what I wanted to do. This was a good way to lighten the serious mood we’d all absorbed.

I reached slowly over the railing on the outer edge of the pagoda, before tapping them both simultaneously on the shoulder.

Claire jumped a foot, spun around and let out a shriek. I’d got her.

Jacoby, on the other hand, simply sat in his seat, not getting up or even appearing the least bit worried. He crossed his arms and turned his head so he could see us.

“I saw your shadow,” he stated, then turned back around.

Huh. Why was he so grumpy?

Claire exclaimed, “Fuck, you could have warned me, Jacoby, if you knew.”

She then looked at us, and asked, “What were you guys talking about?”

Before I could answer, Ava jumped in. “We were making out of course. Weren’t you guys? What else are you supposed to do with the after-mission leftover emotion?”

That got Jacoby’s attention at least.

He said to Claire, “Yeah, no. Sorry Claire, but I wouldn’t do that with you,” then he glared at us. “Maybe you guys should act normal for once, instead of being ridiculously horny all the time. You could sit and think about what we’ve done, first of all.”

Well that as unexpected. Unreasonably pissed off Jacoby was a fucking pain to deal with.

Ava said, trying to calm him down, “Jeez Jacoby, we weren’t doing anything, just talking. Were you jealous or something?”

That last jab was unnecessary. We needed him talking rationally, and if he was jealous at all that wouldn’t help. Not that we actually did anything, so it was completely stupid for him to be acting like that anyway. He probably wouldn’t be jealous either.

He retorted, “I know you didn’t do anything, but still. Why are you joking about that right now? It’s not fucking right. I do want you guys to think about it. I don’t know what stuff you got from upstairs, but what we did in the basement was fucked up. We broke their computer, it was an accident, but if we hadn’t tried to take it it wouldn’t be broken, and we stole a painting they probably care about. Neither of those things are okay. We also messed up the furniture in their basement. Think if someone did that to you, then you saw them escaping out the window. How would that make you fucking feel?”

Oh, so he was pissed about the moral thing again. I honestly didn’t get it. If someone took stuff from me, I would be upset, but I could just get new stuff. The computer sucked, because of the hard drive, but they probably had anything important backed up. Anyone with even a tiny bit of brains would to that. So I felt a tiny bit of empathy about that, but not much. If it had happened to me, I would be upset about the computer, but it would still be my fault I didn’t have the documents anymore, and I could just buy a new one.

In general, it took skill to steal. If I saw the person climbing out my window, I would hate them, but think they were awesome at the same time. I knew most people wouldn’t feel that way, but he did ask for my feelings, whether I could empathize. I could. But imagining myself in the situation wasn’t the way to do it if he wanted me to feel remorse. If only everyone agreed with me on everything… then they’d think we were awesome too. Not that I was doing this to be awesome, but stealing in general earned some props from me, just on account of how difficult it was. What we did, especially getting out of the basement quietly and safely, was skillful.

Jacoby was staring at me in disgust. I hadn’t said anything, and I guess he thought I was imagining if stuff got stolen from me. I was, but a smile was on my face. Fuck, I wasn’t having this argument again.

I turned to Claire.

“Can you tell Jacoby why what we are doing isn’t wrong enough that we shouldn’t do it, please?” I asked her. “I just had to talk to Ava, get her on board, and I’m so grateful to her for agreeing, but I don’t want to argue anymore. Please? I’ll give you an extra five percent of the money we get, taken out of my share.”

Her face brightened at that. For some reason, money had become a big factor for her. I’d have to talk to her about that later, figure out why. Unknown motivations weren’t a good thing for team members to have, when you had to rely on them in high pressure situations.

She started talking to Jacoby, and I sighed with relief and walked away. Talking to them afterwards was more exhausting than actually robbing the house. That wasn’t something I would have expected before. We better not have to go through the same arguments every time. Maybe I could get them to sign some kind of contract with me, saying they’d agree to do a certain number of a certain type of missions. But that would be harsh. There had to be a better way of getting their long-term compliance.

I went back to the bench I’d talked to Ava on and waited for them to finish their discussion. Claire could be persuasive when she wanted to. Not as good as Ava, but Ava probably wasn’t as enthusiastic as Claire about it, and wouldn’t want to try to get Jacoby to agree.

After five minutes, a time punctuated by raised voices, Ava tapped me on the shoulder. I felt a jolt of adrenaline, but it subsided quickly.

I stood up, and asked, “So are we ready to go?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Jacoby decided he needed to think about it more in private. So tomorrow we’re going to lock him in his room until he comes to a decision.”

I didn’t know if she was joking or not, but it didn’t matter. The exhaustion was sinking it. I just wanted to get home, or at least to Jacoby’s house, and go to sleep. I glanced down at my watch: eleven forty-five. That was fine, about the time we’d be coming home from a movie. So Jacoby’s parents wouldn’t get suspicious when we came in.

Before we left the park, I remembered we needed to change before we went back to his house. That was accomplished with little fanfare, all of us too tired to care about others looking at us, or taking peeks at each other. We then walked back, talking about school and homework, trying to regain a sense of normalcy.

At the front door, Jacoby left his backpack with us outside, and checked to see if his parents were still in the living room. They weren’t and the whole second floor was dark. I thought for a second that there might be a thief down there, but dismissed that idea quickly. Too unlikely.

We trudged up the stairs and put our bags in Jacoby’s room. Ava had, when she’d left her house, told he parents she was staying with me, so she was going to stay here with us. I hoped my parents wouldn’t talk with hers in the near future, when they both still remembered this well, and wouldn’t figure out the discontinuity in our story.

Claire took the spare bed, which was wedged in the corner of the room. I would normally sleep on the floor, but Ava wouldn’t have a spot then. Instead, Jacoby told us to go sleep in Brian’s room. I wasn’t afraid, per se, of ghosts, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the room alone. I was glad Ava would be with me.

I cracked the door open, not wanting something to jump out. Again, I wasn’t afraid, but it was still creepy. Ava stayed behind me as I reached my arm in and flicked on the light switch. The room was illuminated, and it looked normal. Just pictures of a dead person, nothing strange there. It was actually strange that Brian had had so many pictures of himself, but maybe his parents put them there when he died so they didn’t have to look at them. That’s what I’d do if someone I knew died; create a shrine for them. I hoped that we weren’t disturbing anything by sleeping here, but if Jacoby didn’t mind, it couldn’t be too bad.

There was a desk on the right side, while the bed sat on the left, like in Jacoby’s. The difference was that there wasn’t a second bed near the first. I ignored the problem for now. I’d packed a toothbrush, and went to go do that, as well as change into more sleeping clothes; shorts and a big t-shirt. When I was done in the bathroom, Ava used it.

I was sitting on the bed when she came back into the bedroom. She’d completely changed clothes, taking off the black sweater and sweatpants that she’d somehow managed to make look normal, and replacing them with a white tank top and Harry Potter pajama bottoms. I loved those things.

She threw her clothes down by her bag, and I said, “So, there’s only this bed. Who gets it?”

“It doesn’t matter to me. In fact, you can have it, because of how I acted earlier,” she said.

“Yeah right, if we’re assigning it that way, then it’s you who should get it, I was the worst, ordering you guys around and all.”

She came over to me and planted her hands on her hips.

“We are not having this argument again. We resolved it the first time. No, if we can’t agree, we’ll just have to share the bed.”

I smiled up at her, confused. “I mean I’m fine with that, it’s just not that big. Are you sure you want to try to squish both of us in there? I feel like I’ll fall off.”

She sat down next to me. “Come on,” she urged, “we can make it work. If you think you’ll fall off, you can have the side against the wall. So lie down.”

I did as she told me, lying down, facing the wall.

“Now, I don’t want to see all those creepy pictures throughout the night, so I’ll face you, okay?”

“Sure,” I said.

She seemed to want to be in charge of the sleeping arrangements, and given our arguments earlier, I was fine with that. I was also exhausted and couldn’t care less, but from what she’d said so far it seemed like it was shaping up pretty nicely. The light went off. I shut my eyes to try to adjust them to the darkness faster. She came over to me, and I felt the bed sinking, becoming more balanced with her on it.

“Are you going to get under the covers or what?” she asked.

In response, I sat up, and pushed the covers down. I tucked my feet under the bottom, and she did the same. Then I pulled the top sheet and comforter up, still on my back. I looked towards her, propping my head on my elbow.

Her head was so close that I had to suppress a natural instinct to recoil backwards. She looked so beautiful, a smile manipulating every facet of her face, from her mouth to eyes, even nose. I couldn’t stop myself from breaking into a smile as well. She’d decided not to leave us. I could change, if I needed to. Especially for her.

After a few moments of us simply looking at each other, she said, “Well, good night.”

I guessed I was supposed to turn around now.

My voice soft, I repeated, “good night.”

I turned around, facing the wall again. It was going to be cramped, being in so small a bed. But it was still soft and inviting. I lay my head on the pillow, of which there were two. Then I felt her hand on my arm, and breath gentle on my neck. She moved closer to me, but I didn’t feel squished; it was surprisingly comforting having someone so close. This wouldn’t be too bad of an arrangement at all.

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Book One – B.7

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Claire, Jacoby, and I were in a room in the basement, while Ava was upstairs, and someone was moving around in the house. It was the worst thing that could happen… and I didn’t remember if I’d shut the door at the top of the stairs. If I hadn’t then the person might pay us a visit down here. There were places to hide though, in the other rooms. If they had a furnace or washroom, the visibility would be limited and afford us adequate concealment.

I was more worried about Ava. Hopefully she’d heard the person and had managed to get out on time. She should have also grabbed some of the more valuable items before escaping.

We waited with baited breath for a scream or yell indicating she’d been caught, but none ever came. The footsteps never started down the steps to the basement, but the steady rhythm didn’t halt other than for momentary pauses. It seemed like there was nothing to do but wait it out. At least we weren’t going to be caught right away.

I looked around the room we were in again. In the few minutes they’d been down here, Claire and Jacoby had done some amazing work. First of all, there was a window in the back, which they’d propped open with what looked like some pieces of a desk chair. The desktop computer had been placed haphazardly on the couch, which Jacoby was in the process of moving over to the window. The desk that the computer had previously been on was under the window, presumably to act as a stepping stool from the couch. I had no idea how they’d thought of and done all this in the short amount of time I’d been worrying about them upstairs. It made the room a mess, but we could clean it up before we left.

Actually, when I thought about it, it didn’t matter if we left a mess. Mrs. Gissard and her husband would be able to tell a ton of stuff was missing anyway. Cleaning up would be a nice thing to do though. If we were taking all their shit we could at least straighten up before leaving. I knew that it shouldn’t really matter to me, but I didn’t like messes. The room looked like it’d been neatly arranged before, and it wouldn’t be too hard to leave it in the same shape we left it, sans electronics and painting.

The couch was fully in front of the desk by this time. The noises were still coming down from upstairs at a steady rate, and we had to be as quiet as possible. Getting caught was not in the plan. My adrenaline levels had increased since the footsteps started, and I was getting excited. This had the potential to be interesting. I felt different than before; not so much shakily nervous as amped up. I could have sprinted home without stopping, with the amount of energy I had. Unluckily, that was not what the situation required.

Jacoby motioned for Claire and me to come closer to him.

“How are we going to get out of here?” he asked, keeping his voice low. “I don’t like this. Not so much the getting caught as the taking stuff. I told Claire to leave the painting here, but she thought it was valuable. Some artist she recognized.”

He looked to her.

“Yeah,” she started. “I think if we’re going to do this, we should to the best job possible. As in be thorough; don’t leave anything that would be worth taking behind. I don’t think that choosing thing by thing is a good way to do it.”

I looked back and forth between them, then walked over to the painting. I didn’t recognize it, but then again, I wasn’t into art. There might be sentimental value to the painting though, so maybe we should leave it… No. I’d been doing too much compromising on my morals lately. There was a way I was supposed to behave, and anyway, I couldn’t start making exceptions in a situation like this. It was the worst possible time and place to grow a conscience.

I turned back towards them, and said resolutely, “We’re going to take it. It can fit through the window, which is what I presume you are planning-“ Claire nodded, “-and like you said Claire, making exceptions doesn’t make sense.”

Jacoby looked pained at my decision, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. We couldn’t decide on things on a case by case basis, if not for any other reason than time constraints.

“So are we going to go now?” he asked, starting to climb from the couch to the desk.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Claire got on it as well, and propped open the window. Jacoby started climbing out, but I told him to stop so we could listen in silence again. I heard the same footsteps as before. I clenched my fists. Why couldn’t they just go back to bed? It didn’t sound like Ava was captured though.

I sullenly told Jacoby to get out the window. It led into a small pit, a tiny area, whose only purpose was to expose the window to the sky. He looked cramped standing it in, back pressed against the wall.

He bent down, and I handed him up the painting first, which he grabbed and put on the ground. I could barely see the sky, almost cloudless, through the opening. The first waft of air made me shiver. It felt colder than when we’d walked here, and I was less preoccupied with planning, didn’t have anything preoccupying my mind.

The computer was harder to wrangle together. Claire tried to scoot out of the way a little, but wasn’t able to manage much. I tried to put the keyboard on top of the base, and unplug the monitor, but there didn’t seem to be an easy way to do that. Instead, I unplugged the keyboard and mouse, gave them to Jacoby, then turned my attention back to the rest of the mess. There was still a large morass of unidentifiable cables, but those were so wrapped up in the rest that I couldn’t separate them.

I’d have to pick up the monitor and actual computer as one item.  My arms strained as I reached underneath. The couch also wasn’t the best thing to be standing on. If I could just get it up to the desk though, from there it’d be easier to lift to Jacoby. I tried to get under it, get some leverage, but there was no use. I repositioned myself, and bent down, leaning against the back of the couch. I picked it up, got it almost over the lip, when my hand slipped.

The computer fell back down to the couch. I reached after it, but couldn’t get a grip. It bounced surprisingly high, and I watched in fascinated horror as it hit the wood floor, and broke apart with a crash.

Fuck.

I winced, hoping that no one had heard the noise. Instead, the distinct sound of a doorknob knocking against a wall rang into the room. The door coming down to the basement had been thrown open.

“Shit, go!” I hissed to Claire. Silence wasn’t a priority anymore.

I put a hand on the wooden surface of the desk, and stood on it, watching as Claire tried to get through the window quickly.

God damn it, hurry up!

This was a situation where you go the absolute fucking fastest in your life. No time to worry about pain or discomfort, just get out the fucking window. It was maybe two feet tall; not too awful, but not easy either when it was at chest level.

Claire finally made it through, as the footsteps coming down the stairs sped up a little. It seemed like the person was proceeding down the stairs with caution. Reasonable, since he had no idea whether we were armed or not. They would be getting close now.

I placed my right palm on the window edging, then reached up to grab Jacoby’s arm. When my hand clasped his forearm, I was glad I hadn’t tried to do this alone. I owed them big time. He pulled, and my shoulder almost tore, but with only my ankles, I managed a small jump, fingers scrambling to find some better purchase. I didn’t want to be dragged out the window on my stomach. They finally found his shoe, and I swung sideways, getting my foot over the edge of the frame. I used my leg to pull myself up more, and along with Jacoby’s tugging, eventually got so my weight was out more than in.

Before pulling my other leg up, I glanced back into the room. Mrs. Gissard was standing in the doorway, staring at me with dismay. She shouted, but I, in a flash, retracted my leg and was standing up. As she approached the window, arms outstretched and reaching for me, I slammed it down in front of her. Hopefully her fingers didn’t get slammed in it.

I pulled myself up out of the pit, and then yelled, “Go!”

Jacoby and Clare were shocked out of their frozen state, and picked up some stuff we’d taken from the house. I grabbed the keyboard and mouse. They still might be worth something, even without the actual computer. Fuck, that sucked. The computer, probably the most valuable item we had a shot at, was gone. My fault.

I knew Mrs. Gissard would be outside soon, and we needed to get out of the area. She would probably call the police too. I was so glad we had gloves and face masks. She had been staring at me for what seemed like seconds, but was probably only a fraction of one. Our fingerprints would be on everything, in multiple rooms, if we hadn’t had gloves.

Jacoby was holding the painting with one hand as we sprinted around the corner of the house. Bushes lined the back wall, which we passed, not giving a care to whether we were in shadows or not. I’m glad I remembered the design of the narrow area between the house and the hedge and wall, since there was a lawnmower to avoid. I stayed towards the hedge and was safe, and Jacoby and Claire made it too. Still no idea where Ava was. I thought it was most likely she was with the backpacks, hopefully with the Wii and the phone, but if she didn’t have them, it was still better than her being caught. If she wasn’t there, then this was a situation where cell phones would be very beneficial.

The road loomed ahead of us, an open expanse. I was praying Mrs. Gissard or her husband wouldn’t appear out her front door when we were near it. We just had to pass this, and get around the hedge, then we could grab our stuff and go. But it wouldn’t be the best strategy to just run.

I tried to keep my voice quiet as I said, “Stop!”

Jacoby and Claire skidded to a halt before they went out into the more open area and around the hedge. We needed to be careful here. They looked back at me, and I motioned them to hide along the wall of the porch, where we’d started this mission.

I was only doing this because I didn’t want anyone to be on the porch and see us and chase after us. With our backs pressed up against the wall, I thought about peeking out in front of it, but then I’d be silhouetted against the much lighter area behind me. Instead, I put my foot on a potted plant, and, making sure it didn’t tip over, pushed myself up, barely peeking over the edge.

Shit. I dropped back down just as quickly. A man was standing there, outside the front door, pacing, but currently looking in the other direction. This would be like a game. He couldn’t see us, yet we had to get past him. Simple jailbreak. Except with a time limit, since assuming that was her husband, Mrs. Gissard would be inside calling the cops.

Then I remembered that the phones are out. Fuck yes! No way to call the cops on us, unless phone service had been turned back on while we were burglarizing their house. Unlikely enough that we didn’t need to worry about it. So it was just her husband that we had to be careful of. The phone situation also meant that Mrs. Gissard herself might come outside, from either the front or back of the house, which renewed the urgency I felt.

I told Jacoby and Claire the plan I’d thought of.

“We need to get past a man up there,” I said, directing my head towards the wall. “He’s pacing, so he’s not constantly looking in our direction, but it will still be hard to get by him. How about I look out, looking over this wall, and you both run at the same time. No reason to go one by one.”

Jacoby nodded, but Claire said, “People always go individually, why do you think it will work better if we go together?”

This wasn’t the time to have an argument, this was a time when they should do as I say. An urgent situation, and I hadn’t led them wrong so far, had I? Saying that wouldn’t convince her though, just prompt a reaction like Ava’s previous.

I stepped down fully from the plant, turning to face her.

“Because if he sees one or both of you it doesn’t matter. He’s close enough we won’t have time to get away if we don’t run. It’s the easiest, and more importantly, it takes the shortest amount of time.”

She frowned, but acquiesced. Good. We needed to be on the same page. I put a foot on the plant again, hoping the person wouldn’t be looking in our direction because he’d heard voices talking. It probably wasn’t the best idea to be saying anything so close to him, and I decided I’d use hand signals instead of vocalizing more. I had no idea if they’d understand my intent, but if I wasn’t go to talk anymore, I couldn’t explain it to them.

I pushed up, shifting my weight to that leg. Momentarily balanced on one leg, I put my fingers on the top, the ledge, and gripped. A fall would completely suck; I’d probably fall into something else, and make a bunch of noise.

The porch unfolded before me. I hoped that my face covering was dark enough that he wouldn’t notice the top of my head and eyes that were above the wall. If he looked right at me it was unlikely he wouldn’t, but there’s always a chance.

The man was standing on the doormat, still and stern, head faced outwards. Almost like a guard. Maybe if burglaries got bad enough, people would need to hire guards. The phones would probably be turned back on before we had that big of an impact.

He was the only thing that mattered. He would make or break our escape. I waited around five seconds, and he still hadn’t moved. I had no idea what he was waiting for, but it didn’t matter. Only the physical aspects of the scene mattered. I slowly turned my head to look at the hedge, in particular where it ended. I looked back at the man. His peripheral vision would probably cover it, but just barely. If Claire and Jacoby ran, there was a chance he would miss them. It seemed like the best shot we had.

I kept one hand on the surface, but leaned down towards Jacoby and Claire. I pointed at both of them, one after the other, then to the hedge. I mimed running with my fingers, then moved my arm rapidly to indicate running. If they succeeded in decoding that they’d be geniuses.

They both nodded. Now for the scary part. I pushed back up and watched the man some more, waiting for any type of movement. If he did, I’d run too. If not, I’d wait for a few seconds, then run. Just in case he heard something. I knew Jacoby and Claire would be near the corner of the fence. Any second now.

The man didn’t move, didn’t even turn his head a little. Success!

Now it was my turn. I placed a foot back on the ground, and got down, careful not to disturb anything or knock over the plant. I was going to go slower, and keep to the shadows. It might be safer than running. This may also be the only chance I got to see how good I was at sneaking.

I moved out towards the hedge, then crouched down where it was darker. My eyes were adjusted, but I don’t think the man’s were. It was strange that he didn’t turn the porch light on, but maybe he thought it would make him less able to see. Well that was his mistake, given how close we were to him. I moved forward, placing my feet gently, up on my toes. Less surface area, so less chance to step on something bad. There were a few small sticks, but it was mostly pine needles. The hedge was some kind of coniferous plant.

So far so good. I was adjacent to the edge of the porch, currently out of sight. Now for the hard part; the final stretch. I stopped to take a breath, then continued moving along at a snail’s pace, the corner of the hedge coming ever closer. I turned my head and looked back at the man. That movement disturbed my balance, since I was trying to step with as little pressure as possible.

I tried to lean inwards, but it was no use. I slowly, inexorably, teetered, then fell towards the bush.

The crushing noise of the branches was like the crumpling of a potato chip bag in a silent classroom. His eyes were suddenly on me. From my position, now leaning into the hedge, we stared at each other, then he shouted something indiscernible.

I threw myself back up to a standing position. He ran forward and did a flying leap off the porch.

I bolted around the corner of the hedge, not looking back, and yelled, “Go! He’s coming!”

Ava’s startled face greeted me around the corner. Thank God. At least she was alright. She wordlessly handed me a backpack, much harsher than necessary, and I threw it on and started running with her. Claire and Jacoby were nowhere in sight, and I’d presumed they’d gone ahead. That made sense; no reason to have more people than necessary near the house. It irked me that I hadn’t thought of it. Ava was usurping my role. As long as it worked, that was what mattered in the moment. I had to keep any discontented thoughts in my head.

We sprinted down the street. The pavement pounded under our feet, a steady rhythm. I was glad I was naturally athletic, because it seemed like he was right on our tail. I pushed harder, trying to get just a little more speed out of my legs. I glanced back, and saw the man looking around at the corner of the hedge. Guess he wasn’t right behind us. He saw us and started towards us, but there was a yell from the behind him. He turned around, seeming reluctant, gesturing wildly. Thank you for being scared, Mrs. Gissard. It was probably her that made him go back. She had saved us, if not in the way we had originally envisioned.

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Book One – B.6

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Mrs. Gissard lived on the other side of the hedge, which was a dark mass to our left. An unlit house was to the right. Before leaving our bags and rounding the hedge, I made sure everyone had gloves on. Ava had brought some winter ones, dark, from home, but no one else had any. I took out the box of rubber ones I’d brought and passed it around. We all took a pair. It looked funny; being almost invisible in the shadow except for our hands and heads. Seeing Claire’s face stand out so much reminded me to put the face masks on. Claire and Ava both had ski masks from home, and donned them, but Jacoby and I had to do with t-shirt improvising. I had brought a few darker shirts, just in case.

I put the shirt on my head so the hem was resting on my shoulders, then lined the head hole up with my eyes. The sleeves got stretched back, then tied behind my head. I had checked it out in a mirror before, and it looked like a mix between a ninja head covering and a turban. If we got caught at least we’d look stylish and functional. Jacoby put his on as well, and we were set.

I, as the unofficial leader of the mission, told them to be quiet, then peeked around the hedge to see if Mrs. Gissards’ porch light was on. It was. Still, it was unlikely that was up to see us around 10:30 at night. Old people go to bed early. The only houses with lights on downstairs were on the opposite side of the street, or a few hundred feet away up or down. That was too far away to see people in this lighting.

I motioned the other three out behind me, and towards her house. We huddled against the wall on the side, sheltered from view.

Going in the front door would be too noticeable, and the back may be unlocked anyways. It would also be a good way to check if she had an animal; there’d most likely be a dish, or at least shit in the yard. Not that I was going to examine the yard too carefully for dog shit.

I whispered back to them, “Let’s go in the back. Follow me, and don’t run into anything.”

I didn’t see whether they nodded back or not. As long as we stuck to the shadows along the side of the house we were pretty much invisible. The moon shone brightly farther out towards the hedge on our left. The good aspect of the illumination was that it lit up the ground under our feet, revealing any objects in our way.

The space between the hedge and the house was maybe five feet wide, and we made it down the length of it quickly. Everything going good so far. I felt in command of the situation. They all crouched down against the side of the steps leading up to the backdoor, while I ducked over against the side fence. From there I slid farther back into the yard, checking for any signs of an animal. I didn’t want to stray into the middle of it since there could be people looking down from other houses, and it was light out there. I didn’t see any blatant signs of a dog, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something there.

When I got back next to them, I told Claire, probably the quietest of us, “Pull yourself up so you’re on the top stair, then look in the window in the door. See what room it is and if there’s any dogs.”

The stairs went up to chest level from the ground, made of cement. The railing was a classic style, with two horizontal bars, more functional than aesthetic. Claire pulled herself onto the top step directly from the ground, needing a boost up from Jacoby. It was too light to just walk up the stairs. This required less movement in the light: less chance someone would see us.

After plastering herself against the door and peering in the window, she whispered down to me, “I don’t see anyone. It looks like a kitchen. Do you want me to try the handle?”

It was nice they were deferring to me already for decisions, even though out of anyone in the town, I’d trust their judgment the most.

I didn’t think that there was any reason not to open the door; I didn’t know of any burglar alarms that were tied to door handles, only to the door opening. And we would have a huge problem either way if one went off. The only option would be to run; call it a botched job. Well we wouldn’t leave any evidence at the scene, so hopefully we’d be safe.

“Yeah, go ahead. Be ready to get down here fast if an alarm goes off though.”

Claire tensed, then turned the handle. The door swung open, and no blaring commenced. We were in!

I said in a rush, “Okay guys, Jacoby then Ava. Do what Claire did and get in there fast. I’ll be last.”

They followed my order, Ava frowning, but not offering any verbal dispute. I’d bet I got chewed out at the end by her; doing exactly what she got mad at me for in the first place.

Once they were up and in, I grabbed the cement lip, and jumped. I almost hit my head on the metal railing, but managed to grab it with my right hand and duck under. Then I swung my leg up, wrapping it around the pole of the railing, and slithered through and stood up.

I shut the door behind me as fast as I could, hoping desperately that no one saw us. We had to get the stuff we wanted, and get out the same way we came in. The back door seemed like it afforded the best access to the shadows and the spot we stashed our stuff.

I could hear everyone’s breathing, the house was so silent. My heart was going a million miles per hour, and my arms shaking. I couldn’t stop it, but took a few deep breaths to calm myself down. That didn’t work completely, but at least it made me think clearer. We needed to get on with the thievery part before someone woke up or something else disastrous happened.

A computer would probably be in an office, and phones would also be good. TV’s were too big. Any jewelry, as long as it didn’t look like an heirloom, could probably be sold by our employer for money. I thought wedding rings, and realized I’d forgotten that Mrs. Gissard was a ‘Mrs.’, as in she was married. Shit. That put a big damper on our catch and release idea if we got found out by her. My adrenaline spiked; this was all or nothing. We could go to fucking jail, there was no safety net anymore.

Now that we were inside there was less of a need for visual stealth, but noise would be even worse than before. If we bumped anything it might wake Mrs. Gissard and her husband up, which would ruin the whole operation.

The kitchen was small. Almost everything in it was white. There was a marble peninsula above and behind the stove straight ahead, while the dining room table was barely visible beyond that. The left front corner of the kitchen opened into the rest of the house. Ava, Claire, and Jacoby waited, still, while I listened to check if anyone was up or moving. Nothing. It was clear to go ahead.

Before I spoke, Ava said, voice shaky but resolute, “Don’t even think of ordering me around. You’re being bossy. I can do this on my own. We need to get out of here quickly, before we get caught.”

I was a bit miffed by her unexpected attitude, but this wasn’t the time for arguing. It didn’t matter if she decided where to go or I told her, as long as we all coordinated and did this as efficiently as possible.

“Okay, fine. But I’m going to look in the dining room, then the living room, and Jacoby and Claire are going to check the basement.”

I turned to them. “Be careful when opening the door, and you can turn on a light down there. She have any kids, Claire?”

“No, she doesn’t,” Claire said.

“Okay then. So you guys do that, and go first. Just in case there’s an animal or something down there, or you trip on something and make noise, we want to be able to make a quick escape.”

I turned back to Ava, having forced her into a corner. This wasn’t the time or place for a mutiny, not when you could get the cops called on you any moment for being too loud. It irritated me, but I was going to try to tone down the bossiness around her. I didn’t think I’d been acting too much different than normal, but what did I know? No one’s ever good at evaluating themselves.

I said to her, “So what are you going to do? Want to try going upstairs?”

She glared at me, crossing her arms. “No, we don’t have time to go upstairs. You guys seem to have the first floor covered, so I’ll look around in here.”

Oh, come on. There wouldn’t be anything worth stealing in the kitchen. Why’d she come along if she didn’t want to participate? An extra person just increased the chance we would be caught. Whatever, I couldn’t deal with that now. I started for the dining room table, and Claire and Jacoby followed me out of the kitchen, looking pissed off at both me and Ava for our disagreement. They had a right to be. At least they hadn’t joined in.

I motioned them towards a door that looked like it could be to a basement. I placed a hand on the polished wood of the table, and tensed, ready to flee. Jacoby reached for the handle, and turned it. The door creaked much too loudly as it opened, and I almost ran out, but everyone else froze. I listened, and the silence persisted; no one moving around upstairs. I motioned for them to go down the steps, not daring to speak.

The table was placed on a rug in the middle of the room, only the peninsula separating it from the kitchen. There was window on the left that looked out to the front street, but thankfully the blinds were shut so no one could see in. They probably wouldn’t be able to anyway, but better safe than sorry. Four placemat settings punctuated the table, but no nice centerpiece. I moved over to the wood tower shelves in the corner of the room.

Bingo.

A cordless phone. Ridiculous that an old phone was something to celebrate over finding, but it would probably be worth something. I reached down to the outlet, and unplugged it, careful to untangle the cord before picking the whole thing up. . The gloves didn’t seem to hinder my dexterity at all.

It went in the kitchen, on the counter, next to a few things that Ava had scrounged for. Her mask made her facial expressions harder to read, but I could still see her annoyance when I dumped the phone and attached cords on top of her pile of shit. Well, it’s not like she’d found anything worthwhile. Just a few knives, a thing of pepper spray, and a heavy duty flashlight in the drawers. At least she’d been quiet while doing it; I hadn’t noticed her making noise from the dining room. Maybe she was gathering supplies for future missions. I grudgingly admitted that could be useful, at some point in the far future.

Treading lightly, I walked through what would be the front entrance, and into the living room, where carpet dampened my footfalls once again. Jacoby and Claire were still down in the basement, but there hadn’t been any big crashes from the stairwell yet. Time seemed to be passing extremely slowly as I moved carefully around the living room, trying not to disturb anything. There was an almost surreal quality to the whole situation.

The beige couch sat against the far wall, while a TV was in the corner. The fireplace was directly across from me. The TV looked too big to take, but maybe they had a small DVD player or computer near it. A quick glance around the room revealed nothing else of interest, though I made a mental note to check under the couches and examine more closely the items on the mantle.

The TV sat on a square table, with a shelf underneath. A black indistinct object clarified into a satellite box as I bent down, but next to it was a gray smaller cube. Was that a Wii? Mrs. Gissard seriously had a Wii? I almost broke out laughing, but then remembered the situation. An almost disastrous outburst averted. Thank God, but that didn’t change the fact that teachers and video games don’t mix. Waving the white phallic shaped remote, pretending to be athletic… Jesus that was a bad image. Got to get going, distract myself.

I leaned down further to examine the Wii’s connections in more detail. There were two things going out the back to up towards the TV, and one leading to an outlet. I thought about trying to get the cords too, but they seemed like they’d be too much of a hassle. I couldn’t bother with every tiny attachment and accessory today. Besides, getting behind the TV would probably made a lot of noise. Instead, I pulled all the plugs out of the back, and picked it up. Surprisingly light.

I didn’t want to go back to the kitchen with only one thing, so I checked the mantle. Her family pictures absorbed me; it was so strange seeing her outside of school. I tore my attention away from those and examined the rest of the objects on the shelf. There were two elephants that when I picked up were heavy, so those would come with. Other than that, it just seemed like a random assortment of knickknacks. I was disappointed there weren’t any rare looking crystals or foreign objects. The elephants were nice, but they were metal, not ivory or similar.

My arms ached with relief when I put the things back down in the kitchen. It had been load to carry. Ava was opening food cabinets now, having collected a stash of more useful items. A lot of the stuff she’d found seemed like it might be useful in the future, though I hoped we’d never have to use the knife. That thing was scary; 12” long, and pretty thick. Not a cleaver, but it could definitely stab and hack someone brutally.

The haphazard assortment of goodies covered the counter, and I didn’t know how we were going to get it outside. Maybe it would have been a good idea to bring our backpacks in. I couldn’t remember why I’d decided against it; maybe the increase in visibility? It wouldn’t have been that major, and they would definitely be helpful getting stuff out of the house. It was surprising how much random shit people had that might sell for something. It reminded me of an RPG game; only a certain amount of weight you can carry, so you have to maximize dollars per pound carried. The elephants probably wouldn’t make the cut if I was on my own, but as a group, we’d manage as long as Claire and Jacoby didn’t find too much in the basement.

Ava decided to say at that moment, quietly, “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. Just nerves. It is a little relaxing now though, right? We’re just hanging out here, and there’s food if we want, and nothing else on the ground floor to cover.”

I leaned over with a hand on the counter, picking up something that had fallen. We were full of apologies today. Must be the stress.

“It’s not bad being here. I’m sorry too, I didn’t mean to be so demanding. This worked out fine though. Maybe next time we can split up and get the second floor too. You could do that, since you can stay so quiet,” I said. Complements always helped strained relationships.

She smiled, but it twisted into a grimace as I finished.

“When I said this was fun, I didn’t mean I’d want to do it again. It’s way too stressful! I can’t handle the thought that we could be found out. We’d probably get out of here in time, but still. I’ll have to think about it before agreeing to do anything more.”

I was disappointed that she hadn’t come around yet, but there was still time. We wouldn’t do anything else until the next weekend, simply because school took up the week. No ditching school just because we’d going to have a little money.

Speaking of, I still had no idea how much it would be, or if it would actually come. Just because they responded to my sheet flying on the roof didn’t mean they’d mail hundred dollar bills. There was still the question of why someone was doing this in the first place. But, it didn’t seem like it would matter too much, especially if the people weren’t giving us specific targets. It’s not like we were robbing heirlooms or treasure, just assorted household items. That wasn’t an indicator of a united strategy, one that could potentially harm people. It was more a strategy of a group that just wants some money or certain generic items. I couldn’t see how there would be a macro-scale damage as a result.

Ava and I were still lounging around the kitchen, trying not to move too much, getting tenser as the minutes passed. I glanced at my watch at least three times for every 100 seconds. It was still only 10:45, but felt much later. The constant tension had exhausted my stamina, and a bed would feel good.

But damn, I had to spend the night at Jacoby’s. That didn’t lend itself to a good night’s sleep, since he had only one spare, and Claire always got it. Where did I sleep? Mostly on an air mattress on the floor, as I hadn’t actually shared Jacoby’s bed since he was younger. Maybe we’d do it again soon, but not today. The external emotional turmoil was almost as great as that other time we’d almost done something. It was easy to do something one or both of us would regret.

I thought about texting Claire to see what they were doing down there, but remembered phones weren’t working. The general shittiness of the situation seemed all the more prominent when we were in a stranger’s house, and I couldn’t even steal their Wi-Fi. If I wanted to know what was going on, I’d actually have to go down to the basement myself. That wasn’t a welcome thought. It was darker than the rest of the house, and probably damp and full of cobwebs.

I glanced at Ava, checking whether she seemed in enough of a positive mood so I could get her to go down, but she was busy looking through everything under the sink for the fifth time. Maybe she’d fine something good down there, but really, who keeps anything valuable under the sink?

It wasn’t worth wakening Mrs. Gissard and her husband by yelling, so there was nothing to do but to go down alone.

I said to Ava, “I need to check on Claire and Jacoby. They shouldn’t have been down there that long. I don’t want them to get up to too much mischief.”

“I think you’re just jealous. I wouldn’t interrupt them having sex if I were you.” She smirked at me, but her eyes betrayed the worry she felt.

I admit that I’d thought of that, but they couldn’t be stupid enough to actually do it in a house they were in the process of burglarizing, could they? No, I picked my friends carefully. They weren’t idiots. I was scared they’d simultaneously slipped or something just as outlandish; there didn’t seem to be any rational reason why they were down there for so long. Still, I was sure it was noting.

The door to the basement was a dark wood, with a metal knob handle. It was next to the staircase going upstairs, one which I would never touch. Up was too risky, but down was fine. The door hadn’t been shut completely when they descended into the depths, so I opened it, making sure it didn’t squeak this time. The light was on, which was a good sign. There were also slight scuffling noises coming from below, which wasn’t, probably.

The air got colder as I made my way down the steps. They went down a little, at which point there was a door leading outside, then made a U-turn and descended some more. At the bottom, there were three rooms leading off from the main part. I leant against the wall, trying to still the creaking in the floorboards, listening. The center room, the one ahead, had a light on, but the room itself bent to the left. I couldn’t see more than a sofa and a lamp from this vantage point. The noise was coming from that room.

I attempted to stay against the wall, where I’d heard the floor made less noise, as I made my way around the perimeter, trying to approach that entryway. None of the offshoot rooms had doors, just openings. I made it to the edge of it, and tried to work up the never to go in. It was most likely just Jacoby and Claire. It didn’t make any sense for it to be someone else. That didn’t help me be any less scared.

I almost yelped in fright when a covered head appeared right in front of mine.

“Hey Elie, we’re almost done down here,” Claire said, grinning at my discomfort.

“Jesus, you scared me half to death,” I exclaimed, leaning away from her.

She invited me in, saying, “Come see what we’ve done.”

That tone made me apprehensive. I walked into their room.

How the hell had they done that?

Before I had time to think there was a loud crash from upstairs. We all froze in place, Claire and I near the entrance, Jacoby in the process of moving a couch.

I stayed still, and the seconds passed. Then, I faintly heard feet clomping on the stairs above us, going from the second to first floors. Shit! Someone awake, we needed to get out of here… Ava better run quick.

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