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.
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.