The previous night I’d arrived home around seven thirty. The brisk walk in the dark thoroughly chilled me, so the warmth inside was a welcome change. I’d then done homework more out of boredom than actual motivation; without the internet I had barely anything to do in the evenings.
That probably contributed to my heightened state of excitement the following morning. The prospect of having my towering stack of late assignments slightly reduced filled me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Something so trivial shouldn’t have made me that happy, but it was more the difference than anything me. Grades and how much effort I put in didn’t have any correlation for me, one was a mix of A’s and B’s no matter what, any and every conceivable factor influenced the other one.
I walked into English feeling incredibly prepared. The two previous days with Mrs. Gissard had been hard to sit through because we’d robbed her house, but now I realized that doing none of the work she’d assigned may have had something to do with it as well. Normally I finished whatever book we were reading quickly, didn’t take notes, but remembered enough to get by. She also loved my writing, for some reason. As Jacoby and I had been talking about yesterday, how you say things was just as important as what you say. Though I personally thought I was better at the second in essays.
We’d finished 1984 last week, and started on some William Faulkner stuff. I read a few pages, and promptly put the book down in disgust. I simply couldn’t comprehend why someone would write in a style that decreases readability so much. Last night though, burgeoned by boredom, and satisfaction at solving the Claire conundrum, I persevered and got ahead of where we were supposed to be.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that we had a substitute today. Mrs. Gissard stayed home to do something with an insurance person, not that she could actually get any money until the government lifted the quarantine. Guilt coursed through me, but the enthralling film, if not banished it completely, at least pushed it far enough to the side that the newly birthed butterflies in my stomach vanished within minutes.
The substitute paid no attention to us, lying almost horizontal in the teacher’s chair, faint snores barely audible from his direction. The movie wasn’t so exciting that I was unwilling to talk to my friends over it. Or under it, in terms of volume: it’s not like I was disrupting the whole class.
On my right, Claire appeared to be asleep, or at least had her head down and was facing away from me, namely towards the screen.
I turned to Ava. She was doodling on a piece of paper, her hair falling on the far side of her face. As I whispered, she almost imperceptibly jumped, but met my eyes.
“Did you hear from Claire what her problem is?”
“No,” she said quietly, glancing at the teacher. He still seemed asleep, or at least out of it enough that we wouldn’t bother him.
“Well,” I looked to Claire one more time, to make sure she wasn’t listening in. “Her parents are having some job trouble, so she wanted to help them.” Ava grimaced. “Instead of getting a job, because apparently she thinks teenagers don’t get hired ever, she decided to join us and start stealing. That’s why she’s been so enthusiastic. I have no idea why she acted like she did toward Mr. Owens, but I guess it has something to do with her new desire for money.”
Ava was silent for a few seconds when I finished my spiel, thinking.
Then she said under her breath, “Jesus Claire, seriously…”
I agreed. Claire was being ridiculous, thinking this was the best way to get money. She should have been the one best able to empathize with the people who we were stealing from, given that she was now deprived of many of the things that used to be steady parts of her routine. What we were doing, or rather planning to do to people was much worse than her situation currently.
“I know she’s being dumb,” I said. “It’s stupid, but it’s good in a way. We can keep her from doing anything too awful, and it will help her parents if she can figure out a way to actually get the money to them. That’ll be the real issue.”
Ava nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you can’t give money to people and be unwilling to tell them where it came from, especially if you don’t normally have that much to give.”
A mutter came from the direction of Claire, and I leaned away from Ava so that if Claire turned around it wouldn’t look like we were conspiring. From where she was, if she strained her ears she’d probably be able to pick up a few words, but only fragments of sentences.
Once she’d stopped moving, I continued on in the same vein as earlier.
“This changes things a little,” I said. “It means that she might keep doing this shit even if we decide to stop, which would be really bad. Just because she’s good at school doesn’t mean she could plan a robbery as well as all of us combined.”
Internally I thought Claire couldn’t do it as well as any of us individually either, but I didn’t say it because it’d make me look like a dick and wouldn’t help the conversation.
“I wouldn’t trust Claire on her own either,” Ava responded. “If she gets caught by herself, we could all go down.”
“I think this is a good reason to continue with the missions, at least for a little bit. But let’s not tell Jacoby yet. I have no idea how he’d react, for all I know this would make him feel worse morally about the stealing.”
Ava frowned, and ran her fingers semi-idly through her hair. Not a good sign. “I’d rather not keep secrets for no reason,” she said, “but I guess that makes sense. We’re not doing this for Claire though, are we? It’s just an excuse to keep going. For you to get me to keep going.”
A pained expression fell across my face before I could restrain it. I let out an almost inaudible sigh, but Ava evidently heard it, since her eyebrows raised.
“I’m not manipulating you—“ ‘anymore,’ I added mentally. “I just think Claire would be screwed on her own. Just one more mission, then maybe she’ll realize how dangerous this is. But we aren’t doing this for her in the sense that we’re giving her our money or anything. She gets what she earns, and the same for us. I don’t think I’ll ever split the payment anything but evenly, and having one-fourth of our money go to a cause that one of our members chooses to invest in doesn’t mean we’re all doing it for that. Okay?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “The money’s a nice balance against the risk, since if we get caught, it could be really bad. Not so much now with the phones down and the police not able to get to the crime scene quickly, but if they go back on, we’ll have to be much more careful.”
I nodded. I couldn’t think of anything else to add to the conversation.
Plans, manipulations, I loved those. This wasn’t quite a full one, but it wasn’t too far away from a small conspiracy. Ava and I were doing stuff to keep Claire from hurting herself, without Jacoby’s knowledge. Even though it wasn’t mutiny or anything (thank God), it still livened up the daily routine. It wasn’t that I enjoyed pulling one over my friends in particular, it was that I liked doing it to anyone.
A smile creased my lips, as I sat lost in my thoughts.
After a few minutes, Claire tapped me on the arm, stretching across the empty desk between us to reach. She’d sat there for an easier view of the movie screen, but it turned out to be fortuitous in regards to my and Ava’s conversation too. I was sitting in a desk that was open on both sides, instead of one of those damn things that only has one way in and out. When she tapped me, I moved out of my chair, and sidled over to the adjacent one in her direction. I didn’t need to see the screen, so the virtual hulk lurking in front of me didn’t matter, and if she wanted to talk it was better if we were closer together.
Ava, seeing my move, got out of her desk, and simply walked around the row into my former one.
Or you could do that.
The teacher didn’t bat an eye, presumably because they were glued shut by this point.
When we were seated next to each other, Claire said, “What were you guys whispering about?”
Shit. At least she hadn’t heard the specifics.
I turned and looked at Ava, who had an expression of pure panic on her face. Hopefully it was too dark for Claire to see that from her seat.
If she had nothing to say, I guessed it was time to improvise.
“We were just talking about Gym, how much it sucks for me,” I said, trying to keep my voice from giving anything away.
I hoped Ava would nod or somehow express her agreement with the explanation I’d given.
Claire let out a large sigh, which I took to mean she bought the excuse, especially given what she said next.
“Really Elie, it’s not that bad. They don’t do anything physical to you. And it’s pretty much only Emma, or at least that’s what you told me. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big of a deal if she gives you a wedgie or teases you. Not to be mean or anything, but just take it. If it’s only her, then everyone else is silently supporting you.”
Bullshit. My blood boiled. She couldn’t tell me how I was supposed to feel.
“Oh shut it with your rationalizing,” I said, a bit louder than I should have. A few people turned and looked at us, but the teacher didn’t look up.
I continued, making sure to keep my voice down, “You don’t know what it’s like. She’s, like, a devil. I can’t stand being around her, not knowing what she’ll do next. There’s a pattern to the different things she does, but the actual bad event is always unexpected and random. It’s also incredibly presumptuous of you to think that everyone is supporting me. People enjoyed watching shit they think is funny. Yes, some of them might look faintly disgusted, but that doesn’t mean they want their source of amusement to go away.”
Ava gazed intently at the movie screen when I checked to see if she’d weigh in. No help coming from there.
Claire seemed slightly chastened by my rant, but nonetheless retorted with as much emotion as I’d put into what I’d said.
“I know you think the world is ending and everything sucks so much, but if anyone else was in this situation they would have either went along with it, started joking or flirting or whatever Emma is doing back at her, or just ignored it. It’s not like she hits you, it’s just words. If you didn’t respond, and she went too far and you yelled at her, I bet she’d never do it again. She’s not exactly a psychopathic bully.”
“Well, no,” I conceded. “But that doesn’t mean it’s okay what she’s doing, or that she’d stop. I’m afraid she’ll do something violent. I can never tell whether she means what she says in fun, or if it’s a threat. I’m tired of dealing with it, of second guessing myself. But realistically, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
I actually could’ve argued against myself at that point. There were many things I could do about it. Go to a teacher, switch Gym classes, or just confront Emma. Was my continual unhappiness worth the chance it’d get worse or Emma would react badly if I told her to stop? It’d be breaking the status quo though. That was hard.
When it became clear I wasn’t going to respond, Claire huffed and turned away sullenly. At that, Ava faced me again, and wiped the back of her hand across her brow, mouthing ‘phew’, as if an ordeal was over. It was, but it wasn’t like she had any reason to be troubled by it.
English ended shortly after. The substitute woke up with a start as the bell rang, but unfortunately didn’t fall over backwards in his chair like he would have in a movie. Instead he lashed out with his legs, pushing himself, seated in the rolly chair, into a desk. Everyone laughed as they exited the room.
Gym, as it happened, was the next class on the schedule. The normal fear settled in my gut, but it felt disconnected from my mind this time, probably because of what Claire had been saying. I didn’t like it. I had a little pride that I’d managed this far, and it was good to be afraid in situations like this. Emma, in a locker room, with no one willing to stop her. Unless Janine did something, like on Monday. That had ended so strangely, but on the other hand we’d interacted some in History both yesterday and today. I couldn’t count on her to intervene though.
The locker room always stunk. The stench assaulted me as I crossed the threshold, oozing over me as if it was mud. I could barely breathe as I made my way to my locker. I’d arrived early for a change, and though it was good because it meant Emma wasn’t there, Janine wasn’t either. I felt a slight twinge of disappointment at her absence: no teasing comments or joking around.
I did a mental double-take at that thought. Janine, fun? It was certainly a different way of looking at things. But not necessarily, I decided, wrong.
My locker was open and my clothes laid on the bench by the time other people started entering. I had no idea why I was so early, but I’d take the luck where it came. Maya was the first girl to turn into our block, and she gave me a slight smile. I melted inside, at a simple glance from the most beautiful person I knew. If it was her teasing and taunting me instead of Emma, I’d turn around and jump her in an instant. Which could either turn out great, if Maya/Emma did have a crush on me, or awful if they didn’t. With her it would be worth it. With Emma, I didn’t have the slightest urge to.
I peeled off my shirt, trying to judge her reaction, before deciding to turn back and face my locker again. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and knowing there’s a possibility is all you need for happiness.
My gym shirt slipped on, and I reached down to take off my pants. I kept forgetting to wear shorts to school, but I’d had more to think about since we started stealing. Or since the first letter came: I had to get everyone organized, then on Monday I was anticipating the money letter coming.
I unbuttoned them, and took them off, the air a shock against my bare skin. When my pants were around my ankles, I reached down to get them over my feet. A flash in the corner of my eye startled me, and I looked up. Emma turned into our block, with her group of friends.
Somehow, with her, things always happen at the worst possible moment. This definitely was near the top of the list; she came in when my pants were preventing me from moving my feet at more than a shuffle.
Her eyes roamed from left to right, first taking in Maya, then catching me. I felt like a deer in headlights, frozen in place. At least I managed to stand up, bringing my pants with me, as she came over. I held them at my waist while she opened her locker. I didn’t know what I was waiting for to finish changing, but I wasn’t going to do it with her present, especially after last time.
I stood watching her as she ignored me, and changed herself. Every time she turned her head my way I flinched, but invariably her eyes passed over me without settling. I barely drew breath until she left.
I was so dumbfounded that she hadn’t done anything that I stood still for a few seconds. She might just be waiting until we were alone. After the rest of our section had cleared out, I finally unfroze and finished changing.
I spun the lock on my locker after clicking it shut, and headed for Janine at a brisk pace. I needed answers. When I checked the place where she normally hung out, she wasn’t there. Neither was she among her group of friends where they were gathered.
I had no idea what to do now. I’d been planning on confronting Janine, since the most plausible explanation I could think of for Emma ignoring me was that Janine said something to her. Maybe she’d gotten over her obsession though, or Maya decided to persuade her. I really was clueless as to why the change happened. Nonetheless, it’d been nice to have her not bother me, even though I didn’t take advantage of the lapse in harassment, as I‘d just stood there with my pants half-on the whole time she was in the locker room.
The rest of the day went well, though Emma’s strange behavior plagued me and I couldn’t concentrate in class.
The next day passed quickly also. I saw Janine briefly in History, but wasn’t able to get a private moment with her to question her. I did remember my wallet, unlike the other day when we went to Claire’s, and a thought struck me as I ate lunch with Claire.
“Do you know what happened to the knife and stuff we took last time?”
She looked up from her food, then glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot. I checked as well, and there were a few people, but they all seemed to be engrossed in their own conversations.
“I don’t know… maybe Ava has it?” she posited. “I don’t know where else it would be.”
“Well, I don’t think we want to be carrying around kitchen knives anyway, we aren’t going to threaten people. I was just thinking about a smaller knife, to cut rope or anything that a pocket knife can’t get through. And also some type of black gloves, so we aren’t wearing those white latex ones that squeak again.”
I fidgeted in my seat as I waited for a response. Even though I’d brought the topic up, a crowded lunch room wasn’t the best place to be discussing it.
“I agree,” she finally said. “Do you think we should go shopping after school today? I don’t want to spend too much of my money, but I could put in fifty bucks, or sixty I guess.”
That was a great idea. Claire rarely had them, but this one went right to the heart of the issue. I’d forgotten that I’d been planning to do that on Tuesday, but didn’t have money and the protest march had distracted me.
“Yeah, I can do that,” I said. “Can you come?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “No…”
Many people might have a problem with what could be perceived as her dumping work off on me, but I didn’t.
“That’s fine.” I propped my head on my hands, and leaned forward. “I think I can handle everything myself, but I’ll see if Ava or Jacoby wants to come too. My parents aren’t as crazy about policing me now, so if I’m an hour or two late they won’t be too mad.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, relieved. “Here’s the money.”
She grabbed her wallet out of her bag, and took out sixty dollars, which I promptly stuck in my own wallet. Seeing her holding out the three bills made me realize what an idiotic idea it had been to do the money transfers at school. This was a small fraction of the amount I’d been carrying, and handed over in plain sight. We couldn’t be stupid about seemingly trivial shit like that. Any number of people could have seen.
I found Jacoby in a passing period, and he either wasn’t able or didn’t want to come. He said that he had a lot of homework, but that could be just as easily be an excuse. It seemed like I’d be going it alone until I spotted Ava as she stood outside after school.
She waved as soon as she saw me, and I eagerly made my way over.
“How’re you doing?” she asked, giving me a hug.
“Pretty well,” I answered. ‘Well’ instead of ‘good’: I always used correct grammar with her, after she’d nagged me about it last year.
“So what’s up? Are you doing anything today?”
“No.” Then I remembered why I wanted to find her in the first place. “Actually, yes. I’m going to shop for some stuff for our mission this week. Do you want to come?”
“Sure!” she exclaimed. “Do you want to use my money? Given what we found out about Claire, you might have some secret need as well.”
“Hah,” I barked back. “I’m in this for the fun of it.”
She shoved me lightly, and led the way out of the crowd.
Over her shoulder, she said, “Well, I agree that it has a certain thrill,” and let out a light laugh.