Book One – B.15

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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.”

She frowned.

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.

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Book One – B.14

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Our hunger satiated, we went upstairs to Claire’s room. Claire lay down on the bed, while Jacoby sat on a bean bag and I sunk into a comfy chair. I waited patiently as we watched a droll TV show, feeling slightly apprehensive. Asking people about personal stuff could be hard. Was hard, especially when it concerned how strangely someone was acting.

Eventually, at a point when I had almost fallen asleep, Jacoby got up to go to the bathroom. The only reason I noticed at all was that he blocked my view of the TV, not that I was really watching.

I jolted up as he walked in front of me. I glanced over at Claire nervously, half hoping that Jacoby would come back before I could say anything. She was leaning forward, intently watching whatever was on the TV. I then noticed the noise the TV was making, how loud it was, and how hard it would be to carry on a conversation with it present, so I looked around for the remote. Deliberately taking my time, I eventually spotted it on the on the table next to the bed.

I reached over, stretching, and grabbed it. Claire looked at me curiously, and in response I turned down the volume so we’d be able to hear each other, then got up and sat down on the edge of the bed.

Jacoby wouldn’t be too much longer. I managed to overcome my fear, knowing this was my only chance:

“Claire, what’s up?”

“Uhh, nothing,” she said, puzzled.

“I mean, why are you so enthusiastic about the stealing?” I clarified. “You wouldn’t have been this way before. No offense, but you normally are a bit of a chicken.”

She frowned, but let it pass without argument. I continued, “Then you acted weird towards Mr. Owens. Why are you acting different?”

She sighed, and rolled over so she was facing me. “So, there’s this issue. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

I nodded mutely.

“Well, my mom and dad both lost their jobs a few months ago,” she said, not meeting my eyes. ”They’ve cut back my allowance and we have, like, an official ban on going out to dinner. They’ve talked about moving too. I just want to help, if I can bring in even two hundred dollars a week that’ll help a lot. It really sucks though, since the quarantine made everything worse for us.”

Well that immediately made me feel bad for her. No matter how my moral philosophy told me to act, I couldn’t suppress basic empathy or sympathy. Her situation didn’t seem that bad when she started talking, from what little I knew of finance. Both her parents had high in demand jobs, and at most they’d have to move. Which would suck, and I would miss her, but wouldn’t be the end of the world. Tons of people had it worse.

Then she mentioned the quarantine, at pretty much the same time I thought of it. That screwed everything up. Employment, at least short term, was all screwy, since no one knew how long the quarantine would last. Even if people were thinking it would be over quickly, they had no reason to hire someone now instead of waiting until it was over. Claire’s family also couldn’t move now even if they wanted to.

I grimaced sympathetically. “That really sucks,” I said. “I get that you want to help, but couldn’t you have gotten a job?”

She screwed up her eyebrows. “Well I didn’t think anyone would hire me; I’m not that amazing. And this just came up, I only thought of helping them at all a week or so before you came to us with the idea.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. No matter how misguided or unnecessary her enthusiasm was, or how troubling it would be for her to give her parents hundreds of dollars whose source she couldn’t identify, I wanted to keep her on board with the stealing. On the more altruistic side, I didn’t want to crush her fantasy of helping them. Everyone deserved to feel that they were valued.

I settled for saying: “Okay, I guess I understand why you want to. At least no one owes money to the mob or anything.” I paused, thinking how to phrase what I wanted to say, before continuing, “You also need to be very careful about how you give the money to your parents. They’ll think it’s from drugs or stealing or something. And you can’t tell them about what we’re doing, since they’ll think it’s wrong. Which it may be, but that’s beside the point. Even if they’ve never grounded you in the past, you’ll be stuck in the house for eternity, or at least until college if they find out about this.”

Her arms crossed, she huffed and sat up, leaning against the head board.

“I know that, Elie,” she stated firmly. “I won’t be stupid about it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I’ll figure it out. I won’t just wing it.”

“Okay…” I said uncertainly.

It’s not that I didn’t trust her to be responsible, all the teachers did, so there probably was something there. It’s just that I’d never personally seen her do something on her own initiative that didn’t end up failing awfully. I knew she’d try, and not intentionally expose us, but even the tiniest amount of suspicion aroused could be disastrous.

She plastered a smile on as Jacoby reentered, but it seemed forced. He looked at us, brows furrowed, as he entered. Probably wondering what we were up to.

After plopping back down on the bean bag, he said, “Can someone turn up the volume? It seems quieter than when I left.”

Claire and I looked at each other, I thought trying to stifle laughs. Then as I reached for the remote on her bed, I saw tears shining in Claire’s eyes.


I immediately stopped what I was doing, and moved from the chair back to the bed. I put an arm around her, feeling her shoulders silently shaking, slight hiccups barely vocal. By this point Jacoby had turned around to see whether we were going to adjust the volume, and saw what was happening. He made his way over to the bed as well.

With us clustered around her, she lost it even more. The sobs came out louder, and Jacoby frantically got up and shut the door. While I didn’t enjoy comforting people, it was better than if her parents came in here. With her so emotional, I had no idea what she’d blurt out, about the stealing to try to help. So I held her, and Jacoby rubbed her back, his hand moving in clockwise circles. I just hoped this didn’t end as badly as last time I tried to make someone feel better.

He had the foresight, in addition to shutting the door, to turn back up the TV volume, so her parents wouldn’t hear the crying if the noise managed to get through the closed door. I looked up at him gratefully. I looked up at him gratefully. He returned a sad smile, perhaps remembering why he’d been crying the last time.

Claire eventually calmed down enough to sputter out, “I j-just don’t want to l-l-leave.” She must have been thinking along the same lines as I had been before. “I n-need to stay with you guys. I love you.”

Jacoby glanced at me, questioning or prompting, so I responded to Claire.

“We love you too,” I whispered to her. Jacoby nodded in affirmation, though Claire probably couldn’t see it. “We want you to stay here too. If you think this is the best way to help your parents, then do that. And the quarantine may actually be helpful—“

Claire lifted her tear stained gaze up towards me, skepticism evident.

I released my hold on her, then continued, “It might be helpful because if it stays in place, there’ll probably be changes so people don’t get kicked out of their house and stuff. I don’t know anything will happen, but the economy isn’t self-sufficient. It’ll eventually have to change to free goods or something, in a few weeks.”

By this point, both she and Jacoby were looking at me with interest. I didn’t have anything more to say, though.

After a few seconds of silence, Claire spoke up. Looking slightly less sad, she told us, “My mom mentioned something yesterday or today, that I managed to absorb even though I was doing my best to ignore her. Whenever she talks, the worry comes through in her tone, and I don’t like to hear that. Anyway, she said that barely anyone still had cash, and that was a problem with shopping. Especially since with the internet down, credit cards don’t work. And the government air-dropped supplies going right to the same stores that would have gotten them before the quarantine. Places have started accepting things in exchange for food, but mostly they take down your credit card number and how much it costs. So they’ll have to do something new soon.”

We all sat in silence, thinking about that. Claire seemed to have, if not necessarily forgotten about her issue, at least put it to the side enough to be distracted by the tangentially related topic.

It was all news to me. My mom stayed home the past week since she did a ton of work on the phone and internet and couldn’t do that, while my dad, who normally worked from home, seemed like he had something he could do. At least, whenever I saw him, he was on his computer like normal. Maybe getting ahead on some type of writing. As interesting as an entire shift in the economy or new form of currency or whatever would happen was, it didn’t personally affect me. In fact, with the money from the stealing, we’d be ahead of everyone else. I didn’t know whether our thieving contact knew that, so I made a mental note to send them a letter explaining the situation. Maybe they’d pay us more or something.

When Jacoby saw that I had stopped staring blankly into space, he snapped out of his trance as well.

The mood had taken on a heady feel, not unpleasant, but still serious.

Presumably feeling this, he said, “So Claire, want the same treatment Elie gave me when I was crying?”

She glanced at me, and I feigned ignorance, shrugging my shoulders. I don’t think she bought it.

She turned to him. “If Elie did something with or to you, I don’t think I want to know what it was.”

“Oh, but you do,” he leered. “It was so fun; I almost ended up with my clothes off.”

She blushed. I got that if we wanted to really get Claire out her funk, we needed to laugh and stuff, but this was laying it on a bit thick.

Sensing her awkwardness and growing reticence, I turned to Jacoby and said:

“I wouldn’t say that. I knew what I was willing to do, and that wasn’t something that I could agree to in that situation. Not saying it’s out of the picture for another time…”

Claire blushed even deeper, probably able to guess what we were talking about, but cracked a smile, and seemed more comfortable with me joking with Jacoby about this than her.

Well, I could oblige her. I turned back to Jacoby, and he said jokingly, “Oh, that was a one-time offer on my part. It takes two to tango, you know.”

At this, Claire found her voice. “You sound like my granddad, Jacoby. No one uses that phrase.”

I looked to Jacoby, and we both rolled our eyes.

“Nothing wrong with a bit of elegance to language, is there, Jacoby?” I said.

“Of course there isn’t, my dear Elie. Eloquence and loquaciousness are incredibly important skills in this day and age,” he replied.

Claire, in one fluid motion, slid back and put an arm on each of our backs, then shoved us together, saying, “Well aren’t you two perfect for each other?”

I fell on top of him, which felt eerily reminiscent of when we’d kissed.

I didn’t move for a few seconds, hands on his chest, looking down at him. Claire moved back toward us and got up on her knees so she could see us better.

“Are you guys having a moment? Do you want me to leave?”

That startled Jacoby and me out of our staring contest, and he shoved me with slightly more force than necessary off him and to the side.

“Oh, phew,” she said, smiling. “It would’ve been awkward to be kicked out of my own room.”

I sat up, and said, “You could join us.”

She shook her head so vigorously that I started laughing, and barely managed to get out:

“Just kidding.”

At that, we all cracked up, and laughed until our sides ached. Personally, it made my jaw sore more than anything, a sign my humor wasn’t truly genuine, but a little act to seal the conclusion of the depressing moment couldn’t hurt anybody.

When I finally managed to calm down enough to sit up, I looked at my watch, and recoiled in surprise. It was already seven o’clock. At least my parents wouldn’t be as mad this time, since I’d asked permission.

I got up to leave, but before I did, I asked Claire and Jacoby to be extra careful with the money. They both shrugged off my warning. I hoped they knew the correct amount of caution to apply anyway. Jacoby didn’t want to come with me, and decided to stay at Claire’s for a little longer. Probably so he could talk more with her, since he wasn’t present for all her storytelling. I’d have to remember to tell Ava at some point about this.

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Book One – B.13

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The sun was shining as I woke up: another shitty day of school in store. Before leaving, I told my parents I was going to a friends’ after school. I didn’t know whether I would need to or not, but it was good to have permission just in case.

I had planned to distribute the money to Jacoby, Claire, and Ava before school, but didn’t get there early enough. The bus was late, and by the time I was at school everyone was already rushing to classes. So, I decided to push back the hand-offs to lunch. That would work just as well.

The morning classes were mediocre. History was slightly better, since Janine and I once again launched a tag-team assault on the rest of the class. Mr. Parr had stopped staring at her as frequently. I guessed with her attitude change towards him, feeling like she had an ally, he didn’t like her as much. That was good for her, and didn’t really matter to me. In English I was again a nervous wreck because of Mrs. Gissard, but it wasn’t as bad as Monday. It seemed like that would go back to normal with time. Jacoby was somewhat cold towards me in Chemistry. I thought I needed to talk to and interact with him more often, so his lingering doubts about the stealing didn’t crop up. It was getting annoying; every time he agreed, he’d then get upset all over again. At least he said he’d do the mission this upcoming weekend, so how he was acting didn’t matter that much.

The bell rang for the start of lunch, and everyone hurried to get out of Chemistry. Jacoby disappeared before I could grab him, but luckily I found Ava and Claire on my way to the lunch room. I grabbed them, not wanting to explain anything until I had them all together.

I pulled them into a back stairwell, then said, “Wait here.”

“Why—“ Claire started, but I was already gone.

Jacoby normally ate lunch in the cafeteria if he wasn’t with us, and went to his locker first either way. I went down one hallway and another, struggling to get through the students ambling along. I hated it when people talked in the hallway, just standing there. Didn’t they realize some of us have places to go? The doors to it were propped open, and the cafeteria opened up before me, a mass of tables with barely any order to them. Two walls were lined with lockers, organized in small alcoves.

His was on the left, and I saw him standing by it, with some other people. I walked over there, determined to extract him from the mess. Then I saw who he was with. Sarah his girlfriend.


I got closer, and he saw me and waved me over. Sarah’s cheery smile turned into a grimace, which was the one upside of taking Jacoby away from her. Not that it’d be easy.

When I reached them, he’d just finished shoving the last of his books into his locker and taking his lunch out.

Tuning to face me, he said, “So what’s up? I’m eating with Sarah today instead of you guys.”

Well that was a brusque start. I didn’t want him for lunch, just for a few minutes before that. I also didn’t want to arouse Sarah’s suspicions while getting him away.

“I just need to borrow you for a second,” I said. “It’s about Gym. There was a new… development yesterday that I need to tell you about.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. She wasn’t privy to the full story, but she’d heard enough from Jacoby and my whispered conversations to be tired of it. To her, it was probably just another way for me to divert his attention.

Jacoby huffed out a sigh. “Are you sure we need to talk about it now?”

“Yeah, c’mon,” I said, grabbing his hand to drag him away. He flashed a smile and wave back towards a disappointed looking Sarah before following me around the corner and out of her sight.

Once we were out of the cafeteria and back into the hallway, which was now practically empty, I stopped dragging him.

“We need to talk about the thieving with Ava and Claire, okay?” I said, whispering.

“Jesus Elie, couldn’t this wait until after school?” he asked. “We’re in the middle of lunch.”

“No, we need to talk about this now.”

“How could something be so fucking urgent it couldn’t wait a few hours?” He moved to leave and go back to Sarah, but I stepped in front of him. He glared at me, exasperated.

This wasn’t going as I’d hoped. I wanted them all together when I handed out the money, but if Jacoby was going to be so ornery, I’d just have to give it to him here.

“I didn’t want to do this here, but if I have to…” I warned him.

He looked at me, puzzled, before a flash of recognition lit up his face.

“You have the money, don’t you? You can’t do that here, in the open,” he said, backing away from me.

“Yeah, here.”

I took one of the three plastic bags out of my bag, and held it to him. He glanced around rapidly, checking to see if anyone was watching us. I thought anyone who saw would just think it was a drug deal or something. A teacher might get us in trouble, but they didn’t like to get involved either.

He shook his head, but I just kept holding the money.

“This is stupid,” he hissed, “put that away!”

“No, take it or someone will see.”

“Fuck you.” He grabbed the bag and shoved it in his pocket, then stalked off.

That went worse than I had expected. Hopefully he’d get over his angst before the next weekend. I looked around to make sure no one had seen. I didn’t see anyone watching or walking past, so I zipped up my backpack and made my way back to where I’d left Ava and Claire.

They were waiting, Ava drumming her foot impatiently. I glanced down at my watch. I’d been gone for less than ten minutes, but that was a third of lunch, so I could understand why they were upset.

“Sorry guys,” I said. “Jacoby didn’t want to come back here, so I gave him his share of the money there.”

“Not so loud,” Ava whispered, panic starting to show.

I rolled my eyes and huffed in response.

“How much do we each get?” Claire asked.

“Four hundred.” I glanced down and up the stairs, then took the other two baggies out of my pack.

“Sweet,” Claire exclaimed. Her eyes lit up when she saw the bags stuffed with green.

Ava still looked nervous. I didn’t blame her, because we were in the middle of school. When I actually thought about it more it didn’t seem that smart to bring $1200 to school. Well, it could be over and done with, as soon as they took their stuff.

Claire grabbed her bag greedily. I decided right then that I’d go home with her today, and talk to her about what was going on. She’d never been like this before, so obsessed with money, otherwise I wouldn’t have been worried. It was only because it was a new development that I cared or had even noticed.

Ava took another quick look around before snatching her bag and stuffing it in her pocket. Then she shrugged her backpack off, and put the money in the rearmost pocket. I just hoped her other friends didn’t think she normally kept gum in that pocket or anything, because that could turn out really bad.

Claire put hers in her bag too. I turned to leave, before remembering that I wanted to talk to her after school.

She was about to leave, but I said, “Hey Claire, could I come over to your house today? My parents are having a little party thing.” The last part was a lie, but I thought she’d be more likely to say yes if I had an excuse.

“Sure,” she said. “We’re not doing anything.” Then she turned to Ava. “Do you want to come too?”

“Nah,” Ava replied, “I have a lot of homework tonight. I need to get that done, and make up some stuff from the weekend too. We were busy so much that I didn’t get everything finished.”

She walked away then, but before disappearing around the corner looked back at me, and after checking that Claire wasn’t looking, winked. That made me smile; conspiracy always does. It was nice to know she’d figured out what I wanted to do and was helping me get the team on the same page and free of distractions, no matter her compunctions with the stealing itself. Or maybe she was just worried about Claire personally. Whatever it was, it’s always nice to have someone on your side.

Claire, looking not the least bit put out by Ava’s rejection of her invitation, asked me, “Is it okay if I see if Jacoby can come too?”

“Sure…” I responded tentatively. No reason why he shouldn’t. I might be able to make him slightly less pissed at me, and I could still probably get some time alone with Claire. Unless it was a big issue it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes, the length of a bathroom break or something like that.

We split up after that. Half of lunch period was left, and I had no one to spend it with. Those three were my only friends, and most of the time that suited me just fine. Everyone else was an idiot. Well, almost everyone… I thought about going and finding Janine, but it didn’t seem worth it. It wasn’t like we were friends, just temporary allies. Who knew what it’d be in a few weeks, but for the moment we still kept our distance from each other.

The rest of the day passed quickly. Afternoons always seemed to, especially when I had something afterwards to look forward to. Today I didn’t really; going to a friend’s house wasn’t that exciting of an occurrence, but it still flew by.

As I exited the building, the mass of students surged around me, sunlight lighting up the barren trees. The leaves always seemed to disappear so fast, and before I knew it snow was on the ground. Today there wasn’t any, since it was still October, but there’d be some soon. The ground wasn’t covered in frost, but the grass had already started dying. I hated fall. It was depressing and chilly, and lacking enough snow for winter activities or for it to cover the ground and be beautiful.

The whole environment outside pissed me off. I stood there in the midst of the crowd, the cold air invading my jacket, waiting for Claire and potentially Jacoby. My anger grew as the minutes passed. What the hell could be taking them so long? Granted, I did come straight outside after my last class, but even so, going to a locker didn’t take that long. I reached for my phone to call them, but patted an empty pocket.


The phones were down so I’d left mine at home. Yet another reason the quarantine sucked. It was unreasonable too. If the company that’d hired us could call and potentially send video to the outside, what was the point in having the quarantine in the first place? Granted, it did keep normal people from communicating with the outside, but it didn’t prevent panic. We still got the news, and total censorship of the TV, though easier than if the internet had been involved, would still be practically impossible.

The Homeland Security person had said on the news that it was to keep people from contacting people on the outside and escaping, but really, who was going to organize an escape attempt? I hadn’t seen the border of the quarantine, but I presumed they had a fence, or at least guard posts interspersed at frequent enough intervals that anyone trying to sneak out could be caught. Of course, someone else could cause a distraction, but then they’d have the National Guard or Army or whoever after them. So it’d take a lot of money to escape. Therefore, the people more likely to have the ability to launch a successful escape or quarantine zone breach attempt were the same ones who the information quarantine likely impacted less.

As I mulled the stupidity of the government and their policies concerning our town, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Involuntary shivers ran through me, and I turned around. It was Claire, with an apologetic look on her face. This couldn’t be good.

“Me and Jacoby have Spanish Club after school, so if you want to hang around here and wait…”

Well this sucked. There’s literally nothing to do at school after it’s over, once technology was discounted. I guessed I could go join up with a sports team, but no matter how changed my feelings towards Janine were, my opinion of organized sports hadn’t shifted in the slightest.

“I’ll just walk around,” I said. “How about I meet you guys back here at five, will it be done by then?”

She looked pained, but acquiesced to the meeting time. Maybe her thing wouldn’t go that long and then she’d be waiting for me. Well it served her right. I just had to wait outside school for her, and she’d explicitly stated earlier that she was completely free after school. So I’d been expecting to go straight home. Alas, that was not to be.

She ran back inside. By now, much of the former gathering outside the front doors had dispersed, as people peeled off individually or in groups and headed home. There weren’t any cool teenage hangout spots in Stockton. I actually didn’t know if they existed anywhere, or if that was just a myth shown in movies and TV. Either Stockton was lame, or media didn’t accurately portray the real world, so I had no idea which one was more likely.

I thought I’d go to a Starbucks that was a few blocks away and get a snack and warm drink, but when I patted my pocket where I normally kept my wallet, it was empty. Fuck me. This day wasn’t going as planned, not in the least. I put 100 dollars in my wallet, then leave it at home the next day. Just my luck.

Cursing both mentally and under my breath, I slowly made my way down the road my school was on and over to a more main one. I wasn’t going there for any particular reason. It wasn’t like I’d find friends there who would give me money. I just had nowhere better to go, with home not being worth the half an hour walk. Claire’s house was closer, but I didn’t want to go there without asking her first. Normally I would, and I was pretty sure her parents would be fine with it, but then she and Jacoby would be waiting outside of school for me and getting frustrated. That shouldn’t have mattered to me, but it did, especially since I’d just been inconvenienced in the same way. Better just meet her back when I’m supposed to.

The main thoroughfare of the city was where most of the important stores were located. There was a grocery store and a Target, with the rest being smaller shopping places, the local type. When I got to the street, I decided to walk down a little, maybe check out some of the shops or Target. If we were going to be burglars, it might be good to have some supplies. Not that I could think of anything at the moment, but when I went inside something might spark my interest. Better than standing outside in the cold or waiting at school.

As I approached the store, a shout rang out farther down the block. Then hints of chanting reached my ears, and all thoughts of shopping were promptly forgotten. First to crest the hill were the sign placards, followed by the people, marching and yelling. It surprised me that protestors had been able to get organized so well, with the internet down.

The flashy slogans were held high by much of the hundred person gathering. It wasn’t that numerous a group, but given that they were walking down the street in the middle of the day, they must have some influence. Many of the normal commuters would be at home because of their work, but it still was a big deal.

I started to approach the gathering, but someone shot me such a harsh glare that I took a few steps back onto the sidewalk. I saw a few people on the other side of the street who’d exited stores to watch, but there weren’t very many onlookers. Then I checked the sky. Bingo. That must be the attention they’re trying to attract: the news reports.

Two helicopters circled high above, looking as if they were two birds performing a mating ritual, weaving and dipping much more than necessary. I could barely make out the logos of two competing local news affiliates, but they were each presumably vying for the best shot. This would be a big deal, both to people watching TV inside Stockton and in the rest of the country.

The protestors were upset about the quarantine, of course. That overshadowed all other concerns in people’s lives. I wasn’t going to interrupt them or try to break them up, not that that was even in the realm of possibility, but I wasn’t going to join them either. I hated the quarantine as much as the next guy, especially given the internet outage, but I wasn’t going to make a fuss about it. Doing anything wouldn’t make the government stop, not matter how angry people looked on TV. In fact, it seemed to me that it’d just make the enforcement more ruthless for potential escapists, and less likely to get lifted soon. I also had to go meet Claire not too long from now, so it wasn’t worth it to start marching with them for such a short amount of time. Besides, they looked mean and surly. In addition to that disdainful look I’d received when I’d first tried going up to them, simply to ask more about what they were doing, a few of the other ones had sneered and taunted at me, as if indicating I was somehow inferior since I wasn’t part of their posse. I couldn’t care less, just I like didn’t give a shit what the rest of this place thought of me. If they were protesting the general movement restriction quarantine, ignoring the electronic communications like the people in history class, their cause wasn’t worth it anyway.

By the time I’d come up with enough reasons not to join them, they’d passed me by, continuing on down the street towards the outskirts of town. If they kept going on the road they’d eventually reach the quarantine and barricade area. They’d probably split up and stop before then, since the vast majority of people are chickens who don’t like challenging authority when the authority can doing anything. No matter how pissed off they were, it seemed extremely unlikely that they’d try to break out.

As the signs faded into the distance once again and the slogans and chants stopped faded out of my hearing range, I checked the time on my watch. Time to head back to school; we’d agreed to meet soon. I was looking forward to the warmth inside Claire’s house; the temperature hadn’t increased nor the wind abated while I’d been on my walk. It wasn’t a truly miserable day to be walking around, but it wasn’t fun either.

Both of Claire’s parent’s cars were in the driveway when we got there. The presence of the vehicles surprised me, since usually her dad worked late, until six or so. Jacoby had decided to tag along, and the three of us went inside. After dumping our bags in Claire’s room, we journeyed down to the kitchen for some nourishment. I normally brought a lunch from home, but sometimes I forgot or didn’t wake up fast enough, and sometimes what I’d packed just wasn’t good or filling enough. There were gas stations and convenience stores aplenty, or even Starbucks, within a few minutes of the school, but as I said, I forgot my wallet.

Claire’s mom was in the kitchen when we entered. She looked up from the iPad she’d been using. I was skeptical about how much she could be doing on that, with the internet down. Or more like I didn’t think her the type to play simple time-wasting apps.

“Oh, hey guys,” she said cheerily. “You looking for some food?”

I felt a little sheepish answering affirmatively, but that soon wore off as she put out a few bags of chips, and made some microwave mini-pizza bites. Just like in the TV commercials, feeding the ravenous teenagers. She was the only mom I knew that’d feed us like that. Not that any of the rest of our parents would deny us food, they just wouldn’t spend the effort to prepare it when we could easily do it ourselves. It was nice though, and since the protest had shown me an example of dickishness and ungratefulness, I thanked her more profusely than I normally would have.

I could almost feel the salt from the potato chips mixing with the salt from the pizza bites, clogging up my veins. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about what I ate for another thirty years. So I ignored that slight sensation, and kept eating.

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