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.
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.