Book One – B.18

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I had a hard time sleeping that night. The anticipation was greater than the first time we’d gone stealing. I was less naïve. Almost being caught last time emphasized the risk of what we were doing. But I was excited too. There was a certain thrill, because of the fact that we could get caught. It might not have been the healthiest way to get bring out that feeling, but the opportunity was right there. I’d regret it if I passed it up.

The sun was barely breaking through the window shades when I woke up. A glance at my watch told me that it was seven o’clock.  I moved toward my dresser with some difficulty, muscles already tense from the stress. I didn’t want to wear the stealing clothes the whole day in case my parents got suspicious. I doubted they’d even notice the difference, but you never know.

Downstairs, my dad was already on the desktop in his “office”. Sometimes I wondered if he ever slept; since he seemed to be there at every hour of the day. He glanced up when I came down, but didn’t remove his headphones. A nod was all I got. Typical. He cared, but he didn’t connect. He was aloof, and distracted constantly.

In the kitchen, my mom was making pancakes, a Saturday tradition. The smell was welcoming, a contrast to the sharp odor of the bacon. I know everyone loves the smell of bacon, but to me it smells like burnt blood. Which doesn’t make any sense.

I sat down at the peninsula, waiting for her to notice me. Normally I’d be hoping for the opposite, but the quarantine changed that. Not being able to be on my phone or computer really put a damper on self-entertainment. I hated relying on people to be happy. They just disappoint and annoy you.

My mom finally looked up, and smiled when she saw me.

“Good morning Elie,” she said cheerfully.

“Hi.”

Even if I wanted something to distract me from dwelling on tonight, it was hard carrying on a conversation with my mom.

“How’d you sleep, honey?”

“Good. What about you?”

“Fine.”

She turned back to the stove, and I sat there, once again alone with my thoughts. I didn’t want to be able to think. Thinning lead to hesitation. Moreover, it was unpleasant. Who wants to contemplate such a stressful activity for the six hours prior? I needed something to do today.

Before I could start brainstorming, my mom spoke again.

“The pancakes are ready,” she announced.

I looked to see if I’d have to serve myself. She simply stood there, so I reluctantly got off of my stool and grabbed a plate out of the cabinet.

“Does dad want some?” I asked, taking three plain pancakes and a dollop of butter.

She pursed her lips. “I wish he’d eat more. He’s stuck on his computer so much, and he can’t even use work as an excuse with no internet. I have no idea what he’s doing.”

After a second of thought, her expression brightened.

“Why don’t you go check on him?” she asked, a hint of hope creeping into her voice.

However annoying Mom was at times, what she’d said made me worry about dad too.

“Okay,” I said, putting my plate down.

I walked into the “office,” and dad was in the same spot, the same exact position as before. I moved behind him and tapped him on the shoulder, but not before trying to discern what was on his screen.

A diagram filled up the right side, with an Excel document covering the remaining space. I knew he normally edited books and articles, so this couldn’t be for work.  The diagram looked like a pump or engine of some sort, with an intake and exhaust, and two things on the top that could either be pistons or other places to attach hoses.

When I touched him, he jumped as if he’d been shocked, then turned around after minimizing the pages on the computer. Besides the two currently in view, I got a glance of many more previously hidden, but they were gone too quickly to recognize anything.

He took off his headset and asked brusquely, “What’s up?”

“Nothing, we just wanted to know if you wanted some food.”

“Oh, thanks.” He plastered a smile to his face for a moment, but it slipped back into a characteristic frown soon enough. “But I’m too busy right now. I’ll eat later.”

I laid a hand on his shoulder before he could spin back around.

“What are you working on?”

“Just some work stuff,” he mumbled, shifting uncomfortably.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and after a few seconds, he put his headset back on and turned around, waiting for me to leave before he opened up his documents again.

Back in the kitchen, my mom had an extra plate out, and looked at me expectantly. I shook my head ‘no’ and took my plate, where my pancakes were now lukewarm.

My mom came to sit next to me, and started to eat without speaking. I buttered my pancakes, then drowned them in syrup, imagining they were my dad’s stupid work. I didn’t have a problem with his reclusiveness, but clearly it annoyed my mom. Both of them got mad at me less when they got along with each other.

The pancakes were too sweet. The syrup slipped off the pieces as I lifted them to my mouth, dripping onto my shirt. I barely contained a curse as I remembered my mom’s presence. So excited when I woke up, then my dad had to ruin it with his isolation. I stabbed and sliced the rest of the pieces angrily, a safe avenue to release my emotions. If they didn’t get out somehow, I was liable to burst at my mom, and being grounded tonight was not what I wanted.

After breakfast, I went back upstairs and flopped down on my bed, annoyed I’d woken up so early. I had nothing to do for the next few hours, and the thought of stealing made me nervous. We were going to be inside someone else’s house. Not any different from before, but still. This time there wasn’t the failsafe of it being a teacher’s someone we knew.

With nothing else to do, I decided to get our stuff organized. I made sure the door was shut before walking over to my dresser, so my parents wouldn’t peek in. The shirt was the same one as last time, black and sleek, not loose enough to get caught on anything. The pants, taken from the bottom drawer, had enough pockets to store anything I’d need, and were also dark. The color was the most important aspect of the ensemble since we needed to be difficult to see in the shadows. It was better if we weren’t in anyone’s line of sight at all, but shit happens. After a second of thought, I decided to wear the pants this time instead of changing. Jeans would probably be fine anyway with stealing, but they had less utility. The cargo pants were more useful and my parents wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary by me wearing them. I also grabbed a sports bra and set that on my bed, then took the t-shirt for my headscarf and a pair of dark socks out as well.

All the clothes lay on the bed, and I had no reason not to put them on. Excited for it, pathetic as that small joy was, I thought I’d delay the moment of enjoyment, of seeing myself in full regalia, and took out the stuff we’d bought at Target. I also got the things we’d taken from the Mrs. Gissard’s house, the knives and pepper spray. The knives really had no purpose, since there was no chance we’d use them, but just seeing them sent a chill through my spine. The pepper spray was a different matter, and could be really helpful to escape. Of course it also made us guilty of assault if we were caught and charged, but that wasn’t going to happen.

My backpack could be packed and ready, with enough space for the stuff we stole, so I did that as well, checking the time before. It was only 8:30. That meant I had at least twelve hours until we were going to steal. Most likely somewhere around fifteen or sixteen. We had no idea how old the people were who lived in the house, and they had to be asleep before we entered. If someone was awake in the living room, or even upstairs, our mission would be dead, and we’d probably be found out.

I didn’t need to have the pepper spray in my bag. It made more sense to have that in a pocket. A knife could go in the bag, though it would be useless if I needed it. I couldn’t even imagine the appropriate situation to take it out so it didn’t matter if I couldn’t access it. I covered the tip and the blade of the knife in a magazine I found on my bedside table, so hopefully it wouldn’t cut my bag. The blade wasn’t too long, maybe five or six inches, but very sharp. I stuck the pepper spray in a pocket on the left side of my pants.

Well, my backpack was ready. I wracked my brains like I had in the store, before remembering the gloves I’d bought. They weren’t black, but were rubber, and at least purple. We could be more dexterous than if we were using cloth ones that were meant for winter. I stuck the box of one hundred into my pack.

With nothing else to do, I changed, slipping out of my sweatpants and into the cargo pants, then taking off my t-shirt and bra, and putting on the ones I’d laid out on my bed. Once that was done, I could have walked out the door that minute. Instead, I threw a sweatshirt on so my parents wouldn’t think that my clothes choice was strange.

I had nothing to do until we started stealing. Everything was ready to go, bag packed, me dressed, and I had hours to go. I would’ve hit up Janine if first of all knew her phone number, and secondly, if there was a working phone. Those two problems really inhibited that plan. I didn’t even know where she lived, and I doubted we were on good enough terms quite yet that I could just drop in uninvited.

Emma was another possibility, if I wanted to resolve that issue. I had no urge to. Janine had put off a final reckoning, and made the present station tolerable, so I felt no need to change that.

With no computer or internet, I went over to my old bookshelf, where the books from my childhood were kept. Nowadays I mostly read on the Kindle app on my computer or got books from the library, but when bored, sometimes it’s time for desperate measures. The Young Wizards series caught my eye as I was browsing.

I originally read the books in middle school on a recommendation from my brother. I got bored the first time through, but the second, they sucked me in, and I was non-responsive to my family for a week as I sped through all eight. My brother was slightly miffed at how little attention I paid to him while reading, since normally he liked to query me about my progress, oh, about every five minutes. Instead I stayed cooped up in my room with the door shut, and he only knew when I finished the book and needed a ride to the bookstore to get the next.

One thing that stuck out to me in the series was how plausible the magic system was. Not that any magic system is realistic, necessarily, only that it had hard and fast rules like the real world. There was a hint of romance in the books as well, something I’m always a sucker for. Strange how my real life preferences conflict with my literature ones. I guess opposites attract in this way.

When I brought up that point with my brother, the realism of magic, he’d asked me what I was talking about.

“Well,” I began, glad to have recognized an aspect of the books that he hadn’t, “the magic has systemic rules, and their use has an overarching goal. They do a lot of different things, but it isn’t’ just random, or like a random combination of words, there’s at least a little bit of order.”

“I guess I didn’t see that part,” he said. “I just liked them because they had normal people getting special powers and doing cool stuff with them. I know that sounds trite, but that kind of escape from the world we know is really cool. They also did good with their powers, like the most they could do, which I connected with.”

He was always so self-important, in an altruistic way, and took every chance he could to mention it.

“Of course you did,” I chuckled. “I thought the limitations they had were interesting. Like how they couldn’t do everything. If you are so limited, it makes everything much more rewarding when it’s finally accomplished.”

He smiled at me proudly.

“You saw so much in the books that I didn’t. You’re smarter than me, you know.”

We both laughed at that, but I think some small part of me believed it. He was the smartest person I knew, that anyone knew, and I was his sister, so I must have some of the same genes. And if he said I was smart, then I must be.

I remembered our talk with a hint of melancholy, but mostly anger. Tears welled up as I sat on the edge of my bed holding the book, and I put it down, trying to physically distance myself from my emotions. He’d just left. How could he do that? I was his sister. He’d promised so many things, then gone off and decided other people who he didn’t know, had no connection to, were more important than me.

I used to be like him: so self-sacrificing, nice to everyone. Treating them all as if they were me. That was probably why Ava, Jacoby, and Claire had become friends with me in the first place. He told me I was smart, and I believed him. Now I knew I wasn’t so much smarter than everyone. It was more that their thought processes were less complex and refined. They were all so stupid and inane. Maybe not as much or as many of them as I’d thought before, but still some. My new feelings towards Janine in particular made me realize, recognize again, that these people were human. At least partially.

I blamed Rick for making me feel so superior and, after he left, self-interested. He fed my sense of superiority with praise and comparisons to himself, then when he left, I knew that his grand altruistic spirit wasn’t worth it. Or maybe in some deep corner of my mind I saw just how much it was worth it and necessary for him to leave, and I didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want him to be right in abandoning me.

I read the first two books before the sun started going down. When it became too hard to see the letters on the page I looked at my watch.  It was five-thirty. Even though it wasn’t completely dark yet, I decided to go over to Jacoby’s. We did decide to meet at six o’clock.

I grabbed my bag from my bed and headed downstairs. I didn’t want my parents to see the bag so after a quick glance into the living room, I put it on the front porch, then went back inside to ask permission to go.

After a short amount of searching, I found my mom in her bedroom, asleep. I gently shook her by the shoulder, and she rolled over with a moan.

“Ugh, hi Elie.” She looked at me with tired eyes, still half asleep.

“Can I go to Jacoby’s for the night?”

“Sure. Just be safe,” she answered, then rolled back over and was still within seconds.

I hated when she told me to be safe, especially in that context. I wasn’t going to have sex with him. If she had something to say though, I wished she’d just say come out and say it instead of weaving around the topic with implied statements. Anyway, if I did have sex with him or anyone, I would be safe.

My backpack picked up from the front porch, I set off, the wind whistling through the last few leaves on the trees. It sent a chill through me, broke through my sweatshirt. I was less nervous than before; the books had helped. It would be fun.

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Book One – B.17

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Friday morning I woke up, most of my sheets lying on the ground. I vaguely remembered being hot in the middle of the night and shrugging some off, but my memories were all hazy, like a dream. My skin still felt tingly as I swung my legs out of bed, but the feeling soon was overshadowed by the blood rush from standing up. I rested my hands on my knees, the orange carpet swinmming under me, before settling down. I suddenly felt like running, or doing jumping jacks. Strange urge, maybe I could walk to school?

As soon as it came, it passed, and I jumped in the shower and took care of the rest of my morning business. Before leaving my room, I peeked in the closet, just to check on the stuff we’d bought. The sight of it sent excited shivers through me; we’d do better now, now that we were more prepared.

Outside the school the students clustered in packs for heat. Though it was only October, the weather had been unseasonably chilly for the past week or so. I looked around for my friends, but instead spotted Janine with her group. I must have been standing there for a while, since she had time to meet my eyes and look away, in too fast a movement to be casual. Suddenly that mystery sprung to the forefront of my mind again. I needed to sort out what was going on with her and Emma, and why Emma hadn’t done anything to me on Wednesday in Gym.

Luckily for me, I had History with her first period. Though I’d missed her after class yesterday, I was confident I’d be able to snag her today. I just needed to pay more attention.

The starting bell rang, and I entered the classroom and sat down at my desk. Mr. Parr wasn’t there yet, but the rest of the cattle were herding themselves into the torture chamber one more time. No, cattle was too harsh. These people had some feeling, and they’d cry if I punched them, not run away. More the pity. Which was again too harsh. Janine’s true self had been a complete surprise, and I shuddered to think of what all the rest of my classmates were under the surface.

Mr. Parr came out of his office, and Janine turned around and flashed me a glance full of sympathy. I didn’t want to be too friendly, since I’d have to interrogate her soon, but it was too hard to resist; Mr. Parr really was the devil. He started droning on about something, and it seemed to all go in one ear and out the other. I sat there pretending to take notes until he began a pitiful attempt to once again integrate current events into our lessons.

“So today, I thought we could all ruminate on the potential for our situation to parallel that of the Paris Commune,” he stated in his dull monotone. “Now, can someone tell me how this is possible, even likely?”

I was going to answer the question, but since I didn’t quite see any of the similarities and Janine had her hand raised, I let her take this one.

“Well,” she began, “if I fully understand what you are getting at, we could have to govern ourselves, and be mostly self-reliant, or at least self-contained in some ways, which are a little bit like what the Paris Commune did or was forced to do.”

He frowned in response; that must have not been what he was looking for.

“Not exactly, Miss Janine. I don’t think we have to become self-reliant, after all, the whole country’s focused on us, and that includes the air drops of supplies. Life is practically normal in here. I was thinking more along the lines of distributionism, wanton thievery, and horrifyingly radical political ideologies. So to state it in simpler terms, you are wrong.”

I bristled at that, and I could tell Janine did the same. Her shoulders tensed, and she seemed to be restraining herself from an outburst.

I decided to intervene, which was such a change from a week ago, where I never would have dreamed of doing this.

“Mr. Parr, she wasn’t completely wrong,” I said, trying to inject as much vitriol into my voice as I could. “First of all, you guys said things that are causes and effects of each other. If the contagion starts to become more airborne or something, or if the country has a war, or even if the disease doesn’t get cured soon, maybe they’ll begin cutting back, or at least charging private companies more to bring stuff in. And if you say we don’t have to govern ourselves, you’re also wrong. The limited contact we have with the outside world right now isn’t enough to involve the legal system. We need to be prepared for all the challenges these bring. My mom mentioned that she was having a hard time shopping because of the limited amount of cash in circulation.”

I paused as an idea struck me, then continued before Mr. Parr could butt in again. I turned away from him to face the class.

“On a related note, if anyone needs some cash, I’ll be trading some twenty dollar bills; my birthday was before and I have a lot. It’ll be 25% interest due when the quarantine ends and ATMs are open again. So I get 25 dollars from a twenty I give you, or 50 from two.”

People around me looked excited at my offer; they must need money as much as or more than I’d thought. Janine seemed suspicious though, and I didn’t blame her. If everyone wasn’t so stupid, they would have been too. The idea didn’t seem so smart after I’d made the offer. Too much chance for someone to figure out some connection with the stealing.

When I turned back towards the front of the room, Mr. Parr’s face was the epitome of fury: eyebrows bulging, face red, lips sputtering. I almost feared he’d have an aneurism. Well not quite afraid, more sort of morbidly hopeful. He marched over to my desk, laid a large hand on my shoulder, and forcefully directed me into the hallway. Janine snuck out too as the door was closing, unseen by Mr. Parr.

He sat me down in a lone desk, placed there for students who were in trouble or needed to make up tests, then stood in front of me. Janine managed to stay behind him the whole time, and met my eyes over his shoulder. I made sure to keep my facial expression neutral, or more accurately as pissed off as I should be, and not allow the hint of happiness I felt at her presence shine through.

Mr. Parr placed a hand on the desk, took a few deep breaths to calm himself, and then launched into his rant.

“You see this hand, Elie?” he asked, waving said appendage in front of my face. “You see it? Well take a good look at it. The veins, the bone structure. How it all melds together to do such great things. Writing for instance, or typing. Without this hand I couldn’t spread my knowledge, couldn’t teach. That hand is like the classroom. It needs a variety of components all working perfectly to function. The most important part of the hand, or the most important factor in its ability to perform such complex tasks, is that each cell within the hand, each muscle, each tendon and ligament works according to the function of the brain. The muscles grow, the hand becomes more dexterous, but not if it does whatever it wants. It has to follow orders, do things the right way, and that is how it learns. You see where I’m going with this?”

I did, but thought it’d be fun to egg him on more. The rant was so funny it swept away most of my anger. His mustache bristled and twitched with each second I sat there, supposedly pondering his amazing analogy.

“No,” I said demurely. “I don’t get it Mr. Parr.”

“Well.” He puffed out his chest, comfortable back in his position of instructor. “I have a hand. You have a hand. You have a foot. You have many other body parts. They all do functions. They do functions now better than they did before. Practice, right? If your body parts acted of their own accord you couldn’t improve. Each aspect improves when your body works as one, just like each student improves when we all work together.”

Before I could respond, he put a finger to my lips, effectively shutting me up. I saw Janine in the background looking at me pityingly, and grimaced back. Mr. Parr was the creepiest guy ever.

“No, never mind,” he continued, “you don’t get it. Forget that comparison. I was simply saying that you don’t only hurt yourself but the class when you’re a constant disruption. Recently, you’ve stooped so low as to bring other people down with you. Janine used to always have the answer, be one of my most talkative students, but you’ve corrupted her. She was one of the only people who could understand, actually get what I was teaching. And now she’s gone. She used to be my best student, but now look at her. She goes off on these ridiculous tangents with you, and I’m alone.”

He paused again, and stood up straighter. As he did, I saw not an angry teacher, but a defeated man, forever tormented by that which was barely out of reach. Now he felt as if I was taking Janine from him. I had a small bit of pity for him, in that moment. That pity he evoked didn’t make him any less of a creepy pervert.

He sighed, shoulders rolling back, and shook his head as if to clear the stray thoughts.

“What I’m trying to say, Elie, is that you’re smart, but you’re also too smart for your own good. You can’t pull shit like this in the real world. You’ll get in over your head, and it will all come crashing down. Now I’m going to tell the class I sent you to the principal’s office, but really just go to the bathroom or walk around or something. Sorry I got so angry.”

He slowly walked back into the classroom, as if a great weight was on his shoulders. This was the first time I’d seen any evidence that Mr. Parr was a human being. Now that may seem mean or harsh, that judgment of him, but he’d always been that pervert fawning over high schoolers, staring much too long when we stretched or leaned back. He’d been obsessed with me for two weeks, and during them I dreaded school every day, much more than I normally would have. This, what he’d said, he seemed to have some emotional attachment to us, and instead of being able to pursue that like someone normally would, he was forced to act as if we didn’t matter at all. Or not more than a student normally would for a teacher. That ridiculous hand analogy was really his way of hiding how much he was hurt by Janine no longer parroting him and interacting with him exorbitant amounts. He was pathetic, but now there was a twist of sympathy in there too.

While I was lost in my musings, Janine came over to me and sat down on the desk. Her breasts were level with my head, and that wasn’t the best thing to be thinking about given how we’d ended last time.

She put her hands on my shoulders, a comforting gesture. After a few seconds I removed them with my own hands, but kept our fingers intertwined.

I stood up, then said, “Wow. I’m glad that’s over. He actually seemed sad at the end, did you notice that?”

She tilted her head to one side. “Sad? He might be sad, as in pathetic, or be sad, as in upset, but why?”

“Well…” I didn’t want to broach the subject of his infatuation, not so openly. “He thought you used to agree with him all the time, and now you don’t, and he’s sorta upset about that.”

She snorted. “That’s great. So now I’m not allowed to have my own opinions? What a douche.”

Her judgment seemed a bit callous. She hadn’t been in a position to see his face while he’d been talking though, truly feel his emotion, so I let the subject drop.

I released one of her hands, but kept the other, and she hopped off the desk.

“Thanks for coming out here, being here for support,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah.” She smiled, then started walking down the hallway, dragging me along behind her.

After a few minutes in silence, spent wandering the school, I stopped and turned towards her. I let go of her hand. Mine that had been grasping hers suddenly felt cold, as if it was without an obligatory or necessary pair. I stuck it in my pocket so it wouldn’t be awkwardly hanging there.

“Janine,” I said, looking at her intently, “did you tell Emma not to bug me in Gym on Wednesday?”

Her eyes widened a fraction, but that was almost instantaneously replaced by her trademark smirk.

“And if I did, what will you do for me?”

“Well seeing as I didn’t ask you to, I don’t think you get anything.”

She frowned. “If you didn’t want help, you should have said so. That took a lot of influence.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” I said hurriedly. “I was just kidding. But if you wanted something, you did have me alone in the locker room for a bit afterward.”

Her frown twisted back into a smile. “I did, didn’t I? I was wondering whether you’d bring that up. Do you really want to know why I did that?”

I thought about it for a second, then said, “Yeah, sure.”

“Well, I’ve always thought you were interesting. I mean, you don’t take shit from anyone. Not always in a good way, but you’re independent. I like that. You’re also, well…”

She motioned to me, as if indicating my various assets.

“Pretty hot,” she finished. “So I didn’t know exactly what I thought about you, like if it was just whatever because we were rivals in sports and stuff, or something else. Like sexual.”

She paused, and furrowed her brows.

“This shit’s so hard to talk about. Fuck. How about we just say I was confused, okay? What about you?’

Now it was my turn to try to articulate my confused mix of emotions and, well, lust.

“I, well, you’re hot too,” I started, thinking it best to begin with the self-evident. “I stared at you almost as much as Mr. Parr one day earlier this week.”

I stopped, unsure how honest I should be with my prior thoughts about her. Better safe than sorry.

“I had a small crush on you for a while, but that was mostly physical. It didn’t stop me from hating you just as much as I hated everyone else. But then you actually seemed intelligent. And we argued on the same side instead of against each other in History.”

I let out a breath, done with the hardest part of our series of confessions.

“What did you think about the kiss then?” she asked, curious.

Maybe I wasn’t out of the fire just yet. I fiddled with the end of my shirt, thinking back on it.

“I don’t know exactly. I don’t remember it that fondly, but that’s probably because you pulled back so suddenly. Because of that, I’m not sure I’d want to do it again.”

She nodded, as if agreeing.

“I think so too. How about we just be friends, maybe try that again sometime later?”

I grinned. Janine, a friend. What was my life coming to?

“That sounds good. You know what’s the best? That we can actually talk about this shit instead of ignoring it or pretending it will all work out.”

“Yeah,” she said.

There was a pause, now that we were done with that discussion.

She tossed her hair, then looked down the hall one way, spotting a friend.

“So…” she began, “I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah.” And I walked away with a smile on my face. Human companionship felt good.

Gym passed peacefully enough. Emma still wasn’t bothering me, so whatever Janine had threatened her with must have had staying power. Other people started taking notice, but I ignored the few whispers that reached my ears. It was also nice that the rivalry with Janine wasn’t so venomous anymore. We still competed just as hard, but friendly rivalry is better than bitter, hated rivalry.

After school I found Ava and Jacoby talking outside the building, and approached them. I needed to scout out a location and they’d probably be grateful if I included them more in the planning process. I’d brought the map the company had sent in their last letter with me to school so I could do this right after.

I approached Ava from the back, and covered her eyes with my hand. She tried to shrug me off, but I held firm to her shoulders.

“Guess who,” I said.

“Elie, I know it’s you.”

“Spoilsport,” I pouted, and removed my hand.

“Do you guys want to come with me to the place we’re going tonight?” I asked.

“Sure,” Jacoby said, “I don’t have anything better to do.”

“I’m free too,” Ava chimed in. “But why aren’t we taking Claire?”

I thought about it for a second, and decided honesty was the best policy. At least for this situation.

“I’m not sure she could make a rational decision about anything relating to the thieving,” I explained, wincing at how uncaring I sounded.  “Now that we know why she’s doing it I’m afraid she’ll go do something stupid. I don’t want to risk anything until tonight, when we are the most prepared we can be. Right now we just have to act casual so no one remembers us and says something if the cops visit the scene.”

“Okay, I guess,” Ava said, voice filled with doubt.

That rankled.

“Well what else do you think we should do, do you trust her as much as before?”

Ava looked uncomfortable at the question.

“I don’t know. I guess it just feels like she should be included in this. Like we’re being divisive, damaging group unity.”

I understood where she was coming from, or at least recognized that Claire would be upset when we told her, but if I changed my mind now I’d look flaky as a leader. Confidence is key.

I waited silently for a few seconds, Ava pissed I wasn’t responding, Jacoby amused at the argument.

“Well, shall we go then?” Ava finally said, when it was clear I wouldn’t say anything more about on the topic.

“Yeah, let’s go.” Jacoby said eagerly.

After heaving a sigh, we set off for the neighborhood marked on the map in my hand, a bit farther to the west than where we’d been last time. The houses grew as we went, and the numbers of cars on the street and in the driveway increased. These people probably had jobs more related to technology, and so there was no point in them going to work at the moment. The increased number of people at home made it more likely someone would recognize us during the day, and associate it with the burglary at night. That worried me.

I glanced down at the map again. We’d just crossed the outer edge of the three block radius that had been marked off. These were the houses we’d have to rob.

Both sides of the street were identical, and there was a limit to the amount of snooping around we could do. The number of people at home made it so we couldn’t try to sneak around and check back doors, or even front door locks. Not that I’d be brave enough to do that anyway. It was much more frightening when we weren’t in “costume.”

Three stories, brick, somewhat imposing. The houses weren’t the same, in the sense that this wasn’t suburbia, but they all had a similar style. Since we had no idea about how hard each would be to burgle, I thought we should just pick a random one.

We walked down the street, waiting for someone to propose an idea on the selection process.

When we were maybe three-fourths of the way down the block, Ava stopped.

“So do you just want to pick the biggest, or…”

I shrugged. “Maybe we could think about the easiest escape route too. Do you want to head to the park where we met last time afterward?”

“That’s a good spot,” Jacoby said.

Ava frowned, but said, “Okay, I guess that’s fine. It seems a bit far away from here.”

“Do you have any better ideas?”

“I guess not,” she said, turning back to the houses.

I looked around for a minute. The park was to one side of our section, in the direction of my house. We’d probably go there after we were done stealing. The end of the block might be better than the middle, so we’d have a cross street near us, more options for escape.

I pointed to the house on the corner. “Then do you think that one there would be good. We can run pretty easy from it, it doesn’t have anything weird in its lawn, and there’s a fence on this side that’ll be helpful. We can also maybe see the backyard if we go around the side street.”

Ava nodded, seemingly satisfied. Jacoby did as well, but it was her who spoke.

“Yeah,” she concurred. “That looks good. Let’s go see if we can see in the back yard.”

We made our way to the end of the block, and turned right. The house we’d decided upon had an open front yard, a path leading up to a raised front porch. There wasn’t a door on the side we walked past, and the back yard had a tall wooden fence surrounding it. No gate on this side, but when we checked the alley around the back, there was one.

“Do you want to peek inside the yard?” Jacoby suggested. “I didn’t see any cars at home.”

“Do you think people in that house can see us?” I asked, looking at the one across the alley from our pick.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think this is a good idea. We’ve been plenty suspicious for now. It’s not like they’ll have a trap or anything it would be helpful to see in advance.”

Ava reminded us of the reality of the situation. I think we’d forgotten a little that we were in the middle of a neighborhood, where people could be peeking out their windows at the strange kids wandering around.

I glanced around, nervous, and said, “I think we should get out of here. Their yard doesn’t matter. We won’t be able to see the back door well enough to tell if it’s locked.”

“I agree,” Jacoby said, suddenly on edge.

We made our way out of that neighborhood and split up to go to our respective homes. Tomorrow, we’d steal.

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Book One – B.16

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Ava’s hair glowed in the afternoon sun, a dark blond. She walked ahead of me, leading me to Target or wherever we were headed. Though it was my idea to go, I was fine being the follower; she knew what she was doing.

She was certainly the most intelligent of our group, at least if you judged intelligence by real life skill. She always knew the right thing to say and do, and though she may not get as good grades as Claire, I thought she was smarter.

Her hips almost sashayed as she walked, drawing my eyes to an area they probably shouldn’t be focused on. I rarely focused on those aspects of her. Nothing extra had ever happened between us, not even a moment like that one with Jacoby. It wasn’t surprising; best friends don’t normally spontaneously make out with each other.

She looked back at me as we made our way onto the main street. I hadn’t brought myself level with her on the sidewalk since it was pretty narrow, and plus, standing next to her would change the view.

She tilted her head and bunched up her eyebrows, questioning. I just shrugged and moved closer to her.

“So what do you think we need?” I asked, turning to face her.

Well, I don’t know really. What could help us do a better job stealing?”

I shrugged. “I think we could use some more gloves, but other than that, no idea. Can you not think of anything at all?”

She squinted, but it may have just been because of the sun. “I can’t think of anything. It’s not like we need weapons to threaten people, and I don’t know what else is useful. Maybe lock-picks, but we need to actually practice at that. And going to the library to get a book right now to help us would let someone trace something back to us.”

“Yeah. If only the internet was on, but then we probably wouldn’t be doing the whole stealing thing in the first place.”

“Yeah,” she chuckled. She pressed the button that signaled the crosswalk, since we were at the main road, Target across the street.

I thought of something important, so suddenly I almost stopped while in the middle of crossing the road. Ava recognized the look on my face and grabbed my hand, and I stumbled forward and onto the far sidewalk.

She planted her hands on her hips as soon as we got there, and pursed her lips. “What’s the stroke of brilliance this time, Elie?”

I said excitedly, “When I said we wouldn’t be doing this if the internet was on, it reminded me of something. The organization wouldn’t have hired us if the internet, as in communications, were working, right?”

She nodded mutely.

“Because they would be able to use their own people, like they said in the letter,” I continued. “Or something like that, since the letter wasn’t all that clear on why they had to hire us in the first place. But the issue with all communications being down and them having to use the mail isn’t an excuse! They have the phones that work or something else quicker than mail, because the more recent letter knew what we’d stolen, and exactly what we’d done the whole time. They didn’t have time to send a letter back and forth with Mr. Owens or that other creepy man. So therefore, they could have used their own contacts inside the city, and contacted them with the satellite phone through Mr. Owens or the other guy.”

She frowned when I finished stating my conclusion. I barely managed to restrain myself from jumping up and down, proud of solving a part of the mystery. Her facial expression brought me back down to earth.

“So you’re saying we have no idea why these people are sending us letters telling us to steal stuff, but they must have some other reason than their stated excuse?”

“Yeah…” I agreed tentatively. Her businesslike tone quelled even more of my exuberance.

She looked over her shoulder, then turned back to me. “I’ve been thinking that for a while. We really have no idea why they wanted us specifically, and even if we ignore that, we don’t know why they wanted anyone. A mob or similar type of group that needs random possessions stolen from houses and will pay well for it has some strange priorities.”

I didn’t know who could be listening, and it seemed at least possible that our contractors had had us followed given what they knew about how we did the mission. We might be safer in a more noisy crowd.

As we walked in the doors of Target, I leaned close to her, laid my hand on her shoulder, and whispered, “We should be careful about where we talk about these types of things.”

I was worried, but I also wanted to show I still knew some stuff. Her insight had caught me off guard.

Her unique scent wafted in her nostrils, from her hair. I’d notice before that smell, but not how gentle, yet enticing it was. No matter, we were here on business.

She turned her head, and whispered back, “I agree. Do you think we should keep going with it?”

After a moment’s deliberation on my part, we were in the clothes section. “Yeah. We’re still getting paid, and just because we don’t know what they want isn’t a reason not to follow their rough guidelines. We can make sure we don’t do anything with unintended consequences.”

She snorted, and tossed her hair. “I’m sure we can, as long as we’re extra cautious. Though I think we’re more likely to do whatever they want without realizing we’re even involved at all.”

That prospect worried me. I didn’t like being manipulated. But it wasn’t necessarily for a bad purpose. These could be part of the government, and we were taking stuff they desperately needed to stop the virus or maintain the quarantine. Not that I was on their side on that issue, but I could see how it was beneficial overall.

I scowled. “I think we’ll be fine. If we’re on the lookout, whatever the unintended consequences are, they can’t be as bad.”

She nodded, and we walked along in silence, still close together. I noticed her proximity more than I otherwise might have.

We came to the winter clothing, and maybe half the shelves were empty. I guess the air deliveries, how everything was getting resupplied now, were somewhat limited in quantity. People were probably stocking up in case the quarantine lasted a long time. On the other hand, this could be the normal amount of shopping that was done each year; I had no idea.

“Let’s look for gloves first,” I said, heading for that isle.

“Okay.” She followed me.

I found a rack of gloves and mittens, mostly in black. The problem was most of them were also not cloth or cotton or whatever, they were the waterproof slick stuff. Less grip, less dexterity, more noise. I pulled one of the only good pairs off, and it was too big, but seemed as if it might fit Jacoby. I handed them to Ava silently, then went back to browsing.

Eventually we found ones that might fit all of us, meaning a slightly smaller size for Claire, and a bigger one for Jacoby. I thought it’d be cool if we had full uniforms, but even using automatic checkout and everything, the cameras could build up too much identifying evidence against us, if anyone ever saw what we were wearing while we were on a mission.

As we went to look for some strong rope, just in case it’d ever be useful, I daydreamed up perfect costumes for us. Ava was content with silence, still examining the glove packaging. Instead of a one piece ninja polyester outfit, it’d be a shirt and pants, since they were easier to get on and off. A pair of leggings would work on the bottom, even for Jacoby, though they might not be the most comfortable for him in certain areas. On the top we could have Under Armor or similar shirts, also stretchy and tight. I thought that material was the best since it would be the least likely to get caught on stuff, and didn’t inhibit mobility at all. It might be a little cold for a few months, but we could handle it until we got back to our backpacks and heavier clothes. For our heads a ski mask could work, which I was wary of buying at the store even though they’d be handy. It would be too suspicious.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel comfortable getting the outfits until we had internet and semi-anonymous purchasing available again.

When we got to the hardware section, Ava grabbed a strong looking rope, that was rated at a high enough strength that we could all climb on if necessary.

Before we headed to the checkout, I asked her, “Do you think we’ll actually use the rope?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I mean I hope not, simply because it’s dangerous and much easier to get in doors, but if we go onto a second floor where people are sleeping we might want a secondary escape route.”

“Yeah. I think we should get a hook or grapple so we can at the very least attach it to a window, you know?”

She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know if I’d trust that with the rope. But I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

I hurried off to find the best thing for the job, like a child that’d just got permission to buy a load of candy. Funny really, since I was the one in charge. I guessed Ava just had a natural authority to her that made me, if not look up to her, at least default to her judgment. Maybe she’d be the long term planner, and I’d be the operational commander. As long as I still had an important role.

I settled on a four pronged grappling hook that wasn’t metal, but at least claimed to be strong. I’d test that for myself before using it. It surprised me to find that kind of thing at Target, but if there’s one thing the store wasn’t lacking in it was variety.

I met back up with Ava, and enthusiastically showed her what I’d found. She examined it with a measured eye. That sunk my heart for a second or two, but then I remembered it didn’t matter what she thought of it. I was in charge.

I still asked, “Do you think this is okay?”

“I guess it’ll work,” she said reluctantly.

“Okay, good. Now is there anything else you’d like to get?”

“No, I think we’re good. I want to get out of here, I don’t like doing stuff connected with the stealing in public.”

“Sure. Do you think we should have something to threaten people in a house with if they catch us?”

She flinched back, horrified. “No! God Elie, we aren’t part of the mob. We aren’t going to threaten people. If we get caught, it’s our own damn fault, and we’ll just have to live with the consequences.”

I pressed on. “I really think this could be helpful. Not knives or anything, just something like pepper spray. It doesn’t hurt people permanently, but it would delay them enough so they couldn’t grab us or call the police.”

Her expression softened, but it still was a far cry from moments before. “I still don’t think we need it,” she said. “If we have it, we’ll become reliant on it, be less careful in other facets of our mission planning and execution.”

“How about if we don’t buy any, but bring that one we took from Mrs. Gissard’s house with us?”

I guess,” she said, shifting her weight from one foot to another.

I hugged her, and she reluctantly wrapped her arms around me as well. A warm envelopment, so comforting.

“Thank you,” I said solemnly.

She rolled her eyes, and gently shoved me away. We headed to the checkout finally, after spending much longer than I expected shopping. All the automatic checkout lines were full, and I was getting antsy to leave the store, so we used a regular checkout line. The cashier raised an eyebrow at our purchases, but when we both adopted confused expressions, like we had no idea what he found so weird, he didn’t say anything. Which was good, because I didn’t have an excuse ready. I just expected that people saw weird things often enough they wouldn’t question us.

As we left the store, our shopping bags only contained the rope, grappling hook, and gloves, which seemed like a meager haul. I’d wracked my brains many times though, and not been able to come up with anything else to buy.

I took the bags home with me, and Ava veered off to her house. I found myself gazing at her wistfully as she turned the corner, wishing I was still with her. Not in a simply friendly way either. I enjoyed her company, and in return, she kept me sane, kept me from doing stupid things like buying a few unnecessary canisters of pepper spray. We’d always been like that. But spending this time with her, after the fight before about whether she was even going to join us stealing, just served to emphasize how much I needed her.

Approaching my house, I hoped my parents weren’t inside. They’d be extremely curious about what I’d bought, and depending on how much they knew about my finances, where I got the money. Thankfully, my dad was at his desk doing something with his computer, so he didn’t notice me open the front door. After a quick glance into the kitchen, I hurried upstairs to deposit the bags in my room, then went back down to check on my mom’s location.

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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.

Damn.

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.

Damn.

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.

Right.

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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Book One – B.12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, I’d have fun.

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

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

Fuck yes!

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

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

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

It read:

Our contact Elie;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Marvin McCree

Right Man Industries

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So I put that problem to the side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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