She opened the door.
The secretary reluctantly looked up, beginning to plaster a smile on her face. However, seeing the student standing in the doorframe looking less than thrilled to be there, the smile shortly choked on itself and died. "In there."
The black-haired girl's mouth twitched slightly in what probably could be described by the insightful as a smirk as the large-haired secretary resumed her studious examination of her nails, her attention wholly absorbed in vigorously blunting a buffer against her claws.
Of course. She didn't take any offense at the blatant snubbing the secretary directed her way. It must have been sheer torture—agony, even—for the poor vulture to spare a second to look up from her already obsessively buffed nails, wasting words in ushering Dr. Castor's next visitor in—never mind that it was what the school paid her to do.
No, no offense at all. Looking like that was punishment enough.
"Thank you," she said as brightly as she could—which wasn't really much, but the change from a flat monotone was more than enough to convey a world of meaning. "Never would have figured out which way to go all on my own."
Especially in the light of the fact that there were only two doors in the entire room (one from which she had entered and another which she had yet to). Oh, no. She definitely needed help figuring that one out.
The woman tore her eyes away from her talons and gave her a suspicious look, only to receive a large-eyed look of innocence. Miss Avery looked about to say something back to the impertinent student, but the call of her manicure was just too strong and irresistible. Succumbing to the obsessively trodden path, her attention returned to the fanatic erosion of her cuticles.
Idly, as she walked toward the door, the girl wondered if she was another one of Dr. Castor's experiments—Miss Avery certainly looked like she was the one in need of a shrink session.
Bracing herself for another long, boring, and predictable session of sitting on an uncomfortable chair while someone attempted to figure out what made her work, she muttered a curse and opened the door.
"Ah, Miss Callahan," came a slightly accented voice of the person from within. "Why is it that when I hear an expletive, your face immediately comes to mind?"
In case it hadn't yet been made so clear that this wasn't the first time Em Callahan had come face-to-face with Dr. Francisca Castor, this was not how the good doctor normally greeted her patients.
Em shrugged, dropping her schoolbag on the floor and unceremoniously dumping herself on the scratchy armchair facing the desk. "You're the psychologist."
She fidgeted slightly on the chair, trying to find a comfortable position, although she knew from wearying experience that there were none to be found. She was fairly confident that this was the one and only armchair in the world built to keep people out, instead of in.
Dr. Castor sighed mournfully. "Yes, but sometimes, I'm not so sure."
"That isn't encouraging."
And so began the half-hour-long session of mind probing—although the question of who exactly did the probing has yet to be answered.
You see, Em Phuong Callahan was considered a problematic sort. It wasn't that she ran around pranking the other unsuspecting (but not undeserving) students and setting them up to take the fall—heavens no. Why bother when they could manage to get into bigger trouble by themselves anyway?
Em wasn't the sort to intentionally inspire awe and fear into the hearts of her peers, either. First of all, you would have to look rather impressive in order to be able to start anything like that, and Em—being genetically undersized—was not.
Nor was she one of those people who could afford to ignore that and go on terrorizing the lesser students. She didn't particularly even want to, so the option of her being the playground bully (a laughable image, really, if you picture it) was out of the question.
Neither was she one of those girls who deliberately put down others in favor of themselves—the snotty, self-important girls who were prowled the surface of the school's caste system and enjoyed antagonizing others who weren't.
She wasn't one of the other types of students who kept to themselves, forming clannish groups with other people who had nothing else to do, nor was she among those who took their studies seriously to the point of obsession, although she was usually intelligent enough to keep her in the upper academic rankings.
In fact, if you went up to anyone in this particular school and asked them where Em Callahan fit in, none of them would be able to satisfy you with an answer, and not just out of their stubborn desire to be the typical boorish teenager.
The simple fact was that no one had the slightest clue. She wasn't present among the higher rankings of the social hierarchy, she wasn't included among those students who just went with the flow, and she didn't run with the dredges of the caste.
As you can probably imagine, this rankled the popular students who were generally considered admired by the lower echelons of the school—here was a girl who didn't fit in with them, and they had absolutely no idea how to ruin her day. In fact, whenever they tried, it usually seemed that she wasn't listening to them, blank as her expression was. The very notion was likely to send them into a collective apoplexy, which was why they preferred not to think about her. Likewise, those lower echelons were completely confounded with her existence, and opted to pretend it wasn't, instead of was.
Then, one ostensibly fine morning, during a general psychological examination, Dr. Castor happened to notice all this and became fascinated with the social specter that was Em Callahan. And here she was. Again.
Time ticked on, however slowly, and since there was no way to persuade Em to remain in that sad excuse for a chair for any longer than what was actually needed without physical incapacitating her, she was soon free to go.
"You may go now, Miss Callahan," Dr. Castor told the reticent girl, rubbing her temples in a futile attempt to soothe the headache that seemed to follow Em Callahan whenever she entered this office. "Thank you for your time."
Em made no reply, swinging down to shoulder her backpack and stalking out the door.
A mite rude, yes, but it was an established tradition by now. Em didn't see the point of sticking around any longer to spare any aimless chitchat—God knows how little of that she had to spare.
She walked down the hall, grateful to be out from the stuffy office.
"Well, if it isn't Emmy," drawled a high-pitched little whinny from somewhere behind her. "Having a little chat with the shrink? Figured you the type to need one."
Em stopped and stifled a heavy sigh. The voice wasn't a hard one to place. Vivian Haleman screeched up and down the hallways far too often not to leave the shrill echoes in the nightmares of many students.
Vivian Haleman. Tall, pretty and busty, she was blonde to her fingertips. It was a little funny to think that this Barbie doll inspired terror into the hearts of the socially unfortunate, but hearing her talk lent it a bit of validity—she could raise the dead with that voice--only to have them strangle her, just to shut her up so they could go back to blissfully being dead, of course.
She was the head cheerleader, she had run for batch president, she was dating Gary Harris, the uber-jock of the school, she was constantly surrounded by vapid little underlings, and she was the bane of every lower-class smudge's existence.
"Honestly, could you be more clichéd?" Em shook her head in pity. It was a little depressing, really. Why couldn't real life deviate from stereotypes?
Vivian looked a bit confused. Em Callahan baffled her fluffy pseudo-evil brain. She never responded the way the unimportant small fry were supposed to—how was she supposed to reply to that? Hurriedly, the patchy cheerleader stereotype covered up her momentary lapse as skillfully as her make-up covered up the third eye at the back of her blonde head.
"Well, Callahan, don't let that green eyed monster show," she replied. "It won't do any good for your little brave-girl image if people knew how much you want to be me, now would it?"
"No," Em agreed, deciding to humor her. It wasn't the greatest comeback she could imagine for the cliché bit, but it was probably the best Vivian could think of, which was kind of sad.
"Anyone wanting to be you deserves to have their images damaged, for their sake." She flashed the girl a humorless smile. "I mean, look at that." She gestured to the gaggle of idolizing students surrounding the girl. "Nothing else could bring them to their senses."
Normally, Em wouldn't have bothered to waste so much breath on them, preferring a few choice words for a concise but deliberate comeback, but when dealing with the head cheerleader and her drones, one might need to explain it very clearly in simple, monosyllabic sounds.
"Um," the blonde floundered, having no idea how to take that.
One interesting thing to know about verbal combat is that when you deliver your slurs with a face devoid of any emotion, it has this satisfyingly demoralizing effect on the person on the receiving end. After all, all that trouble they go to find a properly offensive sneer and you just come back at them without switching a face; it gets more than a little frustrating.
She briefly gestured to Dr. Castor's office. "And you wonder what I was doing in there." Em watched Vivian, who suddenly looked like she was rethinking her apparent decision to go harass Em Callahan. "I'll go home and start soul-searching now—God knows that I need one, if I start harboring delusions of becoming you."
Em inclined her head slightly and turned the corner, leaving Vivian Haleman and her posse with the chance to pick up the tatters of their dignity, which would probably burst into flames once they figured out the offense she had dealt them.
Em shuddered to imagine the scream-fest that would follow, and promptly decided to put some space between them. She liked living without hearing banshee-esque wailing bouncing around and echoing in her ears. It might be a bit distracting, after all.
The second thing to know about going around and talking back to people is detecting the perfect time to leave and Em had that down pat.
Hastily, she emerged into the main hall of the school. Because the hour was late--Em's sessions with Dr. Castor took place after classes ended--there were only a handful of students left loitering around the normally overflowing corridor.
"Em. Do you have a moment?"
Em sighed, giving the school doors a longing look. Freedom was just a scant few steps away, and once again, she was intercepted.
Perhaps if she ran... She gauged the distance between herself and the exit, but it was hopeless.
Curse these short, useless legs! Might as well see who it is and what they want.
She reluctantly turned around and nodded in recognition at the girl standing in front of her. "Mona."
Mona Grey. The auburn-haired girl with eyes the color of her last name--a cruel genetic coincidence. The reason why Em hadn't yet been officially labeled by the alarmingly large population of idiots in this school as the 'Ice Bitch.' Which was perfectly fine with Em, really, since she didn't really have the patience to deal with a title or the beef-minded ninnies who gave it in the first place.
Mona even dressed the part of the stereotypical school pariah—all black, combat boots, the whole leave-me-alone-I'm-usually-quite-angry ensemble. While one might say that those were just clothes, Mona Grey was in possession of a particularly lethal glare, which was known to cause even the most caustic delinquent to shrink back into himself. If the phrase "Out of my way" hadn't been around for such a long time, one might have thought her to be its originator.
She glanced at her watch—a plain, serviceable black Swatch she had received last Christmas from her uncle. It was just a half-hour after dismissal—what was she still doing hanging around voluntarily? As far as Em knew, the girl often went straight home directly after the last bell.
"Can I speak with you for a bit?" Mona looked ruffled, which wasn't a really unusual expression for her to tote around, given her social rank. A poker face was the key to survival in high school, because if any of the social predators caught sight of a chink in your armor, they would hardly be solicitous enough to wait for you to cover up. Slow as they were in many other aspects, they never hesitated to pounce when a vicious victory was in the offing.
Em didn't really want to stick around any longer, but since Mona was one of the few people in this hell hole that she could actually respect without heinously lying to herself, she nodded, regretting the action as it came out.
Em and Mona's relationship was odd. Both of them were socially unusual, Mona having an actual title to show it. They respected each other well enough—each was probably the only person in the whole school whom the other could regard with esteem. Both being communal pariahs and having similarly unflattering opinions of the rest of the student population, one would figure that they would quickly grow to become close friends, but at best, they were only acquaintances.
"Let's go outside," Mona suggested, giving her a dark look at Em's less than enthusiastic response.
Once they breached the doors, Em took a deep breath of fresh air. It was a astoundingly nice day outside, all things considered. Funny how an 'enlightening educational experience' seemed to block all that out completely.
"Nice day," she said laconically. "Once you get out of school, that is."
"It always seems that way, doesn't it?" Mona observed, looking up at the sky as well. "Maybe that's what they intended in the beginning."
"What?" Em smiled slightly. "Go to school so that life seems so much sweeter when you stagger back out?"
"Sort of relates school to the terminal illness you survive, then, wouldn't you say?" the auburn-haired girl reflected.
"It is. And it's just as full of bacteria."
The Ice Bitch actually smiled at that, and then her face shattered into pieces and crumbled to the floor.
Actually, no. It didn't.
In fact, now that she thought about it, Mona let out smiles more often than Em did. While Em had never been equated with 'emotions', Mona let loose the entirety of hers whenever she told people off.
Well, if the entirety of her emotions was largely made up of anger. Which it probably was.
"Listen, Em," she said, her voice indicating that she was getting down to business. "I didn't exactly come out here to chat about all the faults we know exist in the educational system."
"Good topic to fall back on, though, when the weather fails us." Em took a glance at her companion. She seemed serious now—not that Mona was ever the very epitome of flippancy. Bad for the image, that. "What is it?"
Mona stopped walking. "Em. I hate to say this, but I need your help."
Em looked at her for a long moment. "I thought we didn't do this, Mona."
At her perplexed look, Em continued, straight-faced, "Ask each other for help, give off the idea that we're friends, that sort of thing. Imagine how that would look to your reputation. The damage when they find out that you aren't all powerful and nefarious will be absolutely devastating."
Mona looked a little frosty at that, excusing the inadvertent pun. "For the love of God, Em—" she started to say angrily in what appeared to be the beginning of a blast from the Ice Bitch.
Em held up a hand. "I'm just joking." She smiled a bit, the first time in the day that any honest, uncalculated emotion had registered on her face. "Which also rends into tatters the shreds of my emotionless image, wouldn't you say?"
Mona cooled down after a moment of chagrin--another lame pun, because they just seem to be strategically placed everywhere to be tripped on--and laughed. "There's more to you than you let on, you know?"
"Keep them guessing, and you'll get to laugh in their faces when they trip," Em shrugged. "Not that I actually do it out loud."
Mona gave her a strange look. "You know, people at school haven't the slightest idea that you can."
"Yeah. Goes to show how unimaginative they all are. Did you know that it's a serious discussion among them about who really deserves the 'Ice Bitch' label? You know, I'm the Bitch but you're the Ice."
"Let them go on that way. Try to shove another idea into their minds and their brains might just explode. Not big enough, you see."
"Wouldn't that be a sight?" Mona said dreamily.
"So what did you need my help on?" Em asked, getting back to the point.
Mona's face immediately darkened and Em felt a faint twinge of curiosity. What could it possibly be that Mona couldn't handle by herself? Was that nervousness she detected in her face?
"I..." Mona's eyes darted down the sidewalk as if she was afraid of being overheard. But if Em knew anything about Mona, it was that she was one girl who would be particularly frustrating to scare.
But dart her eyes did, and she said, "I think I'm being stalked."
Thus heralds the start of another story. How it will turn out, I have no real idea, so don't blame me, even when you should.