Dante still couldn't believe he was doing it, but it was the only way to guarantee his sister's protection. His assignment that day was to get a picture of her, a picture that would convince her father to commit the crimes they would soon be requiring. He'd been parked on Jessica's street that morning, when she'd made her way outside to the back of the house, backpack in hand. He watched from the car as she leaned over in exhaustion, and he wondered why. She stood up straight and leaned her back against the house. She seemed to be crying as she slowly slid down the wall. He looked at her through the zoomed lens on his camera to confirm that she was indeed crying. His curiosity was interrupted when he heard a horn honking on the other side of the street. Jessica appeared to be out of their view and gave no response as she cupped her head in her hands.
After honking several times, the other car left. Dante didn't know this girl but he felt guilt ridden for her pain already. He knew life was about to fall apart. He'd been informed that this girl's father was soon to be taken into the organization, which Dante was learning involved a lot more than a car theft ring.
When the girl finally made her way to the high school, he watched her catch her breath when she stepped out of her car, as if preparing herself for the day.
In the school, he tailed her from a distance as she made her way toward her first class. Though he was further down the hall and could not see her face, he heard her countenance change when she entered the classroom and she warmly greeted someone in the room.
Jessie's forced smile came a little more easily when she was greeted by a tight hug around her leg from someone who was sitting on a chair. It was a boy about her age with thick glasses that were tied around his head.
"Jess!" he squealed in a voice that was hard to understand.
"Hi Kyle." She pushed back the tears as she crouched down next to him.
He was sorting beads into piles by color and he proudly showed her his masterpiece.
"I put da wed ones by da bwue ones and da bwue ones by da gween ones."
"That's great!" Jessie said confidently as she patted him on the back.
"He's been doing much better." Said a girl her age who was sitting next to Kyle, helping him sort the beads. "Mikah has been waiting for you." She nodded toward another girl in a wheelchair on the other end of the room.
Mikah was small and frail, with wide eyes and a smile that almost never went away. She didn't say anything as Jessie reached for her hand, but her eyes said it all.
"I missed you too." Jessie smiled. "I'm sorry I was late. I had some stuff going on this morning but I'm here now. You ready to do your stretches?"
Mikah didn't move much but let out a happy screech. Jessie unbuckled the straps on her chair and checked the small bed beside her to make sure it was ready. She slowly placed her left hand under Mikah's back and her right hand below Mikah's knees and lifted her. She wasn't heavy, but her body was quite stiff so she was a little akward to hold. Jessie gently laid her down on the bed and took care to make sure the pillow was under her neck.
"Are you comfortable?" Jessie asked as she moved the wheelchair out of her way.
Mikah gave a slight sigh, so Jessie propped a flat pillow under Jessie's legs.
"How's that?" she asked as she knelt down beside the bed. When she heard Mikah's squeal again, she knew they were ready to go. Jessie slowly pulled on the girl's arms to stretch them and warm her up for the day. "I bet that feels sooo good to streeetch." Jessie said dramatically with a yawn as she smiled at Mikah.
"He's pinching me!" she heard another student yell as the teacher pulled another boy off of him.
"Boys…" Jessie whispered in Mikah's ear as she rolled her eyes with a smile. Mikah laughed so loud that Jessie couldn't help laughing, even with the mood she was in. This was just what she needed today. After Jessie had helped her stretch, she let Mikah relax on the bed for a while. Jessie made her way over to the boy who had pinched someone to help him work on his task. On the table in front of him was an insert with dividers for silverware. He was sorting silverware into the appropriate compartments. So far, he'd been doing okay but had put a few forks in with the spoons.
"Looking good Michael." She said as she sat beside him, keeping her distance a little because she knew he didn't like to be touched. "Pretty soon you'll be able to do dishes all by yourself at home!" Michael clapped his hands and giggled.
Dante waited in the hall a few more minutes, careful to avoid any teachers that might recognize him, since he used to attend the same school and had been expelled after his initial arrest. He entered the classroom and nervously told the teacher he was from the yearbook committee and asked if he could take a few pictures.
It made him almost sick to his stomach when he took her picture, as she warmly put her arm around the girl in the wheelchair and tilted her head with a smile.
Jessie posed next to Mikah and held her hand as they both smiled. After the boy had taken their picture, she realized this would be a picture she would actually look forward to seeing in the yearbook.
Dante couldn't help but wonder what this picture would do to her father when he saw it, the day the organization would be revealed to him. He averted his eyes from her and took a few pictures of the other students to avoid drawing suspicion before he exited the room.
After a few minutes of monitoring Michael and visiting with her other classmates who were helping out, Jessie asked Mikah if she was hungry. She placed Mikah back in her wheelchair and buckled her lap belt. Jessie made her way to a cupboard that was filled with protein drinks. She pulled one down, as well as a tube with a funnel attached to it.
She sat down beside Mikah. "Whitney, do you want to learn how to do this today?" she said to one of her classmates, who had been helping Kyle to sort the beads.
"I don't know if I'm ready." Whitney answered. "It makes me a little squeamish."
"C'mon over." Jessie motioned her over. "It's not that bad. It's just feeding her."
"Uh… okay. I guess."
"Tell Whitney not to be a wimp," Jessie whispered teasingly to Mikah, which made Mikah laugh.
"Oh, stop it!" Whitney laughed along as she pulled up a chair beside them.
"Here, hold this up." Jessie told her as she attached the tube to the funnel and handed it to Whitney.
She lifted up the bottom portion of Mikah's shirt to reveal a piece of gauze taped to her stomach. Jessie slowly pulled it off to reveal a small hole in Mikah's stomach, about the size of a dime.
"Ok, so you take this end," said Jessie "and you gently slide it in the opening."
"Does it hurt her?" Whitney said as she squinted.
"I don't think so. It's never seemed to bother her before." Jessie said as she smiled and winked at Mikah. "Once you have it in past this point, you push this little button and that fills the side of the tube with an air bubble so it won't fall out."
"Okay." Whitney said as she watched intently.
"Then you just pour it in the funnel." Jessie said as she opened the can of protein drink and handed it to Whitney. "Hold the funnel a little low so it doesn't go in too fast or she'll get a belly ache." Whitney carefully poured it in the funnel a little at a time.
Dante had to step away from the classroom to stop from hearing any more, and he went back to his car. What she was doing made him feel sick, partially because of what she was doing, mostly because he was starting to get bored.
"You also want to make sure you don't let the funnel empty between each pour so it doesn't give her air bubbles in her stomach." Jessie looked at Mikah. "Because then Mikah would burp and that would be sooo gross!" she teased and Mikah squealed again with a smile.
After her class was over, Jessie moseyed over to her locker, which she didn't bother to open. She stood with her back against her locker and slid down to the floor. She sat there as people passed her and ran her hand through her hair. Finally her friend Chelsey came over her and opened her adjacent locker.
"Where were you this morning?" she asked Jessie. "I honked like three times."
"I'm really sorry." Jessie sighed. "Today sucks."
"What happened?" Chelsey closed her locker and sat beside Jessie on the floor.
"You know, I just want to leave. Do you want to ditch the rest of the day with me?"
"What?" Chelsey raised her eyebrows and jolted her head back. "You never skip school."
"Well today I'm going to. I could handle my first class. I think it even helped a little, but I'm definitely not going to math class."
"What will you do all day?" Chelsey asked.
"I dunno. Just hang out – maybe get something to eat. I've just had it today. Will you come with me? Lunch will be my treat."
"Hmm… skip a class I hate for free food?" Chelsey pretended to weigh her options as she leaned sideways and nudged Jessie with her arm. "You don't have to ask me twice. Let's go and you can tell me what happened this morning." Chelsey stood up and reached out her hand to help Jessie up.
Dante leaned the driver's seat back as he waited in the parking lot, his car a few spaces away from hers. Though it pained him to have become a stalker of sorts, he was also annoyed because he didn't want to be someone's babysitter. What was he supposed to do all day while she was in school?
He pulled out the camera to view the pictures he'd taken to ensure he had a good shot. She was average height, blonde, and a bit too awkward for his liking. He secretly wished they'd at least assigned him to trail someone hot. She seemed vaguely familiar and he wondered if they'd ever had classes together.
He was surprised when he saw her and another girl walking into the parking lot to get into Jessica's car about twenty minutes later. He had pegged her for a straight-A student, too good for skipping classes. He followed them to a little breakfast diner and went in a few minutes later.
By then, she was blubbering to her friend, all worked up about something. He tried to tune them out and enjoy his meal in peace. He hoped the organization would reimburse him for the awful meal since he was doing this as part of a job. After they'd talked and eaten, the girls ordered ice cream and seemed to be feeling better as they giggled to each other. He rolled his eyes, thinking of how hormonal girls were.
After he had followed her home, she sprawled out on a hammock in the back yard, with her backpack beside her. She pored over textbooks for a few hours, confirming his suspicions about her. He took the opportunity to snap a picture, knowing a photo of her at home would be more effective and persuasive. His stomach churned at the thought of it.
Over the passing months, when he was not stealing cars to reach his quota, he was watching her. In time, he got used to it and it became a fact of life, though he always knew what he was doing was creepy.
As far as he could tell, he'd been right about her. She was somewhat shy, at least when she was out of her element, and she had very few friends. He learned that she went by Jessie and only her parents or those close to her called her Jessica. Much of her time was spent studying or painting, and when she wasn't doing that, she and a girl named Chelsey were together.