P H L O G I S T O N
« Chapter 5 »
Entering the cafeteria was like walking into boy-world. And not Tess's version of boy-world—I mean the real deal. It was crowded and there were boys everywhere. And it was scary.
Immediately, I looked around for any sign of my friends. None of them were in sight. A couple of guys from my morning classes waved at me, and I gave them half-hearted waves in return. I could feel hundreds of pairs of eyes on me, and it wasn't fun.
I was considering my options—running away and hiding in a closet or melting into a puddle of mush—when Tess came to the rescue. "Stella!" she said brightly. "There you are!"
I turned around to face her, breathing a huge sigh of relief. Tess was standing behind me with some guy I had never seen before. Curious, I tilted my head to study him better. He had short black hair that was in messy spikes at the moment and grayish eyes. He was okay-looking, I decided, but he definitely wasn't the kind of guy that Tess usually fell for.
"This is Zach," Tess added before I could say anything. "He's in two of my classes—first and third period."
"Hi," I said, smiling at him, albeit warily. "I'm Stella."
He gave me a small smile in return. "Hi."
"Zach invited us to sit with him and his friends," Tess told me.
"Oh. Well, that's… really… nice of you," I faltered. I kind of wished I could melt into the floor. I definitely wasn't looking forward to sitting with Tess and watching her flirt with her latest boy-toy.
Zach flashed me a grin. "It's no problem, really. My friends are eager to meet you guys."
I'm sure, I thought, but didn't voice that thought aloud. I cast my mind around for something else to say, but couldn't find anything entirely suitable. But I didn't have to, because Adriana chose that moment to save me.
"Tess! Stella!" she called. She threaded her way through the crowd towards us. As she did, she caught sight of the boy standing next to Tess. She gave me a questioning look.
"Zach," I said by way of introduction, "this is Adriana. Adriana, Zach."
She nodded her acknowledgement and then turned to me. "The guys I'm sitting with extended the invitation to you guys as well. That is, if you want to." Her lips curved up into a slight grin. "They're jocks."
I had met some of Adriana's jock friends during gym. Sitting with them sounded like a far better option than Tess's.
"But I thought we were sitting with Zach and his friends," Tess said, pouting slightly. "Right, Zach?"
But the boy wasn't looking at her. He was watching the two jocks—Chris and Brent—who had just joined Adriana.
Chris noticed him first. "Sparks," he said coolly.
Zach lifted an eyebrow. "Bennett," he returned.
Something's wrong, I thought immediately. Adriana and Tess must have noticed the same thing, because Adriana looked sharply at her two friends and Tess gave Zach a puzzled glance. But the boys didn't look at us—much less answer our unasked questions—and the girls and I exchanged confused looks.
And then Rena was there, appearing out of nowhere with Ryan in tow.
"Ryan's offered to show us the ropes," she announced. When none of us answered her, she seemed to notice the strange atmosphere. Her brow furrowed and she glanced at the three boys, taking in the entire situation.
At the mention of the name 'Ryan', Zach had started. He looked up sharply and met the cold blue eyes of the blond-haired boy standing slightly behind Rena.
I heard Brent utter a soft curse, but didn't turn to look at him. My attention was fixed on the two boys—Ryan and Zach—who were currently in the process of trying to stare each other down.
"Uh, guys?" Tess tried. When she didn't get a response, she gave up and shot me a look that clearly said, "What the hell is going on here?"
I shrugged and looked towards Adriana, who seemed to be the only one of us who actually understood what was going on. She caught my look and rolled her eyes. "Rival teams," she mouthed to me.
In a flash, I understood. Ryan had said that he was directly involved in the rivalry. If Zach, too, was involved—but on the other team—it would account for the boys' weird behavior towards each other.
"This is stupid," Rena said suddenly. I heard the faint disgust in her voice. I wasn't surprised; she was a compromiser, an enforcer of peace. She hated arguments and fights. "I'm leaving."
She turned and walked away. Automatically, I followed her, and I didn't even have to turn around to know that Tess and Adriana were close on my heels. Rena hardly ever got into moods like these. And when she did, we knew what we had to do.
After all, chicks before dicks, as Tess would say.
"We'll have our own girl table and be cool," I said lightly. The others agreed, and we all went to get lunch. Ten minutes later, we found and claimed a table in the corner of the cafeteria. We settled ourselves comfortably before falling into our customary gossip routine.
Adriana was the first to speak, and she told us about her note-passing with Chris and Brent and the information she had received from them regarding the school feud. She produced the note—she had pocketed it before leaving the classroom—and we all pored over the names and tried to figure out if we had any of the boys in our classes. None of us could remember if there were or not. Go figure.
Rena was next. She explained about her art class and Ryan's painting, and elaborated on the way the teacher and the other students carefully avoided discussing Ryan's fruit depiction.
"It's not… normal, the way they all act," she concluded. "I mean, it almost seems as if this thing isn't really a feud at all. It's more like—"
"A war?" Adriana suggested lazily.
"Talking about wars," Tess said, "I've heard rumors about a casualty." She leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Word travels fast, you see. And since I'm a girl—"
"Cut the crap and get to the point," Adriana said, laughing.
Tess gave her a dirty look and threw a piece of lettuce—minus the dressing—at her. Adriana retaliated with a fry, causing Tess to wrinkle her nose in distaste.
"God, Adriana. One would think that you would eat healthy, considering your sports record, but no. You insist upon pigging out on junk food. Do you have any idea how much oil are in those fries? Or how many calories there are—"
Adriana stuffed her mouth with fries and grinned at Tess's disgusted expression.
"Anyway, Tess, you were saying something about a rumor…?" I interrupted, trying to avoid another health-food lecture.
"I was? Oh, right. Yeah. I just came from Home EC class, you know. I didn't know boys could gossip so much." She grinned, forgetting about Adriana and her food choices in her amusement. "They were talking about that boy—Scott Quinn."
"The one who got beaten up?" Adriana asked interestedly.
"The one and only. Apparently, he got it bad."
"Meaning…?" Rena prompted.
"He's in the hospital."
"No way," I said, shaking my head. "Are you serious?"
"Dead serious," Tess assured me.
"But… does the school know? I mean, wouldn't Jason Fraser be like, expelled or something?" Rena questioned.
"He should… except the school doesn't know. And no one's telling them, either." Tess sounded smug—probably because she was the one with all the information.
"Why not?" Rena demanded. "If he's hospitalized, then that means that Jason is dangerous. And the school has to take measures to—"
"You're not getting it," Adriana told her. "This is a war. The entire school has basically taken sides already. And remember Scott Quinn mentioned something about an 'honor code'? Well, I'm willing to bet that that's what's keeping all the rest of the guys from ratting Jason out."
"But Jason said it himself: 'Fuck the honor code'. Remember that?" I pointed out.
"And he mentioned something about some other kid being jumped," Rena added.
"Trey," Tess supplied. "And guess what I found out about him? He's also in the hospital."
"There's something really messed up about this school," Adriana mused. "Two kids from rival gangs, both in the hospital. Doesn't the school board even care?"
"They're clueless," Tess said, shaking her head. "Plus the boys cover it up really well."
"But someone's bound to rat them out eventually," Rena insisted.
"Wrong again," Adriana informed her. "They're too scared to. They'd end up in the hospital themselves if they even tried."
"And that's not even an exaggeration," added Tess. "The guys who were talking about this stuff really seemed like they were scared of these two groups."
"Tell us more about the Quinn kid. What's wrong with him?" Adriana asked.
"Not quite sure. Broken rib, punctured lung, internal bleeding, psychological problems…" Tess shook her head. "I think most of those were made-up, though."
My mind flashed back to what the secretary had said to us that first day.
"I know what the boys in this school are like. Please be careful, girls. A lot of things go on around here that shouldn't, and I don't want to see you guys get caught in the crossfire."
I also remembered Ryan's enigmatic responses.
"Those rules don't apply in our school. Sure, people gossip, but when… certain people… don't want news to spread, you'd be surprised at how fast the news is dropped."
It hadn't meant anything at the time, but now it made sense. He hadn't been bluffing.
Tess nudged me, snapping me out of my thoughts. "Over there," she directed, tilting her head to indicate the corner of the room, where several boys sat around a table.
"What about them?" I asked, scrutinizing the boys. I had never seen any of them before; I would have remembered if I had. I couldn't explain what it was about them that drew my attention to them, but I dimly registered that there was an aura about them that the other boys in the school seemed to lack. Confidence. Power. Authority. Not to mention flawless good-looks.
Belatedly, I realized what she was trying to tell me.
"Andrew's," Rena answered. She indicated the blond boy who was making his way towards that table. "Ryan's in his group, remember?"
"So that group over there must be Seth's," mused Tess. "Zach's there too."
"The world makes sense," Adriana said dryly. The other group was sitting all the way across the cafeteria. I couldn't help but notice that they, too, seemed to exude the same aura as Andrew's group. They drew people's attention without even trying.
It was interesting watching the two rival groups ignore each other. But at the same time, it made me uneasy. And no matter how I tried, I couldn't shake the feeling that we had gotten into something much bigger than we knew how to deal with.
My post-lunch class was History, and it was awful.
For one, none of the other girls were in that class with me. And two… the teacher was sexist.
From the moment I walked in, he had decided that he hated me. I could see it in his eyes.
God, I'm turning into Tess, I thought. I'm being a total drama queen.
The teacher kept shooting random questions at me. "Maybe Miss Mackenzie can tell us about the aftereffects of World War II," he suggested. And he had to emphasize the 'Miss' part, as if everyone didn't already know that I was a girl.
Yeah, I hate History.
I opened my mouth, ready to impress him with a verbose speech that would undoubtedly illuminate my superb and unparalleled knowledge of the subject—that was Rena-talk that meant that I was actually planning on stuttering and making a complete fool out of myself—but someone intervened before I could say anything that would utterly embarrass myself and delight the teacher.
"Now, Mr. Archibald, that's not quite fair."
Incredulously, I turned to look at my savior. The fact that someone had actually stood up for me kind of stunned me and dulled my senses.
Now that was a Stella reaction. Rena was all wit and quiet intelligence, Adriana was full of sarcasm and barbs, and Tess had her bright, lovable personality to fall back upon. Me? I had awkwardness. Oh, and enough humor to realize the ridiculousness of all the situations I managed to get myself into.
When my brain decided to function normally again, I registered the fact that he was still arguing with the teacher on my behalf.
"She's new. And her old school might not have covered the same curriculum as us. Give her a break."
Silently, I thanked him. Mentally, I studied him. He had light blond hair and ice-blue eyes, and his countenance reminded me slightly of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies. Mm, Tom Felton. I think it was his air of casual arrogance. He seemed like one of those boys who always got his way.
With a jolt, I realized that I had seen him in one of the groups at lunch. I wasn't absolutely positive, but I was pretty sure he belonged to Seth's group.
"This is basic material, Mr. Hunter. She has to know this information if she wishes to keep up with this class. After all,"—the teacher switched his malicious gaze to me—"this is a classroom full of intelligent and dedicated boys. She is at a very great disadvantage."
The insult stung. The guy was totally sexist. No wonder he taught at an all-boys school.
Oh, right. It wasn't an all-boys school anymore, thanks to me and my friends.
Well, it's not like we asked to be transferred to this school, I thought grumpily.
At this point, if they had been in my place, Tess and Adriana would definitely have argued back. Tess would because she was too proud to ever let anyone step on her, and Adriana would just because she didn't take shit from anyone. Rena probably wouldn't say anything, but that was only because she was a passive and peaceful person by nature. And me? I wouldn't say anything either, but not for the same reason. My reason would be that I can never think of anything to say.
By now, I had acquired another defender, a kid with dark hair and dark eyes. He was sitting next to the Draco Malfoy look-alike and seemed to be enjoying the argument immensely.
"You're being sexist," the boy drawled.
Way to exercise tact, I thought as the teacher's face turned a rather repulsive shade of purplish-red.
"Mr. Roth," he practically spat, "please refrain from involving yourself in a situation that does not concern you."
The boy shrugged off the words easily, as if he hadn't heard the venomous note in the teacher's voice. "But that's what I do, Mr. Archibald," he said glibly.
I frowned. He seemed familiar, for some reason. His name—Roth?—seemed to ring a bell, but I couldn't figure out from where. And his voice…
I smothered a gasp and sat up straight.
"Fraser? What the hell are you—what the fuck did you do to him?"
"Fuck off, Roth."
And then, later: "You want names? Fine. Jason Fraser, Scott Quinn, and Jaime Roth."
I shot a glance at the kid. I could easily believe that he was involved in the school feud. As I watched his amusement grow at the teacher's rapidly disintegrating patience, I found that it wasn't hard to believe that he was in the middle of a school-wide rivalry.
The teacher wasn't taking it anymore. "Well, Mr. Roth, since you're always following Mr. Hunter into everything, I'm sure you won't mind following him into detention. Yes, Mr. Hunter, detention. For two weeks. Don't be late, or I'll make it two months."
My jaw dropped. Detention? For sticking up for me?
I wanted to hide as the teacher turned his nasty gaze on me. "Now, Miss Mackenzie, would you like to put anyone else into detention?"
"No," I mumbled.
I spent the remainder of the period sulking, and as soon as the bell rang, I shot out of my seat. But once I was outside the classroom door, I slowed and hovered, waiting.
I didn't have long to wait. Apparently, the two boys disliked that class as much as I did, because they fairly barreled into me in their haste to get away from the teacher.
"Whoa," the Draco Malfoy look-alike guy said, stopping himself before he could knock me over. "Um, do you mind? You're—"
"Trying to get run over. Yeah, sorry," I said, but I didn't move.
A slow grin spread across his face. "Actually, I was going to put it more nicely than that, but I guess your way works just as well."
I smiled a little. "Look, I just wanted to say thanks. You didn't have to do that, you know."
He just shrugged. "No biggie."
"But thanks to me, you guys now have detention for two weeks," I pointed out. His friend turned to look at me, and I mentally kicked myself for reminding them.
But instead of being angry, the blond kid only looked more amused. "So?"
"So… you mean you don't care?" I asked, confused.
"Not particularly," drawled Roth. "Seth and I are used to it."
I froze. "You're Seth?" I blurted before I realized what I was saying.
The Draco Malfoy kid grinned. "Yes, that would be me. Let me guess. You've heard about the war?"
My brain thawed enough for me to comprehend that he was talking about the feud. "Oh… that. I mean, yeah."
His easy smile never faltered. "You girls taking sides?"
The question was casual, but the intensity in his pale blue eyes reminded me of what I was getting into. I needed to pull myself together.
Flashing them a charming smile, I stepped back. "We'll see," I said lightly. Then I turned and walked away, pretending that with every step I took, I was getting farther and farther away from the feud that I knew would eventually pull me in.
A/N: I love the changes they made to this site. The new FP is amazing… almost as amazing as you guys. Keep it up!