A/N: I'm putting this up here since I don't want to distract you at the end for...reasons...hehehe... So...raise your hand if you suck and are a failure. *raises hand* I haven't updated this in far too long for way too many reasons to go into. Life just happened AAAAL over the place. The sad part is, this is probably my more popular story, thus why I am so terribly sorry. *sigh* There are no words. I don't even know if this chapter is OOC or suckish or what, but it's here, I got it out and hopefully I can do better from now on...? NaNoWriMo and marching band are both over so that should definitely help... Jeez, just sorry again and again. Hopefully this chapter is okay... Read and review please? Tell me what you think. Constructive criticism is good for awful people like me. Who are awful. BAH I SUCK. *runs off to emo corner* By the way, the stuff Sparkles is saying actually IS important, believe it or not, so, despite your urge to skip over it that I would also have, skimming it might be a good idea. Yeah... Trees... enjoy :).
After suppressing the surprisingly strong urge to wave the picture in Sparkles's face then laugh while holding it high above her head and out of her extremely limited reach, I observed her once again, trying to measure what I was really dealing with. Besides her freaky ghost eyes, she really didn't look like much more than the nerdy daughter of the headmaster. The headmaster of a really freaky school full of idiots and healing-powered zombies who obviously didn't understand the meaning of being an undead, brainless, rotting creature, and, for some reason, felt the need to act like really awkward, disgusting fairies who enjoy sticking people with needles when they aren't expecting it and haven't agreed to it, but I digress.
Then again, maybe that was what she wanted me to think. I couldn't explain my paranoia over it, but it just seemed like something was off about her. "Why?" I asked. "Is it of some importance to you?"
Eyes still wide as street lamps, she moved toward me. "Where did you find it?" she repeated, slower this time.
I sighed. Why was everyone trying to get me to explain that whole fiasco all the time? "It's a long story," I said honestly. "Now you answer my question."
At that she paused, looking a little zoney and staring at the space next to me, but not seeming to see actually see it, for a few seconds before snapping back to reality with a very startled seeming blink. After that, she jumped a little and blinked a few more times, stumbling backwards, tripping and falling onto the bed, keeping a firm hold on her head. When she started breathing again, it came it short gasps.
I stayed where I was, wondering for the second time if she was having a heart attack or something of that nature. Maybe she had high blood pressure. One of my uncle's wives had had that. I would put my money on it being from all the radioactive material that had been inserted in her body whilst she was having about a billion X-rays at her plastic surgeon's office. She was always falling over. Sadly, it was never off a cliff or into a wall, despite my many attempts to arrange such a thing. Then again, it could have just been the size of her breasts. The world will never know because one day she ran out of the house half-naked, singing a Britney Spears song, never to be seen again.
I really didn't miss Kristin all that much, if you could believe it.
Luckily, Sparkles sat back up pretty soon, looking a little pale, but not otherwise cardiac arrest-ish that I could see. It wasn't like I had had lifeguard training or something, but I hoped I'd at least be able to tell if someone's heart was failing.
It would be sad to discover all of those Baywatch episodes were for naught, other than seeing how well a guy up in the tech department could employ the slow motion button.
"Do you do that often or was that just for my personal viewing pleasure?" I prompted, leaning back against the wall I was glad to find was actually behind me for once and didn't lead to some random staircase which I would inevitably go on to fall down.
I glanced at the picture frame still clasped in my hand and wondered if it actually did have a curse set on it, but it only affected females. I would find a cursed, sexist picture frame.
She glared at me briefly then flopped over again with a groan. "I hate it when that happens," she said to the ceiling fan.
"What exactly happened?" I asked, attempting to remain cryptic but kind of wishing I could tell her to GTFO of my bed, not like I really felt like claiming it as my own. She could really just lay on Chihuahua's instead of covering the one I had to sleep in with glitter. Let's face it, glitter just didn't work for me. It would totally clash with my hair.
She paled further. "N-nothing," she mumbled, looking back at me. "What were we talking about?"
Oh, my poor pool of patience. All it wanted was to have a drop of water back in it. Just one. It had been dry for ever so long.
I facepalmed internally. If she was gonna keep the whole glasses look, she really needed to work on her short-term memory. Or memory in general. "This?" I suggested, waving the picture frame around.
She shook herself. "Right. Of course. It's just…that picture frame…it…well… The staff has been looking for it for a long time. It's kind of an important artifact to our school, but it went missing some number of years ago. No one's seen it since. It's just really…odd, you coming here out of nowhere and then suddenly having that picture."
I looked down at the object in question. Lost, huh? Well, it had been stuffed in an underground tunnel. It made sense. The only question was, how the hell had it gotten down there in the first place? Who had put it there and why? I mean, who puts an "important school artifact" in a pile with a lot of other crap? Shouldn't it have been on display with other "important school artifacts" like pictures of the place's first graffiti-ing and property vandalism incidents? Kinda defeated the purpose of it being an artifact. Did they even know there was a whole tunnel system under the school?
Okay, that was more than one, but you get the idea. No comprende on the either really stupid or really awesome hiding place.
"It's called a coincidence," I pointed out. "They happen."
Could you call falling through a wall and picking up a long lost picture frame along the way back for no apparent reason a coincidence? Or was that just me?
"Just weird," she mumbled. "Can I…see it?"
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked suspiciously.
"Look…at…it…?" she trailed off, leaving me feeling awkward, so I held it out to her.
Her eyes pored over it like it was the most amazing thing in the world. "Wow," she whispered. "I'm pretty sure this is the original picture."
"Who's in it?" I asked, trying to be casual. I wasn't sure if it was working, or if it was some big, gigantic secret I wasn't allowed to know about.
Sparkles looked up at me briefly before moving her eyes right back down to the object in her hands. "Do you know how this school was founded, AJ?"
My mind drifted briefly to the demon pamphlet that was probably still soaking wet, crumpled up in a corner of my bedroom back at my uncle's house. That is, if Charlie hadn't eaten it yet. "Vaguely," I offered.
My version of the story: Two witches escape burning and go off to act like innocent school teachers. Witches form school to either a) lure in kids for their own nefarious purposes or b) lure in kids to teach them witchcraft to carry on their "art" in secret. I was guessing the women in the picture were the founders. Lord only knew what happened to them in the end.
"Our school was founded by two women of royal descent," Sparkles said, immediately sounding more animated than she had a few seconds ago.
Sheesh. History buffs. I didn't mind a good story or two every once in a while about something interesting that happened a long time ago that was at least partially explainable, since so much in my life wasn't, but I wasn't going to go all gaga because I was standing where some vaguely famous person from the past had. It was just a floor that had probably been redone four times since then. I understood sentimental value and all, but there was a point where you had to draw the line.
I listened intently, though, despite my feelings on the subject. The information I was getting could be imperative to my investigation, so I couldn't exactly ignore it. Even if I really, really wanted to. Which, for the record, I did.
"Oh, really?" I asked. "Any particular reason they named it Andover? I don't recall that being any kind of royal name."
"That wasn't their last name," Sparkles corrected me vexingly. "The two women were actually descendants of two families. The dorms were named after them instead—Tudor and Lancaster. Actually, everyone was pretty sure that all the Lancasters were extinct, or at least close to it, so it was surprising one of them was even alive." She trailed off thoughtfully.
I sighed. Time to revamp my questions. "That's great and all, but it'd be awesome if you could start at the beginning. I'm really interested in finding out more about the history of this school and I can't seem to find the story anywhere else."
Man, it hurt to extract the sarcasm from that statement. Almost physically. I had to wonder how some people did it. Were they masochistic or did they just not understand what it was? The world may never know.
Luckily, Sparkles didn't seem to be able to tell. She just smiled. "Oh, so you're interested in history? That's cool. Me too, but I try not to be weird about it." She shrugged. "Anyways, there's not tons to tell about. The founders' ancestry is the most interesting thing about it probably. Both of the families were involved in something called the War of the Roses, which was basically a fight between two families over the throne of England, the Lancasters and the Yorks. In the end, a man named Tudor came along, claiming to be of Lancaster descent, and claimed it. Kind of stupid when you think about it. Supposedly, the others almost killed each other off and…"
I had stopped listening because I pretty much knew all that already. I guess that stuff I had read about in the library did have something to do with it then and wasn't complete crap. That nice to know considering I had been harassed because of that stupid research. The only problem was I wasn't learning anything new. Just the same old stuff I and I didn't have time for that.
Actually, I did—I just didn't care.
The only problem was, once you got someone started talking about something they were interested in, it was practically impossible to get them to stop without hitting them over the head with a brick. And, sadly, I was currently brick-less.
Meanwhile, Sparkles was going on and on animatedly, not noticing that I was obviously ignoring her, "…abandoned the scene to save themselves and went into hiding as wealthy aristocrats for a while. As the years went on, they were slowly wheedled off, a lot of them dying in weird accidents or arrested and killed for various reasons. Tudor descendants lived on as far as people knew, going strong for the years of their rule and then narrowing down as people married off and so on. It's kind of interesting that she still had her last name, really. Maybe she changed it or something…and even more interesting that the two women became friends and…"
Okay, so maybe this hadn't been my best idea ever. In fact, it was a freaking suckish idea. I wasn't gonna sit there and take this. I had stuff to do and it didn't include getting my ear talked off by an over-excited geek whom I had accidentally triggered and now couldn't stop.
"Well that's just fascinating and all, but I was actually wondering how the school was founded not a day by day reenactment of the history of England from the Jurassic period until now, and as much as I would love to stand here and listen to it, we do have this thing called life we have do…" I interrupted her loudly, making her jump a little and give me a sad look.
"Oh," she turned red. "I'm sorry. You're right. I didn't mean to…"
Dammit, you get them off one thing and they're right back on another. "It's fine, it's fine, just calm the heck down," I grumbled. If I had to be drawn as a cartoon character at the moment, I would definitely have had one of those annoyed symbols hovering above my head and probably some swear words, as well. "We do need to get to class at some point though."
Sad that I had to sink that excuse twice in one day, especially considering I had no idea where the hell I was supposed to be in a moment. That definitely put a dent in my alibi, and not a small dent that there was a 50% chance your parents wouldn't notice, but more like a "sorry guys, I accidentally rammed the car into semi and knocked it off a cliff" kind of dent. Not that she would probably check.
"No, you're right," Sparkles shook her head and rubbed at her eyes. "I'll just give you the watered down version."
Watered down? I wasn't sure whether to find that phrase interesting or slightly disgusting. I was guessing she had meant condensed.
God, I hoped so. Where was literacy going these days?
"Basically, these two women named Chrysantha Tudor and Miranda Lancaster met under odd circumstances and became friends during the time of the witch trials. They discovered each other's past and decided to open a school together to preserve their history and to protect kids who had…special tendencies," she gave me a knowing smile that I didn't get at all. "If you know what I mean."
What, kids adults thought were too different to belong in "normal" society? How sweet of them to get some to build some walls to trap us in and call it a school. Awesome. Yeah.
"Chrysantha died from an accident not long after and Miranda died quietly in her sleep after a good long life, passing the job onto her good friend," Sparkles finished and fell silent.
I pulled my eyebrows together. "That's it?"
"I told you it wasn't much, but there it is," she smiled and stood up from her place on the bed. "Glad I could help."
Seriously? No wonder there were no books on it! That wouldn't even fill a children's book! That could fit on the inside of my forearm and leave room for math notes and Japanese word conjugation! And I had skinny arms.
So much for a lead.
"Yeah," I sighed, feeling exhausted, defeated, and all around ticked off at the world's sense of justice considering I had sat there, listening to her ramble for nothing. "Thanks for trying."
She gave me a long look before walking over the other bed and removing the large textbook from the top of it. She brushed it off and shuffled back over, holding it out to me. I took it reluctantly. Gee thanks. That was definitely going to make me feel better. An 800 pound, dusty Chemistry book, the back cover of which was—how shall I put this?—repugnantly sticky. At least she hadn't thrown it towards my head that time.
Oh, hell with it. She could have tied it up with a bow, wrote the answers to life on the pages, and hired Paula Dean to deliver it on a purple narwhal and I still wouldn't have given a shit.
"I just wanted to say that I wasn't making fun of you yesterday after we met," she said abruptly, looking guilty. "It's just a…thing that happens with me sometimes. I try not to do it, but sometimes I can't help it so don't take it personally. I know I torked you off."
That was certainly true. But that was about the only thing. "Sure," I said dubiously, smiling thinly. "Just keep telling people that." I shook my head, and frowned. "Look, if you were messing with me, don't lie. It happened and now it's over."
"I figured you'd say that," Sparkles said, surprising me. "But I thought I might as well say it anyways, just to get it out. Give that to Drew would you?" She jerked her head at the book. "And feel free to come back for a history lesson, whenever you want, young padawon, as long as you actually enter through the door this time." And with a bow, she skipped out of the room, laughing and waving.
I stared after her for a few seconds before tossing the book over my shoulder where it landed on the floor with a satisfying thump. Running a hand through my hair, I let out a harsh frustrated breath and a few curses before I calmed down.
What the hell? There was no way that was it. Either she wasn't telling me the whole story or there was something else to the whole mystery; something deeper and darker, buried by time that I had yet to figure out. Schools with that normal of history don't have random secret tunnels filled with stuff shoved underneath them. Unless Chicago had been invaded by mole people, which I seriously doubt I wouldn't have noticed.
No. That was not it. There was more. I knew there was. And I was going to figure out what if it killed me. People always said I had a talent for sticking my nose in where I didn't belong, even when I tended to avoid everyone, and I was going to use it. That ought to make them happy.
But what if it wasn't? What if it was just one big, gigantic misunderstanding? Some big anti-climax of life? What then?
A loud noise echoed through the building that I recognized as the bell. I didn't even jump or move, really, because I was too busy realizing how much I honestly didn't know the answer to that question.
One, two, three, four boys running by.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven girls watching.
One, two, three, four boys almost domino-ing each other because they were too busy staring down one girl's shirt.
Sounded about right.
I would have counted leaves on the tree but my head hurt too much to be worrying about leaves of all things. They could pretty much just live life and be trees without me counting them. At least I would hope so. I was going to be pretty ticked if some random bolt of lightning shot down from heaven and set the whole damn tree on fire because I didn't give myself dyslexia counting some leaves. I didn't need to be sitting in a burning tree. I really didn't.
It wasn't my fault I was up there, by the way. It was the custodian's fault. He was the one who had left his completely lock-pick-able ladder lying in his easily-accessible-through-a-window-if-I-really-tried-and-almost-sliced-off-my-shoulders storage shed. It also wasn't my fault that I was supposed to be in gym at the moment, considering I hadn't had much say in my schedule which, yes, I had eventually found and, after staring at it and turning sideways for approximately seventeen minutes, deciphered enough to see that I was supposed to be giving myself future joint problems and possible nausea while running around in an oval in the slightly brisk weather for ninety minutes straight.
Someone must have forgotten to tell them that I had used my American freedom to decide to ignore the fact that running and/or gym was ever invented and was perfectly giddy to live the rest of my life without it, thank you very much. I would be sure to write out a thought-out and well-put complaint to stuff in Mr. White Suit's mailbox later (that would brighten his spirits and his opinion of me), right after I was done wallowing in the existential material of defeat.
I wasn't particularly fond of trees for certain reasons, but I did like places where other people couldn't get to to find me, not that anyone was usually looking. Okay, so if someone really tried their darndest or had epic jumping powers then, yeah, they could get up there too. Or if they discovered the not-completely-well-hidden-because-they-are-somewhat-awkwardly-shaped ladder behind the tree. Screw you, person who invented ladders and didn't think through the problems someone might have if they had to hide the thing.
Still, the only reason I had gotten up there, even with the help of the ladder, was because I was pretty tall and had managed to sort of jump from the top step of the ladder (the one you're not supposed to stand on because I'm just a rebel like that—or maybe just incredibly stupid for not listening to safety regulations) and grab onto the lowest branch of the tree. From there, I had swung a leg up over it and clambered into a safer position.
It was probably horrifying to watch, actually, as awesome as it sounded after the fact. It was a miracle I hadn't knocked over the ladder or died by concussion in the process. Or maybe from falling out of the tree and surviving, only to get killed by the knocked-over ladder. Whatever the Universe was in the mood for that day. Luckily, gravity was being friendly for once and I didn't go falling to my death and/or breakage. Not that it would matter since, apparently, I had either developed amazing regenerative abilities overnight or something fishy was going on in the school's medical department. They could probably touch me with a magical piece of cauliflower and I would be cured of all my ailments.
Because that made sense.
Anyway, one death-defying attempt just to get up into a freaking tree later (at least no one can say that I don't work for what I do), I climbed a few branches higher so I was more comfortable and hidden by thicker layers of leaves as to avoid being tattled on by some goody-two shoes that happened to spot me and just wasn't able to leave a poor guy in a tree to his business. So far, things were going well. Especially if that random chick with the V-neck and her groupies continued to gather underneath me and draw most boys' eyes down, down, down.
I was mostly thinking about what to do next. If I was honest with myself, I would admit that I was coming to the slow realization that I had completely screwed myself over and was now caught in the upshot.
I was stuck, and stuck bad. Worse than I ever had been before, even at my uncle's house of hell. Stuck like an idiot in a revolving door, or like some poor sap right outside Chicago at rush hour, or…oh, I don't know. I only have so many "stuck" analogies I can make before they get ridiculously dirty.
Either way you get the picture. Although, possibly not the one you wanted to get.
I was going with the whole "the grass is greener on the other side of the fence where it's not night all day, and raining, and striking lightning, and I'm not getting drug into a small white room to reveal my inner-most feelings every other day" excuse mostly. Anything had looked better than even one more day in the Black Lagoon. The bad had just outweighed the good too much and I had made a decision without thinking it through.
Well, actually, I had thought it through, it just must have been that whatever tiny part of my brain that was still devoted to common sense must have been out of order that day. Because, really? What kind of plan was sneaking out and running away once I got there? How would that even work? Not only were there too many variables, but sneaking out of there itself wouldn't work. Not only had they put me under guard by a watch Chihuahua and his befreckled owner, but I guess I also hadn't known at the time that the school would be something out of an X-Men movie. I probably should have suspected that one, though. What kind of prison doesn't have bars?
That would just be the best—realizing the whole place had an electric fence around it about seven seconds after I got fried into a corndog. I had had enough energy shot through my body for one day, thank you very much. Or, rather, poured on top of my head.
I probably should have been taking a shower to get the coffee out of my hair rather than posing as a particularly analytical squirrel, but, I wasn't gonna lie, I was avoiding the shared restroom as long as possible. Whoever's idea those were needed some serious cleansing, but I doubted it was the kind I could perform.
So, Plan #1 was a bust, obviously. Thus how I had ended up in the witch school in the first place. It was all my own stupid fault and I was getting pretty damn sick of it. And now this.
That picture frame, that picture, surely that wasn't it? There had to be more, but, even if there was, what was the point? It could just be from long ago when tunnels were used for satanic rituals or something that some kleptomaniac teacher found and began hoarding stuff in. People always make things out to be bigger than they actually are and that's what I was doing.
It was time for a reality check. I was stuck at that school where I really didn't want to be for multiple reasons earlier stated. Sure, I was as interested in a good mystery as anyone would be, but, not only would it not last, but it was also looking like some weird chiz I didn't want to get mixed up in. Which was saying a lot considering I was usually a weird-chiz-magnet.
Whether people believed it or not, I didn't have some kind of mental disorder. I didn't need therapy. Maybe I saw things that other people couldn't sometimes, but maybe that was because they had never cared to look.
They always just cast off the weird and the alien as coincidence or a mistake because they don't want to deal with it. One of those "what happens at a bachelor's party stays at a bachelor's party" kind of things. And what really ticked them off was when the stuff they tried to deal with by shoving it into a box in the back of their minds refused to stay shut up for too long. Maybe that was why I bothered people so much and they bothered me, just like opposing scientists or lawyers would have a natural aversion to their counterpart. It was like they were playing an endless game of tug-of-war with me, them either trying to change me or stuff me somewhere they wouldn't have to worry about me causing problems, and me being a total stubborn ass about it because I knew they were just afraid to really look.
And now they finally had me. Had finally found a place to put me where I could be shut up and out of their way as long as possible. The only problem was, I didn't belong there. Then again, I didn't really belong anywhere. Like the colour maroon. Is it red? Is it purple? Brown? What? You could stare at it, frustrated, for however long you wanted. It was still going to come up as a patch of grey.
But, now that I thought about it, did I? What if it was my ultimate mission in life to be at the witch school and solve the great picture frame mystery? What if it really was bigger than it originally seemed? Was there really a point at all in not trying to figure it out? I mean, really, what the hell else did I have to do? Steal spoons from the cafeteria and maybe have about half a tunnel done by the time I graduated? I had to keep myself entertained somehow, lest I went completely insane from boredom and asked Chihuahua to teach me Spanitalianglish.
Which I really didn't feel like doing.
There it was, all picked apart like a toddler's dinner plate, my whole situation. The only question was, what was I going to do about it? What was my next move? Did I have much of a choice with it?
I didn't know why, but part of me felt like I was waiting for something to happen. My conversation with Sparkles had been informative to a certain point, but that hadn't been it. It was like something big was just around the corner and I could almost feel it coming. Like without it, I really couldn't plan anything.
That wasn't exactly a good thing, having weird feelings about stuff. Maybe I was just tired. Or, something was messing with my head.
I sighed, settling back into reality. When I did, I looked around in confusion.
Do you ever have a moment when you're just a million miles away, in your own world, where it's nine in the afternoon all day long, inner-monologuing about picture frames and completely cheesy crap about your place in the universe only to wake up and realize, not only did you totally sound like a pre-teen girl just now, diagnosing a three word conversation between her and some guy, but the world had kept moving even when you didn't?
Because I did. A lot.
The girls who had been under the tree were completely gone and the guys who had been running around the track had been replaced by a co-ed class doing sprints. I sat up quickly and glanced around again. Had the bell rung? It must have and I just hadn't noticed. Man, screw earplugs. Just start thinking existentially and suddenly everything that's going on around you just disappears. Quite a scam, if you ask me.
I glanced over at the ladder behind me and contemplated climbing down and actually going to class for once. Then again, I would have to get down, find my schedule, all the way back up in the room, figure it out and by then there would really be no point, would there…?
Oh well. I would've rather just be a lazy lump in a tree anyway. Maybe I could fall asleep. That would confuse the nightmares since it was day time. Yeah. That sounded like a good idea.
It was slightly warmer outside since sun had come out and maybe sleep would clear my head the insides of which kind of felt like they had been scribbled on by a kindergartener and then put through a rinse in a dishwasher. So, yawning, I leaned back, made myself as comfortable as I could be sitting on a piece of hard wood, and closed my eyes.
I had always liked that moment right before you fell asleep when your mind shut down and you were just hovering in space. The only part that sucked was that, seemingly about seven seconds later, that moment was over and you were waking up. It was especially bad when someone else was the one who woke you up.
"Are you asleep?"
Well, I certainly wasn't anymore. I jolted awake, almost falling out of the tree. I blinked at the bright light invading my corneas for a few seconds, not pleased at all with being woken up. That was seriously the first time I had actually fallen asleep without nightmares in forever. It was a fricking miracle. I didn't even know my subconscious was capable of mercy. It was probably a once in a lifetime thing and would never happen again, knowing my luck. Whoever had done it was seriously going to regret it.
Just as soon as my brain caught up with itself.
I yawned involuntarily and looked down to find the source of the sleep-incinerating disturbance. "Why? Did somebody make it illegal while I was out?"
"No," the slightly frustrated voice came back towards me from the ground. I rubbed at my eyes to clear my vision, trying to get a glimpse of them. "But skipping class as a minor is."
Finally, I saw who it was. Down under the tree, by the ladder, hands on her hips, stood Freckles. I should have guessed or just recognized her voice. I'd heard it enough lately, especially reprimanding me.
Instead of arguing, I just asked, "How'd you find me?"
"I wasn't actually looking," Freckles shrugged, looking much smaller than she usually did, being so far away. "But I did see the ladder when I walked by so I came over to investigate and found this."
Well "this" certainly would have been an interesting thing to find. I didn't have much to say to it. I was tired, so I fell asleep. I had a lot on my mind and gym was stupid and painful, and also wouldn't affect at all me later in life. If anything, it certainly wasn't going to "interest me in life full of exercise" which was the entire point. Sorry, but forcing me to run until I couldn't feel my legs anymore just wasn't doing it for me. So, I didn't answer her.
I heard her sigh, but she didn't yell at me, which was a miracle. Maybe I was still asleep. If I was, though, I had to say, even for me, that was a pretty jacked up dream if I was seeing Freckles in it. I blamed the coffee (again). It was probably giving me hallucinations. That much caffeine just wasn't meant to be jammed into such a concentrated form. It wasn't natural.
I shivered and realized that it was cold outside. Well, with everything else on my mind I hadn't exactly had the time to be Dr. Meteorologist, but it was. The wind had kicked up and my sweatshirt wasn't doing much. Damn sun. Get back to your day job.
My mind was slowly cranking back up to normal speed as it always had to when I woke up. Some people's brains just snapped into action. Mine kind of dragged itself across miles and miles of fuzzy memories and random trains of thought like an obese seal attempting to pull itself through a line of sand dunes before it actually got started up again. The wind blew my hair in my face and I was forced to push it back again. Sometimes I really did ponder getting some barrettes.
Suddenly, I heard a weird creaking noise behind me and looked around. Was the tree branch seriously breaking? Sure, Universe. Call me fat. Why not? Then, I realized it wasn't the Universe, being a jerk like usual, but was in fact the ladder creaking under weight being put upon it.
"Hey," I objected, turning around and frowning. "Don't come up here. It's dangerous."
Not that I really cared, but she didn't need to be falling out of a tree, or really climbing up at all. Like a moron. Like me. Just because I put myself in danger of bodily harm and possible death didn't mean other people should follow my example. In fact, not following my example probably would have been a smarter idea.
Freckles pushed her hair out of her face and rolled her eyes. "Please," she said, continuing to climb up. "I've been around trees my whole life. I'm not a china doll."
Famous last words. She was still making me nervous. I voted to completely ignore her. I probably should have been doing something but I couldn't bring myself to. I also wasn't willing to throw myself with wild abandon out of the tree to avoid whatever was waiting for me when Freckles finally wrangled that wily tree limb that seemed to be giving her trouble. Well, call me lazy and label me an American. I wasn't in the mood to dislocate a rotator cuff, though that certainly would've gotten my mind off of things.
The branch I was sitting on shook as Freckles grabbed onto it, swung her leg over, and pulled herself up with surprising ease. She let out a breath and crawled over to me, not seeming to mind the height too much. Dammit, if she broke that branch and we lived, I was going to give her a serious lesson on tree safety. "Watch it!" I cried when she almost slipped and caught her balance at the last second.
Jeezum, she was going to give me a heart attack. The whole thing was reminding me of an incident that had happened a long time ago when I was younger and my brother and I had a climbing contest. And he had almost died. I ran a hand through my hair and scooted closer to the tree trunk.
She gave me a weird look as she settled down next to me, leaving at least a tolerable bit of space. I drew my eyebrows down. "What?" I demanded. If she was just going to stare at me the whole time I probably would take my chances with the ground and my body having a joyous reunion since the last time they'd met up.
"I don't think I've ever actually seen you worried about something or someone before," she shrugged. "It was just weird."
"You've known me for all of one and a half days," I pointed out, irritated. "I don't think you should be judging."
I thought she might argue but she just hummed a noise of indifference and said, "Fair enough. Nice to know at least."
"That you're not some robot incapable of human emotion," she said, then smiled a little. "Or just a huge jerkbag."
I looked over sideways at her. Who was she and what type of amiable alien had taken over her body? She was acting completely different. "Aren't you going to lecture me?" I asked, probably just trying to convince myself the world hadn't gone crazy while I was out.
She laced and unlaced her fingers, looking down at them. "You're not going to listen to me, are you?" she asked.
I narrowed my eyes at her. What was she playing at? "Probably not," I admitted. "What suddenly untwisted your panties?"
She let out a snort of a laugh and gave me a questioning look. "Did you just say that out loud?"
I shrugged. I didn't get what peoples' big deal was with the whole "oh, he said 'panties'", cue giggle-snort reaction anyway. It was a just a word. Yeah, it wasn't the most delicate phrasing but I wasn't apologizing. "My lips moved and sound came out," I said. "Why are you sitting in trees with criminals like me rather than in class anyway?" Anything to get her to leave faster, apparently.
"Lunch break," she said. "I wasn't too hungry so I went for a walk. Anyway, I just figured I should attempt to change my strategy with you since I'm supposed to be your mentor and guide and you aren't responding very well so far."
"It must be killing you not to be telling me off at the moment then," I said. I wondered how long it would take her to realize I didn't respond to anything, if I didn't want to. Maybe I could just give her Nancy's number and save her some time. I leaned my head against the tree's trunk.
She didn't say anything, just pursed her lips. "A little," she said. "Since I don't really see what sitting in a tree has to do with anything. Then again, most of what you've done since you got here hasn't made much sense to me, so I guess I shouldn't be that surprised. But yelling at you isn't going to help and since Mr. Holloway assured me that what you do won't affect me at all, not to mention I've noticed you don't exactly respond well to admonishment, I'm going to resist."
At least she wasn't completely stupid. It was still weird. She had an angle, I was sure of it. She wouldn't drop her mommy act that quickly, even if her beloved leader had told her me being a general walking magnet for trouble would be of no consequence to her after she had taken so much pride in it. So, what was it?
Suddenly, I had an idea. An extremely tiresome, boring, uncreative idea. It wasn't even that interesting of plan. In fact, it was a blatantly obvious plan, like trying to hide your cell phone in your back pocket obvious. We see it, people, we're not that stupid. At least try. "So," I said. She'd probably be terribly surprised I'd figured out her master plan. Again. "Go on."
"What?" she blinked, looking confused. "With what?"
"You're trying to lull me into a false sense of security by being my 'friend' so you can interrogate me casually and attempt to find some key that will unlock my heart and lead me to confess all my inner torment to you," I monotoned. Oldest trick in the book. Like I hadn't had that one tried on me before. "Please. I've been in the whole 'it's okay, AJ, we just want to help you' situation one too many times to fall for that one."
Freckles flushed and looked down at her hands. She was silent for a few seconds before she spoke. "I didn't do it because I thought you were too stupid to figure it out. I knew it was kind of obvious, but I figured I could at least try. Narrow down some of the options," she mumbled, shrugging a little. "Sorry."
I looked up at the curtain of leaves above us. It wouldn't be too long before they started changing colour and falling. "Whatever," I said. "Don't apologize, but I should probably tell you that none of the old tricks are going to work. Save you some time." And me too, I added in my head. If she was going to try, she could at least attempt to be creative. If I was nice I'd drop by a list of phone numbers of the people who'd held her position in the past so she could ring them up, maybe get a reality check that nothing had worked on me yet and never would. "I figured you wouldn't drop your guide thing that easily."
She nodded, pulling on an orange string attached to her left pinky until it came loose. A few seconds later, she let it drop. The wind caught it before it hit the ground and it flew out of sight. I watched, still confused about it but too stubborn to ask. I was still scared it was some cult sign: Future Crazy Cat Women of America or something. Not that I could talk, since I owned a cat, but if that was anything to go off of, they didn't like me very much. So, I didn't ask.
"So that man, Bill," she suddenly broke the silence again. The kids on the track trudged past, coughing and panting on their one-minute walking break. "If he's not your dad, is he related to you at all?"
I really must have had "this guy has a stereotypically tragic backstory, please feel free to bother him about it" written in neon Sharpie on my forehead. Had she no shame? I sighed. Best to throw her a little bit of something-something to keep her satisfied for a while rather than deal with constant pestering. "He's not related to me," I said, putting my face in my hand and leaning my elbow against the tree trunk.
She looked surprised that I had given her a straight answer but just nodded. "So…er…who is he then? A family friend or something?" she asked, sounding nervous that I might shove her out of tree at any second if she asked the wrong question.
Screw it. "Bill is a social worker," I told her. "He doesn't have any attachment to my family other than that." Then I moved my elbow because it was starting to hurt.
"Oh," she said. "Did you find out about this school through him?"
It was probably smart of her to stay on the subject of Bill. It wasn't too dangerous. "Yes," I said. It wasn't that much of a lie, anyway. My Friend Bill had told Nancy who had told me, so it had kind of started with him.
At the time, he had probably thought he was doing me a favour, knowing how miserable I had been where I was, so it wasn't entirely his fault, but it still irritated me a little that he had gone and jabbered it to everyone instead of just talking to me about it first. I was relatively sure my uncle had hidden cameras placed around the house so he probably would have found out about it soon enough anyway, but it still might have given me a chance to think it through a while and make a smarter decision.
Dammit, what was with that feeling though? Dear mind, you can't tell the future. Please get help. Sincerely, the poor guy that's stuck with you for the rest of his life. There's a lot more time for you break down in the future, trust me. Until then, we really need to work on your susceptibility to obnoxious spirits.
It just felt like something was missing. I was missing something and it was obvious, but I couldn't figure out what it was. And it was driving me up a wall on the inside. Maybe it was a good thing that Freckles was there to distract me with her string of pointless, tedious questions.
"Is Bill the one who's in charge you?" she asked, venturing into riskier territory.
"He probably thinks he is," I answered vaguely, showing her blatantly that the deeper in she burrowed, the less the answers she was going to get. She needed to watch where she was stepping. I had a feeling she was trying to circle around to the subject of my parents.
"Does he have a last name?" she asked next, throwing me for a loop.
I looked at her strangely. "Yeah," I said. "But what's that got to do with anything?" Not that I could actually remember what it was but still.
"I dunno," she said, pursing her lips a little. "Nothing, I guess. It just popped into my head that's it's weird you call him Bill and not Mr. Something-or-other."
"How long is your lunch?" I asked, not entirely irritated but not wanting her to go too far either.
"Am I boring you?" she asked, a little drily. "I guess that's better than just making you angry." A few seconds later she added, "It's about ten more minutes, give or take."
"Then what?" I asked, mainly to keep the conversation going and to keep myself distracted.
"That's what I should be asking you," she frowned. "Why are you sitting in a tree rather than going to class?"
Either I had successfully distracted her or she had just got off subject on her own, it seemed, not that I cared which one it was. I would take what I could get. Her question was valid. I couldn't sit in a tree and hide forever as much of a better idea as that sounded compared to going to class, until I could think of something better to do.
I was so distraught I was agreeing with Freckles. Someone please slap me.
"I didn't feel like wasting my time with tedious physical activities," I said, stretching my arms up. I wouldn't recommend sitting on a hard wooden branch for long periods of time. It was really starting to become uncomfortable.
"So you climbed up a tree using a rickety old ladder instead of just staying in your room where no one would find you and you would be more comfortable?" she asked, raising her eyebrows high.
Well, now that she said it out loud it did sound kind of stupid, but a lot of stuff sounded worse out loud. I had never said it was a plan anyway. It was just a whim. Saw a ladder. Climbed a tree. It wasn't rocket science. There wasn't some big, existential reason, but she seemed to think there was. "Not everything I do has some greater meaning that connects to my emotions, believe it or not," I said grumpily.
"Still though, it seems like way too much effort to do something that pointless," she cocked her head a little.
It was way too much work, but that was probably the reason I had done it in the first place. "I enjoy torturing myself," I mumbled, feeling tired again. Either that or my mind had had some, "Practically impossible-to-get-to ladder, huh? Practically-impossible-to-climb tree, huh? Challenge accepted" reaction for no apparent reason. I don't know. How was I supposed to know why I did things?
She gave me a worried look before realizing I was just joking. Mostly. She shook her head. "The ways of your mind are clearly a mystery to me," she whispered. That wasn't anything new. AJ's mind: baffling logical people since the day he could talk. "But, ignoring the reasoning for it, you can't just sit up here. Do you have your schedule with you? I can show you where to go next, at least."
So, I dug my schedule out of my pocket (what do you know? I was smarter than I had thought I was—or dumber—for putting it there) and handed it to her, despite my fear she would memorize it and then proceed to stalk me and make sure I was going where I was supposed to go. She unfolded it and looked at for a few minutes. The gym teacher blew the whistle and the kids running began walking back towards the buildings and off the track. I was starting to really get cold. The temperature had to be dropping.
Maybe some mindless learning of stuff I would never use would be good for me. It seemed like stuff had been all messed up lately. More so than usual. I didn't know what had triggered it, exactly, but I was definitely sick of it. Like eating too much cake and then jumping on a trampoline. Not that I'd ever done that before.
"Here," Freckles finally said, bumping my shoulder and bringing back my attention. "Look. See how these two line up across from each other with the corresponding number? That's how it's organized." She pointed as she talked.
"That's just stupid," I argued. "Why would you not just put them next to each other?" Probably just to confuse people. Maybe it was one of those, "It depends on how your mind is railed" kind of things where only half the people could figure it out. Either that or I wasn't used to reading schedules.
Freckles shrugged. "I don't know. You have math next," she tapped the paper where it said it. "You can probably tell from there. The letters are the buildings and the numbers in the third column are the room number. Does that make sense?"
Of course it didn't make sense. It looked like a drunk middle schooler had designed it, but it had a pattern to it, as weird as it was. Had they really expected me to stare at it long enough to figure that out? Yet another attempt to cause me dyslexia, foiled. "Nope," I said, taking the paper back and refolding it into a squarish-rectangle so it would fit in my pocket. "But I'll manage."
She shook her head at me, looking doubtful, but didn't say anything, which was a relief. "If I leave you alone and climb down will you follow me or will you stay up in this tree?" she asked, pulling at a purple string on her finger.
"I'll come down." If I didn't, I would probably never be able to feel my ass again. Not the biggest tragedy in the world, I admit, but it'd be nice to know that I was bleeding to death from sitting on a nail rather than just letting it happen, on the off occasion it did. I stuffed the schedule back in my pocket as she began to carefully climb down. I really hoped I could still walk. I had a feeling it would like getting out of a car after a really long drive: awful yet relieving at the same time.
Something was totally messing with me, I had decided, and I wouldn't stand for just sitting around, going to classes, for long, but until I could think of something better, what else could I do? I climbed down after her, which actually turned out to be more dangerous than climbing up, something I hadn't thought possible, but eventually I did it.
Chelsea brushed her hair out of her eyes, and smiled a little. "See you later," she said, looking genial, and then walked off.
She was acting still weird. She was probably just celebrating her supposed victory at getting me to give her a normal answer that made sense. Well, whatever floated her root beer. Maybe she would at least leave me alone for a while. If only I could say the same of Chihuahua. I looked over at the ladder, wondering what the heck to do with it.
In the end, I drug it into plain sight and left a note that said, "Warning: Please do not feed the ladder." I was sure the janitor would find it eventually. If he didn't find it, at least the kids stuck in gym would have something interesting to hurdle. It would break the monotony.
With that, I went walking off back towards the building to act the part of the well-behaving schoolboy for the day. Yay. There was a convenient map on the back of my schedule which was pretty much the only convenient thing about it. Forcing myself not to think about stuff was like trying to stuff a Saint Bernard into a toddler's sock, but I was managing it. Sort of.
I rejoined the crowd back within the courtyard area, realizing about halfway through that I needed to go get my book from my room which I had ever so intelligently left there. Of course. I sighed and turned on my heel, walking right back down the same area I just had. It was pretty empty, but it wasn't a main path, so I wasn't surprised.
It was like they had added a really big overhang to the building, basically, putting a stone cover over a large area in front of the building and then adding big pillars to hold it up. It would be a good refuge if a rogue rainstorm struck but otherwise didn't really save anyone any time. That was why it was a little weird when I saw movement.
I glanced around, but there was just me alone in the covered area. That I could see at least. I kept walking, picking my way over the cracks in the sidewalk, keeping my guard up, but I didn't see anything else. It was definitely getting colder. Damn bipolar weather.
Obviously pissed at not being able to think about what it wanted, my mind drifted to thoughts of Katie and Charlie, back at my uncle's house. I hoped they were both doing okay. I figured Katie would survive, but Charlie was questionable, especially if she wasn't careful and let him get out. That cat was always hankering to escape my room. I also wondered when I would see them again.
I was almost out of the area when something caught my eye again. It was off to the side, but there was definitely movement and it wasn't on the ground. I looked to my left. Bird? That was what I needed. To be attacked by birds. Ah, yes. That would definitely make the day complete.
I turned in a full circle, then saw it again. Yes, I was right. Something was completely messing with me and I had absolutely nothing on me with which to defend myself. Awesome. I stayed still for a minute, just looking around before I saw it a fourth time—a flash of silvery-white iridescence that flew just in the edge of my periphery.
My eyebrows pulled down. I was actually pretty unhappy with myself for having nothing on me besides a piece of paper. What was I going to do? Give it a paper cut? Yeah, that would totally work. "Show yourself," I said firmly.
The thing said nothing back but flickered in and out of my line of sight again. It was totally teasing me and I wasn't having it. I frowned. I couldn't just leave it there. My guess? Old school equals a lot of stuff hanging around where it shouldn't. It was weird for anything to be out in the daytime. It wasn't weird that I could only see a small part of it or that I wasn't responding. I didn't even know if it could understand me.
"What's your business here?" I tried again.
Another glimpse of it and it was gone. To screw with me? Great. I had class to go to, believe it or not, little thing, so if you could just float off back to wherever you came from that would be just peachy. I thought of my stuff in the room and sighed internally. If I was an otherworldly force, I probably wouldn't listen to an unarmed teenage human boy with slightly freaky hair either. Unless it had an allergy to paper, I was pretty much completely vulnerable.
I looked around again. I probably should have just kept walking, so, I did. Without my stuff, I couldn't do anything, as much as I hated to just leave it be. Some exorcist I was. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't kill anyone until I can remove you later," I called as an afterthought before I started walking again.
The thing didn't seem to want to "show" itself again. Typical. At least that was something. The air just seemed to get colder and colder. The crowd outside was thinning. I needed to get going. I walked faster and was almost back outside when I heard something that made me stop in my tracks.
"Wait," a voice called from behind me, soft and hardly there, like the wind. "What's your name?"
I was frozen. Slowly, I turned around, reaching up to hold onto my cross. It was true, I had that, but it wasn't much. When I completed my spin I could hardly believe my eyes. Standing, or rather levitating before me was a fully outlined and visible form. Her long dress floated around her, drifting like she was in water. Her long, pinned-up hair did the same.
Slowly, she smiled, looking nervous and raising a hand in a wave. "Hello," she said. "I'm Chrysantha."