After School

02 - Conspiracy!

I woke up the next morning a bit irritated. I'd had a dream about broccoli or something or another and opened my eyes to Kahlyn's foot in my face. She'd also managed to steal my pillow at some point too, which would explain the burgeoning headache I could feel at the base of my skull.

Kahlyn was my brother's girlfriend, and she slept over a lot, which was something he loved to brag to his friends about. The catch was, she slept in my bed, with me. This was a major detail he failed to mention to his probably-stoned-beyond-comprehension-anyway buddies, which led people to think that my parents were really lax, which they weren't. The only reason she stayed over so much was because she was from an over-filled foster care family that had a hard time keeping track of their kids.

For a few minutes I just sat on my bed, blinking away the sleepy stupor, waiting for my motor skills to kick back in. Once they did I yawned, stretched, and woke Kahlyn before hurrying off to the bathroom.

It took about ten minutes - give or take - for me to get ready for school, which Mom always balked at for reasons unknown. Or maybe not so unknown. She wanted me to start wearing makeup. She thought I'd feel better about myself or something - gain more confidence. I didn't have the heart to tell her I'd been trying to wear it for the past two years, but kept having to scrape it off before I even got out of the bathroom, since I had the hand-eye coordination of a newborn kitten and didn't feel like going to school looking like a panda.

"Mimi, honey, why don't you wear a tank-top? It's way too hot for sleeves," she told me as I entered the kitchen.

"The school has air conditioning," I mumbled, glancing at Rolf, who sat at the table with two bowls of cereal and a plate of toast. I wasn't sure what I hated more - my thunder thighs or my man-shoulders. There was no way in hell I'd traipse around the school flashing these ape joints at everyone. But if I told that to Mom, she'd just tell me how cute they were and give me a hug and end up calling half of our family and have them tell me how cute my goddamn shoulders were. So naturally, I wasn't going to tell her.

Opening the fridge, I grabbed the jug of orange juice and poured myself a glass.

"If you see the new neighbors in the hall, introduce yourself and invite them over for dinner," she said as she leaned against the counter. My mood immediately plummeted at the mention of the new neighbors. On top of my weird dreams and wrestling the sheets away from Kahlyn, the sound of people moving in next door had kept me up most of the night.

"Okay," I said with a nod as I swiped a couple of wrapped Pop-Tarts from the cupboard. I stuffed them into my backpack so that I could eat them during that golden time between the entrance bell and first period. I used to eat during the walk to school, but I tended to trip and choke and all sorts of other fun stuff, so I'd resorted to waiting until I was seated somewhere.

"Is Kahlyn up?" Rolf asked through a mouthful of Cookie Crisp. It was nasty, so I averted my eyes and nodded again before taking a drink of my orange juice.

"Grab a paper on your way home, if you can," Mom said as I wrestled my zipper shut.

"Okay," I replied, finally getting my backpack closed. We couldn't have the daily newspaper delivered to our building anymore because the paperboy had somehow pissed off Ferd and ended up with his bike up the oak tree in the front yard.

Mom proceeded to douse me with her own special brand of affection before letting me squeeze out of the apartment and onto the walkway. I stepped out into the morning air and pulled the door shut behind me, looking towards the parking lot. The white midsize was still there, shining like a pearl. I wondered how long it would be before either Mom or Ferd managed to scare this poor, unsuspecting family away.

I took a few steps down the walkway and paused at the next door after ours. My brilliant deduction skills told me that this was where the newbies had moved into. I gathered this from not only all the racket they'd made last night, but also the fact that it was the only apartment in our building that wasn't already rented out. Really, I had this whole spying, detective-work thing in the bag. Now I'd have something to tell the career counselor at school the next time he called me down to his office to nag at me, which seemed to be one of his favorite pastimes as of late.

I could hear voices carrying on from inside. Two: a woman's and a man's. Maybe a third. Curious, I stepped closer to the door, hovering my ear near it in the way not-so-subtle eavesdroppers did in movies. For a moment, I held my breath and focus solely on listening. I just wanted to catch a snatch of conversation here or there. Just to see what kind of people they were, you know?

The more I listened, the more I realized they weren't speaking English. This made me only listen harder, as if I'd suddenly gained the ability to discern and identify foreign languages. And translate, to boot. Frankly, I could barely tell Spanish from French. And this didn't sound much like either. It was probably Chinese or something, since they were Asian.

"What're you doing?" a voice asked from beside me and I flinched. I glanced up to see Ferd standing a few feet off, giving me a weird look as he lit a cigarette.

"Nothing," I insisted, peeling myself away from the door. I adjusted the backpack strap at my shoulder and regarded him a moment.

He slipped the lighter into his pocket and leaned against the railing at the end of the walkway, where it melted into the stairway; his eyes flitted over me disinterestedly before he started picking at his fingernails, and I hoped he would fall backwards and land in the dumpster two stories below. "Okay."

And the entirety Clifford High School's population was scared of this guy? Yeah, totally understandable.

So I continued on my merry little way, past him and through the cloud of smoke that perpetually followed him around, and down the stairs, to the sidewalk, where cracks and crumbled cement threatened to trip unsuspecting amblers. The grass to either side was wet with dew, I noted duly, since there was nothing more interesting to look at or even think about during the eleven-minute walk from our apartment building to my school.

This was where I usually let my imagination run wild. I would dream up new ways of stalking Isaac, and reminisce about past hunts that had went particularly well. Like last week, for example. I'd been loitering in the hall while he was using the bathroom. He'd come out quicker than I'd expected though, and so he'd bumped into me when I was trying to sneak a peek inside to make sure he hadn't slipped and hit his head on a urinal or something. He'd thought running into me was his fault, and he'd apologized, and flashed that golden smile that left me blinded and dazed and maybe just a little bit euphoric for a good ten minutes.

It had been magical. Just thinking about it now made me feel all warm and fuzzy and a little nauseated. Too bad that Amber had already sunk her fangs into him. I still wasn't quite sure how I'd drive her away, but I knew I had to go about it discreetly, or else I'd blow my own chances. If that happened, I might as well just let Kahlyn smother me with a pillow one of these nights.

A sneeze jarred me out of my thoughts, and suddenly, I caught the very distinctive stench of Ferd's cigarettes on my persons. Which was disgusting. And all just from walking by him.

What a loser, I thought to myself, tightening my hands on my bag's straps as I took in a deep breath. I couldn't wait for him to go to jail, or at least get evicted from the apartment complex. The past three months had already been a little nicer, since he'd been expelled from school last February for some mysterious reason. It had done wonders for his already notorious rep. I was just glad I didn't have to worry about his idiocy infecting the rest of the student population anymore.

It seemed like a millennia ago - and perhaps a lobotomy, too - but I could actually still recall a time when he, my brother, and I used to walk to school together. It usually ended in the two of them running off ahead and completely ditching me.

But that was years ago. Now, he was a drop-out, and a smelly one at that.

I waited at the corner of an intersection, where a lanky crossing-guard stood with her handy-dandy "stop" sign, using it to scratch her back. There was no one else waiting to cross, so I kept a few feet away from her, you know, so that she wouldn't try to start a conversation with me or anything. The last thing I needed was more friends.

A couple minutes passed and cars from the jam-packed main street slowly chugged on by, like snails caught in molasses. Finally, the light turned red and the crossing guard plodded onto the crosswalk. I followed after, eyes on my shoes, staring at the faded white strips over asphalt.

I crossed without getting hit or tripping, which was always nice, and made it to the opposite side, where a lot of other students were chatting and tittering like overexcited four-year-olds as they took their grand old time getting to school. They walked in one big mass, like a swarm of ants, and so I opted to walk on the shoulder of the road in order to get past them. A car nearly took off my foot in the process, but I figured even if it had, it would've been worth it.

The entrance bell hadn't rung yet by the time I reached school, so I found Birdie and Tara waiting outside by one of the dolphin statues on the front lawn. The statues were some of the fugliest things I'd ever seen, but I was glad they beat out 'giant shrimp' on the ballot last year.

Tara's hands were tangled up in hot pink yarn and she thrust them towards me as I reached the two of them. Her flaming red hair was tied into pigtails today, which was a step up from yesterday's Minnie Mouse buns.

"Mimi, I can't remember how to do Cat's Cradle," she said with a miserable look on her face. There were moments when I secretly wished that we weren't related. This was one of them. There was probably going to be several more before the day was over.

"I don't remember either," I admitted after a moment - and it was the truth, I seriously couldn't remember. I hadn't done string games since kindergarten. It hadn't even occurred to me. So that raised the question: What had possessed her to try it now?

"I told you she wouldn't," Birdie said with a sigh, leaning back against a statue.

Now Tara looked like she was about to cry. I scratched the back of my calf with my foot and shot a glance towards the school, just so I didn't have to watch her burst into tears. What the heck did she have to be sad about, anyway? How about she trades live with me? Then she'd have something to cry about.

She was pretty much the antithesis of Birdie, both in body and mind. Whereas Birdie could hide behind a flagpole and not be found for hours, Tara had one of those figures that could make a nun's getup look trashy. Between her natural voluptuousness and Birdie's it's-in-the-genes rail thin figure, I was the odd man out. I would've killed to have either of their bodies, but instead I was left with this shapeless tomboy physique, complete with muscular thighs due to all those years playing soccer and my creepy shoulders, inherited from a very distant ancestor, I guessed. Mom had always said they were adorable, but even the ugliest of kids had moms who thought they were the best looking thing ever, so I knew I couldn't trust her words.

We stood there in silence for a moment, and I couldn't help but feel like I was forgetting something. Like there was something I'd been planning to tell them. But I couldn't remember what.

So, as usual, the three of us killed time talking idly about mundane things, like homework and teachers and how bitchy the bitchy girls were until the bell rang.

I ended up in detention during my free period because someone from my table was being noisy during a test and wouldn't own up to it. It would've been a good time to work on my English Lit. paper, but my pen had a drooling problem and I hadn't brought anything else to write with. So instead I cracked open my tattered copy of 1984, which did nothing but remind me of Isaac - as all books seemed to, these days - and with about fives minutes left in the period, I started daydreaming again.

The bell shrilled and I was still half lost in lala-land as my other three detainees gathered their things and left. I shoved my book and homework into my backpack and slunk out of the room.

Tara and Birdie had already secured a seat at one of the picnic tables outside by the time I'd gotten my lunch from the cafeteria. The kid in line before me had taken the last slice of pizza, so I was blessed with a lovingly made ham and cheese sandwich that the lunch lady had on standby. The bread looked kind of sketch, but I decided I'd chance it anyway, since I was pretty hungry.

"Have you guys seen the new Chinese kid?" were the first words out of Tara's mouth as I sat down across from her. Now I remembered what I'd forgot to mention to them this morning.

"He can't be Chinese," Birdie said, not looking up from the table as she cracked open her Mountain Dew. "Did you see his face? That's not Chinese bone structure."

How she knew these things, I had no idea.

I wondered if it was the same kid that moved in next door. It couldn't be; he looked too young to be in high school. I decided not to bring it up, so as not to stir up confusion.

"He's a junior," Tara supplied, leaning back a little so that Birdie could snatch the pepperonis off her pizza.

"Is he?" I muttered impassively as I took a bite of my sandwich after picking off a few tiny spots of mold. It crunched in one of those unpleasant ways. The whole world seemed like it was against me today. What was with that? Weren't there plenty of other people - much more evil people, at that - that deserved some punishment or divine retribution or karma or whatever the heck we were supposed to call it? Why pick on me? Couldn't they see I was already having a rough day as it was? Whoever "they" were.

I continued my conspiratorial line of thinking as I ate, not really listening to whatever Birdie and Tara were talking about. Birdie was so much more patient than I was - I usually started tuning Tara out by the third big gulp of breath she took when she was going off on another one of her endless tangents.

"I'm going to your house after school, Mimi," said Tara suddenly, catching my attention only when she said my name. I peered up at her from my lunch and found she was beaming. "I already cleared it with my mom."

Coming over to my house was just an excuse to hang out Rolf's window and try to get a peek at Ferd shirtless. I shrugged, because I was used to it by now. "Okay."

"We can work on our chemistry homework," she added after a moment, like I wasn't already on to her.

"Okay," I said again, catching the mischievous look she was firing my way, as if this was somehow something I was supposed to be looking forward to, too. She was crazy.

Birdie gave us both a placid look. "We don't have any chemistry homework today."

Tara choked down whatever she'd been chowing on, her eyebrows arched like little rainbows. "Did I say chemistry? I meant trig."

And so the conspiracy continued.

Yeah. This was going to be fun.