I sit at the dining table, surrounded by the varying shades of blue and glass and metal. My hands are folded on the fragile glass tabletop. I feel myself slouching in the hopes of becoming invisible as my parents circle me.
"A month!" Mom snarls shrilly.
Mom is still in her business suit, even though it has been an hour since she returned from work. She looks great in her fury. I have to give her that. She hasn't even twitched a strand of that white mane out of its carefully crafted style.
"What in God's name possessed you to skip school that long?"
I shake my head side to side, not meeting her eyes. An act like that would be comparable to challenging a big cat. I know because I did it once, and I lost.
She leaps for me, ripping the hood off my head. "Take this damn thing off! Now look at me!"
I dutifully look into her terrifying face. Her features are much like dad's, slightly more streamlined, more feminine, but the prominent cheekbones, pointed ears, and sunken eyes are characteristic of all sharkmues.
"Did you really think you were going to get away with this?" When I hesitate, she growls, "Answer my question, Michael!"
"No," I mumble.
"I was scared," I whine, meeting her gaze only to drop mine a moment later – unable to stand the daggers flashing in her silver-grey eyes.
"Jeez, Mom, don't you think they're going to notice?" I cry. "I can't pass for human anymore! They would have to be a school full of the blind for me to pull the rest of the year off!"
I watch, cringing as she flings both clawed hands in the air and storms off, muttering to Dad that he had better do something about "his son." I love it when my parents suddenly disown me because they're mad.
"You're not quitting." The delivery of those three words is deliberate, soft. I hear that edge of rage sound that always sends shivers up my spine.
"Not you, too!" I snap, wondering somewhere down inside where I got the cajones to even think of saying that to him. I rise from my chair, barely restraining the urge to lay a fist into the table, knowing I would easily shatter it. "Mr. Matthews hinted he wants to make me a desegregation poster child! Now you're suggesting it too? How am I suddenly a cause? Damn it, Dad!"
He straightens to his full seventy-two-inch height, one brow ridge hitching up over a yellow gray orb. His arms cross over his chest.
"Sit down," he hisses.
I plop into my just vacated chair as if someone took a bat to my knees, and I find that my entire body is shaking. I can't tell whether it is the anger at being a pawn, or the fright at hearing that maniac tone in his controlled voice.
"You're not the only person in this house who's had to make a tough decision in their lives, Michael." He seats himself at my left elbow, his gaze deadly but his voice still smooth. He leans forward. "Don't even pretend to think that you've got it rough, mister."
I watch, frozen, as Dad opens his mouth, exposing his saw edged teeth in the process, but then shuts it, and straightens. I wonder momentarily what he'd been about to tell me.
After a moment he moves in another direction. "I want you to stay in that school because you're worth the education. You know gemue schools pale in comparison to where you're at." A grimace crosses his stretched mouth, before he adds, "Don't you punk out like I tried to do."
He runs a hand through his cropped hair a moment as if debating whether he should say more. Finally, he draws a breath and looks me dead in the face. The action is more than enough to get my attention. "When I was your age, I was throwing my life down a toilet. And it started with exactly this kind of behavior."
I look at my Dad like he's abruptly grown horns. No, wait, like he's human again – that would be odder. I thought he had told me everything about his life.
I guess even Dad has his secrets.
"You want to know where I ended up?"
I nod tersely, my eyes wide, and my jaw hanging slack. Actually I don't want to hear this, but refusal will only make the lecture worse. He would tell me no matter what.
"On life support." The tension leaves his body. His muscles go slack as he leans on one balled fist. The swing in mood throws me for a complete loop. In an off-handed way, he adds, "You ever get that deep, I will disown you like my mother should have disowned me."
Licking my lips, I ask meekly, "How deep is that?"
"Robbery, vandalism, murder."
He is so matter-of-fact about the statement that I throw myself back into my seat. I am astonished and chilled by those simple phrases. "What?"
Dad's lips press together so hard that they start to wrinkle above and below the line of his mouth. "What, you thought merc'ing was saintly? Don't think my streak started there."
"Well no, but…" I'm at a loss for words.
"I should have done time, Michael. My dad got me out of it – said my hospital bed confession was coerced – got the case thrown out. I got very, very lucky, and then I got smart." He shakes his head. "Don't go that direction. It's all I ask."
"No, never." That had by no means been my intention, but Dad's added tidbit of history only nails the coffin shut on the proposition.
Drawing a deep breath, he rises from the chair. I can't help but meet his gaze all the way to his feet. I look away only as Dad starts walking. Yet he halts, gripping my closest shoulder. As I peer into Dad's face, he shoots me a crooked, halfhearted grin, squeezing a little harder before saying, "Go back to school. We'll get through this… you'll get through this. It's not the end of the world. Trust me"
Dad must have read my thought about ditching again, or maybe that was mom, because this morning as I wait for the transport, so does he. He's not obvious. He's never insisted my friends know the family secret, understanding what it would do for my tentative status in school. He's put off going to work, just to make sure I get my butt on the bus.
I sigh heavily as the transport pulls noisily to a stop at the other end of the long drive between home and the street. Feeling heavy, I tromp on board, tweaking my hood down further as I see Mandy sitting near the front. Trisha, and a couple other friends are gaggled in the middle of the bus. I grumble a greeting as I trudge past them and throw myself into the aft most seat in the vehicle. I am forced to shift as the backpack pressing into my spine becomes more and more uncomfortable. I lift it over my lap and set it next to me on the long bench.
Trisha is quick, swiftly seated beside me and bouncing as if she is the happiest thing in the world. I don't look up. She started throwing herself at me back in eighth grade, finally at the end of the year, despite Mandy's advice to the contrary, I gave in and agreed to be her 'boyfriend.'
Trisha is taller than me by a good three inches, and thin. It's obvious she's a model wannabe, and probably has the eating disorders to go with it. Trisha's hair is curly normally, but she doesn't like it that way, so she spends three hours a day straightening the brunette length until it hangs like cooked straw around her narrow face. Her eyes have to be the most attractive feature on her, a sea blue: the kind where the water is thinly covering a coral beach.
I ask myself again why I agreed to date Trisha. She's a girl that technically should be out of my league. I considered myself popular before all the changes came about, but my reputation has nothing on hers. She has the largest circle of friends that I have ever seen.
My only reason – and it's more of an excuse – is that it was a heady thing to have the most popular girl in school throwing herself at me. The proposition was one that had a huge amount of appeal.
At the time.
Since we became official, some of that glitter has given way to tarnish. Perhaps the changes in the past several months have affected me not only physically, but mentally as well. I just don't seem to gel well with Trisha, and my irritation with her seems to grow steadily day to day. Yet, I haven't worked up the nerve to break it off.
She leans into me, and I can feel one ample breast pressed against my shoulder. My eyes wander to Mandy, who happens to be watching the whole thing and looking like she is trying to find an opportunity to speak with me. For some reason, I want to avoid that conversation at all costs.
"Good morning, Michael," Trisha purrs in my ear. The words are like syrup, and they begin to make my skin crawl.
"Mornin'," I mumble, tensing as her hand is tracing up my leg from the knee. I pin it down before it strays too far.
Maybe it is just Dad's attitude about teens and sex bleeding through, but she seems much too easy for being so young. Her eagerness to grow up only reminds me of how behind the power curve I am in the hormone department.
I hear her huff of disappointment at the abrupt stop to her game. She is not quite ready to give up, though, and leaning in further, she whispers, "I wanted to give you my personal welcome back."
"Thanks," I answer stiffly. She drapes her arm over my shoulders and lays her head on the nearest.
Shoot me now!
My relief is nearly overwhelming when she loses interest in trying to seduce me. She moves toward the front of the bus where more of her girlfriends are sitting. I swear they are high-fiving her for boiling my blood like that.
I am not to be so easily dropped from Mandy's radar. She swoops in for the kill as soon as Trisha is occupied in her daily dose of gossip. Her approach to me is much less exuberant, rather like it is a chore for her to come back here. She gives me some breathing room as she sits sheepishly.
I catch out of the corner of my eye as she pulls her lower lip into her teeth. She tucks one lock of her curly brown hair behind her ear. The gesture is one that gives observers the false impression that she is shy. That assessment couldn't be further from the truth.
The rest of the length is gathered into a fluffy ponytail that bobs and swings with the movement of the bus. It exposes her round face and the small hoop earrings in the lobes of her ears.
"Whatup?" I answer without feeling.
She is so Plain Jane compared to Trisha. She never wears make up, and she dresses very conservatively next to most of our peers. She has always been rather reserved and quiet – at least until she gets to know a person. Still, she can't be considered flamboyant. She and I "dated" back in the later part of seventh grade and most of eighth. Back in junior high, dating consisted of doing a lot of hanging out – that was about it. So we never really broke up per say, we just realized that we weren't really truly dating.
We're best friends.
I've never felt like there was something I couldn't tell her. Well… except for the current circumstances. I hadn't told her that one. Wait, I did tell her, yesterday, just not in so many words.
My gut squirrels at the thought that she knows my secret. At what she might do with that secret – then I'm mad at myself for not trusting her.
"Are you… I heard you got sick yesterday. Are you feeling better?" She starts with a safe question – how refreshing. I know she is merely circling to find the weak point, before performing her infamous "I'm your friend, but…" attack on me.
"I'm fine." I look toward the front of the bus, wishing for the return of Queen Vapid. My head droops again, and I start playing with my nails through the sweatshirt material. "It was… anxiety."
"Sorry for… well for…" She goes silent for long moments before speaking again, "For telling them it was you."
I thought it might have been her. I shrug. "No big."
She lays a hand on my fidgeting fingers, stilling them with her touch. "Tell me what happened."
I whip my head her direction, the one word falling from my lips much too harshly. "No!"
I find myself appalled she would even broach the subject. I flush to find my one word outburst has drawn the attention of most in the transport.
Her eyes go flinty and her expression turns severe. "Fine. Be that way."
She stands and storms back up the aisle, flopping down into her seat, crossing her arms angrily under her small breasts, and averting her face, pretending to take an interest in the monochrome scenery out the front window.
I sigh heavily. It's going to be one of those days isn't it?
An hour later, I'm skulking through class, sitting in the back, trying to stay out of the limelight. So this is what it feels like to be the new kid in school. I feel like a transfer student rather than someone who's been in the district for the past ten years. I even had to be escorted to a class or two because I never visited them before today.
Despite any desire to the contrary, I'm getting the attention I don't want. Eyes drift my direction, and I continue to slide further into my seat and tilt my head closer and closer to the desktop so as not to even let a hint of my appearance show.
So the teacher, the same one who was in this very room when I was treating the M219 victim, is Mrs. Vincent. This is my geometry class, and I'm woefully behind on the formulas and theorems I should know in order to solve some of these ridiculous proofs she's demonstrating on the board.
The population of the class is quite a bit thinner today. Paranoia setting in, surely. The kids may not remember the Plague, but their parents certainly would. A thrill moves through my gut, and I wonder if Mr. Matthews had been right about the vaccine wearing off after some time. That would be what New Fresno needs, a re-flash of the Plague.
Mrs. Vincent is just getting to the meat of the lecture, we students writing frantically to keep up with her enthusiastic approach to the problem. We're given a bit of a respite when the intercom clicks to life. All eyes turn toward the device.
"Mrs. Vincent?" the secretary says nasally, the sound made worse by the poor connection between the office and this room.
"Yes," she responds automatically, flipping her blonde hair back as she looks up.
"Please send Michael Scott to the office."
All eyes, front to back and side to side, find me and I feel the heat in my cheeks until my face feels to be on fire. I want to sink into the tile, but that would only delay the inevitable. Instead, I slowly rise from my spot, skirting around the outside of the desks and walking up the right side of the classroom.
A collective "Ooooo" escapes my fellow classmates as I near the doors, and the teacher promptly hushes them. She holds out the hall pass I need to traverse the way safely, and not get into more trouble.
I make my way to the office, only to be ushered in immediately to see the principal. Dad is already there, pacing the floor rather than availing himself of the chair. Not that he would. His fins still won't let him sit in a normal backed chair.
They both stop what they were doing and look at me. Butterflies take wing in my gut at their focus.
"Have a seat, Michael," Mr. Matthews says, motioning to one leather bound monstrosity of a chair. I sit in it and slouch.
"What about the faculty members?" Dad asks in concern. Obviously, I came smack in the middle of a conversation.
"Two have shown symptoms." Mr. Matthews nods. "Your team's assistance was greatly appreciated."
Dad nods, his eyes distant. "I contacted Dr. Martin, and he says he'll have boosters ready by tomorrow. I have a feeling there's going to be a rush on them. We can inoculate any and all that want it, families included."
"That's a relief," Mr. Matthews sighs. "This is already going to be a PR nightmare for the district."
Dad stays silent, seeming unsure on how to comfort the man. He finally manages, "Like all sensations, it'll blow over. People in the area are under the false impression that the virus is no longer a threat. Little do they know." I see the grimace cross his features. "I'm getting too old to go through that again."
I suppress a laugh. Dad calling himself old is quite funny. There's no way he looks fifty. While he's been gemue since he was twenty-seven, time has been more than kind to him. All my life he's looked exactly the same. I mean I've compared pictures from back then to his looks now, and I can't tell the difference. No age lines, no reduction in abilities, no mental problems, nothing. I swear sometimes the man is invincible. I hope I'm as capable at his age.
When the silence drags on too long, Mr. Matthews turns his attention to me. Dad's gaze follows shortly, and he closes distance on my chair as if to hem me in from the side.
Mr. Matthews clears his throat. "I've asked you to my office to discuss your truancy and decide upon consequences for your actions."
He says this as if I have no idea why I'm in his audience.
"Yes, sir," I answer dutifully.
"As a rule, the length of this truancy calls for suspension." He pauses, his face wrinkling in debate. "After some discussion, neither your father nor I feel that would best fit the reason behind your absence. More time away from your studies isn't going to help."
"This is way over the line. You put your family at risk of court appearances – jail time – because of your actions."
The knot in my gut ties tighter, never having considered others might have to pay for my choices. "I…" I glance over at my father's severe expression, "I never meant…"
Mr. Matthews interrupts my apology, probably having heard it a million times before by one unthinking teen or another.
"Instead, three days a week, three hours a day you will be in detention making up not only the absences, but the work you neglected on your self-imposed vacation. This schedule will remain in place until you catch up and remain up on your school work."
"Yes, sir," I answer dully, hearing my free time get whittled to nothing.
"In addition, you will be doing community service on the weekends at the local Survivor's shelter for the next month."
I shudder despite my best efforts. I really don't like having to feel sorry for people. That is what going to a Survivor shelter does to me each time I go.
"Yes, sir," I repeat woodenly.
"Just one," Dad adds.
"I understand," I answer. "I'm sorry to have been such a nuisance. It won't happen again."
It isn't nearly as heart-felt as it can be, but it is the best I can manage. I keep hoping "one slip" means a transfer to a gemue school where I won't stand out so badly. I am unwilling to test the water, or to press that button with my dad.
"I want to thank you again, Michael, for taking such a burden on so shortly on the heels of your return yesterday."
"You're welcome," I answer automatically. "I was glad to help."
Not really, and he knows I am lying, but he smiles anyway.
"You really handled the situation well," my Dad adds his praise, laying a comforting clawed hand on my shoulder. I glance up into his face, confirming the sincerity of his words.
"Thanks, Dad," I answer.
If there is one thing I can say about Dad, he is just laid back enough, that he gets over arguments like yesterday relatively quick. I'm glad for that, because I don't need that on my plate as well.
We walk out together, and I am careful to replace the hood over my head and pull my hands back into the oversized sleeves.
"One of these days you're going to have to lose these," Dad says, lightly tugging on the top of my hoodie. "They make you look like a thug."
I shrug, joking him with. "If everything goes well and pigs fly."
"It'll happen, ready or not." He chuckles without any real humor behind it.
We both fall silent just as the bell rings, and kids start spilling out of the classrooms. Dad sighs. "Well, I won't crimp your day further. Be good."
"I promise." Like what choice do I have… welcome to my microscope.
I shove both hands in my pockets as I watch Dad walk off, wishing I had his confidence. He doesn't give a passing glance to the stares his presence is eliciting.
I start when I am bum rushed by three of my classmates.
"Michael! You bad boy," Trisha taunts, stringing an arm around my waist. I don't want to be rude, but the desire to push her arm off of me is overwhelming.
"What did the principal want you for?" Kelly asks next, his green eyes bright and expectant.
I open my mouth when Cory chimes in with, "It's probably about his 'heroics' yesterday."
"Yeah," I agree, and it isn't a total lie. That should make me feel better, but somehow it doesn't.
"Dude!" Corbin exclaims catching up to us. "Did I see who I just thought I saw?"
I turn hooded eyes his direction. "What?"
"You were talking to… to him?"
"Who him?" I ask in confusion.
"C'mon! You were conversing with the Tigershark!"
"Huh?" I almost give myself away by telling them it was no one but my Dad. I'm very glad to have caught myself.
"Man, c'mon, don't tell me you don't know his rep!" Kelly chimes in that time and my head nearly snaps off my neck as I crane around to give him my attention.
I smile even though they can't distinguish it from the shadows that cover my face. I've never observed anyone so excited about a gemue, and it tickles me more that they seem so reverent about my father. "Enlighten me."
"He was a huge player in the fight against the Plague," Kelly says in awe. "He was responsible for tracking down the source of the carriers."
"My mom and dad were some of the first to get the vaccination when it became available," Corbin adds. "It wouldn't even have existed if Tigershark hadn't given the docs a sample of his blood."
"Oh, please," Trisha scoffs. "You guys and a need for hero worship."
Both Kelly's and Corbin's mouths fall open at her audacity, like she has thrown acid on the pope.
"Do you know how many more people would have died if those two things hadn't happened?"
I have to chime in. "Well, think about it, Trish. What if it were your parents who had contracted the virus and were killed? Worse yet… what if they had contracted the disease, and survived?"
Corbin catches on. "Then you, my pretty little flower, would not be here now."
She curls her lip and bats him away from her.
"Nor would the rest of us," Kelly adds.
"Nope, just the imu-gemues – who invented the thing." Cory frowns heavily. "Bet ya forgot that part, huh?"
My insides are now ice cold, and I am just waiting for the light bulb to come on in one of the four minds that surround me. They brush Cory off, like I would have done normally – if the conversation hadn't hit so close to home – and move off on another tangent. Tense moments pass as they prattle on about different superhuman acts my father was responsible for. I start when I realize that I am being addressed.
"So, he came to give you a pat on the back, then?"
"Something like that," I say.
"Oh, Mikey, you're my hero!" Cory says shrilly, batting his eyes.
I spin, glaring at him. "That's not my name."
I know he did it to get my goat. I know I shouldn't react, but Cory knows how to push my buttons like no other soul I know.
"Whazza matter, Scotto, can't take a joke? Running a bit sensitive today?"
"I've told you before," I growl invading his space, "It's Michael."
That one discipline issue Mr. Matthews mentioned? That was between me and Cory last year for a very similar run in.
"Okay, Michael." He matches me glare for glare.
I break eye contact and wheel away. Despite the anger I feel, I'm also relieved. Cory has given me the perfect opportunity to storm off the other direction, breaking the conversation in half and reducing the chances of them putting two and two together, making my life hell that much faster. I breathe a lot easier as I make my way toward my next class.
Mandy intercepts me about halfway down the hall, merging with my path and now walking beside me.
I'm pretty sure she is going to rip into me for my behavior this morning.
In a preemptive gesture, I stop and wait for her to turn and face me. As she watches me, head tilted, I give a one shouldered shrug. "Look, I'm sorry about this morning."
She glances away, and I wonder if she's mad enough that even the sincerest apology isn't going to get her to cool off. Still not looking at me, she also shrugs and mutters, "You're in deep for being gone so long, I know. Sorry for pushing so hard."
Seems she's been rationalizing this all day.
"When you're ready to share, I'm all ears."
I grin even when she can't see it, so, I follow it with a nod. "Yeah, will do."
She reaches out to hug me, the seal to the apology, her way of saying she forgives me. I keep wondering why I ever stopped seeing her. She beats a cheerleader figure and a ditzy attitude hands down.
We both start as the five-minute bell rings, eliciting a "crap" out of both of us.
"Later, Michael!" she calls over her shoulder as she sprints down the hall toward her next class.
"Later!" I yell.
Spinning on one heel, weaving through the thinning crowd and leaping into my next class, I make it just as the tardy bell rings.
A/N: Thanks again to WhiteEevee for the concrits on the past two chapters! (I haven't yet incorporated the changes, but I plan on doing just that this weekend!)
So part of this chapter had me questioning if I was making 14 and 15 yo's a bit OOC... but after my last year of working in a Middle School environment, it is NOT unusual for there to be couples on campus (Even when I tell my students that they're TOO YOUNG to be doing any serious dating...). So Trisha's forwardness might be a bit over the top but not necessarily unheard of.
Another loophole I had to close... originally at the end of this chapter, Mandy asks Michael what he's coming as for Halloween... which... um... didn't work if this is only Mid-September. O_o So that piece also got pulled and I now have to figure out how to fold it into the story... :P
Yes, Halloween is a necessary plot point in this one.. Perhaps some of you can guess in what fashion it might be important! Love to hear your thoughts on it!
NEXT UP: Toil and Trouble
Michael makes a very interesting decision about what to come as for Halloween.