8: Strain

Monday morning arrives just as gloomy and miserable as the weekend. And the weather isn't helping my rising anxiety about returning to school in the middle of this maelstrom of accusation.

Little pangs go off in my middle as I think about the continuing assault from peers and randos via text message. The weekend didn't stop those, and I keep having to report them to the family's contact at the precinct before I purge my messages and block the numbers. It feels as if the entire city of New Fresno has now jumped on the harassment bandwagon.

This is not to mention how many asshats I'm going to have to deal with in person. Certain factions of guys seek me out and all seem to think I've gained cool points for what happened. Everyone else lumps me in with the players on campus, even when I've nowhere reached their threshold. Truthfully, I'm weary of trying to defend myself.

Ignoring it hasn't helped. They get insistent. Thank God for my coping mechanisms and my meds. Between the two, it kept me from tossing kids across the hall to get them out of my face.

As the bus pulls to a stop in front of the school, riders are loathe to brave the open space between the vehicle and the main entrance. It's not just the wet either, it's the cold. Unseasonably, the temperatures keep dipping into the high twenties at night. To be honest, it doesn't feel much higher than that now. People all around me are bundled up as if we're in January rather than November.

People pop off the bus as if pushed by unseen forces and immediately open umbrellas, looking rather like a synchronized dance of relative dryness.

Never being down for umbrellas before, I find myself longing for one today. That's not going to happen, however. Instead, I pull the hood of my heavier, weatherproof jacket up, duck my head, hunch my shoulders, and power walk to the building. The sound of the heavy drops on my hood are deafening, drowning out any other sound around me.

Splashing through puddles and nearly tripping up the stairs, I dash the remaining distance to the double doors, yank one open, and jump inside.

Once there, I throw back my hood and shake the excess moisture off onto the mats just inside the entrance. They're already soaked from all the previous repeats of this same act, and a puddle has started to form around its edges.

I move off to one side of the hallway, texting my friends to meet me in our foul weather spot, even when they already know. I put the net set in my backpack and wend my way through the thick groups of people avoiding the weather and head toward the music building.

While outside, the concert hall is surrounded by large overhanging eaves and stays dry because it's fronted by the drama building opposite it. The combination will block most of the falling rain.

When I arrive, only Rowen is there already. Come to think of it, no one I normally talk to was on the bus this morning.

"Hey Rowen!" I say, lifting my hand to sketch out a wave before I hop up the steps to stand next to her.

She is probably the most dressed I've ever seen her. Her top is purple with tight-fitting, long sleeves. It's light though, pretty well see-through and I can see the just darker purple tank top beneath it. Rather than shorts like she normally wears, she has loose-legged pants. Most shocking is that her feet are completely hidden by tennis shoes.

After a quick glance around, I add, "Have you seen anyone else?"

"No." She shakes her head for emphasis. "I don't know where they might be."

While waiting for the rest of our group to show up, Rowen and I talk about our weekends. Hers seems to have been quite pleasant, she went to see her folks. All the while the storm was raging, she was beneath the waves. No dealing with freezing air and equally cold raindrops all weekend. The sea, while cold, doesn't fluctuate as much temperature-wise.

For me, Sunday wasn't much better than Saturday was. Still rainy and cold; still no relief from the city. My only saving graces were that I dressed for the occasion better and was on my regular four-hour shift rather than a full day in that weather.

"So did they find the owners of the cars?" Rowen inquires. My mention of the cars in the lot at the height of the storm and breaks me from sudden introspection.

I peer over at Rowen a moment before leaning on the pole to my left. "Two beachgoers had to be rescued from the micro-beaches to the south. They were hypothermic and pretty battered and bruised by the waves and storm wrack. That's it, though I feel bad that I didn't do more to help them."

Rowen tilts her head. "You got help on the way to them. You cannot abandon your post to do searches of the unknown. Surely, you know that?"

"Yeah," I sigh once again. "Doesn't make me feel less guilty though."

Rowen smiles in her unique way and rubs my close elbow.

"The rest of the vehicles either had people sleeping in them, or they're marked as abandoned by the city but haven't been towed yet." I glance away.

Silence falls following that, and we both are looking about for the rest of the group.

The silence gives my anxiety room to root around in my brain. Before it gets too deep, I catch sight of Mandy through shifting bodies and pouring rain.

My gut ties in knots at her appearance; her body language. Seems the strain of recent events has overcome her previous strength. She trudges up the steps, loose sweatshirt sleeves swaying bonelessly below her hidden hands. Her hair is down, but it's frizzy and partially tangled, hiding her downturned face from Rowen and me. She doesn't slow as she walks straight towards me, impacting my chest with her face. Wrapping her arms around my waist, she leans into me as if I'm the rock that's going to keep her from getting swept away.

"Make it stop," she mutters into my jacket.

I respond to her despondency by encircling her with my arms and leaning my chin on the top of her head. My own anxiety climbs higher, knowing without asking what the matter is.

Rowen steps in from the side and hugs us both. She's whispering to Mandy, "We'll get through this, my friend. We're here for you."

Mandy's body shudders as she takes a deep breath and lets it out. She starts to push away from me and I loosen my hold so she can stand up straight.

My gaze slips to Rowen, knowing she's caught in the middle of this crap storm of rumors along with the rest of us – a more recent addition to the defamation of our circle. Yet, she's so calm about things.

When I ask about it, she shrugs and says, "I do not pay attention to social media, and I'm good at ignoring the in-person attempts to get my goat."

"You're way more patient than me," I sigh. I shoot her a lopsided grin before it falls away and my gaze shifts to Mandy. "Any word?" I ask, almost against my will.

Mandy shakes her head, crossing her arms over her chest and rubbing each upper arm. "I have so much more respect for your strength of will, Michael. I don't know how you've put up with this all these years."

I grin in an effort to comfort her. "To be honest I don't know how I've put up with it all these years. I guess my skin just gets thicker – figuratively."

A small snicker escapes both women.

"I wish I knew who was doing this," Mandy whines. "I'd punch them in the face."

"Really?" I smirk.

She glances up at me. "It'd definitely make me feel better."

"Guess we just have to wait out the storm." I glance up at the sky as if that is the storm I'm talking about. "This person has to mess up eventually."

"I don't know if I can maintain that long," Mandy utters.

Rowen rubs her close arm. "Don't say that. We will help you get through this."

Smiling gratefully at Rowen, Mandy turns to hug her. "Thank you, Rowen."

None of the rest of our crew show up before the bell rings for first period, which is odd. Still, we all buck up our courage and shift mental gears to try to get some learning in.

I'm getting better at compartmentalizing, it seems. I find myself engaged with the class activity in Spanish when the PA interrupts us.

"Michael Scott to the office please. Michael Scott to the office please."

I straighten from my work and blink, frustrated that I have to depart when I'm finally in a groove.

"Lo siento, guys," I apologize, my brain still in Spanish mode. My group mates are going to have to double up to take my portion of the task. I push to my feet and gather my things.

Taking the pass from my teacher, I traverse the halls and slip into the office. Stepping up to the desk I ask Maria, "Um, they called me to the office?"

Maria nods and rises from her place behind the tall counter. She slips around to my side and leads me over to the conference room. Okay, that's a new one, I've never had to meet anyone here before. She knocks lightly, and a few moments later, Principal Matthews answers.

"Michael Scott's arrived," she states.

"Thanks, Maria," he says, shifting his gaze to me. "Come in, Michael."

I stutter to a halt just inside the door. There are well more people than I expect in the space, and I can see why we're in the conference room. My mom and dad see me and wave me over. As I'm crossing the space, I notice Officer Beck is here and another plainclothes policeman. Bile backs into my throat and I have to remind myself Beck's not my probation officer anymore – instead, he's the school's liaison. Still, he gives me a somewhat jaundiced look.

Mandy stands between her mom and dad and gives me a small wave from the waist, as if not to be seen by her parents. I note that Andrea and her family are here as well. I flush, duck my head, and scurry closer to my parents.

I try to suppress the knotting in my gut at the possibilities behind this meeting.

"Looks as if we're all here, Investigator Nolan," Mr. Matthews announces.

The plainclothes nods, smoothing down salt and pepper hair with one hand before turning to face us all.

"Thank you, Principal Matthews." He laces his thick hands behind his back before continuing. "Thank you all for taking time out of your days to be here. I'll get straight to the point and not belabor things. We're here to give you all an update on our findings so far in the recent string of cyberbullying occurring here at the school."

He pauses, glancing at each of our small gaggles in turn.

"Please remember that our investigation is ongoing. I admonish you not to share what I'm about to divulge to anyone outside this circle."

We all nod agreement.

Seeming satisfied, the man continues, "Our cybercrimes unit has traced the original fake profiles as having been created through a computer here on campus – during school hours. What we haven't yet determined is the identity of the person was who was using the computer in question."

"How can you not know?" Dad asks. "My understanding was that all computers on the property required student logins and are monitored?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mr. Matthews grimace.

The investigator draws a heavy breath. "Seems the computer unit in question required no secure log in to use. The overlord programs did catch the timeframe of the incident, but can't identify who might have been at the terminal when it happened. We're still working that angle."

"What about the originator's information? Surely, they needed an email address and a name to create the profile," this is Mandy's dad.

"Bogus. Spoofed in fact – so we can't trace it through the registration from the site itself."

"There were no cameras in the library that can be checked?" Andrea's mom chimes in, and as she scans the room and finds me glancing at her, her face pinches.

Investigator Nolan looks to Mr. Matthews, who clears his throat and says, "The cameras in the library were found to be in a non-functional condition. We're not sure for how long. A trouble call has been put in, that doesn't help the investigation."

Nolan looks frustrated but doesn't speak further of it. "Mr. Matthews has kept us abreast of the situation. We understand that things have escalated to harassment through your net sets, and some of you have even had person to person incidents since this all started?"

We all nod mutely.

"I assure you we're looking into those as well, but it will be a lengthy process to cross reference the net-set messages to look for patterns and possible culprits. If it's alright with your parents we'd like to talk to each of you individually to see if any of you might have leads on who this might be."

Our parents all readily agree, and by group, we're led to Mr. Matthew's office for private debriefings on our various experiences.

By the time my family and I are called, interviewed for what little we can add, and released, it's lunchtime.

I hurry up to find Mandy and in turn Andrea to do our own cross referencing. The sky is still dismal above us, but it's not currently raining.

The meeting does little good. Mostly a reiteration of the things we've already been suspicious of.

The entire time we're talking I've got Mandy wrapped in a hug, because for the first time since I've known her, she looks as if she's about to fall apart. She's barely maintaining an upright position, clinging to my side as if roles are reversed and I'm the life ring she's in desperate need of.

We convene our rehash of events and say our farewells. I walk alongside Mandy, continuing to prop her up. I can hear cat calls and boos and all kinds of other attention seeking sounds, but I keep myself focused on getting Mandy to her class without harassment.

When she's safely inside her fifth period class, I accelerate so that I can get to mine, another building over, before I'm late. The five-minute bell rings just as I'm exiting the building, and I dodge bodies going the other way to get into the other set of doors leading to my destination. I shuck and weave, barely missing collision after collision and get my hand on the door when it swings my way with a violence of panic or malice. I duck away in time to keep from getting clocked in the face with it, but my fingers and wrist get twisted in ways they don't bend. Something pops painfully and sets me to swearing.

I rub at my hand in an effort to get the shooting pain to ease and look up and behind me to see Sam twisting my direction to say, "Sorry! Didn't see you there."

I straighten.

Was he… smirking?

With that perceived expression burned into my retinas I replay his apology. I swear I hear sarcasm in his voice.

A moment later, I draw a breath and let it out again. I think Mandy's mention of her suspicion, along with my lingering jealousy is tainting my perception somewhat. I seem to be reading way too much into what happened, and let it go.

I shake myself out, getting into the building and to my classroom before that final bell rings.

A/N: Okay here we go, I wrote the majority of this in one sitting and then had to stop because distractions. When I came back I couldn't remember the thread I was trying to follow, so please let me know whether it sounds like a plausible wrap up to this chapter.