A/N (November 27, 2021):

Disclaimer: I don't actually play poker, so the following is an entirely fictional account based off the scenes I remember from movies and tidbits I learned from that wisest sage of all time (a.k.a. The Internet).

Chapter III

Can't read my, can't read my

No, he can't read my poker face

— Lady Gaga, "Poker Face"

Claren walked to his locker, mopping the sweat from his forehead with a navy-blue towel. Most of his teammates had already left after practice. A chat with Coach had made him later than usual.

He sat down on one of the benches in the locker room and spun the combination into his lock. It clicked open. He pulled up on the latch. A letter-sized white envelope fluttered down from the grill slots and onto the floor.

Curious, he bent over and picked it up. It was sealed shut. He turned it over. There was no name or note on the front or back.

He wondered who it was from and whether he should open it. If Ari were here right now, she'd probably whip her hand out to stop him due to "suspicions" of anthrax mail. But that terror had passed more than ten years ago. Besides, what high schooler had anthrax laying around? The school only had those creepy cats, not bacterial bioweapons.

He slid an index finger under the envelope flap and tore the letter open. Inside was a single, tri-folded piece of paper. He uncreased the missive. There were only two lines stamped in imposing, bold font.

You need to rinse your mouth out.

There's a reason why you have Listerine.

Claren froze. His heart thudded. He whirled from side to side, looking to see if anyone was in the room. He saw no one, just metal lockers and empty wooden benches. He looked into his locker at the shelf over his gym bag. A half-empty bottle of blue fluid was perched on top.

Did someone know? How could they have found out? Were they trying to blackmail him? The letter didn't contain a threat, a "do this or else" clause. What did they want from him? To scare him? To screw with his head?

Nobody could find out. Ever. All h— would break loose if anyone knew. He'd never be able to explain. How could he possibly explain? Would they even believe him if he tried to? From all outward appearances, it was bound to look like he had rigged the whole thing, and then he'd be kicked out with a nasty record to boot. What could he possibly do after that?

He had to get himself out of this situation. The world wouldn't end with a bang, but with a whimper. Ari had told him about that poem once. Something about scarecrows and cacti and a random dime or nickel or other odd and end. It felt like that now, like he was being swung around and around a prickly pear with its all-too-eager, spiny fingers reaching hungrily for him…

No, that was it. He was going to quit.

He set his jaw and bore tunnels into the depths of his assigned locker. He crumpled up the letter and held it so tightly in his clenched fist that his knuckles bleached white.

There was only one way out, and that was to network his way in.

I held my breath past the Anatomy room and tried to stifle my starved gasps as I approached the Calc doorway. The ever-enigmatic Xanexa was already sitting in the alcove, sketching away without references, and paying no heed to anyone else, as I had observed xyr doing for the past three days. As always, xe was dressed in a dark hoodie and jeans. The metallic pencil alternated between hands enclosed by fingerless gloves. A bag of popcorn lay partially open on the floor.

I wondered if xe really was another talent recruit. The school hadn't collected any artists yet. They'd gotten an impressive lineup of athletes and scholars running around either on the field or between academic competitions. The legacies of previous highly accomplished youth sat gleaming in the front office behind glass cases, preserved forever like those bug-eyed, foul-smelling furless cats, floating in formaldehyde. We had produced football champions, Quiz Bowl wizards, fencing kings, and debate masters, but never a Picasso or young Monet who'd go on to Julliard or conservatory or wherever it is that artists go. Maybe that was why xe was here.

I slid down the wall opposite my laconic classmate and cracked open my book of triangular theorems and practice questions, propping it up on my lime green-sleeved arms.

It was also a mystery to me whether xe thought my taste in fashion were a bothersome eyesore, seeing as how someone passing by the Calc room would think that xe had stepped out of vintage black-and-white movie, and I from an anachronistically juxtaposed 4K ultra-HD animation. That might explain why xe had been ignoring me, pegging me down as one of those gum chewing, "OH MY GOSH"-ing, preppy freshman airheads.

I was still too scared and felt too awkward to say anything to xyr. Everyone tells you to "put yourself out there!" But most proverbs were easier said than done. Scooting a brick down a carpeted hallway was no easy feat due to physical inertia and backsliding friction. Reeling in a new acquaintance was similarly difficult as a result of social inertia and the frictions of anxiety. Alas, physics problems were simpler to solve than real-life ones.

I was trying to concentrate on the arcsin function when the soothing swish of graphite over sketch paper stopped, and xe looked up at me. I met xyr gaze and the same pang of soul-searching fire shot through me like a jolt of electricity. I didn't know whether I could ever get used to that uncanny and otherworldly feeling, and yet, I was still insatiably curious about xyr life and xyr history.

I tried to act normal and not childishly pesky, for I had almost certainly concluded—or, as a statistician would say, with probability equal to one—that xe was a few years older than me and had no desire to waste xyr time with foolish freshmen.

This hypothesis proved to be correct, because in the next moment xe asked me in a voice that swept like wintry wind brushing off a dusting of snow, "You are rather young to be in this class, no?"

I blinked and summarized my situation, "The school took me for math."

"Aren't you a freshman?" Xe laid the pencil down and extended xyr leg so that the sketchbook was facing up to the ceiling.

I saw an upside-down pencil sketch portrait, stunningly life-like and deep even from my less-than-ideal vantage point. And xe'd done that from memory?

I straightened my legs, too, and laid my trig book open on my lap. Psychologists had found that people tend to feel affinity towards others who practice subtle mirroring. Keyword, subtle. Because no one likes a copy-cat.

"Yes," I replied, "I'm just precociously good at math."

"I see," xe said with a slight smile, either amused or maybe intrigued. Xyr pale blue eyes flashed once, like xe had just seen something that I was unaware of.

"Are you a…" I was trying to decide between junior or senior. Most people got angry if you thought they were older than they really were, but other folks—especially the teens in my peer group—were ticked off if you belittled their age and, hence, implied maturity. I say implied because the two didn't typically grow proportionately.

Before I could decide which age-classification mistake would be less egregious to xyr, the artist interceded to put me out of my guesswork misery.

"I'm a senior," xe said. "I'll be graduating soon." Xe rolled xyr eyes. "Cannot f—ing wait."

So, the school let in a talent recruit for one semester? Because xe must be headed for… Julliard or RISD? Maybe? I didn't know what was the "best" in that world. It was so different from mine.

I blurted out, "Are you going to art school?" After saying that, I winced. Way to go, Ari, making friends with a suave senior. That wasn't nosy of a silly freshman to ask at all.

Xe must not have minded my lack of "good form," because xe shrugged, looked far beyond me, and said, "Perhaps…"

I nodded towards the portrait begging to be recalled to life from the confines of the page. "I'd thought because you seem like a really good artist."

Why was I so not smooth? Xe'd probably think I was a creep intruding on xyr artistic privacy. I mentally kicked myself. Curiosity killed the cat. I probably shouldn't have looked. Or, at least, I should have kept my blasted mouth shut about it. If xyr electrifying gaze was that intense normally, I'd hate to see what a look of pure hatred or rage would be like. Oh, geez…I didn't want to end up in a jar like those other floating cats.

But xe didn't look annoyed. It felt like xe knew that I hadn't meant to snoop or do any harm—that I was just bookishly awkward and chronically lonely.

Xe waved xyr hands. "Oh, it's just a study."

I leaned forward and craned my neck sideways to get a better look. "Who is it?"

Xe took the sketchbook and carelessly flipped it around so I could save my neck from turning into the Human Neck Pretzel. "I think it's the dude who founded this place."

I looked. The portrait was, indeed, an exact replica of the Academy's founder. The same disciplined, stony expression that he wore 24/7 as a bronze statue stared out at me from behind layers and layers of micro-hatches. Sitting perched on a marble pedestal in the front courtyard, the founder welcomed the students every morning with a chilly stare and two shiny feet, and he shooed them out every afternoon with a grumpy glare.

Some of the prospective students and their parents would stop by and take pictures with the stern schoolmaster. Most of them would also rub the founder's feet for "good luck," because admissions here was highly selective, and the competition for academic pedigree vainglory incredibly fierce.

"Yep," I agreed, drawing back, "that's him." I paused and asked, "How do you do that?"

"What?" Xe flipped the sketchbook around and snapped it shut. It disappeared into xyr bag, along with the popcorn. Xe started spinning the pencil across xyr fingertips.

"Draw people's faces from memory," I clarified.

"Oh," xe chuckled once, "I can remember everything I see. Once you really remember something, recreating it isn't too difficult."

My eyes widened. "Everything?"

The school had picked up an Einstein Picasso.

"Sure." Xe stopped twirling the pencil to pop xyr knuckles. "Memories can be trained, just like anything else."

If the school knew this, xe'd be on Quiz Bowl to bring back the gold. Those tired kiddos had to practically memorize giant encyclopedias.

Xe tilted xyr chin in my direction. "What about you? What're you working on?" The metal pencil recommenced its dizzying orbits, turning into a scintillating silver disk.

"Oh, like you said, I'm training," I answered.

Xe raised an eyebrow. "For what?"

"For state," I said. "You have to do a lot of problems so you can see all the types before competition day."

Xe sighed and tucked the pencil behind one ear. I stared. It was still a pencil.

"Your own problems or someone else's problems?" xe asked me.

I was puzzled. "They're math problems. So…I guess someone else's."

Still a normal pencil.

"Don't you think we all have enough problems of our own to deal with before going around to look for more?"

Xe had a point—metaphorically. Life was already crazy enough without other people pouring fuel on the flames and then sending a train steamrolling down the tracks at maximum speed straight into the blaze. But it was still strange for xyr to put it that way.

I wanted to ask xyr what xe was thinking, what xe meant, because I felt like there was something else xe wanted to say but was holding back. Xe was one fully garrisoned puzzle box—a fortress surrounded by a crocodile-infested moat, its drawbridge permanently pulled up and flaming arrows notched into taut crossbows.

"Ari, right?"

The lunch bell rang.

Before I could respond, xe got up and turned xyr head from side to side. I saw the scorpion curled around xyr ear when xe glanced at me and warned, "Just don't burn yourself out."

Personally, I was of the opinion that mandatory P.E. class was a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Even if it were strictly necessary per federal regulation or whatnot, there was no need to lump everyone together in the same class. It was perfectly acceptable to separate people into different levels for math—i.e., Geometry, Algebra II, Trig, or Calc—so why wasn't it okay to separate kids into different levels for P.E.? Then, all the bloodthirsty maniacs could go rain down fire and brimstone on each other in one class and leave the rest of us who'd rather play nice games alone.

But, as always, equality was a double-edged sword. I stood under the basket with a basketball in my hands, trying to avoid all the other projectiles thumping against the walls and floor and get out of the drill line as quickly as possible, back to a place where there weren't people behind me, and I would be safe. Surviving freshman P.E. should be classified as an extreme sport.

I bent my knees, cocked my elbow at ninety degrees like the coach had instructed us, and took aim. Before I let the ball fly, I heard a wave of sniggers behind me and whipped around.

The first thing I registered was a basketball zooming towards my face. The culprit? Little Psycho Ned Asper standing with an outstretched arm in a T-shirt and shorts, a Band-Aid pasted over the crook of his left elbow, surrounded by his more influential honor society pals. I didn't have time to react before the ball smashed squarely into my face and knocked me backwards.

I staggered, reeling from the impact. Pain spread throughout my face. I heard the coach blow his whistle as I hit the floor.

"Hey! Hey! What's going on here?"

All the activity in the gym stopped. I pushed myself up to seated, swallowing the sting in my throat. Some of Ned's friends elbowed him, and he mumbled something about wanting to pass the ball to a friend behind me.

The coach looked back and forth between the gloating boys and me. I was sure he wasn't blind and could clearly see the very plain fact that no one had been behind me, so—

But the coach didn't say anything to them. Instead, he told me to get up and take a break at the back of the line.

Those kids can shove their thetas up their asinine arcsin's. I'd really had enough of freshman P.E. shenanigans for one day. It was my last class, and I counted the minutes until the dismissal bell every single day.

"Could I please go to the nurse's office?"

The coach drew his lips into a thin line. "I'd have to mark you absent for today's class."

A lump rose in my throat. My vision blurred. I forced myself to not cry in front of those hard-hearted heathens and trudged to the back of the line, not looking at anyone. They always expected us to follow orders. The only thing I could do was follow orders.

Within seconds, the class started up again. The balls bounced with menace off the walls and basket rims.

That was entirely uncalled for. Ned and I had no enmity towards one another whatsoever. Heck, we didn't even know each other until school started in August because he'd grown up on the other side of town. We've never exchanged words beyond the customary "Hello" that was mandated by social decorum when teachers told you to introduce yourself to the people sitting around you because they had deluded themselves into thinking that icebreakers actually work.

Ned was the hungry, social-climber type. He groveled after the legacy freshman Psychos and practically enslaved himself to Killian because he desperately wanted to be part of the most prestigious club at school so that he'd be all set for college. He had raked Killian's family's sprawling estate last fall, mown the lawns of his now-smirking gym buddies, and donated an inordinate amount of canned soup for the anti-hunger food drive that Alpha Psi Chi had sponsored last fall. His obsequious generosity and tenacious networking were rewarded at the end of finals season by a quarter-sized piece of paper taped to his locker that had one phrase typed on it in font size six: Welcome, little Psycho.

There was a method to his madness. Ned had average looks and even more average academics at best, but his social wheeling and dealing abilities were off the charts. Mostly because he allowed the top dogs to command him to do anything. Talk about the Milgram Electro-Shock Experiment.

But all that slavish behavior must have taken a toll, too, because he'd lost maybe ten or fifteen pounds since I first saw him back in August, back when Katrina was still diving, still laughing, still alive. Now, he had slightly sunken, sallow cheeks and eyes that darted with suspicion like those of a hunted rat.

If I had to guess why Ned would chuck a basketball at my face, I'd hazard with near certainty that someone higher up along the school's twisted totem pole had told him to do it. Which meant that they'd painted a target on my back for whatever odd reason, and I needed to stay away and lie low for a while.

I managed to survive the rest of class and hurriedly changed back into my khaki slacks and lime green long-sleeve. Honestly, camel skinny jeans probably would've went with the outfit better, but they were banned per school dress code policy, so whatever.

After we were dismissed for the day, I went to the nurse's office to get an ice pack because my face was beginning to swell. When I met Rosalie for math review, I had a giant blue bag pressed against one side of my face.

She grimaced. "Ari, what happened?"

Rosalie Harbor was a pretty decent person. I had no complaints. She was an indefatigable hard worker—out of necessity, not by choice—and she always wore her hair up in a practical ponytail so that she'd have "room to think." She was a junior and had her eyes set on the one school that built dams because she wanted to be a smart beaver of an engineer in the future and build things. She'd taken me in as her apprentice on the competition team. I hadn't determined yet whether it had been out of pity—because she really did have a kind heart—or for "leadership development" on her Common App, because she officially had me on the books as her Mentee.

"Ned Asper nailed me with a basketball in P.E.," I said, sitting down across from her at the seminar-style classroom table. These review sessions were optional for the team, which meant that—for the most part—no one else came. We always managed to score well at the competitions, though, so nobody questioned it.

"Wow," she shook her head, "that spineless little serpent."

"I know…" I tugged my book out of my bag with my free hand and pushed it over to her. "I'm done reviewing Trig."

"Alright then, we'll swap." She removed another book and exchanged it with me. "We'll get you set up for polar integrals next week."

I took the book and slid it into my bag. "Thanks, Rosalie," I said, "for letting me borrow these."

"Ah…" she waved her hand. "No big deal. I don't use them anymore anyway."

We both got to work. She on diff. eq. self-studies, and me on some homework because I wanted to take a break that day. Then, I thought of something and paused.

"Hey, Rosalie?"

She looked up. "Yeah?"

"Have you heard about the new student?" I asked.


"Xanexa. The senior. We have Calc together," I said.

"Oh, that person." Rosalie put her pencil down. "Yeah, they suddenly popped into town, almost literally out of nowhere."

"I thought it was tough for second-semester seniors to transfer in."

"Um hm, but not impossible. I heard they had a really good record, and they were going to bounce to the next city if the school didn't make up their mind because their parents travel a lot for business."

So…the school had faced an exploding offer. That was interesting. The tables have turned.

Wait, and xe was living by xyrself?

"Do you know where the family came from?"

"No idea." Rosalie bent over her books again. "But they seem kinda strange…"

Strange and yet also captivating…

She suddenly remembered something. "Oh, Ari, you take the bus home every day, right?"

"Yeah, it's not so bad," I replied.

"Be careful," she said. "There's a fugitive on the run in this region."

I was stunned. "What?! Where'd you hear that?"

"My dad. Reports are going around the police station to be the alert for anything suspicious." Rosalie's dad was a cop.

"I haven't seen any news about this."

"No, it's relatively low priority right now because it happened kinda far away, like in the Mohave or something, but I think you should take care. You're running across town by yourself all the time."

"Oh…" I fidgeted. "Thanks for telling me."

She smiled warmly. "Of course, Ari. We all need to be in one piece for state—and then nationals, right?"

I grinned. "Yep, that's the plan."

Dinner plates crashed and splintered on the floor outside my room. Angry voices shouted, the chopped words firing like machine gun blasts. Someone heaved. Glass shattered. I ran to the door and flung it open. A large chef's knife was lodged in the T.V. screen. Cracks fanned out from the site of impact like a spider's web.

Two shadows pushed and shoved. A scented candle on the kitchen table wobbled and fell to the floor in the tumult. The shadows grew longer as the carpet caught on fire. Two entangled, struggling forms flickered on the walls.

The fire spread rapidly, curling its amorphous claws in my direction. Someone grabbed my hand, shocking me out of my stunned, frozen, statuesque reverie.

I turned. It was Katrina, her cropped bob bouncing up and down as she tugged me away from the wreckage.

"C'mon! We have to go!"

Her graceful figure skated to the window. My clumsy one tottered behind her. My mind spun. The yells continued to reverberate in my head. Shouts mixed with smoke. I wheezed, short of breath. I gasped for air. I coughed and spluttered.

Katrina unlatched the window and threw the sash up. She perched on the sill, preparing to dive. "Ari, jump!" she pleaded.

Water sloshed many tens of feet below. I held back. I couldn't, not from that height. And what was I going to do when I landed? I couldn't swim.

"Trust me!"

She crouched on the sill, poised. Katrina took a deep breath and sprung forward, legs straightening behind her. She pierced the water's placid surface like an arrow shot noiselessly into a deep lagoon, wasting no superfluous energy.

I shuddered at arm's length away from the windowsill. Tongues of red-hot flames licked the doorframe. Heat roared at my back. I had no choice.

Filling my lungs with air, I walked up to the open window and squeezed my eyes shut. Then, as the fire reached for my shadow, I leapt off the sill and tumbled blindly through the air. Wind rushed past my face. The currents sang.

I smelled dry dust instead of chlorine and realized too late that the pool was actually a set of train tracks. I hit the rails with a crunch. Excruciating pain shot up my left leg. Something felt knocked out of place. Sand and dust veiled my face.

A train whistled, barraging towards me. The train screeched. Smoke billowed from its port. The ground rumbled, rattling my bones. I saw the metal jaws of the locomotive barrel down at me, and I screamed—

—but I woke up in a cold sweat and checked the time on my phone. It was 2:47 am. My muscles trembled. Well, there goes the rest of the evening.

I lay in bed until it was time to get up for school, tediously passing the time by pushing down the memories that insisted on bubbling up. Then, I pulled on a powder blue long-sleeve, slacks, and matching light blue socks. I did my hair and my face, taking care not to press down too hard on my basketball injury. I had a migraine pounding on the side of my head, so I popped some pills with a cup of water and resigned myself to the new day.

I yawned on the way to the bus stop and tried to shake off the jittery tremors. Claren was abstractedly kicking a pebble on the sidewalk, his hands shoved into his pants pockets.

Powder could only cover so much. I hoped he wouldn't notice anything.

"Hey, Ari," he greeted me when I approached. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, and his face softened. "Did something happen to you?"

I tried to brush it off. "Slight P.E. mishap."

"The world is such a f—" he began.

I shot him a knowing look.

"—ecked up place," he ended, laughing.

I smirked. "Nice, recombinant with heck."

"I know you don't curse."

"Otherwise, I'd have to rinse my mouth out," I joked.

Claren jumped, and worry scampered across his face. "What did you hear about that?"

I was confused. "About what?"

The bus arrived, and we got in.

"Nothing. Never mind," he mumbled.

We took our seats. I cracked open the book on polar integrals that Rosalie had given me.

After a while, Claren spoke up. "Ari," he said tentatively, "are you doing anything Thursday evening?"

"Nope," I said, "you know me. The-girl-next-door all-around homebody."

"There's a dinner party on Thursday. You wanna go as my plus-one?"

I looked up. "Whoa! You got invited to a dinner party! Whose is it?"

"It's a spring semester kick-off, kinda like a meet-and-greet," he explained. "It starts at seven." He gave me the address. "You wanna come?"

I thought for a moment. It wasn't the most bougie part of town, but it also wasn't the worst. There was a bus stop in the vicinity about three-quarters of a mile away. Easily walkable in about twenty minutes. The latest that the buses ran was around 8:30—shouldn't be terrible. But the party would probably go way past that, so I'd need to leave early.

"Sure," I agreed, "but I'll probably leave around eight. I need to get home before it gets too late."

"Aw, alright…"

"I'm serious, Claren. There's a loose fugitive running around here."

He sat up. "Since when?"

"Rosalie told me, and I don't want to come face-to-face with a real-life Jean Valjean."

"Have no fear," Claren intoned. "I've got your back."

I snickered. "Agent Javert."

He swept his arm like a butler from the post-war black-and-white movies. "As you wish."

"Different book," I groaned.

He swerved back from the tangent. "But yeah, it's cool if you leave early."

I thought of something. "Wait, Claren. How're you gonna get home?"

He folded his arms and looked chill. "Ah, don't worry. I've got it under control."

The fact that my makeup was unable to fool Claren meant that it definitely would not skate past Xanexa's perspicacious eyes. I tried not to yawn when I got to the Calc room. Xe was busily sketching. A bout of dizziness hit my head, and I sat down with my temples in my hands, trying to fight off the buzzing. I felt xyr look at me.

"Something's wrong." It wasn't a question or a statement.

"Oh, just the usual…two hours of sleep," I grumbled.

"No foul?" the voice was laced with ice.

"Not really…" I lifted my head up. "I just feel like—"

"—hell," xe finished my sentence for me without changing the stoic expression carved into xyr face.

"Uh huh, exactly."

"Except you're on Earth, and this isn't hell."

"Really? Then where is it? In some fiery pit?"

Xe laughed. "That's what most of you think. No, hell is at the edge of the universe."

"What? Isn't it really cold out there? What about the one saying that the place will freeze over when time ends?"

"It's been frozen over since the beginning," xe replied with a small smile. "And it's there because there is no better justice for all the souls who gave other people h— than for them to be surrounded for eternity with absolutely nothing other than their own evil selves. No light, no air, no stars or planets or asteroids. A perfect void. Nothing."

Xe was grinning like this was a delightfully amusing conversation. The exchange was a little weird, but just a little—tolerably weird. It was, at the very least, a diversion from the havoc in my otherwise mundane life.

"So that's where all the bad souls go—to the edge of the universe?"

Xe nodded slowly.

"What about the good people? Do they go to heaven? Is it at the center of the universe?"

"Why would heaven be at the center of the universe?"

"Isn't that the opposite of the edge? Because the universe is a massive sphere, right? And heaven is the opposite of…" I left my sentence unfinished.

"So…you think that things must come in twos, yeah? That everything has its opposite?"

"Isn't that usually the case?" I asked.

Light and dark. Night and day. Fire and water. Even xyr wardrobe compared to mine.

"I used to think that, too," xe said. "Until I stopped trying to find a place that was absent of evil and instead," xe stopped to sweep back the plume of hair flopped over to one side, "learned to embrace the asymmetry that's inherent in the universe."

Xe was the one person who filled me with awe and curiosity. I wouldn't be able to pinpoint exactly why I thought xe was so fascinating. A lot of other people would think xe was plain weird, or dumb, or just not useful, and they'd end it there. But I felt like xe knew what I meant and how I felt, even if I didn't say everything. And I also thought that xe had too many amazing ways of looking at things, completely original and darkly mysterious in their novelty, that I wanted to know where xyr thoughts had come from and what xe was thinking. Most of all, I wondered what xe thought about me.

The dinner party didn't have much dinner going on at all. There was, however, a plethora of music, lights, and cups of stuff that I'd rather not touch. And a lot of people. We were packed like sardines. Sweaty, grinding sardines. The rooms smelt like a fish monger's curing room.

Everyone else was having a good time—dancing and laughing. When we first arrived at the house, Claren and I had gone around saying "hi" to the people we knew. He introduced me to a couple of the juniors who'd become his friends in the past few months, and then he went off to chat with other bros. I found some of the girls who had known Katrina, and I went over to say "hi" to them. After all my "hi"s were done, I didn't know what else to do with myself, so I found an empty seat on the sofa in the living room and sat down. I knew I needed to stretch myself socially—that was part of the reason why I had agreed to come—but I was just much better at integrating than integrating myself into that mess.

I checked the time. It was 7:46. Might as well find Claren and tell them that I was leaving.

I stood up and looked around for him, but it was he who first found me.

"Ari!" he called from a breakfast table in the next room over. He got up and walked through the archway dividing the two rooms. He squeezed through the people bumping along to the beat.

"Claren, I was just about to find you," I said. "I'm going to leave."

"Hey, Ari, we were gonna start a poker game. Wanna join?"

I glanced around at the crush of bodies, trying to stem the thumping in my head that the remixed electronic dance music was only exacerbating. "It's getting late…"

"Aw, c'mon," he begged. "It's just one game…"

What the heck. It'd been a while since I'd played poker. There was still enough time.

"Sure, I'll come. But then I really have to leave."

"No problem. We're over here." Claren grabbed my wrist, and we threaded our way through the crowd.

When we got to the table, I saw that it was Ned, one of his buddies, plus a couple other guys I didn't know. They introduced themselves. I tried to ignore Ned.

Claren introduced me, "This is Ari. She's wicked good at poker."

A deck of cards lay face down in the center of the table. Several shot glasses formed a cluster off to one side. A jug of transparent fluid sat on the floor. It looked like they were going to substitute drinks for poker chips.

I pointed at the jug. "What is that?"

Ned's friend laughed. "Relax, it's just water."

I narrowed my eyes and glanced at the shot glasses.

He hefted the jug up and uncapped the lid. "If you don't believe me, smell. We wouldn't do that. We're all underage."

I leaned forward and breathed in a whiff. Sure enough, it was only water.

"See, it's just for kicks. Worst thing that happens is you have to take a p—"

Claren jabbed the kid in the ribs.

"—use the restroom, I mean," the kid finished with a snigger.

"All set?" Ned asked.

I sat down. Claren stood behind me. "Yes, all set," I said.

I set my face into an expressionless mask and cleared my mind to start counting. One of the people I didn't know shuffled the deck and bent them into a bridge. The cards fell against each other like a waterfall. He dealt the hole cards.

I peeked at mine. Jack of clubs and ace of hearts. Not a bad hand to start out with, although the crown jewel—the royal flush—was out of the question.

The dealer burned the top card and flipped over the next three. King of diamonds. Seven of spades. Jack of hearts.

I ran over the combinations in my head. No matter what happened, I had one pair of Jacks. If another one came up, I'd have three of a kind. But someone else could still pull a straight and top that.

We went around the table, placing bets with empty shot glasses. In their version, you pull the glasses towards yourself instead of pushing the chips into the pot. I guess because the winner isn't the one who rakes in the most, but the one who ends up drinking the least.

When it was my turn, I said in a monotone voice, "Raise."

The dealer burned another card. Then, the turn came up as a Jack of spades.

Everyone had a pair of Jacks, but I was secure in a three of a kind. But a straight or flush would win over a three of a kind. If someone held a Queen, nine, or ten, they'd need one of those three to come up next to form a straight with the King and a Jack. There were other straights, too, the next most likely being with a Jack and the seven if they held mid-value cards of any suit. Or, if they had mid-value spades specifically, they could have a flush with the Jack and seven.

And if…? Dared I think it? I could pull a full house, and that would trump any straights of flushes people might have.

I calculated the probabilities mentally and made a note. I still had a chance. Especially since I was guaranteed a three of a kind. And poker involved some degree of luck, in addition to strategy. The kid before me folded.

"Raise," I said again, pulling shot glasses towards me.

The dealer burned another card and flipped over the river. Ace of diamonds. We were 100% in business.

I raised for the third time. Ned's friend folded after me.

We showed our cards. One hand was two pairs: Kings and Jacks. That beat out the other hand of two pairs: Jacks and sevens. I revealed mine. They gawked. Two aces and three Jacks. Full house, baby. I smiled, finally breaking my poker face.

I pushed my chair back and got ready to leave. "Alright, well, it was fun playing with you guys. I'm going to go now."

"What'd I tell you?" Claren smirked. "Ari is wicked good at poker. She could make a fortune in Las Vegas."

"Very funny," I said. "I'm not old enough."

Ned gestured towards my empty shot glasses. "How do you want your bet split up?" he asked me.

I hadn't thought they were actually serious about that. So…the winner got to dictate who drank their share. "Oh, it doesn't matter."

I said goodbye to the poker crew and, turning to Claren, I said, "See you tomorrow."

He grasped my arm and replied, "Take care, Ari."

I squirmed through the dense throng of human bodies. When I was out of the stifling house, and the nightmarish, thumping bass was behind me, I directed my steps to the bus stop and began walking. The neighborhood was quiet. Night had settled in with a nippy chill. Cars were parked along the side of the road. The puddles of light cast by intermittent streetlamps felt friendly.

When I had walked some distance, I heard scuffling and muffled punches across the street. Quickly, I ducked behind the car nearest me.

"You didn't see anything!" a gruff voice hissed.

I cautiously peeked out over the car's hood. Two burly guys holding brown paper bags were kicking another person. A third young mobster was holding the victim down, pinning the punching-bag to the sidewalk. I squinted, trying to make out the forms.

Wait, I think I know them. They were some of the older officers in Alpha Psi Chi.

"You have some nerve," the person on the ground spat.

The voice chilled me. I recognized it. They were beating up Xanexa.

"Especially as we go to the same school, you douchebags."

The blood leached from my fingers and toes. What could I do? Trying to go there and break it up like a hero would only get me knocked out and pulverized into human SPAM. But it was also wrong—almost as despicable as Ned Asper's gym ambush—to sit here like a coward and do nothing.

"We'll make sure you don't go around saying things!"

Feet landed on flesh. The guys grunted with hatred. My stomach twisted. This was so wrong.

"Sons of b—es" I heard xyr snarl.

That was when I sprang up and leapt into a shadowy patch of the sidewalk, not so dark that I blended into the darkness, but not bright enough for the thugs to see who I was, either. I took my phone out of my zippered jacket pocket and held it to my ear.

The kicking and punching stopped.

"Dude, I think someone's calling the cops," one of the guys said.

In that moment, Xanexa wrenched xyrself free, grabbed something from behind xyr ear, and zapped the legs of the guy who had been kicking xyr. He howled and cursed, hobbling on one leg. Xe reached for the guy who had been holding xyr down, but he grabbed his electrified friend's arm, and the three of them sprinted away. Their feet pounded on the concrete sidewalk towards the party house.

I stepped into the circle of lamplight. Xanexa sat up and brushed the dust from xyr clothes with disdain. Xe looked in my direction and stopped.

I looked left and right, and I crossed the street.

"Ari?" xe said with surprise. "You're here?"

"Going home after a poker game." I stood next to xyr and held out a hand. "Those dudes were not cool."

I felt a hand burning with the heat of dry ice settle in mine. As I helped xyr up, my thumb brushed over a raised scar on xyr wrist, and I flinched. I looked down at xyr wrist. I couldn't see too clearly on the dusky streets, but I thought I saw similar scars running from xyr wrist up xyr forearm. Scarred wrists and arms… Wh—

When xe had stood up, xe frowned and pulled down the rumpled sleeves of xyr black hoodie.

Did that mean…? No, that couldn't be. Surely, xe wouldn't do that. But was that why xe usually wore gloves? To hide the—

I didn't ask. Xe didn't offer any information.

Xe pivoted and started walking. I noticed it was in the same direction as the bus stop, so I padded along beside xyr.

We walked in silence for some time, Xanexa sulking and me trying to avoid ticking xyr off, before I finally asked, "Why were they beating you up?"

Xe snorted sardonically. "Because I saw them absconding with some bad goodies."

"Do you live around here?" It seemed logical enough.

"No, I was passing through."

"Are you going to the bus station?" I sure hoped xe wouldn't think I was annoying.

"No. Are you?"

"Yep. I have to go home."

"I'll walk you there. It's on the way."

"To where you live?" I wondered if xyr parents would raise a complaint with the school about those three thugs. They probably wouldn't, if Rosalie was correct, and xyr parents were always away, flying about the country on fancy business trips.


"Do you have a taser?" I couldn't tell if xe was getting angry or still fuming about the loaded thugs.

Xe looked at me askance. "Sure." The scorpion curled around xyr ear glinted in the low light.

"Have you been tased before?"

"Who would possibly want to?"

"I've heard you have to be tased to own a taser," I said.

Xe shrugged.

We were nearing the bus stop. I spun to face xyr. The stop was better lit than the neighborhood, but I couldn't see any welts or bruises forming on xyr exposed skin. Then again, the dark hoodie and jeans covered mostly everything.

"Are you okay?" I was concerned. If not for what had just happened, for the things that xe stubbornly kept hidden from the world.

Xe looked sad and slightly taken aback. I had the sense that xe redacted a lot of things in xyr mind before finally saying, "Yes, Ari. I'll be fine. Don't worry about me."

I didn't believe xyr, but I didn't want to press, so we waited in silence together until the bus came. I got in and waved from the window. Before the bus pulled away, xe smiled and flashed the sign, PEACE.