“Alright everyone, get into groups and work on these handouts,” Mr. Stevens said, holding up a packet of busywork.
The class broke down into a chaos, with students either finding friends to socialize with while working, or to find someone who was smart enough to mooch off of.
As for me, I elected to keep my head down. If anyone wanted to be my partner, they could my guest. But they’d have to come to me.
“Alexis,” I heard Mr. Stevens, warning me. “Get up and start moving.”
Maybe later, I thought.
“Heads up,” I heard close to me. A weight pushed into my side, and forced me over the edge of my chair. They wanted to sit right up close.
I kept my response to only one word. “Why.”
I raised my head, and saw Katy. That would mean that Katy was in the first category of students, and I was in the second.
“Come on,” she said, “This packet won’t do itself. But that’d be cool if it did.”
I nuzzled my nose back into the crook of my arm. Hopefully that would be enough of a signal for her to leave me alone.
“Nope, you’re getting up!” She pulled at the collar of my jacket, choking me as it tightened around my neck. I coughed as I got up.
“Alright, alright! Geez.”
“There you are. God, you really do look awful.”
I wasn’t particularly offended, since even I knew that was true. I looked and felt like crap. My eyes were baggy, my hair unkempt, and I wasn’t exactly smelling like roses, despite having taken a shower. The only reason why I even came to school to simply fill the societal contract of attendance. If I had it my way, I’d be in bed for all eternity.
“Are you sick or anything? Cramps?” She leaned in to my ear, bringing her voice to a whisper. “Period?”
The sound of her voice so close to my ear made me jump. “No! That’s not until…” I looked up in thought, going through a calendar in my head. “No, wait, shut up!”
I punched her in the arm.
“Ow!” She recoiled, threatening to fall out of the chair. She was obviously being overdramatic, but I sensed a hint of truth in her yelp. I sensed it in my arm, too.
“Wow, seriously,” she said, rubbing her arm, “Volleyball really did do some wonders for you.”
I grunted, but I didn’t say anything, letting her come to her own conclusions. I wasn’t about to correct her.
“Anyways,” she said, picking up the packet, “As much as I’d like to work on this, oh, hi.”
I turned in the direction she was looking.
A boy had come up to us. Danny was his name. He wore a colorful, almost painfully bright shirt and skinny jeans. His hair was long, bangs covering one eye, and thin white lines extended from where his ears were supposed to be. The room was loud with people, but I could hear the music blasting from his head. Earphones, most likely.
He gave off the impression that he got the short end of the stick, having been unable to acquire a partner.
“Can I work with you guys?” he asked, under a soft breath. I almost didn’t see his mouth move.
“Uh, yeah, sure.” I mumbled in response. I looked to Katy if she was okay with a third wheel.
“Whatever,” she said. There was something there, in her tone. Annoyance?
He grabbed a chair and sat on one end of my desk, taking out his earphones and swooping his hair with a flick of his head as he sat down.
We got right to work.
“Uh,” an odd, awkward squeak came out of Danny. “What does this part mean?” He pointed to a line on his copy of the packet. I read it over, out loud.
“Find three key themes that are prevalent throughout the work, and explain what rhetorical strategies are used. Provide examples from the text.”
“I have no clue,” I said, my voice suddenly going hoarse, forcing me to clear it. “I didn’t actually read the book. Not really good at English. I mean, I am, obviously, you know what I mean.”
He shook his head, not really paying any attention to what I said. “Thought so.”
You know, maybe there was a reason why no one wanted to be your partner, I mused. No, I shook my head. No, that was just me being grouchy.
“Oh, this? It was written in 1925, in Soviet Russia. One of the themes we can use is about how it’s impossible to change human nature. We’ve been talking a lot on extended metaphors, repetition, and analogies, in class, so I think examples of that will be the easiest to find.
Danny cocked his head in confusion, looking at Katy. “Whoa, what?”
“Yup,” I popped in, “Katy’s a genius.”
Katy was the definition of not judging a book by its cover. Especially since her ‘cover’ was so overpowering, it hardly suggested another side to her. She was energetic, loud, outgoing to a fault, which would land her in trouble more times than I could count. Falling asleep on a couch in a house she wasn’t familiar with after one too many drinks was only one of the many ways she’d test disaster.
Maybe genius wasn’t the right word, after all.
“Stop,” Katy said, waving a hand. “I’m not that smart.”
“Are you sure?” I replied back with a question, “What’s your class ranking again?”
She looked down. “Twenty.”
“Twenty?” Danny’s jaw looked like it was about to collide with the floor. Alright, that was a bit of an overreaction, but I could see where he was coming from. No one would expect someone like her to be as good at school as she was.
“I just said it was nothing.”
“Nah, by next year, she could be the valedictorian, if she really wanted to,” I said to Danny.
“Really?” Danny shot a dumbfounded look at Katy.
“Stop it.” Katy blushed. This was a side of her that I didn’t see very often, might as well take advantage of it.
She continued, as though to answer for her hidden intelligence. “School work is such a drag. If I can get it done quickly and correctly the first time, then that just gives me more time for myself.”
To translate, I thought to myself, Gives you more time to play around.
“Really, valedictorian?” Danny asked, still reeling from the revelation.
Katy shrugged. “I guess, if I really wanted to. But that’s not the point. Also, for in-state colleges, I only need to be in the top ten percent of the class in order to be automatically accepted. I don’t need to be the best, I just need to be good enough.”
Sunken eyes and sullen grimace aside, I was content at the moment. I was well aware of all the vitriol that mentality had earned Katy. The student body’s intellectual elite failed in hiding their loathing, mostly due to how little she resembled them. She didn’t stay after school for tutorials, didn’t do any extra credit, rarely interacted with teachers, or participate in any late night study sessions. She simply did the bare minimum of what was asked for her, and it landed her that high of a position. I bet they considered it an insult that she hadn’t tried to get the top spot. For all their effort, she could easily swoop in and take it all away. But she didn’t, and gamed them all by relaxing at the bottom. The smart kids might have hated her for it, but I thought it was pretty hilarious.
Katy picked the packet back up and slapped the desk with it. “Alright, alright, enough about me. Let’s just get this thing done.”
Danny and I agreed with a nod, and returned to working. After a minute or two, all I accomplished was twirling my pencil around my fingers twice.
Breaking up the monotony, Katy said, “There’s something I wanted to bring up before…” she trailed off, glancing to Danny.
“And that is?” I ventured.
“We’re still on for later, right? After school?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll skip practice.”
Katy gave me thumbs up. “Thanks, means a lot. I’m going to need that super strength of yours.”
I brushed some loose strands of hair behind an ear. “What?” I asked, trying to hide my rapidly growing concern the best I could.
“Like, some backup, another body.”
I bit my tongue before speaking again. “Oh, I’m worried about her, too, you know. I’d go without you asking.”
Katy groaned. “I know. I just hate that Maria keeps us at arm’s length. She’s been like that for as long as we’ve known her.”
“I feel you,” I said.
“And when you try to prod, try to get her to open up, she just pushes us even further. Like, she hasn’t been responding to my texts, and I bet she’s been skipping school just to avoid us. Like, what the-” she stopped, mostly to compose herself, and because Danny briefly gave her a glance. She exhaled, air harshly escaping out from her nostrils.
I was too exhausted to be as worked up as Katy, but I understood her frustration. Katy hadn’t seen Maria since the party, and only received vague, unclear details about what happened after seeing her so shaken up, and after a lengthy argument to try and get more from her, Maria left the place in a huff, speeding off in her car. She was okay, it seemed.
Of course, I learned of all of this after the fact. I didn’t return to the house until much, much later.
But, we compared notes, in a sense. Katy and I. She told me about Maria after-the-fact, and I tried to give as much details about Maria’s attacker as I could without outing myself, attributing it as secondhand information.
Combining that with common sense, the nature of that incident was disgustingly apparent. I hated how much it stared us in the face.
“Maybe she doesn’t want us to worry over her,” I brought up, alluding to shared conclusion, “Maybe she doesn’t want us to get involved.”
“Maybe,” Katy said, “But I want to get involved, even if it inconveniences her, even if she doesn’t want us to.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” I mentioned, “You know how she is.”
“I was going for stubborn, actually.”
“Same difference,” Katy said, “But my point remains. She doesn’t tell us anything, and I’m kind of tired of it. Especially if she gets hurt over it. We’ve known her for how long, now, like, since the start of high school?”
“Something like that.”
“And what? I feel like I barely know her, half the time. Most of the time. It’s ridiculous. I wish she’d tell us something, anything.”
I didn’t respond to that. At the same time, I could also sympathize with Maria. There were definitely some things I wouldn’t be so privy to share.
Now, more than ever.
Katy tapped a finger on the desk, quickly and loudly. “I’m just ready to get out of class. Wanna hurry and find her and- oh yeah.”
We had gotten so enraptured in our talk, we forgot about Danny and the packet.
“Hope you don’t mind a little bit of girl talk?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Are you talking about Maria? Maria González?
Katy made a face, slightly perplexed. Finally, Danny said something that seemed to pique her interest.
“What of it?”
“I have math with her. She was in class, today.”
Katy leaned forward, her face twisting into something that wasn’t so pretty. Anger?
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, she was arguing with the teacher about not doing her homework. Normally, she’s pretty cool, but yeah.”
Sounds like her.
Katy crossed her arms, and faced me. “Unbelievable. She’s actually avoiding us.”
“That’s… annoying,” I said, meaning it. I could see why she wanted some distance, but avoiding us outright? Not cool.
Katy frowned, “I’m so going to kill her.”
“Hey,” Mr. Stevens said, interrupting Katy and reminding us of where we were. “No killing. Get back to work.”
That was enough of a reminder for us to do just that. We finished the remainder of the packet in no time, largely thanks to Katy. We finished early, turned it in to Mr. Stevens, and there wasn’t much to do but sit and wait for the bell. Danny promptly returned to his desk without a word.
Eventually, the school day ended, and I followed Katy to her car.
“You know,” she told me as we dropped off our bags, “The one bit of info she’s shared with us, and it’s this.”
“Maybe we’re the idiots,” I said.
The plan was something Katy and I discussed during lunch earlier, with Maria being absent and all. A simple plan, but sometimes they were the hardest to execute.
Find Maria, and talk to her.
We headed there, walking off campus. Not exactly a place I frequented, but I knew about it.
The Strip, a nickname for the line of businesses that was within walking distance from the school. A pizza joint, barber shop, old-school arcade, laundromat, BBQ joint, in that order, covered. It was a popular spot for skaters, stoners, and slackers to go and waste time at.
It also attracted another specific set of kids with specific hobbies.
A particular group was crowded around the door of the arcade, a few guys, but mostly girls. They varied in terms of appearance, from the different colors of their clothing, to how they wore their hair or other accessories, they all suggested the same thing.
Some type of gang affiliation.
Maria had mentioned, a while back, that she occasionally hung around here. Until just recently, I didn’t think about what could’ve possibly meant. It wasn’t like every student who frequented here repped some kind of gang. At worst, I considered Maria to be one of the slackers.
They looked over us as we approached, not alarmed, not tense. Prepared. A certain glimmer in their eye.
Like we were some type of prey.
“Yes?” one of them asked. A black girl, in a white shirt. “How may I help you?”
Katy took the lead. “Looking for a friend. Sad to say, but chances are you might know her. Hangs here sometimes.”
“Gotta give me a name, first.”
“I know a lot of Marias.” The girl’s tone grated, intentionally needling. I cringed at every word she said.
“Don’t have the time for that right now. It’s a common name, but there’s only one Maria who would possibly come here regularly. Couldn’t imagine why.”
The girl nodded, slowly, like she was mocking us. “Oh, that Maria.”
“It’s taking a lot of time to get an answer out of you. Has she been around, or not?”
The girl raised her hands. “Don’t know, not like I frequent here, either. You just caught me at a bad time.”
One of the boys in the group brought his hand up to his face. A joint. He inhaled, and blew the smoke up into the air. Somehow, most of it went to us, forcing Katy to flinch, and I fanned the air in front of me.
“Why are you so curious? You gonna get your daddy to lock up all these guys? Ruin all these families?”
I looked over Katy. So much for keeping that on the down-low. Her hands were on her hips, her chin up. She was still holding her ground.
“Do I know you? I’m just looking for my friend.”
“Oh my friggin’ goodness,” the girl whined. “You said it was taking long time to get an answer out of me, but it’s taking even longer for you to realize you’re not wanted. Why don’t you and shorty there just turn around and go?”
She didn’t give Katy a chance to counter. She brought out her hand, about to push Katy square in the chest.
It stopped halfway.
All eyes were on me.
“Look,” I said, dry, wholly uninterested in this contest of egos. “We came here wanting to know a single piece of information. A simple yes or no question. Is that so hard?”
The girl’s glare was threatening, but she kept quiet. Her hand was still out, but I had her by the wrist.
She wasn’t going to say anything, not anytime soon.
I rolled my eyes. “Congratulation, you win. We’ll be going now. And you want to know how you can help me? Keep your hands to yourself.” I squeezed her wrist, just a bit.
The girl’s eyes went wide, big as saucers. I let go, and she immediately brought her hand close, massaging her forearm.
“No chill, Alexis, but it works,” Katy murmured to me, playfully.
The other girl, though, was seething. “You…”
“Hey! What the hell are you doing?”
We all turned.
Maria. In the flesh. She rushed at us, and in her gold-colored shirt, she looked like a bolt of lightning.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked again, clearly pissed.
“We can’t say hi?” Katy said, ignoring her question. “Nice place.”
Maria turned her scowl to me.
“Her idea,” I said, pointing to Katy.
“Come on, can we move this elsewhere?” Katy suggested.
“No,” Maria grunted, before looking at the group behind us, and waving them away. “Shoo.”
They somehow complied, walking farther down the Strip. Plenty of side-eyes were cast our way as they left, from that particular girl, especially. But I no longer cared to spare her another thought.
All three of us stood in a triangle formation, each of us taking our own corners.
A few days since that night, and I finally saw Maria again. Time didn’t give her a reprieve, either. Her appearance was as bad as mine. Her eyes were sunken, tired. Her hair and makeup weren’t up to her usual standard, and she was just overall haggard. It sucked to see her so disarrayed.
Katy spoke up first, “To answer your question in a timely manner, you weren’t going to let us come to you? Then, we’d force you to come to us.”
“Bitch,” Maria said, matter-of-factly.
Katy frowned. “Funny. Could say the same to you. Certainly have the heart of one.”
“Just go home.” Maria gestured at me, “Both of you.”
“How about you?” I asked, “Didn’t see your car parked on the way here.”
Maria hesitated, stopped in her tracks. “I’m being picked up.”
“By who? Your mom?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Why can’t we!” Katy pleaded, “The more you keep doing this, the more worried we’re going to get.”
“I said don’t worry about it.”
“Tell me about what happened at the party.”
Maria’s lit up with a fusion surprise and anger, and immediately went for Katy.
“I said go!”
“Hold it,” I interrupted, coming in between them before things escalated. I had my hands up, palms facing outward, like I was surrendering. “I know how you’re feeling right now, but try to get where Katy’s coming from. We’ve been friends for a minute, now, but sometimes, we hardly feel like we know you. You keep us at a distance, and then when something happens, we don’t know what to do. Like with that guy? He was definitely trouble, and not there might not be a time when someone will be around to help.”
She squinted at me. “How do you know about that?”
I slipped up. “No, I’m just saying. You’re lucky you were by a house full of people. People who could hear any commotion.”
She shrugged it away. “Yeah, it doesn’t matter. You don’t know what to do because there ain’t nothing you can do. Nothing you should do.”
“And that doesn’t matter, too,” Katy said, staying firm. “Doesn’t matter if we can’t do anything, but we still want to know. Even if it’s bad.” She pointed to me. “Look at Alexis. Almost the same thing happened a week ago. At she knows that she can chalk it up to alcohol poisoning.”
My eyes went up, looking away for a second.
There was a lull in the conversation, a pause that Katy had to break with a suggestion. “Look, I’m sorry we had to call you out like, but I wouldn’t do it unless I thought it was important enough. You don’t even have to tell us about that night, just tell me something, anything.”
I observed Maria, trying to make sense of any movement. She folded her arms, and she exuded irritation.
Maria questioned us. “Why do you care so much?”
Before either of us could take that opening, a car pulled up behind Maria. A nice car. Not as nice as Katy’s, but nice.
It honked, twice.
“Who is that?” Katy asked.
“My ride,” Maria said, turning around. “I’m leaving.”
Katy took a step. “Let me introduce myself-”
Maria spun back, enough to stop Katy, and put me on alert. She pointed a sharp nail to her nose.
Katy was frozen, not afraid, but disappointed. There was no winning this, not anymore.
Maria turned her back to us, and got in the car. It drove off.
Katy and I watched it go. Watched the car take Maria away from us.
“Did you get a chance to see who was inside?” Katy asked.
“No. Windows were tinted, and I wasn’t at a good angle to see inside when the door was open. You?”
“Kind of. Young guy, skinny. Couldn’t see the face.”
That’s good, I managed to think, Less of a chance of it being that guy from the party.
“I saw his sleeve, though,” Katy continued, “On his jacket. A symbol.”
“You recognize it?”
That’s not good.
“Then, that’s it,” I said. “We’ll have to fight that battle another day.”
“How? Dang, it really was obvious right from the start. If she’s getting herself into that kind of trouble, what could we hope to do?”
I didn’t have an answer for her.