THE NOONDAY SURVIVOR
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“Dad,” I nearly whispered into his room, quietly sliding the door open. I was embarrassed. This felt like the type of thing kids would have problems with. Not a full grown adult! I felt so stupid, but I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t stand it anymore, couldn’t live like this. If I didn’t tell someone I would burst.
And to do that, I’d need Dad’s help. But, talk to him? About this? God no.
David Meadows was shorter than me as of last year, but that had never made a difference. He was shorter than Mom too, but some people didn’t need height to be tall. He’d been putting on even more muscle lately, a result of his recent desire to stay fit. He had a wide face and perpetually squinting eyes, as if the world was always just a bit too bright. He wasn’t balding though, and his hair was as black as I could ever remember.
He was busy in his bedroom when I entered, drawing even at this early hour of the morning. He was an artist by trade, and a ridiculously good one. For some reason, he never seemed to make as much money as I thought he deserved, but he’d always been content with what he did make.
“Hey Dad.” I called at a normal tone, surprised to find him awake. He normally slept right through my breakfast and we wouldn’t see each other until I got home most of the time, but apparently something had made him wake up early today.
“Bran! Hey there, Hero! I was hoping you would stop in before you left for school. ” He was almost ready to say something else but he paused as he looked up from his sketch pad through a pair of golden framed glasses.
He started in surprise. He had almost scratched his page. I must have looked worse than I thought. “Are you alright? You don’t really look so good.”
He instantly stood from his desk and put a hand to my forehead as if checking for a fever.
“I’m not feeling so good.” I said, allowing him to be sure that it wasn’t a sickness that was bugging me. Well, at least not the flu, or a strep throat.
How to do this? How to tell this? My hands were shaking, and I licked my lips. “I haven’t felt very good for the past two weeks.”
“It’s still bothering you,” he stated. Not a question.
“This must really be eating you up, Bran,” He said worriedly. I used to be annoyed at the shortening of my name but I guess it didn’t really matter anymore.
“There’s more to it than just Clara, Dad. I… Could…?” Each word was a fight against embarrassment and social stigma, but this couldn’t go on. I just had to talk to someone, so I pressed forward. “Could I see a therapist?”
I sound like such a sissy when I say it out loud.
Dad blinked. Whatever he had been expecting, that hadn’t been it. I trusted him with everything, but somehow I felt that if he knew I’d been having nightmares he’d lose respect for me. As if he couldn’t tell already. But that thin veneer of pretending that I just couldn’t sleep was enough to keep at least a little of my pride.
Nightmares. As if this is anything so simple.
“You can’t tell me about it?” He asked. Therapy was expensive. It was hard to blame him, but I just couldn’t talk to him. It had to be some latent psychological issue, and I doubted anyone but a therapist could figure it out in the first place.
I thought I’d be able to get over the whole thing, but every time I tried, I couldn’t help but think it had been my fault. I’d seen a few little signs, hints, but hadn’t been willing to believe them until the issue was shoved right in my face. Maybe it was the guilt that was causing these vivid dreams.
“I don’t think you can help with this one, Dad.”
He stared at me for a long moment, and then nodded, putting down the thick wooden pencil which most of his drawings gained life from. “You’re not asking to see the school counselor or something like that, are you? Someone professional. The nightmares are that bad?”
I flushed and scowled simultaneously. “Not having nightmares.”
Truth. Sort of.
I like them way too much to call them nightmares. Those places…
Dad only sighed.
“What she did isn’t your fault, Brandon,” he told me with finality. Dad had a very brash personality. He gave me my space, but he made sure I knew he loved me. Even to the point of his own discomfort at times. It was only in this past year that I really felt like I’d earned his respect though. Maybe it was just my age, or maybe it was just how I’d gone out of my way to help him cut down the fallen trees out of Mrs. Kellerman’s yard after that weird inland hurricane over the summer. Whatever it was, there was a… difference. I didn’t want to lose that by whining about my vivid dreams, and my lingering guilt.
But I had to talk to someone.
“Money’s a little tight but I’ll see what I can do.” He laid a hand on my shoulder, and gave me a smile. “If you do want to talk, your mother and I are always here though. Just keep us in mind, alright?”
Talking to Dad was unthinkable. Mom would’ve been even worse. Sure, she would’ve tried but in the end she probably would just try to… science me. I suppressed a shudder as I returned his smile. “Yeah, Dad. And I’ll help pay. Is… half okay?”
Dad’s eyes really did widen then. He reached out to my forehead again, this time with an eyebrow arched incredulously. I batted it away when I realized what he was doing. “Well, your forehead’s just fine but Hell seems to have frozen over.”
“I…” I trailed off, not certain what I’d been about to say. I wanted to laugh. I really did, but the situation was too serious. He seemed to catch on quickly, and smoothed the joke over.
“Don’t worry about it, Brandon. The fact that you’re willing to pay anything makes me pretty sure you’re not joking about this.”
I wasn’t. If I could afford it, I’d pay every penny and not even tell Dad, but a part time job at a truck stop wasn’t going to be enough to cover it. I was barely managing to keep up on the car payments. I’d probably have to give up the MMOs for a while. That was for the best anyway. I needed to concentrate on my running.
I returned the smile. As I stepped out of the room I told him softly, “Yeah, Dad. Thanks.”
I turned and stepped back out into the hallway, making for the kitchen when I heard the garage door begin to open or close. Mom was already going to work. Some friends of mine, Monroe and April, had always found it weird that Mom worked a regular 7 to 3 while Dad stayed home all day but I’d grown up that way. It had never felt odd to me.
I yawned, pouring myself a bowl of cereal. I normally didn’t have enough time in the morning to eat breakfast. I was perpetually late, but my homeroom teacher, Mr. Bales, liked me enough that I could usually get away with being only a few minutes tardy.
He’d let me off of skipping class entirely a few times over the past few weeks. No one blamed him. Even so, I didn’t like the pitying looks my friends had started giving me when they thought I wasn’t looking. It wasn’t as if anything had happened to me.
Except it’s still bothering me two weeks later.
I ruthlessly shoved the thought away as I sat at the table and started eating my Cheerios.
“Morning,” More a groan than a word, filtered through lethargic lips from down the hallway.
The word was followed by the grumpy and disheveled form of Abigail, my younger sister. Her normally shining blonde hair was clumpy and frizzy mess at the moment, but she was gunning for the bathroom. I knew that within a half hour that hilarious mess of hair would shine like the sun.
“You seem cheerful,” I murmured. I probably looked even worse than she did.
“Nnngh… So’s your face,” was her intelligent reply. She didn’t even glance at me, eyes trained on the bathroom and the shower that would transform her from a wookie into a real person.
I grinned. I could always count on Gale to see me the same. No change in how she saw me whatsoever!
Gale was a freshman now, joining me in high school for only one year. I would graduate in May and be bound for Missouri State by September, especially if my track scholarship went through. With the way I was running lately though, that seemed more and more unlikely. I just hadn’t been able to sleep the same, and it was affecting my run times as well as my homework.
I continued getting ready with the few more preparations I had left after breakfast. Namely my own shower, brushing my teeth, and shaving which admittedly, I probably didn’t need.
When I was finally ready, I moved to grab my backpack from the floor of my bedroom before realizing that there was no reason yet. It was only five after seven, and class didn’t start for an hour and a half. I could make the bus if I wanted to.
Gale took the bus as often as she rode with me. The bus was more reliable than I was but showing up in a car was cooler. If I were on time a little more often, I suspected she would never ride the bus. There was a stigma with that, but Gale cared more about her grades than her social standing. She took being late more seriously than I did.
I was up earlier than her at the moment, though. She’d almost certainly be riding with me today. In fact, she had done so every day for the past two weeks now.
Ugh, why is this bugging me so much? It wasn’t my fault!
I had to do something. Work off the restless energy still lingering from my dream. For a moment, I considered changing into slacks and going for a run on the treadmill but then I would undoubtedly be late. So I was stuck in one of those limbo moments. Not enough time to start anything fun, but too much time to not feel bored.
It was surprising how often those happened.
I grabbed my backpack and made my way to the dining room table and turned it, on, the display in the center lighting up with a blank tab from the browser. Maybe a few memes would cheer me up. Ten minutes later I shut the thing back off though. Dry, dull, and boring. I glanced outside noting that the Sun still hadn’t reached the hills yet. It would be hot but maybe I could find something to do while I still had a few minutes.
Should be alright as long as I stick to the shade. It’s early yet.
I slid the thick door open and stepped out into the dry heat of early October. Damn. Today would be a scorcher. It had to be at least a hundred degrees and it wasn’t even eight yet.
Our yard was a great five acre grassland on the outskirts of town, and a pain in the ass to keep mowed. Untouched Prairie stretched for miles beyond behind our property to the east, until it reached a thin line of trees on a tall hill. Our closest neighbors, the Daniels, lived behind those trees but we’d never dared cross the grasslands between directly. Too many snakes. Gale swore up and down that she saw a bug the size of a dog once, and the Daniels’ youngest son, Matt, had been attacked by something when he’d wandered in there on a dare a few years ago.
That was more than enough for me to steer well clear. I’d stick to the lawn and roads, and go inside.
Near the middle of our property was a big tree, one of the few old trees that still showed some green every winter. I liked to climb the thing in the early hours. Something about the thrill of it. Especially since once I reached the top I could see the Scorched Lands, far to the south.
I didn’t have time for anything like that though. The sun was too close to rising. A thrill was one thing. Stupidity, quite another.
I wandered around the yard for a little while, just passing the time. Sweat beaded on my brow as the temperature slowly rose with the sun. I probably would have to go inside before eight. Still, I took my time and leaned against my favorite tree right off of the driveway, and taking solace in the shade the thick trunk and thicker leaf covering provided.
I grinned as I spotted a good four foot long stick on the ground and picked it up. For a few minutes I waved it around, laughing at the thought, and trying to pretend I didn’t want to beat the crap out of something with it. My own subconsciousness could use a few swift smacks.
The dreams aren’t real. Get a grip.
Like a kid playing at sword-fighting, I flung the stick around a few times for laughs, and found myself having fun, striking dandelions and tree branches. It felt cathartic. Almost everything was a potential target, as long as it wasn’t green. I left the occasional patch of green grass alone. Those were rare, and had to be preserved before they inevitably died under the harsh heat.
I may as well have been in a trance. The dance, the feel of wooden grip, the sweat, the adrenaline mixed with memories of fighting my best friend when we were both younger. Before he moved away. His parents had been wealthy. Gale and I had always called them ‘richers’ behind their backs. Turned out that wealth let them move to Minnesota, or maybe even Canada. We’d fallen out of touch.
My grip on the stupid stick tightened.
“You’re weird, Bran,” Gale’s voice shocked me out of my trance and I dropped the sword. Stick. I dropped the stick. Just like that, the finesse, the feelings, all vanished as if they had never been.
Sheepishly, I tried to come up with an excuse but my mind was blank. Yes. I was weird. And getting weirder by the day.
“Stop horsing around! It’s time to go! You’re going to be on time for once if we leave now! Plus the sun is almost up!”
I stuck my tongue out at her. Childish, maybe, but she was a child so it was fine. She didn’t react, and instead, slammed the door behind her as she turned back inside the house.
I walked back towards the door, grumbling as I realized I’d probably need another shower.
Fifteen minutes later, my sister and I sat on the cozy and not-at-all sunburned seats of my Chevy Meridian. One of the newest cars at school and, even though Dad was helping me pay half the car payment each month, it was not easy on my savings.
When I’d started driving Gale to school with me though, Mom had insisted, and really, who was I to turn down assistance with paying for a top of the line vehicle? I suppose there was some comfort in knowing I was the least likely student in the school to have a breakdown. When a car break out in the country could mean death that was a big deal.
When we pulled out of the garage, the sun was already blazing hot. The light reflecting through the glass was scalding for a moment before the auto dampner’s kicked in and the AC blasted us, as usual. Gale shivered as the temperature went from hot to chilled almost instantly but I only grinned at her discomfort. I was wearing a sweatshirt in preparation for the cool air conditioning. God I loved my car.
The strange haze from burning tar and sizzling street-tops in the distance blurred the road just a little. The sun baked country had long since dried the trees until only the deepest of winter made them grow green any longer. I could remember a time when they were supposed to be green in summer but I’d barely been old enough to write then.
The occasional cactus and quite a few small palm trees dotted the road. Their leaves and the grass were the only color to offset the dead yellow of the prairie and the pitch black of the road.
I drove fast, edging upwards of fifty miles per hour once I got onto Baker Street. Idle tires could pop if left on that baking ground for too long once the sun rose. Best to keep moving. I knew all the rules by now though.
We drove in relative silence, Gale playing with the mirror and some sort of eye liner or mascara or something. I didn’t pay much attention to those sort of things, and had settled into the rhythm of diving. It was only about a twenty minute drive in to school anyway.
As we passed the few traffic lights that still hung, forever unlit, I wondered what it was like for people like my Mom and Dad who remembered when they were still in use? I laughed a little at the though. How weird would it be to be able to turn left? Cars used to do that, or so I’d been told.
“Are you okay, Brandon?” Gale asked suddenly.
I sighed in exasperation. “You too?”
“Yeah, me too,” she said as if admitting to a fault. “We’re… worried. Everyone is. Even my friends at school are worried about you.”
“They should be worried about Clara. I’m alright, Gale. I’m fine even,” I lied. It ate at me that I hadn’t even noticed the girl’s troubles until it was too late. I had always prided myself on knowing people. I loved talking, being social and having a huge group of friends. I was proud to say that I’d had friends in almost every ‘clique’ in the school.
I had been proud to say that. The thought felt hollow.
If I’d only gotten to know her a little better, maybe I could’ve…
No. There was no point in thinking of ‘what ifs.’ What was done, was done. All I could do was hope she managed to get better, and try to be there for her if she did.
“You’re acting different. You don’t talk as much. You stopped visiting us during your free hour,” she insisted. Her voice went lower, conspiratorial. “I’d even heard you yelled at Haley.”
I grimaced. I’d intended to pay them a visit today but she was right. I hadn’t stopped by. I’d been spending my free hour alone, trying to think of ways I could’ve helped Clara beforehand, or avoiding my friends. Last Tuesday I actually did homework, just to try and stop thinking about it.
Maybe she did have reason to be worried. Dammit.
Then, the name my sister had used registered, and I narrowed my eyes, glaring at the road and seething.
“Haley is a bitch. I’m ashamed I ever liked her,” I said succinctly, trying to make the partial lie into a truth in my mind. She was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met. Apparently, being pretty was enough to make her think she was better than everyone else. I’d avoided her for almost a week now and she still didn’t know why. I didn’t even want to talk to her anymore. The one time I had, I’d barely been able to hide my anger. Apparently word had gotten around.
“Really? What did she do? She’s always seemed really nice to me,” Gale asked, surprised.
“I always thought so too. It’s an act. Overheard her talking with some of her friends just before the Clara thing,” I told my sister as I made another slow right turn, merging into the flowing traffic with ease. “What Clara did is probably Haley’s fault.”
I wanted to drop the subject.
I tried to turn my thoughts to happier things and chuckled as I spotted our school bus two cars ahead of me. Its massive metal roof and thick layered tires, along with special tinted windows and a coating shell that could be deployed whenever the driver wanted made it one of the few vehicles able to handle a breakdown even noonday heat.
More importantly, if we were right with the bus then we’d definitely be on time today!
“Real good act,” Gale murmured, glancing at one of the many banners for team spirit and sportsmanship that Haley had been in charge of making as we drove past, hanging on the side of an old gas station.
I wasn’t paying attention anymore though as we turned around the next bend onto Main Street. I stared hard beyond the treeline and was just barely able to make out the enormous structure in the distance.
The Tellroan Industrial Power Plant was due for activation this coming month. After ten years of construction it was finally going to be turned on. If estimates were right, it should be enough to handle the power needs for the entire state. Maybe more.
If it worked as they said it would, it would save thousands of lives, too.
The tower was a great silver monolith. It was miles outside the town but that hardly mattered. As long as there wasn’t a woods or a hill in the way you could glimpse it from a hundred miles. Towering as tall as some of the world’s largest mountains, it was a new form of power plant. In theory they would make all others obsolete.
It was incredible, but I’ve been told it wasn’t even the most amazing one. That honor belonged to the Seventh tower they were building deep within the Scorched Lands. Old Texas. The Scorched Lands had swallowed it before it could be completed though.
Seven towers like Tellroan, but thousands of other, smaller towers that would link them all together. They would absorb sunlight. Make the world right again. Some of the older folks even joked that they’d get to move back to Arkansas, or even Florida, though I didn’t believe that.
I was still thinking about it ten minutes after I’d lost sight of the tower and was pulling into the great seven story garage that hosted the students who could drive to school. I lucked out in parking, managing to get a spot on the third floor today rather than the seventh where they tended to park the overflow students who didn’t make it on time. I never understood that. If you were late, they made you later by forcing you to park further away. That had always seemed stupid to me.
My sister and I left the car. She winced a little at the wash of heat that accompanied the step back into even the air conditioned interior of the parking lot, but for some reason, I didn’t even feel it anymore.
Man. Maybe there really is something those stupid rumors. It almost feels pleasant in here.
“Hey I’m going home with Stacy and Odette tonight so you don’t have to worry about me, okay?” Gale said in a way that was less a question and more informing me how things were going to be.
“Dad knows.” She cut me off. “I’m not stupid.”
“Just making sure. Dad’ll kill me if I leave you here again, and Mom will probably throw me straight into the noonday sun!” I joked.
She looked at me oddly, then snickered and pointed at a newspaper rack on the wall. “Well that’s not so scary for you anymore right?”
The paper boasted a good picture of me fresh from my brush with death, skin burned and bubbled. It was captioned: “The Noonday Survivor: Brandon Meadows.”
I groaned. “Goddammit. Gavin’s article made it into the actual newspaper!? Jeez… The guy has been practically begging me to talk about it all this week!”
Gale flicked one of her long strands of hair idly out of her eye. “Might not be about the article. Maybe he has a crush on you. He is homosexual after all.”
I shrugged. “Nah, I don’t think so. He’s just milking the story for funding, but what happened was sheer luck. If he keeps printing this and soon someone’s going to try to walk out there. I was lucky.”
Beyond lucky. I still don’t understand how I’m alive, let alone Clara.
“Besides, I’m pretty sure he likes that George kid from L Division anyway,” I commented idly.
Gale eyed me oddly. “You keep track of who he likes?”
I flushed. Such a wicked tongue my little sister had developed. “He tried to get me and… Haley,” saying her name was almost physically painful. “To go on a double date with them about a month ago. We went but George didn’t even realize Gavin was trying to flirt. It was actually a little sad.”
Gale laughed a little at that. “Only you, Bran. Only you.”
The bridge that crossed the street into the school was a great glass thing, lined with more of Haley’s banners and plenty of others. Our school was a big one that served pretty much the entire local area, and held something like three thousand students this year.
Every last one of us capable of driving had to walk into the school across on one of three huge bridges on the second floor. My sister and I stepped onto the middle bridge along with a horde of other students, most of which I didn’t know.
“Holy shit. Brandon?” came the voice of a pudgy boy with acne covering most of his face. He was coming up behind us and walking at a quick clip. Monroe Mills was a bit of a bookworm and a band geek. Still one of my best friends, but sometimes his nasally tone could get tiresome.
The boy glanced dramatically at his wrist as if looking at a watch that wasn’t there, and then back at me. Back at his wrist again.
“Nah.” He breathed. “Figment of my imagination. There’s no way you’re here this early.”
I rolled my eyes. Okay. So I was late pretty often. That was no reason to go making lame gags about it.
“He’s right. This is practically a blue moon for you Brandon,” Gale commented helpfully. I glowered at her, but she didn’t seem intimidated in the slightest bit. In fact, she grinned a little smugly.
Monroe shared a laughing nod with my sister and I directed my glare back at him, with about the same effect.
“Well, I’m off to class. See you later tonight ‘Brutha!” Gale said before walking off on her own and being lost in the deluge of people squirming into the bridge’s entryway.
“So, Noonday, how’ve you been? Saved any more Damsels in distress since yesterday?” Monroe baited.
I decided to ignore the nickname that people had taken to calling me lately. I imagined it would get even worse now that there was an actual article about it.
“Only two.” I replied as we fell into step to get into the school. “The pizza girl from Little Caesar’s and your mom.”
He chuckled, hollowly, trying not to look affronted.
“Err… sorry,” I said slowly, realizing the joke had been in bad taste. This was one of those subtle things I’d come to know about Monroe over time but never really pried into. His parents were fighting. A lot lately. The jokes at her expense weren’t so funny when he was worrying they might get a divorce any day.
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” he said avoiding my eyes. There was a hard glint in them that told me I probably would’ve needed to worry about it, if I hadn’t apologized. Monroe wasn’t exactly intimidating but that was probably because no one had ever seen him get angry.
“Plans for the weekend?” I asked, in an attempt to change the subject.
He gave me a bland look. “Well, Saturday’s already going to suck. The Tower’s activation is happening that day and my Dad wants me to be there. It’ll probably last for half the night, but if I’m lucky they’ll let me slip out early.”
“Dude, that’s awesome! You get to be there? Trade you.”
Monroe waved it away. “Meh, I’d much rather be reading. Or going to Haley’s party. She plans on having a rooftop viewing an–!”
I snarled. “Dude. Don’t go to that. Don’t have anything to do with that two faced bitch.”
“Man, you’re pissed at her. Did she cheat on you or something? I don’t remember you ever holding a grudge for this long.” He commented idly. “Besides, it’s not like I’d be going there for her. Florence wants to go.”
I sighed, but didn’t really know what to say. What to do. What Haley had been saying to Clara had disgusted me, but at the same time I’d dated her for a few months, kind of. Telling anyone she was sort of responsible for what Clara had done might actually get the girl expelled. Well. Probably not. Everyone liked Haley. But the point was, I couldn’t bring myself to throw her under the bus, no matter how much she deserved it.
I wouldn’t be caught dead kissing her again though. The thought made me gag a little.
“She’s… just not who I thought she was.” I said a little mournfully.
A bully. A monster behind a pretty face.
“Seems like a bit more than that but alright,” Monroe said dropping the subject. “Hey if you want to come along Saturday, that would be awesome. It’s gonna be boring, but having you along might at least make it seem like I’m not wasting the entire day.”
I shrugged. “You should invite Florence. I’m pretty sure she likes you. She might say yes. Either way, I’ll see if I can come. Don’t think my mom is going to let me though. She seems to want us to actually avoid the plant.”
“That’s weird. Isn’t she like, a CEO of Tellroan or something? I’d think she’d want you to be there to witness the activation.” His voice suddenly lapsed into sarcasm. “I mean, they’ve only been building the thing for a decade. No big deal.”
We made it across the bridge, our words swallowed by a hundred other conversations as we entered the second floor’s main hallway. Lockers. Lockers as far as the eye could see! Mine and Monroe’s happened to be relatively close together this year so we continued in the same direction.
“She’s head of the Research and Development. Whatever that means. Honestly, I’ve got no idea what she does there. Researches shit I guess,” I joked.
It was a long running gag between our Dad, Gale, and I, that Mom built laser guns. As far as I knew, she didn’t but she did have a green laser pointer on her keychain that actually stung when she used it. She’d always respond with jokes that her work was above our pay-grade. Sometimes though, she’d get this look that made me pretty sure she wasn’t joking.
The halls had a brown and tan tiled floor pattern, and stark white drywall with AC vents running along the upper corners. The second floor was exactly the same as the first and third, each with classrooms splitting off, and each lined with painted orange lockers in every spare nook. Each hallway continued on to form a nearly perfect square building.
I was a senior, so this year I almost had more room in my locker than I knew what to do with.
Senior privileges rule.
I opened it as Monroe continued on to his locker around the corner. I was tugging off my backpack, and changing the books I’d need for the day out with a few that I wouldn’t when I felt someone approach from behind me.
“So. Haley says you’ve been ignoring her. Why?” She demanded in a flat tone that commanded all the vaunted authority the top of the school’s popularity chain could afford a girl.
Brenda. Haley’s best friend. I’d always thought she was snobby, and a bit of a chore. I’d never understood how such a sweet girl like Haley could stand to be around her for more than a few minutes. I remembered assuming that maybe Brenda was a nice person under all the prickly thorns. Maybe once I got to know her better I’d find the good person Haley saw underneath. Turned out, Haley and her were a perfect fit. Brenda was just more honest.
Brenda was brown-haired, fit but not muscled, and slender in a way that few women could ever hope to be. Her middle eastern descent made her exotic, but she’d been raised entirely in America, and had almost none of her parents accent. She was nearly an expert on several musical instruments and even I had to admit that she could play a piano like no one I’d ever heard. She was almost as good with a Violin. It had been one of the few things about her that had been tolerable while spending time with Haley. Most the time when she’d been around, I’d just wanted her to go away.
Now was no different.
“Because I don’t like her anymore. Never really liked you,” I said simply.
“So you’re cheating on her,” She insinuated with a conniving grin. “High on all the hero worship, Noonday, you decided to cheat on your girlfriend. That sound about right?”
I cocked an eyebrow, unintimidated, and lazily bated, “Is that what the rumors say?”
“They will soon enough, if you don’t shape up. Honestly, I don’t know why Haley puts up with a little rugrat like you.”
I scowled. Okay. So being taller than my dad didn’t exactly make me tall, and maybe I was annoyed that Brenda had height on me. That was no reason for her to go rubbing it in.
“So… what? You’re blackmailing me? Besides Haley and I were never dating anyway. She never said yes.”
Now I wouldn’t want her to.
“Ugh. You’re such an idiot! She likes you, you dumbass. Why would you go and screw up something like that? Who could you possibly want more than her? I mean yeah girls have been throwing themselves at you lately with the Clara thing but seriously!”
“Ever think that maybe I just don’t like her? That Clara thing? Yeah. I found out who she was. Who you are. And I didn’t like what I saw.”
She stiffened, suddenly wary, as if realizing I held more cards than she did.
“It… was just some harmless pranks,” she admitted, hesitantly.
“Yeah. Harmless. Clearly.”
Brenda closed herself off, wilting into an expression I’d never seen on her face before. Remorse?
“Look, we played some pranks but nothing that would make her want to try to… to…”
“I heard you talking to her. Why did you think I followed her to the doors in the first place? The things you girls said were disgusting, and I wanted to see if she was alright. Pro tip: She wasn’t!”
“Yeah, but they were just jokes! They weren’t supposed to… she wasn’t supposed to…”
I shrugged a little uncomfortably. So, Brenda did feel a little guilty. Maybe not a complete monster then. That was a step in the right direction at least.
“Jokes can hurt, Brenda. Especially if that was going on for half as long as I think it was. Not that you’d know sitting up on your pedestal,”I sighed. Clara walking almost carelessly outside at noon probably wasn’t all Haley’s little clique’s fault. I imagined there were plenty more factors in why the girl had done something so insane.
She flinched. “Look… I… we all feel bad about what Clara did. What we probably helped along. We wouldn’t have done anything like that if we’d known she needed fucking suicide watch!”
“Oh but if she hadn’t then it would’ve been okay?”
“No! That’s… I didn’t say that!” She barked affronted.
“But would it have gone on Brenda? Shit, it was only luck that I happened to overhear and followed her. She’d be dead – dead – if I hadn’t have! And you have the nerve to feel bad.”
I slammed my locker to punctuate my words, and she flinched. A couple people had actually noticed how angry I was, and who I was angry at. Whispers were echoing around me and I grimaced. “Just tell Haley and all of your friends to leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with you.”
She certainly looked chastened.
“You’re… not going to tell anyone, are you?”
I snarled, and the girl squeaked. Actually squeaked.
What a selfish little…!
“You’re lucky I don’t have Gavin fucking print it!” I hissed, but at her horrified expression I relented with a sigh. I was angry, not an asshole.
“No. Your dirty little secret is safe, unless I hear even a whisper of you picking on some other poor girl. Or boy for that matter. You’re like freaking queens of this school. Top of the chain, teachers practically dying to help you with anything you could want. With all that power, this is what you chose to do with it?”
“Like I said, it wasn’t supposed to get that bad. I like Clara, even if she is a little… weird. We were just doing a little… sanctioned hazing.”
“Come with me after school to visit her today then. Look at the burns that she still has, and try to keep telling yourself that.”
With that, I flung my backpack over one shoulder and strode around the shocked girl, leaving her standing there. She stayed there for a while, staring blankly at my locker before turning in the other direction. She spared a furtive glance towards me but turned away quickly.. Monroe was at the end of the hall, staring at me like I’d grown a second head.
“Dude… what was that all about?” Monroe asked, falling into step beside me. “You do realize you just yelled at like, the hottest girl in school right? What the fuck did they do man? You can’t hold out on me like this.”
Brenda did feel guilty, but how different would that conversation have been if I hadn’t overheard them two weeks ago? If I hadn’t made a split second decision to follow Clara out into the sun?
Would I have even noticed?
Weeks later it was still bothering me. Watching her skin seem to melt under the blaze, and knowing that I must’ve looked the same. I shuddered and cast the memory out of my mind. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. By all rights we should both be dead.
“Its… personal.” I told him. He seemed hesitant, as if he wanted to press the issue, but he dropped it in the end. I was glad he did. I probably would’ve snapped at him.
“Well, come on then. I want to see Mr. Bales’s expression when he realizes you’re on time,” Monroe said with only marginally faked enthusiasm.
I scowled, good naturedly this time. Seriously though. Weren’t these jokes getting old?
“Really, I’m not that bad,” I said, bemused.
“Sure you’re not!” he joked as we continued on down the hall.
* * * Next * * *