Morning practice was long and demanding, but it felt good to get that kick of adrenaline going so early in the day. After an hour of exercises and drills in the pool, I was hungry enough to eat a hippo, so I decided to grab a bagel and cream cheese before first period. As I sat on a bench to enjoy my snack, a shadow loomed in before taking a seat next to me.
“I need coffee.” Adam yawned, plunking his camera into his lap.
On most days, we both had to get to school at six o’clock, he for yearbook, and I for swim practice. Adam did not seem to be adjusting very well. He had thick dark circles around his eyelids and looked in danger of collapse.
“Did you get any sleep at all?” I gasped. “You look worse than a beaten up raccoon.” I knew Adam had a lot on his plate, and he couldn’t get to his homework until about ten o’clock at night, but this was ridiculous. It wasn’t like he needed to get good grades, since he’d already graduated before.
“Maybe two hours, off and on.” He tried suppressing another yawn and failed. “That includes the whole week.”
“All right, you need sleep,” I said. “I don’t care what you say. I’m calling Dean and telling him you’re taking the day off. As soon as you get home, you’re taking a long nap.”
“If only I could.” He sighed, and I wondered why he’d said it as though it were an unfeasible task. To me, it looked like he could fall asleep on his feet. But maybe he was referring to the amount of work he needed to finish.
“Don’t you even think of doing homework, mister,” I commanded. “And if you even try to touch that camera after school, I’ll take it away and won’t let you near it for a week. Your health is more important.”
“Yes Mom.” He bowed his head obediently before stretching. “I didn’t think I had enough energy to get through the day, but your pep talk sure did the trick.” He flashed me a broad grin. I never noticed before that he had two gorgeous dimples, each deeply grooved into both cheeks. “Not even my family, except my cousin, would bother worrying about me.”
It was the first time he’d ever referred to his life outside my house—his real life—since confessing he’d left his home. It surprised me. I mean, he’d hinted that his grandfather and aunt who’d raised him weren’t the most understanding of people. But one would think they would ask how he was doing, with them being his family.
Now that I thought of it though, I heard Adam talking on his phone to his cousin, who had also given him that phone, but never once had I heard him talking to anyone else. It was sad to know that they didn’t even bother to call to see if he was alive. No wonder it was so easy for him to lie about where he was.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. His face had grown very dark and serious.
“Like you feel sorry for me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize—”
“You don’t have to be sorry.” Those eyes grew even more intent. “It’s just that you really make me want to—” He leaned in, and my eyes grew wide. Was he going to kiss me?
My eyes snapped tightly shut. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to accept Adam. In the far reaches of my mind, someone called my name. Bryan’s voice echoed, and the memory of him handing me an umbrella on a rainy day after school came to mind. While he ran home and got soaked, I stayed dry, and that sacrifice had made him sick with fever and the flu for a week.
At the last minute, I turned my head away. I heard him exhale, a short, mocking chuckle escaping his breath, as though he were berating himself for being an idiot.
I wished he’d stop liking me—I felt like a real two-timer, and I wasn’t even trying to lead him on. I had to say something. “Adam, I—“
“You don’t have to say anything.” He flashed a reassuring smile, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I understand. It was my fault for forgetting myself. I promised we’d just be friends, and that’s what we are.” He patted my head and stood. “Let’s get going to class, shall we?”
I was about to follow, but I heard Bryan’s voice calling my name again, and this time I swore it sounded more real. It was certainly louder.
Then the actual person popped up, running to us frantically before finally stopping at a dead halt in front of me. Bryan braced himself on his knees, trying to catch his breath. “Jasmine,” he panted. “I finally..caught up to…you. We need…to talk.”
I really didn’t want to talk to him. Besides, what did he want to talk about? He was already with Ange every second of every day, and he hadn’t wanted to talk before, even as friends.
“I’ve got to get to class. I don’t have time to talk.” I turned my back on him, intending to walk away, but the next thing that burst out his mouth made me freeze.
“I found out you like me.”
My eyes went wide, and I whirled around. Really though, I shouldn’t be surprised. Ange had probably told him everything, made it sound like I was a desperate pain in the butt.
“Oh, is that why you’ve completely cut me out of your life?” I asked coldly. “You think I’m a nuisance to be around, that it’s annoying to have a girl you don’t have feelings for hang with you. You and Ange are probably having a lot of fun laughing about me behind my back.”
He suddenly looked like I’d just stabbed him in the chest, and I felt a little bad for accusing him. I’d probably sounded bitter too. “You really think I would do that?”
No, I didn’t, but I couldn’t take back my words now.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” he said. “If I’d known earlier that you liked me, I would have straightened things out between us. I didn’t mean to lead you on.”
So that’s what this was. He felt bad that I was hurt. I wished he’d just gone and mocked me with Ange. Because this was far worse.
Adam stepped in front of me. “Listen Byron, or whatever your name is, you already have a girlfriend, so go back to her, and stop bothering Jasmine. She doesn’t have time for your crap.” He grabbed my hand, pulling me forward. “Let’s go Jas. The bell’s about to ring.”
So I let him lead me, glancing back only once to see Bryan still standing there watching me leave. What I saw in those eyes was what I dreaded the most. Pity, nothing but pity. It was a new kind of torture.
This being Wednesday, I had no club meetings or activities to attend during lunch. It was my only free day, and yet, I wished it wasn’t. I sat with some of the girls from my swim team, but none of their pleasant conversation could stop me from looking over to the far table, where Bryan and Ange were busy engaging in rather amorous activities. Bryan caught my eye and guiltily stopped with the smooching for a second before Ange touched him in a rather embarrassing way, and he gave in to those blasted hormones.
I looked away, ashamed for staring. I was neither a pervert nor a masochist, to watch such gross PDA, and it was only making me feel sadder. The mere fact that I was in the same room with the happy couple was torture.
I’d completely lost my appetite. I told my friends that I was going for a walk outside to get some fresh air. Tossing my wasted food in the trash—my parents would kill me and mention the starving kids in Somalia—I walked out the cafeteria, wondering if there was some new club I could join. What clubs met on Wednesdays? I recalled that Marcus had his martial arts club out on the field behind the music building. The only other members besides the Vicious Vagrants were some people who, like me, didn’t believe the four were that bad. Maybe an extra member would give Marcus some encouragement. Besides, the idea of flipping someone over seemed very therapeutic right now.
As I walked through the hallway, the sound of laughter broke out. I peered around the corner and gasped at the horrible scene. Lindsey Ward and Darlene Tatum stood over Emma Hartley, who had chili cheese fries dripping from her hair. The empty cheese fry boxes in their hands were evidence of just how all that gunk had ended up in Emma’s hair.
Unable to contain myself, I stomped forward, revealing my presence. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
Lindsey and Darlene snapped their heads to attention, believing they’d been caught by a teacher. But when they saw it was only me, they sneered. “Mind your own business,” Lindsey bit out. “Don’t you have some chlorine water to bathe in?”
“Chlorine water?” Darlene gasped in amazement. “I’ve never heard of that. Is it good for your skin?”
Lindsey rolled her eyes. Everyone knew Darlene wasn’t the brightest star in the sky. “Swimming pool water, Darlene,” she said.
“Eww, gross.” Darlene wrinkled her nose. “People pee in there.”
“This is my business,” I said, forcing them to return to the matter at hand. I walked to Emma, and put my arm around hers. “Bullying is a serious issue in high schools, and as the junior vice president, I can’t stand by and watch. You can be sure that Principal Tate will be made aware of what’s going on.”
“No!” To my surprise, the outburst came from Emma.
Lindsey snickered. “See? Even she knows we only gave her what she deserves. We’re teaching her that if we can’t get close to the Vicious Vagrants, no one else can.”
That made absolutely no sense whatsoever. But people like Lindsey always made some nonsensical excuse for themselves to pick on other people. And I was surprised that Emma hadn’t told anyone this was happening. What’s more, it seemed she didn’t want anyone to know.
“We’re done here,” Lindsey said. “So you can go help the freak and be the goody two-shoes you’ve always been.”
“Yeah,” Darlene echoed, pointing her prettily manicured index finger at us. Then the pair of them sauntered away, their butts swishing to and fro like windshield wipers.
I turned to Emma. It was ridiculous to ask if she was all right, since she so obviously wasn’t. Instead, I guided her to the restroom, without another word. Together, we managed to wash out most of the gunk from her hair, but the stains in her blouse were another story. Thankfully, I had an extra shirt in my locker. When we finally got her back to an almost clean state, I gave into my curiosity.
“Why don’t you want to tell the principal about Lindsey and Darlene?”
Emma was silent for a long moment, and at first I thought she wasn’t going to answer. “I want to deal with this myself. My grandmother thinks I can’t make friends on my own, and I want to prove her wrong, but if she found out everyone’s bullying me, I’ll never be able to prove myself to her.”
The first thing that came to mind as she said this was how much she sounded like Adam. They both wanted to prove something to their families, almost as though by proving themselves, they could finally gain some kind of acceptance and love.
But then it suddenly hit me what Emma had just said. “Everyone’s bullying you? Still?” I gaped at her in shock, having had no idea. I guess I had been so busy these past few weeks, I hadn’t been paying much attention to anything besides my own work. “But I thought Marcus made it clear that if anyone bothered you again, they’d have to answer to him.” I really had thought people would be too scared to pick on Emma anymore, but apparently that wasn’t the case. The poor girl was being tortured every day, and she chose to suffer in silence.
“He said if anyone uttered a word about there being something between him and me, then he would squash them.” She shrugged.
“I’m sure that’s not all he meant,” I said, but I could see how people would have misconstrued his meaning.
“Even if it wasn’t, everyone bullies me when the four thieves aren’t around.”
Four thieves? It took me a second to realize that was probably her name for the Vicious Vagrants. I sighed, wondering how people could be so evil. They had found a loophole to getting away with bullying a poor girl, and if Emma wasn’t going to bring it up to an adult, I hated to find out how much worse this could get.
“Let’s go,” I said, seizing her arm and starting for the field, where Marcus was probably still holding his club meeting. We got to the edge of the field and could see Marcus and his club practicing taichi.
“What are we doing here?” Emma asked.
“Since you don’t want to tell Principal Tate what’s going on, we’ll tell Marcus instead. He’s the only one in this school who can strike enough fear into people’s hearts to make them stop.”
She resisted. “I don’t want to tell him. He knows my grandmother, and he’ll tell her.”
I gazed at her, feeling both exasperated and sympathetic. I really didn’t know what to do.
“Hey look, it’s Emma and Jasmine!” Tony Mercer’s voice called out from across the lawn. He ran towards us, a silly grin plastered to his face. I noticed that he’d taken off his chain metal and skull decorations and also gotten his tattoos—which I’d long guessed to be fake—removed. How anyone could fear Tony Mercer, I had no clue. He looked harmless. “Come to join our club? Although I don’t think Emma needs to learn anything, since she’s already knocked old Marcus out twice.”
I blinked in surprise, wondering if he was just joking. He usually was, but now that I thought about it, Marcus had been sporting a huge lump on the side of his head for over a week now. People had whispered that he’d gotten into a fight with gangsters, but I thought it would be rather amusing if the damage had been done by harmless, little Emma. Judging by the way they were eyeing each other, like two boxers ready to take the other down, they didn’t seem to like each other.
“That’s getting real old, Tony,” Marcus said, and then he turned to me. He didn’t exactly smile—he rarely did—but he did grunt a greeting.
“Marcus,” I said boldly, “Emma and I have something to discuss with you.”
Emma nudged me hard in the side and shook her head frantically.
Those eyes did it. Such watery, pleading eyes. She seemed so lost. I just hoped I was making the right decision. “We just really want to know if it’s all right for us to join your club.”
“Of course,” Marcus replied.
After explaining some club rules and regulations, the other members welcomed us. Besides the Vicious Vagrants—Stan, Heath, Tony, and Marcus, there were three other members—Dave Colter, Mindy Chen, and Martin Bowles. Marcus went over the basics of what they did during club meetings—mainly he taught us self defense moves. He was just about to get back to his taichi lesson for the day, when Heath interrupted him, and for some reason stood in front of Emma, looking like a bodyguard shielding an actress from the paparazzi. “Do you see that man across the street?”
We all looked to where he was pointing. Sure enough, there was a long-haired, middle-aged man dressed in black attire eyeing us. When he saw us looking, he turned around quickly and walked away. I squinted, feeling like his back looked a little familiar. But I hadn’t caught a good look at his face.
“Weird,” Heath said. “He took a picture of us.”
“Maybe he’s a photographer who wants to capture some martial arts moves on camera,” Dave said.
We shrugged it off. Dave was probably right.