~Chapter 2~ Part 2
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“Wait, let me see if I get this straight…” I said as I gestured for Josh to halt. Well, technically he was standing anyway since we were waiting for the streetlights to turn green, but who cares about semantics? Anyways, I continued, “So she is your neighbor, you grew up together, you come to school together each morning and your families hang out all the time. Don’t tell me she also wakes you up every morning.”

“Not every time…” He told me while avoiding eye contact. “She lives next door and she is an early riser. There is nothing weird about it.”

“Right, totally normal childhood friend behavior.”

“I’m serious!”

In the meantime the light switched and we began walking again. This time the streets actually had pedestrians and I could even see the occasional car rolling by, though the people seemed just as substance-deficient as the student were.

“I’m not joking either,” I told Josh as sincerely as I could, “That is totally normal childhood friend behavior, no sarcasm here.” Well, as long as you live in a cheap romance manga; I wanted to add, but I refrained.

He still looked at me critically but didn’t continue the discussion; instead he rubbed his temple and launched a brand new one.

“Déjà vu,” He tried to act as if he was only talking to himself, though it was obvious he was trying to change the subject. I decided I might as well oblige him.

“Which part?” I asked while trying to sound oblivious. In the meantime we passed by a news stand and I had to stop and look at the newsboy shouting ‘Extra, extra! Read all about it!’ nearby. It was so horribly outdated it was strangely adorable.

“Your questions,” Joshua answered glumly, apparently not sharing my newfound admiration of anachronistic media-delivery personnel. “It’s just like when you transferred.”

“Really?” I caught up to him, only sparing one last glance at the paperboy. My goodness, he was even wearing britches and suspenders! Some people really go that extra mile for their art. I allowed myself one last smile and then promptly returned to the discussion at hand. “Speaking of which, where did I live? Before I transferred, I mean.”

Josh gave me a withering look. I had no idea how he did it, but he could somehow manage to increase the severity of his doubtful glares each subsequent time. It was probably a unique talent.

“How should I know?”

“What kind of friend doesn’t know where the other came from?”

“I don’t know, what kind of friend doesn’t remember the other’s name?”

“Touché, but I at least have my amnesia for an excuse. What about you?”

He paused for a few seconds just as we were walking across a pedestrian bridge. This part of town seemed to be less frequented than the previous streets, as we barely met a soul for a while.

“You know, you never really talked about yourself,” Josh finally told me with a difficult expression. “Now that I think about it, I don’t even know where you live right now. Whenever we hanged out it was usually either at my place or in town and we mostly talked about school stuff. Actually, now that you mention it, you were always very evasive when it came to your old school. And friends. And family. And so on.”

That was actually bad news. If I really didn’t talk to him about even such obvious things, chances are he would know little to help me recover my memories. I silently clicked my tongue in frustration.

“I suppose that’s it then. How far is the hospital again?”

“Just over the next block, and then we should—” The words abruptly got caught in Josh’s throat and he let out a short hiss. I had no idea what happened so I glanced over at him and then followed his fixed gaze to the three figures loitering by the roadside. They were also students, though they were wearing a full black uniform and…

“Oh my god, that guy actually has a pompadour!” I exclaimed as I pointed at the largest member of the trio. Josh immediately caught my arm and pulled me aside.

“What are you doing!?” His whispers were so loud he might as well have said it normally.

“But look!” I pointed again and I could barely hold myself back from laughing. It wasn’t even a simple pompadour, oh no! It was one of those cartoonish ones that jutted a good thirty centimeters out to the front. That thing probably required a sacrifice of a full box of hair gel to the elder gods of silly hairstyles every morning.

“Look what we have here!” The big delinquent exclaimed loudly as he walked towards us, his two companions following right behind him. The ringleader was built like a tank; bottom-heavy and with a turret on top, and his voice sounded just as rumbling as threads on asphalt. Jokes aside though, his build was just heavy instead of being particularly muscular and he had fingers big enough to easily grip a basketball with one hand.

The other two guys were also of unusual body shapes; one was taller than their leader by about a head but razor-thin, with sunken eyes and buck-teeth visible even with his mouth closed. The third one barely reached up to the tank-guy’s chest and had a large, round face that seemed to be disproportionate compared to his body. These two also sported pompadours, though theirs were nowhere near as hilariously over the top as the leader’s. The trio also seemed to remind me of something, but I couldn’t really remember what, especially since I was so busy trying to keep myself from laughing.

“Skipping class, aren’t we?” The big guy stood in front of us and I could hear Josh gulp beside me. For some reason, even that felt funny.

“That’s not a very nice thing to do,” The tall one had a high-pitched nasal voice that sounded like a scratched vinyl record compared to the leader’s resounding bass and his eyes reminded me of a ferret’s.

“Yea, yea,” The small one nodded eagerly. “Icz noc nice at all!” If the big guy’s voice was deep and rumbling and the tall one’s was high and nasal, this guy’s was like as if he had a parrot trapped in his throat. A parrot that smoked Winston Churchill’s entire cigar stash in one go.

“Right Baggins, bad boys like these two have to be—”

That was the point I couldn’t hold it any longer. Laughter burst through the hand clapped over my mouth and it took all my willpower to keep myself from slapping my knees on top of that. “You cannot be serious!” I exclaimed between two bouts of laughter. “You actually nicknamed the short one Baggins? Ah, ah… My sides…! You are killing me!” The three glared at me in unison, but I couldn’t stop. “What are you called then? Wait, don’t tell me, it’s…”

“I’m… I’m Ladder Jones,” The tall one protested. He seemed to be defensive, even meek in his response.

“Aw shucks! You totally ruined your theme-naming already.”

“You… You…” The big one glared at me even fiercer than before as if to draw my attention.

“Ah, right. And you are supposed to be…?”

“I am…” The guy faltered under my scrutiny for a moment. He cleared his throat and began anew. “I am… Heavy Tony…” He tried to give his name a grandiose spin, but he ran out of steam halfway through. I rolled my eyes with extreme prejudice.

“Laaaaame.”

“Why you little…!”

“Seriously, the short guy had the right idea,” I cut off the outrage with a hand motion. “You guys should follow up on that. If you really want to come up with nicknames, go for broke, don’t settle for ‘Ladder Jones’ and ‘Heavy Tony’!” I pursed my lips thoughtfully for a moment and added. “Well, okay, the last one at least rhymed. Good work on that.”

“T-Thanks?” Heavy Tony sounded rather awkward, sharing confused glances between me and his cronies.

“You are welcome. Now if you excuse me, I have to go to the hospital.”

“But… We didn’t even do anything to you…” The short one protested, albeit weakly.

“Long story, gotta go. Think about what I said. Bye.”

I waved at the trio and began walking and, to my surprise, they actually waved back at me. With my final glance I also noticed how their eyes seemed to glaze over. At this point I wasn’t even surprised.

“What the hell were you thinking!?”

“Whoa!” I almost toppled over as Josh yanked on my arm and pulled me into an alley. Damn, for a moment I thought he was going to dislocate my shoulder. “What the hell are you doing?”

“That’s my line!” Joshua’s normally pale face was practically glowing red as he glared at me from a few centimeters away. I instinctively leaned away from him, and… managed to hit the back of my already scarred head against a wall.

“The mother-fluting son of a goat!” I mumbled while holding my brainbox.

“Don’t try to change the subject!”

“I’m not changing the subject, I’m in pain!” I retorted.

Josh threw his hands into the air. “Good riddance! You could have gotten us both killed!”

Now it was my turn to give my friend a skeptical look. I lightly shook my head to check if the nausea was back, and since I was still standing on my own two feet at the end of it, I concluded that the previous impact had more bark than bite. With that, I turned my attention back to Josh fuming in front of me.

“Don’t be so dramatic. They were just delinquents.”

’Just’ delinquents?!”

“Hey, hey! Don’t shout.”

“Then don’t say irresponsible stuff like that, you idiot! Those three have been preying on the neighborhood for a while. They target the students of our school for their allowances and lunch money.”

“Well, they didn’t take ours…”

“Only because you were acting crazy!”

I raised a finger. “Not crazy. It’s called ‘Refuge in Audacity’.”

 “… What?”

I sighed. “Refuge in audacity. It’s when you act calm and self-assured while you are saying or doing something you shouldn’t. Other people won’t challenge you simply because they will think that you must have a good reason to do what you did and they are afraid they would look silly in front of others if they involved themselves.  It’s how the Mona Lisa was stolen at one point. A guy just walked into the Louvre dressed as an employee, took off the painting, hid it under his smock and left, and no one even stopped him. Conmen do this kind of thing all the time too.”

“I... see.” It seemed like Joshua finally calmed down, though his eyes were still jumping between me and the mouth of the alley like he expected the trio to show up at any minute. “But what if it didn’t work?! We could have been in big trouble.”

“Oh please! Those three were complete jokes.” I laughed and began counting on my fingers. “I mean, they dressed and acted like stereotypes, they had silly nicknames, they were totally running with the old big-short-tall trio dynamic and they were completely non-threatening.” I let my hand down and opened my hands. “Seriously, if this was a game, those three would be the goldfish-poop gang that would do nothing more than annoy us and serve as occasional comic relief.”

Josh’s face was still grim. At last he grimaced and dropped his shoulders in resignation.

“Maybe, but this is not a game. We could have been in real trouble back there.”

“Sure, sure, this is not a game, but…”

And then it suddenly hit me. It was like a lightning bolt out of the bright blue sky illuminating the puzzle-pieces in my head and made me realize that they fit together all along.

“Oh my god.”

Suddenly everything made sense. Everything was brand new and squeaky clean. People were samey and nondescript and they couldn’t deal with being introduced to unexpected stimuli. Even the stereotypical bullies and…

“OH! MY! GOD!”

“What!? What!?”

Joshua, understandably distressed by my behavior, was frantically scanning the premises to figure out what happened. I reached out, grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye.

“Listen Josh, I figured it out!” I began, but then I faltered. Just how the hell was I supposed to tell him about this without sounding crazy? Hell, even I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going crazy. No, I needed more time, more data points.

“Yes?” Joshua squirmed between my hands. It took me a moment to collect my thoughts and answer.

“Sorry, I just remembered something,” I let him go with a vague wave of an arm. “I have to go.”

“Wait,” He reached after me but missed and only grabbed thin air.” What’s going on? What about the hospital?”

“Later. Sorry for dumping you here, but I really have to run! If you hurry you might get back to school before the period ends. See you tomorrow!” I finished my rapid-fire response with a casual salute and I didn’t even bother waiting for his answer. I took off running and never looked back. If I was right… Oh my god, if I was right…

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