The rest of the morning classes proved to be fairly uneventful. I studied the material as best as I could under the circumstances during the lessons and then I hung out with Josh and Angie during the breaks. It seemed like the class rep was either not part of our close circle or she was just too busy helping the new girl catch up with the curriculum to socialize with us. Angie and Josh also exchanged a few courtesies with her, but nothing more. All things considered, nothing really remarkable happened.
My observation diary still gained a new entry though, under 'anomalies': apparently every single class was taught by Mrs. Applebottom. When I asked Joshua about this he just scratched his head and said that there were other teachers as well, but I sure as hell never saw one.
As for our new transfer student, she caused quite a stir amongst the placeholders. No break passed by without a throng of them swarming around her, making small talk with wooden smiles and asking inane questions. On the bright side, since she was sitting in front of me, I could learn a lot of small details about her.
She was apparently from the Abakazian mountains (which I was ninety-five percent sure didn't even exist), her parents were working overseas (which I still had no idea about), she was living in a renovated mansion in my own neighborhood (which I didn't see during my wandering the day before either) and that she was single but didn't plan on staying that way for long (which sent shivers down my spine). There were also some trivia like her blood type and her three sizes, but those didn't even warrant recording in my notes.
Finally lunch break rolled around and I immediately waved for Josh to stick to me.
“We have a cafeteria, right?” I asked once he leaned over.
“Yeah?” He answered cautiously, as if it was a trick question or something.
“Should we check out today's menu?”
“It's the same as every other... Oh.” Apparently it finally dawned on him why I was asking for him to accompany me and he nodded. “Sure thing. You have the money?”
“Yup,” I answered while shaking the stuffed leather wallet in my hand.
“Okay, follow my lead and—”
We both halted on our tracks as an unfamiliar voice called out to us. Josh and I turned in unison to find the new girl standing by his desk. She had a large, rectangular package wrapped in a plaid cloth in her hands and a pleasant smile plastered on her face.
“You see...” She raised the package in her hands. “I'm afraid my cook got a little too eager about my first day in school this morning and she packed my lunch-box to the brim. There is no way I could eat all this alone, so would you care to join me?”
I involuntarily frowned. What was this obviously transparent performance about? Inviting classmates like that on her first day would have been mildly odd already, but doing so to two boys she barely knew was definitely fishy. And then, on top of that, there was something odd about her bearing; it was like she was performing rehearsed lines in a play. It felt totally artificial. In other words, double-fishy.
I saw Josh was just about to answer, but considering the friendly smile on his face, I had a feeling he didn't pick up on any of the red flags. As such I decided to cut him off by lightly elbowing him in the kidney. For friendship.
“Sorry, but we already had plans. Why don't you ask the class rep?”
“The who?” The girl's stage-smile flickered for a moment, but ultimately it held.
“Amelia,” Josh answered through a smile of gritted teeth before he angrily stomped on my feet.
“Yeah, her.” I hid my grimace with a nod.
“But...” She wavered for a moment. “But I'm afraid two girls wouldn't be able to finish it all.” She turned her pleading eyes directly at Josh and continued the assault. “My cook used some really, really high-quality ingredients and I would hate for them to go to waste.”
“Sorry, I already decided on the cafeteria.” I told her. She paused for a moment and turned back to Josh.
“Then how about just you?”
I immediately clasped the guy on the shoulders before he could say anything,
“Nope, he is coming with me too.”
“But why? I assure you, my lunchbox is better than anything in your cafeteria.”
“Doesn't matter, I already have my reservation.”
“In the cafeteria?”
“What does that even mean?!”
“Do I have any say in this?” Josh cried out in confusion.
“Nope,” I answered his inquiry, accompanied by a thump on the back.
“But he obviously doesn't want to go with you! He should come with me!”
“First come, first served,” I stated matter-of-factly and began pushing Joshua through the door. The girl suddenly lunged forward and latched onto his arm while brandishing her package with the other.
“These are made from very rare ingredients!”
“Yes, you already told us that.”
“They are very, very valuable.”
“I... think that logically follows, yes,” Josh spoke, still a little bewildered by the scene. The new girl turned to me, her sapphire eyes all but crackling with frustration, looked me right in the eye and hissed; “If they go to waste because of your flippant obstinacy, I 'will' make you pay.”
To her apparent surprise I nodded with a weary sigh.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” Before she could say anything in return I let out a jaunty whistle and raised my free hand high over my head in a wave.
At the other end of the classroom Angie looked up from her bag and cocked her head to the side in inquiry. I waved to her again and she trotted up to us with a curious expression.
“Listen Angie, you won't believe this!” I told her with mock enthusiasm, completely ignoring the confused stares of the other two.
“What? What?” She answered with her own brand of fake gusto.
“The new girl over here has an incredibly awesome lunchbox she wants to share!”
“Really? How awesome is that awesome?”
“It's like a five star menu made by a team of world-renowned French chefs made exclusively from the body-parts of creatures you find at the end of high-level side-quests!”
“Wow. That's almost thirty percent more awesome than I expected!”
“I know!” I answered and winked at her. She winked back. Good, for a moment I thought she stopped being sarcastic. “But there is too much of it for her alone, so she wants to share it so that it wouldn't go to waste.”
“How nice of her.”
“And she 'especially' wants to share it with Josh over here.”
Finally recognizing what was going on, Angie's smile went from amused to appreciative and then downright impish.
“Sadly however Josh has already promised to accompany me, and you know him, he never, ever breaks a promise.”
“I know, I know. He is really honest and forthcoming like that.”
“I know, right? But leaving her behind and letting her precious food go to waste would also trouble him.”
“He is such a nice guy,” Angie nodded with a voice all but dripping with sarcasm.
“So, to alleviate his worries, could I ask you to help the princess to munch through all of her food?”
The new girl suddenly stiffened and was looking at me with eyes wide as saucers. She wanted to say something, however Angie grabbed hold of her arm before she could even utter a squeak and began dragging her.
“A great idea! I should get the usual suspects and have us all eat together.”
I didn’t know who these ‘usual suspects’ were, but for the time being I also grabbed hold of Josh and began pulling him in the opposite direction.
“See you later!”
“Wait!” The new girl protested. “Why did you—!?”
I couldn’t make out the last of her words, as by that time I was already dragging Josh out the classroom and down the stairs. Once we were out of earshot I stopped and my shoulders involuntarily sagged in exhaustion.
“I guess you are going to tell me now just what the heck is going on, right?”
“Hm?” I glanced at Joshua and this time I quite deliberately shrugged my shoulders. “Nothing special. Why?”
“Nothing special? Nothing special?! You hit me in the back and practically dragged me away from the transfer student!”
“Oh, that? It was for your own good.” Josh gave me a deadpan look so I sighed and decided to elaborate. “Listen, didn’t you find it strange that she wanted to invite us to lunch?”
“No…” He answered hesitantly. “I thought she was just friendly.”
“Oh come on, think about it for a moment.” I gestured at his head but he only frowned at me again. “Listen, it is not normal for girls to invite boys they don’t know to lunch on their first day in school. It’s just way too forward. Sure, maybe she is just friendly, but if I had to bet, I would say she had some other motives. With hidden motives comes trouble, and right now we are already running on full capacity on that.”
“We?” Josh wiggled an eyebrow at me in a surprisingly competent display of facial gymnastics. “Don’t you mean ‘you’?”
“Don’t fret the semantics.” I waved a hand and took a step forwards, but then stopped. “By the way, which way is the cafeteria.”
My friend pointed at the opposite direction I took a step in and I clicked my tongue. I had a 50% chance, and I still blew it. It would probably take weeks before I would be able to navigate this damn school building. Anyways, I started striding in the indicated direction and Josh fell in line beside me.
“Just admit it; you put up that whole display because you would be lost without me.” He paused for a moment before adding, “By the way, did you really need to hit me in the back? It hurt.”
“You nearly flattened my feet afterwards, so we are even. As for the first part… I honestly think that getting involved with that girl right now would be too much trouble.”
“It’s… complicated. I’ll tell you when I am certain.”
“Now where did I hear that before…”
I ignored the barbs in his tone. I mean, technically I was imposing on him without telling him my real reasons, so he had all the right in the world to be indignant… but then again, I had no idea how he would react to me saying ‘Well, that girl is part of the stereotypical romance narrative that is probably aimed at me and I really don’t have time to waste on stuff like that, not to mention it would be awkward’, so sharing my real motives was out of the question.
“Anyways, I have a question for you,” I told him as we exited the main building through the back. Apparently the cafeteria was in the large building on the other side of the sizable inner courtyard.
“Am I acting weird?”
Josh gave me another of his perfect deadpan looks and said, “Yes.”
“No, you don’t get it.” I emphasized by shaking my hands. “I mean, am I acting differently from how I used to be before the…” I paused to see if there was anyone around who could overhear and finished with, “… the whole amnesia business.”
This time it took a few seconds for Josh to formulate an answer, thought it turned out the same.
My friend scratched his cheek in an awkward motion and finally let out a sharp breath.
“Well, you are mostly the same. I mean, your sense of humor is as terrible as ever.”
“Ouch!” I clasped my hands over my heart. “Your words wound me most grievously!”
He suddenly raised a hand and pointed at me.
“See, that’s what I am talking about! That’s the kind of thing you used to pull all the time, acting all dramatic and weird.” He waited for me to let my hands back down before continuing. “Now… Now you are a different kind of weird.”
He suddenly pointed at me again.
“That, right there! Sometimes you just slip into this mannerism where you talk all sophisticated and act like you know everything! It’s unnerving.”
“My good sir, I assure you, I most certainly never do such a thing.”
“There, you are doing it again!”
I laughed and patted him on the back.
“Nah, I’m just pulling your leg. But I can kind of see what you are getting at.”
Sadly it was not something I could easily change. I mean, if it was just a few verbal tics, I could easily fake that, but changing my subjective appearance to others? That might be a little bit beyond my acting abilities. Still, I had to be careful and keep a close eye on my outward attitudes from this point onwards.
It was around this point that we finally entered the cafeteria and my jaw nearly dropped to the floor. For a moment I had to check behind me to see if we didn’t accidentally exit the campus and end up in a French restaurant across the street.
First off, the cafeteria hall was huge. It could easily hold about five hundred people at once, but didn’t do so in your typical rows-upon-rows-of-tables setup. Oh no, this place actually looked like a proper restaurant, with scores of round tables arranged in a neat pattern under its vaulted ceiling. Not only that, but everything was covered in wooden paneling, including the brown stone columns holding up said vaulted ceiling. Combined with the ambient lighting provided by the huge glass panels serving as walls on two sides of the hall, the place had the distinct impression of a classy modern restaurant.
“What the hell is up with this place?” I asked Josh in the entrance between two bouts of gawking.
“Ah, yeah. It’s been recently renovated, so the place became a bit gaudy. Don’t worry, the standard menu is just as bland and boring as it used to be though.” He smiled at me and ushered me towards the food counter.
“Gaudy is a bit of an understatement,” I murmured as I let myself led through the constantly flowing stream of placeholders.
At last we arrived in front of one of the three counters and got in line. Once we got our place reserved, Josh turned to me and began explaining the process.
“This is where you get in line first. You can either buy cold food, such as sandwiches or one of the pre-made lunchboxes, or you can get a meal ticket. You take the meal ticket to one of the other two counters, depending on which one is less crowded, and you get the meal you paid for there. You can see all the prices on the boards up there.”
“I see…” I followed Josh’s finger, only to freeze on my tracks mid-step and gape at the price tags. “Something is not right here…”
“Hm?” Joshua turned back to see why I stopped and followed my eyes to the price-board for the pre-made stuff. “Which one?”
“All of them!” I answered with a bit more zeal than I originally planned and quickly toned back a little. I fixed my eyes on the prices again. There is this well-known, slightly tongue-in-cheek thing in economics known as a ‘burger index’. It is used to compare the prices of the same goods in different countries, but it is also a good indication of the value of a currency. In other words, telling you how many of the exact same burger you could buy for the same amount of currency tells you about the strength of that currency and just how much purchasing power it has.
Now if I would transplant that idea into my current situation and turn it into a ‘chicken sandwich index’, it would mean…
“Oh my god…”
“What?” Josh looked at me funny.
“Oh. My. God!” I repeated, this time with even more passion.
I grabbed Josh by the shoulders and pointed at the menu.
“Are those prices accurate?”
My friend seemed to be utterly confused, but at last he nodded. I took a deep breath and looked him in the eye.
“Josh… I… I think I’m filthy rich.”
“Huh?” He tilted his head to the side uncomprehendingly, so I quickly got my wallet out and opened it up for him to see its contents. His eyes opened as wide as if I just showed him the Ark of the Covenant. “What the…?! Where? How?”
Currently my wallet held about ten thousand ‘Jen’. How much did a chicken sandwich cost? Oh, about two point five…
Josh suddenly clasped my hand over my wallet and leaned closer to whisper. His eyes were downright bewildered.
“Are you involved in some kind of shady business?”
“No!” I answered instinctively. “Well, at least I don’t think so. This is just a fraction of my monthly allowance.”
“Yeah. I wanted to buy some stuff, so I went to an ATM this morning to take out some money, but I had no idea how much a Jen is worth, so I decided to take 10k.”
In retrospect I should have probably figured something was off when the machine gave me a pile of hundred Jen notes, but I was late from school so I just stuffed them into my wallet and ran.
“Tell me about it!”
We both sighed in unison.
“So, what now?” Josh asked wearily, unaware of the blockade we caused in the waiting line.
“We buy some food?” I shrugged. “I mean, we might as well. Do you want anything in particular?”
“Well, I did get you into trouble yesterday, and I dragged you along just now, so… Yeah, why not?”
Joshua nodded to himself and looked over the menu.
“You know,” He finally turned to me with a wicked smile. “I always wondered what lobsters taste like…”