My classes drag on painfully slow. Seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours, and don't get me started on the eternity that is an hour. When my science teacher drawls out her final instruction to clean up our lab stations, I let out a sigh of relief. I rinse the vials in the sink and transfer them over to the holder. My lab partner stands off to the side, allowing me to handle the mess. It may appear unfair from an outsider's perspective, but it's for the best. Last time Josh took charge of cleaning up, he shattered three of our vials and we had to redo the experiment after school.
Apparently, my pace is too leisurely though because Mrs. Barr lectures me on how being slow during the end stage of a lab can be just as dangerous hurrying through an experiment. That sounds made-up, but I nonetheless mutter an apology and pick up the pace a little. Our teacher makes a show of checking her watch, more concerned about her lunch hour than safety regulations. She should've become a gym teacher if she was all about speed and efficiency.
I give her a half-hearted goodbye, which goes unheeded. Josh doesn't even bother. Instead, he grabs his guitar from behind her desk, and we head out the door. I consider grabbing lunch from the cafeteria before heading over to meet Rika. My stomach groans in protest, the last incident still too recent a memory to risk it. The food the lunch ladies served that day appeared appetizing enough. It's only once it started spewing out both ends that I was forced to rethink my life decisions.
"You hear the rumors about you?" Josh asks.
I turn to face the stocky boy. "No, anything good?"
"They're pretty great." He shifts his guitar case to his other hand, bumping my leg with it in the process. "You, Rika, and Ethan are apparently in a love triangle with Amelia and Nora too."
I blink at him in confusion. "Isn't that more of a pentagon?"
"I suppose it is. Not like a lot of these idiots would know the difference though."
Can't argue with that logic. It takes a special kind of stupid to believe such an impossible rumor in the first place.
"Have you talked to Ethan about it?" I ask, knowing the two of them are friends.
He shakes his head. "That guy couldn't stop laughing. I'm pretty sure he's even encouraging the rumors."
We swing a right at the bulletin board outside the principal's office. While the board had been bare at the beginning of the school year, it is now full of posters and flyers. Josh slows in front of it. "You mind if we stop real quick? I lost the band flyer I was supposed to make copies of. There might be another one here."
Shrugging my shoulders, I answer him. "Sure."
With his free hand, he sifts through the papers. He reads through one before grunting and continuing his search. Eventually, he shakes his head and stands next to me. "It's not there. Let's go."
He holds his guitar closer to his body in anticipation of the large crowd of students mingling about the perimeter of the cafeteria. Some of them are waiting in line for food, while others are there for the company. Fortunately, some girl makes space for us in the line to slip past, saving us the hassle of trying to squeeze our way through.
"Man, this school sucks. The halls are so damn small."
I nod in agreement. "You headed to the music room?"
"Yep, we got a concert coming up. Tons of rehearsals and all that jazz. I'll catch you later."
We part ways, and I trudge onward to meet up with Rika.
"Sorry, we're not who you were expecting." Ethan claps a heavy hand upon my back and guides me away from the door. "This is a good chance for us to talk though."
I stumble forward, brushing against the railing. That thing is covered in cobwebs, so I jump away, hoping to avoid getting them on my sweatshirt. "Where's Rika? And what are you," I point to Amelia and Nora, "and them doing here?"
The girls are sitting on the stairs and have yet to acknowledge my presence. In fact, I'm not even sure they realize I'm here. The blond girl's focus is entirely on her phone, brows furrowed in concentration. Nora has her legs crossed, chin resting on the palm of her hand, staring at the closest wall to her with a blank stare.
"Rika blabbed to me about your little meet-up, so I convinced her you had lunch detention. She's probably eating with Chloe in the lunchroom," he says. "And they're here because I'm sick of having to choose between hanging out with you or them."
So, that's what this is? He set this up to try to get us to be friends or something.
I won't fall for it.
I edge towards the doorway, wondering if I can make a break for it, but Ethan notices and mirrors my movements. "You don't have a chance."
He's right about that. Being a head taller than me and a lot heavier than I am, my scrawny frame would never be able to bully my way past him. Not to mention if he decides to sic Nora on me too.
He slings his arm around my shoulder and pulls me in closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Look, man. I get some shitty stuff happened to you last year, but you're taking it out on the wrong people. I had nothing to do with it." He motions to the girls in front of him. "And they definitely didn't have anything to do with it. So, let's all try to get along. Ok?"
"And what if I refuse?" I grumble, shoving him off of from me.
"I'm glad you asked." He wears a shit-eating grin. "If you refuse, I might have to send some people a link to that novel of yours. Specifically chapter one-hundred and ninety-seven."
A chill shoots up my spine. He's going to hang that over my head? I never should've shown him my novel back in junior high.
I lied about sort of modeling the new character after Rika. It's more like I entirely based it on her. From her physical features to her personality, even her age is the exact same. And the name Erika hardly passes as a reasonable pseudonym.
If she reads it, she'll know right away that Erika is her. Would she think I'm a creep? Not to mention what other people would say. What little social standing I do have would be completely destroyed.
I grit my teeth. "Fine, I'll play along."
"Knew you'd see it my way. Now, pull out your phone."
Confused, I do what he asks of me.
"Are you both set?"
That seems to snap the girls out of whatever trance they're in. Amelia perks up immediately and looks away from her phone to meet his gaze. "I played through the tutorial and created my character."
Nora snorts. "Your character probably looks like a bimbo."
"Does not! She's an elegant high elf."
"Quit it with the arguing. I told you two we're here to have fun, not be at each other's throats." He reprimands them, then pulls out his own phone with a huge smile. "Let's play some Monster Slayer, everybody!"