The last week of summer was always the worst week of summer.
It sucked for the same reason Sunday always sucked: that lingering feeling in your gut of "oh God, I have to go back to school." And no matter what you were doing or how much fun you were having, dread always hung over it all, like a dark cloud with no silver lining. It was coming. It was unavoidable. All you could do was make the most of the freedom you had left.
That's why Alan Galland was in Chinatown with his cousin.
The place wasn't his first choice to go, but anywhere he could get good food and find weird bootleg merchandise would do. As cramped and cluttered as anywhere in Philly, Alan had to push his way through crowds just to keep pace with his cousins while walking the streets. It was times like this that made him happy he lived a train ride away, in the suburbs.
"Junior year's the easiest, man." Toby said to his cousin. He was a few years older than Alan, and had attended the same school as him: Williams High. "Just have fun."
"Yeah..." Alan just nodded, keeping his hands in the pocket of his hoodie. "Sure."
Having fun at school? That... didn't seem possible to him.
"Cheer up!" the older boy laughed at his cousin's response. "Girls don't like guys who mope all the time, y'know."
"Let's go in there next!"
Walking hand in hand with Toby was his girlfriend, Amber. She was tall and blonde, as classically pretty as a girl could be. One of her pink-painted fingernails was pointing at a store across the road, a tiny hole-in-the-wall that, judging from the window, offered a lot of random knick-knacks.
"Sure thing, babe." Toby looked back at Alan, making sure he followed.
As they walked for the store, Alan buried his hands further into his pocket.
Ugh. Why did Toby have to bring Amber along? She wasn't mean or annoying or anything, but she chose the worst stores to go into, and took too long at each one. And... well, Alan wouldn't say it aloud, but he was totally jealous...
The three teenagers headed inside the shop, greeted by crisp air conditioning and a jingling bell. Almost immediately a girl in a silky dress approached them, smiling and hovering by as they looked through the items that lined the shelves. Obviously, she was there to watch out for shoplifters. Her job seemed pretty easy, cause those three were the only customers.
Alan wasn't interested in anything they had. It was pretty much the same stuff any shop in Chinatown offered. Little statuettes, jewelry, clothing, calendars, stuffed animals... just all with a Chinese flair.
One thing caught his eye, though: a figure of a dragon, carved from jade, about the size of his palm. It was one of those weird Asian dragons, that kind of looked like snakes with horns and a mane. Alan picked it up to take a closer look, but as soon as he did, that girl in the dress was at his side.
"I'm sorry, you'll have to put that down." she said sternly. Alan glanced back at her.
"No touching the merchandise." her arms were folded against her chest. "Unless you're gonna buy it."
Alan kept his eyes on her for a second more, then slowly put the dragon back down.
"Hey, look at these!"
It was Amber's voice that had called out, and though she was probably trying to get Toby to come over, the girl zipped right to her. Now that her attention was off of him...
Alan's eyes moved to the sales counter, which was right by the door. It was attended by an old, old woman, who had her eyes shut. It seemed that she was taking a nap or something.
Smiling, he rubbed his hands together - then, as fast as he could, slipped the little jade dragon into his hoodie pocket. Stashed behind his phone and earbuds, it looked like nothing was out of the ordinary.
He didn't want it that badly. The girl just seemed mean.
Thoroughly bored, he wandered over to see what it was Amber had shouted about. It was a big glass case of jewelry, clearly the most expensive in the store - that's probably why it was under lock. The girl had opened it up though, and Alan could see that Toby was hesitantly letting Amber pick something out. He was the one paying for everything.
"Alright, alright..." Amber lifted up a necklace that had to have a dozen diamonds in it. "Maybe not that one..."
Sliding up, Alan took register of all the stuff inside the case. Most of it, he had to admit, did look really nice. Amber seemed fixated on the bigger items like the necklaces, but there was a row of rings off to the side, each one pushed into its own spot on the velvet backdrop.
The one that stuck out to Alan the most was one with a rusty brass band. A huge red gemstone was embedded into it, the largest of any jewel in the case. Scratches criss-crossed its surface... the thing looked old, like it had been worn a thousand times before.
"This one, this one!" Amber was holding a different necklace, this time with a much lower price tag.
"Okay... anything for you, babe." sighed Toby. He pulled out his pocket and passed a few dollar bills to his girlfriend, who took them eagerly.
Hmm. Alan scratched his chin. The old ring was being sold for cheap, probably because it was... well, old. But hey, why pay full price when you can get it with a five-finger discount?
"Wonderful." the girl was more than happy to make a sale. "Do you want a bag for it?"
"Sure, why not." said Amber.
The girl headed off to the counter, retrieving a white paper bag and waking up the old woman in the process. As they traded a few words in Chinese, Alan nonchalantly reached into the still-open jewelry case and pulled out the ring. Without Amber or either of the shopkeepers noticing, he hid it right next to the dragon. Toby, however, caught on.
"You klepto..." he whispered, half-laughing. "Who's it for?"
"No one. I don't know." Alan shrugged as he whispered back. "Just looked neat."
"Well, don't steal anything else."
Alan smirked, watching as Amber walked up to the counter and handed the girl her money.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
Alan's eyes cracked open. Struggling to sit up in bed, he slid a hand over to his alarm clock and fumbled for a button.
It was 6:30 AM.
Time to get ready.
The teen had the foresight to lay out some clothes and pack his backpack the night before. So, all he had to do was take a quick shower, dry off, brush his teeth, and then he was on his way to the bus stop. He got there right on time, at 7. By 7:15 he was at Williams High, and by 7:30 he was pledging allegiance to the flag in homeroom.
All around him, people were reconnecting. In front of him, a few girls had talked about what they did during the summer, and to his left and right, groups of guys were doing the same. Even a few kids had approached the homeroom teacher and struck up a conversation.
Alan, though... he had no one. He had moved to this town a few years back, and had never really found any friends in that time. There were people he sat and ate lunch with, the other loser/nerd/geek type people, but he didn't talk to them much. Only about whatever video game had just come out.
First period was math. Alan did fine in that class, and it looked like he had the same teacher, Ms. Merriam, as last year. So, that was going to be about the same. The only thing shocking happened at the end of the period...
"Alright, so, if you didn't hand it in already, the summer work is due tomorrow. It's worth as much as a full test."
The woman held up a stack of paper so thick that, if you were to drop it, the result would measure on the Richter scale. From the size, it could easily be mistaken for a dictionary or phonebook, but the bold, all-caps title printed across the front page - ALGEBRA 2 SUMMER MATH PACKET - made it clear it was something much worse.
Alan had forgotten all about it. Sighing, he slumped in his seat. Looks like that's what he'd be doing tonight.
The rest of the day passed by mercifully quick. Every class was about the same. New teacher greeted new students, talked about class, maybe handed out a syllabus or two, then you got on your way to the next class. Lunch went by the quickest... he found his seat for the semester, then spent the half hour talking about the new Doom game with the rest of the losers/nerds/geeks. He had forgot to bring money for lunch or to pack anything, so that's all he had to do.
Finally, the last class of the day came. It was an elective, and to be honest, the only class Alan was looking forward to: Screenwriting. His school had just added it this year. He figured, he always had the best ideas for movies, right? So why not learn to write scripts?
The class was small - about thirteen people, most of them girls minus one jock-looking dude and one gay-looking dude. So, Alan didn't have a problem with finding a seat. He got one near in the back, near the window corner. Objectively, the best place to sit.
Of course, something had to ruin it.
Madalyn Marlowe walked in. And she sat her fat ass down right next to him.
Widely reviled across Williams High both by students and teachers alike, Madalyn Marlowe was a contender for "most annoying girl in school." She was a loud and proud weeaboo, and she had even died her hair bright blue in a desparate attempt to look like a real life anime character. Unfortunately, most anime characters weren't chubby. The tee shirt she wore today said "Keep Calm and Read Yaoi" on it, and it was honestly one of the less lame shirts in her collection.
Alan looked around, before realizing Madalyn was trying to get his attention. Oh God, why was she trying to get his attention?
Oh God, she didn't... Madalyn was part of the school's loose coalition of losers/nerds/geeks. She didn't think they were part of the same clique, did she? Was that why?
"I never knew you were a writer." said the blue-haired girl. Her lopsided pigtails - another failed attempt at looking cute - bobbed as she turned to face him. "That's cool."
"Yep." Alan said back. He tried to think of a polite way to move to another seat.
The bell rang, signalling that class had started for real. As if on cue, the teacher came in the room: Mr. Bryers. Alan recognized him as mainly being an English teacher. The man was tall and skinny, and always wore a sweater, no matter the temperature.
"Hey guys!" he put down some books he was carrying on his desk. The standard teacher introduction followed: he talked about himself, his kids, the class, yadda yadda yadda. It was only when he mentioned the first project they'd be doing that Alan's ears really perked up.
"While we're going to be doing smaller projects all year, there's going to be one big one that I'll give you time every week to work on." he started writing things down on the chalkboard - due dates. "A full length movie script. 110 to 120 pages."
Wow. That was a big number. Alan couldn't imagine writing that much... but he figured if they had all year, it'd be manageable.
"Of course, that's a tall order, so you're going to be doing the assignment in pairs." Mr. Bryers clapped his hands together. "And you're gonna be pairing up... right now! I count fourteen, so that's seven pairs."
Alan watched in horror as the other people in the class quickly found partners to work with. He jumped out of his seat, preparing to approach either of the two other boys in the class. But they had already partnered up before he could get to either of them.
"Shit..." he murmured to himself, under his breath. He turned around to see Madalyn grinning at him.
Well, there went the only class he was excited for.
When he got home, the first thing Alan did was flop onto his bed. He wanted to crawl under the covers and fall asleep... but he had that stupid math packet to do.
Forcing himself to stand, he looked around his room. At the beginning of the summer, he must've left it somewhere in here. But where?
It wasn't in his closet, or on his dresser. There were lots of papers on his desk, but none of them were the packet. He next opened up one of his desk drawers. Yep, there it was... and on top of it was that old ring he had stolen back in Chinatown. The red jewel embedded in it gleamed brightly, sunlight from his window cast over it.
Huh. He didn't remember leaving it there.
Alan picked it up to put it aside, but as soon as his fingers met metal, a tingling sensation ran through them.
It was like a current of electricity, a bolt of lightning brushing against his skin. The shock of it made him drop the ring, and he kept his eyes on it as it rolled across his bedroom floor.
Forgetting about the math packet for a second time, Alan crouched down, staring at the ring. Inside that red jewel, swimming beneath the surface, he thought he could see something. It was like churning smoke was trapped inside the crystal. But the dust and scratches that covered the ring obscured it, made it seem to just be a trick of the light.
He wanted a closer look.
Carefully, Alan reached his hand out and took the ring between his thumb and his index finger. No jolt came through this time. With his other hand, he tried to wipe away the dust, but it just wouldn't go away... not even the corner of his shirt worked.
"Come on, come on..."
He pulled it away from his shirt, trying to see if he had made any progress. To his surprise, he did.
And now, the jewel was glowing brightly.
For a second, he thought he had just brought it into the light or something. But the jewel began to glow even brighter, and the shine it emitted began to throb and crackle. Smoke poured out from the corners of the gemstone, where it had been embedded into brass, a thick red cloud quickly forming around Alan. In awe, he dropped the ring again, and backed up against his wall. More and more red smoke was coming from the ring, so he covered his mouth, afraid to breathe in any.
What the hell was happening?
Just as suddenly as it had started, the glow began to fade. The smoke twisted into a tornado of crimson, and quickly took on a distinct shape: a curvy, feminine silhouette. Then, it glimmered, and puffed away, replaced by...
Standing... no, floating above the ring was a pretty girl. Well, half of a pretty girl, because below the waist she was just a puffy trail of smoke that lead to the jewel. Waves of shimmering, beautiful black hair cascaded down her back. All the girl wore was a skinny blue bandeau top and countless pieces of exquisite golden jewelry, leaving plenty of smooth, deep red skin exposed.
"Hi, how ya' doin?" she gave Alan a cute little wave.