Rachel stops in the door of the high school library, unable to believe that this is happening to her. Bad enough to be stuck in detention. But to be stuck with this batch of weirdos?
Jake is inoffensive, sort of, if you’re willing to overlook his dorky clothing choices and his klutziness and his… everything. But there’s a reason — several reasons, actually — why Rachel doesn’t exactly advertise the fact that they’re related.
Marco, on the other hand, is 20 pounds of crazy in a five-pound bag. Rachel can’t tell if he just really likes cracking himself up or if he’s actually hoping someone else will laugh at one of his stupid jokes someday. Either way, the kid’s downright obnoxious, and there’s no surprise in seeing him here.
The same cannot be said of Cassie. There’s nothing that screams “rule-breaker” about her unless one is counting the rules of fashion. She’s sweet and hippie-ish and pretty boring, really. Farm Girl’s presence here is a mystery.
If nothing about Cassie stands out, then everything about Ax does. It’s not just that he’s their high school’s only foreign-exchange student, although that certainly doesn’t help. He tends to fixate on the oddest things, from their cafeteria’s sad excuse for cinnamon rolls to the collected sayings of Patrick Henry. If he’s supposed to be learning about American culture, he’s certainly taking his own approach to it.
In short: ugh.
Jake looks up, waving hopefully at Rachel.
Just for that, she takes a seat on the far opposite side of the room. Still in the front row of desks, though, directly in front of Cassie. She has to be ready, as soon as—
The door opens again. Chapman walks in.
Rachel springs to her feet. “Mr. Chapman!”
He sighs loudly before he turns around. He already looks unamused with the lot of them.
“Mr. Chapman,” she blurts, “there’s been a mistake, I’m not supposed to be here—”
“Hey, I’m not supposed to be here either!” Marco says, also jumping to his feet. “What about me?”
Rachel whirls around to glare at him, then turns back to Mr. Chapman. “Like I was saying, I can’t be here today.”
“Yeah,” Marco adds, “it’s, like, against habeas corpus to hold us without charging us.”
“You’re all on my list,” Chapman says. (Not, Rachel notes, actually checking his list.) “So you’re all staying.”
“I recognize that what I did was wrong,” Rachel starts. “However—"
“Yeah,” Marco says at the same time, “but—”
“You will not speak,” Chapman says over them both. “You will not leave. You will sit here for the next eight hours, and you will write full-page essays, front and back, about what you did wrong and what you’ve learned from the experience. If you sufficiently convince us that you’ve learned your lesson, then we don’t have to revisit the exercise. Any questions?”
“What do we do if we’ve gotta go to the bathroom?” Marco, of course. “Or what if one of us keels over? Or, or, what if we’re feeling a really strong urge to become a marijuana addict like from the PSAs, and we gotta urgently go buy an anti-smoking patch to stop it? What if that happens?”
Chapman stares at Marco in silence for a long second. And then he slaps a 200-pack of loose-leaf and a wad of pencils on the nearest desk, and walks out.
“I’m holding you personally responsible if this time next month I’m a dope fiend!” Marco yells after him.
Chapman sticks his head back in the room. “And I’m holding you personally responsible for the additional detention you’ll be serving next week,” he says.
Marco’s mouth opens again, but there’s a sudden motion. Whatever he was about to say gets cut off. Cassie has grabbed him and yanked him back into his seat before he can say anything else.
Chapman glances their way, and Cassie smiles sweetly. She appears to be holding one of Marco’s hands in both of hers, and her expression is perfectly innocent.
With a shrug, Chapman slams the door shut behind him.
Cassie immediately moves away from Marco. “Sorry,” she says. “It just looked like you were going to do something impulsive.”
Marco doesn’t even seem to register her presence. He’s staring in shock at where Chapman just left.
Cassie sits back down.
“So,” Rachel says into the lingering pause. “What do we do if we have to go to the bathroom?”
They all glance at each other. No one answers.
“Right.” Marco clasps his hands together. “Rachel, Ax, you two can fight to the death. Winner gets to take me to Homecoming. Loser goes to Chapman to show off their grievous wounds and impress upon him that this really is a medical emergency. Ax-Man, sorry my money is not on you but you are the hottest one here and I have my standards, so when you get to Chapman’s office —”
“Does he have an off switch?” Rachel mutters.
Cassie tilts her head in consideration. “How would the loser go to Chapman’s office if it’s a fight to the death?”
“That’s your problem with this whole scenario?” Jake asks her.
She smiles at him. He smiles back. They both turn away, blushing.
Rachel rolls her eyes. Great. Just what they need. Those two can make the world’s least fashionable children together.
“I do not wish to fight anyone,” Ax is saying from his desk near the back of the room. “And I do not wish to go to Homecoming with you.”
“Woooowwwww, way to break a guy’s heart!” Marco clutches his chest theatrically.
“New plan.” Rachel pivots to sit upright on the surface of her desk so that she can look at Ax. “We gang up on Marco, and work together to kick his ass.”
Ax sighs. “I believe I just expressed that I would prefer not to fight anyone. Although it appears my words may have already harmed Marco without my intent.”
“Damn straight!” Marco calls from where he is now rolling around on the floor. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will stab me through the heart!”
“In that case,” Ax says, straight-faced, “we will not need to fake a medical emergency after all.”
“Can we please just write our stupid essays?” Jake demands.
“You’re not my real mom!” Marco yells.
“We do have eight hours to write a page each, so it’s not that urgent.” Cassie leans forward to look at Jake. “But I’d also rather we stopped fighting.”
“Yeah,” Jake says, casting a dark look at all of them. “Before all the yelling attracts Chapman. And he comes back in here and sees us not writing, and gives us even more detentions.”
“Who died and made you king?” Marco asks.
“He’s just aspiring to be a vice principal himself one day.” Rachel props both elbows on the table, smirking at Jake. “Isn’t that right?”
Jake rolls his eyes. “I’m aspiring to pass tenth grade on my first try. And anyway, there are worse things I could be than a vice principal.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want you to end up a janitor like Marco’s dad.” Rachel regrets it almost as soon as the words are out of her mouth.
Marco rolls over and looks up at her. Rachel braces herself for another snarky comment, but he just… looks at her.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean…”
Marco continues to look at her.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” She sounds pitiful even to herself.
“Didn’t mean what?” Marco pushes to his feet. “Didn’t mean to say something that we all know to be true?” He takes a step toward her.
Rachel shakes her head.
“Or did you not mean to say something that broke your image of yourself as one of those nice rich girls,” he says, “one of those considerate rich girls, one of those rich girls who remembers the waiter’s name and gives the extra ten percent of her allowance to save the rainforest?”
Rachel stands up as well. “You think you’ve got it all figured out, but you don’t know anything about me.”
Marco slams both hands on the table across from her. “I know your daddy’s a hotshot news anchor. I know your mommy’s some slick lawyer who probably paid for that designer sweater you’re wearing by helping criminals get out of jail.”
“Guys…” Jake says.
“Shut up,” Rachel snaps at him.
“You got a problem with those of us who aren’t living in McMansions?” Marco asks. “You got a problem with the people your mommy pays to clean your house?” His smile turns cruel. “Or do you just pity them?”
Rachel doesn’t know what she’s intending to do when she lunges across the desk at Marco. Just that he staggers back and in the same instant, Ax is between them pointing a knife at her chest.
Marco falls back against a desk in shock.
“What the hell,” Rachel says.
Ax swings the blade to point first at Marco, then at Rachel, then back to Marco. He’s breathing hard, but he holds the unfolded butterfly knife with clear skill.
“I just said,” Ax says slowly, “that I did not wish anyone to fight.” He looks a hell of a lot less goofy and harmless than he did 30 seconds ago. “This disagreement does not concern me, except, as Jake said, all of our actions have the potential to affect each other.”
“Ax,” Jake says. “Just put the knife down, okay? Nobody’s gonna hurt anybody, so there’s no need for that.”
Ax turns to look at Jake, hand lowering. Rachel sees her chance. Darting forward, she grabs Ax hard around the wrist. Ax’s hand twists in hers with a speed and grace she hadn’t expected from such a spacy little dude. There’s a jerk and they’re both thrown against a desk, Marco pinning Ax.
Even as they move Rachel hangs on to Ax’s knife hand, feeling muscles twist under her hand. Ax cries out in pain.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!”
At the new voice, everyone stops moving.
One by one, they disengage and turn to look at the corner of the library Rachel hadn't noticed.
It’s the new kid.
Rachel could’ve sworn that corner was empty a second ago, but the kid has just stood up from the floor. A big hardcover book is still tucked under one arm, and there’s a hard glare leveled at all of them from underneath a head of tousled blond curls.
“Where did you come from?” Marco asks before Rachel can.
“He’s from Wisconsin,” Jake says. “Everybody knows that.”
The sheer absurdity of this response breaks the tension. Everyone cracks up, even Jake letting out an embarrassed little chuckle as he obviously realizes Marco’s question wasn’t meant like that.
“It’s Tobias, right?” Cassie says to the new kid. “We’re sorry about that.”
The new kid (Tobias?) glances around at each of them in turn, shoulders slightly hunched like he’s preparing to make a run for it. Then, having apparently said everything he’s going to say today, he sits back down on the floor and opens his book again.
“Yeah,” Rachel mutters to Ax. “Sorry.”
Ax straightens up. One-handed he flicks the knife to unfold the handle, retract the blade, and slide it closed. The whole thing is done with such careless deftness that Rachel considers apologizing all over again.
There’s a long pause. No one seems to have anything else to say, so they all end up sitting back down.
Rachel stares at her blank loose-leaf sheet in frustrated silence for several minutes. What she did wrong. What she learned from it. One page, front and back. Two pages, really, once you get past the teacher-talk bullshit.
Abruptly she realizes that she’s been rubbing her pencil against one spot so hard that she’s worn clean through the paper. And left a dent in the desk underneath. And blunted her pencil.
“This is stupid.” She flings her pencil across the room and into the trash can, then balls up her ruined paper and tosses that as well. “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”
“It’s an imperfect world, Dream House Barbie.” Marco speaks without looking up from his own paper. “It’s not often that bad things happen to people like you, but they do still happen.”
“Don’t be an ass,” Rachel twists around to tell him. “I’m not saying I don’t deserve detention. I’m saying that no one’s watching my sisters right now, because the babysitter cancelled and my mom’s had to work Saturdays ever since my dad fucked off halfway across the country. She was counting on me to explain all that to Mr. Chapman so I could come in on a different day.”
Marco doesn’t seem to know what to do with this information. He opens his mouth to make a snappy comment, then shuts it again.
“For the record, that sucks,” Cassie says from behind Rachel. “And here I was feeling sorry for myself because my parents are extra-annoyed over having to feed all my animals for me.”
“I probably could’ve gotten out of it.” Rachel glares at Marco. “If someone hadn’t opened his mouth and pissed off Chapman.”
“Hey, don’t look at me.” Marco leans back in his chair, hands laced behind his head. “I’m innocent.”
Rachel snorts. “Of what? Murder?”
“Of whatever it was that caused Chapman to give me detention in the first place.” He blows his hair out of his eyes. “Like I said, I’m definitely not supposed to be here.”
“Of what transgression do you stand accused?” Ax asks.
“No idea.” Marco’s voice is all false casualness; Rachel can hear the catch there. “Chapman just came around the corner and was like ‘detention, young man.’” Marco shakes a finger in the air.
“What’d you do?” Jake asks.
“Noth-thing,” Marco snaps.
“No offense,” Cassie says, “but didn’t you glue the school counselor’s door shut one time?”
“Only because he tried to convince me that deep down I really did blame myself for my mom’s death.” Marco smiles, batting his eyelashes in an effort to shrug off that statement.
“Considering they had to call the fire department to get the guy out, I’m pretty sure you made your point,” Jake murmurs.
Marco drops his chair back down to all four legs, turning serious. “But that was months ago. And I did my time for that incident. I didn’t cut class, I don’t smoke, I hadn’t mouthed off to any teachers…” He ticks the points off on his fingers. “I don’t bring knives to school,” he adds with a pointed glance at Ax. “I’m innocent.”
Rachel snorts. “Suuuurre.”
“Why would I lie?” Marco says sharply. “I’m not here to impress anyone, none of you is a teacher— Why would I lie about this?”
“He has a point,” Cassie says.
“I literally do not even know why I’m here, because no one ever told me.” Marco leans back to prop both feet on the desk again. “So I’ve got no way to write an essay about what I learned from what I’ve done wrong, so I’m going to get yet another detention at the end of this one so just—” His voice cracks. He has to bite down hard on his lower lip, eyes squeezed shut. “Fuck all you guys. Seriously. Fuck you.”
“That’s not right.” Jake’s voice comes out loud and firm. “That’s not fair, it’s not right— The school code definitely has something in it against that kind of thing.”
“Gee, white boy, you think?” Marco doesn’t open his eyes. “I guess you’ve spent your whole life playing by the rules and having the rules play for you, but in order to fight Chapman on this one I’d need a parent and-or guardian who actually picks up the damn phone when the school calls. Sooooo…” He makes a little poof gesture in the air.
“Maybe…” Cassie says. “Maybe if we all talked to Chapman together…”
“Oh, yeah.” Now Marco does open his eyes, laughing cruelly. “A dumb jock, a treehugger, a prima donna, and a criminal walk into an office. And let’s not forget French Connection or Little Orphan Annie over there, because the school’s two charity cases will really help our cause.”
“It was a suggestion,” Jake says. “You don’t have to jump down her throat.”
“Just… write your fucking essay.” Marco flops over onto two chairs, apparently curling up to fall asleep.
“Fine.” Jake pulls his paper toward him. “Fine.”
Rachel grabs a fresh sheet and a new pencil off the stack at the front of the room. From the quantity of supplies Chapman left, you’d think he was expecting a small army to show up.
What she did wrong. What she did wrong. What she learned from what she did wrong.
After tapping her pencil on her paper without inspiration for what feels like hours, Rachel twists around to look at the others. Marco appears to be fully asleep now, sprawled across two chairs and the table in front of him. Ax is chewing on — no, Ax is eating his pencil, and has already swallowed his entire eraser. Jake and Cassie seem to be playing some kind of game where one of them will glance up, the other will glance away, Jake will blush, Cassie will giggle silently, and the whole thing will repeat a few seconds later. Only Tobias is scribbling away steadily at the paper that’s spread out on top of the book in front of him, shoulders hunched and lips pursed in concentration.
With a sigh of annoyance, Rachel turns back to her own paper. What she did wrong, and what she learned from it. She’s not convinced she has learned anything, even if she does thoroughly regret her actions by now.
“Hey, new kid,” Marco says without opening his eyes. “I’ll pay you to let me copy your essay.”
Tobias continues scribbling away at top speed. “How much?” he says without looking up.
“That’s not how we’re supposed to do this,” Jake says.
“Too bad, I’m hard up for cash.” How Tobias can write and talk at the same time is a mystery to Rachel. “How much?”
Marco sits up to dig in his pockets. “Uh, fifty-one cents, a Life Saver, and some lint?”
Tobias snorts. Pointedly, he shuts a hardcover book overtop his page and drops the whole thing on the floor.
“Oh come on, haven’t you ever written an entire essay about nothing before?” Jake asks Marco. “It’s not that hard.”
Marco gives him a searching look. “Tell me more.”
“Okay, just…” Jake tilts his head back. “Copy this down.” He blows out a breath. “An essay on the nature of rule breaking must, in order to be complete, begin from a place of defining what it means to break rules. But before we can determine what rule breaking is, we need to determine if it’s even possible to define rules at all. Are rules specific to a situation, or are they universal? If universal rules exist, how would we know them? In this essay, I will argue that my actions are best understood in the context of…” He shrugs. “And just go from there.”
Marco’s frantically jotting notes, but the others are all staring at Jake.
“So much for him being a dumb jock,” Tobias says, smirking.
“What?” Jake laughs nervously. “No, bullshitting isn’t intelligence. If it was, Marco’d be the smartest person in the tenth grade.”
Marco cackles loudly, still writing at top speed.
“Marco is the smartest person in the tenth grade,” Tobias says calmly.
“You take it back, nerd-boy,” Marco says. “I’ve never studied a day in my life, thank you very much.”
“I didn’t say you get good grades.” Tobias peeks up through his messy fringe of hair, registers that they’re all looking at him, and hastily looks back down. “You never study, and I’ve never seen you turn in a single piece of homework, but you’re always the first person to finish every test, and you can explain any concept back to the teacher after hearing it once. Mr. Tidwell cold-calls you all the time because he can tell you’re not paying attention, and you always give the right answer instantly. And then you go back to staring out the window or trying to stick pen cartridges in the ceiling or whatever.”
“Shooting ink cartridges out of pens hard enough to stick them into foam ceiling tiles is an art, I’ll have you know,” Marco says. “It’s all about finding a wide-barreled cartridge in a narrow-barreled pen case for trajectory control, stacking at least two springs with the right tensile strength and bracing them with the plunge turned inside-out and blocking the normal motion of the thrust tube.” He flips his hair back. “I wouldn’t expect you losers to understand.”
“Holy shit, maybe he is the smartest person in the tenth grade,” Rachel mutters.
Ax makes a shushing motion at her. “Please continue,” he tells Marco. “Tenth grade is extremely boring, and I, too, would like to shoot pens into ceiling tiles.”
Before Marco can do more than open his mouth, the door of the library swings back open.
Everyone scrambles to sit upright and look busy, even though none of them are actually doing anything wrong. Tobias disappears into a gap between two bookcases.
“All right,” Chapman says, looking around at them. “Who here has to go to the bathroom?”
Rachel puts her hand up along with everyone else, even though she doesn’t actually have to pee. There’s no knowing when the next break will be, after all.
Jake, Ax, and Marco turn left at the end of the hall; Rachel and Cassie turn right.
“What’d you get detention for, anyway?” Rachel asks as they both dally over the sink, taking too long to wash their hands to delay going back.
“Um,” Cassie says, ducking her head.
“C’mon. Please? The curiosity’s killing me.”
Cassie laughs. “Okay, okay. Did you hear about the mouse incident?”
Rachel gasps. “That was you?”
Cassie’s smile is somewhere between embarrassment and pride. “Yeah.”
“No,” Rachel says, still astounded. “You fiend! It took them hours to clean up the school, and they still didn’t manage to catch most of the science mice.”
“That’s because I released them outside,” Cassie whispers, conspiratorial. “I didn’t realize so many of them would run back into the school.”
“But you’re…” Rachel stops, unable to find a good way to say ‘too much of a goody-two-shoes hippie to pull this off.’ “You just don’t seem the type,” she says at last.
Cassie gives her a long look. “They were science-class mice,” she says. “The behavioral unit was done, and they were due for dissection next.”
And yeah, that really does explain it all.
“I like your style,” Rachel says. “Next time you feel like going all ecoterrorist, loop me in if you need backup.”
Cassie glances toward the door, and then lowers her voice. “Did you know the principal authorized the groundskeeping team to use poison on the chipmunks?”
“No! What’re you planning to do about it?”
“If the poison somehow accidentally got into the cafeteria… they’d have to stop, right? There’d be a huge uproar.”
“You’re going to poison the school?”
“What? No!” Cassie’s eyes go wide. “I was going to have someone find the poison well before it reached anyone’s lunch. But it couldn’t be me, because everyone knows I’m… kind of passionate about animals. But if it was you…”
“You,” Rachel says slowly, “are a mad genius. Emphasis on mad.”
Cassie grins. “Thanks. You’re pretty cool yourself. A lot cooler than—” She stops. “You’re really nice, is all.”
Rachel snorts. She’s a lot of things, but nice is definitely not on that list. “A lot cooler than you thought I’d be?” she suggests. “Not some airheaded princess like everybody assumes?”
Cassie looks down, biting her lip. “Uh, I didn’t…”
“We’re cool.” Rachel glances toward the door. “We should probably get back before Chapman decides to give us both more detention.”
Sure enough, Chapman gives them a very pointed look when they come back out. Rachel shuts him down with an equally-pointed comment about her time of month.
By unspoken agreement, they all get out lunches when they get back to the room. Well, Cassie and Jake and Rachel all pull out what she’d comfortably classify as lunch food. Ax has a whole Tupperware of something that smells like curry but looks like grass clippings, and Marco just produces a giant bag of peanut M&Ms from an inside pocket and starts munching away.
Rachel is considering expressing concern about Marco’s tooth enamel if not his long-term potential for malnutrition. But Jake beats her to the punch, calmly initiating a trade of one of his turkey sandwiches for a handful of candies from Marco’s bag. So Rachel goes to check on Tobias instead.
“You want some apple slices?” she asks, and then says it again when that gets no response.
Finally Tobias lifts his head up from whatever he was reading, dreamy expression turning suspicious as he takes in her words. “Why, what’s wrong with them?” he asks.
“I don’t know what you take me for,” Rachel says sharply, “but it was just an offer. I know that I’m a violent offender or whatever, but it was just a suggestion—”
“Violent offender?” Ax butts in. “Viiiioooooolent off-fend-der? What does that mean?”
“That the administration is full of crap,” Rachel says.
“Yes,” Ax says patiently, “but what led them to describe you this way?”
“She’s talking about the David thing,” Jake explains.
“Oh yeah!” Marco snaps his fingers. “I totally forgot that was you.” He spins to look at Ax. “She grabbed that kid David, you know, the one always talking up how his dad’s more important than your dad? And she, like, head-locked him right in the middle of the cafeteria, and she’s got this plastic fork—”
“It was my fault,” Jake says, very quietly, and Marco stops talking.
“It was not.” Rachel rolls her eyes. “Not everything is about you, you self-centered twit.”
“So, just to review.” Jake sounds amused. “It’s okay for you to call me a twit, but not David?”
“He didn’t call you a twit, he dumped an entire bottle of vinegar onto you,” Rachel points out.
“So then you gave him the old ‘fork in the ear’ in revenge?” Marco asks, looking from one of them to the other like he’s considering pulling out some popcorn.
Jake sighs, sitting down on top of a nearby desk. “It was none of Rachel’s business.”
“Didn’t exactly stop me, did ya?” Rachel raises her eyebrows.
“I’m not your dad.”
“That was nice of you to defend Jake,” Cassie says to Rachel. She looks over at Jake. “That David kid sounds like a real jerk.”
“I had it coming,” Jake says.
“See?” Rachel throws up her hands. “Self-centered twit.”
“I am also a violent offender.” Ax once again says the phrase very carefully. “Or I have been thus described. I have not yet stabbed anyone with a plastic fork, although perhaps it is only a matter of time.”
“That’s the spirit.” Tobias turns another page in his book. “Follow your dreams, Ax-Man.”
“You got called violent for just having a knife with you?” Cassie asks. “That’s crappy.”
Ax shrugs. “Americans seem to have different views of such issues as these.”
“Americans are bullshit,” Rachel says.
“Shhhh,” Tobias says absently, turning another page.
Rachel turns back around to glare down at Tobias, but bites down on the first thing she wanted to say. “You want some apple slices or not?” she says instead. “I’ll try one myself if you want me to proof it. Since you’re that worried about going all Snow White on us or whatever.”
This time, Tobias looks up at her like he doesn’t know what to make of her. “No thanks,” he says. “I knew I’d be here a while, so I planned ahead.” He pulls a sandwich halfway out of a coat pocket to show her, then drops it back in.
“Okay,” Rachel says. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
Tobias gives her a shy little smile. “I’ve got all the money I own on my person in cash, and there are vending machines just down the hall, so if you’d like a snack I can also help out.”
“I’d like a snack right now,” Marco calls in a high-pitched voice.
Rachel digs in her pocket and flings her pencil in the general direction of Marco’s desk without looking away from Tobias. “Thank you,” she tells Tobias.
Tobias nods, going back to his book.
“How come you’re carrying all your money around?” Jake asks.
With a sigh, Tobias looks up. “I’m saving up for a fake ID. Happy?”
“A fake ID? What do you need a fake ID for?”
“I’m trying to read here.”
Marco snorts loudly. “Better be using it for cigarettes not alcohol. If you can pass for 21, then I’m the Queen of Sheba. I mean, has your voice even changed yet?”
Tobias doesn’t answer, except to stare hard at the page in front of him.
“That is, I believe,” Ax says precisely, “none of your fucking business.”
“If you need fake ID money, why not just hide it under your mattress?” Jake suggests.
Tobias pointedly hunches even closer to his book.
“No, that’s actually a good point,” Marco says. “If he gets mugged or something, there’s his life savings down the drain.”
Tobias looks up yet again. “If I leave it at home, my uncle will steal it.” He looks back down.
“Wait, what?” Jake says.
This time the noise Tobias makes is closer to a growl. “He uses it to buy Vicodin. Or gin. Or both.” He lifts his chin further to glare at Jake, two spots of color high on his cheekbones. “And yeah, he mixes the two, so one of these days if I’m not careful he’s going to drop dead on me. Probably on the floor of my room, if my luck continues as it has been.”
Jake is silent, mouth hanging halfway open.
Tobias’s voice is rising steadily in pitch and volume. “And then it’ll be right back to my aunt in Wisconsin who can’t even be bothered to get my name right, which might even be a fucking blessing at this point, because no one told me the school libraries in California were this fucking noisy!” He slams his book shut. “Good grief!”
With that, he stalks several rows further back into the stacks of books and sits down in a different area of floor with his back to them all.
Jake stares after him, a hand raised halfway toward his mouth as if in a too-late attempt to cover it. “I’m sorry for prying!” he calls. “I didn’t mean—”
Cassie puts a hand on his arm. “Maybe just let him read for now,” she suggests.
There’s a long, uncomfortable silence. Gradually, they all sit back down.
Everybody picks up pencils. Nobody starts writing.
“Anyway,” Marco says suddenly, causing Rachel to jump. “I’ve changed my bet. At the time when I put money on you…” He gestures at Rachel with the end of his pencil. “I had no idea that Ax was so well-armed. Now I’m thinking he might actually stand a chance.”
“Do you ever stop talking?” Rachel groans.
“Nope.” He grins. “One of my many charms.”
“Okay, if we’re talking again, does anyone know how to spell ‘regrettably’?” Cassie asks.
“I don’t think we’re being graded on spelling.” Jake taps his pencil against his cheek, looking down at his own paper. “At least, I really hope not.” He leans back to look at Cassie’s paper. “What do you have so far?”
“Uh, just the word ‘regrettably,’ followed by a comma.” She laughs at herself. “But now that I wrote it down, it looks like ‘rag-retably,’ and I’m not sure how many ‘T’s there are supposed to be.”
“Reg-ret-uh-blee,” Ax says slowly, thinking about it. “Re-gret-table-ee. Reeee-guh-ret-tab-lee.”
“So?” Jake asks.
“I do not know,” Ax announces.
“Thanks for trying, anyway,” Cassie says.
“This is a library.” Rachel lifts her head up, looking around. “There’s gotta be a dictionary somewhere in here, right?”
“Does Cassie actually want to put that much effort into a stupid essay that Chapman’s only ever gonna skim-read?” Jake asks.
“I bet the worse you spell everything, the less Chapman’s going to try to read it,” Marco points out. He’s got the most written of any of them, almost half a page already, which Rachel figures just goes to show that this whole exercise is a load of crap.
“Do you, indeed, regret your actions?” Ax asks Cassie.
Cassie blows out a sigh. Then she shakes her head.
“Then don’t claim you do,” Jake says immediately. “Just explain your reasons for doing what you did. You were responsible for the rat thing?”
Cassie shrinks down in her chair a little. “They were mice.”
“Write down why you did it, and how you feel about what you did.” Jake shrugs. “For the record, I don’t think you have anything to be sorry for. So there’s no point in lying about it.”
“Didn’t you just tell Marco to lie?” Rachel says.
“Marco doesn’t have a choice,” Jake says. “But I think we should all do whatever gets the essay written.”
“Do you regret what you did?” Marco frowns at Jake. “What did you do, anyway?”
“None of your business!” Rachel says loudly, as Jake mumbles, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Marco leans forward, grinning salaciously. “The real question is... Do you regret it?”
“Yeah,” Jake says flatly. “I do.”
Marco opens his mouth to say something else, which is when Tobias suddenly slams his book shut again and they all jump.
“If I give you enough weed,” Tobias asks, standing up to glare at them, “then will you all shut up?”
They all stare at Tobias in surprise.
“As in marijuana?” Marco says at last, voice rising in shock.
“Mary-waa-nuhhh,” Ax adds softly.
“No,” Tobias drawls, rolling his eyes, “I have a bunch of dandelions in my locker that I’m looking to redistribute.”
Marco snaps his mouth shut, flushing.
“Some criminal you are,” Rachel mutters.
“Dandelions are delicious with a light vinaigrette and a handful of basil,” Ax says. “Dandy-lions?”
“Yes.” Tobias sighs, massaging the bridge of his nose. “I mean marijuana. Would you like some nice soothing shut-the-fuck-up herb, or not?”
“You have marijuana in your locker?” Marco says.
“Did you give yourself a concussion from standing up too hard?” Tobias asks. “Or are you always this articulate?”
Rachel can understand the source of Marco’s bafflement, even if Tobias clearly thinks he’s being jerked around. It’s just that the new kid has a reputation for being quiet, and well-behaved, and ahead of the curve in most classes. Now that she thinks about it, she’s not sure Tobias even is the straight-laced nerd she had him pegged for. Maybe he just does so well in class because he’s covered all the material already.
“I don’t know if this makes sense,” Jake says. “If Chapman gets back here and smells it on us…”
“Welp, that decides it.” Marco rubs his hands together. “If Jake thinks it’s a bad idea, we’re definitely doing it.”
“Fine.” Tobias shoves his book into his shoulder bag and heads for the door.
Jake grabs him by the arm before Tobias can open it. Tobias swings around and for a second Rachel’s seriously afraid Tobias is going to hit him, but Jake holds up both hands defensively.
“We gotta take a look in the office down the hall,” Jake whispers. “If Chapman’s in there, we have a decent chance of scooting by and getting back unseen. If he isn’t, then we wait.”
Tobias opens his mouth like he’s about to argue some more, then nods.
Jake eases out the door, gesturing for the rest of them to stay back. After a second, he slips back inside. “I think we’re okay. We just have to stick close to the corner when we go, so we’re out of his sight lines.”
A giggle bursts out of Cassie. “This is ridiculous.”
“You wanna stay behind?” Jake offers.
Immediately, she shakes her head.
Marco holds up three fingers, leaning out to look around the door. He puts down one finger. Then another. Then the third.
They run for it.
This is officially the stupidest thing Rachel’s ever done, which is probably why she’s giddy with it. As a group they scoot around the corner, watching with bitten lips and tight lungs as Chapman continues to scan a report of some kind within his own office. They run down the hall in a line: Jake going first to peer around every corner, Marco nudging him ahead, Ax marching along like he owns the place, Rachel and Cassie side-by-side to cast occasional holy-shit glances at each other, Tobias trailing way behind watching the rest of them in amusement.
“This one!” Tobias calls up to Jake, stopping at locker #063. Jake skids to a stop and makes a frantic shushing motion.
Rachel snickers loudly. He looks like their class’s parade leader on Spirit Day.
Tobias spins the combination — Ax peering over his shoulder in intent fascination the entire time — and pulls out a crumpled brown paper bag. Then he slams the door, which gets another arm-flapping motion for silence out of Jake.
The paper bag gets stuffed into Tobias’s coat pocket, and Jake jerks his head back the way they came. They all nod.
Before they go, Ax imitates Tobias’s combination in a series of deft motions and slips the lock into his pocket. Rachel sees Tobias see it, and also sees him conclude he doesn’t actually care.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen,” Marco says in an undertone as they creep back down the hall. “On the right, you’ll see the cloud of soul-sucking despair that hangs over Ms. Paloma’s classroom, on the left you’ve got a gorgeous mosaic of wall gum. And be sure to keep your eyes open as we round the corner, because if we’re very lucky then we’ll be able to spot the door of the closet that leads straight down into the darkest circle of —”
Jake steps hard on Marco’s foot, and Marco cuts off.
They all hear it, half a second after Jake does: the squeak-squeak of shoes on linoleum. Coming from the direction of the school library.
“Shit,” Rachel whispers, and then they all run for it.
Trying to run quietly is almost futile, but they attempt it anyway, careening down the hallway half on tiptoe. Rachel’s not even sure where they’re going — down this hall is just the cafeteria, and they’ll have to cut back through the entire block of science classrooms just to approach the library from the other side.
A glance passes between her and Jake. By silent agreement she drops to the back of the group, glancing behind them and making sure that Cassie and Tobias are keeping up. Meanwhile, Jake runs out ahead, giving each corner a quick glance before beckoning everyone on.
Shit, shit, shit. This is about to be the stupidest fucking suspension. Rachel’s mom is going to murder her.
They round the corner into the cafeteria, running hard. Cassie trips on a stool and Marco grabs her before she can go down, yanking her back up. It’s impossible to tell if they’re still being followed or not — Rachel can’t hear anything over her own heartbeat and Cassie’s gasps for air.
There’s a bottleneck at the far door of the cafeteria. Jake and Tobias are arguing in whispers.
“We have to go around,” Jake hisses. “There’s no way that we’re going to get away with running straight past his office —”
“He’s not in his office,” Tobias says. “We know that because we just heard him, so we know that that’s the only safe place to go right now.”
“But he’s going to go back there just as soon as…” Mid-sentence, Jake gives up. “Fine. We’ll do it your way.”
“Great.” Tobias takes off to the left.
Ax sends a searching glance at Jake.
“Might as well stick together,” Jake says, and they all follow Tobias’s lead.
They do have to circle through the entire set of science labs, but Rachel doesn’t hear anyone else the entire time they’re in there. They make it all the way back past Tobias’s locker without encountering Chapman. They’re just about to go down the home stretch back to the library when Jake peers around a corner, goes white, and starts making frantic go-back motions with both hands.
Rachel grabs Marco, who was just about to head straight past her, and yanks them both back. Jake comes running back to them. Together the six of them cram into the space between a row of lockers and the fire door, a pathetically inadequate hiding place.
“He’s right there,” Jake breathes, gesturing back toward Chapman’s office.
“So he’s right outside the library?” Marco says in a semi-hysterical whisper. “And about two seconds from looking into the library and discovering that we’re not there?”
“This situation is not ideal.” Ax either has a gift for understatement, or the world’s driest sense of humor.
“Okay.” Jake looks grim. “I’m in a world of trouble anyway, so I’ll just go up to him and ask a question to get him off the rest of you. The worst he can do is—”
Tobias pulls out the bag of weed, presses it into Ax’s hands, and whispers, “Smoke that, don’t eat it.” Then he turns to duck out of their hiding place.
Rachel catches his arm. “Don’t,” she says. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but more detention is not…”
“It’s fine.” Tobias actually has the audacity to wink at her. “And what makes you think I have detention?”
In Rachel’s moment of baffled surprise, he takes off running. The moment he’s around the corner, they all hear him start running his hand along the row of locker padlocks as he goes, sending up an enormous rattling clatter of metal against metal.
Mr. Chapman’s running footsteps, heading for the cacophony, are also clearly audible.
“Wait,” Marco says slowly, eyebrows drawing together in a frown. “Did he just…?”
“Talk later.” Jake’s already moving in the opposite direction, beckoning them with him.
He’s right; they didn’t ask for it, but it’d be stupid to waste Tobias’s diversion. They run for the far opposite end of the hall, hiding their footfalls under what sounds like Tobias dropping an entire backpack’s worth of books on the floor. Chapman utters a sharp curse, and Tobias launches into the loudest apology Rachel’s ever heard.
They repeat the whole circle in reverse: lockers, science labs, cafeteria, more lockers. After a minute Rachel loses track of what’s happening with Tobias and Chapman. Whatever Tobias figured out, it’s given them plenty of time to get back to the library.
They skid around the corner of the English wing, sweating and breathing hard — and come face-to-face with a different adult.
From an outsider’s point of view, Rachel’s pretty sure it must look hilarious. Jake stumbles to a dead stop so fast that Marco crashes into him, and Cassie gets tangled in Ax’s feet badly enough that she almost sends them both tipping over.
From her point of view, she’s just trying to remember how to breathe.
For a long second, they stare at the custodian and the custodian stares back at them. Jake’s eyes are wide with shock, Cassie’s mouth halfway open like she’s scrambling for an explanation.
The custodian looks at them like he’s trying to place them from somewhere.
No, not at them. At Marco.
After a second, he actually smiles, just a little. As if he'd finally placed a memory. Shaking his head, he turns and very pointedly walks into a supply closet, shutting the door behind him.
None of them waste air talking about it. They just sprint the rest of the way back to the library.
All five of them throw themselves into desks in the front row seconds before the door opens.
Chapman walks in alone. There’s no sign of Tobias. Rachel can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not.
He looks them over for a long moment.
“Why are you all out of breath?” he says at last.
“Well, Mr. Chapman,” Marco pipes up, “puberty is a time of changing bodies, and you might even find that yours does some deeply unexpected things, for instance—”
Rachel kicks him hard in the ankle before he can earn himself yet another detention. Mercifully, he takes the hint and shuts up.
“We like breathing,” Cassie says, attempting to pick up where Marco left off. “Because oxygen is good for you.”
“In fact,” Ax adds, “it is necessary for the survival of many Earth-based animal species.”
Rachel’s pretty sure that banging her head against her desk will not contribute to the situation. Which is a damn shame, because the temptation is strong.
Luckily, the word-vomit cuts off after a few seconds. Chapman continues to stare at them.
By some miracle of Rachel willing them with her brain to take a hint, no one says anything else. With nothing to go on, Chapman mutters something to himself and turns to walk away.
As soon as the door swings shut behind him, Jake lets out a huge sigh. “That was stupid.”
“What was Tobias doing here, if he indeed did not have detention?” Ax asks the group.
“Obviously, he’s a mega-nerd and didn’t have anywhere else to go today,” Marco says. “Next question.”
“Where is he now?” Cassie says what Rachel was thinking, clearly not aware that Marco’s statement was rhetorical.
“Yeah, I thought Chapman would’ve just brought him back here,” Rachel says. She leans across the desk to look at the others. “Even if he did think that Tobias broke out of detention, why move him?”
“Because Chapman knows that he doesn’t have anyone who’s going to get pissed if he’s not enriched or reformed or whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing now,” Jake says bitterly.
“Yes, ladies and gentlemen,” Marco murmurs to himself, “he can be taught.”
“Fine.” Rachel slams both hands down on her desk in frustration. “But then, where is Tobias? It’s a school. It doesn’t exactly have a dungeon or anything.”
“Are we not already in this school’s equivalent of a dungeon?” Ax says.
This statement is too uncomfortably accurate for anyone’s taste, so no one responds. They all look down at their desks.
Rachel stands up to pace, looking out the small window in the door to the hallway beyond every few seconds. There’s still no sign of Tobias.
Jake watches her, gnawing on his pencil in clear anxiety. Ax and Marco have formed a huddle in the far back of the room. Rachel hopes that they’re planning a way to break all of them out of this stupid fucking arrangement.
Finally Rachel throws herself back into her original desk with enough force that she risks toppling the chair back over.
There’s another long silence. Still no sign of Tobias.
“We could smoke while we wait?” Cassie suggests.
“We’re not smoking Tobias’s stash without him.” Rachel gives her a long look. “That would be beyond rude.”
“Yeah.” Cassie smiles apologetically. “You’re probably right.”
There’s a loud click, a whistling sound, and then a sharp tiiiiinnnng.
Everyone spins to the back of the room.
There’s an entire drawing compass stuck, quivering, between two of the ceiling tiles. Marco and Ax are staring up at it in awe, both their hands still on the contraption on the desk between them. It’s not clear what they built out of the rubber bands, half a dozen pencils, tape dispenser wheel, and binder clip. If Rachel had to guess, it looks kind of like a miniature ballista.
Also, the compass has not yet fallen from the ceiling the way Rachel would’ve expected. Instead it’s hanging there, embedded up to the base of its pointy leg in the gap between tiles.
They all stare up at it in awe. It continues not to fall.
Marco attempts to give Ax a high-five. It does not land.
“Yeah, that’s it.” Rachel shoves to her feet again. “I’m gonna go find Tobias, or die trying.”
“Hang on.” Jake gets up as well.
“If you’re even thinking about trying to stop me—”
“No way.” Jake crosses his arms. “He took a fall for us, and we owe it to him to at least figure out what happened. But we should be smart about this.”
“What’s smart look like?” Rachel demands.
Jake chews on his lip for a second. “Marco’s the best bullshit artist, so we have him go ask Chapman a question about our essays…”
“Chapman’s not gonna believe a word out of my mouth,” Marco says. “Better have Rachel take point on that one. Jake and Ax can’t lie, and Cassie’s too innocent.”
“Um… thanks?” Cassie says.
“Then send Ax with Rachel.” Jake’s nodding to himself. “Cassie and I will be the backup diversion — some kind of medical emergency?”
“Periods,” Cassie says immediately. “Any time you bring up menstruation, most guys…”
Rachel cackles, because Jake and Marco have both gone bright red, thereby proving Cassie’s point.
“Are you okay to find Tobias alone?” Jake asks Marco. “You’re going to be stealthier than all of us together, and…”
He doesn’t say your dad’s the only other adult in the school and he can’t even be bothered to lecture you. In the end, he settles for a shrug.
“Sure thing, Big Jake.” Marco makes finger-guns. “If I’m not back in three days, carry on without me.”
“Do not attempt anything likely to result in fatalities,” Ax says solemnly. “There are fates worse than detention, after all.”
Marco tilts his head in exaggerated thoughtfulness. “Are there?”
“Let’s do this if we’re gonna do it,” Jake says.
Rachel charges out of the room, not bothering to turn and look for where Marco’s going. She’s got one job, and that’s to draw attention away from him. Without hesitation she walks across the hall to Chapman’s office and raps hard on the door.
Ax is trailing behind her, nervously twiddling one of the rubber bands from his and Marco’s contraption. Given how good he is at weaponizing those things, Rachel doesn’t want to know what he’ll do if they get cornered.
Chapman opens his door. “What is it.”
“Uh, hello?” Rachel folds her hands together, letting her voice go up at the end. It makes her sound more shallow, easier to dismiss. “We heard a noise outside? It sounded like you were talking to someone? And we wanted to know what it was?”
“If the building is on fire,” Ax adds, “I would prefer to evacuate it before dying of smoke inhalation.”
Chapman looks from one of them to the other, plainly unamused. “It’s none of your concern. Back to detention, both of you.”
“Yeah, okay.” Rachel wishes she had gum to pop right now, but she settles for tossing her hair in one of those self-conscious little flicks she’s seen her classmates use. “But, like, what happened?”
“Back to detention.” He looks, if possible, even less amused than before. “Before I decide to see you both back here next week.”
“I would like to use a bathroom facility before returning to the library,” Ax says.
“You just had a pee break.” Chapman’s voice has gone hard. Shit. He’s almost certainly aware that they’re bullshitting him, but Rachel can only hope that he assumes they’re doing it to get out of spending more time in that boring-ass library.
“I did.” Ax smiles. “However, at the time I only urinated, and now I very much need to —”
“Fine,” Chapman snaps.
Ax turns and starts to walk toward the bathroom, glancing over his shoulder.
“Well?” Rachel says, gesturing between Chapman and Ax. “Aren’t you going to go with him?”
Chapman squeezes his eyes shut with the air of a man fighting a migraine. “Into the bathroom? No, no I am not.”
“But you have to guard him, don’t you?” Rachel raises her eyebrows. “Otherwise he could go anywhere. Do anything.”
“Last I checked, you were not a teacher at this school,” Chapman says.
Rachel taps her foot on the floor, still leveling her most judgmental stare at him.
“Very well.” Chapman pointedly locks the door to his office behind him, but leaves with Ax.
There’s only time for her to file two of her nails with the emery board from her purse before they’re back. Ax is terrible at creating delays.
Behind Chapman’s back, Ax gives Rachel an apologetic shrug. Rachel grimaces.
“Back to the library. Both of you.”
Chapman starts to walk that way, and Ax and Rachel have to run to keep up.
“Mr. Chapman, do we really have to go back right away?” Rachel says. She’s not sure which would be worse — if he walks and sees Tobias there with the others, or if he gets there in time to see Marco gone. “It’s just that we’ve been in there so long, and we’re almost done writing anyway…”
“You should’ve thought of that before you decided to break school rules.”
“Yeah, but, but…” Rachel keeps the whiny tone in her voice even as she walks back into the room by Chapman’s side, trying to keep his eyes on her. “Ax didn’t even know about the rule he broke, and it just seems, like, totally unfair.”
“Sit,” Chapman barks. “Write.”
“Okaaaayyy.” Rachel’s voice gets even whinier as she drops into a desk. “But I’m just saying, it’s suuuuper unfair…”
“Stay. Here.” With that, Chapman spins and walks out of the room.
Only when he’s gone does she dare to look around. Marco’s still gone, but Jake and Cassie are watching her and Ax with clear concern.
“You guys couldn’t keep him away any longer?” Jake asks.
“No, Dad, we couldn’t.” Rachel throws her pencil at the wall so hard it snaps on impact. It doesn’t make her feel better.
“We did the best we could,” Ax says softly.
“Yeah.” Cassie puts a hand on Jake’s arm. “I’m sure you did.”
“Okay. Okay.” Jake pushes both hands into his hair. “Can we all just… stop getting into even more trouble? Yeah?”
Rachel salutes him.
Which is when the ceiling in the back of the room explodes.
At least, that’s what Rachel thinks. She’s already run up the stairs to the walkway above the main room, frantic with the fear that someone’s hurt, by the time she registers the two cursing, filthy teenagers lying in a pile of dust on the floor up there.
There’s a moment of stunned silence during which no one moves. Ax has another knife in hand. Cassie is holding up a stapler as if in self-defense. Jake is half-crouched, peering at the door in the clear expectation that Chapman’s about to burst in and ask what the fuck all the noise was.
Slowly, Tobias rolls over onto his stomach.
“So anyway.” Marco pops to his feet, shaking dust out of his hair. “Like I was saying, the second blond is already in the bar, which is why the first blond says—”
“You,” Tobias says into the carpet, “are a goddamn madman.”
“Did you two get here through the vents?” Cassie asks incredulously.
“No,” Tobias drawls, still lying on the floor, “we flew.”
Rachel crouches and offers him a hand up.
“Thanks,” he mumbles, pulling himself to his feet. He looks up at Marco. “And, uh, thanks.”
“Any time you want a rescue, sweet cheeks.” Marco winks. “Just call on me, and I’ll swoop in.”
Tobias flips him off.
“Where were you?” Rachel asks.
Tobias makes a face. “Chapman just stashed me in a supply closet. Said if I was going to be a bad influence on the rest of you, I could think about what I’d done in there for a while.”
“What?” Jake says sharply.
“I know, right?” Marco presses a hand over his chest. “If anyone’s a bad influence, it’s clearly yours truly, not nerd-boy.”
“Fuck this.” Jake clenches both fists. “Fuck this school, fuck this system, fuck Chapman.”
“Laaaanguage, Big Jake,” Marco sing-songs. “Gonna ruin your sterling reputation if you keep going like that.”
Rachel snorts. “What reputation?”
She regrets it when Jake looks down sharply, biting his lip.
“We should smoke, now that Tobias is here,” Ax points out.
Marco claps his hands together. “Best idea I’ve heard all year.”
It comes as a shock when Tobias grabs a book off one of the shelves and, in a long shrusshh, yanks several pages out of the middle to use as rolling papers. Although Rachel recovers after a second, Cassie lets out a squeak of horror. Marco looks around at all of them, mouth hanging open in a are you seeing this? expression of flabbergasted awe.
“What?” Tobias says, finally catching on. “It’s All the King’s Men.” He tosses the paperback underhand to Jake, who fumbles it but recovers. “Book’s racist as fuck.”
While Tobias gets to work rolling a generous pour of leaves into the pages he just lifted, Jake flips the book open to its first page. Rachel sees him silently mouthing the first few sentences, and then stopping with his mouth still open as he reaches the first word that should never appear in a school library book under any circumstances. He blinks several times and keeps going, only to stall again less than a paragraph later.
“Yep.” With clear satisfaction, Tobias flicks his lighter to start Robert Penn Warren’s pages burning. “You’re welcome, Truman High.” He takes a long, satisfied pull to start the joint going.
Cassie takes the joint from him, inhaling so hard that she nearly chokes up a lung before she recovers. She passes it to Rachel, who takes a few delicate sipping inhales before handing it to Marco.
They’ve assembled in a loose circle around a table in the back corner of the library, leaning in close to catch each other’s smoke. The smell’s probably going to be all over them, but so be it.
Rachel’s never tried pot before, and honestly she was expecting something… more. She’s a little more relaxed, maybe a little hazy around the edges, but it’s certainly not as magical as the D.A.R.E. lectures would’ve led her to believe. The only real sign that it’s getting to her is the fact that she simply doesn’t care when Marco, giggling, upends her purse in the middle of the table.
“Whassat?” Jake holds up Rachel’s mini can of mace, its end pointing at his own face.
“Nuh-uh.” Rachel lunges and grabs it out of his hands before he can press anything he’ll regret. “Pepper spray.”
“Is that… allowed?” Ax is speaking in the too-careful way of high-as-balls people the world over. “Within the school’s code, that is?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Rachel pockets it. “I’m not surrendering it to Chapman, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Jake shrugs elaborately. “That’s your business, not his.”
“Okay, what’s this, then? Another weapon?” Marco is holding up one of Rachel’s butterfly clips. “Raaawwwrr,” he says, opening and closing the mouth of the clip to snap its comb-teeth at her.
“No, it’s… Here.” Rachel takes it out of Marco’s hands.
Leaning across to where he sits, she gathers a loose handful of the hair that seems to be constantly falling across his face. Gently she pulls it into a twist, gathering more strands from both sides of his face. She tucks it back against the crown of his head, securing the entirety in place with the butterfly clip.
“There,” Rachel says. “See?”
She had no idea he was so pretty — long lashes, wide-set eyes, high cheekbones — underneath all that hair. On impulse she grabs the mascara wand from off the table behind her. “Hold still,” she murmurs, and with a few deft strokes she takes those lashes from gorgeous to devastating.
Marco blinks at her through those suddenly-huge eyes. Rachel tucks another strand of hair into the clip, wondering if he’d be able to pull off a few small braids —
Mid-motion, they both realize what they’re doing and freeze. They stare at each other in shock from the tiny distance between them, Rachel’s hands still in Marco’s hair.
“Why’re you being so nice to me?” Marco murmurs, turning away.
Because you saved Tobias. Because you laugh all the time but never really smile. Because your dad looked at you like someone he’d met once at a conference ten years ago, but you still take care of him. Because you stood up to Chapman like you didn’t know how to be anything but brave.
Rachel shrugs. “Because you’re letting me.”
“Anyone else for a makeover?” Marco breaks the moment, because of course he does. “Nerd-boy?”
Tobias recoils, holding up both hands. “Fuck no.”
“Ouch,” Marco drawls. “Tell us what you really think about makeup.”
“That it’s not for me.” Tobias pulls his legs up onto the seat in front of him. “That’s what I think.”
“In fact, this…” Ax holds up the label, squinting at it. “Strawberry lip-gloss? Is delicious. The strong chemical under-taste provides a wonderful contrast to the sharp sweetness of the artificial strawberry flavor, and the smooth but faintly grainy texture is—”
With more gentleness than Rachel could’ve managed, Jake reaches over and takes the rest of the lip-gloss away from Ax.
“Where are you from, anyway?” Cassie asks. “I kept meaning to ask, but then I thought it would be rude.”
“Planet Zeptron?” Marco suggests, the words nearly lost in a fit of giggles.
Tobias kicks Marco in the shins.
“Does it matter?” Ax looks down, fiddling with Rachel’s pack of breath mints. “I am here now. And I will be here for the duration.”
“Don’t you miss your mom and dad, though?” Jake asks.
Ax looks straight at him. “Yes. I do.”
No one really knows what to say to that. The silence that follows seems even louder for the crinkling noises Ax makes as he unwraps the Life Savers and pops one into his own mouth before offering them around to the others.
Smart move, Rachel thinks. Get the weed stink off their breaths. She crunches into the candy — she’s never been patient enough to suck on them — and swallows the chalky residue as quickly as possible. Mints don’t even taste that good, but they’re kind of a necessary evil.
There are a lot of things she does like that. Things she does because it’s how they’re done, not because she has an opinion one way or another. Because you have to go with the flow, when you’re a kid no one trusts to take care of herself and there aren’t other options.
“Alright, Ax-Man’s been interrogated enough.” Tobias looks at Jake. “What about you? What’re you doing here?”
“Says the guy who doesn’t even have detention,” Marco mutters.
“Does it matter why he’s here?” Rachel demands overtop Marco.
“Um. No?” Tobias looks from Rachel to Jake.
“Rachel, it’s fine.” Jake doesn’t look like it’s fine. He looks like he’s developed a sudden fascination with his own shoes, and like he wants nothing more than to go home and take a nap so he doesn’t have to be here anymore.
“’Ax-Man’?” Ax asks, turning to Tobias. “Why ‘Ax-Man’?”
Tobias laughs. “You want me to cut it out, I will.”
“I do not mind.” Ax tilts his head. “I simply have not heard it before.”
“It’s just a nickname, dude,” Marco says. “You know, like friends call each other?”
“Ah.” Ax looks them all over in consideration. “I would not know, having never had friends before.”
They all avoid each other’s eyes in the silence that follows.
“That’s not how it should be.” Cassie leans across and catches Ax’s hand in her own. “That’s never how it should be.”
“Sure,” Tobias says. “It’s not like I’ve ever had friends either. It’s high school. What’d you expect?”
“Fine.” Cassie crosses her arms, tilting her chin up. “That changes. From now on.”
The laugh that escapes Rachel sounds… mean. “You think that’s what’s happening here?” she says, and maybe if she’d had a little less of Tobias’s high-quality California THC she’d be shutting up right now. “We’re becoming friends? We’re going to be just fine from here on out, eating lunch together and, and acting like a group or whatever?"
“No,” Marco snaps. “Of course not. We’ve all heard what your friends say about kids like Cassie, like me.”
Rachel can feel herself getting red, anger grinding her teeth together. “It’s like Tobias said. It’s high school. What’d you expect?”
“For you not to be such a goddamn princess for two fucking seconds.” Marco’s eyes are wet, underneath Rachel’s mascara. “But hey, don’t put yourself out. Wouldn’t want you to break one of your nails or get your Jimmy Choos dirty.”
“Yeah, I’m a bitch.” Rachel starts grabbing things off the table, stuffing them back into her purse. “It’s a survival mechanism. Rather be that than a pushover.”
“Being a pushover’s a survival mechanism too,” Tobias says, very quietly.
Rachel sits back down. “I didn’t mean you.”
“I did,” he says.
“It’s not that easy, standing up to the people you actually care about.” Jake smiles sadly at Tobias. “It’s not that easy standing up to anyone.”
“What would you know.” Tobias stares fixedly at a point on the far wall. “You had no problem telling Andy and Tap-Tap to fuck off, when they were…” He crosses his arms. “You know.”
“That had nothing to do with me,” Jake says. “Saying something wasn’t that hard. I didn’t know you, and you know nothing about me.”
“Nothing? That’s harsh.” Marco raises both eyebrows. “And here I thought we were weed-bonding like a bunch of white hippies in a ripped-off peyote ceremony.”
“All right, fine.” Jake leans forward to brace both hands on the table in front of him. “You wanna know how I got detention? Do you?”
“You don’t have to tell us if it’s personal.” Cassie starts to put her hand over his.
Jake pulls his hand into himself, curling around it like she burned him. “I put dish soap on the floor of the visiting team’s locker room, just before the finals game. One of the guys who slipped when they all went running into the room broke his ankle. He’s never going to play again, according to their coach. Everyone else got treated for minor injuries, but they still had to cancel the game.”
“Wait, the finals game?” Marco’s frowning. “As in basketball? But that season ended…” He starts counting on his fingers, frown deepening.
“Yeah.” Jake’s voice is dull with exhaustion. “I’m here for the long term. Every Saturday for the rest of the semester. In case you were wondering how I got so good at bullshitting essays.”
“Shit,” Tobias says slowly.
Jake shrugs. “I put three guys in the hospital. I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway. I’m not like the rest of you. I definitely deserve to be here.”
“Your brother’s an asshole,” Rachel says flatly.
“Tom didn’t make me do anything.” Jake glares at her. “I chose to listen to him, and I’m accepting the consequences for that choice.”
“Your brother told you to do that?” Cassie asks. “And then he let you take the fall?”
“That’s not—” Jake seems to realize how loud he’s gotten. He breathes in and out to calm himself. “Tom hasn’t really been himself lately,” he says more quietly. “And he’s been hanging out with a new crowd, and he just hadn’t had time for me in a few months. I was the one so desperate to get him to like me again that I did something I knew was stupid and dangerous.”
“Your brother’s an asshole,” Rachel repeats. “And now you’ve got both your parents riding your ass, a disciplinary record down the toilet, twerps like David taking the piss out of you because you won’t even defend yourself—"
“Don’t.” Jake runs both hands through his hair. “I’m sorry I got you in detention, okay? What was I supposed to tell David, that he’s not allowed to be mad that I risked the lives of a dozen kids from his old school to try and impress someone who doesn’t give a shit about me?”
“He’s allowed to be mad,” Rachel says. “He’s not allowed to bully you.”
Jake shrugs. “I got myself into this mess. I never wanted to drag you down with me.”
“Guess what, pal.” Rachel thumps a fist against her chest. “I also make my own choices, and I’d go after David all over again if I had the chance.”
“Well that’s concerning,” Marco mutters.
“You’re not my fucking guidance counselor,” Rachel snarls at him.
“Anyway, that’s the truth about me.” Jake turns back to Tobias. “I’m not brave at all. Not when it counts.”
This time when Cassie puts her hand on his, Jake laces their fingers together. Cassie leans her head against his shoulder, and Jake tilts his cheek down to rest on her hair.
“I guess it doesn’t matter.” Tobias looks around at them. “We’re all just trying to survive. To make it to eighteen, when we can get the hell away from here. To Oceana, Montana, Israel, South Africa, whatever.”
“I’m sorry,” Rachel says tightly. “Okay?”
“That you’re not eighteen yet?” Marco says. “Yeah, me too.”
“I’m sorry that I do whatever I think my so-called friends will want from me.” Rachel looks at Cassie. “I’m sorry that I don’t know how to have a real conversation, because you’re the coolest person I’ve ever met and I don’t know how to tell you that.” She turns to Tobias. “I’m sorry I don’t know how to be myself, because I only know how to be normal.”
“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know that well yet.” Tobias grins at her.
Rachel finds herself smiling back. He’s anything but ordinary, and she likes that. A lot.
“If you were not in detention, what were you writing earlier?” Ax asks Tobias.
“Hey, yeah, that’s a good point!” Marco points indignantly at Tobias. “I almost gave you my life savings for a nonexistent essay.”
Tobias rolls his eyes. “I’d’ve written you one if you’d made me a halfway decent offer.”
“If it’s, like, your diary, you don’t have to show us,” Cassie says.
“No, it’s…” Tobias sighs. He digs back into that rattling tote bag that seems to contain all his worldly possessions, and comes back out with the copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn he was reading earlier. Sliding the piece of paper out from between two pages, he flattens it on the table.
They all lean in close to look. Rachel lets out an involuntary high-pitched noise, somewhere between an ooh of admiration and a squeak of surprise.
It’s all of them.
Tobias has drawn them as if from overhead, capturing the tops of their heads and the loose splay of their bodies in the library chairs while deliberately neglecting their faces. His choice of details is deliberate: the tables and chairs are barely sketched in, while the tiny individualities are rendered with intricate and exacting lines.
He’s got the splodge of bird poop on the knee of Cassie’s jeans, and the gentle curve of her hands as she nudges a spider off the edge of her paper and toward the safety of a nearby vent. He neglected the obvious details about Marco — the mess of hair, the fuck-off scowl — in favor of perfectly rendering the delicate silver band he wears around his index finger, and the line of fractals doodled in Sharpie across his forearm. Jake is a sprawl of limbs, comfortable in his own skin and caught with his head tilted toward Cassie in clear interest. Ax has a single half-wrapped square of chocolate in the palm of one hand and his pencil in the other, appearing almost to weigh them against each other from the way he sits.
Rachel stares at the drawing of herself.
Tobias sees her as the tiny hairs that come loose from her ponytail, the perfect edges of her manicure, the confident tilt of her shoulders and the firm placement of her feet. He’s there too, almost blank but for the hunch of his shoulders and the text of the book spread across his lap.
He’s got… them. As they actually are. Marco’s intelligence, Ax’s quiet enthusiasm, Jake’s caring, Cassie’s consideration, Rachel’s toughness. All the things about them that you can’t see just from a glance. Not if you’re looking for a basket case, an athlete, a space cadet, a hippie, or an airhead.
“You’re… actually pretty good.” Marco tilts his head one way at the drawing, and then the other. “You ever try, like, entering the school’s contest or whatever?”
“Is there prize money?” Tobias asks.
“Uh.” Marco looks around at everyone else. There’s a collective shrug. “I don’t think so?”
“Doesn’t do me much good then, does it?” Tobias’s tone is too casual as he fiddles with a corner of the page, deforming it slightly.
Rachel fights the urge to grab his hand and pull it away before he can damage the drawing.
“You’re worth more than money,” she says instead. “A hell of a lot more.”
Tobias glances up at her as if genuinely not sure what she’s talking about. “Yeah,” he says at last. “But money’s useful.”
“Money’s not all there is, though.” She just doesn’t like the way he talks about this knack, this skill, this talent of his as being useful or not, like that’s all there is to it.
Marco lets out a bark of laughter, dropping his head back against the seat behind him. “The only people who ever say shit like that are the ones who grew up with plenty of money.”
Tobias bites his lip around a smile of his own.
“I just mean there are things you can do with art that don’t have to do with selling it,” Rachel says defensively. “That’s all.”
Now Tobias does laugh. “It’s not art, it’s a doodle.”
“Isn’t art in the eye of the beholder?” Cassie asks. “I think I remember covering that one in class.”
“Bam.” Jake stabs a finger onto the paper. “I declare you… art!”
That sets everyone to giggling. Rachel isn’t even sure what comes over her when she jumps up on top of the table, just that she reaches a hand down and pulls Cassie up with her. The two of them waltz there for a little while before Rachel spins Cassie around and pushes her at Jake.
Jake catches Cassie, and for a breathless second they stare at each other.
Rachel doesn’t bother looking at what happens next between those two. She’s too busy doing a showy handspring off the desk and cartwheeling over to Tobias, who is watching her like he’s shell-shocked.
“I do gymnastics,” Rachel says with a wink. She sweeps into a curtsy, and offers Tobias her hand.
Tobias doesn’t seem to know what to do with this, making a half-hearted noise of protest before she yanks him into the dance.
He starts out with his hands on her shoulders, but she laughs and moves them to her hips. He blushes, but throws his head back with laughter as she spins them both around the room. On their second sweep of bad leg-tangling waltz, she grabs Marco and pulls him in to their dance. The following turn, they pick up Ax. Somehow they collide with Jake and Cassie. Just for a few beats of silent music, all six of them are swaying in the center of the room.
“Wow,” Tobias says, breathless between giggles. “You guys are fucked up.”
“Shhhhhhhhh.” Cassie breaks off into giggles of her own. “Only an eensy bit stoned.”
“Stone-ned,” Ax says. “Stone. Stow-own-ed.”
“Uh-huh.” Tobias nods slowly, eyebrows raised. “Exactly.”
“That clock is 20 minutes slow,” Ax comments, glancing at the wall.
Abruptly they’re back on Earth. Rachel whips around, all the breath leaving her lungs. If he’s right, then it’s really… It’s really…
“Fuck.” Jake looks around. “We have to get Tobias back, now.”
“Our essays!” Cassie cries. “Did anyone write anything?”
“Tobias, how fast can you write?” Marco says quickly. “Because if we all pool our life savings, and give you lots of coffee—”
“Or we could just leave that drawing,” Rachel suggests.
“The one that Jake made into art?” Marco blinks at her. “What are you, nuts? You guys will all end up getting detention next week if you try to pull a dumbass move like that.”
“Yeah.” Cassie doesn’t sound upset by this idea. “We would. But then…” She glances at Jake, then Tobias, then Marco. “All three of you have to be here next week already, right? So the company wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It’s not gonna change anything,” Tobias says quietly. “Chapman will just view it as a juvenile stunt. He’s not going to get whatever message you’re trying to send here.”
“Yeah,” Rachel says, “and it’ll still be a damn sight better than playing their stupid game.”
“There are fates worse than detention,” Ax says again.
Like being alone, Rachel thinks, looking at him. Looking at Tobias.
“I don’t know,” Jake says slowly.
“Jake.” Rachel spins to look at him. “In, what is it, six weeks of writing these stupid essays, have you actually learned anything? Are you reformed? Have you grown as a person?” She steps closer to him. “Or have you just missed out on life while you were sitting around doing a fat lot of nothing?”
Jake raises an eyebrow. “You’ve got a point.”
“Of course I do.”
“And we’re running out of time anyway.”
Jake sighs. “Okay. We’ll do it your way.”
Rachel pumps a fist in the air. “Guess I’ll be seeing you losers again this time next week.”
“Rah-rah, we’re all gonna fail tenth grade,” Marco drawls. “Nerd-boy, let’s go.”
When he and Tobias get to the spot in the ceiling they came from, they stare upward in silence for several seconds. “Uh,” Tobias says. “How do we get up there?”
Marco chews on his lip, glancing around the room. Probably wondering if there’s enough time to cobble together a human-sized catapult from rubber bands and old periodicals, knowing him.
Rachel rolls her eyes. Guess it’s up to her.
She gets two steps toward the upper level before she turns back. Rapping her knuckles lightly on Cassie’s desk, she waits until the other girl makes eye contact.
“If you haven’t asked him out by the time I get back,” Rachel whispers, jerking her head toward Jake. “I’m gonna kick your ass. Capisce?”
Cassie looks somewhere between alarmed and amused. But she salutes dutifully.
Rachel runs for the stairs again. “All right,” she calls. “Move, you couple of shorties.”
“I’m perfectly average,” Tobias points out.
“You’re extraordinary,” Rachel shoots back automatically.
Then she lines up her body, runs, and takes a flying leap. She catches the edge of the support beam with the tips of her fingers and swings her entire body up afterward. Pulling the muscles of her stomach tight, she points her toes and flings her entire body legs-first through the hole in the ceiling.
“Good goddamn,” she hears Marco whisper.
“She does gymnastics,” Tobias whispers back, sounding awed.
Rolling around in the tight gap between ceiling tiles and vents — ugh, dust bunnies — Rachel flattens herself against several of the tiles to spread out her weight. Then she leans her head and arms back out through the hole, dangling most of her upper body down.
“Grab on,” she tells Tobias.
Tobias mumbles something about this not going well, but reaches up and wraps both hands around her forearms. Rachel grips his arms just as tight, braces both her legs against a pipe, and yanks back. For a second Tobias is kicking at the air and she’s afraid she’s about to drop him, but she hooks both knees around the pipe and heaves him up. He catches the edge of the ceiling with one hand and she grabs the back of his shirt to drag him the rest of the way up.
For a second they lay there in the cramped space, side by side, breathing hard. Rachel can feel the warmth of his muscles, the softness of his skin. They’re two shapes, two bodies, pressed together in the darkness.
Then Tobias bursts out laughing. “I don’t think I’m ever going to make it in MI6,” he says.
“You have plenty of other talents,” Rachel tells him.
She sticks her head out to wave to Marco.
“Enjoy your seven minutes in heaven!” he calls up.
Rachel sticks her tongue out at him. Marco bats his eyelashes at her — she suddenly realizes he’s still wearing her mascara and her butterfly clip — and fans at his face like he’s about to swoon.
“Come on.” Rachel tells Tobias. She sets off crawling down the vent. “You remember the way you came?”
“Oh yeah, it’s not that hard.” Tobias crawls up next to her. “Just peek through the vents until we’re over the Social Studies hallway instead of the library, then turn toward the front of the school…” He points, which shows a greater orientation than Rachel could’ve managed. “And keep going until we’re in along the north wall. Then it’s just down into the closet.”
“Still can’t believe that asshole locked you in a closet,” Rachel grumbles, shuffling along.
Tobias glances over at her across the dim space. “You really…?” He cuts himself off.
Rachel squints at him. Wishing there was less dust. Or more light. Or room to crawl properly, instead of this stupid army-belly-scooch they’re doing right now. “I really what?”
“Oh, I…” Tobias looks ahead, like he’s seriously hoping a topic change will occur. After a second he apparently decides to go for it. “You really do care about what happens to me. That’s all I meant. That’s… nice.”
That’s new, Rachel hears him say without saying it. Her stomach hurts a little, and not from dragging along foam tiles.
But there’s a different feeling there as well. One she’d describe, if pressed, as butterflies. And not like the clip. Or the knife.
It’s the obvious things — the curve of his shoulders, the ease of his smile, the long-fingered grace of his hands. But it’s the less obvious ones as well, like the way he ducks his head when he smiles and the fact that he doesn’t bother to explain himself to them. It’s the thoughtful tilt of his head when he’s listening to someone else, really listening. It’s that he’s hauling around half his life in that shoulder bag but found room for at least three books as well. It’s the fact that he can draw, which Rachel surprises herself by finding sexy as hell.
“Yeah,” she says. “I care what happens to you. I like you, Tobias. Like, a lot.”
Tobias opens his mouth, hesitates, and finally finds words. “I do too. That is. I mean. I know a princess and a guy like me…”
“Don’t call me princess.” Rachel rolls over onto her side to look at him. “I’m a fork-stabbing, mace-carrying freak.”
Tobias laughs a little. “I’m a freak too, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Good.” She starts to reach out for him.
The ceiling tiles underneath them give an ominous creak, bowing slightly.
“We should go,” Tobias says hastily.
They start scooting again, continuing to move so their weight doesn’t rest in any one place for too long. But they’re scooting side by side, and their thighs brush together on every forward motion.
Tobias finds the closet with unerring confidence – who knew Rachel could find navigation sexy too? — and slides the vent cover out of alignment to lower himself onto the topmost self. He curses as he stumbles his way to the ground, but makes it in one piece. Rachel skips the shelf set entirely, dropping straight from the hole and landing in a perfect crouch on the floor.
Yes, she’s showing off. Sue her.
“Rachel,” Tobias breathes. And then he surges up and kisses her.
Rachel leans into his mouth, sliding their tongues together until she tastes her own strawberry lip gloss on his teeth. Ax is right: it’s surprisingly non-terrible.
Tobias pulls back just long enough for a quick grasp of air, and then presses forward again. Rachel wraps both arms around his torso, pulling him even closer even as he tangles both hands in her hair.
“Rachel,” he says against her lips. “Rachel, wait.”
She concludes that she likes when his voice goes all husky like that. She concludes she’s going to make it happen more often.
“What is it?” she asks, pulling back.
Tobias opens his mouth, then shuts it. He’s hunched even further into that giant coat he’s wearing, like he’s trying to disappear into it entirely. Twice more he starts to say something, then cuts himself off with a shake of his head.
Rachel really fucking hopes she’s not about to be let down gently.
Finally Tobias gives up on finding words. Instead he grabs one of Rachel’s hands and presses it over his heart.
Over the binder holding his breasts flat on either side of his heart.
“Oh, that.” Rachel smirks. “Yeah, I had a guess.”
“I figured it probably wasn’t my business,” Rachel says. “Not until we got to the taking-clothes-off stage of things, if we ever get there, in which case I might need some pointers. But the thought crossed my mind, yeah.”
Tobias peers up at her. “Really?”
“Dude, pro tip.” She leans in close to whisper in his ear. “Nobody gets a fake ID to vote. Wouldn’t even work if you tried.”
Tobias laughs at himself, shrugging. “So I’m a terrible liar. Sue me.”
“While we’re talking about lies, it wouldn’t even be a fake ID if the whole point is to get one with your real name on it,” Rachel points out.
“Fine, fine.” Tobias spreads out his hands. “I’m an even more hopeless criminal than Marco.”
Just for that, Rachel leans in and kisses him again. And again.
“You’ve gotta go,” he says against her lips.
Rachel hmms agreement. But she doesn’t leave just yet. Not until they’ve imprinted themselves behind each other’s lips. Not until she’s tasted the skin of his neck. Not until he’s combed his fingers through her hair, pulling it loose from its ponytail.
But she does leave eventually, scooting away across the narrow space between ceiling and floor. As she does, it occurs to her that getting detention might be one of the better ideas she’s ever had.