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“Aha!” said a woman. She marched over to a girl, who was taken aback by her sudden presence. By the looks of her appearance and dignified stature, standing tall in her pant suit, glasses, and tightly pinned bun, she seemed to hold a position of authority. And based on the girl’s reaction, the woman was no stranger to intimidation. Or rather, the girl was no stranger to the woman's formidable reputation.

“Trying to sneak out?” she sternly questioned.

“School’s out for the day, ma’am,” the girl replied.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Likely excuse,” she claimed, crossing her arms. “Haven’t you caused enough trouble for one lifetime?”

“Me? What have I done?” the girl asked, as if she couldn’t be more naive.

“It’s your fault, Toffee. It’s all your fault. If you hadn’t taken up with that hooligan to begin with, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

“I-I’m going to be late for dinner..” Toffee backed away, but didn't get far before the woman caught up to her.

“Stay away from the prom, Toffee,” the woman warned, walking towards her.

“What?”

“Your being there is only going to make matters worse.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You know exactly what I mean,” the woman began. “Where you go, the corpse follows. Mark my words, young lady. If Jonny Warner rears his mutated head at the prom, I’m pulling the plug on this whole shebang.” She continued to move forward, questioning her with each step she took. “You don’t want that, do you? For your friends to miss out on the prom? You don’t want that on your head?”

Having had enough, Toffee burst out.

“Geez, what’s your damage, Miss Strict?”

Excuse me?

The woman was utterly shocked by Toffee’s abrupt change in behavior. It wasn’t like her.

“You better watch your to -”

“What happened to you?” Why are you are you doing this? To your students? To the school?”

For once, the woman didn’t know how to respond. People generally didn’t ask about why she did the things she had done, nor did they ever ask questions concerning herself, let alone question her about her personal life for that matter. It had been a while since someone asked her something like that, and she didn’t know where to start or if she even wanted to answer.

“...Go home, Toffee.”

“No.” The girl was persistent.

The woman, who was referred to as Miss Strict, paused for a moment and looked at the girl, who awaited her response. “Miss Strict”, the girl called her. Lost in her thoughts, the woman scoffed at the title. That’s who I am now, huh? she pondered. The woman standing there now was very different from the person that she used to be. In fact, the girl in front of her, Toffee, reminded her a lot of herself when she was her age. How did she end up like this? Not even she can remember. Oh, where did the time go..

After a moment of thought, Miss Strict made her decision.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked.

Toffee nodded.

“...Very well.” Taking a deep breath, Miss Strict started talking. “I...knew someone...his name’s not important though, don’t worry…I was about your age, and attending the same high school...” 

Chapter Text

“Happy days are here again

The skies above are clear again

So let's sing a song of cheer again

Happy days are here again”

 

“Happy Days Are Here Again” by Ben Selvin

 


 

Enrico Fermi High. 1939.

The slamming of lockers and the of students were all but melodies that harmonizes in a symphony known as high school, an orchestration Delilah was all too familiar with. However, now and then a teacher would pass by and the discord would cease, as the dread of getting in trouble hung in the air. Among those students included Delilah, though she never needed to worry about the teachers who strolled by. Delilah, with her short brown hair, glasses, and cardigan buttoned up all the way, was a crowd favorite at Enrico Fermi High. Known for her grades and good girl charisma, it was difficult for someone to dislike her. She watched the chaos that was high school flash before her eyes as she marched to her next class.

“Ms. Strict!” exclaimed one of her teachers as he approached her. “I just wanted to tell you that I am greatly impressed with your recent test scores. I haven’t had a student like you in my calculus class for a long time. Keep up the good work, Ms. Strict.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replied.

“Deeee!” It was Debbie, being her usual, excited self. She almost knocked Delilah over with how fast she ran towards her. “My club’s charity project reached its donation goal! I can’t thank you enough for spreading the word.”

“Oh it’s no problem. My church was happy to help. I’ll see you after class.”

“Byeee!!” Debbie looked back at her friend as she scurried off, which lead to her crashing into a group of football players, a situation that Debbie didn’t seem too upset about.

Delilah laughed and shook her head at her clumsy friend. Debbie must’ve felt happy about falling into a group of boys like that, a kind of feeling Delilah had a hard time understanding. She had never really liked anyone, nor had anyone ever liked her back. All she spent her time thinking about now was school and church, especially since college was rearing in close, and her parents were constantly on her back about it.

She was taken out of her thoughts at the obnoxiously loud sound of the bell, indicating the end of passing period. She walked into English class and immediately took her seat at the front, pulling a book out of her bag while she was at it. Her class had reached their Shakespeare unit, and of course started with one of his most famous works. Romeo and Juliet , which was technically a play and not a book, was the one thing Delilah did not enjoy reading. The idea of teenagers risking everything over a stupid infatuation seemed incredibly foolish to her. If anything, she’d choose Hamlet over Romeo and Juliet any day.

“Alright, everyone, please settle down,” said Delilah’s teacher. “We’ll continue our reading momentarily.”

Just then, the door swung open and a student walked in. He carried a sense of swagger and sureness of himself, even though he knew that he was six minutes late. Delilah never really cared for latecomers, but this time the slam of the door was enough to grab her attention, and she looked up at the boy at the front of the room. He seemed familiar to her, but she didn’t catch his face until he turned around and their eyes met each other’s. He smiled at her as they exchanged glances, feeling pleased with himself as he caught her interest. Though for Delilah, it was hardly a matter of interest. She had seen him around school during her 4 years there, yet she’d never been in the same class with him before. They were already three weeks into the school year, yet this was still the first time she’d seen him walk into her class. If only Delilah could remember his name.  It was..E-something?..

“Mr. Flagrante, please take your seat,” demanded the teacher. “Don’t you go trying to act so cocky. You’re still not off the hook for skipping the first few weeks of school.”

Well that explains that, Delilah thought. As the boy made his way over, he glanced over at Delilah again and stopped by her seat, resting his palms on the edge of her desk as he leaned against it. She looked up at him skeptically as he hovered over her.

“Well hey there, darling,” he said, looking Delilah right in the eye. She remained unshaken, and glared right back. “The name’s -”

“Eddie Flagrante, I told you to take your seat. Now!” the teacher fumed. “And leave Ms. Strict alone.”

Eddie! His name is Eddie.

“‘Strict,’ huh? Well, pleasure to meet you, Strict.” He tipped his pretend hat towards Delilah, a move which made her yawn. Shortly after, he walked away and took his seat, which was conveniently right next to her. Just as he sat down, a cacophony of whispers and giggles echoed throughout the room, as if the students thought that the teacher couldn’t hear, or even Delilah for that matter.

“Hey.” A girl who sat next to Delilah tapped her shoulder. “He’s pretty cute.” She motioned towards Eddie, then winked at Delilah. Delilah peeked into the girl’s backpack, which was slightly open. The girl was clearly fond of reading Cosmopolitan magazines.

“Not to me,” Delilah replied.

Although Delilah had never met Eddie before that day, she was familiar with people like him. His first impression spoke volumes by itself; just another no good troublemaker who thinks he’s the one person that’s not subject to the rules. His appearance was quite telling as well. Delilah took another gander at him. His dark hair was greased and slicked back, and his clothing was far too casual for a school setting. He wore denim jeans which were fraying away at the bottom and a white button-up (a lazily buttoned one at that) with sleeves that were rolled up to his elbows. Delilah disliked people like him, people who thought they were too cool to care. She sighed and returned to her book.

“Okay, class,” continued the teacher. “Today we’ll be moving ahead with our reading of Romeo and Juliet . Now, let’s see.” The teacher looked around the room. “Delilah.” Delilah looked up immediately. “You will read for Juliet today.”

“Okay, sir,” she replied. He went on to choose who would be reading for which character until the last available role, receiving excited squeals and irritated groans from everyone in the class.

“And as for ‘Too-Cool-For-School’ over here...” he said as he walked over to Eddie, “...as a reward for being late, you’ll be reading for the part of Romeo.”  Eddie did not respond, leaving Delilah surprised. She half expected him to talk back at the teacher or do something of the like.

“Students, you may begin when you’re ready.”

 

Delilah looked down at her book. They last left off at the balcony scene. She started to read.

 

“My ears have not yet drunk a hundred words

Of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound.

Art thou Romeo, and a Montague?”

 

Eddie actually bothered to continue, surprising Delilah once again.

 

“Neither fair maid, if either thee dislike.”

 

“How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?

The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,

And the place death, considering who thou art,

If any of my kinsmen find thee here.”

 

As Eddie read his next lines, Delilah couldn’t help but feel as though he were looking right at her as he did. His failed attempt at flirting with her at the beginning of class was enough for her to believe that.  Nevertheless, she didn’t dare to look back, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had grabbed her attention once more.

 

“With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,

For stony limits cannot hold love out,

And what love can do, that dares love attempt;

Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.”

 

Giving in to her aching curiosity, Delilah glanced over at Eddie. He was looking directly at her. So Delilah was right. Or perhaps he was just waiting for her to read the next part.

 

“If they do see thee, they will murder thee.”

 

She kept her gaze locked on him to see if he truly was waiting for her to read.

 

“Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye

Than twenty of their swords! Look thou but sweet,

And I am proof against their enmity.”

Eddie never looked away. Not once.

“I would not for the world they saw thee here.”

 

All of a sudden, what was but a mere English class reading turned into what was now almost a conversation. Consequently enough, the teacher hardly even noticed Eddie and Delilah’s little stare down, his interest far too captivated by the book in his hands.

 

“I have night’s cloak to hide me from their eyes,

And but thou love me, let them find me here;

My life were better ended by their hate,

Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.”

 

At this point, their classmates caught onto what was happening at the front of the room, and soon enough, Delilah felt more than just Eddie’s eyes staring down at her, especially coming from the girl with the magazines.

 

“By whose direction foundst thou out this place?”

 

Delilah never got the chance to get a good look at Eddie until now. There was something about him that Delilah wasn’t completely sure of. He had quite the confusing atmosphere about him, and that sort of mystery left Delilah semi-intrigued. Something tugged at her, something that she couldn’t quite name. True, he was a strange guy, though there was something about him that Delilah found oddly alluring. His disposition was definitely a thing to be wary about, but the way he looked at her said something else. His deep eyes, though seemingly fierce at first glance, were rather warm and inviting; mysterious yet welcoming, like a book waiting to be read. The gentle curl of his lip suggested a subtle grin. But what was he grinning at? Delilah wondered. For some reason, Delilah couldn’t seem to look away, and found herself grinning too, causing her to wonder what was making her do so as well.

 

“By love, that first did prompt me to inquire;

He lent me counsel, and I lent him eyes.

I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far

As that vast shore wash’d with the farthest sea,

I should adventure for such merchandise.”

 

They continued to read to each other, caught in the midst of one another’s attention, only ever looking down when they forgot what they needed to say. The class had long forgotten about the contents of their books, all of them now engrossed by the strange phenomenon that was happening in the middle of English. Time seemed to stop for the two readers, and before long, the bell rang for the end of the day, snapping them out of their trance. Finally catching herself, Delilah immediately looked away, hunching over her desk as she hastily packed her bag. She felt heat flood her cheeks, and for once she wished that she hadn't chosen to sit in front.

“Good job today, class,” said the teacher, finally looking up from his book. “We’ll continue this tomorrow. Mr. Flagrante, see me before you leave.”

Wanting to get out of there as quickly as she could, Delilah made a beeline exit for the door, only to be blocked off by the one person she was trying to avoid.

“Delilah Strict, eh?” said Eddie. “You make a pretty good Juliet.”

Delilah faced him, arching her brow. “Your point is?”

Eddie chuckled. “I just wanted to tell you that you read good today.”

“As if I didn’t already know that,” she quipped, pushing him out of the way and walking out the door.

“My, my. I change my mind. You’ve got fire, Strict. Much too feisty for a Juliet,” said Eddie as Delilah left.

“Mr. Flagrante!” exclaimed the teacher. “Get over here this instant. And I told you to leave Ms. Strict alone.”

Delilah smirked as she swiftly made her way to the school’s entrance. That boy... she thought. As much as she found him annoying, she couldn’t help but grin at his last remark. Delilah felt her cheeks grow hot again as the events of the day forced their way into her memory.

Those eyes..

That smile..

She hated that smile. She hated that sly, smug grin that was branded on his face, and now branded in her memory. She wanted to be rid of it, along with that Don Juan attitude of his that she found, dare she admit it, irritatingly charming. She wanted nothing to do with him, yet found herself wondering about what other classes he might find her in.

***

He watched as she walked away, placing a hand on his chest by the very spot where she had shoved him aside, the feeling of her palm still lingering there. Eddie stared as her figure grew smaller and smaller as she progressed down the hallway, all but to have his thoughts interrupted by a familiar, grating voice.

“Eddie Flagrante. My desk. Now .”

Eddie idly sauntered over to his teacher’s desk. “You wanted so see me?”

“Mr. Flagrante. You’ve purposefully missed three weeks of school. And as I’ve been alerted, you’ve been tardy to all your classes today. Any more of this behavior and you risk a three week in school suspension, to make up for the weeks you skipped. I’m telling you this for your own good. Need I remind you that you’ve already been held back for failing senior year twice already?”

"Yeah, yeah, I get it.”

“Young man, this is serious business.” His teacher’s tone changed from one of commanding authority to one of care and concern. “You shouldn’t be taking this so lightly. Your future depends on it.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, I understand. I’ll try to work harder for my, uh, ‘future.’” Eddie made air-quotes with his fingers then began making his way to the door.

“Oh and, Mr. Flagrante -”

Before his foot was even able to step through the exit, his teacher beckoned him once more.

“...Yes?”

“I noticed your interactions with Ms. Strict today. Now, I’m in no place to meddle with your personal affairs, but I have a word of advice for you: stay away from her. You may not know her too well, but she is one of Enrico Fermi High’s most exemplary students, and we would like to keep her that way. She’s at the peak of her career here and doesn’t need you to distract her from all of that. I hate to phrase it in such a way but, ‘ corrupting ’ her at such a high point in her life would be a great disservice to her and her family. We don’t need her breaking her streak of such a good reputation here, especially with college so close.”

His teacher’s last statement evoked laughter from Eddie. “She doesn’t need me for that to happen. She can do it all by herself.”

“...What exactly are you implying, Mr. Flagrante?”

“I know a start of a flame when I see one. With all the stress she’s probably under, and all the expectations I suspect she had to meet, the embers are slowly turning into a fire.”

“I’m not following, Mr. Flagrante.”

“Look,” Eddie said. “The people I've met are usually very clear with their emotions. 'I don't like them.' 'I hate that.' 'I'm angry.' 'I'm tired.' But Strict ...she's a whole 'nother story. That moment when she spoke to me at the door.....I looked straight at her, directly at her eyes....and for some reason, the emotions I can usually predict weren't as clear anymore.” Eddie paused and took a couple steps toward the door, before turning back around to finish his thought. "...So don't be surprised if she goes changin'."

Might not even be my fault, he thought.

Eddie turned around and walked right out of the classroom. The echo of his teacher shouting “Stay away from her, Mr. Flagrante! I mean it !” followed him down the corridor. That final warning elicited a chuckle and an amused smirk from the corner of Eddie’s mouth.

***

"Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen."

“Amen,” said Delilah.

Dinner was the way it always was in the Strict household. Being the heavily religious family that they were, the Stricts always prayed before they let a single piece of food leave their plates. They eventually got to eating, of course. As customary to evenings such as these, beginning the meal eventually lead to dinnertime conversations, mostly comprised of questions directed towards Delilah.

“How was school today, dear?” her mother asked.

And so it begins…

“Good,” Delilah replied.

“Anything new?”

“I...met someone new during English today. Haven’t had a class with him before.”

“Who is this ‘someone?’” her mother queried.

She hesitated, questioning whether to tell them about Eddie or not, knowing what would ensue if she did. She didn’t need to sit through that again.

“Don’t tell me you’re keeping something from us.”

Too late, she thought. No going back now .

“A boy..” Delilah started. “Eddie Flagrante.”

“Eddie Flagrante, is it?” chimed in her father. “Tell me about this boy.”

“He’s, you know...just like all the other boys I bother to mention, not that I enjoy mentioning them. He was late to class. Skipped a couple of weeks of school, too. And you wouldn't believe the way he chose to dress.”

“And you say this boy’s in your class?” her father asked.

“Yes,” she replied. She couldn’t quite tell whether she meant that in a disappointed tone or a glad one.

“Delilah,” said her mother. “What did we tell you about people like that?”

“I know, I know -”

“No good. Hoodlums. Hooligans. Delinquents. They’re nothing but trouble,” interrupted her mother. “And don’t even try to argue, ‘Oh but they can’t all be bad.’ They’re all the same. They’ll get to you, they’ll drag you down, and then where’d you be?”

“Yes, I know,” Delilah responded, as politely as she could manage. She had heard this exact same lecture plenty of times before. It happened so often that the day didn’t feel quite as complete without her mother rambling on and on about the same old thing.

“Your mother’s right, Delilah,” advised her father. “You have to think about your future. You don’t have time to associate with these kinds of people. You have to be careful. Responsible. Disciplined.”

“Yes, father.”

“Now, what is that we always say? Come on, say it with me,” her mother instructed.

“Rules, regulations..”

“And?”

“Respect,” said Delilah, closing off their family motto.

“And that’s what’s gonna ensure your success when the time comes. Mark my words, Delilah. You’ll see,” said her mother.

Yes, mother. I know .”

More conversations ensued as dinner went on, and eventually everyone was finished with their meals. Delilah pondered about her mother's "Rules, Regulations and Respect" speech as she scrubbed away at dirty dinner plates. She began to wonder whether or not her mother's sage advice was truly trustworthy, and whether or not she still believed in it.