Unsurprisingly, school was canceled for the rest of the day. Students tearfully called their parents to come pick them up. Reporters arrived in vans, hovering about with cameras. Aaliyah and I hid behind a park bench, waiting for Lucas’ mother to come pick him up. Sammy’s mother had already come for him. Gertrude was sitting with us, pronouncing the odd word in a cackle.
“Shit!” she proclaimed loudly.
“Yeah, we know,” Aaliyah murmured, ducking her head. She had one of Lucas’ hands in her lap and was trying to worm it open to get at what he held. I was trying to make us look inconspicuous. It wasn’t working very well. I swore we ‘traumatized teenagers’ had been filmed four times already and photographed five.
“Hurry up,” I muttered. “His mom’s going to be here any minute.”
Aaliyah looked around, then shoved his hand at me impatiently. “You try!”
I took one look at the clammy fist, at the bloody fingernails that had pierced through skin, and knew better. “Hey Lucas, want me to take a look at that?” I asked.
Lucas shook his head. He was still whimpering and was slightly rocking himself. Tears streaked down his cheeks.
“Lucas,” I tried again. “Can I take a look?”
“Okay,” I said, trying to calm him. “I’m not going to take it from you. I just want to see. Can I see?”
He whimpered. I leaned towards him. That seemed to work. I got some eye contact. Good. I put my arm around his shoulders – and that blew it. He wailed, threw me off, and began rocking with fervor, knocking his fists against his head.
“Shit,” muttered Aaliyah.
“Shit!” shouted Gertrude, banging a fist on the table.
Aaliyah gave Gertrude an exasperated look. To me, she said “If someone else gets it from him they’ll know it was us! We need to take it!”
Nevermind what it was… I bit my lip, still hoping it was some magical sparkly something that I could keep. “Okay, calm down,” I said, but Aaliyah was so frustrated I was sure she was about to start rocking or wailing herself. Just to make it worse, Gertrude stood up.
“Please sit,” I said to her. “Your dad’s coming soon, I promise,” but she walked around the table. I groaned on the inside. Gertrude had no patience and when she lost it, she lost it.
She came to a stop before Lucas. “No, no,” I held an arm out between them. “Gertrude, Lucas isn’t feeling well, okay?”
Gertrude stuck a palm out. “Give!” she ordered.
Oh gawds. Lucas looked up, tearily and lip wobbling. Gertrude, hand on hip, was as stubborn as could be. Her palm stayed pointed out between them.
Then, incredibly, Lucas uncurled his hand. Fingers shaking, he dropped what he was holding. I gasped. Aaliyah gasped. A card fluttered out and landed on the grass. We both dove for it, nearly smacking our heads together. Our hands scrabbled in the grass and a light breeze picked up. The card hopped to the side as if evading us and Aaliyah’s palm smacked it down.
“Kids?” a woman’s voice called over.
“Shit!” shouted Gertrude. Aaliyah and I straightened, the card hidden in Aaliyah’s hands. Lucas threw himself forward, crashed past Gertrude, and bolted around the picnic table.
“Mom!” he bawled as he threw himself at her. His mom, a tender and thick-set woman full of bangling jewelry, took him in her arms. Horrified, she looked around, her brunette curls bouncing as her head whipped around.
“Kids!” she said. “What happened? The school called and said something about an explosion-“ she smoothed Lucas’ hair back and looked down at him. “Are you okay dearie?”
Lucas whimpered but nodded. His mother nodded. “Okay,” she said. Then, to the rest of us she said “Want a ride?”
We looked to Gertrude. She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Her dad’s coming for her,” Aaliyah explained “But,” she looked to me “I think we would like one.”
I nodded. Gertrude could be left alone. She wouldn’t get herself into trouble. Not so much could be said about me and Aaliyah, haha…
Alright, bad joke. Lucas’ mom nodded and we were all ushered to the van that was haphazardly parked in a no-parking zone. We piled in, leaving Lucas the front seat to be with his mom. As we got in, I noticed Aaliyah discreetly slip the card into her pocket. Then, with a crunch of tires on asphalt and a turn of the wheel, we made our way out onto the road.
The drive wasn’t long, but it was stressful. Lucas’ mom kept asking every five minutes about what happened. Lucas was busy ‘stimming’ and rocking himself, so the questions were obviously pointed at Aaliyah and me. We did our best to pretend like we knew nothing.
“It just blew up,” I said. “Big fireball.”
“Oh no,” his mother moaned. “What exploded? Why?” but she drew the van to a stop in front of Aaliyah’s home. Turning around to look at us, she gave us a half-hearted smile. “I guess we’ll know more tomorrow! At least everyone’s okay.”
“Yeah!” I said as Aaliyah yanked the door open and threw herself out. I scrambled after her, thanking Lucas’ mom in a jumble. Then, in a rush of fresh air I was out of the car. I wanted to leave so bad I almost forgot to close the van’s door behind me. But I closed it, and the van drove away.
I turned to Aaliyah. We were in front of her mom’s store. “Can I come in?” I asked sheepishly, realizing that I hadn’t asked before getting out with her.
She frowned and shrugged. Her hand slid back into her pocket. “I guess,” she said as if she didn’t really want me around but that it was better than the alternative. Hand still in her pocket, she led the way into the shop.
The bell above the door dinged as we entered.
“Oh my goodness!” Aaliyah’s mother darted around the counter and rushed to us. “I just got the call! Are you both okay? No one’s hurt?” Drawing to a stop before us she looked us both over and patted us on the shoulders.
I liked Aaliyah’s mother (my future mother – in – law!) and I thought she liked me too. She had all but officially adopted me, helping throw my birthday parties and packing extra food in Aaliyah’s lunch box for me. The only problem was I wasn’t sure if she would accept me and Aaliyah being a thing. More than friendship. She was kind, sweet, but stubborn. I wouldn’t like her to hate me.
Thankfully, she was also far more level-headed than Lucas’ mother. She was practical. Straightening and deciding that we weren’t bruised or traumatized, she nodded curtly. “Another day for homework then!” she declared.
We both groaned, faking it more than anything. She began shooing us like chickens towards the back of the store where stairs led up to the apartment on the second floor. Swiping past a shelf I swiped a package of jerky up my sleeve. A bit more food couldn’t hurt.
“I saw you mister!” she proclaimed.
I swiped the jerky out onto the next shelf without missing a beat. Aaliyah pulled the door open, throwing me a surprisingly dark scowl over her shoulder before ushering me through. With a final wave at her mother, she shut the door behind us.
In the stairwell with my foot on the first step, I whispered “Why the look?” Usually Aaliyah just laughed when I tried to steal from her mother! It was sort of an ongoing joke between the three of us.
Aaliyah gave me a dark look. “We don’t need her attention.” She drew the card from her pocket. “This could get us in trouble!”
I rolled my eyes – then raced up the stairs after her. “It’s a card!” I hissed as we burst through another door into the sprawling apartment that was their home. “It’s not some guilty stamp on our foreheads!”
But Aaliyah marched across the kitchen and to the dining table. Slinging her bag off her shoulder she dumped it onto the table. “Still!” she said, though she was obviously more relaxed. “I don’t want her to know about any of this.”
“Well, then we just have to not tell her,” I said, sidling up to her. In what I hoped was a suave move I began picking cobwebs from her hair. Maybe she’d think it was romantic.
“Hm,” she looked up at me. I looked down with a grin, hand in her hair. My heart fluttered. Her large brown eyes stared into me – then turned to her bedroom door across the hall. “Come on.” She held up the card between us. “Let’s find out what this is.” And she set off towards her room. As she left she brushed my hand from her hair. “And pick at your own cobwebs!”
I couldn’t tell if that was a joke or a funny way to tell me to keep my hands to myself. I hoped it wasn’t the last of the two options, but stuck my hands in my pockets anyway. Just to be sure.
Aaliyah’s room was small for the size of the apartment. It had her bed squished to the right with a purple bed set, a purple dresser to the left, and a desk separating them in the middle. Aaliyah plunked down onto her bed, kicking her shoes off beside it. Then she crossed her legs beneath her and drew her tablet out from the drawer in her desk. I sat down before her, imitating her. Shoes off, legs crossed, but I put my bag on the bed beside us. I tried not to stare at her tablet.
Everyone at school had one. They weren’t that expensive. They were obligatory for the last three years, to do the research our homework called for.
Except I didn’t have one. They were simply beyond mom’s hand-wringing finances. So I came over to Aaliyah’s ever few days and we did our homework together. I tried not to act weird about it.
I tried so hard not to steal the friggin’ thing. Did they have to be so small? I could just stick it in my backpack and leave! Of course Aaliyah would know it was me who had taken it, which was really what kept me from taking it. That and it would make her angry with me, which I didn’t want in the least.
“Alright,” Aaliyah had the tablet propped up in the blankets. “Here,” she handed the card to me, the other hand furiously tapping away at her tablet’s holographic keyboard. “Look at this and tell me,” she scooched closer to me. I leaned over, pretending to be just that intrigued by what was on the tablet. Really, now our legs were brushing and our shoulders were leaning together. Porn could have been playing and I wouldn’t have noticed.
“Which one did you see in the tower?” she asked.
“Uh,” I drew myself out of my fantasies. Out of the focus of her silky black hair on my shoulder. Of the fact that she was looking at me, so near.
The screen was boasting the proud logo of a light and energy company. At the top, several pale people in business suits stood with arms cross.
“Him,” I pointed to the blonde man. He was the one I’d seen. “And our teacher, professor MacMillan, had been there as well.” Then, trying to act cool, I reached up to brush my hair from my face – and replaced my hand behind her back, subtly drawing us a little bit more nestled together. “Why?” I asked, turning. Hhhaaaa! We were so close!
She frowned at me. She held up the tablet again. The screen was now bearing a list of the top CEO’s and their contact methods. The blonde man was there, under Aaliyah’s finger – and I recognized the name. “Hey, that’s,” no it couldn’t be. But then- I paused. “Is that the jade dragon’s father?”
“Jade- You mean Cheryl? Yes. That’s her dad. I’ve seen him drop her off at school.”
I made a face. “I didn’t know he was part of the school board.”
The tablet was shaken at me. “He isn’t! Look! Energy and Lights!”
Uh, indeed. But –“He was there. He helped hire her, the principal. So,” I shrugged “Maybe it’s a side job he doesn’t want people to know about.”
Now it was Aaliyah’s turn to make a face. She bent over the tablet. For a moment her fingers flew over the screen, then the holographic keyboard vanished. Again, she presented me with a pile of faces, mainly of old, balding, men. “Recognize any of these?”
I winced. “N-no? Why?”
The screen was wagged at me. “This, is the school board. This, is who you should have seen in that room.”
I took a good, hard, look at these people. “I’ve never seen them before,” I whispered.