“Hey, Dani, wait up!” I heard someone call. (Dani, short for Danielle, because it’s somehow too much of a struggle to get all the way to the end of the word.)
When I saw the group of seniors emerging from the far end of the hall, I (the “Dani” in question) changed directions with a swift twist of an ankle and sped away as fast as could still be classified as walking. Disappearing into an empty classroom would have been ideal, but I forgot my assailant used to be on the track team. She planted a foot in my path and I had to catch myself to keep from barreling into her. How did such a short person move so fast? Of course, she also doesn’t mind running people over in the hall.
I resigned to my fate. “Allison.” A sigh seeped from me in place of a greeting. “How can I help you.”
“Were you trying to bolt? We go home together today.” Allison had her fists placed firm on her hips. Wow. Who is that girl of wonder?
Here’s my life so far: wake up tired, zombie through Geometry, drag myself to Chemistry, get scolded for dozing off in French. (Why, yes, I am a sophomore.) Being hit with this ball of energy poorly disguised as a senior in high school is like being defibrillated while conscious.
I looked over her head to the crowd filtering through the front doors. Freedom was so close. “Oh, was today one of those days?” I didn’t try to hide my lack of enthusiasm. She considers my opinion irrelevant, anyway.
She played with her shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair—attempting to look sweet? Before you ask: no, just no. She’s not flirting. She acts like this to annoy me.
I (very patiently) waited for her to finish this display until she looked up at me with a pout. “But I had something special planned for today, too.”
I should tell her it’s impossible for her to pull an innocent act and be believable.
“Am I supposed to be excited? I’m worried.” I side-stepped her and walked over to my locker, my original destination before I was hunted down.
“Nah, It’ll be fun—an adventure, even.”
Still worried. Maybe even more so, now.
She followed and leaned beside my locker. “You know how I’ve been checking out the extracurriculars at school lately?”
“Oh, right.” I let the irritation drop out of my voice, in favor of curiosity. “Everyone said you were a top competitor in track. What are you up to?”
“Not ‘up to’ anything. I was bored so I quit.” She shrugged. “I wanna find something I can do after school. Something that’s actually interesting!”
Are there any careers that require the burning need for attention? I could tell her where to start, if so.
“Okay, where is this going?” I asked while shoving my books into my backpack.
“So Ethan Herron let me sit in with the art geeks this week. He’s the student president of the art club. Know him?”
“Is he the senior that always wear that—“
“Sonic the Hedgehog jacket that’s way too tight? Yes.” She side-eyed me with a grin. “Why? Is that, like, a thing for you?”
“Right, so, Ethan was taking submissions from the club members for an upcoming contest. He was complaining that the entries were lacking substance this year. But as I was shifting through the art drawer—”
“You mean snooping and/or stealing—”
“Helping organize the art drawer, I found something really good. When I asked about the artist, Ethan said he forgot about those. She seemed interested in joining the club at the beginning of the year, even filled out the form, but stopped coming to school a couple weeks back.”
“At what point is this supposed to start meaning something to me?” Maybe expecting logic is too much, though.
“Well, I thought you would know her. Emelia Andel?”
It sounded vaguely familiar, but I answered, “No.”
“What? She’s in your grade!”
“Along with a hundred other people I don’t know. Do you know all the seniors personally?”
“You know I do. We’re like a secret society.” She straightened and smiled. “And if you help check on a certain artist who dropped out of school, I know one senior you could have a chance to get to know.”
I finished stuffing my books into my backpack and turned to her. “Wait, are you suggesting we go visit her because of an art contest? You think saying, ‘Hey, wish you’d come visit’ will make her see the light? You don’t even know why she left. She probably moved.”
“No, look. She doesn’t need to come back. All Ethan has to know is that you tried for him. Wouldn’t that be nice?” She skipped next to me as I started moving to the exit. “Besides, have faith in me. I’m pretty good at the whole ‘stay in school’ spiel. I’ve been given that speech a lot. I basically have it memorized.”
Why act so pleased about that? I might have held some distant admiration for Ethan. He was always kind to underclassmen. When I was new to the school, he helped me find a class. But I wasn’t interested enough to commit myself to riding around with Allison, looking for a kid to harass. The only thing that interested me was crawling into a warm bed where my chemistry homework couldn’t hurt me.
“Do you even know where she lives?” I asked. Of course she wouldn’t know and that would be the end… I hoped—
I shouldn’t hope.
“Ethan was organizing parent letters to send and I just happened to get a picture of one such address.” She dug her cellphone out of her pocket, clicked a few buttons, and held it up. “See?”
Knowing Allison, she will bother me about it every day until I go with her. As a last effort to dissuade her, I said, “You’ll get in trouble.”
“Ha. For what? It’s not illegal to visit schoolmates. If so, I would have been locked up long ago.”
Another thing I wouldn’t be bragging about. “No, but harassment is. I can only imagine that’s what you have in mind.”
“Then, for no other reason, come with me to ensure I don’t do anything stupid. Who knows what trouble I could get into?” (As if she plans to listen to me.) “And, I’m telling you, artist types are unpredictable. If something happens to me, my aunt will hunt you down.”
Since when did I become personally responsible for her? I pity her legal guardian—her legal guardian who already wants to hunt me down.
I stopped when we reached the bike rack. “I can’t stop you.”
My homeroom teacher, Mr. Gibbs, walked by from around the corner and greeted us, providing a needed distraction while I ran through excuses. I sighed and stared at her, trying to exude my lack of amusement. She waited for my compliance, which we both knew was coming.
I started to undo my bike chain. “Fine.”
She hopped up and thrust a fist into the air. “Yes! Okay, I know this area of town. She lives in the opposite direction from our neighborhood. So, it’ll take a while to get there, but it’s within riding distance.”
Say goodbye to all the wonderful plans I had for the start of the weekend. “Lead the way.”
We started up the steep hill that led away from school. “Riding distance” took us through a few roads where we had to walk our bikes on the side because of traffic, which isn’t something I had to deal with on my side of town, located in the middle of nowhere, southern Illinois. We passed a few factories and then emerged back into a quiet residential area. Allison slowed and became quiet. The sun was already starting to sink into the clouded sky. It would be dark by the time we got home but at least we had reprieve from the summer sun that was still going strong in September. The leaves decorating the colonnade of trees on the next street looked smug in their display of bright green, perhaps wondering if they would just hang out through the winter this year.
I pedaled up to her to give her a skeptical look. “Still confident?”
“Yes. I had friends in middle school who lived here.”
“You had friends?”
“Shocking, right?” She grinned. “Jealous?”
“It’s tearing me up inside,” I responded. “Can we pick up the pace?”
She pulled out her phone to check the address and almost swerved into me.
“Hey, hang up and drive!” I yelled from my vehicle. I was doing my best road rage impression. It wasn’t difficult to achieve.
She giggled and turned at the next side road we came to. “This is it. Look for 309.”
We scanned the identical, square houses along the road. The neighborhood was quiet. A couple of SUVs passed, coming home from their nine to five office jobs or from picking up a kid from football practice.
“Here it is,” Allison said.
We stopped in front of an off-white house, the right size for a family of four. The grass was overgrown along the line dividing it from the next house. Uneasiness crept through my boredom. I didn’t know anything about what we were walking into. Was a drunken father going to come stumbling out of the house, wielding a shotgun or something?
There wasn’t a car in the driveway, though. “Maybe no one’s home?” I wondered out loud.
Allison ignored the hope in my voice. “Well, we can find out.”