“Hey guys,” Matthew Williams gave them a sheepish greeting. “What’s up?”

    “Hi, Matthew!” Carrie rewarded him with a brilliant smile.

    He recognized Carrie as one of Erica Taylor’s coterie of freshman being groomed for a position in Springton High’s labyrinthian pyramid-scheme of popularity. She’d been pointedly introduced to Matthew several times already, and he was supposed to know her, but honestly this platinum blonde beaming a smile at him had never made any credible impression herself.

   So—what’s one of Erica’s girls doing hanging around Tabitha, now? Matthew wondered, sending a questioning glance towards Elena.

    “Matthew,” Elena acknowledged his presence with a neutral tone, not seeming particularly pleased to see him.

   Ahh... fuck, Matthew tried not to wince. S’all gonna be about taking sides, now, huh?

    It wasn’t that he wasn’t sympathetic towards Tabitha’s group—just, with him already implicated in rumors, he had to tread very carefully and watch what he said to them. While also somehow making absolutely sure he invited Tabitha to the Halloween party, of course. Because his mother would ask him about that.

    From what people mentioned, Elena was interested in him, which only made things more difficult for everyone. Matthew was discreetly dating Casey, and after a youth retreat last month spent making out and getting handsy with each other beneath a blanket, he was fairly certain that he was going to love her forever. With his art club friends on one side, and the majority of his sophomore peers on the other, getting caught up in the internecine conflict surrounding Tabitha seemed inevitable—he really wished he could just not be involved in anything complicated.

    “I, uh—well, I got to the bottom of who was spreading that rumor,” Matthew joked, presenting a lopsided smile for the girls. By the time he’d arrived at school today, the topic had somehow already disseminated throughout the school and become common knowledge.

    “We know,” Elena said, crossing her arms.

    “We know,” Carrie agreed with a chuckle. “Duh.”

    “Smooth, Sherlock,” Alicia glanced up from the cast she was decorating and shot him a teasing grin. “Real smooth.”

    “You alright, Tabitha?” Matthew asked.

    “I’ve… been better?” Tabitha sighed. She had a dazed, somewhat dreamy look in those pale green eyes today—painkillers, obviously—and despite Matthew’s sure future with Casey, that familiar surge of teenage hormones had him wondering what it would be like sharing a blanket with Tabitha.

    “Real sorry things got so crazy out of hand like this,” Matthew apologized awkwardly, feeling a sharp pang of guilt for his attraction. “Mom was pissed, she called the school board. Dad was all trying to calm her down—‘till he heard people were saying you made up the whole thing with Officer Macintire. Then he was pissed, and—well, listen, we’re all pissed.”

    “We are pissed,” Elena nodded in approval, uncrossing her arms and resting them back on the table.

    “You letting people sign your cast, Tabitha?” Matthew asked.

    “Not ‘til I’m finished,” Alicia decided, hunching protectively over Tabitha’s arm. “And then you’re only allowed to sign right where I show you to sign.”

    “You can’t just keep using Tabitha as your art project for everything,” Matthew chuckled. Alicia hadn’t been shy about telling the club she was using that photo she’d taken as a painting reference as soon as she got into the Art II elective.

    “Yes I can—and yes I will,” Alicia stuck out her tongue at him, looking pleased with herself.

    The dark-skinned girl had been a lot more reserved back at that art club meeting, and it took a moment of Matthew gauging the body language between the different girls to guess why—Alicia was acting playful to prove their familiarity and make Carrie and Elena uneasy.

   No, wait—it’s really just to put Carrie on edge, Matthew realized. Carrie and Elena seemed cut from the same cloth, but Elena’s posture was decidedly guarded, like there was a wall of tension separating her from Carrie. Despite mostly facing him, she never let the other blonde out of her peripheral. Closer observation revealed that yes, the Erica faction Carrie was the obvious odd one out, and both Alicia and Elena were sitting protectively to look out for Tabitha.

   Gah. I really DO think Elena’s cool, Matthew groused to himself as his estimation of Elena rose another notch. But... I absolutely don’t want to get into this. Or seem like I’m leading Elena on, or anything. Definitely don’t want to jeopardize things with Casey.

    “Well, anyways, having a big party, the Sunday after Halloween,” Matthew announced. “My Grammy and Pawpaw have a big house on the lake, but they hurry down to Florida every winter, so my parents always trash the place throwing all the parties they can.”

    He meant that to come off as humor, but if last year was any indication…

    “Wanted to make sure you’re all invited—I can write down the address for you, if you want.”

    “We’re all invited?” Elena blurted out, her standoffish demeanor slipping for a moment.

    “Yeah, of course,” Matthew confirmed. “Any of you free?”

    “Is it a costume party?” Alicia looked up from the cast with interest. “Like, a Halloween thing?”

    “Yeah, or at least—mostly,” Matthew admitted. “Me and some of the guys from my youth group’re definitely gonna dress up.”

    “I’ll ask my mom, then,” Alicia shared a glance with Tabitha and Elena before looking back to Matthew. “If that’s cool?”

    “Yeah, awesome,” Matthew nodded, eyeing Tabitha for her response.

    “...Is Erica going?” Carrie inquired with a mischievous smirk, knowing what a loaded question that was.

    “Uhhh—well, she was invited, yeah,” Matthew grimaced. “Like, I’m not gonna go out of my way to uninvite her, but with her already—”

    “I think you probably should uninvite her,” Elena cut in with a biting remark. “You know what she’s been doing; if she’s there, we’re not going.”

    “No, no—it’s fine,” Tabitha protested weakly. “I don’t even know if I can go. If I did—all of us would be there, so things would still be... civil, right?”

   “Right,” Carrie let out a sarcastic snort. “Civil.”

    “If Erica’s going, Tabitha and us are not,” Elena decided in a firm voice. “Like—no way.”

    “Address, please,” Alicia asked cheerfully, drawing out a blank page from the portfolio sitting beneath Tabitha’s cast and passing her marker to Matthew. “Uhhh... gimme your phone number too, yeah?”

    “Yeah, of course,” Matthew nodded, pretending to be oblivious to the way the other girls all turned to stare at Alicia.

   REALLY wish I could just put it out there that I’m taken without dumping drama bullshit all over Casey.

    It took him a moment to scrawl out the address and then his number beneath it, and Alicia immediately took the paper, quickly folding and putting it away before Carrie could peek at it.

   “Thank you,” Alicia smiled to herself.

    “...Can I borrow a piece of paper?” Carrie asked, giving the black girl a look.

    “Uh, shit—sorry, I don’t have any blank paper,” Alicia lied. “I really don’t—even that one already had one of my drawings on the back. Sorry?”

    Carrie looked from girl to girl, visibly trying not to scowl as she suspected her apparent exclusion, but there was nothing Matthew could do—it was lunch period, and he didn’t carry things on him. Shit.

    “I’ll get the place from you later,” Carrie said to Matthew, her tone suggesting the words were not-so-subtly directed at the others. “I really wanna go, and I’m definitely gonna be there.”

    “Uh, cool,” Matthew said helplessly, determined to not get involved. “Yeah. Well, I’ll catch you all later sometime. Feel better, Tabitha.”

    “Matthew?” Tabitha spoke up. “Say hi to Hannah for me, please?”

    He waved as he turned to go, amused to see Carrie frozen with indecision. For a moment it had looked like she was also about to walk away from the situation... but when he left the girls behind, he could still faintly overhear her hushed whisper.

    “Who the hell’s Hannah?”

    After lunch, Tabitha managed to trudge along to her fifth period Algebra I class and settle into her seat to review her Goblina notes. Most of the freshman algebra assignments were from a workbook they were given at the beginning of the year, and aside from tests and the odd errant printout, Tabitha had completed all provided work well ahead of time. It was difficult to focus on her broad story outline today—she wanted to imagine what Hannah would make of things, were the spritely little girl to read her story.

    Tabitha was feeling beyond haggard, stretched past all of her tolerances and ready to have a breakdown, and only realized it when she’d reread a sentence three times before the actual meaning registered. Her thoughts were wandering all over the place. With a bit of reluctance, she resigned herself to scribbling in her Goblina ‘ideas’ scratchpad section—random thoughts she would review and reorganize into proper outline pages at the end of each week.

   Use alternate method of exposition for supporting characters to delineate from heroine? Define by interaction with designated character foils? Explore other contrasts than traditional protagonist/antagonist clichés, experiment with defining abstract character traits using character foils.

   Work on splitting exposition prompts (profile pages 3-7, 13, 15) into backstory / narrative hooks, AVOID MYSTERY BOX STORYTELLING. Backstory exposition should always be in unreliable narration to setstablish set up establish the twist for the Goblin Princess book. Other narrative hooks are either character moments or chekhovs guns for setting up key plot points. Consider compiling a reference page of everything remember about Julie’s story observations in regard to how Goblina sets up Goblina Princess! Her comments were very helpful. Test out different order of operations for planned exposition for best story fit. Divvy up backstory reveals for both the two book + three book alternate outlines and weigh merit, refer to page 118.

   (Page 118 tearing at top. Compare cost of plastic page protectors vs. occasionally rewriting pages w/ new paper when these older pages get crumpled or rip?)

   Ask Mrs. Albertson if there are research papers or studies on the best balance of concurrent subplots (by genre, if possible) and/or a technique for resolving subplots in sequence so there is always something satisfying for the reader. (Staple of serial fiction/webfiction, but thorough analysis of those distinctions may still be three decades away.) Ask Mrs. Albertson about research tomorrow, DON’T FORGET.

   Practice acting out character manneirsms mannerisms w/ Mom? Helpful, adds insight to characters. Make ref page to explore and define which character traits can/can’t be best expressed w/ written mannerisms? Teach Mom cauliflower rice recipe tonight, NEED EAT SOMETHING BEFORE GET WORSE. BRAINSTORM SIMPLE MEAL PREP OPTIONS FOR WEEK? PRIORITY, ASK GRANDMA HELP.

    Staring down at her new entries with a strange sense of satisfaction, Tabitha set down her pencil and readjusted the strap of her sling. Her notes were mostly nonsense, but it was still incredibly cathartic putting all those nagging thoughts down onto paper, because then it felt like they were out of her head for good and didn’t need to be worried about anymore. Slouching over her desk to rest her cheek on the inside of her arm, she closed her sore eyes for a moment—and before she knew it, she’d completely drifted off.

    Tabitha fell asleep for almost thirty-five minutes right in the middle of class, and when she woke up, the binder that she kept her Goblina project in was gone.

    At first, she was only confused. She’d instinctively sought out the binder almost the moment she was awake and aware again, because it often existed to her as a tangible representation of her thoughts. It was where she collected her thoughts, a security blanket in the same sense as Alicia never letting her sketchbook too far out of her sight. Her desk was empty, and a cursory inspection leaning forward revealed it hadn’t been nudged off and onto the floor. She knew she hadn’t put it in the backpack resting by her side, but she checked anyways.

    Thinking perhaps another adjacent student had been curious and was flipping through it on their desk caused her to look around, and immediately several of the neighboring teenage girls sitting nearby purposefully looked away from her in unison, studiously avoiding her gaze.

    Tabitha stared back down at her empty desk in total disbelief for a moment.

   Oh... OH. Realizing what must have happened was immediately, intensely upsetting, and Tabitha glared up at them in furious consternation even as her eyes began to water.

    This wasn’t completely new—Tabitha vaguely remembered classmates having knicked her belongings in her first life, but right now she felt so angry, hurt, and vulnerable that she was completely beside herself. She was trying to be the mature, level-headed Tabitha through each crisis, but she was past the limits of what she could endure right now, and didn’t imagine she could weather this without having a breakdown.

   I’m so fucking done. I’m so fucking done with all of this.

    There was more than disjointed ramblings in that binder, it was a piece of her soul she was relearning how to carve out and express to others; it was her struggling—but promising—attempt at breathing new inspiration into the failure of her last life’s work. She wanted to flip out, she wanted to scream and cry, she wanted to shut down and hug her knees like a child, she wanted to wail and whine about how fucking ridiculously unfair all of this was becoming.

    Tabitha squeezed her left hand against the confines of its cast, attempting to clench her hand into a fist until it really started to hurt.

   But, I’m not going to do any of that. Shaking slightly, Tabitha grit her teeth so hard her jaw ached, and carefully rose up out of her seat. Because I’m a GODDAMN adult.

    There was a rush of dizziness and her vision blacked out for a moment as she stood, but that was slight malnourishment, not rage, and helped clear her head a bit. The room was quiet except for Mr. Stern droning on as he drew an example equation on the board at the front of the class, but the silence seemed somehow deafening to her. Students were turning in their seats to see what she was doing.

    Slowly—carefully, watching her feet on the chance someone would purposefully put out a foot to trip her, because she was completely out of trust for her peers right now— Tabitha walked down the aisle of desks to the front of the classroom beside Mr. Stern.

    “Yes? Miss Tabitha?” Mr. Stern paused, looking at her with surprise.

    “I fell asleep,” Tabitha explained quietly. Tears had rolled down her cheeks, but she’d managed to not start actually crying. If she did, there was no way she was going to be able to collect herself anytime soon.

    “Yes, I saw that,” Mr. Stern admitted awkwardly, glancing over towards her assigned seat. “But, you’re a fair bit ahead of the class, and with—”

    “When I woke up, something on my desk was gone. A binder. It was full of—it had a personal project that was very important to me,” Tabitha explained in a low voice. This close to the front of the class, she doubted anyone would be able to overhear, but with how quiet everyone had gone, it seemed like they were all extremely interested.

    “I’m going home,” Tabitha said, giving Mr. Stern a bitter smile. “I don’t feel good, and—I don’t feel safe here anymore. I don’t know if I’m ever going to come back. I’m sorry.”

    “Stole your notebook? Binder?” Mr. Stern’s face became a grimacing frown and he glared out across his students. “I’ll make sure that—”

   “Please do,” Tabitha felt herself begin to choke up. “But—I, I need to go. I’m going to the main office. I’m sorry.”

    “Robert,” Mr. Stern snapped, pointing out the guy Tabitha had thought of as that redneck kid and then jerking his thumb back towards her. “See Miss Tabitha here up to the main office. And don’t bother her.”

    “Yessir,” Bobby leapt to his feet agreeably, turning a smirk and a side-eyed glance towards the glowering group of girls that seemed out to get Tabitha.

    “I’m gonna call this in to the office,” Mr. Stern promised her. “Go home and get some rest, we’ll make sure this all gets resolved.”

    “Thank you for picking me up, Grandma,” Tabitha said with a weak smile. “You got… a Jeep?”

    “Belongs to my friend Nancy’s daughter, she’s being a dear and lettin’ me borrow it,” Grandma Laurie said, taking Tabitha by the shoulders and anxiously inspecting her. “Certainly better than Danny’s old piece of junk. Now, are you okay?”

    “I’m—no, I’m not okay, Grandma,” Tabitha admitted. “I’m so tired and just. Close to giving up, that I don’t know what to do anymore. Don’t know if I can stay in school. But, I have friends, now, I have—or, I want to try to... I don’t know. I just wish…”

    “Well, let’s not dawdle about this awful place,” Grandma Laurie insisted, casting a dirty look around the school grounds. “You look fit to faint dead away. Is your hand hurtin’ you?”

    “A little,” Tabitha nodded, letting her Grandmother guide her over into the passenger’s seat of the Jeep. “I, um. When I took my codeine this morning, it didn’t stay down. I threw up.”

    “Let’s get you to my place and get you all the aspirin you need,” Grandma Laurie proposed, giving her another worried look. “Unless you think it’s bad enough to stop by the hospital, have them take another look at it?”

    “No, no,” Tabitha shook her head, adjusting her cast and sling so that they weren’t pinned uncomfortably by the crossing seatbelt. “Maybe just… aspirin and a nap?”

    “I’ll scare some quiet into the boys when they get out of school,” Grandma Laurie promised, starting up the Jeep. Unlike Mr. Moore’s practiced and cautious driving, Grandma Laurie had them jerking forward with a sudden burst of acceleration, and then seemed content to maintain that uncomfortable speed.

    “Have you had lunch already?”

    “I… I’m not hungry,” Tabitha said, mustering a weak smile. “I’ll be fine.”

    “You can’t suspend me!” Clarissa Dole insisted, her face twisting in an exaggerated expression of pure teenage indignation.

    “Suspension’s just a temporary measure,” Mrs. Cribb remarked dryly, giving the girl an unimpressed stare. “To keep you off of school grounds until the expulsion hearing.”

   What a debacle this is turning into… Having commandeered Principal Edward’s office, Pamela Cribb was working to convey the gravity of the current situation by sitting down for a one-on-one with a Clarissa—a student who seemed intent on continuing to bully Tabitha Moore.

   Was sending those three girls home earlier too subtle a message? I imagined the SIGNIFICANCE would have traveled quickly in whatever social circle these problems are originating from. Was I overestimating them?

    Mrs. Cribb had now seen, but not spoken to Tabitha Moore herself—who turned out to be a slim young lady with lovely red hair and eyes that reflected a certain melancholy sadness that didn’t seem to befit her age at all. The girl carried herself with a stiff but troubled kind of poise, carefully safeguarding her new cast close against her body, and looked more than a little unwell—the ongoing ordeals had clearly taken a toll on her.

    Though very interested in actually meeting Tabitha for a chat, Mrs. Cribb had been hurrying off to investigate the stolen notebook. By the time she’d returned to the office with a perpetrator, sixth period was nearly over, and Tabitha’s grandmother had already picked the poor girl up from school.

    “You can’t expulse me, either!” Clarissa exclaimed, jumping out of her seat. “It was just a joke!”

   “...Expel you,” Mrs. Cribb corrected Clarissa. “Sit down, please. We certainly can, and we’re making a strong case to the district superintendent to do so. Perhaps you can explain to me just what about this you thought was a joke?”

    “All we did was hide her notebook for a bit,” Clarissa scowled, dropping back into the chair opposite the desk from Mrs. Cribb. “God, it was a joke.”

    “Ah; ‘we.’” Mrs. Cribb picked up her pen to take down names. “Who is ‘we?’”

    “No one,” Clarissa quickly frowned. “I’m not telling you anyone!”

    “But, there were others involved in this?” Mrs. Cribb pressed. “Those friends of yours?”

    “...No,” Clarissa denied.

    “I see,” Mrs. Cribb set down her pen. She folded her hands in front of her on the desk and stared at the uncooperative teen in silence for almost a full minute before speaking again.

    “Let’s go back over your... joke, Miss Dole,” Mrs. Cribb finally said, turning in her seat and patting a hand on the recovered evidence—Tabitha’s binder. “I’m told that while Tabitha was resting in class, this was stolen from her.”

    “Resting? She was asleep,” Clarissa retorted. “But oh no, of course she’s not gonna get in trouble for that.”

    “Another student confirmed that several girls were behaving suspiciously,” Mrs. Cribb ignored the interruption. “These girls volunteered to provide their school bags for inspection, and nothing belonging to Tabitha was found. At that time, these girls—including you, I believe—denied taking anything from her. Is that correct?”

    Clarissa remained silent, glowering at Mrs. Cribb with her lips pressed into a thin line.

    “Mr. Stern then revealed that you had been given leave during class to attend to the restroom. Upon searching that restroom—Tabitha’s missing notebook was immediately discovered in the waste bin. Tabitha did not visit the restroom. No other students in that period had to visit the restroom. You visited the restroom. Correct?”

    “But, it was just a joke,” Clarissa persisted. “We were going to tell her where it was right away.”

    “There it is again, ‘we,’” Mrs. Cribb noted. “Which other girls were in on this ‘joke?’”

    “No one,” Clarissa eventually decided with a difficult expression. “Just me.”

    “Right, fine then,” Mrs. Cribb sighed in aggravation. “Clarissa—here’s the problem with your ‘joke,’ right now. You did not tell Tabitha where the missing item was right away. You are not, I’m told, on joking, or even friendly terms with Tabitha. We’ve been informed by several students that you—and several other girls who’ll be questioned and likely also face some form of suspension—have been openly antagonistic towards her. Miss Dole, tell me—are you somehow friends with Tabitha Moore?”

    “No,” Clarissa made a face. “But it was still just a joke, you’re not allowed to expel me for it. Jesus. I don’t have any warnings or strikes yet or anything like that. I’ve never done anything wrong!”

    “So, stealing isn’t wrong?” Mrs. Cribb raised an eyebrow. “Under normal circumstances, it would fall right under our student misconduct code—your parents would be contacted about a five-day minimum suspension, and it would go on your permanent record.”

    “So... what, why isn’t this normal circumstances?” Clarissa balked, paling a bit at mention of her permanent record. “That isn’t fair.”

    “You happened to play your little joke during a criminal harassment investigation,” Mrs. Cribb smiled coldly, trying to remain patient.

    “Last month, false allegations were made that almost cost a teacher his job, and stood to very severely damage Tabitha’s reputation. I understand she’s endured constant harassment, and been physically harmed twice this year to the point of requiring medical attention. Now, in addition to all of that, we have this. I’m told she’s at the top of her class here, yet she may be voluntarily withdrawing from Springton High because she doesn’t feel safe here. I’m now inclined to agree with her—and that’s a serious problem.

    “The Springton Police department owe her a debt of gratitude—I’m sure you’ve heard all about that—so, in addition we have the district attorney and an independent firm preparing legal action to resolve this. We on the school board are going to do everything in our power to assist them, whether it means expulsions, handing students over for arrests, or appearing in court to testify. We are taking this situation extremely seriously. Do you understand?”

    “...Oh,” Clarissa said dumbly, sagging back in her seat. “Shit.”

    “Yeah,” Mrs. Cribb agreed, drumming her fingers against the desktop. “Oh, shit. We’re going to go over this all again when your parents arrive, but right now I want you to think good and hard about how cooperative you’d like to be.”

    Clarissa Dole seemed dazed, lost in thought as Mrs. Cribb continued.

    “It seems very likely that you’ll be expelled for the duration of the school year. Depending on the ruling of the school board, you may or may not be allowed to enroll in remedial night classes or alternative education within the district. You will be assigned a mandatory course addressing your behavior and conduct, that you will be required to pass. Otherwise... you can expect to be restarting ninth grade here at Springton High, next August.”

    “You’re holding me back a year?!” Clarissa stammered in disbelief. “You can’t be serious! That’s not fair—it was just a joke!”

    “Doesn’t seem very funny to me,” Mrs. Cribb said gravely, gesturing her out with a finger. “Take a seat in the outer office while we wait for your parents, please.”

    Mrs. Cribb followed the student with her eyes as the stunned teen rose out of the chair with a hollow, vacant expression and slowly walked out of the office with heavier steps than she’d entered with. As a member of the school board, Mrs. Cribb didn’t particularly like taking the reins with disciplinary action herself—even putting on the stern air of authority was taxing and stressful—but, she just couldn’t trust Principal Edwards to not be soft on them.

   Spare the rod, spoil the child… Mrs. Cribb let out a slow breath, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the desk and massaging her temples. Certainly never approved of the paddling WE got if we stepped out of line growing up back then, but seeing this younger generation going astray like this is very… sobering.

    Shaking her head in dismay, the woman glanced back over at Tabitha’s binder and then slid it in front of her out of curiosity. It was an inexpensive, rather plain-looking typical blue plastic binder. She found property of Tabitha Moore had been helpfully printed in permanent marker on the upper corner of the inside, and the three-ring binder was unexpectedly full—almost overfilled, with reams of content. There were almost no blank pages at all.

   Just what class is this for? It’s only October, even an advanced placement class wouldn’t require this much work already, Pamela Cribb pursed her lips, carefully flipping through page after page of neat, orderly handwriting. This all looks like... literary analysis?

    She rocked back in her chair, settling the binder in her lap as she leafed through the binder in search of class or assignment headings. There were none. Perplexed, Mrs. Cribb turned back to the front and began to read. Before she even finished the first page, she was thumbing through page after page in surprise to verify a suspicion that beggared belief.

   This is… an EXTREMELY in-depth outline, for... a fiction novel? This planning, the way she’s organizing the story structure, the thought she’s putting into these details… this is put together like university-level work. Not something a high school girl should be capable of—not a thirteen-year-old freshman, at least. Does Mrs. Albertson know about this?

    Mrs. Cribb’s eyes had gone wide realizing the breadth of insight that had gone into the outline—for a novel apparently titled Goblina—and she looked up at the office door Clarissa had left through with a growing sense of horror.

   And those girls THREW THIS IN THE TRASH?

    “Uh-oh,” Nick whispered, elbowing Sam in the side and jerking his chin forward. “Look.”

    “Ow. What?”

    “Grandma,” Nick said.

    The boys had just now disembarked together at the bus stop in their grandmother’s neighborhood to see her awaiting their arrival on the porch. The tension in her body language suggested there was trouble, and each of them quickly ran through a mental check of things they might have gotten caught for. After several seconds, they each turned towards each other as they cautiously approached.

    “What’d you do?!”

   “I didn’t do anything. It was probably Josh?”

    “Shut up, nuh-uh I didn’t!”

    “Haha, you’re in so much trouble.”

    “I didn’t do anything!”

    “Maybe the neighbor lady told her about that book on her roof?”

    “That was Nick! Nick’s threw it up there!”

    “Yeah, but it was your book—that makes it your fault. You threw it at me first.”

    “Yeah, and if you tell on him, that makes you a snitch.”

    “Yeah, he doesn’t even have to tell, it’s your book, retard, so you’re in trouble.”

    “No, I’m not!”

    “Whatever. Rain’s gonna wash it away anyways, it’s probably not even a big deal. Right?”

    “Books don’t wash away, retard.”

    “Uh, yeah they do, retard—books are just made outta paper.”

    “You don’t wash paper. Words wash off, but the paper just gets wet and stays.”

    “So what happens then? It gets... moldy?”

    “That’s food. If books got moldy, how are there libraries, stupid.”

    “Oh yeah, libraries.”

    “What do you know? You just—”

    “Wait, so if we leave it up there long enough all the pages will go blank?”

    “Libraries are dumb.”

   “You’re dumb!”

    “Hey, sssh!”


   “You sssh!”

    “Boys,” Grandma Laurie silenced them all with a single stern word. She put a finger to her lips with one hand and waved them closer forward with the other, lowering her voice. “I told you Tabitha got hurt yesterday, at school? That a boy came up and pushed her from behind?”

    All four of them nodded seriously, feeling everything else but anger drain away at the reminder.

    “Today, someone stole one of her books,” Grandma Laurie revealed in a quiet voice. “She’s had enough— she left right in the middle of class, and I brought her here. She’s sleeping now on the sofa, but I want all four of you boys to be absolutely quiet and not do anything to wake her up. She’s hurting, she’s had a terrible day, a terrible week, and she needs to rest some until she’s feeling all better. Do you understand?”

    They turned to each other, unified in sharing the same look—fury and disbelief. Now the other high schoolers were even stealing from Tabitha? Why weren’t they getting in trouble for this?

    “It’s not fair,” Joshua spat.

   “Sssh,” Sam admonished him with a glare. “Quiet for Tabitha.”

   “We’re outside,” Nick whispered. “She can’t even hear.”

   “I don’t care,” Sam insisted back in a whisper. “Quiet.”

    “I know it’s not fair,” Grandma Laurie sighed, tousling Joshua’s hair. “But you boys behave today, okay? I’m going to take apart the sleeve of her Ariel dress so she can fit her cast through it... and maybe she’ll still be up for taking you trick-or-treating on Saturday. Alright?”

    “She didn’t even get to try it on…”


   “Sorry, geez. She didn’t, though.”


   “No, YOU sshh!”

    One by one, they tiptoed across the porch and held their breath when Grandma Laurie gently turned the knob and opened the door with exaggerated care. They followed her inside, slowly sneaking into an unusually dark living room where all the curtains had been closed. They couldn’t help but gawk with interest at the sleeping Tabitha, and Aiden clamped a hand over Joshua’s mouth in warning.

    She was curled up on the sofa, half-covered by one of their grandmother’s throw blankets. Her tangle of red hair was flipped back from her serene face, there were dark circles under her eyes, and her left hand—now in a blue cast covered in cool swirly designs—was carefully resting on the cushion just by her cheek. Tabitha was always their awesome action star hero, the strange athletic big sister figure who was cool and a little scary and always looked out for them.

    For the first time now she looked beautiful in a girl way to them, wounded, vulnerable and tragic like a fallen princess. The sight evoked hitherto-unknown feelings of raw outrage from deep within, and her cousins realized it once again in each other’s eyes as they glared back and forth at one another. Not a word was exchanged, but they were completely united in thought.

    Each of the young cousins knew—somehow, someday, they were going to find who did this to their Tabitha, and make them pay.

A note from FortySixtyFour

   Had a rough month—just barely squeezing in my November post, but things should be back to normal soon. Took time as I recovered from last month's total burnout to consider a lot of these new scenes, and including them before the Halloween party feels right.

   My bro Irony is back in the Royal Road game with fiction, and it's really, really good. Please give [email protected] a try on my honest recommendation. He has a ton of it already written out that I've been helping him with, and you can expect regular weekday releases.

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About the author


Bio: Avid reader, reluctant writer.

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