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Chapter 4 — Carl

“Clark, man. Callin’ me West makes me feel like I’m fifty years old.”

“Right. Well, have you ever done an abduction, Clark?”

“No, but I sure as hell know some kids who deserve it.”

“I meant—”

“Yeah, no, never landed a kidnapping case. This’ll be my first.”



  The fields were much better. The school was way too squeaky-clean. Even if the place was too even, too maintained—it was still nature. The clouds loomed ominously in the distance, but I figured I’d have plenty of warning if the rain picked up.

  I was lounging behind one of the portable classrooms situated around the back half of the school campus. The classroom made a nice L shape, which blocked me from view in every direction from the main school building. The only window in the classroom was pointed away from me, high enough on the wall that someone would have to deliberately look down toward my corner to spot me. I didn’t think that likely for any teacher, and what student would bother to report a loner kid hanging out?

  With my luck, I’d probably get that one stickler kid. Or even worse, it’d be Matt, and then I’d really be in for it.

  At least I had the internet again. I had one of the first phones available with an actual 4G connection on the U.S. market, with speeds that blazed circles around everything else. It sucked compared to my home connection, obviously, but it was way, way better than the school’s shitty wi-fi. I was checking through the forum posts I made last night. It was obsessive and unnecessary, as I well know. I’d double checked them this morning. Here I was, just an hour or two later, trying it again. I doubted I’d get any responses even by tonight. Most of these boards were sinking ships by now.

  At the same time, I had my private IRC logged in and running too. Kyle and a few others were signed on… as was Blake. That didn’t mean anything though; he always left himself logged in. I’d bugged him about it a few times. He’d been marked away automatically by my bot days ago—the last time he’d sent a message. I scrolled back through the log, but there wasn’t anything I didn’t at least vaguely remember. Then it hit me.

  One of the logged-in users was Jacob. Jacob was in the same class as Blake right now, unless I was remembering wrong.

  I opened a private message with him and started poking him for a reply. Nothing came back. I waited anxiously, watching the cursor flick on and off in the text box as if I were hypnotized. The screen stubbornly refused to print a new line.

  “Dov lavack?

  Her voice was way closer than I’d have expected. Startled, I brought my hand up in a defensive posture instantly, but I needn’t have worried. There was only one person who’d be cursing in Etoline on this entire planet.

  There she was. Standing just slightly askew on the balls of her feet. She was ready to move at an instant. Her eyes were alert, and the most beautiful shade of deep blue. If I closed my eyes, I could picture the first day I saw her, clad in hand-crafted elven clothes and a quiver over her shoulder, stumbling her way through broken English like she’d just immigrated from overseas. She could barely make herself understood—but at the same time, I could tell how graceful and powerful she was. Even now, seeing her as she’d been so many years ago, I could still see that fierce, brave hunter hiding inside.

  Her hand was clapped over her mouth, as if she’d said something wrong. I thought that weirdly out of character, since Jen had never been reluctant with the more colorful parts of the elven lexicon, but then I noticed her friend a few steps to the side, looking very concerned.

  “Hi,” I greeted awkwardly, shifting back to relaxed again.

  “Carl, why are you out here?” asked Jen. She seemed to be calming down quickly enough.

  I shrugged. “Felt like a walk. You?” I was too embarrassed to admit the truth—that I couldn’t find one measly classroom. In response, she pulled out a laminated piece of paper from her pocket, showing me the press pass.

  “Ahh, shirking class. Nice.”

  Jen rolled her eyes.

  Her friend finally spoke up. I struggled to remember if I’d ever met her before. My instincts leaned toward no. “Jen, you know this guy?”

  “Uhh, yeah. This is Carl. Carl, Sara.” Jen gestured to each of us in turn.

  “The Sara?” I interjected.

  “What does that mean?” asked Sara pointedly. Jen looked confused as well.

  Shit. I hadn’t gotten the whole story. Back in the first year or two, before we’d gone our separate ways, Matt used to go on for hours about Sara, a girl he’d had a crush on. Whenever girls came up in a conversation between us guys, Blake and I would talk the whole field, but Matt only had eyes for her. He’d just been too uncertain to ask her out when he had the chance, and (this being the old Matt) I’d called him out for it. I hadn’t realized she was Jen’s friend. Suddenly, his reluctance made a lot more sense.

  This was getting tricky.

  “Nothing,” I said quickly. “Nevermind.”

  “Nuh-uh,” said Jen. “You don’t get out that easily.” She lowered her voice a little, enough that it wouldn’t carry, and leaned in so Sara wouldn’t hear. “Tol la nalv tola ta Cyraveil?

  My Etoline was never that great. I struggled with learning the wider vocabulary, and I was too busy to study it in detail, not when there were so many more interesting things I could be doing. When I spoke it, I always felt like I sounded ridiculous. Anyone that wasn’t an elf sounded stupid trying to speak it, in fact. There was a wind-like quality to it that just wasn’t taught, the way the sounds moved through a sentence. I could never grasp it.

  Jen was a natural. As far as I knew, she was the only human to ever become fluent in Etoline. She sounded so perfect, and every time she used the language it tickled my ears with joy. Jen had spaced out the words a bit so I could more easily understand them, but normally it flowed like a river through the woods. She’d once tried to explain to me how it connected to the wind and the trees and something-or-other nature nonsense. I didn’t really pay attention—until she started to sing.

  I cannot possibly describe what it was like to hear Jen sing in Etoline. Transcendent is probably the best word we’ve got for it in English. I could have died happy right then, if not for the fact I would never want the song to end.

  Jen’s expectant stare pulled me back out from reminiscing. Oh, right. She’d asked me a question. I glanced pointedly at Sara, still watching the two of us curiously. Jen sighed, and turned to her friend. “Hey, Sara. Can you give us a minute?”

  “What’s up?”

  “Remember what I was telling you?” That brought me a shock. What the hell was Jen up to? Behind our backs? Forget that, behind Matt’s back? She might not have been a part of the team nearly as long as the three of us… but still.

  Sara nodded. “You owe me big here, Jenny.”

  “Jen,” both Jen and I corrected automatically.

  Sara frowned, but turned and walked a few paces away, keeping watch around the corner for any students or teachers. A good friend, it seemed. Jen came and sat down next to me, smoothing out the grass. She leaned back against the portable wall and closed her eyes. Her mouth twisted into a frown.

  “So what was that about?” she asked, eyes still closed.

  I hesitated. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you.”

  Jen cracked an eye open, giving me a death glare. “Do I gotta remind you what I can do to you with just my pinky?”

  I laughed, but with an honest kernel of truth hidden somewhere within. I’d seen what Jen could do. Not with her pinky, but still. She earned those titles, they weren’t just for show.

  “...Matt had a massive crush on her. I assume it’s her, anyway.”

  She looked genuinely surprised. “He told you?”

  I shrugged. “In that first year, we had a lot of long nights stuck in barn hay lofts or stables. We didn’t have a whole lot to do. Blake and I got it out of him, and after that, he just wouldn’t shut up about her. You know how he loves his speeches. The description matches up, so I’m pretty sure that’s the right Sara. She was always the one for him, at least for the first couple years.”

  “Oh,” Jen answered noncommittally. She closed her eyes again, slouching a bit. She looked like she was exhausted beyond belief.

  “To dou valensel?” I asked tentatively.

  “Ugh, no. Well, yes, I’m okay, but stop that. Sorry,” Jen added, rubbing at her temples. “English, please. I’m having a hard enough time remembering to use it already. Ala dou daendalasas valensyl masadalel, snekkiva litashav.

  “...So’s your mother.”

  She giggled. “You don’t have a clue what I said, do you?”

  “Something-something squirrel brain?”

  “Glad you picked up on the insult. Wouldn’t want it to go to waste.” She yawned, leaning against the corner of the building. “What’s up with the migraines, anyway?”

  “Consequences of magic?” I ventured.

  “Doesn’t usually feel like that.”

  “You’re the expert.”

  Jen must have noticed the tinge in my regret, as her eyes reopened. “I’m sure you would’ve felt it someday,” she said quietly.

  “I dunno.”

  I looked up at the sky, watching a bird fly down and land on the rooftop near us. The clouds had rolled away, leaving an empty expanse of blue above us, hiding the endless void of space. I picked off a blade of grass and threw it at the bird. It caught the air almost instantly and fell to the ground, defeated. The bird cocked its head, as if it were mocking me. If we were still in Cyraveil, it probably would have been, as the eyes of an elf magician.

  If we were still in Cyraveil, it would have had an arrow through it a second later. Couldn’t take any chances. But we weren’t, and that meant I probably wouldn’t ever get to learn magic. “I couldn’t even acquire a single etolend…

  “Etolendei,” she filled in. “And that was the problem, you know. You thought of it like you were taking something. Like there were single pieces of spells you could just pick up out of the blue.”

  “I’ve heard this lecture,” I muttered.

  Jen’s eyes slid shut again, the frown returning to her face. “I wasn’t the best teacher.”

  No, that’s not what I wanted. I never wanted Jen to feel sad. I instantly regretted my words. I had to walk it back somehow. “You were a fine teacher; I was a terrible student.”

  “My one and only student never learned a thing,” Jen pointed out, laughing. “Nice try, though.”

  “Eh,” I said. “Maybe I just wasn’t meant to learn magic.”

  “Anandelv sed anlev etola,” Jen intoned.

  “I think I’ve heard that one before,” I said sarcastically. It was Jen’s turn to pick up a few blades of grass. Hers found their way right into my face, of course, and right at the moment my mouth was open. I spluttered, spitting grass and dirt from my lips.

  “Thanks.” I barely heard her whisper, just above a gust of wind that rolled through. We sat silently for a few moments, just enjoying the sunlight and the light breeze.

  Jen opened her eyes again, glancing skyward. “It’s almost midday.”

  “Yeah,” I agreed, looking up. It took me a moment to remember the significance. “Right! Your… uhh… what was it called again?”

  “Something else you can’t pronounce.” Jen smoothed out a patch of grass in front of her, then knelt on her knees. “Do me a favor?”

  “Go away?”

  She smiled. “Sorry. It’d normally be fine, but I’m exhausted, and I really need this right now. A little privacy would probably help me concentrate better.”

  “But…” I started to ask the obvious question, but Jen cut me off.

  “No, I have no clue if it’ll still work. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, obviously.” Jen looked determined, anxious, a little annoyed. I was worried for her, but I had to step aside and let her work through it. Good or ill, she had to give her ritual a try.

  “Before you do,” I interrupted. She opened one eye, having just begun to raise her arms to the starting position. “Sara’s still here, you know.”

  “Oh!” Jen looked like she’d honestly forgotten. I peered at her more closely, and realized just how debilitated she really was. Her eyes were reddened and drooping, and her entire posture seemed drained and subdued. Had she even slept last night?

  “What did you tell her?”

  “Just that something happened. And that I couldn’t say anything else.” Jen bit her lip, opening both eyes to look at me.

  I sighed. “Matt’s gonna give you hell for that.”

  “I know,” she said nervously. “He’ll understand though, right?”

  I didn’t answer. Both Jen and I were thinking about the same event. Matt could become a pretty scary guy when his orders weren’t followed. Yeah, he usually had the best plan, and sometimes it was necessary to shout his men down—but still. It was a far cry from the guy who just took everything for granted and never liked to get involved in anything serious.

  “I’ll go hang out with Sara, then,” I added awkwardly, after a few moments of silence. I stood up and walked away to join Sara, who was leaning against the far corner of the portable. She’d been watching kids running around the track for gym class, eyes glazed over.

  Sara was a pretty good looking girl. Blonde, tall, all the right curves. I could see why Matt obsessed over her for so long. She’d been the only girl in his life before we’d left, to hear him tell it. Kind of strange I’d never met or seen her once though. His little sister’s best friend, too (so I assumed). Weird relationship, in my opinion.

  But who was I to judge? Especially after some of the relationships I’d had… Yeah, Matt was free to love whomever he liked. Not my business.

  “You just gonna stare all day?” asked Sara, still watching the track.

  I gulped. How’d she notice me?

  Was I really that bad at moving around now? Even outside on rough ground I should have been able to sneak up on a lone, ordinary teenager. This was just sad.

  “Sorry.” I pointedly stopped next to her and watched the track as well. As far as I could tell, nothing interesting was happening down there. Sara seemed to agree at the same moment I did, as we both turned around to look back at Jen.

  “What is she doing?” she asked, stupefied.

  “Just stay here and don’t talk too loud, okay?’ I touched her arm lightly as she started to walk back toward Jen. She stopped, twisting around to look at me strangely. Did I do something wrong? I let go immediately, and she returned to leaning against the portable without comment.

  I couldn’t fault her curiosity. Jen was currently sitting on her feet, knees pressed into the grass. Her arms weaved a curious dance around her entire body, regularly tapping specific points. There was no apparent pattern, but there was an elegance to how her hands moved through the air. Her mouth kept uttering short phrases, bursts of Etoline I couldn’t make out from this far away.

  In one of the few times I’d persuaded her to explain in more detail, she’d described it as something liked meditation. I knew it had something to do with her magic, but beyond that, I was clueless. I had to admit, from an outsider’s perspective, it definitely looked weird.

  “But seriously,” Sara asked, much more quietly, “what is she doing?”

  “She’s concentrating.” It was as close to an explanation as I was willing to offer right then.

  Sara raised an eyebrow. “Are you guys all on drugs or something?”

  “God no. I’d never touch them. Waste of my brain,” I snapped. A bit more harsh than I’d intended, but it was a sticking point for me after a certain… incident in the Sylkaedr market.

  “Jeez, sorry. Forget I asked.” Sara turned back to watch Jen.

  “Sorry,” I added. “I’m having a weird day.”

  Sara sighed. “You and her both. It’s like she got replaced with an alien overnight. But she still knows me, and she’s definitely still my best friend. I still love her to death.” She shook her head. “Why am I telling you this?”

  “Because I’m here, and because I’m one of the very, very few people in the world who knows what’s going on,” I answered honestly.

  Sara looked at me oddly. “...Yeah.” She shrugged. “And about that. Jen refused to tell me anything. I’m guessing you’re going to say the same thing?”

  I paused, considering my answer. “It’s not my place to tell you.”

  “What kind of crappy non-answer is that?” she snapped. She was fiery. I could see why they liked her. Well, Jen, at least. Old Matt probably liked that, but I wasn’t so sure he’d feel the same way anymore.

  “Okay,” I conceded. “I could tell you, but Jen could tell you more, and do a better job at it too. And there’s a lot more of it I don’t know, and some of it I’m not sure she’d want anyone to know. And besides that, we’re not the only two people involved.”

  "Matt too, right?"

  My eyes widened a little. “She told you?”

  “Not exactly. Close enough though.” Sara frowned. “Look, I can keep secrets. Jenny—”

  “Jen.”

  “Goddammit. Okay. Jen knows that about me. So take the time you guys need,” Sara continued, “but remember you’ve got friends. Right?”

  “...Right.”

  “Okay then.” Sara brightened up a little. “So what’s up with… whatever is going on over there?” She gestured vaguely toward Jen, who had sped up by now to the third stage.

  “Again, Jen’s business.”

  “No fun at all,” she sighed. “Your name’s Carl, then?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Sara.” She extended a hand.

  “Nice to meet you.” I shook it firmly. Of course, Jen had already told me her name a few minutes ago, but apparently she liked to be formal about it. I appreciated that, actually. It was protocol. It reminded me of the court, and all the nobles I needed to get back to playing off each other.

  Greetings done with, we both turned to watch Jen’s ritual continue. It should have only taken a few minutes to complete, but she was still going. That meant something was wrong. I took a few steps toward her.

  Instantly, her eyes flew open, her hands dropping to her sides. She adjusted herself so she wasn’t sitting on her feet, which looked horribly uncomfortable to me in the first place. I sat down across from her, just outside the circle she’d formed in the grass. “Jen?” I asked, uncertain.

  “Vei toldeka litev,” she said slowly. Her head swiveled left and right, searching for something I couldn’t see. “Vei totevas vei vaselvas etola, dasa…” She looked like she would keep muttering all day in Etoline if I didn’t interrupt.

  “Sylajen,” I said sharply. Jen immediately snapped out of it, staring at me in confusion. It took her a few seconds to come back to her senses.

  “...Sorry. I’m not sure what happened. I thought I felt something, and I kept going at it, but I guess it might’ve just been the wind…” Jen trailed off again. Sara glanced at me quizzically.

  “Don’t look at me,” I answered, shrugging.

  Jen started. She looked like she’d forgotten we were there again. “Sorry. Hi.”

  “Hi yourself,” said Sara. “You back from cloudland?”

  “Cloudland?” Jen asked, puzzled—then her face lit up. “CLoudland!” She grinned. “How did I forget about Cloudland?”

  I was feeling left out. “Cloudland?”

  “None of your business,” Jen and Sara said in unison. It sounded rehearsed, like they’d said it a thousand times. Clearly an inside joke I wasn’t ever going to get.

  Whatever. So long as Jen wasn’t so mopey, I could live with that. I hated seeing her like that.

  “Class has gotta be almost over, right?” asked Jen, with a sidelong glance toward the main school building.

  I pulled out my phone to check the time. “Nope. Plenty of time left.”

  Jen was looking at my phone with an odd expression. I had no idea what she was intended, and that worried me a bit. I didn’t understand half of what she said, but I usually knew what she was going to do when we were out in the field. “What?”

  “Can I borrow that?”

  “My phone?”

  “It can go on the…” Jen’s face contorted in frustration.

  “Internet.”

  “Yeah.” Her face flushed in embarrassment again. Is it horrible of me that I found it cute? She was so clearly struggling, yet I found it endearing, and I was happy to help her. Did that make me a horrible person, enjoying someone in discomfort solely for the fact that I was one of the very few people who could help?

  While I was getting introspective, Jen was getting impatient. She snatched my phone from my hand.

  “Hey!”

  “Calm down, kapar-basal,” Jen snapped. “I just need a minute.” She scurried back into the corner, scrolling through menus. I was deathly curious what was so urgent.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Don’t worry about it.” She started to type something. I resigned myself to finding out later. I doubted she remembered how to clear a browser history. Or that it even tracked browser history.

  Sara seemed to have given up on understanding entirely. She stood off to the side, watching us in silence. I wished more than anything that she would just disappear. Sara didn’t belong here. Not with us. She wasn’t part of our group. She hadn’t been through the pain and suffering, or felt the power and magic. She was just an ordinary person.

  We were special, Jen and I. Sara couldn’t possibly understand. She didn’t deserve to understand.

  But she was Jen’s best friend, and maybe that was something Jen needed right now. I could understand that, I guess. I had a best friend too, and I was desperate to see him.

  “All good,” said Jen finally. She handed the phone back, and I pocketed it without looking at the screen. “Vannen dou,” she said, giving me a small smile.

  “No problem.”

  Sara cut in, killing the moment. “So are you gonna explain the whole new language thing? Or why you suddenly talk with an accent I’ve never heard before?”

  Jen swivelled around to face her. “Sara, I…” she started, but I cut her off. I wanted to save her the effort.

  “We can’t. But act like Jen’s only just learned English, and you’ll be doing her a huge favor.”

  Sara’s eyes widened. “That bad?”

  “No,” answered Jen, rolling her eyes at me. I shrugged. Her accent was greatly diminished as she continued. “I still know English. Just not as well as Eto—”

  “Jen,” I interrupted warningly. She stopped in time. It might have seemed harsh, but any terminology, any details, anything at all leaked to the wrong third party would mean trouble for all of us. I was just looking out for her.

  Sara’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, let her talk.”

  “No, he’s right,” said Jen quietly. “Sorry, Sara. Seriously. I’ll tell you if I can. Soon.”

  She hesitated, but she nodded. “I’m holding you to that. Getting really tired of that line.”

  The patter of raindrops started up again. A moment later, it opened up into the layered roar of a shower crashing down on the rooftops all around us. We all looked up, shocked. The sky had been practically clear moments before. Was this just a normal Oregon downpour? I glanced at Jen, who seemed just as surprised. I’d seen her do amazing things before. Shifting the weather to favor us in a battle was even in her repertoire…

  “Jen?”

  She answered me instantly. “Nope.” We’d been thinking the same way, as usual. “Come on!”

  Pulling on our coats, we hurried to the nearest entrance. The rain was coming down in buckets. We made it inside before we got soaked. It was lucky the portable had a slight overhanging cover, else we’d have been drenched almost immediately.

  Sara glanced at the nearest clock. “We should probably get back to class.”

  “Yeah,” I replied.

  “What will you do?” Jen asked me. She had a point. I could hardly hide outside in that downpour.

  “Class is almost over. I’ll just head to the cafeteria now, say I was let out early. I’ll grab us a table in the corner.”

  “Selnou. See you there.” Jen started walking away, and Sara hurried to catch up. I didn’t envy Jen now. Sara seemed like she’d be hard to shake off. There was no way Matt would be okay with her joining our conversation at lunch, though. Once we met up with Blake, we had some serious planning to do.

  
  

  ***

  
  

  The food wasn’t as bad as I remembered. Sure, it was mostly bland generic American foods, but it could have been worse. To be honest, I’d kind of missed pizza, even unremarkable pizza like this. Pizza and soda were things Cyraveil could definitely use. I had no idea how I might carbonate water and flavor there, but maybe Jen and I could devise something using magic.

  Magic, right? We had magic. Who’d want to live on this stupid planet when you could have magic.

  My ideas of improving our quality of life would have to wait though, as the only human to ever achieve anything with elven etola walked into the cafeteria. Or more accurately, jogged in. Jen looked like she was trying to get through the room as quickly as possible without drawing attention to herself, weaving through the crowd. She didn’t have much skill in it, to be honest. She mostly just stuck to the edge of the room, for better or worse. Cities and crowds were my turf. Jen was at home in the forest.

  I spotted Sara a few steps behind her, trying to get Jen’s attention and point her in the right direction, but evidently failing. I stood up and waved at the both of them.

  Jen spotted me immediately and beelined for the corner where I’d found a table, abandoning her route entirely. It was an unpopular corner solely on the basis that it was furthest away from the serving line. Most kids didn’t care where they sat, so long as they were with friends, so they’d unconsciously gravitate toward the opposite end by default. Great for people like me, since we got the other half of the cafeteria to ourselves. Relatively, of course. It wasn’t like we were alone. But there was a clear amount of space between groups here, so we could talk without fear of being overheard too much.

  Jen sat down across from me, Sara right next to her. They both pulled home lunches in those ubiquitous brown paper bags, practically in unison. I raised an eyebrow.

  “Not to be rude, but Sara can’t be here.”

  “She knows th—” started Jen, but Sara interrupted her.

  “I know that. I’m gone as soon as Matt gets here. But until then I’m sticking to Jen, so deal with it.”

  I raised my hands defensively. “Okay, okay. Sorry.” I finished off my lunch, glancing around the cafeteria to seem uninterested. As Jen pulled out her food, she made a few brief hand motions, muttering something under her breath. She did this every time she ate, but had never explained the significance to me. I just passed it off as some elf ritual. Not worth my time to figure out.

  Sara, of course, had no idea what she was doing. After a few dumbstruck moments that Jen failed to notice, she returned to her own lunch. Jen took a bite out of her sandwich, frowned, but kept eating it regardless. Her face fell just a little.

  I was worried. Jen seemed to be slipping further and further from the strong girl I’d known. I didn’t want to lose that unique beauty, that confident and fearless warrior. But what was I supposed to do to help her?

  Jen and Sara ate in silence, Sara still throwing the occasional concerned look Jen’s way. I wondered what that was about. Had something happened between us separating and meeting up here? Or was it just Sara’s continued nosy intrusions? God, I wished she’d just away now.

  Something to ask Jen about later, I suppose. I didn’t have time now, because Matt was walking towards us.

  Alone.

  It took every ounce of self-control I could muster to not rush him down right then and there. Questions exploded in my mind one by one like fireballs. Where was Blake? Why wasn’t Matt with him? Why had Matt left Blake behind?

  What was I supposed to do now?

  I only vaguely heard Sara make up some sort of excuse to Matt and quickly disappear. He sat down in her place and pulled out his own lunch, identical to Jen’s. Matt asked me something, but I didn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear anything. The noise of the room had built up to a dull roar, a rushing sound that threatened to overwhelm me completely.

  A sharp kick to my shin. I spluttered back into existence.

  “The hell was that for?” I snapped.

  “Stay focused,” Matt answered firmly. “We need to talk.”

  “No kidding,” said Jen mildly. “Carl, you with us now?”

  I glared at Matt. That kick was completely uncalled for. I could still feel it on my leg. “Yeah, I’m here. So talk.”

  Matt frowned. “Carl, if we’re going to do this…”

  Jen cut in. “No, we’re not. Carl, se develd and let Matt talk, selnou?”

  “English, Jen.”

  “Dammit.” Jen slapped herself in the face lightly. “Sorry, Matt.”

  “It’s okay. Has it been a problem?”

  “Kinda,” she answered, with a remarkably straight face. She didn’t want him to worry. No way was she going to let him know the full extent of trouble she’d been having all day. She and I would keep that secret. “Mom thinks I’m taking a foreign language now, but other than that…” She trailed off.

  “Well, good enough,” Matt sighed. “She ate the scrambled eggs, right?”

  “Eggs!” Jen exclaimed, sitting up rigid. Embarrassment flooded her face, and she relaxed a second later, eating her food with a guilty look.

  “Huh?” I asked, genuinely confused.

  Matt grinned. “She couldn’t remember the name for eggs,” he explained. Jen picked up a grape and threw it at him. He ducked it easily.

  “Syldavacka,” she muttered, but a smile crossed her face as well.

  They were both so casual. I couldn’t understand it. We had way more pressing things here. Life-and-death things. I dropped my fist in the middle of the table—a bit louder than I’d meant to, but I didn’t make excuses. They both fell silent.

  “...Kind of dramatic, Carl,” said Matt. The words were a joke, but his tone was suddenly icy. I didn’t care though. I was fed up.

  “Blake,” I snapped.

  “I haven’t seen him,” Matt replied, in that same infuriatingly calm voice he’d been using all day. He put up his hand before I could answer. “Doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Could be he just didn’t come in today. You know he skips morning classes all the time. Our first two periods are pretty worthless.”

  “I called this morning though, and I didn’t get anything,” I said slowly.

  “Not even his parents?’

  “No. But that’s not surprising, they’re never home in the morning. His dad’s already gone and Adela’s shift doesn’t end til nine.” Maybe there was still hope. I couldn’t consider the alternative. Not yet.

  “He would come in today of all days, though,” said Jen.

  Matt nodded. “Yeah, he would. Which leads to the other possibility.”

  “Don’t say it,” I said.

  “Carl, we have to figure out what we’re going to do if he’s—”

  “Don’t you fucking say it,” I snarled. A bit too loud. People at a nearby table looked over, startled. I lowered my voice again. “He’s just at home.”

  “Carl…” Matt began, but I was done with this. I stood up and walked away, taking my tray and tossing it into the nearest trash can. Some busybody started in on me about recycling and how the tray shouldn’t be trashed and some other crap. I walked straight through them and out the front doors.

  My best friend was alive. He had to be.

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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