I opened my eyes again and had to blink in surprise. Where did those clouds come from? I blinked again and by then my brain finally gathered enough momentum to realize how the sun have also wandered away from the horizon. It seemed like I fell asleep for a while. I tried to sit up to check the time and then promptly had to brace myself to stop myself from falling back down.
My head was throbbing like crazy. If I had to give it a numeric value, it was a solid seven point eight on the just-kill-me-already scale. In other words it was quite pleasant compared to what I had already endured in the morning. I reached for my forehead and hissed in surprise as my fingers brushed against the big lump on it. Oh, right. I was hitting my head against the fence post.
“Why did I think that was a good idea?” I mumbled wryly and I gently rubbed the bump. Actually there were at least three of them, but they were so close to each other they might as well have been a single gigantic one. Oh well, at least this time I knew where the hurt came from. It somehow made it more tolerable.
I couldn’t say the same about the nausea though. It generally just smoldered in the background when I didn’t move, only to flare up with a vengeance whenever I tried to get up. Probably had something to do with the concussion and the inner-ear canals and all that crap. I sighed and decided to lie back down, only to let out another hiss the moment I touched the ground. Right, I had a bump on the back too. How careless of me.
I rested one arm under my head and the other over my eyes and for the first time since I arrived to school I felt like my thoughts were clear. In fact my mind felt as sharp as a freshly edged knife, at least compared to how it operated before. Strange; I thought. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I was on autopilot all morning ever since…
I frowned into my forearm. Right, it all started with that headache when I noticed I was late for school. Everything after that was covered in a fine mist of dull compliance. The more I thought about it, the more bizarre my earlier behavior appeared. I even noticed how my body was moving on its own, but I just dismissed it as my legs remembering what I forgot. How dumb.
Speaking of which, was I still missing my memories? In most stories getting hit on the head again usually solved one’s amnesia. If that is even remotely how it works, after my little stunt with the fence post I should remember even the future.
Nope, I was still blank. I tried to recall my mother’s face but the huge pile of nothing I got in return almost made me reconsider whether I even had a mother on the first place. Wow, I had it bad. Same deal with my father. Speaking of which, I couldn’t even remember his name, thought I think I have seen it when I was looking at my financial papers. I should write it down somewhere once I get back home; I decided on the spot.
What else was there? Well, there was that guy… what was his name again…? It started with a ‘J’ or ‘G’ I think. Actually, now that I think about it, I believe he was the only entry in my phone-book. Too bad I couldn’t check it, as I left my phone in my bag. And my bag in the classroom.
I instinctively grit my teeth and hissed at the mere thought of the classroom, but the headache didn’t come. I sighed in relief. Good, that shit was getting old anyway. Then I clicked my tongue and smiled. “Joshua! That’s his name!” I let out a content little chuckle. At least my short-term memory was more or less still in working order, if a bit laggy.
There was another name though, someone he mentioned. I think I was supposed to know who he was talking about. A common acquaintance, maybe? I think her name had something to do with angels. Or engines. Or maybe engineers? Angelica? Angela? Angelina? I couldn’t recall, but to my surprise there was another thing I couldn’t recall either, namely her face.
Normally this would have been no surprise, with the amnesia and all, but it made me realize that I actually had a hazy picture of her in my mind. I couldn’t really say anything specific about her thought. Her face was barely more than a blur, but I think her hair was brown… maybe auburn-ish? I wasn’t even sure about that. What really surprised me was that, though I couldn’t describe her even in broad terms, I felt pretty confident about being able to recognize her if I came across her on the street. I wonder what it said about me that I could remember her but not my parents…
I stretched a little. My neck was getting sore from lying on the concrete for too long, so I carefully set both my arms under my head to put it into a more comfortable position. This of course meant that I had to uncover my eyes, which once again reminded me that the sun was up pretty high in the sky. I was just about to wonder about the time when my concerns were preemptively answered by the soft chime of the bell. It was a variation on the classic Big Ben theme and it ran pretty long.
To my surprise this fact actually jogged a memory. I pursued it, grabbed hold of it and finally recalled; yes, a long chime meant it’s lunch break. I couldn’t help but smile. There might be hope for me yet.
Before long there was a quiet rattle from the direction of the stairwell and the door to the roof opened without a creak, letting the students pour outside. Well, ‘pour’ might have been too strong of a word. It was more ‘half-hearted meandering’ than anything else. They arrived mostly in ones and twos, with the occasional smaller group every now and then.
Though I wasn’t exactly surprised by it after my mad dash through the school grounds, the way they completely ignored me still made me a bit uncomfortable. Maybe people lying on their backs on the roof with huge bumps on their heads were a common sight around these parts? No, I sincerely doubted that. They weren’t just uninterested or ignoring me, they simply looked through me like I wasn’t even there. Hell, one girl actually almost stepped on me until she twitched and swerved to the right in the last moment. She didn’t look at me even then.
I wasn’t in the mood to tempt fate and get trampled by accident, but all my attempts at getting up were vetoed hard by my viciously spinning vision. In the end I reached a compromise by placing my arms under me and only raising my chest a little. I probably looked pretty stupid, like a fully clothed sunbather, but I honestly couldn’t care less even if I tried.
From my brand new vantage point of about... let’s say, thirty centimeters off the ground, I took a better look at the steadily increasing number of students occupying the roof. Most of them did nothing even remotely interesting; or anything at all if we were at that. There was this one guy in particular who was just standing by the fence and stared into the distance with unblinking eyes. He was motionless to the point where if I could have moved I would have walked over just to make sure he still had a pulse.
Not too far from him sat a girl eating a sandwich. Or at the very least that’s what it looked like. Sure, she kept raising it to her mouth from time to time with mechanical motions, but the sandwich just didn’t seem get any smaller no matter how long I was looking.
“For Christ’s sake girl, take a proper bite!” I murmured under my breath and to my shock she looked over to me. For a few moments we looked each other in the eye as I wondered whether she actually heard what I said, but then she blinked once and returned to her food like nothing happened… Well crap, that was unnecessarily intense. Though… on a second look, maybe she ‘was’ taking bigger bites?
Nah, it was probably just my imagination. Moving on: My next objects of interest were the pair of boys sitting on a bench not far from where I was lying. What made them remarkable was not what they were talking about (it was something about the local soccer team), but how they were talking about it. Saying that their conversation went in circles really felt like an understatement, as they literally repeated the same ten or so lines over and over again. It really made me want to get up just to walk up to them and see if I could jog them out of the loop, but before I could even try, my attention was drawn by a loud voice.
“There you are!”
The new voice entering the fray made me twitch; cutting through the murmurs I was focusing on like a hot-knife-analogue through the butter-analogue. I followed it to the source and I found Joshua standing by the stairwell’s door with a disgruntled look on his face.
“Hey Josh,” My voice sounded more strained than I intended, but still better than I feared it would come out. The dubious look on his face only got worse as he walked over to my sprawled body.
“What the hell happened to you?” He sounded half concerned and half outraged, especially after he took a good look at my face. His pale skin seemed to glow under the noon sunlight, which made the furrows on his forehead even more prominent. “First you babble about amnesia, then you nearly collapse and now I find you on the rooftop like this! Please tell me you are really sick, or I swear to god I will kick you.”
“Kinda,” I answered weakly. “Could you help me up first? My legs are in a rebellious phase.”
The look on his face was still critical, but he helped me to my feet without a word, and I even managed to stand on my own without collapsing again. We were making progress!
“What happened to your forehead?”
“I had a bit of a disagreement with myself and used one of the fence-posts to accentuate my arguments.” Joshua’s face twitched in a little grimace.
“Let me guess; you won.”
“Of course I did,” I smiled as I plopped down onto one of the benches. Joshua followed my example soon thereafter.
“So, about your amnesia…” He suddenly sounded a bit less collected than before. I couldn’t blame him; it wasn’t a sentence anyone would have expected to say.
“Oh, that?” I waved a hand. “I still can’t remember squat, but I’ll manage.”
“You are serious,” He stated rather than asked. That was good; it meant I had no more convincing to do. I looked him in the eye and nodded sharply. “Damn, that’s messed up.”
“Tell me about it,” I surprised even myself by how cynical I sounded. Standing up probably made the blood rush to my head.
“What did the nurse say?”
“What nurse?” The critical look returned to Josh face in an instant following my reply.
“The school nurse, who else?”
“Oooooh, that nurse…” I nodded sagely. “I dunno. I didn’t see her.”
“It’s him, and… What do you mean you didn’t see him? Where have you been then?”
I gave him a perfectly executed wry eyebrow-raise and opened my arms.
“You can have three guesses.”
Joshua’s eyebrows rose in a perplexed arc. “The roof?”
“Ding-ding. That is correct.”
“But… But the roof is only opened during lunchtime! How did you get up here?”
I was about to open my mouth for yet another snappy retort, but I froze mid-way.
“That is… actually a very good question,” I told him while scratching my chin. “How the hell ‘did’ I get up here?”
“You are kidding, right?” He gave me a deadpan look and, to my sincerest surprise, he actually managed to look even more dubiously at me than before. “Is it your amnesia again?”
“No, no,” I shook my head lightly, though it still made me a bit dizzy. “This is completely unrelated.”
“Whatever,” Josh leaned back on the bench and looked at the sky before returning his gaze to me. “So, what now? Are you going to the hospital?”
“I suppose I should,” I replied uncertainly. That was without a doubt the logical thing to do. “Where is the closest hospital anyways?”
“That is your first question today that actually made sense.”
My query apparently threw him for a loop just as he was about to sound more confident. “I suppose it’s because you just transferred, so you probably don’t know your way around yet.”
“Wait, I’m a transfer student after all?!” I hastily toned down my unintentionally raised voice and looked around. No one else seemed to mind so I continued, “When did I transfer?!”
“A few weeks before the end of the first year.”
“Really? From where?”
“… Just ‘overseas’?”
“I see…” I nodded sharply, mostly to myself, though I quickly regretted it after the nausea kicked in. Anyways, it seemed like I ‘was’ a transfer student in a Japanese style school after all. Maybe I should trust my instincts more. That said, Joshua was right about one thing; before anything else, I needed some professional help ASAP. “So again, where’s the closest hospital?”
“Two blocks down the park, near the old shopping district. Big white building, hard to miss it.”
I gave Joshua a sardonic glare and groaned.
“Dude, I can’t remember anything! What am I supposed to do with landmarks?”
“Well, excuse me!” This time it was his turn to raise his voice. “If my directions are not good enough for you, look them up yourself.”
“I…” I was just about to snap back at him, but then his words actually registered with me and I thought better of it. “Huh. I guess I will do that. Do we have a public net terminal around here?”
“A what?” Josh looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language all of a sudden.
“A PC I can use to access the internet,” I clarified wearily.
“Oh, that… In the computer room, I suppose. But they can only be used during classes or by the computer club.”
“Wireless network for… wait, scratch that. I don’t have a smart phone.” I shook my head and stood up. To my surprise my legs only wobbled a little. “That settles it then,” I said while straightening my creased uniform. “I guess I head home first, get my directions plus maybe a new set of clothes and I will go to the hospital afterwards.”
“Wait, you mean now?” Joshua followed after me in a hurry as I took a beeline towards the stairwell. “We still have afternoon classes!”
“Nope, you do,” I told him with a wink. “Tell the homeroom teacher I came down with a sudden case of acute something or the other and had to go home. He will understand.”
“It’s a she…” Josh automatically corrected me and grabbed my arm just as I reached the door leading to the stairs. “Wait, at least give me a proper cover story or Angie will know something was up.”
“Angeline. She is our friend. I guess you wouldn’t remember her either.”
I clicked my tongue. So that’s what her name was! I was so close… Anyways, I gave him a reassuring smile and carefully peeled his fingers from my arm.
“Just tell her the truth.”
“But she won’t believe that!” He protested with uncharacteristic vehemence. “Hell, even I’m not really sure I buy your story.”
“Sorry, but that’s the best I can offer. Maybe start by telling her I was kidnapped by aliens, then the amnesia explanation will sound much more credible afterwards.”
“But you can’t—” He began to speak, but the end of the sentence was lost as he lunged towards me to grab my arm again just as I was about to tumble down the stairs.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed louder than intended and for a moment I could feel my heart in my throat. “Damn, that was scary… Thanks.”
He still looked at me dubiously, but at the same time there was a hint of acquiescence on Joshua’s face. He forcefully exhaled and his face set in a determined expression.
“You know what? You are right, you really should leave.”
I smiled at him. “You see, I knew you would come around.”
“And I’m coming with you,” He told me resolutely, and before I could respond he pulled my arm over his shoulder and began leading me down the stairs. It was so sudden that I couldn’t even muster a protest until we reached the first turn.
“Is this really necessary?”
Joshua gave me a sharp look and elbowed me lightly in the side. “If I wasn’t here, you would have already broken your neck. If I let you out onto the street like this you would get run over before you even cleared the block. In fact I think I will take you right to the hospital after all.”
I wanted to retort, but then my knees wobbled again and I decided to shut up. To my surprise, Josh didn’t take me back to the classroom; instead we hobbled down to the ground floor and then he led me to an unassuming corner of the west wing. Strangely enough, I could tell exactly where we were. It wasn’t like in the morning, when I just went everywhere on autopilot; instead I felt that the corridors were vaguely familiar, and once we walked down them I could immediately put them into a rudimentary floor-plan in my head as if I was putting puzzle-pieces into their holes.
Finally, we stood in front of a door that didn’t seem any different than the others down the hallway, yet I somehow suspected it was the nurse’s office. Josh lightly knocked. “Excuse us,” He opened the door and the heavy odor of disinfectant almost slapped me in the face. Yep, it was the nurse’s office all right.
“O-ho-ho! Come in, come in” The deep, jovial voice came from the belly of a cheery elderly man, or at least he looked a fair bit older than I expected. It was mostly due to his bushy white mustache and balding head. He was wearing a white coat over a brown suit and was sitting by a desk opposite to the two pure white beds by the open window.
Josh carted me in and put me down onto the closest bed. “I’ll go get our bags, get yourself looked at in the meantime.”
“Sure,” I replied half-heartedly, but by then he was already closing the door behind himself. I sighed and turned to the nurse. I knew it was shallow of me, but I was a little crestfallen when I looked at him. School nurses were supposed to be busty, mature twenty-something years old beauties, not mustachioed old men. Whatever, I suppose it was my fault for having weird expectations. I took a deep breath and addressed the man. “What’s up, doc?”
At first he didn’t answer, opting to just stare at me with a fixed smile. He was admittedly a lot more animate than the students, yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something transient about him as well.
“O-ho-ho. Collapsing like that on the first day of school is very unseemly, young man. You should sleep properly.”
“I did,” I said in response while trying to find a comfortable spot on the bed. To think that these uncomfortable slabs of uncomfortableness are often considered to be one of the stereotypical means of high-school romantic jaunts… Just how desperate some kids have to be?
“O-ho-ho,” The nurse continued with the same jovial voice as he began fingering the bottles on his desk with his chubby fingers. “I suppose you need some cold medicine to get rid of that fever then.”
“I don’t have a fever.”
“O-ho-ho, then I suppose you should lie down until your anemia gets better.”
“I am not anemic either,” I was getting steadily more exasperated by the second. “Also, stop that.”
“O-ho-ho, what do you mean?”
“Your laughing. It’s annoying.”
“O-ho-ho, that’s just the low blood sugar talking. Here, have a candy,” He offered me a hard candy and, while I wasn’t really in the mood, I took it nevertheless. Doing otherwise would have been just rude.
“Say, doc?” I asked as I popped the candy into my mouth. Ugh, grape of all things.
“Yes?” He looked at me with that wide, grandfatherly smile still plastered on his face.
“Do you have anything for amnesia?”
The nurse’s face abruptly slackened and he looked at me with glazed eyes. “Pardon?”
“Amnesia. The retrograde kind. Do you have any advice?”
“I…” He suddenly went pale and I could swear his eyes went unfocused. “I don’t understand.”
“Amnesia. Retrograde. The kind where one loses their memories up to the point they wake up,” I repeated myself patiently. He didn’t respond, unless you count completely freezing up and refusing to even blink as a response. I was just about to get worried about the poor man when the door of the infirmary opened up again and Josh entered with two bags under his arms.
“That was quick.”
“I had to run,” He answered between two heaves. “Angie caught me on the hallway.”
I had to wonder just how scary this Angie girl had to be, though I didn’t have much time to do so as he handed me my bag.
“Can you walk?” That was a good question. As an answer I stood up and, to the surprise of everyone present, I didn’t even wobble. Yay. Josh gave me a relieved nod and gestured towards the door with his head. “Good, let’s go.”
With that he practically pulled me out of the infirmary, not even sparing a look at the still frozen old man staring blankly at the place where I was sitting a moment ago.
“Wait, let me see if I get this straight…”I said as I gestured for Josh to halt. Well, technically he was standing anyway since we were waiting for the streetlights to turn green, but who cares about semantics? Anyways, I continued, “So she is your neighbor, you grew up together, you come to school together each morning and your families hang out all the time. Don’t tell me she also wakes you up every morning.”
“Not every time…” He told me while avoiding eye contact. “She lives next door and she is an early riser. There is nothing weird about it.”
“Right, totally normal childhood friend behavior.”
In the meantime the light switched and we began walking again. This time the streets actually had pedestrians and I could even see the occasional car rolling by, though the people seemed just as substance-deficient as the student were.
“I’m not joking either,” I told Josh as sincerely as I could, “That is totally normal childhood friend behavior, no sarcasm here.” Well, as long as you live in a cheap romance manga; I wanted to add, but I refrained.
He still looked at me critically but didn’t continue the discussion; instead he rubbed his temple and launched a brand new one.
“Déjà vu,” He tried to act as if he was only talking to himself, though it was obvious he was trying to change the subject. I decided I might as well oblige him.
“Which part?” I asked while trying to sound oblivious. In the meantime we passed by a news stand and I had to stop and look at the newsboy shouting ‘Extra, extra! Read all about it!’ nearby. It was so horribly outdated it was strangely adorable.
“Your questions,” Joshua answered glumly, apparently not sharing my newfound admiration of anachronistic media-delivery personnel. “It’s just like when you transferred.”
“Really?” I caught up to him, only sparing one last glance at the paperboy. My goodness, he was even wearing britches and suspenders! Some people really go that extra mile for their art. I allowed myself one last smile and then promptly returned to the discussion at hand. “Speaking of which, where did I live? Before I transferred, I mean.”
Josh gave me a withering look. I had no idea how he did it, but he could somehow manage to increase the severity of his doubtful glares each subsequent time. It was probably a unique talent.
“How should I know?”
“What kind of friend doesn’t know where the other came from?”
“I don’t know, what kind of friend doesn’t remember the other’s name?”
“Touché, but I at least have my amnesia for an excuse. What about you?”
He paused for a few seconds just as we were walking across a pedestrian bridge. This part of town seemed to be less frequented than the previous streets, as we barely met a soul for a while.
“You know, you never really talked about yourself,” Josh finally told me with a difficult expression. “Now that I think about it, I don’t even know where you live right now. Whenever we hanged out it was usually either at my place or in town and we mostly talked about school stuff. Actually, now that you mention it, you were always very evasive when it came to your old school. And friends. And family. And so on.”
That was actually bad news. If I really didn’t talk to him about even such obvious things, chances are he would know little to help me recover my memories. I silently clicked my tongue in frustration.
“I suppose that’s it then. How far is the hospital again?”
“Just over the next block, and then we should—” The words abruptly got caught in Josh’s throat and he let out a short hiss. I had no idea what happened so I glanced over at him and then followed his fixed gaze to the three figures loitering by the roadside. They were also students, though they were wearing a full black uniform and…
“Oh my god, that guy actually has a pompadour!” I exclaimed as I pointed at the largest member of the trio. Josh immediately caught my arm and pulled me aside.
“What are you doing!?” His whispers were so loud he might as well have said it normally.
“But look!” I pointed again and I could barely hold myself back from laughing. It wasn’t even a simple pompadour, oh no! It was one of those cartoonish ones that jutted a good thirty centimeters out to the front. That thing probably required a sacrifice of a full box of hairgel to the elder gods of silly hairstyles every morning.
“Look what we have here!” The big delinquent exclaimed loudly as he walked towards us, his two companions following right behind him. The ringleader was built like a tank; bottom-heavy and with a turret on top, and his voice sounded just as rumbling as threads on asphalt. Jokes aside though, his build was just heavy instead of being particularly muscular and he had fingers big enough to easily grip a basketball with one hand.
The other two guys were also of unusual body shapes; one was taller than their leader by about a head but razor-thin, with sunken eyes and buck-teeth visible even with his mouth closed. The third one barely reached up to the tank-guy’s chest and had a large, round face that seemed to be disproportionate compared to his body. These two also sported pompadours, though theirs were nowhere near as hilariously over the top as the leader’s. The trio also seemed to remind me of something, but I couldn’t really remember what, especially since I was so busy trying to keep myself from laughing.
“Skipping class, aren’t we?” The big guy stood in front of us and I could hear Josh gulp beside me. For some reason even that felt funny.
“That’s not a very nice thing to do,” The tall one had a high-pitched nasal voice that sounded like a scratched vinyl record compared to the leader’s resounding bass and his eyes reminded me of a ferret’s.
“Yea, yea,” The small one nodded eagerly. “Icz noc nice at all!” If the big guy’s voice was deep and rumbling and the tall one’s was high and nasal, this guy’s was like as if he had a parrot trapped in his throat. A parrot that smoked Winston Churchill’s entire cigar stash in one go.
“Right Baggins, bad boys like these two have to be—”
That was the point I couldn’t hold it any longer. Laughter burst through the hand clapped over my mouth and it took all my willpower to keep myself from slapping my knees on top of that. “You cannot be serious!” I exclaimed between two bouts of laughter. “You actually nicknamed the short one Baggins? Ah, ah… My sides…! You are killing me!” The three glared at me in unison, but I couldn’t stop. “What are you called then? Wait, don’t tell me, it’s…”
“I’m… I’m Ladder Jones,” The tall one protested. He seemed to be defensive, even meek in his response.
“Aw shucks! You totally ruined your theme-naming already.”
“You… You…” The big one glared at me even fiercer than before as if to draw my attention.
“Ah, right. And you are supposed to be…?”
“I am…” The guy faltered under my scrutiny for a moment. He cleared his throat and began anew. “I am… Heavy Tony…” He tried to give his name a grandiose spin, but he ran out of steam halfway through. I rolled my eyes with extreme prejudice.
“Why you little…!”
“Seriously, the short guy had the right idea,” I cut off the outrage with a hand motion. “You guys should follow up on that. If you really want to come up with nicknames, go for broke, don’t settle for ‘Ladder Jones’ and ‘Heavy Tony’!” I pursed my lips thoughtfully for a moment and added. “Well, okay, the last one at least rhymed. Good work on that.”
“T-Thanks?” Heavy Tony sounded rather awkward, sharing confused glances between me and his cronies.
“You are welcome. Now if you excuse me, I have to go to the hospital.”
“But… We didn’t even do anything to you…” The short one protested, albeit weakly.
“Long story, gotta go. Think about what I said. Bye.”
I waved at the trio and began walking and, to my surprise, they actually waved back at me. With my final glance I also noticed how their eyes seemed to glaze over. At this point I wasn’t even surprised.
“What the hell were you thinking!?”
“Whoa!” I almost toppled over as Josh yanked on my arm and pulled me into an alley. Damn, for a moment I thought he was going to dislocate my shoulder. “What the hell are you doing?”
“That’s my line!” Joshua’s normally pale face was practically glowing red as he glared at me from a few centimeters away. I instinctively leaned away from him, and… managed to hit the back of my already scarred head against a wall.
“The mother-fluting son of a goat!” I mumbled while holding my brainbox.
“Don’t try to change the subject!”
“I’m not changing the subject, I’m in pain!” I retorted.
Josh threw his hands into the air. “Good riddance! You could have gotten us both killed!”
Now it was my turn to give my friend a skeptical look. I lightly shook my head to check if the nausea was back, and since I was still standing on my own two feet at the end of it, I concluded that the previous impact had more bark than bite. With that I turned my attention back to Josh fuming in front of me.
“Don’t be so dramatic. They were just delinquents.”
“Hey, hey! Don’t shout.”
“Then don’t say irresponsible stuff like that, you idiot! Those three have been preying on the neighborhood for a while. They target the students of our school for their allowances and lunch money.”
“Well, they didn’t take ours…”
“Only because you were acting crazy!”
I raised a finger. “Not crazy. It’s called ‘Refuge in Audacity’.”
I sighed. “Refuge in audacity. It’s when you act calm and self-assured while you are saying or doing something you shouldn’t. Other people won’t challenge you simply because they will think that you must have a good reason to do what you did and they are afraid they would look silly in front of others if they involved themselves. It’s how the Mona Lisa was stolen at one point. A guy just walked into the Louvre dressed as an employee, took off the painting, hid it under his smock and left, and no one even stopped him. Conmen do this kind of thing all the time too.”
“I... see.” It seemed like Joshua finally calmed down, though his eyes were still jumping between me and the mouth of the alley like he expected the trio to show up at any minute. “But what if it didn’t work?! We could have been in big trouble.”
“Oh please! Those three were complete jokes.” I laughed and began counting on my fingers. “I mean, they dressed and acted like stereotypes, they had silly nicknames, they were totally running with the old big-short-tall trio dynamic and they were completely non-threatening.” I let my hand down and opened my hands. “Seriously, if this was a game, those three would be the goldfish-poop gang that would do nothing more than annoy us and serve as occasional comic relief.”
Josh’s face was still grim. At last he grimaced and dropped his shoulders in resignation.
“Maybe, but this is not a game. We could have been in real trouble back there.”
“Sure, sure, this is not a game, but…”
And then it suddenly hit me. It was like a lightning bolt out of the bright blue sky illuminating the puzzle-pieces in my head and made me realize that they fit together all along.
“Oh my god.”
Suddenly everything made sense. Everything was brand new and squeaky clean. People were samey and nondescript and they couldn’t deal with being introduced to unexpected stimuli. Even the stereotypical bullies and…
“OH! MY! GOD!”
Joshua, understandably distressed by my behavior, was frantically scanning the premises to figure out what happened. I reached out, grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye.
“Listen Josh, I figured it out!” I began, but then I faltered. Just how the hell was I supposed to tell him about this without sounding crazy? Hell, even I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going crazy. No, I needed more time, more data points.
“Yes?” Joshua squirmed between my hands. It took me a moment to collect my thoughts and answer.
“Sorry, I just remembered something,” I let him go with a vague wave of an arm. “I have to go.”
“Wait,” He reached after me but missed and only grabbed thin air.” What’s going on? What about the hospital?”
“Later. Sorry for dumping you here, but I really have to run! If you hurry you might get back to school before the period ends. See you tomorrow!” I finished my rapid-fire response with a casual salute and I didn’t even bother waiting for his answer. I took off running and never looked back. If I was right… Oh my god, if I was right…