“Ah, there it is! ‘Goldfish Poop Gang’!” I smiled triumphantly and began jotting down the description. “So it’s ‘an ineffectual group of bad guys who keep showing up and are often played for laughs’. Got it.”
I put a period to the end of the line and my smile slowly turned into a frown. I had to cram the second half of the sentence into a corner and it still ran over to the next page. Ironically this was still one of the easier to read parts of my notes. Most of the pages were scribbled over with corrections and underlines while others were half-empty and the entire thing was a mess in general.
I snapped the notebook shut and clicked my tongue in irritation. I would have to copy the entire thing over to the computer soon. It should make things easier to correct and organize in the long run.
“I guess I will do it after school.” Speaking of which, I moved the cursor over the taskbar and checked the time. “Damn, it’s seven in the morning already?”
I glanced at the window and, surely enough, there were rays of light seeping through the shutters. I stood up and limbered up my neck. I felt surprisingly… awake. I haven’t slept a wink and yet I wasn’t drowsy. Not even particularly tired. That was weird.
And if something was weird…
“No need for sleep?” I scratched the phrase into the cramped bottom of the ‘Anomalies’ page and put an especially big question mark at the end. Maybe it was only the adrenaline that kept me running all night long, or possibly just the site I was browsing, but one could never know.
Speaking of which, I leaned over the computer and leafed through the twenty or so open tabs in my browser. For a moment I thought about sitting down again, but I decided against it. Whilst researching terminology while jumping from link to link was both fun and educational, my primary objective was collecting more empirical data at the moment, and I could hardly do that while I was cooped up in my room. Thus I made sure my tabs were bookmarked and then put the machine into standby mode.
I straightened my back and stretched, enjoying the rush of blood while it lasted, then began my morning preparations. I still had more than enough time till school started, but I wanted to get some other things done before I went there…
It was exactly seven thirty-nine when I slipped through the school gate. I gave a quick nod to the guy with the armband and, while he returned the gesture, I couldn’t help but feel that his blank face was somehow disapproving of me. He didn’t say anything though and instead he grabbed hold of the sliding gate and began closing it after me. Huh. So the gates actually closed twenty minutes before the first bell. Good to know.
I looked around the courtyard and found myself frowning. The school looked exactly like it did on the first day, ditto the people milling around… but somehow, something felt different. For a while I couldn’t really pinpoint what it was. Then I realized: It was me.
As I walked I made note of many things I never bothered with the day before. Back then I was too preoccupied with my amnesia and staring at the unrealistic cleanliness of the environment to care about such minor things as aesthetics. After a day of acclimation I found myself staring for other reasons. While I might have dismissed the school as ‘stereotypical’ the first time around, a second look has actually proven the building and its environment quite impressive.
The wide brick walkway leading to the entrance of the school was practically shining with morning dew under the light seeping through the leaves of the trees on both its sides. It was early autumn, so they were not in full bloom as another stereotype would have demanded, yet the cherry trees still looked inspiring in their fading green.
The building itself was remarkable as well, if not exactly breathtaking. The three rows of large windows, each one of them mirror-shined, reflected the morning light and together with the white and light blue of the walls they gave the illusion of a building made of ice and snow. Then I noticed the smaller details, such as the small leaf-motif embossments running around each window and especially the large relief of a single cherry tree on a hill placed right above the entrance. Speaking of the entrance, it was the first time I became aware of the curved handrails around the steps leading up to it or the huge doors made entirely of safety glass, opening and closing on their own as people approached.
For a moment I felt really, really shallow. I shook off the feeling and I marched up to the entrance, promising myself to pay more attention to such details in the future. I walked up the steps and entered the building. The entry hall was large but unadorned and it only housed the three rows of large, dark-blue shoe lockers I was already familiar with. At least I wasn’t missing any aesthetic details there…
With a self-derisive smirk I rushed over to my own locker and opened the cabinet. I wasn’t exactly sure whether I should hurry or not; although classes wouldn’t start for a good fifteen minutes, I had little to no idea about where to find my classroom. Last time I went on autopilot, so while I had a general idea where it should be, I still wanted to have some leeway, especially in case there were complications on the way there. Just as I reached for my shoes I heard a commotion from the direction of the stairs. For a moment I was tempted to put my shoes back on and check out what it was about, but in the end I decided I had better things to do. With that decided I quickly slipped into my indoor shoes and closed the locker door.
I was ready to head towards the second floor (for I was pretty sure my classroom was in that vicinity), when my attention was directly drawn to the aforementioned commotion whether I liked it or not. It was a word, something that sounded vaguely familiar and…
“Leonard Dunning!” There! That was it, the familiar words! It took me a few seconds to process them but then the little bulb lit up over my head all the more vigorously.
“Ah, right. That’s my name,” I mused aloud as I turned around to face the source of the exclamation. To my sincerest surprise my eyes immediately met with the fiery glare of a short girl. I involuntarily cocked my head to the side for a moment and squinted at her.
She had shining auburn hair in a tidy ponytail with a white hairpin holding her bangs to the side, large blue eyes and a cute button nose in the middle of her face, right where it belonged. She didn’t appear to wear any makeup yet her face was spotless with a light complexion and full lips. If I had to rate her, I would have said she was really pretty in a natural, ‘girl next door’ kind of way, but after being immersed in a world full of generally attractive people, I didn’t feel confident in my sense of beauty anymore. More importantly though, she seemed vaguely familiar.
It didn’t take long to figure out who she was, considering that aside of Joshua there was only one other person I could theoretically recognize. Unfortunately, the realization took too long to show up on my face. In fact it was so long that by then her glare lost all its edge, and after a while she also cocked her head to the side as I did with a confused look in her eyes. Seeing that, I lightly cleared my throat.
“Yes?” She asked back, her brows knitting together once again.
“Errr…” For a few seconds I floundered like a fish out of water. Sure, I could kind of recognize her and I have heard about her from Josh, but I didn’t actually ‘know’ her per se. I had no idea why she was glaring at me or what I was supposed to say in this kind of situation. After some more urgent thinking under her scrutiny I decided to play it safe. “Good morning?”
Her face looked like it was carved from marble for a moment, the visage of a Greek Fury in a stereotypical high school girl’s uniform. I am not going to lie, the image was a little amusing, though I didn’t dare to smile. At last she got her face vertical again and sighed.
“Good morning? Is that all? That’s all you have to say for yourself?”
I raised a hand to halt her. I had a nagging feeling that if I let her continue to rile herself up, I would soon end up as the unfortunate end of a slapstick comedy duo.
“Hold on for a moment. What exactly do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean.” She tried to be deadpan. It might have even worked if her brows weren’t twitching.
“No, I don’t. That’s why I’m asking.”
Her eyes narrowed before she raised an accusatory finger and poked my chest. I blinked in surprise. I was so caught up with the situation that I didn’t even realize we were standing at arm’s reach. I instinctively took a step back and my heel hit the lockers with a loud clank. From the outside it must have looked like she pushed me back with a single finger, but thankfully none of the placeholders were looking, or even acknowledged our dispute to begin with. As for her, my reaction appeared to momentarily break her glare, but then she immediately redoubled her efforts to etch wrinkles into her forehead.
“Stop playing dumb.”
She was tenacious, wasn’t she? Also, her face was twitching again. At first I thought it was because she was angry, but on closer inspection it felt more like as if she was undertaking some sort of physical effort. Then she noticed my scrutiny and she immediately redoubled her efforts to look furious. I wanted to roll my eyes, but I suppressed the urge and instead flashed a smile.
“Let’s talk while we walk, lessons should start soon,” I told her while I threw my bag onto my back. She didn’t answer but fell in line beside me while I headed towards the stairwell. When I got there I slowed down just enough to let her get a half step ahead of me. This way she would hopefully lead me to the classroom without me having to ask her and reveal my amnesia.
As for why I didn’t want to tell her about it… Well, it was both complicated and fairly straightforward. I wanted to figure out this place’s deal, and to do that I had to make observations. Because of that, I had to interfere as little as possible to avoid contaminating the data, and letting everyone know about my amnesia was the surefire way to do just the opposite. No, for the time being I decided I should keep my condition and my suspicions about this ‘setting’ to myself.
Speaking of suspicions, I glanced at Angie and I almost got my legs tangled by the surprise. She was honest to goodness massaging her eyebrows like she has strained them. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it.
“W-What?!” She glared at me again, her face red as a lobster.
“Nothing,” I squeezed out between two snickers.
“Ah!” She suddenly exhaled sharply. “I know what you are doing! You are trying to change the subject! It won’t work on me!”
‘That’s actually what you are doing right now’, I wanted to say, but I refrained. Instead I gave her a rueful smile and staggered theatrically. “Oh no, my masterful rouse has been found out! What shall I do now?”
She didn’t find it amusing. Tough crowd tonight. In the end I straightened myself and looked her in the eye… which almost made me collide with another student, so I settled for stepping a bit closer and dividing my attention between her and the corridor. “So, what exactly did you want to talk about again?”
“You know already!”
With my urge to roll my eyes intensifying, I gave her what I hoped to be an exasperated look.
“No, I have no idea. That’s why I’m asking. The second time.”
“You made Joshua skip afternoon classes yesterday, didn’t you?!” She hissed at me with righteous indignation as we rounded a corner.
“Oh please. He was the one that offered to take me to the hospital.”
Angie stumbled for a moment and then rushed forward to catch up with me, her glare breaking away in an instant.
“Wait, what? Hospital? Why did you have to go to the hospital? Did something happen? What happened? How come this is the first time I heard about it? Why didn’t you call me? Why—?”
I raised both hands in the air and somehow managed to stall her efforts to drown me in a torrent of questions. I sighed and let my hands down with a shrug. Now, how should I answer her?
“I hit my head last morning,” I told her at last. It wasn’t the whole truth, but technically I wasn’t lying either. “Josh took me to the hospital, but then something else came up. I thought he told you yesterday; he said he met you when he took our bags.”
“Well he didn’t!” The girl puffed her cheeks indignantly with a sidelong glance. I am not going it lie, it was kinda cute. It was hard to imagine that she was giving me a death-glare just a few moments ago.
“He… probably didn’t want to worry you.”
I didn’t really know why I said that. I suppose I just wanted to help out the poor Josh a little. He was in this mess because of me after all.
“But I was worried anyway!” Angie’s outburst wasn’t loud, but it was intense. She once again glared at me and let another torrent loose. “Why did you keep it a secret from me? Why didn’t you call me in the first place? Do you have any idea how worried I got when you didn’t show up during the assembly? Or when Joshua ran away from me? You are horrible! You never care about other people’s feelings and—”
I raised a hand to rub my temple. On a whim though I stopped it mid-way and instead extended it towards her, poking the creases between her brows with my index finger. She immediately fell silent as if I muted her and her mouth hung open with a difficult expression. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight.
“You are going to get wrinkles if you scowl too much,” I told her and removed my hand. Her facial expression didn’t change for a while, then her muscles slowly relaxed. “See, it wasn’t that hard.”
She was silent for a few seconds. The next time she spoke we were almost at the classroom, which I only recognized by the sign ‘3-C’ over the door. She stopped and grabbed hold of my sleeve, halting me as well.
“Listen, Leo…” Her voice was soft and slightly insecure, though I only recognized those after I finally figured out ‘Leo’ was my name. Damn, this amnesia is annoying.
“We are friends, right?”
“… I am led to believe, yes.” She suddenly pinched my arm. “Ow! Okay, okay, we are friends. Geez…”
She smiled at me innocently and continued.
“Friends are supposed to help each other, right?” I nodded in response. “So if something like that happens, ever again, I want you to tell me about it and let me help, okay? I don’t want to be the only one left in the dark.”
‘It wasn’t really on purpose per se’, I wanted to protest, but I thought better of it. In the end I just sighed and nodded.
“You two are really alike.” Seeing her questioning eyes I hastily added, “You and Josh. You are the nicest worrywarts I know.” Which was technically true, due to the fact that they were the only two people I knew. I was getting good at these half-truths, if I do say so myself.
“That is not an answer,” She pouted again and I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Sure, if it’s within your power to help, I will come to you.” I nodded towards the classroom. “Come on, classes are about to start.”
She didn’t seem completely satisfied with my answer, but followed after me all the same. It was just a few minutes before eight when we entered and the room was almost completely full. There were at most five or six empty seats, including mine next to Josh’s and the one in front of mine. Speaking of him, he was looking at the entrance with wary eyes jumping between me and Angie like a frightened kid caught during a prank.
I casually walked over and dropped myself onto my chair. Angie seemed to want to come over with me, but then the bell rang and so she sat down by her desk in the first row. I was actually a little surprised. I expected that the empty seat in front of mine belonged to her, but apparently I was wrong. At last I sighed and turned to Josh.
He eyed me for a while, his gaze occupying the emotional borderland somewhere between sympathetic and suspicious before he began whispering.
“You got caught, huh?”
“Oh, you mean by Angie?” I involuntarily glanced in her direction and found her staring daggers at us. Well, maybe just Joshua. I gave her a timid wave and she returned it with a small smile before she immediately continued her efforts for getting her brows to touch each other. I promptly let out a chuckle.
“Man, she is really pissed at you…”
Josh didn’t find my comment amusing and commenced to aim a scowl of his own at me.
“Why is she mad at me?! You were the one who got me into trouble!”
“Oh, don’t you try and act innocent now!” By this point his whispers were getting a bit too loud, so I gestured him to calm down. To his credit, he actually did so. “Seriously, you got me to take you to the hospital, skip classes and then had the nerve to ditch me in an alley! If anyone should be angry here, that would be me!”
As much as I hated to admit it, he had a point. I took a deep breath and rubbed the bridge of my nose in embarrassment.
“Fine, you are right. That was a dick move. Sorry.”
Josh opened his mouth and then stopped and left it hanging for a moment as if he only registered my words halfway through. He stayed like that for a second or two and then snapped his jaw shut with an audible clatter of teeth.
“Well, so long as we are clear on that, I suppose it’s fine. Water under the bridge.”
His voice sounded almost sulky. Thinking about it, he probably had a huge tirade prepared to chew me out and I just cut him short by a swift apology. I almost felt bad about it. Almost.
“So, what did you find out?”
“Huh?” I looked up at him uncomprehendingly, whiplashed by the dialog-equivalent of the torque of a sudden switch of gears (or in this case, topics). “That a balalaika is a Russian stringed musical instrument with a characteristic triangular body and three strings?” I said tentatively.
For a moment I almost panicked as Josh slid into the thousand-yard stare I got familiar with due to the placeholders, but then his eyes snapped back and… he delivered a swift chop on the top of my head.
Well, that’s it for my efforts for not landing in comedic slapstick situations…
“Stop messing around!” After a brief pause, no doubt caused by my confused looks, he added in a whisper, “I’m talking about your amnesia! Remember, the thing you were supposed to get looked at?”
“Oh, that!” I paused thoughtfully while rubbing the crown of my head. “Nothing new on that front.”
“Then why did you run off like that yesterday? I thought you had a breakthrough or something.”
“Nah, that was completely unrelated. By the way, I would like to keep the whole amnesia-business low-profile for a while.”
Josh narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“It’s… a long, complicated and borderline crazy story, but let’s just say that I found out that my missing memories are just the tip of the iceberg.”
“A long, complicated and borderline crazy one?”
Joshua shook his head in defeat and leaned back in his chair with a tired exhalation.
“Fine, don’t tell me if you don’t want to.”
“Well, it’s not that I don’t want to, but that I have no concrete idea about what’s going on either. I will update you the moment I figure things out.”
“Yes, I promise.” I waved my hand in dismissal and then something caught my interest. Well, the lack of something, at the very least. “Shouldn’t the teacher be here already?”
“Now that you mention it…” Josh glanced at his phone. It was another brick-phone like my own, though his machine seemed to be at least slightly newer. “It’s past eight. She should be here.”
As if on cue, the sliding door— By the way, did I even mention that the classrooms had sliding doors? Because they did, and they were weird. My personal feelings aside, the door slid open with a hissing sound (see, that’s what I’m talking about; doors aren’t supposed to make that noise!), yet it wasn’t the teacher who entered. All non-placeholder eyes focused on the newcomer, a fairly tall, bespectacled girl with a bubble-haircut and a metal shield the size of my palm pinned on her rather generous chest.
“Oh. I didn’t even notice Ammy was missing.”
“Ammy?” I whispered back to Josh and he gave me a dubious glance before he theatrically hit his own forehead.
“Riiiiight, you can’t remember anything. Sorry, my bad.” I am not gonna lie, it took a lot of willpower to stop myself from punching him out of his chair. Maybe he realized the magnitude of my inner struggle, for Joshua forcefully cleared his throat and continued. “That’s Amelia. She is our prefect.”
“You mean the class representative.”
“No, I mean ‘prefect’. Anyways, listen, she probably has something to say.”
True enough, by the time I returned my attention to her the class rep was already standing behind the teacher’s desk and was trying her hardest to get the attention of the placeholders, or at the very least get them to stop whispering about repetitive and completely off topics for a minute. I wondered if she even recognized the futility of it, or if she could even comprehend the difference between relatively normal people like Josh and the placeholders, but then I halted that train of thought as I took a closer look at her.
I knew there was something that bothered me about her, and I just managed to put my finger on it: it was her hair! Not that I literally put my finger on it, of course, it wouldn’t even make sense, but... Bah, anyways, her hair was unusual but not in an unusual way. That requires some elaboration, doesn't it?
So, I already established that the vast majority of the placeholders looked alike, right? That, of course, included hairstyles as well, though it was still the most varied thing about them. From the viewpoint of a stylist (which I am admittedly not, but never mind that), the boys and gals both wore simple, functional yet overall nice hairdos.
And then there was her...
First off, while her chin-length bubble-cut appeared pure black on first glance; on a closer look I had to realize it had a fairly distinct bluish shine to it. Also, while I called it bubble-cut, her hairdo was actually a little bit disheveled, but in a cute, fashionable way one could see on a Hollywood actress during an action-sequence, the kind that needed several hours of work to appear somewhat natural. Not only that, but since I only saw her from profile at first, I didn't realize that she had a single thin, braided lock of hair hanging in front of her left ear which also had a purple ribbon weaved into it. All things considered, it was a hairdo that probably required way too much effort to maintain every day, yet here she was.
I paused for a moment. On second thought, Angie had a fairly atypical haircut as well. While I have already commented on the luster and the large hairpin she used to keep her front bangs from interfering with her vision, she also had a big white ribbon on the back tying two long strands from the front together and holding the rest of her hair in a nice ponytail. That also didn't look like an everyday hairdo.
I wondered; was there a reason behind those two standing out like this? I glanced over to Josh and my brows involuntarily furrowed.
“What?” He looked at me questioningly after glancing behind himself.
I had to wonder just how I never noticed it before, but Joshua also sported an unusually tidy and well-groomed hairdo, though he obviously lacked the girls’ accessories.
“What?!” Josh repeated impatiently. I sighed and ran my fingers through my own mop.
“I'm just worried about my hair.”
Josh's reaction was poetry in motion. First he raised an eyebrow in surprise, then let it back down in incomprehension and finally cocked his head to the side and gave me the most blatant 'Dude, what the bloody hell are you talking about?' deadpan stare I have ever seen. I tell you, the guy was a natural straight-man.
“That was totally random, even for you.”
“My thoughts are complex. It's not my fault you can’t follow them,” I told him nonchalantly while I dived into my bag and retrieved my notebook.
I placed it in front of me and penned 'Hair: An indication of narrative importance?'. I paused and tapped my pen against my chin in a decidedly thoughtful manner before I added; 'Needs more data points.' and closed the notebook.
“What's that?” Joshua asked while craning his neck to get a better look.
“This?” I thumped the notes with my finger and he nodded. “My observation diary. I write things down to help me figure stuff out.”
“That's... actually a pretty decent idea. By the way...” Apparently he remembered what we agreed upon before, for he leaned closer and took his whispers down a notch. “About your amnesia… Are you one hundred percent sure there is no change?”
After some face-rubbing, I decided to throw the guy a bone, if only so that he would stop looking at me like that.
“Well... I recognized Angie. Sorta.”
Josh’s eyes suddenly lit up with relief like he was the one that made progress.
“That’s good news, right?”
If my answer sounded a wee bit ambivalent, it was because my attention was drawn back to the girl repeatedly clearing her throat in front of the inattentive class of placeholders.
“I have an announcement to make. Please pay attention.”
Falling on deaf ears, the class rep’s pleas kept going in a circle with no end. I think I could even see tears of frustration in the corners of her eyes.
“Shouldn’t someone do something?”
“Hm?” Joshua followed my eyes and frowned in kind. “Yeah, you are right.” To my sincerest surprise he actually stood up and cleared his throat. “Guys! Please let Amelia talk!”
In response to his heartfelt plea the class... showed exactly zilch reaction. There were a few glances in his direction, but overall the placeholders just kept at whatever they were doing before he spoke, which in the case of two guys at the back included playing cards.
Josh looked at me with crestfallen eyes and I had to roll mine in response. I stretched my fingers and gave him a 'That’s not how you do it,' look. I limbered up my shoulders and then inhaled until my chest hurt before raising my hand high in the air.
I paused for a moment for the sake of dramatic tension, then I slapped my desk as hard as I could, which resulted in a surprisingly loud bang and an unsurprisingly painful stinging sensation in my palm. I waited for a moment for the echoes of the sound to die down and then let out all the air trapped in my lungs with a mighty bellow.
“SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP ALREADY, YOU MISERABLE SIMPLETONS!”
The ordeal left me heaving for a while and for the next second or two I felt lightheaded, but it worked. By the time the rushing blood retreated from my ears the classroom was so silent you could hear a queen of clubs being dropped, which incidentally was exactly what happened at the back.
I shifted in my seat to look back to Josh with a completely natural and in no way smug grin before I faced forwards again to wave to the class rep.
She nodded with an awkward smile and cleared her throat.
“It seems like we will receive a transfer student today. It was sudden, so Mrs. Applebottom has to take care of the paperwork. Because of that, the first period is going to be free study. Please don't be rowdy and keep the noise to a minimum.”
With her announcement finished, the class rep bowed and walked over to her desk in the front near Angie's.
“Mrs. Applebottom?” I inquired from Joshua after a few well-aimed elbow-pokes got his attention again.
“Our homeroom teacher. Young, thin, wears her hair in a bun. Rings any bells?”
I thought for a moment and shook my head. Josh clicked his tongue but didn't say anything else, so I took the initiative again.
“So, a new transfer student. On the second day of the school year.”
“They probably had their reasons,” Josh answered absent-mindedly.
“Sure. Any guesses?”
“About the early transfer?” He mused thoughtfully. “The sudden moving of the family. Late application. A bureaucratic error. My bet is on the last one; she had problems with her papers.”
I nodded sagely, which he interpreted as agreement, though I had a feeling there was a more 'meta' reason. Transfer students are a staple of any story featuring a high school. They are either used to kick off the plot or serve as some sort of catalyst. A 'female' transfer student in particular usually means one of two things (and sometimes both): romantic interest and plot-hook. Taken that Josh already had a solid one in the form of Angie, and that I was the theoretical protagonist of this theoretical narrative it was quite possible that this one was aimed at me. Theoretically. We'll see.
As I was pondering the implication of a sudden love-interest appearing out of the blue and how I would deal with it... suddenly a girl appeared in front of me! Well, all right, maybe I was being a wee bit dramatic here. What really happened was that the class rep walked over to Joshua's desk, which of course was right beside mine, so she kind of just popped into my peripheral vision while I was looking elsewhere.
She looked at each of us in turn and then gave a slight bow. Speaking of which, she bowed at the end of her announcement too. Was that a thing around these parts? I was tempted to write the question down into my notebook, but I decided I should do that later.
“I would like to thank you for your help. I truly appreciate it.”
Well, I guess that's roughly what she said. The acoustics were pretty bad since she was talking to the floor, and by this point the background noise also rose by a level.
Compared to my uncertain answer, Josh's words seemed to come naturally to him.
“It was only natural. If you need help in the future, you know you can always rely on me.”
I was just about to roll my eyes at his overly verbose answer when class rep straightened herself, smiled at him as she... she actually blushed? I mean, literally. I mean… sure, she was fairly pale-skinned so it wasn't unthinkable, but this was the first time I have seen someone with a cartoonishly blatant blush like that. And... she was blushing at Josh.
I looked at her, then at Angie's back, then back at the class rep again. Did... did I just stumble upon a love triangle? That's unusual, unless... Was this some kind of romance narrative?
I put my elbows on the desk and began massaging my temples. If I was right, it validated a number of other things. If two of the named, unique-looking girls in class were pining for the only normal guy I knew, it meant that appearances really served as a good indicator of one's importance in this world.
On the other hand, it was one of the worst types of narratives to find myself in. For a start, I was bad with romance. I could tell this much even with the amnesia due to the knot in my stomach I felt ever since the mere chance of the transfer student being 'aimed' at me came up. And to make it even worse, due to the fact that I already knew where things were heading, I would never be able to act naturally without having doubts about the sincerity of anyone's affections. I mean, if this was really some sort of romantic fiction, people falling in love with me wouldn’t be their choice but par for the course… But then again, that same logic applied to every other interaction under the sun, so…
No. Stop. Don't go down that alley; that way lies paranoia boulevard. Start doubting the feelings of one person and you would soon start doubting feelings of everyone and see shadows of narrative contrivance everywhere.
But then again, wouldn't that be the prudent thing to do? If I took my hypotheses about the world to their logical conclusion, wouldn't that mean that everyone, placeholders and 'normal' people alike, were just actors playing out their pre-designated roles?
I looked over at Josh, who was in the middle of receiving the appreciations of the class rep with a dopey smile, completely unaware of her sheepish glances and fidgeting hands. I couldn’t help but chuckle and then subsequently shake my head. No, they have free will, or at least as much as anyone else. I wanted to believe that, at least until I was certain of the contrary, so I promptly and firmly made it my policy from that point onwards.
“Are you all right?”
“Hm?” I glanced up and my eyes met with the bust of the class-rep, so I blinked inconspicuously and glanced even higher to meet her eyes. For some reason she was leaning over my desk and studying me. Then the actual question finally got processed by my cognitive machinery and I answered. “Sure, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“You were holding your head and shaking it. Does it hurt?”
I didn't realize this before, but she actually had a very soft, soothing voice when not flustered.
“Nah, I'm fine,” I answered with a smile I hoped was reassuring and leaned back on my chair. “Fit as a fiddle.”
“Ah.” Her face lit up like I just reminded her of something and she leaned closer as if to follow after me. “Peabody was asking for you.”
“Peabody?” I asked back reflexively, resulting in a raised eyebrow.
“The school nurse,” Josh came to my rescue in the nick of time.
“Ooooooh, that Peabody!” I parroted in faked revelation as I turned back to the class rep. “Sorry, my mind was on something else. What did he want?”
“Something about amnesia.”
“Ah, that...” Seeing the question in her eyes, I quickly added, “I asked him about it last time. It's for a paper. Extracurricular.”
“On the second day of school?”
“Yup, I need the credits,” I lied through my teeth like a pro, but I didn't want to press my luck, so I decided a sudden change of topic was in order. “So, can you tell us anything about the transfer student?”
“Yeah, I'm curious too.”
I involuntarily blinked in surprise upon hearing the new voice entering the conversation. It came from behind our seats, so I glanced over my shoulder and found myself face to face with Angie.
“Whoa!” Joshua nearly jumped out of his chair. “Um... morning?”
Instead of returning the greeting, the girl averted her face with a pout and a small harrumph.
“Is there a problem?” The class rep asked tentatively, obviously taken off-balance by the unusual tension between the two.
“Nah, they just had a fight.”
“Correction.” Angie raised a finger. “We are only going to have a fight. Right now we are just not on speaking terms.”
“So you are not fighting?” The class rep asked again with a small frown that raised the glasses on her nose.
“Think of it this way,” I spoke while gesturing with my hands. “They already have a casus belli. Right now they are having a cold war, and then there will be a war of total annihilation, which Josh will obviously lose. Right?”
“Right!” Angie nodded earnestly.
“Harsh,” Josh whispered.
“I would like to warn you, I will not tolerate any fighting in the classroom. If you pick a fight with Joshua, I will have to report it to the teacher.”
All of a sudden Angie took a step back like she was hit with a bucket of cold water.
“Hey we are not fighting, right?”
“Then why are you here?”
Damn, the class rep might have looked meek, but her tongue was apparently pretty sharp. I saw Angie’s brows furrow and I suddenly remembered that these two were the opposing prongs of a possible love triangle. After some deliberation I decided that preventing a possible fight was probably in my best interest.
“Wait, don't tell!” I exclaimed before Angie could answer and raised an open palm for emphasis. “I am going to use my newly developed psychic powers to tell exactly why she is here!”
With theatrical motions, I raised my left hand to my temple and extended my right hand towards Angie. She actually looked to be surprisingly amused by the display. I held the dramatic silence for a few seconds.
“I see...” I nodded sagely like I was receiving some great insight. “You were angry at Joshua for being a jerk, so you were sulking at your desk when you saw the class rep come over.”
“Class rep?” “Jerk?” Two-thirds of my audience mumbled. Angeline, on the other hand, seemed surprisingly attentive.
“You were jealous...” I paused and decided not to go the whole mile yet, so I hastily added, “... that we were having fun over here while leaving you out, but you thought that simply walking up to us would be awkward, so you sneaked around and waited for the right moment to jump into the conversation.”
Angie stayed silent for a while. In the end, and to my sincerest surprise, she sighed and threw her hands into the air.
“Fine, you got me. Guilty as charged. But you know; it was really unfair to leave me out like that.” She paused and let her mouth curl into an impish smile. “And if we are at that Leo, you are a jerk too for not inviting me over! I was actually signaling you, you know?”
I couldn't help but burst out in laughter at her jab. In retrospect, I think this was the moment I actually started to like her.
“I'm not a jerk,” Josh sulked at my side and it only made me laugh harder.
“What's a 'class rep'?” The girl in front of my desk asked with a difficult expression.
I pointed at her and said, “You are.”
She seemed to need some time to digest this, so I turned to the childhood friends at my other side. They seemed to be in the middle of figuring out the least awkward way to start a conversation. I sighed at the spectacle and raised a hand to pat Josh on the shoulder. If I went out of my way to stop one possible fight, I might as well go for broke and try to stop Angie’s total war of annihilation as well.
“Just tell her you are sorry,” I whispered to him matter-of-factly. He had the nerve to give me a withering look in return, the ungrateful toe-wriggler...
“Because you got her worried yesterday... which is not a hard feat, considering she is a giant worrywart, but still.” He seemed unconvinced, so I patted him on the shoulder a bit harder this time. “Come on, we both know you two would make up in no time anyway, so please just get it over with so we can focus on more important things.” I really hoped that my intended subtext saying 'I have too many things to worry about already and have no time for your shit' got across as well.
The guy groaned and dropped his shoulders in defeat.
“Fine, fine. I'm sorry. Are you happy now?”
“I dunno. Let’s ask the recipient, shall we?”
I turned to Angie and, to my renewed surprise, she was looking at me with a strange mixture of suspicion and... respect? Or was it even awe? Either way, it made me uncomfortable.
“Wow Leo. Wow. What happened to you over the summer?”
For a minute there I thought she meant my amnesia, but then I replayed the previous conversation in my head and didn’t find anything out of place, so I decided to play it safe.
“What exactly do you mean?”
“You… changed. Grew up, I suppose? Don’t take me wrong; it was about time, but… it’s still strange.”
Now that was something I didn't consider before. Keeping my amnesia a secret for research purposes might be entirely pointless if people figure it out for themselves because I act differently. But then again, I had no idea how I was 'supposed' to act, though taken that they didn't bat an eye at my psychic performance, it must have been something they would have expected from the 'old me'. Either way, I made a mental note about asking Joshua sometime to describe to me how I used to act in public. For now, it was best to play it safe.
“Nah, it's probably just your imagination.” I waved my hand for emphasis, though she didn't seem all that convinced. I deemed it was time for another tactical switch in topics. “So, are you two going to make up or what?”
Angie puffed her cheek for a moment as she looked over Joshua, who in turn looked decidedly awkward.
“He doesn’t really mean it.” She said at last.
“Oh, but he totally does. He is very sorry that he made you worry yesterday, but it was an emergency. Not to mention, it was ultimately because of me, and you have already forgiven me, so it’s all good anyways. Just sign that peace treaty and get this cold war over already.”
“Hmmm…” Angie acted like it was a very hard decision to make (or at least I hoped she just acted the part) but at last she relented. “Oh, fine.”
“Phew.” Josh exhaled hard as if a weight has fallen off his chest.
“But we are still going to have a talk about this. In private.” She added, much to Josh’s chagrin.
“Fine. Whatever you do behind closed doors is none of our business so long as it is soundproofed,” I jested, and suddenly both of them turned red. It took me a moment to realize that my joke could be read two different ways, so I decided to engage in my newfound hobby of tactical discussion re-railment. “Say, now that I think about it, I believe we didn't actually get our question about the transfer student answered, did we?”
I looked at the class rep and the others followed suit. Attention successfully averted. Yay.
I also couldn't help but notice that Angie was no longer frowning at either of us, so I suppose that was a step forward as well. Not that the class rep cared about that, as she was currently in the process of shrinking back from the sudden shift in attention.
“I... don’t know much.”
“You were at the teachers' office, right? Have you seen them?” Angie's inquiries seemed surprisingly eager. The class rep only nodded in response. “So?”
“She was a short-ish blonde girl... And she wore a dress.”
“A dress? Really?” Now it was Josh's turn to interject. He also seemed surprisingly into it. Huh, I guess everyone likes to gossip. I, on the other hand, was considering that if my hypothesis about 'uniqueness of appearance = importance' was correct, a girl wearing a dress in a high school setting would most definitely be an important addition. But what about her hair? Should I ask, I pondered, but I decided against it, lest they would mistake my purely academic inquiry as some kind of fetish.
“Yes. I think she didn't have her uniform delivered yet.” The class rep continued the conversation without paying attention to me.
“But a dress?” Angie mused with a finger on her lips. “She must be rich.”
“She had a butler too,” The class rep added, finally getting caught up in the flow of the gossiping.
“Seriously?” Josh whistled.
“Let me guess...” I said as I stroked my chin in a manner most intellectual. “He is an elderly gentleman in a sharp suit, and his name is...” Insert dramatic pause here. “Sebastian.”
The class rep's eyes opened wide and she almost sounded excited for the first time.
“Yes! How did you...?”
I theatrically raised a hand to my temple and stated; “Psychic powers.”
“... Really?” She actually looked like she was about to take me seriously. I laughed and waved my raised hand with a grin.
“Nah, I am just pulling your leg.”
“Then how did you know?” Angie asked while leaning uncomfortably close. I have noticed this before as well, but she apparently had problems with recognizing personal space.
“I guessed.” Since she didn't seem convinced at all, I decided to elaborate. “He is a butler to a girl wearing dresses when meeting with teachers, right? That means she and her family care a lot about appearances, so of course their butler would be wearing a suit. I guessed he would be an elderly gentleman because butlers generally come in two sizes; either older grandparent figures or young strapping lads doubling as bodyguards. So, it was fifty-fifty, but I figured you would have made a note about him if he was young, as it’s more unusual. As for the name, I just picked the most stereotypical butler name that came to mind. Quite elementary, my dear Watson.”
I did something like a half-bow with a flourish, though it probably looked silly due to my sitting position. Angie and Josh looked at each other with wry smiles and gave me three sarcastic claps in unison. The class rep, on the other hand, seemed to be completely lost in thought. I wasn't even sure she was listening, but then she suddenly hid her hands behind her back.
“How many fingers?”
“How many fingers am I showing?”
“Behind my back. How many fingers, behind my back?”
She suddenly became so intense I was momentarily caught off guard.
“Um... five?” I blurted out a random number that came to mind.
“Now?” She asked again after a bit of fidgeting.
“Fascinating!” The class rep seemed really impressed for some reason even though I was just throwing random numbers at her.
“Say, by off chance, are you into parapsychology?” I asked tentatively and she immediately stiffened.
“I... might be a... little interested...” She answered, her voice slowly reverting to her more reserved baseline as if the previous excitement was bleeding out of her.
I shrugged and didn't pursue the question any further. Everyone needs a hobby, and considering my own hypotheses about the world, I am really not one to cast the first stone…
The rest of the free study period proved to be fairly uneventful. Since the class rep didn't know anything else about the new student, that line of discussion dried up quickly and the dialog soon shifted to more mundane topics, such as classes, teachers, recent episodes of shows I knew nothing about, afterschool activities and the occasional playful jab and joke thrown around for good measure. All things considered, it was a laidback and rather pleasant experience.
Not that it kept me from making notes, even if only the mental variety. I was mostly concerned with the group dynamic of these people.
First off, there was Josh. Somehow he rarely seemed to be in the center of attention, yet he was always there to add a comment to any topic in question and the two girls seemed to pay him heed whenever he spoke. I suppose the last part was a given, but still…
Angie, on the other hand, was the most active speaker in the group. She talked, joked and teased nonstop, yet somehow she never really appeared to be trying to be in control. Even when it came to Josh, where she threw more proverbial punches than she took, their interactions felt more like the joshing (no pun intended) between close siblings rather than one side domineering over the other. I suppose that is how a childhood friend relationship is supposed to look, huh?
As for the class rep, she mostly stayed silent and listened, only nodding and speaking short sentences when asked about something. The only time she took the initiative was when we started to get too rowdy or when it looked like Angie was picking on Josh.
Overall I had to conclude that these guys were nice and it was fun hanging out with them even if doing so like this didn't really further my overall goal. It just felt strangely relaxing.
At last the first period ended with the ringing of the chime and our impromptu group broke into its constituents. Well, technically Josh and I were still sitting by each other, but I was too busy copying his homework to bother with further socializing for the moment.
My next class was math by the way, which was also taught by our homeroom teacher, Mrs. Applebottom. Now that I mentioned it, am I the only one who thinks her name sounds really, really British? Just me? Anyways, just a quick glance at the homework problems showed that either my math skills were really, really rusty or that they started teaching rocket science in high school while I wasn't looking. The problem wasn't with the operations; I could do most of them in my head without a calculator, but I just didn't know the right formulae for anything... which, taken that I had amnesia, shouldn't have been all that surprising.
“Man, I became dumb.”
“'Became'?” Josh grinned at my side, but I brushed him off with a roll of the eye and continued copying.
The lesson started only a few seconds after I finished and the teacher arrived almost the moment the bell rang. She was a thin young woman in a dark blue turtleneck sweater and she wore her hair in a tidy bun on the back of her head. She stood in front of the blackboard and the class fell silent in an instant.
“Good morning, children.” Her soprano voice was actually quite pleasant, but for some reason it made me feel uncomfortable. “As you have probably heard, our class received a new addition this morning. She is from the mainland, so please help her out if she doesn't know how to do something around here.”
A particular word in that sentence hit me like a sledgehammer: mainland. I never had the time to really wonder about this, but just where the hell was I anyway? Geographically, I mean. I already knew that I was in a fairly big town; that much I could gather from the maps from the day before, but I had no idea where the town was in relation to, well, everything else. I decided to quickly scribble the question into my notebook and shelve it for the time being in favor of more pressing concerns.
“Her name is Eleanor Dracis, please welcome her.”
On the teacher’s cue, the sliding door (still weird) opened wide to let in a blonde girl of average height but above average poise. To my, and presumably some others' disappointment, she actually wasn’t wearing a dress but the standard female uniform of the school comprised of a white shirt, a khaki jacket worn over a grey knitted vest and a knee-length skirt of the same color. Not that she needed a dress to stand out in the first place, mind you.
To put it bluntly, she was beautiful. Sure, Angie was cute and the class rep was also pretty, but she was just supermodel-tier, and not the starving, anorexic type either. That much was made obvious by how well she filled out her clothes on the front and back.
Then there was her sparkling blond hair adorned by a red metal hairband that I nearly mistaken for a tiara. It was long (her hair, I mean, not the hairband), and she wore it in twin-tails that seemed to naturally curl into drills as they cascaded down behind her shoulders. Actually, I think that was called a 'ringlet', a hairstyle often denoting wealth and nobility. Huh. At this rate I could safely update my hypothesis about the link between physical appearance and importance to an actual theory.
But back to the topic at hand: The girl strutted into the classroom with confident steps and stood by the teacher’s desk for a moment before she did a small curtsy. After the stereotypical ooooh-aaaah-ing and sqeeing finally died down (I had to give it to them, the placeholders were nothing if not predictable) she looked over the class.
Her eyes seemed to pass over me, completely unaware of just how nervous I was getting by the whole ordeal. It was at this moment that I was at the highest risk of something incredibly embarrassing happening. Thankfully nothing of the sort came about, instead she smiled and spoke up with a dignified voice.
“Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Eleanor Dracis. It is my pleasure to meet you.” She curtsied again to another bout of applause and turned to the teacher. “Please take good care of me.”
Mrs. Applebottom smiled mechanically at the request.
“Naturally. Please take a seat over there.”
She pointed at the empty desk right in front of mine and I involuntarily groaned. Yup, just as expected. Furthermore, she seemed just as ambivalent about the idea of sitting next to me as I was, but then she looked over at Joshua and her face suddenly softened. That stopped me on my tracks again, but I had no time to realize that look's implications at the moment.
She walked over to the desk and sat down without saying a single word and then the lesson began, robbing me of any opportunity to ponder for forty-five minutes...
The rest of the morning classes proved to be fairly uneventful. I studied the material as best as I could under the circumstances during the lessons and then I hung out with Josh and Angie during the breaks. It seemed like the class rep was either not part of our close circle or she was just too busy helping the new girl catch up with the curriculum to socialize with us. Angie and Josh also exchanged a few courtesies with her, but nothing more. All things considered, nothing really remarkable happened.
My observation diary still gained a new entry though, under 'anomalies': apparently every single class was taught by Mrs. Applebottom. When I asked Joshua about this he just scratched his head and said that there were other teachers as well, but I sure as hell never saw one.
As for our new transfer student, she caused quite a stir amongst the placeholders. No break passed by without a throng of them swarming around her, making small talk with wooden smiles and asking inane questions. On the bright side, since she was sitting in front of me, I could learn a lot of small details about her.
She was apparently from the Abakazian mountains (which I was ninety-five percent sure didn't even exist), her parents were working overseas (which I still had no idea about), she was living in a renovated mansion in my own neighborhood (which I didn't see during my wandering the day before either) and that she was single but didn't plan on staying that way for long (which sent shivers down my spine). There were also some trivia like her blood type and her three sizes, but those didn't even warrant recording in my notes.
Finally lunch break rolled around and I immediately waved for Josh to stick to me.
“We have a cafeteria, right?” I asked once he leaned over.
“Yeah?” He answered cautiously, as if it was a trick question or something.
“Should we check out today's menu?”
“It's the same as every other... Oh.” Apparently it finally dawned on him why I was asking for him to accompany me and he nodded. “Sure thing. You have the money?”
“Yup,” I answered while shaking the stuffed leather wallet in my hand.
“Okay, follow my lead and—”
We both halted on our tracks as an unfamiliar voice called out to us. Josh and I turned in unison to find the new girl standing by his desk. She had a large, rectangular package wrapped in a plaid cloth in her hands and a pleasant smile plastered on her face.
“You see...” She raised the package in her hands. “I'm afraid my cook got a little too eager about my first day in school this morning and she packed my lunch-box to the brim. There is no way I could eat all this alone, so would you care to join me?”
I involuntarily frowned. What was this obviously transparent performance about? Inviting classmates like that on her first day would have been mildly odd already, but doing so to two boys she barely knew was definitely fishy. And then, on top of that, there was something odd about her bearing; it was like she was performing rehearsed lines in a play. It felt totally artificial. In other words, double-fishy.
I saw Josh was just about to answer, but considering the friendly smile on his face, I had a feeling he didn't pick up on any of the red flags. As such, I decided to cut him off by lightly elbowing him in the kidney. For friendship.
“Sorry, but we already had plans. Why don't you ask the class rep?”
“The who?” The girl's stage-smile flickered for a moment, but ultimately it held.
“Amelia,” Josh answered through a smile of gritted teeth before he angrily stomped on my feet.
“Yeah, her.” I hid my grimace with a nod.
“But...” She wavered for a moment. “But I'm afraid two girls wouldn't be able to finish it all.” She turned her pleading eyes directly at Josh and continued the assault. “My cook used some really, really high-quality ingredients and I would hate for them to go to waste.”
“Sorry, I already decided on the cafeteria,” I told her. She paused for a moment and turned back to Josh.
“Then how about just you?”
I immediately clasped the guy on the shoulders before he could say anything,
“Nope, he is coming with me too.”
“But why? I assure you, my lunchbox is better than anything in your cafeteria.”
“Doesn't matter, I already have my reservation.”
“In the cafeteria?”
“What does that even mean?!”
“Do I have any say in this?” Josh cried out in confusion.
“Nope,” I answered his inquiry, accompanied by a thump on the back.
“But he obviously doesn't want to go with you! He should come with me!”
“First come, first served,” I stated matter-of-factly and began pushing Joshua through the door. The girl suddenly lunged forward and latched onto his arm while brandishing her package with the other.
“These are made from very rare ingredients!”
“Yes, you already told us that.”
“They are very, very valuable.”
“I... think that logically follows, yes,” Josh spoke, still a little bewildered by the scene. The new girl turned to me, her sapphire eyes all but crackling with frustration, looked me right in the eye and hissed; “If they go to waste because of your flippant obstinacy, I 'will' make you pay.”
To her apparent surprise, I nodded with a weary sigh.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” Before she could say anything in return I let out a jaunty whistle and raised my free hand high over my head in a wave.
At the other end of the classroom Angie looked up from her bag and cocked her head to the side in inquiry. I waved to her again and she trotted up to us with a curious expression.
“Listen Angie, you won't believe this!” I told her with mock enthusiasm, completely ignoring the confused stares of the other two.
“What? What?” She answered with her own brand of fake gusto.
“The new girl over here has an incredibly awesome lunchbox she wants to share!”
“Really? How awesome is that awesome?”
“It's like a five-star menu made by a team of world-renowned French chefs, made exclusively from the body-parts of creatures you find at the end of high-level side-quests!”
“Wow. That's almost thirty percent more awesome than I expected!”
“I know!” I answered and winked at her. She winked back. Good, for a moment I thought she stopped being sarcastic. “But there is too much of it for her alone, so she wants to share it so that it wouldn't go to waste.”
“How nice of her.”
“And she 'especially' wants to share it with Josh over here.”
Finally recognizing what was going on, Angie's smile went from amused to appreciative and then downright impish.
“Sadly however Josh has already promised to accompany me, and you know him, he never, ever breaks a promise.”
“I know, I know. He is really honest and forthcoming like that.”
“I know, right? But leaving her behind and letting her precious food go to waste would also trouble him.”
“He is such a nice guy,” Angie nodded with a voice all but dripping with sarcasm.
“So, to alleviate his worries, could I ask you to help the princess to munch through all of her food?”
The new girl suddenly stiffened and was looking at me with eyes wide as saucers. She wanted to say something, however Angie grabbed hold of her arm before she could even utter a squeak and began dragging her.
“A great idea! I should get the usual suspects and have us all eat together.”
I didn’t know who these ‘usual suspects’ were, but for the time being I also grabbed hold of Josh and began pulling him in the opposite direction.
“See you later!”
“Wait!” The new girl protested. “Why did you—!?”
I couldn’t make out the last of her words, as by that time I was already dragging Josh out the classroom and down the stairs. Once we were out of earshot I stopped and my shoulders involuntarily sagged in exhaustion.
“I guess you are going to tell me now just what the heck is going on, right?”
“Hm?” I glanced at Joshua and this time I quite deliberately shrugged my shoulders. “Nothing special. Why?”
“Nothing special? Nothing special?! You hit me in the back and practically dragged me away from the transfer student!”
“Oh, that? It was for your own good.” Josh gave me a deadpan look so I sighed and decided to elaborate. “Listen, didn’t you find it strange that she wanted to invite us to lunch?”
“No…” He answered hesitantly. “I thought she was just friendly.”
“Oh come on, think about it for a moment.” I gestured at his head but he only frowned at me again. “Listen, it is not normal for girls to invite boys they don’t know to lunch on their first day in school. It’s just way too forward. Sure, maybe she is just friendly, but if I had to bet, I would say she had some other motives. With hidden motives comes trouble, and right now we are already running on full capacity on that.”
“We?” Josh wiggled an eyebrow at me in a surprisingly competent display of facial gymnastics. “Don’t you mean ‘you’?”
“Don’t fret the semantics.” I waved a hand and took a step forwards, but then stopped. “By the way, which way is the cafeteria.”
My friend pointed at the opposite direction I took a step in and I clicked my tongue. I had a 50% chance, and I still blew it. It would probably take weeks before I would be able to navigate this damn school building. Anyways, I started striding in the indicated direction and Josh fell in line beside me.
“Just admit it; you put up that whole display because you would be lost without me.” He paused for a moment before adding, “By the way, did you really need to hit me in the back? It hurt.”
“You nearly flattened my feet afterwards, so we are even. As for the first part… I honestly think that getting involved with that girl right now would be too much trouble.”
“It’s… complicated. I’ll tell you when I am certain.”
“Now where did I hear that before…”
I ignored the barbs in his tone. I mean, technically I was imposing on him without telling him my real reasons, so he had all the right in the world to be indignant… but then again, I had no idea how he would react to me saying ‘Well, that girl is part of the stereotypical romance narrative that is probably aimed at me and I really don’t have time to waste on stuff like that, not to mention it would be awkward’, so sharing my real motives was out of the question.
“Anyways, I have a question for you,” I told him as we exited the main building through the back. Apparently the cafeteria was in the large building on the other side of the sizable inner courtyard.
“Am I acting weird?”
Josh gave me another of his perfect deadpan looks and said, “Yes.”
“No, you don’t get it.” I emphasized by shaking my hands. “I mean, am I acting differently from how I used to be before the…” I paused to see if there was anyone around who could overhear and finished with, “… the whole amnesia business.”
This time it took a few seconds for Josh to formulate an answer, though it turned out the same.
My friend scratched his cheek in an awkward motion and finally let out a sharp breath.
“Well, you are mostly the same. I mean, your sense of humor is as terrible as ever.”
“Ouch!” I clasped my hands over my heart. “Your words wound me most grievously!”
He suddenly raised a hand and pointed at me.
“See, that’s what I am talking about! That’s the kind of thing you used to pull all the time, acting all dramatic and weird.” He waited for me to let my hands back down before continuing. “Now… Now you are a different kind of weird.”
He suddenly pointed at me again.
“That, right there! Sometimes you just slip into this mannerism where you talk all sophisticated and act like you know everything! It’s unnerving.”
“My good sir, I assure you, I most certainly never do such a thing.”
“There, you are doing it again!”
I laughed and patted him on the back.
“Nah, I’m just pulling your leg. But I can kind of see what you are getting at.”
Sadly it was not something I could easily change. I mean, if it was just a few verbal tics, I could easily fake that, but changing my subjective appearance to others? That might be a little bit beyond my acting abilities. Still, I had to be careful and keep a close eye on my outward attitudes from this point onwards.
It was around this point that we finally entered the cafeteria and my jaw nearly dropped to the floor. For a moment I had to check behind me to see if we didn’t accidentally exit the campus and end up in a French restaurant across the street.
First off, the cafeteria hall was huge. It could easily hold about five hundred people at once, but didn’t do so in your typical rows-upon-rows-of-tables setup. Oh no, this place actually looked like a proper restaurant, with scores of round tables arranged in a neat pattern under its vaulted ceiling. Not only that, but everything was covered in wooden paneling, including the brown stone columns holding up said vaulted ceiling. Combined with the ambient lighting provided by the huge glass panels serving as walls on two sides of the hall, the place had the distinct impression of a classy modern restaurant.
“What the hell is up with this place?” I asked Josh in the entrance between two bouts of gawking.
“Ah, yeah. It’s been recently renovated, so the place became a bit gaudy. Don’t worry, the standard menu is just as bland and boring as it used to be though.” He smiled at me and ushered me towards the food counter.
“Gaudy is a bit of an understatement,” I murmured as I let myself be led through the constantly flowing stream of placeholders.
At last, we arrived in front of one of the three counters and got in line. Once we got our place reserved, Josh turned to me and began explaining the process.
“This is where you get in line first. You can either buy cold food, such as sandwiches or one of the pre-made lunchboxes, or you can get a meal ticket. You take the meal ticket to one of the other two counters, depending on which one is less crowded, and you get the meal you paid for there. You can see all the prices on the boards up there.”
“I see…” I followed Josh’s finger, only to freeze on my tracks mid-step and gape at the price tags. “Something is not right here…”
“Hm?” Joshua turned back to see why I stopped and followed my eyes to the price-board for the pre-made stuff. “Which one?”
“All of them!” I answered with a bit more zeal than I originally planned and quickly toned back a little. I fixed my eyes on the prices again. There is this well-known, slightly tongue-in-cheek thing in economics known as a ‘burger index’. It is used to compare the prices of the same goods in different countries, but it is also a good indication of the value of a currency. In other words, telling you how many of the exact same burger you could buy for the same amount of currency tells you about the strength of that currency and just how much purchasing power it has.
Now if I would transplant that idea into my current situation and turn it into a ‘chicken sandwich index’, it would mean…
“Oh my god…”
“What?” Josh looked at me funny.
“Oh. My. God!” I repeated, this time with even more passion.
I grabbed Josh by the shoulders and pointed at the menu.
“Are those prices accurate?”
My friend seemed to be utterly confused, but at last he nodded. I took a deep breath and looked him in the eye.
“Josh… I… I think I’m filthy rich.”
“Huh?” He tilted his head to the side uncomprehendingly, so I quickly got my wallet out and opened it up for him to see its contents. His eyes opened as wide as if I just showed him the Ark of the Covenant. “What the…?! Where? How?”
Currently my wallet held about ten thousand ‘Jen’. How much did a chicken sandwich cost? Oh, about two point five…
Josh suddenly clasped my hand over my wallet and leaned closer to whisper. His eyes were downright bewildered.
“Are you involved in some kind of shady business?”
“No!” I answered instinctively. “Well, at least I don’t think so. This is just a fraction of my monthly allowance.”
“Yeah. I wanted to buy some stuff, so I went to an ATM this morning to take out some money, but I had no idea how much a Jen is worth, so I decided to take 10k.”
In retrospect, I should have probably figured something was off when the machine gave me a pile of hundred Jen notes, but I was late from school so I just stuffed them into my wallet and ran.
“Tell me about it!”
We both sighed in unison.
“So, what now?” Josh asked wearily, unaware of the blockade we caused in the waiting line.
“We buy some food?” I shrugged. “I mean, we might as well. Do you want anything in particular?”
“Well, I did get you into trouble yesterday, and I dragged you along just now, so… Yeah, why not?”
Joshua nodded to himself and looked over the menu.
“You know,” He finally turned to me with a wicked smile. “I always wondered what lobsters taste like…”