“Finally!” Josh stretched at my side the moment the last bell of the day sounded and jumped to his feet. I felt... slightly less enthusiastic. “Wanna hang out?”
“Sorry, but no. I have... other obligations.”
My choice of words made him raise a brow.
“Obligations? That sounds serious...”
“Nah, it’s just... well...”
I nodded. Josh studied me for a while and finally shrugged.
“Fine. Maybe tomorrow then.”
As my friend began to pack his bag he moved a little and so I got a clear view of the source of my current discomfort. The girl from the roof, Judy, was still sitting stiffly at her desk and looking in my direction. She has been doing that through all the classes and breaks and it was, frankly, bloody unnerving.
Finally our eyes met and I tried to point her towards the door with a few subtle hand-motions followed by copious amounts of eye-waggling. At first she just stared at me inquisitively, but then, just as I was about to give up, she abruptly stood up and just left without any further ado. Well, at least she was out of my hair for now…
In the meantime Josh finished stuffing enough books and paraphernalia into his bag to fill two and was ready to leave.
“What about the others?” I asked him before he could take the first step. He looked back at me, obviously expecting me to explain myself. “I mean, aren’t you going home together today?”
“We didn’t really make any plans... Why?”
I looked around and waved to Angie. True to form, she immediately skipped over as if she had been waiting for me all along and came to a halt by my side.
“Hey there, aren’t you going home with Josh today?”
She seemed a little surprised by the directness of the question, but once she got over that she shook her head so hard for a moment I thought she wanted to shake off something caught in her hair.
“No, I was planning to go home with Ammy for a change...” She gave Josh a pointed look. “Not to mention, after yesterday’s events I’m not sure I want to go home with him anyway.”
“Hey! I already apologized!” Josh objected loudly, but Angie only shook her head again.
“You didn’t apologize on your own, so it was only a half-apology. You will need to buy me at least one ice-cream to make it complete.”
“Ice cream? In autumn?”
“An extra-large serving.”
“This is extortion!”
“With lots of toppings!”
At last Joshua turned his pleading eyes to me. “Don’t just look! Say something!”
“Josh...” I stood and placed a warm hand on his shoulder. “Stop digging yourself any deeper. Just roll with it and take her on the ice-cream date she wants.”
“It’s not a date!” They both protested in perfect unison.
“Whatever you say...” I made sure I sounded very dismissive of their claim before I returned to my casual tone. “Still, someone should really stick to Josh in case that drive-by-kisser shows up again.”
“Drive-by-what?” The princess suddenly perked up in front of us after spending the whole afternoon sprawled out on her desk. In fact the left side of her face had the flat imprint of the desk on it.
“Morning, princess. I hope you slept well.” She stifled a squeak and I smiled at her in return. “Look at that! We are finally making progress!”
“Shut up and tell me about this kissing business!”
I looked at the others in turn, uncertain whether I should milk the contradiction for comedy, but the princess looked so fierce I decided to drop the issue. I cleared my throat with a raspy cough and tried to make myself look and sound as innocent as I could.
“Just what it sounds like. Josh was kissed on the street by some girl.”
“When? How? Why?”
“Yesterday. With her mouth. Idunno. Any further questions?”
The princess didn’t answer but continued to fume instead, so I turned to Josh instead with the biggest friendly grin I could manage without splitting my face open.
“Hey, I have a great idea!”
“Uh-oh...” Josh backed away.
“Brace yourself, everyone,” Angie followed up with a grin barely hidden behind her facade of fright.
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Seriously though, hear me out: Why don’t you take the princess with you?”
“What?” The subject of the previous sentence uttered in surprise. I continued while completely disregarding her.
“She is new around these parts, so you could show her around while you hang out.” I turned to the girl and addressed her in turn. “Also, it would let you stand guard to keep away any further affectionate assailants.”
“Why would she want to...” Josh started, but then stopped, let his head droop and sighed. “You know what? I don’t care. What I do care about is what ‘I’ get out of this arrangement?”
“Aside from another pretty girl clinging to you?” Suddenly feeling the pressure of several glares focused on me, I quickly continued, “Also, when you take her home afterwards, she can show you her mansion? Think about it, when was the last time you made friends with a girl with a mansion?”
It was at this point that the princess tried to lunge at me while still remaining seated (needless to say, it didn’t really work) with her hands extended towards me either to cover my mouth or to strangle me. I didn’t want to leave it up to her, so I grabbed her wrists and kept her at a distance while trying to ignore the incoherent slew of stifled curses she was bombarding me with.
“Ugh, fine,” Josh finally relented.
“I’m okay with it, but only if we first show her around the local sweets shops.”
“You were serious about that ice-cream, weren’t you?” Josh stared at his childhood friend with a look of quiet defeat.
“I’m always serious,” Angie answered with an impish smile. “I'll go and get Ammy and we can all go.”
“Actually...” I raised my voice while at the same time I put down the hands of the princess (once she stopped trying to murder me, of course). “I wanted to talk with her about something.”
“Whoa!” I almost jumped out of my chair when the class rep’s voice appeared behind me out of the blue. Actually, as I thought about it, wasn’t that how she always appeared during these conversations? Might be worth looking into later, I concluded. Anyways, at this point I turned to her in a very dignified manner and solemnly said, “Holy cow, you are like a goddamn ninja!”
“Errr... I don’t really understand...” Her glances kept awkwardly circling around the entire group counter-clockwise, as if searching for someone to explain to her what I meant. At last she returned to me with an uncertain look. “Was... was that an insult or a compliment?”
I waved a hand. “Neither. I was just thinking aloud. That said, do you happen to have a couple of minutes?”
She looked at me curiously, but then she noticed how I was resting my left hand on one of the notebook-stacks she handed me that morning and the uncertainty completely disappeared from her features.
“You mean what we talked about yesterday? Of course, I would be happy to help.”
“Great! I won’t take up much of your time.” I turned to the rest and smiled. “Sorry guys, it looks like I will be stealing her for a while. Please go ahead and have fun with the princess.”
“Hey! Don’t I have any say in this?” The blonde tsundere still griped, though she was already packing her things.
“You had already spoken and the court has overruled you. Now shoo, shoo,” I waved her away and she finally joined up with the others, though she was still glaring at me. I couldn’t even fathom why; she should have been happy I played chaperone for her. But then again, my ‘put yourself in their shoes’ advice I gave to Joshua that morning only worked if the other person was even remotely reasonable...
With all that concluded, I turned back to face the class rep, who was at the moment in the middle of picking up one of the stacks. When she noticed my questioningly raised eyebrow she put it back down and said:
“We should go to the library. They have tables specifically for extracurricular studies.”
I didn’t really see the reason why we couldn’t study in the classroom just the same, but she was the class rep, so I presumed she knew what she was talking about. I threw my bag on my back and grabbed hold of the other stack. It was heavy, but nothing I couldn’t manage. I hurried forward to hold open the door for the class rep and I only realized how pointless that was when I got there.
“Argh, sliding door!” I muttered angrily to express my undying hatred towards the accursed contraption. I turned back to the class rep to let her through… except she wasn’t behind me.
I looked over, and I found her still by my desk, barely managing to move with the stack in her hands. As I reflected on the scene, I had to realize she seemed to have problems with it earlier in the morning as well. I clicked my tongue with minor irritation, mostly at myself for not noticing it sooner, and quickly walked back to her side.
In the end I carried both stacks as the class rep led me through the school building. She did so quite literally, as I had a hard time seeing ahead of me with all the notes piled into a column reaching up to my forehead. Thus she walked a step ahead of me, making sure that no one was in the way or that I wouldn’t fall off the stairs.
As we moved on I couldn’t help but notice how the longer we walked, the more fidgety she became. Her fingers kept restlessly running over her uniform and hair and every few seconds she tried to send me a self-conscious glance that I am sure she thought was sneaky. It was a little unnerving, to be honest, as I couldn’t remember doing anything that would warrant such looks.
By the time we reached the ground floor, I just couldn’t bear it any longer and decided to speak up... only to be beaten to the punch by her instead.
“Is... Is everything all right?”
I looked at her in puzzlement for a second.
“Why are you asking 'me' that?”
“Well... You seemed so quiet, so I thought... …”
“You thought...?” I parroted in an effort to help her continue.
“Are you... angry because you have to carry everything?”
I blinked twice at her and nearly stopped in my tracks.
“No. Why would I be?”
“Oh, thank goodness...” She sighed in relief, and I would have awkwardly scratched my head at this point if my hands weren’t already occupied. I knew that she was a little awkward, but this was a brand new level of social anxiety.
“Nah, you shouldn’t worry like that. Just because I am not talking to you all the time, it doesn’t mean there is a problem.”
“It doesn’t?” She seemed genuinely surprised by the idea, which made me wonder just what kind of references she had before.
“No, staying quiet is fine. You are not obligated to hit up a conversation unless you really want to. For example, a good common topic helps.”
“Oh...” For a few steps she seemed to be deep in thought. “T-The weather is nice, isn’t it?”
“… Needs practice.”
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed, but at least she was no longer fidgeting. Well, one has to value small victories, I supposed. Before I knew it, I found myself chuckling to myself. She looked at me funny, so I hastily explained myself.
“To be honest, I am a little relieved. I thought you were the one who would be mad at me.”
“Well... I did hijack you and stopped you from going home with Josh, for a start.”
She immediately averted her eyes and began fidgeting again. “I... I don’t see how that is related to anything.”
“Oh please... It’s obvious you like him.”
Her eyes suddenly snapped back to me and opened wide with shock. “W-Why would you think that?” She muttered as her face couldn’t decide whether she should pale or blush.
“I just looked at you.”
Her expression swiftly changed to a curious one, overwriting her previous emotional states in an instant.
“Did you... read my mind?”
I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose with, for lack of better methods, the edge of the stack.
“I told you, that was just a joke...” I stopped as I realized something and looked back at her. “Wait, doesn’t that mean you just admitted it?”
“A... Ahaha... Of course, I like him as a friend. I very much do so. As a friend. I have no other attachments or hidden agendas. None at all.” She sputtered and finished with an awkward smile.
“That... was some suspiciously specific denial, but okay. If you don’t want to talk about it, I can roll with it.”
It was around this time we left the main school building through the back door, and with that the previous conversation also came to an end. Across the sports field I could see the empty building of the now-familiar cafeteria. It wasn’t our destination this time, but the similarly sized square building behind it.
It was actually slightly smaller than the cafeteria by its base area, but it was three stories high, and while at first I thought the two buildings were just part of one huge structure, there was actually an alley separating the two. We entered through the same kind of automatic door the school’s main entrance had and my jaw immediately dropped to the floor.
“Are you kidding me?” The class rep turned to me and I felt an urge to clarify myself. “Is this really a high-school library?”
For lack of better explanation I just waved a hand to indicate the entirety of our surroundings, which in retrospect was a bad idea, as I nearly dropped the notebooks in the process. Anyways, the library...
It was huge. The building already looked pretty big from the outside, but it was something entirely different to see it from within. The entrance opened to a counter where we had to flash our student ID, after which we entered an atrium surrounded by a forest of bookshelves. In the middle there was a wide spiral staircase with suspended catwalks extending out of it towards the balconies of the next level. What’s more, the entire place was built around the aesthetics of oak-wood and polished bronze, giving the library a distinctly old and venerable feel even though I rationally knew it was just as new and freakishly clean as everything else.
I tried my hardest not to gawk as the class rep led me to the back of the hall, where we found a couple of vintage-themed wooden tables and chairs hidden behind a wall of book racks.
“Here we are...” I whispered absent-mindedly as I quietly placed the stacks onto the closest table and limbered up my arms. We were in a library so, knowing the class rep’s personality, I decided to play it safe and be quiet lest I trigger her authority mode and be on the receiving end of a scolding. Speaking of her, she also came to the table and took a seat as naturally as if she was at home.
“Let us begin then. Which subject did you want to start with?”
I sat down as well and after a moment of thinking I scratched the base of my neck.
“Let’s start with math, I guess. Only give me the pointers, please.”
“Very well,” She nodded and picked out a notebook from the middle of the stack, and when she opened it up and placed it in front of me, it was indeed a page full of equations. How did she know? Maybe they were color-coded?
Anyways, after I gathered my wits we both immersed ourselves in our study session, and while I only asked for the outlines, the class rep was gracious enough to answer all my questions and sometimes elaborate on her own if she saw I didn’t know what was going on. She was nice like that.
To my own sincere surprise, we blazed through the math notes and then continued on with the history, language and finally the geology notes. To my shock, an hour had passed before I knew it and we decided to have a short break.
“Thank you very much,” I told her while stretching. “I already feel like I have a better grasp on these subjects.”
It wasn’t an exaggeration either; I really did feel like it. As it turned out, amnesia or no, most of the info was already in my head; I just didn’t have the framework to actually connect the dots before. I would still need to study a lot to catch up, but with her notes and instructions, I no longer felt like it was a daunting task to undertake.
“You are welcome,” She smiled tentatively at me in return.
I wanted to say some more, but then I noticed something behind her and I could feel my eyes open wide against my will in shock. It was a curious sensation.
“Is... there a problem?” The class rep sounded concerned, so I tried to relax and smile.
“Nah, I just remembered something. I’ll be right back.”
She only nodded as I stood up and walked past the table we have been sitting by. Once I was sure she wasn’t following me with her eyes anymore I rounded around one of the long bookcases and quietly walked up to the girl standing by the end of the row, at a place with a perfect view of the still sitting class rep. As I got closer she casually turned to me, her face as inexplicably unreadable as ever.
“Hello,” She greeted me soullessly, like she just met a distant acquaintance on the street. I held my forehead in my right hand and moved even closer so that she would hear my whispers.
“What are you doing here?”
She looked over me, then glanced back at the place where I was sitting before. She lingered there for a short while and then her eyes returned to me. Throughout all this she kept a perfectly still, emotionless face. At last, after yet another dramatic pause, she pointed at herself and said:
For the first time I could remember I noticed a small sign of emotion on her face, something akin to disappointment, and I expected her to sigh in irritation. She didn’t do so, instead she pointed at me.
“You wanted observations. I looked for something you couldn’t observe before: You. I did that.”
“That...” I was about to raise my voice but then I frowned thoughtfully and paused. “That is... actually pretty ingenious.”
“I was complimented,” She stated as monotonously as ever, and I inadvertently smirked at the incongruity of her display.
“Yeah, you were. It was a good idea, but I haven’t even explained what you should be looking out for.”
“Oh.” If an expressionless syllable could sound crestfallen, this was it. I wiped the smile off my face and relaxed my shoulders.
“Don’t worry about it; I will explain exactly what you should be observing… I like your out-of-the-box thinking though.”
She nodded, and for some reason I felt like her eyes told me she wanted to say something.
“Is there something else?”
“My first report,” She produced a single sheet of paper from her breast pocket and handed it over. It had several lines written by a neat hand on it.
“Oh...” I cautiously took the page from her and ran my eyes over its contents. Judy at the same time was looking at me with what I had to presume to be expectant eyes. It was hard to tell with her. I softly cleared my throat to ease the tension.
“This says that I am... A 'nice guy'? 'Quite handsome'?” She nodded and I felt like it was also to urge me to continue. “Okay, I can live with that. It also says that I have a strange sense of humor and that...” I stopped for a double take before looking up at her wryly. “I am a flirt?”
She nodded again.
“Most of your friends are pretty girls. You also have no problem teasing them or asking them to do weird extracurricular activities with you without hesitation.”
“Wait, you are including yourself?” She nodded again. “And what do you mean I asked you out without hesitation? That was completely different! That was on an impulse!”
“So you are talking, teasing and involving girls with yourself on impulse. Understood.”
“Are... are you teasing me right now?”
She shook her head, but I swear she must have been grinning underneath her expressionless exterior! She had to be! That said, she gently poked at the paper to urge me to read on.
Thankfully the rest of her descriptions of me were less outrageous, mostly pertaining to my connections with the guys in our group and Josh in particular, a physical description (I didn’t know I had wide, masculine shoulders and a distinct jaw line... good to know I suppose…) and minor notes about my habits (I didn’t think I was sighing a lot... or was I?).
Best of all, the entire page was ordered in an easy-to-understand bullet-point based layout and written in neat, pretty handwriting that was easy on the eyes. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. When I looked up and my eyes met with hers, I still couldn’t help but feel that she was expectant. I let out a soft cough and handed the paper back to her.
“Your dedication and methodology are... very impressive.”
“I got complimented again. Yay.”
I nearly fell over. Just how can someone say such high-spirited words without any emotion?! It sounded completely anachronistic! It either had to be on purpose, or she was my natural nemesis; the unreadable emotionless character. Either way, I sighed (no, this one was on purpose, it doesn’t mean I do it a lot!) and massaged my forehead, trying to put the thoughts of just what kind of trouble I took upon myself off my mind.
“Still, there is no need for more observations today,” I told her while I glanced over to the class rep. She was getting restless, so it was about time I returned.
“I already got paid for it. I want to earn it.”
“Still. I am going to study with the class rep for a while longer. You can go home for the day if you want to.”
“Home?” Suddenly her eyes lost focus and her expression became even slacker than usual. I almost panicked, as I recognized these symptoms as the onset of the thousand-yard-stare lockup other placeholders experienced when I asked them about something they were not equipped to answer. Then, just as I was about to lose hope, she snapped out of it just as fast. I sighed in relief.
“No, it’s early to go home. I’ll stick around.”
She didn’t seem to notice her own slip, so after some thought I decided to not mention it to her just yet.
“Fine, but no more observations for the day. Pace yourself.”
She nodded, and without further ado I got out of the row of bookshelves and headed for the class rep. I was practically standing right next to her by the time she noticed my approach and she frowned slightly.
“Welcome back,” She told me and then looked behind me. I froze and turned around with hunched shoulders to face Judy standing right in my shadow.
“A moment,” I raised a finger towards the class rep and gently pulled my assistant back a little. “What are you doing here?”
“I told you I'd stick around.”
“I thought you meant in the library!”
She looked at me, then at the class rep and finally at the stacks of notebooks. She pointed at them and said:
“Hello, errr... Judy?” The question came from the class rep, who appeared behind me in her usual manner. At this point I wasn’t even startled anymore. What did draw my interest, however, was how unsure she sounded about her; as if she had to struggle to even remember her name. Intriguing. Maybe there was more to my 'important characters' not noticing placeholder behavior than simple inattentional blindness after all.
While I was chasing these thoughts around in my head, Judy returned the class rep’s greeting in the form of a nod so deep it almost looked like a small bow.
“Class rep.” Her tone was as flat as ever, yet I could see the class rep’s fingers twitch as if she just mocked her.
“Why are you calling me that?”
Judy once again raised a hand and casually pointed at me.
“He called you that.”
“Oh no… It’s spreading...” The class rep hung her head, devastated.
“Now, now...” I spoke amicably to her. “No need to worry about it; let’s just get back to studying, shall we?”
To my surprise it was Judy who nodded in agreement first. She walked over to the table and sat down without even waiting for the class rep to collect herself. After a short moment of uncertainty I sat down beside her and the class rep soon followed, taking her previous seat in front of us.
In the meantime Judy grabbed hold of one of the notebooks (the biology one) and began browsing through the pages... or at the very least that’s how it looked, only spending a few seconds on each page... Yet, her movements were too precise, her eye-movements too mechanical for idle paging. At last I couldn’t bear it any longer and asked:
“What exactly are you doing?”
She looked up from the notebook with the first clearly recognizable expression I have seen on her, and infuriatingly enough it was a look filled with pity, as if I just asked something extremely dumb.
I glanced over to the class rep and she looked just as puzzled as I was.
“You can read that fast?”
“... Hand over that, please?” I gestured towards the notebook in her hands and she obediently turned it over. I opened it on one of the early pages she reportedly read and asked, “The main difference between a eukaryote and a prokaryote?”
“The presence of a nucleus.”
“The production of complex carbohydrates from water and carbon-dioxide via an organism’s chlorophyll by harnessing light.”
“What does the ribosome do?”
“It is the structure in the cell where protein-synthesis takes place by linking amino-acids through M-RNA instructions.”
I nodded and closed the notebook.
“Correct, word by word. Are you a robot or something?”
Judy looked puzzled for a moment, or at least as puzzled as her stoic bearing allowed, then she reached into her bag. I curiously followed her hand as she took out a sharpened pencil from her case, and to my abject horror she began to press it against her thumb. Without a blink of hesitation I lashed out and grabbed her hands before she could do any damage.
“Whoa! What the hell are you doing?!” I scolded her as I took away her pencil.
She looked at me expressionlessly, then at her thumb, and then finally she showed it to me. While she didn't break the skin, the spot where she tried to stab herself still had an indentation on it.
“I was doing a test.”
“Are you an idiot?” I scolded her even harder this time. “It was just a joke. To ease the tension. … Not to mention, if you really were a robot, we would have better ways to find that out!”
“Among other things. Or just check your pulse.”
“But that doesn’t tell us anything about my internal structure. I might still have a layer of tissue over a metal endoskeleton.”
“Yeah, but you couldn't disprove that by stabbing your finger either, now could you? Also, it would make you a cyborg instead of a robot.”
"What is the difference?"
"In this case? Mostly semantics?"
“I see." She answered, then she tilted her head at an angle and added, "To be sure, I could always remove an eye to see if there is a red light underneath…”
“No! Absolutely no eye-removal under my watch! Understood?"
She nodded with what I hoped to be enthusiasm and I could feel that the smile I gave her in return was more awkward than I would have liked. Just what kind of trouble did I unleash on myself by recruiting this weirdo? Incidentally, I could hear the class rep besides us mutter something under her breath about birds and feathers, but it didn’t seem to match the topic so I didn’t pay it much attention.
In the end I leaned back on my chair in relief and handed the pencil back to Judy,
“Here. No more hurting yourself.” She nodded in response and I scratched my chin in contemplation. “But still, I can’t believe you can read and memorize things so fast. It’s pretty amazing.” Not to mention it should prove incredibly useful for the tasks I had in mind for her, but I should only discuss those in private.
“Eidetic memory,” The class rep supplied the term. “I couldn’t even imagine there was someone like that in our school.”
Seeing how enthusiastic she was made me immediately suspicious.
“Does it have anything to do with ESP?”
The class rep frowned and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“I already told you I am not particularly interested in that subject.”
“Really? Too bad, I actually had a really interesting experience I might have shared with you….”
The class rep faltered.
“You... You did?”
“Yeah. Inexplicable, even.”
“What... exactly happened?”
I smiled wryly and picked up the notebook in front of Judy with a show of disinterest.
“Nah, I don’t want to bore you with it. You wouldn’t be particularly interested in it anyway.”
“Awwww... Come on!”
If my ears weren’t lying, she actually began to sound desperate as she tried to tease the information out of me, and it made me a bit uncomfortable. Before I could clear things up however, I noticed that Judy at my side was writing on a familiar piece of paper.
“What are you doing?” I tried to mask the alarm in my voice, but I wasn’t sure it worked. She looked at me and turned the paper around while pointing at a certain line.
“I am expanding the observations.”
“I told you, you don’t have to do it today...” I tried to object, but by then she moved onto the next line and spoke again.
“According to recent events, your flirting habits also extend to flattering and bribing girls.”
“Flattering? Bribing?” At this point I probably sounded like a frog trapped in a well. She pointed at herself first, then at the class rep and said:
“In that order.”
I hastily shook my hands in front of me when faced with the disapproving look on the class rep’s face.
“She is just messing with you. She does this all the time.”
“Really?” She sounded less than convinced. “I meant to ask this already, but since how long have you two known each other?”
“Errr...” I looked at Judy and I couldn’t read her at all, so I decided to wing it. “Not... too long?”
“Then how can you say she does it all the time?”
“Psychic link,” The girl on my left blurted out with her usual, emotionless tone.
“A-ha!” The class rep suddenly perked up. “I knew it!”
“You knew what?” I tried to hold her back while scowling at Judy at the same time. “What the hell do you mean by…?”
As I looked at her I saw something that I have never expected in her eyes: mischief. It was well hidden behind her emotionless façade, but it was there. The little... She did that on purpose! I once more cursed my stupid brain for ever coming up with the idea of associating with her and I cried bitter (if only imaginary) tears over the future hardships I would inevitably face when working with her...
“See you tomorrow!”
The class rep waved one last time before we separated at the front of the school gates. I only returned her gesture by wiggling my head, as my arms were still occupied.
The rest of the study session, once the whole ordeal spawned by Judy’s comment was sorted out (I somehow managed to convince the class rep that she was just joking), concluded in a resounding success. It took a while, the sun was pretty low on the sky already, but we managed to chew our way through all of the notes and I felt confident that once I reviewed them a few more times I should be able to catch up to the current curriculum to the point where I wouldn’t have problems during classes.
Not only that, at the end the class rep pulled some of her connections (she was apparently also on the library committee, go figure) to let me borrow a pair of plastic bags so that I could carry the notes home with relative ease. All things considered, things worked out fine.
Then I remembered the girl at my side and sighed. She looked at me in return, interrupting the mechanical waves she was giving to the class rep already past a corner.
“The number of sighs,” She told me authoritatively. “Forty-three.”
“No way. I do not sigh that much.”
“The data doesn’t lie.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed...
This time I only rolled my eyes and began walking down the street.
“See you tomorrow.” My voice was not irritated at all. Not one bit.
I walked down the low hill leading up to the school (speaking of which, why is that high schools are always on hilltops?) and I was just about to get immersed in my thoughts when I noticed a second lanky afternoon shadow stretching beside mine on the pavement.
I looked over my shoulder and, just as I expected, I found Judy walking a half-step behind me with her usual unperturbed expression.
“Aren’t you going home?”
There was a long pause, so long that for a while I was afraid she couldn’t hear me, but she finally answered.
“... So? Why are you following me?”
Another long pause.
“We live in the same general area?”
“How should I know? Wait, why was that a question in the first place?”
There was another round of silence, and this time it didn’t seem like she was about to answer at all. I was just about to shoo her away when I realized that I was just handed an opportunity.
I never really paid much attention to placeholders before, which wasn’t surprising considering their role, but now that I had one at my call, I might as well use the chance to do some preliminary data collection. Not to mention, going home alone would have been boring anyway. With that in mind I beckoned her closer, and after a few seconds she fell in line beside me.
“Say, Judy?” She twitched and looked over at me with questioning yet at the same time conflicted eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder what that was about. “What?”
“You just used my name for the first time,” She stated matter-of-factly.
“... I don’t know whether I should record that under friendly interactions or flirting.”
“Neither!” I protested loudly. “Stop recording for now! Also, this is a business-interaction at most.”
I wanted to yell 'Why are you looking at me with those disappointed eyes?!', but I swallowed my urge and forced myself to start the actual topic.
“So, Judy... I wanted to ask you something,” She looked attentive enough, so I took that as her being okay with it. “Do you have parents?”
The question might have sounded silly at first, but I had a solid rationale behind it. As far as my limited interactions with them had indicated, placeholders were fulfilling a very specific role; the same kind of role an NPC would hold in a video game or a background extra in a TV show. They were there to provide the appearance of people where you would expect them and thus enhance realism. After all, just how unnatural would our school look like if only our small group of seemingly important people attended it?
However, since they were just extras going through their routines for the sake of appearances, it raised a question whether they had lives on their own after their roles were fulfilled. Did they have homes they return to? Did they eat or sleep? Would they disappear once no one was looking to preserve system resources? So many questions, so few hours in a day...
Speaking of questions, Judy didn’t seem to be about to answer mine. Instead she slipped into the same kind of momentary daze as before. I waited for a bit longer, and to my relief she shuddered and life returned to her eyes.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
Stating my reasons outright at this point, without first sharing my hypotheses with her, would have sounded silly, so I fell back to my handy helpers: half-truths!
“Because I don’t have any, or at least I haven’t met them yet. I was curious.”
Then she fell silent, forcing me to prod her a little.
“... So?” She tilted her head uncomprehendingly, so I clarified. “I mean, what are they like?”
“Was that a question or an answer?”
Another long, nail-biting pause ensued and I was just about to shake her when she blinked at me.
“They are normal. My mother is... a housewife. My father is a salaryman.”
“That’s... indeed normal. Do you have any siblings?” She shook her head. “I see. Any other relatives?”
She shook her head once more.
“Are these questions for research?”
“Yup,” I said, but honestly speaking I was also just really curious. “Next question: what do you usually do when you get home?”
This time I wasn’t even bothered by the momentary lockup. I also noticed that they were getting shorter, a promising sign.
I gave her a critical look and snorted.
“Come on, stop dodging.”
“Do I have to answer?”
“Did you ask for permission when you were researching me?”
“... You play dirty.”
There was yet another silence, but this time she didn’t lock up. In fact, she looked like she was thinking really, really hard.
“That was a question again,” I warned her.
“I read,” She stated this time. I pushed back the urge to chew her out and just gestured for her to continue.
“What do you read?”
“... I am really tempted to hit you right now, you know?”
She gave me a strange look.
“Does that mean that you are violent? I should add that to my observations.”
“No, it doesn’t! Also, I said I was ‘tempted’ to do that! How is that violent?”
“You are right. It was just a threat, so psychologically abusive.”
I raised my hands high in surrender, which was harder than it sounded due to the two bags in them.
“Fine, fine! I wasn’t serious! Now would you finally tell me what kind of books you read? Pretty please?”
She hesitated for a moment.
“I read... historical books.”
“You mean historical fiction? About famous people?” She nodded. “Anything else?”
“I sometimes listen to music.”
“How about a PC? Do you use one?”
For a few seconds she just gazed at me intently. For some reason it felt like she was trying to figure out what answer I would prefer.
“No, I don’t.”
“Really? Too bad.”
“Then I do.”
I looked at her sideways and sighed. So she really was trying to give me an answer she thought I liked.
“Listen Judy, I would really appreciate if you were serious about this. Don’t change your answers just to fit my preferences.”
She looked as emotionless as ever, but when I looked her in the eye she did seem at least a little embarrassed. Or maybe I was just hoping she was? Either way, she nodded.
“So... Is there anything else you do? Hobbies?”
After a little thinking she shook her head.
“No. I go home from school, eat dinner, do my homework and then read a book or use the computer until bedtime.”
I could have pointed out that people usually say 'I do X on the computer' instead of 'I use the computer', but she looked so serious I had no heart to heckle her.
It seemed there was something we could finally agree on. Progress!
“How about friends? Do you hang out?”
She nodded and pointed at me. “I do that right now.”
“Errr... We are not really hanging out per se, we are just going home together,” Speaking of which, I was actually just a few corners away from my place. “Hey, do you really live around here?”
“... Yes.” There was a pause! There definitely was a pause! “I live...” She looked over the streets and pointed at a seemingly random direction. “... over there.”
“So you coincidentally live in my neighborhood.”
“It seems so.”
I didn’t have the energy to argue. If she says so then I let her have it. It was about this time we rounded the last corner leading to my street when I noticed a group of familiar figures. I reflexively extended an arm to the side to block Judy’s path and we both stepped back and out of sight.
“Is there a problem?” She asked with upturned eyes.
“Wait here a moment,” I told her in lieu of an answer, put down the bags and then silently crept forward. I peeked around the corner just to see if my eyes didn’t deceive me the first time around, but it seemed like they didn’t.
“Come on boss, he is not coming!” Cried a familiar nasal voice.
“Yea’ boss, it’s way late. Let’s go ‘ome.”
“Shut up!” The deep bass of the aforementioned boss exclaimed, his ridiculous hairdo swaying up and down like a half-finished suspension-bridge in an earthquake. “He goes home this way every day and we are going to get him today even if it’s the last thing we do… before curfew!”
I returned behind the corner with a groan and rubbed my face with one palm. Great, this was just what I needed.
“Friends of yours?” Judy appeared to be more inquisitive than worried by the three delinquents arguing a couple of meters from us.
“Hm.” She nodded sharply, and for some reason I really didn’t like the light in her eyes, so I quickly added: “We ran into them a few days ago with Josh. They are a goldfish-poop gang.”
“Say that again?!” The nasal voice called out from a lot closer than before.
“Yeah, what did you just call us?!”
I turned around with a weary sigh. Big pompadour and his little posse were standing by the corner and all three were glaring at us. I stepped forward, partially so that I was between them and Judy and partially so that I wouldn’t need to shout for them to hear me.
My casual greeting caught them off guard for a second, but then they only started glowering at me even harder.
“Did you think we forgot about what you did to us?” The big guy growled with a sound reminiscent of gravel being sandpapered with a jackhammer.
“Did ya think? Did ya?” The small one parroted while trying to look threatening.
“... Sorry, what exactly are we talking about? My past few days have been kinda busy, so could you be more specific?”
“Don’t mess with us!” The tall one shrieked at me and I involuntarily flinched.
“You have loud friends,” Judy complained behind me with two fingers lodged in her ears.
“They are not my friends,” I told her again over my shoulder, but she only looked uncomprehendingly at me.
“What did you say?”
“... Would you please unplug your ears?”
She was about to answer when the big guy let out a rumbling laugh.
“Look what we have here! He also brought his girlfriend along!”
“What did he say?” Judy inquired with an elbow poking me in the side.
“Unplug. Your. Ears.” I told her animatedly so that she could read my mouth. In the meantime the short delinquent began cackling.
“Kihihihi... Pretty little thin', right Treebe'rd?”
“She sure is Bagg...”
“Whoa!” I exclaimed with a raised hand, interrupting him mid-word. “What did he just call you?”
Suddenly a lot less confident, the pompadour-fashionista set his jaw.
“Now I am called Treebeard. Do you have a problem with that, punk?!”
“Of course I do!” I replied, taking him off guard again. “That totally doesn’t fit you! You don’t even have a beard, for crying out loud!”
“But... I am big.”
“So are trolls.”
“But there are no named trolls in the books...” The tall one muttered.
“There a'e in the Hobb...”
“No!” The leader of the trio bellowed with a red face. “I don’t care about no books about midgets...!”
“Little people,” The tall one interjected with a raised finger.
“What?” The big guy snapped at him.
“Little people. You shouldn’t call them midgets. It’s insensitive.”
“Like I care!”
“Awww...” The small guy put on a sad face and the boss immediately backpedaled.
“I don’t mean you, Baggins. You are okay,” He paused to pat the short delinquent on the back and then looked up with a confused expression. “Wait, where was I?”
“Something about not caring about little people?” I supplied the answer helpfully.
“No, before that!”
“Being a troll?”
“Right!” He nodded, sending his pompadour through a series of further sways. “I don’t want to be no stinking troll!”
“What about you?” I aimed the question at the tall one and he shrunk back immediately.
“Noldor. You know, because they were high elves and... well... you know... being tall and all…” His words trailed into a whispered mumble and I could only hold my head in my palm.
“I’m disappointed, guys. I’m very disappointed.” I looked each one of them in the eye before I continued. “You had this huge book series with a gigantic appendix, and you couldn’t come up with anything?”
“We tried...” The boss tried to object sheepishly, an act which looked absolutely ridiculous with his looks.
“And yet here we are again. Shameful. Absolutely shameful.”
The three of them hung their heads in unison, then out of nowhere the boss let out a blood-curdling scream.
“Uoooooooooh!!! I won’t take this abuse anymore!” He inflated himself like a toad trying to scare off a predator, stood tall… and then immediately turned tail and began running away, followed by his cronies shortly after. He only stopped at the end of the street to turn around and add, “Don’t think this is the last time you heard of us!”
And with that they disappeared behind the corner, leaving me and Judy all alone on the quiet street.
“What did your friend say?”
I looked to the side and found Judy standing there with her fingers still firmly lodged in her ears. I reached out with the accompaniment of an exasperated roll of the eyes and pulled her hands apart.
“They are not my friends.”
“Oh.” She looked down the street where the trio disappeared. “I wonder what they wanted.”
“You would know if you didn’t plug your ears.”
“They were loud.”
“True... and in retrospect, you didn’t lose much.”
For the next few minutes we both just stared in the direction which the three left. It was a strangely tranquil experience. But then again, the sun was getting low in the sky and I had a lot of things to do, so I decided that wasting time like that was not really an option.
“So,” I turned to the girl at my side. “Which is your house?”
She blinked at me and looked down the street again. At last, she raised a hand and pointed at a house way down the street.
“... Why do you keep asking these things?” I sighed and pointed in the other direction. “I live in the fourth house on the left down that street.”
“I guess it is goodbye then,” I told her as I turned around and headed for my bags on the ground. I wanted to do that thing where I walk away while waving back over my shoulder, but I was stopped dead in my tracks by Judy grabbing the back of my jacket and yanking me back.
She was looking just as expressionless as always, but the way she was still holding onto my bunched up clothes still conveyed a sense of desperation.
“Take me home.”
“Take me home,” She repeated. “It’s what boys are supposed to do.”
“... Were we on a date?”
“No, but there are suspicious people around... And by suspicious people, I mean your friends.”
“I told you they are...” I stopped myself, took a deep breath and exhaled hard. “You know what? Fine, I’ll take you home.” ‘It’s just down the street, for crying out loud...’ I grumbled as I unclenched her fist around my jacket and led her down said street.
“A friendly advice though:” I turned to her about halfway there. “In the future, don’t just ask a guy to take you home out of the blue.”
“Well... You see... Some guys might think that you mean they should take you to their home, if you know what I mean.” She apparently didn’t, so I spelled it out. “They might think you are soliciting them.”
“Ah.” She looked like she gasped with shock, but the act was ruined by her typical blank expression. “Are you one of these guys?”
I almost missed a step and fell flat on my face in surprise.
“No, of course not! What kind of question is that?!”
“It’s fine then,” We reached our destination just then. It was a fairly plain-looking house of the same design as mine, except for an added balcony on the first floor. Judy turned to me in front of the fence gate and looked me in the eye. “I am only going to ask you.”
It took me a moment to digest her words, but by the time I was ready to object she was already reaching for the doorknob of the entrance.
“Wait a minute! You mean you want to make this into a regular thing?”
She didn’t say anything. Instead she looked over her shoulder, gave me a wave and disappeared through the door with what I swore was a smile in her eyes. For a few seconds I just stood there, frozen to the spot, before I regained my senses with a sigh and began walking again, this time towards my own place.
“Damn…” I mumbled under my breath between two sighs. “Just why did I think asking her was a good idea in the first place?”