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  Five... Four... Three... Two... One. The bell finally rang to release everyone for the day. With one hundred and sixty school days left to go in her entire academic life, Julie couldn't resist counting the seconds until she could put the agony that was Deerbrook High School behind her.

  "The bell doesn't release you. I do!" The teacher, Miss Dixon, a modern day southern belle complete with tall, hair-sprayed blond hair, long fingernails and overly elaborate denim-centered clothing repeated this same line nearly every day at the end of class.

  Yeah, right. Like Julie needed some fresh-faced idiot making the most of her poli-sci major from Southeast Dipshit Tech to get all dictatorial on her. She should have the good taste to let some gray seep into her perfectly coiffed beehive before cracking the whip like that. As Miss Dixon kept talking about the judiciary branch of government and eating into time she didn't have any claim to, Julie grabbed her already-packed backpack and started to get up from her desk.

  Instead of standing, her eyes closed, she slumped down and smacked her forehead on the desktop with a thump.

  "WWWWWaaaaaaaallllkkkkkk mmmmmmuuuuuuucccchhhhhhh?" came an elongated voice she couldn't recognize. It sounded like a record player set to play too slow.

  Outside of her head, it was such a short bit of time, but inside, it dragged on. Her brain felt like someone had lit it on fire. She could not only hear the people around her, but it felt like she could see what they were seeing as well. Even with closed eyes, she still had a visual in her mind of her surroundings, but with way too much detail. She could see the colors of the desks, floor, ceiling, and people, but also their depth, their age, their durability, their history. Somehow she could feel that Ernesto Rodriguez had to pee. She knew that Catherine was hoping that Jason Hebert would notice that she'd worn a cropped shirt that showed her flat stomach. She felt all twelve of Miss Dixon's tooth fillings and also knew that she'd need root canal in a month or less.

  Julie had no idea how she knew these things and she didn't care to know them. She just wanted to go, but her face was still where it had landed on her desk, with a small pool of drool forming at her mouth.

  After what felt like an eternity of information overload, she could hear Miss Dixon calling, "Miss Monroe! At least you waited to fall asleep until -after- class this time!"

  A few lingering kids laughed at the lame teacher-joke. When she had started to get up, the room had been full. Now, only the suck-ups and kids in need of tutoring remained in the room. Julie gathered up her things and took stock as she picked up speed. Her head was spinning, a bruise was probably forming on her head, the teacher was yelling at her, and her classmates were laughing at her.

  "And Honey, you might want to..." Miss Dixon gestured at her mouth in a wiping motion.

  "What a freak," she heard behind her. Unoriginal.

  "So hot, yet so weird," she heard from someone else. That's half a compliment.

  She looked around, but couldn't tell who was talking. Instead of trying to find out, Julie got her feet moving. The intense sensory overload had dulled, but her head still throbbed. She reached up and felt to see if a knot was starting to poke out of her forehead and noticed a bulging vein on her temple. She pressed at it. Her pace quickened to get out the door and into her car. She could decide what to do and find something for her headache once she got there.

  Stupid nurse - won't let people keep their own meds in their bags...

  Voices bombarded her as she pushed through the egressing crowd of students. She sidestepped and danced through the crowd to try and make it through faster. Julie already hated most of these people and with them laughing and invading her like this, all she could do was focus on getting out.

  "I think I'm failing trig." Duh. You shouldn't be in that class.

  "My dad just got a new BMW, so I get to have his old one." Am I supposed to be happy or sad for you?

  "My mom says I'm the best." The best what? That's gross.

  Julie's hand reached out for the door to get out.

  "God damn, Julie looks hot today. If the football team hadn't worn her out, I'd want a piece."

  Julie spun around. "Who the fuck said that?"

  She looked at the the nearby people, as the door clanked closed behind her. The students directly behind her rammed into each other thanks to her sudden outburst. Julie's eyes flicked wildly to and from the faces of all the boys in the vicinity. "Who just said, 'I'd want a piece'?"

  "Why? You gonna give 'em one?" This was followed by laughing from a group of letter jacket-wearing wrestlers. Something in her mind told her none of these meatballs had said it. How she knew it didn't matter right then, only the certainty she was right.

  Julie turned from them to trio of boys. Pasty colored, acne riddled skin, and one held a clarinet. These were definite band geeks. Whatever it was inside her that told her it wasn't one of the jocks, also wanted her to know it was one of these three. "Was it you?" Julie was looking at Brian. His eyes went wide. Caught him. She rushed over to him.

  "Why would you say that, Brian? We've known each other since first grade!" She got right up into his face, focusing all of her intensity at him.

  "I... I didn't say anything," Brian said. He looked to his friends for back-up as his voice quavered from the fear of confrontation.

  "I heard it. Clearly. In your sad-assed, high-pitched, nasally voice. You said I looked good and that I was all worn out. Isn't that the charming way you said it? Did you say it? Or do you deny it?"

  "No! I mean, Yes! I didn't say that," Brian protested.

  "Dude. He didn't. We're all right here and none of us heard him say that. It was someone else," said Jeff, another band member. Normally quick with a joke, Jeff spoke calmly, like a hostage negotiator trying to de-escalate the situation.

  "I know you said it Brian. I know your voice," said Julie. "As your buddy Jeff told me one time, it's always been iffy that you got the full dose of puberty, right Jeff?" She pushed Brian on the chest and turned to walk away. "Don't talk about me."

  "Stupid bitch," she heard Brian's voice say.

  Now ten feet away, she spun around and glared at Brian. Again, his eyes went wide, betraying him. Julie's temper overcame her senses, flooding her vision in a haze of red.

  "I didn't say..." Brian's eyes started to blink. A little at first, then more rapidly and out of sequence with each other. A rivulet of blood started to come out of his nose. Brian reached a hand up to touch it, but his nose started gushing before he could put any pressure on it. He staggered and fell against Jeff.

  "What the hell?" Jeff tried to hold Brian upright, turning his focus from Julie. "Go get the nurse!" he yelled at the crowd.

  Julie looked on in confusion. Her head's throbbing had lightened up at just the moment Brian's seizure started, but was on the rise again. The pain reminded her why she had been rushing out of the school. "When he's done stroking out or whatever, tell him not to call me a bitch," said Julie before she spun on here heel and stormed out of the building.

  "He didn't say..." Jeff said before his friend started seizing. "Go get that fucking nurse!"

  "Someone said she's on the football field..." said a voice from the crowd, far behind her.

 

  Out in her car, Julie found peace. The red in her vision had receded and although she could still hear much more activity and people talking than usual, the car's boundaries gave her some distance, which helped at least muffle her sensory overload.

  Do I have migraines now?

  Despite feeling like her head would explode, she also knew she needed to get to the Android's Pet Dragon, the local comic shop. New issues of the Uncanny X-Men landed in stores that day and she meant to grab the alternate cover issue before they sold out. She would have to sort out this headache later if she was going to have any chance at getting that comic for the cover price.

  She started the car, turned off the radio and got going. The hum of the engine, normally something that went unnoticed, provided Julie with another layer of insulation against the sensory onslaught of the last ten minutes. Soon, she'd be at the comic store. Ten more minutes after that, she'd be in her room reading the latest X-Men. Capable of much more under normal circumstances, her mind could only focus on these meager goals, considering them major wins given recent events.

  What was this pain in her head? How come she felt, well, everything so intensely? Would it wear off? Could she just sleep it off? Is this permanent? Is this a tumor?

  "It's not a tumah," she said aloud in her best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression.

  Why did I say that out loud?

  All of these thoughts plus the distraction of all her senses made it difficult to drive well, but not impossible, so she continued to the shop. When she stopped the car, she distractedly jumped it up onto the sidewalk about a foot. She reversed the car back into the parking spot with a squeal of tires and stormed out of her vehicle as it rattled itself into silence.

  She punched the door and it swung open hard. Except for Julie and Tobias, the shop's lone worker, the store was devoid of people.

  "Julie! My favorite padawan!" said Tobias using his customary Phantom Menace-inspired greeting. Both Julie and Tobias had conversed and eventually argued all summer over the merits of Star Wars' return to the cinema. Tobias loved it, and Julie did not. He used "padawan" to remind her of just how right he knew was, which only served to reinforce how right she knew she was.

  In Julie's mind, comic book shop workers usually fit into two broad categories of human being. The classic, rotund-shaped figure normally with a good-natured personality that could possibly be considered attractive were it not for the extra 200 plus pounds on their frames or the skinny and patently unattractive in both personality and looks, often thanks to wretched acne or other deformities. Both types worked here. Tobias, the owner, was of the first type and someone that Julie considered a friend, despite his affinity for The Phantom Menace. "You ok? You look -"

  "Hot?" Julie said impatiently with a look.

  "Sick," said Tobias. "You want a Coke or something? On the house."

  Tobias never gave away food. He marked up food items by 300% in fact.

  I must look terrible.

  "I'll be right back. Can you get my books out of my box? I'll take that Coke, too," said Julie as she headed toward the back of the store and the ladies room. Tobias often joked that he should just call it Julie's room since there were no other female humans that ever visited the store.

  She went in and locked the door. She started the water running and looked in the mirror.

  I do look terrible.

  Indeed, a knot had formed on her forehead. Her long, blond hair hung in clumps thanks to the sweating she hadn't realized she'd been doing. The little make-up she wore these days had all but given up and her skin beneath looked pale. Even paler than usual, she thought.

  She reached into her backpack and pulled out a brush and scrunchy. In ten seconds she had her hair back in a ponytail. She had a spare t-shirt in her bag and she swapped out for the sweat-laden Pantera concert tee she'd been wearing to school. Finished, she turned the water off, unlocked the door and headed back into the store.

  "Thanks, Tob. Sorry about earlier. Kind of a weird... last few minutes. How much do I owe you?" Julie asked, still feeling overwhelmed, but acting put-together.

  "S'cool, man. $10.71. You had a couple books in there from last week. Everything okay? You look a little like you got in a fight," said Tobias.

  "You should see the other guy," she said automatically as a defense against going into further detail. She thought of Brian's slumping body with blood draining out of his nose and wondered if he was okay. She handed Tobias the money, took her bag and wondered if she, herself were okay.

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About the author

Paul Daley

Bio: I like to write. I'm trying to get better. Promise.

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