Rule #4: I wouldn’t bother the world as long as it didn't bother me.
Yes, magnanimous me would willingly resign myself to a life of absolute normalcy as my act of great service to this world so long as the world didn’t bother me. Not a small feat, mind you, given I had no actual experience in normal-person-thinking. Neither could I relate to such.
I was, however, quite adept at approximating normal-person-actions, if I may say so myself.
As the saying goes, it’s the actions that count.
That was the correct saying, right?
You might be wondering why my main rule is not Rule #1. It's simply because they were numbered in the order they were established. Rule #1 mandated I should always stir any liquid back and forth instead of the usual circular manner. When I was a kid, I saw my father stir his coffee this way, one of my earliest memories. And that was when I decided it was going to be my first Rule.
Did it really make sense? Not really. But NO ONE could question the Rules.
Not even me.
Dad was a huge influence in my first few Rules including Rule #4. He used to say to me, “Erind, be a good person if only not to add to the number of assholes in the world; there are more than enough of them already”. Something like that. It was hard to remember his exact words because it had been so long.
Not sure what other parents teach their kids, but even I know it was an odd life lesson to lecture a child. Dad probably suspected back then his beloved daughter wasn’t exactly normal. Sadly, or the approximation of the feeling of sadness I could muster, I couldn’t confirm whether my guess was correct because he had been dead for nearly ten years.
Dead in an official way.
Many people believe, including me, that he was actually recruited by the CoreBring Hive. So, yeah, he’s practically a hero to those who knew about the circumstances of his “death”.
But then again, he might be truly dead, killed by an Adumbrae perhaps.
While Dad chose to be a good person by virtue of his moral compass pointing the socially agreed upon right direction, I, on the other hand, having no such compass, chose to approximate a good person out of consideration for everyone.
In a way, I chose to follow Dad’s advice. Call it good manners. Just like not chewing loudly in a restaurant because that was super annoying and disgusting for the people at the next table over. In turn, I'd also appreciate it if other people had the decency to leave me alone.
Hence, I wouldn’t bother the world if it wouldn’t bother me.
Little did I know that I was going to get bothered today.
Back and forth, back and forth, I stirred my cup of chamomile tea, staring at the strings of golden honey dissolving in it, inhaling its delicate relaxing fumes.
Don’t hit the sides or else something bad will happen, I continuously chanted inside my head. Not like there was any culture that believed hitting the sides of a cup while stirring brought bad luck. Still, remember Rule #1.
My vibrating phone on the grey linoleum table snapped me out of my reverie, its gentle buzz echoing in the empty cafeteria. “January 20, 2020, 6:57 a.m., Sunrise, La Esperanza City, California”, it displayed.
Thusly, the sun rose once again, welcoming the start of a brand-new day the world should count itself lucky I had Rules to restrain myself.
I took my cup and walked to the tall window walls overlooking the West Coast. The sun’s rays crept over the horizon, running over the expansive waters. An ominous jagged tower protruding from the blue blanket that was the Pacific Ocean, the Black Spire, blocked the sunlight's journey. The shadow cast by the Spire continued traveling across the ocean in the light's stead.
Enjoying the serenity I monopolized, I took small sips of tea while watching the shadow crawl towards the shore. A faint reflection of my petite face stared back at me off the otherwise transparent window.
Back then, at the start of my first semester at law school, the cafeteria was the prowling grounds of wide-eyed freshmen. Just bring your coffee in the morning and voila, one could set up a pretentious study nook with bookstands to cradle thick law books, a full platoon of highlighters representing all the colors of the rainbow, a laptop perhaps to the side, and stacks of printed notes.
I didn’t like studying if there were lots of people around so I wasn’t hanging out here at that time. After a while, my fellow 1L noticed the upperclassmen didn’t study at the cafeteria. We soon learned that one of the campus legends was that whoever studied in view of the Black Spire wouldn’t be able to graduate. Consequently, everyone came to the cafeteria only for lunch or coffee, studying elsewhere.
And now, two weeks into the second semester, I made this my own private study room in the morning before food was served.
Law students were weirdly some of the most superstitious people on the face of this earth. But I could see how this nonsense could have started.
I took out my phone, aimed the camera at the Spire, and tried to get a closer look with zoom. Nothing of note; it was the usual remaining spinal spike of a gargantuan interdimensional monster that renovated the West Coast. Could it radiate some bad juju? Probably. But the government wouldn’t have allowed people so close to it if it wasn’t safe, right? They could've removed the whole skeleton instead of leaving part as a monument to the tragedy. Or maybe the ghosts of the tens of thousands who died during the Adumbrae's attack might be haunting this place?
Anyway, that wasn’t one of my Rules, so here I was while everyone else packed into the library.
I finished my tea and went back to my table to study. I had about an hour before International Law.
I had studied five cases from the section of the syllabus assigned for today's class when my phone buzzed again. A text from Amber Deen, our class monitor-slash-beadle by default. She asked me where I was and that we should go to class together.
Part of Rule #4 was that I will be friends with everyone. Or rather, an approximation of friendship. I got the concept of being friends with someone; I just didn’t know what my feelings were supposed to be towards said someone.
That wasn't really important. What was important was that I acted friendly. Thus, everyone, as in everyone, considered me a friend, which meant I wasn’t a bother to anyone.
Yet, I always stopped short of actually entering into a close-knit circle of friends.
First, no one would feel chummy-chummy enough to bother me. Second, the way to be friends with everyone was not to be close friends with a select few. And last, it required a lot of effort to be a 'close' friend, as I understood it.
But for some weird reason...Amber Deen adopted me to be her close friend.
Which was kind of annoying.
I sighed but still texted back, “Sure, I’m at the cafeteria.” I checked my appearance on my phone’s camera. Timid-nerdy-girl face on. Just a light touch of makeup to achieve the supposedly no makeup look—pale girls like me were like vampire victims if we didn’t have any makeup on. I ruffled my black wavy hair just a bit so it wouldn’t look like I was particularly interested in my appearance. And to finish it off, I put on my glasses.
These were not prescription glasses; my eyesight was very much fine. I wore them because they were an integral part of my face for law school.
Face, not mask.
All of my faces were real for every person I tailored them for. Calling it a mask implied I was hiding something beneath, that it was something that would be taken off, that the person viewing it would know in the future what I was hiding. But the person whom I made the face for would never know what was on the other side.
As far as they were concerned, what I presented to them was my real face.
My current face was to make me look as unthreatening as possible to the huge egos of law students, female law students especially. An important factor to being friends with everyone.
“Erind?” Amber Deen’s head poked through the doors of the cafeteria. “Yoo-hoo, Erind.” When she saw me waving at her, she swung open the door and strode in.
Amber Deen was the poster girl for the A-type personality, and there were many of those in law school. Immaculate blonde hair and corporate makeup—how she found the time this early in the morning, I had no idea—and dressed too formally for a law school class. Navy blue skirt suit over a pristine white camisole and black heels with sharpened tips that wouldn't look out of place as an exhibit for a murder case—the kind of outfit you wore for an interview for law school, in contrast to my usual attire of shirt and jeans.
Overly casual clothes while going to the prestigious Cresthorne College of Law signals non-conformity and a bit of rebelliousness, a dab of personality injecting independence to my otherwise diminutive nerdy persona. I did bring along a blazer for classes with strict professors who wanted everyone to dress as if we were going to court; they couldn’t see I was wearing jeans under the table anyway.
“Hi, Deen,” I said.
People usually called her ‘Amber’. I think most weren't aware of her second name, ‘Deen’. It could be a play on ‘Aberdeen’ as she had mentioned she was part Scottish. I called her by her second name to set myself apart from others and make an impression on her, making it easier to be her friend. Unfortunately, she took that as me becoming close friends with her.
"Studying here again?” Deen said. “How I wish I wasn’t bound by societal pressures of irrational traditions."
“Silence is very conducive to learning,” I said. “And I know you don’t believe that nonsense.” I jerked my thumb towards the Spire.
“I don’t believe it. Not entirely anyway. But—”
“But it couldn’t hurt following it,” I finished. That was what people here always said.
Deen grinned. We’ve had this discussion several times already. “Let’s go, class is starting in twenty minutes. I have to confirm with Adrian my understanding of the third case assigned.”
“Patterson v. Washington State? You need twenty minutes to discuss that?” I grinned. “Or you just want to talk to Adrian?”
“Nu-uh. It is seriously a complicated case. Especially how it shaped the modern transformation of the ‘humanity above all’ principle.”
“It’s a simple case. The main point is...there’s no point trying to sue—”
“—the superheroes saving humanity?”
“—the people who can grind cities to dust.”
Deen laughed at what she thought was a joke. Most people assumed I had dark humor when I was only saying what I had in mind. “You can’t answer the bar exams with that,” she said. “Come on, let’s go already.”
I didn't want to riffle through my closet of faces earlier than I had to, but appearances had to be kept. Mingling with the student body was a mandatory part of upholding normalcy. It was also needed to keep my faces updated. As a consolation, I did enjoy observing people interact with each other, especially law students. Resigned to my fate for the day, I packed my things.
“Who’s that?” Deen said, looking at someone behind me. “Kelsey?”
I turned around and saw a girl with wiry disheveled hair standing at the far end of the cafeteria. She gazed towards the ocean with empty sunken eyes. I may have seen her before, but the name “Kelsey” didn't ring a bell. It meant I hadn’t interacted with her yet and made a face for her. “Someone else was here?” I said, surprised.
“That’s Kelsey, right? From Section 2?”
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Kelsey, hello," Deen called out. "Is everything alright?” This Kelsey girl didn't appear to have heard her. “I didn’t know someone other than you stays here this early in the morning,” Deen said to me.
“Neither did I,” I replied. I didn't notice Kelsey, if that was really her name, enter the cafeteria. I had a full view of the cafeteria door. And if she entered while my head was down reading my notes or while I was facing the window, I would’ve heard the door open or her footsteps. I was about to suggest we should go and leave her alone, but that didn’t sound like something a good person should say. Instead, I said, “She looks sick, do you think she needs help?”
Deen nodded and walked forward to Kelsey as was my expected reaction after passing to her the chance of taking charge. I wasn’t going to go near this weird person. “Are you okay?” she said to Kelsey. Again, no response, so Deen continued approaching and reached out to her.
Kelsey suddenly jerked back and began to convulse. I sure do hope those weren't her bones cracking because they sounded like almonds opened by a nutcracker amplified with a megaphone. She scratched her face with such ferocity that she drew red lines of blood. Deen fell back in surprise and landed on her butt. Kelsey clawed at her face more vigorously shouting, “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
“Deen, get back here,” I said, hesitantly running towards them.
Before I got close, Kelsey shrieked at an inhumanly high grating pitch, ten times more painful than the worst microphone feedback I had experienced.
“Fucking bitch,” I inadvertently spat out, covering my ears. Then I turned to Deen to see if she noticed me cursing out of character. But she was transfixed on Kelsey’s bloodied face.
Kelsey screamed, “I’ll die a human!”, and rushed to the windows.
“Wait, wha—?” I said. A human? My mind focused on that one line.
“No!” said Deen, picking herself up to try to go after Kelsey.
But it was too late. She smashed through the glass, the sunlight bouncing off the broken shards framing her in golden shimmers, her screams growing fainter as she fell to the waters below.
It was Deen’s turn to scream. She turned to me, her face in distraught. “Oh my god!”
There were rocks below, right? Even if Kelsey missed them, we were on the fourth floor plus the height of the cliff. High chance she would be too hurt to swim and would drown. Suicide right after my morning tea wasn’t…my cup of tea. Thank you for coming to my show, applause, please.
Then I noticed Deen’s horrified look. Wait, what’s the appropriate reaction here? “Oh my god!” I echoed Deen. “Help! We should get help!” It felt lame and forced because I didn't have much practice pretending to be shocked. “There are rocks below”, I added, putting my hand on my mouth, approximating a panicked face. I hoped it'd distract her from my delayed reaction.
“You’re right.” She rushed to the smashed window and peered over the edge. “I can’t see her body. Come help me look.”
Help you look for a dead body? Eww, gross. No way. “I’ll call for help,” I said as I dialed for campus security. They came about five minutes later while Deen continued to look for Kelsey.
My morning was not going well. I had to pretend to be distressed and care about what happened to this Kelsey person for five minutes! This was bothering me.
And while I was pretending to care about someone who possibly killed herself, as a normal empathetic human should, my thoughts went back to what Kelsey said. What was that about dying as a human?
Was she an...Adumbrae?
I had no personal encounters with an Adumbrae or even someone who was in the initial seeding stages. If I did, I would already have a record.
I sincerely didn't plan to be anywhere near one of them anytime soon. I liked my peaceful life, thank you very much.
Watch it, world. Tone down with the shenanigans, I warned inside my head.