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I hate Megan Morris.
I shouldn’t say hate. I really should figure out what the heck her home life is like before I judge her. I mean, I could understand why she’s done most everything she’s done if her mom flogged her every night.
No, I definitely hate her.
This argument has been going on in my head for the past four years. Deep down, I was never sure whether I hated her or simply misunderstood her, whether to give her the benefit of the doubt or detest her with every atom of my normally compassionate being, whether she was truly despicable or I merely judgmental. Or both. Looking back, it was probably both for the most part. Except for today.
Because today, there can be no doubt: I hate Megan Morris.
She came into my class in fifth grade, clad in Aeropostale, teetering on stiletto heels, carrying embossed leather notebooks studded with rhinestones and batting a pair of fake-looking eyelashes. The teacher seated her next to me. I instinctively extended my hand for a shake as he introduced us.
“Pleasure to meet you,” I said enthusiastically as I pumped her manicured hand up and down.
“Umm, hi,” she said uncomfortably.
You blew it again, Erin, I told myself. Nobody shakes hands these days. Except for nerdy losers with no friends.
The teacher passed out a worksheet of some sort and left the room.
“Where’d you get that dress?” Megan whispered as soon as he was gone.
Phew. Maybe there was still a chance for me to impress her.
“I made it myself,” I blushed. The pink, polka-dotted jumper I wore was the first thing I had ever sewn. I had picked out the fabric myself, stitched it together with minimal help from my grandmother, and attached an iron-on E to each pocket. I was proud of it to no end.
“Oh,” said Megan a smidge too loudly. “That would explain a lot.”
The rest of the class giggled raucously as my fetal friendship shattered into oblivion.
I cast a dismayed glance at Megan, but her head was turned around as she talked to another girl, grinning from ear to ear.
Note to self, I thought: Avoid Megan Morris.
Megan became everybody’s friend, and it took all of six months for every girl in the class to look like a little Megan clone. Every girl, that is, but me. I stuck out like a sore thumb with my homemade clothes and humble school supplies. Naturally, I could’ve bought cooler duds or classier supplies had I wanted to, but I never really felt the urge. There was a stiff sense of righteousness in refusing to live up (or down) to Megan’s standards.
I fought a battle twenty-four hours a day against the pressure to fit in. Of course, there was school. But every night, over dinner in the upper-middle-class suburb where I lived, I would defend my wonky standards to the parents who so desperately wanted me to fit in. Here’s a sample argument:
Mom: Erin, your father and I want to get you a cell phone so you can keep in touch with us. Would you rather have an iPhone or a Blackberry?
Me: I don’t want a cell phone. They can give you cancer.
Dad: Well, what if there’s an emergency at school and you need to get in touch with us?
Me: They have landlines at school for stuff like that. Those are more reliable, anyhow.
Mom: Well, if we get you a cell phone you can call us for free on my plan. Besides, you can’t text on a landline.
Me: Why would I need to text?
Dad: It’s how people communicate these days. I bet all the other girls are doing it.
Me: I’m not all the other girls!
Following an argument like this, I would stomp off to my room and cry. My parents would admit defeat and let me use the landline. My peers would give me a bad time about it. I would complain to my parents, who would say something like “Well, honey, if you’d just let us get you a cell phone…” And the cycle would begin again.
Sometime in the middle of May, I figured out how to put an end to the bullying: spend more time in the safe haven of the classroom under the omnipotent supervision of my teacher. I came in as soon as the school opened its doors and didn’t leave until the premises was nearly vacant. Eventually, I got comfortable enough around the teacher that I could tell him about the torment.
Not thirty seconds after I had finished venting, Central Office knew every degrading word that had ever been hurled in my face. By the end of the day, five girls were in detention and I could obtain an education in peace. This came at a price, however: Because pretty much everyone in the fifth grade was a close friend with at least one of my ‘victims’, I had ruined any chance of a normal social life for myself.
I didn’t have any friends until sixth grade. That was when a boy named Jared joined our class. He personified the word ‘punk’: skateboard, slit jeans, baggy sweatshirt and dyed streak in his blond hair. He had more piercings than I’d ever seen on a human being. Something about that dangerous, punky element attracted Megan to him, and they were inseparable from the beginning.
One day in math, Jared transferred over to share a table with me. That struck me as a surprise, and I couldn’t think of any possible motivation for the move until I noticed that my homework was missing.
I confronted him during lunch break as he sat in a corner of the locker area texting.
“Jared?” I spoke loudly enough to rouse him from his electronic stupor.
“Yeah?” He didn’t so much as look up.
“What did you do with my math paper?”
There was a pause as he finished up his message.
“Umm, nothing. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s missing. I was wondering if you’d seen it.”
“Well, no, I haven’t.’ His fingers were hammering away again. “But if I had, how much would you be willing to pay for that information? Say, ten bucks?”
I didn’t have ten bucks handy, so I changed tactics.
“Oh, drat. I think I missed at least half of them. If somebody stole that paper, they’re in for a big surprise.”
This was a bold-faced lie, but it worked. Jared looked up in genuine shock, his eyes the size of golf balls.
“You missed some? Megan said you always get a hundred percent.”
Looking disheartened, he fished my paper out of his pocket.
“Well, if I’m gonna fail, I might as well fail with my own work,” he muttered.
Wow. He might not have been a saint, but Jared seemed to have something resembling a conscience. That made two in our class.
“Do you need some help? I’m done with my lunch. We still have twenty spare minutes until the next period.”
So I helped him with as many problems as I could, correcting him gently. The bell rang about halfway through the assignment.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I got the rest on my own. Thanks!”
“Oh, anytime,” I replied bashfully.
And so began our relationship. Every day during lunch break, I’d help him with his homework. If there was time left over, we’d sit together and check our answers with the calculator on Jared’s phone.
The day that report cards came out, Jared was sitting around with his friends comparing grades. Words like ‘unfair’ and ‘stacked’ and ‘playing favorites’ bounced off the walls in increasingly obnoxious tones.
“How about you, Jared?” asked Megan.
“I haven’t opened it yet,” he said. He tore it out of its envelope, clumsily flipped it open, and stared in surprise.
“Did they fail you?” asked Megan. “It’s fine if they did. We all know they grade too hard on purpose.” She gave him a raunchy nudge on the shoulder.
“No,” said Jared, his eyes still bugged out. “No. I’m passing.”
He saw me and waved me over.
“Yo, Erin! Come over here and socialize!” He turned to Megan. “She’s been helping me with my math. See? Big fat B plus right there at the top. Passing at last!”
I scooted in shyly next to Jared.
“What did you get, Erin?” asked Megan cordially.
“Uh, let’s just say that if my grades were in a word bubble they’d be attached to a man falling down a bottomless pit.”
Megan stared at me blankly.
After about ten seconds, Jared burst out laughing.
“Oh! I get it! He’s saying AAAAAAAA…”
“That’s funny,” said Megan with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Fast forward two years to eighth grade. Jared and I were still friends, nothing more. He was still Megan’s crush, a stereotypical punk who just happened to have a good grade in math. I was a nerd who just happened to exist, but I don’t think it would’ve mattered either way the way most people treated me. The only time anyone besides Jared seemed to talk to me at all was to mutter ‘sorry’ when they bumped into me.
We started sitting at tables of two instead of more democratic groups of four or more. The school district also started doing something completely new in all classes except P.E: cooperative assignments. Essentially, all our homework and every project was done collaboratively with the person you shared your table with.
The teachers let us sit where we wanted for the first week or so, which pretty much left me with whatever kid didn’t have a good friend. After that, they carefully grouped us in pairs that seemed to be designed to force collaboration between people who normally wouldn’t talk to each other. Artists wound up with kids with skill in math. Bullies wound up with what the teachers perceived to be gentle souls. Jared wound up with a jockish boy who maintained a fairly high grade point average. And, to my great dismay, I wound up with Megan Morris, who pretty much gabbed the whole period while I did all our work.
Soon, Megan’s grades were very close to mine. My only slight advantage over her was that we got to do our tests separately. She negated this advantage by asking for help on every other question.
I had six A’s. She had five A’s and one A-minus (in English, where we had a test every other week and the teacher was sparing with her help). My sole claim to dignity-the bottomless pit report card-was in jeopardy.
One Friday in math I finally got fed up. I did my paper in hard, furious strokes and finished about halfway through the period. Then I marched up to the teacher and handed my paper in.
“Erin, why isn’t Megan’s name on the paper?” She pointed a smooth, slender finger at the blank line at the top.
“Um, I’m not sure how to put this politely, but she didn’t really do any work on this paper. She, uh, talked the whole time.”
“Really?” asked the teacher, a younger woman by the name of Ms. Avery.
“Look,” I told her. At the moment, Megan was chatting animatedly with a friend, her math book still closed.
Ms. Avery seemed to take this in for a moment, then she turned back to me.
“Does she do this in all your classes?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“Thank you for telling me, Erin. I’ll talk to her after class today. I can’t say this for sure, but I don’t think we’re going to be doing the collaborative-table thing for much longer.”
“Yeah. We’ve had some other complaints in the lower grades.”
I returned to my seat smirking and immersed myself in a book for the rest of the period.
About ten minutes before the bell, Ms. Avery told us to set down our work and pay attention. We obeyed.
“The school is establishing a self-improvement club for girls,” she told us. “Anyone dissatisfied with their academic or athletic performance or their life in general is welcome to come. It’s a bit like a support group, a study hall and Weight Watchers rolled into one.”
I giggled a little at her description.
“There will be an open eighth-grade meeting the Thursday after next. Seventh and sixth grade meet the Wednesday and Tuesday before that, with an officer’s meeting every Friday. All girls are welcome to attend. But each class needs to elect an officer today. Any nominations?”
One girl immediately stood up.
“Megan Morris,” she said.
This nomination was greeted with whoops and hollers and a high-five from Megan.
“Any more nominations?”
“Five…four…three…going once…going twice…”
Jared stood up.
Jared paused, as if considering whether to speak. Then he spoke.
“Erin Donovan,” he said quietly.
I blushed. Ms. Avery winked at me. Megan shot Jared a we’ll-talk-later look.
“Okay. We have two nominees. Now, everyone close your eyes.”
“All for Megan, raise your hand.”
I heard the rustle of hands off the tabletops.
“Megan, you can’t vote.”
“Oh,” said Megan’s voice, and a cacophy of giggles followed.
“Okay.” I could hear Ms. Avery counting the hands under her breath. “All for Erin?”
“All right, class. You may open your eyes.”
“Congratulations, Megan,” said Ms. Avery as my heart sank like a stone. “You’re the new president of the Self-Improvement Club. There’s an officer’s meeting this afternoon…”
The only thing that prevented my tears was the thought of that lecture from Ms. Avery at the end of the period spoiling Megan’s joyride.
All weekend long I worried about the Self-Improvement Club thing. If it really could make Megan more competent, I was in real danger of losing my academic standing. Time and again, I tried to assure myself that it wouldn’t make any big difference. The cooperative tables weren’t going to be around for long, and Megan would still be Megan, SIC or no SIC.
SIC. I liked that acronym. It conjured up so many less-than-pleasant images: the plague, megalomania, misspelled words in professional manuscripts. Any convening committee brainstorming ideas for that group could be described as having ‘SIC’ minds.
SIC minds. How perfect.
In math the following Monday, a whole new Megan sat next to me. (Theoretically, we were free to choose new seats, but force of habit is a powerful thing.)
She did her own work. Killer fast. She finished the whole worksheet in half an hour and gabbed obnoxiously for the rest of the period.
Of course, since we were doing separate work now, I couldn’t give her a taste of her own medicine and piggyback on her paper.
The next class was English. During SSR, Megan picked up War and Peace. She got halfway through that thing before our 15-minute SSR time was up.
“Whoa, Meg!” said one student. “You’re on fire today!”
“I always knew you were smart, bit this is something else!” exclaimed another girl. “I think you read even more than Erin.”
“Yeah. She’s such a code kitten,” smirked Megan. The rest of the girls giggled despite the fact that they probably had no idea what the heck Megan had meant.
The term ‘Code Kitten’ started out as a ‘90s nickname for someone who pretended to be a hacker with the aid of certain codes. Eventually, it warped into anybody who pretended to be anything. In this case, somebody who pretended to be smart.
I buried myself further in my book, trying to drown out the pain of the first direct insult I’d had in three years.
P.E. was the last period of the day. We walked down to our sandy running track and ran the mile. Megan, as usual, was lightyears faster than me.
But she also broke the record for girls’ mile. Not just for the eighth grade, but for the entire school.
“Three minutes fifty-three seconds?” asked the unbelieving gym teacher. “You’re outta control, missy!”
“What’d you get, Erin?” another girl asked casually.
“11:35,” I said without thinking, immediately regretting my mistake as everyone within earshot burst out snickering.
“She’s not a code kitten,” said one of the girls, “she’s a code sloth.”
That wasn’t funny, but it induced another round of guffaws.
“You should join the track team, Megan,” said one girl. “You’d kick some serious butt.”
“True. I’ll think about that,” said Megan a bit absentmindedly.
I began to notice that her voice had changed over the weekend. I had never heard her raise it all day, and when she did speak her words dripped calm. Like a purr, but more sinister. If an evil cat could talk, this is what it would sound like.
“Is this all because of this self improvement club thing?’ somebody asked Megan.
“Yes. In fact, I’d like to thank you all for voting me president. Joining that club was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Do you think we’d get the same results as you?”
“As good if not better. It’s really an amazing experience. Hey, if you’re interested, there’s an open meeting next Thursday.”
“I’m going,” said the girl who had started this conversation, and several other girls chimed in agreement.
Just how she could turn from a cliquey slacker to a model student after an hour-long meeting eluded my knowledge. I finally decided I wasn’t going to stand around and let her walk all over my sole claim to dignity.
I walked up to her. My sore, sweaty legs were stiff and unwilling
I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a plan. But my legs tossed me forward, my mouth formed words, and I didn’t really realize what I was doing until I heard the sound of my own voice.
“So how exactly does this self-improvement club thing work, anyway?”
Megan tilted her head up to meet my gaze.
I met hers. It was like a dagger through my core. Where once her eyes had been flitty and superficial, they were now focused, icy searchlights that further added to the cool, catty persona. Her gaze trapped me. I felt like a deer staring into a pair of headlights.
“That’s member information only,” she said coldly.
“O-oh,” I stammered. “Ok-k-kay.” I got her point. In fact, I was pretty sure that those four words would be etched in my brain for the rest of my life.
“Why would you want to know anyway?” somebody asked. “Are your widdle bitty codie-wodies not working for you anymore, sweetie pie?”
“Yeah,” someone else chimed in. “How’s it like to meet someone who’s better than you for once?”
“Stupid stuck-up code kitten,” yet another muttered.
Then the whole company started jeering at me.
“Cheater cheater pumpkin eater!”
I wheeled around. This last voice, unlike the others, had belonged to a boy.
The chorus came to a halt and Megan glared at him.
“What did you say?” she demanded, her voice sounding more amused than indignant.
“I said stop. Erin is a lot of things, but she’s no code kitten.”
“Are you…defending her?” She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.
Megan glared at him with what must have been ten times the ferocity she had used on me. I could see his eyes bug out in terror.
“I had suspected for some time that you were cheating on me,” she purred. “But with her? Honestly, Jared, I would have expected a bit better taste in crushes.”
“We’re not dating,” I insisted.
“We’re just friends,” Jared continued. “And this is what friends do. They stick up for each other.”
“Excuse me, girls,” Megan addressed her following.
She advanced toward Jared. He firmly grabbed my shoulders and set me aside, out of Megan’s line of fire.
“This conversation was none of your business.” Same calm, icy tone. She was starting to creep me out.
“Erin is my friend. That makes it my business.”
She punched him in the face. He fell backwards, hitting the ground with a dull thud.
Then she made eye contact with me. My heart skipped a beat.
“I’ve got plans for you,” she whispered, a small, cruel smile playing on her lips. “Big plans. You go along or there’s more of the same for your boy toy.”
Then she walked away, back to her cheering clique. It sickened me how little regard those people had for their fellow human beings. Oh, wait, I forgot. We weren’t human beings because I didn’t wear Abercrombie and Jared had a conscience.
I stooped down next to Jared. His eyes were open, but he hadn’t bothered to get up yet.
“Are you all right,” I asked him.
“No. But I’ll live.”
I helped him to his feet.
“So, I guess it’s over between Meg and me,” he observed after a long, awkward silence.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“Oh, gosh, that’s too bad,” he said with a trace of sarcasm. “Because I already bought tickets to West Side Story and it’s too late to exchange.”
“Yeah. What a tragedy.”
“The tickets or the play?”
“Well, both, I guess.”
There was an awkward silence.
“On a semi-related note, are you free Friday night?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Main Street Theater. Seven o’clock. Be there.”
“Uh, sure,” I said, blushing in spite of myself.
The play was nice. Jared downed a colossal Pepsi while I nibbled on a sour straw. We laughed out loud with the rest of the audience at the appropriate moments. My eyes teared up at the final scene, the death of the protagonist, and Jared was at least moved enough to stop slurping his soda.
On the way home, we talked about the music.
“For such a touching play,” he commented, “the love songs were really corny. That one at the wedding scene didn’t even rhyme.”
“Yeah. You’d think someone good enough to think up ‘America’ would be capable of other decent material.”
We shared a retrospective giggle at the mention of the song, which contrasted American ideals with the actual treatment of immigrants.
“I like to be, uh, in love with you…” Jared crooned to the bouncy Caribbean melody of my new favorite song.
I shook my head. “Suddenly, the wedding song doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Yeah. I’m no Oscar Hammerstein by a long shot. But I know a good song when I hear one,” he told me. “I’m gonna make ‘America’ my ringtone.”
“I would do the same thing if I had a cell phone.”
“Y’know, Erin,” said Jared, “you really gotta evolve one of these days.”
“When the time comes, I will. But that time won’t be anytime soon.”
“Well, it’s a free country,” he muttered.
“For a small fee, right?”
I like to be in America…
Okay by me in America…
Everything free in America…
For a small fee in America.
I liked that song. I liked what it represented. That we weren’t all sunshine and roses as a nation. That if you really wanted anything, even if that anything was supposed to be a natural right, you had to pay for it. Somehow.
The following Monday at school, I noticed some distinct differences in Megan. She had developed a set of ripped muscles over the weekend, which made her even more terrifying than she had been last week at the track. But it was her clothes that had undergone the biggest change.
Before the whole SIC episode, she had loved layering, which I had always found a waste of time. She would wear two or three coordinating camisoles with staggered necklines, so that she had three layers of lace trim showing, and a scandalously low-necked Aeropostale top on top of that, which in itself would have several layers of embroidery. She would ornament her neck with either a scarf or a many-stranded necklace, put matching dangles in her ears, and top it all off with one of her many coats.
Today, however, she was wearing something that belonged more in the realm of adult style: pencil jeans and a lavishly knitted sweater. No earrings. No camisoles. Her hair was in a tight bun with the bangs waxed back. As if, fed up with the superficial extravagance of teenage fashion, she had decided to try something a bit less flashy.
Of course, all the other girls loved it. I’m pretty sure that Megan could wear lime-green maternity clothes to school and all the other girls would love it.
I studied Megan more closely that week and noticed several key differences besides her new taste in clothes.
First, most of her newfound prowess wasn’t in her intelligence itself, but in her skill in acquiring it. She didn’t know more information than me, but she could absorb it better than I could. She was good at math because she could now calculate so fast. She could barely skim the words of a book and the information would be catalogued in some corner of her brain. But unless she had spent the weekend poring over the Encyclopedia Britannica, I still had an edge on her in the department of actual knowledge.
That was comforting, in a weird way. Even though she got better grades (now) than me, I was still smarter than she was.
Slightly more disturbing were her new reflexes. Of course, her reflexes had always been better than mine, but now they were something else entirely. When we played touch football in PE, nobody could tag her. Every time somebody tried, she would move the part of her body about to be tagged quickly out of the way, as elusive as the wind itself. Of course, she was so fast now that few people could catch up with her to tag her.
But perhaps the most startling development in Megan was her transition from drama queen to an utter lack of any emotion. Well, really, she now had only one emotion: that cool, catlike calmness and confidence.
This just kept getting stranger and stranger. Firmly convinced that there was some explanation behind the new Megan other than will power and a motivational talk, I decided to get to the bottom of matters once and for all. I would prove that Megan was cheating and reclaim my rightful spot at the top of the class.
I was crammed in a locker directly opposite the room where the Self Improvement Club would meet. Well, really, it was two lockers, mine and Jared’s, which was directly above mine. Jared had taken all his stuff home for the weekend and removed the panel at the bottom, so I could stand semi-comfortably on the floor of my locker with my upper body in his.
I wedged the tiny lens of my mom’s camera through one of the diamond-shaped slats near the top of Jared’s locker, my finger poised on the ‘Take Picture’ button. I positioned my eyes behind two more of the slats. The meeting room where the group conferred had a gigantic picture window looking into it, which made my job oh so much easier. The hallway was dark, which was to my advantage: I could see them, but they couldn’t see me. Hopefully.
Megan and her friends trooped in for that Friday’s meeting. At first, I was afraid somebody would notice me, but they were all talking to each other in animated tones and didn’t appear to be too conscious of their surroundings.
Click. I took a picture.
They all took seats around a table. On this table rested a laptop and a shoebox.
Click. Just so the central office knew what the flow of the meeting looked like.
Megan initiated a discussion that apparently went around the table, because each girl in turn talked animatedly, with lots of input from her friends.
Megan herself gave a short talk with minimal input. Then she pulled the shoebox closer to her.
She opened it and I swear my heart stopped.
The box was full of hypodermic needles, each filled with a bluish fluid.
Click. Click. Click. After I recovered from the initial shock, I couldn’t get enough pictures. This was all the proof I needed to get Megan out of my life for good.
Immediately, all the girls panicked, shaking their heads fervently. Maybe they weren’t the most morally perfect people on earth, but drugs were out of the question even for them.
Megan picked up a needle and jabbed it into the nearest girl’s arm. That girl slumped to the floor.
Mass panic ensued. The girls rushed to the door, pounding and rattling on it, but it was locked from the outside and showed no indication of giving. Megan, so much faster than any of them, jabbed at least five girls within two seconds. All fell.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
The first girl to be injected was waking up. Megan tossed her a syringe, and the girl immediately proceeded to inject another girl. What was going on here?
Click. Click. Click.
Finally, there was only one girl left standing. Outnumbered ten to one, she never had a chance. She ran to the window, pounding and screaming for help.
Screaming at me.
Clicliclicliclic. I got all the shots I could of her. I couldn’t help her, but maybe somebody else could.
Megan stuck a syringe in the girl’s shoulder.. The poor girl’s eyes rolled back and she sank to the floor.
The girls who had woken up joined Megan in playing some sort of reflex game. As the other girls woke up, they joined the main group, until they were all gathered around the table.
Megan opened the laptop. All the girls congregated behind her. I couldn’t see the screen, but my best guess from the gestures some girls were making was that they were video-chatting with somebody.
About two hours later, the whole company trooped out the door. All of them had Megan’s catlike eyes and confident demeanor.
Click. Click. Click.
I printed off the pictures at home and stuffed them in a peechee labeled ‘doodles’. Just to be safe, I sandwiched them in between a couple pages of real doodles. For all I knew, Megan and her cronies could’ve had x-ray vision.
I had a foolproof plan: Megan didn’t usually get to school until eight. I would come in at 7:30, show the principal my evidence, and have my ‘Future Valedictorian’ status back by first period.
A shrill scream echoed in the back of my head, a desperate face pressed against cold glass crossed my vision, and I knew with chilling conviction I was doing the right thing. Or at least trying to.
Because, unfortunately, fate had other plans.
“I’m sorry,” the principal told me. “I’m busy at the moment.”
“But I think that there-“
“Look,” she said. “The Self-Improvement Club is putting on a demonstration after lunch, and it’s a three-ring circus trying to get all their props in order.”
“Well,” I suggested, “couldn’t their advisor handle that?”
“That’s the problem. They don’t have an advisor. They’re part of a string of similar groups called the Little Angels, but we don’t refer to it by that name because we didn’t think it would sit too well with the girls. Their advisor is the regional president.”
A larger organization?
“Please,” I begged. “There might be dru-“
“Hello?” The principal had decided to ignore me. “I was calling to confirm the status of my trampoline rental…”
Jared bumped into me in the hallway.
“Hi,” I said shyly.
“Hello,” he said, picking me up and whirling me around. “Any luck with your little stakeout?”
I carefully handed him the binder.
He flipped through the binder, and his eyeballs nearly popped out of his head.
“Wow,” he finally breathed. “I can’t believe I dated this chick.”
“I’m taking it to the principal at lunch. But now that Megan has ten clones, that’s definitely easier said than done.”
“Tell you what,” Jared said. ‘I’m gonna be your bodyguard until noon.”
“That’s nice, but we already know that Megan can knock you down.”
“Well, two heads are better than one. Plus, you’re great conversation.”
I blushed. That was as close as Jared had ever come to flirting with me.
Megan, fortunately, didn’t express much interest in sitting next to me. So Jared and I shared a table through first period. Every now and then, I would tentatively touch the bumpy surface of the peechee and feel reassured. Megan was going down.
Second period was a little trickier. One of the new SIC girls insisted on sitting next to me. Fortunately, Jared solved the problem by bumping into me, causing me to spill all my books.
“Sorry, Erin. Let me help you with that,” he said, quickly tucking the peechee under his sweatshirt as he handed me my English binder.
This period seemed to drag on forever. Whenever I looked at my tablemate, I got an icy glare in return, a fetal version of Megan’s optic death trap. But finally, the bell rang, and I dashed out of the classroom.
About five minutes through the period, the SIC members were called to the office to prepare for the demonstration. This took most of the girls out of the classroom, leaving plenty of empty seats, so Jared scooted in next to me.
I watched the minutes tick away.
Fifty minutes: Ms. Avery passed out a worksheet.
Forty minutes: Halfway done.
Thirty minutes: Done. I helped Jared with his worksheet.
Twenty minutes: Jared was done. We both pulled out books and started reading.
Ten minutes: A voice comes on over the loudspeaker:
“This is a lockdown. Repeat-this is a lockdown.”
Automatically, all of us dropped their work and tiptoed into a storage closet, assuming this to be a drill. Ms. Avery gently closed the door with a whispered instruction to hide ourselves with the supplies in the closet.
Jared and I stashed ourselves under a tarp. Other kids jumped into cardboard boxes. Still others lay flat on the ground behind walls of cleaning supplies, covering themselves with brooms and mops.
Jared placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. My heart throbbed like a rabbit’s. I tried to think calm thoughts.
I like to be in America…
Okay by me in America…
Everything free in America…
I lost myself in the bouncy tune. I liked the optimistic message of those first three lines: Everything was going to be fine, nobody’s going to be hurt, this is just a drill…
There was a loud bang, which I presumed was somebody trying to kick the classroom door in. The class’s collective hearts skipped a beat-this was definitely not just a drill.
Jared and I squeezed closer together.
There was an even louder noise as the door fell off its hinges, crashing onto the thinly carpeted floor. Several sets of footsteps sounded across the fallen wood. Ms. Avery gave a short scream, which was quickly cut short.
“Where is your class?” said a voice that I recognized but couldn’t put my finger on.
“I don’t have one at the moment. This is my planning period.”
There was a pause, followed by a gasp.
“You can’t fool me, you sorry excuse for a liar.”
There was a loud whack and a rustle which I presumed was Ms. Avery falling to the floor.
There were a few light, rapid footsteps that seemed to be getting closer to the closet.
The handle jiggled. Locked, thank goodness.
The footsteps faded and stopped.
There was a jingle, then the feet came back.
There was a scrape and a click, the sound of a key turning in a lock.
The door screeched open. I froze.
Off came the tarp, and I found myself staring at Megan.
An assembly. The perfect excuse to be in the office with no suspicion whatsoever. The perfect chance to get the administration out of the way, leaving the student body at the mercy of SIC.
“Well, well, well. It seems that our little code kitten found herself a tom.”
We were marched into the gym, where we were met by some of the younger SIC girls. I had almost forgotten that the younger grades had representatives, too.
“Boys to the left, girls to the right,” one sixth-grader snapped.
“I’m not leaving Erin,” Jared insisted, setting his arm on my shoulder.
“This is your final warning. Will you separate willingly or will we need to use corrective action?”
“Be quiet, you little twer-“
He never finished. She punched him in the gut and he collapsed to the ground.
The girl snapped her fingers. Two other girls appeared and dragged his limp form to the boys’ side of the room. This girl clamped down on my wrist with her clammy hand and yanked me onto the girls’ side.
About five minutes later, the students stopped pouring in. Megan came in, followed by another girl carrying a large box. The door slammed shut.
We were forced into a line that snaked around the gym. The boys had since been marched off, leaving me to wonder what would happen to Jared.
Brainwashed? Left to starve? Something worse?
Now, at possibly the most inconvenient time to feel such a thing, I realized that I loved him. All those blushes, the effervescent way I felt around him, it all added up to this. I loved him. He might have even loved me. But some stupid intravenous chemical got between us before we could even get started.
Misery. Heartbreak. Evil. Now in convenient syringes. I looked at Megan with an intense hatred for everything she represented.
And then I saw what she was doing.
Two younger girls would grab the person at the front and force her to her knees in front of Megan, who was sitting in a folding chair. Megan would let her beg and plead before producing a needle from the crate and driving it into the poor girl’s shoulder. Then that girl would faint, invariably falling forward as if bowing to Megan, and be dragged away by yet another set of girls to a side room.
There were ten girls in front of me.
I like to be in America…
No, I didn’t. At that moment, Outer Mongolia was sounding immensely appealing.
Okay by me in America…
No. It wasn’t.
I looked at Megan and realized that it wasn’t OK at all.
And then I looked a little harder and realized that Megan wasn’t Megan.
Sure, Megan had been mean-but not this mean. She had been rebellious-but not this rebellious. She, even in her immensely despicable former state, had had some twisted sense of fun, friendship, love, right and wrong. Now, a whole different girl lived in the shell of Megan Morris, and she made the old Megan look like a saint.
Everything free in America…
Another lie. I wasn’t free. Jared wasn’t free. Nobody in this gym was free, not even the jailers.
Number Four was really putting up a fight. She was a small, feisty-looking sixth grader who had no intention of being pricked.
Had I seen her around the school before? Wait. Yeah. She was Jared’s little sister, Jillian.
Megan finally nailed Jillian with the syringe. She was dragged away. So much for La Revolucion.
For a small fee in America.
Everything free...for a small fee…
The whole gym could go free. It was possible, however unlikely, that someone could liberate us in time.
Someone would have to go get help, despite the staggering risk. Someone would have to pay the fee for everyone else’s freedom.
Kneel. Jab. Drag. Number Two put up no fight whatsoever.
I saw a window across the room from me. What if I dashed through it? At just the right angle, it might break. I would fall two stories onto a lawn. From there, I could dash to the nearby highway and hitch a ride away from here. It was crazy, but it looked like my best shot.
I made a run for it. At full tilt, I dashed towards the window, running like the wind, five feet from impact, four, three, two, one…
Thud. I hit it like a brick wall.
Reinforced glass, I realized as two cold pairs of hands dragged me away from any chance of escape. I saw the thin crisscrossed wires within the pane as the window drew farther away from me.
I was in front of Megan now. Cold, calculating, every inch the evil fairy tale queen. That is, if evil fairy tale queens wore knit sweaters and pencil jeans.
“Ah. Hello, Code Kitten.”
I decided that if I was going down, I wasn’t going to do it without a fight. I owed this girl nothing.
“I’m a human being. Call me by my given name.”
Megan reached into the box and pulled out a syringe.
“How about this: you hold still for me and I’ll start calling you Erin.”
I gritted my teeth, and she laughed almost sympathetically.
“Poor little Code Kitty. Turns out, you’re not the smartest person in the world.”
She shoved the hand holding the syringe in front of my face. The pointed tip twinkled coldly in the sun.
“But you could be,” she hissed.
Did I ever tell you that I hated Megan Morris?
Hate’s the wrong word. It doesn’t even come close.