Stranger at School
James Hale knocked into people as he walked hurriedly across the corridor. His eyes bored into the floor. He tried to avoid looking at people because every time he did, a long stream of data flowed past his eyes and memories flooded his mind.
He bumped into a boy shorter than him. James’ books fell on the floor loudly. People turned to see what had happened and snickered at him.
Dammit, James thought miserably. His orders had specifically told him not to attract attention.
The boy he had bumped into wasn’t helping James at all. He was laughing out loud and patting James on the back saying things like “Hey, what’s the rush?” and “A girl chasing you?”
James grimaced as he accidentally looked at the boy’s pockmarked face. Captions with pointing arrows began to gather around the boy in James’ computerized eyes.
Name: Al Fonso Cheung
Height: 156cm, small for age
Above average EQ
The pockmarked face is due to a small incident with a gang that sliced his face up. Do not remark upon his face.
Athletic. Small and slight build. Good at short distance running.
Calloused hands. Plays the guitar well.
The rush of memories was the strangest of all. In that one second when James blinked, he remembered all the afternoons when he and Al had played in the streets, the back alleys they had explored and the shops they had mugged. But the boy who was running with Thomas was Al and wasn’t the same person as James.
No doubt Al was a friend of West’s. James stepped back warily. Someone like this boy with all these memories with James might sense a difference. But Al pulled him back playfully. He was munching on several sweets in his mouth. Every time Al Fonso moved his jaw to speak, there was a loud crunch of the hard round candies crushed into powder.
“Hey, Jay,” Al chirped. “Want to see what I got in my mouth?”
Flecks of spit flew out of his mouth. For once, James was glad for his helmet as drops of saliva landed and slid onto the glass surface. “Uh… It’s okay…”
Al began wiping the spit off James’ helmet with his pocket-handkerchief. According to James’ memories, it was mainly used for wiping Al’s shiny black shoes. It left black streaks on the glass.
“Sorry about that,” said Al nonchalantly. “But really, you have to see this, just once. Please?”
James hesitated. He didn’t want to throw up inside his helmet. “All right then.”
A pair of deep dimples blossomed on Al’s cheeks like flowers. He opened his mouth wide. “Da ya shee?” he yelled. His tongue was waggling wildly to pronounce the words.
His tongue. James felt faintly disgusted. It was changing color rapidly, from hot pink to acid green, bright blue to deep magenta, and pitch black to bone-white. It was like some mutation of a slimy hairless caterpillar and a chameleon in a fit.
“Oh,” was all he could say.
“Cool, isn’t it?” Al closed his mouth into a proud grin and swallowed. “It’s the new candies. They’re selling the rainbow series. There’s another one where your skin changes color. But I thought it was a bit too much. Don’t you think?”
James didn’t reply.
Al laughed cheerfully and walked way. He hadn’t noticed anything at all. James felt a rush of relief. If Al couldn’t tell, nor would the others be able to. But the relief released the tension in James’ stomach. The world spun as he fell to his knees and threw up. Luckily, his helmet had opened automatically before he even opened his mouth. There must be sensors in the suit sensing discomforts in James’ body.
People had just finally given up staring at James. This time they groaned and moved away. At least he was alone in the hallway now.
The tiles on the floor covered with James’ breakfast and stomach acid suddenly fell. Underneath the floor was a space. Although it was too dark to tell there must’ve been hydraulic motors down there. White pristine tiles suddenly levitated from the darkness and stayed in the empty places. They shone brightly and were slightly damp as if someone had wiped them using a wet towel. They even smelled like freesia and roses now.
James crawled to the wall and leaned against it. He tilted his head upwards. His chest rose as he breathed in deeply. He kept his helmet open for fresh air. It was ironic how the helmet had only made breathing more uncomfortable when it was designed to do otherwise. All that fuss about contaminated air harming him. James shook his head. The helmet and suit were only for the wealthy and influential. The health precautions were only an excuse to wear the suit so that people could point and whisper, ‘He is rich. He is powerful. He can do anything to you. He can hurt you.’
His first day at work, at school and he was already drained. James put his thumb and index finger to his temple.
On front of James, there was a glass wall. It was dark outside because of an incoming typhoon. So it was far brighter indoors. The light bounced off the dark glass and reflected James’ face. He saw a teenage boy wearing a white suit covering his whole body. The boy had black spiky hair and black Chinese eyes. But his features were Western, American specifically speaking.
James blinked. The boy in the glass blinked too, as if challenging by asking who was the real one. Whoever it was, it wasn’t James.
“Mr. Hale?” a woman’s voice rang in the empty hallway. “Are you all right?”
He turned. Instantly, writing in small black font and narrow arrows surrounded the woman.
Name: Ms. Johnson
Age: Unknown, seemingly in thirties
Thin. Weak. Effected with bulimia.
“Uh….” James mumbled a few incoherent words. He remembered being held after school by her and being handed his end of year reports set with a grimace by Ms. Johnson. Again, he somehow knew that the boy Ms. Johnson had known was gone.
“A bit late for class, no?” Ms. Johnson spoke with a clipped British accent. But everyone knew that it was merely all for show. The exaggerated vowels were clearly brought from her home country. “You do know that your essay on the Muslim empire was due today?”
“Err…. Yeah,” he stood up awkwardly. James stumbled past Ms. Johnson who held his shoulder, stopping him.
James froze. Could she have known that he was -
“And your father will be down on us by today if he finds you not wearing your helmet, Saint James.” She pressed the button on James’ plastic collar and immediately his head was encased in what looked like a glass fish bowl. “It’s for your safety.”
Another mistake. James groaned inside and walked quicker. He glanced behind. Ms. Johnson was walking towards the opposite direction. Her cruelly short and neat yellow hair bobbed up and down.
James tried to sneak inside the classroom unnoticed. But his damned suit and helmet always made him so conspicuous, both in status and looks. He was, after all, Saint James.
Mr. Karle had been in the middle of writing a mathematical equation on the hologram of a board. His hands, gloved with the special black gloves that allowed him to make contact with the hologram, stopped in mid-air.
Name: Mr. Karle
Weight: Unknown, but obese
Above average IQ
Above average EQ
Problems in domestic life
These labels were beginning to get annoying. But James knew that they would always be there until he had fully gotten used to his new life. Maybe he could ask Jay if he could instead have a pile of papers with the information.
“You’re late!” Mr. Karle exclaimed. He waggled his finger. “Naughty.” The way he said ‘naughty’ was so exaggerated that it sounded like ‘no-o-o-ty’. That was Mr. Karle’s signature phrase.
Several people in the classroom snickered. Suddenly the inside of James’ helmet felt far too stuffy. Hell to the Saint nonsense and health precautions, James punched the button at his collar. Mr. Karle repeated his ‘no-o-o-ty’ as the glass helmet slid behind. James ignored him and went to his seat, next to an Asian girl hunched over her desk.
He hardly listened to a word of Mr. Karle. He was talking about how beautiful parabolas were and how you could manipulate the equation to change the shape. The maths teacher was attempting draw a heart as it was his wedding anniversary today.
Suddenly James realized at what page he was supposed to be at. He took out his textbook slowly and tried to guess what page they were at. The girl next to him had her face turned away from him. Perhaps she didn’t want to look at him. A black curtain of glossy hair was between James and the girl.
James mustered what little nerve he had left. He used his index finger to push away that curtain of hair. The girl twitched. Immediately James felt bad. He didn’t want to frighten her, or annoy her.
“What page are we at?” James whispered.
The girl turned towards James. He could see her face fully now. Her eyes were large and black as a raven’s feather. They even seemed as soft as one too, like they were holding back tears. Her mouth was full and very pink but the lack of gloss made her look sickly. The blood, which had risen to her face, contrasted greatly with her pale nearly translucent skin.
Name: Elspeth Wong
Weight: Unknown, but slightly chubby
Below average EQ
Nearly no relation to James
Elspeth looked at James, devoid of all expression. It was strange because otherwise, her features were bursting with emotions. Her eyes shone, her mouth looked as if it couldn’t wait to smile, the shape of her fine eyebrows was characteristic and her soft round cheeks were scarlet.
She replied steadily, “One hundred and thirty two.” Her voice was flat. It could be that she was very bored. James considered his reasoning.
“Thanks.” Then James noticed her staring at him. But unlike so many other people that day, Elspeth didn’t stare at him like he was a freak. Her look was calculating.
James blushed. Then he realized that he hadn’t been acting like Jay. Jay wouldn’t be so polite, especially to this strange fat girl. James forced a sneer on his face and said, “Took you long enough, didn’t it?”
For one splitting moment, anger flashed in Elspeth’s eyes like summer lightning. Abruptly, she pushed herself away from the table. There was a painful crash and she moaned as the chair pushed into her skin.
“What on earth is the matter over there?” Mr. Karle looked nervous. His finished heart made from a maths equation hovered in mid-air on the hologram. “Elspeth? Are you all right?”
What emotion Elspeth’s face had lacked was now overflowing with grief and anger. Though James thought he could see a touch of spite there. She cried, “James pushed me.”
There was an angry muttering like the buzz of a swarm of bees. For a man to harm a lady, it was unforgivable. Everyone knew how sweet Elspeth was.
“But,” James began to protest. But someone behind him muttered, “Thinks he’s so special. Saint James.”
James twisted his body and lunged for that snob. It was a wiry boy with thick-rimmed glasses. James didn’t even have time for his computerized brain to interpret the boy’s face and label him. The boy yelped and punched wildly. As soon as James felt the pain of the punch, his helmet automatically encased his head. His opponent screamed as his hand hit the hard glass surface.
Mr. Karle had had enough. He had already called for security and that word alone should’ve stopped those two. He yelled, “That is enough! Saint James Hale! Out of the room! Now!”
Metal arms wrapped themselves around James’ arms. He was dragged outside to the corridor. There he was meant to wait outside the door quietly. If he moved so much as an inch, the security guards would deal with him.
The rest of the school day went smoother than the first class. Through the next three lessons, James looked for the girl who had pushed herself and blamed him. He was still furious about it. But Elspeth somehow managed to walk away from his view every time James glimpsed her long black hair.
James kept thinking, ‘What would Jay have done?’