Welcome to Maldovo. You don’t want to be here.
Did I say that?
Just so long as you heard and no one else. Will you forget it, please? You see I shouldn’t have told you. You could figure it out for yourself, and keep it to yourself, too. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Stupid. I shouldn’t have told you that either.
Am I talking to myself?
This is not a good morning. In Maldovo, I guess that’s a Good thing.
I have to rush if I’m going to catch the academy shuttle. The driver is always ten minutes early, or ten minutes late, depending on his mood. That’s his prerogative. Just doing his job. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. He’ll be there, and that’s all that matters. I don’t know his name, but I’d know that bored, malicious face anywhere, a weekend’s growth of beard and a short “Bad Morning.”
Bad Morning. Get it?
But still, there’s that funny feeling nagging at me. I can’t wash it out in the shower, I can’t drown it in Kellogg’s and milk. I wonder if I can sweat it out in the gym and check my phone.
I lock the apartment behind me. Some kids are locking up across from me, and I don’t meet their eyes or greet them or anything. That’s bad manners, and that’s a good—I mean bad—a good thing to be.
God. It’s not simple being a villain.
I said it. Villain. I’m a bad girl. At least I’m trying to be. There are some rules you’ve got to abide by, unless you’re like, really smart. Bartimaeus Crockett the Third used to get hell for his cheesy fantasy name (there never was a first or a second Bartimaeus—what were his parents thinking?), until the Incident in Junior High. Everyone knew who’d done it. Bartimaeus didn’t care. All that mattered was he passed his exams with top marks, and we were too busy playing with hallucinogenic puppies and kittens to remember anything about quotients or exponentials.
I make my own lunches now. Two minutes in a microwave, peel the plastic, and blow.
I wish I were, but I’m not smart enough to get away with an Incident. I wouldn’t even be here at the Academy if my foster parents didn’t have strings to pull and the money to afford it.
When I get downstairs to the shuttle stop there are already half a dozen people waiting. I recognize two. Helen Pierce and Ashley Carter. Ashley’s not a girl, if that’s what you’re thinking. Could’ve fooled me, too, if I’d just known him by receipt. He has a neat hand for a guy, tidy cursive and a sober manuscript, meaning he’s actually legible with a bit of style. We used to tease him about his name, too—we’ve all been teased, haven’t we?
The girls in a competing soccer team used to call me Sir Kay, an allusion to King Arthur and his knights of the Round, because I had too much belly, too much kick, and annoyed everyone for my somewhat overenthusiastic charge. Enthusiastic and totally useless. I loved the game so much I always lost.
But Ashley Carter was never teased like that. His parents are super, super rich. They have their own house with a pool and everything, and a library, I think, because Mr. Carter uses the book pages to roll his cigars like some kind of 1940’s don. I hear they’re going digital.
There are lots of people who would kill to be Ashley’s friends (I mean that literally). His parents bought him his own silver convertible for his sixteenth birthday, and he wears one-thousand-dollar sunglasses. So when he tells us to call him “Ash” and not “Ashley,” everyone bends over backwards to oblige, because well, we’d call him “Your Royal Highness” if he wanted us to.
No one’s sitting on the bench by the stop. No one ever does. I always wonder if they know something I don’t know, like exactly when the shuttle’s coming. But I’m going to work my magic anyway. If I stand, it’ll take the shuttle another twenty minutes. If I sit, it’ll take ten, maybe five.
Ash sees me sit down. He nods at me.
Helen sees me, too, and gives me a smile.
“Where’s the car, hon?” she says, to Ash. “I thought you were going to give me a ride to campus.”
Ash takes a pack of gum out of his pocket. He handles it like an outlaw, careless and elegant. Bad-boy sugarless.
“Why on earth would I give you a ride, Helen?”
“Because I’m a friend,” she giggles.
He nods. He chews.
“So how about it?” she presses. “Come to think of it, how come you’re not driving yourself?”
“Car’s at the mechanic.”
There’s an awkward pause.
I decide it wouldn’t be a Good thing to think badly about both of them. After all, it isn’t nice to criticize and dissect people when they can’t do anything about it and have no idea you’re judging them for their clothes, their size. Negative thinking is one of the baby steps to being a villain, and that’s what we’re here for. Every baddie has to start somewhere.
Helen’s such a fake. Her smile is fake. Her bag is faux leather. She’s got these enormous brown eyes like a deer’s and she dresses like a little kid, gauche fuzzy shirts and canvas shorts. Fake—fake—something fake. She dyes her hair. I can see the roots. Fake hair. Lipstick. Fake color.
She’s actually kind of cute. Sweet eyes. Like a doe’s.
Ash isn’t much better. Blonde hair and a lazy lip. Designer clothes. If gum could be limited edition special, he’d be chewing that, not Orbitz. He works out. Doesn’t eat. Slender leaning towards thin. So used to cheating success out of everyone’s laps and into his own that he can’t imagine not having his way in everything. Daddy Business and Mother Nature, in the palm of his hand.
Heady smell of exhaust. Hiss, squeal, pop and break. Graffiti is on the shuttle windows, the frame, the door. Most of the paint is students’, but some of it our driver did himself. We all know he did it and some of us tell on him now and then, to practice being snitches. It’s nice to know you have an inside scoop that could make or break someone. But the driver never gets fired. He just gets more graphic
That’s how it is at Maldovo.
The shuttle starts rolling before most of us have found seats.
There’s space near the back. I escape into it and smudge my face against the window.
“Kay? Kay, um—Kay?”
I look up, surprised. It’s Ash.
“Can I sit down?” he asks. He’s holding onto the overhead rail.
“Sure,” I say.
There isn’t any room. Not really.
Ash forces himself next to me. My elbow is digging into his side, but he doesn’t seem to care. I watch as he leans his head back against rattling metal and closes his eyes. He looks paler than usual. His fingers are clenched, white-knuckled, on his knee, and there’s sweat on his lip.
“Ash? Are you alright?”
His eyes open at once. His eyes are green and expressive.
“Shit, Kay,” he says. “Of course I’m alright.”
He’s looking around the bus as if he’s afraid we might be heard. We’re foreign spies. No. Refugees. Rebels. But no one’s paying attention to us. Someone’s music is turned up so loud I can hear the backup vocals and a synthesized drone.
I want to say, you look kind of sick. But I don’t know if that’s a Bad or a Good thing, and I don’t want to push my luck.
Ash reads the question on my face. He offers me a wan smile and pulls himself to his feet when he sees a campus sign ahead. He doesn’t look like he wants to be standing, but there’s something about my attention that bothers him, as if he’s worried I’ll notice something he doesn’t want me to.
“Thanks for the seat,” he says, “Sir Kay.”
We’ve hit the Academy. At least, that’s what it feels like.
I can always tell when we’ve reached campus because there’s this sudden tip to the left, sloshing your breakfast and your guts, and then a jolt as the driver speeds up to reach the shuttle stop before those scattered pedestrians are halfway across the walk. If they are halfway there, he’s got the whole thing worked out like a science. Two inches away and the horn, full blast.
A week into my third semester, I’m still not prepared for that tip and stop. Speed bumps? Dream on. They’re footnotes to the footnotes in history books. Impediments to free expression. We don’t drive in Maldovo. We fly.
Ash has a good hold on the overhead rail, but even so he sways at the shuttle’s violent motion. Though we’re packed in like rats, I notice Helen watching him closely. She’s texting at the same time. I wish I could do that. Balance and watch. Watch and text. Amazing. There’s a new phone out that some people say can record your thoughts. Just think what you want to say and down it goes. I’m trying to figure out how anyone could control their thoughts that well.
Hey John looking forward to our date 2nite. Wow, that is one hot ass. Look at that—.
Tanya? Lol. Ur all over the place, girl.
We still on for lunch? Omg, he’s coming this way! Is he looking at me?
Talk about breakups waiting to happen.
I guess I won’t be late.
Timeliness is a mixed blessing. There are so many kinds of villains that it’s not exactly bad to be on time, but sometimes a late arrival is considered a sign of confidence and self-possession. It is confident, I guess, depending of course on how you do it. M-M and D-D, my parents, have been trying to get me to show up late since my freshman year. But, Bartimaeus Crockett the Third is always on time. That’s his trademark, a nod at his own precise and demanding routine. If we all showed up on time simply because we knew we had to, it would be polite, and we’d be drones. That’s a mark down in your participation grade.
Believe me, those grades are not easy.
I prefer showing up really early. Before everyone else arrives, I’ll be there in the empty auditorium-style classroom, drawing in my notebook. Drawing on the whiteboard, maybe. I’ve been cultivating a new style of vandalism, except I don’t think it’s the right kind. For one thing, you can wipe it off in five minutes with foam. For another, no one’s very bothered by curlicues.
The shuttle doors open.
Ash trips on someone’s shoe. An expletive. He bites back, but it’s a halfhearted defense.
He doesn’t look at me again.
I’ve taken to leaving cryptic messages on the board. Things like, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer Do.” Make the Y’s long and the D’s sharp, and it really does look a bit messed up. But then I always get to clean it off afterwards, because even though no one thinks I put it there, I’ve just got a helpful face.
That must make me a really effective bad guy. I’m undercover without even trying. Still, I wouldn’t mind an edge in popularity. I wouldn’t mind Dr. Gruber pausing to ask before we begin balancing tables and calculating expenses:
“Kay, did you see who wrote this?”
“No, Dr. Gruber.”
“You know you’ll get extra credit if you snitch?”
“Yes, Dr. Gruber.”
I could get extra credit for keeping my mouth shut, too, if I play it right. Some of us are better at straining the limits of what can and can’t be considered bad, than others. But Dr. Gruber just sees my “George Orville went up the Hill to fetch a Pail of Wat-Er,” chuckles, and says he remembers when they first came up with that nursery rhyme after the 2100-A Uprising.
The 2100-A Uprising. George Orville, leader of the last squad of Do-Gooders, fell down and broke his crown, summer of 2100. That was thirty years ago. I don’t know what he and his followers were thinking. I don’t think they were thinking. We don’t bother much with history in case it has a bad influence on the future—we don’t want to make the mistakes everyone else did—but from what I’ve heard, the Do-Gooders were always making people ashamed to be themselves. They always pointed it out when you hadn’t brushed your teeth or combed your hair. They thought people who didn’t make their beds were lazy and that taking out the trash and cleaning the toilet were chores you shouldn’t have to be paid to do.
It’s boring, but cute. That’s me being perverse. I’ve always got a soft spot for the underdog. But the problem with being good is, it’s too easy. It’s just so instinctive. Conventional. Boring. Have you seen those old superhero films with Captain America, Iron Man, Batman and the rest? We watch them sometimes to laugh at the special effects and acting. It’s fun to throw popcorn at the screen and boo whenever a Do-Gooder talks, mostly because we don’t actually need to know what they’re saying. It’s so easy to guess. If you have seen those films, you’ll know how predictable they are. If there weren’t Baddies like us to jump in and liven things up a little, the Do-Gooders themselves would be bored.
They need us. We don’t need them. That simple.
The Academy isn’t beautiful, but it’s got its quirks. The buildings are square and brick with off-white pillars and steps at the front that most people don’t bother using because the side doors are more accessible. I used the front steps when I was still new to the place and slipped on a banana peel tossed just inside the door. I say tossed, but it was actually placed there by someone who had spent some serious time guessing an effective location.
Here’s a fact you should know. I’m not telling you to help you out or anything. It’s just so weird. But at the beginnings and ends of each semester, these banana peels start appearing everywhere but in the trashcans. They really only work on smooth surfaces. I remember Amy Anderson slipped just before her ballet recital and we all laughed. It was the first time she actually performed.
I think the milk must have gone bad or something. I don’t know why Amy isn’t funny today.
Huggers Hall. That’s where I have my first class—Accounting. That’s Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Cyndi wiped us all last fall. She did everything exactly by the book, no errors or smudging, and we all gave her up for a square. She conned more out of her company simulation than any of us at finals, because past midterms we’d stopped paying any attention to her numbers.
I’m nowhere near mastering crooked tables, but I’m studying hard. The payoff is worth it, everyone tells me. The trick of course is not getting caught. But either way, it’s a lucrative profession whether you can bend it or play by the rules, so M-M and D-D haven’t given up yet. Weirdly enough, I kind of like knowing I don’t have to be clever to make a living with numbers.
When I get inside I’m hit by warm air and mustiness. They never get the air temperature right in Huggers. It’s either too cold in warm weather, if you know what I mean, or too hot in winter. You wear shorts to Huggers like Helen and I guess you’re alright because you’re not overdressed, that’s for sure, but go outside again and you’re sweating and completely unprepared for a below freezing chill.
Villains have got to be prepared for everything. Maybe that’s the lesson in it. But of course we aren’t. Where’s the fun in preparing?
I’m not very late for accounting. When I walk in, it’s barely a minute past the time.
Dr. Gruber barely glances at me when I sit down in my usual place. Ash usually sits beside me, but this time he isn’t there. For some reason it worries me to see his seat empty. He was never as early as I usually am, but he’s not really the stumble-in-late type, either.
“Who can tell me the difference between Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable?” asks Dr. Gruber.
That’s obvious. I think.
Bartimaeus Crockett the Third raises his hand.
I listen to his quiet, pronounced voice without understanding a single word.
“Very good, Mr. Crockett,” says Gruber. “That’s exactly right.”
Of course it is.
We call each other by our last names in class. It’s a forced formality, sure, and it’s supposed to make us feel important, too. But I think it makes our teachers feel more important than we do. They’re the ones with titles.
The door opens. It’s Ash.
He’s holding the door open a little longer than necessary and moving his hand in this kind of helpless, stay-there-and-wait sort of way, like someone has walked him to class and he’s hoping to see them after. That’s kind of sweet. He keeps on talking, animated movement without sound.
Dr. Gruber is staring. I didn’t notice before, but he looks tired, tense, and angry.
“What are you doing, Mr. Carter?” he asks.
Ash turns sharp. His mouth is open, startled.
“Sit down, Mr. Carter,” says Dr. Gruber.
Ash doesn’t listen to him immediately. He’s regaining some of his poise. He lets the door click shut behind him and looks at us oh so bored like what, I’m supposed to be here. Got a problem with that? He does this annoying cluck or snap thing with his tongue, slow and loud, then takes his seat beside me, sideways not forward.
“How the mighty have fallen,” says Dr. Gruber.
Ash doesn’t raise his eyes.
Dr. Gruber isn’t done.
“Let’s hope you actually pay attention, now that your parents won’t be buying you a leg up in politics,” he says.
The class is silent, shocked. If they don’t really care about Ash one way or the other, they can’t quite believe what they’re hearing. Dr. Gruber has never talked or looked like this before. His face is flushed and the vein in his temple is visibly pulsing.
This is a lot more interesting than Accounts Payable.
“You’re all intelligent kids,” Gruber says. “You’re a cut above the usual. That’s what I think. I don’t blame kids for what their parents do. At least I try not to. I don’t blame parents for their kids. But when you nearly total a sports car for no reason except there’s some old lady in the way, that’s nuts. That’s bad breeding.”
Ash leans back in his chair.
“Say hello to the nouveau-riche,” he quips.
He’s fiddling with the seam of his jacket. He’s nervous.
“Is she dead?” I ask without thinking.
I’m really not thinking.
Dr. Gruber looks at me, furious.
“The old woman. Is she alright?”
Ash interrupts before Dr. Gruber can reply.
“What do you care, Kay?”
Everyone’s looking at me.
“I—I just thought—”
“In case I need to remind the both of you,” snaps Dr. Gruber, “we’re not Do-Gooders. We’re Baddies. We don’t help old folks cross the street. This isn’t a place where smiling innocents leave their shades up and their windows open. It’s also not a town where we cringe in fear of the worst. We are the worst.”
“We’re just making life worse for the worst,” says Ash. “That makes us worst of all.”
“You are,” I say.
I still don’t know what the heck happened. What does Ash have to do with an old woman and why is Dr. Gruber so angry? Is the old lady dead? Does anyone care? What do I care? I don’t know her. I don’t even know what she looks like. She might as well not exist, right, if I don’t know what she looks like?
Dr. Gruber is speaking. He’s looking at me funny.
“You don’t look well,” Dr. Gruber says.
“I’m okay,” I say.
“Then let’s get back to business. Shall we? Let’s not all get our knickers in a twist over one stupid old biddy who almost got herself killed. That attitude won’t get you far,” he says to Ash. He nods to the door. “Better hold on to the imaginary friends you got. You’re going to need them.”
I guess that settles the question of whether or not Dr. Gruber cares.
Wait. The woman’s alive.
Ash didn’t kill her.
I try to make out the notes the Tanya is taking. She’s the girl sitting at my right. I’m really bad at note-taking. When I take notes it’s just a line or two of something incomprehensible that makes sense at the time, punctuated by an intricate network of doodles. I usually wait till further in the semester to start wasting ink. It would be nice if I could borrow someone else’s notes to supplement my own.
Tanya notices me watching and tilts her notebook so I can see.
It’s code. Shapes, not letters.
Ash is watching me. He slides his notebook closer. Never mind what Dr. Gruber thinks. He’s been paying attention.
I’m ready for this day to be over.
It’s not that I don’t like work. I do. I guess. Not really. I mean, everything takes effort, and I’d be lying if I said that effort is always enjoyable. Maybe it is sometimes. I don’t know. If being good is intuitive, then being bad just isn’t. I wonder if being good really doesn’t require as much work as being bad does. Maybe everything requires a push. You’ve got your bums, your thugs, and then you’ve got the class-acts, the iconoclastic Baddies with attitude and skill to back it up. I’m not sure what I am. None of it. Some of all.
My foster parents, M-M and D-D, are Baddies without attitude. We don’t say “Mom” or “Dad.” Most Baddies would prefer not to remember that they weren’t born in spandex with rear-watching sunglasses.
My M-M and D-D have got plenty of style though. They’re incredibly confident in what they do. There was a time when everyone was so paranoid about Do-Gooders that they almost got to be like vampires in your closet, but that makes them bad (what we are), so us Baddies decided to prove that Do-Gooders really aren’t so different from us, just kind of misdirected. My M-M and D-D adopted me from Unwantables, Inc., when I was three. They told me my parents were radical Do-Gooders and that I was lucky I was so little, because it wasn’t too late for me.
I’m grateful. They let me do whatever I want, and I mean everything. I learned to look after myself.
They keep on asking me what I want to do when I grow up. Well I’m eighteen going on nineteen. I am grown up.
D-D is a detective for the ImPo-Lice, an elite surveillance squad protecting us from any Do-Gooder residue impressed on the tabula rasa minds of the new and incoming generations. I don’t think the ImPo-Lice were always what they are now. The name might have been spelled differently, the code a little less exciting. The ImPo-Lice are here to keep things lively. They’re the itch any secret Do-Gooders won’t be ready for. Dark uniforms and sunglasses. No-nonsense. Great pay. Lice. Impolite lice. Troublemakers and bloodsuckers. Get it?
I wanted to be one of the ImPo-Lice when I was a kid. I almost applied to the squad. But I don’t know, something changed my mind. Something about the Questionnaire. I hate Questionnaires. D-D said I didn’t have to answer honestly if I didn’t want to. He said no one ever does. But suddenly those shades and that uniform didn’t look so cool anymore. They looked like a straightjacket. That’s me with any profession. I’m a flirt but I sure as heck don’t want to choose. I mean that’s what you’ll be doing forever, for your whole life. Who wants to be permanently grounded? Grounded is what Do-Gooders are when they part their hair on the wrong side or wear mismatched socks, or something.
M-M is kind of distant, but she understands. At least she says she does. She’s Chair of the New-U Youth Group, helping kids learn how to work together while working exclusively for themselves. It’s a valuable life skill. Some of us use it less well than others, not for lack of trying. You’ve got to have the face for it. If you’ve got a face like mine it just doesn’t come too easily. Bartimaeus Crockett the Third hasn’t got any problems—a delicate, thin face and large deep-set eyes that kind of glow, faint, whenever he’s speaking passionately about something. You want to be tricked by him just so you can see that satisfied, pleasured calm settle like a film over his radiant expression, the instant you sign your name on his devil’s contract. It’s fascinating to watch. It’ll be the last thing you see, before you die.
Now, me. I don’t know. I’m pretty normal. My eyes don’t light up or anything. I do change color though, depending on if I’m on the winning or losing end of a proposal. There are some people who can control their color. I can’t. It rises like the morning sun if I’m embarrassed. It drains like bath water if I’m angry or afraid.
I try not to look in the mirror too often. When I was in seventh grade I was nicknamed “The Big K,” and not for ego. I try to control my weight. It isn’t easy. It’s not like I’m fat. I’m just not thin as a rail. And who says Baddies can’t wear anything other than a double zero? I don’t want to be like Ash about it.
Speaking of Ash, this really funny thing happened after class. Remember how he was talking to an empty hallway before class in Huggers’? Well…
It was about lunchtime when I saw Ash talking to a bush, sitting there with his legs folded under him easy as you please. I thought, maybe he has lost his mind like Dr. Gruber said. But then I saw this scruffy dog under there. Ash was trying to coax it out as if he actually cares that it’s a starved little guy, all muddy and disgusting. Ash caught me watching and froze up like I don’t know, I’m a Baddie and he’s a—what?
And I understood.
My D-D’s with the ImPo-Lice.
“Hey,” I remember saying, “is that your dog?”
Bad guys do have animal sidekicks sometimes. Like, it’s not a crime to have a pet.
Ash was surprised. He ran his fingers through his hair. I like the way he does that, like he isn’t even thinking about it.
“Yeah,” he told me. “It’s—it’s—my dog.”
“So why’s he under a bush?”
“I found him there. I tried to get him to stay in Huggers, but I guess someone chased him out. Fleas, you know. Dirt.”
“Is he hungry?”
Big mouth. Forget Big K.
“I bet he doesn’t like gum,” I hear myself say.
Something really weird happened then. Ash laughed. And it’s not a mean laugh, not a “Did you catch that incredibly gauche thing she said or did?” kind of laugh like I usually hear from him. It’s a laugh as in, that’s really funny and I don’t know why you said it or where it came from, but I admire, hell, appreciate you for it.
“No,” said Ash. “No, I guess he probably doesn’t.”
It was my turn to giggle.
“Well let’s try this.”
I fished around in the side pocket of my backpack.
A crumpled wrapper. A granola bar. I didn’t have anything else to lure the puppy out with.
I held out the half-eaten bar.
The puppy’s nose twitched. I heard it sniffing, loud and eager. I can hear it sniffing now, if I concentrate. It was that noisy. Slow, trembling, the little animal crept out. He was as low to the ground as he could go, his tail tucked between his legs. How can anything that little be so afraid?
I held the bar a little closer. The puppy licked at it, whimpering. Puppy drool all over my fingers.
He liked it.
I almost smiled as the little guy forgot to be afraid, nibbling and lapping at the sticky bar.
And then, while I’m squatting there, it hit me. Yeah, I was feeding this dog my snack bar with one of the hippest Baddies on campus watching. He was probably aiming for some extra credit snitching after the verbal smacking he got today from Dr. Gruber. I was being nice, but stupid. I wasn’t just helping a dog—I was helping him.
I pulled the granola away and stumbled to my feet. If my parents found out about this, I’d be in a lot of trouble.
Shaking, I faced Ash. I felt like an idiot, standing there with my stupid health bar.
But here comes the real surprise. Ash was looking at me with a white-faced dread all his own.
“Kay,” he said. “What—what are you doing?”
I wanted to scream at him. Really I did. I wanted to say, “What are you doing?”
“You’re not going to tell on me, are you?” he asked.
“Anyone could see you like this,” I whispered. “You’re setting me up.”
“No, no.” He glanced at the puppy. It was cringing back, frightened. Ash looked up at me again. There was a strange vulnerability on his face then that stays with me in my mind’s eye. “Look,” he said, reaching into his pocket. He took out his phone. The screen stayed dark, reflective. “My phone. It’s off, I swear. It’s out of batteries. Search me if you want. I haven’t got anything to snitch on you with. Please. We can both make this Bad if we want. Say I forced you. I wanted to take your bar. I know how much you love that fiber crap. Come on. I made you feed it to this homeless mutt. Please, Kay. Please.”
He was begging me. Ash, the fashion-obsessed king of dry nonchalance, was begging me for a granola bar.
No one ever needed anything I’ve had before. It’s a strange feeling, having power over someone else. It’s a good feeling.
So I gave him the bar.
He took it from me. The dog crawled forward and put its paws on his knee. And now there’s a new look on his face. I’ve never seen this one before, either.
I think I like this expression more than the last.
“I gotta go,” I remember saying. “I’m going to miss my next class.”
Ash nodded. His eyes were all for the puppy, stroking the long snout with his finger.
I kind of didn’t want to leave.
Who knows what happened to the dog after that. Once the bar was gone I couldn’t think of an excuse to stay. I forgot to ask Ash about the car and old woman thing. Never mind.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a distracted haze from then on (it always is for me, but now, really). When I reach the stop, Helen is there again. She’ll be riding the shuttle back with me. She’s watching me funny too, like she watched Ash this morning, but I imagine this is just her day for funny faces.
I don’t care.
My phone beeps.
It’s an image text from M-M.
She’s never done that before. She and D-D never text or call me.
I glance at the picture. Me, Ash, and the puppy. We’re definitely not antagonizing each other. We’re not tweaking the pup’s nose or anything. Maybe we’re having a good time. It would make a cute Do-Gooders poster. Kind of like that awful Norman Rockwell stuff, I guess. Like the backwards version of Alex Ross’s painting of the Joker and Harley Quinn at Christmastime.