Chapter 1: Innocence
Paul felt as if his head was being crushed by something pushing against his face. Strange splotches of yellow, white, and light brown chased the blackness to the corners of his vision. He could feel his nose pushed to the side.
Where am I again? he thought groggily. He pulled up his head as he peeled off whatever it was that was stuck to his face. It was a book.
A cold stab of worry hit him in the stomach. Oh right, the presentation.
He wiped foul-smelling salvia of the book, “Go Rin No Sho, The Book of Five Rings,” written by the legendary seventeenth-century samurai Miyamoto Musashi. This study of swordsmanship and philosophy was one of Paul’s favorites. That was why he had chosen to do an oral report on the great samurai. Unfortunately for Paul, his admiration for samurai was outweighed by his anxiety for his upcoming history presentation, which had led to many sleepless hours the night before.
Reluctantly, he checked his appearance on his cell phone screen. He grimaced as he saw his haggard face and sleepy brown eyes. One of his stubborn cowlicks of medium brown hair was sticking upwards, so he tried smoothing it with his hand. It was no use, however. He even tried straightening his school blazer, which was now slouching down over his bony shoulders.
Suddenly, he felt the world tip sideways. He fell out of his chair, landing on his back.
“You deserved that, man!”
Paul looked up to see another student with greasy brown hair and, since no teachers were around, holding a soda bottle filled with chunky gobs of tobacco juice the same color as the boy’s hair.
What was his name? thought Paul. John or maybe Jack? He’s on the football team. Or is it the baseball team? Maybe it’s both?
“I’ve been trying to get your attention all week,” John or Jack continued. “Didn’t you notice me throwing pencils at you in English on Tuesday? You’ve always got your head down, ignoring everyone. Then, I catch you in study hall, and you’re passed out. Tell me, what kind of straight-A student sleeps through school?”
So, that’s why I was getting hit by pencils. I thought it was best just to run away.
Jack/John spat more brown sludge into his bottle through his yellow-tinted teeth.
“Is sleeping through school really worse than chewing tobacco in school?” Paul regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.
He normally would not have said something so confrontational. It was not like him to instigate someone whose arms looked to be as thick as his own legs. However, this situation just seemed too perfect to let pass.
Instantly, Paul was grabbed by the collar of his navy-blue school blazer. He glanced around the library in search of any teachers. He saw only a half dozen wide-eyed students who were avoiding his hopeful glances. Paul closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. This moment seemed so surreal. Never in my sheltered life did I ever imagine being beaten up in a library It’s my favorite room in the school. That has to be more than a little ironic.
“I know your type,” said the boy. Paul could smell his every word. “You’re the kind of guy who thinks he’s better than everyone else ‘cuz you’re smart. That’s why you’re quiet and rude.”
Paul shook his head, his eyes still closed. “No… no, you’ve got it all wrong,” any air of smugness was now gone. “I just… just…”
“You ‘just’ what?”
“Hold up a minute, Jack!” The voice didn’t sound like it came from a teacher. “I’m ready to tap-in for him.”
Paul finally opened his eyes when he felt an exaggerated high-five on his dangling hand. Standing there was another student who only came up to Jack’s shoulder. Robby Swanson looked more like a middle school student than a high school student.
Jack let go of Paul and looked down in the newcomer’s direction. “What are you even doing, Swanson? You little freak.”
“Oh, come on, you will need better insults than that if you’re ever going to get into the WWE.”
Jack now looked more confused than angry. “Who the hell said anything about fake wrestling?”
“Well, did you honestly expect me to think you guys were doing real wrestling? Where’s the mat? Or maybe you guys were doing UFC stuff? Anyway, I was about ready to give you the chair.” Robby lifted a wooden chair and swung it around playfully.
Just as Robby finished his rambling, Mr. Eaves finally entered the room.
Jack turned his back to Paul and Robby as he made his way back to his table. “You’re a nutcase, Swanson. You’re just not worth it.”
Robby turned to Paul. “Stalling. It always works.”
“Yeah, except when it doesn’t.”
“C’mon, believe me. I’ve ticked off a lot more people than you have over the years.”
Mr. Eaves cast a slightly amused gaze in the boys’ direction.
“Mr. Swanson,” he called from behind his twitching, gray mustache. “I don’t recall you being in this study hall.”
“No,” Robby quickly agreed. “Mrs. Rockway wanted me to make some copies on the library copier while I was in detention.”
“Detention isn’t until after school, Mr. Swanson,” reminded Mr. Eaves. “I also don’t see any papers in your hands.”
“Oh, you know what?” Robby exclaimed. “I completely forgot them.”
“And detention?” wondered Mr. Eaves with a twitching eyebrow.
“Well,” Robby answered, “what I did was so bad that they gave me detention during school hours. I think I… uh… crashed the school server by downloading a game.”
“That would be an in-school suspension which I know, for a fact, was not in the morning teachers’ memo,” Mr. Eaves sighed. “Just leave and stop roaming the hallways. There’s nothing exciting going on in them, anyway. Better yet, go use those computer skills for something constructive. The lab is open.”
It should scare me how fast he can make up lies. No, wait, it shouldn’t. He’s an awful liar.
Delete Created with Sketch.
“And so, Musashi arrived at his duel with Sasaki Kojiro late and with his appearance being a mess,” Paul thrust his thumbs into his pockets, running them along the velvet inner pockets of his blazer. He had been speaking for five minutes already. His mouth was now running without his brain’s instruction. He hated doing presentations like this one. He could feel the eyes of everyone in the room on him, judging every stutter and mistake.
“Musashi utilized strategy rather than the aesthetics of swordsmanship in the duel. One could say that his strategy only used cheap tricks. However, he believed in the practicality of fighting and swordsmanship, not the aesthetics of it.”
Paul glanced around the room as his mouth continued to move. Robby was sitting backward at his desk, talking to some girl. She was now scribbling something on his hand. For a moment, she stopped writing and peered up at Paul. He dropped his eyes to the floor. Words poured out of his mouth even faster now. He clicked the button of the computer mouse. Then his shaking finger hit the button again. An uncomfortably warm redness spread along his face as he apologized before returning to the correct slide.
“And… um… itissaid… I mean… um it is said that Musashi waited for the sun to shine directly into the place of the duel in order to inhibit Sasaki Kojiro.”
Paul looked sideways at the teacher who was flashing him a sign with a number “five” on it. Five minutes. God! I’m not going to have time for everything!
Paul sighed and continued. “In the duel, Musashi used a bokken or wooden sword…”
Four minutes later, Paul finished. He took a deep breath and staggered to the teacher’s desk. Mrs. Jones handed him a slip of paper. It read, “47/50.”
The teacher leaned over and whispered, “Great content as always, Paul. It’s a good thing that was mostly what I was grading on. Your speaking skills could use some work. Try not to be so nervous next time. You always do so well that I’m never sure why you worry so much.”
Paul nodded and went back to his desk. Asking me not to be nervous is like asking not to breathe. I just do it. I probably shouldn’t have even gotten an A. Mrs. Jones probably just feels bad for me. I can’t speak two words without stuttering.
“Mr. Swanson,” Mrs. Jones called out. “You’re up next.”
Robby reluctantly ended his conversation with the girl sitting in front of him and strolled to the front of the room. He pulled out a mess of notecards out of his pocket before beginning his presentation in the booming voice of a used car salesman.
“Before I show my slides,” he began, “I’ll start by saying that my presentation contains a lot of exciting news. As some of you guys might have heard, there was a discovery last week off the coast of Spain in the Atlantic Ocean. At the bottom of the ocean, they discovered an entire underwater island. I think we all know what that means. Atlantis has been found!”
Paul pressed his forehead into his desk. I knew that helping him with this project was a terrible idea. The project called for a presentation of the historical roots of a legend or legendary figure. It wasn’t supposed to be about conspiracy theories.
Seven minutes of conjecture later, Robby returned to his seat with a grin that showed that he was quite proud of himself.
“What grade did you get?” he asked as he peered over Paul’s shoulder as he studied the rubric that Mrs. Jones had given him for the tenth time. “An A? Dang. I got a C. You’re a genius, kid. I keep telling you.”
Robby slid down the sleeve of his blazer, exposing ink-smeared digits on his wrist and hand. He grinned proudly. “Allie Boucher’s number.”
Paul studied his friend’s hand for a moment. “I hate to tell you this, but you’re missing a few digits.”
The sound of the bell covered up Robby’s cursing.
“Hey, maybe you can sit by her at the assembly and get the rest of the number,” suggested Paul sarcastically.
Robby kept his head pointed to the ground in disappointment as the two made their way to the auditorium. The room was large but filled with a musky smell that came from old velvet seat cushions. For a moment, Paul had to force down the rusted hinge on his seat before he could squeeze into it.
Aren’t private schools supposed to be rich enough to afford minor things like seats that were made before nineteen fifty? Paul thought wryly.
A few rows away, Paul could hear a couple of boys from his last class talking about their grades on their presentations.
“Did ya hear what she gave that one kid?” one asked before answering his own questions. “Forty-seven out of fifty when he could barely talk up there. What’s his name again?”
“I think it’s Pete,” the other answered.
“Yeah, P-P-Pete,” the first one exclaimed in a mix of fake stammer and unmuffled laughter.
“I know, right? He’s like all s-s-samurai and mushi-mushi-ishi. It’s more like n-nerdy A-A-Asian fetish, I swear.”
Do they seriously not know I’m right here? At least make fun of me when I’m out of earshot. What are their names again? Paul pondered. Austin and Dallas? No, wait… there’s no way that’s right. Why am I so bad with names?
Paul’s right hand started shaking as he sat down. He closed his eyes. I should just go hide in the bathroom until with is over.
Memories he had long tried burying tore their way back to the surface of his mind like a drowning man reaching for the surface. He could see his Aunt Morgan with her eyes rimmed with red struggling to complete the sentence, “Paul…your dad…he…passed away when…”
“What’s this assembly for again?” asked Robby who had gained back some of his composure after his recent rejection.
His words were enough to draw Paul back from the confines of his mind.
“It’s the Amulus presentation. The same as every year,” explained Paul, trying to sound casual. “Someone from A.R.C. or A.I.M. will talk about Amulus, and they’ll see if we react to any crystals.”
“I know everyone thinks these things are boring now, but I’ve always wanted to be an Amulus,” Robby said with enthusiasm. “I mean, who doesn’t want superpowers?”
“I’m sure your family and their company would love that,” retorted Paul with mock sharpness. “I’ve read in the news that they have been trying really hard to shut down A.R.C. and A.I.M.”
Robby shrugged. “They don’t really like superhumans policing themselves. I think my dad called it ‘letting the inmates run the asylum. Me on the other hand, I’ve read enough comic books to like superheroes. I don’t really care what my family thinks as long as I get superpowers. I mean… like, don’t you want superpowers?”
“I guess,” answered Paul, “but it doesn’t seem very… enjoyable this way. The way things stand, Amulus are either taken and held by A.R.C. or tested for medical research by A.I.M. Either way, you can’t really live a normal life. Think about it this way, the law basically protects people from Amuli. That’s because people are afraid of them. On the other hand, the Amuli get stripped of their rights for life. Plus, there is always the chance you could…” Paul took a pause and mumbled. “You know, whatever.”
“Or,” started Robby raising a fist into the air, “you can become a superhero and fight against “evil” organizations like A.R.C. and A.I.M.”
Paul smiled. It felt as if Robby had been cheering him up all his life. They had known each other since they were six, after all.
“If it comes to that, I’ll be your sidekick.”
The arrival of a group of people on the stage of the auditorium interrupted their conversation. The school principal, Mr. Lance, eagerly strode across the stage, leading a group of five men and five women dressed in black suits with blank expressions. Mr. Lance’s maroon jacket made him look like a cardinal amid crows. The suits carried large black cases to a table where they carefully laid out several metal objects. The more eager of the students craned their necks to get a glimpse of the strange items.
Displayed on the cloth-covered table was a variety of weapons and jewelry. None of the weapons displayed were modern but instead came from a variety of time periods. On the left side of the table was a collection of swords including several medieval, arming swords from Europe, Renaissance-era rapiers and longswords, and even a late Roman spatha. Also on the table was a collection of bows, including two English longbows. The last category of weapons consisted of guns, including a blunderbuss and a Revolutionary War-era rifle. Embedded in the handles and hilts of each weapon were crystals that were mostly clear except for faint hints of color. The jewelry comprised of bracelets, necklaces, and rings, each containing the same type of crystal as the ones found in the antique weapons. The old lights of the auditorium reflected onto the metal and wood of the items, giving them a yellowish hue.
“I’m thinking the musket,” whispered Robby as he attempted to peer over the basketball player sitting in front of him. “My grandpa used to tell me my great-great-great- whatever fought in the Civil War.”
“That’s actually a Kentucky long rifle,” corrected Paul softly. “It was actually much more accurate than a musket, and it’s probably from the American Revolution or War of eighteen twelve. They’re called ‘Kentucky’ long rifles, but they were actually first made in Pennsylvania. Back then-”
“Hey,” interrupted Robby, “history class ended already, and now, the world’s greatest showman is about to take the stage.”
“Settle down, everyone,” began Mr. Lance in a vain attempt to quiet the drone of conversation in the room. “I know everyone is excited for this year’s presentation from Amulus Regional Containment. I know that I sure am! I’m sure each of you is familiar with the valuable, valuable work they do in the world. Nevertheless, Mr. Luper will explain the work he does to help keep to the world safe for all of us. Now I give you, Mr. Gregory Luper!”
One of the men who had been carrying the cases took the principal’s place at the podium. He had a short, dark beard that could have used a trimming and hair that much needed combing, both were flecked grey. Despite his unkempt appearance, he had a powerful presence in the room. As he moved to the podium, the steady curves of well-built muscles could be seen under the covering of his sleeves and pant legs. His expression was that of boredom and his eyes were like two hazel, black, and white marbles.
“Right then,” he said after clearing his throat. “I’m sure everyone here is used to this system by now. If we have any volunteers, please come to the stage and walk by these items. If any crystals start to glow, then please speak up. Remember, government law states that it is your right to choose whether to take part in this process.”
Mr. Lance came speed-walking back to the podium after the agent vacated it.
“While each of you decides on whether or not to come up to the stage since,” interrupted the principal in an attempt to save the formalness of the presentation, “I will recount the history of the Amulus and also that of A.R.C. and A.I.M.”
“Here we go,” whispered Robby to Paul. “I saw his file when I was doing filing in detention one time. He got his master’s in theater before going back to school for teaching. It explains so much. Like Arthur Miller said, ‘All the world’s a stage.’”
“That was Shakespeare,” corrected Paul. “Come on, that’s an easy one. Everyone knows that.”
Robby shook his head. “That was the first play-writing-guy on my mind. I fell asleep when we read Death of a Salesman in English yesterday. When I woke up, the salesman was dead, so I figured that I didn’t miss anything.”
Paul chuckled as Mr. Lance began his speech to a chorus of groans.
“It was only a few decades ago that the idea of superhumans was only seen as material for movies and comic books,” the principal began in a voice resembling that of a movie trailer narrator. “However, in the nineteen-eighties, it was discovered that supermen really could exist.”
A voice in the crowd briefly interrupted Mr. Lance, shouting, “Oh God, this again?” This was accompanied by ensuing bouts of laughter.
Mr. Lance cleared his throat and continued undeterred by the now-muffled laughter. “Logic-defying treasures were found after being hidden deep underground in regions around the world. These treasure troves were made up of antique weapons and jewelry dating from ancient times all the way to the late eighteen hundreds. Set into each of the items were curious crystals, resembling gemstones. When one particular researcher touched a crystal, something truly astounding happened.”
The principal paused and held up an array of wiggling fingers as if he were trying to hold the attention of a group of small children. A flurry of teenagers rolling their eyes greeted him.
“The crystal glowed and, upon further inspection, the scholar realized he had been gifted with enhanced strength. Not only that, but he had a shining aura that he could cast around him in bursts. It was discovered that the constant aura could disintegrate high-speed projectiles, making the holder of the crystal effectively bullet-proof. Naturally, militaries around the world raced to get their hands on these crystals and people who could use them. Further research showed that every crystal had only one user who became known as Amuli. A crystal is bonded to an Amulus for life, they are inseparable. Equally inseparable are the crystals from the weapons or jewelry to which they are fused. Inseparable and unbreakable.”
There were more groans from the crowd as Mr. Lance reached the crescendo of his performance.
“The time of these discoveries occurred at the tail end of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw Amuli soldiers as an outlet to their hostilities that was not as drastic as the mutually assured destruction of a nuclear war. However, they were wrong. When the two forces met in western Alaska, the world saw annihilation not seen since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Within hours of the commencement of the battle, huge swaths of land were wiped off the planet, including most of Alaska’s western islands.
“The worldwide community was outraged and horrified by the actions of the two world superpowers. Desperate, the United Nations took steps to put the power of anima out of the hands of nations for fear that worse conflicts would follow. The organization created two companies in order to police and contain Amuli around the world. They were created by Amuli for Amuli. Amulus Regional Containment was made to house Amuli as well as to protect Amuli around the globe from the world and from themselves. A.R.C. ushered in a new era of cooperation between the nations of the world. Even developing counties with less than effective governments and totalitarian states became subject to A.R.C.’s guidance. Its sister company, Amulus International Medicine, specializes in studying the amazing healing properties exhibited by Amuli and applying them for scientific and medicinal purposes.
“Here today, each of you will have the opportunity to walk past these anima items and to see if you may become an Amulus. As always, this is completely voluntary, and if you volunteer and do not emerge as an Amulus, do not be heartbroken. Amuli only make up only a small fraction of the world’s population, numbering less than a hundred thousand people total. Above all else, this experience is simply a way to involve you young people with this important process, while, possibly, making your dreams come true. Without further ado, volunteers may now proceed forward and pass by the anima items. Come on now don’t be shy.”
The A.R.C. representative rocked back on his heels and blinked his eyes as if he were waking up from a nap on his feet. “Right. The volunteers can come forward now.”
In the front row, a few giggling girls formed an impromptu conga line as they paraded to the stage. Two rows in front of Paul, a group of boys joking around shoved their friend out into the aisle. Red-faced and laughing, he scrambled back to his seat.
It’s a joke to them, Paul observed. A generation ago, things like Amuli were new and frightening. Now, everyone is desensitized to something as crazy as this. There hasn’t been a major incident involving a rogue Amulus in years… in the United States at least. It’s all become so normal.
“Let’s go, sidekick,” Robby muttered as he slid out of his seat.
Paul begrudgingly stood up and carefully shuffled past a student who fallen asleep leaning forward into the seat in front of him. Paul could not see the student’s face but the stench mixture of weed, alcohol, and sweat singed the hair inside his nostrils.
“Seems like Dane’s been pre-gaming before school again,” whispered Robby.
Paul shook his head. “I don’t understand why…”
“Now’s my turn to teach you something. Pre-gaming is…”
“I know what ‘pre-gaming’ is, Robby.”
Robby shrugged and left it at that.
No matter how much his legs protested, Paul couldn’t let Robby see how much he didn’t want to participate. He just wanted to fit in and treat this event as a joke like everyone else.
Paul’s heart pounded as he joined a short line of students at the side stairs of the stage. He was sure some blood vessel in his neck would burst as he could feel it beating in time with his heart.
As he passed one row, Paul heard a chorus of spitting as Jack and his friends sent brown goo into empty water and Gatorade bottles.
“Ya, know,” muttered Jack as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, “I can see where some of the Hunters are coming from. Not like killin’ all the Amuli, but that they’re not natural. I mean, why do they get to be more powerful than everyone else? They’re so strong that they could take over the government if they haven’t already. And, all this parading their guys around schools to make more of ‘em? It’s weird, man. Only the Hunters are just sayin’ what everyone else is thinkin’.”
The other boys in the row nodded and grunted in approval.
This was the last speech Paul wanted to hear. I wonder what he would do to me if he ever found out that my dad was an Amulus. Not that I’ve ever told anyone.
When the procession reached the anima items, he shivered. Suddenly, he was five years old again.
~ ~ ~
Aunt Morgan held up a shimmering gold chain. “This was your dad’s.”
Paul reached out a hand, feeling the bumps of cool metal.
“It used to be a necklace. There was a blue crystal that went in the center, but it’s gone now.”
She took a deep breath and a thick film of tears swelled in her eyes. Paul stared deeply into the blue eyes. He had never seen her cry before. He’d seen her laugh a thousand times before that. She was always happy and strong. The only mother he had ever known.
“The people you see on the news… and the ones you learn about in school… the ones with those powers. You see, your dad was one of them, an Amulus. He found this necklace when I was young, about ten.” Her voice wavered again. “Oh, Paul, I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to tell you all this. I was going to wait until you were older, but you’re so smart for your age. You’re so smart, and you deserve to know. You have to keep this a secret though. Your dad wanted this all to be a secret.”
~ ~ ~
Every one of Paul’s steps on the stage made him feel like he had lead weights in his shoes. He was sure that he was about to fall through the floor. It occurred to him that this entire event was ridiculous.
In what world are high school students offered weapons and superpowers? On the other hand, being an Amulus is so rare that one is seldom found in one of these events. This is all a formality. A way to make ordinary people think that they in control. In reality, they are the ones controlling us. This is all in their best interest since it increases their numbers.
Paul stared down at the gleaming blades. They were as haunting as if they would have been stained with blood. According to A.I.M.’s reports, anima items never showed tarnish or damage no matter how long ago they had been created. The exact reason for this was still not known to the public. That was another reason for Paul to dread the low possibility of becoming an Amulus. Both A.R.C. and A.I.M. were very restrictive about the information they released. All the public had been told about the two groups were their chief purposes as Mr. Lance had described. There was only an occasional press release about A.I.M.’s research and A.R.C.’s missions in securing for rogue Amuli. The inner workings of the organizations remained complete mysteries. Conspiracy theories ranging from alien invasions to human sacrifices were abundant on the internet. Massive multinational organizations like A.R.C. and A.I.M. naturally attracted bizarre theories about possible clandestine activities. It had become something of a hobby for Paul to research these theories, partly for curiosity’s sake and partly for a good laugh.
Paul took in a deep breath as he reached the end of the weapons section of the table.
Maybe it was a mistake to be so worried about this. Paul thought to himself, allowing a slight ripple of relief to wash over him.
His eyes caught a soft blue glinting in the corner of his vision. He felt as if something was squeezing his stomach and pushing its contents up to his throat. He turned to see the last item on the table, a golden necklace with an iridescent blue crystal. The color of the chain was different, but the crystal was just as he imagined it, slim and as bright as a sapphire in the sun.
The memories of his childhood came rushing back again.
~ ~ ~
“It was hard for him at first,” Aunt Morgan continued with her eyes gazing past the present and back to old memories. “He was always being pursued by Hunters, the evil guys who want to kill all the Amuli. Our parents, your grandparents didn’t know what to do. A.R.C. and A.I.M. had just been created and had only taken in a few Amuli at that point. We moved around a lot back then, but it didn’t help in the end. The Hunters caught him when he was walking home from school. We were so scared. I was young that I didn’t understand everything, but I knew that I missed my brother. Weeks went by before we heard that A.R.C. had rescued him. After that, he went to work for them, and I could only see him once every few months.
“He met your mother there. She was a researcher for A.R.C. It’s not fair that you can’t see how much you are like her. She was the smartest person I’ve ever met and extremely kind too. She was the sister I always wanted. Then it all went wrong. You were only a few months old when more and more Hunter groups started to form. Paul… your dad… he… died when… the Hunters got to him. They tracked your mother down too…”
~ ~ ~
“What’s up?” asked Robby curiously from behind Paul.
Paul shook his head, trying to shake the spider-web of memories from his head. “I… uh…”
He followed a ray that extended from the auditorium lights onto the crystal.
So that’s what was causing it to glow. Paul realized as he felt a weight being lifted from his body.
One of the representatives who were surrounding the table gave Paul a stern look that meant it was time to get moving. Paul’s face reddened when he noticed that all the suits and most of the students were staring at him for holding up the line. Now, he really did wish that stage floor would swallow him whole.
Paul slumped back into his seat and leaned into the collar of his blazer in an attempt to conceal his reddened face. He felt a slight tap on his shoulder, which was followed by a heavy-handed thump. Peering over the fabric of the blazer, he saw a pair of broad shoulders.
“Hey, I’m… uh… sorry about earlier,” Jack mumbled his apology.
Paul gave a surprised, slow nod.
“I was ticked off ‘cuz I got a poor grade on a test in my computer science class,” Jack murmured while rubbing his index finger under his nose. “It just sucks, ya know? My dad wants me to major in computer science in college, so I’ve gotta figure this stuff out.”
Paul continued to nod. He was still half-expecting Jack’s mood to snap from apologetic to accusatory. It wasn’t like Jack to claim to be completely at fault about anything.
“Then, I saw you sleeping in the library,” Jack continued, “and I was like, ‘who’s this guy who always gets A’s but never seems to work hard at all.’ No offense, but you always seem bored as hell and never want to do anything with anyone.”
Paul winced. As with most sentences that he had heard begin with “no offense,” there was some offense given.
“Anyway, I was pissed because my dad always tells me I’m going to major in computer science in college because it’s the future or whatever. I was wondering if you could look over some of my homework to see if I’m on the right track. I can’t keep C and C# or C-flat or whatever straight. They all just seem like random numbers and letters.”
“Sure,” Paul answered shakily.
He was completely thrown off by this display of regret by Jack. He still expecting another backhanded comment, or worse, an actual backhand. Either he had turned over a new leaf or had really done poorly on that STEM test.
“Actually, Robby is even better at coding than I am. You might want to ask him.”
Jack shook his head. “Nah. Swanson would probably play some kinda prank on me and give me the wrong answers.”
Jack’s stony face made Paul unsure if he was joking. Paul gave an uneasy smile, just in case.
“So,” Jack closed his eyes as if he were about to do something painful. His speech became unsure and awkward, which was a far cry from his usual smugness. “I was wondering if you wanted to stop by my family’s cottage on the river this weekend and help me. Afterward, some of the guys and I are having a party, and my parents don’t care what we do. They’re chill like that. If you helped me… then you would like… be able to come.”
The color drained from Paul’s face. Oh, great. The last place I want to be is in a small cabin filled with giant, drunk teenagers. But if I say no, Jack is going to freak out on me again and may never forgive me for it.
“Well, I…” Paul began speaking as his brain thought up a solution. “I’m actually going to be busy this weekend… but… email me a copy of your homework, and I’ll look it over.”
Jack was clearly holding back a smile of relief. “Oh, okay. That works for me.”
“My email is just my name with the school email address at the end.”
“Alright, thanks. So, we’re cool now, right?” Jack punched Paul in the shoulder that was meant to be playful but instead spread a painful, icy numbness down the scrawny boy’s arm.
“Yeah,” Paul agreed before waiting for Jack to walk away so he could massage his arm without embarrassment.