The Return of Emma Frost
The Return of Emma Frost
By SF Noah
Return to Claremont: Day 1
The closing of Kirby High School impacted nearly everyone in Madison, New York. Not least of all, the Madison family itself.
Kirby High School has sentimental value to my family, if you’ll believe it, so it was a sorry blow to have it shut down. My father fought for it to stay open as much as possible; conducting fundraisers, proposing renovations. He even threatened to remove city council members if he didn’t have his way. Regardless, the council was set on closing it down. I believe it was due to reputation more than anything.
Because of this, my father was very upset about the closure. As anybody would be, if their grandfather and grandfather-in-law had helped to build the school from the ground up. I believe him sending me to Claremont was a form of petty revenge against the system, but I can never tell. He’s an eccentric man.
This is how I found myself packing the very day after the closure was announced, ready to head to my old school, Claremont Academy, as soon as possible. Of course, it’s usually not ideal for students to join right in the middle of finals week, but once again, my father knows how to pull strings.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I did a great job of hiding my feelings.
“You can’t be serious,” I groaned for probably the twentieth time that day.
“It’s only one year, Em,” My mom sighed. She handed me a toothbrush which I stuffed into my suitcase. My room had been scoured for all of the essentials: clothes, books, my guitar, etc. It made the room look very empty and discouraging. “It’s not at all the end of the world.”
“But I don’t want to spend my Senior year in Claremont of all places.” I laid down on my bed and stared at the ceiling. “Without my friends, without the teachers, without Clark-”
“Maybe it’s for the best? Clark is-”
I sat up and glared. “Oh, don’t start. I’m not breaking up with him just because dad thinks he’s a jerk. He’s not.”
Mom threw her hands up, defensively. “I didn’t say anything, don’t worry. You know I like him. But maybe you’re moving for a reason. Now, that Declan boy-”
I stood up, slammed my suitcase closed, and left my bedroom. “Thanks for the help, Mom. I can pack the rest of it up later.”
There was another reason they wanted me to go to Claremont. The students there were ‘better role models’…especially Declan Parrish. But I didn’t want to think about him anymore than I had to, which was unfortunately quite a lot already.
I was so annoyed that I bumped into Ella and Ethan in the hallway. They were straining to lift a couch without scratching the floor. As I bumped Ethan’s shoulder, he dropped his end of the couch and it landed on his foot.
“Emily! Watch it!” he shouted, nursing his toes.
“What’s with the couch?” I asked, crossing my arms.
“You’re moving out,” Ella explained. “This means there’s a new room ripe for the taking.”
“We’ll miss you very much,” Ethan added.
“That’s not fair!” I stammered. “That’s still my room!”
Ella laughed. “You’re going to be gone for a full year. You can have it back when you’re home.”
Ethan picked up his end of the couch again. “You’d do the same to us.”
“No, I- well, yes, I would, but that’s still not fair.”
“Have fun at school, sis,” Ethan said as he passed me again.
As you can see, everyone was practically weeping over my departure.
The one person who seemed sad about me going was my dog, a dumpy old basset hound who trundled up to me at the foot of the stairs. Tobias was his name, and he’d been in our family as long as I could remember. I stopped down and scratched the skin under his ears, his favorite spot. Tobias’ tail wagged and he licked my arm, slobbering all over it.
“I’ll miss you too, buddy. I’ll be back next year!”
He kept licking me happily, but I could tell his eyes understood I’d be gone for awhile. I sat scratching Tobias for a while. I was annoyed, and just a bit angry, with my family. Why did they want to take out their frustration on me? Why let Ethan and Ella take my room immediately?
I took my phone out of my pocket, wanting to talk to someone, but I hit a social block. I didn’t want to send Clark my woes again; lord knows I’d done it enough over the past few days. It was then that I realized that I didn’t have the closest friends at Kirby, anyway. A few of the girls, like Tilly and Laura, were really nice, of course, but I didn’t know them well enough to send them a ranting text. I’d talked with Ally a bit, but again, she wasn’t the type to vent to. The guys were the same way, and even worse, because aside from Andy and Dove, the maturity levels were still underwhelming.
After scrolling through my contact list for far too long (and feeling depressed because of it) I settled on Robby.
“Hey, Rob. My family is nearly killing me. Please send reinforcements or a lawsuit.”
After hitting send, I leaned back on Tobias and breathed. He panted and laid down. There was no getting out of this big move. I just had to accept that and make the most of my situation.
After a few minutes, a heard a ding on my phone. I checked it. A message from Robby. All it said was, “oof. that sucks.”
First Day Back
My first day back was very quiet.
As part of my need to ‘get everything over with’ I wanted to start school as soon as I moved. This, as with many of my decisions lately, would prove to be a bad idea.
I joined in the middle of test week. As such, many of the students were holed up in classrooms and I had practically nothing to do. But, almost as a coincidence, the very first person I met was an old friend of mine named Lila Carlyle.
She was just stepping out of her classroom when I passed by in the hall. A giant smile nearly took up her entire face.
“EMILY MADISON!” she shouted. She tackled me in a hug that nearly crushed my lungs. I hugged her back, of course.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” she said, still screaming in my ear. “It’s been forever!”
I wondered how to respond. We’d kept up, of course, on Facebook, but I was always careful about sharing too much. I realized it was because I never wanted to come back here, really. “I know! I was, uh, one of the students at Kirby High School, when it closed. So, now I’m back here.”
“Kirby?” Lila’s nose wrinkled. “I heard that place was disgusting. I’m so sorry for you.”
“It wasn’t bad at all, really. I met some amazing people and an amazing guy.”
Lila’s gave me a knowing glance. “Oh really? What’s his name?”
Her nose wrinkled for the second time. “What is he, 40? Who names a kid Clark nowadays?”
I felt defensive. “Clark’s mother, apparently. But really, he’s awesome. You’d love him.”
“Sure.” She was still smirking. “Now that you’ve moved, though, are you staying at it? Or do you want to explore other options.”
“What? No! Definitely not.”
“Long-distance, huh?” She seemed disbelieving. “Well, sure. I’ll respect it.” She gave me another massive hug. “I’ve got another test in five minutes, but it’s so good to see you! I can’t wait to catch up. Bye!” She dashed away and disappeared around the corner.
That was when I made the mistake of turning around.
There he was. I wanted to punch his smug face in.
The hall was about halfway full. Most kids had gone to their classrooms, and the few left were in groups, talking quietly. Declan was in the middle of the floor, letting everyone walk around him. He commanded (even unconscious) respect from everyone around him. He didn’t even recognize that there were other people around him. It was just Declan, and, unfortunately, me.
“It’s good to see you, Emily,” he said. He sounded like he really meant it. His eyes looked very happy, even if his expression was guarded. He hadn’t changed much at all – his black hair cropped closely to his head in a symmetrical crew-cut. He dressed the same way, with a nice jacket over a simple t-shirt. It was a bit of facade, meant to let people think he was a humble guy. I knew the truth; that jacket cost more than most peoples’ entire wardrobes. The book he held in his hand served the same purpose; onlookers would think he was studying hard, when in reality I’m not sure he’d studied a day in his life.
“Emily?” he repeated. He laughed, lightly. “You in there?”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. There was simply a lot of baggage to unpack. “Hello, Declan,” I responded politely, if a bit coldly.
“It’s been way too long. I bet you hardly recognize the place.”
I looked around the walls, considering. “No, no, it’s pretty much exactly how I remember it.” Truth be told, it had changed; the arched windows were higher, the paint on the walls was brighter, and there were quite a few more student art projects displayed in the halls and out.
Declan shrugged. “Well, looks can be deceiving. A lot’s changed, in more ways than one.” My ex-boyfriend strolled forward, wanting to close the gap. Ironically, he would wink at any girls that caught his eye, causing a geyser of giggles and blushes. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could.
“You haven’t changed a bit, Emily!” he said, kindly. I wanted to contradict him, but I’d already done that. “Now, tell me. How is your hometown? Must’ve been a bit boring, the past few years.”
I thought back over the past three years at Kirby. Boring was definitely not a word I would use to describe my enrollment. “It was…different.” I wanted to change gears. “And I met a great guy down there. We’ve been dating almost since I started going.”
Declan was never good at hiding his emotions, and that was still true today. His face immediately fell, even amidst his best attempts to keep it up. “Oh. Well, Emily, I am very happy for you.” He turned towards the window so I couldn’t look him in the eye. “I’m sure he’d be coming here now. Which Porsche is his?”
“He’s actually staying back in Madison. For senior year, at least.”
And once again, Declan’s emotions were on full display. I immediately regretted telling that piece of information. However, he held himself back. “I see. Well, Claremont isn’t for everybody.”
“Ooh! I almost forgot.” Declan held up the book he’d been holding, and flipped to a page in the middle held by a bookmark. He removed the bookmark and, with my stomach plummeting, I realized what it was. A reminder of who I used to be.
“I found it a little while before you came back,” he explained. “I thought it would make a great homecoming gift.”
Before I could refuse, he placed it in my hand: a paper puppet decorated in the likeness of frequent X-Men villain, Emma Frost. Declan had once utilized a Doctor Doom puppet, a character with whom he felt a kinship – he didn’t have a subtle bone in his body. To match, he’d given me a villain of equal stature, but it was never in doubt who was the one in charge. I didn’t like having it back.
“This should help make things feel a bit more familiar!” He grinned again, doing his best to put me at ease. “I’ve gotta get to class. It was great seeing you again, Emily!”
He passed me and waved. I ignored him. For a moment, I stood alone in the halls of my own school. Looking at the puppet in my hand, and my ex striding around the school like he owned it (which he practically did) I caught myself wondering: had things really changed at all?
Last Minute Prep
My house had way too many people in it, but I’d invited them all anyway so it was my fault.
The month was August. The time was 3:40 PM. Four of my closest friends, my younger brother and my mother were scouring my room for crap that I might need for my extended stay upstate. Yes, I do consider that too many people in my house. It’s a small house.
Four months ago, in the waning days of May, a bald kid had showed up at my door saying that there was trouble at one Claremont Academy, the school that my girlfriend, Emily, was currently attending. Naturally, I wanted to go there immediately and help her out; my uncle had just opened a music store near the school and I could get a job there to help pay for any expenses.
Unfortunately, according to my mom, big decisions like that required ‘planning’ and a ‘clear head’. So, during the summer, I’d been making plans to get up there. Finally, in August, I was ready to go. I just needed to pack. And lo and behold, my friends were willing to help me out.
“Will you need this toothbrush?” Dove, my large, blonde Icelandic practically-adopted-older-brother asked. After moving my bed from the wall, he had been picking up whatever lay under it. Somehow, a toothbrush had fallen underneath. I couldn’t tell if Dove was being serious or not. To be safe, I ignored him; thankfully Ally, general voice of reason and Dove’s tiny girlfriend, swatted it out of his hand.
“Tell me again what the Silvergami Surfer guy told you?” Robby, my best friend, asked. “It’s so confusing.”
“For one, it’s the Origami Silver Surfer,” I corrected. Robby looked confused. “I know, right? Apparently there’s no puns. Anyway, the bald dude named Sandy told me that there’s a bad guy making trouble and his name is Darren Parcel or something. Apparently he’s Emily’s ex.”
“And you didn’t know about this?” Andy, my other best friend, piped up from down the hall where he was helping arrange my suitcase.
“No, no I didn’t,” I murmured. Something like evil ex-boyfriends felt like an important oversight, since we’d been dating for three years. It hurt that I’d never heard the guy’s name. There was probably a reason, though. I just needed to figure out what the reason was.
“Hey, no, don’t touch that!” I shouted. Cal, my younger brother, was reaching for Dummy, my child, on the highest shelf in the room. Dummy, of course, is not a human child, but my Lego Robot project that I devoted blood, sweat and tears to. Incidentally, he was also the reason I ever started the whole Iron Fold thing. In reverence, he was atop the shelf, never to be moved.
“He looks lonely,” Cal said. “He’ll need a friend while you’re gone.”
I glanced at Cal’s face. Ever since I told him and my mom that I’d be leaving for a few months, he’d been upset. I did my best to ignore it; I mean, I’d have to leave someday. But…I don’t know. Should Dummy never be moved? Nah.
I reached up to the shelf and gingerly carried him down. I handed him to Cal, who took it just as gingerly.
I scratched my neck. “Don’t, uh, kill him. He’s been through it already.”
Cal rolled his eyes. “How stupid do you think I am? I mean, it’s not like I’ll-” He stepped forward and fell forwards, nearly dropping Dummy to the ground. My heart nearly stopped. Then he stood up, and I realized he hadn’t actually tripped. I glowered. He smirked. “Don’t worry about it. He’ll be safe with me.”
“Uh, yeah. I have full faith in you.”
Cal dashed off to his room to find a spot to put my prized probe. While he was gone, I turned to the small nightstand desk across from my bed. The desk was home to a fishbowl housing Mario II – Mario I had died a year ago. Using the tin, I dropped some fish food into the bowl. Mario II ate it up graciously.
Next to the fishbowl were two pictures; one from my second year at Kirby, of me, Robby, and my then-new girlfriend Emily. I noticed I still looked like I thought I was the greatest thing in the world. I wanted to smack younger me, but in a loving way, of course. Next to that was a picture taken only a couple months afterwards, of me and my team, the OrigAvengers: skinny Andy next to apathetic Clark, endearing Jesse talking the ear off sort-of-annoyed Jessica, and Dove and Ally doing their own thing. I missed those days.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Robby.
“You’re not leaving for good, you know,” he said.
I smirked. “You say that like I don’t have a choice.”
“You think you do?” he replied. “Look, I get it. Emily is amazing, and you go be with her for as long as you can. But as soon as classes are over next year, be right back and then I’ll tell you off for abandoning me.”
I shrugged. “Eh, I can agree to those terms.”
Me and Rob hugged each other. You know, like men do. I was going to call him, and text him, and visit over Christmas break, but it still felt hard to leave for however important this was. I wasn’t going to let him down.
My mom poked her head in the door. “I think we’ve got everything ready out here. How about you?”
“We’ve gotten just about everything out from behind the bed,” Ally reported. She gave me a pointed look. “Never ask me to clean out your bedroom ever again.”
“It was not very fun,” Dove confirmed, holding in a laugh.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” I nodded to my mom. “I think we’re done here.”
The whole group filed out of my bedroom. I picked up my suitcase, filled to the brim with whatever I could find, and led the whole troupe, including Cal, down the stairs, out the front door and onto the sidewalk where my truck was waiting. I tossed my suitcase onto the truck bed.
“Are you sure you’ll be safe driving up?” my mom asked.
I groaned. We’d been over this already. “Mom, it’s straight roads and sunny all day. I think I can make a three-hour trip just fine. I don’t have you or Cal complaining about the bathroom every five minutes, either.”
Mom put both hands on shoulders. “Okay, I trust you. Just be careful. Make sure you’re always in bed at a reasonable time; you’re 18, not 20. Treat Emily well; make sure you’re safe and, you know, no-”
I shivered. “Mom, mom, I know. None of that.”
“Good.” She looked firm, but her expression immediately mellowed. “Make sure to call every couple days, and a good old-fashioned letter wouldn’t kill you either. And make sure Ricky calls me every once and awhile, too.”
Mom pulled me into a tight hug, and, of course, I hugged her back. She released me and kissed me on the cheek.
Next, I turned to Andy, Dove, and Ally. As per usual these days, Dove and Ally were holding hands, completely in love. Andy was their unofficial chaperone, always being around to help either of them out. It was adorable.
“I’ve always wondered what Claremont was like,” Andy mused. “I’m really looking forward to hearing how you like it.”
“Knowing me, I won’t,” I sighed. “But I’ll get over it.”
Andy nodded. “You get over a lot of things you don’t like. It’s a good skill.”
Dove and Ally were going to be the last of the original OrigAvengers to remain at Wheeler Academy. I made sure to pound that knowledge into their heads. “You gotta be shining pillars of maturity and power, guys.”
Dove, ever the dramatic, saluted. “We will do our absolute best to bear a good example to the impressionable youth, Clark.”
“I don’t think you have to worry,” Ally said. “We’ve left a good pattern already. Wheeler will be fine.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Finally, Rob and, most importantly, Cal.
Rob just hugged me again. He got emotional really easily. I didn’t mind. “I’ll miss you, man,” he said.
Cal was doing his best to keep a straight face. If I’m being honest, I was too. I’d never been apart from my brother for longer than a couple days. This would be much longer, and way different. I didn’t really know what to say.
“Do, uh, good at school,” I said. “Be a good hero-dude-person.”
Cal sighed. “I’m not sure that hero stuff is for me anymore, man. It’ll feel too weird.”
I nodded. “Whatever works for you.” I paused, trying to go over every last minute thing in my head. “Make sure to feed Mario II every day and night. Aside from that, you’re not allowed in my room. Under any circumstances. Ever.”
We stood still for a moment, before I pulled Cal into a bear hug.
After breaking free, I turned to my truck. I waved to the group standing outside my house. Opening the door, I sat down on the seat and turned the key. Driving off into the mid-August breeze, I was ready. I would help Emily with whatever problem she was dealing with, and be the hero she needed one more time.
No matter how I felt about the school at the moment, first days were always something I looked forward to. First days express another of the differences between Claremont Academy and Kirby High School: first days are days of excitement, of hope. Optimism is everywhere, as the whole student body feels the possibilities presented by a new year. It’s heartwarming, really.
I arrived at school on the first day – the end of August – very early. Old habits die hard, I guess. I wasn’t looking forward to facing any of my old classmates, Declan especially, but I remained upbeat. I’ve changed in the three years since I went to Claremont. Surely my classmates could as well.
With my uniform clean, backpack empty, and expectations high, I was ready to face the day.
“Emily! Hi!” Lila Carlyle said, throwing me into a tight hug as I walked in. “Summer was way too long. It’s so good to see you again.”
I remembered that Lila always got there early as well. She hadn’t changed much, I noted. “You too, Lila. How was your summer?”
“The usual,” she replied, beaming. “Daddy took us all to the lodge in Colorado. It’s really beautiful up there. The boys are especially cute this time of year.”
Yeah, she really hadn’t changed. I might have rolled my eyes.
“Oh, come on, Emily, don’t act like you’re not on the market,” she persisted. “You’re back, here, with your people. Mr. Parrish is still single.”
I looked at her seriously. “Quit it, Lila. I’ve got a boyfriend, a very nice one, back home. Even if I didn’t, Declan is so far down the list he might not even be on it.”
Lila frowned. “Suit yourself. He’ll be taken before you know it.”
I decided to change the subject. “So, what’s new this year? Any new teachers?”
Lila’s father was on the school board. Because of this, she usually knew what was going on. “I think so. Mr. Beauregard quit over the summer, acting like he’d found a new lease on life. The librarian retired, so that’s another replacement. The tutors are the same, also.”
“Interesting. I wish Mr. Beauregard luck.”
“His ‘new lease’ is Nathan Torres’ mom. It’ll never last.”
“You’re not very optimistic.”
“Sweetie, I just know these things.” She pivoted quickly. “Just like I know that your lost-distance relationship will never work out.”
I should’ve known she wouldn’t let it go that easily. “Wha- no, it will. Clark is just as committed as I am.”
“Well, if you don’t see him soon…” she shrugged.
“Of course I’ll see him soon. I’ll see him- Clark?”
Right there, in the doorway of the school, combatting the crowd of new students flooding in the entrance, wearing a Claremont Academy uniform that did not fit him at all, looking as confused as he ever did, was none other than Clark Anthony Largent.
“Clark?!” I repeated.
Clark looked up at the sound of my voice. “Emily!”
“That’s Clark?” Lila asked. “But he’s so-”
“Shut up, Lila!”
I fought through the crowd towards the entrance, and Clark towards me. I laughed seeing him push through kids and glare at anybody bumping him, but then again, I probably looked just as weird.
We met in the middle and hugged each other, hard.
“It’s so good to see you!” I shouted into his ear.
“Okay, it’s not that loud,” he laughed, “But man, I’ve missed you.”
The hug broke, but I still held onto his hands tightly. “What are you doing here? How are you even here? Why are you even here?”
“No clue, Ricky, and you,” he replied, quickly. “Well, uh, okay, better explanation: I am here spending way too much money because I heard you were in trouble, Ricky is letting me stay with him, and I’m here for you.”
I smiled. “Aww. That’s sweet.” I paused. “But, wait, what trouble?”
“This bald guy with a Silver Surfer puppet said he was from Claremont, and that a Demon Paris guy is making trouble. And that you’re his ex?” He went quiet. “Why did you never tell me about an ex?”
I sighed. “Not ‘Demon Paris’, Declan Parrish. He’s the richest guy in the school and he thinks he owns everything. He’s a horrible person. I never told you about him…because I was ashamed. I don’t like talking about it. He wasn’t good for me.”
“Okay…” Clark said, slowly. “Um, also, something about the X-Pen team? Who the heck are those guys?”
Lila tapped my shoulder. “Hello? Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Nodding, I let go of Clark’s right hand but held onto his left. “Yes, of course! Clark, this is Lila, one of my old friends. Lila, this is my boyfriend, Clark.”
“Howdy,” Clark greeted, extending his free hand for a handshake.
Lila didn’t look as courteous as she could have as she shook his hand. “Nice to meet you. Have you two been dating long?”
“Three years,” we said, simultaneously. I added, “Well, long enough to do that.”
“I didn’t actually think you were real.” Leave it to Lila to be so forthright. “Well, Clark, I’ll leave you to it!” She joined a group of her girl-friends and vanished.
“So, uh…what is this place?” Clark looked around, amazed. He was the definition of a fish out of water.
“Welcome to Claremont Academy!” I announced, putting on my best announcer voice. “Here, you’re family.”
“That’s Olive Garden.”
“We had the slogan first,” I claimed. “As you can see by the fact that we have uniforms, we are high-class. Honestly…that’s about all you have to know.”
Clark raised an eyebrow. “‘All I need to know?’ What about a super secret boyfriend?”
So much for beating around the bush. “Yeah, that was Declan. It was three years ago when I was a freshman. I thought I liked him, and I thought he liked me. But, I realized that he only liked the idea of me.” I led Clark out of the front entrance so we could be a bit more private. “He wanted to control me, and I didn’t want that. He was pretty much the only reason I left the school. Well, that and the fact that we looked down on everybody who wasn’t us.”
Clark instinctively grabbed my hand. “Oh. I’m really sorry, Em.” He surveyed the room. “Must not be the best feeling to be back here, then.”
I smiled, sadly. “Yeah, guess not. But…it’ll be way better with you here.” I gave him a quick kiss. “Do you have any idea where you’re supposed to go?”
“Not a frickin clue.” He pulled a schedule out of his jacket pocket. “I’ve got homeroom with…Mrs. Pate.”
“Ugh. I’ve got homeroom with Mr. Dyke, on the other side of the school.” Taking Clark’s schedule, I compared his day to mine, and my spirits sank. “We have exactly zero classes together.”
“Yes, it does. How about we meet after school?”
Clark’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, of course! I can take you Uncle Ricky’s store. I have to work, but I’m sure you’d love it.”
“It’s a date, Clark!”
Clark was already tripping over himself to get going to his class. “I probably shouldn’t be late today.” He gave my hand one last squeeze. “It’s really, really good to see you.”
And he was off! I felt so happy to see him, but a part of me nagged at me. ‘Clark won’t like it here. He won’t fit in at all. He’s not a part of your plans to fix this place up.’ I told that part of me to shut up. None of that should matter, now.
More of the Same
I looked around the halls of this new establishment that I would call my home for the remainder of my educational career. Fun.
See, you have to realize that, well, I was not in my comfort zone. The fanciest place I had ever been to was an Olive Garden for my mom’s birthday last year. Claremont Academy was fancier than Olive Garden.
I’d spent the last three years at Kirby High School, which no one would call state-of-the-anything. The lockers were all original, from the 40’s. And, you know, the outdated architecture is kind of why it was closed.
By contrast, Claremont was bright, welcoming, and above all, rich. I felt completely out of my depth as I looked at the TV screens, the sculptures, everything. Was this where Emily felt at home? Certainly wasn’t for me. At least the uniforms were swanky.
So, did things stay unfamiliar?
As soon as two freshmen barrelled into me in the middle of the hallway, I decided it wasn’t completely foreign.
I hit the ground hard and the two guys fell on top of me. I scrambled up quickly, and the other two followed me quickly. One of them had his leg in a splint and the other was rubbing a sizable goose-egg on the back of his head.
“Okay, easy,” I said, to calm them down. “Watch where you’re going, please and thank you.”
“Thank you for stopping him!” the youngest kid said. He stood up, straight as a signpost, completely disregarding his apparent limp. “He would’ve gotten away before I could ask him any questions.”
“You need to work on your interrogation tactics, Brandon,” the other kid said. “ I wasn’t doing anything wrong. You cornered me and started yelling at me to ‘spill’.”
“Why’d you run, then, huh?”
“I don’t like you, that’s why.”
Well, this should be fun.
Against my better judgement, I put my foot in it. “Okay, okay. What’s going on?”
Brandon turned towards me. “Parker here punched a guy in the nose. I saw it and tried to ask him why he did it. He ran away.”
A crowd was beginning to gather. Over the years, I’d learned to block crowds out. “Okay, Parker. Your side.”
Parker shook his hand, which was apparently sore from the aforementioned punch. “Theo Pope was hitting on my sister and wouldn’t leave her alone. I punched him. Brandon was all up in my face immediately. Didn’t wanna talk to him, so I ran, not expecting a kid in a splint to keep up with me that well.”
I sighed. “Well, uh. Hmm. Brandon?” I turned to the younger kid. “Good on you for making sure nobody was making trouble, but try to be a bit warmer about it, for your safety and more importantly, mine.” I turned to Parker. “Parker, good job punching the jerk. He deserved it. But bring it up with a teacher first, who actually has the authority to discipline the jerks. Sound good?”
“I can do that,” Brandon said, not deterred. He reminded me so much of a younger Cal.
“Fine,” Parker muttered.
I turned back to Brandon. “So what made you stop him in the first place? Do you have a puppet?”
Brandon nodded, excited. He grabbed a puppet out of his pocket; blue and red with pointy ears and a pointy tail. “Yeah! This is Origami Nightcrawler. I was going to join the X-Men, but then I decided going freelance was the best option. Especially to stop an evil mutant like Parker’s Origami Toad.”
“For the last time, I am not evil!” Parker shouted. “I hate you guys so much.” The poor kid stomped off, with nothing to show for the encounter other than a sore hand and bruised head.
I looked at the puppet. “Why not something like OriNightcrawler…or, ooh! White-paper-crawler!”
Brandon looked at me like I was insane. “No. I like Origami Nightcrawler.” He walked away, apparently not sure what to think of me after I had the audacity to make puns.
Someone from the crowd bumped my shoulder. It was a shorter girl with black hair and huge eyes. She had a big smile on her face. I could also see, in her jacket pocket, a yellow and black puppet. I think it was a girl Wolverine or something like that.
“That was impressive!” she said. “Usually it takes way longer to talk down those two. You handled that like a pro.”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “I have had a ridiculous amount of practice.”
The girl looked me up and down. “Are you new here?”
“Oh, uh, yeah,” I replied. “The name’s Clark. I’m here because my girlfriend’s here. Do you know Emily Madison?”
Her face looked suddenly interested. “Really? You exist? Lila told me Emily was making you up to get Declan off of her back.”
That was the second time I’d heard the name ‘Declan’ today. Whoever he was, I had a feeling I would not like him. I frowned. “Oh, I definitely exist.”
“I’m Katie Brooks. I’m the leader of the Origami X-Men!”
“Why not X-Pen? Cause, you know, paper?”
Like Brandon, she looked completely baffled. “No, we’re the Origami X-Men. That’s our name.” She shook off the confusion. “Well, uh, anyway, welcome to Claremont Academy, Clark! With how you handled Brandon and Parker, you might make a good addition to the team, if you’re interested.”
I shook my head. “Oh, no, no, no. I’m done with teams. I’ll just help out whenever I’m needed. Thanks for the offer, though.”
Katie nodded. “Of course! It was great meeting you. I’d be happy to give you any tips while you’re here.”
“I might just take you up on that offer!”
Rick-Rolled Instruments – Your Store for High-Quality Instruments at Low, Low Prices
I shouted this proudly, leading my girlfriend through the doors of my current job. Customers were milling about the store, looking at violins and horns and whatever else made sounds. Several people jumped after my pronouncement before going back to their browsing.
Uncle Ricky was in his usual place, behind the counter. As he gave change to a mom buying a flute for her young son, he waved. “Welcome back, you slacker. How was the first day of school?”
“Weird.” I led Emily through the store. “You remember Emily, right?”
“How could I forget such a lovely lady?” Ricky winked at Emily and Emily cracked up.
Emily talked to Ricky while I went to the back and changed out of my school uniform into regular clothes with a nice, violin-shaped name tag to pin to my front. I was really enjoying working with Ricky at his store. Technically, I wasn’t getting paid; all the money Ricky would have given me went straight to my tuition. But he made sure I got fed every day and there was a XBox 360 in the back that I played Halo on in my downtime. Life was good.
I stepped back into the store, remarkably more comfortable. “Clark?” Ricky called. “There’s a customer wondering about the Yamahas. Could you show them around?”
An older guy was over by the keyboards, gingerly playing some chords. I knew next to nothing about music so I mostly bluffed my way through explanations and pitches with some YouTube knowledge that I’d picked up in less than a week. It’d been working so far.
Emily ended up staying around the store until closing time at 7:30. She was an aspiring guitarist herself, so when customers were gone she’d play a couple songs. She was getting good.
“I should probably be heading back,” Emily said once the store was empty. “Claremont’s curfew is pretty strict.”
“Where are you staying?” Ricky asked.
“Claremont has dorms for people that stay on campus,” Emily explained. “Honestly, they’re preferable to my house.”
“Well, Clark, why don’t you drive her over? I’ll lock up.”
I nodded. “Sounds good.”
I drove Emily down to the dorms, which was only a block away from the main campus. It was still pretty nice, but noticeably less over-the-top.
“So, how’d you enjoy your first day?” she asked as I dropped her off.
“I got tackled once, so that’s cool,” I reported. “I’m not sure I’ve formed enough of an opinion yet.”
“You’ll get used to it.” She gave a hug and kissed my cheek before heading inside. “Good night. See you tomorrow!”
I drove home through the town of Cortland, a town I knew nothing about. It was small, charming, and unknown. Emily seemed sure that I’d get used to it, and I was determined to do so for her sake.
Make an Example
Reacclimating to Claremont’s environment took some getting used to.
It’s polished walls and state-of-the-art education programs send a message that you better shape up or ship out. It’s not necessarily meant to break you to its will, but it is important that whoever attends is there work towards ‘the right stuff’.
I guess I warranted some ‘special attention’ as a former student returning. In the middle of my first day, I was called up to the principal’s office for catching up, I guess. I had to pass through three ID scanners before I even got to his door, which felt strange.
As I walked in, I noticed Principal Sampson already standing, admiring several of the many academic rewards on his wall. As he noticed me come in, his face molded into a large smile.
“Emily Madison!” He strode over, giving my hand a shake. “I’m so happy that you’ve decided to come back home.” He turned on his heel and sat down behind my desk, gesturing for me to sit across from him.
“Glad to be back, sir,” I said, politely.
“It must feel wonderful to be back among peers, after going to that public school.” He visibly shuddered as he said the last words. “It was a real shame about Kirby High. Ainsley was a smart man, but even he couldn’t salvage it. Now, as for Wheeler Academy-”
I sat there for nearly five minutes while Principal Sampson gave his (incredibly thorough) thoughts about the policies of both Kirby and Wheeler, and, of course, why Claremont’s were superior.
“If you want a real, superior school, you can’t let just anyone come in. That’s where the real failure of Kirby, and even Wheeler, lies. I don’t want to boast, but we’re currently the number one private school in the state, simply because of that fact. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, definitely, sir,” I supplied.
Principal Sampson nodded. “All of that to say, we here at Claremont are ecstatic to have you back, Ms. Madison. You are aware that you have some of the best scores in New York, yes?”
I blushed. It wasn’t something I liked to brag about. “Yes, sir, I am.”
“You are a credit to any institution you are a part of! It is certainly impressive.”
I paused. “Sir, I’m honored, really. But why did you call me back?”
He smiled, conspiratorially. “That is the question, isn’t it?” He steepled his fingers. “Now, Ms. Madison, you come back to a strange time here at Claremont. Last semester, there was a bit of a…shaking up of the usual happenings. You remember the Origami X-Men?”
“Yes, sir. I was even a member for my first year.”
“Now we’re getting to it,” he replied. “Well, in loose terms, the team has become less of what we’d expect it to be. The leadership of the team went through a drastic change, and I believe it needs to go back to what it is meant to be: a shining example of Claremont’s prowess among the student body. Not, as it is now, glorified hall monitors breaking up petty squabbles. They hardly listen to me anymore. I’ll admit, I accidentally caused this problem with my interview for Nathan Torres.”
I was confused. “What do you want me to do?”
“Oh, not much. You are just an image of what the team used to be. You would be a welcome of what the team is supposed to be, and maybe you could even steer it back to its roots. You were the Emma Frost of the team, correct?”
“Yes, sir.” I grimaced inwardly.
“She is a great leader of the team. Perhaps you could fulfill that role in the near future.”
Principal Sampson looked positively giddy at the proposition. I couldn’t really say no, could I? And I do remember the Origami X-Men team as it was: me, Declan (with Origami Cyclops), Lila Carlyle as Pixie, and a couple others having near-total access to the school and its faculties, all while being praised by the student body. It wasn’t…awful, back then.
“I’ll do my best, sir,” I promised.
“That’s what I like to hear! Thank you, Ms. Madison.”
He showed me to the door with a smile and I left feeling conflicted and confused. What exactly did he mean by the team being ‘less of what we’d expect it to be?’ Was it a lack of professionalism? I could fix that. Or was it something else?
I walked back out into the main halls, making a plan of action. I wouldn’t concern myself completely with the ‘return to form’, but I could at least be what Principal Sampson asked me to be: an example.
I sent a text to Lila asking her to, ahem, assemble her group so I could meet them, and see what all the fuss was about.
Conversation and Confrontation
Claremont took some getting used to, even after a full week.
For one, there was a ‘schedule’. I had to actually be places on time. The teachers were far less friendly if you showed up a couple minutes late to class. I was steering dangerously close to a couple detentions a week.
The people were generally meaner. At Kirby, there was a collective sense of bewilderment at whatever happened to be going on. At Claremont, they controlled the bewilderment. Either you worked with them or you were against them. I, the lowly outsider, had not yet proven my worth, if I had any. I could feel a sense of distrust in the air, too. Emily Madison and Declan Parrish had been (using the kid’s slang) the one-true-pairing. I was the Thornton to Declan’s Lennox.
That’s not to say they were all bad. The Origami X-Men weren’t an awful group of kids, actually. Katie Brooks was the most Kirbian out of anybody there. Daniel, the leader, was a bit high-strung, sure, but he was nice enough. I learned that Caiden was the twin brother of Cassidy Lashay – those two could not be anymore different. The only two I didn’t like were Sofia and Lila; ironically, the two who wanted to hang out with Emily the most. It warmed my heart to see that Emily didn’t seem to care all that much, even before meeting them.
Luckily, I seemed to share a lot of my classes with Katie. Apparently, she was the newest member of the X-Pen (I am not backing down) but the students seem to only barely respect that fact.
“I’m still just a freshman,” Katie explained as we walked to History. “And I kind of got to this spot by accident. My…friend, Nathan, thought I was mysterious and made a whole story for the newspaper about it. It snowballed from there and I became the leader.”
“Snowballing, huh?” I laughed. “I had the same problem. This guy, who turned out to actually be a bad guy, manipulated me into becoming a hero for his group called the OrigAvengers, which was actually this other manipulation by another bad guy to stop a war between our two schools that eventually ended with one of them being closed.” Katie stopped and stared at me, completely confused. I paused as well, considering the ridiculousness of the past few years. “Yeah, it’s best not to think too hard about it. It made sense in the moment.”
“You seem to have the hero stuff down-pat,” Katie said. “Did you have a puppet back at Kirby?”
“I was the Impeccable Iron Fold, of course,” I said, giving my best Tony Stark smoulder for effect. “Never could quite get the quotes figured out, though.”
Katie laughed, looking me up and down. “That’s really fitting, actually. What happened to your puppet?”
“I ripped it up. I’d caused too much trouble as Iron Fold. It was time to let him go.”
“Wow. That’s impressive.”
“It really wasn’t. Just kinda happened.”
As we walked further down the hall, I noticed that people gave weird looks to Katie as she passed. The same looks were aimed at me. I shrugged them off; I’d gotten used to people thinking I was insane.
“How did you and Emily get together?” Katie asked.
I hadn’t been prepared for that question. I was forced to think back quite aways. “Hmm. Well…it wasn’t some huge thing when it happened. It was the first semester of 10th grade. Emily was a really pretty new girl, and I had a crush on her almost immediately. After we won a football game, I was riding high and I just decided to ask her out. I still don’t know why she said yes.”
“Do you still like her?”
Now that was a big question. Coming from anybody else at that school, it would have been a hint towards breaking up or whatever. But from Katie, it was a question about how I felt as a person. I chose my words carefully.
“Heck yeah, I do.” We’d arrived at the door to History class, but I took the time to stop and think. “But it’s more than liking her, now. Deeper. I’m with her for the long haul. I don’t think I have a say in that, anymore. I just want to know that she feels the same.”
Katie was satisfied. “You’re really cool.”
“I try not to be.”
I opened the door and my younger friend stepped through. True to form, the teacher shot me a look and pointed emphatically at his watch. I nodded, shrugged, and went for my seat.
After class (I’m pretty sure I retained none of it), I split up from Katie and wandered around. I had a bit of a break before Math, and so I decided to explore.
If nothing else, this new school was pretty. I couldn’t say much beyond that. Claremont was situated right in the middle of Cortland, a small town devoted primarily to Claremont University, just a couple miles away. As there were few expenses beyond the college, the high school got a lot of the ancillary funds. Hence the fancy-shmancy look.
I subconsciously stumbled to the cafeteria. It was huge, with wooden tables and benches and even a soundstage at the far end that didn’t look tacked-on. But the thing that really caught my eye was the full-service coffee stand right next to the serving station.
Maybe this place wasn’t so bad after all.
Was it against the rules? Who cares. I hadn’t bothered to read the rule book anyway. I was getting coffee whether they liked it or not.
Just as I took my first sip of a brew as dark as my hair, I noticed someone standing behind me. Choking slightly, I swivelled to meet the guy. He was a bit taller than me, with a buzz cut and a grin that might be described as cocksure.
“You’re supposed to wait until lunch,” the guy explained, gesturing towards the stand.
“Oh?” I said, still barely choking. I wiped my mouth and started breathing the right way again. “Sorry. My mistake.”
“No, no, don’t worry,” he replied, good-naturedly. He walked over the stand and poured himself a cup, along with a lot of cream. “I enjoy the quiet myself. Besides, I don’t have a class for another half-hour.”
“I’ve got one in…crap, ten minutes,” I noticed, glancing at my phone. “Do you happen to know where Miss Kate’s Math room is?”
“Second floor, fourth hallway, second door to the right,” he replied, nonchalantly sipping his cup.
“Thanks, man.” Something about the guy was a bit off putting. He was leaning against the stand like he didn’t have a care in the world, but he felt tense. It made me feel tense.
“You’re a new guy, huh? You look a bit old for a freshman.”
I nodded. “Senior, actually. I’m coming here ‘cause it was my girlfriend’s old school. I was one of the casualties of Kirby High School. The casualty, I guess.”
The dude’s face legitimately flickered between one emotion to the next. “You must be Clark Largent, then? The Origami Iron Man guy?”
“Iron Fold, actually, but yeah. How’d you know?”
“The Kirby website was really well-put-together.”
I’d have to tell Tilly how popular her site was. “Yeah, yeah. It’s kinda funny how nobody here seems to mind puppets. There can’t be that many schools like us, can there?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Do you have one?”
“I do, yeah,” the dude said. “I used to be the Origami Cyclops for the X-Men team. I passed it down to a guy named Eric awhile ago, but this year he chickened out and handed it to someone I’m not sure deserved it.” He chuckled darkly. I got tenser. “I haven’t technically had a puppet since then, but for some reason people have been calling me ‘Doctor Doom’. I’ll admit, it annoyed me at first, but hey, he’s still pretty cool.”
“Oh, [censored],” I muttered. “You’re Declan, aren’t you?”
“Certainly took you long enough,” he sighed, still sipping his coffee. I’d strangely lost the appetite for mine.
“We were having such a great chat, too,” I groaned.
“‘Great chat’?” He’d perfected the sneer. “I’m amazed you think I want to be talking to you. But I knew I’d have to meet you one way or another. It’s sheer luck that you came to the same spot I usually hide out.”
“I’m still confused as to why you changed your tone so quickly.”
Declan put his empty cup down on stand, stood up, and stretched. “It’s for observation, Clark. To see why someone like Emily could possibly like you. I’ll be honest; I don’t see it.”
“You’re too kind.”
He leaned forward, attempting to stare me down. If there was one thing I was good at, it was staring harder. “I have a feeling you’re not the kind to back down easily,” he taunted. “I can respect that. But one way or another, Emily is coming back to me.”
“You say that like she doesn’t have a choice.”
“Oh, she does. I’m just…the better choice. Especially compared to you.”
“Well, ouch.” I still didn’t let up on the stare. A blink was a sign of weakness in these kinds of confrontations. “In my humble opinion, I think we’re pretty happy right now. But if she wants to be with someone else, I’ll fight for her, but it’s ultimately up to her. It’s not up to you.”
“That’s a weak philosophy.”
“I like to call it ‘considerate’.”
Declan blinked. I won the staredown; a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. “Okay, Clark. Good for you. You can be passive all you want. Some people take an active stance, but I guess that’s just my taste.”
My eyebrows furrowed. “No, dude, that’s not what I-”
Declan shoved past me, making me spill a couple drops of coffee. “I won’t fight you for her. But she’ll come back one way or another.”
As he pushed the cafeteria doors open, I tried to yell after him, “That is the single worst way of going about it,” but I don’t think he was listening.
After cleaning up the spilled coffee, I checked my phone and swore. “Of course. Late.”
Lila had sent me a text that the team was willing to meet by lunchtime. That was fine by me, so I was prepared to see what I was up against.
The classes at Claremont, I remembered, were much closer to my speed than the classes ever were at Kirby. They were professional, focused, and most of all, informative. During any class at Kirby High School, some kid might jump up randomly and start waving a puppet around, disrupting the entire thing. That didn’t happen at Claremont; while, yes, there were puppets, everyone knew there was a time and place to ‘wield’ them. It was a refreshing change of pace.
Not so much for Clark.
I met up with him quite a bit in the halls. He always seemed a bit out of breath. Over the last week, he’d been on time more often than not, which was an improvement.
“Are you getting used to it?” I asked on one of our breaks.
He shrugged. “Sort of? I can’t make hardly any sarcastic comments anymore. It’s barbaric.”
I shoved him, playfully. “Oh come on,” I giggled. “It can’t be that bad.”
“I can get used to it,” he confirmed. “The people here aren’t…horrible. But we’ll just have to see how it ends up.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d been wearing his tie wrong for three days now.
At lunch, I entered the cafeteria, and before going to sit with Clark, I scouted the area to find where the X-Men were sitting. At the far end of the room, at a table to themselves, was Lila, waving me over. I grabbed some food (a hamburger and steak fries) and zigzagged my way across the floor.
“So, Emily, this is them!” Lila announced, gesturing dramatically to the team. She began pointing each of them out. “This is Daniel, or Cyclops, (he’s the leader); Sofia, who has Mystique; Caiden, Quicksilver; Katie, X-23; and, of course, me with Pixie!” She held her puppet up, with glittery pink wings, proudly.
I waved to everybody. “Hi! It’s good to meet you all.”
“Emily was Emma Frost when I was first starting at the team,” Lila told the group. “She’s one of my best friends.”
“Yeah, I remember her!” Daniel confirmed. “It’s good to have you back.”
Lila launched into a long explanation of the functions of each of the members, which struck me as odd, but I listened politely. “Daniel’s proven himself as one of the top students, so he’s kind of earned his spot.” Daniel nodded, sheepishly. “Sofia is the head cheerleader.” Sofia rolled her eyes. “Caiden is the track star, cause, you know, running.” Caiden wasn’t paying attention. “And Katie…well, Katie is here.” Katie made a face but largely ignored the comment.
“So…do you need me to do anything?” I asked, slightly confused.
“If you have any leftovers, I will gladly take them,” Caiden spoke up. “By the way, my condolences.”
“Cassidy said that the food at Kirby sucks,” he commented.
“Well, I mean-”
Lila brushed him off, not caring. “So, just tell them how we did things! There’ll be happy to hear from another veteran.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” I thought back, having no more of an idea of what she wanted. “Back then, it was me, Declan Parrish, Lila, and a few other kids. We organized a lot of stuff, like pep rallies, and did our best to represent the school. You know, fun stuff.”
“We do that,” Sofia interrupted. “More often, though, we’ve been breaking up lame fights around the school and whatever.”
“That stuff is important,” Daniel interjected. “Representing the school means representing it to the classmates just as much as anybody else.”
“It shows that we care,” Katie added.
“Yes, definitely,” Lila half heartedly agreed. “But I do think we can do better in different aspects. Emily will be able to help out with that.”
“Um, yes, of course.” I smiled at everybody in turn. “If any of you ever need anything, I’ll be happy to help.”
I left the appreciative group and sat down with Clark a few tables away.
“What was that about?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’m not exactly sure. Lila wants me to help improve the group, but I think that means different things to different people.”
“It usually does,” Clark said, before taking a large bite of hamburger. After swallowing, he seemed gratefully impressed. “Dang, this is way better than Kirby’s. Why’d you never tell me you got the good stuff here?”
I chuckled, before biting into a fry. “Some secrets are kept for a reason.”
It didn’t take long for the networking to begin. By the end of my second week, we’d already been invited to my first party.
Well, Emily had been invited. I was pretty sure I was allowed to come just out of courtesy. I felt loved.
The party, as the invitation text that Emily showed me said, was at Lila’s house, that following night. Friday, to be exact; you know, the best time for partying. Apparently nearly everybody important at the school had been invited. This was the mark of a worthy social status, I status that I so desperately wanted.
Did I care? I mean…Emily seemed to care, so I did my best to act like I did.
“This will be fun, Clark!” she said, excited. We were inside Rick-Rolled, during a pretty slow hour; I sat behind the counter, checking the register, while Emily leaned across the other side. “Everything is usually pretty professional at school. Parties like this are a good chance for people-”
“To let their hair down?” I asked, finishing her sentence. “I can’t wait to take the curlers out of my hair and just let loose!” I emphasized this with a shake of my head and finished with a cheesy grin. Emily wrinkled her nose.
“You’ll come, right?” Emily asked, expectantly.
“Of course I will,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t give myself much of a choice. “Can’t let the rich kids turn you into one of them.” I was joking, of course, but…it was still a worry of mine.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Clark,” she confirmed. “Let’s just go and have fun.”
“Go to the party, Clark!” I heard Uncle Ricky shout from across the store.
“You really need to work on your eavesdropping,” I shouted back. “But I’m going, I’m going.” I turned to Emily. “I’ll pick you up at your dorm, okay?”
She smiled. “It’s a date!”
The next night, Clark wasn’t just on time for picking me up: he was early. That never happened. I was in my dorm room, putting on some light makeup, when he knocked.
“Come in,” I called.
Clark stepped into the dorm, noticeably fidgety. He was nervous. It was adorable.
“Easy, there,” I said, shutting my makeup box and stepping away from the mirror.
He was dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and a dark brown vest. It wasn’t exactly the style, but it suited him. He caught me looking and shrugged. “You didn’t tell me what the dress code is. This is the fanciest stuff I have.” He looked at my red knee-length dress with a navy jacket over the top. “We don’t even match.”
I laughed. “You look perfectly fine, Clark. I figured you might have a bit of a problem, so here.” I produced a box from underneath my bed and took out a navy blue bowtie. I tied it around his neck, while he still fidgeted. “There. Now we match.” I extended my hand, dramatically. “Now, come along. I am in your hands for the night, Mr. Largent.”
Rolling his eyes but smirking, Clark took my hand and led me out of the dorm to his truck outside. We hopped in and Clark started the car.
“Do you think I’ll be fine?” he asked.
“Fine? Like how?”
He waved his hand. “You know…fine. Can I actually fit in here?”
“You don’t have to fit in, Clark,” I replied. “But if it matters that much, just…act normal, and people will eventually like you.”
He looked skeptical, but shrugged. “Okay, then. I can do normal.”
Giving the directions to my driver, we drove off of the Claremont campus onto a long, winding road leading just outside of Cortland. The trees were thick along the side of the road, giving off a very natural feel. The sun was just beginning to go down and sun-rays shot through the leaves in scattershot. I pointed out very things along the road and Clark nodded, amicably, focused on getting us to Lila’s house.
As we finally arrived, a couple minutes early, Clark was dumbfounded. In all honesty, I was too. Lila’s house was massive. Sitting outside of the city limits, the house was built in a clearing that had to have been at least three acres across. The house was built in a totally modern style, with geometric rectangles breaking off from the main structure like it was made out of blocks. The front door was raised onto stairs, meaning that the house was at least three stories high. And though I couldn’t see it, as we got out of the truck I could hear rushing water, meaning they either had a river nearby or a really big pool. It dwarfed even my house by a lot.
I had to hold Clark’s hand and guide him up the front door, as he was so taken in by the sheer size.
“You could fit ten of my houses here,” he mumbled, dumbstruck. “You could fit two in the garage.”
“You could fit three of mine,” I offered, kindly.
I knocked on the door, and a totally made-up Lila answered, happy and bubbly. “Emily! I’m so happy you both could come. Come in, come in!”
The interior was just as lavish as the exterior. There was a short hallway from the front door that opened into a giant living area next to a snack bar built into the wall. The room opened up with large windows overlooking the front courtyard, with couches and bookshelves galore. We weren’t the first guests to arrive, but among the first. Sofia Ortiz was helping lay out the snack bar, and a few of Lila’s friends were chatting on the couches. Clark was still amazed.
“Is there anything you need help with?” I asked, helpfully.
Lila nodded, looking around the living area. “If you want to help Sofia with the snacks, go for it!” Lila turned to my overwhelmed boyfriend and gave him a look. “A couple guys are playing basketball out by the pool. If you want, you can join them.”
“Oh, thank God,” Clark breathed. He glanced at me for approval and I smiled. He disappeared down one of the hallways. I had a feeling he might get lost before he ever got outside.
“Oh, you’re gonna love it tonight,” Lila said, giggling the whole time. “It’s not the biggest party, but it’ll be a good one to welcome you back!”
I walked towards the snack bar. “I’m looking forward to it!”
Sofia greeted me with a smile, but didn’t say much beyond that. I decided to pick up some chip bags and set them next to the ones already retrieved. I figured I wouldn’t get much conversation going. Still, I tried.
“So, Sofia,” I started. “Have you enjoyed being on the team?”
“I enjoyed it a lot more awhile ago,” she admitted. “I’m getting used to it.”
“Uh huh.” I moved some plastic cups from the middle of the table to the end, just for convenience. Sofia didn’t seem to appreciate my help.
“Great,” I thought. “Guess I’ll just wait.”
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long before everybody started arriving. Before long, the party had started. Electronic music blared with bass that shook the floor, and there was people everywhere. I have no idea how Lila quantifies a ‘big party’, because this felt pretty big.
Lila took it upon herself to introduce me to everyone who I didn’t know. Pulling me in every direction, she would shout “This is my good friend Emily! You’ve probably heard of her, she’s pretty famous.” After a short, awkward conversation, she would pull me towards another person the cycle would repeat. I learned the names of Destiny Cleary (an aspiring pop singer), Keenan Nichols (the star of the Claremont Calvary basketball team), Milo White (on the student council), and Tabana Mady (a personal friend).
In all honesty, it was exhausting.
I finally broke away from Lila after nearly an hour and carved a corner out for myself by the snacks. Grabbing some ginger ale, I slowly recuperated from the influx of information. I was out of practice with the whole ‘networking’ thing.
Even more exhausting was my avoidance of Declan, who had inevitably been invited and showed up. Thankfully, he hadn’t made any advance…yet, at least. To be fair, I hadn’t given him the chance. One benefit of being introduced to everyone there was that I was always occupied.
I noticed Katie Brooks by herself, sitting behind the snack bar. I walked over to her, feeling a bit bad. She looked up when she saw me coming.
“It’s a bit loud, isn’t it?” she mouthed.
“Just a bit,” I shouted back. The beat had just dropped and my teeth were rattling.
“Enjoying the party?” she asked.
“More or less.” I poured myself a bowl of pretzels. “How about you?”
“It could be worse.”
Everybody seemed to be ignoring Katie’s presence, except for Daniel and Nathan, who waved at her. She waved back, appreciative. “I may not have many friends here, but I have good ones,” she said.
“Ask many people, and they’d say that’s better,” I agreed.
“So, Emily,” Katie started, “Do you think it would be fine if I pushed for more members to the team?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s a lot of kids at Claremont who want to join the Origami X-Men. The X-Men in the comics is really big and pretty much open to anybody, so why shouldn’t we be as well?”
I shrugged. “I mean, I don’t see why not.”
“Really? Thank you!” Katie got out of her seat. “I’m gonna go find Lila and suggest it to her. Maybe we can have a big team after all, and Lila’s parties can be even bigger.”
She disappeared into the crowd, on a new mission. Could this help bring a return to form like the principal suggested? I had a sinking feeling that it probably wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to break Katie’s spirits. She reminded me a bit of Tilly; not as driven, but certainly as enthusiastic.
As I was looking around the room, I noticed Clark, shuffling awkwardly, through the now-dancing crowd. He caught my eye and pushed his way over to the snack bar.
“Did you ever find the basketball hoop?”
“It’s a whole frickin basketball court,” he sputtered. “And yeah, I did. Took forever, though. I ended up in a bathroom I thought was a dining room.”
“You’re a bit out of your depth, aren’t you?” I asked, laughing.
“I’m so far out I’m in orbit,” he sighed. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“I’m well-practiced. Not that I want to be.”
As we talked, I saw Lila waving me over. Well, so much for Katie’s proposal. Me and Clark walked over immediately.
To my surprise, Lila wasn’t talking with Katie; she was talking with Sofia and a couple of her other friends – Tabana and and someone else – and Katie was patiently waiting behind her to make her proposal.
“Emily, hi!” Lila announced to her group. “I just wanted Jaclyn to meet you. Her father works with your dad, apparently!”
“Oh, interesting!” I replied, not really interested. “Your dad works in land development?”
“Of course,” Jaclyn offered, snootily. “He’s had a part in nearly every building project over the last fifteen years. He even helped contract Lila’s house. That’s how we got to know each other.”
Lila pushed my shoulder. “Emily’s father helped contract the schools for the state. He had a big loss this year when one of the high schools closed on his watch. It was really sad.”
“Not really,” Clark interrupted. “I mean, sure, it was, but it’s not been horrible. I helped close it,” he ended, proudly.
“You helped end a really important contract for your girlfriend’s dad?” Tabana asked, incredulously. “What kind of boyfriend are you?”
Clark suddenly blushed, taken aback. “That’s not what I meant- I was just trying to-”
Lila ignored him. “Anyway, that’s that. Tabana, how is your dad doing?”
“Oh, sure. He’s in California financing one of the smaller film companies. He single handedly helped resurrect the Midnight Blood series. Without him, those movies would be finished.”
“Oh, I loved those movies,” I said, surprised.
“You told me you hated them,” Clark whispered.
“I said that because you hated them,” I shot back.
“Those movies were good,” Katie Brooks, finally breaking into the conversation, added. “Though, I liked the elves better than the warlocks. They seemed more heroic.”
“Oh, hey, Katie,” Sofia, who’d been a bit quiet, greeted. “We were just talking about our parent’s jobs. How are your parents doing?”
Something about the way Sofia said it, and Katie’s face after the fact, told me that it wasn’t a good subject. “My dad is…away. On business stuff.”
“Really?” Lila asked. “You told me yesterday he was home for the month after a deal fell through.”
Katie blushed. “Well, he was, but he had to leave again.”
“What does your dad do?” I asked, curious.
“He’s in…legal…stuff. Like, the law.”
Sofia raised an eyebrow. “You told me a couple weeks ago that he was a restaurant owner.”
Katie looked trapped and a bit panicked. This definitely wasn’t a good subject for her, but why would she lie about it? She didn’t strike me as the type to lie. Then again, I’d only talked to her twice.
“Hey, guys, ease off,” Clark ordered, stepping into the circle.
“No, Clark,” Lila contradicted. “This is something that we need to talk about. Ever since she started school here, she’s been a huge mystery to everyone. It didn’t matter until she joined the team. We’re supposed to trust each other, but how can we when we don’t even know where she comes from?”
“Her mom and dad are always away on ‘business trips’, so it’s not like we can go over to her house,” Sofia added. “That’s a real knock against a teammate. You have to admit it’s a bit suspicious.”
“Definitely,” Tabana and Jaclyn agreed.
“Well, what about you, Emily?” Lila questioned, pointedly. Suddenly, four sets of beady eyes were trained on me. “You’re the veteran of the Origami X-Men here. What do you have to say about a teammate we know literally nothing about? Won’t it hurt the team?”
I was completely caught off guard. How should I answer this? Katie looked scared, but it was a problem if you couldn’t trust a teammate, especially at someplace like Claremont. And there was Lila’s statement about ‘hurting the team’; maybe this was what Principal Sampson had asked me to fix. Could it be?
Lila looked to me as a leader. She’d been my friend for a long time before I left, and I couldn’t let her down here. Could I?
“I mean…” I started slowly. “Maybe she does have something to hide?”
All hell broke loose.
Accusations started flying at Katie from left and right. Clark stared at me, horrified. He immediately jumped in between the girls and Katie.
“Back off, jerks,” he ordered, completely switching gears from nervous boyfriend mode to full-on Iron Fold. “Who in the ever-looking [censored] cares about that? She’s on the team, that should be enough for you to trust her.”
Lila scoffed at Clark, incredulous. “And what do you care? Shouldn’t you be taking Emily’s side?”
Clark made eye contact with me, looking very hurt. “Not if it’s the wrong one.”
The wrong one? Really, Clark? How was I supposed to act? He didn’t understand how the team was supposed to work. It was a totally fair question. Right?
“Some boyfriend you’ve got,” Jaclyn snickered, before she and Tabana wandered off. Lila and Sofia stayed, aghast at the audacity of Clark not only defying me but also protectively cursing at them. I could tell they’d never had to deal with that before.
“Look, she’s still welcome on the team, but we still need to know what her deal is,” Sofia explained, nonchalantly.
“Why would I do that if you treat me like this?” Katie asked, meekly.
“If it ain’t your business, it ain’t your business,” Clark supported, firmly. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, I think I would like to leave. You are all awful.” Clark caught my eye again, wanting me to leave with him. Again, I was caught. Slowly, I shook my head. I figured Clark wouldn’t be too happy on the ride back. Lila could drive me to the dorm.
Clark stared. He led Katie away from the girls, towards Daniel and Nathan, and finally walked out the front door.
As soon as the door shut, I felt sick to my stomach. I followed his path outside, but by the time I’d pushed through the crowd, the truck was already gone.
I shuffled back inside where Lila gave me a hug. “Aw, sweetie, it’s okay. You were right. It’s just not something he’d understand.”
Her words boosted my spirits, but not by much. I spent the rest of the party in a daze, following Lila back and forth between people. I barely registered any conversation I had. I even think I talked to Declan…but I’m not sure I cared. With thought, I knew I’d made a bad call. Surely, Clark didn’t have the right to act the way he did. This was my group, my people, my friends. He just wouldn’t understand.
Saturday morning, Clark showed up at the dorms. He wasn’t taken with the richness anymore. He was on a mission, and that mission was talking to me.
As I half-expected him to show up, I was already awake, dressed, and dreading whatever he had to say. This place wasn’t his, it wasn’t supposed to be his, and he couldn’t fathom why I made the call I did. He had to get that.
Sure enough, by ten o’clock, Clark leaned against the door frame, arms crossed, not caring about the crowd of students pouring down the hallway behind him. I sat on my bed, typing away. At what, I’m not sure; I think it was homework. Or a manifesto.
“If you’re going to say anything, go ahead and say it,” I sighed. He was so non-confrontational around me that it chafed.
“You gonna tell me why you did it?” he asked, sounding more confident than he looked.
“Why should I? I know exactly what you’re going to say; you don’t trust the people I hang out with, I should know better, you should have listened to me. I’m not wrong, am I?”
Clark spluttered for a second, then narrowed his eyes. “While that may be the case…still, what the heck?”
“You don’t go here, Clark,” I said, shutting my laptop a bit more forcefully than I intended. “You simply don’t understand how things work. If I’m ever going to be comfortable here again, I needed to do this.”
“And to be comfortable, you made sure a girl may never be comfortable in her own skin again,” he said, slowly developing a scowl. “Maybe you’re not supposed to be comfortable here, Em. You escaped here once for a reason. Don’t let them pull you back in.”
“‘Them’, Clark?” Them? You still don’t trust any of them, do you?”
Clark stepped away from the door frame. “Apart from Katie? No, I don’t, Em. They’re all spoiled rich kids who think they can turn you into spoiled brat like them.” A kid passing the door looked in at Clark’s words, confused. “No offense,” Clark muttered, shooing the kid away. “All I’m saying is, Emily from like two weeks ago wouldn’t have taken Lila’s side. You’re not Emma Frost. You’re Emi-ly.”
Emily from two weeks ago might not have taken Lila’s side, but Emily from three years ago would have. That thought did not make me feel good. But I wouldn’t let Clark know that he was making a point. “This wouldn’t be an issue if you weren’t here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I gestured, trying to find the right words. Or, in retrospect, the wrong ones. “You…weren’t supposed to be here. I’d spent the last few months bracing myself, preparing to take on Claremont, and then you show up completely out of the blue!”
Clark’s eyes softened. “But I wanted to surprise you.”
“Do you have a plan, Clark? I know you’re working with Ricky at his shop, and that’s great, but do you know what it takes to be a student here? I feel obligated to make sure you don’t screw yourself up, and that’s not something I was prepared for.”
“Are you saying you don’t want me here?”
I groaned. “No, that’s not…no, I want you here, I just don’t know…This school just isn’t you, Clark.”
“It’s not you, either, Em.” He turned around. “I don’t think it should be anyone.”
“I’m, uh…” he sighed. “I’ll see you on Monday. Probably.”
Clark left the dorm room. A few kids had apparently been eavesdropping on the whole argument and watched Clark’s exit. They looked in my room to see what was going on. I got off my bed and shut the door.
He was being unreasonable, right? That’s all it was. I made a mistake, but Clark was blowing it completely out of proportion. No matter what he said, I hadn’t changed.
I hadn’t changed.
Crap. I hadn’t changed.
I was the same person I was three years ago. The same person I hated being, the same person Declan had manipulated, the same person I’d tried to leave behind. And all it took for younger Emily to come back out was a couple weeks at Claremont. That was the point.
I laid down on my bed and put my hands on my face. It was a horrible feeling. I’d let Lila and her friends control me at the party, and even now turned me against Clark. I’d hurt Katie with one dumb statement. No wonder Clark was so upset.
I had no idea how to fix what I’d done. Instinctively, I reached for my phone and dialed Clark, but either his phone was dead or he was ignoring the call. I optimistically chose the former.
My next move was not one I was proud of. I called the second person I thought of that might be some help: Lila. I know, I know, she was probably the last person I should talk to, but she was my only friend at Claremont and I assumed she’d be helpful.
“Hey, um, Lila?” I said, quietly, as she picked up the phone.
“Emily, hi!” She still sounded as bubbly as ever. “Thanks for helping clean up last night. That was some party, right?”
“Yeah, something like that.” I debated continuing, but since I had her on the phone, I might as well ask for some assistance. “So, um, Lila, I know you’ve dated a lot of guys, right?”
“A few, of course.” She sounded way too happy to say that.
“Well, uh…if you get into a disagreement with your boyfriend-”
Lila gasped. “Did you have a fight with Clark?”
“Was it about last night? Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry.”
“Lila! Shut up!” I snapped. I felt kind of good. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. I just wanted to ask…if you have a disagreement with your boyfriend, what do you do?”
I could see the hand-wavy movement she made in my head. “I just take it as a sign that it’s not meant to be.”
It was my turn to gasp, this time in horror. “You just break up with them?”
“What else? A couple needs to be on the same page all the time. If we’re not, it’s just a sign.”
“But that’s horrible! What if you feel really close to them?”
“That’s up to them, Emily. If they’re not on my side, I’m not on theirs. Simple as that.” She thought, silently. “Isn’t that what you did to Declan?”
“What? No! Of course not. This is different. I really, really, really care about Clark.”
Lila scoffed. “Well, okay then. But you wanted my advice, so here it is: seriously think about breaking it off. If you’re not on the same page, well…”
“Thank you, Lila. Enlightening.”
Her tone of voice told me she totally missed my tone. “Always happy to help, Emily!”
Before she could say anymore, I hung up. Lila didn’t totally understand everything behind my breakup with Declan. After this conversation, I would make sure she never did. However, I was now determined to do the complete opposite of what she suggested. I wouldn’t be giving up on Clark.
After storming – yes, storming – out of the dormroom I headed to Rick-Rolled. I mean, obviously; there was literally no place else that I could go. And hey, it was my day off, so I could wallow in peace.
As I charged inside, Ricky was behind the counter, arranging a display of sheet music. The bell over the door rang and Ricky u-turned. As force of habit, he began by saying “Welcome to Rick-Rolled Instruments, best quality for the best price, thank you- Oh, sobrino! Clark! You don’t look so good. Was your visit bad?”
“No, Ricky, not really.” I slumped down in my usual spot by the guitars, completely put out, and it wasn’t even 11 AM. That’s a new record.
“Whatever it is, It’ll work out, buddy,” Ricky encouraged.
“I know it will, Rick, but I just don’t know how.”
My uncle nodded, knowingly. “Your optimism is a good sign.” He went back to arranging the display. “Oh, Cal called. He wants to talk!”
“Oh, wonderful,” I groaned. “I’m not really in the mood to talk to anybody.”
“I think you should give a shot. Your brother knows you better than most. He might be able to give you some perspective.”
I stood up and stretched. “You know what? What the heck. Call him.”
“The tablet is in the back room. You can call him there.”
I’ll admit I only agreed to talk to him out of guilt. Even after his impassioned pleas on moving day, I hadn’t talked to him or mom once since I’d arrived – I’d left the reports to Ricky. It would be good to catch up, I guess.
I set up the tablet where I’d been sitting and hit call. As if he’d been waiting by his computer the whole time, he picked up immediately. Over the video chat, I saw his face light up as soon as he picked up. “Clark! Hi!”
I gave a small smile. “Hey, man. Good to see you.”
“How’s Claremont? Is it rich? Are you popular? Is Emily doing good? Are they allowed to have puppets?”
Oh boy. “Um…It’s fine, very rich, not in the slightest, she’s fine, and yeah, they have puppets.”
“Weird. You know, people blame you for the ban. Wheeler hasn’t been boring at all, though.”
“Well, add that to the pile.”
Cal’s eyes narrowed. “You sound…even less enthusiastic than you usually do. What’s wrong?”
I was tempted to say ‘nothing’, but I knew that wouldn’t get Cal off my back. “I, um, had a fight with Emily.”
His eyes were still narrowed. “Yes, and?”
“Dude, we’ve never had a fight before. I feel awful.”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
Cal waved emphatically. “It’s not a big deal, man! So you fight once. Is that gonna make you stop dating her?”
“Of course not!” he shouted. “It’s like when you fight with me. I hate you, and then I don’t. It’s fine.”
“Please never compare yourself to Emily ever again.”
“You get my point, though? Just have patience. Maybe give it a few days before you talk to her, but don’t get all mopey about it. You love her and she loves you and that’s all there is to it.”
I felt a bit lost. “I…love her?”
“You’d have to be an idiot not to see it. I mean, you are an idiot, but again, you know what I mean.”
“Huh.” It felt weird to have somebody confirm that feeling, but now that it was confirmed…
“Anyway,” Cal continued, not at all fazed, “like I said, it’s been kind of weird, here. Tilly’s doing her best to hold down the fort. I’ve left all the hero stuff behind me,” he finished, completely serious.
“I’m impressed. What about the ban?”
Cal smirked. “Honestly? It’s not been that huge of a deal. Most people have kind of ignored it, but you still don’t want to be caught with a puppet in front of a teacher. Dove and Ally are the ‘symbols of rebellion’ if you can believe it.”
I could see Ally leading a rebellion, but the image of Dove showing no regard for authority was hilarious. “I wish you luck.”
“Oh, I’m not a part of it,” Cal explained further. “I might not be. But we’ll see.”
I spent the rest of the morning talking with Cal. Ricky was right; he had known what to say to make me feel better. It was great getting a feel for what Wheeler was like, even if Cal didn’t seem to care all that much. It made me proud to see how much my ambivalence was rubbing off onto him.
Apathy like that always runs in the family.
Just because I wanted to make things right with everybody I’d hurt didn’t mean I actually knew how to.
After spending Saturday feeling like crap, after visiting the Claremont campus chapel (and asking for forgiveness at the altar) I tried to make a plan of what I would do. That was completely fruitless. And then, I had classes on Monday, so I couldn’t even think there.
So, there I was, Monday afternoon, sitting in the library like a total sad sack. I wanted to feel sorry for myself, but I wasn’t sure I had the right. I ended up feeling sorry that I felt sorry.
“You seem a bit down.”
I looked up and saw a woman a little older than me standing over the table. Her curly black hair was tied back in a loose ponytail, allowing her lively eyes to shine out. She seemed the type that could read people well. That, or she noticed my perpetual frown.
“No, no, of course not,” I replied, lying badly. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Really. Sure.” The woman grabbed a seat and sat down across from me at the table. “Whatever’s got you down, you’ve been sitting here for an hour, by yourself, doing nothing. No homework, no friends to talk to; just you, thinking. The library is a good place for it, in any case. Nice and quiet.”
I stared at the woman, skeptical. She seemed way too excited to talk about my problems. “How do you know I’ve been here for an hour?” I asked.
She smirked. “I mean, I’m just guessing. You’ve probably been here longer. But I’m a tutor for a freshman girl and we just finished our session, which, incidentally, lasts one hour. You can see how I put two and two together.”
She held out her hand for me to shake. “My name’s Francesca. Now, since my job right now is helping kids out, you’re in my sphere of influence. Now come on, spill.”
Reflexively, I said “My name is Emily.” I caught myself. “What- No! I’m fine, really. Please, leave.” I meant to open a textbook and start reading to get her to take the hint, when I realized that I didn’t have a textbook to even fake studying with.
Francesca smiled sweetly. “Okay then, Emily. I’ll leave if you really want me to, but whatever’s going on, I’m guessing you don’t have anybody to talk about it with. I offer my services to you. Tell me whatever you want. I am an impartial judge and an unbiased ear.”
A part of me still wanted her to scram. But another, louder part of me saw this as a potential blessing. None of my Claremont friends would be any help – Lila proved that. Heaven forbid I talk about Clark with my parents. She really was the only person around. Shows how pathetic my social life really was, that a complete stranger was the best bet to share my problems with.
She was a nice stranger, though. And evidently certified as a junior counsellor, so that was nice.
So, reluctantly, I began to explain everything going on. Francesca was a great listener, never interrupting once. She was right, too; it felt nice to get everything off of my chest without having to worry about saying the wrong thing the wrong way. I told her about my past at Claremont, about meeting Clark at Kirby, how it closed and I ended up back here, and how I really was worried about it changing me again. The only place she reacted was when I mentioned the origami puppets. Not in disbelief, either; she gave a little chuckle and murmured “I can’t escape it, can I.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as I finished. I didn’t feel better about the circumstance, but I did feel a bit lighter. Francesca’s face didn’t change much when I was done, but she did look kinder than I expected.
“Drawn to old habits, huh?” she asked, simply. “Scared of losing your best friend?”
I nodded. “In a nutshell, sure.”
“And from what I hear, you and Clark don’t fight like this very often?”
I looked around the library absentmindedly, thinking back. “No. We’ve had disagreements, and he’s acted pretty stupid in the past, but they never turned into arguments. This one did.”
“And there will be more to come,” Francesca said. “It comes with loving somebody and being with them all the time. Fights happen, and that level of commitment isn’t easy for anybody. But, with time, it’s worth it.” She held up her left hand, and on the ring finger was a glinting golden ring, beautiful in its simplicity. “I’m getting married to my best friend next year. We’ve had disagreements, arguments, and all-out wars in the past. I know the same is coming in the future. But we both love each other and let ourselves grow so we’re the best person for each other. And based on what I can see from you, and what you’ve told me about Clark, you both will be able to do the same.”
Was she right? I hoped she was. It might not make things easier, but ironically simpler. As long as I stayed the course, and Clark stayed his, we could make it through. It was nice to hear.
“But what about-”
Francesca was one step ahead of me. “The kids here? I’ve been tutoring for a couple years now. Some of them are completely spoiled brats. Some are very sweet. And I know you know the right thing to do. Stick to your guns while you’re at Claremont, and you might even be the good influence the school needs!”
I looked down, sheepishly. “I…I just don’t want to feel like an outcast. I still want to liked.” I felt completely stupid saying it, because I felt stupid for feeling that. However, it helped to realize that peer pressure affected me more than I would like.
“You know what I’m going to tell you,” Francesca replied, smirking.
“Don’t listen to the other kids?” I asked, smiling, a little embarrassed.
“Kids are the worst. No offense.” We both laughed. I was surprised by the bluntness. “Either you let them get to you, or you don’t. Oh, and promise me you’ll punch that Declan guy in the face the next time you see him. He sounds like a tool.” Frankie absentmindedly looked at the clock on the wall. She flinched. “Oh, crap. I’ve gotta get back to my dorm. I’ve got a date in an hour and I completely forgot where it is.” She stood up and grabbed her stuff from the table.
I stood up and helped hand her everything. “Thank you so much, Francesca. What you said…means a lot.”
“I’m happy to help. It was wonderful to meet you, Emily!” She awkwardly balanced a piece of paper on her stack of books and scrawled down a number. She handed the slip to me. “If you ever need to vent, just call.” She turned to leave. “Oh, and call me Frankie. My friends call me that.”
“Of course.” I pocketed the phone number as Frankie walked away. She already had her phone to her ear as she left the library. “Okay, Noah, where are we meeting again? No, no, tutoring went late. I met this really nice girl who-”
Frankie’s words gave me a little perspective. Maybe I was blowing everything out of proportion. This would be a chance to bring everything back to the right proportions – see things the way they’re supposed to be seen. I didn’t need to do anything for anybody at Claremont. They were not the important people in my life, just people I happened to share a school with.
The only relationship that mattered to me right now was the one I shared with Clark. I couldn’t let that one disappear because of a single fight. Part of that was on him, as well, but I figured he would feel the same way.
That’s part of knowing somebody for three years. You understand them a bit more.
Out of the Frying Pan
My first task on Tuesday, after my talk with Frankie, was to find Katie and apologize. Not just for myself, either; for her teammates and the two girls who thought they were something way better than they were.
It took awhile to find her. I ended up waiting until lunchtime, when I knew she’d be there. As expected (and a bit depressing) Katie could be found away from the large crowd of kids, sitting with Daniel, Nathan, Caiden, and…Sofia? Lila was conspicuously absent from the group.
I walked closer to the table and overheard the conversation going on. Sofia, in a completely unexpected turn of events, had felt horrible about the interrogation at Lila’s party. According to her, her own parents had been experiencing lots of financial issues and she didn’t know if she’d be able to come back to classes the next semester. Her teasing of Katie had been a false face that she was hoping to make up for.
“I promise to be a bit more open with you all in the future, and especially you, Katie,” Sofia said at last, finishing her apology.
Katie nodded, and then gave Sofia a hug.
“I’m sorry, Sofia,” Daniel comforted. “If there’s anything we can do to help, just ask.”
Caiden offered her his last bowl of jello in comfort.
“Thank you, guys,” she said, thankfully.
“I would like to apologize, as well,” I announced to the five of them.
“Oh, Emily!” Daniel said, perking up. “Hi.”
“I was a part of the same group that said some horrible things to you, Katie, and you don’t deserve it. You are the most…Kirbian of anybody I’ve met here, and that’s a compliment. I was wrong.”
“You’re forgiven, Emily,” Katie said, kindly. “I’ve heard so much about you from Clark that I knew you didn’t mean it.”
I blushed. I didn’t deserve that. “I want to apologize to you all, too. You’re the best team of Origami X-Men that’s been at this school, or, at least, the nicest. You don’t need me to tell you what to do, and I don’t need to change you back to how it used to be.”
To prove my point, I retrieved Origami Emma Frost from her spot as a bookmark. Without a second thought, I violently, and a bit dramatically, ripped up the old puppet into the smallest pieces I could, then sprinkled them onto the floor. (Don’t worry, I cleaned it up afterwards.)
“You’ve made your point, then,” Daniel mused. Caiden started an impromptu applause.
“You guys don’t need the approval of anybody, going forward, because I trust that you’ll be the best. Got it?”
They all nodded.
Suddenly, I noticed that, the whole time, Nathan Torres had been writing everything into his notepad. “Can I quote you on that, Ms. Madison?”
I laughed. “Um, sure.”
“Awesome,” Nathan mused. “This’ll be a great step towards…good things, I guess.”
“And that’s why you’re not the guy making the quotes, Nate,” Katie teased.
“Oh, be quiet. I gotta earn my keep somehow.”
“You don’t even get paid!”
I left the group, having said my piece and finally throwing away my connection to the Origami X-Men.
Now, though, that left the most important step.
It took the whole day to reach him. It was after school, and, well, he wasn’t picking up a phone call. That was a bummer.
It had been four days since I’d talked to Clark. We weren’t actively avoiding each other – I don’t think so, at least – but there’d still been this wall to bring down since the fight. I wanted time to think, and evidently Clark did too. Now, I wanted to talk with him and make up. The problem was actually reaching him.
On the busy sidewalk outside of Claremont was where I usually did my best thinking. That’s where I was after school on the fourth day. I needed to trust that things would work out in time. At the moment, I also had other pressing issues to worry about. Like the fact that I desperately needed to find new friends.
“Hey there, stranger.”
Please, just, no.
Declan sat down on the sidewalk next to me. I should’ve known that he’d know where to find me. We’d spent hours out here on this exact spot talking and working on homework. You know, the nice stuff. Not the bad stuff. This was the bad stuff.
“Nobody should be out here alone on a day like this,” he commented. I cringed, but he was right. The sun was still bright but just starting to go down, the leaves on the trees had the first tinges of yellow and orange, and there was a nice warm breeze in the air. It felt amazing.
“I’m not in the mood, Declan,” I growled.
“Doesn’t really matter to me. I can be here for you, right now. Just you and me.”
I looked around. Just a few minutes ago, the sidewalk had been busy. Now, there was only me and my ex. He was diabolical. However…maybe this was an opportunity. A chance to make things right.
As discreetly as I could, set my phone down next to me, but propped up just enough that the camera caught both of us in the image. I carefully went back to the call menu, and with faith pressed on Clark’s name one last time. Then, even more carefully, with the hope that something, anything would be caught on film, I pressed record.
“I miss this, you know,” Declan sighed. “That was the best year of my life. You made it pretty great.”
“You didn’t,” I snarled. “You know that, right? You were a horrible person.”
Declan’s face contorted, like he still couldn’t understand what I could possibly mean by that. He recovered and switched gears. “I heard that you and that Clark guy had a rough fight. That can’t feel great.”
How in the world had he heard? I’d told no one except Frankie and…Lila. Ugh. I really needed new friends.
“And so what if we did? We’ll work it out.”
Declan looked kind, but with a false kindness. Just underneath the expression, he was hurt, angry, and determined. It wasn’t a good look for a guy that so many girls thought the peak of male perfection. “I’m sure you will.”
Next to me, my phone ended. The call had ended. I didn’t feel safe any longer.
I moved to stand up, but Declan grabbed my hand. I was stuck.
“Emily, maybe Clark’s not the right guy for you. Who ever heard that second try was the charm?”
“And you are?”
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Emily. I want you back!” This was his own hail mary, throwing so hard that something just had to work. It wouldn’t.
“You’re a horrible person, Declan Parrish. I hope that you learn to better yourself, but I will never be with you ever again.”
His face took on one last look of sheer hurt, before, acting out of pure adrenaline, he tried to kiss me. As his face moved closer to mine, I backed away quickly and punched him as hard as I could.
He recovered quickly, I’ll give him that. My hand hurt like crap, too. But gosh, did it feel good. Frankie was right. I should’ve opened with that move.
Declan was in no happy state. We both stood up at the same time. He rubbed his cheek, which, to my chagrin, didn’t even look that red. I figured I’d made things worse.
“How dare you?” he growled. “Okay, Emily, you’ve made your point clear. But you won’t be able to go anywhere or do anything once word gets out.” He was silent, the wheels turning in his head. “Aha, got it. ‘This girl threw herself at me and wouldn’t leave me alone. She attacked me just because I said no! Expulsion is what she deserved.’”
It disturbed me how quickly he’d come up with that story. “You realize that’s exactly what you did to me, right?”
His face once again told me he still didn’t get it. He still thought he was in the right. How could he even think that?
“You’ll regret it, Emily, but I might still forgive you. If you just let-”
“‘Just let what’?”
I turned my head, and I was so happy I could have cried. Clark was walking down the sidewalk with his phone in his hand. I caught his eye and I could still tell there was some tension that needed to be worked out, but also that he felt the same way I did.
Clark stood next to me, staring down the would-be assaulter. “Please stop hitting on Emily, Devon. It’s creepy.”
Declan sneered. “Because she’s yours?”
Clark raised an eyebrow. “Maybe because she’s told you to buzz off? But, yeah, uh, sure, also that.”
Clark always had a way with words.
With an enemy to focus on, Declan composed himself remarkably quickly. He brushed the dust off his jacket and out of his hair and stood straight up. “You’re just making the story better. I can have you both ruined. My word holds a lot of power in this school and elsewhere.”
Clark clenched his fists and started to walk forward. “Maybe I can make the story better with a couple more black eyes.”
I stopped him. “Let’s not do that.” I scrolled across the videos on my phone and looked at the one I had just taken. A quick glance and I knew that I’d captured everything. I held it out for Declan to see. “It’s your word against this.”
Once and for all, the facade crumbled. The supposed Doctor Doom was reduced to confused spluttering and terrified glances from Clark to me and back again. “How did- you can’t-”
“I could post this everywhere that mattered if you wanted me too,” I threatened. My finger was hovering over the icons, too. Genuinely, I wanted to do it. It would feel so good to watch my ex’s carefully cultivated persona reduced to nothingness.
But, slowly, Clark pulled my hand away from the phone. Confused, I met his eyes, and I saw a silent refusal.
Suddenly, I remembered Clark’s first ‘win’ over an enemy. How Clark, far younger than today, had ruined Nard, almost for fun. It was a decision he’d struggled with ever since, because it certainly wasn’t the heroic thing to do. It was the work of petty victor over a cornered loser.
I despised Declan, especially after the events of a few minutes ago. But seeing the terror on his face, I couldn’t bring myself to kick him while he was down.
“I’ll be keeping this on my phone for as long as I have it,” I warned.
“I’ll make sure it’s sent to the superintendent the second you try to hit on her again,” Clark added. Apparently his mercy only extended so far.
For one last attempt at pride, Declan held his head high, gritted his teeth, and glared. “I loved you, Emily. Why can’t you see that?”
I stepped towards him, now unafraid. “If you loved someone, you’d put them above yourself. I really hope that one day, you learn how.”
Declan left, with his tail behind his legs. I usually didn’t get so much pleasure out of beating a villain – okay, yeah, you all know that’s not true. But this time it felt way better, because it was so personal. Emily was safe.
But, well…it was a bit awkward.
“Thank you,” Emily said, quietly. “I didn’t know you’d picked up.”
“I was looking around for you, anyway,” I said, sheepishly. “When the phone rang, I knew you were outside, at least, and that’s about all I needed to go off of. Lila actually pointed me in the right direction, so maybe she’s not so bad. She told me that you had a sidewalk that you usually talked on and that it overlooked that lawn and-”
“Clark,” Emily said. “You’re rambling.” She grabbed my hand. “Here. Come on. I know a place to talk.”
She pulled me along the sidewalk, through some arches that looked pretty Hogwarts-like, into the center of the school campus. A nice little courtyard intersected from directions of sidewalk, with trees planted along the grass and a fountain in the middle. Nobody was around, so the water was about the only sound being made. It was a very pretty spot.
Emily sat down on the edge of the fountain and gestured for me to sit next to her. I did. We both took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” we said simultaneously.
After a bit of an awkward pause, Emily went forward. “Clark, I’m sorry. I thought that I’d put all of this, well, crap, behind me. I’d only ignored it. What I started for Katie was horrible. And I didn’t mean what I said. I was disappointed in myself and took it out on you.” She laughed, nervously, trying to ease the tension.
“I mean, I screwed up, too,” I said, sighing. I wanted to surprise you but I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’m really not sure I’m ready for this place, so if you want to be here by yourself, just say the word.”
She shook her head. “No, Clark. I want you here. You’re a good moral compass.”
“And you’re a good, uh…comfort-zone-breaker.” My talking skills just refused to improve, no matter what. “If you’re fine with me being here, I want to do my best to be there for you, but, you know, trust you to do what you know is best.”
“I’m fine with that,” Emily smiled. “And I’ll do my best to help you here, but make sure that I keep my Kirby-ness and not turn into a jerk like Lila.”
“Oh, so you agree that she’s a jerk?” I asked, impressed.
“Now, she’s still my friend, so you can’t say that to her face again.” She lowered her voice, conspiratorially. “But yeah, kind of.”
Again, we took a breath, and said “I forgive you.” We laughed again, but it was a bit less awkward. I guess we were good.
“I feel kind of like you, now, I guess,” Emily said, thoughtfully. “Ever since I’ve been here, everything has kind of revolved around my status and my horrible boyfriend. I’m not really sure what my place is, now that those two things don’t matter so much.”
I leaned back onto the fountain wall. “I mean, for starters, you could start with no status and a slightly-less-horrible boyfriend.”
I felt good, like things were back to normal. But, you know, better, because we were able to be honest with each other. However, like a weight on my heart, I groaned. “We still have to go back to school tomorrow, don’t we?”
“Yes, Clark. That’s kind of a given.”
A New Home
Were the next few days any easier? Honestly, no, not really.
People didn’t trust Clark, and he still had trouble trusting anybody else. Declan Parrish certainly didn’t suffer much from the skirmish. In fact, he was considered a hero. The students knew that Declan went out to talk to me, Clark followed and he came back in with a bloody nose. The story went that Clark probably got too overprotective and punched a totally innocent man. I’d been tempted to release the true story then and there, but since Declan hadn’t started the story there didn’t seem any use. For his part, when asked, Clark would simply say “I don’t have a scratch on me, do I?”
The good thing was that Declan kept his distance, and when we did inevitably run into each other he was much more conscious about how he acted. It was fearfully motivated, sure, but he might be able to change yet.
“You’re sure you can’t just delete it?” he asked, once, quietly, completely bereft of his usual swagger.
“I’ll delete if you ever tell what really happened yourself.”
“So no, then.”
The Origami X-Men team changed quite a bit after my talk with them. There was a totally different feel to them as a group, completely influenced by the examples of Katie, Daniel, and, honestly, Clark. Lila, previously considered the second-in-command, had far less influence. For the better, maybe, but again, I did my best to show her how to change.
I returned to the library the next week with Clark, showing him around. While there, I ran into Frankie again, waiting for her next tutoring appointment. A guy about the size of Clark, with dark hair and glasses to match (the only thing setting them a part was lighter skin) was wandering around behind her.
Frankie noticed us and stood up. “Emily! Hi!” She gave me a hug. Glancing at Clark, she smirked. “So, you made up?”
Nodding excitedly, I confirmed it. “Your advice really helped.” I gestured to Clark behind me, who was back to awe-filled observation. “Frankie, this is Clark! Clark, this is Frankie, who I met last week. She gave me some very good advice.”
Clark shook her hand. “I’m very happy to help,” Frankie said. “You two seem like nice kids.” She gestured to the guy perusing behind her. “That’s Noah, my fiance. He wanted to tag along today to get some tutoring credits for himself.”
“Frankie, their Tolkien section is amazing!” he shouted. “They even have The Adventures of Tom Bombadil!” He noticed us and waved. “Nice to meet you both.”
“He’s like that until you get to know him,” she said. “He and his friend Jimmy could talk about Tolkien for hours.” She held up her books. “You know, I have to tutor, but if you guys ever want to talk, my apartment’s always open! I know how rough a new school can be, especially with kids acting insane with all the puppets.”
“I’d like that a lot!” I said, appreciative. Frankie seemed like she could make a very good friend.
After the library, Clark seemed to be feeling introspective. You know, about puppets. “So, Em. We’re both puppetless now.”
Feigning surprise, I gasped. “You’re right, Clark! How will we ever survive?”
“You know what I mean,” he said, annoyed. “Just, so much of what we’ve done over the last few years has been puppet-related. We have absolutely no identity now.”
“We’ll be able to see how normal people live for awhile, won’t we?”
“Guess so.” He paused. “I wonder if I’ll ever have another character.”
I took his hand. “You know what they say, Clark; finger puppets have interesting effects on those who constantly wear them.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re the only one who says that.”
“Doesn’t make it less true.”
And so, here we were, a couple of outcasts stuck in a school that didn’t take kindly to them. But I wasn’t worried so much about that anymore. They could take us or leave us for all I cared, anymore. Maybe Clark’s apathy was rubbing off on me.
And maybe my self-consciousness was rubbing off on him. “Is my tie on right this time?”
“Here, let me fix it.”