The problem was, of course, what I could tell her that fit the facts. Given the way we hid it, it had to be something shameful or illegal. Recreational drug use? Strange sexual practices? Maybe we'd all joined a cult?
I decided to go as close to the truth as I dared.
"We're just friends," I said. "Our grandfathers all served together in World War II and we got together as kids. We're just getting together again now."
"Every night?" Kayla stopped walking.
"Well, if Cassie's out every night, I don't know what she's doing," I said.
"She's never home anymore. No one is. Her mom has barely been there for years." Kayla raised her hands in what I guessed was a gesture of frustration. If she moved her right arm much more, she'd lose half the papers in her notebook.
"I don't know why," I said. "We've just been getting together every once in a while since school started."
The crowd in the halls had thinned. I had half the school to cover to make it to the cafeteria for study hall.
"Where's your next class?" I said, "Because I'm going to have to run."
"The cafeteria," she said, sounding irritated.
Should I have known that?
The warning bell rang. We had less than a minute before we were late.
We looked at each other and began to walk quickly. Running in the halls isn't allowed.
We made it just barely before the bell rang. Kayla sat the next table down. Funny. We were halfway through the semester and I had had no idea she was there. It make sense, though. They'd assigned seating in alphabetical order. My last name is Klein. Hers is Ketchem. Go figure.
I spent most of study hall on math homework. When that was done, I thought about the mayor. Whatever Daniel's dad said, I didn't think that it would be a good idea to stay entirely out of it. Obviously I wouldn't start running around in costume, but there had to be a way to contribute. By the end of study hall, I had a plan.
When the bell rang again, school was over. I picked up my books and began to walk out--except that Kayla caught up with me again.
"Nick, do you have just a second?"
I stopped, leaning against the table near the door, while a quarter of the school seemed to file past us.
"I'm not trying to pry into your life," she said, "but I'm worried about Cassie. You know how she was sick this summer? Ever since then, something's been different. She disappears. She's been hanging around Vaughn a lot and you know what people say about him. And have you looked at her lately? She doesn't look like a guy, but look at her muscles. Do you think she's using steroids?"
Everything she said seemed to come in one breath. I tried to take it all in.
"No. Vaughn would be against that more than anyone. He' s been off drugs for a while now--at least since the summer anyway. His parents sent him to some kind of camp."
She held my gaze, but didn't say anything. I guessed she didn't believe me.
"Well, I know you're not like that," she said.
We left for our respective practices after that--her for volleyball, me for cross country--but not before I'd promised to let her know if I saw anything.
Practice was a relief. For me at least, getting out on the road and just running, having time to daydream and not needing to talk can be almost like sleep. Not exactly like sleep when you consider the aching muscles and the constant need to push yourself to keep up with everyone else, but it does relax me.
Cassie, Vaughn and I met up on the front steps of the school afterward. I was last.
"Finally," Cassie said. "What kept you?"
"I don't know," I said. "My shower?"
I looked down the stairs and across the street to the parking lot. Future Knight stood next to the gate to the fenced in lot, his armor gleaming red under the setting sun.
"Maybe I should just walk home," I said.
"No. That would look weird. Stay with us," Cassie said.
"Yeah," Vaughn said. "You can handle it. You're Vomitman, right?"
Moments like that make me regret ever mentioning that if I found the right frequency, I could probably use the sonic systems to induce nausea.
We crossed the street.
"Greetings humans," he said, his electronically modulated tone and clipped delivery making me wonder if he was a robot.
Then he started laughing. "Ah-hah-hah," he said. "Your faces..."
His laughter still sounded electronic, but stupid jokes like that? That's all human.
"Sorry," he said, "I've got to keep myself awake somehow. If you give me a second, I'd like to ask you some questions. I'm trying to find some kids. Do you know anyone who's been disappearing a lot lately? Or who's changed physically? Maybe changed groups of friends?"
"No," we all said simultaneously.
He looked us over. I hoped he couldn't somehow detect the stealth suit--though if anything he'd probably notice the amps attached under my forearms or maybe the jetpack. I'd been hanging onto my backpack by the strap. I pulled it up and put it on my back.
"Try it in harmony next time," he said. "Move along."
Cassie's mom's car was on the other side of the parking lot. As Cassie unlocked the doors, I said, "That could have been worse."
Cassie stepped inside. "We're still in the parking lot," she said.
On the way out of the lot, we saw Kayla and a few other girls from the volleyball team talking to Future Knight. Cassie waved to Kayla. Kayla waved back weakly, eyes wide, her mouth hanging just a little open.
My dad has often said that the best part of his job is seeing the moment when a client comes to a new understanding. I had a feeling I'd just seen that look. I didn't like it much.
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- Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Writer of Stuff
Bio: Jim Zoetewey grew up in Holland, Michigan, near where L Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz and other books in that series. Admittedly, Baum moved away more than sixty years before Jim was even born, but it's still kind of cool. Jim didn't attain his goal of never leaving school, but did prolong his stay as long as possible. He majored in religion and sociology at Hope College, gaining enough credits to obtain minors in ancient civilizations and creative writing—had he thought to submit applications to the relevant departments. He attended Western Theological Seminary for two years. He followed that up by getting a masters degree in sociology at Western Michigan University. Once out of school, he took up the most logical occupation for someone with his educational background: web developer and technical support. Simultaneously, he finished all but three credits of a masters in Information Systems, a degree that's actually relevant to his field. He's still not done. In the meantime, he's been writing stories about superheroes and posting them online at http://legionofnothing.com. He's still not sure whether that was a good idea, but continues to do it anyway. He's also not sure why he's writing this in the third person, but he's never seen an author bio written in first person and doesn't want to rock the boat.