It was agonizing waiting for Monday, but then when it finally arrived Emeral almost didn't want to go to school. She'd thought very deeply about what she could have done to make Ket practically run away from her. The only answer she could come up with was that it had something to do with his dad. That mysterious figure of his life, mentioned once like a phantom from a nightmare. At least, that's what it seemed like when he had talked about it.
Sitting at the mud-brown table in the cafeteria with an actual tray of breakfast food, she tried not to think about what would happen in two minutes when she would enter the classroom. She wished she could avoid it, but at the same time she just wanted it to happen and get it over with; like ripping off a band-aid. The minute-hand on the big clock twitched.
Kids were laughing, bickering, belching, squabbling, and spinning some rock on the table nearby. The separation of gender was blatant as usual. But it was like an alien world now. She saw the lower graders, and was reminded of when she thought boys were icky and gross, and didn't want anything to do with them ever-ever. Then the third-graders, when she had first crushed on a boy, who ended up moving to another state before she got a chance to tell him.
She hadn't cared about all that stuff since then. Not until now. As she ate the biscuits and glop-gravy, she thought again about how the day was going to unfold. She couldn't quite get past what would happen after they were both present in the classroom—or would he even show up today?
Her stomach flipped, and she set the biscuit down. That would be worse than confronting him. But on the other hand, if he did come, how would she talk to him? He didn't seem like the type that wanted to socialize during school, especially given his quip just as they left the library.
The bell rang. She flinched.
She wasn't ready. Wasn't ready at all!
Against the gray of the crowd, she shuffled into the classroom, and her eyes slowly panned toward the opposite corner by the window. He was already here, sitting at his desk. Lyza came and said her hello, but Emeral could barely keep the conversation. At last the second bell rang and they split, Lyza skip-dashing to her desk before Ms. Hupp shut the door.
Emeral approached hers, averting her eyes and looking down. She physically felt friction in the air between them, but it was probably just her imagination. Still, she couldn't bear to look up and verify. She slumped down in her seat, exhaling at last.
"Good morning class," the thinning raccoon said with far too much energy as she approached center-stage of the classroom.
The kids grumbled back in a haze of sleep and misery.
So far it felt like a normal day. Ket didn't look back at her, and it left her wondering if it was because he was acting normal or because he was still miffed. She sighed and pulled out her English book as everyone else did, preparing to study for the many quizzes they would have today since the six weeks was almost halfway up. As she flopped it open to unit one, a white spec caught her eye, and she glanced down to see a spit-wad roll underneath her seat.
She glanced up at Ritzer, who mouthed a vulgarity, and then beamed when he saw she was looking.
Emeral felt her shoulders tense. Quizzes, a pseudo-boyfriend in limbo, and the class bully leering at her all day. If she didn't set things straight soon, she wouldn't make it to Christmas.
* * *
Physical Education. Gym Class. Token Exercise Class. Whatever it was was called, it was unavoidable, and the reason why girls dreaded forgetting to wear skorts; or “forgetting” to in order to avoid breaking a sweat.
Every day it was sort of the same routine: warm-ups, and then if they actually had a class they would do some instructions and activities from some book of generic stuff-to-do.
Warm-ups were a joke to Emeral. Her martial arts classes were much more rigorous when it came to exercising. All she had to do in Gym were ten jumping-jacks, five windmills, leg stretches; Mountain-Climbers were a piece of cake. Then came push-ups, usually fifteen. Emeral did hers quickly, used to doing twenty or sometimes more.
As she sat up to wait for the slower kids to finish, she idly twisted about to glance at Ket. She bit her lip, guilt tugging on her gut as she saw his arms trembling. He was probably so sore from doing all those chin-ups, and worse he probably did twenty to impress her in the first place. But he was still managing, and she didn't blame him when he quit after only seven hectic reps.
Twenty-five crunches. No guilt here, Ket's abs were like stone and he was done before she was.
Then it was a little quiet as the coaches discussed stuff. They always did for a few minutes, deciding if they should actually teach or just have the kids play dodgeball. Nothing to do but stare...and stare.
Things were a lot more fun with Coach Berts. He was a monster of a bear but had a heart of gold. He had all the fun activities that no coach could ever top. Milk-jug bowling, the hula-hoop lift, wacky dancing; every day was something new and fun. They would go outside and just mess around sometimes, playing four-square or tether-ball, and one time he brought chalk. Of course some kids drew some inappropriate things, so that was the first-and-last time for that happening.
But since Coach Berts left they stayed in the gym more often; if it could be called a gym. It was more like a giant garage without a house. Big light bulbs buzzed overhead, colored pink and blue and purple. One of the blue ones flickered orange every now and then, and three were out. There was a white-board on one wall, and the rest were relatively bare. There were some decals, but they were old and peeling.
Industrial fans clattered and hacked like a tape-recorder of old people in a crowded elevator. Birds chirped outside from the open garage doors, which was a blaring opposition to the atmosphere that was to be experienced.
The other kids were talking now, volume slowly rising. They all sat in an orderly fashion on the ground, like pegs on a peg-board. It reminded Emeral of that game with the dots and connecting lines to make boxes and putting letters in.
"All right guys and gals," the female coach said, blowing her whistle, "Clouds look kinda dark so we're gonna stay in and play dodge ball today!"
There was a roar of excitement. Emeral looked outside. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Nevertheless, she stood and smoothed her shirt, grumbling at the dribbled gravy-stain on the pastel-orange.
The balls were dumped out from a giant tub, and the coaches kicked them to either side of the garage.
The teams weren't separated by gender, but for the most part one side was mostly girls while the other mostly boys. The noise-level reached epic proportions as the game went underway. No real rules for safety since the balls were just soft alligator-skin. If one was caught it, the other person was out (but never went), and if someone was hit, they were out, even if it was to the face. When out, if that person caught a fly-ball, they got to come back in. A never-ending game, that somehow the coaches kept a score on and announced a winner at the end.
Emeral took no time getting into the groove. She loved dodge ball. It was aggressive; fast and instinctive. She felt like it tested her skills and abilities. Like the balls were opponents' fists or feet flying at her, and she had to dodge or grapple them before they could contact her. She never went a game without getting out at least three or four times, though; but every game she tried to stay in the whole time.
A ball whizzed past and hit a kid to her left. She picked it up and ran forward, dodging one herself and chucking it—bam! Battle-ship sunk! She receded, her assault done for now. She turned sideways, flattening her target so she was harder to hit; another ball whizzed past her. She kept backing up, needed to wait for more ammunition on their side since the other side was hogging it all.
Back, back, back... She stopped abruptly as a hand gently pressed against her arm. Her foot came crashing down upon someone else's. She gasped. "Oh jeez, I'm sorry," she turned to apologize.
Time froze and the room became very quiet to her.
Ket stared back, a half-smile on his face.
She felt numb.
When did he...?
She had forgotten about him since the game started. He was usually away from the action, against the wall. She hadn't seen him on the field, but he was here in the game? And he was on her team?
Was he actually playing?
He said something, but above the ruckus she couldn't hear. Then he raised his hand, and slapped a ball that was headed for her. "Go, go!" His lips moved, and he patted her on the back.
She turned absently, world coming back to speed and sound coming back to roar. She turned, and weaved between her teammates to the front-center of the court, snatching a ball. She squeezed her bullet, its torn body exhaling air in a puffy wheeze, and hurled it forward—fwap! Center-chest.
She glanced back, and he was watching. Quickly she turned to the game and narrowly missed a greener aimed for the face.
So he was watching her from afar.
Suddenly, everything was different.
No longer was this just a personal test of her skills. Now it was something much more important. This was a chance to show off, an opportunity to impress him!
Two people targeted her, she dodged them by spinning and picked the second one off the ground. With it, she bopped other balls out of the way while her team collected the cold ammo. Once they had a near-full volley ready, they began the assault.
Bam! She struck another, but that wasn't enough, no one else really hit. Now the other team had the wave. She looked about—her team was all but massacred! How did that happen? Was she the only one playing? Wind rushed past as she jerked this way and that, sure that after this Ritzer was going to make some lewd joke about her and balls. In fact he might be saying it now—he was shouting something from the other side. A taunt.
That's it! She caught a ball. Knew what she had to. She had to get Ritzer out. Had to peg him. And it had to be her.
But, Ritzer was protected by Goren and Virgil; Draub was already out and Beck was taunting other girls. They threw their volleys; she dodged. Teammates behind her caught the fly-bys and jumped in. She held back just a bit.
Bam! Bam! Goren and some other guy were out. Just Virgil left—but Virgil was a mean dodge-baller. A cheetah, athletically the best kid in the school. Getting him out would be tricky. But then again, it was late in the game. He just might be tiring out.
Besides, who said she had to go through the ranks?
She skidded, turned the other way; zig-zagging. She was drawing attention, targeted left and right by players with horrible aim. She darted far right—Virgil followed, leaving Ritzer wide-open. The star athlete readied his shot.
She threw—and so did he. Time slowed. Her purple missile headed straight for Ritzer cross-court with such speed no one could see it coming. Virgil almost super-man-dived, eyes wide at the move. The bruiser collided with the bully, even as he tried to dodge, right on the shoulder. As if to prove no doubt, the ball bounced off and was kicked by his raised foot.
The whistle blew, and Virgil's mark was pegged just in time to be out. But it almost didn't matter now.
The roar that erupted was sure to make kids out in the portables turn their heads. The coaches' whistles shrilled, they tried to announce the winners of the game. It was actually Ritzer's team, officially. But the real winner was Emeral, who gripped Lyza's helping hand up.
The white tigress was surrounded by cheers and shouts, not exactly directed at her; she ignored them. She looked beyond the celebrating crowd, between people's heads, to see Ket staring nonchalantly askew of her direction; on his lips, the slightest curve of smug appraisal.