Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
The only thing I hate more than group assignments is group assignments with Kelly Francis.
I can’t even imagine there’s a more unreliable person on the planet. If there is, I hope Kelly can be in a group with them and know what this shit feels like. The mere sound of Miss Holt putting us on a group project together almost gave me a heart attack.
“Derek, Kelly, both of you will discuss the functionalist perspective on crime and deviance…”
Twenty percent of my final grade. Wrapped up in a class presentation with a ditzy cheerleader who has been in class maybe five periods total. I’m sure she hasn’t seen the inside of the textbook. The handful of times I ever see her on campus, she’s dead on her feet from whatever killer party hangover from the night before, passing out in History or her head in the clouds in Lit.
I’m supposed to pass Sociology with her chained against my ankle?
She comes up to me all eager. I can see bags under her eyes, like the night life is catching up with her hard.
“Let’s exchange numbers!” she says. “I’m glad we’re working together! Being in the same group with someone as bright as you, this presentation’ll be a piece of cake!”
I ask if she’s read anything on the module before we got the assignment, and she shakes her head with this puppy-dog sorrow on her face.
I’m gonna get an F. I just know it.
I can’t afford to fail this. Mama already says if I drop below a B-minus in another class, she’ll make me drop my extra-curriculars.
You know what that means. I’ll have to answer for being out of the house as late as I am. She’ll want to ground me, even — it’s happened before. She’ll be over my shoulder as often as she can.
I can’t afford that right now. Of all the people I don’t want to notice, Mama is at the top of the list—
“Kelly!” The small crystals at the heart of my inch-long gold star drop earrings start twinkling all on their own as a voice rings in only my ears. Instinct makes me draw my hands over them before anyone notices, even though no one ever does.
“You shouldn’t have gotten to school so late! When are we gonna check that rumour you heard about in the bathroom?”
I wince. Why now? I whisper my reply, knowing I’ll be picked up just fine.
“Stella, can this wait? I have—”
“You won’t have a school for very long if you don’t check this out.”
I know that already. I’ve been moonlighting as a magical … whatever I am for most of the school year already. At this point, the school as a building and/or an undeniably large portion of its population has been under threat maybe four times, notwithstanding the other things that I’ve saved from complete eldritch cosmic annihilation after school hours.
“But Stella, you don’t get it. Twenty percent.”
The earrings sigh so loudly they jingle against my earlobes. “I understand your frustration, girl, but you heard the rumours yourself. At least two kids went missing inside there. Until we learn what’s drawing them to the school, you have to at least check it out.”
I put my head in my hands and sigh, staring down at the faux-wood top of my desk. I’ve been holding on for this long, but eventually I’m going to have to choose. This is the part that sucks. I’ll have to get it all tied up during recess, or else I fai—
Miss Holt clears her throat at her desk and squints at me over the rim of her cat’s-eye glasses. “Derek, Kelly, both of you will discuss the functionalist perspective on crime and deviance…”
My eyes widen. I’m barely staying afloat in this class, and she just put me in a group with the Number Two student on campus. He looks at Miss Holt with this kind of tired hopelessness, and then he turns to me and he’s staring daggers.
I wave meekly. I need to make this work. Twenty percent. I can’t look like the kind of kid who doesn’t give a fuck.
When the bell rings, I dash over to his desk before he disappears into the crowd. Derek and I have barely spoken five words to each other in all our years at this school. I may as well open with a good impression. “Hey!” I don’t know how to wave at this moment, and I make a kind of robotic elbow-level jerk that nearly puts another kid’s eye out.
Derek gives me the kind of I’m-better-than-you glance I see more often in the cafeteria from the meaner girls on my cheer squad. “Hey.” Same tone, too.
“We should exchange numbers or something … maybe meet up later and brainstorm?”
“Mmhmm” Then, just as smug as any mean girl: “Can you even begin to answer the project’s question without any assistance?”
I pause. I know broad strokes, but not even how to begin describing those parts off the top of my head. “Uh … social control theory says that … um … agents of socialization stop us from committing crimes, but Cohen says crime itself is useful, and—”
I hold myself back from letting out the loudest groan. At this point, I already figure he isn’t charmed, so I play the honesty card. “Look — you don’t seem big on this group, but it’s twenty percent. I don’t get everything in this course, but I’m willing to try. Really. I’m not trying to hold you back. Both of us need to—”
Derek’s already zipping his bag shut and walking off.
In my ear, Stella scrapes like nails on chalkboard. “Kelly! What are you waiting for?!”
I’m gonna get an F. I just know it.
I start working on my own, because Lord knows I’m never gonna hear from Kelly until the morning before class. I dip into the library that lunchtime, take the best notes I can from their reference textbooks, nod to Miss Dempsey as she gives me the usual “O, you’re so studious!” routine like it’s news that I’m always here, in the library, the one place all the cool kids seem to be afraid of.
Lo and behold, I meet Kelly’s gaze as she’s peeking through the library door glass. She darts in, coos an utterly unconvincing, “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” She knows she’s been caught. I’m just surprised she decided to do anything about it. Her too-cool-for-school type typically don’t even bother. But here she is, leaning over my stack of books and papers, asking what she can do to lighten the load.
I can’t help but notice that her hands look covered in some thin green goo that she must’ve tried to wash off and failed. The pair of gold-star earrings she’s wearing seem to glisten in a way I hadn’t ever noticed, and she looks positively windblown, like she just fell out of a tornado on the way here — afro all frazzled, brown eyes all deer-in-headlights. I want to ask sarcastically about the obvious weird make-out session she’s just fled, but I don’t actually give a damn.
I take my notes. She awkwardly hangs on. The bell rings. I go to Math class.
A cubic foot of bottle-green gelatinous alien blood hits me square in the face moments after the final blow, and next thing I know, my hair’s stuck to the bathroom drop ceiling.
These tentacle fuckers are disgusting.
A white odd-eyed cat appears on the sill of the hopper window above the stalls and calls me up to notice. “Hey!”
I turn to her and scowl. “What do you want?”
She looks at me silently for a moment, before bringing her right paw to her mouth and holding back a snicker. “You look like a Troll doll!”
I scrape a glob of the crap off my star-studded magical-girl uniform and chuck it at her, and she dodges it with one soft skip to her left. “How the hell do you even know what a Troll doll is?”
“I get bored and random-article on Wikipedia too, you know.” She winks and steps down from the window, poking at the extremities of the monster I’ve just killed. “So they are on campus.”
“These seem new … have you seen these before, Stella?” When I pull my hair off the ceiling, it makes this skin-crawling schlllllorp sound and I want to hurl.
“New to me, too. I’ll have to do more research on them while you’re in class.” Stella bites down on a tentacle and starts to pull. With less effort than a typical tabby’s teeth would take, she tears the thing off the rest of its body. It’s leaking green ooze and faded grey innards. I want to hurl even more. She gestures in the air with her paw, and a small purple portal opens at the wall for her to shove the limb and a severed eye through. “If I find anything interesting, I’ll let you know. Expect to hear from me soon — I suspect there’ll be another attack nearby.”
I sigh. “I hope not.”
Stella looks up at me and scowls. “What’s your problem today, Kelly?”
“My problem? My problem is that I can’t afford to fail Sociology, or else I won’t be able to do any more of this.” I gesture at the dead slimy centipodal alien angrily, then lean my hair into the only clean sink in the room. “But I can’t do anything about that if you need me when I should be planning this project, can I?”
Stella sits, closes her eyes, and nods. “Good. So long as you know that it’s more important if I call you.”
I groan. I’m pretty sure me closing my eyes to rinse the alien goop out of my hair is the first time I’ve closed them at all in almost fifty hours. “Oh, shit. I need to see Derek.” I tap the swirling nebulae at the centre of my earrings, and my starry-sky dress disappears to reveal a mostly-clean navy blue blouse and black skirt. I vigourously drag my hands through my hair to get the most mess off, cursing each time my hand accidentally tugs on a knot, and then I swipe at the rest of me with some wet toilet paper. I turn to Stella. “How do I look?”
Sometimes I want to kick this damn cat. “That’ll do.”
I rush out the door before Stella can complain about the alien still dead on the bathroom floor, my wet tennis shoes sliding across the hallway tiles until I collide with the library double doors. Luckily for me, there he is, head buried in a textbook as big as a concrete block.
He raises his head and notices me through the glass right away. My eyes widen, and I do one more once-over to make sure I don’t still have evidence of extraterrestrial life stuck in my teeth. He rolls his eyes, which I guess is a better sign than absolute disgust, so I get in and try on my best apology voice. “I’ve been looking for you every—”
“You can stop pretending,” Derek says.
“I’m sorry I got caught up with something else—”
“Don’t you mean ‘someone else’?”
I pause. “… what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” He starts shutting books and getting up.
“Wait! I mean it, I want to make this project work.” I snatch one book off the table — Sociology: Themes and Perspectives by Haralambos and Holborn — and I immediately regret it because that shit can crack concrete. “I’m not just asking because I need to pass this class, I’m asking because I want to understand what’s happening in it. That’s what these projects are for, right? To help us grasp the subject matter?”
“No.” Derek folshsarms around slim hardcover reference books and loose sheets of paper. “They aren’t. They’re to weed out the people who already do from the people who don’t want to. And if you wanted to, you would’ve done your own reading ages ago.”
I want to ask somebody who this kid thinks he is, but twenty percent of my grade. “Look. I am serious about this. I can’t fail. Please. Just … cut me some slack, okay?”
He rolls his eyes again, and just as they’re curling downward, the bell rings, and he walks past me like I’m not even there.
I let out the shortest, quietest sigh. As I look down, there’s more green goop sticking my right shoe heel to the desk beside me.
I’m already fed up of this day, you guys.
After school, Kelly gives me another awkward, meek look from the other end of the hallway, like she knows I’m gonna save my fucking grade and leave her out of the whole process. Then, she pouts and flips her hair all primetime-teen-drama and storms off, and I just go back to the library, because, as previously stated, no damns to give.
I’m in there late. I don’t check the clock ‘til Miss Dempsey finally decides she can’t stay any longer, and by then it’s a quarter to ten. I feel I have enough for a decent grade. Mind you, Kelly’s blowing up my phone the whole time, and I don’t care to stop reading just to find out why. Miss Dempsey asks if I need a ride home, I say no, she asks if I’m sure, I reassure her that I’m old enough and smart enough to take the ten p.m. bus, she sighs and whispers that it’s not her business.
And then, dude, the freakiest thing happens.
Bam! Giant monster in the middle of the street by the corner of Albion and Pine. Tearing up cars, sending the shopkeepers on the block scampering either to find a place to hide or to lock up and run away. It’s this long, liquidy thing, a hundred tentacles on the ends of a hundred tentacles, eyes collapsing into mouths collapsing into eyes again — like, just imagine some six-year-old’s crayon drawing of a monster, in 3D, with a temper.
My bus stop’s three blocks behind the thing, and I can’t tell if it’s looking at me, because technically it’s looking everywhere. I’m frozen. It was pants-wettingly frightening, dude. Not like I wet my pants, of course. I wouldn’t leave that out if I did. I didn’t. Really, I didn’t! But I would have!
So there I am, locked by fear, the thing gurgling toward me, and then — this girl, like, kicks it in one of the eyes. Pow, leather boot heel right in the juicy part.
This dolled-up afro, a face framed by some Victorian masquerade visor in midnight blue with gold accents, blue leather gloves to the elbow and blue leather boots to the knee, both with what seemed like stars and moons and entire nebulae moving against their darkness, in a white-and-red sailor-fuku with golden epaulets. And these rad earrings, that seem less like golden star-shaped things and more like real starlight, like I’m looking at a piece of the sky and not at some precious metal or whatever. And I swear she looks familiar! She looked right at me, I swear! Like someone on TV, maybe? But I can’t imagine why. She looks our age, even … I don’t know why, but she looks like someone I know!
Then she says something like, “Handsome, intelligent, all-round awesome citizen, you should get out of the way and let me handle this!” She even, like, says something about me making sure to do my homework, and immediately I remember Kelly fucking bailing on me re: this project. And then superhero-chick just goes back to kicking the thing to death, right? Just wailing on it, green goo flying out of each of its available orifices — and it has so many orifices! So I just fucking run. I want nothing to do with that shit again, it’s already weird enough! I hear it … I dunno, gurgle in pain? I hear her scream, like, maybe twice, but she is destroying it! It was awesome! And I didn’t even get to see the whole thing.
When I get home, I check my phone again. One text message — from Kelly. And can you guess what she says?
Yep. “Hey, can we talk in the morning? I can’t do this project alone.” Smile emoji, smile emoji. While I almost died, she had no will to start reading or putting anything together herself?
Goddamn Kelly Francis.
By six o’clock I’m at the kitchen table sipping from the first of three Red Bulls, flipping through a stack of public library books tall enough for Mama to not even see my head.
“What it is you working on so?” Mama says.
“Sociology homework, Mama,” I reply.
She lets out this relieved gasp and starts with the whole routine of being shocked that I’d dare study, and I thank my lucky stars I have a wall of books to hide my rolling eyes.
Mama means well, as mamas do. She talks about school the same way some people talk about God, which is saying a lot considering that she talks about God the same way some people talk about money. She keeps telling her work friends that one day I’ll have my pick of colleges if I just act right and keep my head in a book. Part of me always wants to make that version of my mama proud. That’s why I was in two sports and on the cheer squad, too, before Stella gave me these earrings, before all of this. In middle school, I used to be the Derek, you know — the kid people pushed around just for knowing the answer to one or two questions. Now I’m just staying afloat, and barely.
Somewhere around nine, I message around for Derek’s number, and after asking twelve people — is he that unlikeable? — I try ringing him. No answer. Before I can try again, I get a text. Stella. At least she’s figured out how, so I don’t have to keep those damn earrings on in the house. Another one of those aliens is on the move. Moving west on Pine Street.
Mama was so pleased, too. How do I even ask to dip out now? Then I remember the answer is right in front of me. “Mama, I’m gonna meet Derek. Be back in a—”
Group partner. Sociology homework.”
He didn’t answer his phone before, but I really need help with this.” I snatch my books off the table, rush upstairs to slide them into my bag — she’s gonna have to see me leave with them for the lie to stick — and change my clothes, earrings and all. I’m out the door before she can finish her goodbyes.
I transform as I run, tapping the crystals gently, closing my eyes as the light of every inch of the galaxy washes over me. I’m no longer wowed by it, the dancing of stars, the whooshing of comets changing shape and colour in their heat. I wish the whole sequence didn’t take so many seconds, in fact.
Once it’s done, I hover over the trees, and then westward to Pine. There’s a two-lane-wide streak of green slime leading in one direction, and an ocean of screaming people running in the other.
“I see it,” I whisper. “This one looks … bigger.”
“I did scans on the sample I took,” Stella replies. “The whole thing is nearly impenetrable, save for the eyes.”
Once I’m in range, I come down hard with a dropkick. Squish. Lucky enough to hit an eye on the first try. It tumbles back and gurgles out, tentacles lashing everywhere.
I hear another scream. I turn, and there’s Derek, his crotch turning a darker shade of grey, crying bloody murder.
I clear my throat, try to mask my voice with something older and deeper. “Hey, you! Get out of here!” Too much? Maybe, but he scampers off with all God’s speed. I impulsively add: “And call your fucking group partner back!”
After twelve minutes of putting an alien’s eyes out, I stop by a standpipe outside Greene Park to wash parts of it off, and I notice it’s minutes past ten. The night’s been wasted. I check my phone, and Derek hasn’t said a thing. I type a quick text: “Hey, can we talk in the morning? I can’t do this project alone.”
Or can I?
You know what?
I didn’t buy three whole cans of Red Bull for nothing.
It’s like that for the next three days. I tell you, if I wasn’t working on it, taking notes, trying to put together the best presentation I can all by myself, I would’ve lost it. Plus, she has the nerve to come up to me in the cafeteria during lunch and tell me I’m being selfish because she wants to contribute and I won’t let her. Plus, get this, all over her cheek and neck, there are these weird bruises and cuts for the whole world to see, like she didn’t think I’d be able to tell she was obviously doing something with some guy at some party instead of contributing to our ‘group’. Can you believe it?
So we’re in class, and Miss Holt waits for the rest of the kids to settle down before saying, “So, let’s just get started with our first presentation for the day. Kelly Francis, since you were unable to connect with your partner…” And Miss Holt’s looking right at me with a scowl on her face like I did something as she continues: “Let’s hear your solo presentation.”
Can you believe it? Kelly set me up to save her own skin? Told Miss Holt I’m the one who wasn’t contributing to the project! Dropped my grade even though I showed her all the work I had done, going on and on about how ‘teamwork is important’. I wish I had a better team! What was I supposed to do about that?
I wish Kelly could be more like the monster-kicking girl. No matter how late it was, she knew she had a duty to fulfill, and that if she didn’t people’s literal lives would be at stake, so she stepped up and got shit done. I bet Monster-Kicking Girl gets tired, wants to hang out with her girlfriends or make out with boys or whatever too. But she knows she has work to do, and she does it.
But noooo, she has to be Kelly Francis, the least helpful girl in school, doesn’t she? And she had to be in my group, didn’t she?
An A! Which is a big deal, considering just seeing Durkheim’s name makes me woozy now. It was actually kinda interesting? If I still understand any of it at all, I mean.
Just as the bell rings, I make to go over to Derek, to say I didn’t want to go to Miss Holt about the whole thing. That I wished he’d at least give me a chance.
And just as I wonder, mid-stride, why he even deserves one, my earrings chime, and I cover my ears. “Kelly? Are you there?”
Yesterday I would have sighed, but today I can’t help but chuckle. “Aren’t I always?”