Due to the practical matter of the new book cover, I’m officially changing Blas’s description to match that of my own dog, Ellie. Ellie lost her eye to cancer, not a big cat, and she has two full ears and four legs. Blas still has one and a half ears, three legs, and one eye, but he’s more of a pit-labrador-boxer mix now, brown and short-haired instead of blonde with curls. I won’t retrofit this installment-based story, but if I bring it all together in a novel someday I’ll make sure it matches.
In Romero High School there was a hallway corner where the beige lockers did not quite fit together. The space between these lockers was enough that a skinny young woman could just slip between them and disappear. Julia sat in this secret, dark space, barely enough room for Jack to fit if he pressed against her, her arms around her legs, crying.
Mr. Gobi told her about the cognitive distortion called “mind reading.” Every time she came to him he he insisted that she just convinced herself her classmates hated her. Most of the time she spent around them she divided her attention between trying to believe him and trying to find the evidence that would finally prove him wrong. Would he say that she imagined Stacy attacking her?
Why would Stacy do that? Beautiful Stacy. Julia just wanted to be Stacy’s friend. Stacy was so confident, she didn’t seem to care what anyone thought and everyone seemed to think good things. Julia couldn’t seem to care about anything but what people thought, and everyone hated her for it. Now Stacy was with Ethan, of all people. She deserved better. Ethan was cute and clever, but he thought of nothing but himself and he was dead boring in bed. Stacy was going to be so disappointed. But not before Ethan told her all sorts of things that would make her hate Julia even more. Poor Julia.
Julia knew what everyone thought. She was just a spoiled rich white kid. No matter what she did, that was her identity at the school. She didn’t struggle. She didn’t suffer. What did they know? They couldn’t know. They mustn’t know. Only Mr. Gobi knew. You need an ally, he said.
She heard voices and shifted in her hiding place to line up her long, vertical window into the land of the living. There was Stacy in the power stance that made Julia swoon. Stacy wore her strength in her clenched fists, one slightly askew from the missing pinky knuckle. Julia hadn’t yet solved that mystery. Julia could hear her heavy breathing and see her wide stance, ready to grapple with whatever foe might come her way. She wasn’t just strong, she was angry. She was fighting with Ethan. Good.
“This is why. Do you understand? This is why journalism is dead.” Stacy shouted inches from Ethan’s stupid pretty face, so loud that Blas and Princess both cowered. “I started this newspaper. I ran it by myself all of freshman year because I knew that someday there would be something worth saying. Mr. Gobi promised me he would do everything in his power to give me journalistic integrity. He promised.”
“This is out of his power, Stacy. The principal would gut him like a fish. They would burn our paper to the ground. The chaos would overwhelm everything that we’re fighting for.” Ethan wasn’t really sure what he was saying. He just knew that by defending Mr. Gobi’s decision he was defending himself for going along with it and that to reference the shared cause would help Stacy feel understood. The words themselves just fell out of him like they always did when he needed to get something he wanted, which right now was for Stacy to calm down and still like him and Mr. Gobi. He couldn’t say exactly why Mr. Gobi’s fate concerned him, but after that meeting, he felt that it was in everyone’s best interest to keep that goofy four-eyed old man in charge.
Stacy relaxed from her fighting position, although Blas’s sleek brown coat still stood on end over his spine. Her voice was still intense, though not nearly so loud. “What are we going to do, then, Ethan?”
“Well…” Ethan thought fast. “He said to leave The Romero Star out of it. Would there be another paper we could take it to? The Looking Glass?”
“The Looking Glass,” Stacy snorted, “So it can stand with visionary articles like ‘Zombie Tupac Sighted,’ and ‘The Measles Vaccine Made my Child a Shambling Corpse!'”
“Is that what they publish?” Ethan had never actually read an article in The Looking Glass. He just saw it in magazine stands at the supermarket.
“What about Weiderhorn County News? We publish anonymously and don’t say where it happened. It could have been anywhere in the whole county, and the point is the same. Smarter zombies means we need smarter safety curricula.”
Ethan nodded his head, noting Blas’s fur settling down. “That’s a great idea. How can I help?”
Stacy went quiet and bit her lip. She glanced at Blas, whose fur began to stand up once more, like a little mohawk down his back. As if he and the dog had a psychic connection, Ethan, too, began to feel uneasy.
“Right now all we have is words,” said Stacy slowly. “Anyone can make up words.”
Julia could only see Stacy’s back, her unruly brown hair cascading down her shoulders all the way to the small of her back. From her safe space outside the cruel world, Julia could stare with abandon. She smiled wanly. This was a unique treat.
Blas sniffed at the air and turned to look right at Julia, his one eye seeing what no two ever had. He crept forward, sniffing at the ground, and her liberation suddenly felt like a trap. She clamped her hand on Jack’s snout and muffled his frightened “oooh woo woo.”
Stacy paid Blas no mind. “We need evidence. We need pictures, video. Something they can’t ignore.”
Ethan didn’t need to think about it. “I’m in. I’ll bring my equipment. Tomorrow behind the school?”
“I’ll be there. Come on, Blas. Leave the lockers alone.”
Blas bounded away, and Julia breathed a sigh of relief. Once the bell rang and the hall had emptied, she squeezed through the gap back into the real world. She felt the familiar dread settle back on her shoulders, but she didn’t have nothing. She had a new distraction.
Her latest game was called “What are Ethan and Stacy up to?”
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