Sojourner

Sojourner

Your love reaches higher than the heavens, and your loyalty extends beyond the clouds.

  • Psalm 108:4

Timothy had gone inside the principal’s office to plead his case about some prank or another. Out of pre-class boredom, Isabella had agreed to stay in the office waiting area. Thumbs flying over her phone, she pretended to be engrossed in virtual conversation. She wasn’t sure if the other two kids across the waiting room could tell how much effort she was putting into ignoring them.

Whatever Cassandra Houston and Kalin Somerfield were talking about, it didn’t sound good. It was probably something about their little Christian Club finally getting washed out of the school by the Global Secularity and Religious Neutrality Act. It was all the buzz among the God-fearing student body. She smirked, but realized she was alone, and didn’t need to keep up the superior attitude. She stared at them for a full minute, but they didn’t take any notice.

She had been watching them for the past couple of weeks, ever since her groupies had decided to start picking on the Christian Club. She and Cassandra had been friends, once upon a time in another life.

They sat together, not touching, not trying to prove anything or put up a front. As a matter of fact, if she didn’t know better, she would say they seemed to be arguing. Cassandra glared at Kalin every now and then, and he had his arms crossed, but even these actions lacked interruptions or eye-rolling.

For a while, Isabella had forgotten all about Cassandra. But when her friends had decided to harass the club one day, Isabella had seen Cassandra with Kalin.  How would it be, Isabella always wondered, to have a simple conversation with your boyfriend? Or anybody, really? Without having to fend off wandering hands or gossip-seeking questions? Without counting down the minutes until the next class, and the end of the fluffy, flirty cross-examination? She tried to imagine it, tried to fit the image of this couple of total individuals with the images of her drunk friends at that party last night. And then she couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Hey, guys,” she chirped, falling into the seat beside Cassandra. She figured she had at least ten minutes before Timothy came out of the principal’s office. “How’s it hanging?”

Cassandra frowned at her suspiciously. “Just fine,” she replied, always the dubious optimist. “And you?”

Isabella flipped her hair, crossed her legs, not sure how to make herself appear less…popular. She just wanted to talk to them for a minute. “I’m actually not so great. Ummm, I was wondering if I could get some advice.”

Interest piqued, Kalin leaned forward. “Why? What’s going on?”

She decided to face them squarely, and drop her phoney smile. “Well, prom is coming up.”

“In half a year,” Cassandra muttered.

“Yes, but you know, it’s always good to get a jump on things. You know what I’m saying.” Judging from their fading interest, Isabella guessed they had no idea what she was saying. “Anyway, this whole war thing is really throwing a wrench in my prom-dress shopping plans, and – ”

“Are you kidding me?” Cassandra demanded.

Flinching, Isabella adjusted her skirt. So much for not interrupting. “Well, no, what I meant to say is, the world seems to be getting smaller and I’m just not sure what local spots to hit up for a dress. I was wondering, Cassandra, if you had any suggestions.”

Flabbergasted. Isabella had always wondered what that word really meant. She figured the definition had a picture of Kalin and Cassandra at that moment.

“Are you for real right now?” Kalin asked. Isabella resisted the urge to pout. She thought these Christian guys were supposed to be nice. This had gone much smoother in her head.

“No, I was just trying to – ”

“In-coming,” Cassandra announced, gathering her bag around her. “Come on, Kalin, let’s just talk to Principal Matthews another time.”

“Wait, what – ” Isabella stood too, but they kept going, and suddenly she faced Violet, William, Jason and Constance.

“Hey, what were you doing talking to those losers?” Jason asked, yanking on Kalin’s book bag as they passed each other.

“Oh, nothing,” Isabella said, laughing lightly. “Just letting them know how happy I am that their little club is getting swept under the rug where it belongs!” Could they see what she was really thinking? Probably not, they were most likely checking their reflections in the office window. Except for William. He stared at her, she noticed, and he looked almost…disappointed? Sympathetic? She felt something kick in her stomach, and she hastily broke eye contact. “What are you guys doing here?”

“SOS from Big Tim,” Jason explained. “Matthews is laying on the heat for that, um, greasing we did of the Church-mongers HQ the other day. So, we’re vouching for him! Violet agreed to take the blame.”

Violet punched William’s arm. “Yea, and who agreed to do my homework while I’m in detention?”

“Are you sure you want William doing your homework?” Isabella asked, gratified when his face reddened.

After considering, Violet agreed. “Good point! You can do my homework, Isabella, kay?”

Before she could protest, the group breezed past the protesting secretary and into the principal’s office. They were gone, and she was alone.

Forget this, she thought, walking out into the hall. About twenty minutes remained until class started, so she went to the student lounge. More people had gathered there than usual. Most milled around the giant television screen, murmuring in low voices. The news played, which was surprising. Realizing that it was a broadcast of the Modern Musical concert over the weekend, Isabella crept in for a closer look. She hadn’t yet watched the concert online, as she had been too hungover most of Sunday to do much more than barf up her breakfast.

She could see the new Intercity Concert Hall, and the band playing their songs. But even though the students were relatively quiet, she still couldn’t hear anything.

“Hey, what’s going on?” she whispered to a girl standing beside her.

“Modern Musical blackout recap,” she whispered back. “Duh, it’s all anyone’s been playing for the past two days. Didn’t you hear?” Helplessly, Isabella held out her hand. “Well, Bari, along with a lot of other places in Italy, France, and Austria, were bombed by Australia. The hall was hit during intermission.”

Isabella felt chilled. She could have been at that concert. “Was it…destroyed?”

“I don’t know. From what I can tell, Italy wasn’t hit as badly as some other places.”

A shadow of fear that hovered at the edge of her vision started to descend. The fear was unfounded, she knew. Greece had taken a vow of neutrality, albeit against the will of the United Nations of Europe. The Reformists had no reason to attack. And yet…since they had gone against the collective will, Isabella knew that they were completely unprotected if Chile or Australia or any other of the Reformists decided to attack. No one would help, since Greece wouldn’t help or harm anyone else.

A crack and a boom, followed by shouting, made Isabella jump out of her skin. Some of the students shrieked.

It was only a group of science nerds who had dropped a steel box that they carried through the hallway. One of them yelled about almost having his toe crushed.

It wasn’t just a group of science nerds, Isabella admitted guiltily. They were her science fair partners. Ducking behind one of the students, she hoped she had avoided detection. No luck.

“Isabella? Is that you?” Harvey Ryerson called as he entered the lounge. Everyone turned to stare at her.

Burning red, she pretended she had simply been looking for something, and smiled brightly at Harvey. Harvard. He was named after some high-end American law school that had been shut down about three decades ago. A new student last year, his parents had been transferred from somewhere in the United Nations of America. It hadn’t taken him long to become president of the high school’s Bionics Club.

“Hey, how’s it going?” She flounced out of the lounge and into the hallway, toward the gaggle surrounding the steel box.

“Isabella,” Harvey said patiently. “Where were you this morning? You’re supposed to be helping us bring in supplies.”

A half-hour of listening to Timothy whine about the principal on the way to school had erased thoughts of the science fair. She was getting tired of being here. “I forgot, Harvey. I’m sorry.” Avoiding his gaze, she dug for some lip gloss in her purse.

A little tickle of shame prickled her mind. She was not an official member of the Bionics Club. They had only agreed to let her be a part of the project as a huge favor, she knew. She was missing a few credits, and the guidance counsellor had given her some options as to how to make up for them. She could either work part-time at the hospital, join the Advanced Mathematics Society, or be part of Greece’s International Amateur Science Exposition team. The decision had not been pleasant, and actually being part of the team was even less so. Most of her work involved making sure none of her friends knew she was part of it. This, by default, meant even more work in keeping the nerds off her back about not doing her share.

Harvey did his best to stand up for her, and give her second chances, but frankly she was growing tired of his undeserved grace. The most she had ever done for him was convince her friends one day to grease up his locker instead of steal his car. Now, he signalled the rest of the group to pick up the box and keep going, while he led Isabella a little ways off. She trailed behind him.

“You know that the Initial Review is in two weeks,” he began, clenching his teeth like he always did when preparing to break something to her gently.

“Harvey, I’ve already got that…temperature thing almost done,” she interrupted. “I’m working on putting together all the preliminary files.”

“Really?” he asked hopefully. “And the graphs? Have you finished those?”

She scuffed the toe of her flat on the floor. “Well, halfway. But I will get it all done tonight, I promise! I just had a busy weekend, that’s all.” Over his shoulder, she caught sight of Timothy coming out of the principal’s office. He walked in her direction, surrounded by the rest of the group. Isabella resisted the urge to curse.

Harvey looked like he was about to deliver some really bad news. “Isabella, we’ve been talking – ”

“No! Harvey, I promise, I will have it all done. This weekend was crazy because…well, what I mean is, I’ll get the graphs done and I will go shopping for the rest of the supplies after school today. I promise, I’m going to get this done.”

“Well, okay…”

She started to walk away. “Message me later, okay? I’ve got to get to class.” Almost running, she left him without being detected by Timothy or anyone else.

Rounding the corner, she paused to catch her breath. Realizing she felt like she was about to cry, she ducked into the nearest bathroom. Once in a while, she got tired of being pulled in so many different directions and having to hide so much from so many different people.

She ordered her eyes to suck back her tears. She had no time to redo her makeup now. Pulling herself together, she went to class.

She couldn’t concentrate, though. She thought about her attempted conversation with Kalin and Cassandra, and her worn out promises to Harvey. She wasn’t sure how she would handle it if he suddenly lost patience with her, or called her out on her duplicity. How could she explain to him how the upper social dynamic worked? She would get tongue-tied, and say the wrong things, like she had said to Cassandra. She didn’t seem to fit in anywhere lately.

At lunch, she decided to pull up the project files and get a head start on those graphs. She hedged with Timothy and the others, who wanted to go get ribs in town, saying she had to do the homework she neglected on the weekend.

By the time she had finished, she felt better. She didn’t mind science, didn’t mind it at all. When she actually did the research assigned to her by the club, she was able to contribute a unique insight or two during the meetings. She couldn’t wait to show the club the new spreadsheet template she had come up with.

“Hey, babe!” Timothy, again. Fresh from her alone time, she allowed him to embrace her and plant a kiss on her mouth. Like planting a cactus. “I missed you. What do you say to skipping chemistry and heading to the mall?”

She kept walking toward class. “We skipped last week. And after what you did to the lab, I doubt Mrs. West would appreciate your truancy today.”

“True what? My what?” He stared at her. “Whatever. Can I copy your notes?”

They were the first to get to class. “Sure,” she replied with false cheer. At least he was quiet while he transferred the files between their tablets. By the time he was done, class had started.

“Okay, class,” Mrs. West got down to business. “No lab today.” Everyone cheered. “As you all know, the IASE is coming up soon. Our Bionics Club always gets selected to enter. Today we’re going to show support for them by doing some research for them. I have emailed you a list of basic questions that they want answered, so break into groups and get to work. If you run into any problems, you would probably do better to ask Isabella or Noah than me.”

Isabella sank lower in her seat, letting her hair shield her from Timothy’s stare.

He laughed, though. “Ha, old Mrs. West is losing it. As if you would be stupid enough to join that nerd herd.”

Everyone was busy on their tablets – she doubted anyone was actually doing research – so they couldn’t hear her. Noah never talked to her, not even at the club meetings, so she was safe from his input. After a moment to decide how low she wanted to be, she laughed too.

“Yea, I don’t know who she was actually talking about.” She just had to fly under the radar for a few more months. She planned on faking a vacation when it came time to actually fly to the competition. She knew none of her friends would pay attention to academic news.

She tried to convince herself that none of this was a big deal.

Class was almost over when it happened. While she was flipping through prom dress pictures from a mall in Egypt, she noticed Noah Houston coming toward her. Her heartbeat doubled. Surely he wasn’t suddenly interested in talking to her?

“Hey, Isabella,” he started.

But a series of hollow beeps interrupted, shooting from the intercom. The Principal’s voice sounded form the ceiling. “Attention, students and staff. Attention, students and staff. This is a lockdown. This is not a drill. Greece has been invaded, and Chania is under attack. Please follow all lockdown procedures. Greece has been invaded…” The message repeated three times while the alarm kept time in the background.

In the choking silence that followed, the concluded message beat the empty air. And then, around the lifebuoy of Mrs. West’s commanding words, panic rose like a tide in the room. One kid immediately called her parents, and then, everyone was on the phone, listening to the hysterical tones of their families.

“Everyone, everyone, calm down!” Mrs. West shouted. No one paid her any attention “Okay, if you guys don’t settle down right now it will be extra homework for all of you!”

“This is ridiculous!” Zach’s chair screeched as he stood up. “I’m supposed to go pick up my little sister from daycare. I can’t just stay here!” With Mrs. West’s threats trailing after him, he left. Immediately, the rest of the class followed.

The hallway was a garden of blossoming panic, confusion, and hostility. Faculty and students alike yelled and ran amok, the students banging on the locked exit doors and the staff trying to keep the kids from trampling each other.

“Timothy!” Isabella gasped, holding onto his arm in a death grip.

He was frozen for a moment, then pulled out his cell phone. “Olivia? Where are you? Well, meet me at the office. I don’t care! Things are getting crazy, and you need to come here right now.”

Isabella noticed that Timothy only got serious when it came to his sister. He had told her about the dark period Oliva had faced after their father abandoned the family, and for the first time, she had seen him in pain. And now, she saw him scared.

Keeping hold of one another, they cut through their scrambling classmates. It took almost ten minutes to make the short walk to the office. Olivia was already there, enclosed by a circle of her friends. She glared at Timothy.

“I’m here, so, what?” she asked, hugging herself.

“We stay together,” he said simply, squeezing her arm. Her friends ogled him wistfully.

The automated bell signalled the end of the day. Worried, Isabella glanced at her phone screen. “I wonder how long this is going to last,” she wondered. People still screamed, yelling at the teachers to unlock the doors. Some kids huddled in corners, flinching every time one of the berserk students came too close. This was madness.

“We’ve got to get everyone to calm down.”

Isabella jerked. Harvey stood suddenly at her elbow. “Why us?” she asked automatically.

“Isabella? Do you know this guy?” Timothy asked, looping a protective arm around her waist. Watching Timothy size Harvey up, Isabella wondered if he truly didn’t remember all the awful names he – they – had called him and the other Bionic clubbers.

“Why us?” Isabella asked again, jerking aside as someone’s shoe flew past her head. Gazing at her with injured eyes, Harvey shrugged tiredly and walked away.

“Hey, do you hear that?” one of Olivia’s friends asked.

“How can you hear anything in this?” Olivia asked.

“Over there.” The girl pointed. “I’m going to go and check it out.”

Brightening, Olivia went after her. “Me too!”

“Olivia!” Timothy and Isabella trailed after them.

Soon, Isabella could hear the sound, too. It was music. In the gym, someone had hooked up three guitars and a keyboard to the sound system, and quiet, peaceful music drifted through the cavernous space. Isabella recognized Kalin as one of the guitarists. Students trickled in from all the doors, leaving their frantic shrieking and flailing behind. It was the closest thing to quiet for the past half hour.

They played for about twenty minutes, and then one of the teachers took hold of a microphone. The gym was packed by then, with the rest of the kids peering inside from the hallway. Some were bleeding or holding injured limbs, but the chaos had momentarily ceased.

“Okay, everybody, that was a pretty rough start to our first lockdown of the year,” the teacher, Ms. Ansli, said. A few kids laughed sheepishly and some started crying again. “I just want everybody to know that everything is going to be fine. As long as everyone remembers what we talked about last week, there’s no reason why we can’t have a little fun while we’re trapped in here. So, the student council has decided to put on a movie, and the PTA is sponsoring free pizzas for us!” Some kids clapped, but most were thinking about the meals they would miss with their stranded families. “And, I hear the teachers have decided that no one will have any homework tonight.”

Finally, most of the students applauded. Nervously, they filed from the gym to their lockers. The hallways were a mess. A few people picked up some stray bits of trash and paper and threw them in the bins, but most stepped gingerly through. This, at least was business as usual. And the gossip mill was up and running.

“I hear a deal with the Peruvian government went sour and now they’re striking back,” some people whispered.

“I hear there are spies all over, waiting for a signal to set off secret bombs!”

“I hear Greece was planning to fight all along, but pled neutrality as a stall tactic. I heard we’ve got WMDs by the millions hidden in the ocean!”

Some of the rumours were simply laughable. Isabella was in a lighter mood already as she and Timothy caught up with William, Chloe, and Constance. “So, what’s the movie?” Isabella asked as they worked their way to the front of the auditorium.

“Armageddon IV, I think,” William replied.

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s Rise of the Apocalypse!” Timothy cut in. Others around them laughed, albeit a little nervously. The movie, it turns out, was a new Disney Princess adaptation of the young life of Queen Katherine, the last queen of England. The music was terrible and the story was unbelievable, but by the end, everyone was laughing.

They had pizza, and watched another movie. This one was one of the last parts in a series about poor children who were taken from their families to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the rich city folk. When this movie was over, someone brought the guitars from the auditorium to the gym, and they had a karaoke contest.

Just like that, the bloody afternoon was forgotten, and everyone was friends again.

Isabella marvelled at the transformation. Cliques were reformed, the usual taunts and insults were traded, and between calls to family members in the city, kids pulled their familiar pranks. Timothy’s group dumped a bucket of paste from the art centre into the vents in the teacher’s lounge. Isabella wasn’t quite sure why. In her opinion, they were starting to run out of ideas.

At about eight o’clock, the principal came over the intercom again. “Attention, students and staff. Attention. The school lockdown has been lifted. However, the north part of the town is blockaded. If your neighbourhood is not accessible, and you have nowhere else to stay, please sign in at the office to spend the night at the school. All other students, please exit the premises in an orderly fashion and drive carefully home. Have a good night.”

“North!” Isabella gasped. “That’s my house!” Her fingers flew over her phone as she dialed home for the third time.

Rhoda picked up, again. In the background, it sounded like their parents were arguing. “Rhoda, is it true? I can’t come home?”

“I’m afraid not,” Rhoda replied in a tired voice. “The patrol has sealed off this part of the city. Something about protecting city hall. I just think they’re hiding something that they don’t want the Polish forces to find.” Something shattered in the background. A door closed as Rhoda went into another room. “And anyway, mom and dad have been at it for hours. I don’t think you’d want to be home if you could be.”

“Rhoda! Of course I want to be home. I just don’t know where I’m going to stay.”

Timothy wrapped what he probably thought were comforting arms around her waist. “You can come with Olivia and I. We’ve got room.” Olivia and me, Isabella corrected.

“Who’s that?” Rhoda asked. “Timothy? You better tell mom and dad you’re staying at Violet’s, then, if you’re going with him.”

Isabella wriggled out of his grasp, taking his hand instead. She was so tired. “No, just tell them the truth. Hopefully I can go home tomorrow.”

About half the students stayed at the school. Now that the scare had bled out, Timothy was high as a tower on the night they had.

“I can’t believe how this day turned out! Old Mrs. Matthews actually believed Violet’s story about the prank, and we don’t have any homework! And you’re sleeping over.” He smiled suggestively, and she frowned back. Olivia was like, right there. “And I didn’t blow anything up in chem class!”

“Yea, that was refreshing,” she agreed.

“I can’t believe some of the kids, though, when the lockdown was announced. Not only that dweeb who talked to you, but others, too, talked like we should do something about the whole mess. Like that Jesus freak, Kalin, and his cronies pulling out their guitars like they were going to have a sing-along? What was that about? What did that other dork even expect you to do about everyone else’s stupidity?”

“Timothy…give it a rest.”

He was quiet a moment, and to her surprise, took his hand out of hers. “I saw you talking to that spiff today, when I got out of Matthews’ office. What’s going on, Isabella? Since when do you talk to nerds?”

Vaguely, she could feel anger rising. But when she had first joined the group she had spent most of the time pushing aside her misgivings about their activities, their abrasiveness, so the feeling was quite muffled. She could barely feel anything at all by the time she had finished counting to ten, and could speak. “I’m, like, sort of helping them with a project.”

He laughed. “What could you possibly know about nerd projects?”

Not appreciating the implications, she looked at him sharply. “For your information, I’m actually doing really well.” It wasn’t quite a lie, she did okay when she bothered to actually participate. “I need the extra credit.”

“Wait, it’s not that Global Geek Expo is it? The thing Mrs. West said you were doing?” She said nothing. “Isabella, you can’t! Do you know what people will say about us?”

“Timothy, stop being such a snob,” Olivia snapped from the backseat, speaking up for the first time.

“You stay out of this! Isabella, you have to quit.” They pulled into the Kearne’s driveway and parked out back, with the rest of the cars.

She felt like she was standing too close to a fire. The anger melted her icy wall of rationalization away. “Don’t you dare tell me what to do.” Isabella snatched up her bag and slammed the door as she got out of the car. Olivia held the door to the house open for her.

 “Hey, Aunt Carmella,” Timothy called with half his usual cheerfulness as he, Isabella and Olivia trudged through the back door. Something was baking again. Pecan pie, Isabella guessed dejectedly. She and her mother loved pecan pie.

“Isabella, what are you doing here?” Carmella greeted them. “Shouldn’t you be with your family?”

“I…ummm…”

Timothy broke in. “She lives in the north end, Auntie. She can’t go home. Can’t she spend the night here?”

Carmella shook her head, taking the pie out of the oven. “I’m sorry, but that’s highly inappropriate, Timothy. You should have known better.”

Shooting Timothy a scathing look, Olivia offered her aunt a knife to cut the pie with. “Don’t listen to him, Auntie. Isabella is my guest. She’ll stay with me, three floors away from him.”

“Well…I suppose.” Carmella cut a small square of pie to sample, her stern expression smoothing for a moment as she savored it. “Go on then, to bed with you all. It’s a school night. You already had dinner, right?”

Confirming this, Olivia led Isabella upstairs. Timothy followed, and caught Isabella’s arm as she was about to follow Olivia into her room. “Meet me in the study later?” he asked.

Looking at him made his words from earlier replay in her mind. Isabella, you have to quit. She did. She really did. “No, Timothy,” she said simply. She kissed him, though. “Good night.” He raised his eyebrows at her, then turned and stalked downstairs again. Olivia pulled Isabella inside.

“Here, this should fit you.” Olivia handed Isabella a pair of silk pyjamas, and some slippers. “Your room is this way.”

It was right beside Olivia’s, and a little smaller. Olivia fetched an extra blanket from a closet in the hall, and absentmindedly made the bed while Isabella changed.

“Isabella?” she asked when she had put the last pillow back in place.

“Yeah?” Isabella put her bra on a chair and pulled the silky fabric over her head.

“Why do you let him treat you and everyone else like that?”

Facing off against Olivia, Isabella suddenly felt the floor come out from under her. “Let him? What do you mean? I can’t control how he acts.”

“He’s such a jerk, though, and you used to be so nice. Why do you stay with him?”

The words were like a bucket of ice water. For all her aversion to him, she had never seriously thought of breaking up with him. Not yet, anyway. She thought about the default post-graduation breakup in a very vague way.

“I don’t know, Olivia. He’s not all that bad, not all the time. Surely you know that, he’s your brother.”

“So? Being my brother doesn’t make him any less of a barf bag. And you’re turning into one, too.”

“Hey, now – ”

She crossed her arms and flopped onto the bed. “One of my best friends is in the Christian Club. She was so upset with me when she found out my brother and his friends were the ones who oiled everything in their meeting room. And I told her, ‘He’s my older brother, I can’t do anything about his stupidity. I wish he weren’t my brother though.’ I like our other brother much better.”

“You mean Xander?” Isabella asked carefully. She knew the boy was a touchy family subject. “He’s just a little kid. I’m sure he’ll grow into his buffoonery soon enough.”

Olivia shook her head. “He’s twelve! And he’s much nicer than Timothy was when he was twelve.”

“Look, Olivia, your brother and I might fight, but we’re not breaking up. It’s all going to be okay.” The words didn’t quite fit in her mouth.

Olivia left, at last, and Isabella lay awake in bed. She wondered if Timothy would come to her room anyway. It was something he would do. And though she would act grumpy, she would let him stay. She was a guest, after all. She was a prisoner to his will.

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