The waitresses are looking at us funny. I can’t blame them. Twenty-odd teenagers dressed as anime characters crammed around a table—yeah, we’re freaks. Go ahead and snap some photos, post them to Instagram. “Hey, look at these weirdos who came into my work today! Can you believe these losers?”
I wish we’d gone home, straight home, when the convention let out, but my dad and the other chaperons wanted to grab coffee before getting on the Metro, so here we are. They’re all over at another table, chatting. They said they didn’t want to get in our way, but I expect they’re tired of dealing with a bunch of high-strung teenagers.
I know I am.
I’d rather be at a table by myself, reading some of the manga I’d picked up at the con, but my dad insisted I sit with the group. It’ll be good for me, he said. It’ll help me make friends. We can talk about our shared interests.
So now I’m sitting at a corner of the table, trying not to look like a loser who isn’t part of the conversation around her, even though I am, in fact, a loser who’s not part of the conversation around her.
“I don’t get it,” Elijah says. He’s in an old fashioned black tailcoat, looks like he should be helping a woman in a fancy gown out of a coach. “Why do they announce series so far in advance? I mean, they show these previews and we’re all like, ‘Whoa, that looks so a-mazing!’ then they tell us, ‘Yeah, it’ll be out in another two years.’ It’s like, I’m going to be in college by then.”
“If the world don’t blow up first,” Faythe says. She’s wearing a Sailor Moon costume, and even has her hair dyed blonde and tied up in dango buns. Somehow Faythe doesn’t look ridiculous dressed like that. She could probably wear a garbage bag and look good.
“The world’s not going to blow up,” Ed says. “That’s the Fake News media talking. They want to scare everybody into thinking the President’s screwing up. He’s not.” Ed’s dressed in an outfit from some mecha show—one of the Gundams maybe? I dunno, I’ve never liked mecha, and all the Gundams look alike to me.
“Ed, shut up,” Elijah says.
“How’re you guys doing?” Our waitress stops by.
We mutter, “Good,” and “Fine thanks,” in a jumbled response.
“More tea,” Faythe says.
“Another Coke,” Ed says.
“How ‘bout you, sweetie?” the waitress asks me.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You sure? You hardly ordered anything. If you don’t want an entrée, we’ve got dessert.”
All I’m having is a Dr. Pepper and an appetizer platter. Dad said I could get whatever I wanted, but I know he’s already blown a few hundred bucks on the convention, so I’m trying to go easy on his wallet. “I’m good.”
“’Kay.” The waitress moves down the table to take more refill requests.
“Oh hey,” Mandy says, “did I show you guys the pics I got with IKB-45?” Unlike most of us, she’s not in cosplay—her hair is dyed purple, but that’s normal for her, as is the black leather jacket she has on, and the fishnet stockings she’s wearing as gloves. Back in middle school she’d been a loser like me. We ate lunch together—or at least at the same table, though since we both read the entire time, we’d never really been friends. Back then she’d worn hand-me-downs from her sister, who was old enough that her clothes were out of fashion by the time Mandy got to them. Being an only child, I’d always had new clothes, even if my dad bought them from the clearance rack at TJ Maxx, and I’d actually felt superior because of that. But in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, Mandy had metamorphosed. She dyed her hair (green at first, then blue and red, and finally violet), gotten a barbell piercing through the top of each ear, and started wearing all black. Guys who used to make fun of her now thought she was freaky-scary and stayed away.
She takes out her cell phone and taps it a couple times before handing it to Faythe.
“What? How’d you get pics with them?” Faythe says.
“I ran into them in the elevator last night.” Unlike me and my dad, who’ve been going home every evening, Mandy, Faythe and the others have been staying in a hotel near the convention center. Most of the conversation today had been about the parties they went to last night.
Faythe flicks through the photos. “Jealous!”
“Come on, it’s not like they’re a real band,” Ed says. “They don’t even play instruments. All they do is dance and sing—and they aren’t even good at that.”
For once I agree with him. IKB-45 is a manufactured pop group. The members are interchangeable—literally. At any one time, there are forty-five of them—hence the name—and they’re divided into five teams that travel around doing concerts. If one girl retires, they simply promote an understudy to take her place. I read somewhere that there’ve been more than two hundred members over the years. That’s crazy.
How anyone can like music that’s put together on an assembly line, I can’t fathom.
“You know what I heard?” Chris says. Like me, he’s in a Survey Corps uniform from Attack on Titan. Judging by his ascot and the bandanna tied over his head, he’s supposed to be Levi. “The whole idol thing is a scam. The guy who runs the group makes the girls sleep with him to get into the band. He’s like Hugh Hefner.”
“Who?” Mandy says.
“He created Playboy,” Ed says.
“Yeah, so every night at his mansion, there’s this huge orgy, and he invites all the rich and famous men in Japan to come over and bang these sixteen year old girls.”
“That is not true,” Faythe says. She hands the phone to Elijah, who quickly thumbs through the pictures and passes it to Ed. Ed doesn’t even glace at it, hands it straight to me.
The first picture shows Mandy standing with five Japanese girls, all dressed in identical frilly skirts with matching jackets. The girls are all making peace signs at the camera.
They are cute. I can understand why guys like looking at them, but the popularity of their music is another matter. Anytime they do an anime theme song, I end up fast-forwarding through the credits. They sound like gerbils on helium.
“I dunno,” Elijah says. “There’ve been some nasty news stories about idol groups—remember the one who committed suicide last year? Or the girl who shaved her head after getting caught with a boyfriend?”
I flip to the next photo. It’s a two-shot of Mandy and Kyouko Tamura. Even I know who that is—she’s famous as the “tough” member of the group who supposedly got into all kinds of fights when she was in school. Looking at the two of them together, maybe it’s true. Kyouko isn’t even as tall as Mandy’s shoulder, but even though Mandy’s in her leather jacket, she doesn’t look half as tough as Kyouko.
“That proves my point, though,” Faythe says. “If that stuff were true, it’d be all over the tabloids. Anime News Network and Kotaku would report on it. But they don’t.”
I look at the remaining photos. They show Mandy posing with various members of the group. One of them is making a funny face, like she’s barking at Mandy.
“The companies that run idol groups are part of the yakuza, that’s why it doesn’t get reported,” Ed says. “Japanese media is afraid to touch the subject, and sites like ANN don’t do investigative reporting—they just repeat stuff from Japanese sites.”
“You’re making that up. You don’t know anything,” Mandy says.
“I so do,” Ed says.
I pass the phone over to Chris. “Ooo, can you text me this one?” He holds up the photo of the barking girl. “That’s super cute.”
“You’re not going to jack-off to it, are you?” Faythe says.
“Yeah, but don’t worry. Only to Hana-chan, not Amanda.”
“Don’t be gross,” Faythe says.
“What? I’m not good enough for your fantasies?” Mandy asks with mock-dramatics.
“I can fantasize about you any time.”
Faythe covers her ears. “Not listening! La-la-la-la!”
“Nope,” Mandy says. “I won’t text it to you unless you promise to imagine a three-way with me and that girl.”
“Okay, fine, as soon as I get home, I’m going to lock myself in my room and whack-off while imagining you lezzing out with this girl. That make you happy?”
“Yes, very much so.” Mandy preens.
“Here ... are your drinks.” The waitress puts a pitcher of tea in the middle of the table and hands Ed a glass of soda. She’s heard the conversation, or enough of it at least. If she’d been looking at us weird before, now her expression is that of a woman who’s discovered cockroaches performing The Sound of Music. “Let me know if you need anything else.” She moves down the table and hands out more refills.
“So,” Faythe says, “changing the subject. Anyone read the new Realist Hero yet?”
“I’m waiting for the books to get beyond the anime,” Mandy says.
“They did that like two books ago.”
“Really? I gotta pick it up then. You loan me a copy?”
“Sorry, digital only.”
I have no clue what they’re talking about. I think I’d watched an episode of Realist Hero—I watch at least one episode of everything on Crunchyroll—but I can’t remember anything about it. One of those stupid stories about a guy who gets stuck in another world, I think.
Further down the table, I catch snippets about Railgun, but they’re talking about the manga, which I’m not current on. I tune them out before I catch any spoilers.
“Hey.” Ed pokes me in the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been wondering—are you a real anime fan?”
Huh? “Yeah.” Why else would I go to a convention?
“It’s just you’re dressed like that.”
What’s wrong with my costume? I though I’d done a good job with it. People had been coming up to me at the con and asking me where I bought it. They’d been amazed when I said it was homemade.
“I mean, Shingeki no Kyojin?” Why’s he using the Japanese title? “Even people who don’t watch anime know what that is. It’s on Cartoon Network, fer Christ’s sake!”
“Yeah, with the filthy casuals.”
The filthy what?
“Do you know any real anime?” he asks.
Isn’t Attack on Titan a real anime? It’s a cartoon. It’s made in Japan. Aren’t those the requirements? “How do you mean?”
“Have you ever seen OreImo?”
“Isn’t that the gross one where the guy wants to have sex with his sister?”
“You shouldn’t say it like that, it’s racist.”
“What? That’s not racist. Incest is gross.”
“The Japanese, they have different values than us. You can’t judge them by American standards. OreImo is a touching love story about a forbidden romance. If you’re a true anime fan, you embrace that. You learn to understand the Japanese culture that produced it.”
Wasn’t he badmouthing idols five minutes ago? That’s Japanese culture, too. “I can’t get into something like that,” I say.
“Okay, then what about mecha. What’s your favorite mecha series?”
I can’t stand mecha. All those shows have convoluted plot lines, and too many factions backstabbing each other. Though that one Urobuchi created, that hadn’t been too bad. “Aldnoah, I guess.”
“Oh come on! That’s another series for casuals. Are you really an ani—” A straw wrapper bops into his forehead.
“Oi. Ed. Leave her alone,” Mandy says.
“What was that for?”
“How many times do we have to tell you, don’t be a dick to people.”
“I’m not being a dick. I’m just asking her about her tastes.”
That felt more like an interrogation.
“Everything going all right?” Elijah’s dad asks.
He surveys the table. “Is everyone about done?”
“I think so, yeah,” Elijah says.
“Good. We should head out before the protest on the Mall ends. I spent the last three days in a convention center full of sweaty teenagers. Last thing I want is to spend the rest of the afternoon crammed on a train full of sweaty protesters.”
My dad had been watching the news this morning before we left for the convention, and they estimated there’d be half a million people on the Mall today. We’d seen a lot of them on the ride into the city, though we’d come early enough to miss the main flood.
“Everyone use the bathroom before we leave,” Elijah’s dad says. “Once we’re on the Metro, there’s nowhere to go.”
While our parents take care of the bill, we all head for the restrooms. The women’s room only has three stalls, and there are twelve girls in our group, so we have to wait while everyone takes a turn.
“Oh God, this is going to be so hard,” Maria says. She’s in a gothic-lolita dress that makes her look like an evil Alice in Wonderland. She has thick pettycoats underneath that make the skirt poof out. Sitting on a toilet with those must be a chore.
“I told you, you should’ve dressed in casual clothes today,” Destiny says. Yesterday she’d worn a harpy costume from one of those monster-girl shows, but today she’s in shorts and a halter top.
“Can you help me get my underwear down? How did women wear this stuff back then?”
“No, I ain’t helping you with no underwear,” Destiny says.
Maria enters the handicap stall—the only one wide enough to fit her in that dress—and locks the door.
“I just hope the seat’s clean,” Mandy says, “otherwise shit and piss is gonna get on her dress, and it’ll be rubbing against her legs the whole way home.”
“Hey, I can hear you!”
I wait for a chance to use the toilet, but every time a door opens, somebody slips in ahead of me. I didn’t have much to eat, so I could probably get away without going ... though I do feel a slight pressure in my bladder. Better not risk it.
In the end, me and Mandy are the last ones waiting. She’s leaning on the counter while Faythe washes her hands.
“You got plans for the night?” Faythe asks.
“Crash,” Mandy says.
“Yeah. Me too, probably. As fun as this was, I don’t wanna do it again any time soon.” Faythe waves her hands under the blow drier. It doesn’t come on. “Once a year is enough for me.” She tries again. Still no luck. “What about tomorrow? What’re you up to?”
“I need to go see JT. I’m almost out of ...” Mandy eyes me. “Y’know.” Like I can’t figure out they’re talking about drugs? I know they’re both stoners. Everyone knows they’re stoners. Even teachers know it—in Algebra one day, Faythe had been passed out at her desk and Mrs. Tang had been making jokes about her being stoned.
“Yeah, me too,” Faythe says. She gives up on the blow drier and switches to the paper towel dispenser. “I’ll ask Eli, he can give us a ride.”
“Gag,” Mandy says. “I do not want to be stuck watching you two make goo-goo eyes at each other all day.”
“We do not make goo-goo eyes at each other.”
“Yeah you do!” Krissy shouts from a stall.
“You’re just jealous you can’t get Chris to ask you out,” Faythe says.
“Why would I want him to ask me out? I like my guys skinny.”
“Uh-huh. That’s why you’re always flirting with him?”
“I do not flirt with him.”
“Oh Chris, aren’t you going to masturbate to me?” I guess that’s supposed to be Faythe’s imitation of Mandy, though it sounds more like Cookie Monster.
“You are completely misreading the situation.”
“Riiiiight.” Faythe finishes drying her hands and tosses the paper towel in the garbage. “I’ll be outside.”
Mandy gives her the finger.
“Love you, too.” Air kiss.
The room’s silent for a moment, then somebody lets out a loud fart from one of the stalls.
“Gross!” Krissy says.
“Don’t pretend that wasn’t you,” Mandy says.
Mandy busts out laughing. Even I giggle.
“So you do laugh,” Mandy says.
“Sometimes.” I laugh quite a bit. But only at things I think are funny. Which isn’t what other people find funny. I tend to like old comedies better than new stuff. I’ve never laughed at a modern episode of Saturday Night Live, but I’ve seen reruns from the ‘80s that are hilarious. The original Ghostbusters is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but the remake only made me laugh once. I Love Lucy—genius. Family Guy—ugh. I’d learned early on that if I actually say that, though, people think I’m stuck up. So I pretend to be serious all the time. They still think I’m uptight, but they don’t take offense.
“I never knew you were into anime,” Mandy says.
“Yeah. A little.”
She squints at my outfit. “Yeah. A little.”
I cross my arms in embarrassment.
“Why didn’t you ever come to the club?”
Mandy and most of her group are part of the anime club at our high school. I’m not though. I’m only hanging out with them right now because I ran into them at the convention. Well, if you want the whole truth, I’m only hanging out with them because my dad’s the head of custodial services at Parker Elementary where Mrs. Hurlburt—that’s Faythe’s mom—teaches. If it weren’t for that, I doubt I would’ve done more than wave at everyone when we passed, but my dad had stopped to chat, and the next thing I knew, I was part of the group. Of course it helps that Mrs. Hurlburt used to be my teacher, so she knows what a loser I am. She probably thought she was doing a good deed by inviting us along.
I shrug. “I dunno.”
I’d thought about joining, back when I first started at high school. I hadn’t even realized such a thing existed until I heard it mentioned on the afternoon announcements. At first I figured I’d misheard—I mean, drama club or academic trivia team I can understand; those have practical applications. But anime? Couldn’t be. But a couple days later I saw a flier for the club on a bulletin board. I’d really wanted to go, but when I thought about it, I realized the sort of people who’d join an anime club would be hard-core fans who know all about voice actors and writers and directors. They’d be familiar with obscure old shows I’d never heard of, and know all about upcoming series.
If I walked in there, it’d be five whole minutes before someone would ask, “Why are you even here? You don’t know anything about anime. You haven’t even seen Princess Mononoke.” Just like Ed had done, in fact.
No, I didn’t want to get embarrassed like that. I’m sure the club had plenty of people. There was nothing I could add to it.
“Well, come out when school starts. It’ll be cool to hang out again, like in middle school.”
“Hey, don’t mind Ed. He’s an idiot. Everyone hates him. Most of the people in the club, though, they’re cool. You’ll have fun.”
A toilet flushes. After a moment Krissy comes out, comes over to wash her hands.
Mandy makes an after-you gesture.
“Thanks.” I go into the stall. The seat’s still warm when I sit down—I’ve always found that creepy, even at home.
I only have to tinkle, but I find myself sitting there after I run dry.
Should I take Mandy up on her offer? I’ve never thought of her as more than a vague acquaintance, and the way she is now is way different from how she’d been in middle school. But she sounded like she’d be happy for me to join the club. If there’s one person in the club who’ll welcome me, then ... maybe ...?
But did she really mean it? Maybe she was being nice. I don’t mind silence, but I know a lot of people get nervous if nobody’s talking. Once Faythe left, maybe she felt awkward standing with me and came up with some topic to fill the quiet. That seems more likely than her having fond memories of reading next to me in eighth grade. She was going through the motions, and if I actually show up to the club, she’ll think I’m an idiot for not having a clue.
That happened to me in fifth grade. A girl in my class had a birthday party and handed out invitations to everyone, but when I showed up at her house, she got mad. “I only gave you an invitation because my mom said I should give them to everyone. I didn’t really mean for you to come. How stupid do you have to be to think I’d want you here?” Her mom had intervened and let me come in, but none of the other kids (only the cool ones had shown up; the other losers had taken the hint and stayed away) would talk to me. When she opened my present—a princess comb-and-brush set—she’d laughed and asked if I got it from Wal-Mart. I had, but I said no. The worst part was, my dad was late picking me up, so I ended up staying there after the other guests had left. The girl had gone up to her room to play with her new toys, leaving me to watch a home improvement show with her dad.
No. Mandy probably didn’t mean the invitation. I shouldn’t go to the club.
I stand up and flush, pull up my pants. I go out and wash my hands. Looks like I’m the last one to finish. I hope they aren’t all waiting on me.
I step out of the restroom and immediately find myself face-to-face with Ed.
“Oh hey, I was just looking for you.”
“Sorry I took a while.”
“What? Oh no, there are guys still dooking in the men’s room, no worries.”
“I just wanted to ...” He crouches down until his face is on a level with my chest. What the hell?
“Mmm, yes.” He takes a scrap of paper from his pocket. I can’t see what it is, but he peels a sticker from it. He holds it up to my shirt. “Right there.” He smooths it onto the lower half of my right breast. It has a picture of a nipple on it.
“What?” I rip it off.
“It’s a game we were playing last night. Pin the Nipple on the Boobie. Guys have to guess where a girl’s nipples are and put the sticker on. I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve got droopy boobs, I can tell.”
“Way off!” I push him aside and head out to the lobby.
Though the truth is, he was only off on the horizontal, not the vertical. There’d been a two month period in seventh grade when my breasts had reached their full size and looked good. I’d thought, if I could lose ten or twenty pounds, guys might actually like me. But then they started sagging. And sagging. And sagging. I couldn’t ask my father for advice, so I’d went to my Aunt Sophia, and she’d taken me shopping for good bras. They didn’t make a difference, though. By the time I started high school, my nipples were pointing closer to the ground than the horizon.
I never take showers during gym because I’m afraid someone will notice and make fun of me—“Look at Purse, she’s got droopy tits!” It’d be like Carrie. Or worse—what if word got around to the guys? I mean, I’m not popular, but my unpopularity is at least neutral. People don’t notice me, which means they don’t make fun of me either. The last thing I want is something that draws attention to me.
“Is everyone here?” Mrs. Hurlburt asks when she sees me.
“Ed’s not,” somebody says.
“Great, let’s get away while we can,” Faythe says, which draws giggles from all the girls.
“Tim and Jay are still in the bathroom,” Elijah says.
“Drat!” Faythe snaps her fingers.
I go over to my father, who’s having a conversation with Elijah’s dad.
“You don’t think he’d do it, do you?” my dad asks.
“With that man, who the hell knows.”
“Who cares about North Korea? I don’t see why we can’t let them alone. Instead, we push them, they build nukes, we tell them they can’t have any, so they build missiles. It’s crazy.”
“Yeah. Kim Jong Un’s crazy. Our President’s crazy. It’s like Alice in Wonderland—we’re all crazy here.”
“I never thought I’d be saying this—” dad lowers his voice “—but I’d be down with a military takeover about now.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s not my ideal solution, but if the other choice is nuclear war, I say bring on the junta. Gotta be careful saying that, though. Some of these kids have parents—no one here, thankfully—who are total MAGA heads. You don’t want them spreading tales, you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” dad says, “I read you.”
Tim and Jay come out from the bathroom area. They both stink of cigarettes, but the adults pretend not to notice. Ed appears right behind them.
“We ready to move out?” Elijah’s dad says.
“Yeah,” we all say half-heartedly.
We file through the door and into the summer heat. It had been eighty when dad and I left the apartment this morning, and the sun had barely been up. It must be twenty degrees hotter now. And the humidity ... a fish could swim in the air out here.
Elijah’s dad turns to the right.
“Shouldn’t we be going the other way?” Faythe says.
“Nope, this is the right way,” he says.
“The convention center’s back that way, isn’t it?” The Metro station was right under the convention hall, nice and convenient.
“Yeah,” Elijah’s dad says, “but that’s the Green Line. If we get on there, we have to transfer to the Red Line after one station. We can walk to that station, it’s only two blocks from here. That way we only have to wait for one train instead of two.”
“Yeah,” says Mandy, “but we’d be waiting in nice, air conditioned station. Instead of walking through an oven.”
“A little exercise never hurt anyone.”
“I think it has,” Chris says.
But we keep walking. Before we even get to the first intersection, I’m soaking with sweat. I take my jacket off, but that doesn’t help much. My shirt clings to me. Up ahead, Krissy’s T-shirt is so damp it’s turning transluscent, and Ed and some of the other guys are gawking at her back, even though all they can see is her bra-strap and shoulder blades.
Maria’s got it tough. Even though her outfit is made with modern materials and nowhere near as heavy as a genuine Victorian dress, it’s far from light, especially with all those petticoats. The sweat is pouring off her and she’s panting for breath. Her hair hangs like a rag. Elijah has a water bottle in his backpack, which he lends to her. She gulps it down in one go, but she’s breathing heavy again after a few steps.
Of course we’re drawing attention as we walk. Doesn’t help that it’s Sunday and this is a part of the city that’s virtually deserted on weekends. Of course the few people who are out and about are going to gawk at a small army trekking through the streets. They’d do it even if half of us weren’t decked out in cosplay. A couple people even stop to take photos of us as we pass.
“This is killing me,” Mandy says. “If I don’t make it home, tell my mother I’m sorry. She was right. No good comes from a grown child watching cartoons.”
“You could take your jacket off,” Chris says. “Leather and summer do not go together.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, I am not stripping for you.”
“Taking off your jacket isn’t stripping,” Chris says.
“Depends on your culture. Some places, they think it’s sinful to show your ankles in public. Taking off your socks is like pole dancing.”
“Yeah. We don’t live there. Take your jacket off and quit complaining.”
She doesn’t. “Whose bright idea was it to hold a convention in August? In DC! That’s crazy talk.”
“Hey, when I was your age, I walked everywhere,” dad says. Oh no. He’s going to start telling stories. “I used to walk down to the local mall every day during the summer.”
“Why? Did you have a job there?” Faythe says.
“No. To hang out.”
“At the mall?”
“Yeah. Everyone hung out at the mall back in the day.”
“That’s weird,” Faythe says.
“No, malls used to be cool,” Elijah’s dad says. “You’d go down there to play video games at the arcade.”
“Why would you go somewhere to play video games?” Elijah says.
“Believe it or not, there was a time when not everyone had a console at home,” his dad says. “And even if you did, you couldn’t play the best new games on it, like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II.”
“So they had free video games you could play the mall?” Chris says. “Why would they do that?”
“No, you had to pay,” my dad says.
“How long could you play for?”
“Until you died.”
“Sounds like a ripoff,” Faythe says.
“Yeah,” Elijah’s dad says, “it was. The guys who owned those places were raking in the bucks from dumb kids who’d drop a quarter on anything. I’m glad the current generation is so much more discerning. You wouldn’t fall for some dumb fad like, I dunno, a heavy plastic pinwheel that you spin with your hands.”
“Not this again,” Elijah moans.
“How many fidget spinners do you have collecting dust on your dresser?”
“Like three. Four. I dunno.”
“Uh-huh. And how much did you spend on them?”
“A bit. Not much.”
“I seem to recall one was twenty bucks?”
“That one has LEDs, and it’s made of die-cast metal,” Elijah says.
“Uh-huh,” his dad says. “Well worth the money, I’m sure.”
Twenty dollars for a fidget spinner? How does he have that kind of money to blow? I’d been saving my allowance all summer so I could buy stuff at the convention—I’d even sold some of my old books at the used bookstore—and I’d only managed to put together seventy dollars.
“Hey look, we’re almost there,” Destiny says.
On the other side of the next intersection, there’s a black pylon that marks the entrance to a Metro station.
“Oh, thank you Lord,” Mandy says.
“Air conditioning. Air conditioning,” Faythe pants.
“Some place to sit,” Chris says, “that’s all I want.”
The number of people coming in and out of the station is surprisingly large considering all the other streets around here are empty, but as we get closer, I see it’s next to the National Portrait Gallery. I suppose with all the protesters on the Mall, tourists are coming over here to avoid the crowd.
“Everybody stay together,” Elijah’s dad says as we cross the street.
Thats easier said than done. We’re a large enough group that we end up clogging the sidewalk, and we get annoyed glares from people who find their path blocked. Ironically enough, I see a woman get separated from her husband and kids because we cut her off.
We reach the escalators and ride them down. At the bottom, Mrs. Hurlburt gathers us all around and takes a head count. Satisfied we’re all here, she asks, “Everyone have their tickets?”
Dad has mine. He pulls it out of his wallet and hands it to me. Everyone else pulls theirs out.
“Uh, wait … hold on … I know it’s here someplace,” Maria says as she searches through a pocketbook.
Ed snickers. He’s standing off to the side with Tim, Jay and Krissy. “I hope she takes better care of her Green Card.”
The other three laugh.
Maria pulls out a big pack of cards and shuffles through them. “Ah, here it is.”
“Okay. Is everyone else good?” Elijah’s dad asks.
We all nod, and he signals us to follow him through the fare gates. This would take a while under the best of circumstances, but things go wrong when Maria’s dress gets snagged on the gate. We can’t get it loose, so Elijah and his dad go to find the station manager, leaving the rest of us to wait. We try to stand out of the way, but there are so many of us that it’s kinda hard. Plus, it’s obvious from the way we’re dressed that we’re all part of a group with the silly girl who’s blocking one of the gates.
“Oh God, I’m so embarrassed,” Maria says. Jordan and Destiny are waiting with her, though Mrs. Hurlburt keeps telling them to get out of people’s way.
“You know,” I whisper to my dad, “we don’t have to wait here. We can just ... go.”
“Come on, you’re part of the group. Why don’t you go mingle?”
What planet is he on where I’m part of the group? We’ve been following the group around, sure, but my interaction with them has been limited to not strangling Ed, and a kinda awkward discussion with Mandy in the bathroom.
But dad’s got a delusion that the only reason I don’t have friends is because I don’t try. He thinks if he pushes me out the nest like a good papa-bird, I’ll spread my wings and become ... a social ... butterfly ... okay, that metaphor went wrong somewhere along the line. But you get the point. And I don’t want to disappoint him, not after the kind of money he spent on me this weekend, so I’ll make an effort to mingle.
I wander over to where Faythe and Mandy are talking.
“See, I think a woman Doctor Who is just weird,” Mandy says.
“But he can turn into anything. Why does he always have to be a guy?”
“That’s the problem, though. If he can be anything, why is he always a white guy? Why doesn’t he ever turn Japanese? Or Samoan? Why does he even have to look human? Once you go there, it raises all kinda questions. Like, why didn’t they ever go there before? You can’t introduce a random change to a story this old.”
“Sure you can,” Faythe says. “You can do anything. It’s Doctor Who. There aren’t any rules.”
I’m with Faythe here. I’ve watched the old series with my dad, and expecting consistency from Doctor Who is like expecting coherency from the President. But I don’t say anything. I’m afraid if I inject myself into the discussion, they’ll be like, “Why would we care what you think?” or “Yeah, old Doctor Who sucks. Nobody watches that crap.”
Instead, I drift away.
Chris and a couple other guys are debating whether the newest Star Wars movies are better than the originals.
“All I’m saying is, the thing with the new Death Star, or Peace Moon, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be—it’s tacked on,” one of the guys says. Steve, I think his name is. We had English together last year. “There’s no foreshadowing at all. It’s like JJ realized, ‘Oh shit, I need an epic battle for the end of the movie. Better insert a new superweapon!’”
“Come on,” Chris says, “you’re going to tell me the X-Wings and Tie Fighters going at it in the snow isn’t the most awesome battle in the series?”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Blasphemy!” the third guy says.
I agree with Steve. The new movies suck. What they’ve done to Han and Luke is unforgivable.
“Okay, okay,” Steve says, “we need a second opinion.”
“We’ve got second and third opinions,” Chirs says. “Majority rules. You’re wrong.”
“Nope, right of appeal. It’s in the Constitution. You, you, you.” He points at me.
“What do you think? Force Awakens. The ending kinda sucked, right?”
“Uh ... I dunno.” Should I tell them what I think? No. Probably not. “It was okay. I thought. I mean, pretty good.”
The guy’s face falls.
“Owned!” The third guy says.
“Nobody agrees with Steve. Same as always,” Chris says.
“Genius is not appreciated in its time.”
“Keep telling yourself that, man.”
I fake a laugh, then move on like I have somewhere else to be. Like I hadn’t been hoping to glom onto their conversation.
I should go back to dad, tell him I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. I know he thinks this is for my own good, and I don’t want to disappoint him, but I’d rather he accept me as a social failure and let me do my own thing. You know, sit in the corner and read. Why do I need other people? They only hurt you. You think he of all people would realize that, after what happened with mom.
But I know how much he works. We don’t have much, but he kills himself for it—starting next week, he’s going to be pulling overtime getting the school ready for the new year. He’ll work ten hour days and more. If he wants me to go out and make friends, I have to at least try.
So I wander through the group some more. But what am I supposed to do? Go up to someone and start talking? Force myself into a conversation? I see other people do that sort of thing, but I don’t understand how they pull it off. If I try, they’re gonna say, “Get lost, loser.”
I reach the end of the group and turn around for another pass. But when I do, I find Ed standing behind me.
“Hey,” he says.
“Um, yeah.” Okay, I need to talk to someone, just to show my dad I can do it ... but does it have to be him? Why couldn’t it be Elijah? Why not Chris? Or Mandy?
“This sucks,” he says.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I said we should’ve driven down, but everyone was like, ‘No, we’d need too many vehicles, let’s go Metro.’”
I wish they had. It would’ve given my dad and I a reason to go home separately from everyone else.
“This is such a fucking pain,” Ed says. “Why do we gotta wait around because of some fucking Mexican, you know?”
“She’s Mexican?” I don’t know Maria very well, but we’ve had classes together off and on since second grade, and she’s always spoken perfect English without an accent. So did her mom, that one time she’d been a chaperon for a field trip.
“Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, who cares. The point is, she doesn’t belong in this country.”
“Yeah, and now that we’ve got an actual American as President again, she’s gonna get sent back to Meh-hee-coh. I’m gonna laugh so hard when it happens. I hope they do a raid at school, round up all the Mexicans. Wouldn’t that be cool, having ICE agents walking into classrooms and telling people, ‘I needa see your Green Card’? Ha-ha-ha-ha.”
I don’t know what’s funny. “Uh, sure,” I say.
Luckily Elijah and his dad get back right then, and they have a Metro employee with them. The distraction gives me a chance to slip away from Ed.
The manager takes five minutes to get Maria’s dress uncaught. Part of it had been sucked into the machinery when the gate barriers retracted, and it’s totally chewed up when they finally get it loose.
“Oh man, my mother’s gonna kill me,” she says as she examines the damage. “We spent three months making this.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to wear it today?” Destiny says.
“Shut up,” Maria says.
“Argue later. We’ve got a train to catch,” Elijah’s dad says.
We gather up again and head downstairs to the platform. I’m halfway down the escalator when a glow appears in the tunnel.
Elijah’s dad, at the head of the group, turns to us. “Come on, guys, let’s hustle.” He starts walking down the escalator.
“But don’t rush,” Mrs. Hurlburt tells us.
“Okay, I’ll hurry slowly,” Ed says.
As we get to the bottom, by dad’s standing to the side counting heads. He’s barely finished when the train screeches to a halt. He gives Mrs. Hurlburt a thumbs up and we get on board.
It’s one of the new models, and ones that have been setup with almost all the seats turned towards the aisle. And the handful that aren’t are all occupied. I get carsick anytime I’m in a moving vehicle and not facing forward. While everyone else finds a place to sit, I grab onto one of the handles.
“You can have my seat if you want,” Elijah says.
“Mm-hmm.” Nod, nod.
With the way Faythe has her arm around his shoulder, I don’t think she’d be happy with me trading places.
My dad, of course, remains standing, and so does Ed, though thankfully he’s at the other end of the car.
As we get into motion, Ed grabs one of the ceiling bars and hoists himself into the air. It’s not a full pull-up—if this were gym, Mr. Buchanan would be yelling at him—but his feet are off the ground, and they tilt towards the back of the train as we accelerate.
“Inertia!” he calls out.
“Edward, you stop that,” Mrs. Hurlburt says.
“It’s a scientific experiment. It’s educational.”
She rolls her eyes.
The train reaches full speed, and his body returns to hanging vertically. He lets go and drops to the floor.
But we’re in the heart of DC right now, so we’ve hardly gone any distance when the train slows for the next station. Ed hops right back onto the bars, this time with his feet swinging towards the front of the train. “Inertia!”
Mrs. Hurlburt shakes her head, but she doesn’t say anything. Yeah, it’s probably best to let him wear himself out.
At Metro Center, a couple dozen people get on board, some of them tourists by the looks of them, but most being protesters. That’s still not a lot, though. Did the protests fizzle? Or are these just people leaving early to beat the rush?
Some of the protesters are in cosplay themselves—one woman’s dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and there’s a guy wearing an Uncle Sam outfit—so we don’t get too many funny looks. At least not until the doors close and Ed does his inertia demonstration again.
“He’s so embarrassing,” Mandy says.
We stop again at Farragut North and a few more protesters get on, along with a couple tourists. The train’s not quite crowded yet, but it’s getting there. I can still see Ed, but the back of the train is obscured from view by people.
“Inertia!” Ed shouts. By now nobody’s paying attention to him except the new arrivals, but that doesn’t deter him from trying one more time. Then we hit cruising speed and he drops to the floor.
But when he lands, he tilts to the side and smashes his head into a pole.
“Woo-hoo, yeah,” Mandy cheers and claps.
“Shush.” Mrs. Hurlburt stands up, but when she takes a step, she lurches to the side.
I’ve already noticed it—the train is shaking. Not the normal shaking of a Metro car in motion. This is something else. And it’s growing more intense. After a moment, even the people in their seats notice.
“What’s going on?” Krissy says.
“That an earthquake?” Elijah says.
“In DC?” Chris says.
The lights flicker.
“I don’t like that,” Faythe says.
Elijah puts an arm around her.
Behind me, my dad puts a hand on my shoulder.
Then everything goes black.
To Be Continued...
-by Sean O'Hara