The Spring

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The Spring J.M. ReepThe Spring by J.M. Reep © 2008 J.M. Reep Published by Lulu Printed in the United States of America ISBN 978-1-4357-0704-7 Front cover photographs by Jon Le-Bon/©123RF, AVTG/©iStockphoto.com, Alexey Klementiev/©123RF, JJRD/©iStockphoto.com, AlonO/ ©iStockphoto.com, Nathan McClunie/©iStockphoto.com, Paul Hart/ ©iStockphoto.com, Kevin Brown/©iStockphoto.com, Klubovy/ ©iStockphoto.com. Back cover photographs by Simon McConico/©iStockphoto.com, Irina Tischenko/©123RF, Jason Verschoor/©iStockphoto.com, EGDigital/ ©iStockphoto.com, Daniel Vineyard/©123RF, Moswyn/©123RF, Ben Goode/©iStockphoto.com. http://thespring.weebly.com/The SpringOne SITTING in his usual lunchtime spot in the shade of one of the big oak trees that sometimes made the campus seem like such an inviting place, Jason didn’t notice that his body was draped in a random pattern of light and shadow. The warm sun, now at its highest point in the sky, poured down its light, bathing most of the world in brightness. Even the oak trees, with their new springtime leaves now almost fully formed, couldn’t deflect it all, and the sunlight was fragmented into a thousand shards of light, each illuminating a little piece of earth. The sunshine and shade made some blades of grass glow while others remained the same dull green, and insects blinked and sparkled as they buzzed back and forth. The light, both scattered and direct, fell on the clusters of other teenagers eating their lunches in the warm springtime air. Their laughter and conversation created a sense of unity where the sunshine couldn't reach. In this optimistic season, when the rest of the world strove to become as one in the light, Jason alone resisted. He sat with his back against the wall of the auditorium building. This was his regular spot, chosen because it was in the shade at this hour of the day. The trunk of the oak tree was a few feet in front of him, not close enough to conceal him from his classmates, but near enough to offer him a sense of security and shelter. His backpack that had been 2 The Spring slung over his shoulder was now set beside him. He opened the bag of chips that he had bought from one of the vending machines in the gymnasium and quickly popped a chip in his mouth, fixing his eyes back towards the way he had just come: towards the corner of the auditorium, beyond which stood the flagpole and the entrance to the main school building. He decided that if Keith wanted to act like a jerk, then so be it. Jason had sat in this spot since his sophomore year and he would do the same today. Nothing would be different except that for the third day in a row, he sat alone. Until recently, he and his best friend Keith had always sat in this same place and ate lunch together. But on Monday, they had an argument that quickly turned bitter, and in response, Keith didn’t show up for lunch on Tuesday. He was still on campus, of course (Jason sometimes saw him between classes), but today was Thursday and they hadn’t spoken to each other since their argument. Apparently Keith had decided he didn’t want to spend his lunch hours with Jason anymore. They had argued before—and sometimes Keith had stormed off in anger—but Jason couldn’t remember a time when they had been apart for this long. Jason thought that Keith was just being stubborn, and Jason knew that if Keith were to return right now, there would be no questions asked and all would be forgiven. A few people came around the corner, either on their way from class or looking for a place outside to sit and eat, but Keith was not among them. Jason ate his chips slowly and continued to watch, and wait, but still there was no Keith. When he finished his bag of chips, Jason got up, threw the bag into the nearest trash can, and returned to his place against the wall. Fine, he thought to himself, if Keith wants to sit somewhere else, that's all right with me. Fortunately, Jason had come prepared for this. Opening a pocket in his backpack, he pulled out his mp3 player and his headphones. On Tuesday, he had been caught off guard by Keith's departure and had sat through an entire lunch hour with nothing to do. He didn’t want that to happen again, so on Wednesday he had brought his mp3 player to school so he could pass the time listening to music, and today he had brought it again. He put on the headphones and turned the player on. Taking one J.M. Reep 3 last look towards the corner of the auditorium, he saw no one appear, so he pressed "Play" and a voice sang into his ears: If everyone on Earth died right now Except me I'd be the happiest man on Earth. The voice belonged to a singer named Charley Z. He had been Jason's favorite singer ever since Jason discovered his music two years ago. Since then, no other singer or band had been able to compare. These songs spoke to Jason, like no other songs ever had. He could relate to these lyrics. He understood them. They were about his life and his struggles. These were songs about trying to find a place independent of society and apart from the mindless crowds who needed community and belonging for its own sake. Charley Z taught that independence and self-reliance were the greatest virtues. Jason had learned from Charley Z that the world can be a cruel and lonely place, that the only person he could depend on was himself, and that friendship was fleeting and illusory at best—his recent experience with Keith proved that. And as for love . . . well, that seemed too remote and alien even to consider. Jason lost himself in reverie but was pulled back to earth when the song came to its slow and somber end: If everyone on Earth died right now Except me I'd be the saddest man on Earth. Jason smiled. Who needed Keith? This wasn't so bad: listening to Charley Z, sitting in the fresh air, watching the birds fly down from the trees to search for food in the grass. Jason decided he was happy. In between songs, he heard a familiar voice. He turned his head and saw his friend Jimmy and a boy named Brian walking his way. Jason hadn't known Jimmy for as long as he had known Keith, but right now Jimmy seemed like more of a friend than Keith. Jimmy always sat outside at a nearby table with some other students from the senior class. Jason and Keith had never mixed with Jimmy's circle of friends, but they saw enough of each other to expect each other's presence. As Jimmy approached, he stared at Jason and noticed that, once again, the boy with 4 The Spring the mp3 player was sitting alone. As he and Brian passed, Jimmy stopped, and Jason turned off his music. Jimmy smiled and said, "Hey, Jason, is Keith not gonna show up today?" Jason looked around him, pretending to notice his solitude for the first time. "It doesn't look like it," he replied. Jimmy shrugged, still smiling, "Oh well, no big loss." Jimmy and Keith had never really gotten along, although Jason didn't know why. Everyone else seemed to like Jimmy; he was very approachable and always seemed to have a positive attitude about everything. Jason never understood what it was in his two friends' personalities that conflicted. "Who are you listening to?" Jimmy asked, pointing to Jason's mp3 player. "Charley Z" Jason said proudly. Jimmy's smile turned into a mix of disgust and amusement. Jimmy was no fan of Charley Z, and Jason knew it. "Man, you need to listen to some real music for a change." Brian went on towards their table, and Jimmy started to follow, but then he turned around and said, "Oh, I almost forgot—Emma and I need a ride home this afternoon. Will you wait for us?" "Sure," Jason said, "I'll wait." "Thanks." Jason pressed the "Play" button again and behaved as though he were enjoying his music a little too much. Jimmy just smiled and shook his head. He followed Brian to their table, which was closer to the rear of the auditorium building. The rest of Jimmy's regular circle of friends were there already: Brian, four girls, and one other boy. Jason knew them all by name, but he wasn't friends with any of them, just Jimmy. As Jason sat and listened to the music, his eyes would settle on Jimmy and his friends from time to time. Jason wondered what he must look like to them as he sat all alone. He probably looked like a loser, like he didn't have any friends at all. Jason knew that wasn't true, but what else could people assume? This part of the campus beside the auditorium wasn't very busy, even though there were a few students having lunch at the other nearby picnic tables or on the lawn. But sometimes students, J.M. Reep 5 on their way from one building to another, or custodians patrolling the campus, would pass by. If Jason didn't know them, then he ignored them, but if he saw someone he knew, he suddenly felt embarrassed. What was worse, no one even looked at him when they walked by. They ignored him, and their disinterest made it seem like there was something in Jason's situation—his isolation—that just wasn't right and seemed strange. Although he tried to concentrate on his music, Jason’s attention was drawn again and again to Jimmy and his friends. They were all laughing now as someone, probably Jimmy, said something funny. After a moment, two members of the group, a guy and a girl, broke away from the others and sat on the lawn a few feet away from the table. After a moment of talking quietly to each other, they began to kiss. As Jason watched them, he decided he wasn't going to spend the rest of his senior year of high school sitting by himself during lunch—that would be like letting Keith win. If Keith wanted to act like a stubborn jerk, then Jason would let him, but he wouldn't let Keith dictate how he spent his lunch periods. Tomorrow would be different. The lunch hour passed quickly, and finally Charley Z’s singing was interrupted by the sound of the bell, summoning the students back to class. Jason turned off his mp3 player and returned it to his backpack. He stood up, brushed the dirt and grass off of his jeans, and followed the other students back indoors.Two WHEN school was dismissed that afternoon, Jason was in such a hurry to go home that he didn't bother to visit his locker to check to see if he had any homework. Outside the main doors of the school building, underneath the flagpole, Jason found Emma waiting for him. Emma was Jimmy's younger sister; she was sixteen and a sophomore this year. She looked a lot like Jimmy—the same blonde hair, the same hazel- colored eyes, and the same friendly smile, although her smile wasn't permanently fixed to her face like her brother’s seemed to be. With Jimmy, one never knew for certain whether the good attitude he put forth was genuine, but there was a sincerity in Emma's smile that only made her natural kindness and warmth all the more impressive. Jason and Emma had always gotten along well. Just as Jimmy was popular and well-liked among the senior class, so was Emma very popular among the sophomores, and she never had any trouble selecting a boyfriend from among her many admirers. Jason often recognized her in the hallways, walking hand in hand with her latest boyfriend, but the only times Jason ever spoke to her was when he gave her and her brother rides to and from school. When Jason approached her, she smiled and said, "Hi Jimmy will be along in a minute."J.M. Reep 7 Jason just stood by and nodded, watching the doors and the stream of students exiting the building. Jimmy and Emma didn't ride with Jason everyday. Jimmy had a car, an old clunker that, although in very poor condition, still ran, but when Jimmy's father was out of town on business, Jimmy and Emma rode with Jason. Last year, Jimmy and Emma's mother passed away after a long bout with cancer. Because their father's business obligations required him to travel around the country frequently, Jimmy and Emma were often left to themselves. Whenever their father went out of town, he asked Jimmy not to drive the car except to work or in case of an emergency. Their father was afraid that Jimmy (or Emma, who had recently earned her own driver's license) might get into a serious car accident while he was away. A year ago when Jason and Jimmy had been closer friends than they were now, Jimmy had come to Jason first when looking for a ride to school. Jason agreed, and this arrangement had become a habit. Jason didn't mind, because it guaranteed that he still kept in touch with Jimmy even though they had drifted apart, and it was always nice to see Emma too. Obviously, the death of their mother had an effect on the siblings. For about a month after his mother's death, Jason had noticed that Jimmy was withdrawn and depressed, but over time his usual cheerfulness returned. Jimmy had always been kind of a clown and quick to laugh and smile, but over the past year, Jason noticed the smiles seemed to have become permanent. As for Emma, Jason had only met her a few times before her mother died. Once she and Jimmy started riding with Jason, and Jason got to know her a little better, he found Emma to be far more mature than her age suggested. After all, with her mother gone, she had a great deal more responsibility heaped upon her shoulders, and she almost became like a parent to Jimmy, especially when their father was away. Jason and Emma had only been waiting for a minute before Jason heard Emma mutter, "C'mon, Jimmy, hurry up." Her words magically produced their intended effect as Jimmy at last emerged from the main school building. He wasn't alone: a girl was walking by his side and 8 The Spring eagerly listening to him tell a joke. Jason didn't know her name; she looked like a junior. Like his sister, Jimmy was popular with the opposite sex, but it seemed like neither Jimmy nor Emma could ever develop a relationship that lasted longer than a month or two. Jason could never understand what it was that attracted girls to Jimmy. Maybe it was his smile, or his accessible personality. But all that was superficial, and perhaps his lack of depth was the reason why girls didn't stay with him for very long. Of course, that explanation didn't solve the mystery of Emma's brief relationships since there was substance beneath her exterior, a beauty and warmth that wasn't just a mask. Perhaps, Jason concluded, such brief relationships were all just a part of being a teenager in high school. Jimmy saw his friend and his sister waiting for him under the flagpole, so he said goodbye to the girl by his side and approached. He didn't stop, but simply walked past them towards the parking lot. He pretended not to see Jason and Emma at first, but then he said with a smile, "Well, c'mon What are you waiting for?" Neither Jason nor Emma replied as they followed Jimmy out past the school bus depot and into the students' parking lot. Jimmy quickly realized he didn't know where Jason had parked so he slowed down and let his friend lead the way. The three of them zig-zagged between the cars still parked and those that were trying to leave until they found Jason's car. His was an older model, not quite as old as Jimmy’s, but certainly not as impressive as some of the sports cars and SUVs that the wealthier students drove. As Jason unlocked the driver's side door, Jimmy and Emma stood on the other side of the car, waiting patiently and squinting in the bright sunshine. When all the doors were unlocked, Jimmy sat in the front seat and Emma sat in the back. Emma fastened her seat belt, but Jimmy didn't bother. Jason started the engine and asked, "So how did you guys get to school this morning?" "Our dad drove us," Jimmy replied. "His flight didn't leave till noon." "Where is he this week?"J.M. Reep 9 "He's . . . he's . . . I don't remember." Jimmy looked back to Emma for help. "He's in Los Angeles," she answered. "Oh, yeah, that's right. L.A." Before Jason backed out of the parking space, he turned on the air conditioner. Meanwhile, Jimmy started twisting the radio dial, searching for no particular station. "Wait, Jimmy I have some music," Emma said, reaching into her backpack and pulling out her own mp3 player. "So what?" Jimmy teased. "We want to listen to the radio today, right Jason?" Jason shrugged as he backed out of the parking space. "But it's my turn today" Emma insisted. The three students had very different tastes in music, so Jason, in an attempt to maintain peace and order in his car, had decided long ago that they each take turns. It had been three weeks since Emma had last ridden in his car, and Jason was surprised to find that Emma remembered today was her turn. With her mp3 player turned on and a playlist selected, Emma leaned forward and held out her player in her hand so the boys in the front seat could reach it. "Plug it in," she ordered Jimmy. "No." Jason took the player and connected it to the cassette adapter in the tape deck. "It's her day," Jason said, trying to be nice. He looked at her in the rear-view mirror and could see her smiling. The sound of Emma’s music immediately filled the car, but before the band even started singing, Jimmy groaned and said, "Oh God, not again This is all you've been listening to since last weekend" "Well too bad. I like it" Jason didn't recognize the song and asked who the band was. "It's the Suspicious Janitors" Emma said with pride. Jimmy groaned again. Jason just smiled; he had heard of the Suspicious Janitors before. They were like so many other garage bands, who, by some amazing stroke of luck, had landed a deal with a record company and were now played on every radio station in the country. 10 The Spring Jason had heard some of their previous singles and thought they were all right, but he couldn't identify with their lyrics. "Do you like the Janitors?" Emma asked Jason. "They're OK." "You wouldn't think so if you had a little sister playing their music all the time," Jimmy said. "I thought they were all right at first too, but I can't stand them anymore." "Well Jason and I like it," Emma teased, "so you're out- numbered." "Jason doesn't like it. He only likes Charley Z" Jason remained silent; he couldn't argue with the truth. "I think Charley Z is all right," Emma said, defending her driver. "But what would you rather listen to, Jimmy? Charley Z or the Suspicious Janitors?" "If those were my only choices, I think I'd rather walk home." The first song ended and the second began. The new song had a heavy bass riff and Jason’s car trembled noticeably to the sound. Jason and his passengers still weren't out of the school parking lot yet. Traffic was backed up as some five hundred cars tried to leave the campus at the same time. Jason was inching nearer to the exit, though, and he expected they would be off the campus before the end of this song, unless it was really short. The new song had ushered in a lull in the conversation. Emma sat whispering the lyrics to the song and tapping her foot to the beat. Jimmy looked out of the window to his right. He wanted to roll the window down, it was so hot in the car, but Jason had the air conditioner set on full blast, and it wouldn't help to open a window. Jimmy adjusted the air conditioner vents, trying to get more cold air to come out, but nothing he did worked. Jimmy said to Jason, "You need to do something about this air conditioner. I think it's broken." Then he smiled. "We'll be all right once we get out of the parking lot," Jason said. "It works better when the car is in motion." Jimmy nodded and then looked out the window again. Their car slowly approached the avenue which served as the western border of the J.M. Reep 11 campus, an avenue that was already busy with traffic, and Jason started watching for a chance to turn right. Jimmy, looking at the cars that drove up and down the avenue, saw a blue sports car speed past. "Whoa Look at that car" he said, leaning forward. Jason wanted to look, but he couldn't watch for an opening in the traffic and follow the sports car at the same time so he missed it. Emma saw it, though, and said, "Yeah, that's nice." Jimmy turned in his seat so he could face his sister as he dreamed, "I want a car like that. I'll bet it's got an air conditioner that works" Jason found an opening in the traffic and took advantage of it. He hadn't heard what Jimmy said, but Emma did, and again she defended her driver: "Shut up, Jimmy. Jason'll probably kick you out of the car if you keep insulting him like that." Jimmy smiled and patted Jason on the shoulder. "I'm just teasing him, and he knows it. This car may be a piece of crap, but it's a better piece of crap than my car. At least I know this car won't fall apart on the way to school." A third song started. It had a catchy guitar riff that caught Jason's attention. He tried to listen to the song while Jimmy and Emma talked. "Dad didn't leave us much to eat this time did he?" Jimmy asked. "No," his sister replied. "But he left some money with me and said I could go to the store if we needed anything." "We probably will by the end of the weekend. Do you want me to drive you?" "No, I can handle it. Dad said he'd be back Sunday evening. Maybe I'll fix him dinner on Sunday." "Suck up." "I'm not sucking up—I'm just being nice. Dad doesn't get a lot of good meals with Mom gone and all his traveling." "Well, I'll make a list of the food I want." "Fine." They were silent for a moment and Jason listened to the rest of the song without interruption as he drove. When it was over, Jimmy said, "I'm so sick of that song. Their new album wouldn't be so bad if that 12 The Spring song wasn't on it." Jimmy and Emma's house was closer to the high school than Jason's house was, so their trip didn't take very long. Jason steered through the familiar tree-lined suburban streets until he found his passengers' home. He pulled alongside the curb and parked the car without turning off the engine. Jason unplugged Emma's mp3 player from the car stereo and handed it to her. "Thanks," she said. The brother and sister gathered their belongings and climbed out of the car. Emma said, "And thanks for the ride" Jason was quick to tell her goodbye. Jimmy said, "Remember, we need a ride tomorrow morning, too. My dad will be back by Monday, so you don't have to worry about next week." "Sure, no problem." "Thanks, Jason." He shut the door before Jason could say good- bye. Jason watched Emma as she unlocked the front door. Jimmy ran up behind her and chased her inside. As Jason drove away, he thought about his friendship with Jimmy and wondered why it wasn't as close as it had been last year. The high point of their friendship had come last summer when the two of them were almost inseparable, going to the mall or driving around town. But ever since their senior year started, they hadn't seen very much of each other. At times it seemed that if it were not for the fact that Jimmy and Emma needed to catch rides from him from time to time, he probably wouldn't talk to Jimmy at all. The school year was ending and with it their high school careers. In a few months, they would be in college and might never see each other again. Jason realized that if his friendship with Keith really was finished, then that meant Jimmy was now his best friend. Jason again resolved not to spend his last few weeks of high school sitting alone outside at lunch all by himself. Charley Z taught that one's personal independence from the demands and expectations of others is among the most important things one can achieve. Jason wouldn't let Keith win. Tomorrow he would definitely make a change.Three JASON remembered to pick up Jimmy and Emma the next morning. Unlike the previous afternoon, all was quiet in the car as they drove to school under a pale sky. This quiet was nothing unusual, for Jason knew that the brother and sister were never in a mood to talk until they reached the campus. Today was Jason's turn to select the music, and once again, he played Charley Z, but he kept the volume down, and the singer's crooning sounded soft and sentimental as a result: And what does she see, that distant star, When she looks this way at me? Is there nothing here but emptiness, Or does my light bridge the void as well? Traffic on the streets was always heavier in the mornings than in the afternoons since Jason had to compete with the adults in the city who were on their way to work. In spite of this, their trip to school always took less time because Jason didn't have to fight to get into the parking lot like he had to fight to get out of it in the afternoons. On this day, Jason found that he was running a little earlier than usual even though he had gone out of his way to pick up Jimmy and Emma. The time was almost 7:45, and there were plenty of spaces available in the parking lot. Jason parked in a much better space than where he had parked yesterday.14 The Spring He stopped the car and turned off the engine. Jimmy and Emma sluggishly gathered their belongings and climbed out of the car. They closed their doors and silently trudged through the parking lot towards the school. But Jason was in a hurry, in such a hurry that he forgot his mp3 player, leaving it locked in the car as he ran to catch up with Jimmy. He grabbed Jimmy's shoulder and said, "Jimmy, wait a second." Jimmy stopped, and Jason stole a glance at Emma, who kept walking. When she was a few feet further away, the two boys started walking again and Jason said, "I guess you're gonna have lunch again with that crowd you hang out with, huh?" Jimmy smiled for the first time that morning as the loose gravel on the pavement crunched and snapped under their feet. "Yeah, where else would I go?" "Nowhere. That's cool. But I was just wondering . . . well, do you mind if I hang out with you and your friends today?" Jimmy hadn't been expecting this, but with the apparent end of Jason and Keith's friendship, it wasn't a complete surprise. He looked in the direction of the table where he and his friends ate lunch, although he couldn't see it from the parking lot. He shrugged, "I don't know. It's fine with me. If you want to be bored out of your mind, go ahead. I don't think anyone will complain." Jason, who was looking at the ground, almost said that he'd rather be bored with other people than be bored alone, but he caught himself and asked instead, "Is that a Yes?" Jimmy nodded. They approached the empty bus depot where a few kids loitered in clusters, talking to themselves quietly. Emma had disappeared, and it was here that Jason and Jimmy parted, for Jason usually hung out with Keith in the morning and Jimmy went in search of his other friends. Since Jason wasn’t interested in looking for Keith anymore, he considered following Jimmy, but he didn't want to look like some lost puppy so Jason went up to the front of the school doors and stood by himself, patiently waiting for the bell to ring and the doors to open. Later that day, when the lunch hour started, Jason hurried J.M. Reep 15 through the crowded hallways towards Jimmy's locker. Jason didn't bother to bring his backpack (he still hadn’t realized that he left his mp3 player behind in the car). All he had was himself and some change in his pocket with which to buy lunch. Jason caught Jimmy just as he was closing his locker. Jason said hello and found Jimmy in a more sociable mood than he had been that morning. Jimmy asked, "So what's the deal with you and Keith anyway? Why did he ditch you like that?" Jason shrugged slightly, but Jimmy was looking towards the end of the hall and didn't see the gesture. "We just had an argument. He always thinks he's right about everything. You know how he is—you've met him." "I guess. So do you guys hate each other now or something?" Jason shrugged again but again Jimmy didn't see it. "I don't know. I was kind of getting tired of him anyway. All we seem to do anymore is argue. Besides, school will be over soon, and we aren't going to the same university. I guess it had to end sooner or later." "Where is he eating lunch now?" "I don't know. Some remote hiding place, I guess." As they made their way outside, they passed a crowd of girls walking in the opposite direction. Two of the girls, juniors both, said hello to Jimmy. He returned the greeting but didn't stop to talk to them. The boys walked outside where the sun was shining, and Jason could see that Jimmy was smiling. They walked to the gymnasium where there were some vending machines just inside the boys' locker room. It was here that Jimmy and Jason bought their lunches. Jimmy bought some chips and a coke. Jason only purchased chips. "Another healthy lunch" Jimmy declared with a cynical grin. They also met Brian, the boy Jimmy was walking with yesterday. Brian didn't seem at all surprised to find Jason with Jimmy. Jimmy and Brian said hello to each other and started talking as they walked back outside and headed for the far side of the auditorium. As they passed the flagpole in front of the auditorium, Jason suddenly felt ignored, but he didn't try to impose himself on the two boys. They turned the corner and passed the spot where Jason had sat 16 The Spring for lunch the day before and where he and Keith had once sat on a regular basis, but Jason didn't look at it. Instead, he felt a small sense of triumph as he approached the table where Jimmy's friends sat. He wished Keith would return today, just so he could see that his plan to punish Jason by leaving him all alone had failed. But Keith didn't return that day, and Jason had to introduce himself to a new set of people. Three of Jimmy's friends, all girls, were waiting for them. They had already started eating their lunch and they were talking to each other. Their table was a standard picnic table, with a bench on either side. The table had once been painted crimson, one of the school colors, but much of the paint had since peeled and flaked away, leaving behind a greenish- brown wooden surface. The table itself rested on a narrow stretch of grass in between the concrete walkway which surrounded the auditorium and a chain-link fence that separated this part of the campus from the phys. ed. playing fields. Immediately beyond the fence was a baseball field—left field to be exact—but phys. ed. wasn't in session this hour so no one had to worry about getting struck on the head by a home run hit. The table was partly shaded by a tall oak tree at the end of the table closest to the concrete walkway. Like the boys, the three girls sitting at the table were also members of the senior class. On one side of the table two girls were huddled over an open notebook, working on one of the girls' homework. The blonde-haired girl sitting closest to the tree was named Andrea. She and Jason had gone to the same middle school, and they had shared a couple of classes during their sophomore and junior years of high school, but they didn't know each other very well. Andrea was popular and well- liked among her classmates, though. It was her homework that she and the girl sitting next to her were working on, and neither of them noticed the boys as they approached. The look of frustration on their faces indicated that their attention was directed at Andrea’s homework. The girl who was trying to help Andrea was named Stacey. Jason had never shared a class with Stacey, but he knew exactly who she was. Everyone knew Stacey thanks to an ugly rumor that had been circulating about her since their freshman year. Variations on the rumor were many,

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