Maicey’s brow furrowed and a bead of sweat trickled down the side of her face. She stood frozen in the glow of the radioactive device in her hands, finger hovering, trembling over the button that would change the course of human history. Fierce brown eyes bore intensely into the display of the device, a million thoughts racing behind them through her mind as she weighed the options. Should I do it? Should I push this button? Or should I leave and try to forget any of this ever happened? But how could I forget this?
There was a series of soft taps. Footsteps. Maicey held her breath, praying she wouldn’t be discovered. Her wide eyes flickered from the display to the crack in the door, watching for the other person in the room. She saw the silhouette of a woman pass by, a dim halo of fluorescent light tracing the edges of her figure, heels clicking like gunshots on the cold, hard floor. Maicey cringed as the bead of sweat dropped from her chin and hit the tile. It left only a minuscule, wet starburst, but to Maicey it was a heart-stopping explosion. It wasn’t until she heard the heavy door at the other end of the chamber boom shut that she exhaled. The woman had not detected her.
She remained motionless for a long enough time that the eco-friendly lighting recessed in the ceiling turned off, and the room was plunged into an unearthly darkness, save for the luminescence emitted by the display of the device. It cast a harsh, eerie light on Maicey’s face, shadows outlining her features in a manner not unlike that of a flashlight on the face of a person sharing a spooky campfire tale.
Bombs had been dropped earlier that day. Very soon, a great deal more would be dropped again. Maicey had the power to change that. She had a few moments to prevent the future bombings. A few hours ago, Maicey’s blood had run cold as she figured out who two of the targets would be. At that moment, she had decided to come to this place in an attempt to stop those targets from becoming victims. But now that she was here, with the device in her hand, she had come to realize that if she did, she would immediately bear the full force herself. Or she could do nothing, avoid the danger, but then the bombs would almost certainly go off in a public place, directed at those two targets. Thus, Maicey was currently in a state of hesitation over what action she should take.
One of the targets was a girl whom she did not have any particular love for, who tried to spite her at every corner: Avery. But the other was someone very dear to her, whom she loved very much: her boyfriend, Don. And who knows how many other people will be in range of these bombs? There could—no, there would be terrible injuries as a result, and these two were going to be recipients for sure.
And so Maicey was left with a choice: Did she sacrifice herself and spare her friends, enemies, and strangers, or did she save herself and suffer the guilt that she could have prevented a worse fate from befalling a loved one, an unloved one, and who-knows-how-many bystanders? It was a truly impossible decision.
On the screen of the device, the digital number changed, counting away the precious minutes.
Maicey couldn’t help but recall the events that led up to this situation. If only she had not picked up that phone that morning. If only she had not noticed that peculiar bathroom graffiti, a pair of narrowed eyes with pupils consisting of the symbol for radioactive material. And if only she had not grown curious about the ten-digit number scrawled in evergreen Sharpie directly beneath that creepy drawing on the stall. If only.
She lapsed back into the present and checked the display again. The final digit had already gone from nine to five. In another five minutes, that final digit would read zero. And by then, it would be too late to change fate.
All of a sudden, she felt her cellular vibrate with a new text message. She recognized the number. It was from the person dropping the bombs. The message read:
Are you in position?
Maicey swallowed and typed back:
The person was coming. Maicey returned her gaze to the clock on the display of the device in her hands. The hourglass was almost empty.
Indecision coursed through her veins, propelled by her hammering heart. But then, adrenaline kicked in, overriding the indecision. If at all possible, her heart beat faster still at the prospect of what she was about to do. There were only moments to spare. It was now or never—she made her decision.
She pushed the button.
The handle turned and the room was instantly silent. Leah and the others all sat in their seats and awaited Umbridge’s instructions. The students here knew from bitter experience that she was not one to be trifled with. Umbridge was highly unpredictable; she might act sweet and kind one minute, but the next she could be as coldblooded as a deadly viper.
“Good morning, class,” she said.
“Good morning, Ms. Burke,” responded the class in automatic unison.
The tall woman wearing glasses and high heels strode across the room to her desk by the window, closely followed by an uncomfortable looking Kyle, who shut the door behind them. Umbridge pulled a stray strand of yellow hair out of her severe eyes and tucked it behind her ear, then grabbed a stack of papers and handed them to Kyle. “Since Kyle has elected not to come to class on time today, he will be acting as my assistant for the period. He can start by passing this graded work back to everyone.”
Kyle gawked at the obscenely tall pile. “But Ms. Burke, you were late to class too! Why should I be the only one penalized?” he demanded.
Leah nearly gasped aloud. Defiance had a zero tolerance rule in this room. In Defense Against the Dark Arts, the term “defiance” was synonymous with “death wish.” Of course, the class wasn’t actually called Defense Against the Dark Arts; it was just Language Arts. “Defense Against the Dark Arts” and “Umbridge” were titles the students only used when Burke was not within a 60 foot radius. Aside from having the same first name, Dolores Burke had earned her nickname from the uncanny resemblance between her personality and that of the notorious professor from Harry Potter’s fifth year at Hogwarts. She was the kind of teacher who would happily whip her students if there weren’t a law against it. Or rather, the kind who would have her students write using their own blood as ink.
Umbridge fixed Kyle with an icy glare. Her beady eyes glittered with sudden malice. “There is no excuse for tardiness.”
“I told you, I was using the bathroom! And so were you, I saw you come out, so don’t tell me that I have no excuse,” countered Kyle.
“I know where I was. You, on the other hand, have no pass to prove your story.”
“I left it on the sink, but you wouldn’t let me go back to get it!”
Leah watched as the two alternated taking stabs at each other. Umbridge had an aura of pure darkness emanating from her, but Kyle valiantly fought back, determined not to go out without a fight. Finally, Umbridge reached the end of her patience and dealt the killing blow.
“ENOUGH OF THIS! I am not going to spend the entire period arguing with you. Enough time has been wasted as it is. Go to the office, now. I’ll be seeing you during lunch and after school for the rest of the week, Wiggins.”
Kyle dumped the pile back on Umbridge’s desk and furiously stalked out of the class. Leah somehow doubted he was going to the office. In an attempt to restore calm, another student wordlessly stood up and started passing out the papers. The malice faded from Umbridge’s eyes and she thanked the student.
Leah looked at the clock—it read 11:19. Nearly fifteen minutes of class had already been wasted. She waited another six for Umbridge to get into the lesson before pulling out her phone under her desk. She then scrolled through her contacts and started a new text message. The reply came not even thirty seconds later. Thank goodness you’re free. I really need to talk to you about this. She tucked her phone back into her pocket and shot her hand in the air.
“Yes, Miss Burnett?”
“May I please use the restroom?”
“Can it wait until lunch?”
“No, it’s an emergency. Can I please go?”
Umbridge gave an irritated sigh. “Good Lord, you kids need to learn to hold it. It must be that caffeinated coffee. Fine, very well. Don’t forget the pass on the way out.”
“Thank you, Ms. Burke,” said Leah, already rushing out the door. Once the Dark Arts room was out of vision, she slowed her pace to a casual walk, and began mulling over what she was going to say. Avery had pissed her off before, and Leah could usually take it all in her stride, but this new thing of hers was crossing the line. It was low even by Avery’s standards. And it had Leah positively seething. Just thinking about this foul business already had her getting fired up. Leah unconsciously started speeding up again, feet hitting the floor slightly harder with every step, until by the time she reached the ladies’ room, she was practically stomping. She was right about to throw the door open, but stopped as her hand was on the handle. She thought she’d heard something.
Putting her ear against the door, she lowered her eyelids and focused on her hearing. Yes, there were voices inside. Crap, I was really hoping there would be no one else in there. Usually everyone waits till lunch to use the bathroom. She continued listening, trying to get a sense of the conversation.
“. . . Yes, yes, I’m very sorry; I won’t cause you any more trouble . . .”
Is that Maicey’s voice I hear? Who is she talking to . . . ? Leah covered her left ear so she could hear better with her right.
“. . . No, please, don’t! I’ll do what you want! You don’t have to do that! You’ll never hear from me again, I swear!”
Leah’s ears perked to the rising fear in the voice. It has to be Avery she’s talking to. What the hell is going on in there? Is she trying to run Maicey out of the school or something?! Leah strained to get some bits of the other side of the conversation, but the other voice was far too quiet to make out.
“Yes, it’s done, I assure you! You can forget I ever existed! I’ll be a ghost! Just please don’t get them involved!”
What the hell is she threatening her with? Leah wondered worriedly. Maicey said she’d be a ghost—Jesus Christ, Maicey isn’t going to die, is she!?
Leah couldn’t stay outside any longer. She threw her weight against the door and charged into the lavatory to confront the villainous girl.
“MAI, DON’T LISTEN TO HER!”
What Leah couldn’t have known that at that moment, Avery was actually on the other side of the building . . . .
Maicey jumped in shock, startled by the unexpected outburst from across the room. She fumbled with the device in her hands, desperately trying to catch it. She didn’t get a grip on it.
At the bottom of the toilet bowl, mere seconds before the final digit would have turned to zero, the display of the device blinked once, then went dark completely, dead in the water.
Oh my God, oh my God. She’s going to murder me. A feeling of sheer dread washed over Maicey. Any light that may have been at the end of this dark tunnel was now extinguished.
The person who had dropped the bombs earlier that morning was currently in the room with Maicey, and if she had been unhappy with the way things were going before, right now she was very, very upset.
Leah kicked in the door of the last stall, sending the metal bolt that locked it ricocheting off the dividing walls, and to her immense surprise, her flying fist was caught by . . . air. Startled and confused, she almost fell forward onto a stricken Maicey.
“Oh my God, Leah, what are you doing?! You broke the lock right off the—!” The rest of Maicey’s shocked sentence was muffled by Leah’s shirt as the other girl suddenly bear-hugged her.
“Mai, tell me where Avery went so I can beat—” Leah faltered as Maicey suddenly pushed her away.
“I haven’t seen Avery since yesterday! What’s going on? What did I miss?”
“But I thought . . .” Leah trailed off in bewilderment.
Both girls stared at each other, alarmed, neither having the faintest idea what exactly had just transpired.
“If you weren’t talking to Avery,” Leah choked out, “then who were you just talking to right now?”
Maicey’s cheeks turned a deep shade of crimson. “I, uh. . . .” She held up the dripping radioactive device in one hand.
“You dropped your cell phone in the toilet?”
“I know. My mom is going to kill me . . .”
“But who were you calling?”
Maicey pocketed the useless phone and rubbed the back of her neck. “I got kind of curious about . . .”—she gestured to the number under the formidable eyes on the stall divider—“. . . and I decided to try calling the number while I waited for you,” she said sheepishly.
“Maybe you won’t die young after all, Virginia!” Leah grinned.
Maicey rolled her eyes and groaned. “I really hate that song.”
“Well, what did he say to you that had you so fucking freaked out? I thought someone was going to die or something.”
“Don’t drop the F-bomb so casually!” Maicey scolded in repugnance. “You said it so many times when you called me this morning I almost hung up on you in case my parents were in earshot.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s 11:30, and you’re here, aren’t you? Dude, everyone swears, quit being such a sissy.”
“Never! I can deal with your usual cussing, but can you at least try to not say the F-word around me? That word is like acid in my ears.”
“Oh, come on, there’s plenty worse than that.” Leah rattled off a couple from the top of her head.
Smirking, Leah conceded. “Fine, fine, don’t get your panties in a bunch. Now are you gonna tell me what the guy on the other end of the line was saying to you, or are you going to lecture me on being prim and proper?”
Maicey started to open her mouth to retaliate, but she thought better of it and recalled her previous conversation instead. “He said that he was seriously considering calling my parents and the police. He told me to get rid of the number on the wall and that if he ever received another prank call again, he would charge me with obstruction of justice and harassment, even if I wasn’t the caller. Had I known that was some FBI agent’s phone number, I would have never hit the ‘Call’ button.”
After hearing this, Leah was cracking up, leaving Maicey frowning, ears burning with indignation.
“Stop laughing, it’s not funny! I might be in some serious trouble now! It’s bad enough my phone is fried; although at least they probably can’t trace it now . . .” Maicey waited for Leah to calm down to a few lingering snickers. “Can you explain to me what’s so hilarious?”
“Oh, Girl, Connor got you good.”
“You’re on a first name basis with this guy?”
“No, Connor’s his last name. He’s a teacher that left the school back before we were freshman. I heard about him from the older girls. Apparently he’s been getting prank-called for years now, ever since someone put his number on the stall. I’ve called him plenty of times myself.” Leah chuckled inwardly while Maicey folded her arms disdainfully. “His latest thing is answering the phone under a false guise and trying to reverse the joke on the credulous. Sometimes he even dials back when you least expect it. Doesn’t work on me, though, I’ve got his number in my contacts now. We have some spirited conversations every so often. It’s fun, like having a pen-pal or something.”
Leah said all this with a certain measure of pride. Maicey put her hand to her face and shook her head. “You are unbelievable.”
“Why, because I have Connor in my contacts?”
“No, because you actually just used the word ‘credulous’ in a sentence.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Leah, playfully cuffing Maicey on the shoulder. Maicey shrugged it off and gingerly took a seat on the edge of the toilet seat while her companion casually leaned back against the stall door. “Well, it’s good to see you’re in position, even if you did stray a little from the mission,” Leah went on, arms folded across her chest.
Maicey rolled her eyes. “And why do your text messages always sound like that?”
“Like they’re communications between secret agents or something.”
“Because it sounds cool, duh. ‘Hello Maicey, are you in the women’s lavatory yet?’ would just sound so dull.”
Maicey shook her head. “Anyway, the reason you told me to meet you here this morning . . .” she started. She blinked and saw the other girl’s face harden, an expression of dark hatred overtaking the one of lightheartedness.
“If that bitch makes one more—”
“Would you please stop cursing?” Maicey interrupted.
“If you can’t handle my word choice, then why did you even come here?”
“Because I’d rather you throw your F-bombs at me than at Avery and Don. I knew if I didn’t come and try to defuse you, then you would have probably exploded on those two, maybe even going so far as to physically hurt them.”
“Believe me, I’m ready to do way more than just—”
“Which is exactly why I’m here,” Maicey cut her off again. “I’m not going to have you beating up innocent people, not to mention getting suspended for it.”
Leah looked at her incredulously. “Innocent? Do you hear yourself right now, Mai? Those two are hardly innocent! Avery Morrigan is the Evil-fucking-Queen, and your boyfriend is too stupid to realize he’s being used as a pawn to put you in checkmate. Have you seen the way she acts around him? She’s accidentally bumping into him on a regular basis, and she’s always acting all flirty whenever she’s around him. She’s trying to seduce him, trying to steal him from you. That bitch doesn’t even like him; she’s just using him to tie your heartstrings up in knots until you finally break down. And once she’s got him wrapped around her finger and you’re crushed, she’ll toss him aside like yesterday’s news.”
Maicey’s eyes watered at her best friend’s savage words. Then, slowly, shakily, she rose to her feet, fists clenched tight, and looked Leah dead straight in the eye. She spoke in a quavering whisper. “Don’t you dare talk about Don that way. Don loves me and he would never fall under Avery’s spell. You are so cynical of boys, but what do you really know about them? You’ve never dated one, or even kissed one. You act like they are all lesser beings of some sort, but what could you know about them when you seem to avoid even just socializing with them at every turn? Don’s heart belongs to me alone and he’ll never do anything to cause me pain. So don’t you slander my boyfriend.”
Leah leaned forward and met Maicey’s gaze contentiously. “Maybe he doesn’t mean you any harm, and maybe he does love you, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a dumbshit, just like every other human male on the planet, and that he’s completely clueless about a girl’s inner emotions. You know what’s going on, and if you think you can pretend nothing’s happening, then you’re just as dumb as he is,” she spat. She lifted her index finger and began to repeatedly stab Maicey in the chest with each stinging remark, pushing her back a small step every time.
“You are too soft,” she said accusingly. “You won’t stand up for yourself. You are too nice. Avery wants to make your life misery, and I can’t stop that from happening if you won’t let me talk some sense into Don or smack some sense into the Evil Queen. If you don’t drop your good-little-naïve-catholic-girl act, then you might as well just kiss Don goodbye, because she’s going to win this game of hers. And when you’re the loser, it’s going to be because you didn’t do anything.”
The final stab sent Maicey careening back into a sitting position on the toilet seat, cheeks stained cerise and streaked with tears. Exuding asperity, Leah loomed over Maicey with her mind clouded by contempt for Avery Morrigan.
“I was going to take care of this myself, but now I see this is something you need to do yourself. So here’s your ultimatum, Mai: stand up for yourself and fight back against Avery, or stay under your rock waiting for her to come step on it and crush you,” Leah finished with finality.
Maicey sniveled and said something inaudible.
“I didn’t catch that; come again?” Leah requested in a pseudo-sweet voice. She crouched down in front of Maicey to listen more closely—
—and snapped violently backward with a definitive impression of Maicey’s hand across her face.
“I said, FUCK OFF!” Maicey exploded.
The bond’s decay was rapid. Leah touched the angry red skin, astonished, silent, even fearful. Then she looked down at her hand and felt a hollow pit opened up in the base of her stomach. Her fingertips were tinged with blood—and it wasn’t her own. She watched it drip onto the floor under Maicey, who had punctured the skin of her palm with her own fingernails. Sick with horror, she took a stumbling step backward. Then she fled, unconsciously carrying the shockwaves throughout the student body on her percussive footfalls and primed fists. She was a rogue particle on a collision course with the elements surrounding her; the chain reaction had been ignited.
And hovering there on the plastic partition, the narrowed, disembodied eyes saw it all.
Wheezing from her hysteria, Maicey glared at the unblinking, steely irises through her own misty eyes. In a fit of fury, she picked up the lock to the stall and raked it across the insolent image. The eyes laughed at her in supercilious retort. Again and again, she made vicious scores over the vile things, desperately trying to silence them, to blind them forevermore. And still, even when nothing was left but coarse, crosshatched gouges and plastic shavings on the floor, she heard the muted cackling echo in her ears.
Collapsing onto the toilet seat for the third and final time, Maicey hung her head in her bloody hands and sobbed.
All around her, the fallout descended.