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FALSE FRIENDS DON’T GET TO TOUCH MY PRIVATES ONLY MY PUBLICS AND MAYBE MY PROTECTEDS

J. J. W. Mezun ☆ Season 4 ☆ 2017 February 15

I

They all leaned toward each other in a circle o’er the table, their backs shrouded by a darkness only held back by a candle in the table’s middle.

Chamomile, whose face looked only like a mask in the li’l light, said slowly & with wide mouth movements, “Autumnbot has financially scoured us for that last time. We shall show her who’s the cream in the cone when we loot from her for once.”

“¿But how?” asked Yerba ’cross her.

Chamomile’s smile spread its fissure-like fingers high up her cheeks.

“Everyone has a weak spot: hers is Black Mage.”

Basil’s chin pet his hand in up-&-down movements. “¿& how shall we exploit him?”

Chamomile jerked her head toward him in 1 motion, & then rubbed her neck ’cause it hurt.

“1 o’ us shall seduce him to get close to him, & when we’re near Autumnbot, we’ll nab her stuff when she isn’t looking.”

Her fingers danced like spider arms, demonstrating said nabbing that would be occurring.

“That plan’s stupid,” said Basil. “¿Aren’t they involved with each other?”

“If that’s true, ¿why haven’t we e’er seen them kiss or stick their hands up each other’s shirts?” said Chamomile.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Basil. “You’ve seen how boring she is—she’s called ‘Autumnbot’ for a reason. ’Sides, ¿how do you know they don’t do that when no one’s looking?”

“¿& who’s going to be the 1 seducing him, anyway?” asked Yerba.

“The sexiest ’mong us, ’course,” said Chamomile.

Yerba laughed. “& that’s you, I presume.”

“Well, I don’t want to be harsh, but…”

“If you want to fool round with the undead, you can go right ’head,” Yerba said as she leaned back.

“Well, if that’s the case, then I don’t think I have any protests anymo’,” Basil said with a laugh. “I think this might be your best part yet.”

II

“’Scuse me, Autumn. ¿Could I ask you something real quick?”

Autumn looked up, barely able to conceal her surprise. Before her she saw a familiar curly-haired student covered in paper necklaces & bracelets—familiar, ’cept her name, which Autumn was ne’er good @ remembering. The student smiled, which unnerved Autumn. Smiles could only mean deception.

She couldn’t be desperate ’nough to want me to help her with her homework or something, ¿is she? E’en the students who do shittily don’t ask me that—& I recall her being a mostly-A’s student, too.

Then ’gain, perhaps that just means she cares ’nough ’bout grades to exploit whatever means she can grasp.

Autumn smiled, too.

“I think you’re mistaken, Madame: I believe my name is ‘Autumnbot,’ if I’m not correct.”

The student laughed nervously. “O, that’s just a li’l joke.”

Autumn nodded.

I’m glad she elucidated that. I was surely ’fraid she mistook that as my true given name.

The student sat down on her knees ’cross from Autumn—presumably to get down on “her” level, or some other patronizing rhetorical technique. She recognized this 1 as one with li’l self-consciousness, evident by the way she ornamented herself with paper bracelets & necklaces & yet still got on well with many others. It made her curious. Surely someone must’ve reacted to her easygoing manner by telling her to fuck off; ¿would she be the type to take a hint & move on to greener pastures or persist in irritating the person as punishment?

“So, uh… I hope this isn’t an awkward question or anything…”

Autumn frowned. It probably will be.

“…but, um… ¿are you going out with Edgar?” She said the last part in a low whisper, as if the concept o’ sexual recreation were a secret kept to a chosen few.

Autumn blinked @ her for a few seconds & then replied, “It depends on your definition o’ ‘going out.’”

1 social technique Autumn had learned was to exploit her neuroses to elude subjects she’d prefer eluding. ’Twas perfect, ’cause ’twas a reflection o’ their own propaganda: After all, they’re the ones who insisted that I’m “retarded,” or whatever word they use; ¿how can they then be surprised when my “retardation” becomes a wall to their acquiring info from me?

& as she expected, the student’s cheer did fall a degree, though mo’ to just annoyance than outright anger. This was a prototype o’ the “good” student, after all; not 1 o’ the thugs that would’ve already socked her in the face.

“You know what I mean… Dating. You know what that is, ¿right?” Then her eyes widened, which made Autumn struggle not to crack up laughing. “You… you do know ’bout… sex & that stuff, ¿right?”

I believe my A in Health would attest to that. My mind still holds a place for a litany o’ sexually transmitted diseases—knowledge that’ll surely prove to be a treasure trove later.

Autumn nodded.

“¿You want to know if I’m fucking him?”

“O, not necessarily… Wait, ¿are you?”

Autumn shook her head.

“¿But do you… do you like him? I mean… you know what I mean.”

¿How could I not with such precise diction?

“I think I would if I understood the root purpose o’ these questions. ¿What is your ultimate goal in all o’ this?”

“O, I just wanted to know if Edgar was seeing anyone. I mean, I see him round you a lot, but I don’t know if that means…”

Now it makes sense: this has nothing to do with me @ all, but my connection with Edgar.

The question now is, ¿will this be a benign or malignant development?

“¿Why are you curious?” asked Autumn.

“I, uh…” The student snickered. Autumn’s brows twisted as she noticed this student appear to blush. “I mean, it’s stupid, but I was going to ask him out… I mean, if you or he don’t mind…”

“Well, that’s none o’ my business,” said Autumn; “you’d have to ask Edgar himself.”

“O.” The student stood back up with a grunt, & then swept her knees. “Well, thank you.”

Then she turned & returned to her desk, leaving Autumn to resume her work.

I wonder ’gain whether this will be a positive or negative development.

III

Their heads popped out from ’hind the wall, 1-by-1.

“There he is,” said Chamomile.

“You’ll ne’er be able to get him,” said Basil.

“Shhh,” said Yerba.

“¿What are you 3 doing?”

Their heads swung to the right in unison to see Madame Sapodilla standing next to them.

“We were, um, practicing a scene for our play next week,” said Yerba.

“Well, you can do that when you’re in your drama class; right now you still have a project to do, ¿remember?”

“Yeah…” they said with downcast eyes as they slowly trudged back to their desks—all but Chamomile, who looked back @ them & said, “Hold on a minute: I just remembered I need to ask ’nother student if I can borrow something true quick.” She winked so hard, it looked as if she were trying to squish something with her eyelid. Yerba rolled her eyes.

She turned ’head ’gain, swallowed the spit still lingering in the back o’ her throat, & smoothed her skirt.

This is it. Time to prove to those dolts who the master actor is.

A bubble holding a golden trophy emerged from her head. Knowing it’d give her ’way, she quickly waved it ’way.

She stopped before Edgar’s desk & saw him look up tepidly. It almost made her feel bad.

I hope Autumnbot doesn’t abuse him or anything… Imagine what she’d do to him after this.

“Hello, Edgar,” she said. Then she quickly added, “I hope I’m not bothering you.”

Edgar seemed to blink @ her in confusion. Seemed ’cause he didn’t actually blink, having no eyelids & all. Chamomile tried not to let her unease @ his eldritch face show.

It’s not his fault, after all, she told herself; they can’t all have smooth skulls clear o’ cracks & bumps. It’s genetics is all.

“Um, no. Not @ all,” said Edgar. “I’m, um, guessing this is ’bout Autumn, ¿right?”

“No; though I did meet her. She seems… nice.” This was the hardest lie Chamomile e’er had to tell so far. She had to praise herself for not letting her eye tweak or her nose crinkle into funny shapes as she said it.

But Edgar clearly recognized the lie by the way he stared @ her silently for a moment.

“Er, anyway… I was wondering, um, if you were busy after school,” said Chamomile.

Edgar’s eyeholes widened. She could see him shake in his chair. He tried to grasp his arm to make it stop, which only highlighted it, in Chamomile’s opinion.

“¿Do you need help with something after school or something?” asked Edgar.

“No. Just wondering if you want to see a movie this afternoon or something.”

“O…” Edgar fidgeted even harder. For a second, she thought he’d decline; but he ’ventually added, “If you want.”

“¿You know where the Discord Theater is?” asked Chamomile.

“Um…” Edgar shook his head.

“I can lead you there. Wait for me in front, ¿’K?”

“Um, ’K.”

& with that, Chamomile turned & headed back to her desk, heart beating like a death-metal drum. This was superior to some silly high school play; this was real life—& so far, her work was having an excellent effect.

IV

Though ’twas a distraction from important business, her mind kept returning to the student who asked ’bout Edgar.

She kept telling herself, I acknowledge that the consequences may be a setback for me; but I must be practical. Programmers know the road I’m tumbling down; better that Edgar rises to sturdier stones than spend every afternoon in gloomy sewers with me while I spend hours imagining bashing my face gainst the brick walls.

She sat in her usual corner with her backpack stacked in its usual spot on the table & slid her notebook out to resume her usual activity o’ heist-planning.

I wonder if she’s already confronted him & distracted him from this table. Would be unfortunate to lose that extra lunch.

O well: I’ve gone years with only 1 lunch. & considering my o’erall success, it won’t make a difference in the end.

But as she watched the cafeteria for pilfering opportunities, she saw Edgar walk down the aisle. See’d known him—or a’least spoke to him mo’ than anyone else—for months & yet still avoided looking him in his eyeholes, which he probably took to mean she was repelled by the sight o’ his skull. He stood in line for her extra meal—the 1 she didn’t sell.

¿Should I tell him? ¿Does he already know?

It’s doubtful that he’d bring it up if he did—& since she confronted me ’bout it, it makes sense to tell him.

She waited while he slid it toward her & she thanked him. ¿Is he mo’ hesitant than normal?

“Somebody asked ’bout you,” Autumn said to her notebook. “I think she wants to jump your bones.”

“Um…” He was shaking so hard now that she could hear his bones vibrate gainst the air. He probably thinks I’m playing a jape now.

“I, uh… ¿Did she have papery jewelry?”

“That’s the 1. ¿Did she already… do however those rituals go?”

“¿Huh?” asked Edgar.

“You know: ¿did she ask you out or whatever?”

¿Why am I asking this, anyway? ¿Have I nothing better to do?

’Course not. Not ’less you truly plan to go forward with that brilliant plan to disguise myself & go door-to-door pretending to be a charity.

“O… Yeah. I think.” Edgar clasped his hands to his chest like an R. rex, which he seemed to do a lot. “I wasn’t sure if you needed me for anything this afternoon, though… to help with your stealing & stuff.”

Yes, forget ’bout your chance for social advancement; it’s urgent that you sit ’lone with me for hours doing nothing.

“You’d be wise to take up her offer,” said Autumn; “I only have tedious planning planned. By the way, ¿do you plan on using your… hideout?” She still didn’t venture to admit she knew ’twas his home, even if ’twas obvious she knew. “I mean with her.”

“She said we were going to a movie, I think,” said Edgar.

“¿So that’s a no?”

“Probably not…” He chuckled softly. “I don’t think she’d be impressed by it.”

“You ne’er know,” said Autumn. “Anyway, I wanted to ask if I could borrow it for the afternoon.”

I could use the isolation for once, she thought, her ears ’gain registering the cacophony banging through the cafeteria like a cupboard in an earthquake, but with mo’ shit tossed.

“O, sure. Go ’head.”

V

Chamomile waited a week before bringing up Autumn’s “hobby,” as they leaned o’er the brick wall o’ Bean Bridge & gazed down into Lemon Lake greening with moss & kelp.

“¿Is it fun helping Autumn?” Chamomile asked in a casual tone while twirling a piece o’ her curly hair. She had to take care ne’er to call her Autumnbot to Edgar. ’Twas a challenge to not slip up once; but such challenges were what made the game worthwhile in the 1st place. She could feel the muscles in her brain grow as if each deflected failure were a mental situp.

“O… I dunno,” Edgar said quietly—what Chamomile had become accustomed to as his answer to all questions.

“I don’t mean to say that out o’ cricitism or anything,” Chamomile added quickly. “In fact, it seems like it’d be kinda fun. But then, you ne’er know; things can oft turn out much mo’ boring than they look, so I thought I’d ask you, since I’ve seen you helping her a few times.”

“Yeah…”

“I hope I haven’t caused any trouble ’tween you 2. I know… Autumn said she didn’t mind, but you know how people can be—not like I’m criticizing her or anything.”

Going smoooth, Chamomile thought with an extra O. She wanted to grin wryly, ’cept that it might give her ’way—or just be plain strange.

She put an arm round Edgar’s shoulder & felt him shake under it like a chihuahua. She had to admit that the way he seemed to take this so seriously made her feel bad. Despite what Basil would say, it wasn’t that she ne’er thought ’bout the consequences o’ her actions; it’s just that no matter what she did, there’d always be consequences. ¿What, was she s’posed to stand in the middle o’ her bedroom like a petrified tree? You just had to understand how good & bad the many consequences for each thing you do was & choose from there—& what she’d gain here was worth whatever problems she’d run into.

Then ’gain, maybe he was just cold. Even though ’twas a tepid day with only a few clouds here & there, he continued to wear that heavy robe even after school.

“¿D’you think she doesn’t like me?” asked Chamomile. “’Cause I like her—not as much as you, ’course—& that’d be a shame if she didn’t.”

“O, I dunno,” said Edgar.

“¿Does she need a lot o’ help?—with her… her stealing, I mean. I hope that isn’t rude to say it that way: stealing. I don’t know what she calls it. Anyway, ¿does she need a lot o’ help or do you just help her ’cause you like to do it?”

“O…” She’d expected ’nother “I dunno,” but ’stead he continued, “I think the latter… Um… I think she kinda didn’t want me to help @ 1st ’cause she was ’fraid I’d get hurt or something.”

“O, that’s nice,” said Chamomile, pitch rising @ the end. Somehow I doubt it. “¿Is it dangerous work, then?”

“Um, not too much.”

“¿Does she like that you help her?—other than it being dangerous for you, I mean.”

“O, I dunno.”

“’Cause if she wants… I can help her. I’m not too bothered by danger. I’m always in danger on-stage: there’s always stuff hanging round up there that can fall on you & bonk you & make you lose your memory & sometimes people take ‘¡Shatter a pelvis!’ too literally & whack someone in the hip with a metal bar & sometimes you can slip on the banana peels people throw when your play isn’t going well—which always happens to us ’cause Basil thinks he’s Robbin Williams & ne’er bothers to read the scripts—& shatter your pelvis on the hard floor boards & ’cause o’ how widespread that ol’ saying is people will expect you to go on acting even better than before afterward, even if, in truth, you truly need to go to a hospital to get stitches & all that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Edgar.

“O, none o’ that happened to me: I’m just saying that’s what I’m @ risk in. I’m sure you & Autumnb…” Chamomile cleared her throat. “’Scuse me. My voice became dry a li’l. You always have to watch out for that when you’re speaking on-stage. Nothing ruins Macbeth worse than your throat betraying you like Brutus & leaving you sounding like a cat hacking up a hairball. Anyway, I’m sure you & Autumn have far mo’ risks in what you guys do, ¿right?”

“It’s no trouble.”

“So, ¿you don’t need any help?”

For the 1st time in minutes Chamomile turned to Edgar. She only noticed now that her arm was still round Edgar’s shoulder. She wondered if she should let go by now, but decided not to. He didn’t seem to mind it there, anyway. ’Sides, it wasn’t as if it was in his pants or anything—or robe, she s’posed. Now that she thought ’bout it, ¿did skeletons have… those bits? ¿Was there such a thing as ‘naked’ for skeletons & were they bashful ’bout it? ’Cause she’d seen skeletons many times ’fore, in science classes & such, & they ne’er seemed bashful ’bout so many people watching them. It wasn’t as if they had anything embarrassing to look @.

“’Cause I think I could do a good job,” she continued. “You’d be surprised by how useful acting skills & such can be for stealing & such.”

You will be surprised…

“O, I dunno…”

“You should ask her.” Chamomile turned to him ’gain. “I’m sure she’ll say no; but it ne’er hurts to ask, anyway. If she gets mad, you can just say it’s my fault. I don’t want to get you in trouble with her. She wouldn’t get mad @ you if you asked, ¿would she?”

“O, I dunno…”

VI

¿Would she get mad if I asked?

¿& would Chamomile get madder if I didn’t ask?

Asking would probably be safest. I don’t think Autumn would mind, ¿would she?

Still, when he sat opposite Autumn @ their usually table in the back corner o’ the cafeteria, he was silent, staring gauntly & the table.

You don’t have much time to decide. Think.

“¿Something wrong?” asked Autumn. She sounded as if she were asking ’bout the weather. Glancing up, he saw Autumn was still staring down @ her notebook, glasses half-covered by spiky orange bangs. He quickly looked back down.

“O…” Edgar laughed nervously in a way he was sure she’d know wasn’t authentic. “No.”

“No trouble with what’s-her-name, ¿is there?”

“No.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t discussed any o’ your dates yet,” Autumn said as she flipped a page. “Surely such a subject would be mo’ attuned to your interests than the weather or the details o’ my planning.”

“Well, it’s funny that you say that actually…”

“¿Has she taken an interest in my hobby, too?”

“Um… Yeah.”

“¿Positive or negative? I won’t be offended either way; you can tell me the truth.”

“Um, positively.”

“Mmm. Interesting.” She tapped the end o’ her pencil up & down. “I take it she’s interested in playing a part in 1 o’ my ventures…”

Edgar looked up @ her with gaping eyeholes. He saw her eyes flick up to his level, though her neck was still craned o’er her notebook.

“¿How did you know?” he asked.

“Just a guess. ¿What else would she want if she thought benignly o’ thieving?”

“O…”

“You should invite her.”

“O… OK. If you say so.”

Autumn’s heavy-set frown worried him, though he figured ’twas probably just how she always looked & he was just worrying ’bout too much ’gain.

VII

For once, the prospect o’ triumph o’er her fumbling foes failed to fill her with any excitement, but dragged her down as well as any expectation o’ failure. In a way, ’twas failure she expected—for Edgar.

’Course, he may have failed already.

That pesky pinch in her head & chest reemerged. She’d already passed chiding herself for it—her biology, rather. After all, there were worse hindrances, such as her need for glasses.

In fact, Edgar had practical uses, even if it bent some o’ her principles a bit. But then, sometimes principles should be bent, if not broken; & she was a’least capable o’ convincing herself that Edgar’s company was beneficial. ’Twas rare that that happened—she still hadn’t convinced herself that a lack o’ food could be beneficial, for instance—so she always accepted it.

She slid down into Edgar’s storm drain home & dropped the plastic bag she’d held o’er her arm onto the ground. As she expected, Edgar & the test subject were already there.

Edgar’s eyeholes widened & lines grew under them. “¿What happened?”

“Nothing. Someone bitter ’bout my thieving took my backpack on the way home.” Autumn smiled. “Li’l did he realize, I wasn’t carrying anything in it, but in a bag I hid in my jacket.”

She glanced @ the test subject to see an equally-distressed expression—probably fake.

“I wouldn’t worry ’bout someone trying ’gain, though,” she continued; “no one would expect to find me ’gain, & would have trouble doing so, anyway, if they did.”

“Looks like you took quite a wallop,” said Chamomile. She looked down. “Like your shirt, by the way. It truly fits you.”

Autumn, trying to stifle her fraying nerves, merely nodded.

“We might as well get going now.”

She led them out to a red-bricked apartment, into an alley shaded from the flaring sun.

“¿You’re going to climb all the way up?” Chamomile asked with her head tilted upward. Then she turned & stared @ Autumn.

“Yeah. I brought a rope,” Autumn said as she held her bag up higher.

Chamomile looked a li’l downward ’stead, pensively--though with a bit o’ a smirk. However, she remained silent.

As if she suspected nothing, Autumn dropped her bag next to Chamomile, bent down to open it, & pulled out a rope with a metal hook attached.

As Autumn stood back up, Chamomile backed ’way a step as if scared the hook would jump @ her.

“Whoa. ¿Where’d you get that from?”

“The rope I found ’mong some junk; the hook I bought. Stand back.”

All did, including Autumn, who swung the rope up @ the deck on the 4th floor. To Autumn’s surprise, it latched immediately.

Well, there’s some tiny victories, thought Autumn, almost smiling @ how impressive it must look, only to immediately frown in embarrassment @ such misplaced pride.

Autumn stepped up to it & clutched the rope with a foot planted on the wall. Then she turned back to Chamomile & said, “You don’t have to climb if you don’t want. I understand it can be dangerous & that Edgar & I have better practice.”

Autumn glanced @ Edgar to see if he’d react conspicuously; but he only continued staring downward quietly.

“OK,” said Chamomile. “¿How long will it take?—not that I’m in a hurry. I didn’t mean to be rude.” She laughed lightly.

“Shouldn’t take long,” said Autumn. “Only ’bout 10 to 20 minutes. I doubt anyone should harass you,—I asked for permission to use this apartment, pretending I was filming a home movie—& if someone does, you can just say you’re waiting for a friend.”

“Got it,” Chamomile said with a thumbs-up. “You’re awfully clever.”

Autumn frowned & turned back to the wall. “Thank you,” she mumbled quietly.

She began climbing, glancing downward just ’nough to see without evidently seeing. Below she saw Chamomile nudge Edgar & point upward with both her hand & eyes while whispering right next to Edgar. Edgar shook & blushed.

She slowed--with the ’scuse that she didn’t want to leave Edgar too far ’hind, but in truth, to catch mo’ o’ what they were doing.

I can’t believe I didn’t anticipate this possibility, though ’twas an obvious 1.

However, she soon saw Edgar begin to climb up after her.

“Try to keep your eyes on the wall,” said Autumn, attempting a light tone.

When she reached the top, she stopped to pull of her jacket & set it on the edge o’ the roof. Then she waited to help Edgar up, & then lead him round the apartment front to the other side. There she saw a cluster o’ garbage pails.

Perfect: they’re still here.

She sat them both ’mong them, scooting them so that they were hidden. As they sat, Autumn leaned o’er the corner, watching the front o’ the apartment.

A million variables could put this in question…

The worst part was that she could only e’er be sure ’bout a bad outcome.

Autumn, in a probably-failed attempt @ the comradery that she saw Curly-Jane implement, nudged Edgar & mumbled with a weak wry smile, “I couldn’t help noticing your friend whispering sweet nothings in your ear, eh.”

She carefully noted him squirm & shake. “O, ’twas nothing… uh…”

“¿Too lascivious to tell me?”

“No… I dunno… I didn’t understand it much.” Autumn noticed Edgar look ’way.

“I could translate if you want,” said Autumn.

“I don’t remember,” he said curtly. “Something ’bout… I dunno, skirts & climbing, or something.”

Autumn’s brows twisted. It seemed too bizarre for Edgar to make up.

Maybe Curly isn’t planning something. She did seem ditsy ’nough to say something so nonsensical.

Could be she intentionally did it to put me off guard, knowing I’d be suspicious & ask Edgar ’bout it.

The fact that Edgar hesitated to tell me shows that he probably wouldn’t know if ’twere an inten—

Before she could think ’bout it mo’, she heard the heavy clapping o’ feet & squinted out @ the street below while backing further into their cave. However, the sidewalk was too close to the building to see, & the part o’ the street Autumn could see was perpetually empty.

She glanced o’er @ Edgar, but his expression didn’t change, other than looking o’er @ Autumn. If anything, his composure had calmed since they 1st sat down.

She checked the other side o’ the apartment ’gain, heart seizing with sudden worry.

But she saw her jacket was still undisturbed.

Just need to wait a minute or 2 mo’. Hopefully the wind isn’t so strong that it knocks my stuff down. I can only be glad this is happening near summer.

But what truly made the wait unnerving was the fear o’ someone stumbling ’pon her jacket & stealing them.

& yet the minutes passed without a disturbance. When she mouthed the # 120, she slowly rose out o’ their hiding place, watching the road below. Seeing nothing, she walked back to her jacket & picked it up, ’long with her phone ’neath.

Edgar fidgeted as he stared down the side o’ the apartment.

“¿Where did… Where’s she?” Edgar looked up @ Autumn with an expression o’ confusion.

Autumn stared directly @ him.

Hmm… He couldn’t be that good an actor…

“This may answer,” Autumn said as she pushed a button on her phone & pulled it back from her.

Her phone showed a video o’ the alley below, where Chamomile was still standing, leaning back gainst the wall serenely, doing various idle tasks, such as smoothing the hem o’ her T-shirt gainst her jeans & dicking round with her bangs. Autumn focused not on these, but on her eyes, which kept flicking upward for a millisecond. This developed into her eying her sides, & then culminated into her slowly reaching down to grab the bag, & bolting out the alley, her footsteps resonating in Autumn’s ears like echoes.

VIII

Edgar looked down the sides o’ the deck, where Chamomile would be just after this video; but Edgar was rattling so much that Autumn doubted he could e’en understand what aim he held.

Autumn herself was smiling, though she tried not to & could think o’ no reason why she should be.

“That was the loud clapping sound we heard earlier way up here—& I must say, Edgar, dear boy, that you’ve been a callous friend to her: surely you have ’nough experience to teach her gainst such ludicrously conspicuous noise. She may as well be shouting through a loudspeaker,”—Autumn put hands next to her mouth & said in a slightly louder voice—“‘I’M STEALING, EVERYBODY. LOOK @ ME GO.’”

This failed to amuse Edgar. ’Stead, he gripped the railing like a cane & stuttered, “I-I’m sorry… I swear… I had no…”

Autumn held her arms in jars. “Well, I’d hope a partner o’ mine wouldn’t be dumb ’nough to squander a piece o’ the plunder paying for an accomplice when he’s had so many ample opportunities to rob me himself.”

Edgar was silent, still unable to look ’way from the sun-baked street. Such a nice day for a soul to be shattered, thought Autumn.

“I’m ’fraid my association with you has tainted your relations with the rest o’ the world,” said Autumn.

“¿You mean you think she only used me to get back @ you?” said Edgar, without stutters, but slowly & lowly.

“Precisely.”

Autumn picked up the hook, drew up the rope, & tossed it o’er the shoulder not holding her jacket. Then she walked toward the stairs. Edgar followed her down, sight still aimed @ the ground.

Only as they walked ’way down the street did he say, “¿We’re not… there’s no heist?”

Autumn turned back to Edgar, eyes wide.

“¿Didn’t you see the video? Granted, ’twas a pitiful 1—not worth the trouble, honestly. There was hardly anything in that bag: just a canister tied up to spray purple paint upward when the bag’s opened. Not sure why anyone would want such a bauble, myself.”

“¿So you made up the story ’bout being jumped?” asked Edgar.

Autumn kept walking. “Uh huh. Surprisingly, I’ve ne’er seen any schoolmates outside school yet.”

“The bruise on your eye looks so real, though.”

Without hesitating—indeed, too quickly, Autumn later thought—Autumn responded, “Lies usually work better when they look like truths.” After a beat, she added, hesitantly, as if giving bitter medicine, “¿Was she nice to you?”

This only caused Edgar to fidget mo’.

“No need for fear: I was only adding further evidence to my argument,” said Autumn.

“¿How did you know she would do that?” asked Edgar.

“Experience.”

Edgar looked up @ her with curiosity.

He’s mo’ perceptive that I could’ve e’er guessed…

“¿Did something like this happen to you?” he asked.

She knew she shouldn’t hesitate, hesitation being the loudest evidence o’ an upcoming lie; but Autumn wasn’t sure if she wanted to lie.

It’ll do no good.

It could. Wouldn’t do wrong, anyway. ’Sides, he may conjure up worse ideas, & this story is a perfect balance ’tween utterly mortifying & too frivolous to be truthful in this context.

“I guess,” said Autumn. She began to feel a chill now in the tepid wind, but didn’t want to go through the trouble o’ putting on her jacket ’gain.

“O, I’m sorry,” said Edgar. “I guess I probably shouldn’t have brought it up…”

Autumn couldn’t help smiling. ¿Was it her paranoia that caused her to suspect this as a clever logical trap? For how could she respond but with nonchalance, & with nonchalance comes the invitation for mo’ info.

Playing the inevitable role, Autumn shrugged & said, “No problem. Amateur flaws are left in amateur years.”

But she hadn’t imagined the response she’d get:

“¿Was he… was he cute?”

Autumn automatically glanced round herself, just to be extra sure.

“Here, I want to hide… something.”

She led him into the nearest alley. While he waited in the sunlit entrance, she stood in the dark corner ’hind a dumpster &, after a quick check o’ the walls for open windows, slipped her phone into her boxers. Then, making 1 mo’ check, she returned to the sunlight & sat back gainst the wall next to Edgar. Edgar sat after, confused.

“All right: I’ll tell you the story if you don’t go blabbing,” she whispered with mock annoyance.

“O, you don’t have to if you don’t want to…”

“It’s no burden to me; & I s’pose it’d be useful as instruction—learn from the teacher’s mistakes.”

She wasn’t sure why she insisted on this “teacher” talk, as if Edgar was planning to be a professional thief himself when she finally got herself popped off. Less humiliating for both o’ us than the truth, I s’pose.

She drew her knees in, & then noticed Edgar do the same. She wanted to specify that this was not part o’ her lesson; but ’stead, she took a deep breath, pondering where to begin. Only now did she realize the full absurdity o’ this tale: her acting as some Buddhist monk, when she was closer to the gaudy advice cups from coffee shops that are read maybe once & then tossed in the trash.

Edgar began, “If you don’t want to—”

“No. It’s just that there’s not much to it, truly. You should already be able to fill in the #s yourself: someone offered to, I don’t know, associate with me, I allowed hi—him.” Autumn cleared her throat. “Sorry. & I, uh, well, I didn’t suspect him o’ trying to exploit this… proximity to rob me till ’twas too late.”

“O, I’m sorry.” Edgar paused. “¿Were you… were you upset by it?”

Delays will only highlight the lie, ¿remember?

But ’gain, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

Don’t need to.

“Not now, no—it doesn’t,” said Autumn. “Though, hard to believe, I was e’en mo’ foolish years earlier—as I am now compared to any future versions o’ me that may exist.” She added in her mind, & that “may” is significant, but elected not to say it ’loud. Better to keep to the past.

“¿But did you guys e’er do anything @ the time?” asked Edgar.

“Nothing significant,” said Autumn. “He tried buttering me up, I s’pose.” She neglected to mention how delectable said butter tasted.

“¿W-was he cute?”

Autumn’s lips sank in as a smirk. Her gaze wandered as her brain resewed the image: spiky hair that splayed in every direction, slightly lightish—not as bright as her’s, ’course. In school, ’course, he had the same robe as every other male—folding o’er his thin body, so much emptiness taunting with the goods it hid. A few times she had walked home with him &, bizarrely like Edgar’s “friend,” from him what she remembered most was the tight T-shirt pressing gainst the front o’ his jeans, as well as the ebbing o’ the shadows on his shirt as his chest lifted & lowered it slightly, repeatedly…

She could see Edgar’s sniffles had dried to amusement, encouraged by her own levity & her loud silence.

Her smile curled upward a bit. “As cute as kittens.”

Edgar giggled, & Autumn felt a tinge o’ sadness @ how much pleasure it made in her ears.

Autumn stood. “Anyway, you know the gist: this is why it’s rational not to trust people.”

Edgar stood after her, frowning.

“¿You mean nobody?”

Autumn paused. The implications hadn’t eluded her.

“Probably.” Now she was looking ’way, down @ ’nother piece o’ sidewalk shining lemon-yellow in the sunlight. “But then, I guess if whatever your particular goal is relies on it, you have no choice.”

“I-I guess, um… it’d take a long time to see if you could,” said Edgar. “Did… did yours… ¿How long did he wait ’fore he, um…?”

“¿Poker me in the ass?” said Autumn. Then she frowned, realizing the connotations. “Well, metaphorically, only. A few weeks, maybe.”

Edgar only nodded, eyes seeming to ease in relief.

She began walking out into the street, Edgar trailing close ’hind.

“¿You want to go have your eye cleaned up?” asked Edgar.

“¿Huh?” she looked back @ him with her brows furled only for them to straighten ’gain when she remembered. She looked ’head ’gain. “O, no. It’d be safer to stay this way till the natural point o’ healing.”

“O. ¿Why?”

Autumn paused, trying to think o’ how to ’splain her idea.

“¿It makes what’s-her-name look guiltier? I dunno. Lies are safer when they’re kept lies.”

Though she knew this to be a pitiful ’scuse, it seemed to satisfy Edgar, as he didn’t asked ’bout it anymo’.

IX

As she expected, the 1st thing Basil said ’pon seeing her the next Monday morn was, “¿What happened to your hair?”

“Fucked up a dying attempt, ¿OK?” Chamomile mumbled that morn as she sat in her customary seat on some rock in some secluded grassy area ’hind the school.

She probably gave herself ’way by the way she kept darting her eyes all round; but ’twas better than having that psycho sneak up on her & do mo’ serious damage to her than stained hair.

“¿Did Autumnbot catch you trying to rob her?” said Basil, grinning as he continued to stare @ her hair.

“!Shhh!” Chamomile whispered loudly with a finger o’er her lips, leaning closer to Basil.

“Should be glad she didn’t do worse to you,” said Yerba.

“That’s why I want this clown to shut it,” Chamomile said with a light jab to Basil’s shoulder.

“I don’t know how Elm will take having Beatrice have bluish-looking hair,” said Basil.

“Don’t remind me,” said Chamomile as she rubbed her palms o’er her cheeks.