#BOSK-DO2B32-TRAINING

HOW TO SUBWAY YOUR DRAGON ’CAUSE SERIOUSLY WHO USES TRAINS ANYMORE TAGGART

J. J. W. Mezun ☆ Season 4 ☆ 2017 February 1

I

Edgar shivered as he lay supine in the bowels o’ the sewers, surrounded in a lake o’ black anti-light, all warmth sucked from his marrow. So heavy was this air that he felt as if it’d crush him, as if he were sinking 10,000 leagues.

His breathing was slow.

Still, he could feel a fragile bulb wobbling on the coffee table in his skull.

He just hoped to God it wouldn’t fall off & shatter. Then he’d have nothing to stop the shadows from sapping him numb & then driving him to dust.

This dirty gray mix o’ light & dark sloshed round his gray matter as he drifted off to sleep.

II

Autumn’s face was already glued into her planning when she eyed that familiar skull bundled into a thick dark violet jacket hesitantly slide into the seat opposite her.

This arrangement may take time to get used to.

She grunted. He waved shakily & murmured, “Hello.” Then he sat still with his hands scrunched together on his lap, staring straight down @ the greasy table-top.

Autumn began in a low voice, “So, um, I doubt you’re interested—you can decide for yourself, I s’pose—but I’m planning a heist sometime in the future.”

“¿You sure I won’t mess it up?” asked Edgar.

“You needn’t worry: it’ll be a simple task.”

Edgar rubbed his arms ’long the table.

“If you say so.”

Autumn shrugged. “I mean, it’s your choice whether you want to do it or not.”

“Only if you want me to,” said Edgar.

Autumn looked back down @ her paper. “I’m neutral on the subject.”

“Um… OK,” Edgar said with a nod.

Hmm… Clever nonanswer.

The question, then, is whether it’s ’cause he wants to & is too nervous to acknowledge this, or if he doesn’t want to, & is too nervous or polite to acknowledge this.

It’s for him to decide. Controller’s in his hand.

“If you do join me,” continued Autumn, “we’ll need, ah, to reconnoiter somewhere rather isolated to discuss the plan without ensnaring it in inconvenient ears.”

Edgar nodded.

The only question is where. It’s doubtful that anyone would be listening in on us @ the library; but you ne’er know—’specially if someone’s listening in on us now.

She glanced round them, but so far noticed no ears on them.

The prospect o’ going to his house—who knows what they’d take o’ me, ’specially if they o’erhear my plan or already know o’ my pilfering. Indeed, the risk o’ them forcibly breaking this association in total is high.

On the other edge, she felt a wordless discomfort @ the prospect o’ Edgar coming to her house—past the bubble ’tween formal & personal—e’en if she knew ’twas frivolous.

“Uh, I think I know a place that’s, uh, isolated,” said Edgar.

“Mmm hmm.”

“It’s a, uh, sewer place underground. As far as I know, nobody else has found it,” said Edgar.

Autumn nodded.

“I can lead you there if you need me to…” said Edgar

Autumn nodded ’gain.

III

Autumn walked home as she did every afternoon, in the same weather as almost every afternoon: drenched—so drenched, fallen leaves stuck to the sidewalk. This was dealt the same way she did every afternoon, in the manner o’ any good abstract program: with quick calls to the zipped-jacket & hood functions, allowing her attention to be rapt by mo’ complicated issues.

The difference this afternoon was the jacket-wearing skeleton ’head o’ her—presumably leading her to this hideout o’ his.

¿Where would he have found such a thing?

¿What does he spend his time doing? ¿Is he secretly a thief, too?

Autumn felt like the gray weather round her: a dormant discontent.

It’s possible that I’ve developed an emotional attachment to this person, she mused.

This may create inconveniences or distractions from my work.

’Course, there’s also the possibility that he’s simply ’nother using me to secretly swipe my funds—’specially if he is a secret thief. Well, a’least, if I still had any, that is. He could still be waiting for me to steal mo’, though.

She did still have a fraction o’ her funds that she’d stashed @ home & in her boxers; though she hadn’t mentioned this to Edgar.

& yet, such a prospect is tenuous. I should remember that my allowing myself to be idiotically exploited was a singular event—an outlier—and it had factors significantly different from the current circumstance, including the fact that I played an active role—indeed, a mo’ active role than Edgar—here. He also expended resources, while the previous subject was savvy ’nough not to.

Still, a possibility’s a possibility. It might be better to sever the connection to minimize risk.

& yet, the risk is still high, anyway. e’en if Edgar hadn’t been round, that woman would’ve emptied me. There’s nothing to stop the same in the future—indeed, if anything, it’s likely that others have been encouraged by my spectacular failure & will try, too, increasing my risk immensely.

Basically, I’m likely screwed regardless.

Autumn’s eye flicked left & right twice ’fore crossing, disregarding the red palm @ the other end.

Edgar may increase my input.

That’s doubtful, though. Most likely, he’ll have li’l effect. He may e’en decrease my chances o’ success.

Perhaps I should acknowledge the true sentiments ’hind my strategy, since I surely know there’s no chance o’ me succeeding in the end.

That’s no reason to squander it so quickly for frivolity.

¿Why not? Other people waste their time on much mo’ insipid activities. ¿I can’t have 1 thing? I’m a young woman; it’s perfectly natural—logical, e’en. I don’t refuse to eat ’cause I believe the irrefutable fact o’ my need for sustenance is “illogical”; Edgar’s no different.

Food is inanimate, though. Edgar’s free will provides various uncontrollable variables, which may create less enjoyment, not to mention distractions.

No risk, no gain.

IV

Autumn saw Edgar stop in a grass lot next to a convenience store & turned back to her.

“In here,” he whispered.

Then she saw him drop his pack inside, & then slide legs-1st into a thin black opening.

She bent down next to said hole & pulled a flashlight out o’ her pack. As she waved her beam o’er the cave cavities, she saw what her nose had already told her: this was, indeed, a “sewer place underground.”

Can’t be any mo’ harm down here than I’m used to.

With that decided, she slid in herself, going in backward while she still held her pack in her hands.

She made a quick search for Edgar & saw him sitting gainst the same brick wall that held the entrance. She sat next to him, backpack before her feet.

“¿You don’t have a light you use when you’re down here?” mumbled Autumn.

“No.”

“Huh.”

She pulled her notebook out o’ her pack & crossed her legs for a makeshift board on which to hold it.

“OK, now the plan is, I heard that today some students have gotten free laptops from some class—& I know some o’ them will be dumb ’nough to keep them in their lockers. Thus, tomorrow morn, we’ll—or I’ll, if you want to pass—break into said lockers to get them.”

“¿What’ll I do?”

“You’ll just walk round the school as if you’re heading somewhere while, in truth, keeping guard for any early students.”

She could hear him gulp. He won’t want to do it.

“¿& what should I do if I see 1?”

“Ah, yes. If you do, slap your forehead & exclaim, “¡My book!” & then swing back o’er to me. Just don’t talk to me, OK; just nudge me.

“O, yes: & if a security guard sees you wandering through the same place multiple times & gets suspicious, just lie & say you got lost.

“You must understand that none o’ my plans are e’er risk-free & that no matter how careful or competent you are, the chance o’ failure is high.”

“OK.”

“So if you want to try anything @ your most, try to calm your nerves. That’ll be the biggest giveaway.”

She kept this in mind herself as she set her hands down to stop the pencil from shaking in her hand.

She turned back to him & said, “¿Questions?

Edgar looked down.

“I can assure you that answering no questions will be no convenience,” said Autumn.

“If… if they catch me & demand I tell you where you are, ¿should I lie to them?” asked Edgar.

“That’s a clever idea; but no. No, you may lead them to me then.”

“¿Are you sure?”

Autumn smiled & nodded.

“¿Anymo’ queries?”

“¿What?”

“¿Anymo’ questions?”

“Uh… You know, there’s so much I don’t know, that I don’t e’en know what to ask,” Edgar said to the ground.

Autumn frowned. “To be honest, I don’t have much faith in this plan succeeding whether you help or not. I wouldn’t worry too much.”

She couldn’t blame him for being nervous. She’d normally be much mo’ nervous on such tenuous plans as she had now.

The difference now was that the outrage o’er her lost gains had since melted to sober acceptance. Her carefully-culled plan had shattered into chaotic pieces; & she knew that in a realm o’ chaotic pieces, one had to act reckless to survive.

No risk, no gain.

Therefore, mo’ risk means mo’ gain.

Autumn returned her notebook to her pack & stood with it clung to her arm. She was staring o’er Edgar’s head.

“Anyway, I won’t keep you any longer. That should be ’nough planning.”

“You’re not keeping me from anything, uh, but OK,” said Edgar.

Autumn nodded, & then turned, only to swing round a second after.

“O, wait. I forgot something pertinent—this may put a wrench in our plan. Uh… ¿Will you be able to leave your house early?”

Edgar nodded solemnly, which concerned Autumn.

“If it’ll cause too many troubles, we can skip it,” said Autumn. “It’s not urgent.”

Edgar shook his head. “It’ll be no problem.” Then he brightened a li’l. “¿What time?”

“5 AM would be best.”

Edgar nodded. “¿You want to meet me here?”

“That would be best.”

Autumn stared @ Edgar for a few seconds, waiting for a question that appeared on his face.

“O. Y-you want me to g-go out 1st, ¿d-don’t you?” asked Edgar, blushing. He stood & stuttered out, “Sorry: I didn’t e’en think ’bout that.”

Autumn @ 1st stared @ him in confusion, only to notice the lightbeam she used to see @ all.

“O, right. I have the flashlight. Yes, that’s a good idea,” she said.

She glanced @ the hole. “Though you can still see the hole clearly, so it shouldn’t be too much trouble getting out e’en without the flashlight. ¿Do you usually have trouble in here?”

“Uh… I don’t know. It doesn’t matter,” Edgar said, staring down @ the ground.

Autumn didn’t understand what was going through his mind, but she figured ’twas probably best to let him up 1st, either way. She aimed her beam up near the hole & could tell that he did, indeed, seem to have trouble getting up judging by the way he kept looking down nervously.

She barely paid attention to Edgar as she left, wanting to separate as quickly as possible.

This’ll ne’er work. Just being near him’s a hassle. I’m not meant to deal with people.

It’s something we’d better try surmounting. ’Sides, from recent events, it’s solid that I’m not meant for any activity, truly.

I just hope my mental aberrations don’t rub off on him & worsen those he already has.

V

’Twas still dark when Autumn slipped out & traveled through Boskeopolis—just waken, but still resting its eyes. The streetlamps had yet to turn on, so she lit her path with her flashlight from before, swinging it left & right for a full view as if traveling through a haunted house full o’ ghosts. In her shivering free hand she held a knife in her pocket.

She was surprised that this was the riskiest part o’ the plan.

Only a reminder that no matter what cretins my fellow students are, they’ll only grow up into far mo’ rotten beasts.

Still, no risk, no gain. We must do this. No choice. What happens, happens.

’Twas risky circumstances like these that brought out the 2-dimensional sensation o’ anxiety & excitement—though she admitted to herself that it might’ve been the coffee. While her iron-pumping heart tired her & promised the prospect o’ injury, if not worse, ’twas also the sugar on the bran flakes o’ life, which, she thought, strengthened her.

Though she, ’course, didn’t know the way there @ 1st, she had followed down the line o’ streets to estimate her way back home when she’d left yesterday, & now retraced her steps. Though she’d made a few wrong turns—as she had on the way home yesterday—she ’ventually estimated her way to the convenience store, the grass-covered hole where she’d remembered it.

Wise o’ me to give myself extra time.

She crouched next to the hole & pointed her flashlight inside to see if Edgar had arrived yet. She’d seen that ’twas still late in the 4th hour on her phone just as she came up to the hole, so she wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t.

However, during her cursory check, she saw that Edgar was not only already there, he was sleeping.

Hmm… ¿What are the chances he arrived earlier & accidentally fell asleep or that he decided to just stay there o’ernight just to be extra sure he wasn’t late?

I did see him leave when I did—’less that was an act.

The alternative answer may ’splain why he has this hideout. I can check later tonight, perhaps.

But now we have other plans to enact.

She slunk inside & stood o’er Edgar with her beam o’er his face, hesitant. However occult he may be, she couldn’t help noticing the way his chest rose & fell, the way his knees were drawn-up & his sleeve-covered hands were clutched together for warmth—evidently futile, since he still shivered in the wintry air like a kitten.

You’re a creepy motherfucker, she told herself. Can’t e’en do a simple task for an important plan, but you’ll stand here in secret & drip yourself ’bout him.

She slowly reached her arm down & gently grabbed his arm, only to pause @ its softness—the same material all boy’s robes were made o’, she assumed; though this close, it seemed much mo’ notable.

She forced herself to shake his arm & whispered, “Psst. Hey. Wake up.”

Edgar released an incoherent noise & turned a li’l. His eyes were eternally open, so she couldn’t tell if his vision was peeling open like a human’s upon waking or if it just blinked on.

“¿Huh?” Then Edgar sat up. “I didn’t o’ersleep, ¿did I?”

Autumn yanked her hand back & stood straight.

“No. Early, actually,” she said. “¿You need to get ready or anything? I can wait outside while you do, if you want.”

Edgar shook his head. “We can go now.”

This time the hole was dark, so she guided Edgar through the hole with her flashlight. When she exited, she saw Edgar stand on the sidewalk, hugging himself as he shivered.

She whispered, “Walk close to me on my left.”

Edgar nodded & did so as she led them through the path she remembered Edgar taking her through yesterday, still vigilant for danger.

Hopefully Edgar’s occult appearance will scare them all off.

It didn’t take long for them to reach the school—its blackened windows giving it the appearance o’ death. She checked the general front for a few seconds, just to ensure no one was watching.

“You don’t mind if I grab your arm, ¿do you?” Autumn asked with her face turned ’way.

“No.”

“Good.” She did so, holding it tightly this time. “If I run in a direction, try to keep up.”

“¿Why?” She heard panic in his voice.

“You ne’er know if there’s security cameras round here.”

“’K,” he said, & then gulped.

But they didn’t hear anything ’fore they reached the door, nor after she used the key she stole from a particularly absentminded teacher.

VI

Edgar watched Autumn turn & head for the lockers. She stopped before 1, pulled some metal device from her pocket, glanced in both directions, & then began using it on the edge o’ locker.

But Edgar knew he shouldn’t stand round watching. He took a gulp, turned, & began his trek through the unfamiliar school halls, much emptier than he was accustomed. He felt his nerves bunch up. Every sound he made—the squeak o’ his boots & the swish o’ his robe gainst the dusty floor—were amplified by the quiet.

No matter how many times he tried to induce into himself positive thoughts like shots o’ medicine, the stale thoughts o’ “You’re going to mess this up” still lingered like a dormant virus.

Then he looked up when he heard squeaking ’head o’ him & froze when he saw ’nother student walking toward him.

¡O! ¡Think! ¿What did she tell you to do?

He slapped his forehead & said, “Uh… O, I, uh, forgot my books.”

Then he swung round & dashed ’way, only to remember Autumn’s warning & slowed to just a fast walk.

But when he glanced o’er his shoulder, the student ’hind him seemed to be walking @ the same speed, her expression as plain as ’twas before, as if she hadn’t e’en noticed Edgar yet.

Since he hadn’t e’en been on his walk for long, he soon reached the lockers; but when he swung his head round in search o’ Autumn, he didn’t find her anywhere.

¿Is this the wrong area? ¿Did I make a wrong turn somewhere?

He was reminded o’ the footsteps, which were only growing louder.

You can’t just stand round here like an idiot. Think o’ something.

He searched for his locker &, when he found it, whispered, “There it is,” & walked up to it. He opened it & pretended to dig round inside while he peeked through the slim hole ’tween the hinges @ the other student.

She stopped before her own locker & opened it; & then to Edgar’s surprise, she stuck a leg inside & went all the way inside. A moment later, he saw the locker door shut.

¿Did she… was she shoving herself in a locker? ¿Or is this some way to spy on Autumn without her knowing?

Maybe that’s a secret hideout where they’ve captured Autumn & are torturing her by poking her with sticks.

He shook his head.

I’d better look for her.

He shut his locker & turned back & forth ’tween the 2 ends o’ the hall.

¿But which way could she have gone?

He sighed. If you can’t e’en do something simple like this, ¿how can you avoid messing up every 1 o’ her jobs?

He knew Autumn was kind—the kindest person he’d met, actually—but that her patience would have to ’ventually run out & he’d be back to having nothing, nobody.

The thought made him want to collapse onto the floor & cry—but he knew doing that weirded out a lot o’ people, so he didn’t.

Standing here like an idiot will only make people mo’ suspicious, he thought with a sniff. I might as well walk round some mo’ & hopefully I’ll find her.

So he wandered through the Applewood halls with his hands stuffed into his robe pockets, as if he were just strolling somewhere insignificant.

OK, I gotta think: ¿where would she have likely gone?

She might’ve just taken a second to go to the bathroom & she’ll be back any second now.

He turned back & stood @ the intersection ’tween his hall & the locker hall & waited, watching the row o’ lockers.

I know I’m messing something up. O, ¿why can’t I do anything right?

O, ¡wait! I can’t just stand here staring @ those lockers. I’d look like such a weirdo & attract attention.

He walked up to his locker—a bit too fast, he thought, so he slowed a li’l—& opened his locker, pretending to take something & stow it in his robe.

Don’t look ’way. You don’t need to see what others are seeing & it’ll only attract attention.

However, he also knew standing round inside his locker too long would also be conspicuous, so he closed his locker & looked round the hall, hoping anyone else who might be looking @ him would think he was just trying to remember where he should go next. Nobody was round to look @ him, though, so he lingered, feeling his bones lock up ’gain.

¿Where could she have gone?

She can’t be taking this long…

Maybe she just forgot ’bout me & left with the stolen stuff already.

This prospect left Edgar with mixed chemicals: though it meant her heist was successful & that he had no reason to worry ’bout ruining things for her… it also meant that she didn’t invest much in his existence—which shouldn’t be surprising @ all, since the only reason she shares tables with him is ’cause o’ circumstances outside her control. He knew if it weren’t for them, she wouldn’t burden herself with him anymo’.

She did act disgusted @ the idea o’ using people, though, so I doubt she’d have done something like this. Then ’gain, I guess I hardly know her, so who knows.

Then ’gain, I hardly know anyone, so I have to guess something.

It’d be safer not to assume bad things ’bout her without proof. If she did already succeed, there shouldn’t be any risk in going o’er to her, & she may actually be in trouble, in which case it would be risky not to go help her.

So he went into the nearest hall & slowly walked down it. He stopped when he saw the 1st door & tried peering in through its window, only to see it covered by some colored construction paper, so he tried twisting the doorknob, only to find that it wouldn’t budge.

That’s right: we’re here early. None o’ the teachers are here yet… Though I guess they are now, since it’s probably past the school opening by now. A’least I saw ’nother student, so that’s probably the case.

Anyway, most o’ the doors are probably locked—’cept the 1 Autumn probably went through. So I just need to try all o’ the knobs & the 1 that isn’t locked probably has Autumn inside—if she’s inside 1.

So he proceeded to try every doorknob, finding locked knob after knob. The 1 knob he found unlocked was that o’ a teacher who happened to come early, who aimed a bemused stare @ Edgar.

“O… Hello. You’re here early. ¿Are you part o’ some council or something?”

He gazed round the classroom for a second & couldn’t find Autumn.

“O… Sorry… I think this is the wrong classroom.”

He gently closed the door & continued his search.

’Twas the next unlocked door, in the next hallway, that held something mo’ interesting: upon opening the door he saw a room filled with dusty black computers. Sitting next to a counter was Autumn in long rubber gloves & plastic o’er her hair. Her hand was on the halfway-closed cupboard under the counter & her head was looking up with fear, only to glare a second later, accompanied by a rapid waving o’ her hand toward the side & a silent widening o’ her mouth & drop o’ her tongue from her palate.

Edgar quickly closed the door & glanced to his sides, only to jump when he did, indeed, see ’nother student walking down the hall toward him.

Worse, her brows were twisted & her eyes were boring right into him.

That was when he had an idea.

You can do this… You can do this…

He didn’t need to assure himself: his feet seemed to move on their own, as if they couldn’t not perform the necessary action.

“O… uh… Hello. W-would you tell me—”

“You’re friends with that thief, ¿aren’t you?” she asked.

“Uh… ¿You mean Autumn?”

“I don’t—”

Then Edgar heard a creak & she muttered under her breath, “I fucking knew it.”

Edgar turned & saw Autumn bolting down the hallway faster than he’d e’er seen, already halfway down the space ’tween her door & the corner.

“She’s taking everyone’s laptops, ¿isn’t she?”

Edgar squirmed.

“I… ¿What?”

She sighed hoarsely. “Ne’ermind. Fuck. ¿How am I s’posed to do my work now?”

She paused, forehead creasing.

Then she jogged in the same direction Autumn had gone.

VII

With every boon comes a price: though Edgar’s diversion—a’least I can only imagine he did that for diversionary purposes—helped me mo’ than I planned, now I have to figure out what to do with Edgar.

Theoretically, I could just leave him here & run on home & back…

Shit… I knew this would only add complications.

There were always complications. I can’t pretend that—¡Fuck!

As she turned the last corner, she saw the student she’d been running from already standing with her back gainst the front doors, arms folded.

She swung on a point & dashed back in the other direction, glancing ’hind & ’head o’ her variably.

Shit. This is already collapsing. I won’t be able to run like this fore’er.

Already she could feel the familiar sharp scissor in her stomach & her lungs & muscles constrict—as well as the sensation o’ swimming in lava under her jacket & sweater.

Too bad, body. Either finish your work or accept the consequences in the long-run.

For some reason, this ne’er made her muscles ache less.

In the next hall, she did witness 1 article o’ good news: Edgar, skipping toward her, only to stop upon seeing her, eyeholes gaping.

Hmm… I believe I’ve devised ’nother advantage to my extra body.

She clutched Edgar’s arm as she passed, practically dragging him ’long with her.

She pulled him close to her & tried whispering to him, only for it to come out in wheezes & coughs. She glanced ’hind her & saw that nobody was following them, so she slowed & tried ’gain:

“¿Do you think you could, rather quickly, bend down when I tell you & help hoist me up somewhere?”

“¿You… you mean hold you up?”

“Yes. It should be quick. Just stand with me on your shoulders, I grab the bottom o’ a vent, putting some o’ my weight on it, & for a second you try pushing me up till I can climb the rest o’ the way up.”

She took a second to breathe, during which she noticed Edgar look down toward her & pinken.

“Er… ¿You sure…?”

“You can tell me if my weight becomes too much for you & I can jump down immediately. There’ll be no risk. If I do reach the vent, I’ll drop a rope & pull you up with me.”

“¿You mean… we’re going up in the… in the vents?”

“Yes… Don’t worry, I’ve been there numerous times: it’s sa—stop. Here it is.”

Her sight bounced round the hall & saw no one nearby.

Edgar, who was looking up @ the grill-covered square hole in the ceiling bent down & waited.

Autumn went ’hind him & gently put a foot on his shoulder, only to notice her movement much heavier than usual.

¡O shit! ¡I forgot: I’m carrying a pack full o’ laptops! No wonder I found running so exhausting.

Shit… I didn’t think o’ that li’l variable…

She hesitated a second.

No time to hesitate.

“Sorry,” she whispered with a cringe as she put her hands round his head & put her other foot on his other shoulder.

“¿How are you doing?” she asked him. “If you want, I could try hoisting you up ’stead with the rope…”

’Cept then he’d have to hold me up with the laptops…

No, this is truly the easiest way for him, honestly.

“I’m fine,” he said in a crackling voice that didn’t convince Autumn. She looked down @ him as she slowly felt herself rise to see Edgar blush down @ the ground.

Remembering her mission, she quickly looked up ’gain & saw the hole within her reach. As quickly as she could, she detached the grate, shoved it ’way, & grabbed onto the edge o’ the vent hole, putting mo’ o’ her weight on it & off Edgar.

“¿How are you doing?” asked she.

“Good.”

Now, here comes the tricky part.

Just have to remember that someone could come by & try stopping us @ any time.

She slowly pulled off her pack off her shoulders & into 1 o’ her hands & struggled to hold it up to the hole till, finally, she had it ’bove the bottom o’ the vent & was able to put its weight on the vent & push it back.

“OK, I should be much lighter now. ¿Do you think you could grab my legs & push me up a li’l while I try pulling myself up?”

“OK,” she heard him say & then felt fingers that felt like smooth stone—though rather warm, which surprised her—wrap round her shins & push up gainst them, only to create li’l extra height.

While he did that, Autumn lifted herself up the vent till her shoulders were ’bove the hole, & then reached her elbows in to put e’en mo’ weight on the vent.

By this point, all Edgar could do was push up gainst the soles o’ her sneakers; however, by this point she could also quickly lift her legs inside, followed by the rest o’ her.

Just 1 mo’ step.

She unzipped her pack @ a speed that best balanced quickness & quietness & felt round the dozen laptops for her rope as she stared down @ Edgar still gazing down @ the floor.

However, she halted ’fore pulling it all out, & ’stead pulled out just ’nough to reach Edgar, keeping the other end under the laptops for extra weight.

Edgar looked up & round himself when he heard footsteps, only to see the rope dangling in front o’ him. He looked up; Autumn nodded, so he started climbing while Autumn pulled the rope up as quickly as her arms could muster.

When Edgar neared the top, she grabbed his arm & pulled him the rest o’ the way up, & then put the grate back down. She extracted her screwdriver, only to jab it into the closest corner in her urgency when trying to screw it in.

She peered down through the grate as she finished locking it in to see many curious faces stare up @ her. They didn’t seem to do anything else, though.

When she finished, she scooted ’way from the grate & whispered for Edgar to do the same.

She saw his faint outline do so. Though he appeared smeared gray under the dim light, ’twas still contrasted gainst the deep black o’ his eyeholes, staring down @ the bottom edge o’ his robe covering his feet.

“Um… ¿Are you… are you sure nobody’ll be able to get us up here?” whispered Edgar.

“1st lesson: ne’er be sure o’ anything. I’ll warn you, though: we may miss a few classes.”

“O, um, that’s OK. I’m probably not doing well in them, anyway.”

¿Should I respond to that with something? ¿Would he expect it?

There wouldn’t be anything logical to add.

’Course, expecting logic from such frivolous interactions is itself erroneous.

O well. I need to think o’ how we’ll ’scape & hopefully he’ll find some way to occupy himself.

The problem is, they probably also realize the trapped situation they can keep me in & are probably working as hard as they can to keep me in this position.

My best chance is to wait till ’bout 10 minutes after 1st period starts & hoping security’s forced most o’ them to return to class.

The problem then is sneaking out past that same security.

“Um… ¿Autumn?”

She looked up & saw that Edgar was still staring down @ his feet.

“¿Yes?”

“I, uh… I’m sorry if I ruined your plan.”

“You didn’t, so there’s no need to worry,” whispered Autumn. “This wasn’t e’en the worst outcome I’d expected.”

“¿What was the worst?”

“Being physically caught by 1 o’ them.”

Edgar paused, a crease forming ’tween his eyes, which begged to be noticed. Every li’l mannerism & movement o’ his fascinated her. ’Course I know all o’ those other people have movement, & blood, & details, & such—but ne’er have I seen it so close, so… She halted that thought.

“¿What would they do then?”

Autumn shrugged. “Varies on their particular mood or the direness o’ my crime. I doubt they’ll be too hard on you, though.”

Actually, that’s bullshit. I don’t know @ all.

I should’ve ne’er gotten him involved in this.

This time Autumn stared down @ her knees. “You know…” Say it. The alternative is frivolous; the outcome o’ this is simply logical. “If you don’t want to risk yourself by associating with me…”

“I, uh… I thought you said I was stuck, uh, associated with you, anyway.”

“That was just a postulate,” whispered Autumn.

She glanced up @ Edgar for an indication o’ his reaction & was surprised to see a smile appear on his face for a second, only to immediately be covered by 1 o’ his hands.

¿Is he so pleased by the prospect o’ getting out o’ being near me? But e’en as repellent as I may be, that expression doesn’t look right: that’s a smile o’ laughter, not content.

“I honestly don’t think I’m safer anywhere else,” said Edgar; “whatever works best with your, uh, stealing stuff & all.”

Autumn shrugged. “Well, I s’pose it’s your choice.”

’Nother pause passed wherein neither looked @ each other.

¿What’s worse: exploiting ’nother’s neuroses for mutual mental benefit or refusing to, & thereby risking possibly harming that other e’en worse?

“Autumn… Do you mind if I ask… if this question… if you don’t want to answer it, you can just tell me to shut up or something…”

Autumn nodded.

“¿Do you not like other people?”

Autumn shrugged. “It’s nothing personal. Just trying to make a living—well, a future living: can’t sponge off o’ mother forever.”

¿Why lie? If he actually does tolerate me for long, he’ll discover the truth ’ventually.

He won’t tolerate me for that long. Better to minimize the displeasure.

“¿Is it just that stealing makes people not want to be round you?”

Autumn shrugged ’gain. “Can’t truly blame them. Don’t think I’m so deluded as to not know you suspect me o’ robbing you.”

Edgar shook his head. “I have nothing worth stealing.”

Autumn nodded slowly.

“¿Is that why you don’t mind associating yourself with me?” whispered Autumn.

Edgar shook his head.

“Hmm.”

“I was just curious if you’re decision to keep to yourself was intentional,” whispered Edgar.

Autumn shrugged yet ’gain. “I’m neutral on the issue.” She dropped her arms ’gain. “But no, my neuroses give me a low tolerance o’ interacting with most others, & thus I only do when it’s necessary.”

She could see a flicker o’ confusion in his eyeholes.

She scooted back o’er to the grate & looked down it & ’way from Edgar.

“I will confess that for some reason you have been an exception so far, whatever lack o’ importance that holds.”

“¿E’en when I make you eat my food?” She noticed a rise in levity in his voice.

“Uh huh,” Autumn whispered as she checked her phone. “I don’t think I see anyone down there & it’s 13 past 7, so I think it’s safe to go now; however, I should go down 1st, just to be sure.”

“¿Shouldn’t I go down 1st, in case… so that they don’t get the laptops if they are waiting down there?”

Autumn paused. That would be a good idea.

“You keep the laptops up here, & if it’s safe, you can drop it just ’fore coming down yourself.”

“OK.”

She unscrewed the grate ’gain, checked all round the parts o’ the hallway she could see, & then quickly moved the grate & slid down. She took 1 mo’ look round the hall, but still saw no one.

She looked up & saw Edgar’s face poke o’er the hole. She gave him a thumbs up.

He turned back & she heard a scraping noise, which caused her eyes to dart round the hall 1 mo’ time. When she looked up ’gain, she saw Edgar holding the pack just on the edge o’ the hole.

Autumn held her arms up. He dropped it & she caught it, though the surprise o’ so much extra weight made her step back a few centimeters & almost topple o’.

She slipped her arms in & held her arms up for Edgar.

“Um…”

“Don’t worry; I’ll catch you,” Autumn whispered as she revolved 1 o’ her wrists.

“O-OK,” whispered Edgar as he began to slide down, “b-but, um… you wouldn’t mind looking down, ¿would you?”

Autumn’s brows tilted. “¿Why?”

Before she could get a response, she felt a fleshy figure shove her from the side onto the ground, followed by 2 grabbing her arms & holding her back gainst the wall. She glanced to her sides to see a rather bulky boy with a bushy mop for hair & a large nose, a skinny boy with a narrow chin & white cap with some heavy metal Rorschach test, & a girl with braided hair & a puffy white rain jacket—the same girl she ran into earlier. Though she recognized all o’ their faces, she didn’t recall their names.

She did, however, remember those faces as being on her “hostile” list.

“Caught in the act ’gain, Madame Springer,” said the skinny boy. “Now, ¿what should we do with the thief who forced us to spend minutes writing through formulas to do math problems that could be done in seconds on our laptops all so she could get attention, or whatever retarded reason she does it?” His mouth crumpled as if he were forced to clean a feces-filled toilet with his bare hands.

Autumn said nothing. No reasoning with people whose interests are incompatible with mine.

“You know, in some countries thieves are punished by chopping their arms off,” the braided girl said as she performed a vertical karate chop gainst the air. “Maybe if we break 1 o’ her arms, she’ll stop.”

“That sounds h—”

“Please don’t do that.”

“—¿Huh?”

All turned their heads up to the hole & saw Edgar’s head hovering o’er it.

“I think that’s her new partner in crime or something,” said the girl. “I saw him distract me for her earlier.”

“Edgar, that’s not necessary,” said Autumn. “One must remember one’s authentic limits ’fore one performs actions that only create mo’ problems & no added benefits.”

The other students looked ’mong themselves with wrinkled brows. The girl twirled a finger round her ear & said, “I told you she’s retarded.”

The bulky guy turned to her & said with a wide grin, “Hey, ¿you boning him?”

“God, you’re such a fucking idiot,” said the braided girl.

“¿What’s it like?” he continued. “Is his dick just a really long bone that he pokes in you…”

“Shut the fuck up, idiot,” the girl said as she lightly back-slapped him on the chest. “She’s too retarded to understand sex. She probably just uses him for money or something.”

“¿So she’s like a prostitute or something?” said the guy. He turned to her. “¿How much do you charge?”

“You’re fucking pathetic,” the girl said as she shook her head. “Come, let’s get outta here. I don’t want to get in trouble for this shit. I have an idea: we’ll just take her backpack & keep the laptops. If we’re caught, we’ll just say we found it left ’hind by her & were bringing it back.”

The skinny guy nodded. Then he said, “But we should tie her down somewhere or something so she doesn’t try stealing it back, like you know she’ll do.”

The girl nodded. “Good idea. We should do it in 1 o’ the bathrooms, where she’s less likely to be found.”

They dragged her down the hall, only to stop when the bulky kid said, “Hey, ¿what ’bout her boy toy? ¿Won’t he just jump down & release her the second we leave?” as he turned back toward Edgar, who was still looking out the vent.

The girl said, “By that ti—Nice try, sweetie.” She jerked Autumn’s arm back harder. “If you try ’scaping ’gain, we aren’t kidding ’bout breaking that arm.” She looked back up @ the others, who had tightened their grips. “Anyway, by that time we’ll be long gone already. But you should stay here & watch him, just to give us a head start. If he comes down, grab him & we’ll tie him up, too.”

Autumn aimed a stern look up @ Edgar & silently mouthed, “Stay there,” hoping he heard.

So the skinny & braided kids continued dragging her ’way while the bulky kid stood ’hind.

“¿Should we take her into the boy’s or girls?” asked the skinny kid.

“¿Who cares?” said the girl. “If we put her in the girl’s, maybe her wimpy friend will be too shy to come in & rescue her.”

“If we put her in the boy’s, it’d be mo’ embarrassing.”

“She’s too retarded to be embarrassed by that. If she saw a guy’s dick, she’d probably think ’twas some rare cancer growth or something.”

The skinny guy giggled. “¿Cancer growth?”

“Who knows what runs through that mind o’ hers.”

“¿Doesn’t she get, like, straight-As or something?”

“She probably steals the answers to everything.”

“O yeah…” said the skinny kid. “I ne’er thought ’bout that. Makes sense, though.” He looked down @ her. She refused to make eye contact. “Hey, ¿if I give you back 1 o’ these laptops, will you steal me some answers?”

Autumn remained silent.

“Told you she was retarded,” said the braided girl.

They pushed backward into the girl’s room & the braided girl bent down & checked under the stalls to see that the 1st was unoccupied. They opened it, held Autumn down on the toilet, & wrapped her arms back ’hind the tank.

“Shit, I just remembered,” said the skinny kid. “¿What are we going to use to tie her up?”

“We have her backpack, ¿remember? She’s got to have something in there.”

She slipped off Autumn’s pack & dug round it with 1 hand while the other held Autumn’s wrist back. Autumn considered trying to break free ’gain, but then quickly decided that the risk o’ them standing by their threat wasn’t worth the tiny chance she could ’scape with her pack.

“Here. She has some rope in here. Told you,” the braided girl said as she began dragging it out.

They spent the next 5 minutes tying a knot round Autumn’s wrists, then wrapping her stomach to the tank, & then tying her ankles to the toilet’s foot.

“Looks like those camping trips when we were in 5th grade paid off after all,” said the braided girl.

When they finished, they found a roll o’ box tape in Autumn’s pack & covered her mouth with a piece.

“There,” said the braided girl. “You wanted this bathroom all to yourself so much ’fore; now it’s all yours.”

The skinny kid giggled & the braided girl glared @ him.

“¿What if her boyfriend can’t e’en break her out?” the skinny kid said as they stood ’gain.

“Sucks to be her,” said the braided girl. “Anyway, I’m sure the janitor’ll find her. Now we should leave ’fore we all get caught.”

The skinny kid opened the stall door, only for the braided girl to hold a hand out & say, “Wait.”

She leaned o’er Autumn & dug through her jacket & skirt pockets.

“They’re empty. Damn it.”

“She keeps them in secret pockets, I think,” said the skinny kid.

“Yeah, well I don’t have time to feel her all o’er, so let’s get out o’ this pisshole.”

Then they left, shutting the door ’hind them.

However, a second after, she heard the braided girl say, “¿Can you leap up there & lock the door?”

“¿Why me?”

“I’m wearing a skirt, perv.”

“Fine, but you have to help me up.”

The girl sighed & then Autumn heard thumping gainst the door & saw the skinny kid’s face pop o’er the top. He reached down & shoved the lock on ’fore disappearing from view & thumping gainst the floor.

“You’re fucking heavy for someone so skinny,” said the braided girl.

“It’s ’cause o’ all the muscle.”

The braided girl chuckled. “Shut the fuck up.”

Their voices became hollower, & then Autumn heard a distant door close. All that was left were soft funneling sounds straight out o’ a sci-fi movie—a sound she’d ne’er noticed till now.

VIII

1 o’ the many lessons Autumn had learned from her thieving experiences was the importance her mental/emotional condition played in regards to her success. Most significant was her calmness: she’d long learned that panic provided no utility, so she tried eliminating it as much as possible.

This included her present circumstance, wherein numerous toxic outcomes cycled through her mind—a meaty majority involving ’nother student finding her. She forced herself to take heavy breaths—despite the wacky odor therein—& settled her mind on the irrefutable fact that there was nothing she could do to change the outcome: if an imagined undesireable outcome was going to occur, it’d simply occur, & there was nothing she could do to stop it.

These thoughts were interrupted by a squeak o’ the door out there—the main bathroom door.

She could tell by the squeaking steps gainst the linoleum floor that this wasn’t Edgar.

Her door rumbled.

Then it stopped & the squeaking continued a few mo’ times to the left, only for Autumn to hear the door next to her slide open, & then closed.

“All right, I got Jasmine’s moon earring. ¿Now will you reopen the portal to the center?”

“You know which portal I’m talking ’bout: the only 1 I e’er used. Now we made a deal. I have your stupid earring.

“Don’t be stupid: he didn’t see anything. He was probably too preoccupied with looking for where he was s’posed to go next for class or something—I saw the distracted look on his face.”

Autumn’s attention was distracted by ’nother squeak o’ the door.

Hopefully I’ll be as lucky.

She was luckier: she heard a strange clacking that she knew must’ve been bone.

“¿Autumn?” Edgar’s voice called out.

“Shit,” muttered the girl next to Autumn. “No, he’s just looking for that psycho thief for some reason. ¿What could that have to do with it?”

“Um, sorry for coming in here, ¿but would you happen to know where, um, Autumn is?”

“Haven’t seen her,” the girl called out.

Shit. I hadn’t considered this outcome.

Augh. ¿How do I always get into these situations?

¡O! ¡I’m a fucking idiot! E’en if I can’t shout, I can still make some sound.

So she shouted @ her mouth tape, which came out as a muffled “¡Mfffffhhhh!”

“¿Autumn? ¿Was that you?”

She shouted louder & scraped her shoe gainst her toilet’s foot, emitting squeaks.

She heard a knock on her door.

“¿Hello? ¿Is anyone in here?”

Autumn continued her noises.

“Just… just tell me to, um, stop if you don’t want me to come in,” said Edgar.

“I think some idiot closed & locked the door from the outside just to be an idiot,” said the girl ’side Autumn. Afterward, Autumn heard her door slide open, followed by the mo’ squeaky footsteps & the distant door slamming shut.

Autumn was so distracted by those sounds that she jumped a li’l when she heard her door rattle, only to immediately remember its logical origin.

Edgar’s face poked in through the bottom, covered by a sleeve. After a second’ wait, Edgar slowly lowered his sleeve, only to then drop them in 1 sudden motion.

“I thought you’d be in here,” Edgar said as he crawled in. He stood. “You’re not hurt, ¿are you?”

Autumn shook her head.

“Try to, um, alert me if this hurts, ¿OK?”

He grabbed the tape o’er Autumn’s mouth & slowly peeled back.

When ’twas off, Autumn whispered, “Could you do my wrists next; it’ll be safest if someone finds us early.”

“OK.”

Edgar pulled on the knot round Autumn’s wrists, his fuzzy sleeve constantly tapping Autumn’s wrist, only for her wrists to feel just as tied down minutes later.

“It may be too tight to pull open,” whispered Autumn.

“O… I hope it’s not cutting off circulation or something,” whispered Edgar, unease rising from his larynx.

“I’m sure it’s fine.”

“¿What should I do now?” asked Edgar, his voice already crescendoing toward panic.

Autumn sighed. “I don’t know. My best idea would be for you to go out & look for a sharp implement in which to cut this knot—but good luck with that.”

“Maybe if I try hard ’nough, I can get it open.”

“It’s certainly not the worst plan.”

“¿Does this happen a lot?” whispered Edgar.

“I’ve had worse happen.”

“O… I’m sorry.”

She laughed. “¿Why? ¿You had nothing to do with them?”

“I know.”

They spent the next few minutes in silence.

A few minutes later, Edgar said, “I think I almost have this knot off.”

“Yes: not to rush, but I believe it’d be optimal for both o’ us that nobody catches us here & assumes us to be performing some scatological form o’ BDSM.”

Edgar paused.

“I, uh… I don’t know what any o’ that means.”

“That’s probably for the best.”

Autumn felt air’s negative space gradually widen round her wrists till she couldn’t feel the rope @ all anymo’ & gravity reclaimed them. She pulled them ’head o’ her ’gain & reached down for the rope round her right ankle, only for the rope still round her stomach to hold her back.

“¿Could you do this next?” she whispered as she pointed to said rope.

Edgar nodded & returned to the back o’ the toilet, where the knot was.

“Luckily, I think this 1’s not as tight,” said Edgar.

“That’s good.”

They spent the next few minutes in silence ’gain, till Autumn heard Edgar suddenly say, “By the way… I guess I should apologize for messing up your plan. If I hadn’t hesitated in coming down for such petty reasons, we might’ve left ’fore you were ambushed.”

“I disagree,” said Autumn. “They were clearly waiting for me to drop, so they would’ve gotten me, regardless. If anything, if you’d dropped faster, they would’ve gotten both o’ us & there’d be no one to untie either o’ us.”

Edgar was silent after that.

True to Edgar’s estimation, Autumn felt the rope loosen off her stomach quicker than the rope round her wrists. From there they silently worked on each rope round her ankles.

“¿How did you usually ’scape from these, um, traps ’fore you met me?” asked Edgar.

“I usually had to wait hours till a janitor found me. Only happened once, though. Usually my punishment is in the forth o’ swift punishment.”

“Um… ¿What kind?”

“O, I dunno. It varies,” said Autumn, her tongue slowing as if she were becoming drunker, she beginning to boil from the inside @ the prospect o’ Edgar prying too far into the deranged depths o’ her universe.

3 minutes later, she was completely free.

“Now let’s rush out o’ here ’fore any other nuisance jumps into our way,” Autumn said as she jumped to her feet.

Autumn led Edgar out o’ the bathroom & into a still-vacant hallway.

Without turning back to look @ Edgar, Autumn mumbled, “O yeah… thank you for helping me back there.”

“O… ’Twas nothing, truly,” mumbled Edgar.

They stood still & silent for the next minute or so.

“Well, I s’pose I shouldn’t keep you any longer from whatever class you take next & possibly get you in trouble,” said Autumn.

“O, it’s no trouble…”

“Well, I was just going to go to my current class—it’s still 1st period, ¿correct?” She glanced o’er her shoulder.

Edgar nodded. “Mmm hmm. Though I think it’ll probably end soon.”

“Hmm.”

“Well, uh… I guess I’ll see you @ lunch,” Edgar said, his voice rising as if ’twere a question.

Autumn nodded, & then walked slow, heavy steps o’ uncertainty ’way.

IX

Autumn was sitting on the couch that formed her bed @ 1:00 AM, wrapped in her blankets & staring @ the sole form o’ searing light in the otherwise darkness o’ her mother’s hollow apartment. Having spent all o’ her tolerance for time wasted unable to sleep, she turned on her laptop & pretended to do homework or heist-planning, when in reality she was gazing through her hidden stash o’ JPGs & GIFs—& e’en some o’ those exotic PNGs & SVGs—Libre Office tab ready for the off-chance that someone else entered for any reason.

’Twas as she ruminated on this nadir o’ hers that she remembered her idea o’ checking if Edgar’s “hideout” was truly where he lived.

This is the ample opportunity.

Still a ridiculous proposition: sneaking out after midnight, with all o’ those oatmeal killers wandering round, just to pry into facts ’bout Edgar that I truly have no right to know—no mo’ than Edgar would to poke his head in while I’m playing with myself.

She glanced ’hind her, only to see ’gain that the window ’hind her was covered in blinds.

¿Could he possibly see through a slit in the blinds?

She quickly changed the tab on her computer & tapped her fingers gainst the table silently.

E’en if Edgar wanted me to know, he’d ne’er tell me. There’s no harm in me knowing & not letting him know I know—’specially if it all turns out to be nugatory, anyway.

’Sides, it’s better than sitting here like this.

She glanced both ways out o’ habit, & then slowly sat up & felt through her clothes box for her sweats, continuing to stare @ the hall as she slipped them, her shoes, & her jacket on.

I’ll need a flashlight, though—& those asschasms took mine.

Then she remembered something. She went into the bathroom & saw right under the mirror the same nightlight she’d always see ’pon using the bathroom @ night.

For once 1 o’ mother’s inane baubles came in handy, she thought as she pocketed it.

She tiptoed out & o’er to the door, unlocked it, turned its knob, & slowly pulled it open, expecting to hear her mother’s hoarse voice o’ grogginess any minute. She cringed as the door made such a thick puffing sound as it dislodged from its frame; but e’en after waiting a minute for her mother to poke her head out, she heard not a peep but the slushing wind.

The rush o’ cold wind gainst her elbow gave her a rush o’ energy. She backed out the doorway, locked the door, & then slowly closed it. This time she didn’t wait, judging it already too late for caution.

E’en if she did catch me, she’d probably just give me a strange look.

Still, it’d be best if I don’t give her any mo’ trouble than she already gets.

Her shoes scraped gainst the chalky gray cement ground out to the front deck; & though all sight was muffled by dim purple, she still felt an itch as if she were being watched & judged, ironically, a thief.

This’ll be the future, so I might as well get used to it. Can’t rely on students anymo’ when I’m an adult--’less I do somehow manage to get into that college.

Her mouth twisted into a smirk down @ the ground.

She tried to follow the same path she went last time, which was difficult in the night void. No streetlamps were on this late—though she did see the windows o’ a few night cats glow yellow. Still, she didn’t dare turn on her nightlight, wary o’ revealing any more o’ her presence than she had to.

’Ventually—what must’ve been a’least 20 minutes—she ran into the convenience store she thought she couldn’t e’er miss, its whole carcass glowing plastic white as if radioactive. Its loud cry for attention was a contrast to the sad li’l hole next to it, buried under bent grass, drowning in the slush o’ ol’ rains.

She stopped @ the opening, bent down with her nightlight held out into the storm drain’s humid maw; however, she could see nothing but smoky air. So she clicked off her light & carefully slid inside, cringing @ the crunching o’ all o’ the winter crystals.

She heard a murmur from just ’head.

She remained as still as she could, hoping her shivering didn’t reveal her presence.

She faintly heard soft scraping for a second, & then 3 full minutes o’ silence. The chill filled her nose with mucus that needed to be sniffled & filled her throat with a creakiness that needed to be gulped.

She tiptoed forward till she was half a meter ’head o’ the entrance, & then hesitated.

A few minutes later, when she couldn’t take waiting like a damp finger in the wind, she bent forward stiffly, held her light out, & clicked it on.

Her eyes had already become used to the darkness, causing the light to make her eyes wince.

But she could clearly see through this fuzzy vision the dusty skull connected to the dark eggplant robe, curled in a ball, twitching here & there like a feline.

Her mind was caught in a conflict ’tween her eyes, which wanted to watch that nimble body all night, & the rest o’ her body, which wanted to leave ’fore he saw her.

’Ventually, the rest o’ her body won, & she silently switched off her nightlight & climbed back out.

She walked home sluggishly @ her usual hunched pace, hands in jacket pockets—partly to warm them, partly just to do something with them.

No matter how much she tried to keep it down, to swallow it like food stuck in one’s gullet, she couldn’t ignore the pang in her chest.

Shouldn’t have checked. I knew I wouldn’t like what I’d see, & I didn’t.

The prospect would’ve hanged o’er me just as much.

She exhaled. She could see the light gray mist scrape gainst the black air, like poison being released, only for mo’ & mo’ to still be left.

Now I don’t just need to worry ’bout my survival; now I’ll constantly worry ’bout this stranger suddenly not coming to school ’cause he was knifed to death by some screwjob or ’cause he freezed to death or did himself in.

Well, a’least he doesn’t need to eat.

He’ll outlive me there.

She shivered & quickened her pace, impatient to return to her warm blankets.

Ought to get as much pleasure as I can ’fore it’s too late.

X

Edgar was surprised when he heard rough scraping ’hind him on his way “home” & saw Autumn speed walking toward him.

“O… Hello, Autumn. ¿Did you, uh, want me to show you to that hideout ’gain?”

“If it’s no trouble to you.”

“No. Not @ all.”

They continued their side-by-side walk quietly, Edgar’s view bouncing round the gray city ambivalently. Autumn stared straight ’head with 1 hand lodged in her pocket, the other holding the bag that was her temporary pack till she could find a proper replacement—or a’least so she told Edgar that morn @ breakfast.

Edgar didn’t manage to say anything till they were just sliding into the storm drain:

“It’s, uh, awfully dim in the winter, isn’t it.”

Autumn paused, blank-eyed, as if parsing his question.

“Perhaps. I don’t mind, personally.”

As she dug through her bag, she said, “I, uh, got you something.”

“O, you didn’t have to…”

“’Twas no trouble,” Autumn said as she held up a stack o’ 2 folded blankets—1 o’ baby-blue wool & the other o’ thinner material, comprised o’ variegated patches.

Edgar slowly moved toward them, both ’fraid to take them & ’fraid not to.

“These ought to help keep you warm @ night,” Autumn said as she looked ’way.

“O… thank you…” Edgar carefully wrapped his hands round the edge o’ the blankets, trying not to touch Autumn’s hands with his. “I, uh… I truly appreciate it.”

“As I said: ’twas no trouble, truly.”

They paused there for a minute, Edgar staring down @ the blankets & Autumn ’way @ the wall, the blankets a link ’tween their hands.

Finally, Autumn dropped her hands & dug through her bag ’gain. Edgar watched attentively, scared that there would be mo’ gifts.

’Stead, he saw her pull out a notebook & pencil.

“Good thing I left my notebook @ home this time,” she said. She began flipping through its pages; “though I don’t think I have anything viable in this yet.”

Edgar stood there, ’fraid that if he moved a centimeter, this whole scene would collapse & he’d wake up in the empty darkness ’gain.

& yet, he feared not doing anything might cause the same to happen.

That was, till he had an idea:

“Um… If you, uh, want, you can keep any important stuff you need to take to school with my stuff & hope it’s less likely to be taken.”

Autumn rubbed her chin, though kept her eyes on her notebook, eyes glazed as if she’d hardly heard him.

“I’ll consider it,” she said; “though that only worries me that your stuff might be taken, too.”

Edgar clutched his blankets to his chest. “O, that’s OK… Like I told you, I don’t have much to be taken… ’cept these blankets, I guess.”

This only made Edgar’s heart seize @ the possibility o’ his blankets being stolen in the middle o’ the night.

Autumn merely nodded in reply.

“B-but if the plan’s st… not… doesn’t work well, you can ignore it,” said Edgar. “I don’t know much ’bout this stuff, ’course.”

Autumn nodded ’gain.

“’Nother lesson: the viable plans only show themselves when one has compiled a list o’ inviables,” she said. “Any stupid ideas you have are welcome.”

“OK… Thank you,” Edgar said as he squeezed his hands together & looked down @ the ground.

“¿For what?”

“Uh… nothing. Er, the blankets, I mean.”

Autumn nodded yet ’gain. “As I said, ’twas nothing.”

Silence wafted round them, during which Autumn continued to stare @ her notebook, though it had nothing written on that page. Her hand tapped the pencil’s eraser gainst the metal-spiral side @ an impatient rapidity.

After a few minutes, Edgar sat a block ’way from her with his new blankets wrapped round his back & read an E. Nesbit book from the library that he had lying round. Or a’least he tried reading it, but was so distracted by this long-term presence o’ someone still so new to him that he had to reread paragraphs e’en mo’ than he usually did, till he’d gone almost a half hour without turning a single page.

She probably thinks I’m thinking things ’bout her…

¡But I am!

O, don’t be silly: she’s probably too distracted with her work.

He glanced just o’er the edge o’ his book @ Autumn’s notebook to see that ’twas still empty & that she was still staring sternly @ it.

Edgar felt his throat fill with saliva that he desperately wanted to swallow, but didn’t dare in fear o’ the gross noise it’d make.

¡Gasp! Maybe she’s thinking things ’bout me…

I haven’t hardly said anything to her. She probably thinks I’m a rude host or something.

¿But what if me saying something distracts her from her work? I’ll be a rude host then, too.

I don’t know what I should do…

So he did nothing, continuing to pretend to read while Autumn pretended to plan. This continued for the next few hours, during which the sky slightly visible from outside the opening quickly dimmed, till ’twas already deep blue & the trees were already black.

It became so dark inside that Edgar set down his book, realizing e’en Autumn would know he couldn’t see in the dark. However, he soon after saw Autumn dig round her bag & pull out some portable lightbox, filling the storm drain with a li’l mo’ light.

Not long after, Autumn put her notebook back into her sack, stood, & said, “I’m probably expected for dinner. You, uh, want me to try getting you anything…” only to summarily put her palm to her forehead & add, “That’s right. You don’t eat. Well, uh… I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

She stopped soon after & said, “O… & I’ll see ’bout snatching you a light source for winter’s early twilights… that way I won’t have to worry ’bout remembering to bring my own whenever I come here.”

“Mmm hmm,” Edgar said with a nod.

Autumn hesitated by the exit, strained eyes aimed @ the brick wall under it.

Then she finally hopped up to the exit & climbed out.