Chapter 2.6

After school was an odd time—a time that gathered students from opposing ends of the social spectrum together in a twilight zone of calmed hallways and dimmed classroom lights. On one side were the over-achievers and socialites who chose after-school activities to engage with one another, maybe to learn something or have fun, or at least have something to put on a college application. Athletes belonged in this group too. While inside the building was largely quiet, out on the football field endless grunts and shouts and whistles could be heard as the varsity team practiced.

However, this time after class also housed students with less honorable intentions. Perhaps the kids stuck in detention or those delinquent enough to hang around for no good reason. There was a place for them too in this biome, usually the odd corners of building. A small nook between the cafeteria and bathrooms. Or a lesser-used staircase at the far wing of the school. These were the best places to grab a smoke, make-out, mingle with buddies, or otherwise cause trouble. 

Smoke choked the cement stairwell, slowly wafting up a flight or two as a cigarette burned between two long fingers. The fingers belonged to a tall, thin boy who was sitting on the top step of the first landing of the zigzagged stairway. Between his pale hair and skin and his white clothing, he seemed more like an apparition than the billows of cigarette smoke that floated in the air.

He took a puff and, after exhaling, left the cigarette hanging from his mouth to allow his thumbs to pound on his cellphone. He smirked after sending the text and put the phone in his pocket in order to enjoy the last few drags of his cigarette.

Jonah had rushed out of the library, muttering profanities to himself so profusely that he completely went past the main entrance to the school. By the time it registered that he missed his usual exit he was on the other end of the hallway. 

Hissing some more, he realized he didn’t want to turn around in the off-chance that Annie was lingering back there. He thought how she must have some nerve to ridicule him on things that had nothing to do with her. He was actually starting to feel like a lab rat being watched behind plexiglass as some sort of experiment, and he didn’t appreciate being studied like there was a report due on him next week. He had had enough of being looked at like a basket charity case.

He pushed through the metal doors leading to the west staircase—the closest exit he could find. The door clashed with the brick wall behind it then ricocheted back to slam shut. Jonah stopped to catch his breath. He could feel the artery in his forehead pulsing, so he took a deeper breath and slipped his backpack off his shoulder and rummaged around in the bag for the music player and headphones he had “acquired” the other day. He needed to listen to something loud and fast. Perhaps with a bit of screaming, too. 

He fumbled with his bag as he muddled his way forward, trying to leave this hellhole as soon as possible. Jonah was so distracted that he barely winced when he bumped into someone he passed at the bottom of the stairwell. 

A large hand grabbed him by the shoulder and twisted him around. “Yo.”

Suddenly Jonah found himself in the domineering shadow of a lanky guy with broad shoulders and at least a head of height over him. Jonah stared at his pointy face as the guard he had dropped moments ago became quickly reinstated.

Aiden leaned in closer, so close that Jonah could feel his breath on his face. His voice deepened.

“I get it, you’re a punk who’s got something to prove. But so do I. So I’m warning you. You fuck with my homies again, and it just might be one of the last things you do.”

Jonah’s blood boiled at the threat. With his back solidly against the wall and this new enemy literally breathing down his neck, Jonah’s displeasure with this day was officially off the charts. He stared back at Aiden armed with daggers in his eyes. 

Aiden finally pulled back from hovering over Jonah, but not without playfully taunting him with a light smack on his chin first. Jonah ground his teeth as Aiden haughtily walked away. 

“Bye bitch,” Aiden teased, looking back at Jonah with an arrogant grin. After one last provoking exchange of glares, Aiden slipped through the metal doors. The tension in Jonah’s body started to wane as the adrenaline in his blood gradually dropped to normal levels. 

Alone in the stairwell, he sighed. The last twenty minutes were a total whirlwind and he could barely collect himself enough to finally leave. He stuffed the earbuds into his ears to drown out miserable melancholy coursing through every inch of his body.

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