"Return safely soon
'Cause I miss you"
As I stepped in the door, I braced myself for what would most likely be the most humbling experience of my life.
"Find your new desk," informed Mr. Hartfoot briskly, startling me out of my furiously working mind to give him an inquisitive look. "I believe yours is in the back corner somewhere, just where you like it."
I blanched. Where would Diane be sitting?
Fate was especially cruel to us this day. Her especially. I noticed her out of the corner of my eye, directly in front of Hartfoot where she could be scolded and kept awake. She was slumped over with her face pointed down at her desk, refusing to look at anything with a scowl etched on her usually bright countenance. Or at least indifferent. Now she looked...defeated. And she hated everything for that.
When she looked up at me with that faint glimmer of hope within her eyes, I didn't have the strength to look back into her.
Praying that I wasn't blushing as obviously as I knew I was, I booked it to my new desk at an uncomfortable pace. Hartfoot had assumed correctly in both aspects-safe in the furthest darkest corner of the classroom, I could plot and scheme to my heart's content as long as Hartfoot agreed not to come any closer than three rows up. There wasn't even anyone sitting directly next to me. I could've spent every class period embezzling from overseas corporations, temporarily hijacking sections of government, even mundane things like rigging the American Superbowl. All without anyone to bother me or tell me that I should care. But I was alone. Everything I did back here in my corner would be only me.
For the first time in my life that was not okay.
The class started without me minding much, and despite myself I could not remove my gaze from the blonde back of Diane's head. Though her shoulders were hunched and I couldn't see her face, I knew she wasn't asleep. I could hear Hartfoot's voice as clearly as if he were right next to me. His lecturing voice was the most notorious at this school, and Diane had been conveniently placed front and center where she could not escape its stentorian volume. I couldn't reach her. She was trapped. Being forced to do anything was tantamount to fetters and shackles for her. She was in agony, and she couldn't even say it. But why? What could Hartfoot possibly threaten her with? What did she have to lose if she spoke up?
It occurred to me that Diane might have resisted her seat not only for her sake.
I wouldn't have it for another moment. Unsheathing my state-of-the-art phone, I furiously got to work at the least challenging and most important hack I would ever perform.
Ironic as it is, it was right before our blessed reunion that I felt the most miserable.
Mr. Hartfoot had placed me right the %&$# in front of him so he could yell in my face at his sick pleasure, and then proceeded to resist my attempts to resist. Devon had been too busy chatting it up with some testosterone-pumped jocks to even notice me during passing period. And worst of all, it had been a whole day since I'd so much as seen Arty. My Arty. Wholly defeated, woefully unheard, utterly alone. I literally could not think of any way it could get any worse at all short of a particularly unpleasant form of death to either me or Arty.
I suppose that's the only way it got better at all. After all, you can't have a rainbow without a little rain.
But first I had to endure second period without getting to sit next to Artemis. For the first time. Ever. There's no way I could possibly enjoy this.
I kept my head down the whole period, except to look up at Artemis for half a moment when I heard his light footsteps enter the classroom. As soon as our eyes met, he looked away and escaped to his seat in the back corner. I returned my own gaze to the desk to burn a hole where I could stuff my ragged heart. I envied him as much as I missed him. I hated him for it so much that I felt like I wanted to hurt him, but at the same time I wouldn't dare because I couldn't risk compromising our friendship further. I had no idea what I would do to him when I met him again. If I met him again.
When the bell rang, I didn't bother waiting up for him. I knew I couldn't face him yet. I just dove into the passing period traffic as soon as I could, the sacred place where I was surrounded by people yet nobody would interact with me. I could sense Artemis walking somewhere behind me, but I could also sense that he wasn't trying to catch up. Why should he? All I've managed to do for him is set him off and go on to ignore him. If I were him, I wouldn't want to talk to me again for a while. Maybe not even ever.
Wiping my tears on my wrist, I drooped my hand on the doorknob to Po's office.
I recoiled and swore at the blare of a sharp siren in my ear, though my expletive was drowned in its strident volume. Far above me just beneath the ceiling perched a crimson fire alarm, flashing and honking with enough photons and decibels to render one blind and deaf. My brow furrowing, I looked around at the crowd of students which had come to a standstill. Obviously none of them were leaving the building in a calm and orderly fashion, preferring instead to loiter and cuss at each other because they didn't think it was for reals. The slightly panicking teachers were attempting to persuade them otherwise, but none would be successful. They wouldn't start exiting until they saw flame and smoke, and by then it would be too late. If anything they would trample each other to death, if the noxious fumes didn't get them first. Idiots.
I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, unable to hear its ring through the clamor of the crowd and the braying of the alarms. Wondering who the &$% would text me at a time like this, I pulled it out and flipped it open.
With those two words, I knew exactly who it was, why this happened, and what to do.
I bolted back into the hallway towards Mr. Hartfoot's class. The door to our closet felt forever away, but it wouldn't be for long if I had anything to do with it. I picked up my pace, plowing uncaringly through those unfortunate or stupid enough to get in my way. I had been too far for too long. Nothing was standing between me and Artemis. My Arty.
But that one moment of hesitation foiled me.
I skidded to a halt like a charging bull confronted with an oncoming train. The door stretched to loom over me like a sunset shadow. My feet became leaden, and time became harrowingly sluggish. I stretched out my hand to reach for the glinting yellow doorknob, but my arm felt like it was moving through quicksand. Knots in the wood contorted into nightmarish images in my peripheral vision. All the sunlight was sucked out of the room, yet the doorknob glowed lividly as if taunting me. A hauntingly familiar voice cackled my defeat with an echo like thunder. I knew that voice, and the knowledge chilled me. Whose was it, whose was it?
Did it matter, as long as I had Arty back?
My hand met the knob. Reality clicked back into place. Tentatively, more delicately than I'd ever done anything, I twisted and pulled the door open.
A thin sliver of sunlight peeked through a carefully opening door. My thumbs froze in place mid-type over my phone's screen. My hammering heart had to wonder, even though I knew exactly who it was. It couldn't have been anyone else. Who would've bothered to follow me in here but-?
She opened it wider, just enough to show her face. I didn't dare move. It might shatter the immaculate preciousness of this moment. As I waited in the dark of this sanctum I'd imagined what she'd look like or what she'd do when she came. None of that came to pass. It was infinitely more than anyone could have dreamed. Backlit by the white flash of an alarm, her gold hair seemed to glow with a vague red tinge, like the halo of an angel fresh from the forge. Her lips were parted slightly as if about to sing a soft lullaby. Even the freckles spattered across her nose twinkled merrily like stars. But her eyes...oh, her eyes. Infinite pools of the purest, kindest love. A man could drown in those eyes and be none the wiser. But I was more than a man. Or was I?
If I was more than a man, then she was more than a friend.
The next events seemed to happen simultaneously, though my neocortex told me that wasn't possible. At the time I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. All I know is that I blinked, and when my eyelids pulled back again the door was shut and my phone was on the ground and Diane was hugging the life out of me. At first the shock of everything happening at once stunned me into lack of motion. But then I remembered that she was hugging me. Diane. Hugging me.
I left it on the floor. I forgot about anything that wasn't relevant, which was everything but her. Burying my nose in her sunset-colored curls, I put my arms around her and squeezed as if I had tenfold the strength I really did. I'd never felt better.
It was that moment that I realized I wouldn't trade a friend like her for anything this world could give. Not even for the sake of my own pride.