I had all my attention on my computer screen, focusing on the video game I was playing. Crash Bandicoot 3, to be exact. And I had to beat this level flawlessly. After all, there were two viewers watching. I could tell by the counter at the bottom of the screen. A third person tuned in. My highest view count yet! Pressure ran high. So high, I mistimed a jump and fell into a hole, dying instantly. My viewer count dropped back down to two.
I let out a loud groan. Thankfully I had my mic off so no one could hear anything going on on my end. Then again, maybe me playing in absolute silence had something to do with my low view count.
“Emma!” my mom called. “Dinner’s ready.”
“I’m not done playing for my two viewers,” I called back, watching my view count go down to one. “My one viewer!”
My mom appeared at the doorway of my room. “Emma, you’ve been playing that game long enough. Did you even do your homework?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
She shook her head. “Your dinner’s going to be cold.”
A cold dinner didn’t matter, for I had made it to 3 viewers on Nemesis. It was a website that allowed people to stream themselves playing games, and other people could tune in to watch. Some users had a massive amount of followers, while others had a decent amount. I had a minuscule amount, but streaming myself playing games was a fun way to kill time. And even having a small number of people watching was satisfying. Validating even.
I realize how strange this all sounds to those out of the loop. Watching other people play video games probably sounds weird, but so is watching other people toss a ball around. Yet the latter is more socially acceptable than the former.
The next morning, I arrived at school several minutes early. I spotted my best friend at her locker. She was short, with black hair tied back in a ponytail. I couldn’t help but brag about the three viewers I had.
“Three viewers! Can you believe that?” I said.
“Mmhmmm.” Tiffany sounded disinterested, but like she had something else on her mind. Although she didn’t care for video games, she usually showed more enthusiasm for my achievements.
“Is something bothering you?” I asked.
“No, it’s nothing.” Her voice sounded almost day-dreamy, except Tiffany wasn’t much of a day-dreamer. She pulled out a Chemistry textbook, and shut her locker door.
I frowned as we headed towards our first class. We passed a blonde girl reading a copy of MacBeth. The sight of her caused me to frown harder. Lexy was a total and complete snob, and I hated everything about her.
“Lexy is a total and complete snob, and I hate everything about her,” I said aloud.
Normally Tiffany would agree with me. But instead, she said something I never expected her to say.
“She’s not that bad.”
I let out a bark of laughter. “Not that bad?”
“I talked to her in English class yesterday. She let me borrow her stapler.”
I scoffed. “She’s blonde, Tiff. Of course she’s mean. It was probably a fake act. After all, she is a theater kid.”
Tiffany nodded, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. What was up with her today?
“Hey, Emma.” A boy with shaggy, dark hair appeared. Lars. We had English together, and were paired up for a project. One where had to create a podcast about Animal Farm. I had plans to work on it with him after school. Which was perfect, because I had to go to the school’s art show in the evening. My younger sister had an exhibit there. Since it wasn’t until 5, and school got out at 3:15, there would be plenty of time to kill.
“You know our English project?” Lars asked, as if I wouldn’t remember it. “It turns out I have to bail. I forgot, I need to rehearse for a play.”
A sinking feeling hit my stomach. “You’re ditching me to rehearse for a play?”
“Yeah. Ms. Gold wrote it. It’s about this couple who come across an injured parrot. And get this- she even has a macaw she’ll be bringing in for it!”
“Sounds exciting,” I said. Except I found it anything but. Plays bored me, and the fact Lexy always starred in them made me hate her more. I wouldn’t be surprised if she played a main character in this one. She was Ms. Gold’s favorite student. And Ms. Gold was the school’s drama teacher.
“Lexy and I are playing the couple,” Lars said, confirming my assumption. “It’s a big role, so I can’t miss any rehearsals.”
“Oh, fine,” I said. “I’ll just work on the project by myself. In fact, I’ll even do all of it.”
Tiffany covered a snort with her hand.
“I’m sorry,” Lars said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and be able to finish it in class.”
I severely doubted that.
Lars must’ve shared my thoughts. “If that doesn’t happen, you could come to the rehearsal with me, and work on it in the theater. Whenever I have downtime, I could help you.”
It was better than doing it by myself. And I had nothing better to do during the hour between school and the art show. “Alright.”
“Awesome!” I watched him walk away, towards Lexy, who closed her book as soon as she saw him. Yeah. He was friends with Lexy, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Mr. Rondello paired us up. I couldn’t wait for the project to be over with.
English was the last class of the day. To nobody’s surprise, we were only given the last ten minutes of class to work on it. Apparently college professors never devote precious class time to group projects, and we needed to get used to it. Once the bell rang, Lars and I walked to the theater in silence.
Our theater was a typical school theater. Red, cushiony chairs formed a half-circle around the stage. A couch and a wooden coffee table had been set up. Several students were scattered around in various parts of the room. Some of them I recognized from my classes. Others I did not. I noticed Lexy sitting up against the stage wall, reading MacBeth once again. Lars sat down next to her. Not knowing where else to go, I took a seat on the other side of him.
“Why are you reading that Scottish play?” a girl near Lexy asked. “This is, like, the worst place to read it.”
“I have a pop quiz on it tomorrow,” Lexy said. “For my A.P. English class.”
I could hear the superiority in her voice at the words “A.P. English.” Like she thought we were all morons for taking regular English.
“How is it a pop quiz if you already know you’re going to have one?” I asked. “That just makes it a regular quiz.”
I ground my teeth at her flippant response. But before I could retaliate, Lars jumped in.
“I’ve always wanted to read that play,” he said. “But I always have trouble with it. Want to tell me all about it after rehearsal?”
Lexy smiled. “Yeah. I don’t have anything going on later. It’s a good play.”
“I could help you study for it too.”
My jaw clenched as I focused my attention on Lars. “Don’t you have a certain group project you’re supposed to be helping me on? For normal English.” I said “normal English” the same way Lexy said “A.P. English.” To show her she wasn’t any better than the rest of us.
My words unfortunately only affected Lars. His face fell at the reminder. “Oh… That’s right. Maybe some other time, Lex.”
I checked my phone for the time. 3:24. “How long is rehearsal supposed to go on for?”
“About an hour,” Lars said.
I slapped my hand over my forehead, then sighed. “You might as well go off with Lexy to study MacBeth after-”
Collective gasps surrounded me, followed by muttering. A girl from my math class pointed her finger at me. “Oooooohhhhh, you said the Scottish Play in a theater!”
I squinted at her. “What?” I hadn’t realized people were listening in on the conversation. Who would even want to?
“That’s bad luck,” the girl continued. “You can’t say the name of that Scottish play in a theater. If you do, bad things will happen.”
I let out a laugh. “Cute.” But no one else seemed to think it was cute.
“You cursed our play!” a boy said, covering his mouth in horror. “Now we’ll have bad luck.”
“What? Just because I said ‘MacBeth?’”
“Stop saying that!”
I shook my head. This was why I didn’t like theater kids. They were too dramatic.
Before I had a chance to return to my conversation with Lars, Ms. Gold showed up. With a bird cage containing a parrot of the red and blue variety. A macaw, I believe they’re called. “Sorry I’m late. There was a crisis in the break room. Someone microwaved a fish in there. An actual fish...” Her gaze rested upon me. “What are you doing here?”
“She’s waiting for me to help with a project,” Lars said. “Is that okay?”
“As long as she sits quietly in the back and doesn’t screw anything up. I still haven’t forgotten about the pudding at last year’s Christmas party.” Ms. Gold set the bird cage on the table, and clapped her hands together. “Everyone, places for Act 1, Scene 4.”
Ms. Gold sat off to the side of the stage while other students sat in the front row. I assumed they weren’t in this particular scene, and I took a seat several rows behind them. One girl sat on the couch. Lars and Lexy stood, front and center. They read their lines aloud from stapled papers.
Meanwhile, I pulled out the piece of binder paper Lars and I had begun writing our script on, and continued it. Every so often, I’d glance at the stage for inspiration.
Lars was in the middle of declaring his love for birds when a phone rang. Everyone turned towards the source. Ms. Gold pulled her phone out of her pocket. She held a finger up, answered it, and hurried off backstage. Lexy and Lars continued their lines.
Ms. Gold shortly appeared on stage. “I have bad news. A family emergency just came up, and I have to go out of town for a few weeks.”
“What!” Lexy almost dropped her script. “What about the play?”
“We’ll have to postpone it. I’m sorry, but I can’t stay.” Ms. Gold rubbed at her arms. “Rehearsal is canceled for today, and we won’t continue until I come back. I’ll send out an email when I do.”
There was murmuring as students left one by one, all shooting me dirty looks as if it were my fault Ms. Gold had a family emergency. I stayed put. Mainly because Lars stayed put. Probably because Ms. Gold stopped Lexy from leaving.
“Lexy, I have a huge favor to ask you,” she said.
“Sure, what is it?”
Ms. Gold gestured towards the bird cage containing the parrot. “I need you to take care of Molly.”
“I can’t take her with me, and I don’t have anyone that can take care of her on such short notice. Please. I’ll pay you after.”
“Yeah, sure. Of course.” Typical Lexy sucking up to the teacher. “What do I need to do?”
“Fill her food dish and refill her water every day, and clean out her cage twice a week. Let her out whenever you can- this cage is too small for her to be locked in all the time. I have food for her stored in the cupboard backstage. There should be enough to last until I come back. You can call me if there’s a problem.”
Ms. Gold squatted in front of the cage. “Be a good girl, Molly,” she cooed at the parrot. Lars, Lexy, and I shared an awkward look as Ms. Gold made kissing noises at it.
Finally she stood back up. “I’ve got a plane to catch.” She ran a hand over her head. “Well, I’ve got to buy tickets first, and hope I can get on a plane tonight. Oh my Lord. Goodbye!” And with that, she ran out the door. Literally.
The three of us peered inside the bird cage at Molly, who preened.
“She really is a gorgeous bird,” Lexy said.
“Beautiful.” I checked my phone. 3:53. Still plenty of time until Alice’s art show. Enough for Lars to help me with the project. Lars, who decided to hold a conversation with Lexy instead of coming to my aid.
“I’ve got nearly an hour to kill until my sister’s art show,” I said aloud. “If only I had something to do to occupy that time. Like working on a group project.”
“An art show?” My snarky comment went over Lars’ head. “I’ve always wanted to go to one of those. When is it?”
“Here at school?”
“And it’s free?” Lars rubbed his chin. “You know what? I think I’ll go to it.”
“Great,” I said. “And in the meantime, you can help me with-”
“Wanna come with us?” Lars asked Lexy. “It’ll be fun.”
I crossed my arms. “She’s not invited.”
“I guess.” Lexy ignored my words. “But what am I supposed to do with Molly? I can’t carry a bird around an art show.”
“Sure you can,” Lars said with a goofy grin.
“I need to take her home first. And think of a way to explain this to my mom. She hates birds.”
“My whole family loves birds,” I said, just to be obnoxious. “Especially my mom.”
“Good. You can take care of her then.” Lexy picked up the cage, and shoved it in my arms.
I put it back on the table. “I’m not taking care of that thing.”
That thing squawked and said something that sounded like “shut up.”
“Whoa, did that parrot tell you to shut up?” Lars asked. Lexy laughed.
“You shut up,” I said to the bird.
“Pretty bird,” it said back.
“This thing is kind of amazing,” I said. “Why, maybe I will take care of it!”
“I was joking,” Lexy said. “Ms. Gold would kill me if she knew I gave you Molly.”
“We should put the food in your car,” Lars suggested.
And so Lars lugged a massive bag of bird food outside the theater and through the parking lot, straight to a Lexus. Yeah, Lexy drives a Lexus. And followed Lars with Molly’s cage in hand. She popped open her trunk and Lars set the food in there.
“Didn’t Ms. Gold say to let her out of the cage?” I asked, watching Lars close the trunk. “She looks like she wants to be free.”
“I guess we can. Her wings are clipped.” Lexy set the cage in the backseat, and coaxed Molly out of it. Molly stepped out onto her finger, and flapped her way onto her shoulder. I secretly hoped the bird would poop on Lexy, but it didn’t.
“Now what?” Lars asked, closing the back door.
I checked my phone time. 3:58. “Kill time for an hour.”
“I need to get this bird home first,” Lexy said. “And I’ll probably stay there. Art isn’t really my thing.”
“That sounds like a great-” I began, but Lars interrupted.
“No! You have to come! Please?” Lars looked at her with rounded eyes, hands clasped.
Lexy tilted her head back and groaned. “Fine. Let me take Molly home and I’ll come back-”
A loud crack filled the air. We all jumped back at the sight of a falling tree branch, crashing towards Lexy’s car. I covered my ears at the impact of branch smashing steel.
“Are you kidding me!” Lexy shouted, hands clutching at her hair. “I just put gas in it! My mom’s gonna be pissed!”
“Calm down,” Lars said. “Don’t you have insurance?”
“How did that even happen?” I asked. The past few days had been warm and sunny. Didn’t trees only fall apart in stormy conditions?
“Yeah, that is kinda weird,” Lars said, forwning. “Maybe it’s because you said ‘Macbeth’ in a theater.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I focused on the car. The entire top of it was crushed. The front and back windows had shattered. The other windows were still intact, but cracks ran through. I touched a side window. Bits of glass trickled onto the seat. Lexy glared at me as she pulled out her phone to take pictures of the wreckage.
After she was finished, Lexy and Lars pulled the branch off while I quietly observed.
“I need to call a tow truck.” Lexy went back to clutching her hair. “And my mom. Looks like I can’t go to that show even if I wanted to.” She looked around, more frantic than before. “Where’s Molly?”
Lars and I surveyed the area, but saw nothing.
“Now Ms. Gold is gonna be pissed!” Lexy began to pace with her head between her hands.
“Relax,” I said. “She couldn’t have gotten far.”
“Pretty bird,” a small voice said from under the car. Molly peeked her head out, and Lexy let out a relieved sigh.
“Told you,” I said.
“Lexy squatted in front of Molly, and held her arm out for Molly to climb on. “I can’t take care of her right now.” She stood back up with Molly perched on her forearm. “Lars? Could you hang on to her? Just for tonight?”
“I doubt I’d be allowed to bring her on a bus,” he said.
“Get a ride from your dad?” she suggested.
“He’s working late tonight.”
“I could take care of her.” A devious plan had hatched in my mind. I could teach the parrot all kinds of new words. New words it could say to the entire class. And Ms. Gold would think Lexy was behind it.
“Don’t you have an art show to attend?” Lexy asked.
“Who says I can’t take a bird there?” I asked.
“Common sense,” Lexy said. “I can’t even open the doors to get to the cage. She’ll be out in the open.”
“Even better,” I said. “I can pretend she’s part of my sister’s exhibit.”
The tow truck pulled up. I was impressed with how quick it arrived. Lexy looked at it, then back at me. “Ugh, fine! But if something bad happens to her, I swear.”
“Nothing bad will happen. I got this.” I took the parrot from Lexy, and she crawled up to my shoulder. “See, she loves me already.”
Molly showed her love for me by pooping on me. Lexy and Lars burst into fits of laughter.