Pleaty Jackson 3: The Cicada Daze of Summer

PLEATY JACKSON 3: THE CICADA DAZE OF SUMMER 
By SF Hades


PROLOGUE
By Sebastian Merrick 

I barely stood up, hunching over whatever I could cling onto. Slowly, I made my way into the main courtyard, as much as my vision was blurred, I could make out red, white, and blue lights illuminating the area. Soon, everything became clear. 
An ambulance. 
Doctors rushing around. 
Chase Kemp sprawled across a hospital stretcher. I forced myself to go through the agony of running up to him, as much as the doctors tried to push me back. 
His skin was the color of blank parchment, speckled with grass and concrete specks. It was obvious blood had been washed away from his face, leaving only tears headed around his eyes.
I put my hand on his cold forehead, which only proved the obvious. 
The doctors pushed me off, and I was face to face, once again, with Lina Kemp. 
Her voice was full of hurt. “Family, Sebastian… you promised.” 
Mac’s nowhere to be seen, and that’s good. If I saw him I’d snap his neck on the spot. 
Then it hit me. There was someone I needed to pay a visit to. I think the procrastination of it bordered on fear. The person who’s ignorance and evil were behind all of this. 
I needed to find Angela Emily.  

“Tick.”
“Tock.” 
“Tick.” 
“Tock.” 
Angela Emily sat across from me on her desk, drinking scotch. 
“I have to admit, I’m impressed.” She said. 
“What?” I asked, dumbfounded. 
“No, really! Wonderful performance, from the start. I’ve been meaning to talk to you but,” she stretched and yawned, “I’m a busy gal. But hey, now you’ve seeked me out, c’mon.” She smiled, “Let’s go for a walk.”
She took me up the stairs. A new floor was under construction, right atop the building. That couldn’t have been structurally sound. She took me above, into a guard railing that overlooked all of Caesar. In the center, there was a giant three dimensional map of America, gated on the sides. 
“What’s this?” I asked. 
“The future, Mr. Merrick. The future.” She pressed a button, and lights shone upon the model. I see pins. Two in California. Four in New York. One in Virginia. Another, in Boston. One. Finally, in Washington, D.C. “You can be part of it, y’know. Or you can be left behind.” She notices the fear in my eyes. 
“Give me your leg.” She says. 
Somehow, I feel my body turn to liquid as my leg raises. For a moment, there’s a brief splash of pain, but then, my leg is healed. 
“How did you-” 
“It’s a secret. One that I can teach you.” I hear whispers around me, hissing angrily. Like a snake. Or an owl… 
“Who’s watching me?” I ask, point blank. 
“That doesn’t matter, what matters is that you lost. You lost Chase. You lost to Mac. You lost the student council election. But-” 
“Pause.” I say, “You’re the headmaster. If you wanted The Triumvirate to rule the school, couldn’t you have just willed it to happen?” 
She laughs, “Where’s the fun in that? They have their own problems, too. They need to grow. Believe it or not, I don’t play favorites. I paved two roads, and you both walked down them. Tonight, I watched as you both walked down, and met me in the middle. See, for almost a century now, origami has rooted itself into western civilization. After a while, you tend to notice patterns. Trends. Soon, it comes into perspective just how much of a blip so many people are. How easily courts can kill bats, how just a few students can shut a school down. Some people immortalize themselves, Clark Largent, Alan Wade, Dwight Tharp, and now… Mac- no, Sebastian Merrick. You have the potential to change everything. Because this is just the beginning!” She waved her hand across the map, “Some will find themselves burdened with glorious purpose while others will live here! The new floor I’m adding will be the monument of our grandeur. OrigOlympus. Perhaps it’s time you focus on the broad strokes as well?”
“I’ll never join you.” I stuttered. “You’re a monster, you got Chase killed, he’s your family. YOU RUINED SO MANY LIVES! You… you ruined mine.” She looked down at her map. 
“So be it,” she said. 
As I turned to leave, she spoke up, “Sebastian. Our paths will cross again. And one way or another, you will leave a mark on history.”
I turned my back on her, and made my way down the gravel road. 
An old song goes, What have I become my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. I suppose that rings true till this very day, each and every lyric of Hurt cementing itself into my soul. 
I made a choice that night, I think. A choice I had neglected to share until I returned to this diary. A choice that went overlooked. 

Mac Astley sat on a bench, overlooking the world around him. He stared off, no thoughts. Head empty. Sirens still blared. Students rushed by, crying. Calling their parents. 
And here Mac was, slumped over a chair, his hoodie unzipped revealing a blood stained white tee. He looked jaded. And scarred. 
I wanted to get mad. I wanted to scream, to hit him. I wanted to make him feel every inch of pain, to feel the supernova of emotion coursing through my mind. 
And yet the look in his unblinking eyes told a different story. I didn’t need to. He felt the same pain as I did. 
Without saying a word, I sat beside him. And we sat, staring off into the distance. When the police left, and we were left with the eerie silence of the night, too tired to sleep. 


THREE MONTHS LATER
By Mac Astley

Something, something, mess.
I sit upon the throne of dirt and regret that I call my desk, staring at the faces, all framed and smiling back at me. Kevin Kwan, Kaitlyn Emily, Ximena Strohm, Dennis Redwood, the list grows longer with each passing year. 
For once in my life, I’m completely alone, dried bits of vomit clinging to my shirt like a baby’s bib, my shirt wrinkled and in a mess. 
Well, well, look who’s inside again! It’s a laugh. A taunt, even. But it isn’t wrong, I’m inside once more, each year it feels like I’m losing more than the last. 
My letter came in a month ago.
“Mac Astley, it is with a heavy heart we tell you that you will not be invited to attend Caesar Middle School in the 2021-2022 school year.” 
There’s no more schools in the state, with this year’s end I’ll be leaving this life all behind. I laugh, mocking myself. 
The once, great Mac Astley! Haha. Pleaty Jackson. A Hero of OrigOlympus. 
A good friend.
An awesome boyfriend. 
The memory drifts around my consciousness, a fire once blazing left to smolder for eternity. I feel alone, as if I’m at the edge of the universe with nothing to do but hum a tune. 
Text messages. I remembered the password to my old Discord account, though there’s no one even left for me to text. 
March. 2020. 
Hey Mac I didn’t see you in school today, what’s wrong -Ximena
Yo homeslice the f— were you -Lina
Bruh Ximena wants to know where R U -Dennis
Bruh -Xander
I thought about how the news had affected everyone. The sixth graders bawled, their precious souls unburdened by the horror. For the most part, at least. The hardened seventh graders like myself didn’t even care, and the eight graders didn’t even know what to feel– they’re leaving. 
Because the message came in a month ago:
I’ve found myself checking on the school’s web page often. Vicky Manief’s articles, mostly, then I go ahead and take a peek at the school’s facebook. Oooh, the crispitos are back.
Or, I would, at least. It’s all under renovation now. Whatever that means. So, only nostalgia I’m left with is this. Cleaning out my dorm. Kevin left a week ago for Football Camp. And Kaitlyn moved back to her shack.
I’ll never need the stuff I’m cleaning at my new school, no clue whatever that’s going to be. All this stuff, it’s… garbage. First quarter’s homework, my complimentary yearbook. Zombieland: Double Tap on a stolen USB. 
A small wire in the back of my locker… strange. 
And, oh no. Not this photo. The one photo that made me wait so long to clean things out. 
Me and my old sweetheart, Ximena Strohm. Behind the Valentine’s day dance backgrounds, her arms swung around my neck. I chose a bold move, a purple flower dress. I don’t consider myself feminine, though masculinities a tough subject for me. Fatherless, I know. 
Ximena’s hair looked red and vibrant beneath the light, her smile seemed to radiate happiness through the photo. I had an awkward smile on, as I gazed at her, likely wondering how I could ever be so lucky. I missed that sense of freedom, the feeling that I could do no wrong. I fumbled around like an idiot and she called me Fred Astaire. 
I looked at myself in the mirror I had set up.  My eyes were bloodshot and red, my hair is a knotted and curled mess of brown and golden strands, strands of stubble line the rims of my chapped mouth. My nose is roughly the size and consistency of a water mattress, though sleeping on it would be a princess and the pea situation with my acne.
My locker was all cleaned out, save for one thing, deep in the back. In the far corner, covered up by a cobweb, was a small box. The box where Tyler Willigens, my Mom’s awesome boyfriend, had stored the phone he gave me. It was the last act of kindness an adult had ever given me. A mood swing hit, and I stabbed the box with a switchblade. The white iPhone box was reduced to shreds. And yet beneath the mold where the phone was held, a secret prize. A gift that lay unopened. 
What’s in the box? It’s Pleaty Jackon. My Pleaty Jackson, at least. But it’s the first one I folded, in all of it’s simple glory. The one that was confiscated by Mrs. Kemp, that Lina- bless her heart- stole back. At least, back when we were on speaking terms. 
It’s a sheet of paper rolled up with a rubber band like an ancient scroll. 
And of course, my Athens ID tag, my face beaming with charm. I was jealous of that happiness. Angry that this young man was ruining my life, a smile on his face. It was sixth grade, then. I took the picture just before the field trip. Before the first dance. Before everything fell to bits. 
I sit and watch as people like Hayden Macintosh and Hilda Muhammed take center stage, they repeat my mistakes, those who never learn history being doomed to repeat it.
I crumpled up Pleaty Jackson, throwing him behind me just as those days were. 
“A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect, Astacio,” a snotty voice said from behind me. Ever since he learned the truth- that whenever my Mother’s family first immigrated here it was under the name Astacio- he had constantly toyed with it. Joked around. 
“Seb,” I said, turning around, “Shut up.” I turned around and caught him smoothing Pleaty Jackson on his jean’s leg. He pulled out his old Hades. “Can, you, like, not?”
“C’mon,” Hades quoted, “Do I look like a scoundrel to you?”
We both laughed. I grabbed Pleaty Jackson from his grasp and put him on my finger, though I had no quotes to retaliate with. 
“Didn’t you kiss my girlfriend?” That was the running joke. How it all started because of a kiss taken out of context, a kiss he had to explain to me after an intense amount of slapping from both parties. But that’s what I learned to love about Sebastian Merrick, he was quick to forgive and to forget. 
We both laughed once again. 
“Hey now! She- She kissed me.”
“Man,” Seb said, “Those were the days. Remember when you punched me?” 
“Dude, you punched me.” 
“Oh, yeah, so I did. But you just looked so serious. I knew I needed to start a conversation with a kicker. Or is it a puncher?”
“I hate you so much.” 
“Love you too, babygirl.” He blew kisses at me. 
For the confused, when both our lives fell apart, when I had no friends, he took pity. We stayed close through the sour months. Ironically, he helped keep me sane. “So,” he asked, “What spoils of war does Pleaty Jackson come to serve me with?” I turned to his smug smirk and gave him a shut up look, the kind teachers gave him.
“I found Mallory Cross’ pen, the chewed one.” I lifted it by the top of the pen, sorely allowing Seb to snatch it from my grasp. 
“Collector’s edition, man. Can’t forget this.” A single Sebastian Merrick was a strange Sebastian Merrick, “What else you got?”
“The cheese sticks those guys threw at you.” 
“They haven’t melted yet.” 
“Nah, but they did powderize.”
“Must’ve gave you some weird looks.”
“Oh, all the weird looks.” 
He walked away, leaving me alone, bye Seb. Thanks for being there, Seb.
I continued to look through my old belongings, at the old Pleaty Jackson. He seemed to speak to me, his dark eyes looked into my soul, chastising me. Judging me for giving up hope. 
And really, that’s what the puppetry is all about. It’s about finding a character and hoping to be like him or her, to fight for your own happy endings. 
I looked at the scroll. I unrolled the sheet of paper. 
Written in big calligraphy was “Heroes of OrigOlympus Bucket List,” next to a sticky note and in the margins were various doodles of swirling swords and hearts. I hadn’t done a single thing on the list. Not one. 
“C’mon, man,” I picked up one of the suitcases, “You pick up your s— yet?” 
“My family’s not coming for an hour.” 
“Oh, lucky you. Mine should be here right about-”
A blood curdling screech erupted from the ceiling. I rushed toward the button, anything to make the horror stop. As the office sounded, the bored voice of the librarian, Mrs. Strohm, spoke: “Mac Astley, please come out to the front gate, your ride is here.” 
I clapped, “Mind helping me with my suitcase?” 

Tyler picked me up- I knew that. I’d seen my Mom a total of three times since the incident, twice at therapy. I think she’d gotten over it. At least this time she’ll keep her shoe on, hopefully. 
“Hi, Mr. Willigens!” Sebastian chirped as he tossed my bags into the backseat of Tyler’s prius. My Mother’s boyfriend stifled a smile, “C’mon man, Athens is closed. Call me Tyler.” 
“Alrighty then, Tyler.” 
Sebastian moved up to the front seat door, prompting me to roll the window down. Seb frowned, “Hey, man, uhh… not good at goodbyes.” He ruffled up my hair, “Just, have a good summer. See you around, uhh, kid.” And he jogged off. 
The moment I rolled the window up, Tyler giggled. 
“What?” I asked. 
“It’s nothing… it’s nothing, it’s just-” he cackled, “Mac… what is up with your hair?”
“I- I went through a phase in December.” 
Tyler laughed. 
“Hey!” I argued, “It’s no better than those bangs you had.” 
“That was 2004, Mac!”
“You were twenty five! You went through an emo phase at twenty five.”
“That’s what student loans will do to you, bro.” 
I sighed, “You’re not funny.” 
“Whatever.” 
Tyler put a CD in. The Razor’s Edge. AC/DC, opening with the track Thunderstruck. “Man, I remember when I had this on cassette tape. I think it’s still in my old garage, too. I’d always listen to it on my scooter. Do you got a scooter?”
“No.” 
As Tyler started the car, he grumbled. “We gotta get you a scooter, kid…”
“So,” I asked, “Are we going home now?” 
Tyler set the car to drive, “Nope, We’re going to the restaurant, but before that… I think we need to take a tour around the city… things have changed.” 


COLD NACHOS
By Mac Astley 
Did I ever tell you my Mom owned a restaurant? Well, not really. She’s a waitress. But my grandpa owns the place, but he’s really just three pieces of lint glued together so the place is mostly managed by his three kids. There’s my Mom, Estelle and her two sisters, Lupita and Maria.
Aunt Maria rushed over to me, grabbing me by the cheeks, “Mac! Es tan bueno verte de nuevo calabaza. “Tia, Tia, me estas- me estas aplastando.” I gently pushed her off of me as my cousin, Carmen, looked up from her phone. She was sprawled over one of the booth seats, giving me a faint smile, she nodded. 
“Estelle! Tu bebe está en casa!” Aunt Maria yelled. After receiving no response, she sighed, “Carmen, carino, quitate el culo y ve a buscar a la tía Estelle.” 
“On it, Mama!” Carmen jogged off, I noticed she was now in employee garments. It’s funny, you know, the first time I got expelled Carmen kept me company, she’d always stop by the apartment and we’d eat lecci plants. She’d always bring some garbage tella novellas, one’s we’d never really pay attention to unless to mock. I was just happy to have the company on those long summer nights. 
Aunt Maria led me to a booth with Aunt Lupita and my Mother, in between them my grandpapa. Carmen frantically in the process of explaining that I was home. My aunts never spoke very good English, and Carmen’s Spanish had gotten rustier ever since she went off to college. Hell, mine had too. These stupid American friends. 
Between the people in the Astacio family, we’d joke, Grandpapa had the best English. 
“Come here, boy,” he croaked, “Let me look at you.” 
The second time I had come home since December was because of his health scare, ever since my Mom had spent a lot of time with my Aunts. “You’re getting big boy now. Hear you like fighting! Do lucha!” He chuckled to himself, before breaking out into a cough. 
“We should get going, it’s almost his bedtime,” Aunt Lupita said, grabbing Grandpapa by the hands. He tried smacking my Aunt’s hands, “Estoy bien! Let me see my nieto, maldita sea!” 
My Aunt smiled kindly at me, “We’ll see you, Mac.” She pointed at her hair, pulled into a bob. “I like the hair!” She chirped. 
My Mother didn’t say a word, she just stared at the cake, two of the three candles fizzling out and leaving the cake a melted sky blue mess. 
“Hi, Mama.” 
My Mom patted the seat next to her, and I took it. Tyler walked in, “Oh, hi Carmen. Hi Maria. Am I- Am I interrupting something.” 
“Mac,” My Mother sounded so calm, yet… unsure. “Welcome home, baby. I missed you.” 
“I missed you, too,” I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, hugging her. 
“Aww, would you look at that.” Tyler gushed, taking a slice of the cake. As the two of us glared at him, he frowned. “What? No one else was eating it.” 
Mama whacked him. 

“What’s up, man?” Carmen asked. The “party” had mostly faded away, both of my Mom and Tyler both passed out over a booth, my Mama laying on Tyler’s chest, Tyler drooling down onto her hair. I liked Tyler. He might’ve been a bumbling idiot- and my former swim coach- but he made my Mom happy, and that’s all that really mattered to me. Aunt Maria had disappeared into the kitchen, preparing a new platter of tamales to stuff the two of us. Dear Google Translate, what’s Spanish for, “Please stop feeding me tamales, I literally cannot breathe?” The entire family collectively agreed to close early, just for me. 
Carmen and I were the only people still in the actual restaurant area, Carmen behind the bar table. “Bro, want some Tequila?” She asked, placing two shot glasses on the table. 
“I don’t drink, Carmen.” 
“Suit yourself,” she poured two glasses anyways, and almost impulsively, I grabbed one as well. “So, how’s life been?” Carmen placed a cutting board on the table, chopping a lime with effortless precision.
“Have you… read the news? I was in that club that killed Chase Kemp.” 
“Maldita sea, must’ve sucked to have been him.” She paused. “Being dead and all.”
I took a sip. Repulsive. Hated it. I took another sip.
“Yeah. Oh, and my girlfriend cheated on me.” 
“Oh, funny. So did mine.” She unlocked her phone, showing me a picture of her at some college party, streaks of green in her hair, next to her was a guy, broad shoulders, wee bits of scruff. “That was last November.”
“I’m so sorry.” 
“Eh, he was an a– anyways.” She rolled her eyes. “Mac, tell you what, College is crazy. But it’s better than being in this hell-hole. She pointed at the kitchen, Aunt Maria screaming to herself, “I bet you know what it’s like. Like, don’t get me wrong, at least our Mom’s care. I just… don’t like how they handle stuff.” She took a sip, “I know a place, right? I’ll teach you how to drive, I had to take the class at Wheeler. Everyone else already had a parent’s help, it was so embarrassing. But I guess if there’s one thing me and the mommies agree on, it’s hard work goes a long way.”
The tequila hit. “I- I need to go pee.” 
She took another sip, “You… go do that, then, my strange dysfunctional family member.” 
I muttered to myself as I did my business. It was a surreal experience being home, being away from Caesar Middle School, bidding my friends farewell. Again.
“I’m alone,” I whispered to myself.
“Yeah, you’re telling me.” He said. I blinked. Strangely enough, this didn’t scare me as much as you’d expect. It could’ve been because I’ve been through alot by now, maybe nothing surprises me anymore? Maybe I assumed it was my conscious speaking to me. Then again, I don’t think any sane person’s conscious spoke in the neurotic, erotic voice of Sir Edward Emily. 
I groaned, “What do you want, Edward?” 
Edward laughed, “I’ll give you three guesses.” 
“You have a proposition for me.”
“WHAT? How’d you guess??” 
“Every social interaction you have is over a mission.” 
“You don’t have to remind me. My therapist does enough of that already.” He shrugged. “But I DO have a proposal for you.” 
“Can I- Can I pee first?” 
“Sure, I don’t see why not.” 
A few seconds later,  I exited the stall and reached to wash my hands. Edward washed with me, “So, you remember that one school, Athens?” 
“Nope, never heard of it.” 
“You’re a riot, pipsqueak. Anyways… hear me out. What if we brought it back?”
“Let me guess: We’d go to war with Caesar Middle?” 
“No, actually. We’d just have a good school.” 
“What about teachers? Like, I highly doubt we’d be able to run this school out on our own.” 
“We have teachers. Tyler Willigens. My Dad. Dr. Foust. Demitri Fells. There’s even a few teachers from Kirby High School. There’s a truckload of people with teaching degrees who have been left, well, frankly jobless. It was my Dad’s idea, and he already called Tyler. He’s into it.” 
I imagined Tyler, passed out and drooling over my Mother waking up and bashing his way into the room with a “NEVERMIND EDWARD! THAT IDEA SOUNDS BAD!”
That did not happen. 
“Listen, Eddie, I just want to enjoy my summer vacation, alright?”
“How could you enjoy it without your friends?” 
I raised my finger. “Hey! Listen, man, I’ve been to seven schools over the course of seven years. I’m used to getting myself expelled, I’m used to saying goodbye to people. I don’t need any of you anymore than you need me.”
I tried to push past him, though Edward effortlessly blocked me. In the process, he had me cornered by the sink. He raised an eyebrow, “You and I have one thing in common, I guess. We’re both reliant. Both social creatures. The difference, I guess, is that I know it. Mac, I’m not special. I’m not gifted, hell, none of us are. But some of us can be. You can be. We can rebuild Athens Middle School. And for the first time, you could return to your old school. Doesn’t that sound great?” 
I sighed, “Sure, Edward. Sure. Let’s say I wanted to do this. How would I show up? My Mom wants me out of this origami business, you know.” 
“Oh,” Edward grinned, “You need a method of transportation, do you now? Leave that to me.”  
And with that, Edward strutted off. 
And I was left with thousands of questions, though one answer still rang true. A whisper from the angel, or devil, or perhaps both on my shoulder. 
I was going to work on rebuilding Athens Middle School.


THE ATHENS-CARTER INSTITUTE
By Mac Astley

“Rise and shine, Mac! Big day ahead!” Tyler turned the light on. 
“Tyler, it’s literally four AM. On the second day of Summer. And we got home at eleven.” 
I could groggily make out Tyler winking at me. I didn’t put much effort into getting dressed, sliding on a faded and stained Debbie Don’s T-Shirt. 
“Hey, Estelle!” Tyler yelled, “Me and Mac are going out on that bonding trip, I mentioned!” 
“Does Maccy have his thermos?” Estelle asked. 
“Do you have your thermos?” Tyler whispered. 
“Nope.” I said. 
“Yep!” Tyler yelled.
Tyler grinned the moment he slammed the door shut. I raised an eyebrow, “Bonding trip?” 
“Mom thinks we’re going to be looking for a new school, bonding, you know.” 
“Wow. You’re really good at lying.” 
He cackled, “You and I, Astley.” He stepped in front of me, swiveling around to fire a finger gun, “We’re not so different! I’m just a kid at heart!”
And with that, he clapped his hands. “I’ll race you down the stairs!” 
I walked slowly, and by the time I exited the lobby, Tyler was nowhere to be seen. Until I heard a clicking sound. I peered down the sidewalk, and parked all the way down the line of cars, Tyler Willigens leaned on a hot rod red 1998 Dodge Challenger. 
“Why?” I asked, once I caught up to him. Tyler shrugged, “I’ve had this in a storage unit for so long, dawg. This was the first car I ever had, little man.” He slapped the hood, “Me, your Mom, and your Dad would joy ride. You know that dent in the stop sign down Latimer Avenue?” 
I nodded. 
Tyler pointed at a dent in the fender. 
“Wait, wait, wait. REALLY?”
Tyler nodded. 
I couldn’t control myself. I hopped into the passenger seat, and Tyler started the car, a little hula girl keychain dangling from his key. Tyler opened up the glove compartment, revealing an entire rack of Dolly Parton CDs.
And he put one in. 
Well, I tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen.
We soured through the perfect blue skies, barely making out tridents and ducks in the bright marble clouds. Tyler told me about my Mother’s early days, how he and her were the rebellious icons of a whole new generation. It made me bitter, I have to say. That something so stupid would stamp all of this out of her, leaving behind the person she is today. It made me sick. But hey, she’s my Mom. I love her. 
Tyler came to a stop at the gated off playground of Athens-Carter. In a relative circle, twenty to thirty people stood in awkward clumps. Edward dangled off of the monkey bars, talking to a person with hair dyed shades of green and black leaning their back on it and sipping away at Kool-Aid. 
A teacher I barely recognized hollered Tyler’s name, and Tyler jogged over to hug him. “Hey, what’s up Demitri.”
Mister Demitri Fells banged a hammer on his prosthetic leg. “Still disabled.”
“Hi, Mr. Fells.” I muttered. A man stood behind Demitri, wearing a business suit and on his phone. “Demitri, how much longer of this must I tolerate?” 
“Shut the f— up, Eric!” He yelled. “Sorry, that’s my brother. Bart’s Dad. He’s helping Dr. Foust out with funding. Oh, hi Mac. How’s life?”
“I’ve been-” A whistle blew. Sitting at the edge of the metal slide, arms folded over his knees, Charles Emily. Edward and Kaitlyn were the first people to jog towards him, the rest of us following suit. 
Standing among the circle was the strangest assortment of humans I’ve ever met, only broken by whisps of the morning fog. From left to right, Edward Emily, a group I recognized as The Cut of Dionysus- I thought they closed shop after Athens closed- Bart Montez, Eric Montez, Demitri Fells, Me, Tyler, Dennis Redwood, Arthur Foust, Dr. Carter Foust, Sopia Foust, Kaitlyn Emily, and Mariana Binford. Charles produced a small book from his vest pocket. 
“Hello future students, faculty, and donors of the Athens-Carter Institute, I am your future principal, Charles Emily. Now, Athens only has one Middle School, and that’s Caesar. Whenever the former students of Athens moved there, chaos spread like wildfire. Caesar’s private school structure and climate is not suited to these student’s needs. Both of my two children, Edward Emily and Kaitlyn Hunter, have seen the inner-workings of both schools and have wrote several journal entries detailing these events, those files- The Hunters of Artemis, The Heroes of the OrigUnderworld, Nico Di AngeFold and Will SolCrease, and Label Levesque and The Hunters of Artemis will be available in my office for more information.
“The core objective of Athens-Carter is to provide a much more open experience. Students will be able to make up missed-”
I saw something in the fog.
“Sebastian!” I yelled. Sebastian Merrick walked through the fog, across the playground and the bus line, a familiar pair of purple sunglasses shimmering. I jogged over to hug him, picking him up and swinging him around, setting him down back in the circle. Eighty or so eyes stared at us. 
“S-Sorry. Seb’s my friend. Continue.”
Sopia coughed. 
“As I was saying, students will be able to make up assignments and retake tests to their hearts content. The goal will be to use technology provided by Mr. Montez’ company for the school, allowing students an online library of all of their assignments, letting them work at their own pace. Soon, the lines between home and school work will blur, these chromebooks being made available to students at any and all times.
“The current objective will be to rebuild Athens Middle School from the ground up, undoing the structural issues caused by Xander Strohm in December of 2020 and finding teachers. So,” Charles clapped his hands, “Mr. Montez! We promise that, with money earned from a fundraiser performed by Lance Alexander, we’ll be able to pay for a shipment of roughly four hundered chromebooks.” 
Eric Montez looked up from his phone and yawned, “Yeah, sure, whatever. Come along now, Bart.” He pulled Bart away by the arm, as Bart tried to squirm out of his grasp. “But Dad, I wanna tinker.”
Mr. Fells detached his prosthetic leg and hopped over to his cousin, wacking him over the head. “Let the boy stay, Eric!” 
Eric rolled his eyes and walked away, “Bring him to the penthouse by eight thirty, okay?” 
Bart rolled his eyes and hunched his small form between two of the monkey bars. 
Marianna stood up, cupping her hand around Charles’ ear. Charles grinned, “Alright, gang! With that secured, let’s get to work.” 
We made our way, walking towards the ruins of Athens-Carter. Charles jiggled the door and sighed, “It’s locked.” 
The crowd parted, making way for Tyler Willigens. Tyler produced a ring of his keys from his pockets, grinning. 
The door swung open, releasing a shrill screech. Dust spilled from the cracks. 
We stepped into the checkerboard floors of the old sixth grade wing. I caught a whiff of the distinct smell of dead bird, sending a twitch up my nose. 
Sebastian squatted down, poking me in the knee with a pencil. 
“Hiya.” He said, getting back up. 
I groaned, “Hey, Sebastian.”
I checked my watch. 
 9:38 AM. Workin’ 9 to 5.

SHARPEN YOUR LANCE
By Sebastian Merrick and Mac Astley

Sebastian 

I’m a simple man. I walk down the bleak New York streets mid-summer, I’m going to contemplate my life choices. And man- this is the perfect street for contemplation. 
It’s dark and damp, disgusting and dank. It’s just off Biggenton. It’s an awful little whole in the wall, whole in the heart, a needle like a whole in the head little f—er of a joint. 
How do you get there? You’re gonna wanna go in from Madison, the street by the, behind the mall. They’re gonna offer you a little K-2, a little bit of that old spice. 
You know that spot? You know that spot. And you’re gonna wanna go up state street, take a right where it makes two wrongs, and you wander your way down, it’s a hop, a skip, and a jump away. (Not the best method of transportation.) 
And you get to a little culdesac, where all the buildings stick out the street like diseased teeth. You gotta walk up to that first building, kiss mama on the neck. Mwah. 
You’re gonna present five women, if you don’t present five women they don’t let you in. It’s an alternative economy but they make it work. 
It’s a rotten little street called Goode Street. 
 I’ve been doing this a lot, you know. I’m so young, too. Where did it all go wrong? I’m thirteen years old and I led someone to his death. 
How am I a good person? Like, everyone says that I’m a good person. That I’m a hero, that I’m noble. No. I truly, deeply believe that I am the villain of this story. 
But tonight, it’s time to start my road. My journey back onto the side of good. And to do that, it’s time to go back. Way back. 
Almost three years ago, I met with Ximena Strohm at Debbie Don’s Dance Dojo. It spiraled out of control, it became bigger than we possibly could have imagined. 
At first, I checked down Riordan Avenue. The small road lined with shops, wall to wall. From the Qwikpick, to Debbie Don’s. Debbie Don’s old neon sign had collected cobwebs and an aurora of decrepit sadness, its paint scratched off, appearing dull and gray. 
I pulled out the key, the one K held onto all these years. The inside wasn’t much prettier, the only splash of color dashed across the counter. Wine stains. I took a seat in the empty, dead, lobby.  I knew the building was abandoned, but if anything it was just for… nostalgia. I guess you could say I’m an old bat, like that. 
The same chair. That same chair where everything went wrong. Ximena Strohm rambling on about the members of the Triumvirate. 
Flynn Macintosh. OriChronos. The person who pushed me down the path I’m on today. A monster. 
Xander Strohm. A product of my own failings. He joined the Triumvirate hoping to prove himself to his Mother. It was my corruption that brought him to where he was today. 
And finally, Mallory Cross. Me and Mallory have… history, too. But I don’t want to dig into it, at all. 
It’s here I learned of all this. 
But Lance is gone now. 
Debbie Don’s is gone. 
I hate it here, anyways.
But I came here looking for Lance Alexander. and I’m dam sure I’m not leaving without him. (Haha. Dam.) 
I went to the address Edward left me with,  a house out along the edge of Athens, covered in trash and burning trash cans, which seemed a bit backwards to me. A few people shot me glares. 
I think I was mugged, but a kind man in a suit gave me some cash as long as I promised to pay it back monthly, and give his business card to my parents. Perry Mid Scheme seems like a kind enough businessman, don’t you think?
At the address, sat a decrypt, broken down house, each step creaking as I walked up it. And I rang the doorbell. 
The lady who cracked the door open was a short woman, covered- and I mean covered in sweat, and with a permanent scowl dashed across her face.
She frowned, “Who are you, and what do you want?” 
I gulped. “Does- Does Lance Alexander live at this location?”
“Sadly, he does.” 
The voice of Maya Youmans chirped, “Who’s there, Grace?” 
“It’s a kid,” she noticed the pamphlet in my hand, “Oh, and tell Mr. Scheme I’m not interested in his child labor pyramid scheme?” 
“Why would Perry Scheme run a Pyramid Scheme?” I asked. 
She sighed. 
“Who- Who is it?” Lance’s voice asked. 
“It’s a kid!” Maya yelled. 
“Oooh, a kid?” 
“Yeah, I’m here to talk about Athens-Carter. “ Whispers. 
“Listen, man,” Lance yelled, “My fundraiser failed! Debbie Don’s closed down.” 
“Lance!” I yelled, “It’s me! Sebastian Merrick!” 
I heard the sound of someone stumbling down the stairs, and a second person rushing down a hardwood floor. The lady at the door opened it a bit more, revealing Lance Alexander and Amy Youmans at her sides. 
Lance’s hair had gotten curlier over the years, and he had grown a pair of side burns. His eyes were lazy, drooping. Next to him, Amy looked exhausted, on her finger, a dazzling engagement ring. Hey, they were finally able to afford one. 
Lance pushed past the woman, “Oh my goodness, Sebastian. Wow, dude, it’s great to see you. Really great. How’s- How’s life?” 
I asked the obvious question, pointing at the woman. “Who’s this?” 
“That… That is my sister Grace.” Grace smiled, revealing several metal teeth. “She let us live with her after Debbie Don’s closed.” 
“Hell yeah, I did. Rent free, too.”
“Trust me,” Amy said, exasperated, “Living with you is costly enough.”
“I hate you.” Grace said. 
“I’ll poison you. I’ll flush your rat down the toilet.” Grace turned around as Amy smiled, having won the argument. “I’ll burn this house down.” 
“I’ll call the police.” 
“Who are they going to believe? The lady who assaulted a child or the lady who assaulted a child? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“What?” Grace asked. 
“What?” Amy asked. 
“What?” I asked. “Anyways,” I blurted, “Could- Could Lance and I go on a walk.” Lance shoved past his sister. 
“Boy, can we?” Lance jumped up and down, excited, looking at Amy the way a toddler looks at its Mother. 
Amy nodded her head. 

As the birds chirped and Lance and I walked down the side of the road, Lance weaved me his tale. An epic battle unfolded once a fundraiser for Athens-Carter went haywire, leading to the students of Debbie Don’s Dance Dojo and the Hunters of Art-emis battling Flynn Macintosh. Though they won, Debbie Don’s was forced into closure by Mr. Silver Emily. Silver shut the entire place down, and left Amy and Lance homeless. They decided to stay with Lance’s sister, Grace, who would constantly belittle the two.
And I told him mine. How, after quitting Debbie Don’s, I became Luke CastePleat and fought for the false promises of Flynn Macintosh. Flynn set me up to fail and give rise to the new OrigOlympus, which shut down the school we’re trying to re-open. I cheated on my girlfriend. The poor kid I had taken beneath my wing died.
It had been a rough year for the both of us. 
And Lance was out of it just as much as I was. Okay, Sebastian. Step one. Analyze the situation. I needed to convince Lance to fight for our cause. The only problem is: Deep down, I, too, believe it is a lost cause. 
Step two. Objective. Convince Lance (as well as myself) that he must resume work on the Athens-Carter project. “Listen, man,” I said, “I feel you. I’m down and out as it is, already. But I know you see it. You can work for Athens-Carter, because at this moment,” I snapped, “We’re both still kids. Are you old enough to drink yet?” 
He nodded, “I mean, yeah- yeah. Yep. I haven’t done it, though, but-” 
“Look, the point is, both of us have our whole lives ahead of us. We’re both going through some stuff at the moment, and man, it’s tough.” I put my hand on Lance’s shoulder, “But we can do this. We’re creative. We’re resilient. And we’re natural born leaders.”
“I can’t get mixed up in this. I’m going to community college… I’ll probably work in accounting or marketing or something.” 
I slapped him across the face, “Do you even hear yourself?” 
“Fine. Okay, fine. I’d give up a life of stability and a sure paycheck instead of working at a non-existence school.” 
“What would Origami Yoda say?” 
“ORIGAMI YODA WASN’T REAL, GROW THE F— UP.” 
“DON’T SAY THAT!! … He was real to me. He was real to me.” 
“Grow up. That’s all I have for you. Grow up. We don’t live in some fantasy.” 
“But why can’t we try? Why can’t we roll the dice a little, huh? Isn’t that what life is all about?” 
Lance groaned and tried to walk off. A surge overcame me as I tapped my foot on the ground, three times, swirling around with a squeak and swiping at his leg. I kneel down, catching his head on my thigh. I push Lance up. 
“H- How did you do that?” 
“You should know, after all, you taught me.” 
“I know what you’re doing. And it’s not going to work.”
“And what am I doing? I’m just showing off a dance I learned at your dojo.”
“Amy wants a kid. I’m going to have a family someday. And then I won’t be able to do… any of this puppet stuff.” 
“I don’t have a family. Sure, I have parents… but they’re not what I need. Right now,  I don’t have anything. And look at me, marching off to do this. I have nothing to lose and you have everything to keep.” I pointed down the street, down Goode Street. “Is that old place the legacy you want to leave behind for your kid? Didn’t you once tell Mac Astley that it’s not about what you do with the time you’re given?” 
Lance got a twinkle in his eyes, and chuckled to himself. 
“…It’s about what you leave behind.” 
I won, I think.

Mac

I can’t believe they didn’t clean up the Titan’s Curse Word. But hey, what can I say? I guess it’s a core memory. Because here the two of us stood, painting over it. I guess it’s poetic irony that I’m the one who cleans up this mess. 
“I don’t f—ing care, anymore, Mac.” he said, “I don’t care about any of this. I just want to be happy.” 
“You don’t even care about Mallory?” I asked Mr. Dennis Redwood. Dennis laughed, “F—, no.” Dennis popped the collar of his leather jacket, “I don’t care about her. She did nothing but manipulate me.” 
Dennis had… changed. He’d always flash a smile that looked drunk, though really it was just loose and carefree. That’s how Dennis looked. Carefree. Unburdened by all that’s happened. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know. I just feel so… Loose, y’know? For the first time in a while, I’m genuinely happy. I don’t know, I just got so tired of being such a sad sack of s—. I figured that I ought to do something good with my life. All that it takes is a little reinvention.”
“I don’t get that.” I said, “I don’t get how you can just change like that.” 
“You did.” 
“I changed because I had to. I had to adapt.” 
“Then I guess that’s your problem right there,” he shook his head and quietly laughed, “You changed because you had to. You changed because of your pain. Not in spite of it. That’s the secret, Mac.” 
Dennis stepped away from his peptalk and flicked a splash of white at it, like he was Picasso. I wish I was glad to see Dennis again. I wish I could be happy for him. 
Because he’s happy. And that’s a good thing. But truth be told, I hated it. I hated how the two of us were both cheated. And betrayed. By the same people, more often than not. 
And I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way, but I hated how Dennis could be happy when I couldn’t be. Why does he deserve to be happy? 
I stared at the remnants of the Titan’s Curse Word, strawn out in spots across the wall. 
F— Athens. 
Yeah, man. F— Athens. 
I reached forward and dipped my brush back into the can of paint. And all Dennis did was complain about how none of this mattered to him, soon fading into an ear-peircing screech. I don’t know why, but I just…. I just wanted him to shut the f— up. 
A hand reached over my shoulder, blocking my to side  movements. “Painting the school. No side side. Go up down.”
I turned around and stared at Lance Alexander. 
Lance giggled, “It’s good to be back.” 


ESCAPE (THE XIMENA STROHM SWAN SONG)
By Mac Astley

I’m painting. Oh hell yeah, I’m painting. Up on a ladder. Painting the gym. Demitri’s drilling a seat someone ripped off during the riot back on. Yeah, someone ripped off an entire seat. 
Edward dusted for fingerprints. Yeah, it was Lina. Lina ripped off an entire seat. Edward has Lina’s finger prints? Hell yeah, he does. 
This is the life. 
Dennis rushes into the gym, slipping on the newly waxed floors and sliding over. Fall out of the ladder? Hell yeah, I do. I fall out of the ladder. 
“Dennis! What the f—!?” 
“Mac! What the f—!?”
“Bro! Ximena!” 
“What?” 
“Ximena! She’s like, in the town! Right now!”
“What? How?” 
“She’s with her Dad!” 
“WHAT!?” 
“I don’t know!! Ask Dionysus!” 
Dennis rushes off, nearly slipping on the wax again. I race after him, though I too slip and fall. Demitri stumbles on his way off the stand, but I’m not worried. What’s he gonna do? Break his leg. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Cripple.
I skid through the empty Athens-Carter, past a Sebastian Merrick hard at work on the plunger, I’m halfway to the exit when I realized three things. 
One: I do not know where Ximena is. 
Two: I did not know who Dionysus was. F—, What do I do?
I got it. I should find out who Dionysus is. And then I should talk to them. 
My genius, sometimes, it’s unmatched. I head into the bathroom, “Sebastian,” I say, “Do you know someone who goes by the name Dionysus?” 
“A Dionysus puppet? Well, there’s Amy.”
“I’m not looking for someone with a Dionysus puppet. Someone with the name Dionysus.”
“Never heard of him. Her?” He questioned, “Them?” Sebastian shrugged his shoulders and went back to plunging.
Thanks, Sebastian. Very helpful, Sebastian. 
As I rushed through the hall, I ran into someone with vibrant pink hair over their eyes and makeup that made them look like a strange little doll. A pretty, strange little doll, yet still a strange little doll. I knocked a stack of paper out of their hands. I reached down to pick up the paperwork, and smiled at my co-worker. 
“I am so, so, sorry.” 
“Hey don’t mention it. I’ve been through worse to get where I’m at, now.” 
“I- I don’t know who you are.” 
“Oh, really?” They raised an eyebrow, “You must not have spent that long at Athens Middle School,” they offered me a handshake, “I’m Dionysus.” 
It’s Dionysus! The person I’m looking for! I open my mouth, ready to unfurl a whirlwind of questions and emotion. 
“Hey-”
“Yeah, Dionysus, in the flesh. The head of my titular cult. Or not really a cult.”
“I-”
“Cults are sham, y’knows. So it’s my cut. Like, cut of someone’s wealth. But also, like, cut with scissors. Wealth is such a fascinating concept, anyways, because it’s such a great thing to have yet the people who have it always often.”
“D-” 
“What I’m excited for with the Athens-Carter project is freedom from the burden of private school. You know, they sent our parents bills half-way through the school year! Insane. Absolutely insane.” 
“Did I a-” 
“Anyways, ahh, I’m  rambling. I was walking to work, right?”
“Oh my god, I don’t-” 
“And I found this girl. Genuinely, seriously, beautiful, oh my gods. And she says she’s looking for this boy, his name’s like… Macaroni, or something. Astley. Do you know a Mac Astley?” 
“No, absolutely not.” 
“Huh, that’s wild. Anyways, her name was like Cinema? Cicada?” Shex shook her head, “I have 31 mentally illnesses, and-” 
“I’m Mac Astley! Oh my god! Shut up! Stop f—ing talking!” 
“Okay.” 
“Where did Ximena go?” 
“Ximena? That’s a weird name. She kept walking, she acted all nervous. And stuff. She might still be waiting outside, I- I don’t know, I left to go look for Mac Astley. Who is here now. Because, y’know, he’s you.”
 “I don’t understand why I hate you so much.” 
I elbowed Dionysus on my way out of the school, though I came to a skidding halt the moment I realized Tyler’s office was right by the office. 
Damn. Now what? 
How do I break out?
And then it hits me, how I can break out, at least. I need to find Sebastian Merrick. I called him up. “Sebastian! Sebastian!” I whisper-yell over the phone, careful to get my point across without being heard, “I’m in the lobby. Ximena’s outside, somehow, I do not know. I need your help to get out of the building.” 
In just under a minute, Sebastian appears out of a janitor’s closet. “Hey, man, what’s up?” 
I’m confused. I nearly faint. “Don’t ask.”
“But-” 
“Hey, sounds like you were about to ask there.” 
People keep interrupting me.
“Okay,” Sebastian said, “What if we went under the library?” 
“Excuse me, what the f— does that mean?” 
“Oh yeah, you haven’t explored the labyrinth yet.”
“The what?”
“There’s a labyrinth underneath the school. CHRONOS used it, it’s pretty cool, I think. It led to Athens shutting down. Anyways, ever since the flood it became… unstable. We need to go in prepared. My bookbag-”
“Don’t call it that.” 
“My backpack is in the bathroom, I got a copy of 1984, a handful of paper clips I stole from Mrs. Kemp’s old office, and a bottle hidden in a sack, filled with a beverage I’m choosing not to- I got it! Mac, do you have a book on you?”
“No, why?” 
“Looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way.” He pulled out a map, “Charles is doing the principal’s office and is working with Carter, Sopia, and Arthur to renovate the teacher’s lounge. Tyler, Edward, and the Hunters are working in the elective hallway, renovating the art room, the choir room, and the band room respectively. The Cut of Dionysus is split up among the seventh and eighth grade hallways, the two factions led by Marianna and this one lady. I think her name is Felicia. Sixth’s repairs are led by Mr. Fells, Bart Montez, and Dennis Redwood. We need to avoid the teachers at all costs, and though they’re less dangerous, we must operate under the assumption that any student that can betray us, will betray us.” 
“Is this CHRONOS training?”
“Yes, anyways, each classroom has a window by it, thankfully there’s really only two or three teachers down each hall, and depending on which hall you go down, there’s an entrance to the labyrinth. The best entrance we can get is if we snuck down the library, which involves having to dash by the teacher’s lounge. You up for the job?”
I fired a finger gun, “Of course. I’d do anything.” 
“Didn’t Ximena break your heart?” 
“People can change. I really believe that, Sebastian. People can change.” Sebastian grinned, “Yeah, I’m sure they can.”
“Okay, here’s the plan…” 
I whistled by the large glass window which showed off the courtyard and playground of Athens, admiring the bare field, only broken by a tarress, a crooked metal slide, monkey bars, and swings. I guess it was beautiful. 
It was also beautiful to imagine that Sebastian was talking to Charles Emily, at this very moment. Trying to explain how his library book would be due soon, and he needed to make a mad dash out of the building. Charles always loved the local library. 
In a matter of minutes, a book, 1984, dropped from the sky. Through the vents. Through the labyrinth. 
The book’s cover was marked with an X, and I rushed up to Charles Emily, holding the book by the blurb. (Cover faced away from him.) 
Charles looked suspicious, though I managed to explain how Sebastian reminded me. 
“Why do you have the same book as him? Doesn’t the local library only have one copy of 1984?” 
“Oh, um… we run a book club, and the library supplies us with extra copies!” 
“Oh my god! A book club? Could I get Edward to join, Edward loves reading, you know.” 
Oh my god, f—, f—, f—. 
“Oh, well, right now we already have five members and we’re trying to keep it small,” I thought of Ximena’s job at the library, “We’re trying to keep it small because we’re mostly just reading to kids.”
“You’re reading 1984 to kids?” 
I paused, questioning what to say. I figured I’d own up to it, “…Yes?” 
“Oh my god, that’s- that’s horrible.” 
“You gotta teach them young, anyways, I need to bounce, the kids are so excited to read the part where Winston is betrayed by everyone and everything he holds dear, and I don’t want to keep them waiting.” I sprinted off before he could ask anymore questions. I pushed through the already unlocked double door, and felt the rush of freedom, the wind blowing through my hair. 
Sebastian caught up to me, frowning, “Oh my god, what took you so long?”
“I got a little caught up, okay? If Mr. Emily asks, we’re reading 1984 to children, okay?”
“What?” Sebastian shook his head, “Y’know what? Forget about it. You gotta get going!”
“C- Could you come with me?” I pleaded. 
“Actually, I have to go to the library,” he held up his book, “This is actually overdue. That part wasn’t a lie. Now you gotta get going, bro, your girl’s waiting for you. He winked and ran off.
And I couldn’t find Ximena. And I sat down on the bench, ready for her to come back around. Because I knew she would. 
Why am I still writing this down?

WALKIN’ A TALKIN
By Ximena Strohm

I had to find Mac Asltey myself. I swear, that man would lose his hands if it was possible.
Alas, here we are. Walking down the sidewalk. It’s noon. Birds chirp. Tree.
“I brought M&Ms. The brownie stuffed ones you like.” 
“Oh, th- thank you.” Mac ate out of the palm of my hand. I’m being serious here. 
“No problem, jeez, it’s just… really nice talking to you, again. I’m glad we can sort all of this out, again. I missed you.” 
Mac nodded, “Yeah, yeah, I- I missed you, too, Ximena. I missed you alot. I don’t know, I just felt so betrayed for so long. I was on edge. And- and violent. And aggressive. I think Chase was more of a wakeup call, if anything. That I needed to get my life in order.” 
“Dennis and Edward hate you, you know. I’m pretty sure Kaitlyn does, too. We’re in a group chat.”
“What?” Mac looked hurt. He looked sad, and betrayed. 
It kind of made me mad to see him like that, I guess. Because I don’t think he deserves this. I don’t think Mac Astley asked for this mess, to tell the truth. I read his file. He has ADHD. 
I’m not sure if anyone’s ever told him that, either. But he does. 
“Mac Astley, don’t let them get you down. They have their own lives to live. They’re not f—ing perfect, either. They’ll come around, eventually.” 
I started walking behind him, playing with the tips of his mullet, occasionally stepping on the heels of his shoes. 
“Would you cut that out?” He asked. 
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s just funny.” 
“So… you see Loki yet?” 
“No, I, uh, don’t have Disney Plus…” 
“You can have my password?” 
“Really?” 
“Of course, you’re always free to come over and hang out. Remember how my Mom was always off on business trips?” 
“Yeah?”
“Well, she’s actually been at Caesar with your grandma. 
“Wait, really?”
“Yeah. And well, they’re planning something…”
“That’s… that’s huge.”
“Eh, we’ll handle it next year.” 
“Next year… next year, I won’t be here.” 
I paused. “Come again?” 
“Yeah, I got expelled.”  
I laughed. I couldn’t help it, the full realization hadn’t yet hit me. “You were expelled?” 
“Yeah…” Mac looked embarrassed.
“Again?” 
“Yeah…” 
“That’s the seventh time you’ve been expelled.” 
“Yeah.” He blinked. 
“And you’ve been to school for seven years.” 
“YES, XIMENA, IT IS.”
Things got quiet. Real quiet. And I had the moment to stop and think. 
“Dennis got expelled, too. A Lot of them got expelled.” 
“So we can go to the same school?” 
“No, not- not exactly. I wasn’t expelled. I’m… still there.” 
“That’s… really sad, actually.” 
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“So we won’t be able to see each other for months?” 
“Yeah, yeah, I guess… I guess not.” 
“That’s… that’s really sad. I was looking forward to seeing you.” 
“I- I was, too. Do you think we’ll be able to go to the same High School?” 
“I’m still expelled from the main Madison County District. So, it’s Claremont Academy for me.” 
“Curses. My family’s got ties with Wheeler, we’re probably going to end up there.”
“Wow, we really just can’t catch a break.” 
“Nope, not at all.” 
“So… the question remains, how’d you break out this time?”
“Well, how’d you break Edward in, last year?” Mac raised an eyebrow and smirked, a glimmer in his eye. 
I sighed, “Rock, Paper, Monkey, Star Trek 1966.” 
He winked at me.
“Alright then, keep your secrets.” 

“Alright, you could open them.” Mac opened his eyes wide. The world revealed to him was one I held dear. It was the street I live down, a street almost all of my friends (and Mallory, back before she betrayed us) had visited, at least once. 
And across the street, the real view. A lake, beautiful and vast. The chirp of seagulls, a couple playing volleyball off in the sand. Sebastian Merrick met Lina Kemp and Dennis Redwood here, and on the night of that party, I looked on from my window. I guess you could say our friendship was parasocial, for a while. 
Mac looked on in awe, “This… is beautiful.” 
“I know.” 
“And you have this view every night?” 
I grabbed Mac by the shoulder and he spun around. I pointed at one of the houses, shrouded in trees. “Yep,” I focused in on a window, “My room’s right there, want to see?” 
“Sure.” 
“We can’t go inside, but you can look through the window. The trees are pretty sturdy.” 
“Won’t someone notice?”
“My Mom left me with my Dad and my Dad took the car to visit his girlfriend, so…” 
“Forget I asked, I’m in.” 
And we climbed a tree. 
Mac leaned across two branches, one of his legs dangling between them. His hair drooped over his eyes; the back of his long hair hanging down. I climbed the branch barely below him, and pecked him on the nose. I kissed Mac Astley, because that was the thing to do. 


HARDLY WORKING
By Sebastian Merrick 

We’re in the teacher lounge. “It’s crazy, you know. All that’s going on,” Lance said, “When I moved here in the eighth grade, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that everything would change, kid. I didn’t want everything to change.” 
“I get it, I moved here, too. And I moved here before… just about anyone. Except for Lina and Dennis. I guess, in a way, we were both the first of our generations. We’ve seen everything. 
“I still don’t get it, though,” I continued, “How you ended up so happy.” 
Lance peered up at Amy Youmans, on a keyboard. Sitting on the table. And Lance smiled. Lance seemed to smile every time he looked at Maya Youmans.  “I think we both know, tell me, Sebastian, you got a lady?” 
“Had one, yeah. But I blew it.”
I almost blew it with Amy. Hell, I almost blew it a lot of times. Trust me, there’s- there’s going to be someone there for you. At the end of the line. I know it might not always seem that way. But you should be proud of yourself, because you’re a tough kid. I know I’m proud of you.”
“Yeah, I guess. Still, I think we both know this is a lost cause.”
“Yeah, right.” Lance paused, “Over Mrs. Kemp’s undying body.”
My eyebrows furrowed. “What?” 
“Whenever I first moved here, we’d do gym in the basketball court. It was easy, accessible, it was what we needed,” he pointed out the window, out into the field. In the distance, there was a shack. 
“But way, way back, Athens used to be huge. And there was a gym there. Anyways, the janitor used to let me hang out in the old gym. It was magical. C’mon,” Lance gestured at the door, “I haven’t run this by Mr. Emily yet, but let me show you something.”
The outside of the gym was surrounded by mats and other things, including a few stands. Lance creaked the door  open, and smiled. 
On the other hand, the place smelled worse than Athens-Carter did before Charles bought sixteen pounds of febreze in bulk. The room was so much smaller, especially for a gym.
In frames, an array of puppets. The left with an Annabeth Chase, an Art-2-D2, and a Dionysus. 
On the right, Percy Jackson, C-3PO, and Chiron. 
Lance looked at the puppet, C-3PO and took it off the shelf, “This is the first puppet I ever had. In High School, I still came here. A lot of kids, explorers, came here in the summers. I nicknamed it Camp Debbie Don. Soon, I was able to buy the location. The one that closed. Debbie Don’s Dance Dojo, origami fingers puppets, all of it was my childhood. You’ve helped show me that.” 
“So, what’s the plan now?” 
“Now, this will become Debbie Don’s Dance Dojo. 
I laughed, “This building’s like thirty years old. You can’t actually expect-” 
“No, I don’t expect to. But I think that we can.” 
“Woah, woah, woah, I don’t think I’m ready for this, but-” 
“Sebastian! You asked for this. CHRONOS has been teaching the Caesar students a way of life that goes against everything we stand for. If Athens-Carter is going to compete, CHRONOS needs an equal and opposite. And that’s the new mission of Debbie Don’s Dance Dojo. To stop the threat that you created.” 
I paused. I knew that I should say yes. But I didn’t want to lose again. I didn’t want Lance to lose again, either. Because, I think, with Sebastian Merrick comes loss. Many losses. 
But I still said yes. Because we needed to try. For everyone. 
And I guess I’ve been trying not to tell anyone this- but I needed to try. 
I needed to try for Chase Kemp. 
“That reminds me,” Lance said, “I have something for you. You abandoned Shradies, right?” 
I nodded. “And Luke CastePleat?” 
“Gone.” 
“Then you’ll need a puppet.” Lance walked over to one of the shelves, and pulled off a box “The first student I ever had folded this puppet, for herself. She’s going to graduate next year, so she’s not going to need it.” 
He opened the box, revealing a puppet of… my favorite character in the entire Rick Riordan book series. 
Reyna Avila Ramirez- Arellano.
“Okay, so…” 
“Now, we begin your training.” 

“H- Hello, ma’am… w- would you like to buy a cookie?” Edward Emily reluctantly held up a brochure, “We’re not interested.” She slammed the door on his face. 
“Oh.” 
The lady was former principal Varsity Kemp. And it was the seventh time Edward had a door slammed on his face this morning. 
Mac snatched the brochure from his hand, “Man, f—ing, give me that.” 
“How much money did we get?” Edward asked.
Mac placed thirty two cents in the coin jar I was holding, leaning over and squinting, “I would say thirty two cents.”
“Very funny, Mac.” Dennis chuckled, elbowing Mac in the ribs. 
“You’re welcome. I donated one hundred percent of our current profits.” 
Edward raised his eyebrow, placing a penny in the jar. “B—.”
“Clearly, you don’t own an air fryer.” 
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Kemp creaked the door open, “You all are loittering on my property.” 

“Topic of discussion.” Edward said, “How many elementary schoolers could you take in a fight?”
“Well if Sebastian’s handling of Middle Schoolers is any indication,” Mac shook his head in mocking shame, “Not very many.” 
“We are not having this conversation again.” I raised my voice. 
“Fine, fine,” Edward said, “Mac, how was your date with Ximena?” 
Mac darted his eyes around the three of us for half a second, his eyebrows furrowing. His expression quickly loosened, smiling: “You know about that?” He asked. 
“Yeah, who doesn’t? Reading to kids? Ximena moment.” 
“Ximena moment,” Dennis agreed. 
Mac blushed, “Stop it…” 
“No.” Edward pursued, ruffling up Mac’s hair. Mac hunched his shoulders over. He’d been acting… different, lately. When he first came back from the date with Ximena he was happier than I’d ever seen him. And then he asked for some time to himself. I checked Discord and he was on Spotify, listening to music. Happy music. 
I was really proud of him. I’m one of the oldest people in the friend group, and so I guess I took on this Father-ly role. I was proud of the little guy. 
And then he just broke. For the rest of the day. It’s… day three of the five week plan, I think. We can’t have him working at this condition. 
“Hey, guys,” Mac hung my head, “Mac, do you want to talk about your date?” 
“No, no, not really.”
“Then you don’t have to, okay? You can tell me about it later,” I winked. Mac looked up at me, his eyes soft, almost watering. Instead, I pulled out a pamphlet, “Hey, I know times are a bit difficult right now, but Mac… a few of us were planning to go to the fair. Do you want to join in?”
Mac shrugged, “I’ll ask my Mom. I’ll see.” He sniffled. He was about to cry, “Hey, why don’t you head home? Sun’s getting low. Me, Edward and Dennis are going to hit a few more houses and we’ll see what comes of it, alright?” 
“S- Sure. Thanks, Sebastian.” 
I smiled, “Anytime.” He walked off. 
Dennis frowned, “Man, I thought we weren’t going to invite him.” 
“Mac’s family!” 
Edward rolled his eyes, “He’s an a–hole. We talked about this, dude. He’s really f—ed up all of us. You most of all. Didn’t he break your f—ing leg?” 
“He’s not a bad guy. He’s just got issues like the rest of us.”
“I don’t know why Ximena took him back, or why you helped him with any of that.”
Dennis stared at me point blank, thoughtlessly flipping me off. 
“Mac’s an a–hole, he’s the bad guy. You’re the good guy, Sebastian. It’s simple.” 
“It’s really not, Dennis.” 
“Yeah, I’ve tried to make Mac a better person. There’s no changing him.” 
“He’s just had a bad upbringing. I’m pretty sure the guy has ADHD.” 
“That’s not an excuse, Sebastian,” Edward said. “I’ve studied mental illnesses for years.” 
“And I f—ing have one, you dumb f—ing b—-.” 
And with that, the conversation was over. And I was tired. 
We didn’t talk in between the next few houses. A kind old lady gave us ten dollars. Ten dollars and thirty two cents. 
Wow. Profit. 
Bellona has not answered our prayers.


THEY’RE WATCHING ME
By Estelle Astley

I’m awoken by more back pain. Great. Just great. Rolling out of bed, I wipe the sleep away from my eyes and walk through the creeping apartment. The bed’s empty. For another night. 
I don’t think Tyler’s cheating on me. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. Still, it scares me. Tyler’s out there working on secret projects for OrigOlympus. His life is dangerous, and yet he’s happy to do that. I despise OrigOlympus. 
Mac’s sipping on coffee. I let him try it once a few days ago and he’s already a little caffeine addict. 
I don’t know who it was, but either Mac or Tyler finished the milk. That made me unreasonably angry.
Yawn and stretch. Yawn and stretch. I prepare a cup of coffee. 
“What’s it today? School searching?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
Mac looks high.
I gave my son a kiss on the forehead, and I left. “Have a… Have a great day, dear.”
Well, look at that. Another masterful attempt at conversation to add to the scrap book. 
I check in at the restaurant, and Maria’s there, taking orders. Morning’s have been busy since they learned what Breakfast Burritos are. Maria’s a sell out. She turned Athens’ only celebration of Hispanic Culture into the most New York place to ever New York. I think it went downhill when we lifted the “No Shoes, No Service” policy.
At eight, I start my commute. Yeah, I’m a janitor, too. I just work whatever I can get. As I mop, I can’t help but think about Mac. My beautiful son. Some days I look at him, and I see just a little me, confident and headstrong. And then I see Tyler, that loveable idiot. And other days, I admit, I see William. A reckless and arrogant prick. 
Sometimes, I feel like I’m stumbling. I thought I’d have it made, I thought my Father’s… less than stellar methods of parenting wouldn’t cross over. Even though I know he deserves it, I just can’t hit Mac. 
But I don’t know what else to do. I’m just pretending to follow the rules that they neglected to give all parents when they hand them their child. I guess each day I take another wrong turn.
Speaking of wrong turns, my boss pulls me aside. 
Apparently, the company’s going in “another direction.” Through gritted teeth, I bid my god awful job farewell. Ah, I’m really loving life, right now. 
I go home early, ready to pass out over the couch. My migraines so bad I almost crash. 
And I don’t even flinch. My heart only begins to race when I get home. 
I check the mailbox, and there’s a letter.  A collection of addresses, right in the center of the paper. All in italics, Time New Roman. The paper’s fancy. There’s my sister’s home. The restaurant. My current apartment. Tyler’s apartment. And a house in Virginia, which I assume is William’s 
And at the bottom, five words.
“We’re watching you, Estelle Astley.”
My heart goes from barely beating to racing, sweat beading from my forehead. I frantically try to call Tyler, my thumb twitching as I type his number. 
“Hello?”
“Tyler, oh my god, you have to come home. Now. Bring Mac.”
“Alright.”
“I think someone’s stalking us, they got our addresses and-”
“Mhm.” 
“I think we’re being watched, I need to go through the house, there’s probably cameras and-” 
“PSYCHE! GET PUNKED, LOSER. THIS IS ACTUALLY MY INBOX! CALL ME BACK, SUCKER!!” The line beeped. I hung up.
I told him to change it to that, too. That’s what makes me mad.
And I stop. I stop myself. For a moment I’m calm. 
And then I break loose. I nearly break my door down, searching through each and every Kitchen Cabinet. And then my room, even- oh my god, the bathroom! While in the bathroom, I cough. I nearly fall over, and I start to gag. I vomit into the toilet over the seat, nearly falling over. 
I wanted this summer to be a happy one. Now my entire family’s gone and I’m being stalked.
I decided to call the last person who I know could handle a situation like this. 
Charles Emily. 
I liked to play dumb to Mac’s escepades, but I took a liking to Edward Emily because it was evident he was his Father’s child. And man, Charles and I go way back, especially after he saved my butt in The Agon. And out of Wiliam’s two siblings, he was always the nicer one. 
Charles appeared at my windowsill with a crack of thunder sound effect. 
It was a sunny day, mind you. 
“Estelle Astley! To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I think my house has been wiretapped.” 
“I’m afraid it has been.” 
“Wait, what?” 
“Are you aware of my Father, Silver Emily?”
“I met him once, he dropped William off in a limo. He seems like a prick.” 
“That’s because he is one. He meddled with my son without my knowledge and offered him what was needed to place cameras and methods of surveillance on a great number of important individuals, you and your son included. Edward has since ceased his surveillance, though now that I say it out loud here, I suppose you can’t rule that the wires went more than just the one way.”
“You’re saying a slimy old billionaire is spying on me.” 
“I’m saying one of the slimy old billionaire’s associates is spying on you, schmuckum. Don’t worry, I know Edward’s hiding places.” 
Without hesitation, he left the living room and headed for Mac’s room, digging up Mac’s unsuccessful therapy plants. He pulled out a small recorder. “And then…” He lifted the mattress. “Aha!” 
“Oh, and Estelle, do you, by any chance, have any special cups?” 
“Um, yeah, why?”
Charles shook his head, “Edward’s got a thing for cups. Just…” He rushed to the kitchen, and began to sort through my collection of cups. They were little mason jars with straw holes poked in, and lemon stickers on the sides. Me and Mac made a bunch of them during quarantine. 
Charles unscrewed a few, and pulled out a very small recording unit, right from the lid. I remembered when Edward happily swigged down on the lemonade I made for him. Now that memory’s tainted. As he searched, I tried to make small talk. “So, Charles, how’s the business?”
“Ouranatox is still waging financial war on most of Athens’s small businesses. Debbie Don’s succumbed, already. I feel awful for Amy and Lance, they were good neighbors. “Pains me to admit it but I really needed an extra check. That’s why I opened Athens-Carter.”
“What’s… that?”
“The school…? That me and Tyler are opening? And your son is… child laboring?”
“EXCUSE ME??”
“I SAID. THE SCHOOL THAT. ME AND TYLER. ARE OPENING. AND THAT USES. YOUR SON. FOR CHILD. LABOR WORK. IT IS VERY ILLEGAL.”
“WHAT??”
“Didn’t Tyler tell you?”
“No… Tyler didn’t… Tyler didn’t tell me about that.” 
Charles slowed down. He was much more calculated, choosing his words, “I thought- I thought you knew.”
“I thought I’d know, to. Jeez, I just- I guess I don’t know my boys as well as I think. Jeez, it’s just… they’ve been keeping so many secrets from me…”
“My son’s the pride and joy of my life, Estelle. He’s already wiser than me, already he’s done so much good for the world. And after all that’s happened to him at Caesar, he confided in me this. Some of the worst secrets are kept for the right reasons. Remember that, Estelle Astley. Forever and always. Remember.”
When Mac and Tyler came home I didn’t confront either of them. I didn’t know how to. Another wrong turn from the worst driver of the year. 
When Mac smiled, and asked to go to the fair, I knew what to do. 
“Jeez, Mac, I don’t know…” 
After a long, forsaken argument, Mac stormed off and ripped the roots from his therapy plant. 

HI XIMENA. I MISSED YOU, XIMENA. 
By Mac Astley

It’s now the middle of the night. And I’m back at the apartment. I’m trying to process everything that’s happened, and honestly- I feel awful. Like I have this sinking pit in my stomach. 
I guess it started when I found Ximena. For a moment, we just gawked. She stood above me. What words describe Ximena Strohm? Ugh. (That’s not one of them.)
Beautiful? Yeah, yeah, I’d say so. An awful heartbreaker? Sure, maybe. A bit heavy handed, but I could see that happening. After all, I love her. That’s another word. Or, two. Love. Loved. Who can tell the difference anymore?
And I can’t tell which one I’d use. Love or loved. 
It’s so dark outside. Such a chaotic abyss. And I’m crying and smiling at the same time. 
Ximena told me what happened. How it was before we even started going out. And she was broken by all the recent losses. 
I guess that’s another word. Broken. 
I felt so stupid. I started that fight. 
The radio is so irritating. It sounds like the word “sketchy.” I don’t know why I want it. I have a phone. And I have headphones. I guess it’s out of habit. 
Ximena explained why she was in the area. Her Dad signed her up for summer school in Goodman Middle School, and her sibling helped break her out. And how her Dad was Frey. Cool. 
And how she just wanted away from him. She wanted to get away from all of them. And the whole time she talked. 
And I’m the type of person who wants to talk. I love talking. I want my voice to be heard. But around Ximena, I just wanted to hear her talk forever. And ever. 
Her voice never tired me. 
I was so happy, today. So, so, happy. Just walking around town. 
Over my desk chair droops the shirt I wore today. A plaid shirt. Wrinkled. And off the closet door, a purple hoodie and a belt. 
We visited all the places, all the places we loved. Sebastian Merrick at the library. Reading to kids. Not reading 1984, by the way. 
And the Qwikpick. She bought me an ice cream sandwich. 
The baseball stadium. 
Claremont High School. We visited it on a field trip in February. I felt so happy. Planning a future. With a dorm room. A room of my own. 
Ximena told me about her Dad. How he was joyous and full of life. And how now he’s a total jackwad. (You’ll excuse the expression.) I just felt bad for her. 
Because I know I ruined everything. I know I ruined everything and I didn’t want it to be this way. 
I didn’t f—ing want it to be this way. 
I’m mad now. I don’t get why. 
This is not going in the casefile. I swear to god, this is not going in the casefile. 
Ximena kissed me. Ximena kissed me. 
Ximena kissed me. 
There’s books scattered across my desk, dog-eared and withered.
I don’t know why she kissed me. I just feel bad. And not because of Ximena. But for her. She ruffled my hair. And I always wanted a girl to do that. Or a boy. 
I can hear my Mom and Tyler talking. Planning out a future together. The conversation’s tense, but still.
I want that. I want everyone to be happy. 
But the end is near. I know the end is near, and I’m so scared.
The plaid shirt I wear is now soaked with blood. The razor blade is on the stack of books. 
I’m so scared of losing everything before I even have a chance of getting it all back. The situation with Dennis and Edward… it’s getting to me. And the worst part is that I don’t even blame them. 
Ximena kissed me. Ximena Strohm kissed me on the nose. And I love her. I don’t know if I’ve ever said that to her, but I love her. I love all of them. I said bye to her. 
My room is a mess. There’s a cardigan draped over a chair. The only light apart from the white misty moon is my lamp. So I bandage the slashes at my damned wrists. 
I know it’s my fault but I cannot stop.  I will not stop hurting people. I’ve done it for just about eight years now. 
Eight years of tragedy. Eight schools in eight years. I just want this all to be normal. I want it all to stop. 
It’s clique. I know it’s clique. But I’ve always wanted to run away with her. The blood seeps through the bandage. 
I wanted to leave this world, from Sebastian, to my Mom, to Flynn, all behind. I wanted us to be alone, and to be happy. But now I don’t know if I can bear to look at her without breaking into tears. And the fair could’ve done that. I needed that escape. And my Mother is unwilling to bring it to me. 
I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. 
I’m rambling, on and on. On and on. 
I’m sorry. 
There’s a letter at my desk. Between the books and the blade. It soaks up the blood. 

We’re watching you… 

The Triumvirate. 


There’s a photo attached of me and Ximena, holding hands. They’re watching me, too. 


FINALE
By The People In Attendance

Five people stand in a room, each of their lives changed. 
Mac Astley. A bright and unburdened soul now reeling with loss, an urge to leave this life of heroics behind. 
There’s Ximena Strohm. Intelligent, cunning, she had a bright future ahead of her. And yet loss, the sad fact that she never faced true love, burdens her with a hatred for not only her own family, but for its future. 
Dennis Redwood. The small and timid boy, now sculpted into the peek of intimidation and masculinity. 
Sebastian Merrick. Perhaps the most broken of any of us, his whole life spent in a constant state of stress. For this entire case file, he’s stood at a breaking point. Teetering the line between freak of nature and nurture. Tonight, my friend, he breaks. 
And finally… me. For years, I’ve intervened in the lives of others. And then I realize, that’s not what I was born to do. I cannot, should not, will not interfere with their matters. Some day, someday soon, you will understand why these files are being sent out. Tonight is not that night. 
Tonight, I, Edward Emily, watched in horror as the world crumpled down upon all of us. 

It had been the first time all five of us had shared a room since Wendy’s,  though reintroduction was unnecessary. All of our escapades were… well documented, to say the least. 
Mac arrived late, holding Ximena Strohm’s hand. She smiled, broke free from his hand, and wrapped me in a hug. It felt… nice. I really needed a hug. 
“Where’s August?” She pulled me away and asked.
“He’s outside, you guys should go, too.”
They began to leave, though I stopped one of them, making sure he stayed in the lobby.
“Mac, hey, buddy, you okay?” 
His eyes refused to meet mine. 
“Yeah, man, I’m fine.”
No time to ask questions.
“Great… because I have a job for you. Athens-Carter needs a pretty face to cut the ribbon. The people have forgiven you, you know, The average parent only knows about what was marketable. CHRONOS. Rebellion. Kaitlyn. And, of course… Chase. You need to rebuild yourself. The world needs to see who you really are. Who we really are.”
He nodded, “I’ll cut the ribbon. I’ll give a speech. Sure. What could go wrong?” 
“Don’t say things like that. Please don’t say things like that.”
Mac began to think up a speech, bouncing ideas off of me. “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”
“You would’ve procrastinated anyways.”
“That’s true.” 
After moments of murmuring to himself, he grinned. 
“I think I got something.”
He began to walk off, but I stopped him, one last time. 
“You can’t go out there looking like that, Mac. C’mon.”
“What do you want me to do? Lop all my hair off?”
I giggled. 
“Oh.”

Sebastian
I caught up with Lance in the audience. “Hey, Mr. Alexander. Who’s… Who’s this?” 
I pointed at a lady, maybe college aged. She looked a bit like Mac, the only difference was that her hair was black, and curled into a bun. “Mr. Alexander, is this the kid you mentioned?”
“Yes, wow, this is… Sebastian Merrick. Sebastian, this is my first student, I gave you her puppet.” 
“Hi, I’m, well, Sebastian. What’s your name?”
She smiled, “Carmen. Carmen Astley.”
“Well, would you look at that? I guess you’re here for your family.”
“Yeah, Mac’s told me about you. Like, a lot. He had a thing for you when you two were twelve.”
“Excuse me?”
“Yeah, Mac had the biggest crush on you. I mean, it’s silly, right. It was only for a few months but man, you had him down bad.”
Well, would you look at that, maybe there’s still some surprises, after all. 
“Hey, do you know if Mac’s Mom’s going to be showing up?” 
I looked at Lance, who was furiously texting someone. “I- I don’t think so. She still doesn’t know about this whole project. Tyler won’t be here either, he’s busy keeping her company.”
“And how’s that going?” Carmen asked.
“Not well. Carmen, you might have an uncle, now.” 
“What?”

Tyler, In Message To Lance
Throwing up. Crying. Screaming. No, no, no, no. Whyyyyy Denny’s? Whyyyy did I propose at Denny’s?
OKAY SO I realized that if Mac could go to the ribbon cutting his Mom would need to be out of the house for the night, so Charles put me in charge of taking Estelle out on a date, right? 
JEEZ DUDE I AM STILL REELING AHHHHHH.
I AM CRYING IN THE DENNY’S MEN’S BATHROOM OH MY GOD HE IS PEEING SO LOUDLY
So we were in the car and I put on Dolly Parton and she was like, “Wait, you listen to Dolly Parton?” And I sighed and I was like, “Yeah.”
And she joked about me being librtal white trash so like i took her to Denny’s in a jean jacket
While we waited for our order, Estelle kind of glared around the room while I awkwardly tried to make small talk . 
“I’m… sorry about your job.”
“Yeah.”
It went on like this for several minutes.
Eventually, she paused. “Tyler. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“No, you’re one of the smartest women I’ve ever met.”
“Then why do you think you could hide all…” She gestured at vaguely everything, “Of this… from me…?”
Oh. 
“I- I was planning on telling you.”
“Why? Why didn’t you tell me when you had this stupid idea?”
“Because I knew you would’ve said no!”
“That’s exactly why you ask!” She groaned, like she had a headache, “Listen, I’ve had to look for seven schools for Mac. I’m an expert at school finding. Hell, I’d homeschool him if I have to. You don’t need to do this whole convoluted scheme just to get a new school for him.”
“I owe it to him. The kid’s been through… well, the kid’s been through hell.”
“You think I don’t know that!? His Father’s a deadbeat, hell, I read his incident reports.”
“And I wrote most of them!”
“God, Tyler, you’re such a smart aleck.”
“Listen, Estelle, I’m sorry. Yeah. I’m a smart aleck. But I’m just looking out for what’s best for Mac.”
“But what about me, huh? What about how I feel? He’s my child. And you’re my boyfriend.”
She stood up, “I’m sorry. I just- I just can’t. Not tonight.”
She walked up, but I followed. “Estelle! Estelle, wait!”
I followed Estelle, gripping onto a pair of onion rings. 
“ESTELLE ASTLEY!” I shouted, dropping to my knees and offering her an onion ring I grabbed off someone’s plate, “WILL YOU MARRY ME?” 
Estelle looked around the restaurant, all eyes on her. 
And she cried. 
So lance how’s the ticket ceremony going


Seb

“Nevermind,” Lance rolled his eyes, “He’s blowing it. Anyways, yayy, Mac’s gonna be on stage in about… a minute.”
I am a straight male. Full blown heterosexual. I love women, every woman. But. 
Mac kind of made me blush, you know? Nothing wrong with that. After all, I love women. 
His hair had been redyed to its natural black, only remaining blonde at his tips. His hair had been restyled by the amazing Edward Emily, wisps of blonde dangling over his forehead. Edward clearly had given him makeup, covering up his pores and acne perfectly. He radiated an aura of confidence, a stage persona that Mac seemed to so easily adapt.
“Well, guys!” He clapped his hands. There were maybe, what? A hundred people in the audience. Yeah, a hundred sounds about right. 
“I see a lot of familiar faces in the audience. Yeah, yeah, great turn out tonight.” He paused, the audience stopping their chatting. 
“Look, guys… I didn’t ask for this mess. I didn’t ask to have a whole school opened because of my efforts. I think that it’s an honor, you know, to work on this?” Mac stared at his podium, which was supposed to have a teleprompter for his speech. 
“Now, my friends and community members alike, what do you guys think Athens stands for? C’mon! Anybody!”
I raised my hand, “Yes!” Mac shouted, “You! Random citizen.”
“YOUR MOM!” I shouted. 
“Haha, very funny, Sebastian. Need I remind you, we know where you live.”
A few awkward chuckles in the audience. 
“Hope?” A small child in the audience asked.
“Great guess! But, well, my friends, I’d have to say it’s perseverance. We, as a community, have been through some very hard times. I myself have made plenty of mistakes along the way. But I think we can all get better, that we can all push past our adversity. Hell, I recently learned that I’m neurodivergent. I’ve done a lot of research, and really, if I can make it in Athens-Carter… anyone can. Athens-Carter is a place for people who’ve struggled at other schools. It’s a place for those who diverge from the path that other schools try to set them on. 
Suddenly, Mac began to stutter. “And it’s a place for fools For measly cowards. People who betrayed their- I- I didn’t write this…” He cut himself off, staring at the prompter. “Nevermind, that. I think there’s something wrong with my prompt here. Anyways, I was saying… Yes, yes. the future looks bright for Athens-Carter.”
Water began to drip from the stage onto my friend’s head, eventually dousing him in water. A few people gasped in shock, others merely snickering at his misfortune. 
I searched the place for someone, anyone.  Edward and August were backstage with Charles, preparing for the final speech of the night. But Mac continued, pushing through whatever was tampering with his speech, though something was very clearly taking a toll on him. 
He almost cried. Almost. All these years I knew Mac Astley, and I’ve never seen him cry. Not once. 
The blue hues behind him turned a staunch purple, a laugh track playing behind him. The purple gave it away. 
I knew what was going on. Stupid theatrical villains.
Yes, you heard that right. 
Eventually, Mac was driven off stage, so much crumbling around him. But as he tried to storm off, he was blocked by the sniveling little spitwad known as Flynn Macintosh, behind him his resident hype man Xander Strohm and Ben Markell. 
“Wow,” Fynn gazed at the audience, “It looks like the gang’s all back together again.”
This was… the first time I’d seen Flynn since he killed who once was my best friend. Just seeing him filled me with a seething anger.
A small part of me wanted to do it right there. Right on stage. Who cares if it ruined my future, if it got sent to a mental institute? Prison? In that moment, I felt like it would be worth it. 
“So, Mac, is it okay if we do an interview with you?” 
Mac didn’t know what to say. The audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
“This is fun. You really think you pull this off without us knowing? My friend, we’re in charge here. Wasn’t it your camp that murdered young Chase Kemp.” 
“…”
“Well, was it?”
Mac mumbled something. “I don’t think our friends in the back heard you!” 
“YES, IT WAS. OKAY? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR?”
“Oh, it’s exactly what I wanna hear. “
Flynn held onto Mac by the face, “I wanna hear you say everything you need to say. About your lengthy, lengthy list of failures.” Flynn produced a legal pad. 
“Now, is it true that created the Titan’s Curse Word?”
That was my doing. All these years, Mac took the blame for it. I tried to tell him that it was okay, that he could do it. But we locked eyes from the stage, and he shook his head. No. 
“…Yes.”
“And is it true that YOU started the fight that killed Chase Kemp.”
“Yes. YES. GODDAMNIT. IT’S ALL TRUE.” Mac paused, hanging his head, “Please…” Mac looked like he was on the brink of tears. 
“And so… what makes you think that you could be the leader a school needs?” 
Flynn turned to the audience, “Do you want to know what I see? A desperate plea from desperate men and women, too egotistical to accept their own failures! AM I RIGHT IN THAT ASSUMPTION?”
“YES. PLEASE, JUST LEAVE ME ALONE.”
Flynn giggled. “Get a load of this dweeb. In true Mac Astley fashion, I bet he didn’t even help with this project. Asleep for the work, up for the money. As per usual, might I adf. Yeah, I got video. You spent it with your little girlfriend, a girlfriend you don’t even love. Oh yeah, I got videos, too. She kissed you and you came home and you you cried.” Video began to play of both events mentioned. The kiss, and the tears streaming down his face alone in his room. 
He promised me he’d stop with the cutting. 
But the kiss was what sent me off. The last time a video of a kiss was made public… things got out of hand. 
I jumped up. “I’ll have you know you insensitive, tangerine haired rock sucking prick, that Ximena’s a lovely lady. Mac loves Ximena.” 
Xander clapped his hands and trotted off stage, “Oh my goodness,” he faked a face of surprise. “Is that Sebastian? Hey everybody! This guy’s fun, y’know. He was Chase Kemp’s last friend. And it shows. Though Mac’s at fault, it’d be safe to say there’s a, um, number of people at fault in that situation, Sebastian included.”
He started cleaning out his nails with a blade, grabbing a microphone of his own, “Y’know, buddy, it takes guts to comment on a relationship. Y’know, the last time I checked, your love life was in shambles.”
New images flashed across the board: Georgia. Charlie. Ximena. 
 “And there’s more!” Mallory added, appearing from nigh thin air “Look at Dennis Redwood over here!” 
The crowds turned as Mallory snarled at Dennis, “Some people look at Dennis and see the cool guy. But it’s him that started this, because deep down, he’s a scared little boy.”
Dennis grunted, “That’s f—ing crazy.”
Mallory flicked the glasses off of his face, revealing tears streaming off of his face.
I walked Mallory’s way in defense of my friend, but Georgia shoved me to the floor filling me with a sense of dread, the overwhelming feeling of dread. The weight of thousands of exes. 
Georgia whispered in my ear, “It’s ironic.” She sounded remarkably like Charlie. “You above all people just want one thing. A girlfriend. And yet you cannot f—ing fathom proper affection.” She backed away from me, Mallory kicking my face in with a heel as onlookers stared, many of them confused, others shocked. 
I looked up and came to a realization. Mac was nowhere to be found. He had vanished. 
“Now, who’s that at ol’ Maccy’s table?” Xander’s shrill laugh. “Ximena, wow, you snuck off from summer school to be with him once again? Can’t believe you two got back together. You used to be this very school’s class president. If I recall correctly, summer school made you into what we call the IDEAL OrigOlympian. You had it all! I hope you didn’t give up just for… someone who’s ran away from all of his problems…”
For a moment, we all stood in stunned silence. Ximena was barely holding herself together, comforting a crying Dennis Redwood. Mallory and Georgia had joined the other members of their five man band. Mac was gone. 
And where did this leave me? Not in a good place, as you’d expect. I ran at Flynn Macintosh, full force. I slammed him into the stage and smashed him through the wooden stage, through poles that collapsed upon us. I grabbed a piece of wood from the broken stage and slammed it against his back, punching him in the face as he dropped to the floor. 
He stood up, blood dripping from his lip. I pushed him back down once again, this time grabbing him by his hair and dragged him to the entrance of the school as he wheezed. I pushed him through the entrance, slamming the door on his foot. Once. Twice. Eight times. Until I heard a crack. I picked him up by the shirt, slamming him back down. 
He tried to hiss. He tried to scream. Nothing was getting through. I entered the office through the lobby, assaulting him with just about anything I could find. Lights. Computers. I simply didn’t care anymore. 
Flynn had done… so much to me. And he never once faced a consequence for his actions. Until now. 
I pinned him to the wall, and punched a punch he was able to dodge, leaving a rip in the wall. 
It became abundant to both of us that I really, really, wanted to kill him. It would’ve been justice. 
I shoved him to the floor and pressed to his heel. He chuckled, for a moment, before all out giggling. Wheezing. 
I pressed harder.
I watched as his face swelled up, shifting in colors. And finally, there was the snap. He stopped laughing. 
“You deserve this.” I said. “You deserve every ion in your body to be set on fire, and my god, I wish I could do that.” I grabbed a lamp. 
And I raised it above his head, his eyes sparkling with excitement. Taunting me without a word.
Before I could raise it, a hand blocked me. The hand of Lance Alexander. 
I turned to face him as he pleaded with me. The look of desperation. I realized that at some point over the years, Lance Alexander had been in my shoes. Something had made him lose himself, too. 
Something was wrong. 
I backed down, dropping the lamp. 
Guilt. I looked at Flynn, “Can you speak?” 
He nodded. 
“Call an ambulance. But you’re going to tell them that the fight ended in the stage. What happened here… it stays between us, d—head.”
I offered Flynn my hand, raising him up. He smiled.
Flynn Macintosh walked away, emerging from the rubble of the night as a victor. 
But I don’t think what Flynn Macintosh did was important anymore. 
It’s about what he left behind. 


Lance,Via Message To Tyler
IT WENT PRETTY BADLY TYLER

THE MESS IN QUESTION
By Mac Astley

I rushed off, tears streaming down my ears. As I panicked, I think it hit me. 
I was in the wrong. 
I was wrong. I didn’t appreciate any of this, any of the gifts that I had been so generously given. 
I wanted to vomit. I wanted to rip my eyes out. I could feel the tears streaming down my face as I realized just what it was that broke me. 

February 2020. I was expelled. I was hated. And then quarantine hit. Everyone else had their video calls. But not me. 
I was inside. And I promise that I’ll never go outside again. 
Because look at this. I leave my hole and everything falls apart. 
I walk into the alleyway and curl into a ball. This goes on for several minutes, curled up in the cape lent to me by Edward Emily. 

And then suddenly, I’m in the hospital. You think I’d freak out but… I get it. The doctor explained to me that Sebastian found my Mother and they ended up finding me. She asked me a few questions after that. 
“Do you know why you’re here, Mac?”
“Do you have any problems with your Mother?” I wanted to shake my head, “No.” But I nodded. I did have problems. 
The doctor nodded, clicking her tongue, “And would you mind telling me about those?”
“She just- she’s just always worried about me. Worried that I’ll make a mistake.” 
“And have you made mistakes?” 
“Yes, plenty. But so many of them are because of her. She took away my one source of communication during quarantine. She’s not letting me go to the fair. Or anywhere. With my friends. It’s just- I’m just sad. I never got to go to any one of my friend’s birthday parties. Not once.” 
She looked like she wanted to say something, but instead she wrote in her notebook, “And your Father? Or, more accurately, I suppose. Your lack thereof.” 
“God, I hate him. I hate him. I really do.” 
“And why do you think that is?” 
“He’s a deadbeat.” 
“Do you think your lack of a Father growing up at all contributed to your current status?” 
“Maybe. You’re the doctor.” 
“Mr. Astley, please, we’re trying to help you. We found you in an awful state. Your wrists were bleeding.”
“I’m fine, ma’am. Everyone goes through this. I’ll tough through it.” 
“No one goes through it at this severity, Mac.” 
“I-“
“Let’s talk about your mental illness. You’re diagnosed with ADHD, and you’ve developed symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Your friends have been describing symptoms of high functioning autism. Have you tried medication?” 
“My… Mom got me a therapy garden.” 
“A… A what?”
I shook my head, “Nevermind. Nevermind.” 
“Mac, you- you need serious therapy.” 
“My family can’t afford therapy.” 
“We’re aware. But your Uncle, Mr. Emily, visited. We’ll be offering free therapy to any and all students of Athens-Carter, I strongly suggest you sign up for the program.” 
“I… I can see about doing that. Ma’am, may I ask… what day is it?” 
“August First. Happy birthday, Mr. Astley.” 

My favorite parts of the hospital were reading the notes. I got them from Sebastian and Dennis, Lance and Amy, Carmen and Kaitlyn, even Edward and August. August’s card played “You’re The Best.” 
I also loved visitation days. My Mom came every day and she’d ask how my day was, and I’d always give her the same answer. Nothing much happened. This time, I meant it. 
Sebastian came with Edward and Dennis, the latter two bringing gifts. Edward and Dennis apologized for talking about me. Hey, I couldn’t blame them. 
The day I was discharged, maybe a week later, my Mom took me to the Qwikpick and bought me the chicken sandwich. 
I liked the chicken sandwich. 
The next few days weren’t bad either, just… slow, I guess that’s the word. Slow. 
I called Ximena alot, who revealed that her Mom came back. That’s why she couldn’t come and visit me. Makes sense. 
God, I missed her. 
The day of the fair, I tried my best to encourage everyone. Because I really was happy for all of them, still it… it hurts to feel left out. But as I put on my movie to distract myself from the pain, Tyler knocked on my door. “Hey, wanna go to the fair?” 
Tyler’s relationship with my Mom was awkward now. They were still dating, but they refused to talk about the incident. 
I guess that’s for the better. They’re a nice couple. 
“Is- Is Mom okay with it?” 
Tyler chuckled, “Dude. She’s driving.” Under his breath, Tyler whispered, “Let’s hope she doesn’t hit anymore stop signs…”

And so here we were. Me. Dennis. Edward. Sebastian. And Ximena. 
At the fair. Sebastian got me one of those giant teddy bears as he had this big, lazy smile on his face. Free and without a care in the world. 
And on the ferris wheel, Ximena kissed me. Because that was the thing to do. 
From the cart above us, Edward cheered. Sebastian looked nauseous. Sebastian threw up from the top of the wheel, Edward laughed hysterically, barely able to break out a sorry. 
And I stared out at the people, the couples holding hands. The little children, lost and looking for their Mothers. 
Tyler Willigens on one knee, my Mother with her hands to her mouth. 
And I started crying and smiling at the same time, as Ximena laughed. “Mac, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Because even though I knew this story wasn’t over yet, I couldn’t help but feel happy. 

Alright, let’s do this one last time. 
Look, I didn’t ask for this mess. I didn’t ask to be a teenager, with insane friends I can’t help but love because they win me oversized teddy bears. But hey, none of us did. 
I think that’s what I love about all of this. 

That we didn’t ask for this mess.

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