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“There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.”
JANIS IAN, MEAN GIRLS
VALE STARED AT the clock, waiting for the alarm to ring.
Dread filled her limbs, the stress that had built over the past few weeks a physical ache. Today was the “outback adventure” to Waterton Lakes National Park. The digital characters flickered and she winced.
Is it too late to claim I got the plague?
It wasn’t that Vale hated hiking. Quite the opposite, in fact. She loved camping with her family and exploring Lethbridge’s river bottom on weekends. She had at least ten nature books sitting on her bedroom dresser. No, Vale’s dread stemmed from her classmates.
Barring Ashton Hamid, her best friend since kindergarten, no one in her class even spoke to her. Vale hadn’t clicked with anyone in the past month and a half since school began, making tenth grade twice as unpleasant as ninth had been. Two days with her PE classmates meant two days of snide remarks. Two days of rude comments. Two days of hell.
She opened one eye to check the clock’s readout.
Vale pulled the pillow over her face and groaned. Why is phys ed a course requirement for a high school diploma? I’ll NEVER use it again! Vale had an A average in every other class she was in, but in PE she was fighting to hold on to a B minus. Only Ash, with a dismal C, had a worse grade. “My epic gaming skills make up for my complete lack of athletic abilities,” he’d once told her. She wished she shared his attitude.
The sound of distant music filtered past her pillow. Vale’s mother was downstairs in the kitchen, the radio tuned to a retro nineties station as she sang along to the songs of her youth. From the bathroom at the end of the hall a blow-dryer roared to life. One of Vale’s older sisters had started her morning routine. Vale’s phone buzzed on her dresser, and she reached out, fumbling blindly. She opened one eye.
On-screen, a text from Ash glowed.
OMGGGG Can’t find the checklist. HELP ME VALE!!!
Another text buzzed through before she’d finished reading the first.
Vale giggled. Ash was in freak-out mode. (Again.) She put her thumb to the screen to type in a reply.
Relax. Sending you the list now. You can handle this.
No! Nooooooo! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I CAN’T!
Yes, Ash. You can.
I WILL DIE IN THE WOODS.
No you won’t.
I WILL! I haven’t even started packing yet!
WHAT???! But I TOLD you to pack when I left!
I got distracted by the campaign.
Then you need to START.
Stop texting and PACK.
With a sigh, she set the phone back down. She glanced at the clock just as the digits flickered.
A pop song blared to life on the clock radio. Vale grumbled as her cat, Mr. Bananas, yawned and stretched, then launched himself from the bed. Mr. Bananas jiggled open the unlatched door and padded down the hall, tail twitching.
Vale groped for the snooze button. “Not today, Satan. Not today.”
For five more minutes, she stayed under the covers until a new text buzzed through. Ash again.
I’m going to try the sick angle on my mom.
Vale took a hissing breath, her thumbs blurring over the screen.
Don’t you DARE! You promised you were coming!
Vale added a second reply.
BFFs don’t ditch BFFs on field trips, do they? NOW GET PACKING.
With a smirk, Vale sent it off, but this time Ash didn’t answer. She stared at the phone’s screen for several long seconds. Her smile faded. What if he ditches after all? The thought left her struggling to breathe. Ash’s attendance track record was less than stellar, and while Vale had many online friends, only one person was there at school each day—Ash—and she’d just yelled at him. What if his mom lets him stay home?
The bedroom door swung open. “Rise and shine, sleepyhead,” her mother said in a cheery voice. A second later, Vale felt Mr. Bananas jump back up onto the bed and walk up her legs. “You’ve got to get moving, Vale. It’s your Waterton adventure. Remember?”
Vale groaned and pulled the covers over her head. “Like I could forget.”
Her mother came around the side of the bed, and Vale felt the mattress dip as she sat down. The cat began to purr. “Valeria,” her mother said gently. “You’re worrying about nothing.”
“It’s not the hiking that worries me. It’s the people.” Vale tugged the blankets off her face. “The kids in my class hate me.”
“They don’t hate you.”
“Then hang out with Ashton. He’s coming along, right?”
She and Ash had been friends forever. He didn’t mind that Vale was at the bottom of the high school pecking order, and she never minded that he was a full-time gamer with questionable hygiene. They clicked when no one else did. But Ash wasn’t the only one coming on the trip …
Vale glanced at her phone’s screen. No answer yet. “Yes,” she said with a sigh. “As far as I know, he’s still coming, but—”
“Stick it out and you’ll be fine. It’s only two days of—”
“Pure and utter torture. Boys harassing me. Making fun of each and every—”
“There are three chaperones going. Three,” her mother interrupted. “If you have an issue with those kids again, just tell someone.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It is. Teachers are paid to deal with things like that.” Her mother frowned. “Honestly, I think you’re being overly sensitive.”
Vale wanted to argue, but she knew it was useless. Her mother saw high school troubles through the rosy-hued glasses of someone who’d been popular. Vale’s mother was a onetime cheerleader and homecoming queen; she’d married her high school sweetheart. Truth was, Vale’s mother had no idea what actual high school was like. She might as well have grown up in a television sitcom!
“I bet Mike teases because he’s got a crush on you. If you paid him a little attention—”
“Mom, STOP!” This was another thing Vale’s mother never understood: Vale was aro-ace, both aromantic and asexual. She’d told her parents she just wasn’t interested in dating any number of times … But they never seemed to get it. To them, Vale’s sexuality was a “phase” that they were certain she would one day outgrow. Their obliviousness was a raw spot for Vale. “That’s not why Mike bugs me,” she said. “He’s a jerk. He always has been. Same with his friends.”
“Then stick with Ash.”
“I will,” Vale said, “but there are only so many times I can listen to a recap of Outer Realm Annihilation without falling into a coma.”
Her mother broke into a peal of laughter so bright and happy that for a moment Vale could see why everyone loved her so much. Her mother was full of joy. If Vale had been in high school in 1999, she would have idolized Debra too.
“Don’t sound so grumpy, Vale.” Her mother tousled the top of her daughter’s hair. “You’ll love it once you’re out there.” She turned back in the doorway. “And if Mike teases you, try talking to him, sweetheart. You never know where it’ll—”
“Nope,” Vale said. This was the sort of willful ignorance that frustrated her: The suggestion that she’d fall for a guy if she’d just give him a chance to prove himself. “That’s not going to happen, Mom.”
“Oh, Vale, come on. You’ll have a great time with your class.”
“I highly doubt that.”
Her mother sighed and closed the door.
Copyright © 2019 by Karin Goble