Boys & Girls: “Zero Day”

(This is one of 10 preview chapters for Boys & Girls: Part I. You can see the rest of the chapters on the official page)

(Start from the beginning)

August 25th, 2016

Kinsky, California, USA

Zero Day

It was roughly an hour before the school day started, and Kinsky High was empty save for a few wanderers here and there. When Lukas pulled in with his car, the parking lot was almost entirely empty. He picked a spot close to the front gate.

Out in the courtyard, an array of dozens of identical dark blue metal tables could be surveyed, but only one caught Lukas’ eye. As he approached, he got a better look at Emily, who was writing in a small planner and wore a simple orange-brown knit sweater.

“Yo,” Lukas called out as he approached and put down his backpack across from the girl. Emily’s head turned up, and her eyes sparked in familiarity.

“Hey.”

The boy sat down, unzipping the top of his backpack, fiddling with a few things inside. A red notebook caught his attention, and he remembered what he wanted to ask.

“We both have Reese, right?”

Emily had gone back to her planner after Lukas sat down, but once he spoke again she looked back up. “Oh, that’s right! You sit in the back next to Russell, yeah?”

“Oh, yeah, ha ha…” His laugh was weak. “Well, depending on how things go, I might, ah, need your help in that class. Don’t think Chem is my strong suit.”

Emily chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure you will. You and Russell, both. Don’t worry, you can ask me for help anytime.”

“Thanks, Em.” Lukas scratched the back of his head. “I’ll try not to waste too much of your time with it.”

“Oh, it’s fine. Teaching stuff to other people helps you learn it better. You’ll be helping me, too.”

The two went back to their own activities. Emily checked the planner for a few more minutes, before putting it back into her pack and pulling out a large three ring binder. Lukas took out the red notebook, read two words, then closed it and took out his phone.

Around twenty minutes had passed when Lukas looked up towards the entrance gate to see Rodrigo walking quickly towards their table. Lukas had just opened his mouth to greet him when he slammed his hands down on the table and leaned into the two.

“You guys hear what happened?”

Lukas looked at the teen sideways. He turned his glance over to Emily, only to see her give the same confused expression.

“No… what?” Lukas asked.

Rodrigo took a big exaggerated gasp of air, looking to his sides, behind him, wiping some sweat off his temple. “Uh, can we… go somewhere private?”

Lukas looked around. There were two blonde girls talking at the table next to them, but beyond that the campus was still fairly sparse.

“Rod, there’s literally no one here.”

“I, uh, I… just… let’s go somewhere private, okay?”

Both Lukas and Emily knew Rodrigo was prone to exaggeration, but there was something different about him. Something off. They decided to entertain him, putting their stuff back in their bags and following him to an empty hallway inside one of the classroom buildings. Once they walked in, he looked around and listened. It was silent. He turned back to them, his arms out. 

“Listen,” he whispered to the two. “I-I don’t know what else to say, but… Anita’s been murdered.”

Lukas let out a big sigh, looking away from the two then turning his head back. When he faced them again, he looked at Rodrigo with antagonism.

“Rod, if this is some kind of prank, it’s not fucking funny, okay?”

“It’s not a prank! I’m n-not lying, man! R-R-R-Rose told me about it, said Maria sent it out this morning, to her close friends list!”

Emily put the tips of her fingers to her forehead, and shook her head. “You must’ve just… misinterpreted what Rose said, is all. What you’re telling us is crazy. It’s just crazy.”

“I know it’s crazy, man!” Rodrigo spoke with emphatic whispers, still trying to keep his voice down. “I couldn’t believe it either, but that’s what she told me!”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s…” Lukas hesitated. He turned around and looked out the rectangular window on the door. Two teens passed by the window, laughing about something. “I mean, you said you heard it from Rose, right?” He turned his head back towards Rodrigo. “I’d just… I’d rather hear it from Rose too, is all.”

“Alright. Alright, alright, alright.” Rodrigo walked away from the two, holding his head. “Man, I hope it’s not true too. I hope it’s a big misunderstanding. Because, man…” As he walked down the hallway, he looked back at the two. “I-I’ll see you two later, aight?”

Lukas and Emily waved at him. He walked inside one of the rooms. The two remaining teens walked back out into the courtyard, stopping at a wall nearby.

“You think he’s telling the truth?” Emily looked a bit shell-shocked.

“I think he believes he’s telling the truth. But I don’t know. You know how Rodrigo can get, sometimes.”

Emily shook her head. “God, I hope it’s not true.”

“I don’t want to think about it.” Lukas got off of the wall and walked a few steps forward. “We won’t know whether it’s true until more people talk about it. I don’t want this to worm into my head. In the meantime, let’s just… play it cool.”

But it did worm into his head. His entire first period he couldn’t think about anything other than what Rodrigo had said. How he acted. Lukas didn’t even notice until halfway through the class that he never took anything out of his backpack, he just sat down and stared off into space, thinking about the possible reality he now resided in.

The bell rang, and Lukas snapped back to attention. As he walked down the hall to his second class he saw Kat leaning against the wall, phone in her hand. He quickly got out of the foot traffic and leaned against the wall next to her.

“Hey, Kat.”

She looked up. Her eyes met his. But their vibrance was gone. There was a solemness in her expression, an excruciation she couldn’t hide. Her reply composed of pitiful sounds.

“Lukas.” 

Lukas touched her on the shoulder, turning her away from the crowd and towards the wall. He leaned in close and whispered to her.

“Is it true? About Anita?”

Kat brought her finger to the painted-white wall. It shook as it moved its way down the molded plaster between the bricks, then stopped at the intersection.

“Yes.”

Lukas’ heart skipped. A tingling sensation filled the tips of his fingers. An adrenal reaction surged through him, and he began to feel his armpits perspire. 

“She… she was murdered? That’s what Rodrigo told me.”

She looked up. Their eyes met again. She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into a door nearby. It led to an empty classroom.

Lukas began to breathe heavily, walking in circles among the desks. Kat leaned against the door, blocking anyone else from entering.

“She wasn’t murdered.”

Lukas stopped. A sense of relief washed over him, but then he turned and saw the same pained expression in her face. There was something more to it.

“What… what happened, then?”

Kat took a deep breath. She tried to find courage, the courage to face what she had to say. But she couldn’t do it, and as tears began to fill up in the rims of her eyes, she took her first attempt at words.

“Lukas…” she said again, with those same pitiful notes, her voice breaking at the second syllable as the world came down and the truth hit her one more time. “She… she killed herself. They found her, hanging against the doorknob to her room.”

A physical, sharp, visceral pain hit Lukas as he heard the words. He shrunk back, his face cringing, his arms covering his head in some vain attempt to protect himself. His voice let out a loud, emphatic “Je-sus!” as he walked to the other end of the room and leaned his forehead against the wall. Silence draped over the two for what seemed like an eternity before Lukas spoke out again.

“How… how’s Maria doing?”

He could hear Kat’s weak voice behind him. “She’s at home. Didn’t want to come to school today, wanted to stay with her mom and the rest of her family.”

Lukas nodded. “Yeah, yeah. That makes sense.” He took his head off the wall, and took half a turn when he suddenly stopped and looked out into white space. The sun was moving, and a bright light came in from the large windows of the classroom, illuminating it. “The last time I saw her… was at Maria’s birthday party.”

Kat didn’t say anything in response. The murmurs and footsteps from behind the wall was all they could hear.

“Listen…” Lukas walked back to the door now, standing next to her. “We’ll get through this. You, me, the Cortezes, all of us. We just have to stay strong.”

“Yeah.” She sniffled, but looked away so that Lukas couldn’t see the tears on her face. With the sleeve of a gray sweatshirt she wiped them off. “Yeah, you’re right.”

The rest of the day was a blur. Lukas went in and out of classes, almost autonomously, not really thinking, hearing, or even seeing, but just coping within a numb shell. He didn’t talk to anyone else that day, though he did see a few people here and there. He saw Rose and Sadja whispering to each other in the hallway. He saw Russell and Emily at Chem, and Rodrigo, Kat, Cole, and Ash in English. All of them seemed just as numb, just as blind, as he had. A couple of them sat together at lunch, but Lukas stayed away, brewing in his own thoughts, devising his own plans for how to see the world after that day. 

As the final bell rang and Lukas walked back to his car, he saw Cole leaning against a pillar, waiting for him.

“Hey, man.” Cole greeted him, solemnly but assuredly. The two hugged, patting each other on the back, then broke off and walked together.

“You doing okay?” Lukas asked.

Cole shook his head, trying to find words for the truthful answer. “I’m… trying, I’ll say that much.”

“You need anything — you or Maria — let me know, okay?”

“I will.”

When the two got to the front gate, they saw a white Hellcat parked up front, with two familiar figures leaning against it. One was Rodrigo, who looked up as they came in, his dyed-blonde hair contrasting with his light-brown skin in the sunlight. The other was a black teen, much more tall than any of the others, with a long row of black dreadlocks tied into a tail on the back of his head. He wore reflective sunglasses, circular-shaped, which hid his expression. He was scrolling through his phone, unaware that Lukas and Cole had arrived until the Latino boy spoke up.

“Hey guys,” Rodrigo faced the two teens, pointing to the car. “Rus and I were gonna get Koko’s. Try and get our minds off of things. You two wanna come?”

Lukas and Cole looked at each other, then back at the boy.

“Yeah, sure,” Cole said. Since his friend didn’t have any complaints, Lukas tagged along as well. Russell took the driver seat, while the two new passengers slid into the back.

Cole put his head against the window, zoning out and focusing on the rhythm of the car. A Joey Bada$$ song played on the car radio. The other three were engaged in conversation.

“God, I missed Koko’s.” Rodrigo had his elbow leaning on the car door window sill. “That’s the problem ‘bout living in Johnston. No fuckin’ chicken places, man! Not a single one.”

“What do they have, then?” Lukas sat in the back seat, facing Rodrigo in the front from a diagonal. 

“Oh, I’ll tell you what they have. You go down main street, whaddya see?” Rodrigo took out a finger, pointing downwards in a row, simulating a row of buildings. “Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, Chinese! That’s cause those are the only people living there besides Gramma, the fuckin’ Chinese!”

Lukas laughed. “Jeez Rod, didn’t know you had such a problem with the Chinese.”

“Nah, nah man. It ain’t that. It’s just, you go eat Samurai Tso’s seven days a week, you get tired of it real fast.”

“Word.” Russell’s voice was deep, and occasionally intimidating. He focused intently on the road before him as he drove into the Koko’s parking lot.

“We going inside?” Rodrigo turned towards Russell.

“Sure thing.”

“So, how we looking this year?” Lukas looked up at Russell as he dipped a piece of fried chicken into Koko’s special sauce.

“What, varsity?” Russell was already almost done with his meal. His sunglasses remained on, and the light from the window reflected off them as he moved his head up to face Lukas. 

“Yeah. JV too, just in case.”

“Ah, JV’s a fuckin’ mess, just like always.” Russell shook his head and took a crinkle-cut fry into his hand, dragging it into some ketchup on the side of his plate. “Kids don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Cocky. Varsity, I dunno. It’s mostly just the juniors from last year. Mickey and Law are gone. For new kids, Vinny seems alright. That’s about it, though.”

“Isaac got promoted to starting QB now, right?” Rodrigo spoke with some drumstick still in his mouth.

“That’s true. Let’s see if he gonna lead us somewhere.”

The answer pained Lukas. He turned to his left to look away from the two and saw Cole, staring at the window, off into the blue sky. Cole stayed silent for most of the meal.

“Listen, I get one win on Ravenwood, and I’m good.” Russell looked up to the ceiling light. Rodrigo smirked to himself.

“Man, even if you don’t, you can sleep well knowing that the only place they going to after high school is the federal prison system.”

Russell gave a deep chuckle. Lukas smiled again, taking a bite of the chicken.

“Nah man, I’m serious. I seen what it’s like up there, you got a whole bunch of Ravenwood guys up in jail now, every time a new one comes in they like-” Rodrigo picked up a plastic knife from the table, and pointed it at the three. He spoke in an exaggerated version of his Hispanic accent. “-Ay, hermano! Watch this one, I think he’s a fuckin’ chomo!”

It was at this point that Russell and Lukas bursted out laughing. Rodrigo joined them too, taking delight in his own joke. But Cole stayed silent. All the while he kept his gaze, into that cold blue sky.

Russell dropped Cole and Lukas off back at the high school parking lot. Rodrigo called out to them as they walked away.

“See you boys later!” He spoke in a mocking yet well-meaning tone. The two waved back at him.

“Later, guys!” Lukas called back.

They took a few more steps into the parking lot, when they were stopped one more time.

“Hey, Cole.” It was Russell.

Cole turned around.

“I know I don’t know Maria too well, but… let her know me and my family are praying for her, alright?”

Cole didn’t say anything, but did nod. Russell rolled back up the window, and the car drove off.

Lukas and Cole got to their cars, which just happened to be next to each other. “So, what are your plans for the rest of today?” Lukas asked him as he reached for his car door.

“Probably stop by Maria’s. See how she’s doing.”

“Right. Seeya, then.” Lukas got into his car.

Cole got in his, but hesitated. The car door beeped as he looked down at his dashboard. Lukas reversed out and drove off, and there was a sinking sensation in the pit of Cole’s stomach. That this was it.

The Cortez House was quiet when Cole arrived in his car. He walked up the porch steps, and rang the doorbell. Almost immediately, Maria was there.

She looked like a mess. Her hair was scattered and she wore no makeup. All she had on was a worn purple sweatshirt with the Phoenix Suns logo and a pair of short black gym shorts. Her eyes were red and tired.

“Hi.” Cole spoke the words softly.

“Hi,” Maria replied. The two went inside.

There was an eeriness for Cole, to enter that house again. The lights were off, and the home was merely illuminated by the daylight that reached inside. The kitchen was barren. As Cole walked into the dining room he looked at the table and saw a few papers, though didn’t get close enough to see what they said. And the house was quiet. Very, very quiet.

The two entered the living room, and sat on the couch. “So…” Cole began, but his words drifted off as he struggled to find the right next thing to say. He couldn’t, so he just spoke what first came to mind. “How are you?”

Maria had her legs up on the couch, hugging them close to her. Her eyes focused on the turned-off TV set in front of her. 

“I can’t even describe to you how it feels. I’m doing a little better now, but…”

She trailed off and never finished. Cole put his hand on her back, and gently rubbed it with his thumb. “You need anything from me?”

“No. You being here is enough.”

There were a few more minutes of silence. The only thing audible was the humming of the A/C unit. Cole took his hand off of her back, and brought his feet up on the couch with her. 

“They’re all thinking about you. Russell, too.” 

Maria’s glance moved down between her knees. She rocked back and forth a few times, then stopped.

“Cole, is it okay if I run something by you?” She whispered the words, turning towards Cole and resting her head on her knee but not looking directly at his face.

“Yeah, of course.” Cole brought his legs back down, but could feel his body begin to tremble. Maria did the same thing with her legs, bringing her hands down to grasp her thighs.

“I… I didn’t tell mom this. I didn’t want to make her more upset than she was already.”

“Wh… what is it?”

She stared at the coffee table. Her mouth opened, then closed. Opened, then closed. Each time struggling to let out words, but never getting quite there. After a few tries, she was finally able to do it.

“Three nights ago, Anita came into my room. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said… she said she couldn’t tell me, because someone would hurt her.” Maria was trembling now, tears began streaming down her eyes, landing into her lap. Her fingers clawed into her legs. “A-and I… I tried to get her to tell me, but she wouldn’t say… she never said…” At this point Maria broke out into sobs, her hands moving up from her now bleeding legs, as she tried to stop the tears from pouring down. “S-someone wanted to hurt Anita… my baby… someone wanted to hurt her, a little child… my baby sister… my little sister… oh God, why… oh God, why her? Why?”

Cole caught the girl as she collapsed. She cried into his shoulder hysterically, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tight. Cole held her back, putting his fingers through her hair and stroking it gently, patting her back. He closed his eyes and rocked her in his arms for a few more minutes, before she finally stopped crying and let go.

“Someone did this to Anita.” Maria’s voice was back to the melancholic tone it had been when Cole first arrived. Her eyes looked down towards the ground, but slowly moved up, eventually picking up Cole’s face and locking into his eyes. “I want to find them.”

“I can help you.” Cole’s tone was resolute, if a bit broken.

“No, that’s not what I mean. You don’t have to help me.” But Cole took her wrist with one arm, and put his palm over her hand with the other. 

“I want to. Anita meant just as much to me as she did to you.”

Maria looked down, and thought for a moment. When she looked up again she had a faint smile, the first smile she had all that day. 

“Alright then. We’ll do it together.”

Cole smiled back. The two hugged once more on the old gray couch.

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