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The next day we met in the same classroom to plan our ‘attack’ for the stupid maths trophy. The room was empty when I arrived, so I grabbed a chair by the window and closed my eyes.
Footsteps made me open them again, and Megan entered the room, tanned legs flexing under her school skirt as she walked. Very deliberately, I turned away.
“So,” she said, dropping into a chair and leaning forward over the desk. “Belief that things are possible – that’s one major element of what we’re trying to achieve here.”
I nodded. I’d spent most of last night holed up in my bedroom, practising phasing my hand through various objects; sinking it into the mirror was the coolest.
“But I have another theory, as well.” She stared at her hands. “See, it has to be more than just belief, otherwise why couldn’t anyone do it? Why haven’t people done it before now?”
I stared out the window at the basketball court where Nate and Horse were tossing a ball around – not playing, you understand, because cool people don’t actually commit to anything, including learning the skills it takes to actually play anything. Cool people just learn the most impressive-looking moves and string those together with a bunch of nonchalant poses designed to say, ‘Look at the awesome stuff I can do without trying.’ Which is the perfect excuse for not trying, right? Because if you’re that good without trying, clearly you’re so good that being good isn’t a challenge, so you’re not not-trying because you’re scared to fail, but because the whole idea bores you, because, like, whatever, man, I mastered that years ago.
Anyway, needless to say, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to Megan, so when she jabbed me in the arm I first of all winced – “Ow! Hey, what was that for?”
“For not paying attention, numbskull.”
And then I wondered what it would be like to phase through something alive. I shuddered. Ew.
“You’re still not listening!” Megan reached over and smacked me on the arm.
It hurt. “Ow!” I glared at her, rubbing my stinging bicep. “I’m listening!”
She rolled her eyes. “I said, what do we have that they” – she waved at the playground generally – “don’t?”
“You mean other than being ridiculously intelligent?” I said, still glaring.
“Well obviously that.” Megan squeezed her temples in one hand. “But that’s not enough, either. There have been other smart people in the world before us, you know.” She shot me a look that would have melted icicles.
I stared at her. “You’re really worked up about this, aren’t you?”
Megan shrugged. “I hate not understanding how people work.” She glanced at me and a faint blush coloured her cheeks. “I’m usually pretty good at it.”
I didn’t realise it then, but man, is that the understatement of the year.
“Yeah, but seriously, does it really matter? We can do it, yay, awesome, moving on. Why waste brain power stressing over why? Isn’t the whole point of this little group to figure out how? Saving the world and all that?” I laced my fingers behind my head and leaned back in my chair, sneaking glances at the guys not-playing basketball.
“You sound so convinced.”
I dragged my eyes away from the court. “So sue me,” I muttered. “I having friends, you know.”
I was saved from Megan’s response by the arrival of the rest of the little crew, and they quickly set about the business of boring me to death. Oh, sorry, I mean planning for the Maths event. Thrilling business.
After five minutes I’d had enough. I snatched the study sheet away from Greg and scanned down it. “Seriously, remind me why we are wasting time preparing for this?” I said as I calculated the answers to all but the fifth question.
Greg smacked me over the head and stole the sheet back. “Moron.”
“Because we want to win, Chris.” Megan sighed. “I know actually caring about things is a foreign concept for you, but—“
“But some of us actually give a fig about the world,” said Greg, interrupting loudly.
“I care about things!” I shot back.
“Oh yeah? What?” Greg folded his arms over his chest.
“Guys, can we just concentrate, please?” Pip waved the scribble paper in the air. “Please? We’ve only done three questions and the halfway bell–” The bell rang, and Pip sighed. “Is about to go.”
“Just a second,” Greg said, guiding Megan back into the chair she was standing up from. “I want to hear what Loserboy here has to say. So, tell me.” He stood with arms refolded. “What do you care about?”
I shoved myself out of my chair and stood, fists clenched by my sides. “I care about plenty of things, thanks.”
Greg snorted. “Yeah, like whether your tie is just loose enough to broadcast ‘rebel’ without being so loose you’ll get detention. Or, you know, whether or not your hair is perfectly ruffled. Here, let me help you with that.” He reached towards my head and I ducked.
“Boys,” Megan said warningly.
I shoved Greg aside and straightened out my shirt, self-consciously ignoring my tie. “Look, just because I don’t happen to be as passionate as you about some stupid Maths day doesn’t mean I don’t care about stuff. I care about stuff!”
“I’m still waiting on examples, numbskull.”
“Oh, come off it Greg. Just leave him alone and let us get back to studying, will you?” Megan pulled out the chair beside her and patted it. “I need your help with this one.”
Greg’s jaw twitched and I knew Megan had gone straight for the soft spot.
Excellent. Thank you, Megan, for showing me his weakness. “Aww, did you hear that Greg? Megan needs your help. You like to help, don’t you, tough guy? Like to feel all manly and protective and needed?”
His jaw worked furiously.
“Let it go, Greg,” Megan said softly, eyes sharp. “It’s not worth it.”
I tensed, expecting Greg to lunge at me again and calculating which way I could throw myself if he did.
Instead, he exhaled forcefully and relaxed his arms to his sides. “You’re wrong,” he said, turning to Megan. “It is worth it. Because if he can’t care about anything, he can’t be part of a team. If he doesn’t care about what we’re doing, why risk his neck? And if he doesn’t care about us, how can we trust him?” He shot me a sidelong glance before plonking down into the chair and grabbing the paper Matt had been writing on. “Here, where are you up to?”
Megan gave me a look as though wondering if Greg was right.
I do care, I wanted to say to her. I care about everything, more than anyone. But it’s too much and I can’t do anything about it anyway, so I have to lock it all away or I’ll drown. I care. I just don’t want to.
Instead, I shrugged, and walked away.
I mooched into the room five minutes late with my school blazer itching unbearably at my neck. I ran a finger around my collar, feeling like I was going to choke at any second, and scanned the room for Megan. She was the only thing that would make this stupid day bearable. She was nearly the only thing that made joining the League of Extraordinary Losers worthwhile, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fracking cool to be able to walk through a door without opening it or, you know, rummage in someone’s schoolbag without unzipping it.
Not that, you know, I could do that around anyone but the Losers, because if anyone else saw me do it I’d a) land a detention (big woop) and b) probably be examined to within an inch of my life. Such was the joy of being a teenager with superpowers, even if they were ‘absolutely ordinary’ ones. I sniffed. Ordinary my arse. The other misfits could try to pretend they were ordinary if they liked, but I for one wasn’t the least bit afraid of being an individual.
A group of kids sans uniforms and ergo from one of the public schools crowded past me, sniggering as they went. I shrugged self-consciously inside my blazer. Stupid uniform. Stupid public school kids. Stupid Maths competition.
“There you are.” Megan grabbed me by the elbow before I even realised she’d appeared and dragged me forward through the crowd. “Greg thought you’d chickened out.”
“Of the E. James Downward Mathematics competition? Now why would I do a thing like that,” I said, grinding my teeth as Megan towed me past the public school contingent who’d sniggered at me before.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Megan said with the air of explaining something simple to a very stupid person. “Maybe because you’ve missed every practice we’ve had this week?”
I pulled my arm away and shook my sleeve back in place. “Yeah? And?” It was Maths, for crying out loud. I could do this crap with my arms tied behind my back, and wasting every lunchtime with the Dorkazoids in some musty classroom had lost its gloss once they became more concerned with practice Maths questions than the freaky cool things you could do with some basic scientific knowledge. Create wind currents, for example. School uniform skirts looked heavy, sure, but a well-placed draft could lift them like a tissue.
Not that I would do that. And definitely not to Megan. That one time, it was the draft from the window, I swear it. Because, like, I’d tell her if I discovered something else awesome that we could do. Truly.
But anyway, she dragged me over and plonked me down at our table up the front right as the presiding teacher tapped his microphone and launched into a long-winded and unnecessary explanation of what today was about, why we were competing, and who gave a fig in the first place. Which clearly wasn’t me. Greg muttered something under his breath at me, no doubt his usual charming hello, and I settled down to the serious business of ignoring him.
After far too long, just as I was about to die of boredom, Head Teacher who fancied himself Great Orator finally shut up, and the first round of questions was handed out. I let the League of Losers stress over it for a while – though Matt wasn’t doing a half bad job – before I snatched the question sheet out from under Greg’s elbow and began dictating.
Greg tried to protest, Megan launched into a tirade against both of us, Pip put her head down on the desk, and Matt, the only sensible person at the table other than myself, wrote down what I was saying.
“…and then it all equals seven,” I finished, putting the page back down on the table and nodding at Matt. “Right?”
He nodded back, capped his pen, and placed it on the finished answer sheet. “Right.”
“See?” I said, leaning back in my chair and folding my arms. “You lot just need to learn to chill.”
Megan angled her chair away from me and pointedly struck up a conversation with Pip. What was that all about? I’d done what she wanted, hadn’t I? Here I was, stuck at this stupid Maths day when I’d rather be doing just about anything else, and I’d given them all the right answers and everything, and now she was mad at me?
I shook my head. “Women,” I muttered under my breath.
Greg, sadly, heard me. “You’re a moron, Chris,” he said as he shoved his chair back. He grabbed the answer sheet and stalked to the judges’ table.
I rolled my eyes.
Three rounds later and I was just about comatose from the sheer excitement of it all. Problem after problem after problem, and they weren’t even that challenging. I mean, sure, a couple of times one or two of the others got the answer before I did, but I was distracted. It’s not like I was trying.
At long last we broke for lunch, and I hurried out of the room as fast as I could. Megan had barely looked at me all morning, and there was no way I was going to sit around with the Losers for forty-five minutes while everyone looked on and sniggered.
I was nearly to the exit when someone grabbed my arm, spinning me around.
“Where are you going?” Megan demanded.
“Out,” I said.
“You know we’re not supposed to leave the premises.” She put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. Good thing she wasn’t a real superhero; a laser stare on her would be dangerous.
“I’m not,” I said, smoothing down my blazer and heading back towards the exit. “I’m getting lunch.”
“There’s lunch at the canteen,” Megan said, not following.
“I want real food.” I reached the door. Stupid Megan and her stupid morals. Stupid Maths day. Stupid lunch. If I wanted to go eat some real food, why should anyone care? It’s not like I was nipping out for a spot of vandalism before returning to win the Maths trophy, was it now? I set my jaw and phased through the door, knowing it would make Megan furious – maybe furious enough to come after me.
But I strode away from the building, shrugging out of my blazer and stuffing my tie into my pocket, and no one followed.
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