Chapter Seven: Impulses

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By the time Monday rolled around, Eliza had almost fully healed from her ordeal. Physically, at least. Joe had forced her to go to the movie — a thoughtful and somewhat boring flick about the sociopolitical consequences of an alien invasion — and dragged her to the library to study for their history exam that week. Things were threatening to settle back into normal, the universe bending itself back into shape as if the weekend had been nothing more than an uncomfortable blip on the radar.

Which was exactly what Eliza was afraid of.

Her mind drifted as she followed Joe into the main hall, exhausted from going over the same questions over and over and over again. She felt like she'd worn a rut in the gray matter of her brain, a groove that wasn't doing anything but making her antsy and irritable.

"Do you think Mr. Veran will ask about King Henry's five wives, because that seems like a fairly obvious question?"

"Huh?" Eliza asked as Joe opened the door for her. He rolled his eyes.

"Good to know you're listening."

Eliza smiled.

"Sorry. Just tired, you know."

"I don't know why. I mean you only almost died twice this weekend. You should be bright eyed and bushy tailed, as my granddad would say."

"Well, at least I have you to take care of me."

Joe's cheeks turned dark red and Eliza slid past him, grinning to herself. Poor Joe tried so hard, but he couldn't quite master the graceful confidence of his parents. Eliza had watched them once on the HNN, at some gala for top-rated news shows. They'd been crisp and witty and smooth. Alluring in their self-possessed, fascinating way. It was impressive, really. No wonder their only child felt like he had a lot to live up to.

But Eliza's thoughts were dragged back to reality as she stepped through the door. Something in homeroom was wrong. There was an energy to the gathered students that felt toxic, unwelcoming. Eliza slowed as she shuffled between desks, trying to find the cause.

"Slut."

Eliza spun at the word, meeting Fabia's cold brown eyes with a hard expression of her own.

Eliza took a step toward the other girl's desk.

"What did you call me?"

Fabia didn't answer, just sat back in her seat with a cat-like smirk.

"Come now, everyone, sit down," Mrs. Henderson called, sweeping in with a rustle of her heavy skirt. "I know it's Monday, but that's no reason to dilly dally."

Shaken by the vitriol swirling around her, Eliza slid into her seat as Joe settled in behind her. He hadn't heard the slur or else he would have stood up for her, but she wondered if Joe felt the wrongness just as much as she did.

Turning to face Mrs. Henderson, Eliza tried to focus on the morning. But a tap on her shoulder interrupted the failed attempt. Joe's long fingers passed her a jagged piece of paper ripped from his notebook.

I'll investigate, it said.

Thanks, Eliza scribbled back, letting Mrs. Henderson's announcements drone on, the dull Monday monotony sharpening the jagged edges of her temper.

~~~

"So?"

Joe winced as Eliza cornered him in the cafeteria, dragging him to a table in the back.

"You're not gonna like it," Joe said, not meeting her eyes.

"Tell me."

Joe ducked his head as Tori swept past, followed by a sneering Fabia and the twins. None of them so much as looked at Eliza.

Her morning had been worse than bad. Whispers had followed her like persistent mosquitos, most of them faceless and gone before she could turn. Only Fabia had been bold enough to meet Eliza's eyes as she hissed that foul word, but the sentiment had clearly spread far and wide. On Friday, Eliza had been nothing more than a weird newcomer, barely worth a glance.

Today, she was notorious.

"Joe, I'm dying here. It's been a hell of a morning. Please tell me."

He looked ready to squirm out of his seat, but Eliza didn't let up. She leaned toward him, putting her hand on the metallic cover of his applesauce.

"Please?"

Joe lifted his eyes, peering at her from beneath thick auburn lashes.

"Tori's spreading a rumor about you. That you slept with a soldier this weekend."

"What?"

"She said you've got a... boyfriend on Fitzgerald Base. That you snuck in to see him over the weekend and when the officers busted into his bunk you had to run naked through the forest." Joe blushed. "She said that's why you're so covered with cuts and bruises."

Eliza's mouth hung open. A part of her had known that Tori wasn't the kind of girl to leave things to chance, that her roommate would do something to cover up what had happened.

But this?

"And people believe her?" Eliza hissed, glaring at the table of rich princesses.

Joe shrugged.

"I mean, it's high school. People like gossip, no matter how dumb it is."

Eliza's eyes scanned the cafeteria, fast enough to catch the stares before people averted their eyes.

She curled her fingers into fists on the table.

"Assholes."

"Look, ignore them," Joe said soothingly. "It'll pass. Last year someone spread a rumor that Beth was pregnant and it was all anyone could talk about for two weeks, but of course even these idiots had to drop it when it became obvious she wasn't. I mean, she did quit the drama club and went home for the third quarter to mentally recover from the bullying, but she's back this year."

Eliza was glaring into her soup. A week ago she would have marched up to Tori and challenged her in front of everyone, pushed it into the open in the brazen way that had landed her in trouble so many times she'd lost count. Insults would have been exchanged, perhaps a few blows, and both girls would have ended up crumpled and sheepish in the headmaster's office. Tori would have gotten a stern reprimand.

Eliza would have been sent home.

So she forced herself to remain in her seat, her knuckles white as the whispers fluttered around her with their sharp, treacherous wings.

"Eliza?"

She sighed, glancing up at Joe.

"What?"

Joe reached out and wrapped his pianist fingers around one of her fists, squeezing in comfort.

"You know I don't care if you're into military grunts or nerds. Although I strongly hope for the latter."

She couldn't help the laugh that burst out of her, bright and surprising in the unfriendly cafeteria.

"Glad to hear it, Joe."

But he didn't let go of her hand. His eyes were intense, drilling into her with something she didn't want to deal with, not in her current state.

"I'm going to talk to her tonight." Eliza said, pulling back and glaring at the far table. "Privately. In our room."

Joe grimaced to conceal the flinch from when Eliza had withdrawn.

"That seems like a great idea."

"Look, she can't be all evil. I've heard her humming to herself in the shower."

"Yeah, because plotting monsters don't hum. Only nice, warm, kind-hearted people are allowed to make musical noises."

Eliza smiled, dipping her spoon into her soup without really intending to eat. Her thoughts were far away, wandering down the road to a place where more interesting things were happening than rumors about illicit boyfriends.

"Don't worry about me, Joe. I can deal with her."

"Your funeral," Joe muttered, knowing better than to try and stop her.

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