The Knights of Sheba

Some people say that women don't sweat but glisten. These people have never met Geneva Oaks, sixteen-year-old, ninth grade student at Ashview High. In fact, as she sits outside, under the school awning, in the muggy Midwestern heat, she finds herself doing little else but sweating.

That is how myths are, though. They start as something small, with a grain of truth at their core, and then spiral out of control. Soon, they become so big and biased that they no longer resemble the nugget they once were. But this is not a myth. It is a story, and it starts here, near the end of summer, in the heat and humidity, and with a sweaty girl waiting for a ride.

Summer school is officially over, and in two weeks Geneva will be back, along with the other students, to trudge her way through another year of high school. Those two weeks, though, are hers, and she has plans for them. While waiting, she silently puts a list together, filled with games to play, shows to watch, and a liberal amount of napping in between.

This is all assuming her sister comes to pick her up. She sighs and contemplates two weeks spent waiting and boiling. If she had a wrist watch, she would check her it and grumble. Without one, she is reduced to just grumbling.

The door to the school clicks open, and Geneva looks involuntarily. A blast of cold air hits her in the face, like a nice, cool smack, and she smiles momentarily. A woman steps out into the heat. She is tall, slender, and blonde. Her dress is business-like, and she carries a small briefcase at her side. Her hair is light and kept short, masculine, a sharp contrast to her long, sleek face.

The woman stops and looks at Geneva. Then, she consults her wrist. She is wearing a watch. "You're here quite late," she says with an accent that Geneva can't quite place. It sounds vaguely European, not that Geneva is an expert on such matters.

Geneva nods. "I am."

The woman gives her a lingering stare, "And you are a student here?"

"I was. Am. I—Summer school. Bad grades. Not very smart, as I'm sure you've noticed."

The woman hums in response and turns ahead, looking at the empty parking lot. From inside of her pocket she pulls out a set of car keys. "School is out now," she says. "Did the buses leave without you? Would you like a ride home?"

"What? No! No, thanks, I'm good. Really. Just waiting on my sister to come and pick me up."

"I see," the woman says, checking her watch again. "She's running quite late, then."

"Yeah, but that's pretty normal for her. Doesn't even get her period on time." Geneva laughs anxiously, looks at the woman's stoic face, and stops. She hangs her head. "So, yeah, totally inappropriate. Sorry."

"Yes. Well."

Geneva keeps her gaze on the ground and waits. When the woman doesn't move or speak, she feels obligated to say something. Wringing her hands, she says, "So, uh, you a teacher here?"

"Yes. Physical education." She holds out her hand. "My name is Nina Olivia. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"Oh, so you're the new gym teacher," Geneva says. She gives a halfhearted shake and is surprised by the vice-like grip of the woman's hand. Afterward, Nina rubs her hand on her jacket, leaving a damp spot where it touches. Geneva places her wet palms flat against her jeans. "I think I have your class this year."

"Oh, do you? Well, I hope you're looking forward to it. I have big plans for you students this year."

"Oh. Well, forgive me if I don't cheer."

A dusty old car swings into the parking lot. It takes a wide path around and stops, rumbling, before the awning. The driver leans over and cranks the passenger window down. Rock music spills out into the otherwise silent lot, and the driver leans back and lifts her sunglasses. "Yo, Genie, get your rear in here. I'm missing my stories."

Geneva trades a glance between her new teacher and the car. "Ah. That would be my sister." She stands, hugging her backpack tight to her chest.

Ms. Olivia nods and stares at the car. "Then, I suppose I'll see you in two weeks, yes?"

"Two weeks," Geneva says, skipping from the awning and running to the car. She gets inside, and her sister speeds out of the parking lot and down the street. Geneva tosses her book bag into the back before fiddling with her seatbelt. "Really, Bea, do you have to do stuff like that?"

"Aw, what, did I embarrass you in front of your favorite teacher?" Beatrice, one hand on the steering wheel and swerving some, reaches out to pinch her little sister's cheek. "Does little Genie-weavie worry about her reputation?"

Geneva swats Beatrice's hand away. "Little Genie-weavie wants you to keep your eyes on the road, woman!"

Beatrice slips her glasses back down before they hit the highway. "You're no fun when you're grumpy, you know." Grabbing the wheel with both hands, she grimaces. "Also, why are my fingers so wet?"

"Because I'm sweating, Bea, because you're, like, fifteen minutes late. And I waited for you. In the hot sun."

"You sweat from your cheeks?"

"I sweat from everywhere."

"That's pretty weird."

Geneva glowers. "It's weird that I sweat?"

"From your cheeks, yeah," Beatrice says. "I mean, I've heard of boob sweat, or arm pits, or under your eyes and stuff, but cheeks? Cheeks isn't normal."

Geneva sighs. "Oh, just shut up."

Beatrice clicks her tongue. "See, grumpy," she says.

Geneva ignores it. She leans against the car door with her arms crossed and sulks out the window. The scenery passes by in a blur, without meaning or notice. In her head, she is already home playing games, turning in early, and sleeping until noon.

Episode One: A New Day

Ash Valley is a well-to-do suburb of Kansas City. Exclusively for the best-of-the-best, all the movers and shakers make home there, in their gated communities, with their personal gardeners and personal mansions. So, when it is said that Ash View High is a public school, it is misleading, to say the least.

Ash View is, technically, a public school, but it is a public school with the funding of a private school. Settling for nothing but the best in the best of technology and faculty, they have money to spend and more. The students, similarly, are of the highest pedigree that Ash Valley has to offer. They are groomed, manicured, and cultured to the highest degree.

Then there is Geneva. While an Ash View student, Geneva considers herself about as close to affluence as she is to a healthy body-mass index—within sight but never within reach. Instead, she comes from humbler beginnings. Her father is a college dropout working now as a garbage man, and her mother is a community college graduate working, off and on, as a substitute teacher. While not struggling to survive, they live well outside of Ash Valley and its lap of luxury.

So then, the question becomes, how does Geneva fit into the pretty picture that is Ash View High, and the answer is that she doesn't. Instead, she landed there due to a strange set of circumstances lining up perfectly. Her previous middle school (name omitted to protect the guilty) was closed due to poor test scores and a loss of accreditation, leaving her floating in the education ether. In that time, her mother made a few calls and convinced an old college friend, now turned Ash View superintendent, to take Geneva in.

That is how Geneva came to Ash View two years prior, and why she is failing so spectacularly now. To call Geneva an excellent student would be a lie. Before Ash View, she was exceedingly average, even by public school standards. When given an advanced curriculum designed for advanced students, with nannies and tutors and money for proper supplies, she found herself sinking quickly despite her efforts.

Which is how she lost over a month of her break to summer school. It is also why she is not eager to return. Despite her frustration and fears, however, she has learned one important life lesson. She is sixteen, and as a sixteen-year-old no amount of grumbling on her part will ever convince her mother and father that she is average. Because her parents are supportive and believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that she is capable of great things.

After many wasted hours pleading and begging she gave up, realizing that both were completely insane.

She goes through the motions for them, though, and rewards their obnoxious belief with serious effort. So, on the first day of school she wakes up and prepares for the long day ahead. For her, this is something of a mad scramble around the house searching for something 'clean' and slinging her backpack over her shoulder before sprinting out the front door. She is greeted by a bright yellow bus, and a not so bright bus driver who has to wake up extra early and drive ten miles out of the way to pick her up.

They nod curtly to each other as she stumbles onto the bus and finds a seat near the back to collapse in.

The ride to school lasts nearly an hour and includes many stops along the way. By the time they arrive Geneva feels something like a sardine stuffed into a can. She can hardly breathe around all of the people, and the anxious tension of the first day jumps through the seats like an electric current.

The bus rolls to a stop in front of the school and the doors come open. Students pour out, nearly trampling each other in their excitement. Geneva manages to make it out in the middle of the pack and keep some space between herself and her peers. Her previous school had nearly twice the students of Ash View and half the faculty. Time there made her an expert at weaving through crowded halls, and she moves fluidly around people, seeming almost as if she isn't there at all. She finds her locker, leaves her things, and then slips away to her first hour class.

Summer school, while an awful waste of time in her opinion, did have one benefit. She got to work closely with a student advisor and design a class schedule that suited her perfectly. For her first hour, she managed to snag a spot in history, a subject many student dislike but she has always felt a special connection to. It was the only class she ever gets an A in, even in Ash View.

The classroom is empty when she arrives, and she decides to sit near the back and beside a window. She sets her binder down and then leans on her desk and stares outside, pretending that she is not there. From the window she can see the baseball diamond, and the small forest beyond it. A tree sits in the center, larger than any tree she has ever seen before. Its bark is grey as stone, and it looks like a tower piercing the sky.

She finds herself wondering how deep its roots run.

Lost in her reveries, she doesn't notice the other students entering, and she doesn't notice Kit until it is too late. She jumps when she hears someone call her name and twists in her seat to see who it is.

Katherine "Kit" Wright is Geneva's best friend and, in truth, only friend, and the two couldn't be more different. Geneva considers herself short, frumpy, and awkward, and Kit is none of those things. Being tall, chesty, and charming, she fits into the Ash View social scene perfectly.

When she sees Geneva, she smiles and waves. "Well, hello there, fancy running into you here."

"Yeah, big surprise. I think it's some kind of law or something now-a-days. Truancy or whatever."

Kit rolls her eyes. "You know what I mean! I didn't know you had Mr. Oliver's history class for your first period."

Geneva shrugs. "Let's call it serendipity."

"Call it whatever, I'm glad to have you here." Kit settles into her seat, pulling out a notebook and a small, sleek pen from her binder. Then, she turns, crossing her long, slender legs, and faces Geneva. "We have so much to catch up on. My summer was amazing, by the way."

"Here we go," Geneva says. She leans forward on her binder.

"Oh, don't be so sour," Kit says, giving Geneva a gentle nudge. It is enough to nearly knock her from the seat. "Anyway, you know how my family went to Europe for the summer, right?"

"No, actually, I didn't know that. It does explain why you didn't respond to any of my e-mails, though."

Kit, normally always ready with a response, goes quiet. She rummages through her bag for a moment to distract herself, and then says, "Oh, yeah, sorry about that. Guess I should have told you, huh?"

Geneva shrugs.

"Well, anyway, my parents and I went to Europe, and that's where I got. This! Isn't it gorgeous?" Kit jams her right hand into Geneva's face. There, wrapped around her ring finger, is the gaudiest thing Geneva has ever seen. It is large, golden, and shiny, and it fits Kit perfectly.

Staring cross-eyed at it, Geneva hums. "Huh. Well, yeah, that sure is a ring alright."

Kit frowns and goes back to her bag. She zips it up and places it over the back of her chair. "Well, you're no fun. Anyway, I got it from this French guy. He bought it for me while we were out on a date."

Geneva arches an eyebrow. "You let him take you on a date?"

"Sure, and why shouldn't I? It didn't go anywhere, and he was convinced that he could fix me or something. His words, not mine."

"And when he didn't, he bought you jewelry as some sort of reward for your victory? "

"Well, I may have let him feel me up for a few minutes."

"Kit!"

"What? It was through the shirt."

"Oh, that makes it all better."

"Hey, I told him up front that it wouldn't go anywhere, and it didn't. And, it worked out for everyone. I got a ring, and he got to shake hands with the twins." Here, Kit pauses to examine her ring again. It gleams in the light. "I'd say that's a fair trade, wouldn't you?"

Geneva shakes her head, sighs. "You are a role model, Kit. Girls everywhere should strive to be like you."

There is a pause.

"Anyway, that's not all I have to tell you about," Kit says. "I can't end this conversation without mentioning the ladies over here."

"Oh no," Geneva says, groaning. "Here we go."

"They're great. Spectacular, and they've got tongues like you wouldn't believe, let me tell you."

Holding her ears, Geneva says, "Please, don't tell me."

Kit pauses and frowns. "Well, someone is touchy today. What in the world has got your panties so bunched up?"

"Nothing," Geneva sighs.

"Oh, no, don't you nothing me. Something is clearly bothering you." Kit crosses her arms over her chest and stares determinedly at Geneva. "Tell me what."

"Nothing. Nothing is bothering me. I'm always sarcastic."

"Yeah, you are, but usually it's funny-sarcastic. This. Isn't. Funny. This is annoying. You've got a chip on your shoulder, so just go ahead and let it air so we can move passed all this ugly."

"There is no ugly, so there's nothing to move passed."

Kit rolls her eyes again. "My God, who is this repressed? Just tell me, Genny." In sweeter tones, "It'll make you feel better."

"I highly doubt that."

They go silent and stare at each other. Kit sits, arms and legs crossed, wagging her foot, and stares as if her eyes are enough to wring the information out. Geneva stares back, more uncertainly, with her body slouched, and mustering as much defiance as she can.

After a few long, tense seconds, Kit says, "So, Genny, how was your summer?"

"Crappy. Spent it in summer school. Also, not what's wrong."

"Then what is wrong?"

"Nothing. Now, shush up. Teacher's here."

Kit turns in her seat. "Shushing," she says, flipping her notebook open and readying her pen.

Mr. Jason Oliver enters the room. Having only just earned his degree a few years before, Mr. Oliver is one of the youngest members of the faculty. Despite this, he has made a name for himself as being forward thinking, friendly, and easy on the eyes. Older faculty find his relaxed approach lackadaisical, but students and parents are already quite fond of him.

Also, many of the girls harbor something of a small crush, Geneva included.

He is tall, lean, and fair, and he keeps his long hair in a ponytail, which sways with his movements, and enters the room with an easy stride and a smile. Once at his desk, he waits patiently for the students to settle before speaking.

"Good morning, everyone," he says, "And welcome to American History! Now, I'm sure some of you didn't choose this course willingly, but rest assured, I will do my best to keep you all entertained and awake. That is, so long as you do your best to learn what I have to teach. History is—Well, guys and gals, it's the core of everything, and American History is at the core of you," he says, pointing for emphasis, "Whether you believe it or not. The things we'll be learning, no matter how long ago they happened, have had a lasting relevance even into today's modern, fast-paced world."

He looks out at the sea of faces staring blankly back at him, and he laughs. "None of you care about that though, do you? You're all just high on first-day-jitters, huh? Well, how about this: we'll have an easy first day—a free day—and just assign books. How does that sound?"

The students cheer loudly in response. Lifting his hands in front of him as if to ward off the noise, Mr. Oliver quickly silences the teens.

"That went exactly as I expected it to. Okay, I'll be calling out names. You all come up and grab one of these," he says, patting a stack of books on his desk. "Give me the numbers, take the books, and take care of them. And you can talk while I do this, but keep the noise down. Do that, and you won't have any homework until tomorrow. Deal?" Again, he is met with the general chaos of applause and cheers, which quickly dissolves into spirited but controlled conversation.

Mr. Oliver takes a seat behind his desk, hidden from view behind wall of books, and starts going through the names on his list. "Casey Allen."

Kit leans over to Geneva. "So, summer was fine?"

"Summer was dismal."

"What, did you fail your class or something? What was it again? Geometry?"

"Algebra. Basic algebra. Like, remedial algebra, and I didn't fail it."

"Oh. A?"

"C."

Kit winces. "Ouch."

"No, no, that's good for me. Cs are like an A in my world."

"Oh," Kit says. "Well, then, congrats?

"Thanks."

Kit leans back in her chair, crosses her arms again, this time comfortably. "Sorry you had such a crap summer, though."

"My summer wasn't," Geneva sighs, "Just talk about something else, please."

They fall into silence, which is made worse by the conversations surrounding them. Laughter and stories float through their isolated bubble in the back, like ripples in a pond. They are a wilted flower in a garden of sound.

Geneva looks out the window. "So, uh, did the girls you date buy you anything?"

Kit grins. "No, no, I buy them stuff."

Geneva looks at her. "So, they're, what, prostitutes?"

"Ew. No." Kit frowns. "No, never. It's just how dating works, Genny. You find a pretty girl. You take her on a date. You buy her something shiny."

Geneva hums. "Bitches do love shiny."

"Yes," Kit says, holding up her ring to gaze at it fondly. "Yes, we do. Anyway, then you take them somewhere private, take off that shiny thing you just bought them, and…"

"I get the feeling this story isn't going to end with a firm handshake and a parting of ways."

"No. Does it ever?"

Geneva sighs. "No."

"Exactly," Kit says, now flashing a grin. She looks at Geneva and lifts her eyebrows. "I'm good at what I do."

"Well, you do seem to get a lot of practice."

"I know, right?"

"Stop grinning. Wasn't a compliment."

"Didn't sound like an insult."

"It was neutral. The statement was neutral. I'm neutrally passing judgment on you and everything you do. I'm complex like that."

Kit stares at Geneva for a few seconds and then says, "You know, I can never tell if you're joking or not."

"Part of my charm."

"Anyway, I didn't just have sex while I was there. We also did all of the tourist crap. Saw the Louvre. The Eiffel Tower. Didn't make Oktoberfest, though."

"Yeah, pretty sure that's in October."

"You don't say," Kit says, chuckling. "It was fun, though, really fun." She pauses and stares ahead. The stack of books is shrinking gradually. "Sorry I didn't write," she says after some thought.

Geneva shrugs and turns back to the window. "Was busy anyway."

"Yeah. With Algebra?"

"Yes, with the remedial Algebra. Also, beat a few games over the summer."

"Did you go outside? Even a little?"

Geneva gives Kit a quick, horrified glance. "And risk skin cancer? Please, Kit. That's just dangerous. Irresponsible and dangerous."

"You're stupid. Someday, you're going to regret all of those days you spent in front of that screen, you know."

"Maybe, but all of that regret will be washed away by relief when you die. From skin cancer," Geneva says, "I'll miss you."

Kit rolls her eyes. "You ever notice how most of our conversations end with you talking about how I die?"

"You live a dangerous life, Kit, what with all your sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And the dancing. Footloose-preacher-dad would not approve."

"Geneva Oaks."

Hearing her name, Geneva excuses herself and goes to the front of the room. There, she speaks with Mr. Oliver. He assigns her a book, and she reads him the number from the inside flap. Upon returning, she catches Kit rifling through binder. Geneva jerks it away angrily while Kit unfolds a piece of paper she pulled from the inside.

Kit grins. "Just what I was looking for."

"Hey," Geneva says, "Give that back!" She swipes at it ineffectually while Kit keeps her at bay with one hand. Defeated, Geneva slumps back into her chair and huffs. "Have you no sense of privacy?"

Kit shrugs. "Just wanted to see your class schedule." She examines it closely, her smile broadening while Geneva's glare intensifies. "Let's see. We share first hour, second hour, and fifth hour. Only three classes?"

Geneva takes the moment to yank the paper from Kit's slender hands, and narrowly avoids ripping it to shreds in the process.

Kit looks at her in mock-sympathy. "Oh, Genny, how are you ever going to survive without me?"

"Please, I'll probably do better without you there to distract me," Geneva says, jamming the schedule back into her binder and zipping it in for added protection.

"Now, come on, you don't mean that."

"No, I don't," Geneva says, slumping onto her desk. "Trying to keep hopes up and all of that."

"And how is that turning out for you?"

"Dismally."

Kit nods. "So, anyway, I've been wondering about something."

"No, I won't let you sleep with my sister."

"Not what I was going to ask," Kit says, grinning, "But since we're on the subject, why not?"

"Many, many reasons, but mostly, I just don't think she swings that way."

"Please, give her a few wine-coolers and a couple of minutes alone with me, and I'll have her swinging whatever way I want."

"Your confidence, while impressive, is misplaced. If the cavalcade of young suitors she entertains in the privacy of her bedroom are any indication, well, she likes the D, and she likes it a lot."

Kit shrugs and leans back in her chair. "Her loss. Now, onto the real question."

"Mom is off limits, too," Geneva says.

"How close are you to graduating exactly?"

Geneva purses her lips and stares at the ceiling as she thinks. "Two years?"

"So, you'll graduate on time."

"Gods and Buddha willing, sure, it can happen. Though, the probability is like snow in July. In hell."

Kit pauses and looks at her. "Do you even believe in hell?"

"Like, me as the individual or me the Jew? Cause regardless of what my religion may or may not say on the subject, I know for fact that hell does exist. I spent the summer there."

Kit snorts out some laughter and nearly tips her chair. Falling forward, she says, "It couldn't have been that bad?"

"It was pretty bad. I nearly committed ritualistic suicide with my pencil just to end the mind-numbing boredom." Geneva looks Kit in the eyes and says, "Worst. Summer. Ever."

"Will you have to go back next summer?"

"For the record, I really didn't want to think about it, but yes."

"And then?"

"And then what?"

"Well, you'll graduate?"

"I already answered this one," Geneva says.

"Actually, you danced around it."

"Yeah, kind of my thing," Geneva says, and she watches Kit watch her. She sighs. "Fine, yes, I'll graduate," she makes quotation makes with her fingers, "'On time.' Then, I'll be able to leave this horrible place behind. This is all dependent on me passing all of my classes in the foreseeable future. There, happy?"

Kit lounges again. She crosses her legs and hangs her sandal precariously off of one of her bare feet. Her toenails are painted pink and have little flowers carefully drawn on the center of the nails. She smiles. "Yeah, actually, I am."

"Good, then. I guess. I don't really see how it's any of your business or concern, though."

"Hey, it's my business and my concern because you're my friend, and I want to us to go to college together."

"Oh," Geneva says. "Oh, in that case, I've got mega bad news for you. This girl," she points at herself with her thumbs for clarity, "is so not going to college."

Kit casts a sideways glance at Geneva. "You're what?"

"Oh, come on, you can't be that surprised. I'm barely managing high school. I so won't be able to make it in college. And, I don't know if you've noticed my hand-me-down rags, but my family doesn't exactly have a pot of gold waiting around to send me."

"Beatrice goes to college."

"Beatrice is a bitching writer, and got equally bitching scholarships. This girl," she says, repeating her previous gesture, "has neither skills nor charm. Me going to college is both a waste of time and money—money, I regret to remind you, that my parents don't have in the first place. So, I'm not going."

"Then what are you going to do with your life?"

"Get a job. Work. Play video games. Not go to school. You know, the good life," she says, sighing and staring off into the distance.

"Any job that you get straight out of high school is going to give you minimum wage at best."

"Okay, then I start at the bottom and work my way up. Like Drake."

"Work your way up to what without a degree?"

"Executive Command Fry Cook-a-neer?"

"I'm serious, Genny! Also, while we're on this, what will you do when you have kids? How will you support them on minimum wage?"

"My husband will be rich," Geneva says. "He'll be George Clooney."

"Genny."

"Kit."

"Be serious."

"Be serious about what, Kit? I'm sixteen. Sixteen! I don't even know if I want kids. Or a husband. I don't even know if I want a cat."

"Well, you'd better make up your mind soon, because as things are looking now, a cat is about all you're going to get. A cat, and a sad, lonely little life addicted to video games where you don't leave your house."

"Then I guess me and Fluffycakes will be happy together!"

"Genny!"

"Oh," Geneva says, waving her hand dismissively, "Calm down."

"No, I won't calm down. My friend is basically telling me that she's throwing her life away."

"You're 'friend,'" Geneva says, giving the finger-quotes a repeat performance, "Is being realistic. Besides, I still fail to see how this is at all your problem. We hardly hang out at school and never in the big, bright open real world where people might happen to, you know, see us and stuff. Once high school is over we'll go our separate ways, and I'll get my apartment, my entry level job, and my dream Mr. Fluffycakes, because a cat does sound nice after all—my dad is allergic—and you'll be off somewhere getting your fancy degree and being beautiful and busty and gallivanting with movie stars and having one night stands with, like, Miley Cyrus or something."

Kit pauses and stares blankly at Geneva. "Miley Cyrus?"

"What, lesbians like her, right?"

"Ew. No, Genny, no!" Kit cringes. "You don't get lesbians at all. Miley has the worst case of man-face."

Geneva thinks about it and shrugs.

"Now, if you had said Megan Fox, I would have been all over that."

"Megan Fox? Really?"

"What's wrong with her?"

"She's so," Geneva gestures vaguely, "Greasy. Every time I see her it looks like's she been rubbed down with a bunch of Vaseline."

"You've got a point," Kit says, tilting her head slightly and imagining. "But I like my girls with a little grease. The trashy ones do the dirty stuff."

"Okay, we can end this conversation pretty much, roughly, exactly now."

Kit grins and sits forward. Leaning over, she whispers, "Oh, come on, Genny, you haven't lived until you've been down on your knees with some butch woman running her hands through your hair…"

"And squeezing my head so hard that it bursts like an over-ripe melon?"

Kit recoils. "Gross, Geneva!"

"My thoughts exactly."

"Katherine Wright."

Initially, Claude approached his journey with the naïve optimism of someone who had never travelled more than a few hours away from home. This lasted to the state border and dissolved rapidly through the night. By the time they arrive at the bus station his legs are stiff and his back stiffer, and the air, while not clean, is fresh enough to clear his head.

His first thought is how much larger the city is. Second, is how humid. He expected it to be colder farther north, but the air where he comes from is dry. The humidity is suffocating and makes the heat seem somehow more intense. His clothes are wet with sweat and sticking against his body almost immediately.

Tall buildings stick out in the distance like mountains. He stares at them and thinks how they look so large even so far away. He can't even begin to imagine how big they are up close.

People on the bus move around him, finding home in the arms of their families or friends. Some get cabs and leave, and he stands there, a single bag slung over his shoulder, and stares out at the city.

He is struck by how foreign everything feels.

He goes inside of the bus station and speaks with a bored looking clerk who is short but stocky and has her dark hair pulled into a tight bun. The uniform makes her already broad shoulders look broader. She gives him a tired smile and asks how she can help him in a tone that indicates an innate unwillingness to help.

Claude leans in toward the window and says, more loudly than necessary, "Uh, well, I was actually wondering if you know any places to stay around here?"

She gives him a distant stare. "Like a hotel?"

"Sure," Claude says. "And maybe a place that's hiring?" Claude looks around the room, grimaces a bit, and then meets her eyes again. "Uh, are you guys hiring?"

Another long stare follows, this one more bewildered and somewhat sympathetic. "Sir, um, did you, like, move up here without a job or something?"

Claude smiles self-consciously. He puts his hands in his pockets, shrugs, and laughs. The laughter tapers off sharply when she doesn't join in. "Well, yeah, but it shouldn't be too bad, right?"

She pauses, shakes her head, sighs, "I, uh, I know a place you can stay. It's a ways from here, but there is a public bus you can ride that drops off near it. It'll be cheaper than a taxi service." She pulls out a pamphlet with a small map of the area on it and writes across it with a thick, red marker. "They've got fair prices. I know the owner, used to work for him. He's a nice guy."

She slides the pamphlet through to Claude, who looks at her drawings on the map. Without context they looked like squiggles. He pockets it.

"As for a job," she says thoughtfully. "Well, talk to them. They may have a better idea, and whatever happens, I'm sure they'll work something out on the price until you can get on your feet. They're good people."

Claude taps the counter. "Thanks," he says, accompanying it with a smile. "And the bus…"

She points toward the door. "Just outside, to the right. It'll have a sign. And be careful, it can be dangerous here if you don't know your way around."

Claude laughs. "Thanks, but I'll be fine."

He exits the building again and steps back out into the boiling heat of the city. A frown settles onto his face like moisture. He tugs on his shirt and looks to his right, finding a sign, a bench, and a bus schedule. "There we go," he says, adjusting his bag and taking a seat to wait on the bus.

After American History ends, Geneva and Kit part ways. English is next for Geneva and passes by uneventfully. Having Beatrice as an older sister works somewhat to Geneva's advantage. Even if she struggles with the material, she can always ask for help. As a result, English is one of the few classes Geneva doesn't fail miserably.

Next is Algebra, a class that Geneva would normally dread, but the hour is saved for one reason: Mr. Parks. He tutored her over the summer and knows how to work with her. Seeing him in class on the first day eased her anxieties slightly, though it also brought back all of the awkward hours they spent alone in the classroom over the summer. He greets her cheerfully, though, and promises to give her whatever extra support she will need to survive the year.

All-in-all, Geneva's morning seems to be going well, and then she enters the Biology classroom. Since childhood, math and science have always been her worst subjects. There are so many rules to memorize and so many equations and scenarios. In theory, she understands each of them. In practice, they become jumbled in her head, and she can never reference the right rule at the right time.

To make matters worse, she has no support at home. Beatrice has the very same problems and only narrowly passed her own high school math classes, which were much easier than the rigorous schoolwork assigned by Ash View High, and her parents suffer from similar troubles. Her father, in particular, seems to view math as some form of alien language that is not just bewildering but almost frightening.

To make matters worse, her Biology teacher is Mrs. Campbell. Tall, dark, and very, very serious, Geneva had Mrs. Campbell the year before. The year started well enough. Geneva managed to pass a few tests initially, but by the end of the first quarter was struggling. Mrs. Campbell took Geneva's inability as indifference and has held a grudge ever since.

Their first encounter this year involves a subtle glare and a shake of the head. Geneva hugs her binder close and stares at the ground while giving her teacher wide-berth.

The class turns out to require lab work, which Geneva forgot over the past two weeks, and spends the better part of ten minutes agonizing over. As all of the friends around her share clandestine smiles, she sits in the back, with an empty chair at her side, and considers asking if she can be partnered with her imaginary friend.

Short-lived relief is found when Mrs. Campbell announces that she will assign partners. It is short-lived because the partner picked for Geneva is Lana Love, the school's self-proclaimed socialite queen, and the first thing that is said as they settle into their assigned desk is, "This doesn't make us friends."

Years ago, or so Geneva has heard, Lana and Kit were best of friends. They lived close together, in luxurious houses in Ash Valley, and they talked about everything. Then, one day in eighth grade year, they had a falling out. As a result, Lana black-listed Kit and anyone who has anything to do with her, which was no one once Lana had dragged her name through the mud.

Lana, rich, attractive, and affluent, doesn't take kindly to Geneva's unwillingness to turn away Kit's friendship and has shown open hatred and hostility as a result. Sitting at the desk together, Geneva stays to the far side to make sure that they don't even brush elbows for fear of reprisal.

Lana shoots her a glare. "I just want that to be clear," she says, in the high, haughty tone of a teenager on a power trip. "I know who you are and what you are, latching onto anyone who gets close. This is a class, not a friendship, and I'm not as desperate as some people around here."

"Let me guess," Geneva says, "You're referring to Kit. For someone you hate so much, you sure do spend a whole lot of time talking about her."

"We're not talking about her, we're talking about you," Lana says. Staring at her, Geneva can't bring herself to say Lana is pretty, but she is precise. Everything about her is perfectly made-up to bring out not only her best qualities, but the exact qualities she wants. She controls the room and the conversation with a simple movement of her eyebrow. "Also, Kit? I've overheard you calling her that before, and I can't help but wonder what stupid anime or cartoon or whatever-you-like that you stole that from anyway. When we were younger, everyone always called her by her name. Katherine."

"Well, it's short for—It's like, a Kit-Kat, you know?"

Lana gives Geneva a long, empty stare. Then she scoffs. "Why am I not surprised that when you meet new people, you immediately think of food?"

Geneva glares and mutters, "Why am I not surprised that you're a…"

"Alright, class, alright, quiet down," Mrs. Campbell says, stepping out in front of the class. She turns immediately to the dry-erase board and starts jotting down notes while all of her students start copying them.

Lana leans over and whispers, "Oh, and if you have to be in class with me, could you not dress like a little homeless girl? I don't want the smell of your second-hand clothing distracting me. Some of us need grades because some of us can afford higher education."

Geneva pauses and stares at her notebook. Without looking up she says, "You know, Lana, I have to thank you for helping to me realize something. Here I was thinking my life couldn't get worse and…"

"Ms. Oaks, your life is going to get much worse if you don't keep quiet and let me teach," Mrs. Campbell says from the front of the class. Geneva looks up to find all eyes on her and Lana grinning beside her.

"Sorry," Geneva says, and Lana allows quiet laughter as soon as Mrs. Campbell returns her attention back to the board.

Lunch cannot have come at a better time and serves as a well-earned reprieve for Geneva. The hour spent with Lana seemed to go on forever, and stepping into the halls is like a seeing the sun for the first time in years. The freedom is almost blinding.

Geneva stows away her binder and hurries to the cafeteria. In her old school it was a mad rush to get food and get out before being lost in the shuffle. Many students hardly had time to eat before they were shoved off to their afternoon classes, and almost everyone ate at the school.

The first time Geneva saw Ash View's cafeteria it was like a brand-new world for her. Not only was it larger than necessary, it had enough room to house all of the students twice over. The food, she found, was hardly recognizable. She was used to rubbery things that looked like hamburgers or rubbery things that looked like pasta, and on the best days a rubbery thing that almost tasted like fish. Ash View food, however, actually looked and tasted like the food it was.

For Geneva, it was one of the few saving graces of the school.

She waits in the short line and gets her meal. It is a basic meat lasagna, a peach cup, gelatin, and a milk. She pays ten cents to get the chocolate and hauls her tray the long walk across the room. There, she finds Kit tucked into the back, out of sight and drawing no attention.

Seeing Kit like this, it is sometimes hard for Geneva to imagine her surrounded by friends. Once, Kit had been the center of the social storm, with people swirling around her in a frenzy to know her. Once, Kit had been close to Lana, an idea that Geneva, with her limited imagination, couldn't even comprehend.

Geneva greets Kit while settling at the table.

"Hey, Genny," Kit says, taking a brief moment to look up from her homemade chicken caesar salad. It is an enormous thing, made of the freshest ingredients and drizzled with something that Geneva doesn't recognize but suddenly hungers for. Kit's mouth is stuffed full to the point of barely being able to speak.

"Hey."

"How is everything?"

"Ugh," Geneva says.

Kit hums and nods. "So, the usual."

"Remember earlier when I said I knew what hell was like?"

"Summer school, right?"

"Yeah, well, turns out I was wrong." Geneva sulks over her lunch. "So very, very wrong."

"Uh oh," Kit says, taking time to swallow an extra-large bite and then wipe her mouth. "What happened now?"

"That," Geneva says, pointing with her fork.

Kit turns and looks over her shoulder at Lana, surrounded by a group of cackling hyenas pretending to be girls. She scoffs. "Okay, what did she do this time?"

"Nothing much, she was just herself," Geneva says. "I'm in class with her, Kit. Worse than that, we're lab partners." Geneva shivers for added effect.

"That sounds delightful," Kit says. "So, is she being awful to you again?"

"Beyond words, and it's all subtle stuff, little comments. Bad enough that Mrs. Campbell already hates me, but Lana uses it to her advantage. You know, sometimes, I think that if the devil and Hitler had some sort of evil, demonic love child, Lana is the thing it would think lives in its closet."

"Just don't let her get to you."

"Like you don't let her get to you?"

Kit shrugs but doesn't speak.

"Anyway, I'm going to be stuck with her. For the rest of the year." Geneva sighs. "On the plus side, I might actually pass this time."

"Maybe not. Lana isn't as smart as she acts, and she would never admit it, but I used to do her math and science homework for her." Geneva groans, and Kit laughs around her salad. "Sorry, sorry."

"Great. See that, that thing that just zipped out of here like a bat out of hell? That was the silver lining, Kit. You just stole my silver lining."

"Oh, come on. Don't worry too much. It's not like you have no one to help you."

"Yeah right," Geneva says, stabbing idly at her lasagna. She isn't feeling hungry so much as angry. "Bea isn't much better, and I don't even think my dad knows how numbers work."

"I wasn't talking about them, Genny. I was talking about me."

Geneva looks up. "What, like, you help me?"

Kit nods.

"You would really do that?"

"Well, yeah, duh. So long as you help me with our history homework."

"Oh, thank Zeus! I take back all of the awful things I've said about you over the years. Oh, Kit, you're a life saver. From now on, I promise I'll be nothing but pleasant to you."

"Geneva."

"I mean it. No more sarcasm. Ever. Again."

Kit shakes her head. "Don't make promises you can't keep."

"Well, good point," Geneva says. "Seriously, though. You're saving my rear. I don't think I'll be able to make it without help, and I know for a fact that Mrs. Campbell won't make it easy on me."

"Yeah, and why does she hate you again?"

Geneva laughs quietly. "Yeah, funny story. See, last year, I was taking a class with her and, well, there might have been a question about the speed or velocity or something of a speeding bullet and—here's the funny part—I didn't know how to get the answer. So, I may have just put something along the lines as, 'about as fast as Superman.'"

"You." Kit shakes her head. "You didn't."

"I in fact did."

"And what did she do?"

"Failed me. Apparently, she didn't get the reference."

Geneva's next class after lunch is physical education, and she feels fortunate to share it with Kit. This feeling of good fortune is gone when she enters the gymnasium and finds Lana there, her posse skulking around her as they always do.

Also waiting inside is Ms. Olivia, the teacher Geneva met two weeks prior. When she sees Geneva, she smiles, waves, and directs her down the stairs to the girl's locker room to dress out for class. Kit leads the way down, with Geneva trailing shortly after.

There are two locker rooms housed beneath the gym, one on each side. The room closest to the entrance is the boy's and the farthest is the girls, and each locker room is further divided into two subsections—those for physical education classes and those for athletics. Normally, students aren't allowed to change in the athlete's locker room, but Geneva and Kit chance the trouble to avoid Lana and her crew.

Though it was their choice, Lana still can't help but make a comment about how she feels safer with Kit in another room. For a moment, Geneva is afraid that Kit will attack, and she will be obligated as a friend to try and somehow stop her. To her amazement, and Kit's credit, all that happened was an exchange of glares and an agitated sigh.

Back in the gym, the students separate themselves by cliques. Geneva and Kit stay near the back and do their best to ignore Lana. Geneva sits with her knees up, hugging them to her chest. Kit stands beside her and stretches while they wait. They both stare at Lana's back.

"I swear, something is broken inside of her," Geneva says, sulking.

Kit springs up after touching her toes. "Nothing broken, she just has to be in control all of the time. She's probably just mad she got paired with you in Biology."

"Which is totally not fair, considering she's the jerk, and I'm the victim."

"Of course," Kit says.

"Of course."

The students don't have to wait long before Ms. Olivia enters the room. She stands tall among them, a slight, lean figure that towers. Her dress is conservative, a button-up top and khakis, and her gait is graceful and flawless. She smiles at them, in a practiced, precise sort of way, and gives another small wave toward Geneva.

Geneva waves back half-heartedly and tries to avoid any glances made by other students.

"You know her," Kit asks, leaning down to whisper.

"Kind of? We met the other day, after summer school let out. I was waiting for Bea. She's a new teacher here."

"So, they did fire Ms. Rita."

"And good riddance, I say."

"Oh, here we go."

"What? I think I'm perfectly within my rights to hold a grudge against that woman."

"She allegedly sexually harassed some students, Genny, and I'm not sorry to say that you weren't one of them."

"She used to pull me aside and make me do jumping jacks for her."

"Because you wouldn't do them otherwise."

"Be that as it may, I'm still convinced she was the one who stole my underwear."

"And I'm telling you it was Lana."

"Whatever, Freddie, you keep blaming your Red Herring, but until you and Mystery Inc. have any proof to back up that claim, I'm going to stick with my Ms. Rita theory."

The gym goes quiet when Ms. Olivia calls the class together. They gather around her and sit patiently on the floor while she looks them over. She smiles stiffly. "Greetings," she says, steepling her fingers and pacing. "My name is Ms. Olivia, as some of you already know." She glances at Geneva, who shies away. "And I will be your instructor for the year. As I am sure you have realized, I am a new instructor at Ash View, replacing your previous physical education instructor, Ms. Rita. Forging ahead, I am sure we will grow to know each other very well."

"Hopefully not as well as Ms. Rita knew some of us," Geneva whispers to Kit, who snickers.

"Now then, we will begin the class with a simple question," she says, pausing afterward to look out at all of the adolescent faces watching her. "What is physical education? As I understand, there is a misconception among the student body as to what the very nature of this class is and will be. Contrary to popular belief, it will not be an 'easy A,' as I heard one student call it earlier today. I've also heard that some of you entertain the idea of sitting out the year and offering minimal participation. That, I assure you, will not be enough to satisfy the requirements of this class. Rest assured, I will work you hard, and I will test your minds just as I test your body, but it is my most sincere hope that you will leave this class both healthier and more well-informed for it."

She smiles at the class again, in her practiced way. Hearing her declaration, Geneva feels her hopes drop into a cold, icy pool at the base of her spine. She looks sadly at Kit, who can only offer muted laughter in return.

"But that is for another day," Ms. Olivia says. "I'm sure all of you have spent your mornings bound inside of these stuffy halls, tied to little plastic chairs with hard backs while the sun shines outside. So, for today, let's get up and take this class outside and into the fresh air!"

Ms. Olivia leads them out through the back exit. On the way, she picks up a bag of equipment that waits near the door. The students follow, talking amongst themselves. Geneva and Kit lead them up in the rear.

Geneva sulks and shuffles along. Beside her, Kit beams. "I like her already," she says to Geneva, who groans.

"I don't."

"Come on," Kit says. "You need the exercise."

"You calling me fat, Kit?"

"I never said those words."

"You didn't not say them, either," Geneva says bitterly. She winces as they step out into the heat of summer. It reminds her very much of waiting for Beatrice, only she still has another hour of school after this class is over.

Ms. Olivia leads the students out into the back parking lot and down a hill to the sports fields. A fence surrounds the fields on all sides, and she pulls open a gate to grant them entrance. A highway winds around the building, connecting to the city proper. Between the highway and the fields is a thicket of trees with a large ash at its center.

Geneva sulks in the back of the group. Beside her, Kit bounces with the sort of youthful enthusiasm that only makes Geneva's attitude worse. While the two got along well, they have very different opinions toward sports. Kit is a capable athlete, while the only sports Geneva likes are in video games, and even those exhaust her after a while.

Ms. Olivia leads them to the baseball diamond. She stops on the pitcher's mound and drops her bag of equipment. Then, she separates them into teams by assigning each student a number. Kit is given one and Geneva two. Once they are grouped together, she bends down and pulls a plastic bat from inside of the bag. "Today we will be playing baseball, a staple of summer, no?"

"No," Geneva says to herself. She stands a few feet away from her team and stares bitterly at her teacher.

Kit's team is given first at bat, and Ms. Olivia decides to serve as all-time pitcher. She assigns team two their different positions, placing Geneva in the outfield. Geneva shuffles far away, hoping to find respite in the shadows cast by the tree line. She also entertains the idea that no one will be able to hit it hard enough for her to go after it.

With teams set, Ms. Olivia faces the batter and shouts, "Play Ball!"

Ms. Olivia pitches underhand, and the first batter lands a hit. It goes straight to first where it is caught in the air by Glenn, one of the popular, athletic types at the school. As he lands, he gives a handsome, confident smile before throwing it back to Ms. Olivia.

Kit bats next, and Geneva takes a moment to imagine the thought process behind it. Everyone knows Kit, and everyone knows the raw, animalistic strength she carries in her wiry little limbs. Even the baseball players in the class start to take a few preparatory steps backward.

Kit smiles and waves at Geneva, who knows immediately what that means. Then, she sinks into her batting stance and waits. Ms. Olivia throws, and with an astonishing crack, Kit connects. As expected, it goes far and flies smoothly over Geneva's head and over the fence, into the woods. Geneva watches it land in the trees and roll deeper inside.

She looks back to find the class watching her. "What?"

"You didn't even run for it," says the second-base woman, Ashley. They share English together. Up to this point, Geneva had always liked her. Now, watching Ashley's face twist into a sneer, she reconsiders her opinion.

"It went over the fence," Geneva says, gesturing toward the fence as if to reinforce the idea.

"But you didn't even try."

"Yeah, you should at least go get it," says another outfielder who Geneva doesn't recognize.

"Ms. Oaks, if you wouldn't mind," Ms. Olivia says.

Geneva sighs. "Okay, fine, but don't expect me to run." Out of the corner of her ear she hears Lana make a comment about how they wouldn't want the earthquakes that would follow.

Geneva exits through a nearby gate and climbs the small hill into the thicket. The first thing she notices upon approach is how sweet the air smells. Next, she notices how dark it has become. It looks like a cloud is passing by and blocking out the sun but looking back she can see the warm glow of the sunlight washing over the hillside.

She considers how strange it is, to have this small thicket of trees in the center of the city, untouched by the people who live there. A few years ago, when she first moved to the school, she heard rumors of expansion that would require the trees to be cut down, and she remembers that the rumors stopped abruptly.

The thick trees stand stout around her and, in the darkness, she can see the ash tree at the center. Its gray bark bends the light and create its own. It shimmers, and when she blinks the illusion fades. She rubs her eyes and shrugs it off.

She finds the little white ball a few feet in. The farther in she moves, the cooler the air becomes, and the sweeter it smells. She can feel dampness in the air, too, and everything grows darker around her, save for the ash tree. It seems to steal the light around it. Reality warps around it, funneling toward it, emphasizing it like a spotlight. She covers her eyes as she approaches.

The forest is greener than she expects, and grows more verdant farther in. In the heatwave the state is suffering everything has grown cracked and dead. Here, however, it is full of light and life, an oasis in a desert.

She reaches the ball and feels the hair on the back of her neck stand. Something is watching her. Someone is there with her. She looks over her shoulder and sees nothing in the darkness, just a pathway back to the real world. She shakes off the feeling and kneels down to pick up the ball.

She rolls the ball around in her hand. "There you are." She stands back up and stares at the darkness and at the ash tree. Goosebumps crawl up her arms, and she just can't shake the feeling…

"Ms. Oaks, is everything okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming," Geneva yells back.

As she turns, she hears something. It is a voice or a growl. She stops and listens, and she scans the area but finds nothing. Sighing, she tells herself it's an animal. In her mind, she imagines a tiny bunny rabbit waiting to greet her.

She is almost out of the woods when she hears something behind her again. This time, it is closer and harsher. It is like a language composed of growls and snarls. She turns on heel and comes face-to-face with a large creature. It stands nearly six-foot and looks vaguely human, save for the blotchy dark green skin and comically large nose. Its ears are slightly pointed. Warts sprout across its face.

It growls again and stares, its head tilted like a bewildered animal. Then, it stalks forward.

Geneva staggers back. "Good angry goblin-looking thing," she mutters. Her foot catches on something, and she falls back. Landing hard on her back, the air is knocked from her lungs. It steps over her and stares at her, and in her desperation, she draws a deep breath and shouts.

Her eyes close, and she keeps screaming until the air is out of her lungs again. Then, she coughs and curls up, and she tries hard not to cry, reasoning that seeing a goblin is hard enough to explain but crying she could never live down.

Ms. Olivia and Kit come running to her side and find her on her back, bleeding from her arm and with a swollen ankle. They stop at her side and touch her gingerly, drawing her attention. She looks up and crawls to Kit for safety.

"Be careful, there's a thing here. It's all green and weird and it—it." She sees an empty forest blanketed in shadows. "It growled at me," she says.

Kit stares at her. "Geneva, you okay? What are you talking about?"

"Yes, what indeed," Ms. Olivia asks. She examines Geneva with a careful, clinical eye. "Whatever the case, you're injured."

"I'm fine," Geneva says. "Just want to get out of here as quickly as possible. Oh, and," Geneva shifts her weight and pulls out the crushed remains of the plastic ball. She holds them up. "Eh, sorry."

"It is fine, Ms. Oaks," Ms. Olivia says. "Ms. Wright, if you could, help her up."

With surprising ease, Kit hooks one of Geneva's arms over her shoulder and lifts her smoothly. When they are standing, she holds Geneva close.

Geneva winces as she puts pressure on her ankle. "Ow."

"Geeze, what didn't you hurt," Kit asks.

"Funny, didn't seem to hurt until I stood."

"Well, yes, Ms. Wright, if you wouldn't mind, please escort Ms. Oaks to the nurse's office. I will need to gather the students and return them to the school. Thank you."

"Sorry about all of this."

"It is fine, Ms. Oaks. I am almost certain you didn't do it on purpose," Ms. Olivia says humorlessly before climbing the hill.

Geneva and Kit exchange glances, and Kit shrugs, before they start their journey up the hill and back toward the school.

Ms. Olivia, Nina to her peers, calls the secretary in to watch her class for some time and returns to the forest. Geneva was clearly distraught, but her words were cause for concern. Though she is sure that it is mostly nonsense, she also feels that it is always best to be cautious.

She isn't far into the woods when she finds something. Deep set footprints, vaguely human in shape, only larger and heavier. The deeper into the woods she goes, the more she finds. From quick glances, she can see three distinct sets. They start at the ash in the center and spread out from there.

She walks around the giant ash, tracing her hand along its effulgent bark. Then, she walks to the edge of the woods, back into the summer sun, and pulls out her cell phone. She dials and waits only briefly.

"Lieutenant," says the gruff voice on the other end of the phone.

"Major, sir, I apologize if I am interrupting something."

"You're only interrupting if you don't have a reason to call."

Nina paces the outer edge of the woods, looking for more footprints. The earth here is hard, dry, resilient. Though there is dust, it is too fine to hold any shape. Near the highway she kneels and examines the dirt. Faintly, there is an outline. "Sir, I believe we have an issue of security."

"And why do you think that?"

"One of my students saw something in the forest today."

A grunt and then he says, "It was probably just one of our people."

"No, sir, I'm examining the area right now, and I've found footprints. They're heavy, too heavy to be elven." Nina stands and looks out at the highway. She sees cars passing by and heat distorting the asphalt. "She described what she saw as being green."

A pause follows. "That's impossible," he says. "Their gate is sealed."

"Yes but perhaps it has opened. Or perhaps not. Either way, I feel it merits further investigation."

"And I am inclined to agree," he says. "You return to your post, and I will send some of my men out, give it a proper look over."

"Yes, sir," Nina says. She clicks her phone off and stares at the highway a moment longer before returning.

"Shouldn't you be in class," Geneva asks. She is sitting up in the bed in the nurse's office. The window is closed but the curtain is open, letting the warm summer sunlight illuminate the room. The walls are white and glow blindingly. Kit is sitting beside her, on a rolling stool. The nurse, Ms. Hart, was kind enough to offer both ice creams.

"I'm here in case you need anything," Kit says while sucking the last bit of chocolate from her stick.

"I think that's what the nurse is for," Geneva says. She offers her unopened ice cream to Kit, who rips it open and devours it. After everything, she just doesn't feel hungry. She looks at her bandaged arm and then reclines against the wall. "You're using me to avoid class, aren't you?"

"No," Kit says, between bites of ice cream, "Well, yes, but that's what high school students do, isn't it? Besides, if you feel up to going to class, then you'll need someone to help you there."

"It's just a sprain."

"I'm not leaving your side, Genny. At least, not until she makes me leave your side."

"Ms. Wright, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in class?"

Mouth full of ice cream, Kit looks guiltily at the door and finds Ms. Olivia waiting. She smiles, mutters something about being on the way, and stumbles her way out. At the door, she stops and looks back, "See you later, Genny, and get better." On the way out she peeks around Ms. Olivia's shoulder with a look of fright, which is enough to make Geneva smile.

Ms. Olivia turns to see what is so amusing but finds Kit on the way out. She shrugs and takes the stool beside Geneva's bed. Her posture is perfectly straight. She crosses her legs in a very business-like manner. "And, Ms. Oaks, how are you feeling?"

"Just a sprain and a scrape, but I feel fine."

"If that is the case, then shouldn't you be in class as well?"

"Well, yeah, I guess, but shouldn't you?"

Ms. Olivia blinks a few times, unsure of how to react. "I'll return in due time. I just wished to check on you. It is sad to think that you were injured on my watch."

"Please," Geneva says, waving it off with her good arm. "Like you had anything to do with it. You want to be angry with someone, be angry with that tree branch. Though, I feel like this is a good time to mention why I avoid sports altogether. Somehow, I always end up getting hurt."

"I see," Ms. Olivia says. "Will your parents be concerned?"

"Nah, they probably won't even notice with how busy they are." Geneva looks at Ms. Olivia and adds, "Not that they're neglectful or anything. Just busy. Anyway, it isn't anything serious, and if you're worried about being sued or something, don't. I don't even think they have a lawyer."

"I was not, but thank you. That is comforting to know."

"Comfort," Geneva says, "That's what I'm here for."

"Yes."

Silence settles. Geneva stares at the wall. There are tiny, glazed, brown tiles that outline the door frame. She counts them going up, and then back down. Then she says, "You know, my ankle is feeling tip-top after all, so I think I might go ahead and hit class. Don't want to fall behind on the first day, you know?"

"Yes, that would be prudent," Nina says. "Though, I was hoping to talk to you about something first."

Geneva, already part way up, looks at Ms. Olivia, and settles onto the bed again. "Oh. Like what?"

"Well, you had said some peculiar things when we found you. I was hoping you would care to elaborate."

"And if I wouldn't?"

"Please, Ms. Oaks. In all likelihood it could have been delirium, but if there is a danger to any of the students, I really would like to know."

Geneva looks away and twirls her thumbs. She presses them together and counts the tiles again. "Listen, Ms. Olivia, I was just in pain, and I have an overactive imagination anyway—probably all those video games I play—and it was probably a trick of the light or heat exhaustion or both or neither. Maybe I'm just crazy. I mean, I thought the tree was glowing. How nuts is that?"

"That is peculiar," Nina says. "Still, if you would at least take the time answer my questions, it would set my mind at ease."

Geneva sighs. "Fine, if it'll help, I guess."

"Good. Then, what exactly happened?"

"I don't know. Nothing," Geneva says. She meets Ms. Olivia's gaze and then stares fixedly on the bed sheets. They are eggshell white and tightly tucked. "Okay, well, I went to find the ball. And I found it. Then I tripped. That's all." Geneva puts on a smile. "And you know what? That does feel loads better. Glad we talked that out, and I'm good to go. So, put the report on my desk by the morning, and…"

"And why did you scream?"

"Would you believe it was over a mosquito?"

"No."

Geneva groans and rubs her temples. "Fine," she says, and she looks Ms. Olivia in the eye. "But no calling me crazy."

"I wouldn't even consider it, Ms. Oaks. I promise."

Geneva stares, purses her lips. She presses her thumbs together again. "Okay, here's what happened. I went in, I heard some noises, saw a glowing tree. I hear more noises, like something was running around. I thought it was a bunny, and I was hoping it was, cause I love bunnies. They're cute, with their little noses and," Geneva pauses to take in Ms. Olivia's humorless gaze. She clears her throat. "Anyway, long story short, it wasn't a bunny."

"What was it?"

"It—Well, I think it was a trick of the light. Glowing tree and all."

"Ms. Oaks."

"Why are you so curious about this?"

"Why are you so evasive?"

"Because it's nuts," Geneva says with the uncertainty of a child looking for the right answer.

"Just answer."

"I saw a green guy, okay? Like, tall, skinny green guy, and I freaked, and I screamed, and I fell, and I cut my arm open, and that's it."

"And that is all you saw."

"Yeah, but, like, it was a trick of the light. Or a hobo in body paint. I mean, people have seen weirder things, right?"

"I'm sure it was nothing," Ms. Olivia says.

"Yeah."

"Well, if that is all, then go ahead to class."

"For the last five minutes," Geneva mutters while standing and hobbling toward the door.

"Five minutes?" Ms. Olivia looks at the clock. "Oh!"

Nina returns in time to let her students out. After more than a few apologies to the secretary, she gathers her things and puts them out in her car, a big, black SUV with darkened windows, and then returns to the woods outside of the school. While at her car, she pockets her pistol for added safety.

She meets her commanding officer, Major Erak Draco, near the ash tree. Teams of elves work quietly around them, taking photos of the footprints and scouring the area for other evidence. Erak turns to face her, and she salutes. He nods in return.

Erak is handsome, in a brutish sort of way. He is more broadly built than the average elf and carries much of his mass in his upper torso. His cheeks are angled and his eyes thin and blue. He keeps his golden hair trimmed close to his scalp and he wears the official green officer's uniform. In one hand he holds a smoking hand-rolled cigarette.

"Looks like you were right," he says. He pulls up a clipboard and makes a few notes. Then, puffs his cigarette and releases a cloud of smoke. "Footprints definitely aren't elven. Could have been human, except the toes are all off."

"So, you mean to say…"

"I've widened the search. We've caught sight of something, big, green, just like your student said." He looks at her. "I hate saying it, I really do, but it seems undeniable at this point. The demons have returned."

"How many?"

"Based on footprints we've found, four. They all went separate directions after stepping out of the gate tree, but I don't think they've made it out it of the city. They're scared, and they're hiding. Every time we see them, they run, and the damn things are slippery. They're avoiding public areas."

"Well, at least that's some good news."

Erak laughs bitterly around his cigarette. "Yeah, real good," he says. "And that's all the good news we've got. We don't know what they're doing behind the gate or how they opened it up." He lifts his boot and snuffs out his cigarette on the heel. Then, he tucks the remains in a case from his right breast pocket. Shaking his head, he says, "We all thought that whatever that damn woman did was permanent. Or, we hoped it was, and now the greatest enemy history has ever known is back, and we're caught with our pants down." He kicks the ground. "Damn! The Council is going to have all of our asses."

"They will be frightened, but I also believe that they will give us the support we need," Nina says. "And it has only been a few hours. We'll have it done quickly."

Erak grunts and eyes his clipboard. "I've ordered a wide-spread search of the city. Wherever these damn things are, I'll find them. Main problem is we have to be discreet. Can't use my best agents and can't have it look like we're looking for something."

"What can I do to help?"

"Go home, pretend as if nothing is wrong, and don't draw attention." He looks at her. "Can't have you breaking cover. You've shown today how invaluable your role here really is. So, do whatever those human teachers do, and let me handle the rest."

"If you insist," Nina says.

"I do," Erak says, and he turns his back to her.

Nina salutes again before turning and making the long walk back to the parking lot.

Knights of Sheba 101 A…End