Chapter 4 – The Attack of the Clones
I will never be an evasive strategist in the military.
I remember one ill fated time I decided to go against my parents’ orders to stay in at the age of fourteen, which resulted in a month’s grounding. I’d sneaked out to Billy Baker’s summer make-out bash under the erroneous impression that my parents wouldn’t be concerned by the angelic silence emanating from my room. My parents – who have frequently stretched paranoia to completely new levels – panicked and called the police, thus thwarting my attempt to crawl unnoticed through the window. It got even more exciting when one of the cops tried to arrest me for breaking and entering, and wouldn’t believe I lived there until I pointed out my pictures hanging on the wall. The uproar prompted the police to suggest installing iron bars over the windows.
My recommendations would go against making a bad impression on law enforcement officials, especially when they’re trying to influence your parents.
Lucky for me, neither of my parents happened to be home when Daryn dropped me off, so the only person I really had to avoid was Jace. This was easier than it seemed for several reasons, the most important being that he wasn’t technically in the house. I didn’t expect this to last for long.
I could hear him outside. Peeking through the window, careful not to move the curtain so he didn’t see me, I checked to see who was with him. He just wasn’t capable of making that level of noise on his own. And sure enough, seated around him in a haphazard sprawl of bodies were Finch and three of his other friends. Escaping to my room sounded like a beautiful idea.
I considered leaving a note for my mom telling her I didn’t feel well and was asleep in my room, but that would guarantee that she would stop in to check on me. If I didn’t leave a note, she might peek in, but she wouldn’t try to do anything in close proximity, like take my temperature. At the distance it would take to do that, she would definitely notice the nose piercing.
So no note. I was trying to delay the part where she morphed into a screaming banshee until at least tomorrow in the hopes that Jace would do something absolutely horrible like accidentally blow up the front lawn. At the very least, it would limit the attention and probably lessen the punishment.
I was just in the process of vanishing into the hallway when the back door clattered open. I willed myself to disappear, but unfortunately, they saw me before my body could defy nature and its own density. Despite knowing that they’d seen me, I still pretended I could escape, launching my body through the doorway and consequently falling flat on my face in the middle of the hallway.
“Chandle?” The rustling of Jace’s track pants told me he’d moved into the doorway; the tone of his voice told me he was wondering about my sanity.
A defeated sigh escaped my lips. “Hi, Jace,” I mumbled.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, nudging my leg with the toe of his shoe. The prodding was less gentle than it was annoyed. “Get up.”
Instead of moving – and only partially because I was being obstinate – I made myself more comfortable, resting my head against the carpeted floor and hiding the piercing. Completely unintentionally, of course. “I’m making friends with the hallway. Go away.”
A moment of suspicious silence hung in the air while he digested my bland and almost bored words. I’m not sure if he thought I was serious or not. Whatever the truth, he decided to disregard my response. “You can commune with the floorboards later. Finch wants to talk to you.” The last was accompanied with another warning prod of his shoe.
Gee, I wonder what he wanted to talk about.
I rolled my eyes up until I could see him though a fringe of baby fine hair. It didn’t look any better from this close than it had in the mirror at the tattoo parlor. Perhaps I should look into carrying around a brush. “You can tell him to come in here,” I answered, ignoring the unnecessary comment about the floorboards and stubbornly refusing to budge.
I was assuming no one had followed him into the house and of the four guys sitting outside, I only knew Finch. If I had to turn him down, I’d rather do it here. Besides, maybe I could use the few seconds of privacy to figure out why he’d want to ask me to the Spring Fling anyway. The suspense wasn’t exactly killing me, but I was curious.
The telephone chose that minute to ring. The look of pure horror washing over Jace’s face was enough to make me settle into a puddle of smirking contentment in the middle of the hallway. I counted slowly under my breath.
One. Two. Three... On the seventh ring, the answering machine finally picked up, sending Melanie Peters’ voice grating across my ears. It’s amazing how many girls talk like they’re five when they’re trying to pick up guys, just because they think it makes them sound cute. How little do they know... If she could see the way Jace flinched every time she giggled into the phone, she might actually make an effort to learn how to talk like a grown-up.
One can always hope.
“Hi, Jace, this is Melanie Peters. Call me back, okay? It’s totally, like, important that I talk to you tonight.” A noise like she was fumbling with the phone filled the silence, then, “Bye.”
I should have answered the phone and probably would have if I hadn’t been too busy keeping myself glued to the floor. Delaying the inevitable wasn’t really going to help me, but it still sounded better than the alternative. Besides, if I did want to disappear into my room, it was better not to trust Jace not to run his mouth. My brother didn’t tattle as a general rule, but sometimes he just didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. I was more worried he’d discuss my temporary insanity with one of his friends and my parents would accidentally overhear.
On the other hand, Jace looked so absolutely petrified by the sound of Melanie’s voice that he probably wouldn’t even notice. Only two things could provoke that degree of terror in him. Either a) she was stalking him, or b) he actually liked her. Considering his somewhat fanatical interest in Daryn’s activities, I was inclined to disregard the latter possibility, which meant that Melanie fell in a category inhabited by most of Sacred Heart’s female population. Even if he weren’t my brother, the idol worship would disgust me. Not that Jace was a bad guy… If you didn’t have to live with him, anyway. Devany and Jory expounded on his good qualities enough that I could at least grudgingly admit some must exist.
So the question was: What did Melanie want? And was I curious enough to risk letting Jace see the nose piercing before tomorrow morning?
Yes. It didn’t even take me a moment’s hesitation to figure that one out. Slowly uncurling myself from the fetal position I’d adopted on the floor, I trailed behind Jace out the back door and onto the patio.
The three guys I didn’t know apparently knew me, mumbling greetings and being very careful not to look any lower than my face. Interesting. Even more interesting was the particular shade of red Finch turned when I greeted them. “Girl-next-door-turned-lust-interest.” I wouldn’t be horribly surprised to see it on the next Jerry Springer. Finch and I would not be guest starring. After all, how can you think about possibly dating someone when you can hardly remember to call them by their first name?
Of course, Jace had said he wanted to take me to the dance, not father my children, so maybe I was jumping to conclusions.
That didn’t change the fact that Jace was scowling quite unbecomingly at his best friend. If only the girls at Sacred Heart could see their stud muffin now. The look on his face did indeed hint at his more unpleasant side, which I’d seen more than enough of. And I didn’t seem to be the only one noticing it.
“What’s wrong with you?” One of the guys asked, trying to drag Jace’s attention way from Finch’s attention to me.
Jace’s only response was to deepen his scowl. “Nothing,” he muttered, his eyes still narrowed on his best friend. Luckily, I had something with which I could use to deter that interest.
Weaving around until the left half of my face was cloaked in shadows – I was curious, not stupid – I casually asked, “So what does Melanie Peters want, Jace?”
A cacophony of snickers, choked laughs, and cleared throats accompanied my question. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who was about to be amused. After all, there’s nothing like bringing up a sore spot in front of my brother’s friends to piss him off.
He apparently didn’t like my blunt approach, somehow managing to look both embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. Glaring at his friends, he answered, “I don’t know what she wanted.”
Yeah, right. I believed in Santa Claus, too. You’d think he’d be able to come up with a better answer than that, wouldn’t you? He had to have some idea, or he would have answered the phone after Melanie started talking. I would bet the grade on my next Calculus exam she didn’t want something innocuous.
I let disbelief escape my mouth in a half-laugh, half-snort. It wasn’t exactly an attractive sound, but it got the point across. “Come on, Jace. You can do better than that. What does she want?”
One of the guys I didn’t know took this opportunity to jump into the conversation. “She wants to go to the dance with him.”
“Yeah, she heard he was going to ask Daryn Carlisle,” the other one injected slyly.
My eyebrows shot up involuntarily in surprise and I was even more startled to see Jason blush. Had I said fanatical interest? Maybe I misjudged the depths to which he would sink, but asking Daryn to the dance seemed a little rash even for him.
“Um, Jace,” I started, giving him a somewhat disturbed look, “you know Daryn is anti-everything right? She’s likely to show up in a shirt promoting feminism and a pair of combat boots.”
As much as I hated the school-wide interest in my brother, at least I was used to it. The interest in Daryn was still something new. I knew Jace had been showing these weird signs of rebellion from the ranks of high-school conformity lately, but I also knew he’d have a problem with the breach of conventionality she could cause. And besides, the thought of one of my good friends going to the dance with my brother made me cringe. I’d overheard enough conversations to know he was a normal, overly hormonal teenage guy… Even the insinuation that he might be interested in getting touchy-feely with one of my friends disgusted me.
That unwritten rule about not dating your sibling’s friends was reciprocal; if I couldn’t go to the dance with Finch (not that I really wanted to, but that was beside the point), he couldn’t go with Daryn. I think that about covers “fairness and equality for all,” or at least I could pretend it did to make myself feel better.
“It was just an idea,” he snapped defensively.
I didn’t bother to point out that communism started out as just an idea, too, and look where that could have gotten us.
Shaking my head, all I could muster in response was a long, drawn-out sound of disgust. I was afraid that some really disturbing images might pop into my head, and let’s all be honest… This fell into the same category as thinking of your parents having sex. Everyone knows they do it, but who really wants to admit it?
Determined to get my train of thought on a different subject, I studied the guys lounging on the lawn chairs. As per usual with Jace’s friends, they were more than a little attractive. I could admit my brother would never do something so superficial as to choose his friends based on looks, but if you research it, any study will tell you that you tend to find yourself surrounded by people at an equal perceived level of attractiveness.
These two happened to be exact clones of all the rest: tall, sporty build, spiky hair, and preppy clothes. I guess the plus side of this is if you wear out the uses of one guy, there’s always another to take his place. Probably a slightly cold way of looking at it, but I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable today.
The major difference between the two was that while one was blond, the other had a darker complexion with slightly more eastern European features. Other than that, they would have been hard to tell apart. Oh, I’m not saying they didn’t *look* different, not in the sense that they had similar facial constructions, but the attitude and bearing both had that same laidback, “I’m cooler than thou” feeling.
I processed these analyses while simultaneously deciding to go back in the house. I really didn’t want to get into an argument with Jace about his desire to ask Daryn to the dance – or explain that she wasn’t really into displays of social solidarity involving appearances at school functions – and I didn’t have any inclination to interact with his friends. Not ones I didn’t know, anyway.
Clone #1 put an end to that idea. I already knew he didn’t go to Sacred Heart; that much was obvious from the fact I didn’t know him. When only four hundred some kids attend your high school, it’s pretty hard not to recognize each and every one of them, as well as remember details about their personal lives, hobbies, club membership, and just about anything else you never wanted to know. If you don’t, you’re either like Daryn, which means you actively avoid contact, or you’ve reached a level of obliviousness that even hermits might have a hard time achieving.
I assumed Jace knew him from one of the many sports leagues in which he involved himself. From the attitude, I’d guess soccer or baseball. I don’t have anything against anyone who plays either of these sports, but I have noticed that guys playing them tend to have an inflated opinion of themselves. This observation isn’t all-inclusive, of course, but, hey, they were hanging around Jace. A pretty good indicator in and of itself.
“So, Chandle,” the first clone said, “do you have a date to the dance?”
Clone #2 managed to sneak a look at Finch, who I noticed was deepening to that peculiar shade of burgundy again. It went well with his dark hair and eyes, but that’s the best thing that can be said about it. I pretended not to see this, while Jace frowned warningly at me. I guess he didn’t think I’d gotten the point yet.
I shrugged, wanting to avoid the question. First of all, Finch’s attention and Jace’s admonition made me slightly uncomfortable. Second, I had the feeling that if I didn’t have a date, they were hoping to quickly rectify that. Third, I knew Jace would shortly be demanding to know who the date actually was. I sighed and admitted, “Yeah, I do.”
Sure enough, the next words out of Jace’s mouth were, “Who is it?”
I guess he did think it was his business, contrary to my earlier words that it was not. It could have been innate human curiosity, but I doubted it. “Austin Jeffries.”
“Oh, you’re *that* Chandle.”
Yeah, because there were so many of us out there. And what exactly did he mean by that comment, anyway? I was almost afraid to know what was being said about me, but the statement certainly halted my progress toward the door.
“*That* Chandle?” I repeated questioningly.
Clone #2 shrugged. I really needed to make an effort to learn their names. “Jeffries was talking about some chick he met yesterday.”
The use of the word “chick” didn’t incite my goodwill toward him, but I let it slide in order to learn more. I actually took a step in their direction, keeping my face carefully blank. “Oh?”
“He just said he wanted to ask you to the dance,” Clone #1 was quick to insert.
Maybe I hadn’t kept my face as devoid of emotion as I’d thought, as his tone was almost conciliatory. Meanwhile, Jace was frowning darkly at me and Finch looked somewhat disappointed. I figured this meant all four of the guys knew him.
I took a leap in logic. “I guess you go to school with him?” The obvious assumption, I know, but I wasn’t trying to be intelligent, just fish for information.
“For all twelve years,” Clone #2 confirmed lazily.
“What are your names?” At this point I was really curious. I didn’t know many people at the public high school, but Jace sometimes talked about unknown entities in passing. I felt slightly at a loss with the lack of information.
Clone #2 smirked – a facial expression I hated with an irrational passion – and said, “James Bennett.”
“Scott Barringer,” Clone #1 replied, smiling tentatively at me. His tone of voice indicated he might even have some redeeming qualities.
“Great, now we all know each other.” Jace, for one, didn’t seem particularly happy about this development. “Chandle, how do you even know Jeffries?”
Guys have the inexplicable habit of calling each other by their last names, something I will never understand. Even worse, this usage implied a level of respect indicating that Jace knew Austin better than I thought. Jace only called other guys by their first names if he didn’t like them – something evidenced by his refusal to call his best friend by his proper name.
But if Austin and Jace knew each other… why hadn’t Austin said anything the last (and only) two times we’d met?
Not knowing just how well Jace was acquainted with him, I decided vagueness was the way to go in this particular situation. “I met him the other night at the coffee shop.”
Finch’s eyes narrowed. “Was he hitting on you?”
Funny how the first thing out of Finch’s mouth besides his mumbled greeting sounded like something my overprotective brother would say. Of course, the comment made me doubly defensive, simply because Finch’s interest seemed to be developing in a way that was not quite brotherly.
All four pair of male eyes had swiveled to look at me when Finch asked his question. It was like a ping-pong game; eyes whipped back and forth to follow the invisible question from one participant to the other. Zack seemed especially amused.
I glared at him, angry for being put on the spot. “He borrowed a pencil,” I snapped defensively. The lie slipped out of my mouth before I even thought about it. After all, it was what Austin told Allie… Might as well keep the story straight, or I’d end up getting myself into all kinds of trouble. And with the problems my nose piercing was bound to cause tomorrow morning, the less trouble I got myself into, the better off I was.
“Come on, Chandle. You can do better than that,” he mimicked, throwing my earlier words back at me. I wasn’t exactly surprised, since every time Jace got together with any of his friends, his IQ dropped by at least twenty points. And trust me, it wasn’t that high to begin with.
I laughed. “Cute, Jason.” I refused to let him get to me. “You can always ask Allie. She’ll tell you the same thing.”
He looked slightly queasy at the prospect. Allie and Jace had an uneasy alliance. While Allie was by far the most sought after girl in school, the female population of Sacred Heart outweighed the male population three to one. That meant there were a lot more people crowded around Jace than Allie at any given time, unless they were reigning over a particular space together. Plus, Jace was a senior, which gave him a little more pull.
They’d never exactly been good friends, but the shared popularity often threw them into the same social situations. Most of their friends were mutual. I think the real problem was that Allie wanted to go out with him, just like every other girl at Sacred Heart. Jace – no surprise – wasn’t interested.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he threatened evasively.
I wasn’t even going to bother touching that one. “Yeah, whatever. I’m going to do some homework.” As I turned in the direction of the French doors, I sent a polite smile at the other three males seated on the patio. “It was nice to meet you,” I said to Scott and James, not really meaning it. Scott didn’t seem so bad, but in a choice whether to take or leave James… I’d definitely leave him. “See you, Finch.”
A chorus of “laters” followed me into the house.
Once inside, I stopped at the refrigerator long enough to snag a Diet Coke, then retraced my earlier route to the hallway and up the stairs. The prospect of Biochemistry didn’t thrill me. Then again, neither did failing.
Three hours later, the phone woke me from where I was draped across my textbook. I didn’t really study well when within the vicinity of anything soft and sleep-conducive. Rubbing my eyes over my sleep-swollen eyes, I realized that sometime between when I’d started studying and now, it had gotten dark.
I smothered a yawn and reached for the phone, not bothering to check the caller ID. This turned out to be a mistake.
A moment of hesitation, then, “Is Jason there?”
I frowned for a minute, trying to place the voice. Recognition flooded through me in a rush. “*Devany?*”
“Hi, Chandle.” Her voice was careful, that same soothing tone one might use to pacify someone threatening to commit suicide. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” I answered, understandably a little confused by why she wanted to talk to my brother. Yeah, he tolerated my friends, but they didn’t exactly engage in trivial conversation on a regular basis. In fact, I don’t think any of them had ever called with the intention of speaking to him.
Now, this was just weird. As the silence stretched between us, I managed to drag my sleep-fogged brain under control. I asked a little hesitantly, “Did you say you wanted to talk to Jace?”
“Yeah, actually, I did. Is he there?”
Part of me wanted to shout, “Why would you want to talk to my brother? You’re my best friend!” while another part of me was curious. I slid off the bed in the direction of the window. Though it was now after nine, the streets were well lit by the streetlamps placed every quarter mile or so. “Hold on a second. Let me check.”
The driveway proved to be empty, meaning that neither my parents nor Jace were currently home. “His car isn’t here.”
I waited until my clock shifted to the next digital number and then asked, “Do you want me to take a message?”
“No… No, I’ll just call back.”
Finally losing my patience, I demanded, “Devany, what the hell is going on?”
At this point, she let out a long sigh. I already knew what that meant; she was about to tell me something really, really unpleasant. Something I most probably didn’t want to know. “Look, Chand,” she started nervously, “I really think I should talk to Jason first…”
Her voice trailed off. Out of all of my friends, she was the only one who called him Jason. Or, a more correct way of saying that was that she was the only one he let call him Jason. All because of a little information we had on him. Me, he trusted not to tell because he could spill just as many embarrassing stories about my life as I could about his. Devany he trusted because as long as he occasionally let her blackmail him, the threats were kept at a minimum. Calling him by his full first name happened to be one of the conditions.
“Talk to him about what?” I wondered, now thoroughly bewildered.
Another sigh, signaling total capitulation. “I need to do some damage control.” She pulled the phone away from her mouth a minute to say something to her mother, then continued, “I just got a phone call from Rachael.”
“Barker?” Rachael Barker was Allie’s closest friend and most powerful enforcer when it came to gossip. She also just happened to live in the same neighborhood as Devany, so they shared rides to school. Don’t ask me how that happened, but I wouldn’t like to be in Dev’s shoes at seven o’clock every weekday morning. At Dev’s sound of assent, I asked, “What did she want?”
“Do you want the cover story or the real reason she called?”
“What do you think?”
“Right. Real reason.” She took a deep breath. “Well, when she called me to ask for a ride to school—“
“Real reason, Devany!” I hated to be so impatient, but her reticence was beginning to make me panic.
She laughed uncomfortably. “Look, Chandle, calm down. It’s really not that big of a deal.” She didn’t sound too convinced. “It’s just that once Allie found out you were going to the dance with Austin, she got a little… upset.”
Witness the power of Allie’s mouth: I hadn’t even had a chance to tell my best friends about my date, yet Allie’s friends had already managed to let everyone know. I think Allie had the most superior phone network in the entire state. It was definitely better than the ones the parents set up during winter to let each other know about snow cancellations. Half the time those ones didn’t work.
I dragged my misgivings under control long enough to ask, “What do you mean, ‘upset?’”
Devany let out a deep breath. “She decided that if you ruined all her plans for her cousin, the least you can do is make sure your brother asks her to the dance. She heard he’s going to ask Daryn… Tomorrow she’s apparently starting a petition that the uniform be more restricted. You know, no piercings, no dyed hair, no originality at all. You know she’ll bully people into supporting her. And, Chandle, you’re her next ‘project.’” I didn’t think she’d get anywhere with the petition or with Jace, but I somehow figured Devany’s next words would prove to be the worst part. “She’s about to try turning you into one of her clones.”
And so it began.