Playing Favorites – Chapter 1


Christopher

This is stupid. I’ve been standing in front of my locker for five minutes now, going through every single one of my pockets and most of my backpack. It’s official: I’ve lost my key. Which is great, because I need my laptop to study during my lunch break, and I’ve made sure to store it in my locker during baseball practice. So I guess the next step is to go to Mrs Aung’s office and get a new key made. Hurray, $20 down the drain. Not to mention, having to interact with Mrs Aung -almost universally known as Mrs Augh!, complete with the exclamation mark.

I’ve seriously never heard anyone say anything nice about her. And I don’t just mean the students: the teachers also can’t seem to stand her. But the worst comments I’ve heard came from the janitors. We’re talking speculations about what demon from Hell her mother had to do the nasty with in order to spawn her.

With good reason. It seems there’s a Mrs Aung in every educational place, be it a middle school, a high school, or a college. That one person with a chip permanently glued on their shoulder, working in an administrative position in a school even though they deeply hate students, who think every single rule must be obeyed slavishly, and who get off on the slightest shred of power. You know, the kind of person, if their picture were to appear on the evening news with the words “psycho murders student over misfiled form”, you’d be like: “called it!”. She’s not the nicest person, is what I’m getting at.

I knock on her office’s door. She takes a good five minutes to say “come in!”, like always. I enter, trying not to return the snarl she greets me with. She’s wearing too much makeup, as usual, which somehow makes her head look more square than it already is. The only thing tighter than her hair bun has to be her veiny hands, balled in fists over the paperwork on her desk. Her jaw’s a close third. As is her tradition, she glances at my sleeve tattoos -even though I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt today- and her lips tighten in contempt.

“Yes?” she says in lieu of a greeting.

“Hello, Mrs Angus,” I say. Yeah, one of the first things I’ve learned with her is that you’re always supposed to “greet her properly”, even though she never bothers. And pointing out the hypocrisy does not help. “I’m afraid I lost the key to that locker I’m renting. May I have a new key made, please?”

Now, in a better world, with a better administrator, I would have just been asked for my ID and the money, been given a spare key, and then sent on my way, no fuss, no muss, no lecture. All under five minutes. Hey, a man can dream.

“You have lost your key, Mr Baldini?” she says, contempt accentuating every syllable.

Oh good, she knows me by name, now. My second month here, and she already knows my name. She pronounces it wrong though -”B-oh-ldini” instead of “B-ah-ldini”.

“Yeah, uh-”

“Mr Baldini, you do realize you are in college now, don’t you?”

Here we fucking go.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you do realize you are an adult now, don’t you?”

I am one, yes.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you really find it becoming of an adult to simply lose important items?”

Jesus Christ, it’s a key. To a locker. She’s acting like I misplaced the goddamn Mona Lisa.

“No, ma’am.”

“I seem to recall this isn’t the first time something like this has happened to you, Mr Baldini. What was it that brought you to my office last time? You had lost your badge, as I recall?”

“No, a car ran over-”

Predictably, she raises her hand, in a tight, quick move like she’s going for a Roman salute.

“I don’t care for your excuses, Mr Baldini. Do you believe adults need excuses?”

“No, ma’am.”

But I’m sure you got a whole bunch of them at the ready whenever you screw up.

She goes on for a while like that, but my brain kind of disconnects. Her tirade begins sounding like those old cassette tapes, when they’ve been used too many times and the audio has gone wonky and you only understand a few bits. Womp womp, responsibility, womp womp womp, adult life, womp womp womp, won’t always have someone to rely on, womp. I ruffle my light brown hair, like I often find myself doing when I get tense; I notice they’re now long enough to reach behind my ears. And while I’m on the subject of hair, I rub my cheeks to decide whether or not I need a shave. Well, I’m getting pretty scratchy, but then again, this might be the opportunity to try growing a beard, like I always wanted.

Eventually -eventually!-, we get to the part where she asks me for a piece of ID. I give her my ID card, which she takes a freaking hour to look over before giving it back to me. Seriously, I’ve had faster service from the TSA.

“Very well,” she says. “That’ll be $20.”

I fork over the bill and she all but rip it off my hands. There goes my spending money until next Monday.

“I hope this incident will serve as a lesson to you.”

Yup. Next time I lose my key, I’ll take up lock-picking as a hobby.

I manage to say a “thanks, ma’am” that doesn’t sound too sarcastic, and quickly get out of here. Quick look at a clock on the wall… Seriously, I lost twenty minutes of my study time -not to mention of my life- being ranted at by Mrs Augh!. I make my way back to my locker as quickly as my old sneakers can take me.

Leaning against my locker, watching clip videos on his smartphone, is Manny. Seeing my best friend almost makes me forget how pissed Mrs Augh! made me. As usual, he’s wearing his varsity jacket, and his jet black hair is more gel than… well, hair.

Manny’s real name is Manuel Zhang. He’s the second child and the first son of a Chinese construction worker and a Puerto Rican business woman (or as his dating profile says: “half-Asian, half-Hispanic, full-on ladies’ man”). He and I met on our first day in college, then again later at the baseball team tryouts. We both made it, and decided to have a drink to celebrate. Then, we quickly bonded over our love for America’s national pastime. Aside from baseball, we also share the same hobbies -gaming and drinking, to name just a few.

“Yo,” he says when he sees me. “I tried texting you, bro. Is your phone off?”

“Huh?” I check my smartphone. “Ah, crap. I forgot to charge it last night. Was it important?”

“I found your key, man.”

“You-”

“Yeah, your locker key. You left it in French class.”

I bang my head against the locker closest to mine.

“Wait, you didn’t…” Manny laughs. “Oh shit, you already got a new one, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I grumble.

“Had to go to Aung’s office?”

“Yes.”

“Yikes. How much did it-”

“Twenty. Dollars.”

If it had been any other staff member, I could probably have gotten a refund. But given who we’re talking about, the thought to ask for one doesn’t even cross my mind. Damnit! I punch the locker I was banging my head against.

“HEY!”

I blench, and look around, worried that a staff member has caught me abusing an innocent locker -there have been a few incidents with a vandal, lately, so they’ve been a bit on edge. But it’s not a staff member. It’s actually worse.

Standing at an impressive six feet six inches tall, her raspberry orange eyes burning with anger and her fangs bared, Jacinda Abercromby is stomping down the hallway, coming straight for me. Her tail is raised behind her, which I’ve long since learned is not a good sign. There’s also the flared nostrils and the lowered wolf-like ears, that’s probably bad too.

“Uh… Is that your locker?” I say.

“Of course it’s my freaking locker!” she growls. “Don’t act like you don’t know. It’s been my locker since the beginning of the year, jerk!”

Right. And being her locker-neighbor has provided me with so many happy memories.

You could say Jacinda and I aren’t the best of pals. In fact, we’ve been at each other’s throats since the first time we met -which was at the lockers, actually. Now, a lesser man would probably blame it all on the other person, but I have to admit that this hostility between us is all my fault. I simply can’t get over how annoying she is, how she always makes mountains out of molehills, how she’s so often on my case, how she’s always stubborn as a mule. Try as I might, I just don’t have it in me. I’m only Human.

“You’re lucky you didn’t make a dent,” she says, opening her locker. I see that she keeps her key on some kind of magnetic bracelet around her furred wrist, along with several others.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” I say.

“You didn’t mean to punch my locker? Were you aiming for yours? I guess all that wanking off hasn’t helped with your accuracy.”

“Hey!” I shout. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? I was just pissed off. I forgot it was your locker.”

“Funny how, when you’re pissed off, I always have to pay for it somehow. At least this time I don’t have milkshake all over my fur.”

She’s referring to the infamous Milkshake Incident. It happened during our first week in college. The short of it is, I was at this little diner near campus, drinking a chocolate milkshake and minding my own business. I was watching my favorite baseball team lose, I admit, made me pretty upset. So upset, I slammed my fist on the counter, accidentally spilling my milkshake… on Jacinda, who had just sat beside me. Of course, she immediately assumed that I meant to do that, and got angry. Apologizing made no difference. All right, I didn’t really apologize, mostly just repeated that it was an accident, but I’m sure it would have made no difference. I might also have said that she was overreacting, and that it was milkshake, not sulphuric acid. That probably didn’t help. But still.

“I said I was sorry,” I say between my teeth.

“Whatever.”

She bends over slightly to grab something in the lower part of her locker, and I make a deliberate effort to look away. As much as the sight of her pisses me off, I can’t deny that she’s easy on the eyes. More than that, even: it pains me to admit it, but she’s hot. A real knockout. As in, she’ll knock you out if you stare for too long. Her flawless charcoal-colored skin is beautiful, as is her dark fur with its blue hues that gives it an otherworldly look. She has long, dark, shaggy hair that she’s grown down to the small of her back; she ties it up, so I can only wonder what it looks like loose. Jacinda is the athletic type, too, which one can tell by her nicely muscled thighs -even through her fur and her pants, it’s obvious she never misses leg day- and her well-defined abs.

And, yes, okay, I suppose it’s my manly duty to mention that she’s got a bubblicious butt, and a rack that would make a Victoria’s Secret model feel insecure. Seriously, you have no idea how hard- I mean, how difficult it is not to look at them as she bends a bit more to get something from the back of her locker. Jacinda makes a habit of wearing large clothes -a sweatshirt and a baggy pair of jeans-, probably to hide her curves, but there’s only so much you can obfuscate.

Not that I pay that much attention, but she rarely wears makeup, and when she does, she mostly focuses on her lips and her eyes. Good god, her eyes. A unique hue of red-orange that seems to spit fire when she’s getting intense -like, for example, when she’s angry, which is pretty much all the damn time. Even her twin sister’s eyes are not that striking. In fact, I’ve never seen a single Werewolf with eyes like that, although I’ve only ever met a few.

“You done staring?!” she snaps all of a sudden.

I blink like I just woke up. Apparently, I should have tried harder to avert my gaze.

“Thank you,” she says sarcastically. “That must have been enough to fill your wank bank for the next week.”

“Oh, get over yourself,” I retort, embarrassed and pissed off. “You’re not all that.”

Jacinda slams her locker door, the loud noise making me wince, then leaves in a huff. I turn to see Manny smiling.

“What?”

“Nothing, man,” he says. “Hey, wanna eat at Taipei Treasures? I’m feeling like Mu Shu chicken.”

“Sorry, gotta study. Plus, I can’t really afford to eat out, now.”

“Okay, too bad. See you later, then!”

As I raise my hand to wave him off, he thinks I’m going for a high five and slams his hand on mine. Ouch. Nice reminder that the guy plays pitcher for our university team -and not as a control pitcher, either. Seriously, I pity Francis, our catcher, whenever I miss one of his fastballs. I get my laptop and make my way to the library. It’s usually pretty empty during lunch break. Speaking of, I’ve decided I’m not really hungry. The couple of chocolate bars I’ve packed this morning should be enough until dinner tonight.

I’ll spare you the narration of the next couple of hours: reading, reading, then more reading. Oh, and I wrote down some stuff, too. I make sure to charge my phone, as well; don’t want a repeat of this morning’s fiasco if I can avoid it. 

If it hadn’t been for the fact that my degree has a science requirement, I don’t know that I would have picked up a physics class, but, honestly, I don’t hate it as much as I thought I would. Protons, electrons, neutrons, quarks, neutrinos… I wouldn’t say I’m fascinated, but it’s interesting to read about this stuff. The part about radioactivity -which we’ve started learning about- is also pretty neat. Plus, Mr Carmichael -the teacher- is a really good teacher; he’s very knowledgeable, and it’s obvious he loves teaching physics.

When half past one comes around, I feel good about my study session. I really have gotten more productive about them since high school. There’s confidence in my step as I walk in the classroom and take my usual seat near the window. I pull my laptop out of my bag and settle it on the desk. The rest of the class slowly trickles in. Eventually, the only seat left is the one to my right. Jacinda arrives last, having clearly ran here. If I was the petty sort, I would enjoy seeing her face fall when she realizes where she’ll have to sit. Not a word comes out of her mouth as she drops down in the chair, her jaw very tense.

Mr Carmichael enters the classroom seconds before the bell. His long, curly white hair jumps over his neck as he power walks to his desk. He throws his flat cap on it, revealing the bald top of his head. There’s a stubble covering the lower half of his face, today, making him look more like a mad scientist than usual.

“Hello, everyone. I hope you’re all feeling good today. As a reminder, the deadline to turn in your assignment is today at 5 P.M.. And don’t try that trick where you send me a corrupt file to gain some time.”

He chuckles. A murmur rises from the class. From my right, I hear someone whisper:

“Fuuuck…”

I glance to see Jacinda gnawing on her claws, a look of worried surprise in her beautiful eyes as she stares at her laptop. Uh-oh. Looks like the assignment slipped off someone’s mind. Going back to my own computer, I launch the course application and select the latest chapter.

“I hope you applied yourselves, by the way,” the teacher says. “It will be worth 10% of your grade this semester.”

Pretty high, but Mr Carmichael did warn us. He pretty much never gives homework, so he rates them higher. And don’t expect any clemency if you fail an exam, he’s been very clear about that too. He’s also not a big fan of tardiness; you won’t lose points for it, but you might actually be refused entry in his classroom.

Vrrrt, vrrrt.

My smartphone vibrates in my pants’ pocket. Shoot, I forgot to put in on silent. Good thing I always have it on vibrate, though. Last time a phone rang in this classroom, it ended up being thrown out of a window by the teacher. I unlock my phone; I got a text, unknown number.

Can you help me please?

I watch out for the teacher -whose attention is focused on his computer- before I text back.

Who’s this?

Instead of another text, the answer comes in the form of a clicking sound. On my right. I turn again to see Jacinda, snapping her claws as discreetly as she can.

Wait, what? Her? How did she get my number? Why did she get my number? An unamused snort escapes my nostrils before I can stop it, and I get back on my phone.

Christopher : No. Hell no. Hilariously no.

Jacinda: Please!!! I forgot to finish the last part of the assignment.

Oooh, this is great. Looks like Miss A-student is going to take a drop in her grade for this course. Yes, I know I’m an A-student too, but she’s ten times more hung up about it than I am. Plus, I don’t have an A in every class; I’ll be happy to get a B in my Math class, for instance. Although, I do have an A in every class I unfortunately share with Jacinda. Funny coincidence, that’s all.

Jacinda: I just need some help I wont copy

Christopher: Tough. Guess you’ll have to settle for a B this semester

Jacinda: Fuck you!

Jacinda: You owe me

Jacinda: Just send me your last part so I can have some reference to work from

Christopher: You’re gonna scram that in less than an hour? It’s like five pages long

Jacinda: I can do it

Jacinda: YOU OWE ME

Christopher: The locker was an accident

Christopher: And I didn’t do any damage

Jacinda: The milkshake thing too

Christopher: Accident

Christopher: And I don’t owe you enough to risk it

Christopher: You know Carmichael will punish us BOTH if we’re caught, right? He’ll just assume we’re cheating.

Jacinda: If you do this I’ll never bring up the locker of the milkshake

Jacinda: or*

Jacinda: EVER

Christopher: Hmmm… Nah

Jacinda: Fuck you!!!

Christopher: Also nah

She flips me the bird under her desk, and I fire back both barrels. I start working on my laptop, deliberately making a lot of noise as I tap the keys. Jacinda’s glare is so intense I can feel it without turning my head; not that I’m too scared to do that, nothing like that. She growls, then my phone vibrates again. This time, I decide to put it on silent before checking. The teacher has left his seat and is showing an animation on the smartboard; an illustration of how nuclear fission works, from what I can tell at a glance.

Jacinda: PLEASE

Jacinda: I’ll owe you one

Before I can decide on the most enjoyable way to blow her off, a light turns on in my brain. Owe me one? That actually sounds good. The potential for payback certainly is interesting. I could get her to do something really embarrassing. Like, make her apply for cheerleaders tryouts -she hates cheerleaders. Or make her call me “stud” in front of everyone for the rest of the year; that would kill her. Or better yet, make her not talk to me at all for the rest of the year. Oh, the possibilities…

Christopher: Fine 

Christopher : But I WILL call it in

Jacinda: Thank you!!!!!!!

I take pictures of my assignment, text them, and quickly hide my phone before Mr Carmichael looks my way. Jacinda releases a very quiet sigh of relief, then starts tapping away on her keyboard, surprisingly silent despite her claws. Although the lesson is really interesting, I can’t help but glance at her all through the hour. It’s pretty funny watching her finish her assignment as quickly and as stealthily as possible. I have to hand it to her, though: she might actually pull it off. She jumps when she thinks she hears the teacher call her name -turns out we have a Janina in our class.

Before long, the class is over, and so is the day. I pick up my stuff and stand up, hovering over Jacinda. She finishes her assignment and sends it by email, with about three minutes to spare. Finally, she shuts her laptop and pinches her nose.

“So, about this favor you owe me…” I say.

“Not yet,” she interrupts.

“What?”

“First, I want to see my grade, and yours. How do I know you didn’t give me the wrong stuff?”

“Hey, you’re the one who asked me for help. Obviously you think I know what I’m doing.”

“I meant: on purpose. I’m sure you’d love to see me flunk.”

What?

“You think I’d do that? Sabotage you so I’d be top of the class?”

She doesn’t answer, but her silence speaks volume. Unbelievable. What kind of guy does she think I am? I crane my neck to make sure the teacher is out of earshot.

“Let me remind you, I just took a pretty big risk for you, here. Is that really how you’re gonna talk to me?”

I see her acerbic retort spawn on her mouth, only to be swallowed one moment later.

“All right, all right,” she says.

“I’m heading off,” I say. “Text me when you get your results. How did you get my number, by the way?”

“Manny,” she simply says as she leaves her seat and rushes out of the classroom.

 

“Why would you give her my number?”

Manny looks up from his shoes, which he was lacing, and notices that I’ve just sat beside him. The locker room is filled with the baseball team’s other members, in various states of undress. The place is a lot less rowdy than I thought it would be the first time I’ve been there. I had been expecting a lot of shouting, swearing, rat-tail whipping, joking that everybody is gay, and laughing boisterously. Instead, everyone here is, dare I say it, civil. Some jokes are exchanged, but nothing that’d make your grandma blush. Guess that’s the difference between high school and college. It also helps that we just had a particularly tough training session, and everybody’s a bit drained.

“I figured that would come up eventually,” Manny says, standing up to put on his pants. I try not to look at the large scar across the back of his left calf. I know he doesn’t care, but the story behind it makes me queasy.

“Obviously. What were you thinking?”

“Well, she asked for it after that time you doused her in milkshake. I thought she wanted to send you the cleaning bill or something.”

“Dude, she’s the enemy. And you gave her a direct line to me! Not cool.”

“Dramatic, much? Just block her number, if it’s such a big deal.”

“Oh, I will.”

“Go ahead,” he says.

“I said I will.”

“No time like the present.”

I peek down at my smartphone, in my hand.

“Look, I’ll do it later, all right?”

“Why not now?”

What’s up his butt? I said I’ll do it later!

“She needs to text me about something.”

“Oh yeah?” Manny says with a knowing look.

“Something about our physics class, idiot,” I say. “Once that’s done, I’ll block her.”

“Whatever you say, man,” he says, putting on his shirt. Is he smirking at me?

After wiping his hair one last time and reapplying about a pint of gel, he puts his stuff away in his locker and closes it. We both leave for the parking lot.

“You heard from your father, lately?”

“No.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

Conversation between dudes. Quick and efficient.

“Oh, I just remembered,” Manny says. “My mom wants to invite you again for dinner on Saturday, two weeks from now.”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

“Great!”

We get in his car and he drops me off at my dorm, before driving back to his apartment downtown. After climbing four floors worth of stairs -the elevator has been out of order for about a week now-, I go directly to my room, drop my bag on my desk, and turn on my computer. From the complete lack of noise, I gather my roommate hasn’t made it back home yet. My mind becomes blissfully unfocused as I browse the Internet, my thoughts wandering from my laundry (I’ll do it next Saturday, in the morning), my next shift (tomorrow at 6), vague ideas of retribution against Mrs Augh! (glitter bomb, maybe? It would put some sparkle in her life), the National League West (the Giants will get their rightful place back at the top), to Jacinda.

Aaaand that’s when I decide that I need to do some busy work, because I really don’t want to think about her. I open my Spanish textbook and get started on the next assignment. A conjugation thing. All right, let’s focus on that. I still can’t believe she asked me to help her finish her homework right before the deadline. Seriously. Like we’re buddies or something.

Anyway. Spanish. Plusquamperfect… Ah, yeah, I remember that. I begin reading the text (an extract from a novel). Habíamos ganado la guerra, pero perdido la…

She said she’ll owe me, but can I hold her to that? I bet she’ll have conveniently forgotten about the whole thing when I’ll call that favor in. And even if she doesn’t, I’m sure she’ll bitch about whatever I’ll get her to do for years.

Enough with that. ¿Cuánto habíamos sacrificado? No lo sabíamos. ¿Y para qué ganancias?

It doesn’t matter, really. Better to forget about the whole thing. I don’t even understand why I agreed to that deal in the first place. What could I possibly want from her, anyway?

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