Chapter 5: Nick, and Jenny
“Bye, you two. The orchestra club’s probably gonna finish up and leave early, so I’ll see you tomorrow.” Natalia said to Seron and Larry, who were putting away her and Meg’s trays as well. Then she turned to Meg. “Wanna walk home together, Megmica? I mean, a certain senior-classman might start giving you the evil eye, but it’s not like she likes me enough to get envious anyway.”
“I will.” Meg smiled and stood. She looked at Seron and Larry, who were carrying four trays between them. “It was a very fun lunchtime. Thank you very much. It is the first time I ate here, but the dormitory cafeteria is delicious as well. And I am sorry that you have to clean up our trays.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t let it bother you, Megmica. Feel free to order us around.”
Replied Seron and Larry respectively.
“The chorus club will go home before dinnertime also. I will see you two tomorrow.”
“All right. See you. Call us if you need anything. That’s what we’re here for.”
Replied Seron and Larry respectively.
Then Larry spoke up without waiting for Seron.
“If it’s all right with you, Megmica, you should come eat lunch with us here tomorrow, too. We’ll be eating cafeteria food the whole week long. You too, right Lia?”
“Sure am. I’mma try everything on the menu here.”
“Oh! Then I will eat meals here as well! Thank you.” Meg said with a bow.
Natalia said goodbye to the boys and left with Meg.
Seron and Larry watched until they were both gone, and placed their trays on the return counter. Then they headed to the gymnasium.
Seron was silent the whole time on the way out of the cafeteria. There was a serious look on his face.
“What’s up, Seron? You got a stomachache?” Larry asked.
Seron’s head swiveled around. His handsome face looked directly at Larry.
“Wh-what’s up?” Larry stammered, concerned.
Seron’s handsome face did not budge.
“I… I’m so happy right now.”
“…I see. Good to hear, buddy. Good for you.” Larry nodded, then added to himself, “I think I might be able to beat you at chess if we played now.”
* * *
The afternoon session began.
The actors moved about on the marked-up stage with scripts in their hands, and the set crew drew designs on a sketchbook.
Seron and Larry were asked to help build the set pieces. So they had their hands quite full as they helped the set crew and ran to send messages to the orchestra club.
Time seemed to fly by after lunch. Dinnertime came in the blink of an eye.
“Ms. Krantz, our villain’s here.” A member of the drama club said half-jokingly.
“Try it more like this!” Ms Krantz was saying, waving her arms, but she noticed the newcomer. “Ah! Bring him in!” She said.
The drama club members froze and all looked at the entrance.
Seron and Larry were just opening up the windows to let the heat out of the gymnasium. So they happened to be standing near the doors.
A male student walked past.
He looked like a girl.
His uniform was the only thing that identified him as a boy. In looks alone he was very feminine.
His brown, back-length hair shimmered and shook softly in time with his gait. He had a slender build and fair skin, and narrow green eyes.
Larry frowned at the student’s unmanly appearance.
Seron showed no reaction.
The moment the student entered, screams even louder than when Seron appeared filled the gymnasium.
The boy put on a smile and walked through the gymnasium, finally reaching Ms. Krantz and the drama club.
“Apologies, Ms. Krantz. Everyone.”
He had a clear, androgynous voice befitting his appearance. Larry’s frown deepened at the boy’s unmanly bearing.
“Welcome back. Did you enjoy your trip?”
“I did, Ms. Krantz. I’d wanted to join you in the morning, but I was delayed.”
“Don’t worry about it! We’re the ones who dragged you into this.” Ms Krantz said. She spoke with the boy briefly and clapped her hands twice.
“Attention, everyone! Put down whatever you’re working on and gather round!”
As if proving bodily that they had no reason not to gather around such a pretty boy, the girls crowded around Ms. Krantz. Seron and Larry opened the last of the windows and followed.
Ms. Krantz stood by the boy and raised her voice.
“Let me introduce you. This is the last of our helpers, and a doozy of an assistant!”
Just how many helpers was the drama club getting, Larry wondered under his breath.
“His name’s— …would you like to take over?”
“Thank you, Ms. Krantz. —Everyone, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Nicholas Browning, third-year. Please call me Nick. It’s an honor to work with you. I will do my very best to help. Thank you.”
“As we all know, Nick’s filling in for the severe shortage of boys in our club by taking the role of the Black Knight. He has acting experience from primary school, so don’t worry about his skills. I’d love to have him join the club officially, but things happened… the fact that he’s here even as a helper is worth being grateful for.” Said Ms. Krantz.
Then she began to introduce Nick to Arthur and the other drama club members.
His eyes still on the introductions, Seron whispered to Larry.
“I took equestrian class with Nick in first term last year.”
“Huh. So who was more popular? You or him?” Larry asked.
“I’m not really sure. But—”
“He turned down every girl who asked him out, just like me. And this strange rumor started going around with the girls.”
“Like what?” Larry wondered, tilting his head.
Seron’s response was mechanical and unemotional.
“That I was actually dating him.”
Larry’s snickers turned into howls of laughter. His voice resounded through the gymnasium. Naturally, everyone looked at him.
“Hey! What’s so funny over there?”
“Ahahaha! Oh! Er… excuse me, Ms. Krantz!” Larry quickly got a hold of himself, standing upright.
Nick noticed Seron and Larry behind the female students.
“Hm? I see a familiar face. Is he part of the drama club too, Ms. Krantz?”
“The blond one, you mean?”
“No, the one next to him.”
“Ah. No, they’re both helpers. I guess you could say they’re like mercenaries.”
“I see. I should go greet them as well.”
“Yeah?” Said Ms. Krantz. Nick passed her by and went up to Seron and Larry.
“It’s been a while, Seron. Do you remember me? We took an equestrian class together last year.” He said, sounding a little excited. Seron replied as flatly as ever.
“Yes, I remember. Let me introduce you—this here’s Larry, my best friend. We were just talking about how you and I knew each other.”
“Oh? And what about it did Larry find so funny?” Nick chuckled.
Seron said nothing.
“Hah hah hah hah!” Larry burst into laughter again. “Ahahaha! I see what they were talking about! Oh man, you really do look good together! Hahahaha!”
In the midst of his side-splitting laugh, Larry noticed a sharp look cast his way and stopped himself.
“Well, well. It looks like we have a potential new cast member here.” Ms. Krantz said threateningly. “How would you like to audition for the role of a man cursed to laugh forever?”
“No thank you, ma’am!” Larry quickly replied, standing up straight again.
Nick met Seron’s eye and grinned. The girls who were watching them seemed to swoon.
“I wish they were the lead actors in the play…” One girl whispered.
Someone was watching Seron and Nick through a lens.
“Those two aren’t bad. Maybe I’ll stick ‘em together.”
She was a petite girl in uniform with very short red hair. Her large, light brown eyes gave her the look of a small animal.
She was standing outside the gymnasium.
She was at one of the windows Seron had opened earlier. Through it the girl had a clear view of the doors, where Seron and Larry stood.
The girl poked her head into the building through the window. Her eye was pressed against the viewfinder of the camera in her hands.
The camera was a rangefinder that used standard 35mm film. A long, thin telephoto lens was fixed to it. Equipped on the top of the camera was a detachable turret finder, which resembled a revolver’s magazine.
It was not a very big camera, but it looked positively gigantic in her tiny hands.
There was a click. She quickly turned the dial on the right side of the camera and wound the film, then pushed further into the gymnasium to re-focus and change angles.
At that moment, one of the girls noticed her.
“M-Ms. Krantz! Someone’s spying on us!”
The redheaded camera girl managed to get another photo in before turning away. She placed her camera in the leather bag across her shoulder and shut the lid as she ran.
The girl did not even bother to look back. She reached the end of the gymnasium.
Larry emerged from behind the corner, having volunteered for the job to regain his honor.
“I’m not interested in you! Go away! Don’t follow me!” The girl cried, running for her life.
“Not gonna happen!”
She was captured in a matter of seconds.
Larry grabbed her securely by the sleeves.
“Eek! Pervert! Someone save me! Help! What are you going to do to me, punk?! Police! Over here! A blond delinquent! He’s so obviously a bad guy! He’s trying to force himself on me!”
The girl was yelling so loudly that Larry cringed, but there was no one behind the gymnasium during the summer.
“Aren’t you even embarrassed to say all that crazy stuff?” Larry sighed. Two boys from the drama club soon came over.
The tiny girl stopped screaming. She stood up straight.
“Ms. Krantz wants to talk to you.” Said one of the drama club members. “Come with us for now.”
The arresting officers took the girl to the gymnasium.
“How long are you going to hold on to me like this? Pervert.”
“Speak for yourself. You’re the one taking pictures of people in secret.” Larry said, letting go of her sleeves.
“I’m covering a story here! I’ll clear this up with the teacher!” The girl replied without a hint of guilt. Larry furrowed his brow.
“Covering a story?”
Soon, they arrived at the doors. The moment they stepped inside—
“Ah! The newspaper club!” The girls cried simultaneously.
“We had a newspaper club? You know about ‘em, Seron?” Larry asked as he trailed in after the girl.
“No.” Seron shook his head.
Nick, standing next to him, provided the answer.
“I know quite a bit about the newspaper club. This here is the pre-”
“Hey! Forget it. I’ll introduce myself!” The camera girl cried.
“Oh? Let’s hear it.” Said Ms. Krantz.
“I’m Jenny Jones. I’m a third-year and the president of the newspaper club!”
Though every eye in the gymnasium was on her, Jenny was not cowed in the slightest.
“A third-year president?”
“Actually, did we even have a newspaper club?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
The drama club whispered amongst themselves.
Nick explained without even being prompted.
“Our school has a so-called newspaper club. And it is a newspaper club, really. But because there is only one member, it’s not technically a club. Jenny Jones is the sole member, which by necessity makes her the president, the vice-president, the treasurer—”
“Shut up, pretty boy!” Jenny yelled, pointing an accusing finger at Nick.
“Ah, excuse me. I apologize for overstepping my bounds. You should be able to explain yourself.”
“So he’s not denying the ‘pretty boy’ part…” Larry muttered.
Jenny proudly held her head high in spite of her height.
“That’s right! I’m the only member of the newspaper club. So what?”
“Why did your newspaper ‘club’ take photos of the drama club practice in secret?” Asked Arthur.
“I’m not particularly curious about the drama club. It was summer, and no one was at school. So I decided to snoop around and look for some fun stories. I wanted snapshots of the deserted campus, too.” Jenny said without backing down.
“You weren’t going to try and spoil our show before the performance, were you?” Asked Ms. Krantz.
“Nope. I don’t know a thing about theater anyway.” Jenny shook her head.
“Don’t take her word for it, Ms. Krantz!” Warned Sophia. “Arthur. Everyone. Do you know why the newspaper club only has one member?”
“No. What’s the story, Sophia?” Arthur asked.
Sophia cast an uncomfortable look at Arthur, who wasn’t coming off as much of a reliable president, and answered.
“It’s because she only ever publishes lies! She founded the newspaper club two years ago, and back then they had some members and had permission to post their publications around the school. But then this girl went out of control.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur tilted his head.
“She started writing completely made-up articles! All her stories, real or fake—mostly fake—were sensationalistic lies.”
“In what way?”
“In one article, she claimed that a male teacher was actually a woman. She wrote another article about a ghost showing up behind the buildings to attend class. ‘Traces of Breast-Enlarging Chemicals in Cafeteria Food?’, ‘Ministry of Education Announces Shutdown of School?’, ‘Moving Anatomical Model Caught on Camera?’, ‘Portrait of First Headmaster Laughs at Jokes?’, ‘Confession Success Rates 100% Under Big Tree Behind the School?’, ‘Televisions on Campus 1 Hour Ahead of Domestic Broadcast Times?’. Garbage like that.”
“And she even went to the trouble of using carefully doctored photographs! Some of the first- and second-year students even believed that nonsense and went crying to their parents about it, which caused problems for the school. —Do you enjoy publishing these things?”
Jenny was not apologetic in the least.
“They’re not lies. There were question marks at the end of all those headlines. I was casting suspicion and guessing, not making statements. I can’t believe they took them completely seriously. Guess that’s the power of the press.” She said without missing a beat. Sophia frowned.
“Y-you think you can just get away with that?”
“Everyone said they enjoyed it in the end, though.”
“That’s not journalism! You should be writing novels instead.”
Jenny looked away without a reply. Sophia continued.
“That’s why all the other members quit within the year; they were sick of these antics. And since you need at least five members for a school club, the newspaper club doesn’t have official recognition. This girl is using their old clubroom alone, taking pictures and writing articles and posting the papers on the walls, guerrilla-style. The teachers take them down as soon as they see them.”
“If you wanted a copy, you could have just asked.”
“Are you serious?”
“If the newspaper club isn’t officially recognized, how do you cover club expenses?” Asked Arthur. “Photography and printing is bound to be expensive.”
“She uses personal funds. It’s not too hard for someone like her.” Said Sophia.
Arthur thought for a moment. His eyes widened.
“Wait, you mean the Jones family?”
“Yes. The Jones family.” Sophia nodded.
Larry glanced at Seron. But Nick explained before Larry could even ask.
“‘Jones’, as in Jones Motors. Roxche’s biggest automaker company.”
“…I didn’t ask. But thanks, I guess.” Larry said, still with a look of disapproval. He had made the same face many times today.
“You’re welcome. Very kind of you.”
Arthur spoke again after Nick’s explanation.
“I see. There sure are a lot of rich—really rich—people at our school.”
“This is no time to be impressed, Arthur. We have no idea what this newspaper club will make up about us now!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I have no intention of writing about something that dull.”
“Then what were you trying to take a picture of? What would you have published?”
Jenny glanced at Nick, ignored Larry, and glanced at Seron. Then she continued.
“—It’s a secret.”
Sophia shook her head, giving up on the conversation. A tense silence fell over the gymnasium.
Arthur said nothing, so Ms. Krantz had to step in.
“In any case, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, Jenny. The drama club cannot officially aid the newspaper club. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Ms. Krantz.”
“I’ll have to confiscate your film for now. I won’t throw it away—I’ll just give it back after the performance.”
For a moment, Jenny looked angry. But she quickly found a solution.
“Ms. Krantz, film has an expiration date. Could you at least develop the photos? I’ll pay for it. If you find any photos that might hurt the drama club, feel free to throw them out. How does that sound?”
“All right.” Ms. Krantz said, holding out her hand.
Jenny opened her leather bag and pulled out a silver rangefinder. It was not equipped with the 50mm telephoto lens. There was no turret on the camera, either.
As everyone watched, Jenny began to rewind the film.
She finished the job with an expert hand and opened up the camera, taking out the silvery film cassette.
“Here you go.”
Jenny put the camera back into her bad and handed the cassette to Ms. Krantz.
“All right. You may go.”
“Also, the orchestra club and the chorus club are helping out with the performance. Don’t snoop on them either, okay?”
“Off you go.” Ms. Krantz pointed at the exit.
“Off I go.” Jenny said, walking away.
She glanced at Nick as she passed him by—
She ignored Larry and passed by Seron—
And she glanced at him.
After leaving the gymnasium.
“Heh.” Jenny chuckled, walking very quickly. She reached for the leather bag slung in front of her.
Then, she took out the camera she had emptied earlier and put the strap around her neck.
“Too soft. No photographer worth her salt would hand over something that important so easily.”
With a grin, Jenny took out yet another camera—identical in design to the one hanging from her neck, save for the telephoto lens and the turret finder equipped to it. This was the camera she had used earlier.
“There’s nothing on that roll. I haven’t used this camera yet.”
She rewound the film that captured Nick and Seron.
“I’ll have to pull out this baby once the commotion’s died down. The title will be, ‘Meaningful Smiles Between Pretty Boys Signals Something More than Friendship?’. I’ll put black bars over their eyes.” Jenny muttered. “Now… I wonder if there’s any other newsworthy stories around here…”
She walked around the corner. Before her eyes was the deserted grounds.
And far in the distance stood—
“…Come to think of it, I’ve never gone there before.”
—the creepy 300-year-old building that was now being used as a storehouse.
Jenny walked all the way across the grounds to the building. By the foundation outside were several veneers and a toolbox.
And around the building—
“All right. I’ll cook up a ghost story for this one! It’s time for photographs.”
—was no one.
* * *
“Come to think of it, Sophia.”
“What is it, Arthur?”
“You really know a lot about the newspaper club, don’t you?”
“Huh? …Y-yes. What about it?”
“Well… I mean, this doesn’t really matter, and you helped us deal with the girl, but are you by any chance…”
“C’mon, Arthur. If you have something you want to say, spit it out.”
“Sophia. Were you by any chance a fan of the newspaper?”
Arthur’s guess was right on the mark. Sophia glared at the usually-dense president, who this time managed to be just the opposite.
“N-not at all! All right, back to practice, everyone! You too, Arthur! Focus!”
Just as Sophia scolded Arthur—
Jenny was taking countless photographs of the old building. There was no one around.
The door was locked and plywood has been installed in crisscrossing formations over the windows. It was impossible to get inside. So Jenny had no choice but to give up on interior shots.
She snapped pictures from up close and from far away.
She took wide shots and detailed close-ups.
She adjusted the exposure for brighter and darker images.
She took all kinds of pictures so she could fabricate something for the newspaper.
Then, Jenny took out a small tripod from her bag to get the shadows just right.
“I wish I could get inside, too.” She mumbled, rewinding the film.
After using up the entire roll,
“All right. I’ll develop these today and print them early in the morning.”
Jenny headed for the building that housed the ‘newspaper club’ and the darkroom.
Someone was watching her leave.
A pair of eyes were locked on her.
A pair of bright eyes watched her from the dark—
—From inside the old building.
* * *
The days were long in summer, and the sun was still shining brightly.
“Hey. Going home, Meg?” Asked Natalia Steinbeck, spotting Strauski Megmica.
They were at the intersection outside the school gates. Normally it was packed with cars waiting to pick up or drop off students, but now it was empty. In contrast, the thoroughfare ahead was jammed solid. Cars were stuck in snail-paced rush hour traffic.
Meg was sitting alone on a bench in the waiting area.
The waiting area looked like an elongated bus stop had a roof and and a long bench, and was completely visible from the security office by the gates. Students would wait for their rides here.
Meg turned. She spotted Natalia, tall and bespectacled with her hair tied up.
“Yes, I am. You too, Natalia?” Meg asked with a smile. Natalia went over and sat on the bench next to her.
“Yeah. Oh, don’t worry ‘bout the orchestra—we finished practice, but they’re still in a meeting. I just ditched.”
“Thank you for worrying for me.”
“You’re waiting for your ride? The others went ahead?”
“Yes. The others are very kind. So they said they will wait so I will not walk into the orchestra. But I let them go. I would be sorry, since they all take the bus to their homes. I did not know when the practice would be over, so I now called my driver.”
“It’s rush hour; it might take a while. I’ve got nothing to do, so I’ll keep you company for a while.”
“Thank you very much. I live on Rue Trente Street in the Western District. What do you ride to school, Natalia?”
“I walk it. It’s ten minutes from here to my place.” Natalia said, pointing south.
“My goodness. That is very close.”
“It’s not tough living in Roxche, Megmica? You’re technically living in a foreign country and all.”
“I wonder. …At first, the language and the culture were hard. But the hardest thing was that I had no people to talk easily with like this at school.”
“I see. What about now?”
“I have the chorus club, and I have a very good friend named Lillia, who is in the same year as you and I. She was in the same class as I this year. Lillia is very good at Bezelese, even better than me. I was very surprised. And Lillia is very energetic, so she can talk to many people. Right now she is on a trip to a place called Lartika. I asked her to buy my a souvenir, so I am waiting.”
Natalia smiled as Meg chattered. She fixed her glasses.
“It’s good to hear you’ve made friends. What about on the romance front?” She asked.
“Hmm… I do not yet have a boyfriend.” Meg said, a little sadly. Natalia quickly injected some cheer into her voice.
“Don’t worry! Me neither. Although I do get a lot of love letters.”
“But they’re all from junior-classman girls. What did I do to deserve this?”
“That is because you are cool and reliable!” Meg nodded. At that moment, a black car pulled into the intersection.
It was a limousine. The most expensive of the many varieties of cars that came to pick up students from the 4th Capital Secondary School.
“Oh, he is here.”
“That your ride? Sweet.”
The car quietly came to a stop before them. Soon, a middle-aged man stepped out of the driver’s seat.
He was a well-built man in a black suit, wearing a pair of white gloves. From his face he looked almost like a mobster.
“Apologies, Miss.” He said with practiced grace, instantly dissipating his own intimidating air. Like many other drivers, he also served as a bodyguard and had the physique to match.
Meg thanked him and introduced Natalia as her friend.
“Would you like a ride to your home?”
“No thanks. I live in the opposite direction, and it’s really close by anyway. See you tomorrow.”
“I understand. Then I will see you tomorrow. Thank you for everything you did today.”
The driver opened the back door for Meg. She walked over—
“Say, what do you make of Seron and Larry?” Natalia asked suddenly.
Meg stopped to think for a moment, and soon beamed.
“I think they are very nice people.”
“I see.” Natalia nodded. “See you.”
Just as Meg stepped into the limousine—
“All right. We’ll do a complete runthrough tomorrow. That’s all for today! Dismissed!”
“Thank you, Ms. Krantz!”
The drama club finished on schedule and dispersed for the day.
Nick, who (to Larry’s disapproval) performed admirably on stage even during the rehearsal, wiped off his sweat and approached Seron and Larry.
Seron and Larry had taken off their jackets and were in their T-shirts.
“Thank you for your hard work, Seron. Larry.”
“Thanks. You were great up there.” Said Seron.
“Not at all. I still have a long way to go.”
“Larry said you were great, too.”
“I’m happy to hear that.”
Larry hid his look of disapproval from the drama club members as they gathered their belongings and hissed under his breath.
“I have to wonder why someone like you isn’t in the drama club.”
“I have my reasons. …I’ll be going home now. What about you two?”
“We’re staying in the dorms.” Seron replied.
“Then I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a good evening.” Nick said, leaving the gymnasium with a wave.
As everyone finished preparing to go to the dorms, Larry realized that the drama club—specifically, the girls—were casting glances in his direction.
“Wait, it’s not me.” He realized, noting Seron’s presence. He spoke up loudly, so the girls could hear very well. “Let’s go back to the dorms, Seron. What do you say to a bath?”
“Race you back to the building!”
“‘Cause we gotta work up a sweat!”
“I think I’ve sweated enough today.”
“C’mon, enough excuses! Let’s go!”
Larry gave Seron a push on the back. He gave Arthur a brief wave and practically fled the gymnasium.
For a moment, the girls watched in a daze.
“Damn you, blondie…”
Soon, their gazes became hostile.
* * *
After their bath, Seron and Larry had dinner before the drama club got to the cafeteria. Then—
“Hm… I think this might be another defeat for me.”
“I’m not going easy on you.”
They played chess in their room.
Like the previous day, they were both dressed for bed. Seron in light blue pajamas, and Larry in shorts and a green T-shirt. ‘ARMY’ was printed over the chest.
It was late at night by the time the sun set over the horizon and lights flickered on in the apartment buildings in the distance.
“So how was today?” Larry asked, making a move.
“What do you mean?” Seron replied, countering.
“One of the best days of your life, right?”
“Can’t deny that.”
Each time they spoke, they made one move.
“Have you thought of a follow-up plan? Whether you ask her out or not, you can’t spend the next week just chatting over lunch with her.”
“I’ve been thinking… but I just can’t come up with anything.”
“Why don’t you just join the chorus club? You could see each other every day, and maybe even get some time alone with her in the clubroom.”
“I… can’t sing…”
“Right. One of your few weaknesses. …Then let’s ask her to hang out with us after the camp. What do you say?”
“But it’s summer break. Won’t she have better things to do?”
“You can’t just decide that without asking her.”
Seron’s hesitant move.
“I hate to say this, buddy. But at this rate, there’s a good chance you’ll both finish school with her just thinking of you as a plain old nice guy.”
“…I… I guess you’re right. Wh-what do I do?”
Seron’s very hesitant move.
“Don’t ask me, man. If I had to say, you should talk to her as much as you can over the camp and somehow make it so that you can meet up even afterwards. Lia and I have your back.”
“Thanks, Larry. I really owe you.” Seron said, making his move and looking up.
“Nah, that’s what friends are for. Also—”
Larry reached out.
“Isn’t this checkmate?”
Seron looked down at the board.