My quest for an alternate eating spot proved futile; although Seamus did indeed share Lunch 1, his table was packed full of band geeks both days I scoped it out. Evidently band was second period and the band room was right next to the cafeteria. Curses.
Aside from Seamus and his band chums there wasn't a single other table I felt comfortable trying to sit. Sure, there were scattered people who I knew by name, thanks to classes last year or track and field, but none of them were grouped up sufficiently to give me a reasonable in. Simultaneously, none of them were eating alone; they all appeared to be sitting with established social groups. Maybe if I weren't a total coward when it came to introducing myself to strangers I would have tried to insinuate myself into one of the groups, but as it was I just fell back on eating at the same table I'd sat the first day of school both following days. It was frustrating.
Of course, the harem congregated there with me both days, as well. It appeared this was my new routine.
Thankfully there was one bright spot in my future: the improv club was meeting Thursday evening.
I call it a club, but the improv meetings aren't actually recognized by the school in any official capacity, so far as I know. Ms. Cariño simply hosts them because she wants to, and because improvisation is a good exercise for actors. Most of the participants are the hard-core drama geeks who can't get enough time in the limelight; that about sums up Hayden, for instance.
Then there's me; I've never taken a drama class (and have no intention of ever doing so), don't try out for the school plays, and just generally have no interest in acting.
But midway through ninth grade Hayden invited me to come to an improv meeting, and on a whim I took him up on it.
I discovered that I love it. There's something magical about improv. Maybe it's that I get an excuse to play make-believe with my peers in a way that's otherwise been heavily stigmatized since the end of elementary school. Maybe it's because it gives me an outlet to be ridiculous and goofy, which I just don't get elsewhere. Maybe it's because it forces me to go out there and interact with people, but without any of the stress I'd suffer in a normal social setting. Maybe it's the fact that every improv session involves building something collaboratively rather than competing the way I do in track and field, or Seamus has to do in band. Maybe it's something else; I don't really know.
Whatever the reason, after I got a taste for improv I started attending every meeting I could, and within a couple weeks Hayden and I were solidly best friends. Ms. Cariño's improv meetings have been a bright spot in my life for almost a year now.
So after a week of dealing with unwanted harem members in and out of class I was really looking forward to blowing off some steam with a bit of improv.
"Hey Mom, are you ready to go?" I was looking forward to being able to take my driving test in a little over a month so I could start driving myself places. I'll bet Mom was counting down the days, too.
"In a minute, Xavier," Mom called back from somewhere deeper in the house. I sat down at the kitchen table to wait for her.
While I was waiting, Rachel wandered in. "Are you going to that improv thing now?"
She stood there in thought for a moment. "Would it be alright if I came, too? I'm kind of curious."
Oh, I had a really bad feeling about this. I also had no good reason to refuse. "Sure." I saw Mom approaching down the hall. "Let's go."
I drove us to the parking lot by the PAC and Mom took the car home. She or Dad would be by to pick us up around 8:30 when the improv meeting was done.
I headed toward the side door nearest the drama classroom, Rachel following. It was a few minutes after 7:00, although I wasn't worried about being late; it wasn't uncommon to have people to drift in until 7:15 or so.
The drama classroom door was shut but unlocked, so we let ourselves in.
The drama classroom is a little bigger than the typical classroom at Alburn High, with chairs instead of desks and a raised section at the head of the room that serves as a sort of ad hoc stage. Ms. Cariño has a podium that she uses instead of a desk, and one of the side walls is floor-to-ceiling cupboards. I haven't seen much of their contents, although based on a few rare instances where Ms. Cariño had gone through them for improv games they are filled with an assortment of props and costumes.
There was a pretty good crowd of people there when we arrived. Hayden, Andrea, and a smattering of other drama kids, Ms. Cariño, and—
"Oh, Xavier. Could you be any later?" Samantha?
"What the hell are you doing here?" Uh, I said that out loud, didn't I?
"Rude!" Samantha exclaimed. "I didn't want to waste my evening spending time with you, of course, but I was curious about improv."
Someone grabbed my arm, breasts pressing up against my side. "Come on, be honest," said Paula. "You can just say you wanted to see him after school, you know."
"Paula? What the hell are you doing here?" Shit, that was out loud, too.
I disengaged myself, and she shot me a teasing grin. "You're quite the broken record. This little twerp wouldn't shut up about what a waste of time improv sounded like, so I had to come give her a bad time when she inevitably showed up. And look who's here!"
Well, that was Paula all over. I'd only spent three lunches interacting with her, but I could already tell the main reason she was hanging around me was because she loved to mess with all of us.
Ms. Cariño bustled over. "Welcome! It's lovely to see some new faces. Are you friends of Xavier?"
"Friends? He's not my friend! Ew!" Thanks for that, Samantha.
Paula licked her lips and did a damn fine job of making it lascivious. "That's one way of putting it."
Before I could even try to respond to that the door opened and in walked Jill. "What? Paula?! Oh, hey Xavier. I just finished up cross country a while ago and figured I'd see what improv was all about before I headed home."
Sure; because you've been running for what, four hours now? Riiiight.
"Come in, come in!" said Ms. Cariño. "New faces are always welcome. Have a seat anywhere you like, and we'll get started."
As I seated myself, surrounded by attractive women, I caught Hayden shooting me a look. What the ever-loving shit? said Hayden's inquiring gaze. I shrugged. You wouldn't believe it, dude. Also, you're welcome to Samantha or Paula if you can ever tear yourself away from your one-sided crush on Andrea.
I'm not sure if he caught all of that from a shrug, but there's only so much a guy can do.
"Wonderful!" Ms. Cariño pointed to Hayden and me. "Xavier, Hayden, why don't you two show our guests what the improv club is all about? We'll do Last Line." She pulled her Box of Mystery over, dug around inside, and extracted a slip of paper. "Looks like your line is 'I'll give you $68.' Hayden onstage; Xavier you can start stage left. Once you're finished, I'll answer any questions people have and we'll go from there."
Hayden stood up and strode over to the front of the classroom where he dragged Ms. Cariño's podium away from the wall and leaned on it, affecting a bored expression while he pulled out his phone and started tapping away at the blank screen one-handed. I moved over to the right side of the classroom and stood quietly.
"All set?" said Ms. Cariño. "Action!"
I mimed opening a door and walked through, my other hand down at my side clutching something tightly.
Hayden glanced up briefly, and then turned his attention back to his phone. I walked over, leaned down, mimed picking something up with both hands, and placed it on the counter.
"Excuse me," I said to Hayden. "I'd like to sell my dog here."
Hayden sighed, put his phone away, and straightened up. He peered dubiously at the podium. "I'm very sorry, sir," Hayden said. "I'm afraid I cannot buy your dog. She—" He mimed lifting something with two fingers and peered underneath. "—he, excuse me, is dead."
"What?!" I exclaimed. "No no, my dog is not dead. Look he's just asleep."
Hayden pointed. "His eyes are open."
I forced a chuckle. "I know, it's strange how he does that. He's slept with his eyes open since he was just a pup."
"He hasn't moved since you walked through the door."
"He's a very deep sleeper."
"You dragged him across the room. I think I heard something crack when he went over the door frame."
"Oh, you know how it is. Some dogs are just so lazy you have to drag them everywhere."
Hayden looked at me, looked down at the podium, and looked back at me. "He smells like rotting flesh. Your dog is dead!"
"Well," I huffed. "You don't have to be rude! I admit, I haven't washed him in—" I paused, and counted silently on one hand, looked dubiously at my other hand, and dropped both. "—a while. But just because he's gotten a bit whiffy doesn't mean he's dead!"
Hayden sighed and briefly rested his head in his hands. "Fine, whatever. Why would I want to buy your dead dog, anyway?"
"Oh, he's a very good dog!" I exclaimed, leaning forward with excitement. "Would you believe that my dog never, ever barks no matter the provocation?"
Hayden stared at me. I stared back. He opened his mouth. He shut his mouth. He raised a finger, opened his mouth again, paused, and shut it once more. I continued to stare at him with a hopeful smile plastered across my face.
"—I actually have no problem believing that," Hayden said at last.
"Right?!" I leaned over the podium toward him. "He may be a bit lazy, but he's a great dog! Just the other day, we took a walk and I had to go to the bathroom. I parked him by a field full of kids throwing frisbees and squirrels scampering about, told him to stay, and when I came back he was in the exact same position! I hadn't even bothered to tie him up or anything, because I trust him so much."
"Do dead dogs often chase after squirrels in your experience?" Hayden asked drily.
I ignored him. "And not only that, but he's an excellent guard dog! Yesterday, my house was broken into, but the robbers took one look at my dog and high-tailed it out of there without taking a thing!"
"That was undoubtedly the smell." Hayden stared down at the podium with an expression of disgust on his face. "Or possibly they noticed those bits that are leaking out."
I laughed. It was clearly forced. "No, no, he's just that good a dog. So anyway, what will you give me for him? I really would like to sell him."
Hayden exploded. "I will not buy your dog! He's dead! I will not buy a dead dog!" He slammed his hands onto the podium and glared at me.
"Ugh, fine! You're so unreasonable!" I griped as I mimed picking up my dog and setting him on the floor. I then reached down with a hand and mimed lifting something else onto the counter. "If you don't want my dog, then would you be interested in buying my cat?"
Hayden peered into my imaginary cat carrier. "I almost hate to ask, but—isn't your cat dead?"
"Weeeeeell," I said. "Ah, you see, mmm—yes, yes my cat is dead."
Hayden looked thoughtfully up to the sky for a moment, then nodded to himself and shot me a confident smile. "I'll give you $68."