Chapter 9: The Third Player's CardMature

Narrator: Joshua Penningway


Michelle slipped casually back into the auditorium from her unauthorized trip to the bathroom. She took the seat beside me on my right.

Pavel was on my left, and on his left were two empty seats. And it wasn't because people were keeping their distance from Pavel; rather, he was the only one who wasn't keeping distance from me.

Damn The Rogue.

"Guess where I went," she whispered playfully.

"The bathroom," provided Pavel. Apathy was heavy in his voice.

Clearly, nobody was enjoying the performance on stage, and I could already imagine the scores Mr. Saunders was giving it.

"Oh, I went to more than just the bathroom."

I could tell, she was trying to lighten the mood. My mood, specifically. That was hard to do in this dreary, gargantuan room of blacks, browns and grays. Nearly impossible, under the vigilant watch of Mr. Saunders, whose every intimate eye contact caused most of us to shudder. Just because you were a porn-star, once upon a less wrinkled time, doesn't give you the right to show the class the retina-scarring proof.

"Humour me, Joshua," she said.

"The change rooms?"

She snorted, and then elbowed me with disgust. "Locker 487."

"Oh, you're bad," I told her.

"Believe me, I know."

"And what did we learn?" I asked.

Pavel had turned away, focusing his attention on the acoustic mesh on the walls. It looked like copious, overcooked spaghetti.

"You did learn something, didn't you?" I asked, after she had done nothing but purse her lips as we watched a performer stutter out semi-forgotten lines.

"I regret opening it," she said it as a sudden realization.

"Don't bring special brownies to school if you didn't bring enough to share. Or in a way that you can better relate to, CJ's mother's banana bread."

"Shutup, I love that stuff. And he packs an extra slice just for me."

"Out of self-defence," I add, in an acerbic whisper. "Spill."

"Two notes, in two different sets of hand-writing."

"He replied already!?"

"No, Joshy boy, not as far as the locker is concerned." And again, she pursed her lips.

"And?" I pressed.

"The bottom shelf's note was at the back, small, said 'I will reply on Wednesday'."

"That can't be what's tying your tongue," I observed. "What's on the other shelf?"

Mr. Saunders looked over at us, as I had whispered too loudly. For a moment, I swore that I was tasting stomach acid at the back of my throat.

It was many minutes into the next performance, which I was assigned to peer-critique, before either one of us bothered to make a noise.

It was Pavel. He coughed, and looked at Michelle accusingly, as if she'd accidentally touched his junk.

"'Tuesday, practice room five, 2:45 PM, come alone. Wear this over your face'," she quoted.

"Wear what?" I asked, too loudly once again.

Again, Mr. Saunders looked our way.

Pavel's right boot came down, hard and steel-toed, against my own shoe. I struggled not to cry out as he agonizingly crushed my toes.

I forced myself to pay attention to the rest of the performance. It was not so bad. When it was done, a flurry of inaudible comments erupted among the chairs.

Pavel and I had to perform next. I stood up, casting a stern glare at Michelle.

Mr. Saunders was hunched over his notepad, scribbling furiously.

"I had no right to look," she said, and her voice hung suspensefully quiet amongst all the other voices as Pavel and I shuffled past her and into the aisle. "A blindfold."

Pavel and I got up on stage, both of us pursing our lips in amusement. Obviously, someone was playing a very funny game with CJ's heart. I hoped that, for his sake, it was more than just a game.

Do we snoop because we care, or because we dare? Two sets of hand-writing? Two very different messages. Almost... conflicting.

Pavel spoke the first line, gesturing at me. Old English rolled off his tongue in a practiced rhythm, without his mild Russian accent. My mind was elsewhere.

I don't think this third player knows that Hearts are trump.

Thankfully, though, I knew my lines. And I spoke them well enough.

Blinded acts of physical contact are not the best cards to lead with.

I had to remind myself, then, that in most rounds, Eucre had a fourth player. Whose partner was whose? Who was the one who dared to go it alone?

My metaphor was becoming increasingly insufficient. For all I knew, it was all one woman. And it wasn't my problem to deal with. I had other things to contend with. This was just a distraction, something to watch in hopes of dulling my own pain.

There I was, on stage. Catharsis. Dulling the pain of others. Drawing out their sympathies and fears, in a scene among many.

The End

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