Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern

Part Two: Highs and Lows

[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

Ms Harcourt's personal assistant was a blonde lady about five years older than me. Her perfect makeup, clothing and figure made me feel absolutely inadequate within seconds of meeting her.

"Hi," she said warmly, shaking my hand. "I'm Tracey Grimshaw. Your name is Taylor?"

"I, uh, yes, Ms Grimshaw," I mumbled. I wasn't used to people being friendly.

"Pfft, call me Tracey," she said, though I suspected she was pleased I'd gone with the formal greeting first. "Everyone else does around here. So, Taylor, has Ms Harcourt told you what you're going to be doing today?"

Numbly, I shook my head. "She just said to do whatever you told me to do. And if there's a real emergency, to leave quietly by the fire escape so the professionals have something to do."

Tracey laughed delightedly. "She said that? Wow, you must really have made an impression on her." She gestured toward the small side-desk in her office. "That's where you'll be working. I've never had an intern assigned to me before, so I'm afraid we're just going to be making it up as we go along."

"Well, I've never been an intern before, either," I confessed. "So what do you want me to do first?"

"First, I think I'll show you where the coffee machine is, and then … hmm." She seemed to consider her options for a moment. "You can use computers, right?"

"I'm not an expert," I said hastily. "But yes, I get good marks in Computer Studies."

That seemed to satisfy her; she beamed.

After an introduction to the break room coffee machine, and a brief course of instruction in how to make coffee the way Tracey—and Ms Harcourt—liked it, I was ushered back to what would be our shared office. With what came across as almost unseemly satisfaction, she carefully arranged the transfer of a laptop and a flatbed scanner across to the desk I would be using. Most of the problems involved ensuring that the cords didn't get tangled or unplugged, but eventually we had matters arranged to our mutual satisfaction. After that, I moved a large box of paper files to a spot beside my desk. A second box, this one empty, went beside the first.

"All right," she said, dusting her hands off, despite the fact that I'd done most of the heavy lifting. I didn't hold that against her; unlike my clothing, I doubted her apparel would stand up to any sort of exercise. "This is what you're going to be doing. We went fully digital with this sort of thing years ago, but someone found a few boxes of old files at the back of a closet somewhere, and now we have to integrate them with the rest of our records."

"So you want me to scan the files?" I wasn't quite sure what she wanted me for. Any idiot could work a scanner. Then again, right then I was probably the 'any idiot' they were looking for.

"Not just that." She indicated the laptop. "That's been set up to receive the input from the scanner. The optical-character recognition software is supposed to render the filled-out forms into the digital format we're using these days, but OCR has been known to throw up glitches. So you scan the files, then eyeball them to ensure that everything translated across OK, and enter any corrections. Then you check with the main system to see if they've already got that client number on file. If the system is working right, it will take the data you've entered and integrate it into the correct file."

"And if it isn't working right?" Because with my luck, it wouldn't be.

She gave me a brilliant smile. "Then it'll throw up a query and between the two of us, we'll try to figure out what's gone wrong. Any questions?"

I frowned. "Yeah. Isn't this sort of thing confidential? Won't I be breaking laws just looking at it?"

"Nope." She shook her head definitively. "We already had someone from Legal check it over. This is old data, stuff that's no longer current. There's nothing there that could be used against anyone."

"Oh, good." I eyed the box. It seemed to be quite full. "I guess I'd better get started, then." Sitting down in the office chair that had been provided, I leaned down and took out a stack of files. When I dropped them on to the desk beside the scanner, dust rose and I sneezed.

"Bless you." Tracey retreated to her own desk, waving her hand before her face.

Taking a tissue from my bag, I blew my nose. "Thanks." I opened the first folder and took out the file it contained. This was going to be boring makework, I knew, but at least it was boring makework away from Emma and her coterie.

I'd take that all day long.

"Ugh." Greg slumped into the seat opposite me in the staff canteen. "Hey, Taylor. So, how's your day been?"

My nostrils twitched at the smell of bleach wafting off him. It made a change from that of dusty files. Not necessarily a welcome change, but definitely a change. "Hi, Greg. My day's been … okay, not as interesting as the induction was, but it's definitely bearable. How about you?"

"Cleaning." He groaned. "Do you have any idea how many bathrooms there are in this building?"

"I … uh, no." I did actually have an idea, from the floor-plans that had been part of the induction package, but I decided to let Greg have this one. "How many?"

"Too many." He groaned, running his hands through his hair. "I lost count. I am getting really, really good at scrubbing them. Even when they're clean, I still have to scrub them."

I suspected that his idea of 'clean' wasn't the same as that espoused by the janitorial staff; they may have been deliberately hazing him from time to time, but some of it was almost certainly justified. "Hey, it's all valuable work experience. Even if the experience just serves to teach us exactly how boring life is in the workforce." That was something Tracey had said. I was pretty sure she thought she was joking at the time.

"But I thought it would be more exciting than this. Or that they'd let us, you know, sit back and do nothing." He actually managed to look righteously upset.

"You had to know not all internships would be like your uncle's business," I reminded him. "Some places might actually make you do the work."

He gave me a dirty look, which only intensified when I smirked.

"Not fair," he muttered. "What've you been doing?"

"Making coffee and scanning." I rolled my eyes and took a bite from my pita wrap. I had to pause to chew and swallow, then I continued. "So much scanning. I never knew optical-character recognition could get so many things wrong."

He snorted, then glanced around. Maybe because we were interns, or maybe because Greg reeked of cleaning products, all the nearby tables were empty. Nonetheless, when he spoke, his voice was lower than before. "Talking about getting things wrong, maybe I'm getting things wrong, or …."

"Or, what?" I looked quizzically at him. "Don't tell me you're having second thoughts about this whole internship thing."

"No, no, it's not that." He leaned in closer. My eyes began to water from the reek of ammonia. "Some of the guys, the jokes they've been telling while we're cleaning the restrooms … they're a bit, you know, racist."

"What?" I stared at him. "Is that all?" I didn't tell jokes like that myself, but I had no idea what Greg considered racist. Some of the more off-colour jokes the Dockworkers had been known to tell were a little racially insensitive, but I knew the guys weren't about to down tools and take up with Kaiser.

He seemed taken aback by my dismissal of his concerns. "Well, yeah. I just … I just thought you should know. But I guess it's nothing."

I sighed. "Do you see anyone being harassed or taking offense at the jokes? That's when you need to say something. And by that, I mean speak to your supervisor on the quiet so they can say something. Okay?" Because if there was a faster way to get kicked out of an internship than by openly criticising your workmates' sense of humour, I wasn't exactly sure what it might be.

"No, nobody's being upset by the jokes," he conceded. "And they are pretty funny. I guess I was concerned over nothing."

"Mm-hmm," I agreed, taking another mouthful of food. In between doing the file scanning—I was halfway through the first box already—and fetching coffee, Tracey and I had been getting to know each other. She was nice, and friendly, and efficient. I liked her, and she didn't talk down to me. The endless scanning (and the occasional bug lurking in the paperwork) aside, I was really starting to enjoy the internship.

We chatted casually as we finished our respective meals, then dumped our trays and headed back to our duties. Greg was a little more reluctant than me; I got the impression the janitorial staff were enjoying putting him through his paces. Well, as I'd already told him, it was all valuable experience. Boredom, after all, was also something that one could experience.

When I got back to the office I was sharing with Tracey, bearing a steaming cup of coffee for each of us, I found she had a visitor. A good-looking guy in his mid-twenties was perched on the corner of her desk and flirting with her so blatantly that a flashing neon sign couldn't have made it any more obvious. From all appearances, she was flirting right back. They looked around as I entered the room.

"Oh, uh, sorry," I said, reversing course. "I can go away for five minutes—"

"No, it's okay." Tracey shook her head, still giggling at whatever he'd said just before I came in. "Justin was just leaving. Weren't you, Justin?"

His mouth twisted in a wry grin, then he nodded. "Yup. Places to go, people to do. See you 'round, babe. We still on for Friday night?"

"Sure," she agreed, then reached out and prodded him in the chest with her forefinger. "But if you stand me up again, you can whistle in the wind for all I care."

He captured her hand and kissed her knuckles, eliciting a giggle and a blush. "I'll be there. Even if I have to tell the boss where he can shove his overtime." Sliding his butt off the desk, he straightened up and turned to me. "And good afternoon to you, Miss …?"

"Hebert," I said, startled that he was addressing me. "Taylor Hebert. I'm just the intern." As if he needs to know that, I chastised myself.

As he looked intently at me, I felt a blush of my own begin to rise in my cheeks. He was good-looking, after all, and there was an attractive sort of roguish charm about him. "Well, now. I'd heard we had a new prodigy in the office. Harcourt's been singing your praises over how you handled induction." Without giving me a chance to respond, he ducked past me. "I'd love to talk more about that, but duty calls. Oh, coffee. I'll take that, thanks. Bye!"

And with that, he was off down the corridor with my cup of coffee in his hand. I stared after him until he vanished around the corner, then at Tracey. "What just happened?"

With a tolerant smile, she got up and took her coffee from me. "That was Justin. He works in Advertising. To hear him tell it, he's their new rising star." With a roll of her eyes, she sat back down. "Just keep in mind that ninety percent of what he says is bullshit, and you'll be fine."

"And he's your boyfriend?" He wasn't totally my type. Not enough muscles, for one thing, and he was maybe ten years older than me. Plus, he'd stolen my coffee. But all that aside, the look he'd given me had been enough to make me feel just a little weak in the knees.

"Pfft, hardly." Tracey took a sip of her coffee, then chuckled softly. "That man will never let himself get tied down by anyone. We date occasionally, then he does something outrageous, then I forgive him and we date again." She held up the cup in mock salute. "Nice coffee, by the way. You've gotten it just right."

"And he got mine just right," I grumbled.

She waved off my complaint airily. "Oh, he does that to everyone. Steals mine too, when he can get away with it. Go, make yourself another cup. The files aren't going anywhere."

I was beginning to see the funny side of it as I went to do what she'd said. He'd been polite to me, though (given what Tracey had said about the ninety percent bullshit) I was going to take what he'd said about Ms Harcourt with a large grain of salt. But even if he was Tracey's on-and-off boyfriend, I could still look at him as he walked past.

Interning at Medhall, I decided, was getting more interesting all the time.

"Three o'clock!" sang out Tracey as she stood up from her desk. "Time's up, Taylor. You can go home now, unless you want to stay back with us wage slaves. Or you're bucking for overtime." She grinned at me. "Unpaid overtime, in your case."

"That's because I don't get paid in the first place," I agreed. "Double nothing is still nothing." I finished closing the laptop down, and gave the stack of folders—greatly reduced from when I'd started that morning—a proprietary pat.

I was actually getting pretty good at it, I figured. More to the point, I'd belatedly realised where I'd gone wrong with a couple of earlier files, so instead of bothering Tracey with it, I'd figured out how to get back into the system and fix my mistakes. I was also learning the laptop's quirks, such as how the OCR seemed to recognise words and letters more readily if the page was scanned on a very slight right-hand tilt.

"So, how did you enjoy your first day here?" asked Tracey as we headed along the corridor.

"Well, from here on in I'll only be doing half-days," I pointed out. "But yeah, it was fun. In an oh-god-work-work-work sort of way." It had definitely been far preferable to spending the same amount of time at Winslow. The three half-days per week, I decided, could not come fast enough for me.

"Good," decided Tracey. "It's amazing how much work I got done for Ms Harcourt, while you were taking care of those files."

We reached the elevators where a burly uniformed security guard stood, arms folded. "Ms Grimshaw," he acknowledged her with a nod. I couldn't help but notice his scarred knuckles. This was a man who knew how to handle himself.

"Bradley," she replied, and favoured him with a beaming smile. "Taylor here's just going home for the day."

"Sure thing," he said gruffly, and pressed the elevator button for me. The doors opened almost immediately.

"See you Monday, Taylor," said Tracey as I stepped into the lift and pressed the button for the lobby.

"See you then," I replied. Once the elevator doors had closed, I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes briefly. A sigh escaped me. Tension began to unravel from my shoulders.

The elevator arrived at the lobby and the doors opened. I headed out past the security desk, through the sliding glass doors, into the afternoon sun.

It had been a fun day overall, but the whole time I'd been wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. Was I going to say or do something that got me kicked out of the internship? Were they going to suddenly realise that they'd made some mistake, and they were replacing me with one of Emma's friends? Would I be changing places with Greg?

But now I was done with the day, and nothing like that had happened. Sure, Ms Harcourt had done her best to put the fear of God into us, but Tracey had been sweet, and even Justin and Bradley had been polite to me. And I had a thousand dollars in my bag. My head came up. I had a thousand dollars in my bag!


I looked around, instinctively clutching my bag closer to my body. Greg had just emerged from the building, looking somewhat the worse for wear. His clothing had gone from bottom-of-the-laundry-hamper to something even Goodwill would've turned down. The expression on his face was one I'd only seen in veterans in war movies, or capes after Endbringer battles. In short, he looked like he'd been chewed up and spat out.

"Oh, hi, Greg," I said, wondering if I should smile or if he'd think I was laughing at him. "What … uh, what happened to you?"

"They're mean," he said feelingly. "They're mean, horrible and nasty, and I don't think I want to work there any more."

"Why, what did they do?" I wasn't sure if I wanted to know, then I decided that I did. Just in case.

"Well, after we cleaned all the restrooms, we started doing repairs around the building. And they kept sending me down to Stores to get stuff they had to know wasn't in stock."

I could guess the rest from his aggrieved expression, but I raised my eyebrows enquiringly anyway. "What sort of stuff?"

He began ticking off items on his fingers. "Well, they were fixing the automatic closer on a door, and it closed to the left, so they sent me down to get a can of left-handed elbow grease. I was halfway down to Stores before I realised they were joking with me."

"Well, duh." I'd first heard that old chestnut when I was about six years old, listening to Dad and Kurt talking about Dockworker pranks.

"Yeah," he said. "So I went back up and told them, there's no such thing as left-handed grease. So they said yeah, our mistake, and told me to get normal elbow grease. But when I got down there, the guy said he was fresh out of stock."

"I see." I didn't say anything more, because I didn't want to laugh in his face.

He didn't seem to notice the way I was pressing my lips tightly together. "So when I got back to where the guys were, they sent me down again. If they couldn't get the elbow grease, they needed to balance the closer somehow, so they told me to go down there for a short weight."

I did my best to disguise my chuckle as a cough. "And I'm guessing the guy didn't have any in stock?"

Greg looked disgusted. "No. He just had me sit there for a bit while he looked around, then he sent me back upstairs."

It was too much; I couldn't resist. "So he made you stay for a short wait."

He stared at me. "No. Weren't you listening? He didn't have any. He …."

I waited, watching with interest as the enlightenment dawned on him. He actually mumbled the words 'short wait' a couple of times, then he stared at me, eyes and mouth opening wide.

"What?" I asked innocently, only to totally spoil it by snorting with laughter.

"You knew!" he said accusingly. "You knew! You let me tell you all that, and you knew!"

I was giggling hard by then. Briefly, I managed to get it under control as I held up one finger. "Elbow grease …." I sputtered.

"What? What about elbow grease?"

"Doesn't come in cans!" It was lucky we were at the bus stop by then, because I was laughing so hard I had to sit down.

He sat beside me, rolling his eyes. "And I suppose there's no such thing as spray-cans of striped paint, either?"

At this point, tears were rolling down my cheeks. All I could do was shake my head.

"Arrgh!" He ran his hands through his hair for what must've been the fiftieth time that day. "I feel so stupid! How do you know stuff like this, Taylor?"

Asking me that question at that point was useless. It took me a good five minutes to calm down before I was able to answer him. "Dockworkers," I explained succinctly. "My Dad works in the office. I've heard chapter and verse on every prank they've ever played on each other. Including the time someone zip-tied an air-horn to the underside of his chair. When he sat down, the air-horn went off and he nearly went through the ceiling. Kurt said later that he spent ten minutes chasing the perpetrator around the site with the air-horn, vowing to shove it someplace unpleasant." Though Kurt had never actually revealed who the perpetrator was, which made me wonder.

The bus pulled up; it was the line I wanted, so I stood up. Greg came with me. "Okay, at least please tell me that it was legit when they made me get a steam sample with a garbage bag."

I raised both eyebrows and gave him a frank stare. "Do you really want me to answer that?" Climbing on board the bus, I flashed my pass.

"Wait." Greg got on behind me. "So you're telling me that everything they made me go and fetch was a prank?"

"Unless there's stuff that was actually in stock, pretty much, yeah," I said. I found a seat and sat down. Greg sat beside me. "So what are you going to be buying?"

"What?" He looked at me as if I'd just invented the word. "Buying?"

"I got on this bus so I could go and buy some proper office clothing," I said patiently. "So I can fit in better there. Why are you on this bus?"

"Oh. Uh." He looked around, startled, as the bus moved off with a jerk. "I was, uh, I was talking to you?"

"Well, now you're talking to me and you're on the wrong bus," I said with a certain amount of acerbity. "Well done."

"Um." He seemed to think about this. "Maybe I should buy something to wear at work, too …?"

"Well, that depends." I raised my eyebrows. "Are you going to keep on with the internship, or are they too mean and nasty for you?"

"Oh. Right." He shrugged, apparently over his irritation from before. "Sure, I can go back. I mean, they're not gonna catch me with those pranks the second time around."

I seriously doubted that they'd used all their pranks up on the first day. After all, I had no idea how long they'd gone without new blood to inflict their fun on, but learning curves were a thing. "Sure," I encouraged him. "And if you were a good enough sport the first day, they'll probably let up on you from now on."

The janitorial staff of the Medhall building, I reasoned, were unlikely to treat Greg as horrifically as Emma and her friends treated me. Sending him on a wild-goose chase around the building was nowhere near as nasty as what happened to me on a regular occasion at school. As safety-conscious as the building management seemed to be, I couldn't see the staff being permitted to do anything that might physically endanger a minor, or even threaten serious humiliation. Like I'd said to him earlier (albeit jokingly), he might even learn something about how the world worked.

We rode on in silence. Or at least, I was silent. Greg lasted for one stop, then he started chattering about Space Opera; the levels, the capabilities and the various cheats and tricks to level up faster. It really seemed like his bad mood from earlier was gone, as though it had never been. If I'd been at all into computer games, it might have even been interesting.

The bus pulled up at the Weymouth Mall, and I got off. Greg did as well, though by this time he was well into a convoluted tale of how he'd somehow 'owned' someone on the PHO boards with information about some obscure cape or other. I knew that PHO stood for ParaHumans Online, but I'd never spent more than five consecutive minutes on there. My account might even have lapsed; I had no idea, nor any desire to find out. After all, I was never going to be a superhero, so what was the point in looking?

Once we got into the mall proper, I planted myself in front of Greg and waited until he ran down. To his credit, it only took him a few seconds. "What?" he asked. "Why have we stopped?"

"Because I'm going shopping for women's clothing," I said patiently. "Including underwear." After all, I had a thousand dollars to spend now. I figured I may as well splurge on something that fitted me properly rather than 'eh, good enough'. "If you're going to buy something for yourself, I suggest you go find it. The mall will be closing soon." Mentioning underwear to him was a calculated gamble. With some boys, it would draw them on. No doubt Greg had his share of teenage hormones, but they weren't distributed in that fashion. When I mentioned the dreaded word, he visibly blanched.

"Oh, uh, right, yeah," he stammered. "I'll, uh, I'll see you later. Monday."

"See you then," I agreed, putting up my hand in a brief wave. Turning away from him, I headed off to find a store that catered for my wishes. I decided that I also needed new shoes; either sensible flats, or maybe something with just a little rise to them. Nothing too dramatic; I was already taller than Tracey, and I didn't want to look like I was trying to tower over her.

(Physically, I was taller than Ms Harcourt, but I'd never be able to prove it. With her presence alone, that woman would have King Kong whimpering in the corner in about ten seconds flat.)

First, however, I wanted to test the adage 'clothes maketh the man'; or in this case, woman. A selection of feminine businesswear in one window caught my attention, and I entered the shop. I was already wearing my best effort at business attire, so the saleslady came over immediately. Cynically, I wondered how long it would have taken her to 'notice' me, had I been wearing my preferred hoodie and jeans.

I was still riding a high from my first successful day as an intern, so I put my best face forward. "Hi," I said, trying to present myself as Tracey would. "I just started an internship with Medhall, so I was looking for something appropriate to wear to work …?"

"Oh, well done!" she said, her face lighting up. The name 'Medhall' was definitely one that opened doors, I decided. Then she must have realised that I was still only a teenager. "You do realise, our prices are in the upper range for business attire …." Thus giving me the option to gracefully slink out of her store with my dignity mostly intact.

I was slinking exactly nowhere. "Yes, that's why I'm here," I said, matching the steel in her smile with one of my own. "You see, they paid me an up-front cash bonus to get outfitted. And I'm choosing to spend it here."

None of which was actually a lie. They had paid me up front, and if I opted to use it to get outfitted, then that was what it was for. One glimpse at the envelope with the stack of cash inside, and I was ushered into the back rooms.

An hour later, I exited the shop, a pair of bulging shopping bags in hand. Once the saleslady had determined that yes, I intended to spend serious money in her store, she'd gone all-out. I had tried on half a dozen different outfits before they were satisfied, and we settled on two. Serious consideration had gone into which colour went best with my hair and my eyes, and my feet had been poked and prodded by a woman who then sorted through no fewer than fifteen boxes for a single shoe.

In the end, however, all the effort had been worth it. I now knew what truly comfortable underwear—and truly comfortable footwear—felt like. Both, it had to be said, supported me in all the right places. My purchases included two sets of business attire—one to wear and one to wash—plus a pair of shoes and a few sets of underwear (no way was I walking away with just one set). My thousand dollar payout was now sadly depleted, and I was wearing my ordinary clothing again (over the new underwear, because duh) and my new shoes (double duh). I didn't quite break into a dance routine as I stepped out into the corridor, but it was a near thing.

Believe it or not, I'm walkin' on air/ I never thought I could feel so free-ee ….

Weymouth was now closing, so I made my way to the closest exit. Moving with a confident stride, I stepped out into the open air.

Right into trouble.

I hadn't seen them through the glass doors, mainly because I hadn't been looking out for them. But Emma, Sophia and Madison had obviously seen me, or perhaps they'd been shadowing me since I came out of the store. Because I couldn't imagine them noticing me going into the store and not figuring out some way of making trouble for me.

"Hello, Taylor." Emma's greeting was as sharp and bright and deadly as an unsheathed blade. Her teeth, as she smiled at me, were almost as sharp. "What have we told you about shoplifting? Really?" Her voice was pitched loudly enough that nearby people turned their heads.

"I haven't been shoplifting!" I protested.

"No sense denying it, Taylor," Madison spoke over me. "It's quite sad, really. You just keep doing it." She gestured at my bags; while I was distracted by the motion, Sophia darted in and snatched one from my hand.

"Hey!" Hampered by my need to hang on to the shoulder-bag and my other bag, I tried to grab it back, but failed. Madison 'blundered' into my way, while Sophia handed the bag off to Emma. "Give that back! It's mine!"

"As if," sneered Emma, lifting one of my two suit jackets from the bag. So of course Sophia had grabbed the bag that didn't have my original underwear and shoes in it. "You never owned something this classy in your life. You could never afford anything this classy. Why did you even bother stealing it?"

"I didn't steal it!" I was starting to get upset, my voice becoming more and more high-pitched. This made me sound guilty, even when I wasn't; even when I didn't feel guilty. Emma was a past master at manipulating matters so that she came off as the good guy. All she had to do was push me off balance just a little, emotionally speaking, and I was easy prey. "I've got a receipt!"

A second later, I regretted saying that; it would've been smarter to get the attention of security or the cops and show them the receipt. But that was why they'd waited till I came outside. All the security was inside, where they couldn't provide any kind of inconvenient assistance. The adults on the outside with me were all watching the show but the problem was, they were leaning toward support for Emma and her friends.

"Receipt?" Emma dived into the bag and came up with the slip of paper. Examining it, she shook her head. "It's not real. I could make a better one up in my sleep." Her tone was so convincing that even I was taken in for a split second. Did the store give me a fake receipt for some reason?

"Are we surprised?" Madison shook her head, so sweet and petite I could've strangled her. "That's Taylor all over. She never thinks things through." She gave me a pitying smile.

"Give me that!" I tried to reach forward and grab the receipt, but this time Sophia intercepted me. She knocked my hand up and away, then slugged me in the stomach when I tried to push past her. I doubled up, gagging. Madison tried to grab my other bags from me, but I clung to them.

"No getting rid of the evidence, Hebert," she growled, then turned to Emma. "I know people on the force. I think we should take this stolen property to them."

"Stolen property?" I wheezed. "You're the ones who're stealing my property." I turned to the people around us, trying to appeal to them. "Can't you see it? They've been doing this stuff to me for months."

"I'm sorry, folks," Emma said sweetly, once again stealing the initiative from me. "We try so hard, as her friends. It's so easy to believe her, unless you know what she's really like."

"If she's been shoplifting, as you say, maybe we should hold her for the the police," said one man uncertainly, taking his phone out.

Madison tried again for my bags. I pushed her away, but Sophia tripped me. As I put my hand down to catch myself, she grabbed the second one from the shop and yanked it out of my grasp. I clung to my shoulderbag and managed to hang on to that, at least.

"No, don't bother," Emma said with all the authority of someone with a lawyer for a father. "It won't help. She'll just get a slap on the wrist. We'll just turn these over to the authorities, and they can return them to the store tomorrow."

"They won't be wanting these," Sophia said, digging into the second bag and pulling out the shoes and underwear I'd been wearing when I walked in. I cringed as she tossed them to the ground beside me, but not for the reason everyone seemed to be assuming. I didn't need anyone to see my used underwear.

"Eww!" shrieked Madison delightedly. "How long have you been wearing those, Taylor? A week?"

I couldn't win here. Every time I opened my mouth, Emma or Madison overrode me. Everyone was looking at me as though I was the thief and they were the tolerant friends trying to the right thing by me. Grabbing my shoes and underwear, I scrambled to my feet and ran for it. A couple of people tried to grab me on the way through, but I pulled free and kept running.

"It's the drugs, you see …." Emma's voice, bright and piercing, faded into the distance behind me.

As comfortable as they were, my new office shoes weren't the best for running in. I stopped halfway down the block and changed shoes. As I walked, I tried not to cry, and failed.

I'd thought nothing could ruin the great day I'd been having. The first day of my internship had gone perfectly. I'd aced the induction, I'd impressed my boss, and I'd even met some nice people. Tracey was nice, and Ms Harcourt was scary but fair. And then, just as I thought everything was going just right and I'd be able to show up in clothing worthy of a Medhall internship, Emma had managed to fuck things up for me yet again.

So much for being able to get away from her and the others for three half-days a week. Even outside school, I can't avoid them.

I took the bus home, curled up around my own misery. The bruises from Sophia's manhandling were painful, but hardly a problem. What hurt more was the loss of the money; or rather, the clothing I'd bought with that money. The clothing wasn't even for me, as such. It was so that I'd feel more like I belonged at Medhall.

By the time I stopped crying, I had coldly decided that I wouldn't tell Dad about anything that had happened. I wouldn't tell him about the induction, which meant I didn't have to tell him about the thousand dollars, or about Emma stealing my clothes. One set of underwear and one pair of shoes had survived the debacle, and I would by God wear those shoes to my internship at Medhall.

If I told Dad … I had no idea how I would do it. I knew I was holding too much back from Dad these days, but … he had too much on his plate already. Even at his best, he still wasn't over Mom. And at his worst, he was barely functional. Not as bad as the first few weeks after Mom died, but not good either. If I dumped this on him as well, I had no idea how he'd handle it. Or if he'd be able to handle it.

So I went home, and I said nothing. I carefully wiped down my new shoes, and put them away. Taking the Medhall safety manual from my shoulder-bag, I read it from cover to cover over the weekend. And I took all the anger and pain and hurt from the theft and I put it away in a box, because I would not and could not let Emma see it in my eyes, when she saw me next.

On Monday morning, I went to school. If I didn't go to school, Emma would win, and it would be easier to not go, the next day. I had my shoes in my backpack, along with my shoulder-bag and the clothing I'd worn on my first day at Medhall. If I wore them to Winslow, Emma and her crew would stop at nothing to ruin them by midday; knowing full-well where I'd be going after that.

Fortunately, it seemed that she thought she'd screwed me up sufficiently by stealing my office clothing. I saw her mocking expression as she looked over the ratty hoodie and jeans I was wearing. That wasn't enough to break through my reserve, but when I saw Madison wearing one of the tops I'd picked out to wear under my suit jacket—of the three, she was the only one petite enough to pull it off—I nearly lost it. Only the certain knowledge that they were waiting for me to react let me keep my cool.

I went to home room. Computer Studies followed on, and then World Issues. The first was no big deal, as I didn't share it with anyone who had a problem with me. The second was more of a problem, given that Julia and Madison were both interested in making my life all sorts of hell. There was juice on my chair, of course, so I took another one at the back of the room.

The trick to dealing with it was not dealing with it. I didn't open my book, because that would invite Madison to dump pencil shavings over it. When Mr Gladly spoke, I listened with half an ear, keeping the majority of my attention on Julia and Madison. I wouldn't have put it past them to open my bag and pour juice inside. What was in there was more important than my grades, right then.

Time crawled toward midday. With every minute that ticked by, there was less time for Madison and Julia to pull a prank on me. I watched them; they watched me. Mr Gladly blathered on, trying to interest us in his subject when he had to know that more than half the class was watching the clock. Half past eleven. Twenty-five before twelve. Twenty to twelve.

Finally, the bell rang for lunch. I was out of my seat, yanking my over-full backpack on to my desk to shove the World Issues textbook back inside. That done, I headed for the door.

" … Taylor Hebert to the principal's office … Taylor Hebert to the principal's office …"

Still heaving the backpack on to my shoulder, I froze and turned. Madison and Julia looked back at me, cruel triumph in their eyes. It was obvious that they were behind it; them, and Emma and Sophia. Equally obvious was the understanding that no matter what I said, no matter how I protested my innocence in whatever bullshit scenario they'd cooked up, I would not get away from Winslow before the next bus went. Maybe the next after that. It would be just like Blackwell to keep me waiting for twenty minutes, just because.

I would be late to my Medhall internship, on my second day. Depending on how long they drew it out, I might not even make it there at all.

That was Emma's plan. That was why Madison and Julia hadn't bothered fucking with me. They'd just let me sweat, knowing what was coming.

Fuck. That.

Pivoting on my heel, I plunged out through the classroom door. To get to Principal Blackwell's office, I would have to turn left.

I turned right.

End of Part Two