Chapter 0:


Slacker Squad: Why Work When You Can Cheat?

Makoto Katayama twirled his pencil between his fingers while looking down at his paper, which much like his brain was completely blank. He knew he was going to fail the test. A first for him that he didn’t expect to look back to particularly fondly. Makoto performed decently on tests, always putting in the least effort to obtain a passing grade. But this test, this was a real pain in the rear end. Nothing was coming to mind. This made sense, in a history class you’d either reviewed the lecture slides or you were royally screwed.

He sighed internally. Well, this day had been bound to come at the rate he’d been going. Not like he was actively trying to flunk or anything, but he had definitely underestimated what the bare minimum of effort would do for him this time.

Then again, what even was the point? At the end of the day, who really could produce in writing that putting in all that mental elbow grease wouldn’t be for naught? Everyone else seemed to think that being good at something, and then slogging day in and day out, was the recipe to success. And if you were successful, people would like you and admire you. And you would be happy. Makoto smiled bitterly. He was not looking forward to showing these results to mom, whose cordiality extended only so far.

Sighing again, he placed his pencil down and ran his fingers through his hair. He needed a break from the mundane. He looked up and observed the class. The girl on his far left was scribbling furiously, reminding him of that one movie where the train would explode if stopped, except here it was writing. The guy on his right had his face scrunched in concentration, brow furrowed, as if the answer was on the tip of his tongue.

That or he had bad gas.

The two guys in front of him elegantly swapped their papers, at a speed faster than most eyes could keep up with.

The teacher was in the front, reading something on her phone. Nothing out of the ordinary, to be honest. He looked back down.

Hol’ up.

Makoto looked up again, rubbing his eyes. Swapping the papers? Since when was that a thing that actually happened? Not that he was a goody-two shoes or anything, but he himself rarely cheated, his worst being the occasional sideway glance to verify multiple choice answers. He just never cared enough about exam results. As long as he passed, he was off on his merry way. But a straight up information barter? Who were these enterprising men in front of him? At any rate, that was some serious strength of character right there. He felt a strange urge to want to be a part of that. He looked back to the teacher, who was now texting. And then at the clock. Five minutes to go.

He looked back down for the third time.

But something was tugging at him from the back of his mind. Something that had resided dormant in him - ever since that fateful day, three years ago, when he’d parted ways with the ideology of dedication. That same oddly familiar feeling, even after all he’d done to suppress it. The longing to put all of himself into something. To have an impassioned affair with some danger again.

He found himself looking back up to those two entrepreneurs, those two paper swapping risk-taking geniuses. The more he thought about it, the more it tantalized him. What valor, what resolve, what ardor there had to have been to achieve that mutually beneficial business move! The subtle hand movement and the paper grab in perfect synchronization going unnoticed, while clearly criminal, made it seem not out of place in an examination hall, or anywhere else for that matter. And a perfect follow-up, continuing to write normally, as if they had never stopped. The absolute unwavering conviction they had in each other; they had known the precise instant to perform the switch without a single perceptible start indication. Even as a spectator, Makoto could feel both a burning intensity and a cool sense of offhandedness from the move execution.

Exhilaration rushed through his mind, seeking thrill in an art he had never thought was possible before and the boundless potential within. Was it possible to learn this power?

Like someone possessed, his eyes lit manically with new found purpose. Adrenaline coursing through his bloodstream, in a swift motion, he elevated his hand to cover his forehead, as if to shade his eyes. But the real shady business would be happening underneath. Out of the right corner, he could see the scribblings of his classmate.


He looked straight to verify his teacher’s ignorance, before he picked up his pencil and tried to copy. Tried being the keyword as he very quickly realized that the writing was in a font worse than Comic Sans. Completely illegible! But his options were not limited, he had the person to his left as well! Cracking his neck as if he was stretching, he swiveled his head in the other direction, anticipating an answer bible waiting for him. His eyes searched hungrily, wanting answers. But this paper was blank as well. Where were the answers? Makoto looked up discreetly, where he saw the boy to his left making intricate gestures in rapid succession with his hands, mumbling what seemed like unintelligible gibberish. Some sort of satanic prayer?!

He looked back down at his paper, which was still in the same empty state as before. This was not good. The paper swap from before still reverberating in his mind, he couldn’t help but realize how out of character something like this was for him. Not to mention, he was at a severe disadvantage, without even an accomplice willing to lend a hand to his cause.

Wait no! What was he doing? This was not the time to ruminate over hypotheticals and what-ifs. The time to take action was now or never. At the same time, what was he to do? He pressed the tips of his thumbs to his temple, massaging it, in a subconscious bid to evoke every last ounce of brainpower that resided within. But nothing was coming, except for the teacher who’d taken a brief respite from texting to start her rounds around the class.

Think, think, think! He could not go down here!

And then he experienced it. That same moment of brilliant insight, leading to ingenuity. Even before he knew what he was doing, his hand had shot up.

Raising one's hand during an examination was a move typically reserved for only two types of candidates: the smart alecks and the tryhards. It signaled one’s deep engagement with the test, and a need for clarification and/or validation.

Either that or one needed to use the restroom badly.

But for Makoto, this was his first time ever raising his hand for such a situation. Putting aside his pride as the average achiever, he was going to get at least one question right, goddammit!

As the teacher turned in his direction, however, he couldn’t help but second guess himself. He gulped. This was like a gazelle trying to reason with a lion on why it shouldn’t become lunch. But he grit his teeth. He had chosen this path. He had to see it through.

‘Sensei,’ began Makoto as the teacher approached his desk. ‘I have a question about …’

Almost as if to mock him, the class bell rang right then with a sharp trill, indicating the end of the examination period. Had it been a typical Shounen manga, he’d have had his own buzzer-beater moment and succeeded in manipulating the teacher to unwittingly reveal an answer to him at the last second. Unfortunately, he was not on time and tide’s waitlist. Makoto had lost before he could get started. The impromptu burst of adrenaline was starting to wear off.

‘Never mind, sensei,’ Makoto let out a final defeated sigh. Well, that was about what could be expected when it came to casual cheating like this.

She looked quizzically at him before walking to the front and announcing for students to hand their papers in to the front desk.

Makoto passed his paper forward. He’d known it’d be a waste of his energy. He’d known full well and he’d sworn to himself to never … and yet … what had taken over him just a moment ago?

Makoto shook his head and started shoving his stationery into his backpack. He wasn’t going to let this detract him permanently from his ambition to be the most slightly above-average man alive.

Oh well. What’s the worst that could happen?

He obviously wasn’t too familiar with Murphy’s Law.

Joe Gold