Chapter 2:

Into the Middle of Things

Weight of an Overflowing Soul

"I'm so glad these have actual plot," said the upbeat patient while flipping through the small pile of books scattered on her hospital bed. "I'd die of boredom if you brought me a thesaurus or something."

Her companion sighed. "I'd almost be worried if you weren't being a pain in the ass like always."

She laughed heartily and fell back against her pillow. "Glad you at least considered being worried for me."

As soon as Joe heard that Gigi was in the hospital, he was ready to run over there on his own two legs despite not even knowing which direction to go. It was only after his mother had calmed him down that she told him it was just a case of appendicitis. The surgery was scheduled for that afternoon, and she would be in no danger once the procedure was over. Still, his heart only stopped racing when he opened the door to her hospital room and saw her alive and kicking.

"How can you be so relaxed? Doesn't it hurt?"

Gigi giggled. "A few pills later, I feel good enough to head home."

But how could a pill dull the pain of an infected appendix without knocking her out cold? Joe wondered if appendicitis was not as bad as it sounds or if she had incredible pain tolerance. He ran his fingers through his unwashed hair and spoke. "Say, Gigi."

"Hmm?" She turned and curled up on her side, shuffling the IV tube the nurse had jabbed into her arm. Joe winced.

"Don't you feel nervous about the surgery?"

She thought for a moment, then shook her head. "Not really."

"Well, shouldn't you be?"

"But why?" Her smile was so painfully innocent, so wholly pure. "Not even my parents are especially worried. They went off to work after the doctors found the problem."

"They're not the ones getting cut open." Joe spoke almost in a whisper, not loud enough for Gigi to hear.

"Besides," she added. "I think the surgeon has a good heart. So I trust him with my life."

"What does having a good heart have to do with anything?"

"I'm sure that it makes all the difference." She aimlessly thumbed through a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five with her head propped up by her elbow. Her eyes were squinted; she did not have her contact lenses or her glasses. "A surgeon's love for his patients and his work is what lets him do a good job every day. Today should be no different."

"Personally, I'd do the job for the cash. Do you know how much they make?"

"Hush now, you."

Her conviction in her truth shone through her smile. Joe looked away, feeling embarrassed all of a sudden. Who is this girl sitting before him, with such incredible strength of will?. My best friend. Somehow, that label did not fit right.

"Hey, Gigi. What are we, really?"

Her eyes widened, but she quickly put on a smirk and leaned in conspiratorially. "Partners in crime."

Joe was lost for words, but not for long. "Ah! That's what this is. A partnership."

His partner scoffed. "Yeah. An unequal one."

"Hey, your talents and time for my labor and money. Contractor and contractee."

"Oh! That reminds me to tell you something." Gigi pointed her finger at Joe, who leaned back disapprovingly. With an air of equal parts nobility and violence, she made her demand: "Don't let Peripety do all the work herself. Go back to school and tell her you'll do enough to make up for the two of us."

Blink, blink. "That came out of nowhere."

"I'm serious, Joe! This is really important."

More important than the whole deal with her appendix? He shook his head. "Come on, Gigi. If she wants to do all of it, who am I to say no?"

"But she doesn't want to do all of it. I'm sure of it. Who wouldn't want to be in a group where everyone does their part and puts their best foot forward?"

"Well, aren't you quite the mind-reader."

"Joe, Joe, Joe!"

He grumbled. "I'd be a fool to turn down her good graces. Why not just take things at face value?"

She glared at him for a moment, but her wrath subsided to sadness. "Can't you do it for me? Just think of it as doing my homework for once."

"But what about you? Can't you just do your part after the surgery?"

"I'd still have to recover, duh! I might not be in the right state of mind to do anything before the weekend comes around."

He thought for a moment, then chuckled. "You owe me then."

"Owe you what?"

"Well," he thought aloud, "how about a little outing together?"

Her face reddened slightly. "An outing?"

"Yeah. A day at the new amusement park that opened outside of town."

"You know how much tickets for that place cost? And I'm scared of heights."

Joe thumped his chest. "I'll spot the tickets. Your job is to scream on the rides."

"Can I even go on roller coasters after surgery?"

"We'll wait until you're all better. Then we can have all the fun we want."

A short moment of silence followed, but to both Joe and Gigi it was a minute of eternity. The latter opened her mouth, closed it, then forced herself to speak. "Would this be just like Tuesday movies? Or is this..."

Joe looked out the window in time to hide his face. He brought a hand up as if to shield his eyes from the sunlight.

"Let's decide that after the fact."

Another endless minute, then at last a nod from Gigi. "Deal."


When Gigi quietly dozed off from what Joe assumed were the painkillers, he left her hospital room and wandered around for a while. He hugged close to the walls as he walked through the white halls. Staff strutted to and fro, carrying papers and speaking in important tones. Those grotesque interactions, displayed in sterile artificial lighting, unsettled Joe. He stiffly cast his gaze down toward his feet.

The elevator slowly descended to the ground floor. He fished out his old flip phone and read the directions that Gigi had texted to him. With fifteen or so minutes before he had to leave for the bus, he might as well hang around downstairs for a while.

When the doors opened, he brushed past a small group waiting to enter the elevator and made his way to the waiting area in the lobby.

"Excuse me, sir!"

A nurse near the front desk waved and made her way over with a folder in hand. Joe was immediately taken by her confident stance. Although she must have once been quite a beauty in her younger years, the passage of time and the weariness of work had taken its toll. But her brilliant eyes were even more striking with the subtle crow's feet at their corners.

"I was just about to go up to your sister's room to speak with you. What a good brother, skipping school to give her support."

He gulped in spite of himself, feeling guilty over the lie he told the hospital staff to be let into her room. Of course, Gigi had played along as a perfect accomplice would.

"Should we go back to her room together?"

"Oh, no need! This can be quick." The nurse gestured for him to sit down. Sitting across from him, she clasped her hands and smiled.

"I want to make sure that her family are fully aware of what's going on. Your parents were already briefed, but I want to make sure you're in the loop. Are there any questions you have for me about Angela—no, Gigi's surgery?"

Joe had half a mind to politely refuse and go on his way, but his latent worries regarding the procedure compelled him to ask away. "Is there a reason why her surgery was scheduled so late? I thought she was checked in last night."

The nurse sighed and shook her head. "There are only so many operating theatres in this hospital, and only so many surgeons. Today just happened to be a busy day."

"But can the surgery really wait? What if she gets worse?" His anxieties heightened from being so plainly articulated. But the nurse shook her head.

"In general, removal of the appendix within twelve hours is enough time to prevent it from bursting. The only worry is that your poor sister has to endure the pain until the surgery."

Only after breathing deeply in and out did he realize that his whole body had been tense for some time. He leaned back and relaxed his shoulders. "How long after the surgery will it take for Gigi to recover?"

"If everything goes well, she can be back at school in about a week or so."

She would not be back in time for the presentation, then. Bummer. Joe thought for a moment then asked another question. "Does this hospital give a question and answer period to every patient's family?"

The nurse smiled and shook her head. "Actually, my shift ended ten minutes ago. I figured, I'm not busy today, so why not do this for you? For some reason or another, Gigi reminded me of my own daughter. And I knew that if it were my daughter in that hospital room, I would have a million questions on my mind."

So she was doing this out of the goodness of her heart? "Thank you so much, ma'am. It means a lot."

"Call me Jane. And your name was..."

"Joseph. Joe for short."

Jane stood up and extended her hand. Joe also rose to his feet and accepted a firm handshake. The power and warmth of her grasp surprised him.

"One final question for you, Jane."

She nodded. "Ask away, Joe."

"What's that bulge in the folder you've got there?"

Jane's eyes widened for a second before glancing down at her hands. "I'm surprised you noticed. Here, take a look." She opened the folder, took out a container with yellow fluid inside, and gave it a playful shake in front of Joe's face.

"Just a little urine sample."

"Gross." He stepped back and the two shared a laugh. After exchanging a few parting words, she walked off with the folder and sample while he sat back down, seeing the hospital around him in a different light than before.

Maybe a good heart does make all the difference.


Though the distance from the bus stop to the school was no more than a few blocks, he had gotten so used to relying on Gigi's phone for directions that he got lost for a while. Joe quickly decided that if he was going to be late anyway, he might as well take his sweet time. By the time he arrived at school, it was already halfway through the lunch period.

He went straight from the front foyer to the cafeteria. But unlike the hundreds of other students eating there, he had other business to do. Walking up and down the rows of lunch tables, he looked around for a certain group member of his. After his third lap around the lunchroom and a few words of warning from a lunchroom supervisor to either sit down or leave, he accepted that his self-proclaimed knack for picking faces out of a crowd was failing him. Slinking out of the lunchroom before attracting any more attention from the supervising staff, he made his way across the school through the empty halls to a particular secluded stairwell. He quietly took the stairs all the way down and reached a fire exit.

Peeking into the barely-illumined landing of the stairwell, Joe found his bespectacled target.

"Hey, Peripety."

Peripety, who was reading a book and eating a sandwich while listening to something with earphones, seized up at the sound of her classmate's voice. She took the buds out of her ears and looked up. "Joseph? How did you find this place?"

"Just guesswork. A stairwell landing makes for a great place to eat lunch alone." He invited himself into the space. "This is really quite a nice hideout you have here."

Aside from her chair and a desk with a small reading lamp, there were two more desks against the wall along with a few stacked chairs. An electric fan sat on top of a small humidifier stashed in the corner.

"If you want this place, it's all yours." Peripety hurriedly put her half-eaten sandwich back in her lunch container and slammed her book shut. Before Joe had even said another word, she started packing her bag.

"You have the wrong idea. I'm not here to steal your lunch spot. I'm here to find you."

She raised her eyebrows for a moment but had a look of realization in the next. "Is it about the group presentation? Don't worry, I already started on it last night. I can give you and Angela a script by Friday at the latest."

His resolve faltered briefly at the prospect of avoiding any extra work, but the thought of Gigi's face when she accepted their deal kept him true. "About that. I'll be doing my share of the work. Actually, both mine and Gigi's."

"Wait, yours and Angela's?"

Her voice betrayed enough surprise that Joe himself began to question why he was straying so far from his nature. After all, they called it nature for a reason: it was what was natural. He shook away the thought and grabbed a chair from the stack against the wall. Swiveling it around so that the backrest faced her, he straddled it with his legs.

"Gigi's at the hospital getting her appendix removed. I don't even know if she'll be doing the presentation with us next week."

Peripety's mouth opened as if to say something but stayed silent. With the momentum on his side, Joe kept talking.

"Anyway, she and I won't let you write the entire presentation by yourself. This is a group project, and the product needs to be a group effort. Since Gigi usually pulls my weight, I'm doing both our parts this time around. So, two-thirds me, one-third you." Joe extended his hand for dramatic effect. "Let's make something great together, Peripety! Let's do our best together!"

Peripety slung her backpack over her shoulder and slipped past Joe. She took the stairs two at a time while speaking quickly over her shoulder. "Class-is-starting-soon-so-I'll-be-going-now-don't-worry-about-the-project-I'll-just-do-it-myself-tell-Angela-to-get-well-soon—"

With that, she disappeared. The bell signaling the end of lunchtime reverberated through the empty stairwell. Joe sighed, turned off the reading lamp, and picked up a thick spiral notebook that she had left on her desk in her haste. He read the title carefully printed on the cover in permanent marker: PERRYTALES.

I'm guessing you might need this, thought Joe as he made his way up the stairs.

If At First You Don't Succeed . . .

As usual, Joe slept through math class right after lunchtime. Though his empty stomach rumbled, it could not fend off the exhaustion of that long day.

After that came last period English. He already knew what he had to do if it came to this, but that did not make it any easier. His mind, preoccupied with rehearsing what he was going to say, paid no attention to the lecture. Luckily, Ms. Lepore did not bother Joe at all during class and simply dove into the lesson after a short announcement regarding Gigi's medical absence. In his blissful ignorance he did not notice that the teacher, still remembering their exchange from the previous day, was making a point of leaving him be. Meanwhile, Fraser also lay low and held back any comments that came to mind.

When the bell rang, He immediately stood up with his backpack in his hand. He waited for Peripety to put her pencil case and notes into her backpack, then followed her out of the classroom. Unlike the other students who stayed around to chat with friends or to make a final trip to their locker, she made a beeline to the closest exit. When they got outside, she quickened her step and took off to a side street. By the time Joe caught up to her, they were at a bus stop on a main street.

"Hey Peripety! Wait up!"

When she turned around, her look of surprise and terror blanked Joe's mind of any and all planning he had done for this encounter. "A-are you a stalker?"

"Oh, no no no!" Joe waved his hands wildly in spite of himself. "I just needed to talk to you about something."

She exhaled deeply. "Is it what we were talking about before? I don't think there's anything more to say. Also, I have to get going—"

"Don't worry, I'll be quick. Basically, either you let me help you with the presentation or I'll flub all my lines."

"What are you—"

"I'll screw up. Hard. I'll make a fool out of both of us. Word will spread even beyond our class. Sounds pretty inconvenient for someone trying to remain unseen, don't you think?"

Her bright-red face was all Joe needed to see. Bingo.

"So, yeah. You're going to let me do my share of the work. Then everything will go smoothly and we'll all be happy."

Peripety's voice shook as she forced out her reply. "I'm telling Ms. Lepore."

Joe knew that if she went to Ms. Lepore and told her everything he said, his ultimatum would hold no water. What would come next would go beyond mere gambit.

"Go ahead. We both know she would love to see me embarrass myself."

He watched the color drain from Peripety's face, then pressed on.

"She'll fail me and give you a great mark. To her, me sabotaging the presentation would be no big deal. Punishment for me, pity marks for you. She'd be my unwitting accomplice."

She opened and closed her mouth. Total victory.

"And the other thing I wanted to talk to you about," Joe continued, distracting her from his bluff of epic proportions. "I also brought a little something for you." He opened his backpack and pulled out the notebook from earlier. As soon as she saw the cover, she lunged and ripped it out of his hands.

"How did you get this?!"

Her angry exclamation shook him, but he maintained his previous composure. "You left it behind earlier. Just doing my new groupmate a little favor."

Her face darkened. "Did you read it?"

Did he go too far? He drew a blank in response to her biting tone. He did not expect this glacial reaction from his quiet, timid classmate. After all that masterful trickery, would this misstep be his downfall? All at once, his control over the situation had slipped away from his grasp.

"Well? Answer me!" Peripety barked, giving Joe a jump.

"No, I didn't! All I saw was the cover..." He pointed at the notebook which she held against her chest. "I'm sure it's very personal to you."

She huffed, but looked relieved. "You know what? Fine! I give up. You win."

A stunning comeback! "So, does that mean...?

"You can do the damned project. I'll be at the library at seven o'clock tonight. Come if you insist on working together." The bus arrived and she stood up to board. "I have to get going. See you later."

He lingered for a moment after the bus left and scratched his head. Well, that worked out.

. . . Try, Try Again

Joe looked around. "Now, how do I get home from here?"

Roman Triumph