Chapter 1: Just a Bad Day
Cindy stretched in her warm bed. A sun, barely over the horizon, peeked in through half-closed curtains, and Cindy found herself smiling. Today was special, she knew. Today was different. Today, I turn fifteen.
She pulled aside the covers and began to go through her morning routine. After she was dressed, clean, and presentable, she went downstairs to the kitchen to get her breakfast. Her dad, in a robe and pajama bottoms, greeted her with a smile and pointed to some toast.
"Thanks, dad," Cindy said, grabbing the plate of toast and sitting down at the table with him.
"Happy birthday, birthday girl," Mr. Vortex said, displaying his award winning 'proud-dad' grin.
Cindy laughed. "Thanks, dad, again." The toast was good, and Cindy finished it with relish. Her dad yawned.
"They just make these darn schools open earlier and earlier, don't they?" He leaned back in his chair, in deep thought. "Seems like just yesterday you were a little girl in elementary school." Her dad sighed. Cindy patted her dad on the back as she walked by to put her empty plate in the sink. Her dad watched her go. "Fifteen, huh." He shook his head. "Well, your mom and I have a surprise for you tonight, so don't be late, honey."
Cindy watched her dad for a hint, but he gave none. "Aww, you can't do that to me dad. A little hint?" Her dad laughed and shook his head.
"No, no hint. Now, go to school. Your bus will be here any minute." Cindy checked a clock on the wall. It was way too early, but Cindy knew that her dad would eventually give in and give her a hint. Hence, he was sending her out to wait for the bus early.
She smiled and played along. "Alright, dad. I'll see you when you get home from work tonight." She kissed her dad on the cheek. He waved after her and she collected her things and stepped out of her house.
The morning air was crisp and cool, but held the promise of a warm day. Cindy was smiling at nothing as she walked to the corner where her street's high school bus picked up her neighbors and herself. No one was there––well, Jimmy was there, but he was no one. Cindy giggled at her internal insult, but her giggle faded when she saw a blank look on the genius's face.
"What's got you down, Neutron?" she asked, not trying to display the concern she actually felt. She was surprised and somewhat hurt to be met with a glare. And when Jimmy said nothing more, she was shocked.
Cindy attempted to change the subject. "So… Neutron, do you know what today is?"
This time, Jimmy responded, though not in a likable way at all. "Oh… yeah, happy birthday."
Cindy looked back and forth. Sheen, Libby, and Carl had yet to emerge from their houses. She took a breath. "What's wrong?" Jimmy said nothing. His face was blank again. "Jimmy?" She had used his first name. That always got his attention. But this time, it didn't. Cindy frowned. Jimmy ran a hand through his already messy hair, then pulled something out of his pocket.
"I didn't… have time to get you another present, Cindy. I was planning to. I'm sorry, but this is all I could come up with." He pulled out a small necklace from his pocket. Cindy gasped. Its gold glinted in the rising sun. At its base was a crystal, filled with some sort of liquid.
Cindy marveled at the beauty of the necklace. The crystal was green, but the liquid within was blue. She shook herself from her stance, looked up at Jimmy, and shook her head. "I'm sorry… but that's… that's… that must have cost so much money! Why would you spend so much on a birthday gift?"
His face was blank again. "I didn't spend any money. I made it in my lab. Got the gold from some melted jewelry, and the crystal is…" He paused. "The liquid inside the crystal is radon. It isn't normally a liquid, but that's how it reacts with the crystal."
Cindy shook her head again. "But isn't radon poisonous? And radioactive?"
Jimmy nodded. Cindy waited for an explanation, and it came. "The crystal contains the radiation within itself. There's no way the radiation could get out, unless the crystal breaks, which is almost impossible. If it does break, though, the liquid will turn to a gas. Just stand away from it––but the amount should be harmless."
Cindy nodded. Somehow, the necklace was in her hand. She looked up to Jimmy, but he had his back turned. The crystal glowed in the morning sun. "Thanks, Jimmy." She undid the clasp and hooked the necklace around her neck. Jimmy was looking at her again, a blank face.
"Hey, what's up guys?" Libby had arrived. She turned to Cindy. "Happy birthday, girl."
Libby gasped. "Is that necklace for real?"
Cindy nodded. "Jimmy gave it to me. For my birthday." Libby opened her mouth to comment on the whole 'calling him Jimmy instead of Neutron,' but then, she decided against it.
"Hey Jimmy, Libby." Carl had arrived, Sheen in tow. "Happy birthday, Cindy!"
"Yeah, Cindy, happy birthday!" Sheen said, bowing in his Ultra Lord way.
"Thanks, guys." Cindy was watching Jimmy again. He was blank. Again. He had turned away from the group. Sheen had stepped up to Libby, and they held hands. Carl, however, had moved over to Jimmy. The round boy had stretched up, and was now only slightly overweight. By some defiance of nature, Carl was on the football team, so his weight served him well.
Sheen had stretched up as well, taller than Jimmy and Carl, but was lanky. Even then, Cindy had to admit, he was cute, cute enough for Libby to go out with him.
Jimmy had grown tall, taller than Cindy, Libby, and Carl. His hair was no longer in his childhood dollop; it was shorter, spiked, but still long enough to resemble his previous 'do. His short hair was in deep contrast to his blue, deep blue eyes. He had no idea that practically every girl in school was fawning over him, even the seniors. Cindy had resisted the urge, determined to keep her dignity. But she has stopped denying it. She liked Jimmy, and as long as he didn't know, she was okay with it.
Carl whispered something worriedly in Jimmy's ear. Jimmy shook his head, and Carl stood back, saddened. The bus pulled around the corner then, stopping by the curb. First Carl, then Sheen and Libby, and then Cindy stepped on. Jimmy didn't follow, and Cindy paused on the step.
"You coming, Neutron?" Jimmy said nothing. Cindy waved her hand in front of her. "Come on, or the bus'll leave without you." Something different registered on the boy genius's face. "Come on!" Cindy prodded, almost desperately. She couldn't believe that she was worried enough to beg him to come on the bus. "Please? As the second birthday gift you couldn't get me?" Jimmy blanched, and Cindy mentally slapped herself for such a selfish request. Finally, he stepped forward and followed her into the bus
He sat by himself, looking out the window, and Cindy couldn't see his face. She turned to Libby, who sat next to her. "Hey, do you know what's up with Neutron? He's acting kind of strange."
"Chill, Cindy," Libby said, shrugging. "He's probably just having a bad day."
"Yeah," Cindy agreed. "Just… a bad day."
The periods were blurred with random thoughts of Jimmy. Cindy had never seen him so down. She could tell he didn't want to be there, and it made her feel horrible that he probably came only because she had asked for it.
She had three periods with him, third, fifth, and eighth. She couldn't see much of him during third, but they had fifth, lunch, together. He sat with some friends, but they said nothing to him. They said nothing to each other. A mood had spread across the table, morbid and dead. The spaces on either side of Jimmy were empty.
Her curiosity was too aroused. She had to talk to him, she realized, and decided to do so when he left for his locker before the end of fifth period. She ate her lunch slowly, hoping to make the period go by faster, but it was long nonetheless. Finally, Jimmy stood and slung his backpack over his shoulder in the cool way that he did it. Cindy told her friends she had an appointment with a teacher, stood, and followed him out of the lunchroom.
He walked fast, and she almost lost track of him in the many hallways of Retroville High. But finally, she turned down a hallway, and he had stopped, fiddling with his locker. Cindy was about to approach him, but stopped when she saw another girl drop by.
"Hey, Jim." He didn't answer. "Oh, come on, Jim, talk to me." The girl had an obnoxious voice, Cindy thought. She had black hair, but it was dyed. She looked familiar. Is she Jimmy's girlfriend? She realized that Jimmy would never go out with someone who he couldn't have a real conversation with. "Please? I know you're sad about the whole thing, but––" she swung her arm in a preppy way, "yah can't let life get you down."
She slung her arms around his neck from behind him, so that when he turned away from his locker, he was face to face with her. Jimmy looked like he was in no mood for her. The girl moved in for a kiss, and Cindy felt her heart stop. But Jimmy pushed the girl away.
"Stop it, Betty." Betty? Betty… Quinlin? Cindy gawked. The one girl Jimmy had been obsessed with since he was in fifth grade, and he was pushing her away. Well, she did looked like a… well. "Just leave me alone." Betty didn't look the least bit phased.
"Please, Jimmy?' She gave him hurt eyes. Cindy gasped—that look, it was always fake. Cindy had used it with Nick many times before, among other boys, and they always fell for it. She saw Jimmy's reserve falter, and decided it was time to step in. But before she had even moved an inch, Jimmy shook his head.
"Betty, I don't like you. I've told you that twenty-three times before." Cindy rolled her eyes––some things never changed.
Now Betty looked frustrated. "Jeez, you're such a loser, Jimmy. Do you know how many guys would want me to be their girlfriend? And here I am, offering me, me, to you, and you refuse? Fine, I'll just tell all the other guys crooning over me that you broke my heart, and we'll see if you can make it another––"
Jimmy slammed his locker closed, cutting off Betty mid-sentence. "I don't care. Get out of my sight." He turned to look at Betty with a cold, hard glare. "I don't need a reputation, not anymore, and I sure as Heisenberg's principle don't need you."
Betty humphed and turned on heel, marching down the hallway and out of sight. Cindy winced. She had never seen Jimmy so turned over before. But her curiosity drove her forward. She stepped quietly down the hallway, stopping a couple lockers from him.
He had lowed his head, resting an arm against a locker while massaging his temples. Suddenly, his head snapped up, somehow knowing someone was there. He looked surprised to see Cindy. She watched suspiciously as he drew himself back to his full height and stuffed some things into his backpack. The hallway was empty.
He finished, closing his locker, but he didn't go anywhere. His back was turned to Cindy again. The blonde walked up to him. "Jimmy?" No reply. She took it as a signal to go on. "I'm sorry for bothering you like this." She averted her gaze, rubbing her arm in unexpected nervousness. "I hope you aren't angry."
Jimmy wheeled around suddenly, and Cindy stepped back in shock. "No! I'm not angry! Why should I be?! Why should… I be…" he trailed off, eyes going from wide to normal. His face was blank again. "Sorry," he mumbled, turning away slightly.
Cindy stepped toward him. "I'm sorry for Betty." Jimmy looked up at her at the mention of this.
"You were watching?"
Cindy nodded, ashamed. "I had followed… come to you to see if I could help with whatever it was that's bothering you… and I saw her… I'm sorry."
Jimmy couldn't tell if she was sorry for eavesdropping or Betty, or both. "Don't be," he replied softly. "She changed ever since going out with Nick that one year. Now she has to be cool instead of Betty… but that doesn't matter, I wouldn't like her anyway." There was an awkward pause.
Cindy absently fingered the beautiful necklace that she had gotten countless comments for. "Will you tell me what's wrong?" she asked, not masking her concern. Jimmy noticed this and met her gaze. It was then that Cindy saw the dark bags beneath his eyes, the dullness of the blue within them, the hollows in his cheeks. She stepped forward, overcome with sadness for him. What was driving him to be so out of shape?
She inspected him for anything else. Jimmy watched her all the while, not saying anything. Finally, Cindy decided she could find nothing more the matter. "Why did you follow me?" Jimmy asked.
Cindy blinked. "I told you, I wanted to help you." Jimmy gave her a hard to read look.
"Just because I got you a birthday gift that you like." He saw the hurt in her eyes and immediately regretted speaking the assumption. "I'm sorry, I know that's not the reason… but why do you want to know what's wrong?"
"Because, Dorktron," she said, smirking, "I care about my friends." Jimmy looked neither heartened nor dismayed at her statement.
"I see," was all he said. "I have to get to class."
"Won't you tell me?" she pleaded.
Jimmy sighed. "Ask Carl or something. I'm sick of it anyway. He's the only one who really knows, so good luck getting it out of him." The bell rang then, and Jimmy began walking away.
"Jimmy!" Cindy called out after him. He turned, an eyebrow raised. She wasn't sure why she had called out to him. "Be… careful, okay? Don't do anything stupid?" He nodded, turned, and disappeared in the crowd of students flooding the halls.
Cindy stood there for a second. Carl was in her next class, and she found some excitement hidden in the matter of find out Jimmy's secret. She smiled, too, for Betty got what she deserved, and Cindy had heard what she'd wanted to hear. Jimmy didn't like Betty. Good birthday, bad birthday?
She didn't know, not yet.
Continued in the next chapter: Good Birthday Gone Bad