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August 27, 2012

I Hraet You (32)

Beat 32: Confidence Issues!  What a Feeling!

For a moment, Lloyd thought about finding a good place to hide; somehow, peering into the personal life -- or the van, for that matter -- of his ex-teacher made him feel like a voyeur.  But he didn’t have a single hidey-hole to duck into.  The most he could manage was to try and disappear behind one of the bars of the parking lot’s fence -- and unfortunately, he’d eaten a thousand meals too many to have the figure needed.

So he just stood there, agape, and stared at Lien-Hua.  And for the longest time, he feared she stared right back.

Oh dear -- if she spots me, I could soon be on the receiving end of a thrashing, Lloyd thought, reeling a bit.  But after a minute of silence (and raising his guard as if a bear approached him), he leaned forward, practically pressing his face into the fence and adjusting his glasses.  Nothing?  Odd.  I’m in her field of vision.  Is she dead-set on ignoring me?  Or perhaps she has poor observation skills?

As his nose nudged against a metal bar, Lloyd analyzed her more closely.  Bit by bit it dawned on him; yes, he stood in her field of vision, but with a stare like that -- a stare that could likely spot a grain of sand in Bangladesh -- he doubted she’d even register an elephant coming at her.  And it went beyond that; she’d stopped moving minutes ago.  She sat rigidly in the driver’s seat, her fingers set atop the wheel like a poorly-made action figure.  Every so often her lips parted a bit, as if she wanted to speak; whether she did or not Lloyd hardly tell, but she could have just as easily started breathing through her mouth…mostly because the motions of her chest had effectively ceased.

Pan’s flute!  Is she trying to suffocate herself?!  Lloyd shoved his face into several bars at once.  With a closer look, he managed to spot the rise and fall of her lungs -- short, rapid motions, but a clear sign of breathing.  Her nose began reddening, and her eyes -- duller and lightless than their usual selves -- suddenly gained a watery glaze.  Could she have been stricken with some malady?

She set her forehead atop the wheel -- but not before letting streams of tears fall from her face.

Oh, she’s crying.  What luck; I feared she’d been possessed by some high fiend.  He pulled his face back from the bars and rubbed his nose…and then shoved his face back into them with enough force to smash a brick wall.  Ow, my face!  Oh, damnable sting!  But…okay, I deserved that.  He grabbed onto a few bars.  Miss Zhang, crying?  No, this cannot be!  This is terrible!  This is…this is…!

Lloyd pulled away from the bars.  This is my fault, isn’t it?

Why he bothered asking a question with such an obvious answer, he didn’t know.  Maybe to shift the blame.  Maybe to poke a finger at the real culprit, some other purple-haired ham who -- by his incompetence -- had set into motion a chain of events leading to three expulsions and a teacher getting fired.  And all it had happened before the end of lunch.

Standing here gawking will do us no good.  If my actions are to blame for her misfortune, then my actions will ease her pain with great haste.  With a deep breath and a swell of courage, Lloyd started for her van…and he took exactly two steps before freezing in place.  Wait.  What exactly should I say to her?  I gave her my word that I would restore her to her teaching ways -- and according to my recollection, I’ve done nothing to cause harm to her psyche.  I should have more than a bit of clearance.  So what…?

The revving of the van’s engine -- rattling and sputtering as it might have been -- snapped Lloyd out of his reverie.  He looked back at Lien-Hua just in time to catch a long glimpse of her tear-soaked face, and focused on it rather than the fumes spewing from the vehicle.  And he kept on staring at her face, refusing to blink as she pulled out of the lot and started on the road.  Before she could go too far, she stopped behind a red light -- and even though she’d stopped directly across from Lloyd, she showed no signs of registering his presence, her own body, or even the road ahead. 

She’s become nothing short of an automaton, Lloyd thought.  He opened his mouth to try hailing her, but couldn’t get the words out of his throat; he just pulled back and covered his mouth, looking as if he wanted to melt through the fence into the lot.  It’s positively unnatural…and I suspect there is but one major cause.

For a split second, he saw a vision of the audition room -- and with it, the half-starred, depressed teacher he’d observed.  I couldn’t do a thing to improve her state of affairs, he thought, lowering his eyes.  And worse yet, I may have exacerbated the problem.  If her star count is truly dwindling -- and if said count affects her state of mind -- then if she ends up reaching the zero point…  He swallowed hard.  If she hasn’t reached the nadir already, then…

Damnnation!  How am I supposed to help her now?  What can I do?  How on earth can I make things right?  He started to gnaw on his lip.  Do I even have the means to help her?

Of course, he didn’t get an answer.  The only thing he’d earned for his contemplation: the sputtering of Lien-Hua’s van as she took off, moving and wobbling at a clip too fast for an occupied street.

“Ah -- M-Miss Zhang!” Lloyd called out far too late, with nothing to show for his concern but a breath of toxic air.  “I…I want to help you…”

He stared at the road for what felt like an hour.  And then, he clapped a hand to his forehead.  Wallowing in sorrow will do me no good.  I have to get moving, and find JP.

Lloyd broke into a run.  I have to do something.  Anything.

I can do it…can’t I?

*

By the time Lloyd made it back to his house, the sun had heated Porbeagle by several more degrees, and the shadows loomed a bit longer across the neighborhood.  Not that he noticed; he rounded the last corner while gasping rapidly, taking solace in the sight of the Hoigleheimers’ tiny bungalow.  The leafy greens surrounding it and the houses flanking it made their beige-hued HQ look even smaller; as if to compensate, the lawn looked less like a pile of plants and more like a field straight out of Ireland.  Only a trail of stone circles disturbed the balance -- and currently, Trixie, sitting at the foot of the porch’s steps.

“Lloyd!  ‘Bout time!”  Trixie sprang of the steps and started toward him.  “Listen, I -- hey, are ya gonna be okay?  Ya look beat.”

“I’m…I’m quite all right…” Lloyd said between breaths several speeds above hyperventilation.  He bent over and clutched his knees.  “All I…all I need is a moment to…to catch my breath, and then I’ll…yes, I’ll be quite well-equipped to tackle this ‘Gaston Leroux’!”  He didn’t even finish his proclamation before tipping over and falling on his face.

“Jeez, pal.  Yer more dangerous than that guy’ll ever be.”  Trixie slung one of Lloyd’s arms over her shoulder and started dragging him into the house.  “Aw, hell…ya smell like ya just ran a marathon!  What were ya thinkin’?”

Lloyd offered her a weary smile.  “It was…well, it was my intention to go on a run to clear my head.  If I could focus…focus on an action rather than my thoughts, then I…I imagine that it would do us all a fair service.”

“What’re ya -- forget it.  Seems like tryin’ to understand what goes on in that head o’ yers is just askin’ for trouble.”  She pulled Lloyd into the kitchen, and set him down in one of the table’s chairs.  “Ya can just sit down there and catch yer breath.  We should prob’ly talk a bit -- go over what we know and all that.”

“Ridiculous!  With my kin in jeopardy, we haven’t a moment to lose!  To save my brother, I must leap into action!”  Lloyd’s proclamation would have worked better if he hadn’t literally tried to leap up; his knees buckled before he could even stand up straight, and his face nearly crashed into the table.  “Wretched tug of Gaia’s threads!  You shan’t best me!”

“Cool off already!” Trixie yelled, slamming her palms on the table; even in his enervated state, Lloyd managed to shimmy his way back into the chair.  As he stared across the table at her, she rubbed the back of her neck and sighed.  “Look, I know savin’ yer brother’s important.  I feel the same way.  And I -- we ain’t about to let a dandy like that get the best o’ us.  Ya know what I mean?”

Lloyd nodded.  His breathing had finally begun moving at a normal clip.

“But ya gotta pace yerself, pal.  What’re ya gonna do if Gaston shows up and wants ya to chase him?  Yer sure as hell not in any shape to go doin’ that anytime soon, ‘cause ya went and pushed yourself too hard.  Ya follow me?”

“Well, I suppose that’s true.  But be that as it may --”

“Ya ran straight back here from school, right?  Did ya think about callin’ the cops?”

“No, I didn’t.  This is a matter that I should resolve for myself.”

“See?  This is exactly what I’m talkin’ about.”  Trixie scratched at her temple for a moment.  “All right, I’ll go ahead and ask.  Why d’ya think this is somethin’ ya gotta do yerself?”

“I live, therefore I must act,” Lloyd answered simply -- almost as if his words were a law to live by.

Trixie’s scratching turned into a much-needed massage.  But a glimpse at Lloyd told her just as much as his last words; he’d spoken with a straight face, and with his typical airy visage, but…somehow, she could see something different about him.  A hardiness to him, and a certain, heated glimmer in his eyes.  “I guess ya got yer reasons for why ya do…well, anything ya do, pal,” she said at last.  “So I ain’t gonna make ya say anything ya don’t wanna.”  She set her hands on the table.  “So let’s focus on the important stuff.  I hate to say it, but callin’ the cops might not be the best idea right now.  From what I hear, they’re out chasin’ yer dad.  He’s raisin’ hell so he can find JP, ya know.  So I guess we’re on our own here.”

Lloyd turned aside and covered his mouth.

“I think the best thing we can do right now is try and find some clues -- and that’s why we need yer help most o’ all, Lloyd.  This Gaston guy knows me, but it sounds like he knows ya too.  And yer whole family, for that matter.  So just to be sure, I’ll ask again: do ya have any idea of who he might be?”

Lloyd didn’t answer.

“Hey.  Hey, Lloyd!  Anybody there, pal?  I wouldn’t mind gettin’ a little --”

“Miss Walters.  Do you know why I act?”

Trixie slid back a bit in her chair.  “Uh…’cause ya really like actin’ and Shakespeare and all that?”

“Don’t misunderstand me.  I do enjoy acting in the theatrical sense, but that’s not what I’m speaking of at the moment.”  He turned towards her, arms folded and eyes focused -- steeled, and even harsher than before.  “There is something that I need to do.  Something that I need to prove to myself.”

“What’s that?”  But before she could get an answer, Trixie nodded quickly.  “Oh, right.  That harem thing, right?”

But Lloyd shook his head.  “I act because I refuse not to.  Because I refuse to ever fail someone again.”

TO BE HEARTINUED…

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