“Isn’t your hair just so adorable in the mornings, my little rumple-head?”
The room brightened as her Mom opened the shades. “Mnhuh?”
“Your hair, Jess, your hair. Specifically the bedhead. It’s simply adorable. Always has been. Ever since you were a little baby. The way it sticks up in the back there. So sweet.” Mom clucked, then sighed at the clutter scattered about her bedroom. “Now, get your sleepy little rumple-head out of bed and come downstairs. You’ll be late.”
Jess sat up on one elbow, running the other hand through her spiky hair and blinking in confusion. Sleepy little…? Mom usually came bursting in here spewing fire and doom when she overslept. What the hell was wrong with her?
She dressed and stumbled downstairs. Had she forgotten her own birthday? Or won an award or something? But nothing special greeted her in the kitchen. Dad had left already, like usual. Breakfast was a gobbled bowl of cereal and she almost left the house wearing mismatched shoes. Like usual.
Her walk to the bus stop was generally quiet as her fellow peers ignored her, and she them, but today…today was the worst day she’d ever experienced in her three years of high school: a non-stop interruption of people talking to her. All of them saying nice things.
“Hey, Jess! Love that bag!”
“Whoa, awesome sneaks, girl!”
“Who did your hair? It’s super adorbs!”
And it wasn’t like Jess heard these things in her head. Sure, that happened sometimes, but not today. Today they were out loud. From people who typically, blissfully, said nothing to her. This freaked her out.
The worst part though? Jess smiled. Like, genuinely smiled. And said things like, “Thanks!” and “Hey, you too!” even though she tried biting her tongue until she tasted blood. Clamping her lips together. Humming. Anything to make the nice words stop.
The absolute worstest of the worst was when she initiated the conversation. To the very people she worked so hard to ignore.
“Willa, that dress is super cute!” (it was cute, but she’d never say that to anyone…)
“Aww, Zeke…what a great smile!” (yeah, but it’s also cocky and arrogant…)
Jess tried not to look when he showed up. Because he was always an ass to her. But he laughed. And she looked. “Simon! I love that jacket!” (and yeah, okay, she really did love the jacket, but ugh, like she’d ever talk to the jerkoff…)
Once on the bus, Jess slumped against the window, bumping along on the roads to the hell that was high school, doing her best to ignore the chatter of asinine compliments and saccharine thank you’s that surrounded her. She stared at her phone, scrolling through the news of the day, desperate to keep her lips sealed, her words her own. Because seriously, nothing like this had happened, not since…
“Oh no. Not again,” she muttered, as her eyes landed on a satirical article someone had posted. The realities of the day sunk in no matter how much she tried to ignore what she’d just read. A day that was going to be the absolute worst. “Can you believe this is happening AGAIN?”
Though she said those words to no one in particular (like anyone could have heard her over their mutual oohs and ahhhs), the guy in the seat next to her leaned over. “Right? Like the last time wasn’t bad enough.”
Why was Aidan talking to her? He never talked to her. Jess glanced over without moving her head but he seemed to noticed her attention and took it as an invitation to change seats. He spun sweet sugar compliments and got the guy sitting next to Jess to trade places, and there he plopped, as unwelcome as dog shit on her shoe. Maybe worse.
“You feel it too, don’t you?” he persisted.
“Will you go away if I say yes? Or is ‘no’ the way to make you leave?”
“Not if it’s not true. Thought I was the only one. I mean, I like chocolate as much as the next guy, but putting it–”
“–on everything,” Jess finished for him. “And no one seemed to think anything of it.”
“So, what do you think all this is? Be nice day? Kill ‘em with kindness? Truthfulness day?” Aidan gestured at their classmates. Jess held up her phone with the article. “Huh. Guess it could be worse.”
“Do you remember what happened last month? Chocolate covered anything? By the end of the day, people were licking trees. And cars. And rocks. The streets were a total mess. Like, my mom poured hot fudge all over my shoes and got all upset when I wouldn’t put them on.”
“Sooo…it escalates, then?”
“Ya think?” Jess turned back to her phone. Maybe he’d harass someone else if she ignored him long enough.
“Yeah, I do think. I think about how weird it was. I think about how no one else thought it was weird.” Aidan shifted as the bus hit Major Pothole and bounced him almost into her lap. “And I think you have really beautiful eyes.”
“Couldn’t hold that one in, huh?”
“Sorry,” he shrugged. “I tried. Like really, really tried. So, what’re we gonna do? You know, about all this?”
Jess stared at him like he had three eyes and a seven ears. “Do? Nothing. I’m gonna get through today as best as I can, without saying any more than I absolutely have to. Then when I wake up, I’m going to pretend that nothing weird happened today. Just like I did last month. I suggest you do the same.”
“But something weird is happening. And it’s doubly weird ‘cuz no one seems to remember any of it the next day. Except us.”
“Must be that big brain of yours. Is there anything it can’t solve?” Jess smiled, then banged her head against the bus window as heat flushed her cheeks. “Oh my god. I hate today so much.”
“So, you think I’m smart? That really means a lot.”
“You know you’re smart. Get over yourself, you–” The rest of her well-crafted comeback was lost under the hideous squeal of brakes. Jess rushed down the aisle, shoving anyone who got in her way with a sharp elbow. She didn’t want to know why she wasn’t fully affected by this crazy ass ailment. The one that cropped up randomly once every month. Or, at least, for the past two months. She didn’t know why no one else noticed, or remembered. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
She just wanted to be alone and ride out the day. Sure, it seemed innocent now, but it was bound to get ugly before the final bell rang. The dash to her locker was another minefield of niceties:
“Jess, looking goooooood!”
“Grrrrrl! Who did your hair?”
“OMG! Like, can we be besties?”
She nodded and smiled, accepting each compliment, resisting the urge to say anything, not even thank you, because she was afraid once she started, she’d never stop. And the idea of saying anything nice to these people made her want to vomit.
Seriously, how was all this even working? Were these thoughts her fellow students had been secretly harboring? The few times she’d spoken, her words had been sincere, though tucked in the furthest pockets of her brain, never, EVER to be said out loud. Because, sure, most of these people were total assholes, but that didn’t mean some of them didn’t have qualities to be admired.
The wall she’d created cracked and she sang praise like her life depended on it. “Sophie! Aww, you’re so sweet! You are rockin’ those boots. Love it! And my dude, Marcus, like, you did so awesome in last week’s game, right? You know you did!”
There may have been high fives involved.
She couldn’t. Make it. Stop. Kind words poured from her like the tweeting of a demented, but polite, songbird. Jess found something nice to say about everyone she passed, even if she didn’t say it to them directly. The hallways were a chattering mess of students and teachers passing compliments back and forth like hot potatoes. No one wanted to be the last, silent partner in this increasingly difficult game.
The last bell reverberate along the hallway, a sharp background note against the rising chatter of voices, each person trying to outdo the previous adulations.
Whatever. Jess bobbed and wove, doing her best now to avoid eye contact, as that seemed to trigger something in her brain that made her say asinine things. She passed by her first period class–not that she had high expectations–and found her teacher fawning over another teacher and a couple of students. It was like a demented infinity loop.
All kinds of nope, she thought, and paused at the nearest exit. Would it be any better out there? It wasn’t like only her classmates and the teachers were affected by this. Clearly her mom had it, so chances were everyone out there felt it (whatever it was). Deciding to avoid external flattery from random adults, which had the potential to get seriously creepy, she headed to the library. Almost no one hung out there before first bell, so it should be mostly empty. And she could handle the librarian.
Jess looked around every corner as she crept the hallways. As usual, she was mostly ignored. Maybe a few saw her and hurled a loud compliment her way. It took all her will power and several bitten nails to stay silent. Finally at the library, she dumped her bag in the seat furthest from the door, and the librarian’s desk, and hunkered down. Luckily, she always brought her lunch, and screw the no eating in here sign. She wasn’t leaving until school was over. She didn’t know what she’d do with the rest of the hours of the day, but that was a problem for Future Jess to deal with.
The touch to her shoulder startled her out of her book. Jess didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. A handful of students had been in here when she arrived, and their muted complimentary conversations were easily ignored.
Only one person was coherent enough right now to even notice her, let alone seek her out. “What do you want, Aidan?”
“Classes seem to be canceled today,” he said and leaned in, whispering.
“Smart hiding place. Been looking for you for hours.”
“But I’ve only been in here…” Jess glanced at her phone. It was almost noon. “Oh god! How bad is it out there?”
“If you want to get outta school alive, you might want to leave now.”
“Worse than that field trip to DisneyLand.”
“But that was…terrifying.”
“Get your bag and hold on tight. We’ll find a way out.”
Jess slipped both straps over her arms and, for good measure, tied the dangling tighteners around her waist.
Vocal volumes had risen from loud to painful, as everyone, from students to teachers to support staff yelled nice things at each other. Hallways and classrooms hosted loud groups of students and teachers. Banners and fliers had been torn from the walls; paper littered the floors, adding a slippage factor that Jess hadn’t expected.
The hallways weren’t the only victims of destruction. Wounds–everything from scratches and bruises to cuts and scrapes–colored numerous faces and arms. Jess and Aidan barely avoided at least three fist fights as they rolled and bounced between the lockers. They were almost pinned against the wall a few times, but Aidan was surprisingly nimble and they avoided most collisions.
A cluster of girls had adopted high pitched fake Southern accents and were “Oh-honeying” each other to tears.
Aidan pulled out his phone and recorded a few seconds here and there, as much as he could.
“What are you doing?” Jess cried out at one point, pulling him around a brewing shitstorm of testosterone and cheerleaders.
“In case we forget some, or all, of this tomorrow. I want to make sure we have proof, you know.”
“You really are brilliant, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, well, you–”
Whatever he was about to say stopped with an oomph when he got caught between a wall and the football team, each player wanting to bestow the most lavish praise to the lunch ladies, Jess evoked her killer elbows and shoved them aside, freeing him. They growled at her briefly, and then returned to their really pathetic attempts at poetry (tater tots, we love a lots, they look like dots, cute little spots…they’re delicious, not nutritious, oh tater tater tots).
A blast of cool air struck Jess in the face, erasing the dreadful rhyme for the time being. She and Aidan raced across the parking lot. “Those were some badass moves!” she said.
“You, too!” They paused, ducking behind a parked car as three students ran past. “So what now?”
Jess held back the wave of praise she wanted to shower her new friend with. Don’t fall into the well. Don’t fall into the well. “Depends. Do you want to ride it out or figure it out?” she asked, not sure which she’d prefer.
The shattering crackle of glass breaking made them jump from their hiding place. “Was…was that? Did someone just fall out that window?” Jess stammered.
“Fall? Or thrown?” Aidan staggered backwards against the nearest car. “I think we’d better figure this out. Like, fast.”
They ran from the school, dodging other clusters of mostly arguing people. People they knew. Their neighbors, their friends, their parents. In between the running, when they paused to take a breath, they couldn’t help it: they complimented each other.
“Okay, enough,” Aidan finally said as he paced in front of her. “When do you think all this…this mess started?”
Jess flopped on a bench and scrunched her knees to her chest. It was cold and getting dark, the late afternoon sun splashed eerie orange and purple clouds across the sky. They’d finally come to a stop in a park near the middle of town, if for no other reason than it was miraculously empty of all other people. “Not last month…November. I don’t remember the exact day. All everyone around me ate was pickles. I hate pickles.”
“Yes! I remember that, too. My mom made me a pickle milkshake. And made me drink it. Spent the whole night hugging the toilet.” He shuddered and hocked a loogie into the grass. “Okay, so that gives us a starting place at least.”
“But, a starting point for what? Is this like, a freaky weird natural disaster only hitting us? Is it all over the world? Or did…” Jess sighed and shook her head. All of the options were ridiculous.
“Or did someone DO this,” Aidan finished. “I mean, it’s crazy even saying it out loud. But it makes more sense than a virus or something natural. This isn’t, like Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, but with random weirdness falling from the sky.”
A gunshot rang out through the quiet park, sending birds scattering, cawing, to the sky. Jess and Aidan hit the cold ground, huddling together. “Pretty sure I’d rather deal with giant food,” she said. They hugged the ground, waiting for another BANG! to cut through the eerily still evening. When none came, they stood, looking around.
The next shot connected with a branch above them, raining wood splinter shrapnel all over them.
“RUN!” Jess screamed. “GO!”
“Are you hurt?” Aidan called out, his hand finding hers.
Jess, not looking back, concentrated briefly on all her parts. “Nope. You?”
“I’m good,” he answered. “Don’t stop! Keep going!”
More pops and explosions followed their backsides as they fled. Jess felt the air zing and crackle around her as a few of the shots came way closer than she ever wanted to think about. They stopped to find shelter only once they couldn’t run any further, crouching low in the shadows of the arching clocktower in the center of town. How was anyone going to explain away the dead? As far as she knew no one had died from the craziness the past two months.
Fights echoed all around, most were unintelligible at this point, just screamed compliments accompanied by the sound of things breaking, of skin being struck, of cries and misery.
“This is what happens when you’re nice to people,” Jess muttered, scooting closer to Aidan as the voices grew louder around them.
“No, this is what happens when people aren’t genuinely nice to each other. If it’s forced, it’s never going to end well.” Aidan took a deep breath. “Was that, back there, do you think that was intentional? Was someone actually trying to…to–”
“Kill us?” Jess answered. “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I can’t even imagine why, but I don’t think those were accidental shots.”
“So that’s gonna be fun to deal with, huh?”
“Let’s see if we survive tonight. Go from there.”
They did their best not to move, not to shuffle so much as a grain of dirt under their feet. Jess didn’t even care that her rear mostly froze on the cold ground. “I’m glad we’re friends now,” she said, about to bite her tongue off holding it in. Not caring actually. Because it was true. Maybe the truest thing she’d said all day.
“Me, too,” Aidan said. “Today majorly sucked. But I liked being with you.”
The bell on the clocktower finally struck midnight. The desire to say nice things faded. The only words dancing on her tongue were full of vinegar and sass. She was herself again. The way Aidan’s fingers gripped hers–tightly, but relaxed now–she knew he was free as well.
She’d thought she was going crazy. Again.
She’d thought she was alone.
She wondered if there were any others out there like her. Like Aidan. Or was the rest of the town going crazy? Maybe they were the only two losing it…
Jess squeezed Aidan’s hand one last time before letting go. Not crazy. And not alone. Together they’d figure out what the hell was going on. Because if this was how people reacted on Compliment Day, she wasn’t sure she could survive a serious holiday.
Every year, when I participate in this short story challenge, I like to have a personal challenge as well. That’s been everything from writing more third person to trying a new genre. This year I’m stepping it up some. Though this is a stand-alone tale, it’s intended to be part of a connected series of stories. I hope you’ll read along for the other nine parts. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!
January 24: Compliment Day