Writer’s note: This story is actually already about 12 pages, all of which I decided to post, but I had to stop further progress because it depresses the crap out of me and I haven’t had enough separation from the very similar ACTUAL situations this story emerged from. While I was reading over it before deciding to just post all of it, I actually covered my mouth in laughing shock, felt an uncomfortable pang in my stomach, and almost cried in the middle of the Borders cafe. This book has a lot of… personal investment.
Files. Everywhere. A mismatched collage of hanging files, manilla folders, and articles highlighted with the distinctive pee yellow. Now they gracefully covered the deep gray pavement of the parking lot, sprayed in all directions.
“Great. Just great.” Helena reached over my fallen body to start shoving everything back into place.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
She glared at me, but didn’t speak. She knew it was true. I didn’t exactly push myself backwards.
“I’m so sorry, Rian.” Jack jumped down from his perch in the back of the activities bus.
I got up, contorting my arms to brush off the loose gravel from the back of my shirt. “It’s fine. Apologize to Helena, she’s the one you’re really gonna be in trouble with.”
“… I was hoping to sleep on the way up! Now I have to reorganize all the files-”
“Helena.” I held up a hand, the one not rubbing my forehead. “Please. It’s not that bad. All the articles are still in their respective folders. It’s an NX box, right?”
“That’s not the point! You don’t understand how long it takes to get all of this into perfect order…”
“Actually, I do. It’s the only thing you’ve been talking about for the past two weeks.”
“This is a big tournament, Rian.”
“Right. I guess I’d forgotten.”
“This is no time for sarcasm. No time at all.”
She hurriedly stacked all the disturbed folders back into the plastic box and heaved them up into the bus. This was an impressive feat, once you understand that she’s only five feet tall and weighs about one hundred pounds when she’s “feeling fat”.
I was four inches taller and about twenty pounds heavier, but she still intimidated me. Speech and debate trips were always tense, because of her perpetual bad mood.
“Do we have any more boxes to load, or can we start putting the suitcases in?” Trying to be diplomatic, I temporarily ignored the pounding in the back of my head where I’d hit the pavement.
“Suitcases.” She snarled tersely, stalking back into our coach’s classroom for her own belongings. I sighed and followed her in.
The rest of the team was either downing their lunches early or racing around the room looking for missing cases, scripts, and dress clothes.
“I swear, I put my suit right here. It was hanging from the filing cabinet. Where-”
“We already loaded it into the bus.” I brushed past Kurt, our token gay member who did everything in his power to perpetuate nasty gay stereotypes, to grab my duffel bag. “It was in the way, so we just hung it for you.”
“Oh.” This seemed to shake his obnoxious balance. “Well. Someone could have told me.”
“We’ll be sure to do that next time.” My head was really hurting, and my demeanor was suffering because of it. “Has anyone seen my partner?”
“Here.” A flustered Kaci sat up quickly from behind her suitcase. Although we’d been friends for several years, being debate partners made her afraid of me. She’d never admit it, and I didn’t care. The past couple months hadn’t been easy for our friendship, let alone our competitiveness in Public Forum, the debate we took part in.
“Get your stuff on the bus. I have some cool new evidence I want to talk to you about.” I tried to smile at her, but it came out as a grimace.
She nodded and complied, lugging an unnecessarily large duffel bag and backpack behind her. I sighed but decided to keep my mouth shut.
Choose your battles. The voice of my best friend and old PF partner, Tom, was always there for me when I was grumpy. Even his metaphorical presence got me to calm down. The real Tom had his mouth full of pasta salad and orange juice, looking around casually as the rest of our teammates scampered about noisily.
Taking a deep breath, I followed my new partner outside and into the bus, where the rest of the team had congregated, chatting idly as they waited to depart. I sized our traveling squad up as I claimed a seat.
Kaci and I did the same events; PF and Poetry Interpretation. Kurt and Tom were our only other “interpers”; Kurt was in Poetry, Tom was in Humor, and together they were in Duo, a partner interpretation event. Helena participated in Policy Debate, or CX, a grueling event that required hours of practice a day, with her partner Melissa, and also did National Extemporaneous speaking, or NX. Jack did Foreign Extemporaneous speaking and PF with his partner, Ben.
Ben. Benjamin Acer. Public Forum titan, National Extemp tycoon, ex-boyfriend of one Rian Reed. Me.
See, I didn’t think it would be a problem. As mature adults, I assumed we could get along, or at least be cordial to each other. After all, it’s only a high school debate trip. We don’t even have to sit near each other.
But Ben chose to sit directly in front of me, something I know was not an accident.
“Hey, scoot over.” Tom roughly shoved his duffel bag into the compartment above our heads and sat down next to me. I hit my forehead into his shoulder, and as he glanced forward at Ben, he understood. “It’s gonna be a fun trip, I can tell already.”
I groaned and reached into my messenger bag, handing Kaci, seated behind me, the research I’d done. “Remember, it’s a new topic. Obama’s proposed troop surge. I found this thing called the Durand Line…”
“This is why I quit debate.” Tom rubbed his forehead with his hands. “You’re obsessed.”
“You hush. I have some new music you need to hear.”
“Is it that weird metal band again?”
“It’s not weird.”
“Oh, right, because grown men squealing like dying pigs is a perfectly normal pass time.”
Tom chuckled, patted my head condescendingly, and settled back into his seat with his headphones in. I smiled tiredly at him and glanced out the window. We still had to swing by the next town to pick up a couple kids from another team. Their coaches couldn’t make it this weekend, which was understandable. It was a six hour drive, and we had to go a day early just to make sure we would get there.
“Everyone here?” Our overtly loud and obnoxious coach, Jennifer, climbed onto the bus and started her head count. “All of your stuff?”
A chorus of “yes” traveled through the bus, so she seated herself in the driver’s space and closed the doors. There was a collective sigh of relief as we distanced ourself from the school, a day and a half earlier than everyone else.
We pulled up to the other school fifteen minutes later, and three more students climbed onto the bus. Jonah was the best foreign “extemper” in the surrounding debate district, and also a powerhouse in Lincoln-Douglas debate, both partnerless events. He was best known for his ego, which had grown to such proportions that some of his other teammates had created a Facebook page for it. Brody was another Nxer, and did PF with his partner Rhys.
I didn’t know much about Rhys; he had only joined debate a few months ago. Other than a few passing words when he was hanging around Brody, we’d never spoken.
Normally, I wouldn’t have paid him much mind, but he looked different today. Brody saw my look and smirked at me, taking a seat across the isle from Tom and I. My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I opened it up.
He got a haircut. I know, it looks good.
Then, And now I feel shallow.
I laughed in Brody’s direction as he rolled his eyes. He often criticized Kurt for being, essentially, a whore. As a homosexual himself, he was proud to admit to his virginity and his unwillingness to call physical attributes to attention on anyone. But I had to agree with his assessment; Rhys looked really good with his new haircut. His naturally dark chocolate hair that used to lay matted like an emo kid’s was now trimmed to a few inches, framing his strong cheekbones. As I observed him putting away his suitcase, his gray eyes reflected the darkening sky outside. Another vibration from my pocket shocked me out of my stupor.
Stop looking at him so much. It’s pathetic. This message was from Tom, and I elbowed him before averting my eyes.
Ben muttered something nasty under his breath as the bus started off again, and I shifted uncomfortably. Jack, seated next to him, didn’t seem to notice as he turned around to face me.
“This is going to be awesome. Finally, we can get some real competition!”
I smiled and nodded.
“Do you and Kaci want to do a practice debate tonight?”
“No.” Ben answered. “After the drive, the only thing any of us are going to want to do is sleep. We’ve had plenty of practice.”
You just want to minimize the time you have to spend with me. I admonished him silently. Jack looked like he was going to argue, then though better of it, and turned back around to face the front of the bus. I leaned my head against the cold window, wondering if I’d made the right decision by breaking up with him.
We’d met in middle school, but didn’t become good friends until our freshman year of high school. At the beginning of our junior year, we’d started dating, and up until about a month into our senior year, we had been going strong. But for a while I’d been noticing things about Ben that I just couldn’t stand.
He never called me unless it was an emergency, and even then, he’d probably call Jack first. He was stupidly sensitive about everything, and was perpetually jealous of Tom for being so close to me. Always annoyingly persistent towards teachers who planned on giving him anything lower than a 95% about extra credit, he seemed almost apathetic towards making plans with me. Maybe he never missed debate practice and the extra sessions he and Jack planned, but if I wanted to go to a movie, I was almost sure to be stood up at the last minute.
Of course, the relationship hadn’t been all bad, but according to my psychology book, I was experiencing mood-congruent memories. Essentially, because I was in a bad mood, I could only remember bad memories.
Forcing my mind to overcome my attitude, I searched for something redeeming about Ben. I supposed he was sweet, and remembered my birthday. He even endured awkward dinners with my eccentric family once in a while without complaining. He was a decent kisser, and gave good hugs. That is, he gave good hugs when he finally noticed I needed one. After several days of huggless misery.
Taking my index finger, I proceeded to tap my forehead in rapid movements, chanting positive, positive, positive in my head. Tom, being Tom and knowing I was annoyed with myself, thumped me lightly in the back of the head.
“Hey. No self-induced injuries this trip, eh?”
“You say that like it’s been a problem in the past.”
“It has been.” he turned to face me, still listening to some howling lead singer in one ear. “Remember last year’s trip to Delta? You and… someone else,” –Ben I filled in silently- “were fighting, and you seemed to perceive it as your fault. So you beat the side of your fist into a brick wall, and we had to use five bandages to stop the bleeding.”
“That was an accident.”
“Uh huh. Ok, how about this one? Helena was berating you for something, so you stabbed yourself with a paperclip.”
“I did not!”
“Did so. Unless you want me to believe that Casper the not-so-friendly ghost decided your hand was in need of a paperclip ornament.”
“I had a bent paperclip in my hand that I wanted to throw away, and I clenched it into my hand because I was mad at Helena.”
“You’re claiming it as another accident?”
“Whatever. Either way, you’re not allowed to do anything even remotely dangerous to yourself for the whole weekend, ok? No punching walls, palming paperclips,” he rolled his eyes at me, “and no beating yourself in the head. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.” I grabbed my own iPod and roughly shoved the earbuds into my ear canals.
“Besides,” he continued, browsing through his music library. “I’m not gonna be around next semester.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m going into the Marines, Rian. I can’t…”
“Stop. Please. Not right now.” I cowered with my shoulders hunched, as far away from my best friend as I could get.
Tom sighed, and I caught a sad glance from him before he turned back to his own things.
I don’t want to think of it. I don’t want to think of it.
You don’t have a choice.
Shut up. He’ll write letters. He promised.
You know Tom too well to expect him to keep that up. For a best friend, he’s pretty unreliable.
You know, my fourth grade teacher once told me that you aren’t crazy if you talk to yourself, only if you talk back.
Then stop talking back.
Pulled unceremoniously out of my imagined multiple-personality conversation, I looked up at Jack in surprise.
“Are we going to Noodles?” Noodles & Co was the restaurant in Denver that the entire team craved in between traveling tournaments, and we made it a habit to eat dinner there as much as possible. Essentially, it was fast food pasta, but it was undeniably delicious.
“I suppose we will. We always do.” Unsure of why he was asking me such an obvious question, I turned back to browsing my iPod for a song with a good beat.
“Ok. Good. Can I buy you dinner?” As soon as it was out of his mouth, Jack looked stricken, and glanced guiltily at Ben. Ben, feigning ignorance, ignored the remark.
“Um, my parents gave me money for the weekend. I think I can pay for myself, but thanks.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah. Well, bye.” He didn’t turn back around fast enough to cover his flushed face.
Deciding that I had too many other things to worry about, I forgot about the incident almost immediately. An uncomfortable stirring in my stomach erupted, so I leaned my head on Tom’s shoulder and tried to think about other things. Like Rhys.
That’s such a good haircut.
We arrived at Noodles three hours later, and by then I was convinced that my stomach was eating itself. Even Tom had started to notice the groaning. “Are you ok?” He asked, laughing. “Did you not eat lunch or something?”
“I guess I forgot.”
“How do you forget to eat?”
I didn’t. The truth was, after knocking a desk over accidentally with my shapely hips, I’d dumped my lunch in the closest bin I could find. Curves are great- to an extent. There was only so much shape a girl could handle, and clearly I was not handling it. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Of course, I couldn’t tell Tom any of this, so I just shrugged and packed away my iPod.
The twelve of us practically stampeded our way out of the bus, not even hesitating to consider other dinner options.
Even though everyone had been craving the restaurant, only a small fraction knew what they wanted to order. Although I knew I would stick with my regular order, I understood the hesitation from my teammates. There were so many savory options to choose from, I often found myself wanting a sampling of all.
Glancing around me, noticing that no one was standing up to order, I slunk up to the cashier, giving her my order.
“Will that be all?”
“Also, a macaroni and cheese with a large drink.” A voice behind me announced confidently, sidling up next to me. I looked up at Rhys curiously. “It’s on me tonight.”
“Oh, no, that’s ok-”
“I insist.” Then he flashed me a smile that twisted my stomach like a pipe cleaner. Unable to string together enough coherent syllables to reply, his smile widened at his victory and he handed the cashier his money.
We collected our drink cups and headed to the dispensers, Jack on our tails. I didn’t notice him until my lemonade had filled to almost the brim, when he coughed suggestively. Glancing back at him curiously, I groped the counter for a lid. “Yes?” I asked, as he didn’t say anything at first.
“So he can buy you dinner, but I can’t?”
So that was it. Jealously. Ridiculous jealousy, since I’d hoped I’d made it clear I wasn’t interested in Jack, but jealously nonetheless. “Oh, Jack, it’s not like that…”
“Like hell it isn’t, Rian. Whatever.” He stomped away like a child who had his favorite toy taken away. “You could have just told me you didn’t like me.”
Startled by his reaction, I could only mumble an answer. “But I did tell you…”
And so I had. About a month previously, only two months after Ben and I had broken up, Jack had asked me if I wanted to go to dinner. “As friends?” I’d inquired.
“Well… not exactly.”
“We go as friends, or not at all. Sorry, Jack.”
After that incident, I assumed my feelings towards him were clear. Apparently not.
Shaking my head, I set my glass down across from Rhys, earning a furious glare from Jack. He’d sat at the farthest end of the long table. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but in a way, it did. I liked Jack, just not in the way that he wanted me to.
After the table started to fill up and I got several more evil looks from Jack, I stood up to go to the bathroom, just as an excuse to be alone for a little while.
Unfortunately, Helena got the idea at the same time, and we ended up washing our hands together in an effort to separate ourselves from the overtly enthusiastic forensics kids.
“Ben called you a whore.”
“Excuse me?” Not exactly the way I would have started a conversation, but then again, it was Helena. She rarely wasted words.
“In line, after Rhys bought your dinner. He said something like ‘Rian will open her legs to anything if it pays for her dinner’.”
“But I tried to pay for my own dinner-”
Helena shrugged and retreated, leaving me standing over the sink with dripping hands. If I didn’t know Ben had meant it, I would have laughed at the insult. But it stung.
Heading back to my seat, I found that Tom and Brody had sat next to Rhys and I, creating a friendly barrier against the rest of the table. Our food came out soon after, and as I took a bite, Brody asked Tom about his plan to join the Marines.
“I dunno why, I just figured it would be a good place for me. I like exercising, tactical stuff, and I really didn’t know what to do in a regular college. I mean, debate is fun, but can you see me as a theater major?”
Brody laughed with him. “I suppose not. But why the Marines?”
“Are you kidding? The Marines kick all the other branches’ asses! The Navy is clearly full of closet homosexuals- no offense-” Brody bowed his head in good-natured acceptance. “the army is just a bunch of delinquent brats, and the air force is for rich kids who don’t want to get their hands dirty.”
“But what about the ROTC programs? Couldn’t you have done that?”
“I suppose, but ROTC is really just the kids who want college paid for- the military thing is secondary. I just want it out of the way, so I can reevaluate my options later.”
Throughout their conversation, my heart sunk lower and lower. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t come to terms with Tom leaving- I had. There was no other choice. But I hated having to hear about it. 13 weeks at bootcamp without any contact, then however long he chose to tour. That’s an awful long time to go without your best friend, as my sanity was tethered to his proximity.
Rhys was trying to engage me into some kind of conversation, but I wasn’t really paying attention to him. How was I supposed to concentrate on normal human contact when my best friend was going to be maimed or killed in battle in less than a year while I was safely tucked away at a liberal arts college?
Brody must have noticed my silence, and took it upon himself to insult every member of the table separately in his creative drawl. Although it didn’t completely distract me, laughing with the boys helped a little.
I directed a question towards my debate partner, who sat just beyond Brody, after my laughter had subsided. “Did you read that evidence I gave you?”
Kaci looked stricken. “Um…”
Kurt, across from her, leaned forward into the conversation as if we’d called him. “Not everyone can be as perfect as you, Rian. Kaci has other things to deal with.”
“We were on the bus for four hours.”
“God, Rian, you’re such a bitch. Lay off her for two seconds, will you?” Kaci giggled and appraised Kurt in thanks.
I could feel my heart drop into my stomach, jumping back and forth inside me like a magic jumping bean. “But-”
Tom put his hand on my forearm under the table, shaking his head. “Not worth it.” he muttered.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” I jerked his hand off and all but ran to safety. Sitting in a stall this time so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, I pulled out a hair. It stung for a moment, but the pain went away almost instantly.
Why can’t she just read it? I’m the one who found the research. Another two hairs came out by force.
It’s not like I ask that much. I write the cases, do most of the research, and take the harder speaking position. I write all her crossfire questions and find her evidence from the files. This time a small chunk of hair was extracted.
I looked at the pile of hair in my hands, and a single tear fell into the center of the nest. Flushing my shame down the toilet, I left the bathroom.
“You ok?” asked Tom in a low voice as I sat back down.
“What were you doing in the bathroom?”
“You guys must be really good friends,” remarked Brody with a chuckle. I laughed with him, eager to switch the conversation. Tom dropped his inquiry, but he didn’t look particularly at ease.
Now that I had several things that I needed a distraction from, it got easier to talk to Rhys. He was more interesting than I remembered. We agreed on books, music, even movies. Or maybe it was the haircut. That might have had an effect. A small one.