Keep It Simple Stupid
It was a glorious Monday morning. The sun was shining brightly as it peeked out of the fluffily white candyfloss-like clouds that were floating lazily across the clear blue sky, the birds – including that one notorious mockingbird – were happily chirping away in a mêlée of song, and the air was filled with the sweet, delectable scent of flowers as they made one final and desperate attempt to procreate before the winter frost inevitably froze off their petals.
And, in Creswall High, such glorious Monday mornings were celebrated by the welcome arrival of this week's juicy gossip.
"As I was saying, Terry like totally ditched Eliza like on Sunday. Left her like at the fountain when he went out with-"
"You didn't hear it from me, but apparently Stacie's been having a-"
"No way! You're wearing the exact same dress as me! You little sneak-"
"What? You saw Justin Bieber live? Oh-my-gawd-"
"Anyway, the latest trend is ruby rose. See? Look at how my new lip gloss matches my-"
"So Josh Mitchells has secretly been going out with her!"
I had been making my way around the corridor but, detecting something quite unlikeable – if not downright sinister – in the way the high-pitched voice said 'her', my survival instincts kicked in and I jammed myself into a deserted classroom just before I caught sight a crowd of ponytails strung high and proud in place with a proliferation of navy and white ribbons. Creswall High's cheerleaders strutted past the classroom door, where I had flattened myself against, with scandalized, and perhaps slightly indignant, looks on their faces as though they had just been told that they were all fat and not-that-pretty after all.
I groaned inwardly as I watched them pass, letting out that tense breath that I hadn't realized that I had been holding. My head made a 'whumph' sound as it contacted against the glass pane of the door – followed by another and another as I vented out my frustration on my poor head and the equally unfortunate door, believing somehow that this merciless slaughter of my brain cells would produce a miraculous solution out of this mess.
So this was how my one good deed in life was going to get rewarded! Next time, should I ever be confronted with an injured, but nonetheless cute, boy, instead of kindly offering him a lift home and gently supporting him until he got his own set of crutches, I would proceed to mercilessly trip him over with a cunningly placed extended foot, perhaps giving him a good kick in the shins with the other one whilst I was at it. Maybe, just maybe, that would convince the nosy onlookers that I was not interested in that boy at all, let alone secretly dating him! Never again would I listen to Mom's advice about me needing to be a good neighbor, paying attention to my inner conscience and helping the less fortunate out – because her concept of karma has recently been shown to not exist!
(Either that, or there were some seriously spiteful gods out there, hell bent on making me pay for whatever furor I managed to concoct in my past life.
… On second thoughts, this was actually quite plausible. I wouldn't put it past myself.)
Sensing that the coast were clear by the muffled sound of the high-pitched voices that could only be attributed to the owners being at least three corridors away, I nervously pried myself from my hiding spot and shuffled quickly down the hall, not quite daring to look up. Most of the corridors were deserted as the bell for first period had rung quite a few minutes ago, a bell that signaled the fact that I was now late to Madame Poisson's French class – thanks to the airheaded cheerleaders who had nothing better to do than speculate on someone else's non-existent love life.
However, Madame Poisson with her generous beaming smiles and exuberant mannerisms adored me and I knew a few minutes late wouldn't trouble her du tout! I nodded my satisfaction and prayed that I would not meet anyone unlikable from here to room 415.
As I hurried down the corridors, I did the thing that I always do whenever I am nervous, highly strung, paranoid, or all of the above. Warily, I glanced at the shadows and reflections around me, eyes jumping erratically from the dark gloomy corners to the shiny surfaces of the school's metal lockers. It was a rather unfortunate habit that I picked up from my former karate sensei Stanley. A white guy with a long rattail that dangled proudly above his black belt, he told us on my first, and then quickly to be last, karate lesson:
"You are never, ever safe. Not out on the streets, not out in the park, not even out in the goddamn mall! You know how most victims get attacked? Yeah, those cowards attack 'em from behind, from where they least suspect it! But calling them cowards ain't gonna help you. One crunching blow to your back, one bloody knife-slit to your throat and newsflash: you are now dead. So you've gotta stay alert and do what I do: from now on, watch out for people – your potential attackers – in the reflective surfaces. So when they do attack, you'd be ready … ready to smash their goddamn faces in! HOY-YAH!"
He punched the air in front of him savagely. We seven-year-olds looked stricken.
Given this early childhood trauma, I could not help but give a violent twitch, as though jolted by an electric shock, when someone tapped me lightly on the shoulder.
"Aren't you jumpy today," Viv commentated as she watched my pupils dilate with a curious look on her face.
Strangely comforted by the sight of Viv's multicolored fringe, I took to breathing normally again.
"Sorry," I muttered, still walking briskly. "It's one of my paranoid days today. I have this weird feeling that the whole school is talking about me."
"Oh, that's not just a feeling, it's fact," Viv said brightly. Then seeing the horrified expression on my face, she added, "Though I'm not quite sure what your problem is with all that. I mean, I'd wish people would think that I was making out with Josh Mitchells and with a pair of black, nine-inch stilettos to boot! Hmm, reckon we could get a similar one started in the school for me?" Viv rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
"Oh Viv!" I wailed. "This is horrible! You know how much I hate attention. Just when I thought, I was going to emerge out of high school unscathed …"
"Lynne," Viv's steady arms clasped my shoulders and I found myself spun around to stare at her clear blue eyes. "Look, I'm your best friend and I've got your back. So don't worry, I won't let anything bad happen to you. But sometimes, you know, you've got to look back on all of this and laugh. Things like this would blow over and sort themselves out in the end. Trust me, I'll make sure I'll see you through this alive." Viv's grip on my shoulders was warm, firm, and reassuring.
I managed a weak smile. "Thanks, Viv. Same goes for you."
"Okay, feeling better now? Anyway, I need to be off – got to collect another late slip," she grimaced. "Honestly, it wasn't even my fault. Seb was the one who slept in!" I couldn't help but to grin at this. "I'll see you at English next period, okay?" Viv called over her shoulder. "Besides," she sent me a final wicked grin. "I need to be the first one to hear about all the juicy details on your rendezvous with Josh Mitchells on Saturday. Best friends dibs!"
I rolled my eyes at her and pushed open the classroom door emblazoned with '415' in brass. Luckily for me, the flamboyant and enthusiastic (translate: tirelessly grueling) approach that Madame Poisson took with teaching French at my school meant that she had scared off all the people who only chose to study French because it sounded sexy more than a year ago, leaving only a handful of hard-core intellectuals game enough to take it on for the senior year. This meant that the faces that looked at me as I blushed and mumbled a 'Pardon, Madame' were only interested for the briefest of seconds before returning to their copy of 'L'Art de Lire', showing no regard to this morning's gossip. I breathed a sigh of relief and sidled in the last remaining chair at the back of the room, looking forward to nothing but emerging myself in the beautiful world of le français for the next forty minutes or so.
"Hello Lynne," a cheery voice chirped. I almost fell backwards from my chair when I felt someone's warm breath on the back of my neck.
"Argh," I cried, jerking my chair away from the offender. I caught a glimpse of spiked mousy hair. "Talk about invasion of personal space, Lefé!" In spite of this, I couldn't help but to smile at Leap's earnestly innocent expression.
Then, at the realization that Leap was sitting next to me in Madame Poisson's infamously difficult French class (the rest of the students here were all on the Honor Roll), I did a double-take. "Whoa, Leap – I didn't know you took French lessons with me!" When I searched my memories for any traces of him in room 415, I recalled a boy with a dark hoodie pulled over his brown hair, sitting at the corner of the room with hunched shoulders. As if he didn't want to be here. Or didn't want anybody to know that he was here.
Indeed, Leap gave me an embarrassed look under my questioning gaze and squirmed slightly in his seat. "My father … er … wanted me to take this class," he said, not quite meeting my eyes, hence not seeing my eyebrow attempt to rise at this suggestion (as well-meaning as she was, Madame Poisson gave us a huge amount of homework, so it would be impossible for anyone to grit their teeth and claw their way to the top of the overbearing tsunami of French adverbs solely on the account of their parents' wishes and without any personal interest in the subject). "Anyway," he cleared his throat before shooting me another none of his lop-sided grins. "I'm so happy for you two! Josh has been lonely for so lo-"
Before I could choke at this remark, Madame Poisson paused in her dramatic re-enactment of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (more specifically, the hunchback) and turned to face Leap. Her hazel eyes glittered with enthusiasm under her bejeweled glasses, which, if you didn't know her, could give her a slightly demented air.
She brandished the text lovingly. "Perhaps Monsieur Phillipe could continue reading for me. You have a lovely, loud voice, non?"
Leap's face seemed to redden slightly before he stood up and opened his mouth. Then, in a flawless French accent with a hint of delicate Parisian, Leap read,
"Un matin, elle vit, en s'éveillant, sur sa fenêtre, deux vases pleins de fleurs. L'un était un vase de cristal fort beau et fort brillant, mais fêlé. Il avait laissé fuir l'eau dont on l'avait rempli, et les fleurs qu'il contenait étaient fanées. L'autre était un pot de grès, grossier et commun mais qui avait conservé toute son eau, et dont les fleurs étaient restées fraîches et vermeilles … "
"Esmeralda was really stupid," I remarked to Leap when the bell rang and Madame Poisson grudgingly let us go on the promise that we finish the rest of the text tonight so we could start on our fantastique analysis on it tomorrow. My brain cells, especially the English-speaking ones, throbbed at the mere thought.
Leap, still a bit red from his reading, managed a grin. "Yeah," he agreed casually, hoisting his bag, which sported numerous patches and foreign stains on it as though it was a relic from World War Two, over his shoulder and glancing at me out of the corner of my eyes. "As stupid as Josh on Saturday, huh? I mean, what was he waiting for? Getting his foot sprained towards almost the end of the game to catch a lift with you? He should have done it in the first half – Riverside was a cinch, we smashed them easily, so he could have spent more quality time with you! Even giving his-"
At this, Leap cut off as he noticed the interesting shade of crimson that was taking over my face and heard what could only sound like me hacking up a lung. His round blue eyes widened in concern. "Are you alright?"
I spluttered out my indignation. With my fixation on the hunchback during French class (I felt that Quasimoto and I connected on a deep, personal level), I had almost forgotten about the deadly rumors that were spreading across Creswall High like a contagion from one of those B-grade Armageddon movies that would go on to wipe out mankind or turn them into flesh-eating zombies. Leap's chatter, however, brought me back to reality and, with my feet firmly back on the ground, I began to notice Leap's proximity to me like a slow, unfolding nightmare. It surely would not help my case that I was not going out with Josh Mitchells if I was seen hanging out with his best friend.
"Um," I looked around wildly. "I see you around Leap, okay? I need to go … go to … um …"
Before I could squirm away into the crowd of students milling around for period two, I felt something that could only be described as a happy, but unrelenting, tug on my elbow.
"To English!" Leap supplied cheerfully.
I widened my eyes in horror. "How could you have known that?" With my paranoia at an all-time high, this only confirmed my darkest suspicions that I was being stalked somewhere. Or hunted down.
"Because we share the same English class together!" Leap nodded his happiness, still not letting go of my elbow so he pulled me alongside with him. I was thankful that Boo attacked all my hair accessories last night, meaning that my long hair was out today, obscuring my face in a thick black curtain.
"Um …" I tried pulling away, only to back into some burly footballer who shot me a glare when I stepped on his new Adidas sneakers. "I need to go to English … alone."
"Why?" Leap asked in what I began too late to realize as a very loud, hallway-echoing voice. Madame Poisson was right; Leap's voice was like a firecracker, rising clear and sharp above the hordes.
"Because-" I started desperately – only to crash into Leap as he made an abrupt stop in front of Mrs White's classroom. Too late.
"We're here," Leap proclaimed with enthusiasm. "You're sitting next to me!"
I backed away slowly, trying to make a very, very casual escape from a clearly delusional boy who had his arms open in a wide outreach as though they couldn't wait to envelope me.
"You know what Leap?" I struggled to keep my tone neutral, whilst my eyes darted around like a fugitive looking for escape. "I'm actually not feeling too well at the moment."
"Yeah, are you alright? You do look a bit pale." Leap leaned in closer and brought his hand towards my forehead.
"Yeah, you're totally right," I managed to sidestep his gesture and took one step back at the same time. "You know what? I think I'll go … go and lie in sick bay for a while until I'm feeling better. French gives me migraines, you know." I gave a weak shrug, before turning around a-bit-too-quickly and making a beeline in the opposite direction.
"That's cool – I'll save you a seat!" Leap shouted from behind me, and I almost had to face-palm myself. Seriously, for someone who could breeze through the Notre-Dame de Paris, that boy was as stubbornly dim as Dinko pulling on the tattered remains of my cashmere scarf, sinking his teeth into the fine fabric and refusing to let go. Leap obviously did not understand the concept of subtlety and me wishing to be left in peace (or in one piece if the cheerleaders had their way!), but he was so nice that I couldn't bring myself to outright refuse him.
Instead, my brilliant hamster-wheel schemed that I would wait in sick bay for a couple of minutes until class was under way, but not too late as to miss anything important (namely, the details on our important half-yearly exams), then I would creep back into our English room oh-so-suavely to appear innocent and oh-so-carefully not make any eye-contact with Leap so I could get back to my usual seat at the back of the room where Viv would be waiting for me. I nodded my satisfaction at my genius plan.
My nod froze mid-way when I swung around the corner and came face-to-face with Samantha Watson.
She was standing barely a few feet away, just beyond the sick bay room where my sanctuary was supposed to be, and the hallway was deserted as all the students were, by now, at their period two classes.
It was like a scene from a Western movie, a cowboy flick, when the two bandana-clad, guns-dangling-from-their-hips nemeses confront each other. A lone dry haystack blows along the scorched red earth in the distance, an eerie whistle from the coyote provides the only noise, and then the nemeses, with a macho flexing of their hands, march forwards.
I readjusted my neck from its frozen mid-nod position and thrust out a determined chin. I straightened my back and took one firm step forwards (at this point, my hamster-wheel was helpfully informing me that, should there be any bloodshed, Nurse Florentine would only be a few feet away in sick bay to bandage limbs together).
Samantha Watson, on the other side of the corridor, had also straightened her back. She pursed together her lips, which were covered in a careful application of Ruby Red lip gloss, and placed a hand on her hip.
She narrowed her cat-like eyes at me.
She narrowed her eyes at me again. Then blinked rather deliberately. Another blink. Followed by another. Then a final furious rubbing, almost clawing, at her eyes.
Could it be that Samantha Watson, homecoming queen for three years in a row, needed glasses?
I did double-take. Yes, her eyes were narrowed, but not in her typical venomous If-Only-I-Could-Really-Shoot-Daggers-At-You-With-My-Eyes kind of way. Rather, her narrowed eyes would be more accurately described as Crap-I-Can't-See-Clearly-At-The-End-Of-The-Hall-Who-The-Hell-Is-Down-There-I-Hope-It's-Not-A-Cute-Boy kind of way. Squinting beadily, even.
So no wonder she always carried her famous silver mirror around with her to check her make-up, when all the other girls in her posse unashamedly marveled at their reflections off the shiny locker doors, window panes, metal cutlery, and so forth. This same narcissism could only explain it. She probably refused to wear glasses because she didn't want the frames to mar her facial perfection or – god forbid – make her appear remotely geeky.
I gawked at her, feeling a strange tinge of pity to be trapped in such superficiality, and took a few steps forward, feeling much more confident knowing that she still hadn't realized who I was.
Of course, that was the stupid thing to do, because myopia was short-sightedness and the moment that I came within a short distance within her, her squinting eyes were replaced her real narrowed eyes.
"You!" she hissed.
I could have kicked myself. My hamster-wheel looked sheepish. Sorry! it seemed to say. There was a jam with the knob, really!
I straightened up again and tried to sidestep her but she blocked my path with an angry stamping of her pink heels.
"Excuse me," I said firmly, getting a bit annoyed. "I'm trying to-"
"Oh, I know what you are trying to do," she hissed in that deadly tone of hers, which I was now beginning to associate as her normal voice. "You're trying to steal Josh away from me, aren't you? After waiting four long years, after four long years of-"
"But it won't last!" she screeched, jabbing a French manicure towards my faded denim jacket. "It won't last because … because … what could Josh see in you?" she finally spat out. Her eyes seemed to gleam brightly under the fluorescent lights and I could feel my own eyes widen slightly, questioning her sanity. In the odd lighting, her beautifully styled and straightened blonde hair looked unnatural and out of place amidst the garb interiors of the school, like a pale waif-like thing hanging over her and giving her a slightly strange air. "But what I don't get," she continued, "is your reaction. How could you be indifferent to him at all?"
I opened my mouth to give her answer that came easily to me. "Well, duh-"
"It's because you're a freak!" Now she was ranting, but I stood transfixed on the spot, slightly concerned for her.
"A freak?" I repeated, the words leaving a peculiar taste in my mouth.
"Yes!" she smiled bitterly, her mouth twisting upwards. "That's right – you're a freak! You're the freak! You've always been different, and you've been trying to hide it all along. But I – I see through you!" she finished triumphantly, but her eyes were staring over my shoulder, rather than at me.
Before I could say anything, a loud masculine voice shouted from behind Samantha.
I glanced over her shoulder to see a flash of red come to my side. Samantha was already gone in that moment; I barely caught a sight of her long blonde hair whipping around the corner, before I felt strong arms supporting me.
"That Samantha," Seb was saying and frowning after her. "Man, she's got some issues. I don't get what the hell her problem is with you- Hey! Are you alright, Lynne?"
Seb shook me softly, and I realized that I was trembling. I brought a hand to my forehead. It felt clammy.
"I-I'm fine," I managed to convince Seb with a small smile. But inside, I felt … numb. As though someone had just pierced through my soul with a sword, chilling me to the core. It wasn't Samantha's words affecting me – like I would give a damn about that bimbo said about me (and as for my dignity, I had none) – but they were like echoes, echoes of a truth that I had long known and tried to suppress. An inadequacy that I've tried to conceal.
You've always been different …
I shook my head to clear myself from the thoughts and turned to look at Seb. "So how come you're here?"
"Oh," Seb looked sheepish, rubbing the back of his neck. "See, I, er, slept in today. Viv got pissed and she- she stole my class timetable!" He mistook my look of amusement for one of indignant outrage. "I know! She's so mean to me! Anyway, I ended up in Fletcher's class and just got kicked out before I stumbled onto you. Which I am very glad because I still have no idea what class-"
"English," I answered promptly. Seb grinned his gratitude.
We both heard a small thud behind us.
We turned around. There was Josh, at the end of the corridor, looking at us strangely, and propped on his crutches.
"Oh," he said flatly. "Sorry. Am I interrupting something?"
It was there did Seb and I realize that we were both still in embrace. Seb with his strong arms around my shoulders and me slightly leaning against the soft chequered fabric of his shirt. We sprung apart immediately.
Josh, with something flickering in his eyes, made a move to turn around – only he did this with great difficulty, and I suddenly realized why. When I said that he propped on crutches, I was inaccurate. More precisely, Josh Mitchells was propped on one and a half crutches. His right arm, unlike his left which was resting steadily against a crutch, was holding the dangling remains of a wooden beam that was heavily splintered about half-way down.
"Hey man," said Seb in surprise. "What happened to your crutches?"
A wry smile formed at the corner Josh's mouth. "Leap," he said plainly, then ran a hand through his windswept sandy hair. "He seemed intent on sending me to sick bay for some reason." His eyes flickered from me to Seb.
"Whoa, so he broke your crutches!"
"Nothing is impossible with Leap," muttered Josh darkly. He and Seb shared a soft chuckle.
"Anyway," Josh nodded at Seb, "you better get to class. White's just finished marking the roll and she's announced that she wants to implement some sort of homework roster for people who are continuously late to her cl-"
Seb, having clocked up twelve tardies already for English alone (due to a range of reasons from thinking a Monday was a Sunday to chasing a mad, escaped chicken), was up and out in a jiffy, with a sort of nervous twitching thing going on with his eyebrows.
"I'll let her know that you're at sick bay Lynne!" Seb called over his shoulder. "Hope you feel better soon!"
His sneakers thudded like a Bigfoot attempting the quickstep down the hallways, echoing until it receded into the distance.
In its absence, there was a deafening silence as Josh and I realized that we were perfectly alone.
I hate awkward situations! I hate awkward situations! screamed my hamster-wheel, thrashing around in anguish against the confines of my head. I winced and placed a hand against my forehead.
"Are you alright?" Josh's voice cut through the silence. I looked up at him in surprise. I swear … the concern in his tone sounded convincingly genuine.
"I'm okay," I shook my head. "I – erm – hey, let me help you with these." I saw Josh attempting to maneuver haphazardly with his broken crutch and I walked quickly to his side, placing his arm over my shoulder and supporting him like I how did when I helped him to my house on Saturday.
"Thanks," muttered Josh with a slight wince as we hobbled – him half-hopping, half-walking – down the hallway.
Our strange footsteps must have alerted Nurse Florentine as she poked her head out when we were just a few feet from sick bay, let out a small gasp when she saw the injured Josh Mitchells and his equally injured crutches, shooed us into the tiny room that smelt faintly of eucalyptus oil, and made sympathetic clucking noises as she rummaged in the back storage room in search for another pair of crutches.
Josh managed to get himself on the bed, which took up more than half of the tiny room, and was leaning against the wall with shut eyes. Meanwhile, I crammed myself into the spindly chair next to the bed, feeling the chair's plastic leave ugly crease marks on my nice suede pants and feeling quite certain that the weak little thing would collapse under by weight within the next five minutes. My left foot tapped out a jittery rhythm on the tiles, sounding out my awkwardness at the situation. Should I get up and leave now that Josh had made it to sick bay without spraining the other ankle? But, if that was my intention, why did I squeeze myself into the stupid chair in the first place? And didn't I have to pretend that I was sick or else Josh would tell Leap who might start to think I was purposely avoiding him? The tapping of my left foot increased to a frenzied crescendo.
"Um … I'm so glad I've got Seb telling White that I'm at sick bay. Otherwise, I'd be in serious trouble for being so late to class," I tried to joke, feeling that I shouldn't leave it to Josh to break out of the awkward silences that we seemed to be experiencing a lot of these days.
Josh gave a stiff nod. "Yes," he said shortly then turned to look up at the ceiling.
Okay … I made a mental note to my future self that I sucked at being a conversationalist.
There was another awkward beat then …
"So want to meet up at … myplacetonight – for maths tutoring?" Josh's words seemed to come out in a rush that I had to blink for a couple of seconds to decipher what he was saying … and the implications of them.
"Oh," I said in confusion. "Oh," I said in remembrance (stupid Dad's promise to Josh). "Oh," I said in realization (did Josh say 'at his place' and 'tonight'?!). "Um, sure," I said in stupidity.
Obviously, my brain did not work well when sprung like this. It was like me doing exams; I needed weeks, if not months, of preparation, both academically and mentally – otherwise, I would just break out in cold sweat, my brain would freeze up, and my pencil would drop to the floor in an ungainly clatter whenever I heard the nasty words: 'surprise pop quiz'. It would prompt the most moronic responses from my brain (once, during a chemistry surprise quiz, I found myself attempting to algebraically simplify the chemical equation for sulphuric acid H2SO4).
All in all, this was another one of what Viv liked to call "Bimbo Lynne-bo" moments.
But Josh seemed to act as if that was the smartest response ever.
He broke into a grin, dazing me slightly by the way his amber eyes seemed to brighten under his smile, and said, "Great. Thanks-" he seemed to catch himself and changed his relieved tone to something more casual. "It's just that," he shrugged, "considering how we have maths the next day with all that homework and-"
"Joshua," at this point, Nurse Florentine had emerged from the storage room with a slightly embarrassed expression on her round face. "I'm sorry, but I think I've given out our last set of crutches. Nathan Snellton ran into a pole again. However … I have these," she finished off brightly.
She was holding a pair of scissors in one hand and a large, thick roll of masking tape in the other.
There are just some things you can't tell your best friend.
I learnt this valuable lesson at the tender age of seven when, after knowing Viv for two years and possibly on a high from blackcurrant juice, I decided to confide in her – and rather innocently and definitely platonically, might I add – that I thought Seb looked cute … like a puppy dog. His hair, at that age, was a mop of golden blonde and he had these big cornflower blue eyes that meant you couldn't help but pinch his rosy pink cheeks. Upon hearing my confession, Viv promptly spat out her glassful of blackcurrant juice, her face twisted in a rather frightening display of disgust and horror, and she had her fist raised as though to beat some sense back into me. But luckily for me, paranoia does have its perks, including an acute sense of danger, so I frantically finish off my sentence – Seb looked cute like a puppy dog that you wanted to kick. Viv visibly relaxed, she began babbling on again about Barbie's clothes being stupid (she had yet to encounter the word 'gay') … and my seven-year-old self breathed a sigh of relief.
So when I finally entered Mrs White's classroom and saw the curious, if not downright wicked, look of interest on Viv's face, I knew that there was no way in hell that I would let history repeat itself.
I had foreseen this actually – when Nurse Florentine finally taped Josh's crutches together and we left sick bay, I mumbled some lame excuse about needing to go to the toilet … to make sure that Josh and I entered the classroom at different times lest to fuel that horrible, horrible gossip mill. By washing my hands deliberately in slow-mo, I ended up entering the classroom a good ten minutes after Josh, staring resolutely ahead as I felt the stares of Viv and Leap boring into me before sidling into the seat next to Viv. In my mind, I was swearing to the highest heavens that the words 'I am going over to Josh Mitchells' house tonight' would never escape my lips within earshot of the notorious Vivian Hermione Montana.
This resolution would see me sneaking out of my house that night like a criminal, casting a hoodie over my head and glancing over my shoulder. Exactly why I was being so secretive, I wasn't sure – Viv was not around, neither were the cheerleaders who kept on staring at me and whispering throughout the whole day (Viv found this particularly amusing much to my annoyance), and my parents knew where I was going. Dad had called out a cheerful "Have fun kiddo!" from the couch where he was watching with religious reverence his nightly football game, and, when I trudged the down the driveway, I swear I could see, through the kitchen window, a small smile playing at the corner of Mom's lips as she gingerly washed the smiling Buddha ornament that she had brought 'for a bargain' earlier today with holy water.
Tucking my maths homework under an arm, I rang the doorbell to the Mitchells Mansion. The pleasant chime seemed to echo hollowly throughout the house. I shifted my weight on my feet awkwardly. As I was there waiting, it occurred to me how empty the Mitchells Mansion seemed to be. It was evening – except none of the lights in the Mansion seemed to be on. On the contrary, it was eerily quiet. Like the darkness, doubts began to creep on me, slowly at first then increasing in momentum with every second that I was left standing there on the Mitchells' front porch.
Perhaps Mitchells didn't really want me to tutor him. Perhaps he was just being polite when my Dad offered. What if he didn't actually want me at his place at all? What if this was actually a cruel prank pulled on-
"Hey Lynne," Josh smiled as the door swung open.
Filled with a strange sense relief, I managed a weak smile as I stepped into his house.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting like that," Josh said as we walked towards the back of the mansion (its living room alone would have constituted the entire space of my house and I was amazed that we could walk and still not reach the end after a couple of minutes), "but I was having dinner and getting from the kitchen to the front door is quite difficult on broken crutches." He shot me an apologetic look.
I caught a distinctive whiff of spaghetti bolognaise, a warm aroma of tomatoes and spice, drifting from further down the hallway but no accompanying noise from the kitchens.
"You made it yourself?" I said in amazement. Not from realization that Josh Mitchells wouldn't go hungry on a fully stocked pantry (I wouldn't say the same about Seb – his attempt at making popcorn destroyed Mrs Montana's prized Italian saucepan), but from the realization that the food he produced … well, it smelt delicious.
"Er, yeah," he shrugged as though it was nothing.
"Do you always make dinner yourself?" I pressed, still in amazement borderlining on awe.
A shutter seemed to fall over Josh's eyes. "Yeah," he shrugged again, but this time it looked like it was something. "Most evenings actually. Mom always has these night shifts – you know how busy it can be at the hospital." He tried to smile about it but it looked more like a grimace.
"Oh," I said. I stared at him curiously. Sure, I had nights where I had to prepare dinner myself but it was now eight-thirty and Mom and Dad were always back by then. I never had the experience of being alone in an empty house, not seeing my parents before I fell asleep. At this thought, I felt a twinge of sadness for Josh Mitchells.
"We'll just go up the stairs to the study room there," Josh said.
I eyed his sprained ankle. "Are you sure you can go up there?"
Josh rolled his eyes and laughed. "Oh come on Lynne, you've got the give the guy some credit. First, you're surprised that I can cook. Then, you marvel at how I can climb the stairs of my own house. I'm not hopeless, you know." With this, Josh tucked his crutches under his arm, firmly gripped the ivory banister with the other and pulled his way up the stairs.
I grinned and followed him.
On the walls along the staircase, there were many portraits that hung in golden frames, perfectly matching the cream walls. They were photos of Josh, one as a little boy holding a Tonka truck, the other on the beach and shoveling sand in a bright red bucket, and quite a few showing him playing sport as a teenager. His mother, tall like him and with the same amber eyes, would make an appearance in some of the frames.
We reached the landing and he pushed open a door to his left. On the right, I briefly caught a glimpse of a door with 'Joshua's Room' engraved in gold leaf and barely suppressed a shudder at the nightmarish recollections of that night. I quickly entered the study room.
Josh flicked on the lights and I blinked as I saw a dark room transform into a beautifully furnished study. The lush green carpet and the timber walls gave it a homely feel, ideal for inducing the brain into performing spectacular feats of mental arithmetic. There was a massive bookshelf at the side, harboring what looked like a small library with volumes and volumes of leather-bound books that I itched to open, and opposite it was a glorious mahogany desk that overlooked a perfect wide window, revealing the twinkling starry night. I couldn't help but be envious as I compared this to my dingy, small bedroom where paint flaked off the corners to dust any homework of mine with fine white powder.
"Wow," I had to say something.
"Grab that chair," Josh motioned, sitting in front of the desk fit for a President. "Should we start at page eighty-four? That's where we left off last week and I'm stuck on problem sixteen."
"Yeah, sure, why not," I said, still in awe of the surroundings. I propped open the textbook then my exercise book, and reached instinctively for a pen. I patted myself down. "Sorry," I said. "I think I've forgotten my pens. That was stupid of me."
"Nah, it's cool. Take your pick," Josh pushed a container of pens towards me.
I chose a glossy black one, partly because I liked shiny things and the gold lettering on it sparkled in the light. Emblazoned in elegant cursive, I read: Michael Mitchells' Law Firm. Leading specialists in IP and Contract Law.
"My dad's a solicitor. He has his own company," Josh explained as he saw me reading the pen.
"Wow, I want to be a lawyer," I said enthusiastically. "How is he these days?"
There was a pause. "I don't know. I haven't really spoken to him in years."
I stared at Josh in surprise, almost loosening my grip on the pen. Then I remembered all the photos along the walls. I never saw Josh's dad in a single one of them.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. Without me realizing what I was doing, I reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Josh seemed surprised at this, but he gave me a weak smile in return. "It's okay. They got divorced when I was three, only a couple of years into moving here. I think I'm used to it now, don't remember much of him anyway … but I think it was toughest on Mom …"
Josh's voice seemed to be coming from a distance and his face was half hidden in shadow by the lighting. I stared at him as though I had never seen him before. Not like this, at least. I followed his gaze out the window and realized that it gave a perfect view of not only the starry sky, but of the undergrowth of shrubs and grass that formed my backyard!
Josh seemed to sense my line of thought. "You know," he said wryly and glancing at me. "Just after Dad left, I would come up here, because it was his old study room. I would come up here … and I would see you, playing by yourself out on the backyard."
I raised a hand to my cheek, mortified. "I bet I looked stupid," I blurted, flushing red with embarrassment. I shuddered at what Josh might have caught me doing: fighting dragons in the undergrowth, being a helicopter with my skipping rope – hell, even covering myself with leaves and pretending to be an one-eyed Bunyip from the Evil Smelling Marsh! That was it – so I had a penchant for embarrassing myself in front of Mitchells that predated preschool!
"No, I thought you were cool," Josh admitted.
"You looked happy, all content despite just playing by yourself and with nothing. When Dad left, Mom had to pay off the mortgage all by herself. We didn't look like it, living here and all, but we were really poor. I remember Mom talking about money all the time, needing to save this, buying all the homebrand stuff. I was miserable, I didn't know what to do to help Mom. But then I saw you, how happy you were even if you had nothing too." He cast a glance at me to see if he had offended me. I shrugged – I had long accepted that we were poor and it didn't really bother me. "It looked like you were having a blast in fact."
"Yeah, well, that's just me and my infinite childish imagination. Viv reckons that I've never grown up."
Josh laughed at this. "It's a good thing, your imagination." He cast a sly glance at me. "Doll-nappers and everything."
I flushed at this. "I'm so sorry! I was such a brat when I was little. I didn't- it was really nice of you to find Anastasia for me … thank you. I've forgotten how much I missed her."
Josh grinned. "No worries."
"I guess, I was just paranoid," I stumbled on. "Actually, maybe even a bit jealous. You had that cool Razza Red Scooter that I wanted but never got that Christmas. It didn't seem fair … you had everything."
"What?" Josh laughed. "You still remember that old thing? That was like my first decent Christmas present that wasn't socks in ages!"
"Oh," I mumbled at this revelation. I was so self-absorbed as a kid. "Well … I was a dork."
"No," Josh shook his head. "No, you were cool." He moved closer and I suddenly realized the small space that separated us. Did I say the desk was massive before? No, it was barely anything now, now that Josh's face was only a few inches away from my own.
"What?" I whispered, thinking that I had misheard.
"Even when you chucked Anastasia back at me," Josh was saying softly, leaning closer until I could feel his warm breath. My own breathing hitched and my heart beat erratically.
"Even then," Josh said. "I liked you … because you were different."
A frozen moment in time. Our eyes staring at each other, hazel meeting amber. Then … the warm feeling of Josh's fingertips as he tilted my chin upwards …
He kissed me.
Under the starry skies and beyond the wide window that revealed hidden pasts and emotions, he kissed me.
I'm typing this author's note in a hotel halfway across the world at exactly midnight. I wanted to give this to you guys asap, so I managed to drag in a rather pleasant, but probably disgruntled, bellboy and get him to fix the room's internet for me :)
So … your thoughts on this new development? Please leave a review! And for those of you who had reviewed last time with some questions/ quirks, here are your responses (note – I would love to reply to all of you but I have this really bad headcold that is barely allowing me to be coherent, so I'm just going off reviews that need responses. But for my other readers, of course your response is "THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I'm glad you enjoyed my story!!") :
chocolatechipash and redbugsaresmug: I'll try to make parts less predictable/typical, but of course I'm working with cliché and it sucks me in like a whirlpool. But I'm glad that you are liking and continuing to read the story.
aliaschantra: Ah, the Fates. Gotta love 'em, eh? I'll gaze into my crystal ball and see what else lies in store for Lynne!
Hysteria and Chaos and muryoutaisuu: Really, my writing style has changed? I guess it shows that I'm (finally) growing up *cough*cough*
Mrs. MJackson: Good luck with your graduation in May! I bow down to you, having survived college. I'm already counting down the years lol. Anyway, I'll to remember that you are graduating in May and make a little update pressie for you.
thinkfarout: You're weird? Nah, just 'special', like Leap ;) Thanks for your long review (it wasn't boring by the way – it made me smile) and I- okay, your creepy smile has made me hurry up with my writing.
Sweatered5Hatchets: Well, now you know what happened at Lynne and Josh's 'tutoring' ;) [Looking back, I think Josh might have had ulterior motives for it …]
aby pwn u: Oh, there's a reason why Josh acts the way he does. He does have confidence … but maybe not around Lynne lol.
MissSCute: I LOVE chocolate! So thanks for your chocolate reviews!
peaceloverocknroll21: Yep, I am a Harry Potter fan, long before it became the international sensation that it is today (in fact, I was the one who introduced it to my school!). I liked the first 4 books the best because they all interlink together, and I didn't recognize the references. Must be due to all the times that I've imbibed HP.
glamoureste: It looks like I am on track with my completion date in 2011. But this is by no means the last few chapters … there's a fair few things to resolve before I ever type 'FIN'
awestruck4: I'm glad you haven't forgotten the story and thanks for sticking it through.
Icyglaze: I hate those "sorry, I'm not updating this story anymore" uploads too! Seriously, author's notes should be kept strictly with an actual updated chapter or on the profile page. Too many times I've had my heart broken when I get to the last 'chapter' of stories that I'm following and see that dreaded message. I guess I'm inclined towards wishful thinking lol.
Alluring: Oh no, your dad actually did that to you? That has to be forbidden in the "Parent's Guide To Parenting (Or At Least Ensuring That Your Kid Does Not Die of Mortification" or something! But hopefully it turned out OK. And yes, I like Leap too.
Marrisuhh: Thanks for your 'Four Things' – it made a very interesting review. As for number 2, the wood thing, I guess it just one of Lynne's (paranoid) quirks. You'll have to forgive her for that!
Histories of Blisters: Thanks for gracing me with one of your preciously few reviews! I'm honored really. I'm glad you like Josh – I wanted him to be different from the typical too-cool-for-school Mr Popular kind of guys. They're too perfect in my opinion – I like flaws :)
Lanzador Verde: Don't worry, sometimes I'm so consumed in a story that I bat author's notes away like annoying flies (I want the juicy stuff!). As for what ' :3 ' means, I'm not too sure either – personally, I always thought it was a 'hungry' sign (the 3 looks like a chewing mouth), but that interpretation never quite made sense for some reason …
11Katie15: This story has a few chapters left, but they might be pretty long chapters because there are couple of things that I need to resolve. But right now, I'm aiming for no more than 15 chapters in total. As for character photos, I'm a bit hesitant as I feel it destroys the uniqueness of the characters. They're never quite perfect and I don't want to mess up with any mental images that you might have of them :)
Napris: This is close to a month right? I'm on holidays at the moment so I've got more free time so the next chapter should be updated faster!
xmusicmysoulx: 'Hiatus'? Gawd no – I was never on it nor plan to be on it.
shez: Haha, you've got to feel sorry for Seb. He's just that kind of guy, I suppose ;)
mmaii: You're the last review that I've read before I update this chapter. So thanks and I hope I've updated this fast enough for you.
PS. I'm not quite sure how many of you read the author's profile page on FP, but I do update mine with any significant developments on my work (such as LND), so feel free to browse through it when you're wondering what the hell I am doing. (It also showcases my attempt to appear witty, intelligent and oh-so-funny under fifty words or so).
PPS. For those that are interested, the translated passage from the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" that Leap read out is:
One morning, on awaking, she saw on her window two vases filled with flowers. One was a very beautiful and very brilliant but cracked vase of glass. It had allowed the water with which it had been filled to escape, and the flowers which it contained were withered. The other was an earthenware pot, coarse and common, but which had preserved all its water, and its flowers remained fresh and crimson.
Thanks again for reading this and see you next month!