After walking halfway down the block to her house, Holly pulled the key out of her pocket to unlock the front door and step inside, where she tossed her backpack onto the blue couch in the living room and took a seat beside it. She had some weekend homework to get started on, but she wasn't in the mood right now, and besides, she had two full days to work on it. She pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed her father at his work.
"Hello?" he answered, his Australian accent all but confirming his identity.
"Dad, it's me."
"What's the matter, Holly?"
"Are you busy right now?"
"Just paperwork at the moment. I've got an appointment in a few minutes, though."
"I'll make it quick. Um, do you remember that boy I was telling you about?" She put her hand on her forehead; she was getting a headache already. "Kent? He sat with us at lunch today."
"It didn't go well, did it?"
Holly grumbled and shook her head, despite the fact that there was no one around to see her do this. "When I finally got the courage to say something to him, I ended up telling him I have nothing to say to him. Now I'm worried he might not come back. Claire and Rusty hardly said anything to him either."
"Did he say anything to you?"
"He must've felt really intimidated by us, because he didn't."
"Listen, don't worry, we'll talk more about this tonight. I have to get going now." She heard him shuffling papers, veterinary records, and putting them away, as it was now 3:15; a noisy dog was barking in the background, presumably having arrived for its appointment with the doctor. "Holly, if he doesn't come back, just go to him. He didn't come to you and your friends for nothing. …Hold on a second! I'll be right there! I've got to get back to work. See you tonight." He hung up, and Holly followed suit.
In her bedroom, Holly heard her budgies chirping away. She walked over to join them, noticing that their food containers were almost empty, and as she reached for their seed on the rack underneath the cage, she got an idea. Taking a few minutes to refill the blue and green (respectively) parakeets' food perches with seed, she afterward closed the cage and whistled at her feathered friends. "Pinky? Brain? I'm here now. You two miss me?" She smiled, then put one hand on top of the black metal cage, and closed her eyes. She inhaled and exhaled several times, calming herself, before practicing hypothetical exchanges with the new guy in her life.
Keeping her eyes shut tight, she began: "Hi, there…um, Kent." She waved at him, imagining the two of them were on campus, and put her hand down. "Do you remember me? You do?! …Yeah, sorry about that. I didn't really mean that when I said it, I was just a little…nervous." Below her, Pinky and Brain were chirping loudly. "See, what I meant to say was, I think we should get to know each other a little…" She chuckled lightly. "Of course that's why you joined us. What's that? I'd love to do something with you this weekend! I—"
She suddenly realized how far her imaginary conversation had gone. Looking down into the cage, she saw her right eye reflecting in one of the birds' mirrors. "What am I doing?" Life was unscripted, and there was no guarantee Kent was as interested in her as she was in him. "Sorry, guys," she told her birds, as she turned around and collapsed onto her recently washed navy blue bedsheets.
Holly looked up at the ceiling and sighed for what must have been at least the fifth time today. "How do I do this…are you there, God? It's me, Holly." She slapped herself on the cheek, because deliberately referencing a thirty-seven-year-old novel probably wasn't the best way to start cosmic questioning. Clasping her hands together as she had done today at lunch, sitting beside Kent, she closed her eyes and broke her usual ambivalence to religion. "God, if you're out there…this is Holly Snow, by the way…if Kent Thomas is not who I want him to be…if he's not, as cheesy as this sounds, the one for me…I'd like to know as soon as possible. …Thanks."
She knew it was stupid to be doing this. In her eyes (which she then opened), the fact that so many people believed in so many different gods was proof enough that He didn't exist, and besides, making prayers to Him was basically selfish. If He wills it, then He will let it happen; asking Him for personal favors was unchristian. So Holly believed, anyway.
On top of that, she'd never had a boyfriend, or even anything remotely close. That one boy last year had tried to kiss her after their date, and it took several minutes to convince him that that was not, in fact, what she wanted. Asking for a sign that someone she inexplicably desired was not her future husband and father of her children was arguably even more stupid than asking for a sign from an imaginary man in the sky in the first place. As her father had explained to her after her failed dates in her freshman year, high school relationships, while important experiences in the long run, were generally not meant to last. The truth hurts.
Holly thought about Jimmy and Claire, and how they worked as a couple. Given his frequent absence from their group, choosing to hang out with his friends instead, it was obvious their chemistry was moderate at best. Jimmy and Claire both seemed to know this, but they persevered, and for that, they earned props.
Alas, she knew too little—much, much too little—about Kent. It was too early to tell how well the two of them could, and possibly would, bond, due in no small part to the mutual muteness they'd decided to enforce at lunchtime. Holly felt stupid again, but with any luck, it was a shared stupidity, and what's love but two people being stupid together?
When Kent reached his large, but not particularly extravagant, house, he followed his usual routine of going upstairs to put his backpack in his room, then going back downstairs to make like Baha Men and let his dogs, two golden retrievers, outside, and while they were playing in the well-fenced backyard, he went to his phone in the kitchen to call his mother on her cell phone at work and let her know that he was home safe from school. Once he gave the oft-repeated messages ("I'm home now", followed by "Good" after she asked how the day was), he took back his second phrase and informed her about his lunch with Claire and her friends.
"How did that go?" she asked.
"Well, none of us really talked that much. I don't know why, I guess we were all just really uncomfortable." He sighed, watching his two pet budgerigars (one green, Chip, and one blue, Dale) chirping loudly in their black metal cage adjacent to the kitchen wall. "But one of her friends told me she didn't even have anything to say me, at all."
"Why would she say that? You didn't do anything wrong, did you?"
"All I did was sit there with them. But if today was any indication of what it's going to be like with Claire in the future, I think maybe I should just give up now." So much for ignoring the red light; then again, abrupt decisions of varying idiocy had been typical of Kent lately. He'd never been that sociable, typically hanging only with Tom (his best friend), plus their friends from the middle school: Rick, Iris, Mike, and Alex. Today was supposed to have been a huge leap forward, but instead he'd tripped and fallen.
"Okay, Kent. On Monday, I think you should go talk to them again, just to see if they'll give you another chance. Don't give up on anything until you know you should."
"Okay," Kent said. Inspirational advice, regardless of how or why it was said, had always seemed hollow to Kent. Happily-ever-after, fairy-tale endings to every conceivable situation were totally unrealistic, and hearing "never give up", "you can do it", and other such phrases recycled in movies everywhere had taken their toll on him. Nevertheless, corrupted by Disney films like many a child, Kent was guilty of embracing these known falsehoods, and despite all evidence to the contrary, he continued to daydream about being a Prince Charming to Claire. God, he was lonely and stupid.
"I have to get back to work now, Kent. We'll talk more about this tonight."
"All right," Kent said. "Bye."
"I love you. Bye."
Kent always felt guilty about not being able to say, "I love you" back to his parents. He knew it was the right thing to do, but it just made him uncomfortable. Sure, his parents loved him, at least to the extent they were required to by the law, but to Kent, they were both kind of jerks, caring more about their relative wealth than about their own son. His godparents—his mother's sister and her husband—currently living in New Jersey were much more like real parents to Kent. The two of them may have only seen him once every few years, but every time he visited them, he felt more at home in their out-of-state house than at his own here in California.
Furthermore, Kent longed to say those three words to a lover. He wished it could be Claire, but in the back of his mind he foresaw disappointment surrounding that relationship, for both her and him. Even if she did ultimately take to his liking, Kent was worried that in some way he wouldn't be able to satisfy her, and, more likely, that she would see his lack of impressive characteristics and (rightfully so) leave him for someone else. Knowingly a below-average looker, the only two things Kent had in his favor were his height (which he was tired of people commenting on, how much he looks like his father and all that), and his money (which he refused to mention whenever possible, like today, for instance, because once people know you're rich, they don't care about you as a human being anymore). In short, he had nothing. His "nice guy" status may have added a few points here or there, but girls don't care how nice you are. They need to be impressed, and that skill was not in Kent's repertoire.
He headed out the back door, down the steps and onto the porch before reaching the dogs on the grass of the backyard. The older one, Beamer, now in his seventh year, was rolling around like he usually did in the grass, while Shelby, his younger companion (and mate, if he hadn't been neutered) was running over to Kent, her tail wagging furiously as she begged her owner to throw the slobbery tennis ball she was holding tightly in her jaws. "You have to drop it," Kent said. More déjà vu; she did this every day. "I can't throw the ball if you don't drop it." He pet her on the forehead, and had to wait another minute before she finally let the ball go and the game of fetch could finally begin. He threw the ball to the other end of the yard, and she ran like lightning to catch it, barely missing it as it sped past her face.
While she was sitting on the couch and looking through the TV Guide, Holly's cell rang, and she answered it unusually quickly…and strangely. "Hello? Kent?"
"What? Holly, it's me, Claire."
"Why would Kent have your number, anyway? You're not even listed!"
"Sorry, sorry. Just wishful thinking."
"Save your wishes for the Genie."
"Like he could do anything about it."
"Say what? Holly, that's what genies do. They grant wishes."
"Didn't you ever see Aladdin? That was one of the Genie's three rules: he can't make anybody fall in love with anybody else. That and he can't kill anybody or bring them back from the dead, I think." She grumbled, "But I sure wish it was that simple."
"Don't we all," Claire said. "So, you can still come over to Rusty's place tomorrow, right?"
"Didn't we already talk about this at lunch?" Holly said.
"Not really. You were thinking about Kent the whole time…and, you know what? You still are, aren't you?"
"It can't be avoided," Holly said, biting into an apple. "Hey, I'm Snow White. Wait, that would mean I'm poisoned, wouldn't it?" She was talking to herself the second time, the topic of Disney movies having forced the comparison into her head.
"No, you're a different kind of snow, Holly Snow. And the only poison in your system is all those thoughts of Kent."
"I thought I had your support."
"Not if he's the only thing you want to talk about. Can you still make it tomorrow? I think you should, you'll need it."
"If love's such a hell of a drug," Holly said, bringing up Thursday's offhand comment from Claire, "then why can't I just stay here and get high on that?"
"Do I think about Jimmy every waking moment? No. You need to take your mind off this guy, Holly, at least until Monday, okay? Then, if he comes back to us, or doesn't, you can act on this again."
"When you were first interested in Jimmy, before you started dating him, how often did you think about him, Claire?"
"A lot. But—"
"Don't be a hypocrite."
"Holly! It's not healthy!"
"Healthier than smoking pot."
"…Okay, so it is, but what do you care? It's not like you've never smoked a joint before."
"I know, but right now, Kent's all the high I need."
"Goddamn it," Claire muttered under her breath. "Rusty's gotta stay in business, you know!"
"But he doesn't charge you and I for it. Only everybody else."
"Holly!" Claire said nothing after this emphatic declaration, and Holly presumed this was because she was lost and no longer had a strong argument. Unfortunately, it was far from over, and as it turns out Claire was just taking her time thinking of what to say. "You're cheating your friends here, Holly. …Isn't that just like your mother?"
Holly threw the TV Guide onto the coffee table and growled. "Don't you dare mention her again! This is nothing like what she did." She rose to her feet and began making tense rounds through the house.
"Oh, it's not? She acted selfishly and didn't give a damn about who she hurt in the process, right? And isn't that what you're doing now?"
"You take that back. If anyone's being selfish here, it's you. Let me handle Kent the way I want to handle him, not the way you want me to handle him. He's my problem, not yours."
"He made himself everybody's problem today."
"That's not what he was trying to be."
"And you know this because…you talked to him, right?"
"Damn it, Claire! We all messed up today."
"What the hell did I do?!"
"You didn't talk to him!" Holly shouted, stopping in the dining room, with six full seats but only two resident family members.
"What? Do you mean at lunch or during fifth?"
"Well, now who's the hypocrite?"
"I was scared! I had no idea what to say to him! What's your excuse, huh? You don't have feelings for him, you had no reason not to say anything to him!"
"Okay, okay, just calm down. You're right, Holly, you're right. I probably should've said something."
"Good," Holly said. "Now promise you will on Monday."
Over the line, she heard Claire sigh. "Holly, we don't even know if—"
"Assuming he does come back." Please come back, Kent, she thought. Don't go.
"Sure," Claire mumbled. "Whatever. Are you coming over tomorrow or not?"
"Maybe, maybe not. We'll see."
"Fine. See you later. Bye." Claire hung up.
Holly put her phone on the coffee table next to the TV Guide and slumped back onto the couch. It was now more than obvious that Claire not only wasn't interested in Kent, she just plain didn't like him. Rusty, too, couldn't care less about Kent, though he seemed to be kinder about it. If they didn't change their attitudes, Holly thought, there was a good chance they'd scare him off, and naturally, she didn't want that to happen. The weight of her infatuation was already heavy on her shoulders—now she knew why these things were called "crushes"—but now so was the responsibility of keeping Kent close by.
To take her mind off the matter, she rolled open the cabinet door next to the television to reveal her dad's stereo system and turned it on to listen to the radio. "First Time" by Lifehouse was playing on KROQ. A song about first love, well, isn't that just perfect. Holly was tempted to change the station, the theme of the rock piece too timely, too close to her heart to make a pleasant listen, but she enjoyed the song anyway. Retaking her place on the sofa, she began applying the lyrics she was hearing to a hypothetical life with Kent; too bad it was only a possibility and not yet reality. Did everybody start applying love songs to their lives once they began having these feelings? Well, she'd done a good job taking her mind off the matter. The thought of hanging out with Rusty, Claire, and their old friend Mary Jane tomorrow sounded increasingly therapeutic. "This is going to be a long year," she said.
Kent was working on his Algebra 2 homework in his room, sitting on the carpet and leaning against the side of his bed, when the telephone rang. He put down his pencil and papers (plus the book he was resting on his legs and using as a hard surface) as quickly as he could and rushed into his parents' bedroom, picking the cordless phone up from its place on his mother's dresser. "Hello?"
"Hey, man. It's Rick."
"Oh. Hi. What's up?"
"You tell me, dude."
"Not much." He didn't want the willingly obnoxious Rick to know about his newfound romantic escapade, lest he do something to disrupt it, intentionally or otherwise. Tom was so prematurely mature that he was the only one Kent trusted with this information at this point, other than his parents. "How's eighth grade treating you?"
"Cut the bullshit, Kent. You've met someone. Spill the beans."
"Wait…Tom told you?! Listen, I don't really want to talk about this with you. Not now, anyway."
"Why not?" Rick said. "I've got a girlfriend." ("Rub it in, why don't you?" Kent said.) "You could use my advice."
"You and Iris are not the same as Tom and Oriel. Not by a long shot. If I'm getting advice from anyone, I'll get it from them or my parents."
"You know, men who are close to their mothers have been shown to have better relationships with the other women in their lives." There I go again, Kent thought, trying sound relevant with a random fact and instead sounding like a total idiot. No wonder I'm single.
"So, who's the girl?"
"You wouldn't even know her!"
"MySpace exists for a reason, Kent. If she exists, I'll just find her there."
"I'm not telling you anything, Rick."
"So I take it you don't want my advice, either?"
Kent sighed. "If it makes you feel any better, I'll take some of that."
"Because you need all the advice you can get, don't you?"
Unfortunately, that was true. "Yes."
"Well, first I have to get an idea of how things are going between you two."
Goddamn it, Kent thought. "What did Tom tell you?"
"He didn't mean to tell me anything, it just slipped. He told me you sat with her today. Got close to her for the first time. How'd that go?"
"It didn't," Kent explained, reluctantly, though at the same time he was strangely eager to share this depressing information. "I joined she and her friends at lunch, and nothing happened. They didn't even want to talk to me, not beyond basic introductions, anyway."
"What's her name?"
"None of your business."
"Fair enough; what's she look like?"
"None of your business."
"Do you want my help, or not?"
"Yes, but not at the expense of what I want to keep to myself."
"How can I be sure this girl isn't imaginary?"
"She's not. Now what's your advice, already?"
"If she and her friends barely spoke to you," Rick finally said, "then I'd say you need to take some action. Make yourself noticed, dude. Demand their attention."
"Demand? That seems kind of…extreme, don't you think?"
"Kent, I know you. You're desperate."
"I'm not desperate!"
"Oh, yes, you are. You really are. But who can blame you? You're hardly anybody's type, and your sex appeal is minimal, at best." He waited a minute to continue. "I can tell from your silence that you know this is true."
"Go on," Kent urged Rick, as politely as he could.
"A guy like you deserves a girl to call his own, right? You don't go right out and say that to her face, obviously, but you should go back to them and, like I said before, demand their respect. They treated you like crap, you should respond in kind."
"I knew it was a bad idea talking to you about this."
"Well, when you end up not getting laid, don't come crying to me."
"Every one of us is a virgin," Kent said, referring collectively to himself and all his friends, of which he was the eldest member of said group. "Virgins shouldn't be giving sex advice. Not that I want or even need sex advice, because that is secondary to what I'm actually trying to form here, and that's a real relationship."
Rick tsk-tsked on the other end. "I knew things were different with you lately, but you're really not the same person anymore, Kent. Are you really taking this that seriously? Lighten up, man, you're only in high school. And for God's sake, crack a joke. Kent without the jokes…he just isn't Kent."
"I'm growing up, Rick. I'm becoming an adult. Deal with it."
"I've only known you for a year! Sheesh, it's not like you're on your deathbed and I'm your son. God, you are lonely. I'll see you around. Bye."
A dial tone replaced Rick's voice as he ended the conversation. Kent put the handset of the phone back in its place, and then walked back into his room to finish his math homework. His black iPod classic was charging on a dock on his desk, speakers on either side of it begging to be used, especially considering its owner knew he worked better with music playing in the background. Kent turned on the iPod and put it on shuffle, and the first song to turn up was one of the relatively few modern songs in his collection, "First Time" by Lifehouse. It was a strange coincidence that such an appropriate song would turn up, but there were hundreds of songs in his mp3 player, and any one of them could have appeared instead. The fact that this song happened to come first was merely circumstantial; it meant nothing. Right? Real life wasn't like a work of fiction; events like these were one-in-a-million moments. Right?
While completing the last third of his work, Kent threw aside the thought of life imitating art and decided instead to contemplate the equally heavy thought of how he should handle going back to Claire and her friends on Monday. He'd already tried the gentle route, joining them without complication, but his fear of saying anything, combined with their own obvious discomfort around him, had resulted in a sorely disappointing day. He knew he had to try again, next time actually sharing information with them, but should he politely speak when spoken to, or be himself and interject whenever he felt he had something relevant to say? If they steadfastly refused to say a word to him, should he, as Rick had recommended, demand their attention, or should he do as Tom suggested, and continue on course trying to becoming their friend in a fairly smooth manner? Was there some kind of compromise he was blind to? It was far too early to tell. "This is going to be a rough year," he muttered silently to himself.