Five minutes into their lunch, which was being left largely uneaten, Holly, Jimmy, Rusty, and Claire were interrupted, as predicted, by Samara, who walked in a line behind them, tapping each one successively on the back before turning around to face them and sit on the blue bench opposite their concrete block. "Hello, gang," she said. "I'd ask which of you has decided to make the journey to Ms. Kim's room to talk to Bruce, but I know better than that."
"I'm not even close to ready to have sex," Holly responded, after which she finally took a bite out of her sandwich.
"Biologically," Samara said, "yes, in fact, you are ready. You've had three potential dates you've turned down who can attest to that. Psychologically, of course you're not."
"I want Kent, Samara, you're right about that, but I don't want him that badly."
"How's that whole honesty thing going for you two?" Samara said, turning to look at Jimmy and Claire. The two of them simply scoffed and ignored her. "Anyway, Ozzie, the clock is ticking, and it's like I said, someone has to talk to Bruce and tell him how you feel."
"I don't need him to go to Homecoming with me! I can live with that!"
"I can tell him," Rusty shrugged, tossing a chip into his mouth. "I'll do it."
"No, you won't," Samara said. "She will," she said while pointing to Holly.
"I can't!" Holly said. "Look, even if he did say yes and wanted to be my date for the dance tomorrow, it's not like he could even buy a ticket or a suit in time! It's too late, Samara!"
"Why can't I tell him?" Rusty said. "What's the big deal if I tell him, huh, Samara?"
"You won't become a better, stronger, faster person if you do the honors, Cheech," Samara nodded. As she turned to Holly (and Rusty calmed down upon realizing her reasoning was sound), she said, "If you don't mind me quoting Three Days Grace, Ozzie, it's not too late, it's never too late."
"That song's about suicide, not dating," Claire said.
"The point is, no matter when you go to him, the end result is going to be the best for the both of you."
Holly sighed, looked at her sandwich for lack of anything else, and then admitted, "I just can't do it. I'm sorry."
"Hey, no worries. There's still one more person who can help you."
"Me?" Jimmy said, putting his hand on his chest.
"Don't be ridiculous," Samara said, turning to look at Claire, and the other soon followed. "Her."
"No," Claire said, immediately standing up and dropping her pizza slice on the ground. She moved her arms in a horizontal motion and declared, "No fucking way."
"Yes fucking way," Samara said. She stood up and walked up to Claire, who was backing away and just about ready to make a run for it. "You're going to talk to Bruce, and you're going to hook him up with Ozzie."
"You can't make me."
Samara laughed and shook her head. "I think you're forgetting who you're talking to." She crossed her arms and continued to approach Claire until the latter was nearly pinned against a eucalyptus tree. "Make me proud."
"Fuck you." Claire glanced over at Holly, Claire, and Jimmy; a second later, Jimmy sprung to his feet and made his way over to her and Samara, placing his hand on the blond one's left shoulder.
"Leave her alone, Samara," Jimmy said. "You can't force her to do anything, so just let it go, okay?"
"She's the only one who doesn't want to see those two together," Samara said as she briefly looked away from Claire and at Jimmy instead. "I think she's long overdue to do something in their favor." She grabbed Claire's arm and began pulling her away, towards the 2000 building and Kent therein, but she barely got five feet before the combination of Claire and Jimmy managed to release the former out of Samara's strong grip.
"Fuck you!" Claire repeated. "I'm not going to do anything I don't want to!" She started back towards her spot on the concrete block between Rusty and Jimmy (who had predicted Claire's swift return and was already just about comfortable in his own spot again), but she should have better remembered how strong Samara's will was, as she ended up being pulled back by her hair and swung back around to face Samara again. Since "fuck you" had all but run its course as an effective comeback, she retaliated this time with an attempt at physical violence (a punch that Samara calmly avoided) and: "Goddamn it, Samara, I won't do it!"
"You could save yourself a whole lot of trouble if you'd just go over there and talk to him," Samara replied. "Or you can stay here and let this escalate into a catfight that will no doubt entertain the male half of our increasing audience," (she pointed to said crowd), "and that I will no doubt end up winning anyway."
Claire grumbled and said, "You arrogant bitch. I'm the athlete, not you. And I'm not going to fight you, Samara."
"Good choice," Samara said with a typical grin. "Let us know how it goes with Bruce, okay?"
"And I'm not going to talk to Kent!"
"You don't have to." This statement mystified Claire for a moment until Samara dared to return to the implications she'd been making before. "As soon as you get in there, start taking off your clothes and he'll know exactly what to do."
"Samara!" Holly and Jimmy shouted.
"Ozzie might need the fucking, but you're the one who wants it more."
"Stop it!" Claire snarled, her index finger angled up towards Samara's face. "I'm warning you…"
Jimmy jumped up and grabbed Samara's shoulder from behind again, but this time his hand was thrown off her body in a twirling motion that almost resulted in his being slapped in the face. "Stay out of this," Samara said, giving her own index-fingered warning. To Claire, she said, "As for you, nothing would excite you more than a night of wet, sloppy sex with the man so unfortunately coveted by your best friend."
That was the final straw in a very small set of straws. With a scream, Claire lunged at Samara, accompanied by a small cheer from the crowd watching them, but instead of knocking Samara down, Claire ended up only pushing her a short distance before being completely thrown off guard: the catfight ended in seconds when Samara somehow managed to pull Claire clear off the ground, up over her head, and painfully throw her back onto the concrete ground.
Groaning as her friends and a few others surrounded her, Claire almost panicked when Samara placed her foot on her belly, fearing another round of unfair, seemingly implausible beating. Instead, she simply had her buttons pushed a final time.
"I'll bet I know what you're thinking," Samara said. " 'If only I'd ended up on my back because of Kent's doing.' "
"Shut up!" Rusty and Jimmy shouted, while Holly took Claire's hand and helped her up.
"All right, I'll go," Claire said, still having only lifted her body halfway up. Wiping some of the dust off her body and placing her hand on her back to console some of the ache, she added, "But only because of this, because you're such a violent, impossible bitch," looking up at Samara.
"I'm sure Ozzie appreciates knowing her happiness comes second to my bitchiness when it comes to you," Samara said, which caused Holly to look at Claire with the realization that that was indeed a good point.
"You know that's not true," Claire said, hugging Holly (to the sound of a diluted "awww" from the diminishing crowd). After exiting the embrace, she reassured her friend that "I always want to see you happy, Holly. And I know you want the same for me. It's just that, well, I guess I still need to get to know Kent a little better."
"Yes, that must be it," Samara said. She was obviously being sarcastic, but no one was enjoying it except herself, and so she was simply ignored.
"I'll be right back," Claire said. With the accepting nods of the others, she left for Ms. Kim's room and on the walk there, thought about what she was going to say and how she was going to say it to the boy waiting for inside.
Two minutes later, Claire took a deep breath and opened the door leading into room 2110, and there she saw Kent, alone as expected, sitting in the teacher's comfortable-looking spinning cloth chair, dressed in a white T-shirt adorned with (of course) birds and reading a book to pass the time in lieu of the meeting he'd never have. By the looks of it, the book was about birds, too—probably a field guide.
When Kent saw Claire slowly walking towards him at the desk, he quickly looked back at his book and told her, "Ms. Kim isn't here."
"Yeah, and neither is anybody else," Claire replied. Kent's eyes closed and he let out a quiet sigh after he heard her say this. "I'm not here for Ms. Kim. I'm here for you."
"Your priorities are way messed up."
"I know, Kent. That's exactly why I'm here." By now, she'd was only five feet away from Kent, and noticing this, Kent used a motion of his hand to tell her to back off, and obliging, Claire took a seat at one of the student's desks in the front row. She sighed and tried to begin. "Listen…I know your grandma didn't die, Kent."
"Actually, Claire, she did."
"I'm sorry. But that's not why you were crying last week, I know that."
"She died two years ago," Kent said. "So I shouldn't suffer any bad karma from lying about it."
"Seems like you suffer from a lot of bad karma anyway."
Slamming the field guide shut, much to Claire's surprise, Kent then demanded to know, "Why are you here?"
"Okay, just listen," Claire said, getting out of the student's desk and walking behind the teacher's desk, which she took a new seat on right beside Kent. "First of all, I just need to know: are you doing anything tomorrow night?"
Kent exhaled a small laugh, but Claire knew as well as he did that on the inside he was still in pain. "What do you mean, like, am I going to Homecoming?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean. Are you?"
"No," Kent said, still laughing. "I've got plans."
"You do?" Claire said. He'd surprised her again. "What are you doing?"
"Since when do you care?"
"I'm just curious!"
Rolling the chair away from Claire back towards the furthest corner of the classroom, Kent then told her, "Well, it's none of your business what I'm doing, Claire, or who I'm doing it with."
"Are you sure you can't change those plans?"
"No, actually, I can't change my weekend plans."
Claire nodded, but still thought she might be able to convince him not to go through with his plans anyway. "What if I told you I know someone who wants to go to the dance with you?"
Kent shook his head. "No way. Knowing you, it's probably someone hideous you're trying to set me up with. I'm sure watching me suffer through that is something you'd find hilarious."
"What is wrong with you men?" Claire scoffed. "You're all so superficial! As a matter of fact, no, Kent, she's beautiful!"
"You're not going to dump a bucket of pig's blood on my head."
Claire grumbled. Seeing as he still wouldn't believe her, she decided it was time to just come out with it. "Do you want to know how beautiful she is? I'll give you a hint: she looks like Alexis Bledel."
Upon hearing this, Kent's tune did indeed change, although it was subtle and steady in its transition. "Her?" he said. "She wants to go with me?"
"Yes!" Claire said. "She wants to go with you, Kent!"
"Before you told me that she wanted me to go to hell and go fuck myself."
"You didn't actually believe that, did you?"
"So you admit you lied to me?"
"Yeah, I lied to you, but Kent, how could you be so stupid?" Claire shrugged desperately. "I mean, sure you only got to know Holly for like, a week, but surely that was enough time for you to learn that she's not like that at all! Right? She would never talk to anyone like that! Especially not you, Kent!"
"Explain a few things to me," Kent said. "A girl like Holly can't possibly have any trouble getting asked out, am I right?" The question was rhetorical, so Claire didn't answer. "She's had weeks to figure this out, and only now, today, on the eve of the damn thing, does anyone tell me anything about her intentions, which, frankly, I'm having a hard time believing are true, considering the source," he said, glaring at Claire. "Either I'm her very last choice, or I'm seriously overestimating the sex appeal of a girl like her."
"She was already asked three times," Claire said. "She turned them all down, because she was waiting for you, Kent. So rest assured, she's hot stuff, and you're the one that she wants."
"I don't believe a single word you're saying," Kent sighed. "Not one."
"But I'm telling you the truth, damn it!"
"Sorry, Claire," Kent said. "Once a liar, always a liar. And even if you aren't lying, I still can't go. The plans I've got were set in place months ago."
Claire sighed and tried to figure out how to handle the situation now that all hope had been lost. For a minute, she and Kent just sat together, alone in the empty classroom, listening to the ticking clock, the muffled sounds of students passing by in the hallway, and ultimately, the sound of each other's own breathing. "I guess I'm just going to have to tell her the bad news," she finally said, hoping that the pitiful tone might sway Kent into going, but she knew that wouldn't happen, and it didn't.
"I guess you are."
Claire leaned forward and set her feet back down on the floor, and after reaching a standing position, she turned around to face Kent one more time before heading back out. "I really am sorry," she said, putting her hands inside her jeans pockets. "For lying to you, for being such a jackass, for everything."
Kent nodded softly in acknowledgment of her apology, but didn't say anything.
"Can I just say one thing?" Claire said. "A guy shouldn't cry at school. Or a girl, either; really, nobody should, but especially not a guy. You just make yourself look weak. And weak guys are pitiful and pathetic, and when you're that, your chances of getting any girl at all just go completely down the drain."
"So you're giving me romance tips now?" Kent said, his chin resting in the palm of his hand. "Thanks, but no thanks. Not from you."
"I'm the best friend of the girl you like."
"And you hate me."
"No, I don't like you. There's a difference."
"Why don't you like me, Claire?" Kent said. "I mean, besides the obvious."
"Setting aside the fact that there is nothing obvious to dislike about you…I don't know."
"Then why even bother being around me? Why come here? Holly put you up to this, didn't she?" Claire didn't want to let it slip that she had been at least partially coerced into visiting Kent by Samara, even if she'd been working on Holly's (unwilling) behalf. "You don't even want to be here, Claire!" That was only half-true, but again, Claire didn't say anything to contradict what he was thinking. "Look, you don't want to be here, and I can't come to Homecoming with Holly or with anybody else, so it's not like anybody was going to gain anything from this talk in the first place." He rolled the chair back to the desk, picked up the field guide he'd been reading, and then told Claire, "You can go now."
"Don't you get it?" Claire said. "Don't you realize how lucky you are to have a girl like Holly in your life—"
"Was lucky," Kent interrupted her.
"I'm trying to help you!" After that outburst was done, she calmed down before adding, "You know, Kent, I want to like you. But if we can't get along…"
"And whose fault is that?" Kent said. "If you don't know why you don't like me, then there's nothing I can do to change who I am and better our relationship, is there?"
"You can't change who you are," Claire replied, "and you shouldn't."
"But what you should do, is go to the dance with Holly."
"We've already covered this," Kent said with a grumble. "It's not happening, Claire."
Claire let out her own annoyed grumble, and then she explained to Kent that, "If you turn Holly down like this, I wouldn't count on her forgiving you for it all that quickly. If you want to be with her, Kent, this is your chance."
"I'm not turning her down. I'm turning you down." This momentarily perplexed Claire until Kent continued, "If Holly wants to be with me, then why send you here? She's a big girl; she can do it herself. Cut out the middleman."
"Cut out the middleman, huh? You got those signatures for this club in our history class, Kent! Admit it, you tried to use me as a middleman, too, just to try and get Holly's attention! Of course," and here Claire uttered a small laugh, "you didn't have the advantage of being my friend. That's something Holly will always have."
"So if Holly has wanted to be with me all this time," Kent said, "what kind of friend are you if you've been deliberately keeping us apart?"
"A protective friend. Besides, I'm bringing you together now, aren't I?"
"It's too little, too late, and for all I know, just another lie. And what, may I ask, are you protecting Holly from?"
"Nothing anymore, seeing as I'm trying to set you two up now."
"I would never do anything to hurt Holly."
"I never said you would, Kent."
"Not explicitly, but you damn sure implied it."
"I said I was sorry."
"But not for what you just implied."
"Because I didn't imply it."
"Then why apologize for it?"
Claire slapped her hands onto her face and groaned. "You're being impossible!"
"Now you know what it feels like," Kent said, "to talk to you."
"Do you really want to piss me off?" Claire said with a semi-sarcastic grin. "Go to the dance with Holly. And then kiss her, and fuck her, and marry her, and start a family with her while you're at it. We both know how much I don't want that."
"Samara is so much better at that than you are."
"And I hate Samara, too. You really know where my buttons are, don't you, Kent?"
"Do you, or do you not want Holly and I to be together, Claire?"
Claire had to think about how she was going to respond to that one. "I…" She watched as Kent stared back at her, his eyes like knives tearing into her flesh that wouldn't come out until an answer did. "I don't know."
"That's your answer for a lot of things."
"Well, what do you want me to do?"
Claire spent a minute pacing around a small corner of the room, looking back and forth between the white-tiled floor and the boy sitting on the chair several feet away, eventually deciding on an answer. "You're not going to the dance?" she asked him one last time.
"Nope," Kent said, shaking his head and returning to his book again. "I'm not going to Homecoming, which means Holly and I aren't going to hook up, and you can sleep soundly for another day."
"Now that this is done, I probably will sleep soundly," Claire said. "But that doesn't mean I'm happy."
"With me, you never are."
"I mean with the situation."
"It's called guilt."
"I'll see you in class." Claire said. The two of them looked at each other one last time, and then she backed her way towards the door and out into the hallway. "This is going to be a long year," she said to herself as she stepped out of the building and back into the sunlight.