Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kent Thomas walked along Community Avenue after exciting the easternmost gate of Crescenta Valley High School, looking down from the hill upon which he and his closest friend Thomas Fraser were traveling first at the high school's baseball field and then at the neighboring La Crescenta Elementary School. A few minutes later, they reached the intersection of Community with the main north-south road of La Crescenta Avenue, and rather than following that street southward some eight more blocks to their homes, they instead turned north to wait at the bus stop.

In wiping some of the dust off his Bald Eagle-adorned T-shirt, Kent briefly forgot that he was listening to the iPod he'd stashed away in the right pocket of his brown cargo pants, and as a result, his hand nearly swiped the white headphones out of his ears, but luckily, he remembered in time to prevent this from happening.

Tom turned toward Kent, looking through his large-framed glasses and not giving any idea as to what he was thinking when they exchanged glances, at least not until he decided to speak. "You all right?" he asked, a deceptively nonchalant question.

"I'm fine," Kent nodded in response. The two of them stood near the bench at the stop, surrounded by a good twenty or so others (mostly students like themselves), and began waiting. As a new song began playing on his iPod, Kent casually noticed Tom briefly follow (with his eyes) someone walking past them. Several seconds later, after Tom had resumed looking forward towards the road, Kent said, "Okay, I'll bite. What were you looking at?"

"Someone," Tom shrugged.

"I gathered that," Kent said. "Who? What was so interesting about them?"

"Well, since you asked, it's someone who I wouldn't have noticed a few weeks ago, but now that I know them somewhat, I did see reason to look where they were headed. Here with us, at the bus stop, as it turns out."

"Is it a girl?"

"Funny that should be your follow-up question," Tom replied with a smile.

"Why are you smiling? You have a girlfriend, Tom: Oriel. And she may be all the way in Long Beach, but you two love each other, and I'd hate to see your relationship end because of some stupid—"

"It's Holly, Kent."

Kent immediately stopped talking upon hearing her name drop. But after processing the thought for a few seconds, he was able to tell Tom: "Don't tell me you're thinking about her, too!"

Tom sighed and said, "I noticed her because of you, Kent. She's here, and you're here, too. That's something you should take advantage of, don't you think?"

At that moment, the Glendale Beeline (Route 3) showed up, traveling south and stopping here as part of its route back and forth between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Glendale Community College (GCC), and the final destination, the Glendale Galleria in downtown, where Kent was headed. Tom and Kent were among the first ones into the bus, and after they took their seats in the middle of the bus, an uncomfortable Kent was forced by circumstances to watch Holly, the pretty brunette with the mesmerizing blue eyes, dressed in a bright red T-shirt and blue jeans with her blue backpack (matching those eyes and his own) wrapped around her shoulders, pass them by on her way to the back end of the bus, without making any eye contact with him.

"You know what I'm listening to right now?" Kent said to Tom with a sigh as the bus began moving on down the hill. "'Bus Stop.'"

"Poetic," Tom said with a nod.

"By The Hollies."

"Very poetic."

"It's just a coincidence," Kent said. "You don't believe in fate, and neither do I."

"Yeah, but I'd say it definitely counts as a wake-up call."

"She's not going to want to talk to me."

"Kent, she wanted you to go to Homecoming with her."

"And I blew her off."

"She'll understand."

"Sure, Tom, she'll understand that I chose my happiness over hers. That's not how any of the great romances got started!"

"What 'great romances' are you talking about?"

"I have no idea, but that's not the point. The point is, in a relationship, you're supposed to give as much as much as you take, and all I've done up to this point is take, take, take! I have given nothing back!" With a final sigh, Kent concluded, "I'm just like my parents." As the bus stopped at the intersection of La Crescenta and Piedmont, he changed the subject and restated the obvious to Tom: "It's our—your stop."

"I'll get off later," Tom said, shaking his head. "And then I'll walk back up. I think you've got to understand something, Kent. Are you listening?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Good. First of all, Holly is right there," Tom said, pointing behind Kent, who followed his friend's finger cautiously, at the first row of seats on the upper level of the bus, past the back side door. For a second, Kent observed Holly sitting at the window seat, next to a guy he didn't know, and (by the all-too-brief looks of it), Holly didn't know either, but Kent was insanely jealous of the guy either way. "And she can probably hear us talking. Considering that she knows us, and especially that she knows you, I'll bet she's eavesdropping on us right now."

"She wouldn't do that," Kent sighed.

"Second, you are nothing like your parents. They're jerks, and you're a nice guy. And the world needs more guys like you."

"We finish last, Tom."

"Most of the time, that might be true, but don't you see? Right now is your golden opportunity to not finish last! Kent," Tom said, "everyone knows this whole thing was just a great big misunderstanding. She wants you just as much as you want her, I know it." With his eyes, he directed Kent to look towards Holly again, and this second glance turned out to be the one that motivated Kent to his feet (on a moving vehicle filled with maybe two dozen other people, no less) and up the short stairway towards Holly.

Looking back at Tom one last time, Kent's gaze then turned to Holly, who shared in that glance with a weak, uncomfortable smile before the two of them both turned to the brown-haired, green-eyed boy dressed in the Pulp Fiction shirt sitting in the aisle seat between them. "Excuse me," Kent said.

The boy turned to look at Kent and told him, "You have a seat, man." He pointed back to Tom, who was still watching Kent and Holly sort this out. "This is my seat. I sat here, and I plan on sitting here until I get to my stop, and then you can sit next to this honey all you want."

"Thanks for the compliment?" Holly said. "I guess?" She looked and Kent, and mouthed "What do we do?", to which Kent replied in equal silence, "I don't know!"

"What would it take to get you to move?" Kent asked the boy whose name they didn't know. "If you don't mind me asking?"

"You got money?" he replied.

For a moment, Kent flinched. He hoped Holly hadn't noticed him doing so. Money was a sensitive issue for Kent—not because his family had too little, but because they had, in Kent's own humble opinion, too much, courtesy of his corporate CEO father. For years, Kent had done everything in his limited power to hide the fact that he came from a wealthy upbringing, probably because his parents exploited their riches that he was due to inherit and their good looks that he hadn't been fortunate enough to inherit, and somehow, Kent had managed to do this successfully. Unless this guy had figured him out and was trying to exploit the Thomas family wealth for his own gain; it was unlikely, but it wasn't a chance Kent wanted to take.

"Yes," Kent admitted, "I have money. But I'm not going to bribe you. I…" Kent glanced back at Holly, "We would like it if you went willingly."

The boy put his hand on his chin and rubbed his developing beard, contemplating the pros and cons of moving. Even though he had no place to move to, a fact that really made Kent, and Holly, too, feel like jerks.

"Why don't you just let my boyfriend sit down?" Holly said.

"Oh, what the hell?!" Kent gasped, an outburst that caught the attention of several of his fellow bus riders, Holly and the nameless guy in particular. Surprised though he was by Holly's choice of words, Kent was quick to reassure them, "It's…it's not you." He pulled his iPod out of his pocket, paused the music, and then put it back, along with the headphones he took out of his ears. "It was the music…. I'll explain later."

The boy laughed. Glancing back and forth between the couple he was allegedly sitting between, he said to Holly, "I'm sorry, but you expect me to believe that this guy is your boyfriend? If he was your boyfriend, wouldn't you two have been sitting together already?" He turned back to face Kent. "Unless, of course…he's your ex-boyfriend. In which case, it sucks to be you, bro."

"You have no idea," Kent said, rolling his eyes.

"All is forgiven," Holly told Kent with a subdued smile. Returning to the boy sitting beside her, she then said, "Look, guy, there's an open spot right over there," pointing to the empty seat next to Tom where Kent had been sitting. "You can sit over there, and my boyfriend and I can enjoy each other's company again. Everybody wins, right?"

"Again?" he replied, without even bothering to correct Holly's use of "guy" by telling her his proper name. "As in, you've been going through a period where you haven't been enjoying each other's company?"

Kent and Holly looked away from him to make eye contact with each other, and then they both nodded and shrugged, their embarrassment not hiding that well.

"Is it an open relationship?" he continued, making an extended gaze in Holly's direction. "By any chance?"

"Dude, seriously," Kent said. He rarely used the word "dude," and his use of it here meant things were, in fact, serious. "As a gesture of good faith, can't you just…?"

Looking back at Holly again before facing Kent, the nameless guy delayed this reconciliation further by asking the alleged boyfriend, "So, have you hit that?"

"No!" Kent said, knowing he was making a fool of himself too late to avoid giving any kind of response and remain safe in ambiguity.

"That is sitting right here," Holly said.

"What are his chances?" the boy asked Holly.

"What?"

"If I move, and he sits back down here, what are his chances of getting lucky with you?"

In an attempt to stop this boy from making more sexual comments towards Holly, Kent interrupted swiftly to tell him, "That is none of your—" only to be interrupted by Holly herself.

"Very, very good," Holly told the one asking her the question. Her blue eyes made contact with Kent's again—and his were open wide, rightfully surprised—and then she continued: "But that can't happen unless you move, can it?"

"No, it can't." Miraculously, the boy then stood up, and after he'd stepped out into the aisle and down the steps towards the front of the bus and Tom's neighboring seat therein, an excited (if nervous) Kent was able to take his place next to Holly. During said move, the boy elaborated on this thought: "If it can get a guy like him laid by a girl like you, then I'm all for a change of location." Smiling back at them, he said, "Make me proud, you two," as he took his Kent's former seat beside Tom.

Kent and Holly sighed deeply, letting out all their pent-up exhaustion in one breath each.

"Um…" Kent began, as Holly looked at him. "What you just told that guy…I shouldn't be asking you this, but, uh…you didn't actually mean…"

"It's okay," she said, blushing just as much as Kent was (which didn't ease his tension as much as he thought it would), and spontaneously placing her hand on his leg before pulling it back off in fear. "I was just, you know…telling him what he wanted to hear."

"Yeah," Kent said. "That makes sense." Kent worried that he might be giving off a sarcastic or disappointed tone, but the truth was, that did make sense.

"Not that I wouldn't do…that…with you. I'm just saying, we had to do what we had to do. Right?"

"Right," Kent said with a bigger nod than intended. In asking her, "Are we jerks?" next, he was able to bring their conversation to something less awkward.

"Because we wanted to sit with each other so badly?" Holly said. Pausing for a second, she then reasoned, "No…I don't think so. I mean, maybe we could've handled that better, but he sure seemed happy to help in getting you lai—well, you were there. You know what he said."

"But didn't we kind of lie to him? It's not like you and I are boyfriend and girlfriend…or ever were…or that my chances with you are ever going to be as good as you made them seem…right?" Kent looked at Holly for some validation.

"Right," Holly said, her turn to nod. "Actually, no, not that right. We…exaggerated. What we said may not be true now, but who's to say it can't be later on?"

"By that logic," Kent said, "you and I would have to become boyfriend and girlfriend and have lots and lots of sex just to make sure we didn't lie to some guy whose name we don't even know."

"Why does he even need to be in the equation? I'll bet we can do all that without worrying about fulfilling some silly obligation to a guy we barely know."

Kent took a deep breath to fully absorb the wonderful idea his dream girl was putting forward. Nothing had even happened yet, but this had to be the best five seconds of his life up to this point. It was that good.

"I like your way of thinking," he said.