5: Bully, Bully
The class is still in the water trying to perfect the butterfly stroke when the last bell for the period rings. It catches all of us off guard, even Coach Palmer, it seems.
I lift my head free of the water mid-stroke and shoot a glance her way. My pause causes my feet to sink toward the bottom, so I swap to treading water and trying to locate the coach. I hear Coach blowing the whistle in a more frantic style than normal. When I pin her in my gaze, she's waving us all to hurry up and get out of the pool and into our school clothes. Rather, whatever we're changing out of our swim gear into.
"Sorry guys!" she apologizes, running a hand over her ponytailed brunette hair. "Got caught up in the prep for the Water Polo game tonight."
I frown below the surface and make haste towards the edge of the pool. With ease, I lift myself out of the water and trot up next to coach.
"What will you need me to do?" I ask, toweling off as best I can while still listening to her instructions.
"We've got some time before the meet. Go ahead and shower and suit up. I'll need you helping JV Boys tonight, everyone should be here by four. Be sure they get started on their warm ups and get them in the pool for drills. The assistant coach should arrive in time for the game at 5:30pm."
"Will do," I say with a nod and head to the locker room to get a quick rinsing before changing clothes. I want to ask why the coach won't be available for warm ups, but it's really none of my business as an Intern.
As I leave the locker room and start heading back across the pool deck, someone grabs my arm.
I'm still wired for defense after the past few years, and I wheel around and retreat to get better footing. Only then do I realize that it's Andrea.
"Andrea?" I sputter, lowering my half-cocked fist. "It's good to… to see you."
She shakes her head in the negative, tugging on my arm, her expression is frightened, upset.
"What's wrong?" I stoop lower trying to meet her eyes, which stray anywhere but my face.
Tears are spilling past her lids. "I can't believe you!" she hisses and when her gaze meets mine, there is burning anger behind the weeping.
"What?" I straighten.
"How could you?"
I shake my head, completely baffled.
She takes two steps back, ripping her net set out of her pocket, and jockeying through screens until she comes to the one she wants. As her lips purse in fury, she thrusts the screen my way. I lean back because I fear she will hit me with it. As it is, proximity of the screen, just inches from my nose, makes it impossible to focus on. Gently I push it about six inches closer to Andrea to try to read what she's showing me.
"What happened to keeping things mum?" she shrills even as I start to soak in what she's so upset about.
"I don't know what…" I start, stalling when I read the contents of a social media post she's pulled up. Blood leaves my face. Mortified, I grab the net set from her hand, glaring at the obscenities spilled onto the screen.
Oooooo ooo, Andrea, what a fine piece of ass. Why yes, I did tap that… Kicked her to the curb when she claimed I was the baby daddy.
There, right in front of me, is "my" profile, all my information is there – birthdate – hometown – everything, down to a profile picture! It's a poor snapshot someone took of me that got blown up and pasted there, but it's clear enough. The header image at the top doesn't do much for my reputation, being highly inflammatory. I poke through the thing, noticing how thorough it is. Whoever did this went to a lot of trouble, because all of my friends accepted friend requests from "me." The first posts on the profile are congratulatory responses from my friends for joining the 23rd century. Each one of them has a gross, insulting response by "me." Above that post is the one that triggered Andrea's insecurities. That means all of them are going to see this – have seen it by some of the follow up comments. Heat floods my ears to see that Mandy responded with "WTH!"
"What in the hell?" I growl, as if repeating Mandy's reaction.
I pull myself together, blinking and glancing at her. "Andrea, I didn't do this!" I defend. "I don't even have social media! My folks have my net restricted!"
It's true, Dad thinks that social media is the devil's tool – were he religious – and doesn't want me anywhere near it. Considering the drama I see it causing in other friends, I certainly can't argue.
"Don't lie to me!" she shrieks. "There are ways around that!"
I shake my head, pulling her outside the pool building when I realize how loud we're getting. I hand her back her phone. "Read it again. Does that sound like me, at all?"
She gulps, still trying to control her sobbing. "N.. no?"
"Is that image something you think I would ever post?" I add, trying not to be mad about her lack of trust in me. Even when I completely understand why she might think it, I still am fighting the feeling of betrayal.
She silently shakes her head.
"Someone spoofed me," I whimper.
I wrack my brain trying to think of who might do something this elaborate to try to get to me. I mean I know there's still people out there who would love to see me go down – get in trouble for good – get booted out of the school. But what I can't fathom is who would go to these lengths to make that reality happen.
"Who?" Andrea asks, seeming not only to believe me, but relieved that I didn't betray her. "And who knew about that?"
I shrug. "It could be someone still reaching for a reaction from us, Andrea."
"Or not!" she replies. "Even if it is," she points to the net, "that's public! Everyone in the school is going to see it! What if… our parents see it?"
Glancing away, I whisper, "There's got to be a way to take that down."
Something occurs to me. "Let me see that again?" I wave for her to show me the net-set. I poke through the profile settings, finding a report button.
"What're you doing," she gulps.
"I can report the profile as a fake, see?" I show her what I'm doing.
"Do you think it will help?" She sniffles and wipes her nose with a sleeve.
"I don't know. A site this big? Not sure how long it will take them to even look into it."
Further conversation gets interrupted as I notice the JV Water Polo team starting to arrive.
"Damn it," I mutter. I turn to Andrea. "Can you stay until after the meet?"
"No Michael," she whines. "I should go straight home."
I let out a long shaky sigh, and cup both her shoulders. "We'll figure this out. I just… I'm in charge of getting the team warmed up until Coach gets here."
"Fine," she cries. I know it's not fine, and my anxiety increases, but the timing is not the best for me to help hash it out.
Andrea wanders off without saying goodbye, curled around her tablet and not looking at anyone as she makes her way towards the street.
"Damn it," I utter again as I shuffle back into the pool building.
My brain is only half with it as I move through the meet that night. I can't even take pleasure in the idea that the JV won their game because of the bombshell now sitting in my lap.
Moving through the after-meet cleanup is just as disconnected, more by rote than by any thought process moving through my brain.
How soon would the profile be taken down?
How many people saw it beyond the ones who commented?
For that last question, I took time at a break to send all of my close friends the PSA that if they saw that profile, it wasn't me, and I was in process of trying to get it taken down. Then I hoped beyond hope, they knew better than to think I am that sort of person.
It's high school. That's hard to say.
I'm still in a fog by the time I make my way to my car. I climb in, sigh, and then rest my head on the steering wheel a few moments.
"This will be okay," I whisper.
Pulling out of the parking lot and starting my route home, I keep repeating it over and over. I'm unable to convince myself of its reality.
Pulling into the cul-de-sac in front of the Hovel destroys that utterly. There's another vehicle parked next to Mom and Dad's, one I recognize.
"Oh no," I utter, feeling my entire body compress in dread.
I make myself take a walk down the plank, the irony not lost on me, and open the front door. My feet feel mired in cement as I traverse the short hall spilling out into the living and dining areas. Sure enough, Mom and Dad, Andrea, and her parents are all seated around the table. Andrea's face is wet with tears and overall she looks utterly miserable. I'm starting to empathize, and no one has opened their mouths yet.
I don't pretend to not know what's going on. "I didn't post that crap," I say immediately, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. I take two more steps and hesitate.
"So Andrea said," Dad replies, his voice flat as a sheet.
"I've reported the fake profile," I add, taking another step.
"That's good." He nods once. "Andrea's already explained your conversation today at school."
I see that he's got Andrea's net set open in front of him, and he reaches out to spin it. I watch as it whirls, before friction slows it to a stop, and then meet his gaze again.
"What the four of us are more concerned about is the content of that post." Dad's eyes narrow, daring me to lie about this. "Of these text messages between the two of you."
Oh, I'm so done.
I make it to the center block of the kitchen, using the corner of it to help hold me up, because the floor feels like it just fell out from under me.
Andrea looks forever apologetic.
"Seems we didn't get the real story about the reason you stopped seeing Andrea, did we?" Mom chimes in. Her expression is even more severe than Dad's.
My face feels thrust into flames and I rub my neck a moment. When my hand drops to my side, my frame straightens, and I say, "No Ma'am."
"So, let's hear it." Dad twists toward me and lifts his chin.
I fumble through the cleanest version of our tryst and scare without lying to them all. My throat gets thicker the closer I get to the end of the tale, watching as Andrea drops all eye contact with anyone at the table, my folks grow increasingly disappointed, and her parents wear expressions of anger and betrayal for all of us to see.
Not a lot more is said, after I complete that mortifying story. My parents apologize to Andrea folks. In turn, they thank my folks for their time this evening, glare at me while herding Andrea well around me, and head out into the night. Mom escorts them to the front door, wishes them a good evening, and returns to the table. Dad glares daggers at me the entire while he's waiting for her.
"Keys," Dad utters as soon as Mom is planted in her spot, extending one clawed hand. It's that low guttural sound that says he's about to lose it on me. "Now."
Without argument, I return to the tray just inside the door, grab my assigned key set, and trudge back to him. I lay the keychain in his palm and back swiftly.
He stares at me, as does Mom, looking as if he working up more words to have with me. When Mom looks at him there's something exchanged because Dad's head lifts and twists so he can meet her gaze.
Mom tears her gaze away from him and fixes it on me, ordering, "Go to your room and stay there."
"Yes, ma'am," I whisper and slip past them both.
Seems their both too angry to try and deal with me right now. I am somewhat glad of the reprieve.
Though, it's a good thing I ate at the meet, or this would be a long, hungry night. Numb, I shut my bedroom door behind me, change in the dark, and climb onto my bed. I stare up at the ceiling, doing nothing to stop the tears slipping out of the corner in my eyes into my hair and onto the pillow.
After a while, practicality pokes me in the side to reset my alarm for an earlier time. I'm taking the bus in the morning, after all.
In the morning, I do all in my power to avoid my parents as I get ready for school. So, wouldn't you know it, they're already waiting for me. They don't say anything, but I can feel their anger and disappointment burn through me as I get breakfast, take my meds, and pack my bag.
The eerie silence continues as I slip out the door and make my way to the corner to catch the transport. Luckily my parents still opted for the bus for me this year, because I don't think I would live through being driven to school this morning. Not the way they're acting right now.
I don't have long to stew in my pity as the transport pulls over the hill and to a stop in front of me.
I drop the heaviest sigh my lungs can manage, trudging up the stairs and turning into the aisle. I ignore the stares my sudden presence is eliciting. After the initial shock wears off, I can hear the whispers, the sniggering, the insults, and the less subtle cat calls as I make my way down the aisle. There are strange kids in the back where I used to hang out who are staring at me. Instead of arguing over it, I pick one bench that's open and slide in all the way to the window.
Before the bus moves, I find Mandy plopping down next to me. I'm shocked she deemed me worthy of being near, considering her angry reply to that fake post. When I glance over at her, I find that she possesses the same kind of thousand-yard stare I've been sporting all morning.
Before I can open my mouth to ask what's wrong, she leans into me and breaks out into tears.
"Whoa," I utter, immediately shifting in a way that I can wrap my arm around her shoulder and pull her into a comforting embrace. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Michael," she whispers through her tears. "Sorry for ever believing you could do something so awful to Andrea."
I blink. "It was a pretty convincing post," I admit. "But, why are you crying? I'm not mad. Hell, I'm glad you still want to even give me the benefit of the doubt."
She sniffles. "I know you didn't do it only because someone did the same to me!"
"What?" I fight the urge not to lean away, in my incredulity.
"I've already… reported it, but…" She slowly pulls away, instead leaning forward until her forehead is in contact with the seat ahead of us. She fiddles with something out of my site and the shows me what she's talking about. To do so, she only rotates her upper body without leaving the leaned over "don't look at me" position she's adopted.
Another fake, yet absolutely convincing, social media page where Mandy is "quoted" as saying: I love Michael Scott so much I would totally make little hybrid babies with him!
"Christ," I growl, clenching my jaw so hard a few of my teeth cut into my cheeks. There are many of the same vein of insults tossed about the responses from mutual acquaintances. The michaelscott tag is even linking to the fake profile I reported. "Who's doing this?"
"I don't know," Mandy groans, finally leaning back and wiping the tears from her eyes. She looks steadier, but not by much. "I just saw it, too."
She leans into me again, and I find myself holding her in silence. "I was so glad to see you get on the bus, I didn't know who else to talk to about it."
"What're friends for except commiserating together?" I smile while glancing out the window. The levity doesn't last long. After a huff, I say, "Well, I'm off driving privileges."
"They found out?" Mandy whispers.
"They found out," I confirm. "I don't think I've ever seen them that mad."
"How mad is that?" she mutters.
"Beyond losing the car? They're not ready to actually discuss it. If that says anything. It was… eggshells this morning."
"Ouch. I'm sorry to hear that."
"I guess I was foolish for me to think no one would find out." I sigh and slouch a little so I can put the back of my head on the seat edge. "We should find Andrea when we get to school. Compare notes on who might be behind all this crap."
"Yeah, that would be good," Mandy sighs, still working down off her high emotion. "Such crap. Just 'cause it's true, doesn't mean I need someone slandering us."
I do straighten then. "Wait, what?"
She laughs at my response, and then shrugs. "I didn't stop loving you either, Michael. I just need to come to grips with what happened."
"Oh," I'm flabbergasted, because I thought we'd be friend-zoning it all the way through adulthood. "And you were going to tell me when?"
"I just did, didn't I?"
"So, what? We're going to just prove them right?" I joke.
"I don't see why not?" She smiles through the lingering tears and my heart lifts just a little.
I know this isn't over, not by a long shot, but at least I have someone to stand by my side through the maelstrom to come.
A/N: So this is hot off the computer! I've been sitting on this one a few weeks trying to get the right introduction to this part of the story arc down. I hope this one rings true... I know for ME there are several aspects that are drawn from personal experience here.
Let me know what works, what confuses you, and what else can improve!