Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Happiness Pact

Hi, guys! I wrote this story a long, long while ago and I hope it still holds up. :-/ It takes place in high school and is a bit more...chaste...than some of my other stories. As with most of my short stories, I think what it really needs is expanding. A project I'll have to get working on!

When geeky Sophie moves to a new school she has the bad luck to fall for the coolest guy in school. But Jake is dealing with a changing life and rescuing Sophie from her clumsiness might be just what he needs.

Sophie sat on one of the chairs and Alex sat on the sofa at his parents' house.  Paul pulled over another chair and sat down.  The three friends often met at Alex's house after school, since he lived within walking distance and his parents were rarely home.  His family's house was also bigger than the one bedroom apartment Sophie shared with her father and the modest single story home Paul's family lived in.
            “Did you get homework for English and History today?” Sophie asked.
            “Yeah,” Paul said, “I thought the teachers were supposed to work out a deal where it was one or the other.”
            Paul was an odd child.  He wore turtleneck shirts everyday and carried a briefcase to his classes.  He had a baby face that looked many years younger than seventeen.  Sophie had just moved to town a few months before so she didn't know that he had dressed the same and wore his hair the same since he was five years old.
            “Hey,” Alex said, “No homework talk.  You guys are such losers.”
            Paul laughed.  “So we're the losers, what are you?”

             Alex's twin brother, Jake, walked through the front door then and saw them sitting in the living room.  He paused, looked them up and down, and started to walk past.
            “You're welcome to join us,” Alex said.
            “I don't know,” Jake said, “Can't get caught hanging with the geeks.”
            “No one is going to see you,” Alex said. 
            Jake was in the popular crowd at school.  He didn't talk to any of them there, but at home he wasn't so bad.  Sophie didn't know how it was possible that identical twin brothers could end up on opposite ends of the social spectrum at school. They were identical twins, and yet it didn't take long to tell them apart.  Alex's face was softer and rounder while Jake was all angles.
            Jake laughed and walked toward them, but as he came up, he tripped and fell forward, grabbing the edge of the sofa to catch himself.
            “Jesus, Jake, we haven't even opened the bottle yet,” Alex said, holding up the brandy he had stolen from their parents' pantry.
            Jake sat down and said, “I'm just really tired, it's made me clumsy all week.  Pass me that.”  He reached over and took the bottle from his brother and opened it.  He took a swig, made a face, and passed it to Paul. 
            “Are you sure this isn't cooking alcohol?” Paul asked.
            “No,” Alex said.
            Sophie didn't take any, she held the bottle gingerly by the neck as she passed it across to Jake again. 
            “Oh come on,” Jake said, “Don't be prissy.”
            There was something about Jake that made Sophie feel embarrassed every time he talked to her. She started to stammer something, but Alex said, “Leave her alone, she only drinks water.”
            “Seriously?” Jake said, his eyes back on her, now actually looking at her maybe for the first time.
            Sophie nodded.
            “No tea, coffee, juice...milk?”
            “No.”
            “That's weird.”
            Sophie nodded.  She'd heard that before. After the bottle made it around the room a few times Alex put it down on the coffee table and leaned back. 
            “So if we're not allowed to talk about homework,” Sophie said, avoiding looking at Jake, who was taking up most of the couch, his legs spread wide and his arms behind his head, “What should we talk about?”
            “Sophie,” Alex said, “I'm certain you have something more interesting in your life than homework.”
            “Not really.”
            “Not that she's willing to share with us, anyway,” Paul said.
            “Come on,” Jake said, “We've all known each other forever and we're out of good stories.  You're the fresh blood, give us something good.”
            “My life isn't for your entertainment,” Sophie said, but she smiled and flushed slightly. 
            The front door opened and the twin's parents came into the house.  Mrs. Kenley saw them through the glass doors of the living room when she walked into the hall.  “Hi, kids,” she said.
            Alex quickly swiped the bottle of alcohol under the coffee table.
            Mrs. Kennley pulled off her coat.  Sophie admired the long wool coat and the swingy, sensual dress beneath.  Mr. Kenley took her coat for her and hung it and his in a closet.
            “We'll be out again in just a bit, have to get changed,” she said, “You kids have a good time.  Don't stay up too late.”
            Jake rolled his eyes at his brother, facing away so his mother didn't see. 
            When the parents swept out the door again, Sophie sighed and murmured, “Your mother is so elegant.”
            “Yeah,Alex said without enthusiasm.
            Jake laughed. 
            “What?” Sophie said.
            “It comes with a price,” Jake said.
            Alex pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one.  Jake reached over and snatched it out of his hands and put it out on his shoe.  Alex took out another and lit it. 
            “Your parents let you smoke in the house?” Sophie said.
            Alex shrugged. “As long as it isn't Jake, what do they care?”
            “Do you think your parents are happy?” Paul asked suddenly.  He had fished out the bottle of Brandy again and took a little more.
            “I never thought about it,” Alex said.
            “I know mine aren't,” Paul said.  “Don't know how they got this way, I mean, they were like us once.  Full of ideas and plans to change the world.  Now they're just our parents.  Living such small lives.”
            “Our parents are still living grand lives,” Alex said, “They didn't let having kids slow them down.  They didn't even want kids.  Just did it because it was expected of them.” He paused, dragged on the cigarette, then added, “And they only wanted one.”
            No one said anything for a while.  There was no denying that Jake got all their parents' attention.
            “Sometimes I wonder,” Sophie said quietly, “If it's my destiny to become a drunk like my dad.”
            “How did they all get like this?” Paul said.
            “Did they give up on their ideals?  Give up on their dreams?” Sophie said.
            “Maybe.” Paul and Sophie continued discussing, both leaning forward towards the coffee table, ignoring Alex and Jake.
            “It's scary to go after what you really want.  Takes a lot of guts.”
            “Well I don't want to end up like they are.”
             “I have an idea,” Sophie said, grinning.
            “What's that?”
            “Well,” she continued, “If our parents ended up disappointed in life because they didn't go for something they really wanted because of fear, we shouldn't let that happen to us.”
            “I'm with you.”
            “I propose a pact.  We all promise to do something we're afraid of.  Before we graduate in June.”
            “Yeah, yeah,” Paul agreed and Alex perked up.
            “It's got to be something really big, though.  Something life changing.”
            “Right.  I'm in,” Paul announced.
            “Me too,” Alex said.
            “How are you going to pull this off, Sophie?” Jake laughed.  “You've got more fears than all of us combined. Which will you pick?”           
            “None of your business,” she said.  She wondered how Jake knew about her many phobias.  Did Alex talk about her?  What else did Jake know about her?  What did he think?
            “I'm part of this too,” Jake said.
            “Oh yeah?  You're going to join the geek gang on something?” Paul said.
            “Don't breathe a word of this at school, that's all I ask,” Jake said.
***
“So the twins are turning 19?  How did that happen?” Sophie asked Paul while they waited at the movie theater for Alex to buy his popcorn.  Alex had asked them to come to celebrate his birthday.
            “Well,” Paul said, “Jake was held back in fourth grade because they said he didn't know how to socialize.”
            “Jake?  This is the same Jake we're talking about?”
            “Yes, our Mr. Popular.  He was as charming at ten as he is now, but he got involved in a fight with Derek and they held him back to punish him.”
            “That kid who thinks he's some hot shot criminal?”
            “That's the one.”
            “Okay, but what about Alex?  How come they're still in the same grade?”
            “This is the interesting part. Just a year later Alex failed all of his classes.  I mean, it was elementary school, so they don't call it failing, but he didn't do any of the work and he didn't pass any tests.  So they held him back too.  It was pretty clear to me that he did on purpose because he had to be with his brother.  He's that way.”
            “Yeah, I noticed.”
            “So that's when I met them, when I was eight and they had just turned ten.”
            Sophie thought about the relationship between the two brothers while they watched the movie.  She was an only child and didn't even have any cousins.  She didn't know what this bond was between Alex and Jake, but it was strong.  It almost seemed visible.  Were all brothers like that?  Were all twins like that?  How had they formed this team where Jake accomplished and Alex supported? 
            After the movie, Alex drove first Paul home and then Sophie.  In the car, when they were alone, Sophie asked, “Why didn't Jake come?”
            “He's celebrating with his own friends,” Alex said.  “They'll probably be trying to sneak into clubs with fake IDs.  Hope you don't mind my celebration is quieter.”
            “Ha!  Thank goodness. I can't stand crowds and noise.”
            “I don't think Jake likes them much either.  He feels compelled to fit in and do what's expected of him.”
            “And you don't?”
            “I'm the support player.  What I want always comes second.”
            “Why, though?”
            Alex shrugged. He didn't seem at all perturbed.  “It's always been about Jake. It's okay.”
            “No, it's not,” Sophie said.  “Why do you never complain, Alex?”
            “He needs me.”
            “You are too good.  Seriously.”
            Alex rolled down the window and lit a cigarette.  Sophie watched how he didn't even seem to notice he had done it.  She thought of how when Jake was around he always, without fail, took the first one away, but Alex always lit a second.
***
            “Did you know Sophie doesn't believe in pencils?” Jake said as his brother walked onto the porch. 
            “Yes,” Alex said.  He sat down on the stairs opposite Jake.
            “Isn't that weird, though?”
            Alex shrugged.  He pulled a cigarette from a package in his pocket and put it in his mouth.  Before he could reach into the other pocket for his lighter, Jake had leaned across the stairs and plucked the cigarette out of his mouth.  Alex looked at him, sighed, and said, “Did you think I came out here to listen to you talk about Sophie?”
            “She said the graphite bothered her, having it on her hands and the sound the pencil tip makes on the paper.  Too soft.  She's used only pens her whole life.”
            “So she likes pens, so what?” Alex stood up and walked a little ways into the garden to light his next cigarette. 
            “It's just weird.”
            “Shouldn't you be worrying about Lucy, not Sophie?  You remember her, right?  Your girlfriend?  Your anniversary is coming up.”
            “Damn, I almost forgot.”
            Alex frowned across the lawn at his twin.  “You?  You never forget things.  You may not give a damn about your anniversary, but you always go over the top anyway.”
            Jake shrugged.  “It's too easy,” he said.  “She wants all the typical things:  flowers, dinner, compliments.  It's boring.”
            “Not going to give up on her though, are you?  Thinking of dropping Lucy in favor of Sophie?”
            “Sophie is messed up, that's what I've been telling you.”
            “I know. She is my friend.” Alex finished smoking, ground out the stub on a stone and put it back in his pocket.  As he walked past Jake to go back into the house, he said, “Leave the poor girl alone.”
***
            The bell rang.  Alex usually came in after that, since he would be smoking outside.  Today he didn't.  Paul sat down beside Sophie. 
            “Where's Alex?” Sophie had whispered at him. 
            Paul shrugged.  “Jake is missing too.”
            “Really?  That's weird.”
            The teacher threw open the door and strode in hunched over, looking like a frog.  He began to take attendance.
            “Lucy,” Paul hissed, leaning over the aisle.  A head of perfectly ringletted blonde hair turned and Lucy looked down her nose at Paul. 
             Lucy was more perfectly composed than a china doll.  The bones along her neck and shoulders stood out because of the way she held her body loftily with her hips slightly forward and her slender waist bent back.  Her mouth had a coy crease beside it, giving her smile a tempting quality. Her hair frizzled in the most stylish way and each wave seemed to be exactly where she wanted it to be.  Her eyes were absolute blue without a single speck of another color. Her well-manicured fingers spread away from each other gracefully when she grasped Jake's arm and whispered in his ear.  She would put a stick of gum in her mouth and playfully blow bubbles as he tried to talk to her.  She made even Sophie, who rarely noticed people? attitudes toward her, feel inferior.  Jake didn't seem to enjoy her company much, his smiles were almost grimaces when she was around.
            “Did you go out with Jake last night?  Do you know where he is?” Paul asked.
            “I don't know,” Lucy replied, her fingers combing her bangs, “No one answered when I called last night.”
            “Mr. Miller,” the teacher interrupted, “I would appreciate it if you would sit forward on your chair.”
            Paul swung forward and smiled innocently.  Sophie saw Lucy roll her eyes. 
            After school Paul and Sophie went straight to the Kenley house.  They found that Lucy was there too.
            “Don't talk to me,” she said.
            “Don't worry about it,” Sophie said.  She sat down next to Paul on the steps and waited.  No one was home and there was no indication of where they had gone.  After twenty minutes, the family car pulled up.  The parents got out first.  Their faces were tight and drawn.  Alex got out next and said, “Okay, nobody say anything.”
            “What would we...oh,” Lucy said as Jake got out of the car.  He had a cane in his hand, but he was holding it in the middle, as though he was just waiting to hand it over to someone else.  Sophie noticed that he didn't step forward, but leaned against the car.
            “It's a misunderstanding,” Jake said, “Just a mistake.”
            “What? What's going on?” Lucy said.
            “They think,” Jake said, “They think I have MS.”
            Sophie gasped.
            “What?” Lucy said, but everyone ignored her.
            Mrs. Kenley tugged at the bottom of her suit and said, “There are treatments.  We'll be aggressive.”
            “Not now, Mom,” Jake said.
            “Jacob, you listen to me,” Mrs. Kenley began, but her husband took her shoulder and guided her toward the house.  “There will be time to talk about this,” he said.  When the two adults had entered the house, Sophie, Paul, Alex, Jake, and Lucy remained outside. 
            “It’s nothing, really,” Jake said, “They said there’s no way to know for sure yet.  I just pulled a muscle or something.  Alex, tell them it’s crazy.”
            “It’s crazy,” Alex whispered, but he was looking down.  He pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
***
            The next week Jake put the cane in his locker and stayed close to the walls as he walked around the school.  He was late to every class.  For the one class he had with Sophie and Paul he showed up seven minutes late and the teacher lectured him on respect for the class.  Paul and Sophie looked at each other and Paul shrugged.
            Jake finally gave up after he fell in a classroom and grabbed hold of a desk that then toppled over on top of him.  The teacher was furious at the disruption and thought he was drunk.  She sent him to the office. 
            He retrieved the cane and tried to pretend it was the latest fashion accessory.   For gym class he had a note from the doctor and when the gym teacher, who was also Jake’s baseball coach, read it, he coughed gruffly and said, “I guess we won’t be seeing you at practice anymore.”
            “Looks that way,” Jake said.
            He skipped a math class and went to the cafeteria early and just sat in the empty room.  The first lunch bell rang and people began to arrive.  Sophie walked through the door with a red stain spread over the front of her shirt.  For a second he thought it was blood, and then he realized it was ink.  She saw him, but didn’t let recognition register on her face.  Since he was in the popular crowd he didn’t ever talk to his brother’s friends at school.  This time, though, he called out, “Is that what they mean by a fashion statement?”
            “Do you really have to make a comment?”
            “Sophie, you look ridiculous.” 
            “That’s just what I needed to hear.  Thanks.  Why don’t you just lend me your jacket like a gentleman?”
            Jake smiled and pulled his jacket off.  He handed it up to her and she put it on, covering the red ink stain that had spread across the front of her shirt.
            “Tell me how this kind of thing happens to you.”
            Sophie shrugged.  She sat down next him at the cafeteria table.  “I didn’t realize I had left the pen uncapped, and I was listening to the teacher, and I before I knew it, the pen was bleeding onto my shirt.  What are you supposed to do about that?  I can’t just go home and change.”
            “By this time I would think you’d put spare clothes in your locker.”
            “Look, you live your way and I’ll live mine.  Do you even have lunch now?  What are you doing here?”
            “Free period.  Lucy is meeting me here.”
            “Oh.” Sophie stopped abruptly.  “Is that going to be weird?”
             He didn’t answer and his eyes drifted past Sophie.  She turned around to see Lucy coming into the lunchroom. 
            Jake reached down and pulled a cane out from under the table.  He stood shakily, leaning on it. 
“See you around, Sophie,” he said, “I’ll get my jacket from you tomorrow.”  She heard a tightening in his voice.
            Sophie watched Lucy’s face as Jake walked unevenly toward her.  Lucy wasn’t watching him.  She was leaning on the doorframe, looking bored, and scanning the cafeteria to see who was around.  To her, Sophie didn’t even register: she was just another piece of furniture.
            Jake followed Lucy into the hall.  She stopped in front of a locker, but her eyes darted to the people walking by.  He waited for her attention. 
            “People are staring at us,” she hissed.
            “They’re curious, what do you expect?”
            “Is there somewhere we can be alone?” she said.
            “I don’t want to walk that far,” he said and watched the red spots of embarrassment spread along Lucy’s neck. 
            “Jake,” she said, “Please.  This is hard for me.”
            “That’s funny, it’s been easy for me.”
            “Don’t be a jerk.  It affects me too.”
            “Can you put that on hold for a minute?  Just forget about yourself for a tiny moment?”
            “This is really heavy.  This is more than I can deal with.”
            “Is heavy in again?  Are we using that word now?”
            “See, how can we get through this when you can’t even talk about a serious subject?”
            Jake sighed.  “You are no fun to talk to, Lucy.”
            “Well, lucky for you, you won’t have to talk with me anymore.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and walked away. 
            He had planned to break up with her anyway, but he preferred that it be done in his own time.  What kind of girl breaks up with her boyfriend right after he’s been diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder?  Wasn’t there a required waiting period? 
            He turned around and went back to the cafeteria.  His brother was sitting with the usual two cohorts.  Sophie was still wearing his jacket.  He smiled at the way all three spoke so enthusiastically to each other.  Jake's friendships were so much about appearances and not saying the wrong thing, he could never be as free as that.
            He walked over to the table and said, “Hey, guys, can I join you?”
            They all turned around and looked behind them, trying to figure out who he was talking to.
            “That's funny,” Jake said.  Alex pulled over another chair and Jake sat down.  There was a pizza in the middle of the table.  “Where did that come from?” Jake asked.
            Alex snuck out and got it during his study hall,” Sophie said.
            Jake looked over at her plate and raised an eyebrow.  She had picked each element of the pizza off and had them all arranged separately on her plate.
            “What are you doing?” he asked.
            “This is how I eat pizza,” Sophie said, crossing her arms in front of her defensively. 
            “Seriously?”
            “Don't make fun of me!  Just because Alex lets you control his life, doesn’t mean you have any business telling me how to live!” 
            Alex looked away, but there was a smirk on his face and Paul caught his eye and started laughing.  “Just let her eat her pizza,” Alex said.
***
            The next morning Jake was watching the back of Lucy's head in calculus class.  She was sitting in the front, pretending he didn't exist.  Jake sat on the side, not even pretending to listen to the teacher.  He just let his eyes bore into her.  She could feel it, he knew she did.  And she was listening in her head to all her justifications over and over and over.
            When the bell rang Lucy rushed to throw her books and papers together and get out the door, but everyone was rushing out and she had to wait.  Jake got in her way and she had no choice but to look at him.
            “Hello, Jake,” she said.
            “Hello, Lucy, what? happening?”
            “Not much.”
            “No?  Not too busy?”
            “What are you doing?”
            “Having a conversation.  People who know each other do this.”
            “Don't be a jerk.”
            “I'm just being friendly.”
            “And I'm leaving.” She passed him and hurried down the hallway.
            “Man, what are you up to?” Paul asked.
            “Just making her squrim.”
            “You know you guys were totally wrong for each other.”
            “I know.”
            “Let's go meet Sophie and Alex for lunch.” 
            Jake didn't argue.  He hadn't hung out with his supposed-friends in days and he was having a hard time caring if they saw him with his brother's friends.
            That night Jake was supposed to go to the symphony with his family.
            “Too much walking for me,” he said.  His mother began to make tittering noises.  Any reminder of what the diagnosis upset her.  Jake caught Alex's eye and grinned.  His brother knew it was just an excuse.  Although, it was true he felt very tired.
            “All right, Jake,” their father said. “Take it easy, we'll be home late.  Come on, Alex.”
            After they left, Jake settled on the couch with a ham sandwich and turned on the TV.  Rather than watch it, he thought about what had happened to him.  As an infant he had learned to walk, but now he wondered why he had bothered, if the ability was simply going to be stolen away.  His body, even at his young age, had rebelled.  The limbs no longer obeyed him and he was now condemned to spend the rest of his life losing things: movement and functions and also girlfriends, jobs and, most likely, his sanity.
            He couldn't imagine what the future would look like, he had no concept at all.  He looked at the cane leaned against the wall and felt a strange combination of hatred and gratitude.  His feet were not going to stay stable against the ground, the cane at least let him continue to move without falling over constantly.
            The doorbell rang and Jake grumbled to himself.  His one evening to be alone and undisturbed, but he couldn't be left in peace.  He considered not answering, but it rang again and his curiosity got the better of him.  He held onto the furniture as he made his way to the door, looking down at his feet as he walked, fascinated by how they seemed to not even be his. They were doing their own thing, barely under his control at all, like wayward pets.
            When he opened the door, he discovered Sophie standing on the stoop. 
            “Do you have an aspirin?” she said.
            “Come on in,” he said.
            She walked past him to the kitchen and began digging around in the cabinets.  “I've got a bad headache,” she said when he made it to the kitchen, well after her.
            “So you came all the way here.  You must have more on your mind then a aspirin.”
            “You're a sharp cookie.”
            “Why do you think I get As in school?”
            Sophie laughed before she swallowed the pills and put the glass in the sink.  She sighed.  “How do you know I just didn't have aspirin at home?”
            “So you took the bus all the way over here.   Wait a minute.  My brother.”
            “Okay, yes, Alex asked me to check up on you.”
            “I don't believe this.  He's out of the house one night...”
            “He's just worried about you, and Lucy, and everything.  Come on, don't be mad.  I brought my toothbrush, we can have a sleepover party.”
            “Want to watch a movie?” Jake said.
            “Sure,” Sophie smiled.  “Can I ask you something?”
            “What?” he said, already walking to the living room to rummage for the video.
            “Are you scared?” Sophie said.
            Jake stopped and turned to look at her.  He said, “No one will talk about it.”
            “You know me,” Sophie said with a smile, “Asking the hard questions, searching for the answers.”
            “Have you been watching the news for fun again?”
            “Tell me really.”
            He put the DVD in and sat back down on the couch.  Sophie came and sat beside him.  As the movie started, Jake said, “Whatever I have, I will lose.  It is scary.  It's scary to think that I don't know what I'll be able to do and not do months from now and years from now.  I've always been the strong one, I can't find my place any more.”
            “You're still you,” Sophie said quietly.  “And whatever comes in the future, you'll figure it out.”
            “Thanks,” he said.
            She nodded and eventually said, 'Thanks for letting me stay over.”
            “No problem,” Jake said, “But next time you talk to my brother you can tell him that if he doesn't mind his own business I'll break his neck.”
            “I'll be sure to relay the message.”
            Sophie stretched out on the couch.  She sighed and pressed her head back into the couch's throw pillows.
            Jake watched the whole movie, and when he pressed stop and turned off the TV he discovered that Sophie was fast asleep.  He shook her legs gently, but she just moaned and pushed her head further into the pillow.
            He leaned over and touched Sophie's face gently.  He brushed her brown hair back away from her face.  Sophie didn't wake up.  That medicine must have been the drowsy kind.  Trust Sophie to never read the label.
            She was an adorable walking disaster.  He was glad his brother had befriended her when she moved to town.  His life would not be the same without her daily mishaps. 
            He put a blanket over her and went next door to his father's study.  Lately he had been sleeping on the couch there. 
***
            Sophie woke up uncertain where she was.  She had slept through the night and was wakened by the sun coming in the living room window.  She thought back and remembered starting to watch a movie with Jake, but then her memory went blank.  Oh dear.  Somehow she had fallen asleep and left him alone when she was supposed to be keeping him company. 
            She should do something nice to make up for it.  She wandered back to the kitchen and started poking around the refrigerator.  Sophie didn't really cook, but she remembered her mother once told her you could make eggs sunny-side-up in the microwave.
            She took a couple out and broke them into a bowl.  After the microwave was finished, she pulled out the bowl and looked down skeptically.  The eggs looked rubbery and there was a crust over the yoke.  She took a fork and started poking at them. 
            When the fork tine hit the yoke, there was a sudden pop and Sophie shrieked and dropped the bowl.  The egg had exploded and pieces of it were covering the room. There were bits of yoke in Sophie's hair, on her cloths, on the ceiling of the kitchen, and the counters and floor and chairs.
            Moments later Jake was in the doorway staring at her.
            “What on earth have you done?”
            “Sorry,” Sophie said, biting her lip.  “I made kind of a mess.”
            Jake laughed.  “Well, let's just get it cleaned up, then.”
            Jake's parents and brother all arrived in the doorway at the same moment.  “Are you all right?” his mother asked Jake. 
            “Do I look like the one in trouble here?” he said.
            Everyone cleaned up while teasing Sophie.  There was no doubt that Sophie was a klutz.  Jake had never been clumsy in his life until recently.  Sophie fell over for no reason all the time, but no one had ever given her the excuse of a progressive neurological disorder.
            She was foolish to think that Jake was ever going to see anything in her.  She always screwed things up.  He needed to be with someone who could take care of him as his body weakened, not someone who was likely to cause more trouble.  The end of the year was approaching fast.  They would all graduate and she would probably never see him again. 
***
            Jake was often alone in the hallways now, as he took his time to walk between classes.  Sometimes he took a little more time than necessary.  The teachers wouldn't complain anymore.  They had had some kind of secret meeting in which his condition had been whispered.  One day he was walking around a corner when he saw someone huddled on the floor at the far end of the hall.
            “Are you okay?” he called, but the figure didn't move.  He started to walk closer, then he recognized the briefcase laying on the floor.  He had to stop himself from trying to run, remembering that his legs would no longer allow it.  He walked as fast as he could and quietly cursed the strange jerking movement of his legs.  “Paul?”
            Paul lifted his face and looked up at Jake.  His eyes were puffy and black, almost swollen shut.  Blood was oozing from a cut on his cheek and his lip was swollen up.  He clutched his stomach and Jake saw more blood puddling under him.
            “Oh my God” Jake dropped to the ground and touched Paul's shoulder.  “What happened?” But it was a stupid question.  He knew what had happened.  Derek had happened.  “Hang on,” Jake said, “Just hang on. He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and dialed Alex's number.
            “I'm in class, Jake, this better be an emergency,” his brother's voice said.
            “It is.”
            “Are you okay?” Sudden alarm in his voice.
            “Come to the hallway outside room 128 and hurry.”
            Another student came walking around the corner.  “Hey, you,” Jake called, “Get the principal and the nurse, would you?” The student nodded and stared at Paul while he started to run toward the office.
            Jake called 911.  Then Alex came into sight.  His eyes met Jake's, then he looked down and his face changed.  “Paul?” he whispered.  He ran faster than he had ever run before and dropped to his knees in front of his brother and friend.  “Paul, can you hear me?”
            “Stay with him and wait for the ambulance,” Jake said.
            “Of course.” Alex gently lifted Paul's head onto his lap. 
            “Help me up.” Jake put his hand on Alex's shoulder and struggled back to his feet.
            “What are you doing?”
            “Fulfilling my part of the bargain.”
            Alex called down the hallway after him, “Don't do anything stupid, Jake.  He did this to Paul, think what he could do to you!”
            Jake knew where to find Derek, in a little-used bathroom at the far end of the school.  Derek used it as though it were his own private office.  Jake pushed open the door with his shoulder and Derek regarded him without surprise.  “Are you upset about what I did to that fag?” Derek said.
            “If you mean Paul, then yes.”
            “So he sent a cripple to beat me up?  Why didn't he send his boyfriend?”
            “If you mean Alex, then fuck you, you don't know anything about us.”
            “Taking this awfully personally, aren't you?”
            “Yes, I am taking this personally, because it's my family you're screwing with.  I should have put you in your place years ago.”
            Derek laughed.  “I'm not going to hit you, cripple.”
            “You know my name.”
            “You're right, I do.”
            Then Jake punched him in the stomach.  Derek doubled over, his eyes bulging in surprise.  He coughed, tried to get his breath back.  He stood up and no longer looked superior and in control, it was real rage in his eyes.  Jake considered for a moment that he may have miscalculated this.
            But Derek took a deep breath and instead of lashing out, kicked the cane out of Jake's hand.  Jake, not prepared for the sudden lack of support, grabbed the sink next to him to stay upright.  “You know he deserved it,” Derek said.  “You can't just wear whatever you want, do whatever you want.  Order has to be maintained.”
            “By you?  Why don't you let yourself off the hook?”
            “Things are going to go my way.  I am the one in control here, Kenley, don't forget it.  I can do whatever I want to you, or to that snot-nosed queer who looks down on me.”
            “Go ahead, then.  Be a big man, beat up on the people who are weaker than you are.”
            “That's what you don't get, you're all weaker than I am.  Every last one of you.”
            “In this little fishpond, fine.  Maybe that's true, but you're going to get crushed by the world at large.”
            “I'll take my chances,” Derek said, and he walked forward, giving Jake a push as he walked past him out the door.  Jake hit the ground, but didn't bother to get up for a while.  He looked up at the bottom of the porcelin sink and wondered if that really counted as doing something he was afraid of.  He decided that it did.  Derek would be out of his life soon enough and Jake would not have wanted to miss the chance to confront him.  Jake pulled out his cellphone and dialed his brother.
            “Is Paul okay?”
            “He'll be fine.  Are you?”
            “Yeah.”
            The principal made an announcement asking for anyone with information on the attack to come forward.  It was a pointless gesture.  Everyone knew who had done it and no one was going to tell him. 
            That night the twins were eating dinner alone, as their parents were out at another of their functions.  Jake took it as a good sign that they were continuing their social calender despite his diagnosis.  Alex had spent the afternoon with Paul in the hospital.
            “His parents came to get him and the hospital had no problem releasing him, it's mostly just a lot of bruising.”
            “If Paul wouldn't dress the way he does.”
            “So it's his fault that they harass him?  Jesus, Jake, he could have been killed.”
            “No, it's not his fault, it's just I wish he would take more care to protect himself.  He chooses to stick out and people who stick out get picked on.”
            “I know you're too cool for him now, but he is your friend.”
            “Don't talk like that.  It's not that I think I'm too cool, it's that I know how to blend in and not cause a stir.  You and Sophie and Paul don't seem to have that skill.  Why does he let people think that he's gay?”
            Alex picked up his plate and walked out of the kitchen and up the stairs without answering.
***
            Sophie heard the news the next day when Paul wasn't in school.  That afternoon Jake was taking the town bus with her.  His house was close to school, but not close enough for him to walk anymore.  While they sat on the bus, Jake tried his argument again, this time with Sophie.  “Why does Paul have to make himself a target the way he does?”
            “Really?  That's what you think?  Why does Derek think it's his right to punish people who are minding their own business?”
            “It's just how things work.”
            “I've had about enough of you,” Sophie said.
            “You know you love me.”
            “You are so self-absorbed.”
            “Am not.”
            “Have you even noticed what's going on with your brother?”
            “What's wrong with Alex?”
            “I don't know, but something is eating at him.  You're so wrapped up in yourself you can't notice anyone else.”
            “Cut it out, I've heard enough about what a selfish son-of-a-bitch I am, okay?  There's nothing wrong with my brother.”
            “I'm just saying...”
            “If I'm so self-absorbed, how did I figure out what your problem is?”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “All these fears and sensory problems, I did some research and you have Asperger's syndrome.”
            “Jake, you're not exactly a doctor.”
            He opened his backpack and pulled out a stack of printed pages.  “Here, I printed this out, read it and you'll see it explains every one of your quirks. I have a label, and now you get to have one too.”
            Sophie looked down at the pages.  She wasn't sure how she felt about this.  On the one hand, it might be nice to find out there was a reason for her quirks, but would it take away her uniqueness to know that?  Jake seemed to see it as something that bonded them and that was touching to her.  So, she smiled and thanked him for going to the trouble of finding this information. 
            “Let's talk about something more fun,” she said.  “The prom is coming up.”
            “You think I should go to the prom?  Sophie, you really have lost it.”
            “We should all go.  You'll regret it later if you don't.”
            “I'm already regretting going.”
            “So that means you're coming?”
            “I don't have a date.”
            “Come with your brother and Paul and  me, we'll just do a group thing.”
            Jake grumbled a non-committal noise, but two weeks later he found himself sitting at a table in a ballroom watching people dance.  He was already in a bad mood because they'd had to fight to use the elevator to get to the ballroom where the prom was being held. “I'm not trying to look like a pimp with this fucking thing,” Jake had said to the person at the front desk, holding up his cane, “I can't walk right, you idiot.”  Alex took over and convinced the man to let them use the elevator.
            “I can't believe you talked me into this,” Jake said now.
            “I just thought you might have a good time,” Sophie said.
            “Watching Lucy dance.  That's a real good time.”
            “Shut-up, Jake.  You don't have the monopoly on misery here.”
            “You seem to be having a fine time.”
            “Seem.” Sophie looked out across the dance floor away from him, but he still saw her eyes and knew that something was bothering her.  Still, he wasn't ready to let go of his own pain.
            “What are you all upset about?  Nobody asked you to the dance?” he said.
            Sophie stared at him and just as guilt began to prickle his skin she spoke, '”Fine.  I don't know why I talk to you.  I can see you're too busy feeling sorry for yourself to consider the strain this night puts on other people besides you.”
            “This was your idea,” Jake said, but she was already gone, shoving her way through the crowd.  He knew she didn't leave the dance, though, because he saw her a while later standing on the other side of the room. 
            Sophie thought about calling her dad to pick her up.  She didn't know why she had thought this would be fun.  Most of the time it didn't bother her that she wasn't a popular kid, but she could really feel how different she was here.  And time was running out for her to do what she had promised she would.  Tonight was the perfect opportunity and she was fighting it.
            She didn't have a cellphone, as she found phones scary, but she could use the phone downstairs at the venue.  It was an emergency, she could get through one simple phone call to her dad.  She started to walk that way, but tripped on the hem of her dress. She was powerless to stop the forward momentum and landed in an embarrassed heap on the  floor.  Her face flushed and her vision began to blur with tears.  She would never be the graceful, elegant, mature women that Jake dated. 
            She hardly felt the energy to get to her feet again.  The night could not get any worse.  This was going to be her memory of her senior prom.  It was ruined.
            Then a hand presented itself in her periphery vision, through the veil her own hair was creating across her face.
            “Thank you,” she muttered, grasping the hand and standing up.  She found herself standing in front of Jake, less than two inches from his face.  “Sorry,” she said, “You shouldn't be having to rescue me all the time.”
            He smiled.  “If I don't do it, who will?  Sophie, you are such a walking disaster that you may be the only person left on earth that I can still help.” He pulled her close and hugged her with one arm, while leaning on his cane with the other.   “Why don't you come back to the table and make fun of people with me?”
            She started to smile and agree when she noticed something over his shoulder.  “Oh my gosh,” she said, her mouth hanging open in surprise, and Jake slowly turned to see what she was looking at.
            It was his brother.  A slow song was playing and Alex was swaying while holding Paul.  They seemed unaware of the rest of the room, looking only at each other.  People nearby stopped dancing, looked around at everyone else to see what they should think or say.  Jake stared.  And then Alex leaned forward and kissed Paul on the lips.
            A chaperone arrived and pulled Alex by the arm until he had to drop his hold on Paul and both began to laugh.  Jake turned back to Sophie with wide eyes.
            “I guess you were right,” he said, “Something is going on with my brother.”
            “Looks like they held up their part of the pact too.”
            “That just leaves you, Sophie.  What will it be, pencils?  Telephones?  Juice?”
            “Shut-up, Jake.”
            “Make me.”
            “I love you.”
            “What?” Jake dropped his hold on her and she crossed her arms in front of her body.
            “I'm sorry,” she said, “I didn't mean for it to come out like that.  It's just.  That's my thing.  That's what I promised I would do.  Tell you.  When I first moved here I knew you wouldn't ever even look at me.  But now we've been kind-of friends and I really value that.  But you'll be going off to college and I don't even know what I'll be doing and I just wanted to tell you before I missed my chance.  And if Alex and Paul are brave enough to do what they just did, then I have to be brave enough to tell you I love you.”
            “I don't know what to say,” Jake said.
            “It's okay, you don't have to say anything.  I just had to say it.  So that's all of us.  We all did what we promised to do.  Do you think we'll be happy?”
            “I'll tell you what would make me happy right now.”
            “What's that?”
            He stepped toward her again and kissed her. 
            “Oh Jake, your reputation”
            Jake laughed.  “What's left of it can go for all I care.  I'll let you in on a secret, being popular isn't really worth it.”

10 comments:

  1. Fabulous story, tender and beautiful.

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  2. Thank you! That's so encouraging :)

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  3. Wow. I loved this story so much, i'm gonna probably be reading it again and again! Please write more, i would love to read more about all of them.

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  4. I was told we weren't allowed to write about highschool kids...

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  5. I really liked this a lot, but then I enjoy a sweet character driven story, more than the more explicit tales.

    Very nice!

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    1. I think that it is more "me." I just don't feel all that comfortable with writing explicitly. I think I need to return to my roots and write what I like to read :)

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  6. I love this!! I don`t think it needs expanding. The characters are nicely fleshed out and three-dimensional, despite it not being overly long. I think it`s just perfect. I like this much much better then Blue Moon - after thinking about it, the reaons are that it doesn`t feel rushed, and apart from the fact that I didn`t understand the characters in Blue Moon (probably because it is too short), your heroes of Blue Moon seem not real, as in not having any faults. These guys here do, like all humans.
    Thank you for this story!
    Tina

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    1. Thank you! This is great to hear. I don't know why I haven't felt as confident about this piece!

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