The Bully and the Brain. Chapter 5
As the final bell for class wrung, I grabbed up my books and stuffed them in my bookbag with the rest of my crap from today. I had been waiting for what seemed like forever, but as Ms. Scott wrapped up her lesson, everyone got up and almost ran out of the classroom.
I flowed outside with everyone else, albeit a little slower, and saw Rowan passing by with a group of her friends. She smiled and waved at me and I returned the gesture. Out friendship had kind of blossomed and she had even come with me to see Ashton a time or two. It shocked the hell out of him, but her genuine concern and sympathy was enough to make things normal between them quickly enough.
As I went by my locker, I took all of the essentials out as far as homework was concerned and everything else got shoved away for Monday. For everyone else, this was going to be a blow-out weekend. With three days off, school was closed Friday for some teacher's conference, everybody was taking full advantage. There were so many parties this weekend, some today even, but as much of a break as I needed, I would not be attending.
For the last week and a half, I had fallen into a routine of sorts. I would go to school, then head to the hospital, or I would go to practice, then head to the hospital. It was hard personally for me to be there, Ashton still hadn't said even two words to me, but I was going to keep going until I was completely sure he was okay.
It's not like he was outright rude to me or acted like he didn't want me to be there, but there was a tension between us that hadn't existed before. In his eyes, there was a wariness, a sense of distrust that made me sad, but also motivated me to make things right between us.
I don't know what had been up with me lately, but honestly, I just had been completely out of it. I kept my head down as I walked out of the school and was caught off guard when Lee walked up to me and threw his arm around my shoulder. I almost jerked away, but once I realized who it was, I relaxed.
We hadn't really talked since the big blow out and I can't say that I didn't miss my friend, but he was seriously fucked up for thinking that what Ashton was going through was funny or something he deserved.
'' Hey, Lee. What's up?”
Lee: "Just about to head home. Going to get some things for Kenzy's party tonight. I can't wait!"
'' Sounds cool man. Have fun."
Lee: "Wait, you're not going? Why?"
'' I'm going back up to the hospital?"
Lee: "Dude, are you kidding me? That frea..."
'' Watch it, Lee!"
Lee: "He's bringing your rep down, dude. People are starting to talk.”
'' Let them. He's my friend.”
He took his arm from around my shoulder and stopped in front of me, blocking me from walking any further.
Lee: "Why are you so invested in him?"
'' He's actually a really cool guy, Lee. He's a good person and I regret treating him how I have all this time.”
Lee: "He's a freak..."
'' Why? Because, he's not a jock? He's not fucking everything moving? He comes to school to actually do school work? What makes him a freak, Lee?!"
Lee: "Besides him being a faggot?”
'' Have you ever seen him even look at another boy? Have you ever seen him look at anybody, for that matter? I never even knew what color his eyes were until just a few weeks ago. He never looked up at me long enough to notice."
Lee: "Awww, how sweet?! Ready for your first date?"
'' Lee, fuck you. Have you ever thought about possibly trying to get to know him? You guys actually have a lot in common."
Lee: "I don't have shit in common with him!"
'' Whatever! I'm out of here."
Lee: "You're falling out of favor, Marcus! The herd has spoken and he's a liability you can't afford. You want to stay 'king-of-the-hill,' then you need to pick your friends more wisely.”
I tried to ignore him, but as I walked away, he kept yelling.
Lee: "Pick a side, Marcus! Your real friends or him?! Choose before the decision is made for you!!"
I got in my car, slammed the door and peeled out of the parking lot. I was so pissed right now! What he said wasn't a lie, the herd would oust me from the top spot with no problem at all, but I didn't even care about that to some extent. I would understand if Ashton was some actually weird person, but he wasn't. He had been through more than most of us probably ever would and he kept getting the cards stacked against him.
I drove a lot slower than I usually did on my way to the hospital and it was relatively silent at that. I just could not stop thinking about the things that Lee had said and it was keeping me in a very sour mood. He didn't know anything. He had never seen Ashton's art work or his photography, he had never sat down and had a conversation with him. He had never done anything to build a fact-based opinion of Ashton.
He was being completely ignorant and worse, he was okay with it. That's what was so unsettling. But as I continued driving, the hypocrisy of my statement crashed into me. How could I condemn Lee for doing something I myself had only stopped doing a few weeks ago, and I never would have stopped if it wasn't for this project.
As I thought about it, would I even care if Ashton was in the hospital if we didn't have this project together? Would I have even given it a second thought or would I secretly have been happy about his suicide attempt, like Lee was? Because honestly, whatever the trigger was, this was coming one way or another and the fact that I had a hand in pushing him to that point made me really question myself as a person.
Sooner than I expected, I arrived at the hospital and after parking, I just sat in my car for a little while to clear my head. I felt absolutely sick to my stomach. Also, I didn't want to go in there with any signs of my anger, but at this point, I knew it was radiating off of me.
I didn't see Vanessa's car anywhere, so I figured she might have been at work or on a food run. I made my way towards Ashton's room on auto-pilot and when I walked inside, his eyes immediately found mine and I knew that he knew that something was off. We didn't say anything to each other, and as I took my regular seat, right at the foot of his bed, I pulled my homework out and just tried to be somewhat productive.
I could feel Ashton staring at me, but I wasn't going to say anything to him and have him look at me like I was an idiot. I had asked him if he was okay after the first time he tried to eat solid food and he hurled everywhere. I put my hand on his shoulder and he jerked away from me like I had tried to burn him. Ever since then, I had kept my distance, the tension being ramped up even more.
Ashton: "What's wrong?"
I hadn't heard his voice directed at me in so long that it took a moment to register, but when I looked up, he looked like he was waiting for me to speak. It still took me a moment to process, but I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat and replied.
'' Uh, nothing. Nothing's wrong."
Ashton: "I may not know you that well, but I can usually tell when you're upset about something. You're either chewing on your bottom lip or when you're really pissed, you pull on your ear lobe and then move to scratching your beard. Right now, you're doing both."
I couldn't stop myself from staring at him as he described all of my tells to me. Things that I wasn't even aware that I was subconsciously doing. I watched him until an embarrassed red colored his cheeks and he looked away. I guess I was just in shock that he had noticed something so small, something I never really thought about. I just didn't realize he paid that much attention to me.
'' It's nothing really. Just a crappy day at school."
Ashton: "Yeah, right.”
'' I'm serious. It's just people are still being stupid about everything.”
'' Lee, in particular.”
I saw him flinch at the name, and it kind of looked like for a second he was going back to a dark place, but he snapped out of it and focused back on me.
Ashton: "What did he say?"
Ashton: "What did he say?"
'' Nothing worth repeating. He's an idiot.”
Ashton: "He's your friend."
'' So are you."
He looked like he wanted to dispute that and I shut my mouth before anything else came out.
Ashton: "So, tell me what he said."
'' Why? Ashton, it's really not that important."
Ashton: "Because, I want to know.”
'' He asked me why I kept coming up here to see you? Why I bothered?"
Ashton: "Why do you?"
Those three words felt like blows slamming into my chest. It wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it. It was laced with hurt, fear, and malice. I knew Ashton was struggling with having me here, probably not sure if he could trust me, but Damn! I had been here everyday just so he wouldn't be alone. I guess I just thought there would be some recognition for that. That it would count for something.
'' Because I want to be. You're my friend.”
Ashton: "We're not friends, Marcus. We never were."
And the pain just kept on hitting home. I felt like I cracked into a million pieces, but that was just my pride taking a hit.
'' I'm trying here, Ashton. But you're not giving me a lot to work with."
Ashton: "What?! Trying? Trying for what?"
'' To be your friend. I'm sorry, okay. But you won't even talk to me. You won't even give me a chance.”
Ashton: "I don't have anything to say!"
'' I'm trying to make this right, Ashton. But I don't know how.”
Ashton: "Don't bother. Just go back to your perfect life and don't worry about it.”
'' I don't want that. I want to be here for you. I want to be your friend, but you won't let me. Just talk to me! Ashton, I'm sorry. I can't stress that enough, but you won't even give me a chance to make things right."
He pointed to himself with tears in his eyes and confirmed my worst fear.
Ashton: "A little late, don't you think?"
Even though he had survived his suicide attempt, any friendship that we could have had was over. I felt my body warming up and I could feel the urge to cry. I wasn't big on emotion, but this whole ordeal with Ashton had been an emotional roller-coaster. Without thought, my leg started bouncing up and down and my eyes watered up. I did everything I could to hold it in, but as the first tear slipped out, I grabbed up my bag and marched out of the room. I heard Ashton call out to me, but I didn't stop. I was headed for the door, but I wouldn't leave. I was going to see this through, but I really did just need a moment to myself. I stopped in the waiting room with the rest of the people who were probably in similar situations as myself or at least feeling what I was feeling on some level.
There was no violent crying this time, but I just needed to shed some of the heavy emotion I was dealing with. Ashton had every right to be as upset as he was, I wasn't taking that away from him, but if he could just understand. If he would just give me a chance to make things right, then he would see. He would understand.
I tried to get myself under control, well the best I could with the way I was feeling. How could he think that what I wanted was for him to fade out of my life again? How could he think I just wanted him to disappear? To act like he never existed? Act like I had never spent time getting to know him? That wasn't what I wanted at all.
I barely recognized Vanessa walking towards me until she was standing almost in front of me until she was standing almost in front of me. I could see the fear in her eyes, could see the wheels spinning in her head, taking her in the completely wrong direction.
'' Ashton's fine."
Vanessa: “Oh my goodness! You scared me.”
'' Yeah. False alarm. Sorry.”
Vanessa: "What are you doing out here? And why are you crying?"
Never one to beat around the bush. It was a quality of hers I admired. She said it straight or she didn't say anything. I appreciated it, but the slap of reality still stung a little bit.
'' I just don't know what I'm doing anymore... Ashton hates me. My other friends hate me for talking to him, it's just... I'm just lost. I want to be Ashton's friend. I've gotten to know him over these past few weeks and I don't want to lose that."
Vanessa: “Have you given him a chance to get to know you though?”
'' What do you mean?"
Vanessa: “Ashton has shared things with you that he hasn't with anyone else and to him you're still a stranger. He doesn't know you or anything about you Marcus. So as much as you say you care, how can he believe that when you aren't willing to open up to him and share anything about yourself?"
'' I don't want him to hate me anymore than he already does. I've made so many mistakes, Vanessa. I've hurt people that only wanted to care about me and make me feel better. How can someone forgive that?"
Vanessa: “Give him a chance, Marcus. Who would have thought that you would have come to care about my son the way you have, and honestly Marcus, I do believe you care about Ashton. Don't count him out before you give him that chance."
She rested her hand on my shoulder and that bit of sympathy somehow gave me strength to walk back into that room and face Ashton. I know how hard that had to have been for her to say those things. I knew Vanessa didn't like me and trust for her was almost harder to earn than it was from Ashton. But, she wouldn't have said it if she hadn't meant it.
Vanessa: "Come on."
She helped me to my feet and waited for me as I grabbed up my bag. I couldn't help but admire Vanessa. She really was beautiful inside and out and the devotion she had for Ashton was amazing. I could see the fire burning inside of her. She was a lioness watching over her cub with only the strength a mother could possess.
My stomach knotted up as we made our way into Ashton's room and when he saw us walking in together, he turned his face away. I could see the tear streaks on his face, and of everything that had happened between us, that was the most surprising. I hated to have upset him, and as I thought about it, I couldn't imagine how my walking out must have to looked to him. Even with the things he had said, it probably felt like another person just abandoning him when things got hard.
'' Sorry I had to rush out like that. I just needed a minute to clear my head."
He didn't respond and I took a hesitant step towards him. I didn't want Ashton to think I had given up on our friendship or building it. I was here to stay. If anything, proving that to him was even more important to me now.
'' I know you're having trouble with me being here, Ashton. But, I do consider you my friend. I don't care who doesn't like it. If you want me to go, if you honestly want me to go, then I will... But, just know you're going to have to send me away every day you're in here."
Ashton: "I'm not an idiot, Marcus. You're being nice to me because you need me to finish this project. When all is said and done, you'll go back to being the popular jock everybody loves and I'll go back to being the invisible kid everybody wishes would permanently disappear.”
'' Ashton, I don't want that! I don't want you to stop being my friend when this is over. Do you know why I hated you, Ashton? Do you want to know why I tried to make you go away?"
'' Because you reminded me of someone I badly wanted to forget. Of something that I didn't want to be real and then you transferred here and you brought all of that hurt and anger back. So, I figured if you left, you'd take all of that with you and everything would go back to normal, but you stayed.”
Ashton: "What happened?"
Before I could respond, Vanessa cleared her throat and headed for the door. She was giving our problems the floor, I guess.
Vanessa: "I'll give you guys some time. I'll run and go get something for dinner."
I watched her leave before I started talking again, even though honestly, I would have preferred her to stay. I wanted her to understand as well, but she was gone and it was just myself and Ashton now. As I swallowed my fear and turned back to him, I made peace with whatever outcome my story spawned. His face was hard to read, but I had to tell him this, I had to make him understand.
'' Before you transferred into our school, I had just pulled myself out of the darkest place I have ever been. I had just reacquainted myself with all of the friends I had pushed away and things were finally starting to look up. My grades came up, I worked my way back onto the football team and I even went out for basketball. Everything was just coming together."
Ashton: "What happened?"
'' Nala. She was my girlfriend, one of my best friends, ever... One day, she just didn't wake up. She was perfectly healthy. She ate right, she played soccer, she was the nicest girl around and she died. In the middle of the night, she was just gone."
I heard the breaking in my voice, but I anted to tell him the whole story. I needed to tell him the whole story. I had to make him understand.
Ashton: "I am so sorry, Marcus. I never would have imagined..."
As he trailed off, I could see him reflecting on his own situation. Probably painting his own picture of how everything was coming together. Of what the parallels could have been.
'' There's more... Her brother was also my best friend. Even though Nala and I were together, Nathaniel was always around. He hated the fact that his sister and I were together, but despite that, we were all so close.
I never once even considered how Nala dying must have affected him. I was so consumed in my own grief, that I never even acknowledged his suffering. But, he was stronger than I was and he was trying to be strong for the both of us. When I should have been there for him, when I should have been his shoulder to cry on, he was the one keeping me from falling to pieces."
I had to take a quick break to center myself and to get the courage to continue. I was going to give Ashton everything and what I was going to share with him, I had only ever told my parents about.
'' It was the same day of the funeral when everything changed between us. We had just come from the service and everybody had gone to his parents' house to eat and spend some more time with the family. Everyone was milling around and just talking, when Nate asked me to come with him.
If I would have been paying attention, if I had been just a bit more aware, not dwelling in my own miserable world and moving on auto-pilot, I would have seen the nervousness radiating off of him, but instead, I just followed along.
It wasn't long before we ended up in his room, sitting on his bed in the same spot we had sat so many times before, but this time, it was just the two of us. I kept my head down, eyes glued to the one mis-colored button on my shirt. It was the only thing that was keeping me in this reality at all. Otherwise, I would have abandoned my thoughts and flown away. I felt when he moved closer, but I was so far gone, it didn't even really register.
' How are you feeling?,' he says.”
I couldn't help but chuckle at the memory. We were so young. Even though it was only a few years ago, just before our freshman year, it seemed like a lifetime ago. We were just boys trying to figure it all out.
" I don't even remember what answer I gave him, probably something extremely lame, but then it dawned on me just how close he was sitting. I couldn't help but look up at him and when I did, it was like in his eyes I could see so many truths, so much honesty he had never been able to verbalize to me. He was so scared, but he had this hunger in his eyes. This want. I couldn't have looked away if I wanted to."
My heart seemed to jump in my chest as I remembered that day like it was yesterday. So much had happened. So many lives were forever changed. My life was forever changed. If only things would have happened differently. If only the circumstances were different. If only...
'' He leaned into
me and I just sat there looking at him like a dumbass. He didn't move
quickly and I had so many opportunities to stop him, but I never
resisted. I didn't want to. I didn't even react until his lips
touched mine and it wasn't to push him away.
It's like something bubbled up inside of me, some hurt that he could cure. Some hurt that he could snatch out of me and make go away. I don't know how long we sat there for, could have only been a few seconds, but I had never felt more close to him. He was my best friend and we had lost someone. We had lost her and it was right for us to be there each other.
But then... It just wasn't right anymore. His sister had just died. My girlfriend. The love of my life was in the ground for less than a full day and I was already making out with somebody else. Her brother no less. I never stopped to consider how she would have felt. For those few minutes, all I could think about was how much I loved him.
I remember pulling away from, vision swimming, and everything just fell apart. Instantly I hated him. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted for him to just disappear.
I don't remember what I said to him, but the look on his face... the pain there....
I couldn't stand to look at him hurting, but how could he?! It all made sense after that. Why he didn't want me and Nala together. Why he never wanted us to be alone for too long. Why he was always so close. Why he made every day better.
But, it was too late. I got up and left his room. I ran down to my parents and as they saw the look on my face, they made up some excuse and we left. That was the last time I ever talked to him. After that, it was like I was just on auto-pilot.
He tried to talk to me so many times over the next few weeks. He would try and stop me in the halls, he came to my house, but I never responded. I didn't have anything to say. I was in such a state of shock and the easiest thing for me to do was to shut everyone and everything I loved out."
I couldn't bear to look at Ashton anymore. It felt like his gaze was just layering on judgement, but I knew that was a guilty conscience making me feel that way. I had never been able to look at the end of my friendship with Nathan in any other way, but that he was wrong... As I retold the story though, going over everything in my head as if I was the party listening, so much of the blame was on my shoulders as well. He tried and I just let him go... He tried to save our friendship and I gave him my ass to kiss.
'' Next thing I knew, there was a letter in my locker. If Nala dying rocked my world, reading the contents of that letter stopped it completely. He told me he was 'sorry.' He apologized for hurting me and said that all he wanted was for me to feel the love that he and Nala shared for me. As I finished reading the letter, it's like my world just crumbled to pieces. He said that they were moving and by the time I read the letter, he'd be gone. My best friend in the whole world was telling me that I'd never have to see him again.
I don't think I ever drove so fast in my life, but by the time I got there, they were gone. I don't know how long I waited for them to come, just hoping they would come back. Next thing I knew, my mom was pulling up to their house in a squad car. She thought I had gone missing.
In less than a month, I had lost both of my best friends. For me, it was one of the darkest moments in my life. Losing the two most important people in my life, it just broke me. I thought about ending it so many times, to just make it all go away, but I wanted to live. For Nala. I wanted to make her proud, to live for her. Despite what happened with her brother, I still believe I owe her that. She was the light that guided me through the dark times."
I braved a glance at Ashton, but I couldn't tell how he was feeling.
'' Then... Then you came and everything just got confusing again. The minute the rumors started swirling around about you and the first time I noticed you notice me, I wanted you gone. A lot of it had absolutely nothing to do with you...
Ashton: "And the rest?"
'' Ashton. I owe you enough apologies to span the rest of my life, but for me to make you feel worthless and like you don't deserve love is beyond wrong. You're truly a great guy and anybody would be lucky to have the opportunity to love you."
For a while, the only sound in the room was that of our breathing. I knew that Ashton was picking over everything I had confessed with a fine tooth comb, looking for any inconsistencies, but I had told him the truth. Well mostly. The rest could wait for another time.
As Marcus sat there, I couldn't help but feel for him. I knew how it felt to lose someone you cared about. Even though my family wasn't dead, I might as well have been dead to all of them. I could relate to his pain. I could relate to him wanting answers from someone who could not give them. I knew what it was like to be sucked into a hole so deep that it was easier to let the tide take you away than to fight.
I wanted to believe Marcus. I wanted to lay to rest all of my misgivings about him. I wanted to be his friend, but trust was not an easy thing to give, even with what was shared with me today. I always wondered what exactly it was about me that Marcus hated so much, but it wasn't hate at all, was it? In trying to protect himself, he had tried to make me disappear. I could understand, but it hurt all the same.
'' I don't know what you want me to say, Marcus."
Marcus: "You don't have to say anything. I don't believe that you're going to trust me overnight, Ashton. I know that building this friendship, this commitment, is going to take work. But, I'm ready. I want to be there for you. I want you to be able to talk to me, and to trust me, and to share your life with me. I just want to be a part of your life. I don't want you to remember me as the guy who did you wrong. I want you to remember me as the guy who realized what a complete dick he was being and changed."
'' I'd like that. I really would."
And it was settled.
I wasn't mad at him, I was more so disappointed. I expected him to understand. I expected him to do a lot of things I had no right to, but I expected them all the same and when that led to disappointment, it just became a lot to deal with.
But now, I was ready to try with him. He had never told me anything about himself and now, I had a completely different viewpoint on his life. I expected everything for Marcus to be perfect and the fact that it wasn't... It just made him more real to me.
The next few days were the hardest. I was released from the hospital the day after Marcus and I had our talk, and that first day out was fine. We actually just hung out while my mom was at work, and when she got off, he dropped me back off to my house. The next day, I literally sat around and watched as my mom had men come in and out of the house, suicide proofing everything. As she packed up everything in the house she thought I could kill myself with, she constantly kept one eye on me.
I tried to assure her that I was fine, but she wasn't trying to hear it. When it came down to it, it was just myself and my mom. My father was off serving our country, fighting the good fight. My grandparents and the rest of my family wanted nothing to do with me, and that was fine for me. But, my mother, I know she missed all of them, all of the time. When they cut me off from their lives, she made the choice to do the same. People she had spent her whole life with, now acted like she didn't exist.
So when I really thought about it, I couldn't be mad at her for trying to keep me safe the only way she knew how, but as I watched what felt like my freedom slipping away, it kind of pissed me off.
That wasn't the only thing that was different though. My mom couldn't be with me all the time, but she always made sure to have an hour and a half in her day to bring me to therapy. Another thing I told her that I didn't need, but she was adamant, along with my doctors. My mental health was a big concern and before I got the green light to go back to school, they wanted to make sure that I wouldn't have another instance like I had before.
It was all pretty crazy, but logically I could understand. The only problem was, I wanted to go back to the way things were. I just wanted to be able to come home and paint or draw or do something normal. Now, it just felt like every moment of my life was under a microscope.
But, today was the day that things would start up again. Over the weekend, I got the green light to go back to school and as today was Monday, it was time to get back to my life. I can't say that being away from this place wasn't refreshing. Not having to deal with people talking mess or being mean, it was a blessing. But, school was my passport out of here and I wasn't going to squander it.
Vanessa: "Ashton, are you sure about this?"
'' Mom, I'm fine. I promise.”
Vanessa: "And you promise to call me if anything happens?"
Vanessa: "Promise me."
'' Mom. I promise. Don't worry, I'll be fine."
As I watched her drive away, I couldn't help but take a deep breath. This was it. I was willingly and consciously stepping back into this jungle. I was going back to the place that had broken me, but now, I knew that I at least had one ally through it all.
As I opened the doors, for the first time since coming to this school, I was at peace.
this has definitely been a long-time coming. The next chapter, I will
definitely try to get out of before the end of the month and I really
hope to be able to work on the story