This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.
Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
* * *
"So, you and Melanie, huh?"
It was lunchtime, and Rick and I were eating and working on trigonometry at the same time. We were lucky and managed to have two days a week together for lunch. Well, lucky for my trig grade, at least.
"Yeah," he said softly with a real dopey grin on his face.
I looked across the cafeteria to where Melanie was sitting with Bobby and a few other people. "So why isn't she over here eating lunch with you?"
"She can't. You know." He said it like it was some sort of law of nature or something. Unfortunately I didn't know.
"Nope, I don't, sorry."
"We just..." he trailed off. "We just... nobody can know. We have to keep our distance when there are people around."
"So you can't get together during school?" This all sounded like something I was supposed to understand, and I just didn't.
"No. She's sort of dating Bobby, and even if she broke up with him everyone would still think they should be going together anyway. His friends would be all over me. Besides, look at me -- I'm a runt." The scorn in his voice was clear, though I really didn't understand that. Sure he was small, but that wasn't a crime or anything. "Why would she want to be seen in public with me? If we tried it'd be hell."
I just looked at him. I'm pretty sure my face showed how little I understood. "That doesn't make any sense."
"That's high school, Justin," he said. "It doesn't have to make sense."
"Oh," I said. This was something I'd never really considered. I'd always assumed the whole social thing made sense and I just didn't understand it. I hadn't ever thought that it was inherently unreasonable. "So what you need," I said slowly, thinking hard about this, "is an excuse to be together, right? So people don't talk and throw punches and stuff?"
"That would help," Rick said.
"Does she act?"
Rick sat back and thought. "I don't know. Probably."
"You could get her involved in the play, then. Does she know trigonometry? You two could help me together at my house -- my parents don't get home until late most days, and I could really use the help, especially with you hitting the weight room during school. I mean, I don't care about all this social stuff you're worried about."
Rick's face lit up. "Yeah, we could do that. That'd be great, Justin. Thanks!"
"Gimme a sec here," I said, as I thought about how I'd approach it. There was no way I could just go over without any prep -- inarticulate stammering probably wasn't the best way to start the conversation.
Melanie and Bobby were at their usual table in the cafeteria, over with the jocks and some of the other royalty of the junior class. I had to admit that they weren't too bad, all things considered. I couldn't say I really liked any of them, given the crap they'd helped dish out to me at the beginning of the year, but when Bobby'd stopped so had they, and they didn't seem to be giving anyone else too hard a time.
All I could think of was to go over, stir things up with Bobby, grab Melanie, and bail out. Getting Bobby flustered would throw everyone off-balance a little, plus it would help advance my plan some. I figured Melanie liked me well enough that in private I could talk with her without a problem, I just didn't think I could do it with other people around. It might be harder for her to say yes in front of everyone, too, and I figured if she knew why, she could come up with a lot better explanation than I ever could, if anyone cared.
So, time to go brazen it out. I was a little nervous -- no, that's not true, I was a lot nervous. There were so many ways this could go, and most of them weren't good, at least not for me. Time to paste on a smile, distract, attack hard and fast, then run away.
The way everyone was sitting meant Bobby had his back to me, so I came up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. "Hi, Bobby," I said into his ear. He jumped, and I felt him shiver a little at that. I left my hand resting on his shoulder. "Can I borrow your girlfriend for a minute?"
"S...Sure," he said, not turning his head to look at me.
"D'you mind, fair maiden?" I asked her with a grin.
"Why Justin, are you trying to steal me from my boyfriend?" she asked. She looked amused.
"Never," I replied. Though I'd take her away from Bobby in a second. Since my hand was still on his shoulder, I stroked it lightly with my thumb. I hoped it was subtle enough that nobody noticed. Well, nobody but Bobby. The shudder that went through him told me he definitely noticed. "Just borrowing. I'll return you with your virtue untouched."
"In that case," she said, standing up, "lead on, MacDuff."
Melanie stood next to me and crooked her arm. I must've looked confused, because Melanie figured out that I didn't know what she was doing almost as soon as I realized that I had no idea what she was doing. She grabbed my arm, stuck it through hers, and walked me out of the cafeteria. We probably should have signed out or something, but she just smiled at the monitor and we headed off to the library.
The school library was just across the hall from the cafeteria, and it wasn't that impressive as libraries go -- a dozen tables scattered around, a couple of sets of study carrels, and maybe two dozen half-full shelves of books. There were a few people there, some of whom I recognized from the drama classroom. More than one of them were eating, something I thought we weren't supposed to do. I saw Trevor and Paul off to one side, but Melanie took me in the other direction.
Turns out that the back corner of the library had a pair of study rooms, each with a table and enough room for four people. We ended up in one, and Melanie shut the door behind us.
"So, Justin," she said as she sat down. "What exactly do you want?" She was a little difficult to read, but she looked kind of guarded. Not really a surprise, given we'd exchanged all of two dozen words, and I knew what was apparently a big secret between her and Rick.
Blunt and straightforward seemed the way to go here. "Rick tells me you two don't get enough time together. What can I do to help?"
"What?" Melanie cocked her head and looked puzzled.
I figured maybe she couldn't understand me through the accent, so I repeated myself. "What can I do to help?" This time I made an effort to be clear.
"You could explain, for one thing. Why are you offering?"
That was a reasonable question. I didn't usually go out of my way to help other people. But, then, I didn't usually have a friend, either.
"Rick's my friend," I said, "and he says the two of you can't just be seen together, so I figured I'd help out."
She gave me a little smile. "That's sweet, Justin. Did you have anything in mind, or is this just a general offer to help?"
"Well, I figured you could audition for the musical. Rick's stage manager, so he's got reason to hang around. Maybe you could do the self-defense class in the afternoon too, if you've got the time. You could help me with my trig, too. At my house. With Rick." I waggled my eyebrows at her.
Melanie sat back and thought for a minute. That kind of surprised me, since I didn't figure it would be that big a deal, but I really didn't understand school politics. From what I could tell talking to Rick, she did.
"I don't think it'll work, Justin. I might be able to manage the musical, but that really wouldn't give us any time together. I'm not sure about the self-defense class. I'm supposed to be at football practice with Bobby."
Okay, now that was an answer I wasn't expecting, especially not Bobby as a reason, seeing as how she was dating Rick. I had to think myself before I said anything. "If you try out and make it, I think they'll respect you for it, especially if Rick and I make nice with you, and I don't think anyone in drama will talk if you have some, erm... 'personal' time. They're good guys, and they're too busy avoiding everyone else around school anyway."
"I suppose," she allowed, "that could work. I still couldn't do the self-defense class, Justin, I really couldn't. Bobby..."
"Sure you could," I said, cutting her off, "if you had a reason, right? Not like you do anything during practice, right?"
"Well, I suppose," she said slowly.
"Couldn't you get, I dunno, mugged or attacked or something? Make a big scene, use it as an excuse? I mean, you're a girl, right? Doesn't that stuff happen all the time or something? I could be there with you to make sure nothing happened."
"Justin," she said with a frown, "this isn't the city -- it's not like that here. Nobody would do that."
"What, nobody? There has to be someone. I mean, this is high school, someone's got to have no self control." I couldn't believe there wasn't anyone around that was handy, I really couldn't. Just because I'd tried hard to be invisible for so long doesn't mean I didn't hear people talking, and I didn't think guys were any different here than anywhere else. From the way guys talk in the locker room, you'd figure any girl walking by herself was a target.
"Maybe," she said, thinking about it. "But I'd never get in that sort of situation, and I'm sure it wouldn't happen if you were there. People are scared of you."
"Me?" I almost squeaked. "Why? ... Oh, wait," I said, finally remembering the four guys I'd broken, "never mind, that was stupid."
"Besides, Justin," she said. "It's not a nice thing to do. Someone could get hurt."
"Okay," I said, changing the subject, "if I can get someone to convince you to do the musical, will you do it? At least try out? For Rick? Please?" I tried putting on sad puppy eyes, but I'm not sure if I managed it.
Melanie laughed a little. "All right, Justin," she said, "if he can do it, I'll try out and see where we go from there."
"Great," I said. "I saw Trevor on the way in. Let me go talk to him. I'll be right back." I was going to talk to him about more than just the musical. Maybe getting mugged wouldn't work, but I'd bet we could at least get her groped or something. I left Melanie in the room and went to go look for Paul and Trevor. I hoped they were still in the library, and I was in luck.
"Hey, Trevor," I said as I got close. "Could I ask you guys a huge favor?" They were in the middle of something or other -- there was a picture of what looked like the school stage between them, and they were arguing over colored jelly or something.
"Sure, what is it?" Trevor said, looking up.
"Do you know any guys who're real pigs? Someone who'd go grab a girl in the middle of the hall or something?"
"Yeah, a couple, Justin," said Paul. "Why?"
I ignored the question. "Cool. Are any of them in lunch this period?"
"Sure," Paul said. "They're why we eat in here." He didn't look at all happy about it, either.
"Great. Trevor, I need you to convince Melanie to audition for the show, and I need you to walk her past this creep so he pulls something on her. Can you do that?"
"What? Why would you want him to do that?" Trevor didn't look like he was going to go for the plan.
"The plan here is to give Melanie an excuse to join the self-defense class. I don't think he could do much in the cafeteria, in front of everyone. Worst case he gropes her or something. That'd be fine, really."
"Uh, sure, I guess," Trevor said, sounding unsure. "Are you sure it'll be safe?"
"You'll have backup, I promise," I said, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'll be there and I won't let anything happen. Just in case..." I gave Paul a look. " Paul, can you whack someone in the head from about fifty feet with a juggling bag?"
"Yeah, I think so, but a hackey sack would be better." he said. "Why, got a target in mind?"
"Three guesses," I said. Paul got a nasty grin on his face -- I think he knew exactly what I meant. "Can you do any two-person juggling things?"
"Not a problem," he said. The nasty grin turned into an open smile. "Why, caught the juggling bug?"
I stopped for a second, since it wasn't something I'd really thought about. "Yeah," I said grinning back, "I think I have. Just something simple."
"Justin, what do you have in mind?" Trevor asked.
"Something simple," I told him. "You walk Melanie back into the cafeteria and do your best to convince her to try out for the musical. You two walk past whoever it is you have in mind, you stop, he gropes, she slaps him or something like that, and make a little scene. Paul and I will be doing something simple and distracting people. If things get out of hand, he whacks whoever it is with a bag, while I get close enough to stop things."
Trevor didn't look at all comfortable with that. "Relax, you'll be fine," I said, reassuring him. "If anything happens fade back and remember -- top of the foot into the groin."
"I'm not sure this is a good idea, Justin," said Trevor. "I really don't."
"It'll be OK, really. We'll be there, and I'm sure Bobby and his cronies won't let anything happen to you. Besides," I said, shooting a grin, "Melanie will be there to protect you. Just brazen it out and keep moving. As long as you're in control, there won't be a problem."
"All right," he said, though I could tell he wasn't convinced.
"Grab your stuff and follow me, then," I said. "I'll be right back," I said to Paul, who was digging through his bag.
"Melanie," I said as I got back to the study room, "you know Trevor, right?"
"Of course," she said, standing up and smiling at him. "Hello, Trevor."
Trevor took a hard swallow at that and shifted a little on his feet. "Hi," he replied, sounding a little uncertain.
"Trevor's going to try and convince you to try out. Can you give him a chance? Please?"
"I said I would," she said. "It's sweet what you're trying to do, Justin. Thank you." She leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the cheek. I saw Trevor swallow hard, shift a little on his feet, and drop his hands in front of him. I had a sudden idea what was bothering him and tried hard not to snicker.
"Think of cold showers," I whispered in his ear. Louder, I said, "I'll go check in with Paul. Why don't you walk Melanie back and make your pitch? I'll be at a table with Rick."
Trevor and Melanie went off together, and I went over to get Paul. I didn't want to be too far behind Trevor, just in case something really did start, since I'd promised him backup.
Paul had collected up all his stuff into his backpack and had already put it on. He had three round leather bags in his right hand. "Ready to go?" I asked.
"Yep," he replied. "You ready to do this?"
"I have no idea how to do this," I said with a grin. "Fill me in."
"Freaky mutants," he said, rolling his eyes. He looked like he thought it was funny, though. "You know, some of us have to work to learn this stuff."
"I promise, I'll drop some if you think that'll help."
"What, and make me look bad as a teacher?" Paul tossed a bag at me, catching me square in the center of my forehead. We got a glare from the librarian for that. "Hah! As if. We'll do something simple. When we get into the hall, you walk on my left and keep pace with me. We'll do a simple three-bag toss, just like the one you did first, only pretend I'm your right arm."
That seemed simple enough, and it turned out to be, though more because Paul was really good than anything else. We managed to keep pace and only dropped a bag once, which was kind of cool. The delay in getting set up had us walking through the open cafeteria door just as the sound of Melanie's slap rang out through the cafeteria.
She and Trevor were maybe five or six tables away from the door we'd just walked in, and Melanie was shaking her fist at a scruffy red headed guy who was rubbing his cheek. He had freckles, a nose that bent like it'd been broken once, and a kind of a sleazy look to him. Apparently Trevor had chosen his target pretty well, since this guy didn't look actually dangerous, seeing how he was cowering from the tongue-lashing Melanie was evidently giving him.
I started moving over to the table Rick and I had been sitting at earlier. Rick was still sitting, but it looked like it was an effort for him, not being able to go over to Melanie. I felt kind of bad for him, since I realized he had no idea what was going on. I should've filled him in before things started, so he'd know what was happening.
"Hey!" Melanie was storming over to me, Trevor following in her wake. I was worried for a moment that I was in a lot of trouble. "Justin. When's that self-defense class you're doing?"
"Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, right after school for an hour. Why, you want in?" I could see over her shoulder that Bobby and a couple of the other people at his table had moved in on the guy who'd groped Melanie. I almost felt bad for him.
"Yes," she said, loudly. Everyone at the nearby tables was looking at us. "I do."
"Cool, then, " I replied. "See you tomorrow afternoon?"
Rick and I watched her leave, picking up Bobby as she swept through the cafeteria and went back to her table.
"So," I said to Rick after she'd gone and everyone'd turned away. "Looks like you're set."
I grinned at him, but Rick just gave me a wide-eyed look.
* * *
"Justin, could you give me a ride home this afternoon?"
Melanie had caught me as I was dragging mats back to their stacks after the self-defense class. This was her second class, and she was doing pretty well, which was nice. She was naturally coordinated and had a certain grace to her.
"Sure," I said, finishing off the stack. "No problem. Give me a minute to finish here and change. Meet me at my car?"
"I will," she said, as she went off to the locker room.
I finished stacking the mats and changed myself. Melanie was waiting at my car for me, so I unlocked the doors. Don't ask me why, but I opened her door for her and, when she'd gotten in, closed it.
The ride over to Melanie's house took about ten minutes, and the conversation was entirely taken up by directions. It wasn't tough to get where we were going, but there were a lot of twists and turns to get there. By the end I was wondering if something was wrong, since Melanie always seemed like she was one of those people who could talk for hours. Still, it's not like we actually knew each other very well or anything -- she was just dating my friend, and we'd worked together a little in class.
"Could you come in for a few minutes?" she asked as we pulled into her driveway.
"I guess," I said. I wasn't sure what she wanted -- I thought it was just for the ride.
As we walked into her house, we were greeted by a middle aged woman in an apron, her curly red hair showing streaks of grey.
"Hi, mother," Melanie said, giving the woman a kiss.
"Hello, Melanie," her mother replied. "And who is this young man?" she said, looking at me.
"Mother, this is Justin. Justin, my mother."
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Griswold," I said, trying to be as polite as I could. I felt like I ought to bow or something. Don't ask me why.
"And he's so nice. Are you bringing another suitor home to meet your father?"
That was not what I had expected to hear. "What? No, I..."
"Mother," Melanie said, cutting me off. "Be nice. Justin's the one I told you about. Ricky's friend."
"Oh, I see. Well, that's fine, then. There are some cookies in the kitchen if you want any."
"Thank you, mother," Melanie said. She sounded a little exasperated, though I couldn't figure out why. "We'll be in my room for a bit."
Melanie's mother lifted an eyebrow at that.
"He's perfectly harmless," Melanie said. "Really, mother!"
"I see," Melanie's mom said. She gave me an appraising look, then a little grin. "I shouldn't warn Matthew, should I? He's quite nice."
"Mother!" Melanie grabbed my sleeve and pulled me down the hall.
"Who's Matthew?" I asked as I was hauled away.
"He's my older brother," she said.
"Why would she warn him about me?"
"I set him up on a date once. It didn't work." I wasn't sure if this was a non sequitur or not, but since my talk with Rick last week where I'd realized that sometimes things just don't make any sense, I figured it didn't matter, so I'd just assume it might be and let someone else worry about it. I'd decided then that I'd just try and follow a conversation, no matter where it went, and figure it all out later.
"Um, why not?"
"Turns out he likes girls," she said with a shrug.
It took me a couple of seconds, but I could only figure Melanie had set her brother up with another guy, and it hadn't worked out. I think her mom didn't mind, from the way she'd talked to me after she knew who I was.
"Melanie, did you tell your mom I was gay?"
"Of course, Justin. You don't think she'd let me bring a strange boy into my bedroom if she thought something might happen, do you?"
"Oh," I said lamely. That was cool, though. Her mom knew and didn't mind at all. "I don't suppose," I started hesitantly, "that your brother's cute?"
She gave an exasperated sigh. "I told you, he likes girls. Besides," she added, "he's at college in Arizona."
By now we'd made it into Melanie's bedroom, though I sort of missed the end part of actually getting there. The room wasn't as frilly as I expected from a girl's room, and there wasn't any pink in it. I expected pink, and lace, maybe some dolls. Instead the walls had green paisley wallpaper, hardwood floors, and a rag rug. A nice wood rolltop desk, stained a dark brown, sat in the corner with an old wooden chair in front of it.
"Justin," she said, tearing my attention away from my survey of the room, "I'm mad at you, you know."
"What?" I looked at her puzzled. "What're you mad at me for?"
"Greg McDermott, Justin."
The name, I admit, meant absolutely nothing to me.
"Uh... who's he?"
"He's the boy you set up. I swear, Justin, I can't believe you did that!"
Okay, now it made sense, at least some. "That guy who groped you? He didn't have to," I said with a shrug. "Not like you trapped him into it or led him on or anything. His choice. And you did take advantage of it," I pointed out.
She ignored that last bit. "Still, Justin, he could've gotten hurt. If I hadn't stopped Bobby and Mike, I think they might've done something."
I probably should've worked up some sympathy for this guy, but I admit I really couldn't. I'd talked to Paul and Trevor about him afterwards, and he and his friends really were scum. "So? This is the same guy who thought it'd be funny to nail a set of Paul's juggling penguins to little crosses and set them on fire, and he and his friends threw Trevor into the dumpster behind the Dairy Queen over the summer. After they'd done cleanup for the night." Fast food restaurant dumpsters aren't pleasant at the best of times, but they're particularly nasty when they've been filled with trash bags full of half-eaten ice cream and soda-soaked napkins that have sat in summer evening heat for a few hours. Yech. Trevor said the smell sticks in your hair for days.
She glared at me. "And who was it who was lecturing Ricky about starting fights, Justin?"
I winced at that. "Okay, you've got me," I said. "He may be slime, but you're right, setting him up wasn't a nice thing to do. I'm sorry, I won't do it again."
Melanie looked satisfied at that. "Thank you, Justin."
She sat down in the desk chair and fiddled with a pencil. I figured there must be something else, so I just stood there and waited.
"There is something else I wanted to talk to you about," she said. "I'm not sure how to say this, so I'll just be blunt. I've seen how you've been looking at Bobby."
That was not what I had expected her to say. "You've seen... what?" I think I started to sweat then. I hadn't thought that anyone else had seen what I had been doing with Bobby, and now his girlfriend -- or whatever Melanie was to him -- had caught me doing it. This wasn't good. I knew she wasn't stupid, and I knew I was in trouble.
"You and Bobby," she said. "I've seen you flirting with him in school." She smiled at me. "It's kind of cute, really."
"Um..." Not exactly the most eloquent thing I could say, but it was the best I could manage. I needed to stall for time. "It's not what you think..." And it definitely wasn't. I wasn't flirting with him. Well, I guess I was, but not because I wanted to date him.
"Oh, it's OK, Justin. I really don't mind."
I sat down on hard on the bed, which sank underneath me. A small part of my brain registered that it was just way too soft, but the rest was whirling around. "I need a second," I managed to get out.
So Melanie noticed I'd been flirting with Bobby. This wasn't good. From what I'd gathered around school, she and Bobby had been friends forever, so I knew I had to be really careful -- there's no way she'd approve of what I was doing. Hell, she didn't like what I'd done to that McDermott guy, and he was scum. Bobby was too, so far as I was concerned, but I didn't think she'd see it that way.
Unfortunately, I knew I couldn't lie to her if we were going to be spending any time together. There just wasn't any way, it was something I couldn't manage. I could handle just not talking about something, though, which seemed the best way to go about it.
"Um," I started. Not a good start. "Yeah, I have, kinda. We worked things out at the beginning of the year--we're cool now, so I didn't figure he'd mind. It's not like there's any chance of it going anywhere, or anything." I noticed I'd started fiddling with the bedspread while I was talking. That was a little unexpected. "I hadn't thought anyone else had noticed. I didn't want anyone getting the wrong idea or anything."
Wasn't that true? I didn't want anyone thinking I was hot for Bobby, since I wasn't. And I didn't want anyone to think Bobby was gay, since he obviously didn't want anyone to know, and outing him wasn't the point.
"It's really not serious or anything. You're OK with this?" I'm sure I sounded really nervous, because I was. I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do with Bobby, but I knew I wasn't done with him yet. I didn't want to stop, either, but I would if Melanie asked.
"Of course, Justin," she said. "I'm sure Bobby doesn't mind either." Melanie shot me a really big smile, though I couldn't honestly figure out why. "I've kept you long enough," she said, bouncing up and giving me a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for the ride. I'll see you at school tomorrow."
And with that she escorted me out of the house. Women. Go figure.
* * *
Comments, critiques, criticism, and crazy rantings can all go to firstname.lastname@example.org.